This story, like many in The Last Word collection, is based on a true incident. See more stories in this collection and others at the Short Stories &c. link above.
The moon was just past full. What is called a waning gibbous moon. So close to full it could be considered full, for all intents and purposes. Just a single night past full.
It was minutes after midnight, and the moon was high in the sky, making the night less dark than it otherwise might have been. But it was night, and late, and it was January, and even in Florida the night was chill. One could say cold. Windy, and cold. Cold enough to a little girl bundled out of her bed, just in a t-shirt and shorts, barefoot. Cold enough to a sleepy little girl, a sleepy little girl taken from her bed, put in the back of a car, taken on a late night ride by her father. In the trunk, the man had packed his daughter’s Christmas presents in garbage bags. On the front seat and on the floor were Bibles. The one on the floor was open to the Old Testament, Nehemiah 9:11:
“You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters.”
So many things had gone wrong. Over the years. Over the past day. Over the last few hours. Nobody knew how wrong, but wrong. Very wrong. And now the sleepy little girl was held in her father’s arms. She knew the night was dark, she felt the chill. She felt cradled in her father’s arms, but she didn’t know the depth of the cold, the profound darkness, dwelling in her father’s heart. She didn’t know how wrong things had gone.
The lone police officer didn’t know how wrong things had gone, either, but he knew something wasn’t right. He was on his way home when the car raced past, very fast, late on a January night, on the way toward the big bridge. The driver was acting erratically. The officer thought he’d stop, he started to pull over, his tires were smoking from braking so hard, but then the driver sped up again and kept going, going, up onto the approach to the big bridge. And that’s where the driver stopped, out over the water. The dark water far below.
Traffic was sparse at that hour, even on the highway, on the big bridge, and the officer stopped behind the car, cop lights on now. The man, dressed in plaid pajamas and a gray hooded sweatshirt, got out of the car. He was acting erratically, even as he had been driving erratically. He wasn’t listening to commands. He seemed possessed.
“Get back in the car!” the officer ordered.
The man kept coming, just a car length away.
“You have no free will!” the man shouted back. And then he went around the car and opened the back door. And came out carrying something.
“Let me see your hands!” the officer shouted, his gun drawn.
The officer didn’t know what was in the man’s arms, but it wasn’t a weapon. And then he could see it wasn’t a thing, it was someone, a little girl, in the man’s arms. The officer could see the little girl in her sweet green t-shirt, the t-shirt with the cat on it, the cat the officer couldn’t see. He could see that her feet were bare, even in the cold night, how she was still asleep, how she nuzzled against her father’s shoulder, her blond curls cast down her back.
The man kept his eyes trained on the officer’s eyes. The little girl stretched, she seemed to be waking up.
It wasn’t the first confrontation the man had that day. It wasn’t the first time, either, when he had acted erratically. He had a lifetime filled with that. But that day he told a lawyer that she was God. He claimed to a priest that he was the Pope. He was frightening enough for the lawyer to call the authorities. She feared for the little girl the man had with him, the little girl who drew in yellow and blue and green with the crayons the paralegal gave her. Sheriff’s deputes responded to the church, where the man was asking for an exorcism, and asking how many people had jumped off the bridge where he now was. But the man was convincing. He wasn’t a danger to anyone, the deputies concluded. Not to himself. Not to his little daughter. He was sent on his way. To another priest, a minister. The office that was supposed to look after children, children like the little girl, told the lawyer there was nothing they could do.
“None of this is going to matter tomorrow,” he had told the lawyer.
And now here he was, late the same night, the moon high in the sky, the water far below, holding his little girl, his sleeping little girl nuzzled against him, as a lone policeman tried to figure out what was going on, what the man had in his heart.
“Get back in the car!” the policeman yelled. This time the man didn’t answer.
There were two things the little girl was most afraid of. The dark, and the water. Her father knew his daughter’s fears. They had troubled her all of her short life. Her father knew how much these things terrified her. And now he held her, in the night, on the bridge, high above the water.
The man moved toward the railing. He took his little girl and held her past it, past the concrete barrier, his eyes on the officer’s the whole time. And then the man dropped the little girl. Dropped the little girl, the little girl that had called him Daddy, the little girl who had looked to him for safety and love in her short life. The man, her father, dropped her into the two things she feared the most. The dark, and the water.
The officer heard a small scream. That was all, a small scream, as the little girl fell 62 feet, six stories, less than two seconds, into the cold, dark water below. A small scream, and then a splash.
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