The boat pulls in.

May 31st, 2010

Dear Trevor,

 I know you need me, but I am beyond apologies.

 I write this leter at the Laughing Gull. Ezra sits next to me, tapping his fingers on the table. Tap tap tap.

 The boat pulls in. The woman captain is dressed in her best blood. “Why is she like that?” I think to myself. Or maybe I say it out loud, because Ezra answers.

 “Who knows what g—got her to that point. A bill—billion little things. That’s like me asking you wh—why you look the way you do.”

“Why do I what? Look like this? This is who I am. Or who I’ve become. I’ve looked better.”

“Ah. And this is the best she’s l—looked so far. Like she’s dressed for a wedding. Don’t you think she looks lovely in h—her wedding clothes?

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but she looks just rough enough to get me where I need to go.”

“Then come.”

“I’m coming.” My heart pounds as I say the words.  “I’ve just got to mail a letter.”

“Even so, come quickly,” says Ezra.

I will finish this line, stuff this note in an envelope and hand it to Sung-Hee. I’ve gotta run, Trevor.

Your dad,

Hugh

Don’t leave.

May 28th, 2010

Dear Dad,

 Carrying your burden is no big deal from my end. Or Or maybe it is a big deal, but it’s not a heavy load for me. I mean, I took on your shame, but I don’t feel it. Probably because I didn’t do the act that made you feel shameful. So it’s easy for me to carry, I guess. And besides, you took on my fear, so I owed you. It feels good to pay you back.

 The part that sucks is that I helped you get clear of it, right? And in return you’re gonna leave me. I can tell you are. You’ve gone crazy, even if it’s crazy in a good way. I can tell you’re gonna get out of that place, either on the bloody boat or some other way. So now I’ll be without a dad again.

 I still need you. For instance, it was 70 degrees today and you know how it is here in Washington. When it hits 70, everyone acts like they’re in Hawaii and walks around with their shirts off. Guys, I mean. Rhett and a couple of his buddies went to jump off the marina. He asked me to come along. I said no thanks, as nice as could be, and he started calling me a wussy.

 Did he ever consider that maybe I just don’t want to jump off the marina? Did he ever think that I might have better things to do? He acts like I should just drop everything and go jump off the stupid marina, like it’s the greatest thing in the world.

 So I could use you here, to back me up or tell me what to do or maybe gather my squished body from the beach after I break my neck by landing wrong if I actually jump off the stupid marina.

 Don’t leave.

If you do leave, can you at least try to write me a letter when you get to wherever it is you’re going?

 Your son,

 Trevor

Perhaps I could howl for you.

May 27th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

 Huh.

 It’s strange, but I miss this town, even as I sit in it.

 I think of it as passed. Or past. I feel like I’m sitting in something that has come and gone, like a time traveler who is just here to document a completed event.

 Maybe that’s the right word. Completed.

 Can I thank you for your act of taking on my burden? I don’t think so, Trevor. Not in words, anyway. Certainly not in these words, which feel like smoke trailings behind a plane. I have no confidence in their ability to communicate my real feelings. By the time the envelope arrives in your box, you’ll find only the damp evidence of steam.

 Perhaps I could howl for you, but I don’t know how to spell the sound I would make. Let me just say that I feel primitive. Wild. I want to bite something. Ha!

 The hairs on my arm are tingly. When I brush alongside my doorway, my side tingles for a full five seconds. I can feel the rough boards through the souls of my shoes. I can stand on my porch and smell the salt shore, smell Sung-Hee’s fish and coffee, even Sung-Hee’s own sour sweat.

 I want that boat to come in, Trevor. I bet I’ll smell its iron odor when it’s five miles out.

 I picked up all your letters from my table with the thought of rereading them, but I found I wanted nothing to do with the words. I only wanted the feel of the paper on my skin. I rubbed them on my rough, unshaven face and I could smell the oil of your fingers. The oil smells like my own self. I can smell my blood in your blood.

 I want to grow a beard. Is that silly? I’m done with haircuts, too.

 Do I worry about the burden you now bear for me? I don’t. I can’t. My brain has gone native within my skull.

 Dad

I’m no longer willing to wait for you to ask.

May 26th, 2010

Dear Dad,

 I’m no longer willing to wait for you to ask. Therefore, I’m jumping ahead without you. Consider your IOU cashed in.

 I, Trevor Griffiths, officially take on the burden of my father’s shame for anything he had to do with the death of his daughter, my sister, Meredith Griffiths.

 There. That’s it. It’s done. Move on.

 Your son,

 Trevor

Bring on a little blood. That’s something I could deal with.

May 25th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

 I’m sitting here at the Laughing Gull. Sung-Hee keeps coming to my table to try to drip a few more drops of her coffee into my overflowing cup. She’s trying to read over my shoulder. I take a small amount of joy trying to secretly block her view.

 It’s ghostly quiet in the restaurant today. In the whole town. The waves are quiet. The fog is thick. The residents are sequestered in their shacks. “It’s that damn boat,” whispered Sung-Hee. Everyone whispers on these days. “I wish it would hurry up and come so I could get a few more customers in here.”

 Ezra left a few minutes ago after another one of his unsettling conversations. More about forgiveness. When he was signing for our meal, he said, “You’re so inconsistent. Y—you’re more than happy to let me pick up the tab for your fish and coffee.”

 “You offered. And you’re the one who invited me to lunch. I was fine in my cabin.”

