“I’m afraid, mommy.”
Darla held her arms out toward the little girl. “I know. It’s always scary when you first jump, but you can do it, I know you can. And look,” she smiled at her dark-haired, light skinned daughter, “I’m right here to catch you.”
The little girl tiled her head to one side and gave her mother an indecipherable look.
Darla suppressed a sigh and continued to hold her arms out toward her daughter, a tolerant smile plastered across her face. She knew that look, and she hated it. It was a mixture of confusion, doubt, distrust and fear.
Yes, fear. She hated that her daughter even knew what that emotion meant, let alone felt like.
It all started five years ago. Tillie’s father had disappeared; she suspected he took off with one of his students, but she could never prove it. She spent months trying to track him down. And though she had a few good leads, nothing ever panned out. A good friend of hers claimed that he had seen Sam at a favorite tavern just ten miles out of town, but when she went to question the people who worked there, none claimed to have seen anyone who looked like him. She had just found out that she was pregnant with Tillie right after he abandoned her so by the time her daughter was born, it had been nearly nine months since his disappearance.
Her efforts to find Sam waned. Money grew tight and when she could no longer afford to pay the mortgage, she had been forced to move back home with her parents so she could get a job and have someone to look after Tillie. She had never really gotten along with her parents, their relationship was strained at best, so when she was forced to virtually beg them to take her and Tillie into their home, it had been a bitter pill to swallow. Her parents didn’t exactly welcome her and her daughter with open arms, but she didn’t have a choice – she had no where else to go.
She had finally given up looking for him. She was a single mother raising a daughter. She didn’t have time to deal with an emotionally stunted man and she turned all of her energies and time into surviving the sleepless nights and endless diapers. But she missed him. And she alternated between anger and depression over his disappearance. She had toyed with the thought of hiring a private investigator a few months after Tillie’s birth, after all, her child had the right to get to know her father, but what was the point? Sam obviously didn’t want anything to do with either of them, why put Tillie through unnecessary heart ache?
She had talked to Tillie about her father, though. She was determined that if her daughter couldn’t come to know Sam personally, then she would come to know him through stories and pictures. Instead of bedtime stories, Tillie had demanded stories about her father. And though Darla didn’t really have that many stories to tell, they had only been dating a few years before they got married and he disappeared, Tillie didn’t care. She never tired of hearing about her father.
They got used to not having him around and before long it was as if he was a character in this great story instead of being a real person.
“I promise you’ll be safe. You’re always safe with me,” she said, forcing thoughts of Sam back down that deep, dark hole.
Tillie thoughtfully chewed on her lower lip and moved a few steps closer to the edge of the pier. Darla came up on her tip toes. The water gently pushed against her breasts.
“It looks deep,” the child whined and Darla clamped down on her irritation.
It wasn’t Tillie’s fault that she was hesitant and afraid. The little girl was insecure. And Darla had no one to blame but herself.
Well, and her father.
“It’s not that bad. See? The water is only this high,” she said while marking the water level on her chest with one hand. “Not deep at all.”
“But you’re a lot taller than I am,” the child reasoned and Darla couldn’t help but laugh.
“Smart girl. You’re right. I am taller than you. But I’m right here, Tillie. I promise you, nothing bad is going to happen to you.”
“I don’t like water in my face, mommy. If I jump, I’ll get water in my face.”
Darla clamped her teeth shut in frustration.
Thanks a lot, dad, she silently fumed. Her father had thought it was funny to squirt Tillie in the face with a water bottle whenever she started whining. He couldn’t stand it when she whined.
Darla could feel her self-loathing lining the tenacious hold she had on her patience and her next words came out harsh and clipped.
“Enough with the excuses, Tillie. Just jump already.”
Tillie’s lower lip began to quiver and her dark brown eyes filled with unshed tears. “Are you mad at me, mommy?”
“No, I’m not mad,” Darla sighed, her arms beginning to ache from keeping them poised to catch her daughter. “But I am getting annoyed. I’m right here. I’m not going to allow anything to happen to you. You can trust me. And besides,” she swallowed her irritation and forced a smile. “It’s fun.”
Tillie lowered her head and gave her mother a suspicious look. “Fun?”
“Of course.” Darla nodded her head in the direction of four other children jumping off a neighboring pier. “Look at those kids.” Tillie turned to look. “They’re having fun. They aren’t whining and giving their mothers a hard time.”
Her daughter crossed her arms over her bony chest in defense as she watched the other children jump off the pier, disappear into the water and then shortly reappear, their heads bobbing on the water, their wet hair covering their smiles but not masking their laughter.
“Come on, Tillie. Enough is enough. Just jump.”
