Dedicated to Collean Wilson
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor Op. 74, the Pathetique played lowly. The light, gray sheers framing the open windows undulated leisurely in the soft midsummer breeze. The sounds of the city oozed in like a sickness, unwanted, insistent. The sliver moon peeked out from behind a nighttime sky full of clouds.
Alexander sat across from his father at the dinner table watching the man slowly, mindlessly consume the food on his plate. Duck. Asparagus. Both were drizzled in a thick, earthy sauce. The man poured himself his third glass of wine. He consumed half of it in one loud gulp. His eyes were down. He did not look at his son. He did not speak to his son. His glasses
slipped down his flushed, oily nose over and over again, each time he’d push them back up with the sluggish, deliberate motions of a drunk.
The fifteen year old didn’t like asparagus, and his father knew it. It had a bitter, nauseating flavor. Why he’d ordered it again was a mystery. There was a vast assortment of restaurants to order their meals from, the city offered anything anyone could ever want. Alex wanted pizza. He picked at the duck. It was dry. Odd considering it was a greasy dark meat to begin with. The long spears of the phallic vegetable would go uneaten.
For over a week his father hadn’t spoken a word. It wasn’t necessarily an unusual thing, the man would sink into such an unsocial state when his work took him into dark places. He called those dark places his contemplative doldrums. The teenager did not like his father’s slide into them. It was always hard to get him out. Over the years, it had only gotten harder. The darkness never liked to let him go, neither did the booze.
Alex was used to the dreary, silent bouts of misery his father wallowed in. The man was consistent, unconcerned by the judgment of others. He never pretended to be anything other than his despondent self around people. And they talked. They felt sorry for him, for Alex. It had gotten so much worse after his mother left. The man was just never the same. No one liked to be around him. Alex’s friends had told him they found his father unnerving. No one came over anymore. Who could blame them?
“When I was a boy, your age…”
The words were surprising. They startled Alex, he flinched away from the table, jaw dropping open. It was hard to settle back down into his chair. He was so tensed, his shoulders tightened up toward his ears. He didn’t know what to expect. The man’s words were slurred, though it was obvious he was trying to control it. Alex suspected that the three glasses of wine he’d seen the man consume had not been the only alcohol he’d ingested.
Dr. Gideon Pemway continued unabated by his son’s overt physical reaction to his voice. “My mother and father took me to the beach, to the Jersey Shore. I remember being so excited on the bus ride. I couldn’t relax. I was going to swim in the ocean. Still, there was so much to see just looking out the window, looking at the world go by. Lots of people. Lots of people live their lives in a shadow they don’t even know is there.”
He watched his father gulp and then pour himself yet another glass of wine. Alex found himself curious about the inebriated stupor alcohol induced. His father used the potion to ease his pains, both mentally and physically. There were often times when, subject to all the trappings of his age, Alex could use something that took the pain away. He’d always resisted the urge to steal one of the many bottles of booze hidden throughout the apartment, but tonight he might not oppose his curiosity.
“I miss being a kid, carefree and fascinated by everything the world had to offer. Children shouldn’t be so quick to grow up. It’s not filled with all the bells and whistles you might imagine it to be. There are so many worries. They burden us.”
Alex’s tummy knotted. The melancholy practically oozed from his father, an infection that splashed across the expanse of the table to cover him in its balmy gloom. He dropped his fork, it made a dull thud on the wood, and pushed his plate away. He feared even one more bite would make him violently sick.
“If I’d been perhaps a little older on that trip to the shore, I might have been aware there was something wrong in my parents’ relationship. I might have seen the little ways they pulled away from each other. I might have heard the nasty whispered comments. I might have feared the sad inevitable truth. I might not have enjoyed that trip. Two weeks later, my father was gone and I didn’t hear from him again for over a decade.”
“I haven’t met him,” Alex said before he’d even realized it. In fact, the man had been a forbidden topic. So many things were, his father’s government career, the real reason his mother left, politics and religion. He’d found it best to say as little as possible in the presence of his father. The man had a way of shutting people up mid-sentence with a glance, his steel eyes shot daggers, cold and cutting.
“No, you haven’t. And you never will.” He spilled his wine, the dark red spread across the table top. He fumbled fruitlessly with the glass as he spit a string of colorful expletives. One last slip from his grasp and it shattered into five jagged pieces. The doctor pulled his fingers away from them, curling his arms into his chest.
Alex jumped up and hurried to the kitchen. He grabbed the damp dish towel hanging over the edge of the sink. When he got back to the table, he immediately began to sop up the crimson mess turning the white fabric a dark scarlet. He felt his father’s gaze on him, burrowing holes into him. Was there something else wrong with the man, more than his usual darkness?
“I love you, son.”
Alex tensed all the more. He couldn’t remember having ever heard those words from the man’s lips. It was no longer a question, there was something troubling him more than his normal contemplative doldrums. The teenager put the broken pieces of glass into the towel and stepped away from his father who was reaching out for him. He ran to the kitchen, paused in the entryway, closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. His heart thundered, his fingers tingling. Whatever was haunting his father, it had to be really, really bad.
