On any other day, he would have liked to enjoy the artwork, but he was so cold that he kept walking down the slick walkway, checking each exhibit for Claire, but he found no sign of her. With each step he took, the music got louder, and he picked up speed until he reached the end of the path. He could have gone left or right, but when he looked out into the open field where the Spoonbridge and Cherry sat, he could have sworn he saw something pink moving.
Trekking through the elements, digging his hands deeper in his jacket, the music got louder with each step he took. After a good, long walk, he finally came upon his niece. She leaned against the cherry, her phone in her hands with her head leaned back, her eyes closed. She was so beautiful, with long, flaming red hair that cascaded down her shoulders. Her eyes were bright blue, like his, with soft features that favored Rochelle. She seemed to look more like her every time he saw her, and it only made his heart ache even more. He wished he could turn back the hands of time, but that wasn’t going to happen. The girl that leaned against a cherry with her phone blasting some loud devil music was his reality now, and he couldn’t f**k this up.
She didn’t answer, didn’t even acknowledge him. He called out again, but either she couldn’t hear him or she was ignoring him. He was thinking the latter. He wanted to march over there, yank her off the spoon, and shake her until she got some sense in her, but that wasn’t going to happen since he wasn’t sure how thick the ice was that surrounded it. He needed to come up with some way to get her attention. When a snowflake landed on the tip of his nose, he smiled. Bending down, he got a big handful of snow, making a snowball, before taking aim and beaming her in the side of the head with it. She let out a shriek before turning to glare at him. He wanted to throw his arms up in victory, but he didn’t think that would help their situation.
“What the f**k!”
He rolled his eyes; the first thing on the list was to teach this girl to watch her f**king mouth. “Shut the music off.”
She glared some more, but she turned it off. Looking back at him, she asked, “What do you want?”
He wanted to say a whole list of things. He wanted his mom and sister back, clean and healthy so they could be a real family. He wanted to be at home, surrounded by girls who wanted to take turns on him. He wanted to be on the ice, the crowd screaming as he broke away and scored the game-winning goal. He wanted a lot of things but, instead, he was standing in the snow, freezing his balls off, while his niece glared and cussed at him.
“Get off that spoon and come with me.”
“No way, I’m not going back to that crazy cat lady. You got me f**ked up.”
He wanted to smash his head in.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he said, “Claire, please come with me so we can go talk.”
“Talk about what?” she yelled. “About how you’re the reason my mom is dead, and I’m living with the crazy cat lady?”
Great, so she blamed him, too.
Swallowing back his anger and hurt, he looked up at the sky and said, “Claire, get the f**k off the spoon and come with me.”
So much for teaching her to watch her mouth.
He really didn’t want to chance that ice, but it looked as if he didn’t have a choice. Looking back at her, he watched as she crossed her arms over her chest, giving him a defiant look. He took in a deep, calming breath and met her gaze, head on.
“Listen, we have a lot to discuss, and I can’t help you until you get up and come with me. Please Claire, its cold out here.” He paused for a moment, wanting to smile when the next thought came to mind. Instead, he just said, “I promise you, I’ll take you for waffles.”
Her eyes widened. He knew her weakness, and he wasn’t above using it against her.
He nodded. “Right now.”
She looked down at her hands and took in a deep breath, before slowly sliding off the spoon. Taking her time over the ice, she came to his side and looked up at him, her eyes glistening with tears. It killed him to know he put those tears in her eyes. He should have just kept her with him. What had he done?
“I’m not going back to her.”
He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
“Come on, let’s get back to the truck before we freeze to death out here.”
They made their way back to his truck and, after starting it and waiting for the warmth to fill the cab, he pulled out of the parking spot and headed to the nearest Waffle House. It was a silent ride, but that was fine. He had no clue what he was going to say to her, but he knew he needed to say something. After ordering two All-Star breakfasts, which included eggs, sausage, hash browns, and, of course, waffles, Phillip looked over at Claire, and his heart sank. She seemed skinnier, and her face was sinking in. She was still beautiful, but where was the sweet girl he left when he was eighteen?
When Phillip left, Claire was five, with light, strawberry blonde hair and the brightest blue eyes, along with a quick smile. She was happy and sweet, and they were inseparable. He loved her so much, still did, and it killed him when he left, but he had to get out while the getting out was good. His mom was downward spiraling and, even though Rochelle was doing okay, he knew he couldn’t depend on her to change his life. He had to do it on his own. Unlike their mother, Rochelle was trying to be a good mom. She worked at Waffle House and tried to stay clean but, like he knew she would, she relapsed and went back to the life she had before Claire came.