“Promise you’ll be here in time for my birthday?” I asked my dad over the phone. That was as much as I could say without breaking down. Not seeing him the whole week was more than I could bear.
I exhaled, knowing he would never break a promise.
My stepmom, Sophia, walked away with a roll of her eyes, and I clenched the phone tighter to my ear. She sat down in the living room with Lindsay and Courtney, who were watching TV.
My dad had married Sophia last year, making her and her twin daughters a permanent part of our life. Unfortunately. And now he was traveling more and more for work because I had them to stay home with.
At first, I had been excited to have a new mom and two sisters my age, but now I missed when it was just the two of us. Sometimes, it felt like Sophia didn’t really like me, especially if my dad was away, and my stepsisters acted the same way. There were days I wanted to tell my dad about it, but I didn’t want to upset him. He seemed happy, so I tried to be happy too.
“I miss you, Dad,” I said.
“I miss you too, mi amor,” he replied. “I promise I’ll be there soon. I’ll rest up a few hours, and then it’s just you and me. Wherever you want. Todo el día.”
The whole day together? A smile lit up my face. “And I can finally get my ears pierced?”
Lindsay and Courtney turned around for a second before going back to their TV show.
This was going to be the best birthday ever. It would be just like old times.
“Like I said, I’ll see you soon, okay? I can’t wait. Te quiero mucho.”
Sophia snatched the phone back without a word and started talking to Dad.
But even her usual attitude couldn’t put a damper on my excitement. Sleep would make the time go faster, so I headed upstairs before Sophia could tell me it was time for bed. I brushed my teeth, changed into my favorite pajamas, and curled up into a ball under the covers. My mind buzzed with joy at the thought of tomorrow, but I closed my eyes anyway. Plus, I would be eleven years old when I opened them again.
The next thing I knew, though, my stepmom was turning on the light and telling me to get up, now. We got in the car and drove for a while until we got to a hospital. My eyes burned under the bright waiting room lights, and I shivered in my flimsy pajamas. My stepsisters and I hadn’t had time to change, and I had forgotten to grab my jacket.
What were we were doing here? Did something happen to Dad?
Sophia told us to sit in the waiting room and walked right over to the front desk. I sat down so I was facing her. Lindsay and Courtney tuned into the television on the wall, but I strained my ears to listen as my stepmom talked to the nurse. She sounded upset, but I couldn’t hear why. The nurse said something else, and my stepmom finally came and sat in the first chair she found. She stared at the seat in front of her. I turned to the television. I knew better than to ask questions when she was like this.
After several commercials, I yawned, but I kept my eyes from closing. Something felt wrong. The way my heart was pounding told me so. A new TV show came on as two police officers and a doctor walked over to us.
My stepmom stood up to meet them.
Courtney and Lindsay were asleep next to me, snoring softly, but I could hear what the adults were saying.
My stepmom nodded, her hands clasped in front of her.
The doctor took a deep breath and shook his head. “We’re very sorry. Your husband didn’t make it. The paramedics tried to restart his heart several times. We did everything we could here, but he suffered too much internal damage in the car accident.”
Sophia collapsed onto her knees, sobs wracking her chest. Tears streamed down my face as I understood the doctor’s words, but I stayed silent, unable to turn away from what was happening. My hands wrapped around my arms at the sinking feeling in my stomach. I just wanted to go back to my warm bed.
One of the police officers, a woman, spoke next. “We think he fell asleep while driving.”
I wasn’t sure what else they said after that. I could only focus on the fact that my dad, the one person I had, my best friend, was gone forever.
Everything was a blur after that.
We had a funeral for him. The coffin was closed, making it hard to accept that he was really in there. I only got to touch the smooth green metal of the lid, then his coffin was being lowered into the ground. I never got to see him again or kiss him goodbye.
And I was still trying to understand the fact that my dad was gone forever.
Hadn’t it been enough that I’d lost my mom?
After the funeral, after everyone left and we were the only ones still there, Sophia turned to me. It was the first time she had looked at me since she told me to get up that night and put on some shoes.
She stood there for what felt like forever, just looking at me. There was sadness in her eyes but something else too. Then she walked away, Courtney and Lindsay in tow.
And every year, on my birthday, I remembered how perfect our life had been before, just my dad and me. But my life had twisted into some backward fairy tale. And my happily ever after had already come and gone forever.