"Hey, Buddy," he greeted, voice meek but smiling. She could tell even at her young age that he was unwell. She remembered him as a good humoured man with bright, mischievous eyes. He was always running about with her on his shoulders and encouraging her to wreak havoc on her poor father's nerves. Now, he was bed ridden most days, and when he got up, she imagined that a strong breeze might carry him far away from her; he has grown so thin.
Without dwelling on this thought, she crawled into bed and quietly snuggled up beside him like a kitten. Her large, dark eyes gazing intently up at him drew a smile that thinned his dry and chapped lips, sharpening the fine creases by his eyes. Quietly, she smiled back at him and wrapped her arms around him, but how frail he felt startled her. She remembered him to be stronger. She used to playfully admire his lean muscles when he was well, stating often that he reminded her of some kind of superhero on the pitch, perhaps one with a golden boot and the gift of precision. It was always a ridiculous notion, but it warmed his heart nonetheless to know that the child thought so highly of him. In truth, it might have been her who had saved him. He noticed her subtle recoil and with hesitation, drew her in close with his right arm and gently petted her head, fingers softly raking through her wispy hair.
A long moment of silence lingered between them, then a soft little whimper passed her lips and she curled up tightly against him. His alarm did not surface, and with steady arms, he wrapped himself around her tiny body to comfort her, but the gesture drew tears to her eyes.
"When will you get better?" She asked, voice small and desperate.
But her question distressed him, and he was at a loss for words now. His confidence wavered, and for a moment, he visibly struggled to collect his wits and forced a reassuring smile. "Any day now, wee one," he smoothly lied. It was enough for her though, and she dried her eyes against his shirt, pacified because to her, his words were truth. She only knew of the man that would take her hand and join her father on Sunday mornings at the park. The one who was exuberant and charming, but always kind and playful. The one who built forts and castles out of cardboard boxes with her and always picked her up when she beckoned. The one that loved her even though she could not understand where the affection stemmed from. She did not like the sickly stranger that had come to take his place because many nights, she could hear her father crying when he thought she was asleep. It had only recently started, but it troubled her deeply.
It was a strange mixture of sadness and anger that she could not comprehend. What made it all the more perplexing was that her father's anger would waver between himself and the man that might have been his lover. He often cursed the sick man for his own demise, but when alone, would blame himself for his inevitable death. She did not understand how either men could have possibly been at fault.
Lying beside him, she reached her little hands to examine the tattoos on his neck and forearms, mesmerized as though they were magical sigils she was trying to decipher. Though she could hardly read yet, she recognized the letters of her initials permanently painted on his left wrist, and she read them aloud, giggling. Amused, he asked her if she knew what it said, and she excitedly nodded and read the letters aloud to him once more before proudly pointing to herself. Her cheer gradually subsided when her little fingers started to trace the font, only to find the texture warped by a large, raised, vertical scar. She looked up at him with worried eyes and asked, "Does it hurt?"
His certainty faltered a moment, and a dull pain shone in his tired blue eyes, but he smiled and shook his head. "Ya made it better, Little Fish. It doesn't hurt anymore." His words were reassurance enough to her, and a large smile captured her lips once more. She always enjoyed looking at his tattoos, her favourite being the swan on his side. It reminded her of the swan on her father's shoulder. Crawling under the covers, she pushed his shirt up to expose the design, her little fingers on his skin tickled though, and a short yelp of laughter escaped him. Peeking up from under the covers, she grinned, pleased by her ability to make him laugh. Determined to keep a smile on his face, she continued brushing her small fingers along his side to watch him giggle. Then, she heard her father's voice at the door way, and hesitating, she scooted up to look at him.
Her father watched them with hollow eyes, draining all the cheer she had managed to instill in the sick man away. The two men stared silently at each other, love and resentment brewing delicately behind their gaze. But her father tore his gaze away too soon to notice the subtle change to the curve of the sick man's thin lips. If he had, he might have understood how much his presence meant to him. Instead, he gestures for her to leave, and after a short, futile struggle, she relents, leaving her bed-ridden hero to his own device with a sad little wave and a sloppy peck on the cheek.
Now, she remembers him only barely. A great many number of years had gone by, and things had changed much after his death. It took her father years to forgive himself, though for what, she still did not know. Most nights he was too angry to fall asleep, and when he did, he was plagued by horrible nightmares, which often woke him before the early hours of dawn. He became reclusive and began to succumb to fits of unreasoned frustration which used to scare her.
There was a void in their lives, and she knew that her father felt it too. She was just more ready to admit to the empty feeling. Her father never talked of the deceased man, treating his name as though a spoken curse and avoiding any reminder of him as though it could somehow kill him in turn. When he had first passed, she could not grasp the concept. She kept asking where he was until her father got so upset with her, he almost smacked her. But he did not. Instead, he cried, more than she had ever seen him cry before. She stopped asking. But she kept his pictures close to her. His old clothing became like secret relics to her, and on some days, when she felt especially lonely, she took them out to look at. Sometimes, she would wrap herself up in one of his jackets, or draw on one of his jerseys to wear to bed. It made her feel safe. Too much time had passed for any traces of his scent to linger on the articles, but she liked to pretend like she could smell his cologne, the warm, sweet fragrance of clove and spices somehow still fresh in her mind. Once, her father caught her, but he did not yell, only drew her close to himself and held her so tightly she could hardly breathe. It was like he was trying to embrace the man that was no longer with them through the remnants of his belongings. Her heart ached for her father, but she knew it was best to leave memories lie dormant. He remained fragile, too fragile to openly acknowledge his loss. Often, he disguised his pain behind the barrier of pride and masculinity, but the more he tried, the larger the fissure sin his mask became, and she saw it all.
Why do heroes die? And how does death take such a toll on the hearts of the living? She could not answer these questions still, and the void lives on.