 “Yes, b—but you accepted. Now you need to let someone else pay the price for you.” He left in the middle of the riddle. I assume he’s talking about your offer, Trevor, even though I don’t remember mentioning it to him.

 I don’t much like your offer. I liked our earlier bargain better. I took on your fear of Mudgett, then you got a bloody nose. I could handle that more easily. Bring on a little blood. That’s something I could deal with.

 If Ezra stays true to his word and leaves on the next boat, I will miss him greatly.

 Dad

I have no idea if I’m still grounded or not.

May 24th, 2010

Dear Dad,

Mom officially lifted my grounding today. I asked her to put it back.

At work, she’d finally gotten over her embarrassment of me and told her co-worker Don Padgett about the cookie contest. She said Don laughed for 10 minutes straight. “Maybe it’s funnier than I first thought,” said Mom. Then she told me, “And I just can’t keep you grounded, Trev. So we’ll call it done today.”

I got really mad at Mom, which surprised both of us. I yelled, “I should be grounded! You shouldn’t lift it! Why can’t you stick with anything?” Her eyes got really wide and she stuttered out a few animal sounds.

“If you want, you can stay grounded, I suppose. But you don’t have to. That’s what I’m trying to explain to you.”

“You’re giving in too easy,” I muttered.

“I don’t think you understand. I’m saying you’re not grounded anymore.”

“I know that’s what you’re saying. And I’m saying that’s dumb. I should be grounded. You should stick to it.” I stomped into my room and slammed the door so hard I knocked a dumb old trophy off a shelf.

I have no idea if I’m still grounded or not. I guess the decision is up to me, which is pretty stupid.

Anyway, the whole conversation put me in a really pissy mood. But I’ll still take your burden from you, Dad. My offer still stands.

Your son,

Trevor

There’s nothing gentle about it.

May 21st, 2010

Dear Trevor,

“People think that forgiveness is a gentle act. There’s nothing gentle about it. At times it’s been the most bloody, violent act in the history of the world.” That’s what Ezra told me. That’s what it would feel like to me, Trevor, to let you take this on for me. To have my blood on your hands. On your back.

I can’t ask that of you. Of anyone. I have no right.

Ezra disagrees. Of course, Ezra is a bit of a nut. I verified this fact with Gordon. “De omni re scibili et quibusdam aliis,” Gordon said.

“Which means what.”

“It means he’s a bloody know-it-all, even about things of which he has no right of holding expertise. He’s annoying.”

“I don’t know. I kind of like him.”

“You would. You’re always seeking for something different. Something more. You should be like me.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning I have decided I am quite comfortable here.”

“Oh, you are not. You do nothing but complain about this place.”

“Perhaps. But perhaps I like complaining. Perhaps it is the very act of complaining that gives me comfort. Perhaps it is the sheer mediocrity of this locale that makes it so right for me.”

“You may have something there.” I left. I went back to my cabin and took my IOU out to reread it. Then I put it back.

You don’t owe me this much.

Dad

Ezra invited me to lunch at The Laughing Gull.

May 19th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

 I hope the teachers don’t hate you, too. They shouldn’t, even though you’ve challenged them to take a pretty big joke. And as far as your mom goes, give her a little time. Her sense of humor is bound to shine through eventually.

 Ezra invited me to lunch at The Laughing Gull today. I laughed at the invitation. “Have you eaten there yet?”

 “Oh, I—I’ve had worse. Y—you should try the food in a logging camp before y—you start complaining. And the c—coffee’s pretty good.” I couldn’t tell if Ezra was joking or not about the coffee. I followed him down and we took a seat closest to the dock. He stared out the window as if there was something to look at other than fog. I asked him what he was looking for.

 “The boat, of course. She’s c—coming back soon. And when she does, I’m going with her. I w—want you to know that.”

 I smirked. “If you say so, but I’ve never seen anyone get on that boat other than those that get right on the first day. Those of us who wait never go aboard.”

 “I’m getting on. I only stopped here to t—talk to you for a few days. Didn’t you know that? That’s why I’ve been looking for you.”

 That got my attention. I asked him what he was supposed to talk to me about. He said he’d know when I told him my story. So I told him. Everything. I think I talked longer than I’ve ever talked in my life. When I got to the end—I mean the very end—up to the minute I was talking to him right there—he laughed. “No w-wonder you’re still here. You can’t take any of that with you.”

 “With me where?”

 “Onward, of course. But y—you’ve got to leave all that behind.”

 “How do I do that?”

 “Quickly, that’s how. Because she’s c—coming back soon.”

 Dad

This is my second day of being suspended.

May 18th, 2010

Dear Dad,

 I’ve got some time to write you a long letter today, since this is my second day of being suspended from school.

 Only a few minutes after I mailed your last letter, Brian Haase called me at home, a bit frantic. “Trevor! Caulkins is gonna call you any minute! I just got off the phone with him!” Mr. Caulkins is our vice principal.

 “What’d he say?” For some reason, I was way calmer than Brian. I guess because I pretty much knew this was coming.

 “He said I was suspended for two days! My mom is really pissed! I gotta go!”

 I hung up the phone and jogged into the living room to tell Mom. I still figured it would be better for her to hear it from me first.

 “Mom, I gotta talk to you.” She closed her book over one hand and looked at me. The way her mouth was opened and her eyebrows were pushed together, I could tell she was waiting for me to confess something. She just didn’t know what. “The vice principal’s gonna call any minute, because I’m gonna be in trouble at school.”

 “What did you do?” She pulled her hand out of the book and closed the book shut, losing her place.

