Merida, Illinois

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/culladobehindthecurtain/episodes/2016-11-14T16_32_56-08_00

The brothers rode their bicycles through the neighborhood with gleeful abandon, bisecting the seemingly symmetrical suburban roads. On the left was Aaron Asterias, his hair a light reddish brown, the younger of the two. On the right was Douglas Hastings, taller, his hair blacker and his skin darker. The flat streets gave way to their boundless joy, Douglas struggling to keep up with Aaron, who was standing so that he could peddle harder and more efficiently. Douglas had tried a similar trick, and while it had worked for a time, he eventually broke the pedals. Both boys were skinny, but Douglas had strong legs and was very tall for seven years old. Plus, it didn’t help that his bicycle was a hand-me-down.

The boys shouted and roared with the sort of whoops and hollers that the days of J.M. Barrie might have associated with crude ethnic stereotypes, but which history will come to understand as the war cry of children on the quest for fun. Indeed, the Lost Boys and the Asterias-Hastings boys had more in common than they had differences.

Some people are unlucky, and have few friends, and the ones they do have are bad.

Others are pretty lucky, and have a lot of decent friends.

Aaron and Douglas considered themselves to be the luckiest of all: they were each other’s only friends, but they were also the best friends one could possibly imagine. Both felt it would be greedy to want another.

At school they were ostracized for their parentage. Aaron and Douglas had the same father, but different mothers, their current mother being Douglas’ mother. Their dad had met Douglas’ mother at a summit for climate regulation in Washington DC, shortly after Aaron’s mother had gone missing.  They had never really any reason to question this; the boys had become brothers at a young age and Aaron’s mother had left when he was even younger.

The boys, at the time, had been too young to truly understand what affairs were, and what they meant. Aaron just knew his mother had yelled at his father a lot before she left, and that made him sad, because he liked his father. He also knew his mother looked sick a lot, and often seemed upset. For the longest time, he feared that when people had too many bad days, they went missing.
For Douglas, the line between “half” and “whole” brother was blurry. Aaron was many things for him in his life, the significance of this not lost on the older boy. Douglas knew for his half brother he was father and mother in addition to brother, for while they still had their father, it was Douglas whom Aaron looked to the most for guidance.

The boys had bonded very early on over their imaginations. They had learned in meeting each other not to trust fairy tales and old legends, because according to fairy tales the step sibling or half sibling was evil, and all it took was seeing the truth in each other’s eyes to know the other was not evil. Different, yes, but not evil.

Because of this, they had little interest in fables and fairy tales, and made up stories of their own.

“If you could have one power,” Aaron said to Douglas as they rode down Silva Street, “what would it be?”

Aaron was fascinated by the concept of power. He was short, wiry, and while he had stamina, he was not the strongest kid at school and was often subject to bullying. He often imagined that he could be strong enough not just to scare the bullies away, but also to protect others who couldn’t defend themselves.

Douglas was less interested in power and more interested in, as he put it, “other places.” He had thought at one point he might want to be an astronaut, but his parents had explained to him that because of concepts he couldn’t quite understand like “liability” and “funding,” the space program was slowly shutting down. He considered being an inventor, creating some sort of advanced form of space travel that would get people interested in going other places again.

Aaron had no doubt he’d achieve this.

“The ability to create anything and appreciate it,” Douglas said, and it was wise beyond his years. “I know this kid in my class who can draw amazing things, like seriously, this kid is talented. Maybe a genius. But he always just says ‘oh, it’s trash. Oh, I could do better.’ And maybe he could, but I almost don’t want him to, because he can’t even enjoy his early attempts.”

Aaron considered this, then said, “I’d like to be able to make someone feel like they could do anything, and fight off anything that said otherwise.”

“I think that’s called ‘emperorment,’” Douglas said, spitting as he drove past the house of Old Man Martinson, because that guy was mean. “You know, because the emperor in Star Wars is really powerful, and you want people to feel like they could shoot lightning out of their hands.”

“Yeah, kinda like that!” Aaron said, “but they wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

“What if they wanted to?” Douglas said.

“Then I’d, I’d have to be powerful enough to stop them!” Aaron said. “Hey, race you to Haunted Park!”

“You win,” Douglas said, exhausted, trying to shut it down, “Can’t we just talk?”

“I want to go to Haunting Park! How am I ever going to get strong if I don’t face my fear of that place?”

Douglas sighed, knowing that Aaron would go either way, and decided it was best to keep an eye on him.

