By Aly De Angelus and Robert Haynes

It’s been nearly a week since it happened and it still doesn’t seem real. I should just lay here forever. I caught a glimpse of honey brown eyes and spotted fur through a gap in the duvet, just as a thin line of drool dangling from his mouth splashed across my face.

“Okay, I’m up!” I said, giggling to myself as I rubbed the drool out of my eyes. “You’re lucky you’re cute!” Tucker backed up against my closet door, tail wagging and tongue out. I slid my legs outside the covers, wiggled my toes into fuzzy pink slippers and motioned for him to follow me out of the bedroom.

We skipped down the stairs and danced toward the pantry. Two cups of kibble for him, a packet of oatmeal for me. I dug a measuring cup into the dog food, tip-toed across the wood floor being careful not to drop any. As I knelt beside the metal bowl, I noticed a piece of notebook paper sitting in the dish, glistening under the sunlight.

The ivory-colored paper was worn and ripped at the seam. It was of a hefty stock, handwritten and folded in two. A cursive letter “S”, drawn in a thick felt marker, adorned the top of the note. Dumfounded, I opened the paper and read it aloud. Except, there was nothing to read. The inside of the paper was blank. 

I paused.

“Very funny, Mom!” I grumbled, looking over my shoulder for her big reveal. I didn’t see her, but I wasn’t letting my guard down. Mom doesn’t have a reputation for pranks, but you know what they say — nothing gets past a twelve year old.

I anxiously flipped the page back and forth, inspecting the paper for clues. There had to be more. I figured the cursive “S” was for Sophie, a letter addressed to me. The question remained— why was the page empty?

Puzzled, I took two steps back and collapsed into a chair at the breakfast bar. I really hate surprises. I suddenly lacked a center of gravity, spilling over the kitchen counter like a knot of wet spaghetti noodles. 

“Mom?” I called out. 

I knew she was supposed to be at the grocery store. Even so, my body filled with nervousness. I couldn’t help but wish for one of her famous hugs. Instead, I stared at the cursive “S,” searching for a hidden meaning. “S” is for Sophie? “S” is for secret? S is for — Just then, it hit me. I turned the note sideways. It wasn’t a cursive “S”! Smiling wide, I carried the note close to my chest and raced down the hallway and into the study. 

“Dad?” I called out. “You’re the only one who calls me Soph … Was it you? Where are you? Did you write the letter?” I picked up his golden trombone and ran my hand across the metal frame. And there, underneath his trombone stand, was the answer I’d been hoping for.

“By now you’ve realized, Sweetheart, the nature of this moment …”

I gasped.

It was another page, worn at the edges and ripped at the seam. This page was full of cursive writing, lighting up the lines front and back. His words swaddled my heart, like the hug I had anticipated from my Mom. 

“I regret that I’ve not, until now, been able to share the wisdom I’ve learned over the course of my life. My absence, often determined by world events, was not how I envisioned your childhood. In your youth, I witnessed the wonder in your eyes as they took in the shiny, exciting world around you. You were so fast and remarkably strong, yet so fragile.

“When you were around 18 months, I took you to a Redsox game. You know how strongly your Mom feels about the Sox, so she insisted we go on without her. Little did we know, we would become the talk of the town for weeks! I ended up catching a fly ball in my right hand while I was holding you like a sack of potatoes in my left. I thought you would be startled, maybe even cry, but you looked up at me with your big blue eyes and laughed uncontrollably. Can you believe that? A baseball was storming toward the crowd and you burst into laughter. I know you are too young to remember this, but I kept the ticket stub and taped it to the page. 

In awe, I rubbed my fingers over the old ticket stub taped to the parchment. Then, I flipped the page over and continued to read. 

“I remember when you were three, the rose bush by the front door pricked your tender finger, and for the first time you were confused by the paradoxical mix of pain and beauty. You ran to me, the sadness on my face matching yours. I held you tight and kissed your wound which calmed your spirit. It was a magic I knew would not last much longer. Like your mother, tenacious and fearless, you shuffled your bare feet closer to the same bush, almost in a whisper. This time you touched only the petals and escaped with no further injuries. You wore a victory-shaped smile.”

