I stood in the threshold between two extremes. On one end was the warmth and comfort of my childhood summer home; inside, my mother and Brady chatted as they finished unsetting the dinner table. I peered in through the glass of the back door and grinned. Brady was commandeering the dirty dishes again, trying his best to politely shoo my mother out of the kitchen, with her having none of it.
They smiled together.
They enjoyed each other’s company.
How did I get so lucky?
Sensing a set of eyes fixed on him for an extended period, Brady looked up and smiled. My mother followed his gaze and waved when she saw me standing there, beckoning me inside with hand gestures as I imagined coffee and dessert was about to be served.
I really wanted to step inside and be a part of it. To give my mom a big hug and to kiss Brady like no one was watching. However, like an unbreakable force, I was pulled elsewhere. I held up a finger and nodded, signaling I’d be back in a moment, and turned back out towards the lakefront.
The water drew me in. Ever since my father passed it seemed like the waterfront called out for me. I lacked the courage to venture out passed the wooden fence separating the backyard and the lake, the lush grass from the cattails and rough sandy dunes.
For days now, I would stand by the white picket fence to feel the late summer breeze coming off the water. Beyond it lay the shoreline, containing the small rickety dock that bobbed with the current and the tide. It was my father’s favorite place.
I could feel my pulse through my hands as I rested them on the gate, worry and self-doubt flushing through my head and my thoughts. I knew who I would find on the other side, and yet every inch of my body urged me forward; a gentle grip on my collar, a quiet whisper in my ear.
I let out a long breath as I let the gate swing out in front of me. I left this radiating warmth and traveled with heart racing towards the contrary, through the unpaved trail of gravel and sand.
The sight of my late father sitting at the water’s edge filled me with dread. Even in passing he sat at his usual spot by the end of the dock, a small pile of skipping stones stacked beside him. The sun had just begun to dip over the horizon, the sky taking on hues of pink and orange across the early evening canvas. I knew that I could always count on finding him here at this time of day, this time of year.
Even in the heat of this midsummer evening, I could see the breath on my lips, reality beginning to fade with each step I took.
Was I prepared to go through this again?Was I strong enough? I was about to find out. I stepped onto the old dock, my bare feet knocking across the wood as I crossed through the threshold, leaving reality in my wake and delving into memories long repressed.
The boards creaked and bent beneath my weight. He heard me coming, though he did not turn to greet me. I sat at the edge of the dock next to him, legs dangling over the edge, my toes just kissing the water’s surface.
We sat for a while, just staring out across the lake. My childhood summers were spent here, amongst nature, the lake, the house, the forests, and the dirt roads. I had grown to love this place more than I loved my own home back then. It was bittersweet being here under these circumstances, but I felt it necessary. Not only for my mother’s sake, but mine as well. I needed to endure this.
“What do you think of Brady?” I asked, the horrible feeling in my stomach rising towards my throat. My father shifted in his old metal chair.
“Seems like a great guy,” he replied eventually. “Good education, a good job… seems like a pleasant person to be around.”
My reflection contorted in the water, shifting to the will of the ebbing tide. “I’m glad,” was all I could muster, my smile lost in the ripples. He picked up a flat stone and tossed it across the water. It skipped a few times before slipping beneath the surface.
I contoured a rock at the end of the pile, its roughness on my fingers. “I remember when we would sit out here for hours and watch the sunset over the lake. So many good memories.” I launched my stone, achieving a few skips before it sank. I was never good at it.
“I taught you how to do everything here,” my father said. “Taught you how to ride a bike out on the dirt paths, how to navigate the forest on your own, how to throw a baseball.”
“I used to hit you with so many pitches.”
“The patented Danny Beanball,” he remarked. “You were good, though. All those championship years.”
“I still love baseball.”
He nodded. “They still say you went too hard at the family reunion, by the way. Three years later and they still harp on that.”
I laughed. Had it been that long already? That reunion… I hadn’t known it then, but it would be the last time I would talk to my parents face to face for three years. I was twenty-one when I got my first apartment, twenty-one when I made the trip up to that reunion.
“You told me yourself, Uncle Sal needed to be put down,” I said, digressing from my thoughts.
Uncle Sal, Aunt Mary, my cousins. They were like my second family up here way back when. I was never bored when they came up to the lake and joined us for the summer. I wasn’t proud of all the perilous adventures and situations we got ourselves into, but Uncle Sal and Aunt Mary were always a lot more understanding when we managed to get ourselves in trouble.
Another stone skips across the water in my peripheral vision.
“Taught you how to swim here, too,” my father added. I raised an eyebrow at that.
“That wasn’t teaching. You tossed me in and said good luck!”
It wasn’t as dramatic as I had made it out to be, but as a five-year-old child without his swim floaties, the event was akin to tossing bait into shark-infested waters.
“That’s how my father taught me,” he said after a while.
“Times change, Dad.”
He nodded once with a slight hesitation.
“They sure do.” He became very still. “Remember the old boat?”
“I can still smell it from memory,” I said. “We caught all our fish on that boat; no wonder it smelled so bad.” I paused, catching a bit of breath, looking back out over the water. “Where isthe old thing?”
“Scrapped it. The repair bills were piling up, probably going to buy a new one this summer — a smaller one, easier to maintain. We can pass by the dealer to take a look tomorrow if you like. Old Robert Lormer still owns the shop. I’m sure he’d get a kick out of seeing you around these parts again after all these years.”