So many things came to mind. Was his mother or grandmother dead? Had the man lost his job, the career he’d worked a lifetime for? Would they soon be destitute and have to flee the city in financial shame? Where would they go? What would happen to them? He face began to tingle, too. He felt his cheeks burn. He stomped over to the sink, opened the cabinet beneath it,
and dumped the broken glass into the trash there. As he rinsed out the rag and watched the clear red water swirl down the drain, he heard his father start the disheartening music over.
This was going to be a long night.
Trying to suppress his anxiety, he wrung out the towel and draped it over the sink as it had been before. He turned away from it, shut off the light, and left the kitchen. His father was standing at one of the open windows gazing out to the dark city. There were sirens and barking dogs in the distance. Closer, perhaps on the sidewalk below, there came a high pitched cackle. It was a woman, probably just as drunk as his father was, on her way to some festivity to drink even more. The city was full of drunks.
Alex felt bad for not having returned his father’s sentiment. It was strange, at the moment he’d heard it he’d been shocked into silence. He knew many people had trouble saying it, he wondered why. What was so powerful, so frightening about those three little words that rendered people mute, frozen, sometimes incapable of even expressing it?
“In my room, under the bed, there’s a bottle of whiskey. Bring it to me, please. Get glasses, one for each of us. I have something I need to tell you. Something like this will go down easier with a drink. Your first drink. It’s only fitting it should be with your old man.”
“Oh my God, mom’s dead.” It was a whisper.
Dr. Gideon Pemway looked back over his shoulder. “Do as I ask, son. Please.”
Without another word, Alexander set about doing as he was told. He hadn’t seen his mother in four years, she hadn’t even so much as called him on his birthdays or holidays. That first Christmas had been the hardest. A cold spot had formed over the hole in his heart she’d left him with. He’d been through all the emotions, loving and missing her so intensely he’d broken down into inconsolable sobs, hating her so profoundly he’d fantasized about physically hurting
her, forcing her to feel the pain she’d caused. After years of heartache, the numbness had taken over. He’d been grateful for it, a release from the anguish.
The thought of her dead, forever gone, brought back the love, the missing, and the anger all at once. He felt lightheaded and there was an ache in his chest. His motions and actions were a blur. It was a bit disorienting standing beside his father with the procured items having not recalled actually fetching them.
Gideon took the bottle, opened it, and filled both glasses to their brims. He held his out to his son and said, “Bottoms up.”
Alex tapped his glass to his father’s. It made a tiny, delicate sound. He knew his dad would watch him closely and carefully, the scientist in him forever curious about such things. The teenager took a sip. It was bitter. It burned. He choked, but was able to keep it down. He saw the slight grin cross the older man’s lips before he took half the glass in one brave swig. The boy gazed down into the rippling caramel liquid. He wondered how much of it he would have to suffer before he felt anything, or nothing as the case may be. He couldn’t imagine anyone actually drinking it for pleasure. He took a bigger drink. Bitter. Burn. Choke.
“My father would have said, ‘that’ll put hair on your chest.’” He chuckled. He turned his eyes back to the outside world. “Have you ever minded living in the city?”
“I love it here,” Alex said, his voice cracking. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” He knew this was small talk, his father was trying to build the courage to get out what he needed to tell him. The teenager’s anxiety grew, but he didn’t want to push or rush the older man. It was something dreadful, something dire, that much he knew. He hoped it wasn’t about his mother dying. He feared that what he once thought had healed would erupt. He didn’t want to go through that terrible cycle again. He didn’t want his heart to bleed.
“Do you know what I do for a living?”
Alex shrugged. “Vaguely. You work in a government lab and study archeological finds. That’s really all I know. You told me never to ask. I never have.”
“Well, that’s all you really need to know. It’s enough, at any rate. I won’t need to explain anything in depth for you to understand what I am about to tell you. Suffice it to say, I am privy to things the general population isn’t. All those people,” He gestured to the outside world, the whiskey splashing over the rim of his glass and soaking his knuckles. He didn’t seem to notice, or he just didn’t care. “They don’t need to know everything. There are terrible things best kept hidden, secrets that should stay secret. If they knew everything, they would panic. They’d riot. They’d do unspeakable things, because people do unspeakable things when they’re not in their right frames of mind. Hell, they do them when they are. Promise me you won’t panic when I tell you my secret, this one secret, the biggest secret.”
“I promise,” Alex answered meekly.
Gideon abruptly turned and went into the living room. Whenever he came home from a long day at work, he always put his things in the armchair near the door. It was decorative, an antique. No one ever sat there. He snatched up his briefcase and took it to the dining table. He fumbled with the combination lock, finding it difficult to get the sequence of numbers right. He closed one eye to concentrate. It did the trick. He pulled out a manila folder and slid it toward his son. He finished his drink and made himself another.
