Jessica Harding gave her daughter everything she wanted from a pony to the latest electronics, but the one thing that Julia really wanted was a dad. Jessica told Julia that her dad had died before she was born.
Derek Harding, Jessica had told Julia, had been a loving and kindly man who was excited to welcome their first child until a fatal accident claimed his life at the age of 32. What Julia didn’t know was that it was all a lie.
The truth was that Derek had gone off on a business trip to Seattle and never came back. Jessica, then seven months pregnant, had driven Derek to the airport herself.
Even then he’d seemed distant, too silent, telling her that he had too much of a headache to talk. He walked off, ticket in hand, and he hadn’t looked back. Jessica had never seen him again.
Jessica had fallen into a deep depression and only the birth of her baby two months later had finally drawn her out of that spiral of hopelessness she was in. Julia had become the center of her entire world, and she early decided that she would know nothing about their abandonment.
So she destroyed every photo, and every memento of Derek and had spoken of him seldom and in the vaguest of terms, emphasizing his kindness and how athletic he’d been — rather like Julia.
Fortunately, Jessica’s family was very wealthy and a few years before marrying Derek, she received a substantial legacy that allowed her to support herself and her daughter lavishly.
Whatever Julia wanted, Julia had. When Julia wanted to learn to ride a horse, Jessica bought her a pony, when she wanted to dance, she enrolled her in ballet school.
Even though Jessica indulged her daughter shamelessly, somehow Julia wasn’t spoiled. She was a sweet, loving girl, and deeply empathic. From the time she could walk, she started coming back from her walks with her nanny in the park with ‘sick’ butterflies and caterpillars, and once a baby bird.
If the world was wounded, Julia wanted to heal it, and it was her sweet kindness that led to a mighty row with her mother. Julia went to ballet on Tuesdays and Thursdays and it was usually the driver who fetched her.
After Jessica noticed that they always arrived almost an hour late from ballet and chided the driver, he confessed that it was Julia who always came out very late, and with her clothes very dirty.
Puzzled, Jessica asked Julia what she was doing after ballet, but her daughter just shrugged and mumbled vaguely. So she decided she would fetch Julia herself and get to the bottom of the mystery.
The next Tuesday, Jessica was parked outside the dance academy, and saw all the girls coming out — then she noticed Julia sneaking past the car, crouching behind the fence.
Jessica got out of the car and followed her daughter. To her astonishment, Julia walked into an abandoned building at the end of the block. Jessica followed her in and saw her run to a figure sitting in the shadows.
“Here I am!” Julia cried. “I got you some ham sandwiches and chocolate milk, and some warm socks…” At the sound of Julia’s voice, the figure raised its head, and Jessica had a vague notion of huge eyes set in a skeletal, ravaged face.
“Julia!” she screamed. “What are you doing? Come back here right now!” Julia turned and stared at her mother. In her fright, she dropped the sandwiches and the other items she held in her hands.
“Mom!” she gasped. “Oh mom, this is my friend, and he’s hungry…” But Jessica had reached Julia in two steps and had grabbed her arm and was dragging her out and away from that frightful shadowy figure.
On the way home, Julia heard a long and angry lecture about sneaking away from school and into danger, especially being alone with strangers in an abandoned building.
“But mom, he’s not a stranger!” cried Julia. “He’s been my friend for two years and he’d NEVER hurt me!”
“You were just lucky, that’s all!” cried Jessica angrily. “But I want you to PROMISE me, Julia, that you NEVER, ever see that man again!” Julia sobbed, but she promised, which had quietened Jessica somewhat.
She knew that her daughter was a truthful child, and she hoped that her kind heart would not lead her into danger again. Months passed, and Jessica pushed the incident with the homeless man to the back of her mind, but fate wasn’t done with her yet.
She was driving with Julia to her end-of-the-year dance recital when her daughter started screaming, “Stop, mom, PLEASE, PLEASE STOP!”
Jessica brought the car to a standstill and before she could even ask what was wrong, Julia had unbuckled her seat belt, opened the door, and dashed out of the car.
Jessica saw her kneeling by the side of a prone figure lying on the sidewalk, half-covered with snow. “Mom,” Julia cried, “it’s my friend, and I think he’s really sick!”
Jessica stepped out of the car, to where Julia was gently stroking the unconscious man’s forehead, and for the first time, she saw his face. “Derek!” she gasped. “Oh my God! It can’t be…”
Jessica fumbled for her cell phone and called 911, then she knelt by her daughter’s side and looked down at this stranger wearing her husband’s face. The ambulance took the man to the hospital, and Jessica and Julia followed him in their car.
The man was in a coma, the doctors told her, and they were stunned when she identified the vagrant as her husband. “He vanished, abandoned us…” she said with all that old bitterness sharpening her tone.
One of the doctors said, “Ma’am, this man has an advanced brain tumor, which must have been spreading for the last ten to fifteen years. Did your husband suffer from headaches and memory loss?”
Jessica nodded. “He did! He was so forgetful he had to write everything down, and he had migraines…”
“Then,” said the doctor gently, “it’s likely that he simply forgot who he was and that you even existed. The tumor is benign, and if we remove it, he may start to remember…”
“He…He didn’t abandon me?” asked Jessica, burning tears scalding her cheeks. The doctor was shaking his head ‘No,’ and Jessica drew her daughter into her arms. “Oh honey,” she cried. “You brought your daddy home!”
Later, and much calmer, Jessica explained to Julia who that man was, and why she’d told her he was dead. “But he wasn’t, you see, he forgot himself, and he forgot us!”