“Fire!” Amirith's scream pierces the air.
“Get out! I'll get Noehia,” David Lennon shouts to his oldest daughter.
His youngest cries out, petrified, “Daddy, help me! Daddy!”
Dove is running toward the window and sees her younger sister, Amirith, already outside. She's hugging herself and staring up at the window expectantly. But, their mother isn't down there.
“Where's Mom? Dad! Dad!” Dove tries to yell over the sound of the fire crackling.
“Hurry!” David urges as he runs up the unstable staircase to save his daughters. “The floor won't hold long!”
“Where is she?!” the words rip out of Dove's throat as she looks around wildly.
Furious, he shouts back to her, “I said go!”
“But, what about Mom?” the girl repeats herself, hysteria rising quickly to the surface.
Then, she sees a figure hobbling toward the stairs. The figure tries to get to Dove, but the stairs collapse beneath her feet.
“Mom!” Dove's voice breaks as she watches her mother engulfed in fire.
“Mama!” screeches little Noehia from David's strong arms.
“Close your eyes!” he yells. “Close your eyes!”
“She just – she just fell into –” Dove stammered, unable to process what she'd seen.
But, he didn't let her finish. He shouts, “Dove, get out now!”
“The fire. It's everywhere,” she whispers.
“Please, please, you have to come!” begs David as he carries Noehia to the open window.
Sounding small and helpless, Noehia says,“I don't want to die, Daddy.”
“I won't let you.”
* * * * *
“How'd ya know?”
“Well, darlin', I am an investigative reporter, remember?” Dove answered flirtatiously. “I would hope you give me more credit than that.”
A handsome, Southern man answers, “If I say yes, do I get a kiss?”
“Maybe, if you smile that cute, little smile that shows off your adorable, lopsided dimple – ” Dove rambles on until the man complies, “that's the one.”
Then, he got a light, sweet kiss. His eyes light up, and he breathes out, “Wow.”
“I was just looking at you,” he replies so close to Dove's upturned face she can feel his breath. “With those gorgeous blue eyes and blonde hair. Even your freckles are amazing.”
“And?” asks Dove as she pulls away, hearing a voice in her head that said Too close. Too good. You don't deserve him.
But, Garret can't hear that voice and his words cut it off, saying, “And, I'm so lucky.”
“You're just now realizing that?” Dove murmurs up into Garret's down-turned face.
As Garret pulls Dove close, he let's out a deep murmur.
“Garret, no,” Dove gasps out as his lips can touch her skin. “Please, don't.”
“Does it still hurt?” he asks, pulling back.
“No – I mean, yes,” Dove falters and puts space between them before the voices came come back. “It's just painful to – to …”
“It's okay,” Garret reassures her. “You don't have to talk about it.”
She looks at the ceiling, then the floor, before finally resting her eyes on Garret. Dove makes up her mind and says, “Yes – yes, I do. I have to tell someone the truth – the whole truth – or it will suffocate me. I have to –” she takes a breath and stands up straighter before continuing, “I have to move on. I want to be free. I want to close my eyes without hearing them, seeing them, feeling them. I want you to touch my neck without feeling the fire that scarred it.”
Garrets dark eyes focus on the guarded girl he's loved for years and answers,“Then, tell me.”
* * * * *
“I know what my child needs!”
The preschool teacher folds her hands over her notes and says coolly, “Mr. Lennon, please, calm down. I am simply saying I believe Noehia would benefit from seeing a professional – ”
“NO! My daughter is fine!” David yells, fisting his hands in his graying hair.
“Sir, she has not been herself lately,” the teacher informs his in a voice lacking warmth. “Young children who experience trauma often need psychiatric help. It is not abnormal, and it does not mean Noehia is damaged in any way. They will only help her cope–”
“Help her cope! Help her cope!” David's voice rose with each word. “How? Have they watched as their home burned down around them? Have they watched their mother smothered in a fire? Have they watched their mother die? Noey, is fine,” he said in low tone that matched his imposing stance on the opposite side of the lady's desk. “She might not be completely herself, but what do you expect? She is four – four years old – and she just lost everything. So don't sit behind that pristine, white desk and tell me my daughter needs professional help because you see her from eight to twelve everyday. I know my kid, and she is fine.”
The teacher keeps her voice calm, but let him have his way, saying, “Then, I think we are done here.”
“Yes, we are,” David returns, locking eyes with the woman before leaving the room. “Noehia,” he calls, “Let's go.”
Noehia comes running from the other room full of her classmates and their parents, calling out along the way, “Guess what, Daddy!”
He grunts in response.
“I made Ms. Clemens a mud pie this morning,” she chatters away, entwining her hand in David's. “She screamed when she sat down and heard it squish. She was so mad, but it was my mud pie that squished, and – ”
David tries to hide his grin and reprimand her, “Noehia, did you put a mud pie in your teacher's seat?”
But, when Noehia said matter-a-factly, “Well, she said not to put it on her desk,” David burst out laughing, saying, “I guess, no harm no foul.”
Noehia smiles at her Dad as he laughs for the first time in weeks. Then, she announces suddenly, “I love you, Daddy.”
Surprise etches David's face as he answers, “I love you, too.”
“You'll never leave us, will you?” she asked so innocently it could break a heart.
David's voice hardens when he replies, “Never.”
