By Jon C. Howren
Around five o’clock on that dreary afternoon, I pulled up the familiar driveway that had been my winter sledding slope as a child and the starting point of my recurring dream months prior. I was still dressed in black slacks and a black suit blazer. My father had not yet been in the ground for two hours and I was already at the location he had told me to return to. The house seemed smaller. The beautiful white paint that used to make the house shimmer in the summer was partially chipped away and discolored. Who were the last tenants? Had they ever heard of home maintenance?
I reluctantly walked alongside the edge of the front porch where a row of lush bushes used to be. A realtor sign stood in the middle of the front yard, peeking out of the tall unkempt grass. My hand was a little unsteady as I turned the rusted knob and opened the front door. It was completely unlocked, just like my father mentioned in the letter that showed up in my mailbox a few months before he died. I stood still for a moment, just inside the entrance, and just let my eyes wander. The dining room was completely bare. Torn wallpaper and graffiti marked the walls that used to display my family’s Bob Ross style paintings. I pictured the most uncomfortable dinner my sister and I had with my parents. The vision of my father throwing his plate at my mother in the middle of our meal crept back to me. I remembered her ducking and the plate shattered one of those nice paintings.
The hallway to the kitchen was completely dark. I looked up and noticed a jagged hole in the ceiling where a light fixture used to be. What kind of animals would tear out a ceiling fixture? As I moved through the kitchen a pleasant calmness surrounded me. A feeling that made my body turn almost numb – like I was floating on set path, just as my dream had felt to me after waking in the morning.
The kitchen appeared to be the most preserved room in the house. There were a few cracks in the linoleum floor, but the cabinets looked untarnished, except for the thin layer of dust that coved them. As I slowly surveyed the room, a haunting memory returned to me. The memory was of my father beating a man half-to-death while my mother tried to pull him off. I witnessed this as young boy from the doorway. The man’s blood flung from my father’s fist as he repeatedly punched him. My mother screamed at the top of her lungs for my father to stop. Eventually, she was able to pull my father away and the man quickly escaped. Did my father track this man down and kill him? Is this what my father had wanted me to find, buried underneath the house — the dead body of a man whom I never knew or was told about?
Many thoughts circled around in my head as I stood frozen at the sliding kitchen door. Through that door and beneath the back deck waited my father’s surprise. But, I did not want to move any further. I had a debilitating fear that reality might actually coincide with the ending of my haunting dreams. I knew turning back around was not an option. The fear I had of never knowing became stronger than any other fears I might have had. I took a few deep breaths, opened the door and walked out onto the deck. The loose boards creaked as I stepped along — my mind wondering why all of this seemed like a scene from a movie or déjà vu.
The white checkered trellis that fenced in the crawlspace looked pristine and untouched. I peeked through the trellis and realized that the pathway was a lot more accessible to a child. I ripped apart a section of the trellis at the seams — the thin wood cracked easily. I inched my way through the opening I had created. Ahead of me, there rested a small spade embedded into the dirt. My knees worked quickly, my hands rummaged through the dirt as my nose breathed in the excess debris. When I finally reached the spade, my lungs were working at full capacity.
I kept digging… and digging… and digging; flinging piles of dirt to the side. My heart was pounding while my hands worked like machines, trying to find anything in the ground below. What if there’s nothing here? What if the letter was just one last stupid game? A moment later the spade hit something hard. From the echo I realized it made too much of a sound to be bones and it was too small to be a coffin. I dusted off the top of a small metal box with my hands and pulled it up from the dirt. I cracked open the seal and reached inside. It contained another letter that was folded over a picture. The letter read:
I hope you have found this letter. If you have
it means that I am dead. If there is one thing I’ve learned
about life, it is that every dog has his day, and every
man has his time to go. I’ve also learned that the truth
must be told at some point. There is something that I could
never work up the nerve to tell you face to face. The truth is
that I am not your real father. You’re real father
was a worthless man that left you and your mother,
shortly before I met her. I’m sorry Michael, but it’s true.
I’m sorry I had to tell you this way. You have never met
your real father. He tried to come to the house once to meet
you and I nearly beat him to death, before he got anywhere near you.
Just remember Mikey, I might not have been your biological
father, but I loved you as much as any man loves his son.
After reading my father’s letter, I gazed at the photograph. It was wrinkled, the color had nearly faded away, like it was a distant unrecognizable memory. My mother was sitting in a rocking chair, holding me — a small tiny baby in a blanket next to her body; and kneeling with his arm around her shoulder, smiling for the camera, was a stranger.
Jon Howren is a graduate from the University of Iowa, with a bachelor’s in cinema. He currently resides in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and is a Newscast Director at a television station. Jon writes short stories (fiction and non-fiction), and screenplays in many genres. He is inspired by music, life experience, history, other people’s stories, radio, and the observable world around him. Some of Jon’s main interests include filmmaking, history, and emerging technology.