The lock clicked, and the two young women stepped into the house.
"Come on in," the taller one said, closing the door behind them and leading her friend down the hallway. "You can stay in the guest room," she said. "It might be the first time anyone's used it since...ever."
The other girl laughed and followed her into a small room featuring a full-size bed. She set down her purple and black NYU duffel bag before letting herself fall face first into bed. "Ahh!" she said, her voice muffled by the bedding. "I'm so glad it's summer! That was the hardest semester ever!" She looked up when her friend giggled.
Brushing aside a lock of bronze hair that had escaped the long braid down her back, she teased, "It's just gonna get harder from here on out, you know that, right? We're only halfway done, and then there's MCATs, then med school, then—"
The girl on the bed put her hands over her ears and closed her eyes. "I don't want to hear it, Jamie. I know!" Then she opened her eyes and smiled. "For the next three months, all I want to think about is boys and tanning, okay?"
Jamie rolled her eyes, smiling. "Okay. Now get up, we should probably throw those sheets in the wash before you have to sleep on them."
"Yeah, a lot of dust did come up when I fell on the bed..." She got up, dusted off her bare knees, and shook out her curly blonde hair.
"You look fine, Lil. Come on, help me strip the bed." They gathered the sheets and comforter, and Lil followed Jamie to the laundry room. After a moment of neither girl speaking, Jamie commented, "It feels weird." She looked around as she started the washer, as though expecting someone else to enter the room or call out for her. "Being back here without him."
"Are you okay?" Lil asked, taking a step closer and looking at her friend with concern.
"Yeah," Jamie said, nodding. "I'm fine. He was...I mean, he wasn't old old, mid-70s, but old for the parent of a college student. He was already in his 50s when I was born. And he'd had health problems."
Lil shook her head. "I was so surprised when you came back to school right away. You know everyone would have understood if you'd taken the rest of the semester off, right?"
"I know," Jamie said, her voice getting a bit defensive. "But he would have wanted me to finish, and besides, it was the best thing for me. Having all you guys there, having school."
"I guess," Lil conceded.
They were both quiet for a moment, then Jamie shrugged and said, "I guess we should get started. Come on, I'll show you his room."
The girls went back down the hall, and Jamie took Lil into the master bedroom. She spread her long, slender arms out and shrugged. "What first? Dresser or closet?"
"Closet," Lil said definitively. "The best stuff is always in either the closet or the underwear drawer, and I have no desire to go through your dad's underwear."
Jamie laughed. "Closet it is." She opened the closet door where her dad's shirts hung and grabbed all of them at once. She laid them all in a heap on the bed—she would take care of them later.
"Donation pile?" Lil asked.
Jamie laughed again. "If anyone wants them. I think they're probably older than us. I think most of my dad's clothes are."
"What else is in there?"
"Let's see," Jamie said. She went back to the closet, knelt down, and handed her friend several pairs of expensive running shoes.
Lil inspected them. "Um...didn't you say your dad walked with a cane?"
"Long story," Jamie said, and Lil silently placed the shoes next to the bed while Jamie looked in the back. "Now this I'm definitely keeping," she said, pulling out a bright red electric guitar.
"Sweet," Lil said, impressed.
"He used to play for me all the time when I was little," Jamie smiled, her eyes glazing over for a moment with the nostalgia. Then she shook her head to clear it, her long braid swinging, and set the guitar tenderly on the bed next to the shirts.
"Anything else in there?" Lil asked.
"Just a few shoeboxes." At 5'11", Jamie easily reached the high shelf piled with shoeboxes. She grabbed two at a time, held the first one out for Lil, and the girls sat down on the free side of the bed.
Lil opened her box first. "Pictures!" she smiled, pulling out a stack. She flipped through them quickly. "You at the beach, you at Christmas, you with people I don't know...who's this?" she asked, holding up a small photograph. It featured two middle-aged men on a sofa in someone's cluttered living room. They were sitting next to each other and both were smiling in the general direction of the camera, but not at it. They looked natural, not posing, and possibly unaware they were being photographed.
Jamie smiled and took the picture from Lil. "That's my father," she said.
"I thought this one was your father," Lil said, pointing to the older of the two, who was dressed more casually and had a shadow of stubble on his face. "Who's the other guy?"
"No, I mean...that one's my dad. This one..." she pointed to the younger man, "This is my father. My biological father."
"Your dad's not your biological father?" Lil asked. "I mean, I know your mom was a surrogate, you told me, but I thought your dad used artificial insemination. I didn't know your biological father was someone else also."
"He died before I was born," Jamie said, holding the picture in both hands now and staring at it. "They were lovers, my dad and him, but my dad...my dad got into trouble and had to leave the city they'd been leaving in. He had no one out here, and his only friend was dying. My father was worried my dad might commit suicide after he died and he wanted to leave a piece of himself behind…so he decided to have me." She gave her friend a small smile. "He didn't tell my dad about the pregnancy until after it was confirmed, and since my dad was on the run from the law…he took my father's name. The name listed on my birth certificate as my father is James Wilson, but that's not my dad's real name. His real name is Gregory House."
