The officer picked his way down the dark alley, careful to avoid the used condoms, empty syringes, and shattered liquor bottles. The place was a notorious refuge for the homeless, junkies, prostitutes, and assorted derelicts. Local police provided a modicum of protection with street patrols and periodic welfare checks on the inhabitants of the narrow street. Making arrests was a pointless exercise in paperwork.
The alley held an unnatural stillness that set the cop's nerves on edge. His flashlight revealed the usual suspects either asleep or passed out. Three o'clock in the morning, the dead hour between night and day. What if time stopped right now? Would the world cease to exist? Would he spend eternity in this miserable alley?
Get a grip! You've been down here a hundred times. A couple more minutes and you're done.
He was near the end of the alley now. A figure was huddled beneath the dumpster. The policeman shined his light for a better look. Something moved. The cop reached for his gun.
"Police! Show me your hands!"
The person remained still. The officer started forward and then froze as something small crawled out from behind the dumpster.
"Show me your hands! Now!"
His light caught the terrified face of a ragged, barefoot girl no more than three or four years old.
"Mama's asleep," the child said. "She won't wake up."
The cop examined the woman and then made a call. He removed his jacket and placed it around the shivering child. They waited together in the alley. The officer thought about his own daughter asleep in her bed at home and wondered if this night would ever end.
* * *
Conway Fine looked up from the weed-choked garden he'd been working on for the past hour. Sweat drenched his shirt and stung his eyes. He stretched his back and struggled to his feet.
"Police? I ..."
The officer cleared his throat and looked away for a moment. "Do you know an Ella Fine?"
The question hung in the air. Conway heard the roaring in his ears and saw the ground rise up to meet him. He tried to speak, but his mouth couldn't form the words. The policeman was saying something, but he couldn't hear through the thick fog blanketing his mind.
Fine was feeling better by the time the ambulance arrived. The technicians checked him over and left after Conway signed a release and assured them he was all right.
"Mr. Fine, if you ..."
Conway held up his hand.
"It's okay, yes I know Ella. She's my daughter. I haven't seen or heard from her in five years. Long story."
The cop nodded his head.
"She's dead, isn't she?"
The officer continued to nod. "I'm sorry for your loss. If you have any questions or need assistance with final arrangements, Mrs. Wells can help you."
Conway watched a plump, middle-aged woman come up the front walk. A little girl was holding her hand.
"I'm sorry about Ella, Mr. Fine. I work for a local shelter that helps the homeless. We tried to reach your daughter, but she wasn't receptive."
Fine cringed at the words. His daughter had left behind the safety and security of his home to live and die on the streets. Why?
He looked at the girl and felt the tears form behind his eyes. Conway knew who she was before Mrs. Wells spoke the words.
"This is your granddaughter, Mr. Fine. Her name is Sophie."
* * *
"She died from a heroin overdose," Mrs. Wells said. "From what I know, she had been using for several years. We found your name and address on a piece of paper in Ella's purse."
Conway thought about that. Ella had been a lot of things, but stupid wasn't one of them. Maybe she knew her life was coming to a close and she didn't want Sophie to disappear into a nightmarish foster care system that would grind her to pieces. But why send her daughter to be raised by the man she had despised?
"What about the father?"
"Unknown," Mrs. Wells said.
"But surely you can do a paternity test on any known boyfriends."
Mrs. Wells glanced at Sophie. "I'm afraid not."
Conway caught her meaning. His daughter had been a street prostitute. Her "boyfriends" would have numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands.
They discussed final arrangements for Ella and a plan for Sophie. Conrad had retired six months earlier from an actuarial career with a major insurance company. He was financially comfortable and had the time and resources to meet his granddaughter's needs. He was also a sixty-one-year-old man who had failed as a husband and father and lived alone. Sophie deserved better.
When Mrs. Wells left, Conrad turned to Sophie. It occurred to him that the child had yet to utter a word. He struggled for something to say. "Hungry?"
He led the child into the kitchen and fixed some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with milk and cookies. Sophie wolfed down the food with both hands.
Conway studied her. "Are you scared?"
"Me, too. It's been a long time since I had a little girl your age. I'll need you to help me be a good grandpa. Deal?"
Conway showed Sophie the bedroom across the hall from his own. "Would you like me to turn on the nightlight?"
He made a show of checking the closet and underneath her bed. "No monsters in here."
His granddaughter looked up at him from beneath the covers.
