“Today, we’re going to make Father’s Day cards, class. I want you to think about something special you’d like to say to your father.”
Michael sits at his desk, watching the teacher with accusing eyes. His shoulders are stiff already with this reminder of how he isn’t really like the other kids, how he doesn’t fit into the boxes they way his teachers and the school expect.
I’d like to tell him I wish he was dead, Michael thinks. How’s that for special?
Michael doesn’t have a father, and the teacher knows that—she’s known it forever. Michael’s father is alive, somewhere, but he’s never met him. And it doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t want to. His father ran out on them a long time ago, and Michael has seen what it’s done to Lincoln, how he still hopes that maybe their father will come back some day.
In ten years, he hasn’t come back. As far as Michael’s concerned, he isn’t going to.
Michael weighs the problem of not doing this project against what will happen if he raises his hand and asks the teacher what to do, since… Huh-uh. He’s not going to bring that up when somebody else might hear. He slumps down in his seat, scrawling random words on a piece of paper. Only in fifth grade, and he’s already mastered the art of looking busy while his mind is somewhere else…
After class gets out, he lingers at his desk, slowly putting his papers and supplies in his backpack until the other students are gone. He checks on the teacher every few seconds, willing her not to leave, and finally it’s just the two of them.
He approaches her desk quietly and waits.
“Yes, Michael,” she says.
“The thing you want us to write, to our father? I don’t… don’t have a father,” Michael mumbles to the floor. “What should I do about the assignment?”
“That’s all right,” she tells him. “Lots of people are in your shoes—just not always as young as you are.” She gets up quietly and comes around to the front of the desk, perching on the edge of it next to where he stands. “Do you have someone else who does some of the things for you that a father would?” she asks. “Your mother, perhaps? Or—“
“Lincoln.” Michael looks up then, an answer finally found. “My brother Lincoln.”
“Do you think your brother would appreciate a note like that from you?”
“I… I guess so,” Michael says. “I think he would.”
“Then that can be your project. You can start it tonight after you get home.”
Michael stumbles down the sidewalk, thinking, thinking all the way home. He’s good with ideas, but not always with words, and who knows what Lincoln will think of this anyway? He wonders if he’ll have to show it to the teacher, which could be bad, because he’s not sure she’d understand the way it is with Lincoln.
He pours a glass of milk, and sits down at the kitchen table with paper and a pencil.
“Dear Lincoln,” he starts. Then scratches it out. It’s not like he’s sending a letter home from camp—they see each other every day.
“It’s Father’s Day, and I was thinking of you…” he tries again. And feeling so thankful for all that you do, a voice sing-songs in his head. There’s a sort of clunky Hallmark-card sound to it all, and he scribbles over it and chews on a hangnail.
There has to be some middle ground between being stiff and being sappy. Between distant and dorky.
Between totally embarrassing both of them, and getting the point across.
Michael taps the pencil against the table, scrunching his fist against his face. He taught me to throw… and to ride a bike...
“Thanks for teaching me stuff, Lincoln.” That’s as far as he gets on that one. He crumples up the piece of paper and throws it across the room. Then jumps up to bury the evidence in the garbage can. God forbid Mom should find it, and then they talk about it.
Nothing is coming to him. Nothing. He does the rest of his homework, putting the project aside to try again later.
Dinner is franks and beans, made by Lincoln. That seems kind of basic, but maybe it’s harder than it looks. It always turns out right. Michael can’t tell if Lincoln’s a good cook or not. His cooking is predictable, and stuff tastes okay. Maybe that’s what a good cook is. Lincoln sends Michael to get ready for bed—it’s a late night for their mother—and Michael is barely under the covers before an idea pricks at him.
He turns the lamp on and reaches for a notebook he keeps by the bed for his ideas. Once he’s gotten the words out on paper, he’s able to smile at last and sleep with the problem finally solved.
On Father’s Day, he waits until their mother is at work again. Then he brings out the Father’s Day card, leaving it at Lincoln’s place at the table. Michael gets orange juice and milk ready, and pours Lincoln’s favorite cereal into a bowl. In ten minutes, Lincoln is up, banging around in the bathroom before coming to the table.
“What’s this?” he asks, when he spies Michael’s artwork.
“For you,” Michael says. And just waits.
“To Lincoln on Father’s Day,” his brother reads. “I don’t have a father, but you’re my brother and that’s all I need. Thanks for teaching me things, and not getting too frustrated when I’m not very good at them. Thanks for taking care of me, and never giving up on me. You’re good at being my brother. Love, Michael.”
“Too dumb?” Michael asks nervously. Too much? Not enough?
“No. It’s perfect,” Lincoln assures him. He hugs Michael tight, like after a home run or a Science Fair ribbon.
And then Michael thinks that maybe that assignment wasn’t so stupid after all.
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