It's January 11, 2028. An older man paces on the sidewalk in front of the Freedom Tower, as it was called during its construction. A warm and roomy beige trench coat hangs past his knees. His face is sunken in and wrinkled. He is balding on top, but the rest of his head is slathered with snow white hair. His fingers are crooked from mild arthritis. The man leans against the wall near the entrance and plucks a cigarette out of his coat pocket. Out of his other pocket, he retrieves a Bic lighter. He skims his thumb across the wheel, activating the flint, and he lights his cigarette. The man takes a long drag on the cigarette and sighs. When he's finished, he goes through security and into the building.
The newcomer to the tower fingers through the building directory and finds the name of a contemporary liberal magazine. He enters the elevator and presses the appropriate button. The man quietly whistles along with the elevator music. The doors open and he exits the elevator. The man approaches the receptionist and after a few seconds she looks up from her computer.
"Can I help you, sir?" she politely asks.
Meanwhile, thirty year old Tom Birch vigorously scrubs his hands together with soap and water in the office bathroom. He looks up at his reflection in the mirror and smiles slightly. Tom retrieves a few paper towels from the dispenser and dries his hands.
In Tom Birch's office, the old man is beginning to succumb to his impatience as he digs through the assorted papers on the desk. Many are rough drafts of magazine columns on various social and political subjects. One is titled "Abortion: America Was Founded on the Idea of Choice, End of Argument". Another reads "Gay Marriage: Are We Still Fighting About This?".
He uncovers a clipped out newspaper article. The headline reads "Cherry Hill Native, James Aiden Carter, Convicted of Serial Rape". The man sighs and continues to look around the desk. There are a few picture frames arranged symmetrically at each corner of the desk. The first one is a dated picture of a woman of forty years or so. The wooden framed is decorated with a small pink ribbon used to symbolize breast cancer research. Mom, 1965-2024 is inscribed on the bottom edge of the frame. The next is a teenage boy with short black hair, smiling in the driver's seat of his car. This frame reads My Brother.
On the opposite end of the desk, there are two more frames. One is of an attractive young woman whose age can't be more than thirty. The frame says Brittany Ann Birch. The final frame displays a handsome young man of similar age to the previous woman. He is kneeling and on top of his leg sits a little boy, presumably the young man's son. The frame reads Justin, Born July 24, 2022.
As he exits the bathroom, Tom Birch slips a stick of spearmint gum out of his pocket and tosses it into his mouth. He walks up to his receptionist's desk. "Any messages while I was on my break?" he asks her.
"No, but you have a visitor in your office," she informs him.
"Oh yeah? Who?"
"He says he's your father," the girl shrugs. As the words leave her mouth, Tom's mouth falls open, nearly losing his gum.
"Yeah? Okay," he acknowledges, trying to hide his initial surprise. He slowly saunters over to the door to his office. Tom hesitates as he turns the knob, but eventually does and enters. The old man in the chair obviously doesn't take notice of the new presence. Without saying a word, Tom crosses the room and seats himself across from the aged man.
"Tommy?" the old man rasps.
"Don't call me that. I'm not a little kid anymore," Tom snaps. An uncomfortable silence lasts at least ten seconds.
"How have things been, son?" Thomas Sr. asks.
"Should I start at second grade?" Tom asks sarcastically.
"Let's do the last decade."
"Well... I'm married. I've got a kid, but you know that already. I see you moved my photos."
"Yeah, yeah. You named him after your brother..."
"It was the only thing that seemed right for him," Tom explains. Another awkward silence monopolizes the conversation.
"Happy birthday, son."
"Ah, you remember?" Tom asks, raising his eyebrow.
"Of course, why wouldn't I?"
"Considering you missed every birthday from my ninth to my twenty-ninth, it comes as quite a surprise," Tom answers. The two remain quiet once again.
"Y'know, son. You never returned any of my letters inviting you over," the elder Birch says.
"You never returned any of mine. It only seemed fair," Tom replies coldly. The older man shrugs off the comment as if he knew it was coming. Deep down, he also knows he deserves it.
"So... your mother...," the man says.
"Don't even talk about her," Tom barks.
"Listen, Thomas, I'm sorry... for everything," the man apologizes.
"Don't call me that," Tom growls.
"It's your name, son."
