“CJ?” Margie asked softly. “What’s wrong?”
Chalmers sat on the edge of the bed, half dressed. He started out all right, but something distracted him.
He knew he had to do this. He had to. It was one of those unfortunate things life threw at you and you had to stand there and take it. It might sting. It might hurt. Hell, it might break you in two and burn like hell, but life has very little interest in your discomforts when it decides to doll out its indiscriminate wisdom.
Still, when he shifted the suit that Margie laid out for him, she caught his eye.
They set the doll aside to make sure it would look perfect. Margie’s sister Pam even did the hair, which included working out a masterful snarl created the last time Paisley tried a style that was a little too exotic. Sitting on the nightstand, she stared at him with her long dark hair and bright blue eyes … smiling.
He took her in his hands and dropped to the bed. He stared into the glassy, careless gaze that looked back at him, and he grew envious of the times she got to stare back at Paisley as if they were secret sisters. He and Margie agreed that since Clarrissa was Paisley’s favorite, her “best friend in the world,” she would go with her to her rest. It made good sense. It did.
Chalmers stared into the doll’s face. His mind was mostly clear of the random thoughts that his brain was prone to conjuring. His head, his heart felt empty like an enormous vacant theatre where long ago, life used to play out before appreciative crowds of people nightly, but now sat hollow and stale and falling into disrepair.
He stared at the doll, longing to hear his daughter’s voice whisper just one last time, “Daddy, I love you.”
He stared at the doll, hoping against hope that she would give him a sign, some indication or reassurance that somewhere Paisley was fine, and safe, and happy, and that she would be all right … so the he could be all right.
Margie entered the room to see what was holding him up. They were late. And while they were both crushed right now, it was Chalmers who needed more from her. She recognized that. She respected that. She knew that when the time came, he would be there for her.
She found him sitting on the bed, not nearly ready, quietly holding the doll.
“Honey,” she said softly. “The car is here. It’s time.”
He sat still and stared into the glassy blue eyes.
“CJ, we need to go. Can you finish getting dressed? Everyone will be waiting.”
While is eyes never wavered from the doll’s, his head slowly shook once side-to-side, so subtly Margie might have missed it if she hadn’t been watching him so closely. She stepped closer to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Let me help you.”
The man’s head shook with more insistence, as a child might do when his mother was trying to feed him broccoli. Side-to-side it swung. No.
“Chalmers, please,” Margie said. “I know it’s hard. It’s so hard.” She started to cry. “Please. Get dressed and come with me. Paisley will want her doll.”
“I…” he whispered. He took a deep breath, which triggered a series of deep quick breaths. “I … I … can’t.” His head kept shaking side-to-side. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” Tears streamed down his face as his sorrow contorted his features. He sobbed. “I can’t.”
“You need to say goodbye,” Margie whispered.
“If you don’t, you’ll regret it, for the rest of your life.”
“I can’t. I can’t.”
“Please. Come with me. Say goodbye with me,” Margie said, with a soft urgency through sobs of her own. “I can’t do this alone. Don’t leave me alone in this.”
“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”
At that point, whatever Chalmers Elk had left in him, whatever was holding him so loosely together then, evaporated. His hands let go of the doll, which Margie caught, and he crumpled to the floor. Sobbing without limits, he curled into a ball, repeating, “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”