by Madeline McEwen-Asker
We hope you enjoy this never before published mystery short story for Father’s Day.
How could Brittany be pregnant when she was only seventeen years old? Technically Brad knew the answer to his own question, but as Brittany’s adopted Dad he didn’t want to know. He couldn’t face the “conversation,” a minefield of unexploded bombs.
Brad Hunting had made it through an entire Sunday dinner without saying a word, opting to keep this nugget of information to himself. Now he ran for cover, stomped outside and left his wife and daughters to wash the dishes.
A practical man, he upturned Brittany’s bike, pried off the tyre, dunked it into a bucket of water and immediately spotted the thread of minuscule bubbles from the slow puncture. Why couldn’t everything be as easy as this? Obvious, predictable and fixable. This was what fathers did, like his father had done when Brad and his brother, Ben, were kids. Fathers taught you how to survive in the big bad world, a world growing worse every year. How could he protect her? Surely life wasn’t this complicated back when he was young?
He ignored the phone vibrating in his pocket, a replacement for the old pager because the company wanted him on call for any reason, including this time when his mind was hot-wired with panic. Guilt flooded over him. He’d let everybody down. Failure picked at his conscience. When Ben, his brother died, Brad had done the right thing, the only thing. Adopting the girls, all four of his nieces, had never been in doubt, but now, all these years later, he questioned every major decision he’d ever made. Where had he failed and when?
Why had he bought Brittany a computer last Christmas? That must have been when it all started. He should have said no, put his foot down, voiced an opinion, asserted his authority. Fat chance with the fair sex. He knew he was out-numbered and possibly out-classed.
Initially, he’d been wary of the computer, a neon green laptop which cost an entire week’s wages. It hadn’t seemed right to spend more money on Brittany than the other girls, but she’d stuck to the deal; straight A’s for four semesters, and there’d been no more trouble with boys – or so he had thought. How wrong he’d been.
Brittany had given the computer a name – Duke. Any significance there? Brad had given Duke, and his immaculate surface shine, a wide birth for the first few weeks, much to everyone’s amusement. “Sometimes I think you’re dyslexic, Dad.” Brittany always spoke her mind. No filter. “I’m sure that’s why you didn’t graduate.”
No need for her to know the truth. At least none of the girls had his handicap; they had Ben, their father’s genes, not Brad’s. He hated the term, “functionally illiterate,” but he knew the meaning of those words. He wasn’t stupid, not like they said at the assessment. They didn’t treat kids like that these days, Sharon said, but he wasn’t convinced. Besides, he’d done okay, got by on his wits. He had a good job, a great benefits package and nobody knew the truth except Sharon. She was the best, stood by him after High School, never made a big deal about their differences and kept his secret.
They’d only been married a year when Ben and his wife died in a car crash. Some women would have balked at adopting four kids, but not Sharon. Would they have had their own kids eventually? Somehow the subject never arose. No parenting books and no experience, they’d muddled through learning on the job, until this. A baby hadn’t been on anyone’s career plan. What were they going to do?
Ambitious Brittany made sure everyone knew her goals. “No dead-end job for me, Dad, no offense.”
Patiently, she’d tempted him online with pictures of the thirty-five most valuable antique fishing lures. Not that he fished these days, no time, but it made him think. After that, it had seemed sensible to buy her a printer. The ink cartridges cost a fortune, but he hunted down a good deal on fifty reams of paper. Nothing was going to stop Brittany’s course for college, and yet she took everything in her stride and for granted.
There had been no time to attend the “Teens Online Awareness Meeting” at the High School. Brad was on late shifts that week, but he got a few tips from a new intern at the office, a young kid with more qualifications than the CEO.
Brad worked as a security guard-cum-janitor for a Silicon Valley start-up company and found the time to study and keep his brain alert in the silent corridors, halls, and office suits. He’d memorized all the cryptic text message acronyms for his phone, their shape and form like puzzle pieces. The intern showed him how to check a computer user’s “history.” Although that came later, after Brad noticed the advertisements down the side of Brittany’s laptop screen. You didn’t need to read the letters. The pictures told the whole story.
The ads were for pregnancy tests, medical insurance, adoption agencies, and how to determine the baby’s sex. Big brother watched and tracked every search Brittany had ever made, hence the targeted ads. They could do that too, the intern explained, and Brittany should have known. If only he could start over, make different choices, avoid the pitfalls of parenthood. Fatherhood was tough enough, he never imagined becoming a grandfather at thirty-four. How would Sharon react?