 “You know those cookies me and Brian made for the cookie contest? We kind of put Ex-Lax in them. And the teachers—”

 “You what?”

 “We put Ex-Lax in the cookies we made. For the teachers.”

 Bang. She exploded. I was surprised how mad she got and how fast she got there. She kept yelling “You had no right,” and yelled how I might have sent someone to the hospital. She was right in the middle of her rant when the phone rang, which didn’t help. I answered it.

 Caulkins asked me if I knew why he was calling. I said I was pretty sure I did. He asked if I’d like to tell him why. I lied and said I would. Then I told him. He let me know how sick some of the teachers had become, especially Mrs. Fletcher, who I guess spent most of the evening in bed, although I bet she actually spent most of the day in the bathroom. After he told me I was suspended, he asked to talk to my mom. I handed her the phone and listened. She said yes a lot and thanked Caulkins for calling. I bet she really wasn’t very thankful.

 Mom was a bit calmer when she got off the phone, but she was really mad. She acted like I’d done something dangerous. Then she grounded me for two weeks, which seems about right to me. I didn’t mind, really.

 I go back to school tomorrow, because this is the last day of my suspension. All in all not too bad. I hope the teachers don’t hate me, though. And I’m glad it helped you.

 Your son,

 Trevor

I hope you don’t get in trouble on my account.

May 17th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

 I can’t believe you did it. I mean, I believe that you did it, but what you did was an unbelievable act. Smart? Stupid? Mean? Irresponsible? I don’t know. But bold as all hell, boy.

 I hope you don’t get in trouble on my account. “On my account.” A strange set of words, don’t you think? But so true, here. I feel like I’m spending heavily and counting on you to cover the cost. More of my vampiristic nature.

 That said, it worked to a reasonable degree. If your story didn’t take my mind off my plight, it at least provided a little entertainment. Perhaps that’s the best I can hope for. And now I get to sit in suspense, waiting to hear what happened to you. That suspense is a gift of great distraction.

 I’ve had another distraction as well. That newcomer to town that Sung-Hee and Dr. Jones gossiped about came to call on me. I was lying in my bunk when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to this man I’d never seen before.

 “Can—can  I borrow a cup of sugar?” he said.

 “Sugar? You’re joking, surely.”

 “I am. Can—can—can I come in?” I stood back and let him enter. He’s of medium height, about my age, I suppose, but gone much softer than me. His hair is black—or perhaps very dark brown—and, oh, windswept I suppose is an acceptable way to describe it. A scruffy beard doesn’t quite succeed in giving shape to his great double chin. He wears a dark blue suit, but not well. No tie. The suit somehow manages to make him look slobby. He’d likely be better served by a flannel shirt and a pair of work pants. I can imagine him wiping grease off his hands after emerging happily from underneath a car.

 “I—I’ve been looking for you,” he said. He couldn’t seem to get a sentence off without stuttering.. “Name’s Ezra. Ezra Ledford. Hear you—you’ve been looking for me as well.”

 We sat then and swapped our stories. Ezra came to town a few weeks ago. He’d recently retired as a high school teacher and was working abroad, teaching English in Hong Kong. One day he was lunching on fish at his favorite local restaurant when a bone stuck in his throat. “Next thing I knew, I was stepping off a plane into this place,” he said. “But it’s not so b—bad. Been in worse. T—taught school at a logging camp that was nothing but m—mud. Least it’s not cold here. I hate b—being cold. Why’ve you been looking for me?”

 I told him I had no real agenda, other than searching for a way to keep busy.

 “I encourage you to get one,” Ezra said.

 “One what?”

 “An agenda.”

 Trevor, I like this guy. He’s interesting. Not sure why he’s interested in me. Not sure if he’ll remain so. But for now, I like him.

 Let me know what happens with the cookies.

 Dad

We made the cookies. One with this stuff called Ex-Lax.

May 14th, 2010

Dear Dad,

 I got your letter too late. I didn’t come home after school yesterday. I went home with Brian Haase. We made the cookies. Both batches. One with this stuff called Ex-Lax and one normal batch. We brought them to school and entered them in the cookie contest. We hoped we could make sure that only Mr. Schick got the Ex-Lax cookies. But when we showed up at the teacher’s lounge, this pep club girl named Sophie Johnstone just grabbed both plates from us and said, “Ooh! These look yummers! Good luck, boys!”

 Brian and I promised each other we wouldn’t tell anyone what we’d done. I kept my part of the promise, but I’m not sure Brian did, because I heard whispers all day long.

 We never actually saw any of the teachers eat the cookies, but they definitely did. “Did you hear about Mrs. Fletcher?” Rick Jarvis asked me at lunch. “She left math to go to the bathroom five times. The last time she never came back.”

 “Oh, crap,” I said.

 “Exactly,” said Rick, laughing. “Serves her right. She’s such a hag.”

 Mrs. Henry got into the bad cookies, too. I’ll probably burn in hell for that one, because Mrs. Henry is beyond innocent. She’s a force of good. Luckily, she didn’t eat too many. Or at least she didn’t get the runs too bad, because she lasted the whole day.

