Brooke Reynolds is a veterinarian from Charlotte, North Carolina. When she isn't saving animals, she enjoys reading and writing fiction. She has a bachelor of science from Penn State University and earned her veterinary degree from Virginia Tech. Recently her short story 'Dr. Google' won 2nd place in the 2016 Channillo Short Story Contest. Typically her writing style includes neo-noir and transgressive satire with a literary bent. You can follow her on twitter @psubamit
The first gift of Brittany Turner’s sixteenth birthday was sitting on her front porch when she arrived home early from school. The box contained an old tape recorder and a cassette tape. She removed the tape which was labeled “A” on one side and “B” on the other. The words “From Dad” were printed in sharpie across the top. A small piece of paper was folded in the corner of the box, labeled with two simple words, “Play Me”.
She was six years old the day he left, but the day still lingered in the forefront of her mind. A more perfect day spent with her father did not exist. It was her favorite and least favorite memory. Her hands trembled. The muscles in her neck cinched down tighter and tighter as her eyes welled with tears. This really was the voice of her father playing back to her.
Hello, Brittany. It’s me, Dad. I know it’s been ten years since we last spoke. I bet you have questions. I’m sure you’re confused.
The quietness of the house combined with the ghostly recording sent chills up and down Brittany’s arms, causing her to pause the tape for a moment. She had been suspended from school and the principal drove her home early, her mother not due at home for several more hours. The principal kept saying something about an incident with her classmate but Brittany didn’t remember much. She only remembered seeing the single droplet of blood that formed as she pushed a pen against her classmate’s neck, pinning her against a locker. Everything before that was just blackness. The principal didn’t believe her and without cause for her actions, there was talk of expulsion.
Curious as to why she was hearing her father’s voice now, she pressed play and heard her father say…
I am so sorry that I had to leave you that day. I had to go away. Things had become, difficult, for me. I never stopped loving you. You are my partner in crime, my everything. Your mother and I, well, I’m sure you blame her, but it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t your fault either. It’s important that you understand this. We just saw things differently. I am so sorry I haven’t been there for you and I’m sorry for all the pain and disappointment I caused you. If things were different, I could have stayed. I left this message entrusted with some people to be saved until your sixteenth birthday, when you would be ready, old enough to understand. Maybe now, we can be together. If you want to see me, come find me. When you’re ready, turn the tape over to side “B”. I’ve left instructions to guide you. I promise you will find the answers you are searching for. I love you oh so very much, and no matter what you choose, you will always be my little girl.
The wheels in the tape slowed to a stop and the play button popped back up. She stared, baffled at the message from the old recording device. She wound her hair around her fingers causing it to be disheveled and knotted. Her heart pounded in her chest. She sniffed back a tear and grabbed her phone, desperate to hear an explanation from her mother.
Straight to voice mail. “Mom. Mother where are you? You better fucking call me back. Dad’s alive? You better explain this right now.”
Five years earlier, during her eleventh birthday, Brittany burst through the front door. It was her eleventh birthday and she was excited to see what her mother had in store. She raced into the kitchen, tossing her bag onto a chair.
“How was your day, honey?” Brittany’s mother was standing by the mixer, sipping from a glass of wine.
“Better now that I’m home. What ya doing?”
“I’m making your cake. Now go work on your homework and I’ll call you down when dinner is ready.”
“But it’s my birthday,” Brittany protested.
“Finish your homework first.”
Brittany sulked away with her head hung down. Then she remembered. “Hey, Mom? Did Dad call?” Brittany could see all the muscles tense in her mother’s body.
“I told you a thousand times. We do not speak of him.” Cathleen’s voice hardened as she took another sip.
“But, I just thought with it being my birthday and all…you know, maybe he would have called. That’s all.”
“He hasn’t managed to find the time to call during your last five birthdays so don’t expect things to change now.” She swirled her wine around in the glass before taking a gulp.
“He’ll call. I know he will. I can feel it.”
“He abandoned us, Brittany. He doesn’t care what happens to us.” Her words began to slur. “You need to face the facts. Just assume he’s dead.” Cathleen declared, downing the cheap purple liquid. She emptied the bottle into her glass.
