My heart started pounding and my breathing lessened to a hum the moment I realized what I was facing. Since moving here five years ago, I had tried to maneuver my way past the locked door to our unfinished basement that my dad never failed to latch and bolt shut. I had always wondered what was behind that door. Why was it so important to keep it locked up? Why had my father gone to such lengths to move it here to our house in Georgia from our old house in Kansas – and before that Nevada – separate from the rest of our belongings each time. I always tried to finagle my way into the basement, or get answers out of him directly, but he never budged. But this was the last thing I expected to find. The bolt was supposed to be latched, but for the first time it wasn’t. My dad had been in a rush all morning after getting a call for some important interview, causing him to forget to close the door completely. All those years of wondering, questioning, missing out – she couldn’t believe it; the room was full of dust, hard-packed sludge, and boxes.
As I walked further into the cave-like basement, glimpses of the pictures that were scattered across the ground caught my eye. Ralphy. I hadn’t thought about Ralphy in years, but his face always jogged the same memory: endless games of Candyland. I never won, except for once. It’s the last memory I have of him.
I sat down on the cold, dirt floor in the collection of dust and tried to remember my brother using the pictures that surrounded me. He had been my best friend. There isn’t a picture of me without him by my side. We were only one year apart in age, and my last memory with him was at age four, but he was five. It was the only time I won a game of Candyland against him. And he had cheered me on. I faintly heard Ralphy’s far away chants: Go Clara!
It had all been right under my feet the entire time. Everything from before; everything from my past; everything from the first four years of my life. Dad told me there were no secrets between us, but even that was a lie.
The panoramic view of my early childhood surrounded me in that moment. That locked door held all the secrets of my life. It’s been thirteen years since I’ve seen Ralphy. Thirteen years of lies and deceit and all of the answers were through a two-inch, nineteenth century wooden door for the past five years and locked up elsewhere before that. How could he have done this to me? How could my father lie to me like this?
Thirteen years ago, everything in my life changed without me even knowing. My mother and older brother had gone out one day and never returned. As far as my father told me, there had been a car accident and they hadn’t survived. I forgot about that. I had managed to forget most of those details. Until today when the most dramatic and painful memories penetrated my forgotten past that had been blocked for years, thanks to my father.
I turned my focus back to my surroundings, trying to forget the “memories” that were no longer blatantly true. Parts of my life that I didn’t even remember were reliving themselves right before me. I don’t understand. What am I even looking at anymore? My heart raced, beating in disbelief, unsure of what to do next. My father lied to me. About all of it. I looked around and I knew that I couldn’t stay there and dig through the past – my forgotten past – for long, but after thirteen years of secrets, I didn’t have the willpower to turn away.
Footsteps overhead seemed to get closer. Did I close the door behind me? My heart throbbed as I waited. I sat there and debated whether or not I was willing to get caught or if it was worth it to discover more of this underground chamber – this extension of my mother and brother. Everything around me resembled them. Everything around me was them. The footsteps above me passed over the entrance and began to fade off into the distance. My heart went back to its new pace – a fluttering that had become constant upon discovering the slightly ajar door.
Stumbling in the dust to get up, I finally began to walk around. I ran my hands along the decrepit tables that weren’t far from collapsing beneath the stacks of boxes that rested on them. I took a deep breath and decided to open one of the worn-out boxes. It was resting on the corner of the table closest to the entrance and the flaps of the old box weren’t completely folded closed. Billowing with years of neglect, the box popped open revealing pictures that were stuck to one another, grimy and discolored. I worked through the piles of faded memories slowly and attempted not to ruin them as I pulled them apart and gave them each a glance over. Stuck to the side of the box there was a letter. Opening its crusty creases, it read:
If you’re reading this, that means you now know. I guess you now understand why I kept the door locked all this time. Also, if you’re reading this, I’m sure I’m gone by now … I’ve been very protective of this room and have done my best to keep you from finding it while I was around. I wish I could protect you from the truth forever, but you deserve to know what really happened after all of these years, I guess I won’t ever be able to explain that to you completely, but I hope you don’t blame me.
I’m sorry I kept the truth from you. I’m sorry I kept Gineene and Ralphy from you – the memories of them. I never intended to hurt you, but I couldn’t let you discover the truth, Clara. There was never a car accident – and I’m sorry I could never be a good enough father to you to tell you this to your face: Your mother did not hit that truck as the papers led you to believe…as I led you to believe. I’m sorry I can’t bring myself to tell you the complete truth even in writing, but I can show you.
