I walked in the door to find my father standing in the middle of the family room much like he stood staring at my mother’s corpse. Full of anger, I took a wild swing and punched him in the throat. He collapsed to the ground, rolling around and coughing. I then noticed he wasn’t my father at all. This man was very thin. He had a mustache that drooped slightly and he was bald except for a half ring of hair curving around the back of his head.
“Who the fuck are you?” I shouted.
“I’m your dad,” he choked out.
“You’re not my dad.”
“No. It’s me. It’s Dad. Why did you punch me in the throat?”
“Why the hell weren’t you at the funeral? Where were you?”
The man, this couldn’t be my father, pulled himself up to his hands and knees. A string of drool came out of his mouth and stretched all the way to the carpet. Watching as he struggled to stand, I wanted to push him back down. And maybe kick him. He stood up, partially, and made his way over to my father’s chair, collapsing into it.
“You are not my father,” I said.
He coughed again, holding his throat. He was really playing it up.
“You’re right,” he said.
“Then who are you?”
“I’m Gary Wrench.”
“Where’s my father?”
“Like I said. I’m your father.”
“Stop confusing me.” I trudged toward the chair and kicked him in the shin. That oughta stop his lies, I thought.
“Let me explain,” he said, trying to wave me away with one hand while using the other to rub the abused shin.
I sat down on the couch next to the chair and looked at him.
“I’ve been your father for about the past twenty years or so.”
“How can you say that? You’re not even the same guy I saw yesterday.”
“Actually, I am,” he said. He motioned over to the corner. Hanging in the corner was a human sized suit. This was the father I had always known, hanging there deflated and empty-looking.
“A suit?” I asked.
“A disguise. A very high end disguise.”
“Okay. I’m afraid I’m still confused.”
“That’s why I’m going to explain things to you.”
“Okay. I’m listening.” I sat back on the couch, brought my legs up to lie supine, as though this Gary Wrench fellow were some kind of psychiatrist. I stared at the bland white ceiling, occasionally peeking over at the suit hanging in the corner. Maybe I expected it to move or something.
“Damn,” Wrench said. “My throat really hurts. I think I need a drink of water.”
“Fine. Then explaining.”
“Yeah. Sure. I’m just, damn, my throat.”
He stood up and went toward the kitchen. Then I heard quick footsteps. He was trying to escape. I launched myself from the couch and charged into the kitchen. He was headed for the French doors that lead to the back porch. I threw myself over the kitchen table and brought him down. I heard something crunch and wondered if he had broken something. Grabbing him around the upper arm, I dragged him back into the living room. While limp and rubbery, he was much less substantial than my real father. Of course, I guess, who I thought was my real father was just a costume.
He made a high pitched whining sound.
“Just let me go. My job here is done! I did everything I was supposed to! Let me go!”
“Sit.” I lifted him and shoved him back into the chair and then, so he wouldn’t get back up, I plopped myself down on his lap. Now we were like a real father and son. “Explain,” I said, my mouth ridiculously close to his sweaty forehead.
“Jesus. Now I can barely breathe. Have you put on some weight?”
“I just want to know what’s going on.”
“Fine,” he said. “See that costume over there.”
“I’ve worn that costume for the past twenty years because that was how your father looked when he left.”
“My father wouldn’t have left us.”
“I’m afraid he did. He didn’t really plan on it. I wish he hadn’t. If he hadn’t then I wouldn’t have been drawn into this whole mess.”
“So why did he leave us? Why did he leave Mom?”
“Have you ever heard of the Nefarions?”
I thought back, scanning my brain. I remembered the story my grandfather had told me before he was taken away by the elephant wind. I thought that had people called Nefarions in it.
“I think so,” I said. “They live on an island with really bad storms, right? And their children all misbehave or something.”
“Well, you’ve got part of it right. Will you get off me if I promise not to run away?”
I thought about it. I guessed it didn’t really matter. If he did decide to run away then the only thing he was really taking with him was the mystery of my childhood and possibly my entire adult life. Maybe I’d be better off not hearing it anyway. I stood up and flopped back down on the couch, resumed staring at the ceiling.
“It’s fine if you want to go, anyway,” I said.
“You don’t want to hear this?”
“I want to hear it but I can’t make you stay. I don’t even really know who you are.”
“I’ll stay. I’ll tell you. Someone needs to know.”
“Okay then. I’ll listen.”
“Good,” Wrench said. He leaned back in the chair and stared outside at the miserable weather. “Your grandfather, Grady Glum, was a world renowned anthropologist. Did you know that?”
“I knew he was an anthropologist but I didn’t know anyone else knew who he was.”
“Oh, there was a point in time when anyone who knew about the field of anthropology—admittedly, not a vast number of people—knew his name. His name was synonymous with the field for a while. Anyway, he grew bored with the mundane ritual of field study, that is, going to live with a tribe or group of people over a period of months and, sometimes, years. I should say, he grew bored with the field studies he had grown accustomed too. There are only so many ‘uncivilized’ people. By the time he really hit his stride, he didn’t suppose there were any new ways of looking at these ancient people. So he listened. He listened to myths and whispers and legends. Some would say he listened to the voices in his head and, maybe, some hallucinogenic drugs.
