Abby loved to sit in my lap while I mowed the lawn. She was always quiet, and perfectly still, transfixed by the mower as it devoured the yard, strip by strip, making the dandelions magically disappear, and transforming the tangled grass into a smooth, green carpet.
Sometimes she giggled when we ran over a stick or a piece of paper. But once, when we ran over the decaying carcass of a bird, I felt her body tremble. “Daddy, it was a birdie!” she squealed, when she saw the mower spit out the mangled remains.
“It’s okay, pumpkin,” I patted her leg. “It was already dead.” But even I had cringed when I heard the blade chew up the hollow bones.
There might have been a faint voice in my sub subconscious that told me it was dangerous to have a three-year-old on a lawnmower. And there was definitely a much louder voice at the dinner table, beside me in bed at night that said it.
“What if she falls off?” Sara, always the worry wart, would ask.
“I’m careful,” I would assure. “She won’t fall off, I promise.”
I kept my promise.
Soon it became a habit, mowing with Abby in my lap. And then a bother. Every other day it was, “Can we mow the grass, Daddy?”
So I started waiting until she took her nap, and that worked for a while, until the afternoon she woke up and snuck out of the house, caught me mowing without her.
“Take me, Daddy, take me!” She was running as fast as her legs would go, hair tousled, squinting against the sun. Then there was a sleepy stumble, and she fell, one outstretched arm sliding under the mower.
We went into autopilot, Sara and I; doing all the things you’re supposed to do: we tried to slow the bleeding, gathered what was left of Abby’s arm, put it on ice, and kept her warm on the way to the emergency room.
In many ways kids are tougher than their keepers. They bounce back quicker. In no time Abby was sitting up in bed, a blush in her cheeks, and a lilt in her voice. Her bandaged stump lay in my hand while the doctor talked about the new arm, how they’ve made progress, improvements. Sara looked on with dead eyes
I tried to imagine the prosthesis, the way they always are: cold, waxy, a too pink attempt at flesh color. But in the vacant space where Abby’s arm once was I could see only all that she would never be able to do. A part of me, the coward part, wanted to get up and run, move somewhere far away, find someone to have another kid with, a healthy kid with all her limbs. A do-over.
Days and days have passed, all but that one. It’s with me in gory snapshots, previews of a horror movie I’ve seen over and over. Screaming faces, twisted in terror. Body parts. Blood. There was so much blood; the smell of it was like wet metal. And then there’s the sound. A sound I can feel. Like the bird carcass only magnified a thousand times.
It’s always the last to go, the sound. Most nights, five shots of tequila will drown it out. Tonight I’ve had six. I throw back another and another, until Leno’s big head melts into the bottom of the TV, and the TV melts into the floor, until I can see Abby out in the yard, gathering a bouquet of dandelions, a spray of sunlight in her hair.
BIO: Leigh Byrne has written for a couple of small midwestern newspapers of which most people have never heard. She began writing short fiction in 2007, and has work published in Thieves Jargon, Glassfire Print Anthology, and Pocket Change Magazine. She has a day job, she bowls, and eats--a lot, the rest of the time she pretty much stays glued to the computer.
MOTIVATION: Penance is based on a true story--a tragic accident that happened to an ex relative. The injured child grew up to lead a full and productive life, whereas the father never recovered.
Dandelion Photo by: Stephanie Berghaeuser