“This man says he’s your father and he’s dying,” Billie says. She’s looking at me with her face creased in concern.
I shrug. “And what’s the bad news?” I take the phone. “Hello. I don’t know who you are, but this isn’t funny.”
“Xander. It’s me, dad.” I hear the voice and my heart starts beating a drum solo. My throat goes dry. “I know it’s been a long time, son. I have bowel cancer and just a few days left.” Dad’s voice has dropped in tone. He’s wheezing which is good news.
“Good to know, dad. Thanks for the call. See you at the funeral.” Maybe it sounds cold but trust me Mitchell deserves it.
“WAIT. Xander. I know I wasn’t the perfect father.”
No shit. “Wasn’t the perfect father?” I cough a laugh and feel the tears coming. “Someone who had a few affairs isn’t a perfect father. You’re a fucking monster.” I’m yelling down the phone at that withered pile of trash. Billie is backing away from me with fear in her eyes.
“I did terrible things Xander. I’m sorry for all of them. I want to apologise to you in person before I go.” All I see when I hear his voice is him with blood on his knuckles standing over me, my mother, and my brother Zach.
“I’m going to hell, and I know it, Xander. Please let me atone for some of what I’ve done.” His voice has some sorrow in it, but I know it’s bullshit because I’ve seen him hitting my mother as she screamed for her children to run and hide.
I see red on my thumb and taste the blood. I realise I just bit myself because listening to his voice brings back feelings I’ve been trying to bury since I ran away from home.
“How did you find me?” I ask.
“Your girlfriend there mentioned you on her Facebook page. I told you the internet was dangerous. Didn’t I? Still, helped me find you again so I can’t complain.” He’s got the voice of someone you’d think worked on a farm all his life. No. He hit people for money doing bare-knuckle boxing. He liked it. It wasn’t enough for him, so he brought his work home. He’d practice on all of us.
“I don’t want to talk to you, Mitchell.” My voice is the coldest ice.
“I know and I get that. But you’re my heir, Xander. You’re gonna get the house and the car when I die.” I hear him groan in pain and an involuntary smile forms on my face. “It’s all going to be yours, boy.”
“Burn it. I don’t want anything to do with you. I know where your skeletons are buried.”
“Not on the phone, son. You know they record calls.”
“To anyone who may be listening to this call, my father is a murderer.”
“Xander! Fucking hell. You got some metal in your bones now? Where was that fire when you were a kid?” He asks as if it was my fault.
“That’s just it, dad. I was a kid. I thought you were supposed to love me. I thought the anger would drain out of you some day and you’d be like a normal dad. I was-” I stop because I don’t have the words. “You never changed. It’s who you are. Just a bitter, violent old man who likes hurting people. I’m done with you.”
I drop the house phone. It swings on the chord and smacks against the wall. I wipe tears from my eyes and try to slow my breathing. Billie starts to talk but I need space. I lock myself in the bathroom and sit on the toilet seat. All I can do is clench my fists to stop my hands from shaking. The mirror shows blood on my face from wiping tears with my bleeding thumb.
I wash the wound and slap a band aid on it. I splash my face with cold water. Pulling a towel from the rack I dry my face. Hands become claws around the towel. I scream into the soft fibres. Decades of rage set loose.
“XANDER! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Billie hammers on the door.
“I’m fine. I just had to let that out.”
I open the door. She’s there with concern in sparkling brown eyes. Poker straight black hair hangs below her shoulders. She presses her head into my chest. I hang my head over her shoulder and squeeze her.
“You’re alright. I’m here.” She rubs my back as I tremble with emotion. Feelings I thought I’d forgotten. She doesn’t ask, but I know she has questions. I said too much over the phone.
I’m woken by my own screaming. Billie isn’t there. She’s on the sofa with Genzo the cat.
“You’ve been tossing and turning for hours. You were calling out names I’ve never heard before.”
“Talking to dad stirred up everything. I can’t keep a lid on any of it now.”
“You’ve never had a lid on it Xander. It’s just worse now. All the traumas you’ve taken from other people. All the memories come spilling out when you sleep.” She strokes Genzo. The ginger fluffball purrs and climbs up her body to press his face against hers. His whiskers spring back into place every time his head emerges from her neck.
Holding the cat, she stands. With the needy love of a new-born, Genzo lets himself be held with her hand on his bum, face peering over her shoulder.