“You take that back. He is not dead!” Brittany spun on her heels, her index finger pointed toward her mother’s face. “Daddy loves me.”
“Ha. Right.” Cathleen stumbled as she sipped another drink of her wine, spilling some down her blouse. “He doesn’t love you. Hell, he doesn’t love me. You were a, a mistake.”
Brittany snatched the wine glass, splashing her mother with the remaining contents. The spreading stain on her mother’s blouse now matched the redness of her face as her anger boiled over.
“Oh. You little bitch. Well, you can just forget about this birthday cake.” Cathleen poured the contents of the mixer into the kitchen sink, running water behind to wash it down the drain.
The ghostly recorded words of her father played like a skipping record in her mind. No matter what she tried, she could not shut them out; finally coming to the realization that she did not want to ignore them. She had waited for so long to hear her father again. During his absence, she would occasionally imagine the advice he had given her.
She kept a photograph of him hidden in her room. It was the only reminder left of what he looked like. Her mother had removed all other pictures from the house long ago.
The memory of their last day together rolled through Brittany’s thoughts. As she closed her eyes, a pleasant smile creased her lips. There was a trip to the zoo, hot dogs for lunch, strawberry ice cream from that local creamery. After that, nothing. She had the unmistakable feeling that a part of the day had been wiped away. It was like her father was there, then gone. Who remembers an unknown goodbye?
Brittany had made up her mind. She would listen to the other side of the tape, if for nothing more than to sate her curiosity. After a brief hesitation, she swooped the recorder up under her arm before bolting out the door. The door slammed behind her. Stepping into the backyard, she flipped the tape. Inhaling a deep breath and closing her eyes, Brittany hit play on the recorder.
Brittany, honey. Come on. We have to get going.
Awww, Dad. Just 5 more minutes?
Okay, Brittany. But then we must get going.
Okay, Daddy. I love you.
Brittany paused the tape. She recognized her six-year-old voice over the recorder. She steadied her breathing, eager for her father’s instructions and pressed the play button.
Hello, Brittany. I had hoped that you would flip the tape and decide to see me again. Listen very carefully. I will help you find me.
I’m ready, Daddy.
Okay, honey. We’ll go this way today. You have all your things? Still have that locket necklace on I gave you?
Where are we going?
First, we are headed out of the neighborhood. Then we’re headed right, on to Dayton Ave.
Which way Daddy?
It’s this way sweetheart. Hold my hand, especially when we cross the street.
How come you got that thingy in your hand Daddy?
I’m leaving a message for a friend.
Do I know them?
Brittany shook her head. This was unbelievable. She continued down the road, following her father’s strange instructions exactly.
Yes, sweetheart. You know them. Turn left onto Ridgeport Lane.
What’s that thing do?
It just, it records what we are saying. It will help our friend find us.
Why? Because they need our help. And you like helping people, right Brittany?
You betcha, Daddy. Oh, Daddy look. A merry-go-round. Can I go play on that?
Brittany smiled as she passed the playground with the same merry-go-round. She used to love the upside-down, backward feeling you’d get when you first jumped off. That feeling where the world spins faster and faster around you while you remain perfectly still, or at least that is what she told herself. The only difference was that tonight, the world spun faster without the aid of the merry-go-round.
Maybe later, sweetheart. We have to keep moving.
Are we there yet?
Just a little farther, honey. Make a right onto Faith Hollow Rd just up ahead. I promise all of this will make sense when you see it. Walk to 535 Faith Hollow Rd. You know that I love you very much, right Brittany?
I love you too, Daddy.
And you know that I only want what’s best for you. That’s why we had such a fun day today. Daddy has to go away for a while and I wanted one more last good day before I left.
Where are you going?
I can’t tell you that. But I’ll be safe there.
Can I come visit?
When you’re ready, yes. I need you to be brave honey, especially when I’m gone. Remember what I told you about courage?
Brittany mouthed the words right along with her six-year-old recorded voice. “Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have strength.”
Brittany was standing in front of what looked to be an old abandoned car garage. The grass on the property stood knee high. The windows were caked with dirt and small trees had taken root in the degraded rusted gutters. Large cracks filled the driveway. The mailbox leaned at a forty-five-degree angle. The paint on the mailbox was chipped and faded, but she could still make out the address, 535. The houses on either side looked abandoned. She paused out in front.
