Phew! Managed to get this one out of the door in time for #fridayflash. Not much else to say except– enjoy! (And I really need to get back to writing sci-fi at some point in time. That time, however, is apparently not right now. Oh well!)
Look For Me When You Turn Aside
Her father, at the time of his death, had been at the height of his career. Rockstar, actor and son of a well-loved politician (as far as politicians can be well-loved), he made the pages of respectable broadsheets often, with his trademark sunglasses and cheeky, lopsided smile. On a Friday morning he kissed his wife of six months goodbye and boarded his private jet, bound for the Maldives for a photoshoot with his band. He never arrived. There was one garbled distress signal, and the eight-seater vanished off the radar over the deep waters of the Pacific. Rescuers searched the area for six weeks and only turned up pieces of the fuselage. The cause of the crash was never determined.
Two months after the crash the grief-stricken widow found out she was pregnant with her first, last and only child. She named her unborn daughter Laila, after a writer her late husband had admired when he was alive.
Laila grew up steeped in her absent father’s presence. Her mother put his music videos on the television for her, and taught her to read from a book of his quotes. At night she would sing her daughter to sleep with “Look For Me When You Turn Aside”, the hit that had first propelled his band to international fame. “He was an amazing person,” she would tell the attentive girl, as they snuggled together on rainy days. “He shone with his own light.”
By the time Laila was five she knew by heart all the lyrics to his songs and the all lines from the two movies he had starred in. She greeted the large poster of him over her bed when she woke in the morning, and said goodnight before she went to bed. She wrote letters to him, which she kept in a box under her bed. Sometimes she would stand in front of the mirrors, mapping the features of her face to his. She introduced herself to others as the daughter of that famous dead guy, and only gave her name upon prompting.
It was during the 13th summer that she saw him, spending a couple of months in Rio de Janeiro with old friends of her mother. They were on their way to get an ice cream in a trendy part of town when she saw the strange man with his face entirely hidden a dark hoodie, coming their way at a brisk clip despite the thickness of the crowd on the sidewalk. He kept his gaze to the ground as he came towards them, and she didn’t pay very much attention to him except to note his presence in the back of her mind, just in case he was a kidnapper. As he passed by right next to the group of girls she was embedded in, he turned his head, and she caught the flash of round, piercing eyes from within the darkness of thick cotton fabric.
Her world crashed to a halt. She knew those eyes better than anyone else’s. She could not be mistaken.
“Daddy,” she shouted, spinning on her heel. “Daddy!”
The man kept walking. She ran after him. “Daddy, wait! Daddy, it’s me.”
He picked up the pace without turning around, weaving through the crowd with practiced ease. She elbowed and shoved through clumps of passerbys frantically, leaving a trail of profanity and dirty looks in her way. “Wait,” she shouted. “Don’t go!”
The man ducked into a white van parked at the end of the street. She managed to slap her hand once on the dusty surface before the engine reved up and the van drove off. She ran after it, shouting, chasing it down the tarmac as it grew steadily smaller and smaller in her vision until she was left standing, breathless with her hands on her knees, cars honking irately as they passed by on either side.
She had seen her father. She was sure of it.
She kicked up such a huge fuss about it the local police force has no choice but to open an investigation at her mother’s behest, tracking down the owner of the van based on the licence plate number Laila remembered. The chief superintendent himself brought them to the small windowless room, bare except for a table and a couple of steel chairs.
They brought a man into the room. “This is the man who owned the van you saw,” the superintendent said.s
The man they’d brought in was thin and scruffy with eyes that stared endlessly at you. He looked a lot like her father. But he wasn’t the man she’d seen on the sidewalk that day. Laila’s sobbing mother had to hold her back as she screamed and tried to throw her mug of water at the superintendent. “That’s not him! Where is he? What have you done to him?” She refused to listen to anyone else.
The counselor was very gentle with her mother. “I know you miss your late husband,” she said, “but dwelling on his life is leaving a negative impact on your daughter.”
“She’s his daughter too,” her mother insisted. “She needs to know who he was.”
“And I agree. But it’s become an obsession in her life. Can’t you see how unhealthy that is for her?”
Her mother cried.
“You love her, don’t you?”
“Yes,” her mother said, and Laila reached over to touch her hand. “She’s the most important thing in the world to me.”
“Your husband is gone, but your daughter is still here. And she needs you. You need to led him go.”
Her mother nodded. She understood.
The agent sits across the table from his charge. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am,” he says.
The vanished man clenches his fists. “That girl is my daughter. You have to understand what it feels like.”
“A daughter who only exists because you pleaded to have her created so your wife would have something left to go on with after you vanished. You knew the consequences.”
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I didn’t realize what it would be like.”
The agent let out a noise that might have been a sigh, or the verbalization of a suppressed urge to drive a fist into something wet and organic. He took the slim manila folder that had been sitting at the edge of the desk, flipped it over, and slid it over to his charge. “I want to show you something.”
Inside there was a stack of pictures of another family–a middle-aged man, strong-jawed, fairly good shape, with his young smiling wife, and two children under the age of five. The pictures were ordinary, seemingly taken candidly: they were out grocery shopping. Having a barbeque in their backyard. Going to the beach. “What is this?” the vanished man asked. “Who are these people?”
“That man was one of our best,” the agent said. “He was deep undercover in with the families, so deep that he retired from the business without any of them realizing he was one of ours. Bought himself a nice property out on Long Island, started a family, the whole nine yards. ”
“Now,” the agent said, leaning forward, “he was the one who was tasked to carry out your assassination. If the family found out that you were alive–if you were accidentally seen cavorting around with your daughter, for example–then it wouldn’t take them much to realize that you were under our protection, instead of being dead. Then they would realize that their man lied to them about having completed the job. And there would be… consequences for him. Do you understand?”
The vanished man’s hands were shaking.
“Do you understand?” the agent repeated.
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
It had taken her a year, but Laila had finally allowed her mother’s new boyfriend to put his arm around her shoulder when they went out together, all three of them, like a little family. His name was Mark and he couldn’t play an instrument, but he had written some pretty good books and his jokes made them laugh. Last year, he bought her that phone she had always wanted, in red. She supposed he was all right, considering.
“Who wants some ice cream?” Mark asked.
“You know I always want ice cream,” Laila said, and her mother smiled at her.
As she turned to go into the store with them, she stopped short. She thought she’d seen something at the edge of her vision– something that looked like a man in a dark hoodie, watching her. She turned back and stared at the spot in the park across the road where she thought she’d seen him.
There was nothing there. Laila shrugged, and followed her mother into the shop.