Once I’d hopped and tripped and felt my way like a blind man through the woods and fog and reemerged into the world of sun and light, I was surprised to find the sun sinking and the light going red. Somehow the whole day had slipped away. At the pub my dad was waiting for me, a black-as-night beer and his open laptop on the table in front of him. I sat down and swiped his beer before he’d had a chance to even look up from typing.
“Oh, my sweet lord,” I sputtered, choking down a mouthful, “what is this? Fermented motor oil?”
“Just about,” he said, laughing, and then snatched it back. “It’s not like American beer. Not that you’d know what that tastes like, right?”
“Absolutely not,” I said with a wink, even though it was true. My dad liked to believe I was as popular and adventuresome as he was at my age—a myth it had always seemed easiest to perpetuate.
I underwent a brief interrogation about how I’d gotten to the house and who had taken me there, and because the easiest kind of lying is when you leave things out of a story rather than make them up, I passed with flying colors. I conveniently forgot to mention that Worm and Dylan had tricked me into wading through sheep excrement and then bailed out a half-mile from our destination. Dad seemed pleased that I’d already managed to meet a couple kids my own age; I guess I also forgot to mention the part about them hating me.
“So how was the house?”
He winced. “Guess it’s been a long time since your Grandpa lived there, huh?”
“Yeah. Or anyone.”
He closed the laptop, a sure sign I was about to receive his full attention. “I can see you’re disappointed.”
“Well, I didn’t come thousands of miles looking for a house full of creepy garbage.”
“So what’re you going to do?”
“Find people to talk to. Someone will know what happened to the kids who used to live there. I figure a few of them must still be alive, on the mainland if not around here. In a nursing home or something.”
“Sure. That’s an idea.” He didn’t sound convinced, though. There was an odd pause, and then he said, “So do you feel like you’re starting to get a better handle on who your grandpa was, being here?”
I thought about it. “I don’t know. I guess so. It’s just an island, you know?”
He nodded. “Exactly.”
“What about you?”
“Me?” He shrugged. “I gave up trying to understand my father a long time ago.”
“That’s sad. Weren’t you interested?”
“Sure I was. Then, after a while, I wasn’t anymore.”
I could feel the conversation going in a direction I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but I persisted anyway. “Why not?”
“When someone won’t let you in, eventually you stop knocking. Know what I mean?”
He hardly ever talked like this. Maybe it was the beer, or that we were so far from home, or maybe he’d decided I was finally old enough to hear this stuff. Whatever the reason, I didn’t want him to stop.
“But he was your dad. How could you just give up?”
“It wasn’t me who gave up!” he said a little too loudly, then looked down, embarrassed and swirled the beer in his glass. “It’s just that—the truth is, I think your grandpa didn’t know how to be a dad, but he felt like he had to be one anyway, because none of his brothers or sisters survived the war. So he dealt with it by being gone all the time—on hunting trips, business trips, you name it. And even when he was around, it was like he wasn’t.”
“Is this about that one Halloween?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know—from the picture.”
It was an old story, and it went like this: It was Halloween. My dad was four or five years old and had never been trick-or-treating, and Grandpa Portman had promised to take him when he got off work. My grandmother had bought my dad this ridiculous pink bunny costume, and he put it on and sat by the driveway waiting for Grandpa Portman to come home from five o’clock until nightfall, but he never did. Grandma was so mad that she took a picture of my dad crying in the street just so she could show my grandfather what a huge asshole he was. Needless to say, that picture has long been an object of legend among members of my family, and a great embarrassment to my father.
“It was a lot more than just one Halloween,” he grumbled. “Really, Jake, you were closer to him than I ever was. I don’t know—there was just something unspoken between the two of you.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Was he jealous of me?
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you’re my son, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
He paused. Outside the clouds shifted, the last rays of daylight throwing our shadows against the wall. I got a sick feeling in my stomach, like when your parents are about to tell you they’re splitting up, but you know it before they even open their mouths.
“I never dug too deep with your grandpa because I was afraid of what I’d find,” he said finally.
“You mean about the war?”
“No. Your grandpa kept those secrets because they were painful. I understood that. I mean about the traveling, him being gone all the time. What he was really doing. I think—your aunt and I both thought—that there was another woman. Maybe more than one.”
I let it hang between us for a moment. My face tingled strangely. “That’s crazy, Dad.”
“We found a letter once. It was from a woman whose name we didn’t know, addressed to your grandfather. I love you, I miss you, when are you coming back, that kind of thing. Seedy, lipstick-on-the-collar type stuff. I’ll never forget it.”
I felt a hot stab of shame, like somehow it was my own crime he was describing. And yet I couldn’t quite believe it.
“We tore up the letter and flushed it down the toilet. Never found another one, either. Guess he was more careful after that.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t look at my father.
“I’m sorry, Jake. This must be hard to hear. I know how much you worshipped him.” He reached out to squeeze my shoulder but I shrugged him off, then scraped back my chair and stood up.
“I don’t worship anyone.”
“Okay. I just … I didn’t want you to be surprised, that’s all.”