Gary Pelton hadn’t seen his son in 6 years and hadn’t thought of him in several hours when he went to check the mail and have a smoke. His eyes were hard and his jaw was always clenched. He stepped out the door slowly and stood on the front step, fumbling in his breast pocket for his pack of cigarettes. Pulling one out, he found the Bic lighter in his jeans and carefully lit the slightly stale cigarette, cupping it against the wind. He inhaled deeply, then rummaged for the mailbox key and opened the small door, mail spilling out onto the steps. Cursing softly, he gathered up all the mail, briefly noticing a small, yellow envelope amongst the catalogs and spam. He trudged back inside.
Placing the mail on the dining room table, Gary fished out the yellow envelope and quickly opened it with his thumb. Unfolding it, he began to sit, but froze when he saw the salutation:
“Hi, Mom and Dad.”
The letter was in thick handwriting. Gary sat, heavily, and continued reading.
“I hope that you guys are doing okay. I know that if you’re not, it’s probably my fault. I’m so sorry for running away the way I did. I was young and stupid, and you guys used to piss me off a lot.
“I’ve been living in Philadelphia for a while now, working as a bartender. I always wanted this letter to be gloating, you know? ‘Look how cool I am, look how well I’ve done, go fuck yourselves.’ That’s not a letter I get to write.”
Gary’s jaw was still clenched.
“I’m really screwed up these days. Really. I don’t know what to do. I’ve been-“
There was a series of scribbles, and the paper had become pale from erasing.
“Dad, I’m gay.”
Gary stopped breathing for a long while. He noticed, and resumed, taking heavy, long breaths.
“And that’s the way it is. I’m never going to be the son you wanted, whatever. I’m just super fucked up these days because I can’t seem to get my shit together for school or anything, and I’m living mostly on this guy Caleb’s couch who’s a real creep.
“Can I come home? I know it’s been a long time and we’ll need to heal and shit. But honestly I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I’ve been getting sick a ton and I had these weird bumps around my mouth that were gross and hurt. And so I went and it turns out I’m hiv positive and I really, really want to come home.
“I’m really sorry. Please let me come home.”
The letter ended with his name, and a circled phone number with what must have been a Philadelphia area code at the beginning. Next to the number was written “give me a call soon okay?”
Gary stood up, and grabbed the envelope off the table. He walked over to the fireplace, careful to look forward and not down at the contents of his hand. He pulled his lighter out of his pocket and lit it, then gazed at it for a long time, until his blinks were photo negatives of the tiny flame. Holding the letter and envelope over the hearth, Gary gazed out the window, noticing his neighbor washing his iron grey car. Almost absent-mindedly, he brought the flame over to the letter, hearing but not seeing the first flare of the burning paper. Ash drifted down, settling on the hearth and the hardwood floor. Gary stared intently at the rhythmic movements of his neighbor, only dropping the letter when he felt the fire lick his fingers.
From upstairs, Gary heard his wife cough, then pad towards the stairs. The noise snapped him out of his reverie, and he looked around, confused. He did not remember why he was standing in front of the fireplace.
Looking down, he noticed a few piles of ash on the hardwood floor. Frowning, he leaned down and picked up the corner of the rug, carefully scooting all of the rapidly cooling ash under the heavy carpet.