I walk into my room and throw my bag carelessly on the floor. I’ll study later. I don’t go to my bed but move over to my window and stand there, not knowing exactly why. I open the windows, and even though it’s the middle of winter, the cold wind is most welcome here. I feel my hair blowing around my face and I know it’s going to get impossibly tangled but I don’t care. My lips are dry and too thin top isn’t doing much to keep me warm but I still don’t care. I’m not really sure where my thoughts are taking me but I’m already gone.
My eyes never lose focus from the lamp across the street. The sky is getting darker, and the light brighter. Curtains are closing, and I hear doors being shut. I can vaguely hear someone calling my name but I don’t answer.
It’s at moments like this that my friends would say “Calm down and pray.” Catholic schools, Pathetic. I once made the mistake of saying those exact words to Sister Caroline, and she couldn’t have proven me more right. No God came to save me from her.
“She’s doing the work of God” a classmate had told me. Imagine that.
My hands run down my throat to the cross I’m wearing around my neck, and in that instant, my mind travels to the day I got that cross.
It was my first day at my new catholic school and my father was walking me to the front steps. He stopped then knelt down so that we were at the same level and said,
“I’m so proud of you Annie,” Annie; His favorite John Denver song.
“Why Daddy?” I asked him, slightly confused. I was just going to a place where friends, food and nap time existed, no big deal.
He smiled his wide smile, and explained that I was all grown up now and that I will someday become what he could never be. At the time, I remember wondering what he meant.
“Anyway,” he went on, “I’ve got a present for you!” and it became my turn to glow. I loved gifts from daddy, he had the nicest choice! Not like Mamma, who always bought me dolls or clothes, Daddy bought me things I loved.
I was practically bouncing up and down with excitement, and then daddy held a small box in front of me and opened it. I looked at it and saw a chain with some man sleeping on it. I looked up at him confused.
“Look at how big your eyes have gotten!” He exclaimed, his blue eyes sparkling.
“Daddy… What’s this?” I asked him slowly, not sure whether it was all a joke. Maybe he had a bike or something in the car.
“This darling,” he said smiling widely “is Jesus.”
I think I knew now. “Is that the boy from next door? Cause I don’t like him!” and he just laughed loudly. I had never really seen Daddy so happy before.
“No baby, Jesus is the Son of God. God created all of us and made everything that’s around you.”
I didn’t really understand where this was all going. “Oh… where does he work? Do you work for him?” I asked him naively,
He suddenly stopped smiling,
“I wish I did.”
He put the chain around my neck, smiled again and said “Annie, He’s gonna be your bodyguard, you just watch.”
“Okay… I think I’ll keep him then.”
“Good girl” was all he said, and then he left me to walk alone.
My nose is cold now, I shut the window and it closes with a loud snap. I still have my hand around my chain when I hear a knock on the door, and my mother calls out to me.
I don’t turn around. I feel like my arms are glued around me, like the lamp across the street is compelling me not to move. And I don’t.
She touches my shoulder, I know she’s worried. She’s always worried.
“Sarah. Are you okay? What’s wrong honey?”
She stands in front of me and looks at me intently. She shakes me and finally has my attention.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Did something happen in school? How did the test go?”
“Test? Oh right…. Math. It went okay I guess…”
“So what’s wrong then? Jack and I have been calling you for ten minutes now.”
“Mum…” I look at her deep brown eyes so unlike mine, “Do you know what date it is”
She looks confused.
“Yeah…” she says, “It’s December 30th, why?”
I just look at her, waiting for her to figure it out. It’s understandable that she forgot… it’s been six years and her life right now…. Well there’s no place December 30th in it.
She looks right back at me, trying to understand, then finally, she gets it. Her eyes go wide and she shakes a little. I find myself immediately in her arms and she is continuously saying
“Oh sweetie, my little baby.”
I don’t cry. I pull away slowly and tell her,
“Mum… I want to see him. I want to see dad.”
I know what her reaction will be and she doesn’t disappoint. Her arms drop and she’s upset. It’s amazing how she goes from comforter to protector in two seconds flat. I can’t say that I’m surprised or hurt by her reaction, I never wanted to do this to her, to make her feel the pain and worry I can see right now in her eyes, but I also could not go on living like this. This cross is an anchor and I’m never going to stop drowning until I see him.
“Mum, Please, Please!” I plead with her, “I know how hard this is for you but I need you to understand.”
She walks away from me now and sits on my bed, and looks around my room; my perfect, neat room that has nothing in it. It’s always driven her crazy but I liked it, as much as anyone can like something they barely noticed.
She looks at me now and says “You look so much like him. The same eyes, the same hair…. God you even have the same expressions!”
She thinks she’s losing me, or has already lost me.
“Mum,” I tell her, “I love you… I do. I just can’t… I can’t do this anymore.”
She’s confused again,
“Can’t do what?”
I can’t look at her properly now,
“This school! And this life that seems to be built around me! I can’t do it!”
