Letters from Dad
(This story was originally created in response to Chuck Wendig’s ‘X-Meets-Y’ flash fiction horror challenge.)
Dad left another letter on my pillow last night.
It’s been a long time since he did that. So long, in fact, that I almost forgot about them.
But this morning when I woke up, Susan was already gone, and on her pillow was the little white envelope.
I still remember every letter that dad has ever written me.
The first one came on the day after my 18th birthday, when I was a senior in high school. I had been screwing around with Jamie Masters, and she missed her period.
My grades weren’t doing too well, either, and it looked like I would turn out to be one of those broken boys who drop out in their last semester and work in a factory for the next 50 years.
Probably would have died of lung cancer the day after I finally retired.
But then, when I came back from the shower that morning, the white envelope was perched on the pillow where I had slept. Maybe I had missed in the darkness when I woke up, or maybe someone left it while I was in the bathroom.
Either way, someone had been creeping around in my room, and that made me shiver … and mad.
The envelope had been one of those cheap kinds that you could get in boxes of 500 for 10.00, and it was small enough that you would need to fold your letters in quarters to get them inside.
The one on my bed that morning, though, felt empty when I picked it up. I turned it over and over in my hands, wondering what it meant.
My room was dark on that February morning, but the hallway light trickled in strong enough for me to see that there was no writing on the envelope. I walked over to my desk, intending to throw away the slender package, but … well, it sounds as crazy today as it did then … I heard a voice.
A raspy whisper. It said, READ IT.
I remember my hands trembling and then ripping open the flap. Inside was a square yellow sticky note, which I peeled off the inner part of the envelope and held up to the slanting light. It read simply:
Strip pit in Marengo
I don’t recall much more about that day, other than mom coming into my room that night to ask me if I had seen Jamie at school. No, I hadn’t.
She didn’t want to worry me, mom said, but Jamie’s parents had called, and they didn’t know where she was.
From there it was a blur of searches, police interviews, crying … and going back to school.
They never did find Jamie, and I forgot about her.
Until my junior year in college.
I was in the premed program and struggling with biochemistry. I pulled four all-nighters in a row preparing for the final, and I was getting nowhere, so I decided to just stop.
My grades had started out strong in Freshman year but had slid since then. If I didn’t ace the test, I would lose my scholarship, and then I couldn’t afford to stay.
But, with two days left, I knew there was no more I could do.
Then, on the morning before the final, there was an envelope on my pillow when I woke up. The sticky note inside read:
As I pondered those two words, a flash of terrifying images crashed through my mind — Jamie coming to her window late at night. The two of us stealing away into the darkness. False promises of a future together. The dark drive to Marengo.
I was sobbing by the time I heard my roommate jiggle the door handle on his way back in from the shower.
I threw a towel over my head and tossed the note into the trash can on my way out the door.
“Got a cold,” I gurgled as I walked past Ted. “Don’t want to give it to you.”
That morning, I had my English final, which was cake.
When I got back to the dorm room, the crumpled sticky was spread out on top of my desk, pasted to my biochem book. Someone had added two new words to the message, in the same block-style hand printing:
My heart jumped, and I backed away from the desk.
I reasoned that someone — maybe Ted — was pulling a prank on me, but even then I knew that probably wasn’t right. I swiped at the note, brushing it back into the trash can, and then ran out the door.
I decided to do what I always did when I needed to clear my head, which was to go for a run.
I was already dressed in sneakers and sweats since it was cold, and that’s the standard attire for finals week anyway.
I headed for the western edge of campus, and the “nature park” which was really just a dilapidated limestone field full of sinkholes and scruffy brush. The college built a path around the periphery and called it a perk.
It was a two-mile loop that weaved in and out of trees and remote campus parking lots, and it was the perfect place to go when you needed to think.
Or to stop thinking.
On this cold Thursday morning, I was alone on the trail and soon slipped into a steady running rhythm. There was very little breeze, and my ears were filled with the pounding of my feet, the steady see-saw of my breathing, and the full, healthy gushing sound of my young heartbeat.
Halfway through the first lap, a harsh whisper crashed through the steady susurration of my vital processes: DO IT!
