by Melissa Blank
You never believed in ghosts. But if ghosts are not real, how do you explain what is right before your eyes? Are you losing your mind? You blink, hard. The man who could be your father sits in the corner of the coffee shop. You watch him for a moment as he works on a crossword puzzle.
You are standing in line, waiting to order your coffee. In reality, any thoughts of what you wanted to order flew out of your head the moment you noticed this apparition from the past, sitting so calmly over his puzzle.
The line advances forward. Only a few more people in front of you. You glance over your shoulder, afraid that you are imagining things, worried that the man who could be your father might disappear into thin air, might change into someone else. He is still there. You look forward as the line moves again. It is almost your turn, but you don’t care. You peek over your shoulder again. Etiquette would dictate that you shouldn’t stare, but you just can’t seem to help yourself.
The ghost – No! The man – looks up, perhaps sensing your eyes on him. You don’t look away. You can’t look away. You stare at him, and he stares back. His face is impassive. You are not sure if he recognizes you.
You have heard stories of doppelgängers, perfect strangers who look just like someone else. You have even had a seatmate on a plane mistake you for his cousin back in Kuwait. He spoke to you in Arabic for several minutes before realizing that you were not who he thought you were. That case of mistaken identity resounds in your mind as you stare at this man.
You don’t realize that you are even considering approaching him until your feet carry you to the overstuffed chair next to his. You never take your eyes off of him.
You sit in the chair across from his. “Do you know me?” you whisper. Your heart feels like it will pound straight out of your chest. Visions of this man’s funeral flash in your mind, a macabre strobing of mournful images.
He scrutinizes you, as if you are a particularly troublesome clue on his crossword. The silence stretches on unbearably.
“Say something, dammit!” Your outburst surprises even you with the anger and pleading in your voice.
“What am I supposed to say?” he whispers in a voice so soft that you can barely tell he is speaking. “I could say that you must be mistaking me for someone else, but that would be cruel.” He sighs, and leans his elbows on the table between you. “I could confirm your suspicions, but I think that would also be cruel.” He reaches out for your hand.
You recoil instinctively, afraid of being touched by this ghost of a man, afraid that you will feel that touch for the rest of your days, afraid that you will not feel anything. It is only then that you notice, really notice, that this man who could be your father looks exactly as he did the last time you saw him, twelve years ago. If he is your father, he has not aged a moment in the past twelve years. You wonder if your father had a brother that you never knew about.
Your father’s death was the pivotal moment in your life. You were only a junior in high school and it changed everything. Your grief overwhelmed you, consumed you, left you a shell of a person. You felt as if a piece of you had been ripped out and hidden away from you in some secret spot.
You spent those first few years after his death fantasizing that it wasn’t really real, that it was just a bad dream, that he had been abducted by aliens, or maybe faked his death to escape the mob. It couldn’t be real, he couldn’t really be dead; you could not handle not having a father.
Over time, you began to handle your loss in a better, healthier way. The grief never fully went away, and you were certain that it never would. But you could function like a normal adult, most of the time. You had begun to think that you were finally over the worst of it all. Maybe you hadn’t been fully consumed by your grief after all.
The shock of seeing your father, or his ghost, or his doppelgänger, in this coffee shop felt like a white-hot hand reaching down your throat to rip your heart out of your mouth. How could this be real? This doesn’t happen, not in real life, anyway.
You don’t remember your father doing crossword puzzles. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe he never did crossword puzzles in front of you. Maybe this man who could be your father wasn’t.
“Sweetheart, you were never supposed to find out,” he says. He puts his puzzle away, tucks his pen into his shirt pocket. “This was never supposed to happen, it’s never happened before.”
It is like he has slapped you. You shake your head, and you can almost feel the ghosts rattling around in there. “Letting me think that you died in some horrific accident when I was just a teenager was the best alternative you could think of? What was I supposed to not find out about? What is the big secret?”
You glare at the man, and he looks away. His face, his familiar face, is a mask of sorrow and pain. You feel like you are looking in a mirror of sorts. His face reflects the emotions you are trying to control.
“I can’t tell you anything more,” he says. “I am not allowed to. You already know too much.”
You slam your hands down on the table. “It’s not fair!” You start to stand, frustrated and feeling claustrophobic all of a sudden.
The man places his hands gently over yours. This time, you don’t flinch. You sit back in your chair, your face a mask of calm.
“I am your father, you are my daughter. You have discovered my terrible lie, and I can’t explain anything to you,” he says.
You try to pull away. His hands hold yours in a viselike grip. “But –“
He shakes his head, interrupting you. “I’m sorry. That is the truest thing I can tell you. I am sorry.” He stands up, still holding your hands. “We must remain strangers, passing each other by and never realizing it.” He kisses your hands, and he is gone.
You stand, slowly. You look toward the line of under-caffeinated consumers, ready to order their overly complicated frappuccinos, their skinny soy whip lattes, their organic sustainable vegan gluten-free iced mochas. The line inches forward. You look over your shoulder, but the man is gone.
Category: Short Story