The Sins of Our Father

Waves of heat from the fireplace licked Julian’s face. The stubble on his chin felt like it was burning, but he didn’t care. It felt so good compared to the cold and rain outside. Perched on the edge of the sofa, he closed his eyes and inhaled as if to smell the flames.

Outside, the rain fell so hard that it drowned out the sound of the waves. The old house creaked in the wind, but Julian knew it would hold. Everyone in town was saying the storm would be as bad as the one ten years prior, but missing shutters had been the worst of the damage from that night — to the house, at least.

The hardwood floors upstairs creaked as Hilary walked around. She was small, but there was a little extra stomp in her stride, probably because Julian made her change. They hadn’t looked like twins since they were twelve, when they could have passed for identical rather than fraternal, and Julian towered more than a foot over her now; but the teasing they endured had left him sensitive, and he didn’t want to show up to the pub in matching outfits.

Julian’s friend Melissa first met Hilary two months earlier and couldn’t stop pointing out how alike they looked. Hilary instantly decided that she didn’t like Melissa, so Julian didn’t tell her that he and Melissa had been sleeping together.

It had started out casually; just some fun between friends. Melissa was funny, smart, and gorgeous. But over the last few weeks she had started acting a little too comfortable… leaving things at his flat. Kissing him in public. “Coming home” to his place each day instead of her own. Melissa was nice enough, but Julian just wasn’t interested in a relationship.

He had said earlier that week that he was taking the weekend to visit his mom and Hilary, but he came home quite often; even more since Melissa had started acting like this. He could tell when he told her that she didn’t buy it. His mother wasn’t even in town this weekend. Really he needed a break from Melissa, and with the comforts of home swaddling him, he thought he might make their time apart permanent.

A knock on the door pulled Julian out of his fireside trance. “Coming!” he called, pushing himself up out of the comfort of the sofa.

Melissa was usually impeccably put together. Even when she woke up late, she would somehow leave her flat moments later looking like royalty. But tonight her brown hair hung sopping wet to her shoulders, and her face was makeup-free. She wore joggers and trainers under her coat. Aside from a small handbag, she had no luggage with her. Something was wrong.

“Hiya Julian,” Melissa said, her voice shaking. Julian had come all the way to Cornwall to escape her for a few days, but here she was. He suddenly knew what it meant to feel one’s skin crawl. The rain was blowing in, and Julian fought the urge to shut the door.

“What are you doing here, Melissa?” Julian tried to sound more concerned than accusatory. She wouldn’t look him in the eye, but instead stared somewhere around his knees. He wanted to turn her away; to walk her to the station and buy her a ticket back to London, assuring her he would be back in the morning so they could talk. But the cold November rain hit the front of his body, contrasting with the heat at his back and making him shiver, and he realised Melissa must be freezing. “Oh God, please come inside,” he said, as if he hadn’t just considered turning her away.

She stepped past him without a word. Julian decided as he followed that this was as good a time as any to end things. But as he was in the process of stringing together the right words, Melissa turned around with tears in her eyes.

“Julian, I’m pregnant.”

The air fled the room, and Julian’s chest tightened. He tried to remember how to breathe.

“I don’t know how this happened,” Melissa muttered, folding her arms across her body. Across her stomach. Tears began to fall down her cheeks. “We were always so careful.”

Instead of responding, Julian focused on the sound of Melissa’s sobs. They sounded almost like hiccups: abrupt and childish. They made him feel uncomfortable yet protective.

“Are you sure?” He cringed as the words came out of his mouth. He knew she wouldn’t be there if she wasn’t sure.

“I mean, I took a half a dozen tests.” She pulled a box out of her coat pocket. “But I brought another in case you wanted to see for yourself.”

Julian thought about making her pee on the stick in front of him; him squatting down, watching her urine come out and hit the stick, just to be sure. He also thought about asking her if it was his. He did neither.

“Are you going to keep it?”

Julian turned toward the voice to find Hilary watching them from the staircase.

“Hilary!” Melissa gasped, then turned back to Julian. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know anyone else was here.”

Julian glared at his sister as she came down the stairs. “Hilary, what kind of question is that to ask right now?”

