What the hell am I doing in the Department of Social Services? I wondered as I sat in the office staring out the window. All I knew was that I had received a mysterious phone call last night from a Mrs. Forrest, who had asked to meet me here today.
It wasn't my first visit. I had been here once before, though at least the first time I had known what it was about. I had noticed some bruises on the arm of one of the girls that I taught at the junior high. I reported it as any good teacher would, an investigation was launched, and it turned out the girl's father had been abusing her. They had taken her away from her parents, and I had had to come down here to make a statement.
But here it was the beginning of July, and I hadn't so much as seen any of my students in a month. So obviously it couldn't be about one of them. Not unless one of the more obnoxious ones had made a false report against me. It wasn't unheard of, but then, I had never been the type of teacher to make enemies of my students. Most of them liked me, as far as I knew. And that would fall under the jurisdiction of the police, since I wasn't their parent or guardian.
I sighed. My imagination was getting the better of me. I was just cranky because my girlfriend had just left me two weeks ago. At twenty-seven years of age, it was time for me to be thinking about settling down, giving up my bachelor's ways. Now I was without prospects, and too burnt-out on the social scene to get back into it. That explained my mood, but it didn't explain why I was here.
I had been sitting there for about ten minutes when a woman, probably in her early forties, entered the room. She had a kind face and a warm smile that immediately put me at ease.
"Good morning, Mr. Nelson," she said. "My name is Margaret Forrest. We talked on the phone last night."
I stood and shook her hand, then we both sat down.
"I'm sorry I kept you waiting. You're probably wondering why we called you to come down here," she said.
"I admit I'm curious."
"I suppose I could have told you over the phone, but in cases like these I feel it's much better to explain it to you face to face."
"Cases like these?" I asked.
"Does the name Rebecca Parker mean anything to you?"
That surprised me; the only Rebecca Parker I had ever known had been my girlfriend in junior high. But that had been fourteen years ago.
"Should it?" I asked instead.
"We have it on good authority that you dated her some time ago."
"Well, yeah, when I was thirteen. I haven't seen Becky since her parents pulled her out of school. What's going on?"
"Rebecca Parker passed away a couple of months ago."
Her answer certainly didn't clarify the situation; if anything, it just confused me even more.
"Why tell me this?" I asked. "I mean, it's sad and everything--"
"The only thing sad about it is that it didn't happen sooner."
"What?" I exclaimed, shocked. That wasn't what I would expect to hear from a social worker.
"You misunderstand me," said Margaret. "It's not that I have no respect for the dead, or that I disliked her personally. I didn't even know her. But the truth is, her boyfriend was sexually abusing her daughter. With the consent of the mother, I might add. Troy Hamilton was a very bad man, and I'm not convinced Rebecca Parker was much better. It was only her death by overdose of heroin that put an end to that horrible situation for her daughter Kimberly. You'll be happy to know that Troy is behind bars now; as soon as Kimmy was taken into our custody she told us what had been going on, and Troy confessed as part of a plea bargain to get his sentence reduced. He's still going to be locked away for a very long time."
"That's good," I said. "A man like that deserves nothing less."
"So now the only thing left to do is take care of Kimmy. She's been living in a foster home for the past couple of months, while we searched for her family. Rebecca's parents are both deceased, so we've been searching for Kimmy's father. That's where you come in."
My eyes opened wide with shock, and I think my mouth even dropped open. "What do you mean?" I demanded. "I can't be her father. I told you, I haven't seen Becky for fourteen years."
"Do you recall why her parents pulled her out of school?"
"Yeah, she got pregnant."
"By whom?" asked Margaret.
"Wait. Do you mean...?" Suddenly, there it was. That pregnancy, which was my responsibility, had resulted in a baby girl, a girl she had named Kimberly.
"Oh my god," I breathed as the full import of it hit me.
"It's a little overwhelming, isn't it?" said Margaret.
"More than a little."
