Sunday, November 20, 2005

Family Secret (short story)

The steady pit-pat of the rain drops on the window were the only sound in the room where Felicia sat and waited. She watched the raindrops run down the window, merging together and splitting apart again, bumping into other raindrops and creating long trails as they ran down and pooled at the bottom of the window pane. Felicia waited for a man she believed was her father. He didn’t know that she was here. Well, actually he knew she was here, but he didn’t know the real reason.

During the previous week Felicia had come home from college for a surprise visit, dropped her schoolbag by the front door and made her way up the warped wooden stairs that led to the second floor of the drafty farmhouse where she lived with her mother and her adopted dad. Her mother wasn’t home from work yet and her father slept during the day. He was a corrections officer at the local prison and had worked the midnight shift for the last fifteen years. As usual for this time of day, the house was quiet except for the slow monotonous tick of the grandfather clock on the wall at the bottom of the stairs.

Felicia crept up the stairs, carefully stepping on the stairs that wouldn’t creak, lest she make a sound that would wake her father, a notoriously light sleeper and grumpy cuss when he was awakened during the middle of the day. Ten years of living in this old farmhouse had taught her which steps had a creak to them and which ones you could step to the left or right side of to avoid making a sound. Why her father hadn’t fixed the creaky stairs years earlier had been a mystery to her. Her parents were always complaining about being short of cash and their inability to make the necessary repairs to the old house but it seemed like it would be relatively inexpensive to buy a few wood screws.

She went up to her room and tossed her coat on the bed. The room hadn’t changed at all since she moved out when she left for college. Her mother kept it neat but apparently hadn’t dusted in a while. Mom was a straightener, but not a real cleaner, per se. Felicia ran her finger across the desk like an inspecting drill sergeant and it left a long streak. The objects on the desk had similar layers of dust on them as well. Felicia paused for a minute when she glanced at the face of the top drawer. There were distinct fingerprints on the dusty surface. Fearing the worst, she thrust the drawer open and pulled out the drawer’s main content—her diary. This spiral notebook was only the most recent edition of her diary. Beneath it laid the other old and faded notebooks she had filled to capacity with her most secret and personal thoughts going back for almost ten years. She hadn’t brought the diary with her to college, though. Her time there was taken up with homework, parties, and the usual assorted activities that filled time at most Midwestern public universities. Felicia decided that the journal was kind of a kid’s pastime, so she had left it in the drawer when she went away. She would still write in it when she came home for the weekends. It was cathartic to get the stray thoughts out of her mind and onto paper. She considered it her own personal therapy.

When she saw the smudges in the dust, Felicia immediately knew what had happened. Her mother, although possessing a good heart, was a bit of a flake and a nosy snoop. Slightly alcoholic, self involved, with a flair for the dramatic—these were all traits of her mother Lorena. I guarantee that she read the journal, Felicia thought. Infuriated, Felicia waited until Lorena came home to confront her about the journal. She made a cup of Oolong tea and sipped it quietly while she sat at the faded wooden table in the kitchen, the journal in front of her. The grandfather clock at the bottom of the stairs continued to tick its rhythmic mantra. Upstairs, her father slept, oblivious to the family drama unveiling itself one floor below him. She sat in silence for almost forty five minutes until she heard her mother’s pickup truck roll up the long two- track they called their driveway. Lorena bolted in through the kitchen door and her eyes fell immediately to her daughter and the journal. “Hi Honey!” she blurted cheerily, playing off the obvious fact that her crime had been detected.

Felicia shifted in her chair and crossed her arms in front of her in an irritated posture. “I know you read my journal, mother.”

