for jacklived'storieskeepmesane, who said theresa ought to have a story.
Papa holds her while the water laps at her ankles, creeping farther and farther up her leg. She ought to be scared, she thinks, but that has passed, leaving behind an odd sort of calmness. Bravery, she'd like to call it, though she can't help but wonder if all her feelings have frozen, like ice. Is it bravery if she's just tired?
Her father is still crying, and praying, too. She wants to let him know that it's all right, that they'll be all right, but she can't find the words, so she merely squeezes her arms tighter around his neck. When she'd been little, he'd carried her around everywhere, with her arms just as they are now. If she closes her eyes, they might be somewhere else, a long time ago.
"That child is never going to walk on her own," she can almost remember her mother laughing. That was when Mama still smiled.
"I just like to have my girl in my arms," Papa would reply, and then he would toss her into the air, so high that she seemed to fly as she'd secretly wished, so high she thought she might never come down, but she always, always did.
She'd never liked to talk much, so they'd made a code for carrying, Papa and Theresa. One squeeze meant "stop." Two squeezes meant "let go." As she'd gotten too old to be carried, though, she'd started squeezing him three times - "don't let go" - for more and more often, he'd set her down before she was ready. And somehow, it had changed from "don't let go" to "I love you." Theresa sometimes thought they meant the same thing.
Now she wonders if he remembers it, as the frigid cold water reaches their hips. Her father begins to cry again, huge, terrifying sobs that burst out of his body like explosions. Theresa buries her head in his neck, heart pounding. She can feel his heart pounding, too, as if it struggles to get out of his chest. Her nose pricks, and tears burn her eyes, but she pushes them down, squeezing her arms around her father once.
He doesn't notice, and the water is up to her waist, so she tries again, more insistently. This time something seems to click, and he looks at her as if he might shatter.
"I can't, Theresa," he says in a voice that breaks over her name. "I'm sorry, my girl."
Theresa considers this for a moment, then squeezes him three times. He buries his face in her hair. She can feel the water inching up to her shoulder blades.
A sob escapes into her hair. "I love you, too." She can feel his nose poking her ear. "And I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I tried." His arms hold her tighter as the water reaches her neck. Her father leans against the grate, trying to stand on his tip toes, trying to keep them both above water for as long as possible, but Theresa understands that they've got maybe a moment more. And again, she wonders if she's being brave or just numb.
She'll be brave now.
Very deliberately, she squeezes her father twice. She catches his eye, jaw aching she's clenching it so tight, and he nods, silent at last. He lifts a hand out of the water and brushes a bit of her hair back; she cups his face with her hands. Then they hold each other while the water closes over their heads.
For a moment, there is only cold and water and darkness and arms around her, constricting, desperate.
Then she opens her eyes, and it's not. It's light and warmth and being held.
"Ready to go?" her father asks her, eyes crinkling with a smile. He's still holding her, but he's not crying anymore. She nods, a little cowed. She wants to say they're standing in a field, but sometimes it looks more like a grand staircase, or their house, or, once, a giant tree, its leaves glinting green in the hazy sunlight. Her father begins to walk, strong steady steps that bounce her a bit. She can see in the distance something like a lighthouse.
She thinks for a moment, head resting on her father's shoulder. Then she squeezes him four times. She can feel his puzzlement.
"What does that mean?" he asks, still moving forward. It takes her a breath to find her voice.
"I'm glad we're together," she says quietly.
"I'm glad we're together, too," Papa replies. "My girl, my beautiful girl," he whispers, just for her, and then he tosses her into the air like he used to, except this time she doesn't come down.
She flies, like she always wanted to, with Papa by her side until the light engulfs them both in a sudden, exhilarating flash.