That's Him! That's the Guy!
Dan Chaon

Our father died when we were ten years old and for months afterward my twin sister Helen and I thought we saw him. We thought we saw him standing in the snow in the yard at night but it was just a tree. We thought we saw him coming down the stairs in the morning but it was just sunlight in the windows on the landing. We thought we heard him scritching in the garden behind the house, moving through the rhubarb along the garage. A raccoon.

We were really close for a while, in those years that followed his death. Afterwards, not so much. Once she became a teenager, she developed an uncontrollable attraction to these really awful guys, one after another, all through high school, and I tried to warn her and give her good advice but she never listened. Finally, when we were seniors she ended up getting pregnant. The boyfriend was a twenty-five year old guy who worked on the road crew of our town's Maintenance Department, and he was married—"but getting a divorce," she claimed—and I told her that it seemed obvious that she ought to get an abortion.

Instead, she moved in with him. She gave birth to her little lovechild, and eventually, I heard, she and the boyfriend finally wed.

Meanwhile, I had left town. I went to college, I moved down to Chicago and then to Santa Fe and then to Spokane. I wasn't having a great life or anything, but I thought of my family less and less.

At first, when I stopped talking to my mom and my sister, I used to have these terrible guilt-dreams. Like: I had killed them, or was accused of killing them, and I was on the lam. In the dreams, I was always paranoid. In the dreams, I would walk into a convenience store or a roadside restaurant and suddenly one of the patrons would recognize me from a Wanted Poster. "That's him! That's the guy!" someone would shout, and everyone would turn to look. And I would to try to escape, even though I knew it was hopeless.  

And then, twenty years had passed. I was the same age that my father had been when he died.

There is a stage that you reach, I think, sometime in early middle age, when you begin to think of your former selves as characters, as if you had once portrayed them in school theater productions. The old hurts and resentments seem vaguely embarrassing.

Why not call her? I thought. So much time has gone by. Is there any reason left to bear a grudge?

I was in Minneapolis on a business trip when I decided to try it. I knew that she didn't live that far away, and there was the possibility that we could meet, if things went well. But I wasn't counting on anything, either. I was sitting there in my jockey shorts, in a non-smoking King at the Marriott, with the TV on mute, holding the ragged phone book that I'd found in a dresser drawer.

When someone picked up the phone, I wasn't sure if it was my sister's voice. "Hello?" I said, and the woman's voice echoed. "Hello?" she said back.  

"I'm trying to reach Helen," I said. And then the line grew so silent that for a second I thought she might have hung up.

"Helen?" I said. 

And at last I heard her breath shiver.

"Dad?" she whispered, her voice trembling like a woman who had finally seen a real ghost. "Daddy?" she said.

Dan Chaon's most recent book, STAY AWAKE, is a finalist for The Story Prize. His fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies. He teaches at Oberlin College.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of flattop341.

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