Nothing looked the same, yet everything was just as he remembered.
Rob had not been down that path since he was thirteen. If it had not been for the letter, he might never have walked it again. To his left and right were oaks and poplars, the same ones that had guarded the trail some twenty years earlier. The trees, like him, were a little older, a little bigger, and a little worse for wear—but their branches, like arms, still surrounded him, making him feel slightly claustrophobic.
There was nothing he could do about the narrowness of the path, but he could loosen his tie. With a tug or two, he felt cooler air make its way down his shirt. It didn’t make his breathing any easier, though. Painful memories have a way of constricting the throat more than a necktie. Loosening their grip is far more complicated.
That night was supposed to be a good one for Rob and his family. The irony of that thought made Rob nauseous. As usual, good days were the ones that he had ended up ruining. He should have left Rob alone those days long ago, but he never did. Birthdays, holidays, and family gatherings were both to be looked forward to and dreaded—because of him.
Accepting an award for community service, Rob had spent a pleasant evening with his wife and son, Robbie, at the neighborhood center. Rob could always be counted on to help those in need, no matter the time or personal cost. He supported his son’s PTA, served meals at the local soup kitchen, and even coached Robbie’s Little League team. Rob was the envy of all who knew him—only no one really knew him. That was the reason why he had agreed to meet him one last time.
The letter Rob received had been handwritten, mailed in the archaic fashion of using a stamp and the post office. The upper left corner of the envelope showed the name Robert Watkins, with the return address that of the state penitentiary. Rob didn’t need that information to know who the letter was from; he’d recognize his handwriting anywhere. The scrawl was a little less frantic then he remembered, but that’s because inmates can’t get “falling down” drunk in prison.
The letter was as unexpected as it was unwanted. Rob threw it away several times, but for reasons unknown, each time he would retrieve it from the waste basket. Finally, unable to contain his curiosity, Rob opened the envelope.
Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead and his hands shook as he unfolded the correspondence. All at once his heart started to race and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. A long-forgotten yet familiar queasiness welled up in his stomach. Against his better judgement, with a necessary glass of Jack Daniels in hand, Rob read the letter silently. It contained words like unimaginable and unspeakable and unforgivable.
There were no excuses or explanations or mentions of the particulars. Rob had been both relieved and upset about that last part. He didn’t want to relive the trauma of a grown man doing unnatural things to a little boy, but he wanted an acknowledgement. The letter informed Rob of his pending release and suggested a reunion with no such acknowledgement of his childhood abuse.
Vague apologies don’t soothe the wounds of specific sins. Most offensive to Rob was the proposed location for the meeting. The letter referenced their Special Place—a fishing hole no one knew about but Rob and him. It had been home to the few genuinely good memories Rob had with his dad, Robert, Sr., but even those memories had been tarnished by the abuse that scarred the years before his thirteenth birthday.
Walking the footpath, each step closer to his destination, Rob felt himself transported back in time. He remembered his thoughts from the day vividly. Surely his dad wouldn’t ruin this place, too. His father couldn’t force himself on him. Not here. He should have left Rob alone that night but he didn’t.
It was the last time his father would touch him.
Everyone told Rob he should be proud of himself. He had called 911. He had sat confidently in the witness stand to fully recount the years of abuse. He had found the strength to look his father in the eye as the verdict was read.
Truth be told, Rob wasn’t proud. He was ashamed. Ashamed he had been a victim. Ashamed he had let it happen. Ashamed of sending his father to prison. That thought, once again, produced an uncomfortable chuckle. He had stolen Rob’s innocence, yet Rob had spent the last two decades dealing with the weight of unwarranted guilt.
The abuse had affected every relationship in his life. It left him confused about his sexuality and his culpability. Rob became so guarded that no one truly knew him—not his coworkers, not his friends, not even his wife.
He had one last chance to put the past behind him, and that chance lay at the end of the path, next to a fishing hole known only to Rob and him.
All journeys have destinations. For Rob, this particular journey led Rob to both a place and an opportunity. As Rob took the first few steps out of the tree lined path into the opening that overlooked the pond, moonlight and memories washed over him in equal portions. For a moment, Rob actually felt at peace—but for just a moment. Rob was no longer alone. To his left, on a fallen tree, sat the author of the letter: his dad. Him.
“I wasn’t sure you would come,” his father said softly, breaking the silence. “Part of me hoped you wouldn’t.”
There was so much Rob wanted to say. He wanted to scream at the top of his lungs: I hate you! He wanted to grab this man—who had ruined his entire life, who had defiled his childhood, who had taken any hope of normalcy—and shake him until he understood.
“You wanted to talk, so talk,” was all Rob managed to say.
In that moment Rob tried valiantly to sound controlled, strong, even disinterested. In his mind, however, he was a little boy again, trying to make sense of the senseless. The reality of having a father taking advantage of him—his body, his mind, his soul—was still devastating.
“I’m not here to ask for forgiveness,” his dad began. “I don’t deserve it.”
“You’re damn fucking right you don’t, you coward,” Rob interrupted, finding the voice he had been searching for. “You destroyed me! You get that, right? You fucking raped me, over and over. You made me a…” Rob’s voice trailed off.
In the matter of a single moment, a time frame so short it almost didn’t exist, Rob felt who he really was for the first time in over twenty years.
“I loved you, you goddamn bastard. You were my first best friend.”
“I know, but . . .”
“Shut up. I’m not finished,” Rob said, pointing a finger right at him. “All those years I kept quiet. I defended you. I kept your secret.” Rob paused to swallow hard, blinking back hot tears. “I convinced myself it was my fault. How do you like that? You made me feel guilty. To this day, I still feel ashamed.”
Without warning, Rob began to sob as he finally articulated the worst part. “When all my friends at college were bragging about their first time, I knew my first time was with you. I was eight years old, eight fucking years old. You were supposed to protect me. Instead? You were the monster under my bed.”
Rob’s father paused for what seemed like an eternity in an interminable silence.
“Son, I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I know the words can’t fix anything. You have every right to hate me, but the one thing I wanted to do was to look you in the eye and to let you know that I know what I did. It was wrong. You didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t your fault”
The words were jarring for both their sincerity and contrition. It was undeniably true his father’s words couldn’t erase the emotional scars. They didn’t come close to wiping the slate clean, but Rob felt slightly disarmed. That fact left him disoriented.
For a moment both men stared silently at each other in somber reflection.
Finally, Rob regained his voice. “So you said your piece. What now?”
“Now I disappear. The one last gift I can give you is the certainty you’ll never hear from me again. No one knows where I’m going, and, God willing, when I get there, no one will know who I am.”
“So that’s it? You leave and never come back?"
“And no one knows where you're going?”
“Not a soul.”
“Who knows you came here to meet me tonight?”
“No one. I’m leaving everything and everyone behind.”
“Well dad, I'm afraid that’s not good enough. I’ve thought long and hard about what I would do if I ever came face to face with you again.” Rob had a grim smile on his face as he pulled the Glock 21 from his pocket, pointing it directly at his father.
The report of the gunshot was louder than Rob had expected, but there was no one within miles to hear it, or the splash the body made as it fell into the water. Rob didn’t even wipe his fingerprints off the gun before he threw it in the pond.
It turned out Rob had a really great night after all—his best night ever, he thought to himself as he headed back down the path and into the woods.
To celebrate that great night of all nights, Rob knew he should leave his son, Robbie, alone in his bed.
He knew he should, but he also knew he wouldn’t.