It was small, that cottage on the hill. Its white paint had long since flaked off and blown away in the wind. The windows were cracked and covered in dust. The lawn surrounding the cottage was overgrown from years of neglect and filled with yellow dandelions. I placed my hand on the door and felt the rotting wood. I twisted the rusty doorknob and, for the first time in years, walked back into the small cottage on the hill.
The smell was the first thing I noticed. The overpowering scent of mold and mildew filled my nostrils and made me gag. Still, beneath the scent of decay, I detected something familiar. The smell of cheap beer and expensive cigarettes. The cottage always smelled like cheap beer and expensive cigarettes.
I looked around the room. Somehow, it looked even smaller and more constricting on the inside. An old television set and a stained couch sat next to the door. A few feet away, a gas-powered stove and small refrigerator sat in the cottage’s “kitchen”. On the other side of the room, there were two doors, one leading to the bathroom and the other to Dan’s room.
I walked over to the TV and tapped the power button. The screen stayed dark. I wasn’t surprised. Dan rarely paid the electric bill when he was alive, so why would I expect the power to be on a week after his death?
I glanced up and saw a photograph sitting on top of the TV. The photo showed a bearded man with his arm around a young woman. A young boy held onto the woman’s hand. The bottom right corner of the photo had been ripped off. I looked closer and noticed a small hand holding onto the man’s pant leg, half obscured by the rip.
I knocked the photo over. Something about it just angered me. Maybe it was the way that the three of them seemed to be so happy. Maybe it was the shoddy attempt to hide the other child. Maybe it was simply the fact that it was a picture of Dan.
The fridge contained nothing but a case of beer and a Tupperware container containing a mysterious black substance that I assumed was inedible. I grabbed the beer and made my way to the bedroom. A small bed covered by a blue quilt sat by the door. Magazines and empty cans were strewn haphazardly around the bedroom, hiding the cottage’s shag carpet. On a nightstand, next to the bed, I spotted a small lighter and a pack of cigarettes. A small closet door stood on the other side of the room.
I opened the door to find clothes. No skeletons, no long hidden clue about Dan’s life, just clothes. I don’t know what I expected. I sighed and started cleaning up the magazines scattered on the floor of the bedroom. I picked up dozens of news stories, sports profiles, and the occasional dirty magazine and placed them in a single pile. I even, ironically, found a copy of Good Housekeeping among the mess.
Then I stopped. What was I doing, picking up the garbage of a dead man that I hated? Why was I at this cottage again? Then, I noticed it. An old leather-bound scrapbook, sitting among the magazines. Anxiously, I picked it up. After opening the blinds on one of the windows to let in some light, I sat down on the bed and opened the scrapbook.
On the first page, I found an old black and white photograph of a man and woman on their wedding day. Written in cursive beneath the photo were the words Our Special Day. On the second, I found a picture of the woman from the first photo holding a newborn baby. Underneath the picture of the baby, the words Jacob Daniel Knox, 7.5 pounds, 20 inches, were written. The third page was interesting. In the same handwriting as the previous photos were the words Jackson Mark Knox, 7 pounds, 18 inches. No photo of sat above these words.
I frantically flipped through the scrapbook, searching for a photo of Jackson. All I found was page after page of missing pictures. Then, halfway through the book, the pages became blank. Unfinished by whoever created the first half of the book.
I cracked open a beer and took a sip. It tasted horrible, like warm vegetable oil. I sat the can down next to the cigarettes on the nightstand and went back to cleaning the room. The sound of someone knocking on the window caught my attention. I turned and saw a middle-aged man with a shovel waving from the backyard. I left the cottage, scrapbook and six-pack in hand.
Jake hugged me as soon as I got outside. “It’s been too long!” he said.
“Jesus, Jake, you’re crushing me,” I said.
Jake laughed. “I didn’t expect to see you here,” he said. “How long have you been gone?”
“Not nearly long enough.”
Jake’s face turned solemn. “I didn’t see you at the funeral,” he said.
“I didn’t go. What’s with the shovel?”
“Dad wanted to be buried next to Mom.”
The words sent shivers down my spine. I’d already guessed that Jake was here to bury Dan, but hearing him say it made the finality of the situation real. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I helped him dig a pit in the family plot near the cottage. After a few hours of back-breaking work, Jake led me to his truck.
