I pull up to the house where my father once lived. The white, plastic siding is dirty and peeling, and a dark red trim lends the entire edifice a foreboding aura. Slowly, I drive up the rocky driveway and put the car in park. I can barely make myself breathe, let alone reach for the door handle. From the porch, a tall, robust woman smiles and waves cautiously. Neither of us are sure exactly what might happen during this meeting.
She was my father’s girlfriend. I say ‘was’, because, well, my father passed away nearly twenty years ago. It’s taken this long just to get up the courage to contact the woman he was dating at the time of his death. I smile through the window and hold up one finger, indicating I’ll be out in a moment. Turning to my right, I feign rummaging around through the papers I’ve brought along just to buy myself some time to think.
‘She’s not the enemy,’ I repeat for the thousandth time. It’s become a sort of mantra, at this point. My family despises this woman. Some of them even blame her for my father’s untimely death. I’ve never been sure what to believe. But, when I had children of my own, I decided I needed to meet her and judge the situation for myself. ‘Not the enemy.’ Taking a deep breath, I shake my head, put on a smile, and exit the vehicle.
“Hi, there!” I call out, “Are you Kelly?”
The woman smiles nervously, “Yes, I’m Kelly. You’re Ryan’s daughter? Megan? You look so much like him!” She stares at my face, seemingly unable to look away.
I’ve always known I strongly resemble my father. My face reflects every single feature of his, and, for those who knew him, it can sometimes be very unsettling. Smiling again, I try to put her at ease, “I’ve been told that a lot. Thank you.”
She awkwardly gazes at my face a moment longer before throwing up her hands, exclaiming, “Oh! Where are my manners? Come in, come in. We have so much to talk about.”
Silently, I follow her into the dimly lit house, my heart thundering in my chest. She leads me to a small, slightly wobbly kitchen table where two empty coffee mugs await us. Indicating to one of the chairs, Kelly picks up a carafe from the counter and begins filling the cups. “Cream or sugar?”
“Your daddy took it black, with just a pinch of sugar.”
“I never knew that,” I replied, nervously twisting my fingers together in my lap.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s a lot you never knew, honey.” Her sad eyes peer at me over the top of the milk carton.
I gulp, reaching for the steaming mug, “Like what? I’d love to know anything you can tell me.”
“Well,” she sat down in the chair adjacent to mine and stirred her coffee, “he was always very serious – a deep thinker. He was really, really smart, too. That’s how he got the government job, in the first place.”
“Government job?” This was news to me, “I thought he only worked odd jobs around town?”
“Well, he did… but, that was later. When we first got together, he was an FBI informant, but they quickly hired him as a software engineer once they realized what a whiz he really was.”
“A software engineer? Working for the government? Really?”
“Yep, they sure loved your dad… for a little while.”
“What do you mean? What happened?”
Kelly sighs and averts her gaze, “Well, I don’t really like to speculate, especially not to you, but…” She hesitates.
“Kelly, please,” I beg, “I’ve been searching for information about my father my entire life. It’s taken me so long to finally get to this point. If you have something to share, please – tell me.”
Nodding, Kelly slurps her drink before replying, “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just… it sounds so crazy when I say it out loud.”
“Well, I’ve heard some whoppers in my time. Try me.”
“Okay, so… the software your dad developed for the government? It was facial recognition software.”
“Like the kind we have now? But, this was decades ago…”
“Exactly. It was way before its time, and the government wanted to make sure nobody else ever got their hands on it. They destroyed your dad’s schematics and burned his notes. They left him alone for a couple years, but every so often his old boss would call, just to let him know they could find him – no matter where he was. He got one of those calls the month he died.”
I sit back in my chair, stunned. “So,” I begin slowly, trying to wrap my head around it all, “You think the government had my dad killed for his work?”
“That’s what I believe, yes. By the time they tracked him down, we’d been living here for about five years. He always kept a low profile, which is why he only took odd jobs that paid under-the-table. We struggled financially, and I think that’s what finally drove them to take him out. He still had all that information in his head. I think they were afraid he’d sell out to the highest bidder. So, they eliminated the potential threat.”
“You’re right,” I tell her, “that does sound crazy. But, I believe you. It makes sense. Why he didn’t reach out all those years. Why he always kept to himself, even when he was around.”
“Yes. So, now you know. I really am very sorry for your loss. I loved your father. He was a wonderful man.”
“Thank you, Kelly. And, thank you for meeting with me and telling me all of this. It means more to me than you know.”
“You’re welcome, Megan. Oh! I also have a few things of his I gathered for you.” She produces an old, cardboard box from behind her seat. Sticking out of the top is the sleeve of a black leather jacket. My heart skips a beat. I recognize the jacket from a photo I have of my father dressed up for a night on the town. I wonder if it still smells like him.
Kelly avidly watches my face as I take in the contents of the box. As if reading my mind she says, “I’ve never washed it. When your dad died, I put all of his belongings that I didn’t give to your grandparents and kept them in this box. I haven’t touched it again, until today. It’s all yours.”
“Thank you,” I manage in a whisper, tears filling my eyes. Brushing them away, I stand up and reach out to give this kind woman a hug.
We depart from our embrace, and Kelly clears her throat, “Well, I know you’ve got a busy life, being a mom and all. I won’t keep you much longer. You take your daddy’s things home with you and go through it all in your own time. Here’s my number,” she points to a scrap of paper on the top of the pile in the box, “call me any time at all, okay?”
“Will do. Thank you, Kelly. It was so great to finally meet you.”
“Same to you, honey. Drive safe!”
Balancing the box with one hand, I give a quick wave with the other and head out the door. I sit the box on the passenger seat, and it’s all I can do not to go through it right then and there. On the drive home, I imagine my father as he was, all those years ago – his flight from the government after they’d destroyed all his work, his poverty-stricken existence as he tried to evade the spotlight, and his final moments, knowing they’d found him, at last. I glance over at the unassuming box. A white label on a black notebook catches my eye. It reads, ‘Project 42’. When I get home, I think I know what I’ll be looking at first.