* * * * *
“I called you three times last night!” David yells at Dove as soon as she stepped into his small, cramped apartment. “Why didn't you answer? I even went to your apartment to make sure you were okay! Where were you?”
“Dad,” Dove begins pacifically, “calm down. I was – ”
Anger flares across his features, and David shouts, “Calm down?! Calm down?! You could have been hurt or, or worse, and I would never have known! Why weren't you at home? Was it a boy?”
“What is wrong with you?” Dove demands as her temper rises to match her father's. “I went to a concert with a guy from work, and I couldn't hear my phone ring. That's all.”
Passing across the kitchen tile, he hisses out, “Oh, really?”
Dove rubs her temple and says tiredly, “It was one date.”
“Who is he? How old is he?” David hounds her, “Where's he from?”
Dove stares at her dad worriedly, but proceeds to answer his questions, “His name is Garret Kahlan, and he's from North Dakota. He moved here for a paleontologist position at the museum. He was just promoted to the head of the paleontologist department, which is exactly like Ross's job from Friends. And, he's–”
“How old is he?” David demands.
Dove looks away from her dad when she answers, “Thirty-three.” David stands perfectly still, absorbing the information. “But, he's really nice, Dad. You'd like him.”
Before she can even finish, he announces, “You cannot see him anymore.”
Dove looks at her dad. His eyes are hard. His jaw is set. He doesn't look like he'll budge on his decision. “How can you say that? You haven't even met him yet.” David's face doesn't change. His face says clearly that his mind is made up. “Dad, I am twenty-one. I'm a legal adult and can date whoever I like.”
“I don't care!” he yells. “I am your father, and I have to keep you safe!” His pulse is jumping in his neck. His eyes are bulging. He looks unhinged like something in his head just broke. “He's thirty-seven! He could be a predator.”
Dove backs away. Her father's wrath suddenly hardens into a cold resolve. “I am your dad, and I have to protect you.” With a swift movement, he reaches out and grabs Dove firmly by the wrists. He pins them behind her back, twisting her shoulder until it pops out of socket.
“Let go of me!” Dove screams in pain. She struggles against her father's grasp, but he only hoists her feet of the floor. He carries her pinned to his chest into his office. “Dad! Please, let go. You're hurting me.” Her voice is small and frail, pleading hopelessly.
“I have to, Dove,” David supplies firmly. He ties her to the desk leg out of reach of the nearby window or the desk drawers. “You'll only be safe with me.”
“Let me out!” Dove shouts at her father. It was like he was a million miles away even though he was standing right in front of her.
David squats back down so his face is level with Dove's. He grabs her face in his hand. “I'm doing this because I love you.” Then, he walks out of the room, locking the door behind him.
“HELP! SOMEBOBY HELP ME!”
“Don't make me gag you,” David says through the door. “One day, you'll see, I have to keep you safe.”
* * * * *
A small light flickers on in David's study. Amirith creeps into the room with her a flashlight. Every night since their mother's death, Amirith sneaks into her dad's liquor cabinet. It was almost a ritual. It's Amirith's way of dealing with all the pain built up inside her. Tonight, however, she is finds the room disturbed.
“Dove?” Amirith whispers as she trips over her older sister. “What are you doing in here?”
“Shhhh!” Dove hisses. “It's Dad. He locked me in here. He's not thinking clearly right now, Amirith. You need to get out and get help.” Dove is whispering furiously. Her eyes are darting around searching for any movements. “Hurry!” Dove cuts her off. “He's coming.” Amirith still doesn't understand the gravity of the situation and moves closer to Dove, asking a thousand questions per minute.
“I guess I should have used the gag.”
David's sudden appearance scares the girls, but the knife in his hand is the only thing Dove can see.
“Dad, please, put down the knife,” Dove asks calmly, trying not to set him off.
Instead, David turns to Amirith. He grabs her by the hair and brings her closer. “You think I didn't know?!” he shouts into her face. “Every night you sneak out drink a little here, a little more there. You little –”
“Dad, please, she's only fifteen. She's just trying to cope without–”
“Without her mother?” David sneers. “She was a threat! She couldn't be trusted. I loved her. I didn't want her to die, but she had to go! I am the only one who can keep you three safe. But first you have to learn –” He brings the knife closer to Amirith's face. The knife's slight pressure against her skin makes her bleed. Amirith screams. “a very –” Dove shrieks for him to stop as he cuts Amirith deeper. “valuable lesso –”
Dove kicks her dad in the shins in attempt to stop him. The shock causes him to release Amirith. She pushes past him to escape. But, the force topples him forward.
When Amirith opens her eyes, she finds her dad face down on the floor. He fell on his own knife. Amirith starts whimpering and sputtering out nonsense. Dove shouts for her to go get help, and Amirith sprints out of the office. Then, Noehia wanders in. She was woken by the noise and still has her blanket held to her face as she bends down to look at her dad.
“Noey, go with Amirith,” Dove cries to her. But, the little girl stays, and Dove still can't move to make her leave.
Tears stream down Dove's face as she yells at Noehia to leave. Still, she stays. This time patting David's cheek, trying to wake him up.
“I have to keep them safe. I have to – have to....” he wheezes out.
Noehia smooths his hair and says, “It's okay, Daddy. Noey, here.” Dove buries her face in her knees and sobs.
“Keep them safe. Have to keep them safe.” David's senseless words stop with the heaving of his chest.
“I will, Daddy. Noey will keep them safe.”