"So now we've found you, and--"
"And nothing," I interrupted. "I can't take care of her. I don't have any experience raising a child."
"She's not a child. She's a teenager."
"Okay, so I have no experience raising a teenager."
"Neither do any parents when their first child reaches that age."
"But... I'm not wealthy, I don't have a wife... what am I supposed to do with her?"
"You're supposed to be a father to her. That's what she needs right now more than anything."
"I'm sorry, but I just can't do this."
"Mr. Nelson, you're a school teacher. Junior high, in fact. You realize of course, that that makes you particularly qualified. You know how to deal with kids of that age."
"That's beside the point."
"And with school out for the summer, you'll have plenty of spare time to get to know her."
"Look, I'm not going to take her, and that's final."
"You're going to refuse her? After what she's been through?"
"That's not fair. And it's not going to work, either."
Margaret stared at me for a minute, then finally shrugged. "All right. If that's the way you feel, why don't you tell her yourself? We've got her in another room. I'll bring her in right now."
"You think you're going to make me feel guilty? Fine. Bring her in, and I'll tell her right to her face."
She stood up, and without a word, left the room.
I sighed. Maybe I was being too harsh. It wasn't that I didn't want to accept the responsibility for my mistake. When Becky had admitted to me that she was pregnant, I was willing to do whatever it took to make things right. I wasn't going to abandon her when she needed me most. Unfortunately, her parents refused to have anything to do with me once they found out. They had pulled her out of the junior high and home-schooled her instead, and wouldn't even let me call her.
Perhaps if not for the timing, I might be willing to take care of Kimmy, but things were bad enough in my life right now. The last thing I needed was to take on more responsibility. Especially a teenage girl! Most parents had years to prepare themselves for raising a teenager. It took that long to build up love and trust between the parents and their children. Suddenly being forced to take care of a girl this age would be hell on her and me!
She would probably turn out to be some bratty girl who smoked and swore and had sex with every boy she knew. I could just imagine her, with her dyed black hair, heavy makeup, pierced lips, and queen-bitch-of-the-universe attitude. Not that it would be her fault, coming from such a background as Margaret had described. I almost felt sorry for this girl that I didn't even know. Almost.
But that was all the more reason not to dump her in my lap. Let her be adopted by someone who actually wanted her. If I took her in, she would always know it was only out of duty, and that she was living with someone who didn't really want to take care of her. No child deserved that.
The door opened, and Margaret entered again. I glanced down in surprise at the young girl at her side that was completely opposite in every way to the girl in my imagination. This was no goth-punk-vampire girl who hated life and wanted everyone to know it.
Immediately I could tell the resemblance to her mother. She had the same long, straight, brown hair, large brown eyes, and pouty lips that had attracted me to Becky in the first place. If anything, this girl was even more beautiful. She wore a plain green blouse and light blue skirt that made her look like a nice, wholesome, innocent girl.
She stared at me for a second with those big brown eyes, and I recognized that look. I don't think I'm conceited when I say that I'm a very handsome man. I've always had fine, strong features, and I work out daily so I'm in good shape. Half the girls in my classes are madly in love with me. The first couple of years that I taught school their flirting bothered me, but I learned to ignore it and keep my relationship with them professional. While I admit that I've been attracted to more than a few of them despite their age, I knew that if I were to do anything to them I would be no better than Troy Hamilton.
The little girl in front of me wore that same look that I had seen on the girls in my class the first day of school.
"Daddy?" she asked, in a subdued but hopeful tone. Her voice matched her face perfectly. It was soft and sweet, the kind of voice that one could listen to for hours without growing weary of it.
She suddenly burst into tears, then dashed over to me. I rose to my feet just in time for her to throw her arms around me and sob into my chest.
"I knew one day you would come for me," she cried.
I felt my resolve weakening. How could I refuse such a sweet, vulnerable girl? What kind of a man would I be if I threw her out of my life the moment I met her?
