You should have leapt the instant you heard the splash. But in that breathless, urgent moment, you hesitated, scanning the murky water, waiting for her to bob to the surface so you could get a better fix on her location. You didn’t see her fall, you weren’t looking – there was just that smack of something hitting the water, and you knew before you whirled around that it was she, that she was gone, her tiny pink parka a crumpled chrysalis on the weathered boards of the dock.
You waited–just a second or two–any reasonable man would have done the same. And then, the second splash, as someone else jumped in first.
You wish you hadn’t thought about how cold the water would be, how filthy, churning with grime and bacteria, even as you prepared to jump. No one knows what you were thinking. How could they? The papers reported you shedding your phone and wallet along the way, implying that you were concerned about losing them, damaging them, instead of focusing on your daughter–your baby girl!–drowning in the dark, frigid waters of Elliott Bay.
And whose fault was it she fell in the first place? You hadn’t planned to bring her along, but your wife wanted a break, and she thrust kid and coat at you and pushed you out the door. You’re not stupid: you should have been watching, not fiddling with your phone, checking your email. You know that. You know! But that’s how kids are–ask anyone–look away for half a second and off they go, palming the hot stove or tumbling headfirst down the stairs or dropping like a stone into the goddamned freezing filthy Elliott Bay, with everyone watching and judging and that Frenchman diving in and reaching her first, saving her first, then disappearing like Superman from the scene, humble and gracious and noble and strong.
Your daughter is fine, and you’re grateful. You are. You held her, your coat tugged around her tiny, shivering body, as she choked and sputtered and wailed, and then someone handed her a stuffed rabbit, and she stopped crying and clutched it and smiled, tears and filthy bay water sparkling in her eyelashes.
A miracle. You don’t need to be told; you know it could have been so much worse, the worst.
But when she wakes in the night, gasping, afraid the waters are closing over her head, you can’t console her, no, only the rabbit will do, named for the rescuer, her savior, that Frenchman. She clutches it, tiny fingers working the tip of an ear, eyelids fluttering as she murmurs his name, syllables soft and sibilant: François, François, François …
François. The Frenchman is there, in your daughter’s room, in her bed, in her arms. He’s there in the moment before the meat on the grill turns from done to burned; in the seconds before your wife has to ask you (again) to take out the trash, for god’s sake; in her sidelong glance while you’re fucking, just before you come and she does not; and you know what she’s thinking, she’s thinking about him, the Frenchman, that fucking François, everywhere and everything that you are not.
Didi Wood’s stories appear in Smokelong Quarterly, Cotton Xenomorph, Vestal Review, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She’s fond of the serial comma, board games, and creepy dolls. Often she is festooned with cats. Find her on Twitter @DidiWood.