Terms & Conditions

Tommy Dean

He swiped left across the smartphone screen, clearing the app icons until he got to the last page and his background picture came into view. His daughter at two: stringy hair, round cheeks, rosy in the heat of the kitchen, her shoulders clad in a pink winter coat, unzipped, hands clasping a bottle, milk sliding toward the tip, a limp-necked giraffe, and a plush cow crowded in her sticky fingers. The longer she was lost, the more he surrounded himself with her at younger ages. A loop of potential he binged until he was full of soul ache. His nightly calls used to go to voicemail, and he’d leave her messages, his temperament changing with the seasons. The rage left him a year ago. The last time she answered. Not answering his questions, but singing, her voice floaty, no doubt seeing a different world over the veneer of some back alley of a bar, syringe sticking out of her elbow, while butterflies and spaceships surrounded her, taking her far from his voice. His voice cracked, ice over a river, until everything dried up. So he told her of his days, the monotony of filling buckets with new screws, nails, and fasteners for the factory workers to build the kennels that were shipped across the country. Nothing about the divorce, how her mother was just as lost to him now, how he’s afraid he’ll lose everything eventually. He ended each call, letting her know he’d drop it all and come get her if she told him where to go. She doesn’t even have to leave with him. Seeing her again would be enough. If she was trying to teach him a lesson, he thought he’d learned it, paid whatever dues there were, and was ready to settle for enough.

Lullabies for adults are the lies they tell themselves to fall asleep. The ringer was always on, the phone charging on the nightstand next to his empty bed, and the doorbell camera was constantly rolling. He tossed and turned, mind running through all the things he could have said over voicemail, ways to convince her that she should believe his lies, that there was something in his love that was worth accepting.

He missed the years when she would call to beg for money when he finally figured out that sending cash didn’t provide him any solace, that sending credit cards was the only way he could track her movements. The transactions in neat columns on his bank’s website; how he could assure she was at least buying food, hygiene items, a year of cable and internet in those low-slung apartments outside of Bellefontaine, Ohio. How she laughed at him when he mentioned the food.

“I just trade it for drugs, Daddy. I may be a fish caught on a hook, but you won’t be the one to pull me to shore.”

That night she let him hold her hand. Twenty-one years old, and her veins ridged into mountains trying to explode out of her skin. A rash at the back of her neck she kept itching. They shared a laugh over a few contestants on American Idol.

“Why am I so broken, Daddy?”

He kissed her forehead, the wispy hairs on her temple — his little girl. “I don’t know, baby. Some of us start with broken wires.”

And maybe he should have told her it was his fault? But he had yet to get there. He wanted to blame her, the president, the spin of the Earth. He still believed in intentionality back then. That what he did or said meant something. That things broke out of a lack of caution, a lack of understanding, an unwillingness to slow down. But her desertion left him empty, focused on the way the world could harm you even when you were doing your best, when you didn’t aim to hurt anyone. Bodies still crippled under the weight of time. Hearts still broke. Daughters remained lost.

Last night, the phone rang four times before a voice came on the line.

“Hello? Hello?”

He tried to factor in the ravages of time and stress, the meteoric power of the drugs, but this voice didn’t feel right. It was higher, more assured, balanced.

“Is it you? Baby girl, is that you?”

“I’ve been getting your messages. I listen to them before I go to sleep, and Daddy?

He laid down on his bed and pulled the comforter up to his chin, fighting his urge to run, jump in his truck, and chase this signal out into the wild.


“You can let it go — all of it. The moments you were angry, the times you sent me to bed crying, the way you ignored my pleas for five more minutes, how often you were distracted. The times you tried to trick me? Forgiven.”

“I don’t understand. I’ve never been able to understand.”

“Just repeat after me. I’m forgiven. Hurry now. They’re coming for me. And I don’t know when I’ll return.”

“Honey, no. Wait. I’ve been thinking about your wires. Our wires. I don’t want to fix them. I want to let them be. I could just be there for you. Keep you safe.”

The line dropped hours ago, and he found himself in the cab of his truck, dialing and dialing. Every five rings, the automated voice picked up, reminding him that the voicemail was full, that he’d have to hang up and try again. The headlights off, the night dark across fields of stubbled corn stalks, an ocean he will never traverse.

Tommy Dean is the author of two flash fiction chapbooks and a full flash collection, Hollows (Alternating Current Press, 2022). He lives in Indiana, where he is the editor at Fractured Lit and Uncharted Magazine. A recipient of the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction, his writing can be found in Best Microfiction 2019, 2020, 2023; Best Small Fictions 2019 and 2022; Monkeybicycle; and elsewhere. Find him at tommydeanwriter.com and on Twitter @TommyDeanWriter.