“A ghostly man holds up a gun,” Douglas said, “and warns us that if we cheat, he’ll haunt us in our sleep.”

“He loads the gun,” Aaron added, “but not with bullets; instead with the souls of the cheaters, who slowly get shot back into the world when every race begins.”

“He says”–and here Douglas procured the lowest ghost voice at his disposal–“on your mark, get set…GO!

And they were off.

“The gun fires!” Aaron added, as he quickly got into first place.

Hocking Park, dubbed “Haunting Park” by child and adult alike, was nearby Merida Lake, and it had fallen victim to recent budget cuts. The trails had become forlorn pathways of fallen, matted leaves, and large carved boulders that kids said were gravestones, while parents said they were historical markers (but this was no fun).

It was midday when they reached the park, but the autumn chill and overgrown foliage still rendered it a sinister place.

Hocking Park had its share of caves, and Douglas knew that Aaron was bound for them even now, as he arrived to its entrance. He was somewhat frustrated to see Aaron had run into the woods without him.

Douglas was too young to understand fully what an addict was, but his mother had explained to him at one point in private that it was like someone who ate too much candy and couldn’t stop, and that the candy made them into a person that hurt other people. The concept had been chilling to Douglas, and he knew addicts were known to live in this park.

He tracked Aaron through the woods, following the rustling of his footsteps and paths carved through the neglected leaves and forgotten mud, footprints reading the names of cheap children’s’ shoe brands intermingled with the hoof prints of deer and the paw prints of what Douglas hoped were lost dogs.   Douglas’ mother, in confidence, had also told him something that he was never allowed to share with Aaron:

Aaron’s mother had been an addict.

Douglas jumped as he heard the unexpected snap of twigs and arms fold around his neck, but just as quickly this fear turned to frustrated amusement. Aaron’s intentions had been mischievous as well as noble. Laughing, Douglas dove to the ground and rolled to pin his half-brother, who had wrapped his arms around his neck, to the ground.

“I found this view,” Aaron said, “you can see the world from it.”

Douglas believed this. Illinois was so deceptively flat that if you found even the slightest incline it felt as though you had discovered the curve of the earth.

“Follow me!” Aaron shouted, taking Douglas by the hand.

Douglas followed him up to a plateau, a theater overlooking the valley below, hidden in the midst of the woods. A child that wasn’t careful in this area could have just as easily run right off the cliff, falling to his death in the valley below.

Aaron stood at the cliff’s edge, facing his fear.

“I am the Samurai Hideki!” Aaron shouted into the woods. “I am the spirit that guards these woods!”

One of Aaron’s anime’s, no doubt. Douglas smiled and shouted into the woods as well:
“I am the brother of the Samurai: The Golem Fuji!” Douglas had to a stifle a laugh; he’d almost said Kodak. “I am the guardian of the guardian, the man in the iron suit who wanders time itself!”

“Hey, you got the cool one,” Aaron said.

“I just tried to think of something to match your coolness,” Douglas said. “I just wanted to be as cool as you. And anyway, I’m the hero’s protector, not the hero.”

Aaron grinned. “We are both heroes!” he shouted into the valley. “Douglas and Aaron, heroes of the woods!”

And they shouted and danced and screamed, and the echoes of their laughter were the song of Haunting Park.

“To the caves we go!” Aaron shouted.

Douglas knew they should not go to the caves. But he hated to end his little brother’s fun. So to the caves they went. I can protect him, Douglas thought.

The setting sun through the gray clouds cast a light upon the cave entrances that was all at once mundane and unsettling. It gave the shallow caves a look lacking in memorability, a look like this could be just any other cave, yet cast just enough of a shadow that it also kind of seemed like a cave you’d see in a 60 Minutes special on people getting murdered in the woods.

“Hey, stay close with me,” Douglas said.

“Don’t be afraid, big brother!” Aaron said, “We’ll be fine!”

Aaron ran into the caves, and Douglas heard a crunching noise.

“What are these tubes?” Aaron said, pointing to hypodermic needles on the ground that he had smashed when running into the caves.

“Hey, uh, we need to leave,” Douglas said. “This was a bad idea. Bad people come around this place, Aaron.”

“Well, we should help them, then,” Aaron said. “Dad says no one is truly evil.”

“He’s right,” Douglas said, “but, uh, we aren’t powerful enough, see? So we have to get stronger before we can help them.”

Aaron sighed. “Okay.”

He put his head down despondently and began to leave the shallow cave.