Suddenly, one of the other children, intending to jump into the water, tripped on an upraised board and fell, face first, into the water. The slap from his belly flop reverberated against the sheer rock walls surrounding the small lake. The child immediately resurfaced, coughed out the excess water and before Darla had time to walk toward the pier and shield Tillie from what she knew would come next, opened his mouth and let out an ear-piercing wail.
Tillie slapped her hands over her ears and looked back at her mother in alarm. Darla, knowing how her daughter felt about loud noises, began to head toward the ladder, clumsily using her arms to push water out of her way, her legs felt heavy and awkward with each large step forward.
The boy who fell into the water continued to cry, the sound growing louder with each passing scream.
“Tillie,” Darla soothed, reaching a dripping hand out of the water toward her daughter. “It’s okay. The boy is fine. He just tripped and fell into the water. He’s not hurt. He’s just scared.”
But Tillie wasn’t listening to her. She had turned her back on her and was staring at something on shore.
Darla turned her head to try and see what had caught Tillie’s eye, but she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The boy’s cries had alerted several people on the shore line and a woman, she assumed it was the boy’s mother, was running toward the pier.
She turned back toward Tillie, but the girl was gone.
“Tillie?” she asked, her voice diving into muffled and confused. “Tillie!” She repeated, her voice now emerging sharp and clear, her eyes quickly scanning the rest of the pier.
Her head spun around, her shoulders a scant few seconds behind, and studied the shoreline desperately seeking the familiar body of her daughter. Darla quickly swam the few strokes needed to reach the ladder and pulled herself up out of the water.
She grabbed a nearby towel and absently drew it around her shivering body. Her eyes continued to skim the bodies on the shore. She caught a flash of pink in her peripheral to her left and she whipped her head around in that direction to get a better look.
Tillie was wearing a pink bathing suit with a picture of a butterfly on the front.
“Tillie!” she yelled at the top of her voice. The body slowed and looked around at her. It was indeed her daughter.
Darla’s eyes remained locked on her child as she began to quickly walk down the length of the pier toward her.
Tillie paused for just a moment to stare at Darla before turning her head to look at something over her shoulder. Whatever she saw must have spooked her because without warning, she began sprinting toward the woods.
The moment Darla began to run is the moment that Tillie began to run. “Tillie, come back!”
Even though the boy’s cries were loud, they weren’t quite loud enough to mask Darla’s outburst. Several people froze in place and watched as she sprinted toward the spot that she last saw her daughter.
Darla lost her grip on her towel and it slipped off her body as she reached the spot where Tillie disappeared. She disregarded the towel as she peered into the dark shadows of the trees.
“Tillie?” she tentatively asked. “Where are you?”
She forced her panic back down her throat and consciously worked to steady her voice. “Tillie, that’s quite enough young lady. Come out here right this minute.” Though she had meant for her voice to be firm and authoritative, it came out squeaky and frightened.
Darla heard a rustling of leaves off to her left and she narrowed her eyes in an attempt to see through the dense foliage.
She opened her mouth to call out to her daughter once again but stopped when she heard Tillie give a soft giggle.
A momentary flash of memory ripped through her panicked brain of the last time she had to hunt for Tillie – it was a game of hide and seek. The girl had been good. In fact, it had taken Darla nearly ten minutes to find her stuffed into the laundry hamper. She had been surprised at her daughter’s ingenuity and quick thinking.
Relief and irritation immediately doused the flames of fear, effectively suffocating it, at least for the moment.
“Tillie Marie, you get your butt out here right this minute. This is no time for games. You scared me to death,” she said as she started burrowing her way through the brush toward the sound of her daughter’s laughter.
She ducked under several large branches and pushed her way through thick bushes, the branches scratching at her exposed legs.
Her path through the woods changed each time she head her daughter’s voice. She was moving and she was talking … to someone.
A flicker of fear lapped at Darla’s heart. Who was with her? And why didn’t she sound scared? If anything, she sounded amused and happy.
Darla was confused and the sound of Tillie’s carefree voice kept her from panicking. If anything, she was more curious than scared.
“Tillie?” she called out and was rewarded with the child shushing whomever she was with.
“Let’s play the game for just a minute longer, please?” she heard the child plead. Her request was shortly followed by the sound of a voice, a man’s voice.
Another flicker of fear teased Darla’s heart back into a quivering rhythm.
“Game’s over Tillie,” Darla snapped, her fear making her voice sharp. “You come out right …” her voice trailed off as she moved a wispy branch out of the way and stepped into a small clearing.
“Hi mommy!’ Tillie beamed, her small hand securely tucked into a man’s larger hand.
Darla’s eyes left her daughter to settle on the man. Her breath caught in her throat and she could feel all the color drain from her face. Her heart dropped to her female regions and she felt so weak she had to reach out and brace herself on a nearby tree.
“Hello, Darla,” the man said.