My ex-wife had rung me ten times in as many minutes. I couldn’t explain; she wouldn’t give me the chance. Just stared at my shirt and told Jack to get inside. She hoisted herself on the doorstep with her arms folded in full battle mode - just like my sergeant major when he caught me smoking on duty. I had so much to lose . . .
We had just been to the fair, where a row of colourful flags whispered to the breeze, for a Marksmen and all good sports. Jack stopped at the shooting gallery. He wanted me to win him the biggest lion there.
It had been six months since I picked up a rifle . . .
I didn’t miss one shot.
An hour past curfew, I was only driving at 50 when a figure appeared - I couldn’t stop in time.
My car shuddered to a halt - Jack flung forward like a rag doll. His body folded into the seat. I hauled my fingers off the steering wheel, my seatbelt snatched away in seconds.
“Are you okay, Jack?”
His face was drained of any colour. I reached out to him. He clutched his lion to his chest and stared through the windscreen into black.
“Jack, speak to me. Are you okay?”
“My tummy hurts, Daddy . . .”
I launched out of my seat and sprinted to his side. I forced the door and removed his seatbelt. Stomach, chest, head – I checked them all.
He wasn’t hurt.
I hugged him close; told him it was okay to cry, that he was brave.
His little arms felt soft around my neck. “What’s that noise Daddy?”
I could hear it too - It wasn’t a scream or a whimper, but it was deafening all the same.
“I’ll go check. I won’t be long. Stay here, look after your lion.”
Jack wiped a tear with the back of his hand and did as exactly as he was told.
A tiny fawn . . . thin legs nothing more than twigs. I plunged down to the cold earth, fumbled to find a pulse. Her breaths, in tattered beats, death still hours away. A creature through the trees let out a piercing scream; then another – then another – then another.
Jack was still inside the car. I knew what I had to do; I had done it before.
I singled out a rock, ragged and rough at the edges - the perfect size and weight. I couldn’t tell you how long I sat there with it in the palm of my hand.
As brutal as the trigger of a gun, harder to aim, no mates to share the blame . . . In seconds the screaming stopped, but my thoughts carried on.
His voice a mere whisper beside me, still clasping the lion in an iron-like grip. I saw my little boy turn into a man before my eyes.
The rock hurtled to the floor covered in a fine mist. I buried my hands deep in my pockets.
“Jack, go back to the car please. Daddy will be there in a minute.”
He stared at the stone burning through moonlight, mesmerized by scars now indented into its skin.
“Jack! Go back to the car and lock the doors.”
He ran back, shattering the silence with his weeping. It was only when I heard the lock of the door, I wiped my hands on the grass, but all it did was smear mud into the blood.
I picked up the gentle spirit, the blood from its wounds warming my skin through my shirt. I strode towards the clearing, tunnelled a hole with my hands and relinquished the fawn to the earth. After, I sheltered her with kaleidoscope leaves.
I closed my eyes, recited the Lord’s prayer. “Our father, who art in heaven.”
Jack’s eyes merged with the fawn’s; my legs buckled. I was propelled back to Kosovo - back to the truck blown into fragments, limbs littering the road like discarded Lego.
I missed Jack’s first words, first steps - on his first day at nursery I was holding a grenade when I should have been holding his hand.
I forced myself back to the present.
He needed me.
When I got back to the car, I wanted to comfort him, to make it better. Instead, I took a deep breath.
“Buckle up Jack.”
I looked at my mobile, saw all those missed messages - I started the car. Living on Prayer was playing on full blast. I didn’t want to know what Jack was thinking. I didn’t want to know what I was thinking, just concentrated on the humming of the engine.
“You can’t leave her, Daddy! Why are you leaving her behind, Daddy? She is all alone and needs her mummy!”
I gnawed the inside of my lip and it drew blood.
“Please don’t go!”
My hands gripped around the steering wheel like it was my own throat.
It then blurted out of nowhere. “It’s dead, Jack! It’s lucky to be . . . You’ll understand when you’re older.”
I saw his face crumple, but he wouldn’t cry. He pretended to sleep after that; I didn’t try to wake him. My foot plunged the gas pedal and the oak trees were quickly replaced with motorway signs.
Now I drove at ninety miles an hour, trying not to think about what his mum was going to say. Every time I hit a pothole my bumper rattled like a half-full jar of copper coins. An empty bottle of vodka rolled out from under my seat -
I focused on the road.
When my car stopped in the driveway, I told him we were home. He didn’t utter a word, just hugged his lion close to his chest.
As we walked through the garden together, Jack slipped his miniature hand into mine and our palms squeezed together like the kiss of a raindrop. His last words to me spoken with care -
“I love you daddy, please don’t die . . .”
The front door was open before I had a chance to reply. My wife stared at my shirt and told Jack to get inside. She hoisted herself on the doorstep arms folded in full battle mode - just like my sergeant major when he caught me smoking on duty.
I had so much to lose . . .
I wanted to say, it wasn’t my fault and the road was a black hole, where the only face I could see was a private called Dave. Only eighteen years old, but dead in a ditch all the same.
But I couldn’t because in God’s eyes - perhaps it was.