He looked back and said quietly, “I just wonder what’s further in.”

“We should come back here with Dad,” Douglas said.

And that’s when they heard the flute music.

It was coming from a tunnel within the cave itself. While the front of the cave, which was littered with needles, was shallow, there was a throat that led deeper in.

“Come on, Aaron,” Douglas said, terrified, “let’s go.”

“Who’s there?!” Aaron shouted boldly into the throat of the cave.

He was met with a playful flute melody.

“Come on,” Douglas said, “we’re going now.”

The sun was setting fast, and it felt to Douglas as though he was racing it as he ran back to the entrance of Haunted Park, his half brother in reluctant tow. It was at moments like this where he truly became aware of the acuteness of the crisp bite of the fall air, and how malevolent it felt all around him.

They had almost gotten back to their bicycles when Douglas noticed a man approaching them out of the corner of his eye.

“Young men!” the man shouted.

The man wore sunglasses, and had a collar so high it covered most of his face.

These were the two least strange things about him.

He was dressed in a Victorian coat, complete with waistcoat and boots, and clad in a tricorne cap.

In his hands was a wooden flute, ornate and with the symbol of a red star upon it.

“Who are you?” Aaron said.

“Evening, gents,” the man said, tipping his cap ever so slightly. “Name’s Pepper Piper. I live in these woods, and I couldn’t help but notice you had taken interest in my home.”

“Pepper Piper,” Aaron said laughing, “You’re funny.”

“I try to be. Used to be a troubadour, now I haunt these woods and guard them from bad men.” Piper looked at Douglas and gave him a thumbs up. “You’re a good brother. Never know whom you might come across in these woods.”

“What’s your real name?” Douglas said skeptically.

The man stared at him, seeming almost annoyed, then said finally. “Well, if you must know, it’s Anwir Ffliwt Vetrhagen. Since you asked. No one calls me that, though, do they? They call me Pepper Piper. Because I play the pipe!”

He began to play a silly little ditty on his pipe, which made Aaron laugh and Douglas feel sick.

“You like my pipe, kiddo?” Vetrhagen said. “A lovely lassie gave it to me in a past life, woman with the radiance of the North Star, her hair as red as Scarlet.” Vetrhagen hung his head. “I miss her,” he said.

“What happened to her?” Aaron said, enthralled.

“Oh, well, you know what happens to people you love,” Vetrhagen said. “They leave. Same happened to your mother, I know. She still loves you though, kiddo. Said so to me herself.”

Aaron looked at him in disbelief. “You know my mom? Okay, uh, what’s her name?”

“Ruby Asterias, as goodness is my witness,” Vetrhagen said. “Hey sonny, I know we’ve just met, but would you like to meet your mom?”

Aaron’s eyes teared up, and he nodded. “I have so many questions for her.”

“Well, you know I can show her to you,” Vetrhagen said. “I can actually take you to her now.”

“I don’t know if you should do this,” Douglas said to Aaron. “We have no clue who this man is. And he dresses and acts like the Pied Piper.”

“Now, young man, I find that really offensive,” Vetrhagen said. “I have been nothing but honest with the both of you. Oh, is it the fact that I cover my face? Well, I do it so that you’re not scared. I’m a spirit, see, I look different. People pick on me! They pick on Pepper Piper.”

“I won’t pick on you,” Aaron said. He looked at Douglas.   “I thought we agreed not to trust the old fairy tales.”

“Well, tell you what,” Vetrhagen said. “I’ll show you my face after we meet your mommy. But I don’t want to waste your time; I know you’ve been waiting your whole life for this moment. Do you want to come with me?”

“Yes!” Aaron declared, and the minute he said this, Vetrhagen had swept him off with one arm and was already bounding back towards the caves.

Douglas shouted and gave chase. He considered running back to get help but knew if you let a child who was abducted out of your sight, they were as good as gone.

Vetrhagen was unnaturally fast; Douglas saw his sprint a few times and was unnerved to notice his legs didn’t move but also appeared to be sprinting rapidly, as though he was fast-forwarding through the woods, the way a running person looked on rewinding VHS.

Finally, Douglas reached the mouth of the cave. He noticed the pipe had been thrown to the side, but there was no time to examine it. Instead he plunged into the cave’s maw, ignoring every screaming voice in his body telling him to turn around and get help.

At the end of the cave, he saw Vetrhagen open up what looked like a hole in the air, and toss Aaron through. Vetrhagen looked at Douglas, and let out an awful belly laugh, removing his face covering as he did so.

