“No!” Danielle cried, her young voice shrill and indignant. She glared at Marcus, seized the bowl of thick oatmeal that sat on her highchair and deliberately dumped it on her own head. The thick food ran down her curly brown hair, over her chubby cheeks and dripped onto the floor below. She laughed and her voice echoed in the empty kitchen. It was filthy and smelled of the rotting food-covered dishes in the sink, but Marcus hardly noticed the pungent odor any more. He looked down at the bowl of soup in front of him and pushed it away across the small wooden table. He wasn’t hungry.
Pictures hung on the wall. One of them was crooked. Marcus stood and walked over. His fingers stroked the glass surface, leaving fingerprints over his daughter’s face. She was smiling and happy. And alive.
“Daddy!” she squealed from behind him and he turned, hungrily preserving her features, trying to brand the memory into his mind. She was fourteen and so beautiful it made his heart ache. “I have a date!” Danielle flung herself towards his arms, but Marcus embraced emptiness. He staggered and slumped against the wall. It was pointless. Meaningless. Cruel. Try to cry, his counselor had told him. Accept the loss. He tried now, but the tears wouldn’t come. They never did and he hated himself for it. What kind of father was he?
He wasn’t a father. She was gone.
It was too much. Marcus staggered away from the wall of memories and the mockery that their frames contained. His head spun and he gripped the kitchen counter for support. The tile felt cool against his hands. The dim illumination from the small light overhead made it difficult to read the newspaper that lay before him, but Marcus didn’t need to read it anymore. He knew it by heart. His princess was captured in a single paragraph and the words were cold and dead. Just the facts. Name: Danielle Knight. Age: 16. Cause of death: possible suicide. Enough. He took the paper and tore it; the pieces fluttered in the air.
One caught in her hair and she smiled at him, her hands smoothing the forest-green dress down her form. “Do I look alright, Daddy?” she asked nervously, turning this way and that. “Do you think he’ll like it?” A hesitation. “Do you think he’ll like me?”
Marcus turned to the counter once more and took another paper from the stack, his fingers running down its surface. A single paragraph. They captured her in a single paragraph. She deserved more than that, deserved more than the cold editorial voice that the Guard had given her. It was unfair. His eyes raised and he opened the cupboard. His hand was shaking, but he took the glass, holding it tight.
He grabbed the vodka from the cupboard above. The sharp alcoholic scent burned his nostrils, but he continued to pour. Crystal clear liquid in the bottom of the glass. If he could cry this much, Dr. Larson would be pleased. He laughed. The floorboards protested underneath his feet, but he ignored them.
A movement caught his eye and Marcus looked into the hallway mirror. His brown hair – Danielle had his hair - was greasy and curly. Large bags hung underneath his bloodshot eyes, his skin sallow and dirty. A hand touched his back gently, pressing between his shoulder blades. “Don’t worry, Daddy,” Danielle said from the mirror as she checked her make-up for the hundredth time. “I’ll be back before midnight and I’ll tell you all about it.” His back ached as her hand left it and he backed away from the portal that led into a past that should never have been.
Marcus turned the corner and stepped over the discarded cans and bags of prepackaged food that littered the living room floor. “It doesn’t have to be suicide,” the police detective said from the door, his suit clean and pressed, his hair slicked back. “I want to follow up on that punk you told me about. If he thought she was going to go to the police, well… that’s motive enough. And if you’re right about him taking your gun with him… that’s all the evidence we need. Nobody is going to look too closely at a body when they have evidence like that, especially in a city like this.” He turned toward door. “The press would go crazy over it,” the detective said to himself and flashed a politician’s smile at the empty hallway mirror. Marcus shook his head and sank into his chair with a groan.
The TV crackled and snapped to life and he tried to lose himself in its flickering images and distracting sounds. He gripped his cup. The glass tipped and the strong drink wet his lips. She deserved more than a paragraph, dammit. The vodka’s smell burned his lungs – his eyes stayed dry – and he slammed the cup down on the table beside him. Too deep. He had breathed too deep, but it was never going to be deep enough.
The door creaked and Marcus looked up. Danielle stood, dress torn and dirty. Tears had caused her make-up to run. “N-nothing,” she stammered to the unasked question and she fled toward her room on shaky legs, but not before Marcus saw the trickle of blood that ran down her thigh. Anger filled him, his heart threatened to give and he tried to kill the haunting image before her foot hit the first step. It was that bastard’s fault; he was the cause for it. Marcus should let him burn; let them lock him away, never to be let out. It was his fault, all his fault. He should have seen, should have been more perceptive, should have known.
He should have never bought the gun.
He growled and his fingers dug into his pocket and closed around the paper. Marcus pulled it out and smoothed its wrinkled surface onto his lap. The ink was spotted and ran in the places where her tears had landed. Her precious tears. His daughter’s handwriting stared up at him, torturing him. His fault. All his fault. He crumpled the note in his fist and prepared it to shred it like the paper before. Let the bastard burn and pay for his crimes. If rape wouldn’t stick, then murder would.
“Before I go, did she leave anything behind? A note, a diary?” the detective asked from the door. He flashed Marcus a grin and nodded. “Just checking. A suicide note would certainly make the murder option impossible. Well, you have my card; give me a call if you think of anything that could help.” The detective disappeared through the closed door as Danielle walked in. Her once beautiful curly brown hair had been chopped short. She wore baggy clothes and she didn’t smile or look at him. “School was fine,” she muttered and threw her bag onto the ground. “I’m going to my room.”
Words burned inside him, struggling to get out. Something. Anything. But nothing came and she was gone again. Scraping wood from above – his dresser drawer – a soft metallic click. Marcus felt his mind panic and he tried to act, to do anything, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t here; he was at the office, the baseball game, the bar. He was too cold, too absent, too drunk to do anything. Useless, pointless, powerless, impotent.
The TV flickered and danced and its lights mocked him. He grabbed for the remote, almost knocking over the glass next to it. Marcus killed the TV and its blackness was more comforting than its light. The note protested as he grabbed. He smoothed the paper out onto his lap once more, almost lovingly. Meaningless, he crooned to himself. So very meaningless.
He closed his eyes, the note’s words already seared into his brain. A paragraph. She was more than a paragraph, but it was all she had given herself, all they had given her. Daddy, don’t hate me, Danielle’s voice whispered, choked by tears. His eyes were dry. The words were still on the paper when he read it again, his finger stroking the words lovingly. Danielle’s beautiful handwriting. Her signature. Her name. He brought it up to his nose and breathed deep, desperate to capture a lingering scent. Nothing. He dropped it into his lap and reached for his glass. His eye fell on the card and he picked it up. Call me if you think of something. Marcus laughed harshly, his hand shaking as he held it. Why shouldn’t that bastard fry after what he had done to his daughter? Why should he get away with rape? It was as if he had murdered her! It was his fault, all his fault!
He should have noticed something. He should have said something.
Marcus bowed his head - the vodka in one hand, the card in the other - and stared down at the note in his lap. The ink bled as his tears landed.