"Wow," Lil said, her eyes getting wide. "I never knew all that."
"Uh-huh. My dad made me swear not to tell anyone. And when I started looking at colleges, he said I could go anywhere but Princeton. The chance was slim, but there was a chance that someone might recognize him when he took me out there to move in."
"That's crazy," Lil said, shaking her head. "So was he like…a criminal?"
Jamie laughed. "More of a prankster. Though he did do some jail time before I was born. He crashed a car into his ex-girlfriend's house."
"I thought you just said he was gay."
Jamie shook her head. "Another long story. Now let's see what's in this box."
Lil put the box of pictures aside and watched as Jamie lifted the lid on the second shoebox. It was full of postcards, all in unorganized stacks filling up the box.
"Ohh…" Jamie said, comprehension dawning on her face. She lifted one out and turned it over in her hands.
"I always wondered about these," Jamie said. She adjusted the box on her lap so the corners didn't press into her legs, and then turned to Lil. "Whenever we'd go anywhere, the boardwalk, the zoo, what have you—and we travelled a lot—my dad would buy a postcard. Sometimes even just when we went to the grocery store or gas station, he'd pick up a postcard. When I was old enough to start noticing, I asked him who they were for. And he said they were for my father. I remember telling him, 'I thought my father was dead.' Dad said, 'He is,' and never elaborated further."
She glanced at the one she'd picked up and laughed. The picture was of the New York City skyline, and on the other side she recognized, in her own handwriting, her home address and the message, "I know you got one when you dropped me off, but here's another. I love you! —Jamie." Underneath that was her dad's handwriting:
She's grown up now. Now it's just me here. It's hard…you know…without her. She calls a ton, though, and she loves school. She's so smart, Wilson, you have no idea. She's already decided she wants to be an oncologist. I told you that already. When she was nine, "So that other girls' fathers don't have to die before they're born." Now she's 18, and still set on that. I wish you could see her, Wilson. You'd be so proud of her.
There were tears in Jamie's eyes when she finished. She tried to wipe them away before Lil could see, but her best friend noticed everything.
"You okay?" Lil said gently, putting a hand on Jamie's arm. "Do you want a moment?"
Jamie sniffed and smiled. "I'm fine." She put the postcard back and closed the box. "I'll go through it later." She got off the bed and went back to the closet.
Jamie and Lil spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening going through her dad's things. They filled a few plastic bags of clothes to donate and joked about whether to save his Vicodin for a party.
It was late when they finally decided to go to bed, and Jamie used the shower in the master suite so Lil could have her bathroom. Before going back to her bedroom, Jamie took another look around her dad's room. The bed was clear of clothes, but still had the guitar, a fireproof safe of important files, and the shoeboxes of photos and postcards. She glanced at the door as though afraid someone would catch her—though her dad had left her everything in his will and she was completely entitled to look through his things. She climbed onto the bed and grabbed the box with the postcards. She sat cross-legged, leaning against the headboard, and opened the box once again. She straightened the postcards and picked up the first one.
They were in no particular order, but each was dated. Jamie considered organizing them by date first so she could read them in order, but her curiosity got the best of her and she found herself reading at random.
A postcard from the zoo dated when she was five:
She's her father's daughter, Wilson. After three hours of walking around and staring at animals, I told her it was time to go and she wasn't ready. She put her little hands on her little hips and said, "No!" She looked just like you, Wilson. Except…three feet tall with long hair in a pink dress.
One with the Golden Gate Bridge when she was three:
Your daughter has a big mouth, Wilson. Okay, so maybe I should have waited until she was a little older to tell her about sex. She asked. What was I supposed to do, lie to her? I guess her preschool teacher thought that's what I was supposed to do. My bad.
The San Francisco Bay when she was eight:
She asked about you today, Wilson. She asked what kind of cancer you had and I explained it. Her friend's mom has breast cancer, apparently. When she asked if yours was curable, I told her it was treatable but you didn't go through with it. She asked why, and I said "Because he was an idiot." She looked shocked and said, "I thought you loved my father." I told her I did, but that didn't make you less of an idiot. She was still upset, so I had to explain to her that sometimes people we love do things we don't agree with and it doesn't mean we love them any less. It calmed her down a little bit, but she told me it still wasn't nice to call them idiots. No promises. Love you.
There was a postcard from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they'd made a trip when Jamie was fifteen:
Remember when we were here, Wilson? I'll never forget that night. Our first time. I miss you.
Jamie had a blast. The tour guide was really impressed with her knowledge of music trivia, I think she probably knew more than he did. She's got such better taste in music than her friends, and she's going on her sixth year of guitar and her tenth of piano. She's good, Wilson. I asked her if she wants to be a musician, but she says she's sticking with oncologist. She's got the brains for it, and you know she inherited your bedside manner, too. Her collection of gifts from patients will be even bigger than yours. And she'll pick better movies for the posters on her walls.
