It was the same nightmare every night. My precious twelve-year-old daughter, Caroline, was walking toward me. Her hair was blowing back off her beautiful face which had tears running down it. She was surrounded by fire behind her, but she was not burning up. She kept asking me, “Where were you, Daddy? Where were you?” I had no good answer. No matter how hard I tried, I was not able to move. I just wept uncontrollably. The heat I felt from the flames around her increased as she got closer. Then, I would wake up just before she reached me. My body was always sweating profusely, and my heart was palpating at a high rate. I would usually remain awake in a state of anxiety until the day started. Once I went to bed again the next night, I knew the cycle would repeat.
It had taken larger and larger amounts of alcohol every evening to give me at least four hours of sleep before the nightmare would return. Don’t get me wrong. I’m explaining more than I am complaining. I, Kyle Murphy, deserved the punishment. I can’t tell you how many times I wish it had been me who burned up and not my baby girl.
Caroline was twelve at the time of the accident, but she had always acted much older. It was easy for me to rationalize that she was competent enough to stay by herself. She had said that so many times herself. That night, I believed her more because I wanted to go somewhere without her coming along. My deeper belief that she needed to be watched was overruled by what I selfishly wanted. My wife, Emily, was at her second shift job. I had agreed to meet my fuckbuddy, Bethany, at our local Motel 6. It had been several weeks since we had been able to coordinate our schedules. Even then, it was just supposed to be a two-hour tryst that evening and then we would go back to our normal lives until the next time. No one would be the wiser. They never had been before. My problem was that night I blew the chance for me having a normal life ever again.
According to the fire department, the fire had started in the kitchen. I had last seen Caroline in her bedroom as I was about to go out. I told her about the pot of chili on the burner I had made for her supper. She was intensely involved in a video game and waved me off with a: “I’ve got everything under control.” I’m not really sure she heard me, or it was just an automatic response from her to dismiss me, like “Stop bothering me.” I should have been sure she heard me. The fireman who investigated the fire guessed that by the time Caroline realized the danger, her room was cut off by heat and flames. Caroline had called 911, and speed-dialed me and my wife. I was the closest at only a few blocks away and could probably have gotten there in time to rescue her — except I had my phone turned off so as not to be interrupted while committing my act of adultery. When I finally turned my phone on as I was driving to my house, I listened to the frantic call from Caroline which was followed by damning calls from Emily asking where I was. I sped to the house but was only in time to see the last of the flames being put out.
Emily was in a sitting position bawling on the next-door neighbor’s stoop. She was wailing out of control. The neighbor lady was trying her best to hug and otherwise comfort my grieving wife. As soon as Emily saw me, she jumped up and started hitting me with windmill arms. Every ounce of strength went into her blows. When she tired of pummeling me, she cried out, “Where were you? Where were you? You were supposed to be at home. You killed my baby, you son-of-a-bitch!” Then she crumbled to the ground and our neighbor came and consoled her again. I just stood there not bothering to wipe the blood off my face from Emily having broken my nose and cut my lips. I deserved to feel pain and much worse.
I asked in broken sobs, “Where’s… Caroline?”
The neighbor answered, “They haven’t recovered her body yet.”
Emily added, “As if you cared, you asshole.”
I knew better than to try and make an apology to a woman as distraught as my wife. I just stood and watched as the firemen started into the rubble to find her body. There is almost nothing, absolutely nothing, worse than seeing a fireman bringing the burnt dead body of your child out of a fire-ravaged house. The only thing worse is imagining what your child’s last few minutes were like, being consumed by heat and smoke, knowing she would not be rescued, crying for her parents. That image was truly a death of a thousand cuts for me. I knew it must be the same for Emily.