A plain pine box, large enough to fit a grown man, sat in the back of Jake’s old pickup. “Is that…Dan?” I asked
“Yeah,” he replied. “He didn’t want us to waste money hiring someone to do this. Surprised?”
“No. Dan doing something so macabre just to save money is completely in character.”
“Do you want me to open the box before we bury him?
Jake and I carried the box to the pit and carefully lowered it down into the dirt. By sunset, the deed was done. Jake cracked open one of the warm beer cans and took a swig. “How can you drink that?” I asked.
“Stop being a snob,” he replied.
“Seriously! Dan, as a rule, only bought the cheapest possible beer. Hell, I don’t even know if it’s still good. It’s been sitting in the fridge for years.”
“Beer becomes better with age!”
“You’re thinking of wine.”
Jake laughed and took another swig. “How’s the family?” I asked.
“They’re doing good. Me and Laura dropped Katie off at college last week,” he said.
“I’m happy for you.”
“How about you?”
“I’m doing good. Adrian and I are looking at new houses right now, trying to find something closer to the water.”
“Why don’t you just move in here? Dan left you the place.”
Neither of us said anything for a few minutes after that. Finally, I worked up the courage to ask the question that had been burning in the back of my mind. “Why did he leave me the cottage?” I asked.
“Hell if I know,” he replied. “Have you read the letter yet?”
“Maybe you’ll find your answers there.”
Jake got up and walked back to his truck. “It’s getting late,” he said. “Laura’ll worry if I’m not home soon.”
I ran up to him and handed him the scrapbook. “You should have this,” I said.
Jake smiled and drove off into the night. I walked back to the bedroom of the cottage and lit one of Dan’s cigarettes. Although I don’t share his taste in alcohol, he managed to get me hooked on his favorite brand of cigarettes when I was a kid. It’s one of two things Dan left me.
I know it’s bad for me, but whenever I get stressed, this urge to smoke builds within my heart. I pray I don’t end up like Dan, slowly wasting away as my lungs rot from my addiction.
I pulled a white envelope from my breast pocket and did the thing that I had been dreading for so long: I read the letter Dan sent me.
Dear Jackson, it said, The doctors say I don’t have much time left. I’ve tried calling you, writing you, even asked Jacob to drag your ass back here so I can say this in person. Every time, you’ve ignored me. What kind of son refuses to see his dying father?
I shouldn’t be surprised, of course. This isn’t the first time you’ve turned your back on family. I haven’t seen you since Jan died. Even then, you didn’t have the balls to talk to me. You just left after we buried her, just like you did when you were a kid. I hope you like it, out there in that degenerate paradise you call home. I hope it’s worth saying goodbye to your own flesh and blood. That’s what killed Jan, you know. The stress of her baby running away from home before he could even drink. I remember her staying up at night, crying with worry. I hope you’re happy.
I’ll be seeing Jan soon. It’s actually a good thing, the fact that I’m dying. This life of mine, the endless monotony of a nursing home, it’s enough to drive a man mad. Bastards don’t even let me drink anymore. Of course, you probably think that’s a good thing. You used to bitch about my drinking on a daily basis. You even got the idea that I’m some kinda monster because I like the good stuff in Jan’s head.
Jake tells me you’re a writer. You know, I always wanted to be a writer. Guess you have more of me in you than either of us are willing to admit. No one ever wanted to publish any of my things, of course. Guess I didn’t fit their quotas like you do.
I’ve instructed my lawyer to give you this letter when I finally die. I hope you’ll get over your damn pride and actually read this letter. Maybe you’ll just throw it in the trash like every other letter I’ve written you. But, if you’re reading this, it means I’ve finally got a chance to talk to you. It means I can now tell you the words I’ve been waiting thirty years to say: you are, and always have been, a disappointment.
Children are supposed to honor their parents. You, with your endless debauchery, have dragged the name of my family through the mud. I lived in a small town, Jack. People talk. For years, I’ve had to deal with the insults they threw at me because of you. I’ve even had to deal with people theorizing that I’m like you. The thought of it makes me want to vomit. You disgust me, Jackson. Words cannot express how little love I have for you. I truly, from the bottom of my heart, hope you rot in hell.
Every word of the letter burned. Every painful memory of life in the cottage rushed back like water spilling off a waterfall. I grabbed the half-empty beer can from the nightstand and poured it over the bed. I dropped my cigarette and watched as flames engulfed the bed. I tossed the letter into the fire and left the cottage for the final time.
It was small, that cottage on the hill. It burned beautifully.