FIRST TIME • by K.C. Ball

Maggie became aware of the presence of her inner child the first day of high school, that September she turned fourteen.

Her friends, the girls she hadn’t seen all summer because her aunt Louise had wrangled her a job as a camp counselor in Wisconsin, had become young women. Every one of them with narrow waists, rounded breasts and knowing smiles, while she remained giggly and gawky. All bony elbows and scabby knees, and flat as a pine board at her father’s lumberyard.

What hurt the most, deep inside, was the first time Anne Marie, her best friend, curled her lip and muttered, “God’s sake, Maggie, when you gonna grow up?”

Somehow Maggie made it through the day, watching them move around boys with an ease she couldn’t even imagine. And all the while, she wished to God she could be like them.

And when she went home, she found her father on the porch, sitting in his favorite old aluminum chair, puffing on what she knew was the latest in a long chain of Lucky Strikes.

Two dead soldiers, empty brown P.O.C. beer bottles, stood at attention next to the chair. A portable radio rested on the concrete next to them, blaring out the final innings of an afternoon double-header between the Detroit Tigers and his beloved Indians.

“How you doing, kiddo?” he asked.

Maggie dissolved into tears and threw herself into his lap, sobbing out her story. She made it to the end before their combined weight proved too much for the flimsy chair. It buckled and collapsed, sending the two of them to the concrete onto his ample backside.

They sat there for a time, him hugging her, both of them too out of breath and too surprised to say a word. And she just knew when he could talk he’d yell at her, would tell her the same thing she had heard all day at school.

Grow up.

But he didn’t. Instead, he plucked free his cigarette, slid it down the neck of one of the bottles. Then he smoothed her hair with his left hand, as he clasped both her hands in his big callused right hand, and said something that surprised her.

“Don’t chase away your childhood, baby girl.”

The two of them sat there for a time in companionable silence. Aware of each other’s heartbeat, watching thickening evening shadows gather around the big maple tree in the front yard.

Then her mother called from the kitchen, “Come on, you two. It’s supper time.”

Maggie went back to school the next day, dreading it, only to discover her friends still were her friends. The days passed, and she had her big growth spurt, too. When she went back to classes after Christmas break none of it mattered. She wasn’t flat and gawky any more, and boys found excuses to stop by her locker, too.

But that little girl still hid behind her eyes.

Over the years between then and now, she finished high school and college, found her first job. She moved to another and then another, each one with more responsibility and a bigger salary. And all the while, she wondered when she would feel totally adult.

She worked with people she believed to be adult, and they treated her as if she was one of them. But inside, in the place where it was just her with all her memories and hopes and fears, she knew that little girl still waited for the moment to arrive.

Until today.

Today, she sits, holding both her father’s hands in hers, and she tries not to think about his emaciated body hidden beneath the crisp sheets of the hospital bed.

She tries to ignore the beeping of the monitors, the hiss of the oxygen, the rasp of his labored breathing, his coughs. She focuses on his face, on his eyes, really, and she reaches out from time to time to wipe away his tears.

Maggie realizes what she sees in his eyes is the little boy that has stayed hidden inside him his entire life. That child is frightened. His eyes are fixed on her, begging silently for her to tell him there’s been a mistake, a miracle that will allow him to live beyond today.

Maggie finds her best smile, lets him see it. She smoothes his hair, what little’s left after the radiation treatments, and she leans in close.

“We’re going to beat this, Daddy,” she whispers. “And when you’re out of here, we’ll go to an Indians game. You can buy me a hot dog, with mustard and lots of relish, let me have a sip of your beer.”

He smiles. The terror in his eyes abates, so that she knows her lie is just what he needed. He knows that it’s a lie, but had to hear her say the words, because his inner child trusts her. Whatever she tells him has to be the truth.

And in that instant, Maggie understands, after all the years of wondering. She knows she’ll keep on telling him the lies he needs to hear until the moment that he dies. She’ll be adult for him.

But she wishes to God it wasn’t so.

K.C. Ball lives in Seattle, Washington. Her short stories have appeared here at Every Day Fiction, as well as various online and print publications, including Analog, Lightspeed, Flash Fiction Online and Murky Depths, the award-winning British fantasy magazine. K.C. won the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future award in 2009. She is a 2010 graduate of Clarion West writers’ workshop and an active member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Her novel, Lifting Up Veronica, will be serialized by Every Day Novels in January 2012. Snapshots from a Black Hole & Other Oddities, a collection of her short stories, will be available in late January 2012 from Hydra House Books.

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Every Day Fiction

  • Rose Gardener

    Beautifully written. Love your descriptions.

  • Great little story. The twist into something more than just a going through puberty piece was perfect. Enjoyed it and still thinking about it. Will be for quite awhile.

  • M.Sherlock

    Great story, beautifully written and made me think. Thanks K.C!

  • ajcap

    Speechless. Really hit home. Five stars.

  • A nice heart-rending homely story, possibly a little overstated towards the end in the last few paragraphs, when describing father’s inner child.
    Also not sure earlier on when the chair collapses whether they can still be sitting as described. I imagined them falling over.
    Entertaining. thank you.

