“What the hell? Why didn’t you tell me he’d kept in contact, we’re his family god damn it, we should have known, we should have been told! You had no right!”
The lawyer swallowed slowly and responded. “I understand your frustration Justin, but your father left very specific instructions. No one was to know of his communications until he stopped sending the letters for over a month.”
“We thought he was dead! After he went missing, mother drove herself nearly crazy trying to find him. It’s been years, James, years! He’s been declared legally dead! You should have told us!”
“I’m very sorry Justin. If it means anything to you, I thought what your father was doing was wrong. You should have known, but I was bound by law to follow his instructions.”
Justin just shook his head, his eyes red with tears and anger. James gave him a moment to compose himself, then continued.
“The reason I brought you here and told you all this is part of your father’s request. The letters, he wanted you to have them. He has also left you a substantial sum of money in an anonymous, numbered offshore account. He also wishes me to convey his sincere apologies for having left you and your mother without a word.”
“Apologies? Screw his damn apologies he left mother and I to rot! And for what? It all happened out of the blue, there weren’t any signs. Mother blamed herself, I blamed myself. We didn’t know how to cope. He can take his money and his apologies and shove them up his ass!”
James adjusted his tie awkwardly and stood up. “Look Justin, I’ve been a friend of your family for a long time-”
”-AND I understand you’re upset, but please, think about it before you make any decisions, when you have a clear head. I have the letters with me now and if you want to sign for them, I can release them to you. You’re father said they would explain everything. I know it’s only a small consolation for what he’s done, but perhaps they can go some way towards giving you and your mother some peace.”
Justin just gave him a dead, bitter look as James handed him a stack of envelopes, unopened, and bound together with a red rubber band.
“Just sign here, please.”
Justin scribbled his name on the form. Justin Walker hereby acknowledges the receipt of letters held for Michael Walker, to be handed over to Justin Walker in the events outlined in the above agreement and codified on pages 3, 4 and 19. He got up, the bundle of envelopes under his arm.
“I am very sorry Justin, I-” James began to say, but he was cut off by the door slamming shut.
As Justin left the offices of Horsham, Wrigley and Finn, he felt lost. He was so angry, not only at James for lying to him, but at his father. He should have stayed dead. After all these years he’d managed to put the memory of his father behind him, accept that he was yet another in a long line of missing persons that were likely to never be found, that had died alone and unnoticed. He’d mourned for him, for his loneliness and now he learnt that his father had never been dead in the first place, that all this time he’d been writing letters to the family lawyer. That he’d walked out and never had the balls to tell them why, had let them think he’d been murdered somewhere and dumped where he would never be found.
At the first trash can he thrust the letters into the opening but paused, holding them inside before he let them fall. Was this what he wanted? He was angry, yes, and nothing his father could have said could make him forgive him. Maybe though, he could get closure. Maybe at least he could understand why.
He pulled back the envelopes and put them into a coat pocket, ignoring the odd looks from passers by. It was a cold November morning, the first time he’d been back to the city since his father had left. They’d moved afterwards, without him they could no longer afford the rent of their modest centrally located apartment. He lived in a neighbouring town now, small, but comfortable, his mother in a local retirement home. Winters back home seemed harder, more invasive while the city here seemed unaffected, the daily grind not slowing or stopping for something as mundane as the weather. Puffing white breaths he walked the short journey to the train station and caught the train back home. He didn’t even think about the money.
It was the slow train, so it would take a good half hour to reach his stop and as he sat there in silence, pondering his thoughts, he found himself drawn to the letters. He hadn’t known what he was going to do with them when he got home. Whether he would tell his mother and open all those old wounds again like James had for him. Perhaps, maybe he should read one now. It would pass the time and more importantly, help him make a decision.
He pulled round the rubber band, giving him room to slide out the top envelope. It was dated, as was the one below in neat handwriting just alongside the stamp. The stamps came from many different places, the envelopes of all different shapes and colours, some carrying unidentifiable stains, others pristine and professional. The top one he now held in his hands was a clean one, white and untarnished except for a kiss on the back, sealing it with pale pink lipstick but smudged, as if someone had tried to remove it as an afterthought. Justin felt anger boiling in him. What was this? Some kind of sick way of telling him his father had run off with another woman?
