Finn sank onto his usual park bench and watched his daughter trot off to the deserted jungle gym to play. Six years ago, he’d been fresh out of college, just beginning to establish a name for himself in his career, when a one-night stand had turned his world upside down. While he wouldn’t trade his little girl for anything, her conception had thrown him into the midst of a mystery that – even now, five years after her mother left without warning – continued to grow more confounding by the day.
* * *
Six years earlier…
A pretty but imperfect middle-aged woman with golden blonde curls, Ally had been the very picture of a newly divorced woman sowing wild oats that she hadn’t known existed before she married her high school sweetheart. She’d found bookish Finn looking slightly overwhelmed and more than a little bit out of place in a loud, crowded dance club. A few of his coworkers had lured him out with promises that they’d make sure he had a great time, but those promises had proven empty. They’d all found their way to the dance floor with beautiful young women while his lack of game left him nursing a cocktail, alone at their table. When the blonde sauntered up and started flirting with him, it had taken him an embarrassingly long time to realize that she wasn’t talking to someone behind him. Less than an hour later, she’d been sitting on his knee and brushing his ear with her lips, suggesting they go somewhere a little more private.
“I…I don’t even know your name,” he’d stammered.
“Does it matter?” She’d flashed a wicked grin, and he’d decided – for once in his life – to seize the day.
While one-night stands and sex in cars hadn’t been completely foreign concepts to him, that night was the first and last time he would experience the thrill of both at once. He’d grinned stupidly as she strutted away, tugging at her skirt to smooth it back down. That feeling of bewildered contentment contrasted sharply with the shock and dismay he’d felt when she showed up, obviously pregnant, five months later. It hadn’t been a one-night stand, after all.
“Hello,” she’d greeted him anxiously, “remember me? I never told you my name, did I? It’s Ally. I…um…” Gesturing at her swollen belly, her eyes had been swimming with barely-contained tears. “I’m so glad I finally found you!”
He’d insisted, of course, on prenatal genetic testing. He was young and naïve, not stupid. But when the tests had convinced him that the baby was his, he’d pushed his shock aside, making every effort to be the father the baby and its mother would need him to be. Starting over after a long marriage, she’d said she was having trouble finding work and a place of her own. The dire nature of her situation – unemployed, uninsured, and couch surfing for shelter – had become apparent to him in short order.
“I wasn’t going to look for you,” she’d nervously explained. “I got myself into this, acting so recklessly. I’m not young, like you. I should have known better! Besides, I had plans that were going to take me away from this area, to a better life. I figured there was no point in dragging you into my mess if I didn’t need to, y’know? But my plans…” Here her voice had cracked, tears spilling down her cheeks. “They got all messed up! I have friends that are willing to take me in, but they live so far away. I can’t afford to get there.”
For a brief moment, Finn had considered helping her with the expense and sending her on her way. She hadn’t planned to tell him about the baby, and the idea of shirking his responsibility had been appealing. But that was never really an option, and he’d quickly reconciled himself to that fact. It would be one thing to have an unknown child in some far corner of the world, but to intentionally send her away with nothing more than a fistful of cash and a child support arrangement? That was far more callous than even his sometimes-too-analytical mind could accept.
Instead, he’d moved her into his spare room and, after researching the cost of an uninsured birth, married her so she could be added to his health insurance coverage. A marriage of convenience if ever there was one, in their life as husband and wife they’d kissed only once – a chaste peck on the lips prompted by the Justice of the Peace’s suggestion. A lack of affection hadn’t kept him from taking her to all of her doctor’s appointments, though. It also hadn’t kept him from panicking when she went into labor two months early, or staying by her side every moment until their daughter came kicking and wiggling into the world. Miraculously, the baby had been perfectly healthy, despite her early arrival.
Exhausted both physically and mentally, he’d taken that good news at face value and passed out in the chair by Ally’s bed. Waking the next morning, the improbability of it niggling at him, he’d shaken off the heaviness of sleep to take the baby in his arms. Ten fingers, ten toes, and a lusty wail had eased his doubts but increased his wonder at the improbability of it all.
“I had the strangest dream, Ally!” He’d gazed at the rosy, newborn complexion of his daughter in awe. “I dreamed she came out covered in green splotches. And she had a tail! She didn’t really have a tail, did she? I mean, it’s not terrible if she did…that happens sometimes, and the doctors can remove them. But she didn’t, did she?”
Ally’s wordless laugh had set him at ease enough to chuckle at his own paranoia, though a twinge of doubt and confusion had lingered. But then the baby had wrapped her little fingers around one of his, and he’d suddenly realized that even if she’d come out bright fuchsia with neon blue stripes and flippers for feet, he’d still think she was absolutely perfect. “What do you want to call her?”
“Meska,” Ally had said decisively. “Her name is Meska.”