Lorena paused for a moment, probably contemplating whether or not to try and lie her way out of it or whether she should just face the music. In the end, she always seemed to hold to the idea that she was the mother and she could do whatever she wanted to do because she was entitled to do so. “I’m your mother and you shouldn’t have any secrets from me. I was worried that something was wrong with you so I read your diary to see what was going on.”
Felicia rolled her eyes in her trademark way; the left eye rolled to center and the other back into her head. “Mom! That is such bullshit! You read it because you’re nosy. Nothings wrong with me except that I have a freak for a Mom who doesn’t allow me to have any privacy.”
Lorena pulled up one of the worn old wooden chairs and sat down. The chair had a broken rung and the varnish was peeled off of the seat from years of hard use. It had been Lorena’s family table when she was little and now wasn’t even worth using as a hand me down, but still it sat in the little farmhouse kitchen, sad and broken. If the table could talk, it could recount three generations of family discussions, arguments, and holiday meals. Today’s discussion would be one of the most amazing in the collection of this table’s family tales.

Lorena pulled out a Marlboro Light 100 and lit it as part of a nervous habit ritual she had been performing for the roughly 30 years since she started smoking. She would chain smoke now to alleviate the stress of the current discussion. Taking one giant hit off of the cigarette, she exhaled a large plume of blue smoke into the air and began to speak in a somber tone. “I read what you put in your diary about a family secret.” Felicia’s anger grew as she realized the extent to which her mother must have gone back through the previous year’s journals to find this recurring entry. “And I think its time that I finally tell you that you’re right. There is a secret.”

The tone of her mother’s voice concerned Felicia; she sat up on the edge of her chair. “What is it mom?”

Lorena took another long pull off of the 100 and blew the smoke down towards the table top this time. The smoke bounced off of the table in different directions and floated upwards. In the sunlight that streaked in through the open window, the smoke hung and danced, combining with the usual dust that blew in from the dry farm field every time the door was opened. Lorena flicked an ash into an old stamped metal ashtray, then set the cigarette on its side, and reached across the table to take both of Felicia’s hands in hers. “It’s about your dad.”
Felicia was confused. “What’s wrong with dad? Is he sick? Are you getting a divorce?”

“It’s about your real dad.”

“Brian? Is something wrong with him? I didn’t even think you talked to him anymore.” Lorena had married Brian when she found out she was pregnant. They were married for 2 tumultuous years before Lorena decided one day to pack up her young daughter and leave him for good. Marriages made under such circumstances rarely worked out, and this was no exception. They parted amicably, but Brian was a rather free spirit, and although he made his best efforts to keep in contact with his daughter, his gypsy ways kept him roaming the country, stopping for a few months here and there, working odd jobs and having his own personal adventures. Growing up, Felicia had the prerequisite visits with Brian, but they were always awkward and strange to her. She didn’t look forward to them at all. Brian would roar up on his Harley with a spare helmet for Felicia and spirit her away for the weekend to stay at a different house every time. She barely knew him and he would often scold her for her shyness. Her real father for the last ten years had been her mother’s second husband, Frank. Frank adopted her when she was sixteen, and she had always thought of him as her true father. He had been a nurturing and caring dad, treating her no differently than if she was his own biological child.

“That’s what I’m talking about, honey. Brian isn’t your real father.”

“What the hell are you talking about? I thought that’s why you got married.”

“He married me because I was pregnant, yes, but not because he was the father. Your real father’s name is Daniel Chittle. We dated for a few years when we were teenagers. We loved each other very much. He was going to college at Michigan State University studying Fisheries and Wildlife. He wanted to work for the Department of Natural Resources when he graduated. He did a couple of summer internships there. He wasn’t ready to be a father, so we parted ways before you were born.”

Felicia sat almost motionless with an expression on her face that was both stunned and angry. She felt betrayed. Why had this secret been kept from her for all of these years? What purpose could it serve to make her think another man was her real father? “Mom…who else knows about this?”

Lorena snuffed out her cigarette and continued to crush and smush it into the bottom of the ashtray well beyond the point when the cigarette was extinguished. She appeared to be thinking about how to frame the remainder of the answers to her daughter’s questions. There was a long silence as she fumbled for the cigarette pack again, discovered it to be empty, and then rumpled it in her fist. “Everyone in the family knew. Your aunts and uncles, your grandparents, some close family friends.”