Inside the envelope where you found this letter, there is a key. I’m sure you’ll figure out what it is for.
I’ve always loved you, Clara, and I’m sorry I couldn’t be the father you needed and deserved. I hope one day you’ll understand.
Try to forgive me,
Rivers of water trickled down my cheeks as I tried to understand what his letter meant: How could they have not been in a car accident? What else happened to them? Where are they? Why hide everything if he had just wanted me to find it when he died anyway? Is it that difficult to face?
I realized I hadn’t found the letter in an envelope. Looking back in the box, I noticed a small crevice in the corner. I gave the box a shake and the key popped out. The key was too small to be for a door and it resembled the one I used to use for my jewelry box when I was younger. The key being hidden instead of placed in the envelope as he had said it would be, was typical of my father. He had raised me to look for the unexpected and to earn knowledge just as he had done throughout his life as a reporter.
Placing the key in the shirt pocket that rested lightly against the left side of my chest, I put the slightly damp letter in my jeans’ back pocket and continued to look through the boxes. They were stacked three or four high all across the room. Some were titled “Home Videos,” while others were labeled, “Pictures.” Without a VCR available, there wasn’t much I could do with the videos, but upon opening the box, I realized they were all dated from before I was four-years-old – before the so-called “accident.” I closed the boxes and put them back where I found them, before I turned to the photographs.
There were pictures of Ralphy – pictures I had spent years searching for and wished I had found years ago, were now right in front of me. Photographs of me hugging my older brother, being held by my mother, holding onto my dad’s pant leg, never wanting to let go. All of these memories flooded my vision. My father told me everything had been destroyed and that he couldn’t handle looking at their faces every day after the accident. There was only one picture he kept: a professionally taken photograph of the four of them that hung on the wall in the hallway upstairs. He told me he destroyed the rest of the memories lessen the pain; for coping reasons. But why lie about that? Why hide all of the memories?
Footsteps overhead sounded again, except this time doors slammed and things fell. My heart began to race when I realized that it was getting late and I hadn’t checked in with my dad since that morning when I had left for school. I heard every door in their condo-sized house open with a gust and slam with anxiety. After five minutes of the consistent slamming, the footsteps died down and I knew I was safe downstairs for now. Pulling out my silver phone, I saw three missed calls from my dad and the phone shimmered, telling me it was 9:42 P.M. – practically three hours late for dinner. I slid the phone open and found my dad’s number in the contact list and dialed.
I waited through the ringing while staring at the earth-packed ceiling of the secret vault.
“CLARA! I’ve been worried sick. Where are you? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, Dad, I’m fine. I’m sorry I never called you... I got distracted. I’m at Sasha’s house. Can I stay the night?”
“I don’t know Clara... I haven’t seen you all day. Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Yes, Dad. I’m fine. Please? We’re... we’re working on a project for school. It’d help our grade if I could stay longer...”
“Thanks, Dad! I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Night.”
I hung up with a click and took a deep breath, thankful that my part of the lying was over for now. I hated lying to her dad – as ironic as that may seem now. He has always been there for me – or so I thought. It wasn’t such a horrible thing to fib a little bit this time. After all, I was supposed to be at Sasha’s; I just never went.
Pocketing my phone, I remembered the key in my shirt pocket. What truth could this thing show me? I closed the box of photographs of Ralphy and took a few steps forward, maneuvering my way through the maze of boxes and tables, until a gleaming piece of metal in the corner caught my eye. Lodged between two dusty stacks of boxes was a briefcase.
I brushed my fingers through the inches of dust that caked the outside of the briefcase and let out an exasperated, choking cough after yanking it out of its hidden nook. Turning the briefcase over, I noticed it was locked shut. The rusty piece of metal had begun to feel at home in my shirt pocket, but I pulled it out and placed it in the reddish-brown keyhole that had begun to chip away from age. With a sharp twist, the buckles released and a gap manifested between the top and the bottom of the briefcase. I slipped my calloused fingers into the gap and pried the briefcase open with a ruthless tug.
