Tom sat with the folded letter in his lap, staring at the old photograph in his hand. He reached across to his side and poured himself another glass of whiskey.
‘Rest in peace, Pa.’ He raised his glass in a mock salute and took a gulp. Even though he sat beside a small fire he shuddered as he looked once more down at his father’s grin in the picture. ‘You were a piece of shit, and I’m glad you’re gone. You were an angry, hateful bastard. Blaming everyone but your own damn self for your wasted years and the weak, thin blood that pumped through your veins. If there is a Heaven, I hope you don’t get in. And if there is a God willing to forgive you, then He’s a dumb, old son of a bitch.’
Tom leaned over with the photo in his hand and held it over the fire. The picture caught quickly and flamed up, curling at the sides. His father’s grin warped into a sickly grimace of pain. The image turned to ashes which floated down into the hearth, whilst the embers rose up against the blackness like stars racing through the firmament. He took another drink and picked up the letter.
It was from his mother. It told of his father’s passing from some cancer that had caught in his legs and worked upwards through his body. It told of how he had grown gentler, easy going almost, and lived his last months full of regrets. Of how he had been looking for Tom. How he had wished desperately to see his son one last time.
There came again the shudder curving up through Tom’s spine.
‘He had been looking for me?’ The thought filled him with unease. Memories of hiding in wardrobes and under tables as a boy, whilst his father stalked through the house with his belt, looking to work off some aggravations. ‘Fuck you again, Pa.’
He took another drink and looked down into the fire. The photograph was gone. His father was gone. But deep in his heart he felt a secret knowledge, that there was something out there now, on some other plane, that knew of his existence. Something that could not be run from, could not be hidden from. Something that was looking for him.
He shook his head at the thought, assuming the memories of a tortured childhood had put him into a fragile mindset. Tom put the letter to one side and rose from his chair. He told himself he was cold, that was why he was moving across the room to shut the door. The door that led to a dark and shadowed hall.
He paused at the window, looking out at the streetlights that streaked through the rain. Night after night, as a boy, he had stared out of his bedroom window and wished for all manner of worlds that could fit inside his child’s imagination. Both bright and uncertain worlds, but never was his father present. And yet, outside of his door, he knew his father drunkenly moved through the rooms of the house. He heard him stumble into walls, knocking tables down and yelling. Worse yet, he felt his father knew his secret thoughts, his dreams of escape.
‘Couldn’t stop me though, could you?’ He feigned detachment. He felt embarrassed for how uneasy these memories were making him, but also shameful that his father’s death would be anything more than cause for celebration in his house. There had been initial feelings of relief, and then guilt. There had been a small sadness and then came happiness. But now he felt cold. Anxious. He felt sick in his stomach just as he had whilst crying underneath the kitchen table, watching his father’s footsteps getting closer and closer.
Tom sat back down in his chair and took himself a big drink. It was only when he had gotten up that he realised how drunk he really was, but he had no plans for slowing down. He picked the letter back up and looked over his mother’s handwriting.
He thought of how, had his father not been around, they may have had a normal relationship. He believed that she loved him, and she had never behaved cruelly towards him. But she hadn’t saved him from cruelty either. He thought of her both as a victim and as an enabler. He knew that he pitied her now though. He believed it to be true amongst most that time heals all wounds, but only at the cost of memory in the mind and in the heart. His mother would glorify his father’s memory and forget the evil done.
‘Mean old bastard,’ he muttered, spitting at the fire.
Tom jumped at a sudden thud in the hallway. He lived in a duplex, and was used to his neighbours making noise, but this sounded like it had come from his own hallway. He sat, rigid, waiting for clarity. The room seemed darker. He felt more alone. The letter had slipped from his hand and lay on the floor. He strained his eyes towards the door and waited.
There was nothing else. Tom sighed and picked up the whiskey, allowing himself a long swallow. Then, again, but quietly, a thud. It sounded muted this time, and Tom felt confident it was simply his neighbours. He got up and walked to the door, pausing with his fingers around the handle. No sounds on the other side.
He opened the door quickly, swaying slightly, and he could see nothing in the hall. Just the darkness. He picked out a coatrack, a chest of drawers, just the normal shadows. Nothing unusual. He smiled humourlessly and pushed the door shut. As he turned back to the fire, he heard the soft thudding once more, and he froze.
It sounded like it was coming from the other end of the hall, very faintly. Tom leaned back against the door and braced himself against it. But again, the thud died down to silence and, when he looked, there was nothing outside.
‘It’s the neighbours.’ He walked back to his chair and sat down, taking up his glass and gratefully drinking. ‘Always is.’
Tom’s vision was blurred now, but he poured himself another whiskey, and greedily knocked it back.
‘Nothing out there.’ The small sounds of the night’s silence revealed themselves to him reassuringly. The rain pattering on the window. A dog barking somewhere down the street. There is no whispering on the breeze, he thought to himself. If someone speaks you do not mistake it for something else.
Tom slumped down in his chair, his eyes heavy. Sleep came over him dully.
In his dream he was in his father’s house, and his mother was sat beside him. She was stroking his hair as he cried. She was telling him that the world was a complicated place, and that a boy as young as he was could never hope to understand it. He thought that she was crying too. She told him that all of the beauty in the world served only to cover its secrets. When he asked what those secrets were, she just smiled at him. The secrets are whatever you wish. This is your history. She said that everything had a cost, and that he could accept his father’s past or he could lie about it to himself, but his father was now dead and he would have to make peace with his history. He started to cry again and said he would not. She just continued to smile. Even as a deep and desperate thudding began beyond the door into the hallway.
Tom awoke in his chair to the rapid, heavy pounding and sat frozen. His glass slipped from his sweating hand to the floor. He made to stand, but his legs failed him and he fell against the table to his side.
The heavy whiskey bottle fell but didn’t smash, and lying beside it was the letter from his mother. Through the clear glass of the bottle, the warm tones of the whiskey, Tom’s gaze fell on something else.
‘No…,’ he tried to speak but his mouth just soundlessly formed the word.
His shaking hands rolled the bottle aside and moved to pick up the old photograph. He felt it in his hands and turned it over. There, grinning up at him, was his father.
The hall door burst open and Tom turned on the floor. He tasted bile at the back of his throat and spat out vomit. He felt his groin grow warm.
Standing in the doorway was his father.
Nicholas Higginson is an English writer who studied Comparative Literature at the University of Kent, and is currently working on his first novel. His work has previously been published in The Garfield Lake Review, Red Earth Review, and Literally Stories. He has also worked on the Editorial Board for Beyond Words.