Felicia’s mother had never been able to keep a secret. It didn’t surprise Felicia in the least that everyone knew, and it hurt her very deeply that everyone knew but her. “I don’t understand this. I can’t believe everybody was keeping this secret and you’re just now telling me!” Felicia rose and started for the door at an angry pace.

“I was waiting for the right time!” Lorena followed her daughter towards the door. When Felicia realized this, she spun and faced her mother, a look of rage crossing her normally serene face.

“Let me go. I don’t want to talk to you right now!” Lorena grabbed her arm in an attempt to stop Felicia’s escape. “I MEAN IT MOTHER!” Felicia pulled away and darted out the door, slamming it behind her. No doubt this had awakened her father and he wouldn’t be happy. She flew down the stairs and out to her rusty Pontiac 6000, slamming this door as well when she climbed into the driver’s seat. She whipped the car in reverse, hot, salty, tears now flowing down her face freely. As she spun the heap around to drive away, she saw her mother in the rear view mirror standing on the steps, her face in her hands, sobbing.

This was the last time that Felicia had spoken to her mother, over a week before. She talked with her father, Frank, on the phone. She felt no ill will towards him over the matter. Frank had always been subject to Lorena’s strong will. When his wife had her mind set about something like this family secret, Frank had no power to go against her wishes. He told Felicia that many times he’d urged Lorena to spill the beans to his daughter, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He thought about speaking with Felicia about it himself, but in the end he felt that this was something she needed to hear from her mother, no matter how wrong he felt it was to keep her in the dark all these years. As usual, Frank knew all the right things to say and made her feel better. Since Frank and Lorena had gotten married, he had always acted as the referee when the two fought, and usually took Felicia’s side afterwards. The two were kindred spirits when it came to battles with mom.

As she hung up the phone that night, Felicia started to laugh at the absurdity of it all. She had three dads. The first one, who she thought was her real dad, Brian; then her adopted dad, Frank; and this new guy, the biological dad, Dan. I could be one of those people on Oprah, she thought. Her anger had now turned into curiosity. She wasn’t really all that angry at her mother anymore, but she would continue to punish her with silence for a while longer to get back at her for reading the diary in the first place.

The questions kept piling up in her mind. Who was this mystery man she was tied to by genetics only? What was he like? Did he ever think about her? Then there was the question that weighed the most heavily on her mind—would he want to meet me?

Felicia wasn’t one to take news like this and just file it away. By her nature, she wanted to act on it, so the next morning she went to work a little early. She had a paid internship working in the offices of the state capitol as a clerk. That day she was the first to report to her cubicle on the 6th floor of the Wilson Plaza Building. She felt like a detective as she performed her research. Just like Nancy Drew, Felicia thought. First she went online and checked the alumni directory for Michigan State University. There was no record for a Daniel Chittle. It just means he hasn’t paid his dues. Thinking that he may have stayed local after graduating from college, she looked at all the phone books for the surrounding cities, but found no Daniel Chittle. She googled the name, but only came up with hits for Chittle or Daniel separately.

Undaunted, she pulled out the large, bound edition of the Michigan State Government Directory. Looks like I’ll have to do this the old fashioned way. She riffled through the pages until she arrived at the D’s. Running her finger down the page, she came across the entry she was seeking. Using her pencil to punch the digits on her phone, she dialed the main office of the Department of Natural Resources. It was a long shot, she admitted, but she had to start somewhere. The officious sounding women at the other end answered on the third ring. “DNR, Judy speaking.”

“Hi Judy, this is Felicia Sorensen calling from the Governor’s office.”

She could hear Judy straighten up a bit and her voice brightened in tone. “Yes, Felicia, how can I help you?”

“We’re trying to locate someone in your department, the name is Daniel Chittle. Can you help me?”

