“You don’t have enough points, sir. I’m sorry.”
Any further argument stuck in Jim’s throat. He looked down at his daughter, catching her gaze before she abruptly turned away from him. He was losing her, he could feel it. The denial of joint custody had devastated him, but he’d been determined to play a positive role in his daughter’s life. This should have been a minor setback, a momentary disappointment, but those had been adding up very quickly. Worse yet, Amanda’s reactions had dulled from a young child’s tantrums to reticent acceptance. When he’d picked her up this evening, she actually looked like she expected him to let her down before she’d even gotten in the car. The same expression her mother wore during the custody hearing.
“Fine, fine,” he muttered, squeezing Amanda’s hand as they walked away from the counter. He had just enough cash left for one last pick-me-up attempt. “How about that ice cream, kiddo?”
“That’s okay, daddy,” Amanda said without looking up at him. “I don’t really want to anymore.”
Her words chipped a hairline fracture into his heart. “Well, then, we can have a few more rounds of skee-ball, get some more tickets.”
“It won’t be enough,” she answered. “I’m tired. I wanna go home now.”
A buzzer resounded through the boardwalk arcade, stopping Jim in his tracks and setting his teeth on edge. To his left, a girl slightly older than Amanda celebrated her skee-ball success with her parents and brother. Her machine was spewing a steady stream of tickets onto the floor. Amanda peered around Jim’s leg to see, then stood back again and stared at her feet.
His left hand balled into a fist; he had to concentrate to keep his right, which held his daughter’s hand, from doing the same. It wasn’t fair. He wanted to be a good father. He’d do anything to see his daughter smile at him again. Why was life constantly dealing him shit cards? Joyce cheated on him, yet she got sole custody. She insisted on having weekends with Amanda; Jim had to risk losing his job just to spend time with his daughter. Joyce got the house, he moved to a slum, had to carry pepper spray and a pocketknife to feel safe outside his own front door. Tonight, all Amanda wanted was the damned stuffed panda behind the counter, but that pimple-faced kid hawking the prizes refused to budge on the ticket count. What the hell did he have to do to get ahead?
He turned back around to look at the panda hanging from the ceiling, and saw the kid ask a coworker to cover for him, then head for the restroom. Something snapped in Jim’s brain then. His heart started pounding. His legs carried him forward before he realized what was happening. “Excuse me,” he said to the parents of the celebrating kids. “Can you do me a favor? I really have to hit the restroom, but I don’t wanna make my daughter wait for me in there. Can you watch her for a moment?”
The parents exchanged a dubious glance, then looked down at Amanda. “What’s your name, sweetie?” the mother asked.
“Thanks so much,” Jim said, then crouched down in front of his daughter. “Daddy’s gonna be right back, okay? Be good for this family, yeah?”
Amanda stared at him blankly. He rose and turned toward the restroom, trying not to think too hard lest he talk himself out of his plan. Pushing through the door, he nearly ran into the counter attendant as the kid flushed a urinal and walked to the sinks. The other urinals were unoccupied. As casually as possible, Jim crouched to check the stalls. No feet under any of the doors. Feeling sweat beading on his forehead, he approached the kid at the sink, grabbed his shoulder, and roughly spun him around.
“Hey, what the—“ the kid started, choking on the rest of his words as he stared at the blade of the pocketknife Jim held in front of his face.
Jim tried his best to sneer and sound intimidating. “Do I have enough ‘points’ now?”
I wrote this short story for a flash-fiction competition in which the story’s first line must be “You don’t have enough points, sir. I’m sorry.”