Seattle, Washington, March 2011 — Nine-year-old Maddie watched the rain dripping down the car window, chin in hand and amber-colored eyes focused on two drops that seemed to be racing each other.
“Hey, what’s wrong, Maddie?” her grandfather asked as he glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “Didn’t you have a good time with your friends?”
She shrugged. “I guess.”
“Are you still upset Zoe wasn’t able to sleep over?”
“Jim, you know as well as I do that isn’t the underlying reason she’s upset,” her grandmother said.
“I know, Maureen.” He sighed. “Ethan hasn’t called yet today, has he?”
“No. He didn’t send her a birthday gift either.” Maureen replied, gray eyes darting sympathetically to Maddie for a few seconds. She lowered her voice. “We need to talk to him, honey. We have to try harder. I know this month is a hard one for him, but he really should be here.”
“Hey, there you guys are!” Maddie’s uncle, Noah, greeted them when they got inside. “Just in time for dinner!”
Maddie mumbled a greeting. Noah glanced between her and his parents. “By the way, Lisa called,” he said, referring to his sister. “She said they’ll be here about a half an hour later than they planned. Traffic.”
“Typical. It is Seattle,” Jim said as he hung his coat up. “Did anyone call while we were gone?”
“If by anyone, you mean my older brother, then no,” Noah said. “But…I don’t blame him. It’s like you told us when we were kids, Dad, about your time in Vietnam: war wreaks havoc on the mind.”
No sooner had they said the blessing and sat down to eat, the sound of the front door opening startled them.
“Huh, I guess they–wait, I don’t hear any kids,” Noah said. He shared a glance with his parents and niece, gray eyes wide. “We didn’t invite anyone else over, did we?”
“No,” Jim said slowly, pushing his chair back. Before he’d made it out of the dining room, the newcomer had already appeared.
For the first time that day, there was a smile on Maddie’s face. She shot out of her seat and towards the man, shouting, “Dad, you’re here!”
Ethan grabbed her in a tight hug. “Well, I wasn’t about to miss your birthday,” he said. Not like I did last year.
“It’s good to see you, son,” Jim said. By this point, Maureen and Noah had joined him.
“You too,” Ethan replied. He loosened his hold on his daughter and added, “Yikes, kiddo, did you grow five inches since I last saw you?”
Maddie shook her head, red curls bouncing. “No, I grew two inches!” She grabbed his hand and pulled him over to the spot on the wall where her height had been marked in pencil. “See?”
“Dad, how long are you gonna be here?” Maddie asked, suddenly looking worried.
“For as long as you need me,” Ethan said, smiling slightly.
“What does that mean?”
“It means…I’m not going back to Maine,” he told her. “I’m staying here, with you.”
“Really?” She said, eyes wide.
He nodded and she jumped forward and hugged him again. Returning the embrace, he swallowed and said, “Happy birthday, Maddie.”
©H.S. Kylian 2018
(Critiques are welcome and appreciated!)