 Mr. Schick got it bad. Donnie Joad told me he heard that Schick went to the hospital. I’m know that’s not true, but in P.E. he already looked bad, and that’s my first period. He barely made it through Bible class. He excused himself three times. The third time, he didn’t even say anything. He just got up and ran. Brian Haase burst out laughing and a couple of other kids snickered, too. I heard that Mr. Schick tried to go home after lunch, but too many other teachers had already left early, so he had to stay all day long. That’s how I know he didn’t go to the hospital. Brian has P.E. near the end of the day, and he said Schick looked liked a zombie. Schick declared an open play period and then went and sat on the bleachers near the boys’ locker room. Brian thought this was awesome. I mostly did, too, but I’m pretty sure we’ll get busted.

 Now I’m home, wondering if the phone is gonna ring. Wondering if I should tell Mom what I did now, or wait to see if we get caught. Either way, it’s a gamble, right? If I tell her now, I’ll definitely get in trouble, but probably not quite as bad, because she’ll like that I told her ahead of time. If I wait, there’s a slim chance I might never get caught, but if I do, I’ll get in more trouble.

 I think I’m gonna take my chances and hope we don’t get busted. Wish me luck.

 I hope this helps distract you, Dad.

 Your son,

Trevor

I kind of longed for her to scream at me.

May 13th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

 Don’t get into trouble for me. Especially for this. I don’t want any more shame piled on.

 Thanks for telling about your mom missing me. I’m not sure if it helps.

 A few months ago, when your trouble with Mudgett was making you vomit, you told me how your mom would make you feel worse when she’d baby you and call you her “poor dear.” That’s what Ev’s quick forgiveness felt like to me. It made the shame that much harder to bear.

 I kind of longed for her to scream at me. To hit me. To scratch my face and leave a horrible scar that I’d have to bear. Take a baby’s weight of flesh out of my backside. But Ev has never worked that way. She’ll take the sins of the world on herself to avoid causing anyone pain.

 Trevor, tread carefully around the cookie business. Cookies can be dangerous. Get a teacher sick and you could torch your school career. A vengeful teacher can make a kid pretty miserable.

 Dad

I can shock you, too, if that’s what you want.

May 12th, 2010

Dear Dad,

 I think maybe you’ve got the wrong idea about Mom. I think you remember her wrong. She’s not sitting around crying all day. When she gets weepy about the past, it’s more about you being gone than about Meredith being dead. She misses you. I don’t think she’d miss you if she was still pissed at you.

 I could ask her, if you want, if she’s forgiven you. If that’s what you’re worried about, I mean. Is that what you’re looking for? Someone to say, “That’s OK.”

 I can shock you, too, if that’s what you want. I was gonna tell Brian that I didn’t want to join him in the cookie contest plan. It seems kind of mean to me. And I’m pretty sure we’ll get in trouble. But if it would help you, I can do it. Because Brian’s got a plan:

 We go to his house after school on Wednesday. We make the cookies. His mom has this recipe for three-layer brownies that he says are amazing. We just mix in one extra ingredient. A laxative. That’s a kind of medicine that you take when you’re constipated. It totally gives you diarrhea, which I guess is what you want if you’re constipated. Then we make another batch of the cookies that are normal. We pack both kinds of cookies to school. We make sure Mr. Schick gets the diarrhea cookies and we give the normal ones to everybody else. Then we watch as Mr. Schick poops his pants.

 It seems like a pretty good plan. The only problem is that if you look at the names of the other kids who signed up for the cookie contest, they’re all girls from the pep club. They’re like the nerdiest girls in school. They all wear hairbands. Then at the bottom of the list, you see Brian Haase and Trevor Griffiths. If something goes bad with the cookie contest, who are you gonna blame?

 That’s why I said no to Brian. But if it will help you, Dad, I’ll do it. It’s not like Mr. Schick doesn’t deserve it. So after I mail this letter, I’ll call Brian and tell him yes.

 Your son,

 Trevor

Do something irresponsible to slap me out of this hangover.

May 11th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

 If I were to talk about this to your mother, what would I say? She knows what happened. She knows I was there, in charge, when the future of our baby girl was eliminated, when your mother’s own joy stopped breathing.

 It’s strange how quiet tragedy can happen in real life.

 If I could have fought and lost, it would be so much easier to bear. If I’d been bloody and battered, laying half dead next to the all dead baby body, it would have been easy for Ev to forgive me.

 I’m wallowing. I know it.

 I thought this purgatory—if that’s what you call this place—would slowly scrape this burden off of me. But I took it with me into the woods and packed the whole thing back out again. Now I sit with it on my front porch. Maybe it’s like my hunch. Is that what you call it? My lump? I mean, if I were a hunchback, my deformity would be this lump of shame. I’ll take it with me everywhere. It will burn along with the rest of my bones in hell. Maybe it will make heaven a bitter place for me forever.

 I can’t imagine going to heaven, being surrounded by perfect people, and still walking around, hunched over with this crap on my back.

 Enough.

 Trevor, distract me. Tell me about the cookie contest. Shock me. Do something irresponsible to slap me out of this hangover.

 I remember when Keith was little and he’d bang his head on the kitchen counter. He’d whimper about his injury. Steffan would walk up to Keith and gleefully stomp on his foot. Keith would howl with pain and grab his smashed toes. Between sobs, he’d say, “Whadja do that for?”

 “You should thank me,” Steffan would say. “Now your head doesn’t hurt.”

 That’s what I need, Trevor. I need a pain so great that it will make my head stop hurting.

 Dad

Most things are somebody’s fault.

May 7th, 2010

Dear Dad,

I know I asked you to tell me all this stuff, but it’s a lot to handle. I feel like you should be telling this to Mom, not to me.