Apprehensively, Alex crept toward the table. He took a big swig, it burned even more. As he coughed, he picked up the folder and opened it. A picture assaulted him. The colors were shockingly bold. It was taken in a brilliantly white lab. Sitting on the table was what appeared to be the mummified remains of a little girl. She wore a garish outfit, the colors long faded by time. Her skin looked as though she’d been carved out of wood. Her face was like the welted brown
bark of a tree. Her long black hair spilled over her shoulders. Clumps of it were missing, having been pulled away from the scalp.
“I’ve been calling her Lily,” his father said. He moved around the table to stand next to his son. He took a deep breath and let it out. Alex could smell it.
The boy flipped through the file. All photographs. All of her. Aside from her desiccation, her expression was unnervingly calm. It was as if she were merely dreaming. He wondered what her eyes looked like behind those leathery lids. It gave Alex the heebie-jeebies.
“Investigations into mass ritualized suicides uncovered an enormous underground chamber in Argentina. Mayan. It was determined to be of religious significance, there was even a rudimentary cathedral with an altar stained brown and black. Blood, it was stained with blood. Reaching out like a spider’s web there was a maze of tunnels, catacombs, and endless sacrificial crypts.” He pointed to the girl in the pictures. “She was a sacrifice. Lily was a sacrifice, murdered by her own people to gods that don’t even exist. We know she was drugged for almost a year leading up to her entombment. She was given cocoa leaves packed into her mouth…”
The man wavered for a moment, teetered, threatening to fall over sideways. Alex braced himself readying to catch his father should he collapse. He watched him carefully. He put the pictures down and raised his hands toward him, fingertips dancing along the soft sleeve of his shirt. But the doctor didn’t fall. He reached down, put a hand on the table, and steadied himself. Alex wanted to relax, but he was afraid to. He drank, the warmth of the booze swirling in his tummy. He felt a bit off. He liked it. Was this want all the fuss was about?
He watched his father’s ever deepening glower as he spoke.
“She was given alcohol in staggering amounts. In her perpetually inebriated state she was presented to her people as a willing sacrifice by their high priests. Imagine the callousness of such an act, drugging a child over the course of months, playing with her mind, poisoning her
body, lulling her into a morbid state of reverie, cajoling her, probably molesting her, comforting her in those rare lucid moments when she was afraid, all the while knowing you were going to murder her. That’s what they did. They murdered her.”
When his father turned his attention to him, tears welling in the man’s eyes, Alex looked away. His gaze once again rested on the images of the dried corpse.
“Oh, I know it’s politically correct to romanticize the cultures of the past, to even forgive them their trespasses and their ignorance. But imagine, for just a moment, what she went through, what countless other children just like her went through. Lily’s death wasn’t quick. All of the other bodies of child sacrifices we’ve found had their heads bashed in, but not Lily. She was sealed up in her tomb alive. She was all alone, in the dark, drugged. She crawled into the corner of that hole and suffered. It’s sick what was done to her.”
Alex finished his drink. He was glad his father wasn’t telling him about a death in the family, but he couldn’t help but wonder where exactly this talk was going. What about this little girl, long ago murdered, was so troubling? He didn’t know enough about Mayan culture to even speculate. His father had mentioned religion. Did this corpse have theological implications threatening to established religions? Fringe Christianity and radical Islam were particularly known for their fanatical, often violent devotion. Had some forbidden knowledge slipped out? Had a lab assistant gossiped? Had his father received death threats?
The doctor poured his son another drink. “They weren’t careful, those damn diggers. They let their emotions overrule their common sense. The local workmen weren’t any better, their eyes filled with dollar signs. Fools. They trudged through that subterranean hellhole without taking any precautions. Damn them!”
They weren’t careful. Alex was beginning to realize what his father was telling him. He gulped down half of his second drink. Jesus Christ, it burned. It hurt to even breathe after.
“Molds such as aspergillus niger and aspergillus flavus, and pseudomonas and staphylococcus bacteria have been found in tombs throughout the world, but they pose little threat to healthy individuals. Most diggers don’t take precautions. It’s always been a general rule for us to be cautious. It’s better to be safe than sorry. They ignored protocol. They ran into those chambers like a bunch of excited children. They brought more back with them than our poor little Lily.”
“Have you been exposed?” Alex asked. His voice was weak. He was upset. His throat was on fire. His voice didn’t want to work.
“Everyone associated with Lily has been. It’s an alien pathogen, utterly unknown to us. It has a twelve day incubation period. The only reason we know that much is because all of the original team members are dead. Everyone within twelve square kilometers of the dig is either sick or dying, and it’s only spreading. It’s airborne. No one is immune. Everywhere any of the crew members went is contaminated.”
Tears welled in Alex’s eyes. “What are you telling me, dad?”
“I’m telling you, this…” The man’s voice cracked.
Alex looked up into his father’s eyes. He was sobbing, too.
“This is the end, son. It’s all over.” He filled his son’s glass to the brim again. “Drink up, kiddo. Have another one, and another, and another.” He held up his glass. “To Lily.”
© 2020 Joshua Skye (DRWJ), USA. All right reserved.