My eyes fluttered open as the door creaked. “You came.”
Quiet footsteps traveled across the floor, and she edged down into the bedside chair. “It’s customary for next of kin to see their parent in their final hours.”
“But it’s not required.” I pushed myself into a sitting position. “I’m glad you’re here.”
For the first time, she made eye contact. “Why?”
“I wanted to talk to you, tell you I’m sorry.”
She put up hands. “So that’s it? Your final day, and you’re just now apologizing?”
She stood and turned to leave, but I grabbed her hand. “I know it’s a bad time-”
“A bad time? You had our entire lives to tell me you were sorry, to tell me I was worth something to do you, Father, and you never did.” She ripped her hand away. “And now think because you’re going to die soon that you can just leave with a heartfelt apology and I’ll forgive you?”
I shook my head. “That’s not it, Ava. Please, just listen-”
“No, you listen! You have no right, do you hear me?” She clenched her shaking hands and paced. “Do you know what I put myself through my whole life just to get you to pay attention to me?” Ava counted off on her fingers. “All the math courses, the science courses, the internships, extra activities, anything just to get you to say you were proud of me.”
She held up her hands when I opened my mouth to speak. “And don’t you dare interrupt me because I’ve spent years being the perfect girl you always wanted. I did everything you ever wanted me to do, and it made me miserable!”
Tears streamed down my daughter’s face, and I reached for her. “I knew that. I always knew that.”
This time, she slapped my hand away. “Then why on Earth couldn’t you just tell me? Wasn’t I ever good enough for you or was it too much trouble to try and change what I was doing?”
“You don’t understand-”
“Oh, here we go. I never understand, I’m not smart enough to understand, isn’t that it? No matter what I did, staying up for hours trying to get everything right, skipping meals so I could keep working, trying to live up to your standards, it wasn’t enough.” Her voice shook and cracked, trying to get passed the weight in the air. “My grades didn’t please you, my activities didn’t please you. I did everything I could to be just like you, and it was never enough for you.”
My breath hitched as she spoke, and I gritted my teeth to force back the wave of pain that struck through my chest. I groaned and sank back down, bringing my hand up to halt her.
“I never wanted you to be like me. Hell, I hated who I was, who I am.” I touched her hand, and when she didn’t move, I grasped it. “I’m not but a puppet controlled by a bunch of cowards. The powers that be. There were rules, Ava, about what a daughter, what a valuable citizen could and could not do.”
“Why couldn’t you ever tell me?”
“It was forbidden. We were always watched for any signs of treason, betrayal to the government. Officials like me were punished, and I heard stories of families who were never heard from, never seen, never allowed to do anything because of what the patriarch of the family had done.” I squeezed her hand and closed my eyes. “I saw what I’d been doing to you. What they had me doing. I used to hear you crying, begging yourself to just understand. That if you could get it right, you said, I’d finally love you.”
Tears streamed down my face as I clutched her hand. Ava scooted the chair closer and leaned in.
“That was all I ever wanted, for you to love me, to be proud of me.”
I reached up to touch her cheek. “There was never a time I didn’t. I was always proud of you, but I didn’t want to encourage you into something that’d make you miserable for my sake. I see now I did just that.” I exhaled a shaking breath and paused.
“So you could never encourage anything the government deemed worthless. What about Mama?”
“Your mother knew the power they had, and she went along with it. She did things in secret, writing journals and painting. She’d always destroy them before anyone could ever prove she’d broken the laws.” I bowed my head. “Then, some officials stopped by, a random visit they said, nothing serious. Your mother had been in her room writing when they caught her.”
“That day I got home from progress testing.”
I nodded. “They wanted to see what she’d written to check for signs of disloyalty. She told them she’d written intimate passages that she wasn’t comfortable sharing, but they insisted.” I hesitated and placed my hand over my aching heart. “They took the journal and burned it in front of us once they’d finished reading. Your mother had had enough and spoke her mind.”
Ava shook her hand and tears dripped onto the white sheets, staining them. “No, they couldn’t have. Father, please, tell me they didn’t-”
“I’m sorry, Ava. There was nothing I could do.” I brought her hand close to my heart. “Your mother told me to protect you as they took her.”
“They killed her, and you didn’t even try to save her?” Ava pulled from his grip.
“Ava, she knew! She knew what would happen to you if I stood in their way. She was willing to make that sacrifice so they couldn’t come near you.” I groaned as my throat burned and my heart pounded in my chest.
Ava turned to me and brushed a wisp of white hair from my eyes. “All those years, you were so cold. I thought it was something I’d done. That maybe you hated me.”
“Never. After they took your mother, I didn’t know what to do. I shut down and ran on nothing but autopilot for so long. I couldn’t do anything else but go through the motions. You reminded me so much of her it hurt.”
Her eyes widened, and she trembled. “All the notebooks, my journals, my drawings. You always made me hide them away. The attic or the crawlspace in the basement. I thought you despised them.”
“No, Dove, no I-”
“What did you just say?”
I retracted. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“You called me Dove. You did see them.”
