I sat on a chair in the hospital and swung my feet back and forth. My dad was talking to the police in the other room. Mr. Étranger walked over and sat next to me. He had a cane. He looked a little better. But not much.
He sat down and we waited together.
“Thank you for the fruit snacks,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“You took it from her.” He was watching my dad talk to the police on the other side of the glass. “It was hurting people, wasn’t it? The other children at your school. And you didn’t know how to stop it and you tried to tell the adults but no one believed you. No one believed there was a little worm, a waking nightmare, slithering about. It was abandoned, starving. So you agreed to nurse it. And in return it let her go, little Emerald.”
“And it tormented you every night. You let yourself suffer so others wouldn’t have to.”
I looked at my shoes. I thought he would be angry with me. I looked up at him.
“Did you make the symbols in my room?”
He nodded. “I saw the nightmares. I thought if I stopped them, if I trapped your fear, your love, everything, inside your house, the creature would wander off.” He shook his head. “I did not expect you to go looking for it. Someone so young.”
I shrugged again.
He leaned over to me. “Did you think if you were nice to it, maybe it wouldn’t be so mean?”
“I guess,” I said.
I ran the back of my arm across my running nose. It was still cold. I sniffed. There was a TV in the corner. There were tanks in Paris. I think that was a big deal. I watched. I didn’t know what to say.
“Am I in trouble?”
He shook his head. “I have explained everything to the authorities. And your father.”
“Did they believe you?”
“Of course.” He smiled. “I lied.”
I swung my feet more. I watched them move like a blur over the tiles on the floor, like I was running super fast.
“I thought the stag was waiting for you to die.”
He nodded. “So did I. But it wasn’t waiting for me.” He turned. “You saw it again, didn’t you?”
I nodded. I had given it the shell with the pebble still wedged in the opening. It took it and swallowed it and disappeared into a grove of trees near the convenience store.
“It’s gone, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “Back to the other side. Where they both belong. And the door is shut again.”
I asked him how the fear-eater had gotten here.
“I imagine it was summoned,” he said.
I thought. “By who?”
Mr. Étranger shook his head. He took my hand and we stood. He rested on his cane.
“A great hole has been opened. Everywhere the followers of the dark are emboldened. In cities all over the world. Just like this one. They are no longer afraid.” He looked at me. “They are preparing. And recruiting.”
I thought about the high school kids that made graffiti under the big highway. I made a sour face up at him.
“Yes. My thoughts exactly.”
We walked down the hall. It looked like my dad was about done.
“The stag told you something,” Mr. Étranger said. “Didn’t it?”
I nodded. “But I can’t say. It’s a secret.”
It probably seems like I have a lot of secrets. But this is a good one. I promise.
“I see.” His face got very serious. “Do you think you will be able to? When the time comes?”
I nodded again.
“Are you sure?”
My dad came over then. “Sure about what?”
He knelt down to check on me. He asked if I was okay and touched me a lot and patted my shoulder. He was being so nice.
“I’m sorry I was bad again,” I said. “Do I still have to go to the doctor?”
He looked at me funny. Like what I said had hurt him. In his heart. I didn’t want to hurt him.
“We’ll talk about that later.” He held me close. “But you did a very good thing this time, son. I’m very proud of you.” Then he held my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “But don’t ever do it again, okay?”
“Wait with Mr. Étranger a moment while I get the car.”
“I can walk,” I said.
But he scurried away. He was babying me.
Mr. Étranger and I stood at the back of the hospital near the doors. The carpet was brown and smelled like cleaning fluid.
“Something bad is happening. Isn’t it?” I asked. “That’s why there’s wars and stuff. And that big place in the desert is burning.”
He looked like he wasn’t sure what to tell me. Adults do that a lot.
“I saw tanks on TV. And that new baby disease.”
“And all those people lost their jobs.”
“Our enemy is throwing as much as he can at the world.”
“So everything will feel too big, and they’ll stop fighting.”
I understood that. In fact, that was the first thing he said that I really did understand. But I had to think real hard then.
“If I say the word, will it make things better?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “He may already be too powerful.”
I looked at the parking lot and the street beyond and the cars coming and going. So many adults.
“I think it will help,” I said. “I think that’s why they gave it to us.”
“The good ones. The allies. Like you said.”