But I had already made up my mind. It wasn't fair for them to suddenly burden me with this girl.
"Kimmy," I said. "Is that what you like to be called?"
"You can call me whatever you want," she said.
"All right. Kimmy it is. Look, I... well..."
She lifted her head and stared up at me, the hope in her eyes turning to worry. "You... you do want me, don't you?" she asked.
"Well... how can I put this...?"
"But you have to!" she said. "All these years, with all the bad things that have happened to me, only one thing has kept me going. The thought that one day my daddy would come and take me away from it all. I've dreamt about you, about you coming to rescue me from all the bad things. All I've ever wanted is someone to love me and care for me and wrap his arms around me and protect me. Please, don't send me away. I'll do anything you want if you'll keep me. Just give me a chance!" She was back in tears again by this point, and I felt horrible for hurting her like that. She buried her face in my chest and sobbed.
I knew now that I couldn't reject her. She had no one else to turn to, and if I were to refuse to take her, I would rob her of the one happy thought she had ever had in her life.
I knelt down in front of her and took her by the shoulders, looking into her eyes. "Kimmy, I'm going to tell you something, and I want you to listen carefully. You seem to have it in your head that I'm some kind of perfect person. Maybe your guardian angel. You have this image of me, and I'm afraid I can't possibly measure up to it. That means I'm going to disappoint you. No matter how hard I try, I'm going to make mistakes, and you're going to realize I'm not the man you think I am. I'll never be as bad as Troy, but I'm still a human being, and I have weaknesses. Do you understand that?"
"Then I'm going to make this your decision. Now that you know that, do you still want to be with me?"
She threw her arms around my neck. "I want to be with you forever, Daddy," she said.
I glanced up at Margaret, who had a smile on her face and tears in her eyes. "That was a nasty trick," I told her. "But it worked."
"It always does," she replied.
"Okay. I'm sure I have to sign something, so bring it in here so I can get it over with and then take home my new daughter."
"Oh, thank you!" Kimmy exclaimed, hugging me even tighter.
So that was it. Twenty minutes later I found myself loading several suitcases into my car with the daughter I had never known smiling up at me. In less than an hour, I was suddenly a father.
I could tell she was infatuated with me. I suppose that was only natural, after what she had been through. Suddenly I had come to rescue her and take her away from that horrible life, to give her the life she had always dreamed of.
I suppose for my part, I felt something of the same. I had always liked children; that was why I had gone into education in the first place. Kimmy seemed to be everything I liked about children that age. She was pretty, affectionate, and very impressionable. I knew from experience that teachers had a very big influence on children's' sense of self-worth, and parents even more so. I knew it was a big responsibility, which was why I had been hesitant at first. But now that I made up my mind, I decided to do my very best. Kimmy needed a father right now, more than anything in the world.
We climbed into the car and I started driving home. She continued to gaze at me with a smile on her face.
"What is it?" I asked, smiling back at her.
"I'm just really happy right now," she told me. "I haven't had much to be happy about in a long time."
"I can understand that," I replied. As I thought about what her life must have been like, I suddenly realized that for the first time in a long time, I hated someone. I hated Troy Hamilton for what he had done to this precious little girl. My daughter. I had never been a violent person, but right now I realized that if I saw him, I would probably try to kill him.
At the same time, I could understand the temptation. Kimmy was an absolutely gorgeous young girl. It wouldn't take much for a man who had those tendencies to be pushed beyond his capacity to resist such a girl. Not that it would be her fault, of course. I knew first-hand just how sexy teenage girls like that could be, even when they weren't trying. The way they walked around, the way they spoke, the way they moved, and especially the way they laughed.
Speaking of which, I wondered how long it had been since Kimmy had laughed. Certainly she hadn't had much reason lately. I found myself wanting to hear her laugh.
"Daddy?" she asked.
"What is it?"
"You're being awfully quiet."
"I'm sorry, Kimmy. I was just thinking."
