He woke up with a clear head. For a change. Then he and Annie had a quiet breakfast together. Black coffee and what's left of yesterday's bread for him while she had her fill of milk and her favorite chocolate-flavor cereals.
A minute later, they were in the bathroom.
"Where are we going father?" Annie asked gasping for breath as Tom poured water on the child's head to rinse away the suds while making sure to protect her eyes. Then he gently wiped and wrapped her in a towel.
"We're going to church, it's your birthday today. Remember what I told you last night?" Tom caught the sparkle in her eyes upon hearing this.
Then she carried her lovingly to the bedroom and pulled a familiar baby blue dress from the drawer, the same one worn by Annie to church last year, when Ellen was still here with them, which seemed now like an eternity away when it was in fact only a year ago. Tom was amazed at how fast she had grown.
"The dress barely fits her now", he whispered to himself.
Everything that was happening came and went like a blur which puzzled Tom, knowing that he is supposed to be sober today, for Annie's sake. One minute, the priest spoke about deliverance from worldly temptations, and then almost incoherently, about some obscure passage from the bible the next. He just couldn't grasp a thing. The sound system in church crackled to the choir's chorus, giving him a headache. Annie herself was becoming restless, the way it had always been with kids to whom religion is just something their parents tell them to learn to live with, when they would rather be playing all day instead.
As people lined up to receive the host, Tom swiftly scooped the child into his arms, and almost scampering away, they left. They left in a hurry. They left like someone's chasing them. They left without looking back. They went away, away from the faithful throng, away from the house of God, away from the echoes of song and prayer and into the crowded streets.
Tom didn't know where he was going to and he didn't care. He just kept walking. When his feet could no longer carry them, he slumped on a bench in the park, in front of an outdoor diner's counter. He realized he'd been walking around for hours, which explains his weariness, his hunger, his irrresistible thirst.
"I'm hungry, 'Pa..." the girl whispered to his ear which prompted Tom instinctively to reach for his wallet. There'll be enough to buy a fancy lunch and a birthday gift, he was glad to find out. For the second time today, they shared a meal, a better one compared to what they had earlier. She had pasta, toasted bread, fruit juice and a big scoop of rocky road with the cherry on top. Tom ordered lambchops and beans but he craved for something else, a craving he tried desperately to ignore, aware that this craving was the curse that ultimately shattered his mariage, and unless he can hold himself together, he would surely destroy himself with this craving, if in case it has not done it yet.
"No, not today, not this time, not now. Keep your head together Tom," he repeatedly reminded himself. "Save what little you have for the gift, for Annie's sake, do it, Tom..."
"Why don't you join the other kids out there", Tom said pointing at the playground teeming with children, "It's your day, sweetheart, have fun! I'll be right here watching over you".
"Okay, Dad..." She walked away - reluctantly at first, but pretty soon, Annie had joined the kids at play, running around screaming and frolicking in the grass, having a great time, not caring a bit as the hours passed, completely absorbed in the sheer enjoyment of their innocent, happy little lives.
Tom knew the moment the bottle touched his lips that there will be no turning back. One shot was followed by another and then another and yet another. The curse of the bottle had beaten him yet again. Tom sipped the last drop and spent the last cent of his money.
When Annie returned, she found Tom lying on the gutter, face down and slumped on his own vomit. She sat near him, and failing to revive her father the girl wept. What he said the night before was true. It was a birthday she will never forget for the rest of her life.