Instead of tearing it up like his anger wanted him to, he tore it open along the edge and slid out a bundle of paper, 6 sheets of A4 written upon in the same elegant and meticulous handwriting his father was known for.
He began to read.
Justin, I am not your father. My name is Blake Tilsdale, but it is also Michael Walker as is it Sandra Glover and countless others. I’m not your father, not now, but I was and in a way I still am. I just wanted to stay I’m sorry for what I’ve done, your father, I, we… we didn’t deserve what was done to him. Sorry, this probably isn’t what you expected, I’m no good at this kind of thing. You’re probably going to think I’m insane and maybe I am, but I’m going to tell you the truth about what happened and why I - we - left. If thinking I’m crazy helps you through this, then I can call this a success I suppose, if not, well, I guess sorry doesn’t cut it does it?
I’ll lay it out for you straight. I am - I was - a con-man. I’d been grooming a mark for a long time, playing the long game and I was going to score big - millions big. We were driving to the bank, it was a Friday if I recall sometime back in the summer of 2001, when a truck hit us side on. The mark was killed instantly, I was a little luckier.
Well, I guess that’s a matter of opinion.
When I briefly woke up I was strapped to a gurney, being hurtled down a hall to an emergency operating room. Next thing I knew, everything was black, I could see a far off light. I knew I was dead. I begged for another chance, for forgiveness, for life but I kept on floating towards that light until it was all that I could see.
Then I woke up again. I was in ICU. I tried calling for a nurse, but I couldn’t speak and all that came out was a gurgle. As it turned out, I was a complete mess. Apparently, I’d needed brain surgery to remove chunks of skull from my brain. My jaw and entire left hand side had been crushed by the impact. I was fully expected to be in a coma for the foreseeable future but instead I woke up and set some alarm bells ringing.
You’re probably wondering what this all has to do with me, I mean, your dad. Well, he was a doctor at the hospital, my doctor. When I woke up, he came to see me. I wanted to be out of that bed more than anything. I wanted to take that second chance. I reached for his hand with my good arm and then it happened.
One minute I was laying crippled and broken in a hospital bed, the next I was standing up, arm outstretched and looking at an empty bed. I felt different, healthy and, most of all, I felt confused. I was in a daze, thinking I was dreaming and wandered out of the hospital. I had a sudden urge for a very strong drink. I knew a bar I frequented nearby so I headed there as quick as I could. Except when I got there, I realised I didn’t recognise it and yet somehow I did. I grabbed a seat at the bar, then Steve greeted me with a “Hey, Mike, the usual?” and I nodded, feeling simultaneously confused and indifferent, as anyone would react to a friend saying their name. When I saw the face staring back in the bottom of my glass, I drank quickly and left.
The face staring back at me wasn’t my own, it was the doctor’s. But it was mine, it felt right somehow. I knew that I had a son called Justin and a wife Marlene. And I knew I didn’t, that I wasn’t a doctor and I was a con-man called Blake Tilsdale.
I’m sorry kid, you probably think this is some kind of joke, some kind of stupid prank, that your dad’s some kind of psychopath that gets kicks from messing up his kids with this nonsense. I wish there was some way to prove it.
He isn’t dead, he’s still alive here in my head. He misses you, so I miss you. Sandra feels bad about it all too - that’s who I am now and let me tell you, being a woman is a completely different ball game. I accidentally did it to her too. We, I ran to a motel and I accidentally became the cleaner. We’re only lucky she had no kids, no husband, no one to miss her ‘cept her boss. When it happened the second time, I was ready, I understood. I touched her and suddenly I was gone, I disappeared and I became Sandra, her body, her mind part of my own.
I call it Becoming. Seems as good a name as any. I wish I could take it back but I’m sorry. I killed your dad, that first time when I stole his body and his mind and again when I destroyed his body Becoming Sandra. He’s gone, but not forgotten. I hope you can forgive me.
