It seemed perfectly innocent. They were freshly bathed, well dressed, almost too well dressed for a Tuesday morning had I thought about it, and they both presented themselves with an intelligence far beyond their years. Their mother seemed embarrassed when they both ran to me, each clutching one of my hands in their tiny grips. Neither of them seemed afraid, nor did they show much emotion at all, and for a moment we just stood, unmoving, holding hands as if this were a natural occurrence.
Perplexed and without knowing how to react, I looked to their mother for some guidance. Although trying to maintain her poise, she seemed distant and somewhat aloof. When she finally regained her composure, she smoothed her dress, approached the three of us and complimented me on my suit. The children remained reticent as the idle banter of adults hovered like cartoon balloons above their heads, but their grips never wavered.
She asked if I would like a coffee, so we walked a few blocks, sharing idle conversation, the children never losing their hold on my hands. There were no introductions made, so my comments were relegated to generalities. She was referred to as ‘little girl’ and he was called ‘strapping lad’. They seemed content with these monikers and never once did they volunteer their birth names.
When the little girl finally spoke, her voice was so hushed it was almost impossible to hear over the din of the crowd. “My dad died. You look like him.” My heart seemed to quiver in my chest and I felt it break into a thousand shards. I wanted to let go of the boy’s hand and hug her. I wanted to tell her everything would be okay, but his grip remained firm so all I could do was squeeze her hand and give her a wink.
I had been so distracted by the children that I hadn’t noticed the row of houses instead of the coffee shops I had anticipated. The children had stopped in front of a brick facade and, with their stoned expressions, they turned to face their mother. The camera recorded that moment before I had a chance to react.
With their grips remaining firm, the children guided me up the stairs towards the house. The mother had managed to beat me to the door and fumbled to get the key into the lock. The hinges on the door vehemently disagreed with being opened and argued every inch of the way. Once inside the house, the children released their grip on my hands and stood together, an immovable fortress blocking the way back to the door.
As my eyes adjusted to the lack of daylight, the row of pictures in the foyer began to materialize. Each photo, almost an exact replica of what I suspected the picture would look like that was just taken outside. Although the little girl and the strapping lad were in different colored apparel, the photo would have been an exact replica. My heart rate increased. When the strapping lad finally spoke, my blood turned to ice. “Welcome home, daddy.”
As the words ‘I’m not your daddy’ tumbled from my lips, I felt a dull crack at the base of my skull. It would be the last thing I ever felt.