“You can’t absorb other people’s pain forever. It’s destroying you.” She picks a bit of paper from next to the phone and holds it out to me. “You also need to confront your past. You’ll never be whole if you don’t.”
I’m standing outside my father’s hospital room. I’ve been standing here for ten minutes, trying to work up the strength to go inside.
I pull out my phone and open the voice memo app. I hit record and slip it back into my jeans. Knowing he might admit to something from all those years ago helps me harden my soul enough to open the door.
He’s sleeping. The life sign monitor has lines jumping across it that mean nothing to me. Numbers fluctuate in green, orange, white and blue.
Oh, how the mighty fall.
He was a muscular man when I ran away. He towered over me. Skin sags on his bones. I can trace every vein like rivers on a map. Black hair on the arms is grey now. I put my phone on his bedside table, next to the water jug. I don’t want my pocket muffling the noise. When he wakes up, he probably won’t notice the phone is there.
We pull two chairs over to the bed. The sound of the old metal covered in flaking white plastic scraping across the laminate floor wakes the beast.
“Xander. That you?”
“Do you have a lot of sons coming back to visit you now that you’re dying?”
“You’re the girl I talked to on the phone? Never figured you were Asian.”
Billie shifts in her seat. “Maybe I should wait outside?” She was supportive before. Now she’s uncomfortable.
“Why don’t I meet you at the canteen?” I say. She nods and gets up.
“That what you’re into now?” Mitchell asks when Billie closes the door on her way out. I see her shadow walking away through the blinds. When I don’t answer him, he shows me his collection of gold teeth. Souvenirs from his boxing days.
I look at the life sign monitor again and wonder what I need to turn off for the old wretch to die. “What do you want dad? I’m not here for a chat. You wanted to unburden yourself. Go.”
“The day you left was the day I lost my powers.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“I’m serious Xander. It all stopped after we had that fight.”
“It wasn’t a fight. You broke my nose.”
“Well, whatever. I had to start living my life like normal after that.”
“You couldn’t kill people anymore?”
“It wasn’t like that, son.”
“Tell that to Zach,” I say. My brother’s name makes old Mitchell wince.
“You know I feel bad about that.” He leans towards me. I take a step back. “What happened-” I cut him off before he can lie.
“I saw what happened, dad. You punched Zach until he stopped moving because mom was already unconscious. You took him out into the garden, and you started digging a hole.” I remember that Mitchell didn’t carry Zach like a father holding his son. My brother was slung over his shoulder like a bag of cement. He was buried with as much care.
“Not so loud Xander.”
“Scared everyone will know you killed your son?”
“I have hated myself every day since then.” His blue eyes look into mine.
“LIAR!” I look right back
“I aint lying, boy.”
I move back towards the bed, and I prod his wheezing chest with my finger. “You lied to me and mom the moment she woke up. You called the police. Said he was missing. You took our memories,” talking about our powers on the recording isn’t great but as long as I have a confession it shouldn’t matter. “You tried to make us forget. Mom spent her days looking for him until she worked it out.”
“Your mama wouldn’t have worked it out if you hadn’t told her, boy. What she did aint on me. That’s you.” He’s looking desperate. He’s sweating and the numbers on the little screen by the bed are going up.
“She hung herself from the tree because I gave her back the memories you’d stolen. She died right where you’d buried Zach.” I’m shivering with rage. My heart is racing with adrenaline. I want to hit him the way he hit all of us. I want to beat him until the whole room is red.
“You aren’t gonna tell nobody are you boy?”
“Is that all you’re worried about? You don’t want people knowing you’re a murderer before you go?” I should have known. He just wants to get away with it. He just looks at me. “Don’t worry. I don’t want to stand before a jury and relive everything you did to us.” He sighs with relief. “The minute you’re gone, I’ll be at a police station spilling the beans.”
I think about the life I lead because of him. I have the memories of dozens of murderers and creeps inside my head. I take memories. I eat the sin of monsters to make the world a better place. It’s the same power that Mitchell used to use against his family. He stole the memory of Zach’s death from my head for years. When I got it back, I found my own power. I gave mom her stolen memories.
“Thank you, son. That’s a big relief.” He smiles. Something inside me snaps. He’s thankful? Fuck him.
