The stuffed teddy bear had a hole in the pink fur along its side. I’d bought it for my only daughter as a birthday gift. It seemed a lifetime ago. I ran my finger over the wound. Pieces of stray thread and white stuffing, ethereal in the clock-light, fell into the blackness of the bedroom.
3:45 AM. I couldn’t remember when I’d last slept.
I sat on Jenny’s bed, the blankets still smoothed and neat, the pillows fluffed and cold, as they’d been for almost three days. Three days. My stomach knotted and I felt a wave of nausea swell in my throat. I covered my mouth with shaking fingers, stifling a sob, as my eyes began to spill.
It was no use. She was everywhere around me. I could feel her, hear her, smell her. I hugged the bear close and wept like a baby.
Pictures strobed through my mind like gunshots in a darkened room. Her torn sweater, found behind the library. Drops of blood, spattered near the interstate. Her face, twisted and terrified, crying for help. Her bruised body writhing in pain.
Unthinkable visions that left my flesh as ice.
“Focus on hope … for her,” the detective had told us. “Don’t let those images in. They’ll cripple you.”
He was right. I fell and buried my face in the pillow, my body shaking uncontrollably. This is my fault, I let her go. I should have stayed with her. I didn’t even protect my most precious.
A motion in the doorway caught my attention. The slight plastic-soled footsteps of a small girl with blonde ringlets scraped through the room. She was sucking her thumb, wearing one piece jammies, pale blue eyes round and wide. “Daddy?” Her voice was tremulous, unsure.
My heart skipped then pounded. I couldn’t breathe. “Jennika?” I wiped my face and sat upright, my back rigid. “Honey, where have you been?” I reached for her. “Is it really you?”
She nodded unsteadily, hair bobbing across apple cheeks. A coarse blue light prickled about her, frigid, distant, threatening. “Daddy, I’m scared.”
“Oh, what’s the matter, sweetheart? Let me make it better.” I motioned her near with open hands.
“Help me, Daddy.”
“I will. I promise.” I extended my reach as far as I could. “Let me cuddle you.”
She spun about, staring out the doorway into the pitch of the house as her mouth gaped. She trembled, knees faltering. “D-daddy?”
A shadow lurched into the room, a pall of foreboding and sin.
I lunged forward, grasping, willing her to come. “I’m here! Daddy’s here!” My words were choked and frantic. “Jenny!”
A last glimpse of her, arms stretched, fingers splayed, head bowed.
I couldn’t watch and turned away ...
… screaming, trying to catch my breath but I couldn’t draw in any air. I blinked, finding my face still buried in the pillow. The room was empty, vacant, hollow.
I was alone.
Raindrops began to ping on the tin roof. Creation wept.
I feared that my beloved was dead. The thought was more than I could bear.
“I’m so sorry, baby.” I slumped over, elbows on my knees, hands covering my face.
“Focus on hope,” the detective had told us.
“For what?’ I’d asked. “That she be violated gently? Murdered quickly?” I pushed past him and stared out into a world racked with evil. A world that had taken my only child.
“Of course not.” He placed his hand on my shoulder. “That she’ll be returned home.”
“Returned home?” I pounded my clenched fist on the sill. “She is my home!” My lungs burned and tightened, my eyes narrowing. “Why should I sacrifice my only child to such depravity?” My jaw was trembling. “She belongs here with me. Do you understand?”
“There is a will older and deeper than man’s comprehension. A resolve that is beyond us. Jenny has a purpose in life, as do you. Above all else, trust in this.”
I nodded. “Easy to believe, impossible to live when my daughter is at stake.”
“Good will come.”
The rain spattered above me. I picked up the bear once again and kissed it. I did have hope in things unseen. At that moment it was all I had.
The black horizon began to gray and soften. Dawn was beginning to push through the drizzle. A new hope? It was the morning of the third day.
The phone in the hallway rang.
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