His face was pure blackness, with two angry red dots staring back.

Then he jumped into the tear, and closed it behind him.

Douglas screamed and pounded the walls of the cave, trying to find some way to get through. All around him were hypodermic needles, he wondered if Vetrhagen had ever kidnapped any of the addicts, or if they just sort of coexisted here.

Then he remembered the pipe.

Douglas ran to the cave’s maw, and had a look at it. Perhaps it had some sort of magical property? He began to play the only song he knew on the recorder, Ode to Joy.

Nothing.

Then he had a look at the pipe’s carvings and saw that red had been painted around certain holes. He stuck his fingers here, and tried to play it again.

FWOOSH! A hole in the air opened up, revealing a blue and black warp behind it.

Douglas once again considered running and finding help, but knew he had to see this through. He wasn’t sure how much time he had, and at the end of the day, Aaron was all he had.

Pipe in hand, he jumped in through the hole in the air.

For a while, there was nothing but silence. It is said that given the nature of infinity one may experience a thousand years in a second; and indeed the songs of the kings of old say that to the Almighty…

>>>

“…to the Almighty, a thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years,” Aaron Asterias, now in his mid fifties, said to his boys, Doug and Paul.

Aaron was in a hospital bed, stricken with testicular cancer of all things, after his wife had passed away from a car accident. He always told his boys he had beaten Vetrhagen, he had beaten heroin, he was fighting depression–he could beat this too.

Both boys had heard the story of Vetrhagen a thousand times, and indeed to them this fateful, clearly traumatizing day their father had experienced was like a thousand years. It perhaps had been told to them that many times.

Aaron continued:

“In the end, I was the only who crawled out the other side. Still a boy, but I had seen enough years on the other side of the portal to render me an old man.”

In the past, his boys had clamored to find out if Douglas had made it.

But of course, on this nine hundred and ninety-eighth telling of their father’s story, of Pepper Piper, the red eyes, the carved flute with the red star, Doug–whom his father often called with some sadness “Douglas Junior”–and Paul knew, that their father’s half brother had not made it.

“All I had after that was the flute. I kept it for a while. Even had it on display a bit. Didn’t take any pictures of it, for fear that they might become enchanted, as the flute was. Ultimately I threw it away, in the same cave that I had found it.”

In the early days of the story, there had been no body, no remains to be found of Douglas the elder. Then in later stories his body was there when Aaron had returned to the cave, though it was the body of an older man, in good enough shape for an open casket. While the stories always began the same way, they never quite added up, and as Paul and Doug Jr. got older, they found this more and more suspect. Paul had always opined that they should preserve its story, as he had this elaborate theory that the narrative was the final backbone of their father’s–a recovering heroin addict’s–psyche.

Doug, though, bearing the namesake of the lost brother, hadn’t been satisfied with the story.

He had done some digging on his own, and when he had come across his half uncle’s name in the records of the rehabilitation ward at Chippewa Valley Hospital in Durand, WI, it had begun to make more sense.

Doug had some trouble at first, given that he was not technically related. Things got much easier, though, when he shared that he represented the estate of Aaron Asterias, the final living next of kin to Douglas the Elder.

The hospital was able to share that Douglas Hastings had indeed been admitted into a detox program at the age of twenty-one, and that he claimed to have become addicted to heroin at the age of fourteen. Furthermore the hospital shared that he had been admitted to Chippewa Valley, far from his home in Merida, after it had been deemed best for him to be separated from his half brother Aaron, who had continued to relapse into the addiction.

Finally, in the summer of 1993, they had released Douglas from Chippewa Valley Hospital with a clean bill of health. He relapsed a final time in November, and passed away shortly after.

“You should share this with Dad,” Paul said upon learning of Doug’s findings. “He’ll want to know what happened to Uncle Douglas.”

“Don’t you see?” Doug the Younger said. “He’s always known. He’s the reason Uncle Douglas died. And he couldn’t handle it, so he created this fairy tale to deal with the pain.

“I don’t believe you,” Paul said.

“Well, I’m taking a drive to Merida Lake,” Doug said, “And you can see for yourself.”

“Why Merida? We have nothing left there.”

“Grandma lives there.”

“Grandma Hastings is dead.”

“I don’t mean her. I mean Grandma Asterias.”

Paul’s eyes widened.