“It will be very dangerous.” Mr. Étranger was looking down at me again. His eyes seemed to glow. The lights overhead reflected off his bare scalp. “You could be hurt. Or worse. This is not an idle worry. Like your father’s fortunes. A great many people have already died. And your very soul would be at risk.”
“But if we don’t do anything,” I said, “isn’t everyone’s?”
He smiled. “You feel everything, don’t you?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes.”
“Come. Let’s get you home. Your father is going to have a very bad day tomorrow. He will need your support.”
Dad pulled up and I got in the car. We left Mr. Étranger at the hospital. He was going to get fluids. I don’t know what that meant. But I waved. And I thought then maybe we were friends again.
He was right. Dad had a bad day. Mr. Étranger had collected all his findings into a report. Proof, he said. I watched him tell my dad, who sat silently in his big chair with a glass of wine staring out our front window at the world.
He took a drink.
He took it better than I expected. He took it better than the news about my mom.
“How?” he asked Mr. Étranger without turning. Then he paused. “Never mind. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” Then after another moment, “What did we miss?”
“It’s not what’s there,” Mr. Étranger said. “It’s what isn’t.”
My dad turned finally.
“Insects. Mites. Harmless microscopic organisms. They grow on anything. Our skin. Our hair. Our books. Our sheets and mattresses. And our food. Your vinegar has supposedly been rotting under 600-year-old cork, porous enough to turn the contents to junk, yet there are almost no mites. And those few I could find are all genetically identical. They’re recently descended from the same stock, and of a prevalent modern type. Your vinegar is not just new, it’s brand new. Not more than a year old.”
“Well, shit.” My dad refilled his glass from the dark bottle on the stand next to his chair. “It figures.”
“I’ve never tried anything like this in my life. I wouldn’t have ever tried. I wouldn’t have even considered it.” My dad sighed. Deeply. Like it was the last free breath he would ever take. “Except the old guy up and died. Right out of the blue. Can you believe it?”
“Yes.” Dad took two big drinks. He must have been very upset. I didn’t understand. “One day we’re in a restaurant and he’s got my arm in a vise grip. He’s filling my ear in a heavy whisper. His family name. The history of balsamic vinegar. He wouldn’t let me go. I just wanted to get out of there. I felt so greasy. Slimy. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
“But he kept protesting. He followed me into the street. No one knew, he said. I was the only one. He thought for sure I would go for it. He knew the troubles I was having. Everyone in the industry did. He needed me, that’s for sure. He needed my connections.
“But I absolutely refused.” My dad stopped. As if he realized how ridiculous it seemed to say that. Now. That he’d been caught. “I’m sure he was terrified. His great plan was evaporating in front of him. Crazy old goat,” he said softly.
There was a long silence.
“Four days later, he was dead. Just like that.” My dad snapped his fingers. “Heart attack. Stress, I guess. And I didn’t know what to do. One month goes by. Then two. Then six. Meanwhile, the lot is sitting in my warehouse. My marriage is falling apart. My son is seeing ghosts. My business is failing because the economy is shit and no one but the uber-rich can afford fine imported foods. And here I am sitting on six cases of expertly counterfeited balsamico tradizionale. The Faustino family had been making the stuff for centuries. Everyone knew that. The circumstances under which they stopped were always too salacious for people to forget. Napoleon and all that. The old man knew the power of romance. People wouldn’t care if it was real, as long as they thought it was possible. They would want to believe.
“He found some old rotting crates on his family’s estate. Some empty bottles. The actual contents were the last of his worries. All this old wine on the market selling for $130,000 a bottle. Or more! Can you believe it? Three-hundred-year-old Lafitte. It’s completely undrinkable. We all know it. It was vinegar when Victoria was queen. The bastards who collect that stuff aren’t buying wine. They’re buying mystique. Romance. Status.” He raised his voice. “Something to show off at parties.
“So I thought, what the hell. It’s not cheating if don’t care about the truth anyway. And they can afford it.”
“So what is this?” Mr. Étranger tilted an old bottle over his finger and held up a drop of dark, oily goo.
“The Mussini family already sells legit century-old stuff. It’s on Amazon for Chrissakes.”
“Yes. I have served it.”
“Cut it with acetic acid. Add some sour mash and scrapings from the insides of old casks. A little bit of dirt. Boil it all together. Who would know? Right? It would take a genius to figure it out.”