“Sure, I can pull up the employment database here, Felicia.”

Felicia heard mad typing on the other end of the line. After about three minutes, the silence on the line was broken. “We have a Daniel Chittle who runs the ranger office at the Green Mountain State Park. Would you like his contact information?”

Felicia was stunned. She couldn’t believe she had hit pay-dirt on her first call.
“Ms. Sorensen, are you still there?”

Felicia snapped back to reality. “Yes, I’ll take that information.” As she wrote down the address and phone number, she could hardly contain herself. The emotions were difficult to describe. She was excited, but nervous, and quite frankly scared out of her mind at the prospect of meeting this man. Her next phone call was to her dad, Frank. It was his day off, so she wouldn’t be waking him. He was probably bow hunting in the back acreage of the farm today and would be having a lumberjack’s breakfast in the old farmhouse kitchen before he went out for the day. Sure enough, she caught him there.

He was concerned about Felicia’s plan. “Honey, I don’t think I approve of you going down there. We don’t know this man. We aren’t sure how he’ll react. What if he rejects you on the spot? You’d be devastated.”

“Dad, this is something I have to do. Maybe I could bring a friend with me.”

There was a contemplative silence. “I’ll go with you. I’ll stay in the car. I don’t have to meet him or even see him, but if you have any trouble, I’ll be there for you—for moral support if nothing else.”

“Dad, you don’t have to do that, I know how hard this probably is for you too.”
Her dad’s voice softened to the soothing parental tone that always put Felicia at ease. “I want to help you, honey. Don’t you worry about me at all. We can do this together. Call me when you have it set up and I’ll take the time off of work. I love you. Talk to you later.”

She hung up the phone and heaved a huge sigh. Now Felicia had to steel herself for the big call. As she pressed the numbers on the phone, her mind began to race. She could hardly focus her thoughts as the line at the Green Mountain State Park DNR office rang. After 6 rings, Felicia was about to hang up when a nice sounding woman answered. “Green Mountain State Park! Sorry for the wait, I was out at the front desk helping someone,” the woman exclaimed breathlessly.

Somehow, Felicia managed to compose herself and put on a professional demeanor. “Hi, my name is Felicia Sorensen and I’m a student at Michigan State University in Fisheries and Wildlife.” This was a complete lie. Felicia was a Political Science major and new virtually nothing about fish or wildlife. “I looked up Daniel Chittle in the alumni directory and I’d like to interview him for a paper I’m writing for class. Would that be possible?”

“Sure, hon. Let me look at his schedule. Hmmm. Can you make it Thursday at about noon? You can catch him at his lunch hour in the office. He spends most of the day out in the park.”

“Uhh, great, I’ll be there, thanks.” Felicia hung up the phone without saying goodbye. The woman on the other end must have thought her to be rude or just another scatterbrained college kid. At the moment, she indeed felt very scatterbrained.

On the 2 hour car ride to Green Mountain, Felicia had some time to think. She and Frank didn’t exchange many words. He knew she was deep in thought. Frank just gripped the wheel at ten and two and stared silently down the road. His old Ford F150 ground its way down the wet highway, rain pelting the windshield, the wipers whining as they made each pass. These were the only sounds heard in the car for most of the trip.

To Felicia, the pieces of her puzzling life now made much more sense. She had always felt that when she walked into the room at family gatherings that her aunts and uncles suddenly clammed up, like folks always do when you catch them talking about you. After a while, she dismissed it as childish paranoia. Now, she realized that at each family gathering, whether it was Thanksgiving, Christmas, a cousins’ birthday or a wedding, somebody in the family probably brought the subject up. I wonder if Lorena has told her yet? When is she going to tell her?

There were plenty of other times during her childhood that Felicia could think back to when her relatives were coy and cagey during discussions about her father, or rather the man she thought was her father. Her grandmother had always told her there was a big secret that she would tell her someday. Unfortunately, she died before she could live up to the promise. This was one of the entries that Felicia had made in her journal—one of the entries that her mother had undoubtedly read. Thinking about the lies that were told for all those years made her anger flare towards these people. The secret was like their private joke, one that she wasn’t in on. She hated them all a little for that.