<<<

Ruby Asterias lived in a trailer home a stone’s throw away from Hocking Park. She was something of a resident secret that Aaron and Douglas’ parents had kept from them. Children, however, have such a knack for finding secrets, for overturning stones and revealing truths that adults perhaps wisely know are better left hidden.

It was in this manner that many years ago, Aaron and Douglas had ostensibly found Ruby Asterias.

Doug the Younger wondered now as he knocked on her door if she was in any better state then than she was now. She had, against all odds, outlived her son’s half brother. Additionally, Doug wondered what it was Grandma Ruby had been doing with her time since his father’s childhood and his adulthood. Watching TV? She couldn’t possibly still be on the stuff.

“Who is it?” a gruff woman’s voice barked in an almost slurred manner.

“It’s Doug and Paul. Your grandkids.”

“Huh? I don’t have any grandkids.”

He could hear the drone of Freedom LLC News in the background, and sighed.

“You do, Grandma Ruby. We’re Aaron’s boys.”
“Oh.” He heard the shift of her chair. “Oh, uh, gimme a sec.”

He shot Paul a look as they heard her slowly shuffle to the door.

With a shocking yank she swung the door open, and the boys beheld what could have passed for the corpse of a witch.

Standing in front of them was a woman with sagged, translucent skin, her arms scarred from years of shooting up, her chest bearing a tattoo of a red star that looked like it had melted from the years. Her eyes had been blue at one point, but were now a pale, sad grey, her nose seeming to have the classic warts one might expect. Her hair was red, but not naturally so, rather it was haphazardly colored, and Doug kind of wondered why with her disheveled appearance the woman would have even gone to the trouble.

“Well, get in here, you’re gonna let the sugar gliders out.”
And therein came the answer to what she had been doing with her time.

Old Ruby Asterias had begun breeding Sugar Gliders in her trailer around 2006, after she had finally gotten clean. And while her breeding business was haphazard at best, it helped her forget all of her regrets. She spent a lot of time explaining to the boys which gliders had been her favorite, what their names were, what they did when they got, as she called it, “indignant.” Doug quickly pieced together that his grandmother’s life had been somehow strung together by various acts of charity, as demonstrated by the pictures of Ruby standing next to smiling kids in private school uniforms that were covered in paint, reading “Poverty Project 2012: My Hands, His Will.”

Cute. His will had clearly been done here.

Between the mold, the stink of unchecked cigarette smoke, and what was ostensibly sugar glider dander, Doug could feel his nostrils tickle violently, and knew he couldn’t stay in here all afternoon.

“And I says to the man who wants to buy the two sugar gliders when he was offering the price for one, well I says to him,” Ruby said, but Doug cut her off.

“What happened to my uncle Douglas?”
She got quiet.

“I’m sorry, grandma,” Paul said, but she held up a hand.

“He smarter’n you,” she said to Paul. “You’d come alone, you’d be here a while, not learn nothin’.”

She leaned back and sighed, though her sigh sounded like a rattle, and it ended with a cough.

“Your father found me. To this day I don’t know how. His daddy din’t want him here none, nor your uncle’s mother. I reckon it’s just the way of kids. They know things. So he came and started visiting me, secretly, ‘bout three days a week. For a while I was afraid we’d get found out, on account of your uncle, but I started to realize he was just there to keep an eye on your father. So I let them be, your daddy and your uncle. And I guess I shoulda’ told them to go. But truth be told I was lonely. Wasn’t in my good mind at that point. Mud got in the head, hadn’t cleaned the mud out yet. Must’a passed out one night, left my stuff out with your dad. And he saw what I done, and tried to do the same, probably because I liked it and he wanted to do what I liked. And your uncle wanted to make sure there was no place your daddy could go that he couldn’t. Your daddy told me uncle Douglas even helped him get the needle in just in right. Then he helped Douglas do the same.”

Doug looked at Paul, who was pale.

“I’m getting allergies,” Doug said quietly. “From the, uh, sugar gliders.”
Ruby knew what was up. “I ain’t proud none of what I done. Wish it had been me and not your uncle. He meant the world to your father.”

Doug chose his words carefully, because he hated this woman and knew that for her to know that would be a failure on his part.

So he said this:

“My father, since we were little boys, has told us uncle Douglas was kidnapped by an evil demon wizard named Vetrhagen. He created a horror story to spook his children at night because not a night went by where he couldn’t think of how sorely he missed his best friend, whose death he felt responsible for. Ruby, you’re too…you’re too stupid to wish that harm on anyone. But you need to know, it has destroyed our father.”

