Honor Caswell sat in the tall back red leather chair with the grommets and looked at the desk. The corners were covered with silver picture frames, the top had a desk pad with a neat stack of printed pages, with an engraved pen on top. The door was to his right. He wanted to look natural, and calm when they brought Penny in. He didn’t feel calm. He felt everything in the world except for calm.
He stood up. Maybe pacing would help. He walked over to the bookshelf. There was nothing worth browsing. All legal books, a few atlases.
He was in the honorable Judge Parnell’s chambers in the family court of Multnomah County and it was taking every bit of strength he had left to keep from tearing the room apart, lifting the massive desk and throwing it out of the third story window. It took every bit of strength he had left to keep from pulling every last book onto the ground, kicking holes in the walls and screaming till his ears bled.
There were technically two, but really only one reason why he wasn’t burning the whole place down. The last time he lost his mind and let his temper get the better of him is the whole reason he was here in the judges’ chambers, a man with nothing left. The second reason, the only reason really was because any moment, the judge and the county psychologist were going to bring his daughter Penny into the chambers to be with him for five minutes, so he could say goodbye.
Penny was six years old and the light of his life. She was all he had left and five minutes, she would be gone too. The court had ordered, that due to his actions on the night of June 12, 2005 and due to the testimony of his now ex-wife Kristi, and due to the testimony in private chambers of Penny, that he was a threat to the health and wellbeing of his daughter and was restricted from any contact with her until February 9, 2018, her eighteenth birthday. On that day, he could reach out to the court to get the updated contact information to her. He could not reach out to her directly until the court had made at least three attempts through proper channels. February 9, 2018 was nearly 12 years away.
His chest was hot, and his neck was tight. He had to think about something else to keep himself calm. He didn’t want his daughter to see him agitated so he tried to think about something positive, memories of good times.
He thought of the morning of the day he went ballistic. It was a great day. Kristi slept in and Honor made Penny pancakes in the shape of a bunny. He poured a round pancake then poured two long bunny ears, one of them bent over. When the pancake was golden brown, he gave it two chocolate chips for eyes and a slice of strawberry for the nose.
She sat at the table waiting for the pancake, coloring a picture of a bunny that looked a lot like the one he was making from pancakes. But her bunny was purple. She rushed to finish coloring it in when he said the pancake was ready. Her crayon moving back and forth, back and forth, slipping outside the lines of the face. Her hand moving from the elbow, her tongue pushed out against the corner of her mouth, her head bent over. She had soft blond hair like her mother’s, tiny shoulders and when she smiled at Honor, he felt like his entire life was heaven sent.
After breakfast, he took her out to the garage where he had to put one last stain on the table he’d been working on. She sat on his stool, spinning it around, or sometimes put on the big gardening gloves and grabbed a rag to help him wipe the stain on. Sometimes she wandered around the yard, still in earshot, looking for ladybugs and grasshoppers.
When he was almost finished staining, she came back into the garage and got on the stool. She was talking about rainbows and asking when was the last time he’d seen one. She was spinning on the stool, catching herself on the table when she’d spun around and pushing off to push around faster, soon she was laughing and spinning and then, as if he felt it coming, he looked up and saw as the stool wobbled, her arms went out wide, reaching for something to hold onto and the stool toppled over, crashing to the cement floor. Penny flew off, landing on her side, her hand didn’t catch her, instead, she landed right on her elbow and hip, her head bounced down onto the cement after the rest of her body hit. There was a moment of dead silence and then her scream.
Honor was already scrambling up to get her, he picked her up in his arms and held her against his chest. She was screaming and sobbing and trying to look at her injuries.
Later, in court, Kristi used these injuries and bruises on Penny to claim Honor was abusing her. She’d taken pictures of them the next day and showed them to the police when she called them that night.
Honor’s heart was pounding again. This isn’t the memory he should have gone to, but it seemed to be the only memory he had anymore. All other memories led to this one, and to what happened later that night when Kristi came home drunk and belligerent. When she lied to his face. When he knew where she’d really been. When he grabbed all the furniture he’d been working on and threw it onto a giant fire pit. When he lost his temper and pushed her over. When the police were called. When he was taken into custody. When his life ended.
He thought it was taking longer than expected for them to bring Penny in, but then he didn’t have a good sense of time anymore. Everything in the past seven months had moved both in slow motion and in a blink.
The morning with Penny, her fall, the afternoon watching cartoons on the couch with ice packs and gummy treats, the call from Kristi that she was going to go out with friends, putting Penny in the car to spy on Kristi, discovering, not surprisingly, that she wasn’t where she said she was, by chance seeing her car parked in a driveway off Capitol Hill, then, in slow motion, seeing her inside his house. The slow unwinding of his mental state as he realized he had confirmation of what he’d suspected but never wanted to know for sure, that Kristi was having an affair. The numb drive home. A Wendy’s frosty for Penny. Staring into space. Putting Penny to bed. Her sore elbow and hip feeling better but still stinging. Her head feeling better. Daddy’s soft back tickles helping her drift into sleep. Downstairs, taking a beer from the fridge, pulling the pint of beam off the shelf, taking a swig. Then, as if his anger was simmering just below the surface while Penny was with him, now that she was in bed it boiled over, pouring out his pores. It was heavy and regular, like waves crashing onto the shore, but sadness pulled the anger back, like an undertow, then it built and crashed again. He couldn’t keep any one emotion steady, the anger, then the sadness as he replayed everything in his mind and it always took him to the same place, watching her leave his house with him, holding his elbow, turning to kiss him.
The night got later, and he kept drinking, and thinking. Replaying events over and over to the same ending but each time he got there he was more upset than the last until the phone rang. It was Kristi.
“Going to be a bit longer,” she said. “Maybe another hour. Sarah sends her apologies. She didn’t expect us to run late either.”
“You there? Babe?”
“Babe, you okay? You sound funny.”
“See you later,” he said, hanging up quickly.
Then he went out into the garage and grabbed the table he’d stained with Penny that morning. He grabbed, the chairs he’d already finished. He grabbed scrap wood he was saving for another project. He carried it all to the back yard and threw it down beside the fire pit. He started a fire and as it grew, he threw the pieces onto it. The flames shot up higher than him. He stared at the bright orange and red light. Looking into it was the first time his mind had gone quiet in hours. The fire consumed his thoughts as the heat burned against his face. When it started to wane, he went inside. So much furniture he’d made over the years. A Coffee table, the kitchen table, two end tables. He carried them out and threw them on the fire. He pulled the TV off the TV stand, letting it fall over onto the arm of the couch and carried the stand out too and tossed it onto the fire.
The door opened fast and Judge Parnell walked in briskly with Judy Radlow, the county psychologist. Judge Parnell was clean shaven and thin, younger than Honor had expected, maybe not even forty. Judy was just as he’d expect. Overweight, a purple streak in her dull brown hair, looking at him with patronizing expressions of pity and disgust. She sat in court with her mouth hanging open during the trial, glossy lipstick reapplied frequently, always with a streak of it on her teeth.
Mr. Caswell, the Judge said heartily, extending his hand. There’s been a change of plans.
Ms. Radlow here has expressed concern that a grand goodbye will do more harm than good for a seven-year-old. She won’t understand the context of your departure and giving her a specific, confusing memory to call back on might make things even more difficult for the sweet girl.