Note: I don’t think this really fits with the prompt, but I enjoyed writing it nonetheless.
It was autumn when she came to me, twigs stuck in her short hair. She stumbled into me, half blind from malnutrition, half blind from the tears rolling down her cheeks. I took her under my wing – called her my own. In those days, the social services didn’t exist: you find a stray kid, you ask around until someone answers you or until too many years pass and you don’t really want to ask any more. With her and me, it was the latter. She told me she couldn’t remember where she had come from or who she was before, but I always saw the lie dancing in her earnest eyes. Still, I did nothing to prise the truth from her. I knew she would tell me if she needed to. She was eight at the time – old enough to remember, of course. She stayed with me until she was twelve. Even started calling me “papa”. But I digress. I’m trying not to get to the sad part.
I picked her up from school as usual, but this time was different. She usually bounded out to the gate, practically bursting to tell me what happened that day with her friends or what she had learnt. But this time… her whole body seemed to droop; to turn in on itself. So naturally, I asked her what was wrong – if anyone had said anything to her.
“Ruby said you aren’t my real dad. She said I should go back to where I came from – some hill-billy state, no doubt, she said.”
I offered some comfort to her, but she was gloomy for the rest of the day. In fact, nothing was ever really the same after that.
And one day, things got worse.
We were walking to the supermarket. It was a Friday. The leaves had just begun to turn orange at the time. Funny how you remember the little details. Her hand was in mine and she was skipping along, a comfortable silence washing over us.
Just then, a woman’s voice called from behind: “Robert?” Her hand stiffened in mine and she stopped skipping. Instead, she began to race ahead of me, tugging me along by the hand.
“Come on papa, let’s hurry to the supermarket and then go home and play!”
“Robert? Is that you?” The woman was still calling. I turned out of curiosity, though in hindsight (and in selfishness) I should have respected Sarah’s wishes.
“What are you doing?” The woman asked. “Get away from my boy!”
“Your boy?” Puzzled, I turned to Sarah but she was staring at the woman.
“Oh Robert, where have you been? We’ve been worried sick, your father and me.” Somehow without me realising, Sarah had let go of my hand and the woman was clutching both her hands instead.
I reached out to get a hold of Sarah, but the woman pulled her from my reach.
“No, you get away from me! Pervert! Somebody help! This pervert is trying to take my child!” I hesitated and it was only that split second of hesitation that she needed to make her move. Before I could react, she had already turned a corner. I raced after her, but heard a screech of wheels against tarmac. She and Sarah passed me in a blue car. Sarah’s eyes were frantic as she pounded against the car window.
I went to the police but they didn’t help me with anything. Sure, they investigated, but they soon said that the case was “complicated by the fact I wasn’t really Sarah’s dad”.
I never gave up. I always kept searching for her.