6th January 2001.
I am so proud right now!
Jess – At your School play, you shone like a star, darling.
Made your Daddy cry with pride seeing you up there.
Mummy was more nervous than you’ll ever know, but she needn’t have worried – you made her so proud.
I’d love for you and Stevie to both follow your dreams – whether it’s dancing, writing, painting, whatever – just be really happy in whatever you do.
I woke this morning to find both of you in bed with me and, after each cuddling me, you hugged each other – may you always stay close to each other and look out for each other.
Victoria folded the letter and placed it back into the laptop bag.
It was one of several letters she’d never known that her husband had written, only discovered in his office at home after the towers came down.
It had since become a ritual for her; every Friday night – the night her husband would have once come home for the weekend to her and the children – she’d read one of the letters.
At first it had meant that she’d wept every Friday night.
Now, with the healing time since that horrific day when he’d had business within the World Trade Centre, she closed each letter without tears, only smiles, as she read his words.
Pushing the bag under the bed, she went to check on the children.
The following morning over breakfast, Stevie was talking about his father again. It was a week away from his fourth birthday. His kindergarten teacher had told Victoria that when asked what he was getting for his birthday, he’d told his classmates that his daddy was bringing his present to him.
Victoria poured the breakfast cereals out, and she and Jessica started to eat. Stevie took a few spoonfuls and then, muttering about needing something, clambered down from his chair and disappeared upstairs.
“Why does Stevie keep talking about Daddy coming back?” Jessica asked her mother between spoonfuls.
Victoria looked across at her seven-year-old daughter and smiled, reaching to touch her hair.
“I don’t know, sweetie. I think he’s getting to the age where he just really misses Daddy. I guess his friends all talk about their Daddies. He’ll be okay. He’s still got us, right?”
“Sure.” Jessica replied.
Upstairs, Stevie sat on his bed, clutching a small photo frame to his little chest, his head bowed over the picture of his father holding him in his arms.
At night, Stevie lay, looking up at toy spaceships and glowing stars on his bedroom ceiling. The house was still and quiet. His mother and sister had been sleeping for at least half an hour and he lay awake, listening to every creak as the building cooled down after another warm August day in Boston.
He listened to what sounded like footsteps in the attic above.
They came every night and he’d never been scared of them.
It was his secret, and he took comfort in their sound, bringing back memories of a time past, sounds of someone coming to check on him as he slept.
Every night he drifted off to sleep listening to his father pacing around up there.
The night before Stevie’s fourth birthday Victoria feigned sleep until the children had gone to sleep themselves, before carefully easing herself out of bed to prepare for the next day.
She quietly crossed the hallway and crept downstairs to put on a pot of coffee.
When she was convinced that her two children were sleeping soundly, she made her way back upstairs, taking the long handle to open the attic hatch with her.
She stepped up onto a small wicker chair borrowed from the bathroom and lowered the hatch, gently easing the wooden ladder down to the hallway floor, wincing as the two sections of the ladder clicked into place. Still the children slept on.
She made five trips up and down the ladder to retrieve the various bags of toys and gifts she’d accumulated for her son’s birthday. It was on her sixth trip back up the ladder that she heard the telephone ringing from downstairs and rushed back down with the bags to answer it.
It was her sister from Maine, calling to see how she and the children were, and to check that she’d received the present she’d mailed to Stevie earlier that week.
Once she’d finished the call, Victoria decided to press on with wrapping the gifts she had downstairs so far, and would go back up a bit later on in the evening to retrieve the remaining bag.
She put on an Al Green CD, a favourite of her husband’s, whilst she wrapped and arranged her son’s presents around the lounge, humming the tunes absently to herself as she did so.
Between two of the tracks, in the brief lull and silence, she heard footsteps from the floor above and looked up. The next track started up and she reached for the remote control to quell the sound so she could listen to the footsteps. They stopped almost as soon as she did so. They’d sounded like they were going in the direction of Stevie’s room.
She smiled to herself, imagining her son running back to his room after having a quick search for his birthday presents. He’d now be pulling the duvet up to his chin and squeezing his eyes shut to pretend to be asleep.
It was then that Victoria remembered the last bag of presents – she’d left one in the attic.
She made her way slowly upstairs, trying to remember to avoid the noisiest steps on her way, not wishing to wake either of her children – if they were actually asleep.
Peering into both bedrooms, she saw that both Jessica and Stevie were in their beds and were in fact both fast asleep. She slowly climbed the wooden ladder into the attic, clicked the light on at the top of the ladder and looked around for the last bag.
It was nowhere to be seen.
Victoria started to move items around in the attic space; holiday suitcases not used for three years, boxes of the childrens’ toys she’d been too sentimental to discard, and boxes marked up as containing her husband’s clothes and belongings – kept for the same reasons. The bag of presents was not among them.
Shaking her head, she clicked off the light and began back down the ladder.
As her foot stepped off the final rung to the floor it brushed the side of the carrier bag below her, at the base of the ladder.
She looked around, shocked at the sudden appearance of the bag of presents and knowing it couldn’t have been there when she climbed up into the attic. She peered into Stevie’s room once again, but he was snoring soundly, as was Jessica when she re-checked her room.
Ladder stored away, she made her way back downstairs to complete the wrapping.
Stevie was up and running down the stairs at just after seven-thirty, shouting for his sister to follow him to see what he’d got for his birthday.
Victoria kissed both of her children and settled them down for breakfast before she would agree to allow her son to be unleashed on destroying the hours of wrapping she’d endured the previous night.
The other reason for keeping him back from his presents until around 8am was now standing at the front door.
Victoria ran to the door as soon as the doorbell sounded.
“Dad.” The children heard her say. “Glad you could make it.”
“Grandad!” Both the children shouted as they jumped down from the breakfast table and ran to hug their grandfather.
“Hi Princess, hey Birthday Boy!” The old man said as he knelt to accept their hugs.
“Here we go.” He said to Stevie, handing him a wad of bills. “Didn’t know what to get you, so you can use this to go and treat yourself to whatever you want. I always thought cash was the best birthday present when I was a lad.”
Stevie looked up at his Grandad and smiled.
“Thanks, Grandad. I’ve already got the best present. Look.”
The boy reached down into the neck of his pyjamas and pulled out a fine silver chain. On the chain hung a small metal disc.
Stevie’s Grandfather recognized it straight away.
“Very nice. It’s one of the old New York Subway tokens. ‘Good for one fare’ it says – I remember your Daddy used to wear one just like that.”
Victoria took a step back and clutched at the bannister post for support.
“This is his one.” Stevie replied. “Daddy gave it to me for my birthday.”
Victoria sat at the breakfast bar, sipping coffee, but not tasting it – her mind elsewhere as her father settled the children in the lounge with the task of unwrapping the remaining presents.
As soon as he was content that they were suitably occupied, he returned and placed his arm around his daughter.
“What is it, Vicky?” He asked. “It’s about the token, right?”
She nodded slowly.
“It’s David’s.” She said, tears welling in her eyes. “It’s definitely his, Dad.
Only, I buried him with it – I made sure he wore it. It was his little motto ‘Good for one fare’ – he always said it if we had to make a decision. You know, like, we only get to go round once in this life?”
Her father held her tightly, comforting her.
“He was here last night, Dad. He helped me find some of the presents for Stevie and he must have given him the chain. He came back to give his son the one thing he wanted – his daddy to come and bring him a birthday present.”
She looked across into the lounge, where her son was busying himself by pushing a toy car across the floor with his right hand. In his left hand he clutched the tiny pendant. His face beamed with a bright familiar smile as he looked back at her.