Mattie knelt on the floor at John’s feet and placed her hands on his knees. He flinched slightly and swallowed.
“I’m going to town in the truck. Please, watch Mattie.” She glanced at the little girl playing nearby, wrapping a rag doll in a scrap of blanket. Arlene stared at Mattie with wide eyes.
“Did you hear me, John?”
John’s eyes moved slowly to meet Mattie’s, and he nodded. Just once, barely perceptible.
Mattie kissed his brow. She hung her apron on a hook and pulled the truck keys from the nail by the door.
“Arlene, stay in the house,” she gently admonished the girl. “Mind Daddy.”
Arlene hurled herself at her mother, clutching her around the knees, and pressing her face into Mattie’s cotton dress.
“But Daddy don’t pay me no mind, Mommy.”
“Then you take care of him.”
Arlene slumped. “Yes, Mommy. But . . .”
“I know, honey, I know. Please, be good.”
Arlene watched as her mother crossed the yard to the shed, and she waved as Mattie drove down the dusty lane. Listlessly, she walked back to play with her doll, but soon tossed the doll aside and tiptoed to her father.
“Daddy,” she whispered.
John did not acknowledge her, neither blinking or nodding, but his fingers plucked restlessly at the arm of the chair, where he’d already picked at the fabric until it had been worn to the bare threads.
Other than a faint start, John gave no sign he’d heard. Arlene frowned.
She jumped up and ran to the kitchen, dragged a chair to the cupboard, and scrambled up. With a confidence that belied her five years, she slid a knife from the drawer and sawed a slice of bread from the new loaf cooling on the cupboard. She got a jar of jam from the ice box and smeared the bread thickly, then carefully balancing her treat, she sat down on the floor by John.
“Want a bite, Daddy?”
John’s only response was his finger rasping against frayed fabric.
Arlene set the half-eaten bread on the chair arm by his hand and licked her fingers. “Can we go for a walk, Daddy?”
“Daddy, did you hear me?”
John blinked and his cheek twitched.
“I want to go outside.”
Arlene backed away, watching John as she did so. She slipped out the door, easing it closed behind her. In the yard, she yanked at wilted flowers in the neglected garden, wandered through the tall grass behind the shed, and finally, tilting her face into the clover-sweetened breeze, she ran across the pasture.
She skipped along the creek, and unable to resist the lure of the gurgling water, she kicked off her heavy shoes and waded into the brook. It was refreshing and cool, and Arlene felt cheered.
Squatting beneath overhanging willow branches, she played with tadpoles and made leaf boats to sail away on the rippled current. The hem of her dress dipped into the water, but she was oblivious, enchanted with the glinting sunlight and birds flitting overhead, and relieved of the heaviness that had invaded the house since her father had come home, hale and whole, but with a wounded mind.
She followed the creek, chasing silvery minnows and filling her dress pockets with water-polished pebbles. It wasn’t until the sun slid to the horizon and the day’s hot breath became a chilled whisper that Arlene finally stopped and looked around. She shivered in swift and sudden fear.
“Daddy.” It was only a thought, a wish, a hope.
Huddling on a tussock of grass, she pulled her knees to her chest. The creek grew inky, its allure vanishing in the fading light, its merry babbling transforming into eerie murmuring.
“Daddy.” This time, Arlene mouthed the word.
She did not sleep, but she dreamed. Of her father, before the war captured him, of her driving the truck while she sat on his lap, of his giving her sips of milky coffee, and his singing “Goodnight, Irene” at bedtime, nuzzling her neck and changing the words to Goodnight, Arlene, just for her.
“I’ll see you in my dreams,” he’d croon, tucking the blanket around her chin.
Arlene was not frightened when a shadow emerged from the gloom, and she understood, even with her child’s heart, that finding her had freed her father.
“I heard you.”
John gathered Arlene to himself, and she felt his solid warmth through her damp dress.
“But, Daddy . . .”
“I heard you. I’m here now.”
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