This story is by Chris Murphy and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Ezekiel Daniels, if I have to tell you one more time to stop playing with that thing and take out the trash, I will burn every last one of these tapes of yours! Do you hear me?”
Ezekiel sat cross-legged on the floor of his empty childhood bedroom in front of a worn-out cardboard box. He pushed the “STOP” button on the old portable tape recorder in his lap and listened to the sound of his mother’s recorded voice echo off the bare walls and fade into silence. He closed his eyes and let the memories wash over him.
The recorder had been a Christmas gift from his grandmother. It had opened a world of creativity that would consume him throughout his childhood, much to his mother’s eternal frustration. He shuddered at the memory of her tape-destroying threats. She had never been a fan of his invasive hobby and she communicated that fact loudly and often.
“Are you okay, baby?” His girlfriend leaned against the open door, her face beaming with kindness mingled with a touch of concern.
Ezekiel managed a weak smile, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine, Sam.” He set the tape player on the hardwood floor and slowly rose to his feet, “I, uh, I found this thing in my old closet. It’s my tape recorder and the tapes I’d made.” His face slowly melted into an expression of sadness, “As many times as she threatened to burn these things, I just assumed she’d done it after I left. I had no idea she’d kept them all these years.”
Samantha entered the room and moved toward the box, “Oh yeah? What’s on them?”
Ezekiel shrugged, “Oh, you know, just stupid stuff I’d recorded when I was about twelve. Nothing important. Probably just have the movers add ‘em to the junk pile.”
She knelt down and began looking through the cassette cases, “You sure? Your mom must’ve thought they were important enough to keep.”
Ezekiel shrugged, “Yeah. I guess.” He shook his head and moved toward the bedroom door. “No sense dragging them to the apartment. Doubt I’ll ever listen to any of them.”
“Good lord, babe. Your parents must’ve spent a fortune on blank tapes. There’s, like, a million of them in here.”
Ezekiel chuckled, “Yeah, I drove my mother crazy with this thing. I practically recorded every second of every day for about four years.”
“Well, you were a pretty organized kid.” She pulled out a tape and read the cassette’s handwritten label. “October 28, 1981 – Mom and Terrie carving a pumpkin.” She pulled another cassette case out of the box, “March 15, 1982 – Helping dad fix the truck.” She smiled at him, “These are adorable, ‘Zeke. Might be, I dunno, therapeutic to listen to some of these, y’know? I mean, now that your mom’s…” She paused, not wanting to say the word out loud.
Ezekiel nodded, “It’s okay, Sam. You can say it. She’s dead.”
Samantha tossed the cassette into the box and moved toward him, “I know how difficult this has been for you. I’m sorry you and your parents didn’t exactly part on good terms.”
Moisture formed against his will in the corners of his eyes. “That’s an understatement.”
Samantha reached up and took his head into her hands, her eyes locked onto his, “You can’t keep holding onto all this pain and guilt, baby. We’ve got a child of our own coming and I don’t think you want to pass any of this hurt you’re carrying onto our baby, do you?”
Long-buried emotions broke through his psychological defenses like they were made of tissue paper. He pulled away from her touch, “Of course not, but you don’t know what I did to them, especially to my mother. I can still see her face after that ridiculous fight I started during Thanksgiving dinner.” He gave her a look of utter agony, “I mean, I cussed her and dad out in front of the entire family.” Hazel eyes darted around his empty bedroom, “I just…I couldn’t get out of here fast enough. I was so tired of their stupid rules and Bible stories and having to live a perfect life. I hated being a preacher’s kid and hated them for forcing me to be one.” His shoulders sagged as if he were carrying Mt. Everest, “I just assumed they hated me too after I left them to go on my rebellious Prodigal Son tour.”
Samantha pointed at the box, “Your mother saved all of your recordings. That’s not the actions of someone who hated her child, ‘Zeke.”
Ezekiel stared at the box as if seeing it for the first time.
“Baby, if you want proof of how much your mother loved you, it’s right there. I really think you should think about listening to those tapes again. Now that you’re an adult, you might discover your childhood wasn’t as horrible as you remember.”
Ezekiel shook his head, “I don’t know, Sam. I’ve got a lot on my plate with work and the baby coming in June, I just don’t know when I’d have time to sit down and listen to hundreds of cassette tapes.” His face seemed to darken, “I mean, it’s not like I’ve got a tape deck in my car, y’know?”
She cocked her head and pointed to the tape recorder from the floor, “I’m guessing that thing runs on double-As.”
His response came with a well-practiced frown, “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
Samantha smiled, “You know what you’ve got here, baby? You’ve got a time machine in that box. You can literally re-live some of your childhood as it happened in real time. Do you realize how rare a gift that is? I mean, how many people have access to a living record from their past like this?”
His expression hardened as Ezekiel moved to the box and grabbed a handful of tapes, “Oh, yeah. I can definitely see how I can forgive myself for breaking my dead parents’ hearts by listening to…” He glared at the cassette case labels, “‘Mom yelling at Terrie for losing her car keys’ or ‘Dad and me fishing at Lake Travis’, or ‘Chuck, Billy, and me playing Dungeons and Dragons’ or ‘For my son to listen to when…’”
His voice quickly trailed off into stunned silence.
Samantha watched him for a few seconds before her curiosity took over, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
His face was a mask of stunned disbelief. “It’s my mom. It’s…it’s her handwriting.”
“What?” Samantha was at his side in an instant reaching for the tape. “You mean she…?”
Ezekiel shrugged, “I don’t know. I mean, I haven’t seen these tapes in years.”
Samantha studied the cassette label, “September 22, 2010 – For my son to listen to when he comes home.”
His eyes widened with the realization, “2010? Sh…she recorded this last fall.”
“Oh my god, ‘Zeke.” She handed the cassette back to him. “She must’ve already been diagnosed when she recorded this.”
Ezekiel took the tape and simply stared at it, unable to form any words in response to the new revelation.
Samantha picked up the tape recorder and handed it to him, “Do you want some time alone?”
He stared into Samantha’s beautiful face and saw her overwhelming love and compassion for him before his eyes moved to her belly. An image of the child she carried rushed into his mind followed quickly by his lover’s words. He knew in an instant what he needed to do, for her, for their unborn child, and for himself.
He nodded at the woman who had captured his broken heart, “Yeah, Sam. If you don’t mind.”
Samantha smiled, “Take all the time you need, baby.” She kissed him softly on the cheek and exited the room, closing the door behind her.
Ezekiel stared at the cassette case for what felt like an eternity before he slowly opened it and dropped the tape into the machine. He closed his eyes and pushed “PLAY”.
The tape began with several seconds of silence before his mother’s recorded voice filled the empty room again, “I’m not sure how to start this. I’ve been listening to your tapes since your father died and as much as I hated this thing when you were little…well, I’ve missed you, Ezekiel. It’s been thirteen years since we last spoke. Your Dad’s gone and now I’m… Well, I know you’re angry with us for raising you like we did, but I need you to know we were never angry with you and we certainly didn’t hate you, son. Whatever you’ve done since you left home doesn’t matter. You just need to know that your father and I…we always loved you. We always will love you. I just…I just wanted you to know that. You are my baby boy, Ezekiel, and you always will be. There’s absolutely nothing you can do that will ever change that…”
For the first time in a long time, Ezekiel Daniels cried.