"I don't like it."
"It's what she called you."
"Mrs. Callaghan. You know damn well who I'm talking about."
"Oh... I didn't... uh... I didn't know you knew about her."
"I found the letters. You left them taped to the bottom of the dresser. I found them after Mom passed away when I was cleaning out the house."
"I'm sorry about your Moth..."
"I said don't."
"Goddamn it. What did I tell you, Thomas?"
"Who the hell do you think you are, son? You know sons aren't supposed to call their father by name."
"You're no father to me."
"In one of your letters... you said that I'd always be your father, no matter what."
"Ah, so you did get my letters."
"I don't remember saying that."
"Of course you didn't. You were eleven. Here it is right here." The aged biological father picks a thick envelope out of his pocket. The envelope is filled with folded up papers. Thomas Sr. fingers through the papers and picks one out. "Here it is. I just want to make sure that you know I still love you even though it's been so long since I've seen you. You'll always be my dad. No matter what," he reads.
"They certainly do..."
"Oh god, don't tell me you have. So where is the bitch?"
"My second grade teacher. Callaghan."
"Damn... she left me."
"Why is that?"
"She caught me with my secretary a few months ago. I got fired for sexual harassment and she dumped me. Now here I am."
"Well, I guess some things never change."
"I'm done listening to you. You're a coward and a..."
"That's what your mother used to call me when I left."
"I said don't mention her. I don't know what you're doing here. I really don't. If you were under the impression that I wanted to catch up, you were dead wrong."
"Son, I'm sorry. If I could take it back... Please," he beseeches. Tom quickly rises from his seat.
"You can't take it back. You can't take back every birthday you missed. You can't take back every time Mom had to put out Christmas presents alone. You can't take back all the times we couldn't have what we wanted because we didn't have enough money. You can't do anything about how my life went. You can't give me advice about puberty. You can't tell me how to ask a girl out. You can't show me how to dance at my junior and senior prom. You can't straighten my cap on Graduation Night. You sure as Hell can't take back all those tears that Mom sopped up when she was in that big queen sized bed alone. You can't take back all those pills Justin took because he didn't have any goddamn father to turn to!" Tom's arm swings across his desk, swiping off most of the papers and a pencil cup which smashes onto the floor. Thomas twitches at the crash.
"You're right... I can't take back any of that. I was a terrible father."
"You weren't even a goddamn father! Don't call yourself that!" Tom rounds the desk and approaches his biological father face to face. He grabs him by the coat and smashes him against the wall. The old man groans as pieces of drywall fall to the floor. Tears are flowing amply from the younger man's eyes. With the back of his hand, Tom attempts to dry his face off. The old man falls to the floor and cowers. "Get up. Get up you coward. Face me like the man you were supposed to be. Where the hell were you when Mom was going through her first bouts of chemo? Why was I the only one that could tell her it was all going to be okay, when I knew damn well there was a good chance it might not all be okay? She trusted you and you let her down. She loved you and you stomped all over that. Get up, you little bitch." Tom turns to the opposite side of the office and rests his hands on the back of his head. His fingers pull angry at the strands of hair.
Tom swiftly turns around and throws a punch, directly into the old man's jaw. A cocktail of blood and spit splatters on the wall. The man drops to the floor once again and lies motionless, but he's still conscious. "Listen to me now, Thomas. Don't you ever try to contact me. Ever again. Don't try to talk to my kid. Don't try to talk to my wife. Don't try to talk to me. If you go anywhere near Justin or Mom's graves, I will break your goddamn leg." Tom quickly storms out of the office. The broken old man faintly hears his son tell the receptionist that he's taking the day off.
Tom sobs as he drives out of New York City and into the outlying suburbs. When he parks his car in his driveway, his wife meets him at the door. "Are you okay? Honey, what's wrong?" He doesn't answer, but instead throws his arms around her and locks her into a deep kiss. When they break apart, he rests his hands on either side of her head and rests his forehead against hers. "I love you and that will never change."
Surprisingly, the next day at work, his boss doesn't enact any consequences on the young columnist. His office walls are cleaned of blood, but are still dented. A week later, he finds a letter in his mailbox.
Dear Tom Birch,
I won't press any charges. Goodbye.
P.S. I liked your column on foreign adoption last year.