I guess I knew most of it—the basics at least—but I never really felt it before, you know? And it’s weird to think about Meredith like she was a real baby. Before your letters, she was a name out of an old story. And she was a tombstone. Or a name on a tombstone. That flowery little stone in the children’s section at Washington Memorial that we visit with Mom once a year. Mom still puts baby flowers on the grave. Baby’s breath, I think it’s called. I never thought about how weird that was until I wrote those words just now. Baby’s breath.

Maybe it’s too early to ask, but I’m wondering if you feel any better. I had this screwy idea that if you talked about what happened, you’d have some sort of weight lifted off your shoulders. Anything?

In movies about stuff like this, people always say things like, “It’s not your fault!” Then they shake the person by the shoulders and everyone cries, then look out at a sunset or stare out a rainy window or some moody crap like that.

But I think maybe it was your fault. Most things are somebody’s fault. We try hard to work things out so no one has to take the blame, but maybe on this one you do need to take the blame. I mean, you screwed up.

So now what?

Your son,

Trevor

Death got covered in equipment.

May 6th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

Sorry it’s taken me a few days to respond to you. No excuses worth noting here other than it’s taken me that long to find the gumption to finish this story.

Back on that day, the next fifteen minutes were the most mind-bending of my life. Ev walked upstairs, still angry with me. I could hear what sounded like your mother crying in the distance and I thought, “What could she possibly be crying about now? All I did was watch a football game.” Then I heard her voice, still soft from upstairs, but broken with sobs, telling me to call 911.

I knew right then. At least that’s where my imagination went. I imagined the worst–that our little Meredith had stopped breathing. I picked up a cordless phone and dialed. The operator came on and asked my emergency and I told her just that–that our baby had stopped breathing. She calmly said an ambulance was on the way and asked me to describe what had happened. I said I didn’t know. Then I ran upstairs.

Ev was trying to breathe life back into that tiny baby. The baby wouldn’t have it.

I was glad for the operator on the phone. I needed someone to talk to other than Ev. I laid out the scene for her until the paramedics took over our house. From that point on, things got really technical. Death got covered in equipment. Bulbs and tubes and monitors. It seemed more official that way.

Your mom cried for days. Weeks. I don’t know if I ever did.

We had a funeral. The saddest of sad days.

We went on to fill our house with four more kids. You included. That stopped the crying pretty well. Nothing takes your mind off a dead child like a house full of chaotic joy.

Then I died. And here I am. It all makes a kind of sense. I fixed the problem by replacing Meredith four times over. I paid my debt in a sense. Now I’m serving my time. Least that’s how I see it.

If your mom had asked to have 10 more kids, I would have said yes. I would have said yes to almost anything.

Dad

I’m still afraid of your next letter.

April 30th, 2010

Dear Dad,

It’s weird, because I know how the story ends, at least so far. I know that Meredith dies. I have a pretty good idea how it all happened. But I’m still afraid of your next letter.

I think I know you better now than I did when you were alive. I was a baby. We never talked. Now sometimes I wish we didn’t talk so much. Or didn’t talk so much about such heavy stuff. I wish we had that day-to-day thing where you’d ask, “How was your day?” I’d say, “Fine.” We’d go see a movie about a magician and you’d say, “So what did you think?” I’d say, “I liked it until Tesla started making clones of everything. It got really stupid after that.”

Talking is different when we write stuff down. No one makes small talk in letters. Well, maybe girls do. I bet Misty Lee could blather on about nothing for ten pages with no problem. But in our letters, it’s always life or death stuff. Maybe once we get past this we could share lists of favorite songs or books or pizza toppings. Something small like that.

Whew. I bet this is hard for you.

Maybe this will take your mind off of it. Brian Haase wants to talk about cookies. He says that the cookie contest the teachers are judging is a week from this Thursday and we need to have A Plan. “Let’s get together at lunch and make our strategy.” Brian is one of those guys who seems all quiet, but once he gets an idea, he’s like an army general. I can tell he’s already committed to some kind of idea in his head. He’s got that caveman-on-the-hunt look in his eyes. Blackie the Dog gets the same look when he sees Mrs. Johnson’s cat. He can picture the hunt, step-by-step, all the way to the kill.

I bet you’re barely able to concentrate on that, thinking about Meredith. I get why this is so hard for you. Stick it out, Dad. You’re halfway there.

Your son,

Trevor

She was six months old at the time.

April 29th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

I’ve been thinking about that IOU. I even wrote it out, so that you’d take me seriously when I asked to cash it in. It’s sitting right here in front of me now. I have other plans for it. But I do appreciate your offer, you persistent little punk. And now you’re threatening me, too. You pulled the mom card. It’s enough, Trevor. Enough to even push my way to a bit of a beginning about this story.

So here goes:

You guessed that it happened 19 years ago. You were close. If you are 13 now, then it was almost exactly 20 years. I’ve been dead for eight of those. Part of me has been dead the full two decades.

It was a Sunday. About 10 a.m. One of those spring days when it was sunny one minute and then rainy the next. Your mom put Meredith down for a nap in the upstairs bedroom—the one Rhonda must be using now. Ev told me to check on the baby in an hour and not let her sleep too long. Then she took Steffan with her to church. I was home alone with Meredith.

She was six months old at the time. I got to know that baby pretty well in half a year, because that was her entire life. With babies, the soul is all smells and burps and velvety skin. Meredith’s soul smelled like soap. She had your Mom’s unpredictable eyes. Green one day and brown the next depending on the weather and the color of her onesy. She had Ev’s disposition as well—out to make everyone happy all the time. Quiet and happy. Ready to smile at even the hint of a peekaboo. Ev would stare at her and say, “I’d rather watch you than TV any day.”