Another from Disneyland, where they'd made a weeklong trip when she was twelve:
Our daughter thinks she has a boyfriend. There's this kid about her age down the hall from us. They met at the pool our first day here and have been hanging out every day. What happened? Who gave her permission to grow up? I thought I'd at least get to wait until the awkward preteen phase was over before she started bringing home boys. I guess she inherited her father's charm with the opposite sex. Hopefully not his inability to keep his hands off them.
I still love you.
Jamie laughed as she set the postcard aside. Even though she and the boy had promised to remain in contact after their vacation, they never had. And she'd remembered her dad's comments about her father's promiscuity and warnings not to follow in his footsteps. She'd understood for a long time that his dislike of her father's actions was fueled more by jealousy and hurt than actual disapproval. It hadn't stopped her from learning to take relationships seriously.
One by one, Jamie went through every postcard in the box, organizing them by year and date and putting her favorites in a special pile. Having read them all and in the process of sorting them, Jamie was surprised to hear a noise in the hall. She looked up and saw Lil standing in the doorway in her PJs.
"Everything okay?" Jamie asked.
Lil nodded and stepped into the room. "I got up the go the bathroom and saw a light on. What are you still doing up?"
Jamie scooted over on the bed to make room for Lil to sit next to her. "I just wanted to go through some of these," she explained. "I didn't realize I'd spend all night on it…"
"They're all cards your dad wrote to your father after he died? They must be so personal."
"Some are," Jamie agreed. "Mostly he talks about me, but sometimes he'll make a comment and…I just feel the pain he must have felt losing my father. It makes me so sad that I never had a chance to know him, never had a chance to see them together."
"It sounds like your dad talked about him a lot."
"Yeah, he did," Jamie smiled. "Sometimes he'd tell me, 'You're just like your father,' and even if it was when he was mad at me about something, I always took it as a compliment."
Lil nodded. "Sometimes my dad tells me I'm just like my mother when he's yelling at me. Usually it's not for stuff that's that bad, though."
"Yeah," Jamie said. She glanced at her pile of cards again, then looked up at Lil. "You want to read one?"
"Sure," Lil said. "If it's not too private."
Jamie handed her friend a postcard. "I think this one's my favorite. Take a look."
Jamie watched her friend's eyes scan the words, and met them when she finished. "Wow," Lil said after reading it. She gave the card back to Jamie.
"I cried the first time I read it."
"It's so sad but…" Lil shook her head. "Your dad must have really loved him, huh?"
"Yeah," Jamie said. She sat back. "It's funny."
"Well..." Jamie explained, looking at Lil. "My dad was a total atheist. He didn't believe in God, he didn't believe in heaven or hell. He believed in science and taught me to believe the same."
"Okay…" Lil said.
Jamie smiled. "But my father did…sort of believe. When he was dying, he told my dad that he thought more was out there. And even…even being raised by my atheist dad, even learning all about science in school…I think I believe, too."
"Really?" Lil asked.
"Yeah," Jamie nodded. "I don't know for sure, there's no way to, but…" She glanced at the ceiling and smiled. "I think my dad's up there somewhere, and I think my father's with him. I want to believe it. Dad never dated, no matter how much I suggested it might be good for him. He would tell me I was the only person still living that he could truly love. I want to believe that they're together again and watching me. That's…the way it should be."
Lil smiled. "Maybe you're right," she said. Then she yawned. "Well, I'm going back to bed," she said, getting up and stretching. "You should, too, we've got a busy day tomorrow."
Jamie nodded. "You're right. I will." She didn't get up, but watched Lil go, and then picked up her favorite postcard again, tracing the ink of her dad's handwriting.
The glossy back was pink, with a cartoon baby and the words "It's a girl!" She turned it over and saw, where the name and address would be, "Jamie Wilson. 8 pounds, 6 ounces; 20 inches. 3:14 p.m., April 3, 2013." Jamie smiled. She figured her dad must have been given this card at the hospital when she was born. She turned her attention to the left side of the card, though the words spilled over to the right, and read once again:
She's here, Wilson. It's a girl. You have a daughter. I have a daughter. I was so stupid, Wilson. I can't believe I thought about not keeping her. I know why I did it, I don't know anything about kids or being a father. She deserves so much better. But I can't help it, Wilson. I have to take her.
You were right. You're always right. It must have been her that's kept me hanging on all this time. Losing you…well, you know what it's like to lose someone you love that way. I was lost, but…everything's different now. I have a daughter. I have something (he'd crossed that out) someone to live for.
I didn't think it'd be enough. I didn't realize. Your stupid (he'd crossed that out, too) idea worked. Before today, if you'd asked me if I could ever love anyone as much as you, I'd say no effing way. But now…who knew, Wilson? You must've. I sure as hell didn't. I promised you I'd raise your child, and even though before today I seriously considered breaking that promise a million times over, our daughter gave me no other choice but to keep it. I also said I'd be a good father to her. I can only try as far as that one goes, but I think loving her as much as I loved you is a pretty good start.
"You did good, Dad," Jamie whispered. She kissed the card and put it down, and then got up to go to bed.
A/N: Thanks so much for taking the time to read. Don't forget to review, whether you loved the ending or hated it. :-)