I peered my head through the blinds and spotted the rose bush Dad mentioned. The bush was nearly buried under a heap of snow, one bright red bud lay across the twinkling ice. I nodded in nostalgia, the same victory-shaped smile spreading across my face.

“Soph, I hope you know your mother is an amazing woman. giving you every moment of her patience and time, even when you were in the foulest of moods. I watched her on the porch swing one summer, passively smiling as you played in the yard with your new friends. I could hear the crescendo of your little voices as you ran from whoever controlled the water hose. You would often play tag until the last drops of sunlight evaporated into the horizon. 

“In the winter, you added snowballs to your tag tourneys. One year, you and your friends made a series of snow people in our front yard, and dressed them in the extra winter clothes from the attic. I overheard you giving them all names, too. You even fashioned one after your mother, with a smaller snow person next to hers, branches touching. I think the one modeled after me was in the backyard, but I can’t be certain.”

A forgotten laugh escaped my lips, as scrunched up cheeks squeezed out tears of joy. I remembered putting Dad’s snowman in the backyard, but not because I loved him any less. I was embarrassed by my inability to make a snow beard. 

“There is so much I love about you, Sophie. I especially loved listening to you play your violin. Those years were some of my favorites, and you’ve very well mastered the sounds of that beautiful instrument. I used to play the trombone, you know. I wanted to play for you, or along with you, but I was never able. I was moved to tears after your first concert, knowing I couldn’t be there, yet watching the video your mother made of your enchanting solo. ‘Bravo!,’ I shouted through tears. Your mother was quite the clarinetist in her day. She could spin a dizzying improv like Benny Goodman. I’m sure if you asked her, she would dust off her instrument and play with you. Though, I haven’t heard your strings in some time.

“I know you haven’t seen me much these last few years. I’ve been preparing for the moment that you would read this missive; one I’ve been writing for most of your life. I used to be a man of war, and I’ve experienced the worst of humanity. I pray that you never do.

“What you hold in your hands is the first of many letters I’ve written to you. Some are in my study. Others are scattered around the house. Some are even with family in other parts of the world. To read those you must visit them. I’ve set things up to happen in this manner.

“While I’ve not much to leave you, save my undying love. Once you’ve acquired all of these little black books, someone will be by to help you publish them. When you’ve read them all, you will understand —”

The garage door opened and I rushed downstairs, holding the letters for Mom to see.

“Did you know?” I asked.

She nodded quietly, placing grocery bags on the kitchen counter.

“He wrote me a letter of my own with special instructions to place your letters for you. I’m sorry, I —”

“Don’t. Mom, it was beautiful,” I said. “Thank you.”

I hugged her with all my might. I released quickly when I stole a glance at the microwave clock.

“We’re going to be late!” I yelped. “Just give me ten minutes and I’ll be ready. Okay?”

I darted upstairs and Tucker stayed with Mom, slobbering her with gooey kisses. I brushed out my tangled hair and changed out of my pajamas. When I landed downstairs, I grabbed a bag of flowers and headed to the car. 

We pulled into the parking lot and I saw two of my best friends sitting on the curb. “Sophie, over here!” they called in unison.

A reluctant smile appeared as I approached them. They stood, locked arms with mine, and escorted me across the parking lot. Playfully, they pulled at my arms to keep me smiling. We marched up the marbled stairs together.

The door to the main room was ajar, and I could see a small black book resting against the wooden frame. I picked it up and shut the door behind me. The first few pages were ripped out at the seam, so I read aloud the next page in the empty, vaulted room.

“For now, my dearest daughter, I must depart. If you’ve followed the note on page one and have read this aloud in my final presence, then rejoice. I am finally free to lead you on the adventure of a lifetime. I love you.”

I closed the book, admiring the pebbled leather cover. A check addressed to me for $20,000 was affixed to the inside of the cover. The memo on the check read, “Don’t forget to feed the dog.”

Chuckling to myself, I faced his casket. My eyes glinted in the warm light of the room and I whispered back to him.

“I love you, too, Daddy.”