I awoke abruptly, sitting bolt upright and reaching for the bedside clock to check the time. The sense that I was late for something surged through me as I noted, with a small amount of confusion, that it was only two in the morning. I hadn’t woken in the middle of the night like this in nearly twenty years and could not, for the life of me, figure out why it would suddenly happen now. I moved to lie back down and pull Helen into my side – the only measure that had ever managed to calm me enough to get back to sleep after one of the night terrors in my past – but she wasn’t there. The bed was empty, covers tossed back revealing still warm sheets below.
As I made my way out of the bedroom and into the hall, I noted the soft glow coming from the main level of the house, indicating that my wife had not simply gotten up to use the bathroom. I was only halfway down the stairs when I spotted her. Her old fashioned, white nightgown rustled softly in the gentle breeze coming through the screen door she stood at. The porch light aglow, glinting off her dishevelled hair as she ran her hands through it, probably not for the first time.
“Helen,” I called quietly, not wanting to startle her if she happened to be sleep walking. “Come back to bed.”
“I can’t,” she snapped, not even bothering to turn around. “Stephanie’s coming.”
Quickly closing the distance between us, I wrapped my hands around her shoulders, firmly urging her away from the door. “You know she’s not,” I reminded her, even though in my own head I knew that my wife’s instincts had never been wrong before. She’d always known when either of the girls was coming to visit. I don’t know how, but she did. Unless she’d suddenly gone off her rocker, that meant that my little Pumpkin was out there somewhere ready to come home. The thought knocked the air out of me, but I said nothing as I lead Helen back to the bedroom and settled her under the covers again. She wasn’t truly awake. Sleepwalking, as I’d suspected. But the fact remained that she’d said Stephanie was coming.
After sitting on the side of the bed and stroking her hair long enough to calm her back to sleep, I made my way back downstairs to secure the house once more, all the while wondering just what kind of range Helen had on her motherly instincts. Was Stephanie still off abroad, only now making the decision that she was ready to come back? Or did Helen’s reaction mean that she was already in town and headed this way?
Six whole years had passed since the day she and Helen had informed me that she needed a time out. I’d thought, at first, that they were talking about a vacation, but when my Pumpkin explained that between some recent health concerns which she refused to delve further into, and her inconsistent thoughts toward the man – not men anymore, thank God; I could live with a lot of things but the yo-yoing and never knowing who she was bringing to dinner was just too much – in her life, she needed time out to get her life in order singularly before she could even think about adding anyone else into it.
I’d called in some favours to help get her undetected and without a trace. Saying goodbye indefinitely to my youngest daughter, knowing that I would have no contact with her until such a time as she chose to extend the olive branch, had been one of the hardest things I’d done in civilian life, but I knew that Stephanie would never be happy if she was trapped here against her will. That’s not to say that if I denied helping her she wouldn’t try to leave anyway. On the contrary, I had every expectation that she would at least attempt to disappear from Trenton with or without help. The difference being, that without help, she would undoubtedly leave a trail and the men she’d been hanging around would find her within a matter of hours.
She was convinced that she needed a clean break, and if I didn’t help her achieve it she would be miserable for as long as she was stuck here. Better to help her find the serenity she craved, than refuse and watch her persevere through her apparently unbearable situation with a heavy heart. She may even have come to resent my refusal. That was a troubling factor, I admit, but I was more concerned with helping Stephanie finally find her wings than anything else.
The porch light was on, illuminating a small semi circle of the front lawn, and rather than immediately turn it off, I decided to step out into the cool night air. I needed some space to clear my head and think rationally. My first inhale did nothing to ease the thoughts circling my head, so I sat on the step and took another, and another. After several attempts at finding my centre, I finally decided to go for a walk. I hadn’t gone for a night walk in a long time – I was usually only prompted to such actions when worried over something – but I soon found the perfect rhythm and the weight on my shoulders began to lift.
That’s when I noticed the car.
There was absolutely nothing spectacular about this car – foreign, white, decent condition – so it didn’t make sense that I was immediately drawn to it. Until I got close enough to see in the front window. A woman slouched in the driver’s seat, head slumped in sleep and in the glow from a nearby street lamp I could have sworn she looked remarkably like my Pumpkin. The hair was shorter and the wrong colour, but just as curly. Her skin was a little tanner than I remembered, but I could tell that her complexion was naturally pale. The nose was the same. The way her lips twitched in sleep was the same.
I was leaning forward to get a better look, convinced that this was my youngest daughter returned from who knows where, and that I would have to talk to Ranger about keeping his promises, when a car sped past, startling her awake. Hastily, I took a step back, not wanting to freak her out in case she wasn’t who I was pretty sure she was.
It took little more than a moment or two for her eyes to cut to me, the looming figure in her periphery vision. Shock registered clear on her face and I saw her reach for the keys that were still in the ignition. She was getting ready to run... again... Without thinking, I stepped in front of the car, my hands held out to stop her.
“Pumpkin, wait,” I pleaded, for I knew in the instant her piercing blue eyes locked on mine that she was my Stephanie.
Her actions slowed as she dropped her hands away from the steering column and, though I couldn’t hear her, my lip reading skills were advanced enough that I was able to discern the word “Daddy” on her lips. I replied simply with her name at which point she rolled down the window.
“Uh, hi, Daddy,” she squeaked out in the same way she used to when I caught her sneaking into the house hours after curfew. “What are you doing out on the street at this hour?”