This story is by Ashlee Phillips and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Standing in the gardenia bushes and peering through his ex-wife’s window, Theo felt like a pervert. But he needed to get the timing right; he knew Margaret couldn’t be the one to answer the door. She’d never let him over the threshold. She’d poisoned Miles against him, so Theo hadn’t stepped so much as a foot in Mississippi, not even when Mother passed.
That was over a decade ago.
Now, here he was, ankle deep in a flowerbed like a dirty beaner, in Mississippi after decades of half-hearted attempts to stay in touch.
His demands for an invitation to the annual family reunion fell on deaf ears. Despite not having seen his kids more than a handful of times, he wanted to be included this year. After all, he deserved to be with his family, goddammit. He certainly didn’t deserve to be standing out in the muck like a filthy outsider.
Through the blinds, he could see a few sticky-faced kids running around. He didn’t really know who belonged to whom. He assumed he had grandkids, a logical bit of reasoning, but no one came calling to tell him about births or birthdays.
He never liked kids. It was hell trying to pretend he could stomach their powdery smell and slobbery kisses. He despised how sociopathic they made him feel, and he couldn’t muster the interest in first steps or incomprehensible doodles. Theo made the mistake of telling his then-wife that he didn’t feel love for his children. She kicked him out, and he never looked back. Well, not until he got a birthday card from Miles, his only son, inviting him to the annual Patterson family reunion. The fact that his family had a family reunion—every year!—that he wasn’t a part of sent him into a depression that he couldn’t explain to himself.
Margaret, looking as displeased as he remembered on the night he left her, was standing in the center of the room. She motioned for someone to start setting the table then disappeared into the kitchen. With Margaret finally out of sight, Theo uprooted himself from the garden, stepped up to the door and rang the bell. He heard the commotion he had already witnessed from his window-peeping. He waited. There were multi-colored lights strung from the rafters leftover from Christmas. Just like Margaret to do something so…redneck.
When finally the door opened, Theo found himself eye-to-eye with his doppleganger: a kid, couldn’t be older than 16.
“I guess you’re Miles’s boy,” Theo said.
The teenager shrugged in reply.
“Your dad home?”
“Nope. He’s gone,” the teenager replied.
“I thought he’d be here. For the reunion.”
“I meant that he’s dead,” the teenager replied.
Theo stiffened. He must’ve misheard what the kid said. “He’s what?”
“He’s dead. Like no longer among the living. D-e-a-d.”
Theo didn’t understand. His eyes immediately felt like two dry sponges stuck in his head. Every blink felt like sandpaper against his eyelids. “But he just sent me a birthday card.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, man,” said the teeenager. He looked like he was about to cry right here in front of Theo, or maybe it was a trick of the light.
“When? What happened? Why didn’t anybody tell me?” Theo asked.
The kid moved out of the doorway to let Theo in. “Come on in and I’ll tell you about it.”
Standing in the foyer, neither of them knew what to do or say next. “I always thought you might be a black guy,” the kid said.
“Excuse me?” Theo said, startled.
“Seemed to explain why you weren’t around. That or you’re a drunk.”
“Well, I guess that makes you only half wrong,” Theo said. “Now, tell me what happened to Miles.”
“What?” Theo asked exasperated. He was starting to wonder if this kid was retarded, but Theo fished in his pocket, pulled out his chip and handed it to the kid. “Six years sober.”
The kid flipped it over in his hand, inspecting it carefully. “That’s too bad,” he finally said as he handed the chip back to Theo.
Theo arched his eyebrow at the teenager, an old habit. “What is?”
“My dad didn’t know you were sober,” the kid said. “Maybe it would’ve made a difference.”
Theo was about to ask what the kid meant when Margaret lumbered into the room like a blind cyclops. She didn’t recognize Theo at first, but when she did, he could see a menacing frown tug at her lips. Age had only sharpened her edges, but even with a flour smudge on her forehead and an oversized shirtdress swallowing her body, she loomed.
“What are you doing here?” Margaret finally asked.
“Miles is dead?” Theo asked. Frantic nerves were building up in his stomach. He didn’t understand why no one would tell him about Miles.
“What?” Margaret screeched.
“I came for the reunion. Miles invited me,” said Theo. “But then this kid gave me the surprise of my life when he informed me Miles is dead!” Theo was growing more and more agitated.
Margaret looked at Theo then at the teenager until Theo thought her head my twist off like a toothpaste cap. She started cackling. “Why did you tell him that, Andy?”
“Partly, I wanted to see if it was true that he was a sociopath. Like you said.”
Theo’s brain was racing. He couldn’t understand what they were saying to him. He couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his pounding heart. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“Miles is in the other room, perfectly healthy and certainly alive,” Margaret said.
“So everything you said about your dad being dead was just some weird fucking gallows humor? A fucking test?” Theo growled at his young doppelganger. “Why did you do that?”
The kid looked at the floor and explained, “A few months ago, my dad got drunk. I’ve never seen him have so much as a drink, but there he was, wasted. Apparently, he had sent you a birthday card, and it filled him with so much regret and shame at his weakness that he had to drown himself in a bottle of whiskey.
“While he was smashed, he told me a story about the night you abandoned him. He heard you telling Grandma Mags that you hated being a dad. That her kids could die, and you wouldn’t feel a thing.”
Theo remembered that night. He was drunk, but it gave him the courage to say and do what he’d been considering for a long time. He left Margaret and those kids behind—including Miles—and never looked back. Never really regretted it. Not until a few months ago when he received a birthday card in the mail from his long-abandoned son.
Andy looked at Theo and said, “That’s why I told you he was dead. Because you said you wouldn’t feel anything.”
Knowing Miles heard him all those years ago didn’t bother Theo. He couldn’t change it, but it never occurred to him that it would affect another generation. And now, hearing his son’s footsteps come up the hallway made Theo’s stomach lurch and stopped his heart.
This day is going to be the death of me.
When Miles walked into the front room, the air seemed to solidify. Theo didn’t know what he expected to get out of coming here, but he wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll it would have on him. Theo wasn’t paternal—it just wasn’t in his DNA—but the fact remained, this was his blood. Staring at his son and look-alike grandson, Theo felt a twinge of regret.
“Hey, son,” Theo finally said.
Miles looked at his dad for an agonizing minute and arched his eyebrow, an old habit.