That morning, Meredith was asleep. I sat down in front of the television and started watching an East Coast football game. Philadelphia Eagles vs. the Washington Redskins. I didn’t care about either team, but football was my Sunday morning routine and I am a man of habit. Still am. As I recall, the Redskins made a rout of it and it was a lousy game to watch. No matter. I watched anyway.

Two hours later, your mom came home. I can still hear her church heels on the front porch steps, still hear her hello as she opened the door. “Where’s my baby?” she asked happily, looking around the living room.

That’s when I realized I’d left Meredith upstairs the entire time without checking on her. A slight infraction, right? The slightest imaginable. I mumbled something about her still being asleep. Ev instantly got mad at me. “Have you even checked on her?”

“I haven’t.”

“Do you even know if she’s OK?”

“She’s a baby,” I said, joking. “How much trouble can she get into?”

That joke. If I could take one thing back in my life, it would be that joke.

I’m stopping right there, Trevor. If I could find a liquor store up in this town, I’d drink myself all the way to oblivion, then drink a few more miles, just to be sure.

Dad

I’m not gonna back off on this one.

April 28th, 2010

Dear Dad,

I’m not gonna leave you alone, you stubborn old bastard.

Remember way back in December, when we made that bargain? When you took on my fear of Mudgett? You said that in exchange, you’d file away an IOU. How about if you use it now? How about if I take on your fear of telling this story? How about if you give me your fear and then write freely?

Either way, I’m not gonna back off on this one, so you might as well spill. You’ve been talking about talking about this all year. It’s time you got down to it. Get it over with. Do.

If you don’t tell me, I’ll ask Mom.

Your son,

Trevor

You are getting on my nerves.

April 27th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

You are getting on my nerves. I wish you would shut up about this topic. I wish you would leave me the hell alone.

I can’t do it. I can’t open my mouth about this one.

Dad

“Do you know how Meredith actually died?”

April 26th, 2010

Dear Dad,

I asked Rhonda about Meredith. I figure since you aren’t telling me, I might as well dig a little on my own. Like I said, I’m just gonna keep writing about it until you spill your guts.

That’s one advantage of having a dead dad. I can sass you all I want and you have to put up with it. I’m mostly joking, Dad. I’m not trying to be a pain in the butt. I’m trying to get you to unload, you know?

Anyway, Rhonda is my only real option. No way I’m asking Mom, because I know you’d really freak out if I brought her into it. Mom would probably tell me the real story if I asked. She keeps a lot of stuff to herself, but if you ask her, she’ll tell.

I just asked Rhonda straight out. I walked into her bedroom—upstairs. She was listening to some weird county-punk music and lying on her bed looking at the ceiling. I turned off her music and said, “Hey.”

“Hey.” She didn’t look up. Must have been something really amazing on that ceiling.

“Do you know how Meredith actually died?”

“Our Meredith?”

“Yeah.”

“Why? And why didn’t you knock?”

“I just wanna know. No one’s ever told me and I figure she was practically my sister.”

“’Course she was your sister, you little dork. She’s just dead. Why’ve you been so weird lately?”

“I don’t know. Puberty. So how’d she die?”

Rhonda finally turned onto her side. “Crib death, I guess.”

“Which means…”

“Which means that some babies just die in their cribs. Like they don’t get enough oxygen. Their faces get too smooshed into the sheets and they just keep breathing in the same air over and over until they suffocate. Happens all the time.”

“How do you prevent it?”

“What, are you planning to have a baby or something? Geez. I guess you make the baby sleep on its back or something.”

“How come they didn’t do that with Meredith?”

“You ever tried to keep a baby on it’s back? Baby are intrinsically squirmy. Besides, they didn’t know better back then. Now go away. And close the door. And knock next time.”

I left. I have no idea if Rhonda is telling me the truth or not. Anything you want to share here, Dad?

Your son,

Trevor

I don’t feel like I have a right to tell this story.

April 23rd, 2010

Dear Trevor,

I don’t feel like I have a right to tell this story. Just the act of telling it will be one more thing that needs to be forgiven.

I don’t know how to start.

I am the villain in this tale. No. Villain is more appealing than my role. My crime was less active but no less unforgiveable.

Can we avoid it for another few days? Can I talk about your math test? About how proud I am of you? About how I hope your Mom lets you take taekwondo lessons? Believe me, I’m in no position to ask her for anything, although I’ve asked her for so much throughout my life.

That’s all I’ve got for you today, Trevor.

Dad

She can’t hear a siren without thinking about that day.

April 22nd, 2010

Dear Dad,

I guess there was something pushing on the back of my brain about Meredith. You never mentioned her even once, even though she’s the only other person in our regular family that’s died, other than you. I mean, I know she was only six months old and died before I was even born, but Mom still talks about her pretty often. And we still go and put flowers on her grave every Memorial Day. Her grave’s in the baby section. You probably know that. You probably bought the tombstone.

Mom’s told me a little bit about how Meredith died. Well, she’s never told me the whole story, if there is one. Other than Meredith was taking a nap and didn’t wake up. Mom called 911 and the ambulance came racing over. That’s why I’ve heard the story. When we hear sirens, Mom talks about Meredith. She says she can’t hear a siren without thinking about that day. Good thing we don’t live by a fire station. Yikes.

