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From the author: Sometimes I write my hopes. Sometimes I write my fears. This story is one of the latter.
“I love you,” she said, took one step backward, and disappeared.
That was the ending, I think.
I suppose I should start at the beginning.
I was watching the sun creep down toward the horizon from an unnamed overlook thirty miles north of Damascus, Virginia. My eyes were half-closed. My feet were dangling over a three-hundred-foot drop. I hadn’t bothered to bring a tent, hadn’t brought a food sack or a sleeping bag or a toothbrush. My pack held the jacket I’d taken off when the day started warming, a copy of Phaedo, and two wine bottles—one empty, one still full. I was just sliding into a sort of soft mental blank space, not thinking about where I was, not thinking about what I was there to do, when I heard the crunch of boots on rock. I twisted around to look. A woman stood there behind me, arms folded across her chest, a half-smile on her face. She was tall and thin and pale, with long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, and a dusting of freckles on her nose and cheeks.
That wasn’t the beginning either.
The beginning was the ferry.
The beginning was the world dropping away and my stomach clenching and the rail sailing by, and me reaching for Dahlia and Kara reaching for me.
Or maybe that was the ending?
My mind wanders sometimes.
“Hey,” she said. “Okay if I join you?”
I shrugged. She took a step closer.
“Take that as a yes?”
“Sure,” I said, my eyes already back on the sunset. She settled in beside me.
I turned to look at her.
She smiled, and something broke inside me.
“You look…” I said.
“I know,” she said, and brushed a wisp of hair back from her face. “Just like Kara.”
Her face blurred and swam until I blinked and looked away.
“I loved her,” I said finally.
I could barely form the words.
After all this time, it’s the sound that stays with me—the sound that rose up from the bowels of the ferry when that last wave hit us. Twenty years gone, and I can still hear it. The port side rose and the starboard dropped, and the damned ship moaned like a wounded animal. We were on a bench by the starboard rail, Kara and I. She turned to me then, eyes anime-wide, mouth a perfect O.
The world slowed to a crawl.
“Are you still together?”
The sun was almost touching the horizon by then, a bloated red bruise in a purple-streaked sky. I leaned my head back against my pack and closed my eyes.
“No,” I said. “She left. Six months after.”
So? I half-expected her to ask. Was it worth it?
She didn’t, though. She just sighed, inched closer, and rested her head against my shoulder.
“You would have been a good dad,” she whispered.
Kara couldn’t swim. That’s the thing you have to understand. I was the captain of the goddamned varsity swim team when we met, had just missed qualifying for Trials the year before, but Kara was afraid to put more than six inches of water in a bathtub. When that ferry rolled over and showed its belly to the sky, when the three of us went into the bay, Kara was just as lost as Dahlia.
We sat there for a long while, Dahlia and I, until the sun was gone and the sky had faded to a star-speckled black. The wind had picked up by then, and I was shivering off and on, but Dahlia was warm pressed against me and I didn’t want to move. Finally, though, she lifted her head, kissed my cheek, and straightened.
“Dahlia,” I said. “I loved you too. It wasn’t that I didn’t…”
“I know,” she said, leaned forward, and looked down past our feet and into the valley below. “It’s okay.”
She climbed slowly to her feet, and turned to look down at me. Her back was to the drop, the heels of her boots tickling the edge.
“Please,” I said. “I’m sorry…”
She closed her eyes.
“I know, Dad. You had to choose.”
Well, I already told you what happened then.
The thing is, I don’t remember deciding. I don’t remember a choice. My head broke the surface and my lungs filled with air, and the world all around me was salt and wet and cold and one endless, many-voiced, deafening scream. Kara was a part of the screaming, mouth gaping, head thrown back, arms beating at the water as if she could drive it away.
Dahlia was there too—but quiet, floating, wide-open eyes just showing, hair fanned out around her head like a halo.
She was three years old.
I don’t know.
Maybe Dahlia just seemed less afraid.
I chose my wife.
I let my daughter die.
I was a monster. Everyone said so.
Me, most of all.
I didn’t follow Dahlia down.
I thought about it, but I didn’t.
Instead I sat there shivering on that overlook, staring up into a night that was vast and deep and dark as the sea after a storm. The moon came and went, and the stars wheeled over me. Just past midnight, a meteor gashed the sky, so bright for a moment that I had to close my eyes. I wish I could say it was sign, some kind of…
It wasn’t, though. It was just celestial garbage, flaring and burning and dying. It didn’t mean anything at all.
Eventually, morning came. Nothing had changed. I was who I was.
I was who I would always be.
I climbed to my feet, shouldered my pack, and started walking.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.