The return of Papa

The return of Papa

by Molly Hersage

Seventeen-year old first-place winner Molly Hersage loves to write and knows that it is what she wants to do. She said she wanted her short story, "The Return of Papa" to have a confrontation between a daughter and father, but she did not know how the story would turn out.

"Parents make decisions without asking what their children want," she said. "This is an extreme case of a parent not listening to a child, and the girl represents every child going through that problem."

The story focuses on a family in South America where the father was taken away many years ago for trying to start a rebellion to overthrow a dictatorship. The father returns years later (with the help of Amnesty International) and is asked to lead another rebellion. This choice he has to make lies at the center of the conflict between him and his daughter.

"When people write stories like this, they always see it through the eyes of the political character," Molly said. "They never focus on the person's family and how they feel."

She is currently publishing a play through the Dramatic Publishing Company.

Molly started writing when she was 12, living for a short time in Minnesota. She said a she felt depressed a lot of the time and wrote as a way to deal with it. She wants to write seriously in the future and admits her dream is to have her own talk show.

"The difference between me and Jerry Springer or Oprah is I will have a psychology degree before starting a show like that," Molly said.

--Jason Rothman

I was 5 when they took him away. My memories of the night are few and faded. Two men dressed in black uniforms shot through the front door and entered with automatic weapons in their hands. I can't remember their faces, only their blurry figures. And the strong smell of cigar smoke. My baby brother remained silent through it all, as if he knew what the men were capable of. I don't remember where my mother was standing, only that she was in the wrong place because they shot her through the hand. But she didn't scream, she only stood still. They dragged my father from his bed and the older man, the one with all the stars on his uniform, beat him with the end of his gun. My father's cries broke the silence of the room. Then they commanded him to stand up and the three of them walked out the door. I suppose the whole event lasted only a few seconds, but to the mind of a small child it seemed to last forever. When I asked Mama about what happened she wouldn't talk to me. At first I thought it was out of fear that she too would be arrested. But now I think it's because she didn't want me to know that what Papa was doing could have killed us all. Over the years my mother has begun to tell me who my father really was. She told me that before being arrested my father ran an underground political party. Since my father does not believe in dictatorship, he and the other party members devised a plan to overthrow the current leader. But the party was too small to carry the plan through. So he and the other members secretly distributed fliers to try and recruit new members. The government found out about it and arrested my father. When they questioned him about the other people involved my father said nothing. Most of the other members escaped to the United States. Those who didn't moved to a neighboring country.

I am a nanny for a wealthy family that lives just outside the city. I cook and watch after their children on the weekdays. The money I earn goes directly toward school. My mother washes other people's laundry and sews clothing for a baby shop down the street. My brother, who is now 13, is still too young to get a job, so he helps my mother when he is not in school. When my mother was shot she had to have her hand amputated so the pace at which she works has greatly decreased. The stub that remains on her left arm is useless when it comes to threading a needle or scrubbing stains out of a shirt. Sometimes I come home from work to find her sprawled out on the floor crying from frustration. These are the hardest days for me because it is a reminder of what happened. And even though it has been over 12 years since my father disappeared, we still struggle. Other nights I find her humming, rocking gently in her chair with a green sock covering the stub on her arm. She is content and I feel her happiness.

I went to pick up the mail in town on Tuesday, as I always do. Rarely do we get anything because the government looks through everything we receive. But on that day I found a letter addressed to my mother from Amnesty International. I took the letter and hurried home. Since my mother is illiterate I slowly opened the first letter and began to read.

"Dear Mrs. Perez, for the past two years we have been trying to convince the government to have your husband released. Last week we were notified that Mr. Sergio Perez is to be released into your custody on Sept. 18. We hope for the best."

I looked up to see silent tears streaming down my mother's face. My brother grasped her hand tightly and rocked her gently.

I was sitting on the steps when my brother found me. He wiped a tear from my face and sat down. It was comforting to feel him beside me.

