(Image credit to CNN Living. Click for link to original article- which has nothing to do with this prompt. I just liked the picture.)
A little girl stood by the imposing tower that overlooked the release gate at San Quentin State Prison. Her mid-length chestnut hair was done up real pretty in curly pig tails. It was a special occasion for the little girl—today her father was being released.
Six-year-old Michaela Cooper had been here before but that didn’t mean the stone grey walls and the endless chain-link with the barbed wire at top didn’t scare her. At the top of the tower, a murder of crows rested, huddled together amidst the icy winds of the North San Francisco Bay. During their last visit to San Quentin, Michaela’s mama had told her that the crows stayed up atop the tower in order to keep an eye on her daddy, so that he would behave himself. Michaela kept a sharp eye on the crows and hoped her mama was right and they kept a sharp eye on her daddy—he was prone to getting himself into trouble.
The wind picked up, lifting Michaela’s soft pink dress off her knees. She smacked the dress down and held it at her thighs. Her eyes caught sight of her saddle shoes. She was wearing white socks with a pink ruffle at the top. Right at the toe of her right shoe was a large scratch that cut through the fake leather. Her eyes went wide and her heart skipped a beat.
“Mama!” she screamed and reached up for her mother. Cecilia Cooper was nervous and excited all at once, but it was the persistent itch that consumed her. She bounced on her right foot and bit her lip. Her body was rigid with discomfort and no matter how much she tried not to, the itch always won out and she found herself scratching again. It was the absolute worst at the inside of her elbow, which is also where she had the most track marks.
“Stop that, Mama. You’re making it worse,” Michaela said. She yanked her mother’s hand away from her raw skin. She scowled up at her mother and inspected the damaged skin. “You made it bleed,” she said with dismay.
That caught Cecilia’s attention. She looked down at her daughter’s small hand as she reached for the open wound. Cecilia shrieked and pulled back, frightening the little girl. Her blood was tainted. Michaela couldn’t touch it. Michaela was pure. She couldn’t be ruined by everything that had ruined Cecilia. She would not let her daughter meet the same fate.
Michaela stood beside her mother, flustered. She really hated to have anyone raise their voice at her. It was what an adult would call a hot-button issue. She watched as Cecilia used her sleeve to scrub at the dripping blood. She couldn’t look at her like this. Her mama was so stressed out this week she had to use her medicine to feel better. Only, it never did seem like her mama got better. She got happy and sleepy and eventually fell back into agitation; but never, not ever, did she get better.
The little girl looked down at her shoes and that pesky scratch in her shoe. She had made sure to pull out her best dress and best pair of shoes for today. She even got her mama to do her hair with the brush and everything. Frustration and sorrow engulfed Michaela’s tiny little frame. She wanted her mother to fix her shoe for her, but judging by the way Cecilia’s hands were shaking as she fought the urge to scratch her track marks, she realized that today was one of those days. Mama was, essentially, out of commission.
Michaela bent down and tried to push the split fabric together. It didn’t work. She tried licking her finger and covering the split with her saliva. It didn’t work. Michaela stared down at the split and realized there was nothing she could do about it but to try and hide it from her father. She so didn’t want to disappoint him today. It had been so long since he had seen her. She and her mama had to be perfect for him today so that he would be good and he wouldn’t want to go away again. Michaela hated it when he went away.
With one look to her mama, Michaela realized that she would just have to settle for good enough. Cecilia was most certainly not in top shape and with her split shoe, her daddy might decide to turn around and go back inside. Besides, he seemed to have so many friends in there.
A loud creak sounded from up ahead and the tall chain-link fence slid open a few feet. Michaela waited for four long Mississippis before she saw her father walk through the fence. His walk started out slow but then their eyes locked.
Michael Cooper looked on at his daughter with her beautiful brown eyes. His brain turned to mush and his stomach reminded him that he had been too nervous to eat breakfast that morning. He picked up his pace and ignored the rush of pain that emanated from when he had been shanked in the gut just last week. If anything, the pain encouraged him to move faster. He just knew that once he got his arms around his girl, everything would be okay.
He started jogging toward his girl, but then he saw her mother. Michael wasn’t in denial about his wife’s addiction. He had just hoped she could have pulled it together while he was inside. But from the looks of her, she couldn’t. And he could tell with just one look at his daughter that Cecilia hadn’t been straight this morning when she’d brushed the girl’s hair. Michael stood, proud as can be in her pretty dress. But it was the crooked part in her hair and the smudge of dirt on her cheek that told him she’d largely had to take care of herself this morning, and when you were six, that meant that you missed a lot of spots.
Michael reached his daughter and dropped his release paperwork to the ground. He bent down and picked her up and swung her around. The pain in his gut was astounding, but it didn’t measure the joy he felt at holding his kid again. He peppered Michaela’s tiny face with kisses and reveled in the sound of her laughter. His head swam with joy and he had to stop the spinning or he would fall to the pavement. He vowed then and there that he would be better—and he meant it this time. Michaela deserved better.
“I love you, Mickey,” he said as he held her close. He heard her say it back but his eyes fell on his wife. Cecilia smiled at her husband and leaned over to give him a kiss. He shifted Michaela’s weight to his right supporting arm and wrapped Cecilia with his left and he kissed her properly for the first time in nearly a year. She was bad off and he knew it, but even dope sick like she was now, Michael loved her. She would always be beautiful to him. No matter what.
Michael set his daughter down, picked up his paperwork, and led his family to the rusty late model Chevy that he had fixed up for Cecilia’s birthday a few years back. Cecilia handed him the keys and he slid into the passenger seat.
“Your seatbelt, daddy,” Michaela said. He thanked her for the reminder and buckled up. With the Chevy ready to go, Michael looked at his family. His wife stared out the window, her nails picking at her red, raw skin; and his daughter stared at him with wide, curious eyes from the backseat. He smiled at her and watched in awe as her entire face lit up.
“I can make you dinner tonight, daddy,” Michaela said. “I learned while you were gone.” Michael’s heart sank. The girl was barely six and he knew damn well from the look of his wife that the kid hadn’t learned for fun. Michael nodded his head but didn’t respond to her. He couldn’t bring himself to speak. His veins burned with a sudden, rash need and his muscles ached. All he wanted was a drink and a hit. It had been so long. He’d detoxed in the pen and had no desire to go back down that road again, but that was what he had said the last time he’d relapsed.
As Michael pulled onto the highway, he’d decided that his little Mickey-Girl did deserve better. She deserved normalcy and a mother who would make sure she had bathed and was fed. And she deserved a father who hadn’t been a free man not even an hour and was about to make a run, violating his parole in numerous ways. Yes, he thought, Mickey-Girl deserves better and as he drove the long stretch of highway down the peninsula to his in-law’s house, he knew that they could give his little girl better.
TINDER BOX is a work-in-progress full-length novel. More information to come.