The window was open, allowing the wind to blow across his face as he sped down the country road. He was happy to be out of school and in his car. He had decided to get off the highway miles ago to see some countryside as he made his way home for the summer. His first year of college was successfully completed and his future seemed that much closer. He closed his eyes to meditate on his success.
He opened his eyes just in time to see the girl in the road. He to swerved to miss her and ran into the ditch running along the worn asphalt. The car stopped forcing him against his seatbelt painfully. He fumbled quickly to undo the belt and out of his car. All he could think about was the little girl.
She was still in the road. Tears streamed down her face. He quickly reached for her and picked her up in his arms. He hushed her terrified tears as he carried her off the road. He put her down and they sat side by side on the grass.
She was no older than six or seven. She wore a sundress of faded grey and blue. Her feet were bare and her eyes were so dark, big like a deer. She sat there head down, refusing to release his hand. He tried to pull it away but she held on tight. His heart relaxed its loud thumping in his chest as he realized she was unhurt.
“You are okay, right?” He asked her to make sure.
She nodded a reply and he sighed deeply. The aches of his sudden stop were starting to play on his body as the mild shock of the event wore off. He looked around seeing only forest and road as far as his eyes could see.
“Where do you live?’
The girl raised her arm toward the forest before them. She took a little breath and whispered, “ Short-cut.”
His eyes trailed to the little girl’s arm. It was heavily bruised; the bruises themselves were deep and purple displays of more than just childhood injury. He had seen those bruises before. He had seen them on his own arm years and years ago. He felt a lump in his throat, his anger welling up from feelings long since put in that bottom drawer of his mind. As he stood, the girl stood too, still holding his hand tight.
“Well why don’t I walk you home? My name is Joe.”
She nodded again in agreement and led him into the woods. At first he didn’t notice the trail. It seemed they were just randomly walking through the dense forest. But now he could see a thin and worn path that wound its way around fallen trunks and bushes. He felt a weird feeling of recognition in this place. Joe knew he had never been in this area before, but something was familiar.
He followed the girl, she knew the way. Her bare feet seemed to find the soft of the forest, not the prickles. It was as if she knew the woods by heart. As if she knew every step, every tree. She looked back at him from time to time and smiled. Her smile hit Joe with warmth he had never experienced. For some reason he felt a strong connection to the little girl in the grey-blue dress.
Joe looked ahead of him and there stood the largest tree in the forest. It seemed to glow from a light that shined behind it. The day had worn on and the evening was beginning to set in. There was a chill beginning to creep into the air. The tree grew as they walked toward the light. Joe knew they were coming to the end of the forest.
The tree caught his attention. It was familiar to him. He had seen it before. As he was passing it he saw a name carved into the base of the tree. It said “Joe.” He felt his head float on his shoulders, his hand reached to hold on to the tree to steady himself. From where he stood he could see the yard.
He wanted to leave. He didn’t want to be here any more. On the back porch of this little house sat his father. His hair thin, the brown stubble of his cheeks, the stained shirt that Joe knew would stink of sweat and beer. He felt the heat in his face at seeing this bastard.
For years his torment was his father. Joe hated coming home, hated having to deal with a mother who was too weak to stop a weak man. There was nothing he could do to please his father. Everything led to a punch or kick, or a cigarette burn, or worse. His father seamed to have one hobby and that was abusing his child. Joe had only one place to hide, one sanctuary, the forest at the end of the yard.
He spent hours hidden in the dense trees. In the summer he practically lived under the humid canopy of leaves. This was a place where a seven year old could dream and he dreamed that his father would die. He dreamed of a thousands ways his father could die. He wished that if his father wouldn’t die, perhaps he could not be born at all. Maybe he could have stayed in heaven and live unhurt and unharmed.
Luckily for Joe his mother found strength and left his Dad one evening. It was in the autumn. Joe had missed the forest, but not his father. In time his mother remarried, a good man, a man who Joe called Dad. He was lucky.
Now that man was here again. Joe was here looking at this bastard. He looked down at the girl; she was watching him with a curious look. Was she some sort of spirit? Joe squeezed her hand, she seemed real enough. He heard his father’s voice calling.
“Where’s Joe!” He yelled into the back door. “This is fucked up. It’s getting dark and Joe is off in that damn wood again. I have a mind to burn the damn thing to stumps.”
A muffled response came from the house.
“Don’t take that tone with me woman. I’ll smack you harder than Joe.”
He turned to the forest. Joe pushed himself closer to the tree.
“Joe! You get in her now.”
With that call the little girl let go off Joe’s hand and ran toward the house. Joe didn’t know what to do. His father had smacked a couple of his friends before. Joe didn’t think his father would mind hitting a little girl.
“There you are!” His father yelled at the girl. “Get in that house Josephine.”
As the girl passed, his father hit her hard on the back of the head sending her into the door frame with a loud thump.
“Clumsy little bitch, aren’t you?”
The little girl looked at Joe, standing by the tree. She then looked at the man who hit her. Joe’s eyes followed hers and his world began to swim again. This man was not his father. He was his father’s age, and had similarities to his father, but it wasn’t that man. Joe realized with shock and horror, it was him. He was the man on the back porch, older, but still him.
He turned and ran in disbelief. He ran away from the house, away from some horrible twisted joke. It wasn’t him, it couldn’t be him. He was a good man, he was a survivor. He ran, his face slashed by dry branches, his feet stumbling over raised roots and rocks. He ran out of the wood and to his car. The car wasn’t in the ditch anymore. It was on the road, almost as if he had parked it rather than crashed.
He ran around to the driver’s door and got in. Instinctively reached for the safety of the seatbelt and strapped himself in. Joe rested his forehead against the steering wheel, and mumbled, “No, no, no…”
The passenger door opened and the little girl named Josephine got in. She rested her hand on his and he looked at her through watery eyes.
“That was me, and you are…” He couldn’t finish his words.
Josephine just smiled at him and then spoke simple words.
“I love you daddy.”
And that was true. He knew she loved him and he loved his father. Even with the cruelty he loved his father as only a son could. He hated himself for wanting his Daddy hurt and he knew that she felt the same way.
Joe started the car. He floored the gas and began to drive up the road. He glanced at the girl and wanted nothing more than to get her away from that life. His hand reached down to the belt release. He pressed it as he increased the speed of the car. He heard the click of the release.
He turned to his daughter and smiles as he talks, “I love you too. I will save you,” as he veered off the road and into a large tree.
At the edge of the wood a small figure of a girl with dark eyes and grey-blue dress, starts to fade. She knows her Daddy loves her and then she is gone.