He walks out the front door into a humid day, clouds billowing. They are so freakishly tall that the heights they attain under the morning sun astounds him. In the house, his wife plays with their child. Mine and yet not mine, he thinks. That’s how his parents see it, both refusing to claim her as their granddaughter. But to him, it doesn’t matter that he’s not the biological father. She’s simply his little girl, and that is what he calls her, just as he calls the affection he shows for her proof of his love.
Walking to his car, he can still hear the two of them in the kitchen preparing to eat breakfast. He smiles, then smoothes out the wrinkles in his white-collar shirt. A slate-gray suit jacket hangs from one hand, his briefcase from the other. The warm Carolina summer brings up beads of sweat around his neck, which dampen the inside of his shirt collar, stiff and freshly starched. Laughter wafts out of his front door, their laughter. It is the last sound he hears before backing out of the driveway, turning on the radio and driving off down the road to the pile of papers that sit on his desk, waiting patiently.
* * *
He wakes up from his nap on the oversized towel with its garish blue, orange, and green colors. Beach sand has crept up under his bare feet. The sun has disappeared. Rain clouds are blowing in from the ocean, but still dazed, he doesn’t notice them, struggling to regain his senses. His wife is screaming at their girl to get out of the water, and suddenly flashes of lightning appear offshore, and the rumbling thunder now overpowers the dull roar of the surf.
The lightning jerks him to full consciousness, a frightening burst of light momentarily erasing the darkening sky, with patches of pale-green and yellow, like bruises that have overstayed their welcome. A warning horn blares with urgency, another discordant note. People close to him show signs of panic, the odors of sweat and sun block from hundreds of bodies added to the salt-laden air. Shrill, voices propagate through it like the ocean waves that roll in to crash upon the beach.
He scrambles to his feet, searching for his wife and child but the rain begins, slanting hard across his face, and it stings like tiny razors. He can’t see them anywhere. A blast of wind topples their beach umbrella brought as shelter from the hot sun, and it tumbles toward the grassy dunes a hundred paces away up the slope that a few hours ago they all walked down for a day of sun and building sand castles. He grabs the beach towel, slinging both it, and the sand trapped within its terry cloth fibers, over his shoulders, then races after the umbrella.
Later, he finds the two of them huddled and shivering in a booth at the local diner. The look on his face exposes the depth of the mysterious and painful emotions for them that have taken root, feelings he never imagined were possible. They smile when they see him, his daughter waving her hand wildly about, yelling for “Daddy!” Her joy brings him back, and finally loosens the fear that filled his whole body when, wild with anxiety, he ran along the shore line through wind and rain, certain they were gone, washed out to sea, never to return.
* * *
About to board the plane to Newark, his cell phone rings. Swearing aloud, senselessly angry to be torn away from his thoughts, he pulls it out of his suit pocket and answers his wife with a sharp, “I’m boarding right now. What’s so damn important?” But that anger dissipates in an instant when he recognizes she’s crying as she speaks, her voice spilling out in a rush, barely intelligible. He hears the words accident and something about a car, a bicycle, a hospital and their daughter.
He batters a path through the mob filling the jetway, not bothering to apologize. The crowd sullenly allows him to pass, some with flashes anger in their eyes, a few shouting curses at him, but most displaying that dull look of airline travelers, surprised the by an unexpected change to the usual slow cattle crawl toward their seats. Once past the gate, he dashes through the concourse, breathing fast, begrudging the twenty pounds he’s gained these past ten years. All this time he continues his conversation with his wife, trying to understand the dimensions of the catastrophe that is unfolding, desperately seeking any information about what happened, as magical thoughts race through his head telling him there must be a way to change an outcome that has already occurred.
Their daughter suffered a concussion—one labeled severe because she lost consciousness—and broken ribs, some internal bleeding. His wife is speaking to you from the ambulance and her voice breaks up, whether from emotion of because of a bad connection, he can’t tell, with much of the information she relates to him scattered and lost. What does he know? The name of the hospital where they are taking his girl and that she’s still alive. Running to the lot where he parked his car, the sun beats down on him. It’s the hottest day of a hot month, and the asphalt of the parking lot sticks to his feet. He makes up a prayer and keeps repeating it asking for help from a God he lost faith in long ago. Out of breath, he imagines the clouds bending down to listen to him, what few there are.