He was ready to yell at Paul, should Paul try to smooth the situation over.

He did not. He was still pale.

“Bye, Grandma,” Paul said, but it was bland, and he didn’t look at her. As he walked out the trailer, Paul said quietly, “I’ll come back and visit.”

Despite the allergies, which were very real, Doug stayed a while longer.

He had noticed something in Ruby’s eyes. An apology? Remorse?

“Vetrhagen is real,” Ruby said quietly. “He was my supplier.”

Doug was so angry he felt cold. He got on one knee, and gently but firmly turned Ruby’s face so that her eyes locked his.

And while he didn’t say it, he thought Go to hell as strongly as he could, hoping his eyes said what he would not.

“Your hands…” Ruby said, but shuddered.

“Goodbye, Grandma Ruby,” Doug said coldly.

Doug and Paul walked in silence in Hocking Park, listening numbly to the rustle of the leaves against the dirt path. If the park had been in disrepair in the 90’s, it was even moreso now. There had been a tarmac path to the trail originally, and now it was punctured by every kind of root and sprout imaginable.

Doug thought to himself about how most people saw Nature’s ability to clean itself and responded with more polluting.

“I’m sorry, Paul,” he said quietly.

“Not your fault,” Paul said.

“Well, kind of it is,” Doug said.   “I went looking for it, and look what I found.”

“It’s better than a silly old story,” Paul said, but sadly so.

Doug wasn’t so sure.

They came upon a cave, and while nature had swept up the hypodermic needles that once littered its floor, there was this way it kind of popped out, this charm and malice mixed together like a salty sweet chocolate pretzel, nostalgia for someone else’s memory hitting the mind with sweetness and dissonance.

“This is Vetrhagen’s cave,” Doug said quietly.

Paul spat on the ground.

“This place can rot, then,” he said. “It’s probably where they first shot up.”

“You go on ahead,” Doug said, “I want to have a look around.”

Paul looked at him, nervously.

Doug laughed, “You’re still afraid I’ll get kidnapped, aren’t you?”

Paul grinned sheepishly, took out his phone, and began texting his girlfriend as he walked back up the path.

Doug noticed something, buried in the leaves.

It couldn’t be.

>>>

“We met Grandma,” Paul said to Aaron when they visited him at the hospital the next day.

“I took after her, didn’t I,” Aaron said sadly. “I wish there were some excuse. Lack of imagination’s my best one, I guess. Couldn’t think of how else to spend the time, and I was glad to be back with Mom, even if Dad said she was bad. Because she wasn’t, not really. Just confused is all.”

There was some silence. They could hear the hospital clock ticking, and the various beeps of machinery that none of them quite understood.

“Don’t know that imagination was your problem, Dad,” Paul said, wiping his nose.

Aaron just nodded, his eyes distant.

“These places always make my nose run,” Paul said. “Gimme a sec.”
“It’s the mold,” Aaron said, his eyes still distant.

Paul went to the bathroom and began blowing his nose.

“There’s one other thing, Dad,” Doug said, leaning in and whispering quietly. “Paul and I went to Hocking Park by Merida Lake after talking to Grandma.”

“Oh?” Aaron said, “No one bothered you, I hope.”

“Not a soul there, or at least no one that we saw,” Doug said. “I think I might have found the cave you talked about.”

“Thought you figured out that wasn’t real.”

“Oh, definitely,” Doug said, “Grandma…Grandma’s proof of that.”

Aaron nodded. “I wanted to keep you boys safe. In a way it seems like that’s the biggest crime my father and I committed. You turned out all right though.”

“That’s because your dad lied,” Doug said.

“Well, so did I,” Aaron said.

Doug’s eyes watered. He was learning something new, something special about his father. Something that he had always sort of known but was now just appreciating: his father loved him more than himself.

Because he knew his father lied, but not about what he had seen.

He was lying about lying.

“I have something to show you, Dad,” Doug said.

“What is it, Douglas?” Aaron said, still distant.

“I found this in the cave,” Doug said, pulling Vetrhagen’s flute, carved with the same red star as he had seen on his grandmother’s upper chest, out of his pocket.

He set it on his father’s bed.

Aaron stared at the flute, the way one stares at an old friend who has done them much harm.

“Did you play the flute?” Aaron said quietly.

“I took your advice and did not,” Doug said. “It was enough just to hold it.”

Aaron nodded, and smiled.

“Now, my son, the story truly belongs to you.”

+++

Samuel Cullado
9 November 2016

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