Scott stood at the foot of the basement stairs, almost trembling with nervous energy. Would Clarice be afraid of him? Would she have forgotten him? Would they feel like strangers? How much had she changed? What if she was like Maggie and was disgusted by him and didn’t want to see him again? Maybe his old memories were better than the new reality he was about to create. It always seemed to work that way.
At last, the door at the top of the stairs opened. Scott had never actually met Attorney Rutherford’s secretary before—she had always been gone by the time he went upstairs—but he assumed that was who was holding Clarice’s hand.
“There’s your Daddy,” Janet said cheerfully. “He’s waiting on you.”
Clarice licked her lips nervously, then cautiously started down the old wooden stairs—glancing from side to side. Scott wished he had thought to sweep the walls down with a broom; there were old cobwebs and dust all over the brick and exposed studs. It was surely frightening to a little girl—like a haunted house, complete with vampire.
Scott held out his hand to her and tried to smile, while blinking back tears. She was so much bigger. His little girl wasn’t little anymore.
“Hey, baby,” he said, his voice falsely cheerful.
“Hey,” she said, sounding more glum. She finally reached him and put her hand in his, although she didn’t offer him anything more—no hug or kiss.
Scott glanced up at Janet. “Thank you.”
“Not a problem,” she said with a smile.
“You can leave the door open.”
“Alright,” she said, before moving away.
Clarice watched her go. Scott hoped that she might feel a bit more comfortable knowing the door was open. She wasn’t locked in, unable to escape.
“So, how was school today?” Scott asked, still trying to sound upbeat.
He lead her around the stairs, to the corner his makeshift apartment occupied. “What did you learn?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. Stuff.”
Ugh. Wasn’t this lack of enthusiasm and inability to speak in anything other than monosyllables not supposed to start until she was a teenager?
Clarice looked around the basement—her eyes scanning over the bare brick walls and dirt floor, finally coming to rest on the secondhand furniture set on a couple of pieces of old carpet. “Is this where you live?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m going to turn it into a nice apartment, though.”
Scott pulled out a chair at the table for her. The dinette set had been a hasty, last-minute find at the Goodwill store. He wanted her to have a place to do her homework and eat supper.
“I’m going to build a bedroom and bathroom for you,” he said, hoping against hope that she would be interested in a place being created just for her, rather than repelled by the fact that he expected her to stay in an old, musty-smelling basement.
“Um, okay,” she replied. She reluctantly took off her backpack and slid into the chair. She looked like she was ready to bolt out of it at any minute.
Scott hastily pulled a book off his banged-up bookcase and showed it to her. “See, this is how to turn a big, empty space into a nice place to live.” He flipped through Josie’s book on loft apartments, and specifically showed Clarice the picture of a little girl’s room with lavender-painted brick walls and bright lights.
Clarice looked a little more animated. “That’s pretty.”
“When I have your room built, you can decorate it any way you want. The bathroom too.”
“Really?” she asked, looking up at him.
“Absolutely. Pink and purple and flowers everywhere, if you want. Butterflies, horses—the whole nine yards.”
She giggled a little, and Scott took a seat beside her—leaving a little space between them. “You’ve gotten so big since I last saw you.”
“Mama says I’m growing like a weed.”
“You are,” Scott agreed.
“I had to get new shoes, um, a couple of weeks ago. My old ones didn’t fit.” She stuck a foot a little closer to Scott, showing him her white and purple tennis shoes. “I wanted the ones with lights in them, but they didn’t have any in my size. I’m already wearing women’s shoes,” she added, almost proudly.
Scott chuckled. “I think you get your feet from me; mine grew fast, too, when I was your age.”
“I… I brought you something…” she said, suddenly nervous. She carefully avoiding looking at him.
She unzipped her backpack and dug into it. At last she pulled out a picture frame and handed it to Scott. Curious, he took it.
He was momentarily stunned. It was a picture of him and Clarice and Blondie on the beach. Clarice was just a little thing—wearing a blue bathing suit with neon green polka dots and ruffles. She had stopped working on her sand castle to smile up at the camera. Scott was sitting beside her—his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses—smiling happily, his arm draped around an equally happy-looking Blondie.
He remembered when it was taken. They had gone to the beach somewhere in Alabama—Gulf Shores, maybe? Clarice had been about five.
How shockingly normal it seemed. Him, lying out on the beach, in the sun, with his daughter and his dog—a wife snapping the picture. The typical American family living the American dream.
“Mama… threw away the other pictures,” Clarice whispered, sounding guilty—or ashamed.
“What other pictures?” Scott asked, looking at her.
“The ones with you in them,” she replied, her voice still hushed, as if her mother might overhear. “I… I took that one out of the garbage when she wasn’t looking, and I hid it in my bedroom. But then I was afraid she’d find it, so I took it to school and put it in my desk.”
Tears were dripping out of Scott’s eyes before he knew it. Inside, his hatred for his ex-wife warred with his overwhelming desire to cry for his child’s suffering—and his own.
He finally managed a weak smile. “We’ll take more pictures. We’ll go do stuff and take more pictures.”
“Okay,” she said, her voice barely audible. She looked close to tears herself.
He handed the picture back to her, but she didn’t take it. “I… brought that for you… if you want it. You don’t have to take it,” she hurried to add.
Scott was surprised. “I… would love to have this. But are you sure you don’t want to keep it?”
She shook her head. “I… it’s for you.”
Scott knew she was not giving up her precious picture carelessly. Despite the fact that she was only nine years old, she already understood that someone else’s needs could be greater than her own. Thank God she wasn’t taking after Maggie.
Scott slid down to one knee beside her and gave her a hug. For just a moment she was a bit perfunctory, then she squeezed him very tightly.
“I’ve missed you, baby girl,” Scott whispered.
“I’ve missed you, too, Daddy.”
Read the entire series–The Bloodsuckers: Vampire Lawyers of Middle Tennessee