Hilary was focused on Melissa; on her stomach. “It’s a perfectly appropriate question. She shows up here crying like there’s not another option to having this baby.” Melissa sat down on the sofa, cradling her head in her hands.

“This is none of your business,” Julian snarled. She wasn’t wrong, but she was upsetting Melissa.

Hilary grabbed his hand, and Julian saw a brief moment of panic cross her face. “Let’s go,” she said, tugging him away.

Julian focused on her face, almost identical to his. Freckled skin. Ochre-brown eyes a bit too big. Slight widow’s peaks in the hairline of their auburn manes, each perpetually unkempt. But Hilary had the scar. It stretched the length of the left side of her face, passing around her eye and over the corner of her mouth. He sighed and nodded.

Melissa watched from the sofa. “You’re seriously leaving right now?”

“I’m so sorry,” Julian said. “Our friends are waiting. I need to get rid of them. Give us twenty minutes?” He pulled a blanket off the back of a nearby chair and placed it over her lap. She nodded, though her lips were pressed tightly together. He didn’t want to leave Melissa alone, but he needed some air to sort things out.

Julian followed his sister through the kitchen. They stepped through the door to the small back garden overlooking the sea, but instead of heading through the gate they sat down in some chairs pushed back beneath the eaves. The wind blew the rain in, covering their faces in mist.

“Hil, I can’t do this.”

“I know.”

Julian looked out toward the sea, but the sheet of rain in front of him was too thick to see anything.

The night of the last storm, Julian, just fifteen at the time, had stumbled home around nine, drunk and soaking wet. His parents were both waiting — his mother worried because of the storm and his father looking for a reason to shout. He knew they would be. His mother’s nurturing and his father’s resentment were as reliable as the tide, and both intensified when the family left the States that year to be closer to his mother’s parents, who were both ill.

As Julian walked through the door, he was met simultaneously with a hug from his mother and a shouted lecture from his father about being inconsiderate. Drunk as he was, Julian had the audacity to yell back.

The shouting match woke Hilary, who stepped out of her room ready to defend her brother. “Mind your own damn business!” their father had yelled, shoving Hilary on the shoulder; but her balance was off. She tumbled backward, straight into a glass table.

The house was silent as Hilary fell. Julian thought the surface would crack, but it shattered all at once into a million pieces, falling like snow to the floor. Hilary landed face first on the bed of glass. Her cheek caught on a shard, splitting the left side of her face in two.

Then the screaming started. His mother’s wails came first as she threw herself down by her daughter, followed by Hilary’s cries of pain. There was so much blood. Pools of it. Rivers of it, flowing over the broken glass. Covering his mother’s hands as she cradled her daughter’s broken face.

Julian couldn’t watch. Instead, he looked at his father, who was frozen in place, mouth hanging open. Julian had never seen him look so scared. Or so sober, for that matter. He ran out of the house while his daughter still lay among the glass, and the next day he was gone. They only knew he moved back to Atlanta because of the return address on the cheques that arrived each month. None of them ever bothered to contact him for anything else.

Now, Julian leaned forward and touched his sister’s scar with his thumb, studying the mangled edges of skin as if they were features on a map; a mountain range formed by forceful collision. “Do you ever wish dad had just left before we were born?” he asked.

“Every single day. His staying is what ruined us, not his leaving.”

Technically their mother had been the one to stay, happily settling in Georgia to raise twins an entire ocean away from everything she knew because she foolishly believed that things could get better. Julian’s choice was clear. He had to spare Melissa and his child what they had endured. He just wasn’t sure he could face her; look her in the eye and tell her he was out.

“Let’s just go to the pub,” Hilary suggested. “You can work up the nerve to do what needs to be done.”

“Not a chance,” Julian replied, thinking of his mates waiting up the road. “I don’t want to see anyone right now. I need to think this through.”

“Obviously. I didn’t mean that pub.”

“You mean dad’s pub?” he asked. He had avoided that place his whole life.

“I mean, it was dad’s pub. Now it’s just a pub.”