I smiled and nodded. “When you were off at school, I’d take some out every day and look at them. I’d lock myself up in the attic for hours just to go through them all. I loved them all very much, and I remember. There was one thing you’d always write at the end of your journals and the bottoms of your drawings.”
This time, she reached for my hand. “Let my soul be free.”
I hummed in response, and she squeezed my hand. For a few moments, I let my eyes close to run them through my mind. All the landscapes, the caverns, the moon, and the stars.
“I just wanted to go out and explore the world. I wanted some place to be myself. I felt so-”
“Trapped at home. I don’t blame you.” I run my thumb across her knuckles and wiped the trails of tears away. “I wish I could’ve done more. I was a horrible father, and it’s no excuse, making you unhappy all your life.”
“I understand why you did it. It was what you had to do to keep me safe. I just wish I’d known sooner.”
I gasped out a breath as a shot of pain passed through my heart. “Me too, Dove, me too.”
She clutched my hand and leaned in close. “Hold on, Papa, please.” She wiped the tears from my face and kissed my cheek. “I can’t lose you now, not after all this. I want a chance to be close to you.”
“You’ll get that chance someday. Just have to wait for your time to come.” I raised my voice as much as I could beyond rasping breaths and the beeps of monitors.
“Death is the one thing considered too intimate for the government to intrude upon. It was my only real chance to tell you everything. Even if the higher ups heard everything, what are they going to do, kill me?” I gave a dry, coughing laugh at that. “I’ll be dead before they get their hands on me.”
“What’ll I do without you, Papa? I don’t know where to go from here.” Ava squeezed his hand and brought it to her heart, drawing me closer to her.
“You can do what you’ve always dreamed of. Someone has to start the revolution, and I know it can be you.”
“But the government, you said-”
“To hell with those cowards! People deserve to be human, not their damn robots. Dove, I beg you, don’t become a puppet like me.” I groaned again and sank back when pain stabbed through my heart.
“Papa, hold on just a little longer, please.” Tears dripped onto their held hands and she nestled to me.
“I’m glad you came. You deserved to know how sorry I was, I am, a long time ago, but this was the best I could do.” I reached to brush a stray strand away from her closed eyes. “I want to do one thing for me, Dove.”
Her head popped up and she opened her eyes. “Yes, Papa?”
“I want it on my grave. Let that be your first act of defiance. It’s legal, but it makes a statement.”
She sobbed and nodded, kissing his cheek. “I will, Papa, I promise. But please don’t leave me now. I need you. I can’t lose you too.”
“Ava, listen.” I cupped her chin in my hand. “Your mother and I will always watch over you. We’ll do everything we can to protect you.” I pressed my hand to heart as my voice waned. “We’ll always be here. I love you, Dove.”
My eyes fluttered closed and the beeping monitors slowed. I held my last breath as long as I could, fighting the blackness that’d overtaken me. Ava’s sobs grew softer, and I released my final gasp of air. For a moment, silence and darkness greeted me, and I felt myself fall into a deep abyss of nothingness.
Then, a blinding light lifted me out of the clutches of death and into a new platform. It helped me onto my feet, and I touched my chest, trying to locate the stabbing pain, but I couldn’t feel it. I breathed in and out, testing my heart, my lungs. I stretched my limbs as the light transformed. I tried my weight on my limbs and found myself lighter. The weight of the world no longer dragging me down.
“Darnell.” A voice spoke my name with a familiar softness.
My head whipped to the source, and I froze. “It can’t be.” I stepped forward and reached for her outstretched hand. “Alissa, is that really you?”
She ran forward and threw her arms around my neck. I lifted her and spun her on the platform of light around us.
“I’ve waited for you to come for me, darling.”
“I never thought I’d see you again. How?”
She stepped back, holding my hand. “For a man of logic and reason, you have little knowledge of location.” Alissa gestured around her, running her fingers through clouds and levitating off the ground.
My eyes widened and my jaw hung open. “This is-”
“Heaven, my love. Look.” She pointed behind me, and I looked to find my own pair of wings, closed behind my shoulders.
I willed them to open and they unfolded, reaching out into the air. “I can’t believe this.” I tried to fly, but my wings wouldn’t flap with enough strength to hold my weight up.
“Don’t try too hard. You have to get used to them first.” She clutched my hand and soared up, taking me with her. “You won’t feel pain if you fall, but I wouldn’t want to see that.” She winked and held me close.
I pulled away and stared. “Wait, Ava! Is she-?”
“She’s at your memorial, look.” Alissa lead me down again so we could watch our daughter from above.
“Ava! I’m here, Ava!” I tried to reach for her as she knelt beside my headstone.
“Darling, shh. It’s okay. You’ll have to find a new way to let her know you’re there with her.”
I paused and looked at my wife. She smiled and waited for me to come up with something. My eyes widened, and I smiled, closing my eyes. I imagined myself soaring through the heavy, chilled air, breeching clouds to get to her. I watched myself land on the top of the stone and called out. Ava jumped and I stood there, staring at her, willing her to know. I bent my head down toward the phrase on the stone, and she reached her hand out. I nestled my head into her palm for a moment and she lifted me into her hands. She ruffled my white feathers and released my into the air as she stood.
“You’re free now, Papa.”