“That would be great. I was thinking about bringing Brady into town to check out all the old sights: the town square, the old church, the diner. Works out perfectly.”
“Church?” he asked, a humored optimism in his tone. I hadn’t been to church in almost a decade. I stopped going, to the initial dismay of my entire family, my father especially. They got over thatpart after a while.
“Not an actual service,” I clarified. “Just to look inside. It’s a small town, not much else to see.”
We let the subject extinguish itself while I tried to keep the conversation light.
“Remember the big one we caught that one time? The one that was like, this big?” I held out my hands just over a meter apart. He nodded.
“That was the biggest one we ever caught; I think. Fed us for a whole week… That year– that was the year you brought Lisa up to meet us for the first time, wasn’t it? Lisa Hembrick?” I watched a nostalgic smirk waft across his face and hang there, to my subtle discontent. “How old were you? Seventeen? Eighteen? Gosh, it feels so long ago now,” he collected another stone from the pile. “Those were great times. She was a nice girl. Shame that didn’t work out.”
The small smile I had tried to maintain melted away. My father’s comment hit me like a rock to the side of the head.
He didn’t mean it in that way, I knew he didn’t… but that’s how it felt.
Like every stone he had been throwing here on this dock had me as its intended target.
The skippingstonelingered in his hand, his grip beginning to waver before it slipped from his fingertips. It hit the dock with a loud smack and rolled into the water. He stared down on it, the ripples it caused.
“I’m sorry. That was…”
“It’s okay, Dad,” I replied before he could go any further. His head lowered.
“He’s a great guy, Daniel… Brady’s a great guy…” He let out those last words while holding back a sob. His whole demeanor had changed from nostalgia to an expression of sorrow, despair.
He shook his head, his arms falling limp to his sides.
“Once your mother told me you were coming up here to visit again… it’s been all I’ve thought about. I told myself that after a while… after all these years, things would just… go back to normal again. That all this would just pass. That maybe I would grow to just accept-” He couldn’t finish his sentence. The mere thought of acceptanceacting like a plague on his mind, a poison on his tongue.Tears began to well up in his eyes. I opened my mouth to try and comfort him, to try and speak, but no words came out.
“Danny, I just wish that…”
My throat began to tighten. I had to turn away as he began to weep, as the tears started to fall.
“I just want my son back…”
I couldn’t bear to watch him cry. I couldn’t bear to imagine the man that raised me, the man that I lived my whole life trying to live up to, looking at me now with nothing but disappointment in his heart.
“I’m still here, Dad. I…”
There was nothing I could do to comfort him.
“I’m still me.”
There was nothing I could say to change how he felt.
That was the worst part. Watching the words dribble out of the hole in my heart, realizing for the final time that there was nothing I could do.
“I didn’t change, Dad…”
The memory shattered. The cold sting in my throat igniting into flame.
I scrambled off the old dock, and back through the threshold, back to reality.
It was all so clear to me, the trauma, like it had all happened yesterday.
The weekend I brought Brady home for the first time, the optimism I felt from the progress we made.
The conversation my father and I shared.
The pain I felt.
The realization it was all over.
A large part of me was cut out and discarded that day, my flesh left to rot on the crumbling remains of that dock with my father still on it.
Over the years, the hole in my chest was patched up hollow. The helplessness I felt that day, almost five years ago now, turned to indifference. I lived my life, while I left him here to sit and wonder how it all went wrong.
And then he died.
Died on the dock, in fact, having suffered a massive stroke.
The thought of my poor mother having to find him out here like that… that broke me. I was only here now to support my mother. To be there for the rest of the family that still spoke to me. It would have been unfair to them if I didn’t come to the funeral, if I didn’t stick around to show I cared for them. They didn’t know the whole story.
I never told anyone about the conversation. I never told Brady, my mother, the rest of my family… I just let it plague me. I was prepared to bear that burden, hoping that one day he’d come to his senses about Brady and me. That it made no difference who I chose to love.
How naïve I was.
I felt nothing after he refused to speak to me year after year. I felt nothing when he didn’t show up to my university graduation. I felt nothing when he didn’t even call after Brady proposed to me. I felt nothing as they lowered his body down into his plot, not even relief or liberation. I felt the same way I felt now, staring out across the lake, having relived this trauma. Nothing.
I stood there, unsure of what I wanted to see, uncertain of what I would say if he were still here now. Perhaps nothing.
I knelt by the end of the dock, where it was moored to shore by a couple of cinderblocks and towline. I lifted and placed them onto the dock one by one.
One day. Maybe one day…
I set a foot on the dock’s edge.
Maybe one day I’d return here, to try and pick up the pieces and rebuild this place once again, to rebuild what we once had. But there are only so many times you could put the broken pieces back together.
There are only so many times I could bear to watch it all crumble at my feet.
There are only so many times I could convince myself that there was something left to salvage.
The dock floated away from the shore, untethered by the weight it now carried. The memories that I left on the dock drifted away into the sunset.
Even now, despite it all, I wished that once the dust settled, there would still be someone left to save.
He’ll understand. One day, he’ll understand.
MICHAEL FORMATO is a science-fiction writer from Montreal, Quebec, and a recent McGill graduate in the faculty of Education.