“Where does your dad come in on all this?”
She never did get it, ever. I have to explain it to her, I know I should, but will she understand?
“Mum… don’t you see? Dad did this. He put me in that school, told me things that I was supposed to believe! And I did…. For that time I did. But everything changed when he got arrested. I tried, tried so hard to do this, to do what he wanted, to not be him just like he wanted but I can’t.”
She’s scared now and stands up to face me, Mother and daughter, years apart already in combat. It’s too early for all this.
“What do you want Sarah?”
“I want him to let me go. I want to give him back that power he has over me. Mum… I need to let him go.”
The prison guards said I had to have mum with me, it’s the rule. I know I should be scared but I’m not, its time and I have been ready for this for the last six years.
We walk in to the big room; I don’t know what it’s called. I see a lot of families around, some crying, most looking awkward and scared. Mum talks to the guards about visitor passes but I look for him, wondering if I’ll be able to recognize him.
And there he is. Of course I would. I look at him, and he looks at me and suddenly we know each other, different from when I was a baby. He knows me.
I walk up to the table, he moves to rise but the guard right behind him stops him. My father’s eyes are dull and his previously light brown hair is all grey. I don’t look like him. His hands are shackled and I’m pretty sure his feet are too.
He smiles, and his first words to me after all these years are “Annie, my baby Annie.”
I sit down, and feel the tears run down my face.
“Daddy…” I try to go on but I can’t.
He looks worried and scared,
“Why are you here? I never wanted you to see me like this sweetie.”
“The alternative being never seeing you ever again?”
“I would have preferred that.”
“And I don’t care about what you prefer.” He glares at me and I glare right back, then he laughs. His laugh hasn’t changed one bit.
“You haven’t changed one bit, still so stubborn!”
I smile slightly and we just look at each other, I memorize his face knowing that I will never see it again after today. His wrinkled eyes, worn out face, his worried look.
“Why now Annie? What’s going on? How’s school? Look at what a big girl you’ve become! Tell me about your life.”
What can I tell him, that I hate my life? No… I can’t do that to my dad. Can I tell him that I need him around?
“That’s why I’m here dad,” I tell him softly, “I came to return something to you” and I pull out the chain from around my neck and place it in his hands. He is surprised and instantly hurt.
“Annie? What is this? Don’t do this to me sweetie! You’re all I have! Every day I think of you and I know that as much as I have wronged, my baby will not be me! Please Annie!!” he pleads. My criminal of a father pleads to his twelve year old daughter about a chain.
“Dad… calm down, this doesn’t mean anything horrible.” I take a deep breath and continue, forcing myself to keep eye contact, “I’m living a lie dad; I have been ever since you left! I have been trying to make up for your sins, trying to cover for you with God but I can’t do it anymore Dad.
“He doesn’t exist dad, not for me, and I am going to stop pretending. And I start here.” I finish saying calmly,
He’s stunned into silence. And he’s scared. I look behind wondering where mum is and see that she’s right behind me and for a second their faces look exactly the same.
“Dad…” I take his hand, move closer and whisper, “I love you so much, that’s all you need to know. That will never stop dad, I promise you. I just need you to let me go.”
“I don’t understand what that means Annie...” and it clearly shows on his face.
“Dad… You need to let me go. Let me be free from your sins.”
I take a deep breath,
“I came here today to finally let myself breathe, to finally stop this play that I have been living in and to face the truth. Dad let me go.”
Our time is almost up. He stares at me for a while longer and smiles. He grabs my hands and holds them to his face,
“Be free my Annie,” and the chain is gone.
I smile at him and tell him I love him. He’s scared but I can tell he doesn’t know why. I stand to leave but something needs to be said,
He looks up at me,
“What did you do?”
He says nothing but I notice his tears.
I try again. “Daddy... when will you be out?”
“Dad! I need to know!” Why doesn't he understand!
Mum take's my hand and pulls me away but I resist. I need to know.
His tears are flowing freely now, and his eyes tell me that he has finally realized who he is talking to.
“I’m sorry Annie… I’m so sorry.” And he hangs his head.
Catholic schools. Ugh. I wonder if I should just tell them I don’t believe in God. I’ve spent my day avoiding classes and people, but they always seem to find me and now, finally, I have my escape.
My school has a beautiful river running next to it and it’s strong and silent. We’re not allowed to go there which means I go there all the time. I play with the rocks sometimes or read. It’s a safe place, Dad would like it.
The sound of the river is probably loud but I don’t notice; I am in peace right now. This is the calmest and happiest I have ever been, and I never want to feel any other way again. It’s probably silly to say that my burden has been lifted, but it really has.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath of freedom; I remove my shoes and just walk, enjoying the feel of rocks and sand beneath my feet. The river sounds get louder but I still don’t notice; I am free. The water tries to interrupt my calm but it doesn’t work because I am free. The darkness tries to wake me but it cannot, because I am free. Finally, the Annie in me finds her peace.