Now Felicia knew why she never quite felt like she fit in with the family. She didn’t exactly look like her mother, and her head of naturally long, curly, dark hair was a family anomaly. She knew now that she must have gotten this from her biological father’s side of the family. The questions began to stream into her head again. How many other traits did she get from him? Did she have any stepbrothers or sisters? Were her real grandparents still alive? Did they even know about her? Did they think about her? Did her biological dad ever think about her? How could this whole other family exist all these years and never attempt to contact her? Thinking about this last question scared her. Maybe he didn’t want to think about her, hoped that she would never surface so he could continue to block her out of his memory; out of his life. Perhaps he wished she had never existed.

Sitting in the ranger’s office, Felicia continued to watch the raindrops on the window as if she was in a trance, all of these thoughts running through her mind like a movie playing itself on a continuous loop. She shuddered with a start when the nice woman came through the door and broke the silence.

“I just heard from Dan on the radio. He’s sorry about being late. He’ll be here in a minute.”

“Thanks,” Felicia said weakly. The nice woman left the door open and went back to her business, leaving Felicia alone again in the room. At the thought of actually meeting Dan, she suddenly had a strong urge to get up and leave. She would escape this dusty old field office and run out to the car where her dad Frank, her real dad as far as she was concerned, sat reading the newspaper awaiting her return. As she rose from her seat, a man entered the room. She sat quickly back down. She had to gut it out now.

“Sorry I’m late. I had a fire to put out. Well, not a real fire, but you know what I mean. In the park business, we try not to joke about that.”

He was in his late forties, with dark hair like hers. He had deep blue eyes, and was a fairly attractive man for his age. Fearing that he would see that she was staring, she looked away and stared again out the window. He was oblivious, and sat down at his desk. He pulled open a drawer and from it withdrew a large brown sack. He began to place the items from the sack on the desk as he spoke. “I’m afraid we’ll have to talk while I eat, I don’t get much time away from the park. So, you’re a student at M.S.U., eh?”

“Yes. Yes, I am.” Felicia could at least answer this question truthfully.

“So what’s your paper about? How can I help you?”
Felicia swallowed hard. All of the sudden her mouth was dry and her palms were cold and wet. She willed up the courage to get out of the chair, walk to the door, and shut it. When she did this, a puzzled look came across Dan’s face; the look then turned to worry as Felicia began to cry. She plopped herself back down in the chair.

“What’s wrong? Are you in some kind of trouble? If it’s about your paper, I’ll help you.” Dan began to feel uncomfortable and had no idea what to do at this point. Who was this crazy girl in his office?

“I’m not here to do a paper. I’m not a Fisheries and Wildlife student. I’m a Poli Sci student,” she squeezed out between sobs.

Dan became more desperate now, unsure of how to handle the situation. “Well, we can still talk about M.S.U. Where do you live? I used to be in a frater…”

“I’m your daughter.”

“What?”

“I’m your daughter, Dan. My name is Felicia Sorensen.”

“When is your birthday?”

“March 3rd. I’m twenty years old.”

“Your mother’s name?”

“Lorena Burrows at the time.”

“Oh, my God!” Dan bolted up, knocking over his thermos. Hot coffee soaked his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and ran along the table until it pooled under a sheath of papers on the corner of the desk. He paid no attention to the mess as he rushed to hug Felicia. They both held each other and cried. This was the reception that Felicia had hoped for, but it didn’t feel like she thought it would. Now that she had met her father, what was she supposed to do? She already had two other dads in her life. At this stage, was there room for one more? If he didn’t make the effort to stay in her life for the last twenty years, did she really want him in hers? The family secret was a secret no longer, but the effects of it were going to continue to be felt for years to come.

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