“He uncovered a group of people called the Johnsons, living in a desert in Kansas. Yes, you may tell yourself that there is no desert in Kansas. But that is common knowledge. Your grandfather, Grady, wanted to go beyond common knowledge. He wrote very detailed reports of these people. He lived in their midst for six months. Of course, if everything had worked out, his reputation would have been solidified. He would have been the most groundbreaking anthropologist in the history of the field. In other words, if he could have taken a camera crew and documented the Johnsons this way. Which was what he planned to do. This, quite possibly, is what ultimately made him a laughingstock. He took a camera crew to Kansas, where they holed up on an Indian reservation for a fortnight. He had been drinking some potent tea made from the bark of an ancient Arapahoe canoe and convinced the crew they would have to do this as well, to enter the secret dimension of the Johnsons. Naturally, these people were adventurous and they desperately wanted to believe. So many hopes lie in anthropology. Ethnobotanists believe the cure to cancer might lie in one of these cultures. Maybe even the secret to immortality. So the crew went along with him and ingested this strange, terrible tasting bark tea.
“At the end of the fortnight, most of the camera crew had been sent home with horrendous intestinal cramping. Even Grady had lost hope. Perhaps he had not just stumbled upon a unique place in space but in time as well. Maybe that time had passed and could never be reclaimed. He was willing to admit defeat and his once scholarly papers were reduced to pulp, esteemed by colleagues as highly as a paranormal ghost hunt. It was then your grandfather could have retired to some quiet college and taught from a text book. A text book that would probably contain his earlier work. But it was the adventure he loved. Maybe the Johnsons could never be found again but, if he had located them, it was possible for him to locate another, possibly nonexistent, tribe. Maybe one that was even more remarkable than they were.
“I should make a side note here. The Johnsons, other than the fact they lived in what amounts to an imaginary desert in Kansas, were entirely unremarkable people. They behaved and looked exactly like other Americans of the time. The only differences with them were that their homes seemed to be powered from sorcery and, instead of any kind of jobs, they just kicked around in the sand all day and mercilessly berated one another.
“Anyway, this took your grandfather to the extreme Pacific coast. He boarded a raft and set off from Pugot Sound, headed into the presumably well-charted waters of the Pacific. Some say what he underwent was merely a near death experience. Others think he just made the whole thing up. What your grandfather reported when he came back was a whole other ocean, hidden beneath the Pacific...”
“The Malefic Ocean,” I said.
“That’s right,” Wrench said. “The Malefic Ocean. And he found a group of people living on an island in this ocean. Those people were the Nefarions. Their legends said that, essentially, they were everything bad in the world, at one time, the time they called the Great Beginning, and were therefore banished to this island that could not be seen by other humans. There was great debate amongst them as to whether or not they were human at all. Anyway, at the center of the island, they kept a flame they called Brilliance. This flame, they claimed, had been burning since the original cosmic big bang. It was, in many respects, their most popular cultural icon...”
Wrench rubbed his chin, rubbed his throat, and continued to stare out the window.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Your grandfather, meant to be taken seriously, stole Brilliance from the Nefarions. He brought it back to the coast with him, through the raging storms of both the Malefic and Pacific Oceans and when he washed up on the shores of Oregon, the flame still burned. Still, no one took him seriously. Scientists explained the flame away. Now no one wanted your grandfather to be right. If what he said was true, it would throw all of humanity, the origins of humanity, into question. Not that that hasn’t been done before. But the academic world was going to make damn certain it would not be done by a kleptomaniacal, drug-addled old quack.”
“What happened to it?”
“I think it’s still up in the attic.”
“He kept it?”
“He most certainly did. But not without a price.”
“That’s why he disappeared.”
“That’s what we all assumed. We assumed the Nefarions had sent their elephant wind to claim him, hoping to bring Brilliance back. That was also when your father disappeared. He went searching for him. And no one has seen him since.”
“That still doesn’t really explain you.”
“Oh, I’m mostly the fault of your mother. She couldn’t stand the thought of her two children losing their father at such an early age. She had amazing foresight. She honestly thought your father would come back but she had to allow for the very small chance that he wouldn’t. And, even if he did, how long would it be? Two weeks. Two months. Two years. To a child, two years might as well be a lifetime. So she hired me to wear a costume that looked exactly like him. He wasn’t around you much anyway so it was only for a couple hours a day. Of course, I was always on call. In case one of you ever asked about me. I was there to provide the illusion of safety. Your mother assumed your father would come back one day and take my place and the transition would be very smooth and neither of her children would be traumatized.”
“That’s a lot to digest,” I said.
“I agree,” Wrench said.
“I think I need a nap.”
“Don’t let me stop you.”
I stood up from the couch and crossed over to my room. The house suddenly felt very sad and empty. Nothing was at all what I thought it was and just when I thought the world was a strange place it seemed to get even stranger. The bed felt good. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep in no time at all.