I don’t want you to go away, Daddy.
We’re here at 535. Go around to the back. The gate should be open. You will find the back door unlocked as well.
Brittany walked up to a rusty, old, mesh gate. The timeworn gate let out a creaky moan as it swung open. A cold chill raced up her spine. The back of the building contained a plain wooden door, void of any discernable markings. Brittany tested the door and it slowly swung open.
Come honey, we have to go inside. Take my hand.
It’s dark in here Daddy and it smells funny.
I know sweetheart. I’ll turn on the lights in just a minute. Before I do, I need you to be very brave. What I’m about to show you, may frighten you. But it’s important so that you can understand. This will be our little secret. You cannot tell anyone about this. This is just between us.
Not even Mommy?
Especially not Mommy.
She wouldn’t understand. Now promise me you’ll be brave. I’m right here with you. I’m not leaving just yet.
Okay, Daddy. I promise.
Batting at the cobwebs, Brittany entered the doorway. A terrible odor smacked her in the face. She pulled the collar of her shirt up over her nose to stifle the smell. A thick layer of dust covered the floor, forcing her to leave footprints as she moved forward. Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket. Mom calling. Brittany shut off the phone, preventing any further distractions. There was already another set of prints laid out before her. She followed them off to a side room.
Brittany stopped dead in her tracks. Her whole body shivered as she willed her feet to move closer to the scene before her. A skeleton of about 6 feet with long, white, mangled hair sticking out of the top of a smashed skull was lying in the center of the room. The flesh had been completely stripped clean from the body. Tattered scraps of clothing hung off of the bones with most of the connective ligaments still present. The floor underneath and surrounding the corpse was stained from old bodily fluids. The left arm was placed at a deliberate unnatural angle, suggesting that it was pointing at something in the distance. The most peculiar thing was a locket necklace draped around the neck, the light from an outside window dancing and winking off of it.
Okay now honey, here it is.
Is that your friend, Uncle Eric?
Yes, sweetheart. It is.
What happened to him? Did he hit his head?
You see Brittany, he was a very bad man. And he had done some very bad things. So he had to be taught a lesson.
Is he dead?
Yes, sweetheart. He’s dead.
Did we kill him?
Well…I killed him….
Oh. So can I help?
You can help. Hand me your locket necklace. I’m placing this around his neck to leave as a symbol. A sort of signature.
As Brittany approached the body, she recognized the heart-shaped symbol of her locket. She knelt down and pressed the small clasp on the side, revealing a tiny heart-shaped infant photo of herself.
Realizing that these remains were not the source of the smell, she continued in the direction the skeleton was pointing, following the footsteps into a backroom. As she approached, the smell grew stronger. It smelled like old rotting garbage, kimchi or sauerkraut, perfectly ripe and sticking to the back of her throat. She wretched, splattering the floor with stomach acid. Another body was placed in the center of the room, this one fresher than the last. Its abdomen taut with early signs of bloating. Bubbling, gurgling blood-tinged foam was slowly pouring out its nose and mouth. She was afraid to get any closer to this one for fear that the bloated remains would burst, exploding its contents all over her. The blackened skin was beginning to slough, slipping off of the underlying flesh. Flies buzzed around the corpse and a sea of maggots was crawling from the eye sockets. The rotting corpse was clad in a high-end custom-tailored three-piece Italian suit. The left arm was also forced in an unnatural angle, pointing at something behind her. From where she stood, she could make out another gold locket necklace. She stretched out and snagged the locket necklace from the new corpse. She opened the clasp to reveal another infant photo of herself.
I hope you now understand the man that I am. Do you ever wonder where your anger comes from? That unmistakable desire deep inside of you, egging you, twisting you, that feeling, it comes from me. You are at an age now to make a decision on your own. Join me. Help me to be able to complete this project. I love you so much, Brittany…
A hand reached up and tapped her shoulder. Brittany spun around with her hands up to her mouth to stifle a scream, dropping the locket at her father’s feet.
“Hello, Brittany. Are you ready?”