* * *
His wife find them seats among the hundreds of white wooden folding chairs, all alike, all seemingly full of arrogance, as if conscious of their role in the coming ceremony. He reads through the booklet they gave him, its pages folded neatly and stapled neatly three times on the center crease, the outermost one thicker than the others to secure its embossed cover. This is their daughter’s graduation program. It’s been eight years since the accident. How did it go by so fast?
His wife is crying, the kind without sound, not even the smallest of whimpers, where tears well up but refuse to fall. Every minute or so she discreetly wipes them away, the large brimmed hat she’s wearing an aid to her desire not to reveal the depth of her conflicting emotions. He spots their daughter up at the front, in her wheelchair, cap and gown arranged to her particular and peculiar requirements, smiling at some joke from the boy sitting next to her who’s speaking into her left ear. He’s known this boy for a while now, same one who will push her wheelchair up the ramp when the time comes for her to receive her diploma. He will stay with her as the balloons fall, and five hundred children (they are still children in his eyes) will scream in unison and throw their caps to the rafters above.
The boy already told his wife and him that he loves their daughter. The two of them intend to live together. He announced their plans the evening before while the four of them – their daughter, the boy, his wife, himself – ate dinner in the dining room of the home he made for his family. The boy spoke quickly, as if he’d rehearsed his speech for days, but the man didn’t look him in the face, he just let the words roll over him. He didn’t want to look because he already knew what the young man planned to say, and because already knew the little girl he adopted and made his daughter, the same girl who called him Dad, was the one who called the shots. She was the decider, and though she let the boy speak, it was her decision, her plan. Since her accident, she’d held this trump card over both her parents, and now she played it.
His wife was the one who had argued with them, beginning with all the many good reasons they shouldn’t live together, how it would end badly and ruin them, before she lost her composure and began yelling at them, shouting “NO, NO! NEVER! I won’t let you!” At some point he took her away from the table, took her upstairs, held her on their bed, and let all her sorrow flow out of her shaking body and into his.
This is what fate feels like, he told himself hours later when everyone else was asleep, at three in the morning, when not even the crickets could rouse themselves to keep him company. He snuck downstairs and crept outside so he could sit by himself on the steps of the porch and smoke a cigarette he wasn’t supposed to have anymore. His first drag was long, and he held it in until he felt dizzy, then blew the smoke out through his nose where some of it, in the damp night air, drifted down the front of his old plaid robe, lingering for a brief time, as ghosts do.
* * *
Graduation over, all four of them walk back to his van, modified so it could carry his daughter in her wheelchair. His daughter and the boy are laughing, but his wife has chosen silence. Out of respect for her, he stays silent as well.
He wishes he knew how their story would end, his daughter and the boy, but he knows the future is unpredictable. No one can’t define its parameters or map out its hills and valleys. A person can’t even reach out and feel for its bumps and sharp edges like a blind man can. He is bound to this life, the one he chose when he fell in love with a single mother and her child. A life that will continue with his wife and his daughter and this strange boy who thinks his love for a disabled girl magically transformed him into a man.
Looking up at the sky, he sees its ineffable clouds looking down. They would pity him if they could, if they were living beings and not large masses of water vapor. Looking at them above, his mind drifts and he realizes this is the core of it all: the uncertainty of everything he has or ever will have, and the indifference of the world to his desire to impose a semblance of order on that uncertainty, because no order has ever existed except that which he created in his mind, finally exposed for the lie he always suspected it might be.
The clouds abandon him, wafted away on the winds above as they reach the van. He pushed the button on his key fob, the sliding door opens and the side ramp lowers.
“Let’s go everybody,” he says. “I’m starving, and I don’t want to be late for our dinner reservation.”