Mr. Étranger didn’t flinch.
“I had buyers lined up around the corner. It was going to be gone, the whole lot, before anyone even knew. Before the Times could even write about it and bring the world down on top of me. Every bottle.
“And then Janet chooses that exact moment to file. She’d been pondering it for some time, I’m sure. Our son is going crazy, embarrassing her. Her father. We’re hemorrhaging cash. And then there’s this discovery. Couldn’t exactly keep it from her. My wife. And she sees dollar signs. Half of my cut belonged to her. Only she thought I was underselling. She thought we could get more for it. A lot more.
“And the thing is, she was right. I just wanted to move it as quickly as possible and retire somewhere with comfortable extradition laws and let the world sort it all out. Spend time with Ólafur. Make sure he was okay. Take up gardening. Drink wine.” He took another gulp.
“But Janet got greedy. And all of a sudden, I can’t sell it. Now it’s contested property. Hung up in court. The import business has always been capital-intensive. Where do you think we get the phrase ‘my ship has come in?’ I have creditors. Word got out and they insisted it be insured. They won’t let me keep operating without coverage. Only they got greedy, too. Their appraiser gives a higher number even than my wife! Now the bankers are involved. People are throwing around numbers with so many zeros, I can’t even keep track. And the underwriters, a bunch of strangers, they won’t take it on my good word that the stuff is legit. Not for that much money. And, well, you know the rest.”
My dad stood and walked to the window. “I’m totally, completely ruined. I’m not just going to lose my wife and my business. I’m going to lose my son, and this house, and my reputation, and everything.” He took a drink. He turned to Mr. Étranger. “It’s funny to think that I was done in by my cheating, lying, multiple-affair-having ex-wife’s good opinion of me. I doubt it ever even occurred to her it was all a fraud.” He turned back to the window and spoke softly, like it was a joke just for him. “I’m a very respectable man, after all. Ask anyone.”
Mr. Étranger walked slowly into the room. I saw his palms. There weren’t any more gaps. The symbols were back. “I checked your paternity.”
“Paternity?” My dad scowled. “What are you talking about?”
“Ophiocordyceps is a powerful aphrodisiac.”
“Aphrodisiac? What do you—” He stopped. “Wait a minute.” My dad pointed. “I haven’t had a wet dream in twenty years. And the other night—”
“I needed a sample.”
“A sample? How did you . . .” He stopped. “Do you routinely rifle through other men’s laundry to steal samples of their semen?” He was getting very upset. I could tell because he set his wine glass down.
“No.” The chef paused. “But this wasn’t the first time.”
“I don’t know why I let you back into my house. Oliver warned me about you. He was right. You’re insane.”
“And you’re two-faced.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? You’ve got nerve, insulting your host in front of his own son!”
“Technically, Ólafur is not your son.”
My dad knocked over his wine glass as he darted forward. The dark fluid ran over the exposed wood. He didn’t even look at it. He didn’t check to see if the expensive wine glass broke. He was upset. “That’s a lie!”
“That’s how he was missed. That’s why little Ólafur is alive where so many others died.” He put his hand on my head and smiled at me. “Thank you,” he said softly.
“For what?” I asked.
“Don’t touch him!” My dad was so mad he was shaking.
Mr. Étranger started pacing. I think his muscles were working better and he needed to use them.
“Sometimes our legacies are our weakness. Translated, the spell He would’ve used reads ‘of all the daughters of woman, of all the sons of men.’ But Ólafur is the son of no man who has ever existed, of no man who has ever been born. He was missed. Overlooked. Let’s hope no one rewrites that spell to take account of modern genetics.”
My dad’s face was red. He’d had all he could take from the chef. I could tell he wanted to hit the man. He was protecting me. “Mister A-tron-jay!”
He spun and raised a finger to my dad. “Sit down!”
They were yelling. Like him and Mom used to.
Dad’s beard quivered. “I demand to know—”
“You are in a position to demand nothing. People don’t go to prison for cheating the poor, sir. They go for cheating the rich. Remain calm. Listen. Or I will have you arrested for fraud within the hour. And in front of your son. Is that clear?”
My dad looked at me. He looked at Mr. Étranger. He seemed hurt, as if the chef had grounded him. He sat. He looked at the broken glass on the floor. But he left it. The wine was staining the bare wood.