  • A different kind of “coming of age” story. One that deals not so much with the usual transformative event (from child to adult) but concentrating rather on the holding onto of childhood…as her father entreated her to do all those years ago. Interesting and well written; it felt “real”, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

    As stu1 (#5) mentioned, the “chair incident” seemed a little awkward but, I thought, worked okay.

    Four stars….

    On a side note, I’m sure many female readers will take this tale to heart. As for men, well…we all know we are boys who never really grow up (and our women know that too).

  • I noticed the glitches mentioned above, but the story behind the writing is very, very good. Anyone who has stood by a loved one’s deathbed will instantly be taken back to that episode.


  • VMcKay

    Boy, this one really hit home. Tore me up. My inner child will be weepy all day. 5 stars.

  • A lot of truth and a lot of pain in these words. It was a hard read for me, but a rewarding one.

  • I told my mom we’d go to Vegas in the Spring. Sometimes a lie is all that’s left to tell.

    Brilliant, KC.

  • Nicely done. I wasn’t expecting this to go where it did and it went straight to my heart.

  • Rob

    Very nice

  • JenM

    A perfect stpry about growing up. Five stars/

  • Wonderful K.C. Love it.

  • Clever idea deftly turned to wonderful, if sad, end.

  • John Owens

    Well done, as always. So sad, though.

  • Oonah V Joslin

    Oonah’s in BITZ 🙁 again!

  • Insightful and evocative: the best sort of writing. Thanks!

  • This made me cry. Very nice indeed. My father died this spring, too, and trying to think of anything to say was so hard. Wish he hadn’t lost his inner child so early in his life–we might have been able to have a moment like this.

  • This is a lovely piece. Beautiful imagery presented in a simple, straight forward prose. The insights and emotional weight carry the moment until the end.

  • Understand the child inside and you understand pretty much all there is to know about a person, in my view. The point where we understand that about someone else, and most of all, about ourselves, is a moment of truth. You’ve allowed us to be present that moment of truth for this father and daughter beautifully, K.C. Thank you.

    8) scar

  • Elizabeth

    Four stars for your lovely story. My father died in 2005 of prostate & bone cancer. He said he wasn’t in pain & wasn’t scared. I got to tell him I loved him one last time.

  • robin

    Way to go KC!

  • Paul Friesen

    I found the beginning hard but liked it more and more as I continued reading

  • Well written, if a bit cliched – ‘inner child’, ‘companionable silence’, etc.

    Also, with all those cigarettes smoked, dead soldiers (empty beer bottles) around, and ‘ample bottom’ (i.e. inferred obesity), the reader is urged towards feeling the father deserved what he got.

    As mentioned before, however, a well written story.

  • Walt Giersbach

    A seet story professionally told, K.C. Thank you. Five stars.

  • Walt Giersbach

    A sweet story professionally told, K.C. Thank you. Five stars.

  • VMcKay

    @21 – Well said.

    @25(Paul)- “Deserved” it? We all die eventually, no matter our habits.

  • I think the girls worry over her delay in physical development and emotional clinging to childhood is not comparative. By “hold on to your childhood I think he meant “don’t rush things. You will develop in your own time, enjoy these childhood years.” I don’t think the father calmed because of a “lie” the daughter told. (“He knows that it’s a lie, but had to hear her say the words.”) I think he calmed because he realized through her words how much his daughter cared. I also don’t think its more “adult” than it is childish to tell lies.

  • Oscar – What about all the developments in a person after that person is no longer a child? Do they count in knowing something about that person?

  • Randy Henderson

    Beautifully written K.C. I always admire your ability to fit full and resonant stories into so few words.

  • Thank you all! 😉

  • Hi, Roberta(#30)Good question. I’m a simple person. I tease out rules of thumb to guide me through complex stuff. For example, when people occasionally behave in ways that seem puzzling or irrational, I try to imagine them as children. This my not totally explain their behaviour, but it puts it into a simpler context that I find easier to understand.

    William Wordsworth put it better: ‘The child is father of the man.’

    It works for me.

    🙂 scar

  • Oscar – yes, guiding the child sets direction for the later man, but it doesn’t limit his continuing to develop and sometimes actually, in part, changing course. Sometimes I try to imagine (and usually succeed)” that when people occasionally behave in ways that seem puzzling or irrational” they know or think they know something which simple me doesn’t.

  • Gretchen

    A touching story. So very human.

  • Simone

    I agree with #8 and #9. Very well done K.C.; I look forward to reading more from you.

  • A little more dialogue would’ve been nice. It’s a LOT of telling and not showing. That falling from the chair was awkward and should’ve been cleaned up with some sensory and visual information. While the story feels personal for the narrator’s perspective, the story is so full of other things, I don’t get the emotional part I could connect with as a reader.

  • Brilliant, as always… This is one I’ll carry around with me for quite a while.

  • Touched me because my father never admitted to his inner child, even on his death bed. Like any man, he didn’t want to admit the child in him was there, but he didn’t hate her for responding to it.

  • Very nice work; looking forward to your novel.

  • loungey

    i wonder if totsymae was even reading the same story, or at the very least hasn’t had a loved one pass out of this life in a situation like the one described.

    ” I don’t get the emotional part I could connect with as a reader…” WOW…if you can’t connect with this stories emotional part then you might want to walk the yellow brick road to OZ and get a heart implant..

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