I figure it was about 19 years ago, so it seems like you’d all be pretty much over it by now. I’m clearly wrong about that.

I also figure it’s hard for you to read this right now. That’s OK. I’m gonna keep talking about it until you do, because I guess I think it will be good for you to talk about it. I feel like you’d do the same thing for me. Or to me.

Mom settled down about the canoe trip, although sometimes she looks at me and shivers. I thought she’d settled down enough for me to bring up the chance of taekwondo lessons again, now that stupid basketball with stupid Mr. Schick is over. But I was wrong. When I asked, she yelled, “Trevor! Not now!” Which I took to mean, I’m still really pissed at you so don’t even think of asking for anything.

Hey, guess what? I passed that algebra test in Mrs. Fletcher’s class! I’m going straight into algebra next year, so I guess somehow I’m no longer a math idiot. Don’t ask me how. I still feel confused most days. Maybe everyone does.

Your son,

Trevor

Not feeling much like writing today.

April 21st, 2010

Dear Trevor,

Not feeling much like writing today. Give me a day or so to figure out how to do this. I may need to learn a new language, because the one I’ve got doesn’t seem to have the right words.

Dad

I survived the canoe trip OK, but I barely survived Mom.

April 20th, 2010

Dear Dad,

We need to talk.

I survived the canoe trip OK, but I barely survived Mom.

We put the canoe and the rest of our gear into the back of Donnie’s truck and headed up to the park. We unloaded by 10 and figured we be to the pick-up spot by about 3. Donnie’s mom made sure we had Donnie’s cell phone in a Ziploc bag. Donnie even opened the bag to make sure it was charged and on. Last but not least, she made us promise to keep our lifejackets on.

We got into the water and started floating down the river. It was awesome. Even at 10 it was already pretty warm. I took my life jacket off and sat on it. I was just wearing sandals, cargo shorts and a t-shirt.

The river was high, but most of the time it was pretty mellow. We planned on taking it easy, anyway. We talked with Donnie’s dad the night before and promised that if we came to anything too rough, we’d carry the canoe around it. Donnie’s dad called this a “portage,” which sounded cool in a Lewis-and-Clark sort of way.

So that’s how it went for a long time. We shot a few small rapids and portaged a few big ones. After a couple hours, we stopped at a sandbar and ate lunch—sandwiches, water, brownies and Fritos. No Bugles. Then we skipped rocks for a while, until Donnie said we should get going, because he knew that if we were very late his mom would freak.

It was really warm by then, until the river went into this kind of canyon where the sun couldn’t get. The canyon kept getting narrower. Cliff walls went about 30 feet up on both sides. Lots of shadows. No banks.

Up ahead, I could hear rapids, but I couldn’t tell how big they were or how far away. We paddled stupidly toward them.

We came around a bend and the rapids sucked us right in. They weren’t too bad at first, but we could see curling whitewater ahead. Donnie let a few curse words fly and we both started paddling for the smoothest section of water. Then the river grabbed us and started slamming us around. Right in front of us, a huge boulder seemed to pop out of nowhere. The river spun us sideways right toward it. We slammed into the boulder so hard that Donnie and I instantly flipped out of the boat. The river sucked Donnie downstream. I grabbed the bottom of the upside down canoe and held on through the rapids, banging my shins on rocks as I went.

I caught up to Donnie a few minutes later. We dogpaddled the canoe over to the bank and lied on the muddy shore, catching our breath. After a few minutes we turned the canoe over and saw the hole in the side. It was about as big as a softball and below the waterline.

We’d lost most of our stuff, including Donnie’s cell phone and cooler, my life jacket and both paddles. We were soaked and cold and about ten miles from our pick-up point at the Highway 18 Bridge.

We tried stuffing a wadded-up t-shirt into the hole in the canoe, but the water still pored through. We ended up stashing the canoe in some bushes on the river’s edge, then started walking. Most of the way, it wasn’t too bad, because there were train tracks that followed the river. But it felt like it took forever.

When we reached the pick-up spot no one was there. There was no place to call and we had no phone, so we started walking toward Donnie’s house, another couple miles away. We finally got there about dark—eight o’clock—and there were a bunch of cop cars out front. Mom’s car was there, too.

I guess they all thought we were dead. At six, Donnie’s mom called the cops and the cops sent out Search and Rescue. The Search and Rescue guys found the canoe and my life jacket and were scouring the bank for our bodies.

The police lectured us, lectured Mom and Donnie’s parents, then left. Then me and Mom left and she started lecturing me. She was really upset. She started crying while she was driving. I asked her why, since I was OK. She said she thought she’d lost another of her children.

I knew what she was talking about. Meredith. The sister I never met who died as a baby. Mom

Dad, does this have something to do with your shame?

Your son,

Trevor

I’m on the hunt for the stranger in town.

April 19th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

By the time you get this letter, you’ll be back from your canoe trip. Can I wish you luck—or pray for your safety—in the past? I think so. I pray that you were safe on Saturday and that you made it back to your mother alive and well. Bruised, maybe, but not broken.

Not all my children have fared so well, Trevor. Ahh.

I’m on the hunt for the stranger in town. Sung-Hee and Dr. Jones both claim to have seen him, but both describe him completely differently, so I doubt their stories. Dr. Jones says the man appeared to be “short, bald and studious.” Not sure what studious looks like. Jones said he wore a rumpled, dark blue suit and appeared lost in thought. He said he saw him down among the sound end of the cabins, but no one who lives down in that part of town seems to have spotted the man.

