“Daddy, where’s Fluffy? Daddy, wake up. I can’t find him. Have you seen him?”
Dan groaned when his curly haired daughter Rebecca woke him by whacking his forehead. He also dreaded the question she repeated while crawling onto his back.
Two days ago, Fluffy sneaked out the patio door when Dan exited to put the burgers on the grill. It wasn’t the first time the cat ran out so Dan merely cursed and knew they’d have to put out a can of tuna—the only thing that drew him back inside.
“Daddy, wake up,” she said, now placing her mouth on his ear to make sure he heard her.
“I’m awake,” he said, eyes still closed.
“Daddy, you promised he’d come back for the tuna fish. But I haven’t seen him.”
“Ok,” Dan said, rising. She giggled and thrust her arms around his neck, little fists locked in front of his Adam’s apple. She’d done it so many times that it no longer hurt. He rose from the bed, stretching.
“Ready?” he asked, done yawning.
Dan spun in three quick circles, her giggles filling the room.
“Ok,” he said, making sure his back was to the bed. “Daddy has to pee.”
She let go and jumped into the wadded comforter on the bed. Dan glanced to make sure she was not hurt and her laughter trickled through the folds of the bedding while she rolled around in glee.
Dan couldn’t stop smiling despite the daily routine. He loved the place his daughter was in: the wide-eyed innocent phase where the world was nothing but fun and a giant place full of stuff to learn.
Fluffy’s disappearance threatened to ruin that place.
Dan finished in the bathroom and wandered out to the kitchen. His daughter’s cereal bowl was already in the sink. Dan thrust aside the curtains of the patio, spotting the undisturbed can of tuna on the stoop.
“Damn,” he said. He was not reassured when Fluffy ran out of the yard because their home was just four houses away from Yelm Highway, a five lane road full of cars zooming along at forty plus miles per hour.
Little arms squeezed his bare legs and he looked down to see his toe-headed daughter holding as tight as she could.
“What’s matter, Daddy? Where’s Fluffy?”
Every time Dan looked at his daughter, he thought of Goldilocks and her oblivious slumber in the three bears’ home. She wasn’t aware yet there were things in the world out to get her or that even bad things could happen to people, or cats.
“Fluffy will come home,” he said. “Come on, it’s time for your bath. You have your check up at the doctor’s today. We need to get ready.”
Dan ran the bath water and got her crucial toys set up beside her shampoo and soap. He then made his way to their third bedroom, currently his wife’s sanctuary while they weathered the current rough patch in their marriage, and quietly tapped on the door before sticking his head inside.
“Honey, it’s seven. Your daughter’s in the tub.” The routine was that the ladies shared the bathroom in the morning first.
His wife didn’t acknowledge him as she stretched and got out of bed. The tease of her bare thighs created an ache of longing in his chest. Her sleep filled eyes saw him looking and she pulled down on her nightshirt to cut off his view. He leaned close, trying to kiss her cheek, but she raised a hand and shoved past him. Lamely, he watched her enter the bathroom and shut the door without a word.
Tugging on his button-down blue shirt and khakis, he struggled for answers on how to defrost their marriage.
Dan once again tried to kiss his wife, but she waved good-bye from the other side of the room without meeting his eyes. Rebecca waved good-bye from the window when her mommy pulled from the driveway. A pang thudded in his chest while watching her drive off to work, especially since he’d been laid off three months now. To ease the sense of failure he shaved each day and wore his work clothes as well. Although Rebecca didn’t care, all she knew was she got to spend a lot of time with her daddy instead of Aunt Ruth’s smelly dog-filled house.
The two of them loaded into the second car. Dan grimaced while he buckled her into her booster seat when she asked, “Daddy, keep an eye out for Fluffy when you’re driving because I can’t see too good back here.”
“Ok, Sweetie,” he answered absently, pulling the car into traffic en route to the doctor.
Once in the waiting room, they played the ‘I Spy’ game using the giant mural covering three walls. The painting depicted several animals, fantasy characters and creatures in numerous scenes complete with a castle and rainbow backdrop.
“I spy something white,” declared Rebecca.
“Is it the cat?” he asked, pointing to the white cat sitting beside the rainbow.
“Yes!” she hollered, giant blue eyes looking into his, her little brain apparently trying to figure out how he guessed it so easy. Dan grew more bummed since the cat was not leaving her thoughts anytime soon. He hoped the damn cat would show up once they got home.
Her check-up went fine and soon they were back in the car headed for McDonald’s.
Dan watched her barely pick at her chicken nuggets, all the while watching the three little boys scramble over the red tube and slide.
“Go ahead, honey,” he said. “We’ll take your nuggets home.”
She smiled and raced over to the boys, joining them. Soon the four of them played while Dan nibbled on her fries.
On the way home, Dan was forced to stop at a red light two blocks from their home. Beside the curb across the other lanes on his left, he spotted a white object resembling a cat. When the breeze blew the hair of the cat’s coat, Dan nearly cursed aloud, knowing it had to be Fluffy.
“Daddy, what’s that?” Rebecca asked. Dan hit the accelerator hard, car squealing from the intersection.
“What’s what, honey?” he asked, teeth clenching, eyes avoiding the rearview mirror.
“That, by the curb back there.”
“It was an opossum,” he answered.
“It was an opossum,” he said, turning into their driveway. Killing the ignition, Dan sat still, unsure what to do. This was bigger than the dumb cat, even bigger than being the person who opened the door when Fluffy escaped. This was the end of her innocence. Never again would he see the pure blue shine in her eyes that sparkled during her heart-warming smile. Never again would she see the world as a completely safe place. But worst of all, she may see her beloved Daddy for what he was: an out of work dreamer with debt problems and a marriage on the brink.
“Daddy, what’s a o poss um?”
“You know,” he answered, helping her out of the car. “A marsupial.”
“A Mars soup L?”
“Yeah, you know, like a kangaroo.”
“Oh,” she said, little brain processing the information.
Dan relaxed back in the house once she finished her Happy Meal and was then laying down for her nap. The close call averted.
He locked the door and ran over to the spot he saw the cat. Sure enough, there was Fluffy, a rigid corpse on the curb. Dan managed to work the cat into the garbage bag he’d loaded into his pocket. He nearly vomited when maggots fell from a wound on Fluffy’s stomach.
He ran home and deposited the bag in the garbage can. Thankfully, tomorrow was trash day so he wouldn’t have much of a chance to be discovered by his wife nor would the smell get too bad.
He reentered the house and was glad she was still sleeping. He washed up and was surprised to see his tear filled eyes in the bathroom mirror.
“It was an opossum,” he said to himself. “It was an opossum.”