"I don't remember him, Lucila."

I turned and looked at him.

"I don't think any of us do."

"What if I don't recognize him?"

"He'll understand. We've all changed a lot, Miguel." I gave him a reassuring look and his worried brow seemed to calm.

"Tell me what he looked like, I mean before they . . ." his sentence trailed off, but I knew what he meant.

"I don't know, tall I guess. A black mustache . . ."

"Anything else?"

"I can't remember everything," I paused feeling his tension. "Sometimes I think I don't want to remember."

He looked at me and his eyes saddened.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know." I turned away.

"What do you mean, Lucila?"

"I just . . . I just think that we should be careful, that's all," I said looking at him.

"Careful of what?"

"Think about what this man let happen to us, Miguel . . ."

"He's not just some stranger, he's our father."

"That doesn't change what happened." I felt myself growing angry.

"He loves us, Lucila."

I looked into his eyes.

"Enough to keep us out of danger?"

"Stop it."

"No, I mean it. He was supposed to take care of us."

"He did."

"No, Miguel, he abandoned us."

He stood up and started to turn away. "Miguel?"

"What?" he turned back. Tears were in his eyes.

"We can't keep ignoring what happened."

He looked at me in rage.

"Those men came into our home and they . . ."

"Don't you think I know that? I just can't . . . I don't want to . . ." he wiped a tear and swallowed, "I have to make dinner." He turned and walked inside.

I arrived at the train station just as my father's train was pulling in. I stood waiting, endlessly looking for someone who looked at all familiar, but none came. The last passenger got off and embraced the family that awaited him. I stood not knowing where else to go.

I must have stayed at the San Tomas train station for more than an hour before I remembered where I was. Only then did I recall why I had come and how I had failed. As I turned up to leave I ran into a thin looking gentleman.

"Excuse me," he said looking down at me.

"Yes, sorry," I said not looking up.

I felt his presence behind me.

"Can I do something for you?" I said turning to face him.

"No . . . no, I don't think so. You just looked like someone I . . ." he turned to go.

Only then did I notice his black mustache. "Papa?"

His head turned and our eyes met. He stared at me for a long time.

"Lucila . . . how you've grown," He looked at me sadly.

Miguel and Mama quickly adjusted to Papa coming home. I think Mama thought that Papa had suffered enough and slowly time would heal itself. There was no longer any fear. Every week a man dressed as a priest would come and eat dinner with us. No one thought this unordinary because we lived in a very Catholic neighborhood. That's when I began to have the bad dreams. The more the priest visited, the more nightmares I had. Every other night I woke up screaming or completely drenched in sweat because I was so frightened. And the dreams were always the same. It was the night they came to take Papa away. But instead of taking him, they shot Mama, Miguel and me. My father stood silently and watched it happen.

One night the priest came home from work with Papa. After dinner Papa took the small man into the back room and shut the door. I asked Mama what they were doing but she just said they were talking about setting up a new church in the area. When Mama went to bed I went to the back of the house and listened through the door. I soon discovered the man posing as a priest was really a member of a new underground political party. He wanted my father to be their leader. I was beginning to believe more and more that I had no idea who my father really was. It frightened me to think this man, who I had grown to love and cherish in two short months, might disappear. Perhaps this time forever.

I must have been screaming in my sleep again because the look on my father's face was pure horror. He woke me up gently and wiped the sweat on my forehead. I was so hot that he suggested we go outside. The air felt good and I was comforted by the darkness of the night. We sat on the steps and silently watched the world around us sleep.

"What is it you dream about that frightens you so much?" he asked.

"I don't know, just things I guess."

In the dark he lit a tiny cigarette.

"I heard you talking with the priest tonight."

"We're just friends, Lucila . . . old friends."

I turned and looked at him, my eyes burning with tears.

"Why do you lie to me, Papa? Do you think I don't know?"

"I do not want to worry you."