Sung-Hee said the man had a full head of hair and a prominent beard. “You should see the beard on this guy,” she said. “He put some years into that thing. He’d never be able to work in a restaurant with hair like that.”

Sung-Hee claims to have seen him on the dock. I looked, but saw no sign. At least it’s nice to have something to look for, Trevor. It keeps my mind off the letter I know I need to write you.

Dad

We’re gonna drop our canoe in there.

April 16th, 2010

Dear Dad,

I don’t know what I might do about the cookie contest, but Brian Haase pulled one of the flyers off the wall and showed it to me.

“Do you know what this is?” he said. “This–this is opportunity.”

“Opportunity to do what?”

“To do–something! We need to talk.”

We haven’t talked yet, but I kind of liked Brian’s spirit. His eyes were all wide and little spots on his cheeks got all red. It reminded me how he used to look when we got in fights in 5th grade. Besides, doing something seems a lot like what you’re always talking about. Doing versus not doing.

Tomorrow is Saturday. Tonight I’m going to spend the night at Donnie’s house and then in the morning his mom is going to bring us up to Flaming Geyser State Park. We’re gonna drop our canoe in there and paddle down the Green River to the Highway 18 Bridge. Donnie’s bringing a cellphone in a Ziploc bag so that we can call her when we get there so she can pick us up. It should be pretty fun. It’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow and Donnie says his mom bought us a whole bunch of junk food to eat along the way. I hope she bought Bugles. Donnie always has Bugles in his lunch. They’re kind of delicious.

Remember Mrs. Fletcher, my math teacher? She’s still as evil as ever and today, to prove it, she gave us a test on algebra, which we’ve never studied. When I reminded her of this, she said, “I’m fully aware of what we have and have not studied, Mr. Griffiths. However, those of you who do well enough on this test will be admitted directly into algebra next year, instead of waiting until 9th grade. The rest of you will take the ordinary track to pre-algebra.”

It seems pretty stupid. How are we supposed to do well on a test when we’ve never studied the stuff? Anyway, I took the test. I knew more of it than I thought. We’ll find out next week, I guess.

Wish me luck on my canoe trip,

Your son,

Trevor

There’s another newcomer in town

April 15th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

I’m not sure what advice to give you about the cookie contest. All year, I’ve been telling you to do. Kiss the girl. Fight the boy. Go back to school. Play in the game. Now what? Hold back?

I wish your motivation wasn’t revenge, because I’m pretty sure that one will leave a bad taste–like one too many donuts.

Then again, one too many donuts sounds pretty good right now.

What are you thinking? Making horrible tasting cookies? Poisoning Mr. Schick? Don’t do anything stupid.

I don’t know what you can do to help me with my burden of shame. Nothing, I expect. But I could be wrong. I’ll keep thinking about it as much as I can stand to.

Sung-Hee told me a strange bit of gossip. Supposedly, there’s another newcomer in town, but no one has met him. The well-dressed black man–whose name I still don’t know–confirmed it. I asked Gordon if he wanted to go door-to-door with me to search out this mystery man, but he said he was contemplating a particularly interesting fog bank and didn’t want to move from his porch. I went by myself, up and down the entire line of cabins and shacks, but found no one I hadn’t seen before.

I’d love a little new company. A little new something. Maybe tomorrow.

Dad

Speaking of dorks, our school has this thing called a pep club.

April 14th, 2010

Dear Dad,

I’m thinking about this thing you’re having a hard time telling me. I’m thinking that the obvious thing you would say to me would be that I should just get it off my chest. But that sounds kind of dumb. If it was that easy, you would have told me already. I’m trying to imagine what could be so bad. I can imagine some pretty bad stuff and thinking of you doing some of it freaks me out. Maybe it would be better if you didn’t tell me. Maybe I’m not the right person to tell.

What can I do to help you?

I kind of feel like a dork talking like this.

Speaking of dorks, our school has this thing called a pep club. Pep. That has got to be one of the most stupid words in the world. I don’t want to be part of any club called pep. Anyway, the pep club does stuff like organize the pep assemblies, which are pretty dumb, but better than going to class. You get to watch cheerleaders do their stupid cheers. Cheerleaders are kind of ridiculous, but they’re pretty hot.

The pep club is also putting on a cookie contest. Guess who the judges will be? The teachers. Guess who one of the teacher judges is? Mr. Schick.

This seems like a pretty good chance for revenge. A little advice right now would be helpful.

Your son,

Trevor

I’ll try, Trevor. Or I’ll try to try.

April 13th, 2010

Dear Trevor,

O O O O. I don’t know how to tell you about my shame. I’ve been carrying it around so long in silence, I don’t know how to give a voice to it. I honestly don’t know if I can tell you.

I think if I sat in my shack with the door barred and tried to just say it out loud to the board and batten walls, I would fail.  The thought of actually writing it down to paper where you could read it seems impossible.

I’ll try, Trevor. Or I’ll try to try. For now, I’ll tell you that it’s about my family. About our family.

Trevor, give me time.

Dad

    About

    Letter Off Dead is an actual transcript of letters sent between a 7th grade boy and his dead father. It covers the subjects of life and death, faith and doubt, fathers and sons.

    The textual transcript has been edited and presented here by Tom Llewellyn, a writer from Tacoma, Washington. The illustrations have been edited and presented by artist James Stowe, also from Tacoma. None of the content has anything to do with Tom's or James' beloved and very separate employers.

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