Monday, November 2, 2015
Tot Finder - by Michael C. Keith
Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what
a ghost is.
–– Salman Rushdie
Back in the 1970s, local fire departments distributed home window stickers designed to alert firefighters as to the whereabouts of young children in the event of a conflagration. Over time, the youngsters in residence grew up and moved on. While the stickers faded, many remained where they’d first been placed.
Josh Willoughby had affixed a decal to his three year-old daughter’s bedroom window and had slept easier because of it. He had been in a near tragic fire as a child in the three-decker apartment he occupied with his parent’s in the 1950’s. He had lived with the dread of experiencing such a horrific incident again.
As he stuck the Tot Finder alert to his daughter Willow’s window, he explained its purpose in language he hoped she could understand.
“Remember when you saw Smokey the Bear on television say, ‘Only you can prevent forest fires?’ Well, sometimes houses also catch fire. If that ever happens, the fireman will carry you to safety just like he is the little girl in this picture, okay, honey?”
“Okay, Daddy. He’s a nice man.”
“Yes, he is, sweetheart. Yes, he is,” said Josh, attempting to imitate Smokey’s basso profondo.
In the weeks that followed, Willow became fixated on the sticker, parading around the house gleefully chanting, “The fireman saved me,” over and over.
The horrible irony that his daughter died not from fire but from water defined the dark days to come. Barely five, Willow would be found floating unconscious in a neighbor’s above ground pool. This tragedy marked the end of the happiest period in Josh’s life. He had married his high school sweetheart and begun his career as an electrician when the scaffolding was pulled out from under him.
Within a year, he had lost everything he cherished. The strain of their daughter’s death was too much for the marriage to withstand, because he blamed his wife for not watching their child when she was visiting a friend. And the heavy drinking he took up to drown his sorrows soon cost him his job. Only several years later did Josh regain his footing on what had been a bumpy and ragged path.
Although, he’d been convinced that his existence would never again contain joy, he met and fell in love with a woman he’d met at an AA meeting. She was not an alcoholic, but had accompanied her brother to the meeting. There they caught one another’s eye. At first, he felt some guilt over finding some much-needed happiness, but over time he came to realize that life need not be just unrelenting gloom.
As the years passed, Josh eventually found success as the owner of a small electrical service company. His second wife had not pressed the issue of having kids and that was fine with him. He could not fathom the idea of bringing another child into the world after the heartbreak he’d gone through.
Yet despite his happier days, Josh never forgot about his lost daughter, and his sense of pain became especially acute around the anniversary of her death. Now, as the day approached again, Josh found himself feeling particularly low. Forty, he reminded himself. She would have been forty years old next week. How could that be? Impossible. My little baby . . .
Although, Josh generally avoided passing the house where he’d lived when Willow was alive, he suddenly felt an urge to see it on this particular anniversary of his daughter’s deadly accident. The home was located in a nearby town and, in fact, he’d passed the end of his old street many times over the years. But he’d always kept from looking in the direction of the house, fearing the pain it might cause him.
Turning onto his old street, he caught sight of the house where Willow had spent her short life. It had been repainted and its sagging decks were rebuilt. He pulled up across from it and looked at the second floor flat. Then he noticed the Tot Finder sticker he had placed on his daughter’s window. It was faded so that the image of the fireman and child he held were barely discernable. Seeing it brought back the memory of kneeling at the window next to his daughter and telling her about the significance of the sticker. The bittersweet recollection was quickly followed by the hysterical voice of his wife telling him of their child’s drowning.
Josh closed his eyes and clutched the steering wheel. Willow . . . Willow. I’m so sorry, honey. Your life was so short. I miss you so much. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he looked again at the window of his daughter’s former bedroom. What? he gulped, as he saw the figure of a young child. Willow . . . no, it can’t be. Are you really . . .? He cleared the tears from his eyes, and looked again. The gossamer image of the small girl remained. “Oh, Willow,” he whimpered, waving up at the window.
In the next moment, the child was gone, and Josh climbed from his car and went to the house. Shortly after ringing the bell to the second floor apartment, a young woman appeared.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I used to live here, and I noticed that the Tot Finder sticker I put on my daughter’s bedroom window 40 years ago is still there.”
“Oh, really? That’s right, it is. We were going to remove it but forgot about it. We don’t use the room. Only store things in it.”
“But, I thought . . . well, for a moment, I thought I saw a little girl looking out of the window. She actually looked like my daughter.”
“We don’t have any kids. Maybe it was just a reflection of the kids next door. They often play in the yard.”
“Maybe . . . could be,” said Josh, feeling embarrassed. “I’m probably seeing things. It’s the anniversary of my daughter’s accident. She drowned in a pool a few houses down from here.”
“I’m so sorry,” said the woman. After an awkward pause, she continued. “If you like, we’ll keep the sticker on the window.”
Josh gulped hard to keep from letting out a sob. “That would be so kind. It’s very special to me. It’s kind of like finding her again. I mean . . .”
“Of course, we won’t touch it.”
After exchanging goodbyes, Josh returned to his car. Before he drove away, he looked back up at his daughter’s window. And again, he made out the vision of a small child’s face pressed against the glass next the Tot Finder sticker. But this time he also heard her sweet voice:
The fireman saved me. The fireman saved me.
Josh closed his eyes and listened intently until the sound of his daughter’s precious words had faded completely.
“Yes . . . yes, he did, sweetheart,” he whispered.
Michael C. Keith, Ph.D., is the author of more than 20 books on electronic media, among them Talking Radio, Voices in the Purple Haze, Radio Cultures, Signals in the Air, and the classic textbook The Radio Station (now Keith’s Radio Station). The recipient of numerous awards in the academic field, he is also the author of dozens of articles and short stories and has served in a variety of editorial positions. In addition, he is the author of an acclaimed memoir––The Next Better Place (screenplay co-written with Cetywa Powell), a young adult novel––Life is Falling Sideways, and ten story collections––Of Night and Light, Everything is Epic, Sad Boy, And Through the Trembling Air, Hoag’s Object, The Collector of Tears, If Things Were Made To Last Forever, Caricatures, The Near Enough, and Bits, Specks, Crumbs, Flecks. He has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O.Henry Award and was a finalist for the National Indie Excellence Award for short fiction anthology and a finalist for the 2013 International Book Award in the “Fiction Visionary” category. www.michaelckeith.com