Justin folded the letter away slowly, bound back in the stack with the others using the rubber band and shakily put the stack of envelopes back into is inside coat pocket. This had not been what he was expecting.
He pulled out his phone and dialled James’ number.
“God damn it James, don’t you let this go to voicemail. You owe me some answers! What the hell is this, some kind of joke!? James! Pick up the damn phone! James!”
Click. You’ve reached the personal voicemail of James Horsham, please leave a message after the beep and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
“God damn it! James, when you get this call me straight away! I don’t know what you think you’re playing at but if these letters are some kind of sick joke, I’m sure as hell not laughing. Do you seriously expect me to believe this crap? My father wasn’t crazy, did you really think fabricating this ridiculous story would make me feel better? Who the hell put you up to this? Mother, was this her idea? You better call me back with an explanation ASAP or so help me I’ll see you disbarred for this, friend of the family or not.”
He hung up and gritted his teeth, slamming himself back in his seat. An elderly lady sat in the adjacent set of seats was staring at him and he scowled and turned to look out the window. What the hell was this all about? Why would his father wait until now to pull this on him? Did he want to rub salt in the wound, mock his pain like that? He didn’t know, he felt helpless and that made him even more angry. He glowered all the way home.
When he arrived, he turned the key in the lock and was greated by the smell of something frying.
“Hey babe, how’d it go? You get what you wanted?”
Justin ignored the question and marched through to the bedroom.
“Fine, ignore me then.”
He threw the letters into the corner of the room, got undressed and clambered into bed. He just wanted to go to sleep and forget about it, he was too angry to think about anything right now.
“Are you okay?”
Justin turned around to see his girlfriend leaning in the doorway.
“No.” He huffed, propping himself up on his elbow and sitting up against the headboard. “No I’m bloody not.”
“You want to talk about it? We can talk about it over dinner if you want, I wasn’t sure when you’d get home so I only made enough for one, but we can split it.”
“I don’t, oh, I don’t know, Angie. No, I just want to go to sleep.”
“Okay, well I’ll join you in a bit, okay? I’m sorry things didn’t work out.”
“That, my dear, is the understatement of the year. Goodnight babe, don’t leave it too late, I really need you right now.”
Angela smiled a concerned smile and closed the door behind her as she returned to the living room.
There in the dark, Justin lay there thinking about what happened. Try as he might, he couldn’t sleep. He turned on the bedside lamp and stared at the letters lying in the corner of the room. It couldn’t be real, it just couldn’t. He grabbed his mobile and dialled a number he hadn’t dialled in a very long time.
Come on, pick up.
“Do you have any idea what time it is? Who is it?”
“Steve, it’s Justin.”
“Mike’s son. I’m sorry for calling so late, it’s just that I needed to ask you something about dad.”
“Mike’s son? Oh that Justin! Jesus boy, what are you phoning an old fart like me up for in the middle of the night?”
“Hardly a boy now, Steve. It’s been twenty years. Look, you were the last person to see him before he disappeared. Was he acting strange, did he do anything weird?”
“Well, not that I can remember, ‘cept for turning up in the middle of the day, not like him to start so early but I figured he had a bad day, looked kinda shocked, like he’d seen a ghost. Figured he’d lost a patient and I know better than to ask the docs about that.”
“He didn’t mention anything did he, a name perhaps, or something?”
“Look Justin, it was twenty years ago and I’m a tired old man. I don’t want to sound harsh, but when the kid of a friend calls me up after twenty years in the middle of the night I don’t exactly find it easy to remember things. I told the investigators everything I knew twenty years ago.”
“I’m sorry Steve, I really am but this is really important. He didn’t mention Blake Tilsdale at all did he?”
“Blake who? No, he didn’t mention anyone like that. The only thing that comes to mind is that he left in a hurry, didn’t say his usual goodbyes. Looked kinda scared, as I said, like he’d seen a ghost. Now Justin, I gotta go. You stay safe kid.”
“Thanks Steve. Sorry about the wake up call.”