“Chimerism”—Mr. Étranger let the word sink in—“is a rare genetic condition where one person bears two genomes, where the chromosomes in their body are different than those in their gonads. You had a twin, sir. In the womb. Not identical. Your mother released two eggs that cycle. Another boy. But when you were both nothing more than little clumps of cells, there was an accident. It happens. It’s rare. But it happens. Two zygotes merged into a single embryo, from which emerged a fetus, then a baby, and now the two-faced man sitting here.
“The germ line is kept separate from the rest of the body. The tissues that grew into your testes came from your twin and were different than those that made your brain and your face. A swab of your cheek will reveal a wholly different genome than an analysis of your testes.
“You had a phantom brother. A man who was never born, who never existed, but who bequeathed to you his legacy. And you’ve been carrying that legacy in your scrotum your entire life.” He turned to me. “Little Ólafur is a sort of ‘holy birth’ if you will—born of woman but no living man. That is the source of his great and endearing compassion. Like the Christ.”
“You expect me to—”
“I expect nothing! The science is freely available. You may investigate on your own. Most private laboratories don’t know to test for chimerism. Those that do won’t unless asked. The far more likely scenario is that you’re a victim of good old-fashioned cuckoldry. That is what everyone will assume.”
The chef was speaking quickly now. He had it all worked out. Everything. Our whole lives.
“Supply an independent paternity test from a reputable laboratory and you’ll have solid evidence of your wife’s thus-far unprovable infidelity. Threaten to make it public. But don’t go to her. Go to her father, the congressman. Use it as leverage to get her to settle out of court. Be fair. If she is the person you describe, she will take a fair offer over the risk of losing everything.”
My dad sat back. He had his hand in front of his beard again. He was thinking.
“With your divorce settled, you can sell your forgery, give your ex-wife her cut, and donate the rest to a children’s hospital. On this I am adamant. For your own good. If the deception is ever uncovered, you can always say you didn’t know. You may blame me. For fraud to be criminal requires a benefit. That you did not profit from the act should keep you out of jail.”
“But that means you’ll have to validate the lot. You’ll have to validate a multi-million-dollar lie.”
“Yes. Fortunately for you, I am not a saint. Nor have I ever been. I will perpetrate your fraud on the world. And in return . . . I need to borrow your son.”
“Borrow?” He stood. “What do you mean borrow?”
“I require his assistance on a matter of great importance. He will be in mortal peril. The chances of our success are marginal. At best. And it is entirely possible his soul will be condemned to eternal torment.”
“Like hell! My son has already been through—”
“I’ll do it,” I said.
Both adults turned to me. I was petting Wilson. He came to see what all the yelling was about. I said it was nothing important. Just adult stuff.
“I’ll do it,” I said again.
I rubbed his ears. He smiled. He always had a big smile.
“There are bad things coming, Dad. That’s what the fear-eater showed me. But the stag gave me a word. I’ve been practicing it. He said I’m the only one who can say it. It’s a new word in an old language. The first language. It’s never been used, except for him to tell it to me. And I don’t think that counts. And when it’s the right time, I have to say it reeeeally loud.”
My dad knelt down in front of me. He put his hands on my shoulders.
“No, son. I know this all seems fun to you, the things Mr. Étranger is saying. Like an adventure. And I know I invited him into our lives. But one day you’ll understand. These things he’s saying, they’re not real.”
“But they are.”
“No.” My dad turned to the chef and lowered his voice. “Go ahead. Have me arrested. I don’t care. Just leave. Now. And don’t come back.”
But the chef didn’t leave. He sat. He didn’t seem worried at all.
“If that is what you wish. But think on this. Your business will fail. Your assets will be seized. You will be broke, disgraced, and unable to walk into any fine cellar in the world.”
He pointed to the wine on the floor.
My dad loved good wine. It’s why he was an importer, which is sort of like a pirate. Or a smuggler.
“You will go to jail, and your wife will get sole custody of your son, who will spend his most formative years in a boarding school and his holidays hearing all about what a terrible man you are. So perhaps, before you come to any final conclusions, you should sit a moment and think. Have a drink.”
Dad stormed into the kitchen to get his phone.