Newspaper clippings fluttered to the floor. Ones that I had never seen before. They were all about my mom and Ralphy. Reaching for one specific, dog-eared article that was still on regular printer paper, I read:
KINGSBURY, NEVADA – MARCH 1998: Local family faces death. Mother and wife, Gineene Fitzpatrick, 29, was driving with her son, Ralph Fitzpatrick, 5, on Tuesday, March 17th towards the local petting zoo when an oncoming truck strayed into the lane, hitting the 1995 Subaru in a head-on collision. Gineene Fitzpatrick was killed instantly upon impact. Ralph Fitzpatrick was declared dead at Barton Memorial Hospital, due to severe trauma to the head. Father and husband, Roger Fitzpatrick, remains in his Kingsbury home with daughter, Clara.
Fitzpatrick? But our last name is Fitzgerald… It didn’t make sense. The byline was my father’s name, but as Roger Fitzpatrick. The heading was directed towards the Kings Journal as a submission for publication. But this doesn’t make sense. He wrote in the letter that there had been no accident. If that was true, then why would he have written this article? Fidgeting through the other papers, different headlines filled my sight: “The Truth Exposed!”, “On the Run”, and “Truth Is Out! Daughter Knows Nothing!” What are these? I picked up an article with the heading: “Father and Daughter Live In Denial” and read:
KINGSBURY, NEVADA – MAY 1998: Local family exposed. Father, Roger Fitzpatrick, submitted an article to the Kings Journal in March describing the fatal events in his family. Upon further investigation, it has been discovered that the article was fabricated to conceal the truth from friends and family. There was no accident. Due to the inability to locate death certificates for the supposedly deceased family members, Gineene and Ralph Fitzpatrick, Roger Fitzpatrick provided the Kings Journal with reluctant commentary on the matter.
“On Ralph’s birthday (5), Gineene took him out for ice cream and a trip to the zoo,” said Fitzpatrick. After two days had passed with no sign of Gineene and Ralph, Roger Fitzpatrick had immediately filed a Missing Person’s Report – a document that was found during the investigation. Ralph has yet to be found.
“Six days after she first left, Gineene returned home, but she refused to explain where she had been and why she returned without Ralph.
“Gineene confessed to taking an ‘extensive detour’ that day, but wouldn’t tell me where. I don’t know where she left my son or if he’s okay,” said Fitzpatrick.
Gineene refused to disclose any information of Ralph’s whereabouts, although police have reason to believe he was brought out of state. Gineene has since been located and arrested.
“I wrote the false story so my daughter, Clara, could grow up with no hard feelings towards her mother,” Roger Fitzpatrick told the Kings Journal.
Mouth hanging wide open, I finished the article and let it slip between my fingers. I can’t believe it. The real truth was hidden in a briefcase? Flipping through other articles, I realized they were all the same: Mother Abandons Child – Child Still Missing. They were all consistent in what happened – except for one. Going back, I found the article titled, “The Truth Exposed!” and read:
KINGSBURY, NEVADA – JULY 1998: Four months ago former reporter, Roger Fitzpatrick, attempted to publish a false account of the whereabouts of his wife and son. After investigation, Gineene Fitzpatrick faces charges of child abandonment, neglect, and child endangerment. Ralph Fitzpatrick remains missing. Gineene Fitzgerald faces 5-10 years in prison.
How could he have done this to me? The words from his letter flashed before my eyes: “I couldn’t let you discover the truth Clara” … “I can show you” … “I’m sorry I couldn’t be the father you needed.”
At the bottom of the pile of newspaper clippings was a ragged and taped piece of rustic paper. Smoothing out the creases, words came into focus before me. Legal documents. My name scrawled across it in different forms. Fitzpatrick. Fitzgerald. Attached to the back was a near copy, but instead of “Clara,” it read “Roger.” He legally changed our names. To hide us. To hide me. From knowing about it all. Tears rolled down my freckled skin. Slipping down to the grimy floor, I wrapped my arms around my knees and pulled my legs close to my chest as I rested my head in my lap. What am I supposed to do now?
Moments passed. I sat on the cruddy, packed-down floor, leaning against a knobby dirt wall. Tears ran down my face, moistening the patches of earth that were scattered between various shoe imprints in the soil. I rested my head against my knee and curled up on the floor, trying to shake the awful lies that surrounded me. A gasp sounded from across the room. My father stood across from me, tears in his eyes as he looked at the pictures and articles that surrounded me on the ground. I just stared.