The pub was only a couple hundred metres away. Julian suspected that was part of why his father had bought the house to begin with.

He knew he needed to get away from Melissa in order to gather his thoughts, and he certainly couldn’t handle his friends. In this weather, and at this time of the night, what other option did he have? “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”

“Let’s just run.”

He peeked through the kitchen window to make sure the fire was still burning, grabbed Hilary’s waiting hand, and ran headlong into the deluge.

Julian stumbled through the door after his sister, soaking wet from the rain outside. He had been there only a handful of times, when his mother had sent him looking for his father. It was smaller than he remembered.

Hilary found a seat at the long, wooden bar and ordered them twin pints of something on tap. The joints of the stool made creaking noises as he sat down. The barman set a pint down in front of him. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.” Julian drank the beer quickly, not tasting it at all.

He drew a row of circles in the condensation from his drink, tracing the pattern printed on the glass. “Thank God mom isn’t here tonight. She would be so angry.”

“She would understand. She was the one who got the worst of dad. But if you don’t want her to know, she doesn’t have to. You won’t even have to talk to Melissa. I can do it.”

“Absolutely not.” The last thing Julian wanted was Hilary kicking Melissa out with the phone number for the abortion clinic and some cash to get her on her way. Or was being a father the last thing he wanted? He couldn’t think straight.

Julian caught the barman’s eye and pointed at his glass. A few moments later, another beer was sitting in front of him.

“You Jim Davies’s son?”

Julian looked up. “Yeah, I am.”

“Haven’t seen him in here since the big storm ten years ago. Heard he moved back to America. He still there?”

“As far as his last cheque would suggest,” Hilary answered.

“Sorry. Just wondered how he was.”

“Your guess is as good as ours.”

Julian drank the second pint quickly, already beginning to feel a buzz. He had been waiting to eat until they met their friends. Maybe he would send Hilary back to deal with Melissa while he ate. That way he could stay in town until morning like he had planned. Yes, Julian thought as he stared into his empty pint glass. That would work quite nicely. Except…

“Wait a minute,” Julian said. “Did you say the storm was the last time he was here?”

“That’s what I remember.”

And just like that, a strange sympathy for his father welled up in Julian. The man could have sat in that very stool as he deliberated how best to leave them. The only difference was that Julian had been fifteen when his father had bailed. His own child wasn’t even born yet.

He could stay with her and try to make it work, which is what his father had tried and failed to do. Or he could leave in the same way, from the same place. Julian finally understood his father, and he hated himself for it.

Julian stood up, pulled out his wallet, and dropped a tenner onto the bar. Hilary hopped down off her stool and followed him toward the door.

“What are you going to do?”

“I still don’t know.” Julian pulled open the door and stepped outside.

This time he walked, despite the driving rain. Each step was laboured. Julian could feel each drop of rain as it hit him and rolled down his skin. Hilary followed silently behind. Julian wasn’t eager to get back to the house and make a decision that would ruin his life. And he knew it would ruin him either way. But which choice would ruin his child more? Suddenly that was all that mattered.

As they came to the house, Julian saw Melissa hunched over on the steps of the front porch. The wind carried the sound of her sobbing.

“What are you doing outside?” He shouted as he approached her, fighting to be heard over the wind and rain.

“You said twenty minutes, but after almost an hour I decided you weren’t coming back, and the fire had gone out. I realized halfway to the station that I forgot my handbag, but I had locked the door.”

“You can’t be out here in this,” he said. “You need to take care of yourself.” He took her hands in his and looked down at her red, swollen face as Hilary slipped through the front door. He was sure she didn’t agree with his decision, but he knew the only way he could live with himself was if he tried to be different. To be better for his child. As for Melissa…well, one step at a time.

Melissa smiled weakly at Julian as he led her inside. He peeled her coat off of her, and she practically collapsed into the sofa, letting the cushions cradle her. He moved over to the fireplace, pulling logs off the pile on the hearth and adding them to the embers. He thought about calling to Hilary for a lighter but decided against it. Instead he crouched down and blew at the base of the pile, trying to get the fire going again, but it just wouldn’t light.

Short storiesSamantha Gale