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Losing Too Late

by Sarah Marquess

We almost lost her when she was three.
Oh, yeah, I can tell you, because I was there, and I can tell you in the clarity that accompanies a close tragedy, but never seems to linger when the real one hits. I suppose if it did, we'd be a nation of grief stricken idiots by now.
It was Senior Cut Day at the high school, a yearly outing of the upperclassmen once they'd pulled off their senior prank, a week before classes blew away for the summer. The heat hung like a curtain across everything, a dull, thick reminder of the season.
I was playing mental tennis with several article ideas, out on the hot, baked summer patio when I looked up and realized that she wasn't there anymore. No more bright spot on the parched grass that was her sun yellow overalls, no more cheerful wave from one mud-smeared hand, or grin out of Kool-Aid stained teeth as she called "Hi, Daddy!" to me, as if I'd just gotten back from some epic journey, rather than only checking up on her from my steno pad.
I sat up in my lawn chair, feeling the flimsy rubber squeak as I laid aside my paper and chewed ballpoint. I called her name, more in curiosity at first, which seems to be always how it begins.
I began to track across our small backyard in my sandals, peering down into the bushes, which went kudzu wild in the summer, expecting to see her small white face, rimmed in falling blond curls, festooned with the toothless smile that always reminded me of Hemingway's old man, sitting beside his sea and grinning with that same appealing gap. But she wasn't there.
The wind, ever so elitist in the Florida June, sent up a token breeze that seemed almost arrogant, like a millionaire tossing a dime on a city sidewalk to watch the derelicts scuffle. But that little balloon of air lazily inched the gate into motion, motion which I caught out of the comer of my eye.
The latch on the gate was covered in bright rust the color of a Jack-o-lantern, promising tetanus to any worried parent, and it shrieked any time you thumbed it open, but it didn't shriek that day, or perhaps it had and I was too immersed in my latest possible addition to Great American literature to notice. Beth was at work, flying old couples across the country for discount prices at Delta Airlines.
I started towards the front, the first crawling, denied moments of fear slinking in as I moved past the harsh white stucco of our home. I swung through the gate hard, clattering it against the stained cherry wood fence, the sound loud and almost obscene in the silent heat of the morning.
Coming out from around my house, I saw my little girl across the street, tossing crushed pieces of gravel into the pond that was framed by a lush park, never getting the stones to splash past the straggly weeds, but still there, still existing, a fact irrevocably proved by the bright pink flower sewn into the backside of her grass-stained overalls.
Masking my relief, berating myself for stereotypical father paranoia, I called to her, reprising a warning about the alligators that lived in the pond, and she started back across the road.
I wiped off sweat that had delighted in the heat, pooling on the back of my neck and darkening the stripes of my polo shirt. Turning, craning my face into the huge, sharp glowing sun, I squinted to see Beth's Orange Crush thermometer, a souvenir from her Midwestern childhood before I had swept her off into the wonders of suburban Tampa. The temperature stood at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, 90 percent humidity; the time was not yet eleven o'clock.
The screech of spinning tires leaving long black bums on the road caused me to turn my head, and I saw an old, inherited car filled with tank-topped seniors blurring around the comer, on the same road my daughter had paused in the middle of to inspect a bug.
Panic is sly but effective, and as I stared at the scene unraveling, I began to move slowly, curiously, and then swifter and faster, my mind robbed suddenly of any thought but the strangling terror as I saw the two pieces, my delayed daughter and the barreling car, come inevitably closer together.
Maybe some devil had blindsighted the driver into missing that colorful spot of a person crouched on the blacktop; maybe it was something more mundane, like the low-cut shirt of the girl riding shotgun, but all I knew was that as I started to run down the cracked driveway towards the street, I was betting the remnants of my college track team against a speeding American hand-me-down, and the prize was my daughter's life.
My ridiculous flip-flops slapped ineffectively on the white concrete, I kicked them off in impatient panic, tearing off a toenail on the hot ground as I sprinted, screaming my child's name, my eyes full of her looking up at me curiously from the bug, and in the same moment full of the exploding red car bulleting our way.
It all seemed so impossible to me then—blood, death, my wife coming home to the disco lights of a police car. There was no way in the world that my little girl, who smelled like No More Tears shampoo and Johnson's and Johnson's baby powder, who liked to gum Apple Jacks in the morning and have hilarious dry cereal fights with her mother while I read the newspaper and pretended not to notice, that she could go from counting grass blades to being a nothing in the space of ten minutes, or go from pushing a beetle along the road with her finger to being a sweaty I nightmare for the rest of my life, in the space of a second. I refused to believe in it, any of it, the same way I had refused to believe in the square root of -9, or the people who said John Lennon was evil. It was a clear, academic disbelief, something to be debated over civilly in cool college classrooms. It was inconceivable to me in all dimensions and terms, and yet I ran anyway.
My thirty-five year old knees pistol-shotted with every stride, and I finally garnered a little wind that streamed sickly past my hot face.
There was the car's engine, huge and echoing in my cotton-filled mind, there was my girl's head looking around to see the gleaming grille bearing down on her, her mouth dropping into a neat 'o'. There was another scream beginning beside my own, someone in the car suddenly realizing, and then there was the soft, round weight of my daughter in my arms as I scooped her away from the street, gravel digging cuts into my bare feet, and then we fell onto the summer grass in front the pond, her beginning to cry and me only able to laugh in empty, airless gasps, hugging her to me with everything I had.
So, yes, we almost lost her then, but I suppose every parent has moments of exquisite terror, and we could fill volumes with the worst ones, if we thought to search for them all.
But, twelve years after I raced for my daughter's barely-known, awesomely-loved life, twelve years after I'd raced and won, I sit at this kitchen table and read the note she left us, her farewell as she left to become famous, the note saying good-bye, and I know that it took over a decade, but we lost her anyway.