“I won’t let you put my son in danger. Not to stay out of jail. Not to spare my reputation.” He tapped the screen. Then he scowled at it. He turned to our guest. “Why is my phone dead?”
Mr. Étranger remained still. His voice changed. “Hear me. And imagine. The continued demonization of the poor to perpetuate wage slavery, and of the foreigner to prosecute war in the name of justice—to raving applause—the financing of which will bankrupt governments, leaving them dependent on wealthy bond owners, while at the same time critically injuring the world economy and diverting from sustainable investment to perpetuate a necessary near-term dependence on oil, eventually leading to environmental collapse.”
My dad stared. “I’ve never met a crazy person before. My God. You’re even worse than Oliver said. Get out.” He pointed to the door.
“It doesn’t matter if you believe me, sir. I am merely discharging my duty.”
“Duty? What are you—”
“To make sure you understand what’s at stake. And why Ólafur is so important. For later. After. When you remember.”
Mr. Étranger didn’t answer.
My dad’s eyes fluttered. He swayed on two legs. He seemed confused. He touched his head like he was dizzy. He sat down on the couch.
The chef went to the kitchen and retrieved a towel, and then he knelt and mopped up the wine from the floor. He picked up the glass. He took the bottle to the kitchen and dumped it out. I immediately turned to my dad, expecting him to object, but his eyes were drooping like he was about to fall asleep.
“You’ll need a few things,” Mr. Étranger said to me. “Go upstairs and pack. But only what is necessary.”
I ran upstairs. Wilson and Pringles and everybody followed me, barking. I packed my Phillies pajamas and some gum and my gamepad and my toothpaste. But I forgot my brush. I ran back down. Dad was snoring.
Mr. Étranger put a hand to my head.
“Are you ready?”
I nodded. I walked over to Dad. I looked at him. I looked up at Mr. Étranger.
“Is he okay?”
“He is quite well. Why don’t you hug him goodbye?”
So I did. That woke him up. He blinked. He looked at my bag. He smiled.
“Sorry, I must have dozed off.” He stood and hugged me properly. It was full and genuine. I liked it. “Do you have everything you need?” He jostled my backpack.
He was grinning like it was Christmas. “I know this is scary, but I’m so happy for you! This is a big opportunity. A new beginning.”
I was going to ask, but Mr. Étranger cut in.
“Yes. And don’t worry. We’ll take very good care of him.”
My dad looked right at Mr. Étranger and said “Thank you, Doctor. And thank you for taking him on such short notice.”
They shook hands, and then Mr. Étranger scooted me toward the taxi that was waiting out front. I got halfway there before I ran back and said goodbye to Wilson and everyone. Even Sudoku came. But not Ribbon. He was hiding somewhere. But I bet he was watching. Silly cat.
When I got to the car, I stopped and looked back. Dad waved from the porch. I don’t think it really hit me until just then. That I was going. That maybe I wouldn’t ever see him again. And my pets. Even Speedy.
I looked up to Mr. Étranger.
“You don’t have to,” he said. “What you must do, you must do of your own free will. Because it is right. And for no other reason.”
That seemed right.
“What happens next will be very scary,” he said. “Scarier than anything you have ever faced. Even your secret. Scarier than you can imagine. Scarier than anything a mere adult could face. You will feel alone. Terribly, terribly alone. Worse even than when you tried to help your friend Emerald and held her hand through the bars. Do you think you can be strong?”
I nodded and looked back to Dad. I waved.
I love my dad. I’m doing this for him. I want him to stop worrying so much. And to be safe. And Mom, too. I know she cares about me. And Wilson and Betsy and the white raven and little Trevor. And everyone.
I climbed into the back seat of the car. Mr. Étranger removed a coat from his bag. It wasn’t the coat I had seen, though. It was made of bright feathers of all different colors. I had seen feathers like them in a picture book at school: Birds of Paradise. He sat next to me and set it on his lap and held out his hands, both of them, and I took them and we drove away.
It wasn’t until we got to the bus station that I looked down and saw my palms had Mr. Étranger’s symbols on them. I tried to rub them off, but they were under the skin. I looked at his hands as he led me through the crowd to the ticket counter. His palms were bare. Like any old man’s.
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s scheduled to be released later this summer. You can sign up here to be notified.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
The next chapter is: (not yet posted)
Cover image by Jamie McKiernan