"Yes. About how hard things have been for you. I don't want you to tell me anything about all the bad things that have happened to you, because I think it would break my heart to find out. In fact, I hope that some day you can forget all of that. Or at least look back on it as if it were something happening to someone else, not you. Because all of that is going to change. I promise you I won't ever hurt you."
"Thank you, Daddy," she smiled.
I found myself falling in love with that smile. It was so innocent, and yet so sexy at the same time. No wonder Troy had molested her. If he was a pedophile at heart anyway, all it would take would be a couple of smiles from her, so beautiful, so inviting.
No, that was too close to blaming Kimmy for what happened. She was the victim, not a consenting party to the atrocities committed upon her. Troy was just a very bad man. That was all. It was his fault, no matter how cute and sexy Kimmy was.
Sexy? Did I really think that about her? Yes, my thoughts had been unmistakable.
I decided not to worry about it. It wasn't the first time I had thought that about a girl that age. There were some very good-looking ones in my classes. Never had I acted on it, though. If there was one thing I knew, it was how to keep my emotions out of my relationships with my students.
But this was different. I was supposed to let my emotions rule my relationship with this girl; she was my daughter after all. I was supposed to love her, to care for her, to be her guardian and protector.
She continued to smile at me for the rest of the trip home, and I continued to think. I decided just to be spontaneous and natural in my dealings with her. I knew where to draw the line, so there was nothing wrong with letting myself love her. Love her like a father, that is.
"Can I ask you something, Daddy?" she said a few minutes later.
"What's your name?"
I laughed. In all of the excitement, I had completely forgotten to tell her.
"Michael Nelson," I replied. "But you can call me Mike if you want."
"Actually, if it's all right with you, I'd like to call you Daddy."
"I was kind of hoping you would," I smiled. "Daddy it is then."
"Can I ask you something else, Daddy?"
"Well, it's about our last names. Yours is Nelson and mine is Parker."
"That's okay," I told her. "That doesn't mean anything. It's just because your mother and I weren't together when you were born."
"Oh, I know all about that. I was just wondering... Can I be Kimmy Nelson?"
I had a sudden, fleeting thought of a certain way in which she might change her name, involving a white dress and a long aisle. But that was ridiculous; no doubt she didn't mean it in that way.
"You mean you want to change your name?" I asked.
"What's wrong with that? Then it would feel more like we're family."
"Well, if you want to. I'm not sure what all the legal steps involved are, but I'm sure we could get it taken care of."
Soon we pulled into the driveway of my house. It was a modest home in a nice, quiet neighborhood. It was too bad there weren't any kids her own age living nearby. But it was only a couple more months before school began, then she could start making friends. In the mean time, it would give us time to get to know each other.
My next-door neighbor, Charlie Milton, was out watering the plants on his porch when I stepped out of the car. He and his wife were retired; they had moved into the house next to mine after their children had all grown up. He waved at me, then came over, glancing at Kimmy as she exited on the other side.
"Hello, Charlie," I smiled. "Come here, Kimmy. I'd like you to meet someone."
A little timidly, she approached my side, then took my hand as she looked at him.
"Kimmy, this is my neighbor Charlie. Charlie, this is... this is my daughter Kimmy."
"Your daughter?" he asked, stunned. "But..."
I sighed. "I guess you might as well know. I got a girl pregnant in junior high, then lost touch with her. I didn't even know about Kimmy until today. We just got back from the Social Services Department."
"Oh," he said, still a little confused.
I laughed. "You look like I feel," I told him. "Believe me, it's ten times as overwhelming for me as it is for you."
"I guess you're right," he said.
"Anyway, her mother just died, so now she's going to be staying with me."
"Well, Kimmy," he said, "I guess that means we're going to be neighbors. Welcome to the neighborhood," he smiled, then took her hand and shook it. She giggled, a little embarrassed.
"I guess she's a bit shy," Charlie commented.