I take his hand. I look into his blackened soul, and I see years of drinking, years of shitty jobs. He was never as bad after I left. Maybe I did take all his power. He still remembers a life of causing pain. He misses feeling powerful.
“Fuck you.” I hiss the words and start to pour in all of the memories I’ve taken from terrible people and the people they’ve hurt. I pour in trauma and guilt. I give him the sins of lives he never lived. I fill him up with the hatred that’s been eating away at me for years.
I take all of it in to make the world a better place, but it eats away at me. I struggle to sleep. I toss and turn. I feel guilt for things I remember that other people did. I have the PTSD from survivors of unspeakable horror.
“My last gift for you, dad. Know how I’ve felt. Know what it felt like for Zach. For Maria.” I stand up and leave him there. His eyes are racing around the room as the memories of other monsters fill his mind. His heart rate skyrockets.
An alarm goes off. I hear running footsteps outside the white room.
The door bursts open and a nurse rushes to the old man’s side.
“Your father’s heart rate is spiking. I need you to leave the room sir.”
“I was just leaving anyway,” I tell her. I take my phone. Mitchell’s eyes catch the action for a moment and I give him a wink.
I meet Billie in the canteen. She’s got her hands wrapped around a paper cup of coffee. She looks up and frowns.
“Why do you look so happy?”
“He admitted it.”
I lean close to Billie and whisper. “Mitchell killed my brother Zach. He had powers like me but he used them to make people forget the things he did. I just recorded his confession.” I can’t help smiling.
She thinks I’m mad. “How can you be so happy?”
“Because I crammed all of the memories that have been driving me crazy into his head. Now he knows how it felt for me and all the people like me that I’ve helped.”
“I never knew.” She leans forward to kiss me. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I shrug. “I couldn’t think about it. I’ve been running away from it for years.”
“You finally make sense.” Her hand on my cheek is magic. I feel love my father wouldn’t understand. I wish my mother had met a man who did. Maria deserved better.
I kiss her back. “I love you so much.”
Our lips part and her brown eyes search mine. “What now?”
“Now we wait for his obituary and then I take his confession to the police. I want to bury Zach properly. I don’t want it to be a case. He’s not going to live long enough for a trial anyway.” I realise I’m squeezing her hand too hard and let go.
“We’re going to be alright Xander. I love you too.” Her small hand squeezes mine.
I’m sitting in a police station interview room. My dad’s funeral was yesterday. I’m betting the only people there were the priest and the guys who lowered him into the ground. The walls around me are grey. A camera peers down at me from a corner of the ceiling and one wall is a mirror with another room behind it.
My reflection is calm. I’m not. I put my phone down on the table and wait.
Ten minutes pass and an officer opens the creaking door and sits down across from me.
“Hello. I’m officer Nunez. I understand you’re here to report a crime?” He leans forward, brown eyes watching me. He hits a button on a recorder that’s sitting on the metal table between us.
I take a deep breath. “My father killed my brother Zach. I have his confession.”
Officer Nunez’s eyes bulge. “Wow. Ok. On your phone?” He points to it.
I nod. I unlock the phone, go to the recording, and hit play. The police officer sits back in the chair and listens.
The recording ends. His eyebrows are up as he nods his head about something. “Right. And this was your father?”
“Mitchell Browning. Yes. My name is Xander. My brother was Zach. My mother’s name was Maria.”
“Right. This is some serious stuff. Before I get the paperwork, is there anything else you want to tell me?” He looks as though he wants a confession from me.
“I know where my brother is buried.”
“Under the tree?” He asks. I nod. “For the tape.” He points to the recorder.
“Yes. Under the tree.” I picture freshly dug dirt beneath an ash tree. Years later I see my mother swinging from the branches above it.
“Thank you, Mister Browning. I’ll be back with the paperwork.” He gets up. I see his sky-blue shirt disappear and the metal door clicks behind him.
I lay my head on my hands. I’ve imagined this for a while. There’s no sense of victory or revenge. It doesn’t feel like justice for Zach. Maybe it will be closure for me. I think of my father. I’m not sad he’s gone. I’m not happy either. Part of me still felt something for him, as my father, not the man he really was. I wish I could turn that off. Blood is thicker than water, and I feel really thick for feeling anything at all.
I’m told he was ranting and raving for the last few days before he died. That’s something at least. He suffered. Good.