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.
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.
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.