"It's all really new to her," I explained. "I'm sure once she's had time to settle in she'll be all right."
"Well, let me know if you need any help. I had two daughters of my own, and I know how much trouble it can be raising girls that age."
"Oh, I won't be any trouble to my daddy," she hurriedly insisted.
Charlie chuckled. "With that attitude, I'm sure you won't. Your father's really lucky to have you, Kimmy."
"And I'm lucky to have him," she grinned, wrapping herself around my arm.
"Looks like you two are going to get along just fine," he smiled. "I'll see you both later."
He turned around and headed back to his front door. I took Kimmy's hand and led her into my house.
It wasn't the biggest house in the world, but then, I had never needed much, even when my girlfriend had lived with me. It had a single floor, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. One of the bedrooms I had converted into a den, and the other had a treadmill and free weights, along with a TV so I could watch it while working out. It looked like I would have to find a new home for them now. The living room was small, with the kitchen and dining room nothing more than a section in the corner that was tiled rather than carpeted.
"So what do you think?" I asked Kimmy. "I know it's not much, but--"
"It's perfect!" she exclaimed in delight. "It's not too small, but not too big either. So I'll know whenever we're in the house together that you're always nearby."
I laughed, amused at her affection. She could really be adorable. I retrieved the luggage from the car and put it in the front room for now.
"So what do you want to do first?" I asked Kimmy.
"If it's all right with you, Daddy, I just want to take a nap," she replied. "I was on an airplane most of the night, and I didn't get much sleep."
"Okay. If you want, you can use my bed. I only have one bed in the house, so later today we'll go down to the furniture store and buy a new one."
"Daddy?" she asked.
"What is it, Kimmy?"
"Would you take a nap with me?"
"Um... I don't know."
Why indeed? There was nothing wrong with it-- we were father and daughter after all-- except that she was a beautiful young girl that I had only recently met, and so far my feelings toward her had been anything but fatherly. When I was honest with myself, I had to admit that I was attracted to her. And if that look in her eyes upon first seeing me was any indication, she felt the same way about me.
Still, I couldn't deny that the thought of holding her in my arms like that sounded extremely pleasant. It had been nearly two weeks since my girlfriend had left, and I hadn't had the chance to be near a woman like that in that whole time.
What was I thinking? This wasn't the same thing at all. It wouldn't be like sleeping with my girlfriend; this was my daughter after all. It was really all very innocent. Or was it?
"Daddy?" she asked again, sensing my hesitation.
"You're right," I told her. "I'm rather tired myself."
"Thank you. Right now this all feels like a dream, and I'm afraid of waking up. But if I wake up and you're right there with me, then I'll know it must be true."
I chuckled, amused and touched by her affection.
I led her into the bedroom, where I kicked off my shoes and sat down on the bed. Kimmy came over and sat down in my lap, throwing her arms around my neck.
"Hey!" I grinned.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing. You just caught me off guard, that's all." I slipped my arms around her back, then let myself fall back on the bed, bringing my daughter with me. She giggled, but continued to hug me as we lay there together.
It felt so nice; Kimmy really was a beautiful, sweet little girl, and so soft and warm. I could get used to being a father, with a daughter like this.
"Daddy, I love you," she mumbled.
That surprised me. She had known me for only a couple of hours. How could she love me? But I already knew the answer to that question, because she had told me herself when we first met. She loved that image of me that she had in her mind, that knight in shining armor that would rescue her from the misery of her previous life. I found myself wanting to be that knight. I wanted to be her savior, her rescuer, her protector.
I closed my eyes, holding her to my chest and letting the closeness of our bodies relax me. It felt so good to know that she thought so highly of me. Me, who had never had a daughter before. Me, who had almost made the biggest mistake of my life by rejecting her. She deserved a man who could measure up to her expectations. I had no idea if I could be that man, but I was determined to try.
With that pleasant thought in mind, I let myself fall asleep.