The Unknown by Ella Steyer

When I was young, I had an awful fear of the dark. My imagination led me to believe that, crawling in the pitch black, was an evil form of life. I’d always felt fearless up until the lights switched off. The world that was once radiant and magnificent was suddenly dark and unknown. I appeared vulnerable to the mythological creatures I believed lurked nearby.

My father could soothe my worries better than anyone else. As he would tuck me into the protection of my blankets, his gravelly voice would whisper goodnight. My mind would often wander into the mysterious gloom of the evening and crave comfort.

I would question him timidly. “The monsters aren’t going to get me, right Daddy?”

And his soft, tender eyes would concentrate on me. “Avery… As long as I’m around, no one will ever hurt you.”

I’d believed him. I’d trusted that he’d constantly protect me. My childlike faith in him was as boundless as my imagination, but I should’ve known better. I should’ve known he wasn’t going to stick around. I should’ve recognized he and my mom weren’t happy. I should’ve understood he would eventually gather his possessions and neglect Mom and me. Then it wouldn’t have been such a shock to wake up one morning and realize he was gone.

All those years of trusting him to keep me safe were lies. Myths, even. When he abandoned us, every fragment of my mind collapsed. Everything I believed was false. He wasn’t a hero. He didn’t protect me from the dark. Instead, the real darkness in my life became him.

***

My bag landed in the back of my truck with a thud. Streaks of sunlight greeted the morning dew brightly. The robins’ slumber was replaced by their euphonious warbling. My mom stood by the car, arms crossed, exhaustion plastered over her face.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to tag along?” The bags under her eyes had existed since Dad left fourteen years ago, but they were deeper today.

“I’ll be fine, Mom,” I said, though there was no assurance in my voice, “Besides, you’re the one that told me this trip would be a good idea.”

Her gaze sank to the ground. “I know, Avery. But you were so young…”

I knew she was referring to the day my father became a memory. The day my seven-year-old self was shoved into the dark, surrounded by the unknown and the ghost of someone I thought protected me.

I stepped over and wrapped my arms around my mom in a tight embrace. After I let go, she forced a small smile. Whenever I saw her like this, I recognized how much damage Dad had caused in her life. Wrinkles on her forehead revealed her many hours of distress. Her flushed cheeks confirmed she’d been crying. The signature sparkle in her eyes was dim, but it was still there. She wouldn’t bail like he did.

“Good luck,” she whispered, and I mimicked her forced smile before hopping in the front seat and driving away.

***

The breeze felt cool against my skin as I hauled my bag over to my temporary campsite, the afternoon sun illuminating the atmosphere. A fresh fragrance blew by with the draft, rustling the branches that hung nearby. I nestled close to the roaring fire, appreciative of its warmth on the autumn day. The landscape was engulfed in vivid shades of deep rose, orange, and gold, as if the sky had split apart and God Himself had poured a bucket of paint onto the trees. The vast lake was a perfect mirror of the fall forest that encircled it, as though the trees desired to stand front row of the beauty.

While the fire crackled and spat sparks into the air, I glanced over at the small vase peering out of my bag. Though it happened to be the reason I was here, it was the first time I’d brought myself to look at it. With quivering hands, I gently drew it from my bag and examined it, water threatening to drip from my eyes. After all this time, I didn’t expect this to be the way I’d encounter my father again. I would’ve never guessed that, after all the years of feeling abandoned and betrayed, I’d be sitting by a campfire, gazing out into a lake, with my dad’s ashes next to me.

Mom and I heard the news of his death a week earlier. He’d been severely hit in a car accident and didn’t make it out alive. Mom had thrown the phone across the room, cursing and crying at the same time. I was simply bewildered. Perhaps because to me, he was a stranger, merely someone who caused my fists to tense whenever his name was spoken.

Aggravated by the thoughts swirling in my mind, I needed an escape. It was difficult to transport my kayak to the lake by myself, but I managed. As I climbed into it, the movement sent waves in expanding circles until they disappeared back into the still lake. My arms moved the double-bladed paddle in a rapid, rhythmic motion. As my muscles began to ache, I allowed the kayak to glide over the water as weightless as a feather caught by a breeze. Dropping my nagging arms to my side, my hand grazed over the pocket of my ripped jeans. A material crinkled at my touch. As I cautiously lifted it up, I remembered shoving it deep into my pocket earlier, attempting to be rid of it. The photograph held the weight of memories, trapping them until particular eyes released them with all the emotions attached. It was a time machine. One glance and I was back with my dad. In the picture, we sat on our old brown couch, curled up underneath a blanket. I was giggling hysterically as his fingers tickled my stomach. Though the sun had sunk and darkness hung above, he made me laugh. It was before the hurt and hatred. Time was frozen, and we appeared happy. Our laughs never fading. Our bond never breaking. It was simply him and I, before the pain in the future.

I hadn’t realized I was crying until a teardrop fell on the photograph. Instantly wiping it away, I wondered for the hundredth time why he left me. Didn’t he enjoy our jokes and stories and piggy-back rides through the house as much as I did? Yet as I continued to study the picture, I realized I wasn’t angry. The unknown had always scared me, so when he left without an explanation, I was frightened. I fell into the darkness with him. I wanted answers so badly I began to make them up. But he wasn’t a monster. He got consumed by the darkness and didn’t know how to escape.

As the kayak hovered over the crystal blue water, my phone vibrated. My eyes scanned the screen, where a text from Mom appeared. I assumed it would be a lengthy note asking if I’m okay, but instead I see two simple sentences. Two sentences that held more meaning to me than the deepest of memories.

Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:13.

I sat, speechless, in the middle of the lake. My father was the unknown in my life. He took off without leaving anything, except us. I didn’t know why, but despite how much I tried, I couldn’t overlook all the exceptional memories we held. For once, when I thought about my father, I didn’t think of the grief and destruction he caused. Instead, with the bible verse in mind, I thought of the comfort and happiness.

***

The fiery golden orb of light gradually sank beneath the horizon, sending threads of glistening hues into the sky. The clouds were cotton-candy, as though they blushed at their own beauty. The lake reflected the image, amplifying the elegance. Nature itself had appeared at my personal ceremony in its best attire.

As I stared out at the water in front of me, urn in hand, I pondered on what I would say to Dad if he were here. Before, I might not have been able to get a single word out. But now I understood. The past was history. Memories could be the worst form of torture, but they could also be rather amazing. My dad was never a monster. His actions may have caused me pain, but I couldn’t ignore the joy he’d also provided in my life.

At that moment, I had released the past and did what I once considered impossible; I forgave my father. And I didn’t have to force a smile as his ashes slid out of the urn and into the wind.

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