Reluctant to share his secret, Brittany’s secret, Brad had determined to track down the baby’s father. Maybe he’d be responsible, eighteen perhaps, mature, about to graduate, intelligent, university material, someone able to provide for a wife and child. Or maybe not. Brad wanted better for Brittany. She deserved the best start and he’d always sworn to give her everything Ben would have done.
Who was this Duke? Did he have a last name? Was Duke a jock with a football scholarship, or a nerdy type, another Bill Gates protégé? Brad needed to find out what kind of future Duke would provide if any.
Checking Brittany’s email account should have been straightforward after the intern’s guidance. However, Brittany never left the laptop alone. Days passed, as did the weeks. How long should he wait? He had to tell Sharon so they could prepare. At the same time, he kept hoping Brittany would tell him face-to-face, come clean and confess. He wanted her to trust him. If they didn’t have that, what did they have?
His phone buzzed, and he squinted at the text with the light dwindling in the yard and the sun dipping behind the trees. He’d have to finish the puncture later, maybe tomorrow. He sniffed the air as evening approached; the last traces of smoke from a neighboring barbeque, a hint of a diesel spill on the hot street and the drifting fragrance from their tumble-drier. He listened to the familiar sounds of nightly routines; a jogger with a flashlight padding along the sidewalk, a woman walking her dog, ears pricked to follow the wail of a siren in the distance, and the crash of trashcan raided by cats yowling in the shadows. The safety of his urban existence felt under siege. Was he equipped to cope? How could he make things right? What would Ben do?
The pink-tinged sky reminded Brad their camping trips as kids out in the wilderness. City dwellers, they reveled in the freedom; no schedule, no school, no rules. Ben, the older of the two of them, led the trail on hikes, helped Brad bait a hook and set a trap, and most of all, taught him how to wait, patient and silent, and never quit the quest.
Inside, the girls had dispersed, and Sharon moved around the kitchen putting the last few things away in the dresser. She looked weary, face flushed, hair plastered across her brow. He wondered what had happened to her dreams? Why did they never discuss such things? When had life slipped into cruise-control?
“Sorry,” he said. “Work called. Got to go for a few hours.”
“Do you have to? On a Sunday.”
Brad drew her close, rested his chin on the top of her head, and slipped his arms around her full figure. Both of them were slipping into middle-aged spreads faster than he ever thought possible. He shouldn’t have had a second serving of pie. This time next year there’d be another mouth to feed sitting in a high chair at the table, a grandchild.
“Can’t turn down the money,” he said.
Brad drove home at five in the morning listening to an audio story. He found them calming and easy to absorb. Maybe it would be easier to learn to read better if he had a grandchild on his knee. He’d never had the time with his own kids. On the driveway, the house’s windows were dark, drapes drawn. An hour of peace, maybe. He pulled off his ID badge, tucked his crucifix under his shirt and went into the house more weary than tired.
Putting his first mug of coffee on the kitchen table next to a stack of university prospectuses, he placed his fingers on Brittany’s delicate laptop keyboard; they looked incongruous, his fat, stubby digits with a laborer’s meaty hands on those smooth dark keys. He ignored a new batch of ads down both margins of the screen about
Inter-State transfers, transcripts, SATs and financial aid. Brittany could kiss her hopes good-bye. There was no college fund, but even if they had, it would all turn into a steaming pile of dirty diapers.
“That computer’s so much easier than I thought,” Sharon said. She stood in the doorway yawning, yanking the robe round her thickening waist, the belt’s tails dangling at her sides. “It’s got the answer to everything.”
Brad shut the laptop. He had to tell her. When? He wanted to delay the fights, the tears and regrets. “Didn’t mean to wake you,” he said.
“Couldn’t sleep. I wanted to talk, but I kept missing you,” she said easing into the chair next to him.
He took her hands in his. How to soften the blow?
“The thing is,” Sharon said, “although you’ve probably guessed already.” She smiled. “I never thought we’d be in this position, not us, not after all these years. Still, they say you should never quit. There’ll be more space around here when Brittany gets into Duke University.”
Brad blinked, mind blank, mystified in the peaceful silence of the room.
“What do you think?” she asked, placing his palms on her belly. “Is this our first or our fifth?”
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