Our four-year-old tells stories, usually unprompted, about his old house, this former life he had before he was with us. He lived on a farm on a country road with John Deere tractors. The deer with the sprig of whitetails gathered at the edge of the woods, and he would watch them with his old parents. The ones before.
My wife and I huddle in our bed, elbows and knees connected like the intertwined roots of trees, a mass of skin and bones. We investigate the corners of our room, flinching as the house settles into its midnight dreams.
“These stories can’t be real, right?” she asks.
“I’m tempted to contact a forensic artist. The detail is so creepy,” I say.
“Did you,” she asks, curling her head into my shoulder, “have any previous lives?”
“You think he got it from me? I can’t even remember yesterday.” I flick off the light and we lay there in silence, listening to the house contracting around us, waiting for the dreams about farms to take us under for the night.
When I’m alone with my son, scaling the play structure at the park by the lake, seagulls combing the beach for dropped Cheetos, I ask him about this previous life. I’d like to know if these other parents, this ghost father, is a better parent than me.
“Did he buy you ice cream? Did he take you to the park? Did he dry you off with the soft towels after a bath?”
The answers come like heartbeats—no, no, no.
The question I want to ask, but can’t, a wave lapping in and onto the sand, leaving bits of seaweed, fish scales, and filaments of oil from jet skis and motorboats—Did they love you more?
Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at Craft Literary. He has been previously published in BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It will also be included in Best Small Fiction 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.