"Not worry," I said growing angry, "Do you think I would forget those men coming into our house and taking you away? Do you think I am not already frightened?"

"That is over now . . ."

"It will never be over, Papa. Do you ever watch the way Mama struggles? The way she tries to hide the hand that is no longer there?"

"Lucila, don't . . ."

"Do you know what I think, Papa? I think you choose to forget about your family when you are involved with you political life. I think you pretend we are not here."

"I am going to bed," he opened the door.

"Papa?" I said, waiting for him to turn. Finally, he faced me.

"Would you die for me?"

"What is this, Lucila?"

"Would you die for me?"

"Go to bed, you're just tired . . . that's all."

"I don't think you would, Papa."

He went in and shut the door.

It is late at night when the knock comes. I think at first it must be a dream but when I hear it again, I know it is real. Papa rises from his bed and goes to the door. I sit up and watch him move across the house. I think they have come to take him away, again. I begin to shake, fearing the men in black uniforms have come to shoot him. Papa pauses, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness and then slowly he opens the door. The priest stands alone with his black shirt and white collar. My father sighs and steps outside, closing the door behind him. There is only silence and a breeze from the cool, night air. I breathe, allowing the fear inside me to exhale. Then I stand and walk to the door. Mama and Miguel lie quietly sleeping, they have not been disturbed by this priest's late-night visit. Outside I hear the small man and Papa talking. He is telling my father a decision must be made, the time has come for Papa to take his position as leader. I silently open the door and walk outside. They are sitting on the steps and have not heard me.

"If you go, do not come back," I say, as my Papa turns to see me standing behind him.

"What are you doing up? I . . ."

"If you go, do not come back."

"Lucila, you do not know . . . Father Rodriguez is just a friend . . ."

"You cannot leave us again."

"You do not need to worry about me, Lucila . . ."

"This is not about you. This is about all of us."

He looks at me and I can see the sadness in his eyes, but it does not come close to matching the determination in my heart.

"Go to bed. I'll be in in a minute."

I look at him, and I know he can see the anger in my face. I slip into the house and lie down, trying to relax. In the darkness I close my eyes and slowly drift to sleep. In my dream I see them shoot through the door and enter in their black uniforms. They tie Papa's hands and turn his face to the wall. The older man lifts his gun and points it at my father's head. Then he pulls the trigger. Papa's lifeless body slides to the floor.

I awake momentarily relieved. I have survived my dream. My father comes over to my bed and sits down. Gently he wipes the sweat from my forehead and quiets the panicked screams that have erupted from my throat. His hands are soft as he rocks me gently. I feel a tear fall on my cheek and I know it is not my own. I look up and see my father is crying.

"Papa, why is it you . . ."

"I was afraid for so long I would forget my family. That I wouldn't be able to . . ." He quietly sobs and I feel his pain.

"But you have remembered."

"Yes, I have remembered."

We sit, holding each other in the darkness. Finally he wipes his eyes and swallows.

"I . . . I told the priest I could not help him."

I sigh and allow my body to fall against his chest.

"Lucila, how you've grown."

His warm tears fall against my cheek.

"I am glad you have come home, Papa."

In the darkness he looks at me with sad eyes and I think I see him smile.

"This story impresses with its emotional reach as well as its scope. The purposeful flatness in its prose and lack of affect allows the intense emotions of the characters to emerge unfiltered, raw and powerful. He is a story we can 'feel' without the author instructing us how to do so."

--Tom Parker
"It's rare to see such control of language from a young adult writer. 'The return of Papa' shows its author's talent in tackling an emotional subject without descending into bathos, and in recreating with vivid detail a child's growing awareness of the conflicting allegiances that complicate our lives as adults."

--Linda Sexton
"This is a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It deals with something very complex and difficult, and the best writing is usually that which takes on big risks. The characters are shown, rather than summarized, and the dialogue carries much of the story. This young writer shows a great deal of craft."

--Peter Steinhart

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