Some things you should never have to do twice in your life. Like sifting through the knickknacks and personal effects for a strong man who died before his time.
Before I was ready to let him go.

His home office is a mess—just like his carefree, happy-go-lucky kind of lifestyle. A cheerful attitude that I envied and hated in the same breath. But then again, he was my step-father, trying to fill shoes that I didn’t want filled.

Not at first, anyway.

I don’t remember when Quinn came into our lives. It was kind of a surprise for us, us being my mom and I a year after the towers fell. I only remember things like being old enough to understand that my real father wasn’t coming home that day, or that week, or ever.
I remember wanting to know how come God didn’t look after earthly angels like the police and firemen who risked their lives to save others. At ten years old, there was no grey area, just the truth in black and white.

Gene—my birth father—was a man of character, inner strength and impeccable faith. There was so much I never understood until my teen years. I missed things I didn’t think it would. Things like the way he made his coffee and folded his newspaper. Things like the way he whistled off-key, because he was tone-deaf.

In the wake of his death, I felt like a tropical fish gasping for air, dying without the necessary water, flopping on a rocky, sandy beach.

Then Quinn came along.

I stopped pranking him after he made my mom laugh again. A sound I hadn’t heard since Daddy died. I would later call Quinn, dad, buy him sappy cards for father’s day and bring my boyfriends over to meet him. I’d be proud to be his step-daughter.

I would treasure the attention and time he gave to me—the same way he treasured mom and I.

Mom, who is now crying her heart out, over the second husband in the space of a decade. Another man who gave his life for to save a stranger. She packs his clothes into boxes and bags, even though it hurts stand in their bedroom. I know she’ll keep his uniforms.

His cellphone gleams at me from atop the corner of his desk. He’s always had two. One for work, one for home. The screen flashes, a few missed calls and a voicemail or two.
Before I can help myself, I’ve dialed the voicemail and I’m punching in the security code. We were close enough to know that. I want to reach the new messages, but the automated voice warbles about old messages that need to be resaved.

I don’t know why I let the first one play. It’s not like I’d hear his voice on his own phone.

“…Quinn? Hey, it’s ah, Gene. Things are a mess out here. Don’t think I’ll make it back. I can’t get through to Kathryn, so I’m calling you. W-would you give her a message? Tell her and Maddy, that I love them. I love them so much. They were the best thing that ever happened to me. Best part of my life. Promise me you’ll look out for them?…If—if not for my sake, for Maddy’s? Kathryn told me once…Maddy’s not mine, Q. She’s yours. You knew, didn’t you? I can’t be there for her, but you can. Look out for her, okay?…”

Crashing and static in the background take up the rest of the message. I stand, holding the phone, staring at it like an idiot and feeling goosebumps springing up on my arms. The last line seemed to echo in the tiny office and I choked on air that was suddenly too thick to breathe.

“…Kathryn…told me once…Maddy’s not mine…she’s yours. Look out for her, okay?”

I clenched the phone in my hand. I thought of all those odd coincidences and déjà vu moments, where I felt like a mirror to the two men who had shaped more of life than I cared to admit.

Hot tears spilled out and I sat down, missing the chair and falling hard to the floor.

Mom appeared almost at once, as I fumbled with the voicemail again. She froze as the message began to play on the speaker. The sound rattled through the tiny room.

I held the phone out to her.

(C) Sara Harricharan

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