Idiot! She's seen plenty of real monsters in that alley. Stop talking about monsters.
Conway went into his study and reached for a legal pad. So much to do -- find a pediatrician; contact some pre-schools; buy some clothes; buy some toys; get her hair cut; find a pediatric dentist; hire a housekeeper that can cook and likes children.
He put down his pen and rubbed his eyes. His mind drifted back to the early years. Conway had resigned himself to bachelorhood when Annie walked into his life and changed everything. He was forty and she was twenty-four. The age difference didn't bother him; he was in love. The marriage began to fray soon enough. By the time Conway realized Annie had been looking for a sugar daddy, Ella was on the way and his new wife was looking to trade up to a doctor or lawyer.
Annie was gone before Ella's first birthday. No note, no phone call, no forwarding address. Twenty years later and Conway had no idea where the former Annie Fine was or if she were even still alive.
The two of them had muddled through the early years, Conway trying to be both mother and father to Ella. Birthdays and Christmas were the hardest times.
Conway smiled at the memory of Ella's eleventh summer. They had never been closer. Ella suggested they start a vegetable garden in the large back yard, raise their own food like the pioneers. Together, they had cleared a plot, tilled the ground, and planted beans, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, peas, and some tomato plants. Every day they watered, weeded, and waited.
The raccoons and rabbits got most of the lettuce, but the rest of the garden provided a nice yield. Most nights they ate supper from the garden on the back patio. At the end of the summer Conway surprised his daughter with a bench and a brass plaque that said Ella's Garden. After that everything fell apart.
Maybe it was puberty; maybe the absence of her mother; maybe a lousy job of parenting. The last few years were a nightmare. Ella broke curfew, stayed away for days at a time, and usually reeked of liquor or marijuana when she did come home. When Ella ran away for the last time Conway was appalled by his sense of relief. He tried to find her, of course, but he didn't try that hard. His daughter had made her choice.
And here we are. Deja vu all over again. Try not to screw it up this time.
Appointments and tending to his granddaughter's needs kept Conway busy for the next week. The pediatrician gave Sophie a clean bill of health and cautioned Conway not to worry about her failure to speak at home. She had spoken clearly in the examination room and would talk to him when she was ready.
Conway had put Sophie down for her afternoon nap and was looking forward to spending an hour in the garden. He had kept the garden going every summer for the past nine years. It took him back to that too short time when things between him and Ella had been good. He also liked the clean, unadorned taste of food that came straight from the earth to his table.
He glanced at his watch and swore. The time had gotten away from him. Sophie would be awake and wondering where he was. He hurried to the back door and climbed the stairs.
Conway knocked on the door and entered the room. The bed covers were pulled back and Sophie's favorite stuffed bear was on the floor. His granddaughter was gone.
No, please no.
He went to the window that overlooked the back yard. Sophie was sitting on the bench by the garden.
Conway caught his breath and walked back outside.
"Hi Sophie. Did you have a good nap?"
Conway sat down on the bench next to his granddaughter and pointed to the garden.
"Your mama and I started this garden nine years ago. It was hard work, but we had lots of fun and good food from this little patch. We used to eat supper on the back patio almost every night during the summer. I've worked this garden every summer since then, and still eat out on the patio most nights. Of course, now I eat alone. Now, now, now I ..."
The tears came hard and fast, and there was nothing he could say or do to put it right.
Congratulations Conway. You screwed up again.
"Grandpa, what does this say?"
Conway stared at his granddaughter. She was pointing to the plaque on the bench.
"It says Ella's Garden. I got the bench and the plaque for your mama the summer we planted the garden."
Sophie ran her fingers over the inscription.
"Honey, did your mama ever say anything about me? It's all right, I won't be mad. I was just wondering if you knew who I was."
Sophie looked down at her hands. "Mama didn't talk much, except for one time. She said you were good."
Conway didn't trust himself to speak. They sat in silence and watched the shadows lengthen across the garden. Another few days of weeding and tilling the soil and it would be time to plant. He turned to his granddaughter. "Would you like to help me with the garden this summer?"
Sophie smiled for the first time and nodded. Conway took her hand and walked back to the house. At the door Sophie paused and looked up at her grandfather. "Grandpa, can we eat on the patio tonight?"
Conway Fine closed his eyes and said a small prayer of thanks to whatever cosmic entity had sent Sophie Fine to his home.
"We sure can, honey," he said. "We sure can."