I screamed, and stopped cold in mid stride. My pulse, already racing from exertion, ticked up a few notches and pounded like a jackhammer in my ears. I looked into the woods to my left and the tall grass to my right with wide, wild eyes, but there was nothing there.
No movement, no color. Just still, drab winter grays.
I peered down the path behind me and in front of me, but there was nothing in either direction. After a couple of minutes, I convinced myself that if I had heard a voice, it had come from my own head — a consequence of stress, maybe, or an outcropping of that bizarre flashback to a night with Jamie that had never happened.
As far as I knew.
I started jogging again and then running, until I was buzzing along at an even faster clip than before. I let the worries about my scholarship and the weird sticky notes and my cracking psyche just slide away as a I sunk into the throes of my workout.
After about five laps, I was getting tired and hungry and decided that I had one more in me. At the halfway point, I was just passing the little skirt of asphalt that led to the parking lot near the science quad when I broke again.
I SAID … DO IT!!
I was startled, but not completely shaken this time. Rather than stopping in my tracks, I veered off toward the parking lot. It could have been a survival instinct that drove me to seek a crowd, or it could have been … something else.
When I broke out of the woods and into the opening of the lot, I was surprised to see that darkness was setting in. I checked my watch — it was nearly 5 pm, which meant I’d been running for almost five hours, not the hour or so that I thought.
There were only three cars in the lot, and one of them had just pulled up and turned off its running lights. I was astounded to see Professor Roberts climb out of the driver’s seat of her faded blue VW bug and head toward the science building with a laptop tucked under her left arm.
When my cell phone beeped and woke me up, the room was dark, but I could feel that I was alone. Ted was not there.
I double-tapped the screen of my cell, and it glowed to life. It was 8:04 pm on Thursday night, and I had a message in my school email account.
I swiped down on the screen and then read the note from Frank Hastings, the chair of biochemistry. The subject line read: “Final Exam for Biochem 203,” and the message was short:
Due to unforeseen circumstances involving Professor Roberts, the final exam scheduled for 8 am tomorrow morning has been postponed until Saturday afternoon at 1 pm. Feel free to contact me if you have questions or concerns.
Frank Hastings, Ph.D.
It was only then that I noticed the white envelope on my pillow. The message was even more clear than the others had been:
GET INTO HER OFFICE
I was really never cut out for med school, but I did manage to keep my scholarship and earn my undergrad degree. That allowed me stay on the baseball team, and with a few breaks, I made it as far as the high minor leagues.
It’s amazing what luck can do for your career, really: a well-timed broken leg here, a boat wreck there, a failed random drug test there.
If the right people in front of you succumb to their human failings, well, you can achieve great things even if your talent is not quite up to par.
Of course, a 150-pound first baseman who can’t hit the curveball has very little chance of making it to the majors, and no amount of good fortune could change that for me.
It’s a good thing, then, that I was there to pick up the pieces for my team when our manager was caught betting against us on a nightly basis. Good for me, good for the team.
Not too many near-washouts are able to nab a managerial position by the time they’re 30 or move into the general manager’s office before 40, but hard work pays off sometimes. Well, hard work and dad’s advice, of course.
Why, if it weren’t for dad’s envelopes and sticky notes, I might have never even considered a political career, but he helped me realize that people love me. That’s what happens when you bring a championship to the Chicago Cubs after more than a century of misery and futility.
But it’s been five years or more since Dad left a note, or since we spoke. Really, we only speak when I don’t act quickly enough to suit his taste.
That’s what has me nervous, here on the eve of the mayoral election. I mean, it’s mine to lose, and I figured Dad finally trusted me to get things right. Evidently, he has more to say.
Sure, the situation with Susan is a bit messy. A dead mistress in your hotel room never does much for your Q Score.
And, OK, Ray Olney at WGN may have a bead on my mob connections. Still, the election is next Tuesday, and it’s mine to lose. I don’t need a yellow sticky at this point in my life.
Alright, alright. Let’s see … it says:
You know, it’s funny: Dad never really used to talk to me at all. And he sure as Hell never left notes on my pillow.
Not until he died. But that was an accident … not my fault.