Nothing looked the same, yet everything was just as he remembered.
Content warning: sexual abuse, parental abuse
Rob had not been down this 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 the same trees that had guarded the trail some twenty years earlier. The trees, like him, were a little older, a little bigger, a little worse for the wear—but their branches, like arms, still covered 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, but it didn’t make his breathing any easier. Some memories have a way of constricting the heart far more than any necktie, and loosening their grip is far more complicated.
This night was supposed to be a good night for him, yet the irony of his situation made Rob laugh to himself as he continued on his journey. As usual, good days were the ones that he had ended up ruining. He should have left Rob alone all those days long ago, but he never did. Birthdays, holidays, and family gatherings were both to be looked forward to and dreaded—all because of him.
Accepting an award for community service, Rob had spent a pleasant evening with his wife and son, Robbie, at the community 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’s one of the reasons why he had agreed to meet him.
The letter Rob received was 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, the same as his, but with the return address 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. He had always kept Rob out of school on the days after those nights, sending a handwritten note to school explaining his son’s absence.
The letter from prison was unexpected and unwanted. Rob threw the letter away several times, each time retrieving it from the waste basket. He only decided to open the envelope after the third time.
As he unfolded the letter, the hair on the back of his neck started to stand 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 horror of a grown man doing unnatural things to a little boy, to his only son, but he wanted an acknowledgement. The letter only informed of his pending release and offered a meeting with no such acknowledgement.
Vague apologies don’t sooth the wounds of specific sins. Most offensive to Rob was the request for the meeting was at their Special Place. It was true that at one point it had been a 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 cankered the years before his thirteenth birthday.
Walking the footpath, each step closer to his destination, Rob felt himself transported back in time. He had thought surely his dad wouldn’t ruin this place, too. Surely he wouldn’t force himself on Rob. Not here. He should have left Rob alone that night but he didn’t, and it had been the last time.
Everyone told Rob he should be proud of himself. Proud he had called 911. Proud he had sat confidently in the witness stand to fully recount the years of abuse. Proud that he could find 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. This 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.
It 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 at a fishing hole known only to Rob and him.
All journeys have destinations. For Rob, this particular journey’s destinations were both a place and closure. 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. 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! You’re a monster! 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,” however, was all Rob managed to say.
In that moment Rob tried valiantly to sound controlled, strong, even disinterested. In his mind, however, he was instantly 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 so entirely 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 killed me! Don’t be fooled by the fact I’m standing here in front of you. I’m a corpse, and it’s your fucking fault.”
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. With the shackles of self-imposed expectations loosed, his words continued unfettered. “I loved you, you goddamn bastard. You were my first best friend.”
“I know, son . . .”
“Shut the fuck up. I’m not finished,” Rob said, pointing a finger right at him. “All those years I kept quiet. All those years I defended you to the only person who knew your secret—me.” 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 am the one who feels shame.”
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. What could you possibly say to that, you monster?”
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, but they are genuine. I am a monster. 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. I am so very sorry.”
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. I’m leaving for good. 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?”
“I don’t even know.”
“And who knows you came here to meet me tonight?”
“No one. Like I said, I’m leaving everything and everyone behind.”
Rob responded by reaching into his jacket pocket. “Dad, it's not good enough that you're leaving here forever. It’s not good enough you’re leaving my life forever. I’ve thought long and hard over the years 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.
“You took my life one awful night at a time. I’m going to take yours tonight.”
The report of the gunshot was louder than Rob had expected, but there was no one within miles to hear it. Rob didn’t even wipe his fingerprints off the gun before he threw it in the pond. No one alive other than Rob knew where the pond was.
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.
That night, 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.