I remember the first time I met my father.
It was twelve years ago, so I would’ve been eight. It was a hot day, I was enjoying my third popsicle of the afternoon, my friends were hanging out with me, and then I heard the phone ring inside. I didn’t really care to go get it, so it faded into background noise, but I think my mom picked it up on the second or third ring.
A few minutes later, my mom came outside, and for a second I thought I’d forgotten to do some odd chore, she looked so serious. She just cleared her throat.
“Ryan, come inside and get cleaned up. We’re… we’re going to visit your father.”
I didn’t ask questions. I just said goodbye to my friends and went inside. My mom was quiet when I asked more questions, just helping me comb my hair and putting on my best clothing, the clothes I wore when my grandparents dragged me to church on Easter or Christmas. Sure, I knew I had to have a dad. As far as I knew, he’d left me and my mom when I was a baby. He’d never been a part of my life up to this point.
It was an hour’s drive to get there, and when we did, I thought we were entering a prison. Tall wire fencing, armed men guarding the fence. My mom just flashed them her ID and nodded to me in the backseat. One guard didn’t have the social graces to not gawk at me as we pulled into the prison.
The building was made of concrete, and there were no windows. Entering it there were even more guards with guns, each one looked meaner than the last. My mom squeezed my hand so tight I felt she was about to break my fingers. I didn’t complain- I was holding it back just as tight.
A pair of guards escorted us down three flights of stairs, with each step the temperature got colder and colder. There was no decoration on the wall, not a sound was heard other than the buzzing of the fluorescent lights and the sound of my footsteps echoing off the walls.
At the end of it all we were taken into a room with only a metal table and flimsy chairs as furniture. All of these were bolted to the floor. My mom sat me down on the chair. “He’ll be here in a little while, okay? Just be patient,” she said, fiddling with my bowtie.
The door on the other side of the room swung open and another pair of guards walked in, accompanied by the rattle of chains.
I held my breath. Was there a monster on the other side of those chains?
I can hardly say he looked like a monster. He looked like… any other human being, I suppose. Definitely paler, which I think the harsh lighting and his dark hair made him look even more washed out, but he hardly looked deserving of the chains wrapped around his ankles and wrists. He didn’t even struggle as he was led to the chair, the chains strapped to the table legs and floor as he patiently sat on the chair opposing me.
He smiled, and I realized who this had to be.
The man chuckled.
“Hello, Ryan. It’s so good to finally meet you. You look… almost like me. I’ve never seen myself in an imperfect mirror before.”
I didn’t really think I looked anything like this pale dude chained to a table, but I wasn’t going to object. I shuffled in my seat and glanced back at my mom. She remained impassive, not looking at my father with distaste or affection.
“Do you like Go Fish?”
I turned back around. I managed to force myself to nod and my father smiled.
“Let’s play some Go Fish. We have an hour, let’s use it.”
One of the guards rested a pack of cards in front of us. My father had just enough leeway for his wrists to allow him to shuffle and deal the cards. He picked up his hand and glanced down at them.
“Now… you have any threes?”
By the end of the hour, I’d not won a single round of Go Fish. I’d never played with an adult that wouldn’t just let me win before, it was a new kind of frustrating. But it was still strangely fun. My father was quiet, but he was never cruel. He could even be described as gentle, never raising his voice, looking at me with such… fondness that I never knew from a father figure before.
I was actually sad when the guards picked up the chains, muttering quietly that visiting hour was over. My father sighed as he stood, glaring at the guard closest to him who flinched and nearly dropped the chain he was supposed to be holding.
“I’d love for you to come visit me again next week, Ryan. Would you mind?”
I heard my mom gasp but before she could respond, I blurted out, “Can I?”
My father smiled and reached forward, gently fluffing my hair. “Of course. I don’t have many other visitors down here. It’s very lonely. Be sure to do your chores and listen to your mother, and I’m sure she’ll bring you back soon,” his dark eyes flicked up towards my mom, “won’t you, dear?”
I turned and watched as my mother took a deep breath, pressing her lips together in a firm line. “… We’ll see.” She hurried over and took my hand, practically dragging me out of the room. In hindsight, it was clear she couldn’t wait to be away from him, but I didn’t know why.
She didn’t try to remind me about going to see my father again, but I remembered. I even got into my Sunday best all on my own, combed my hair. I never combed my hair on my own, not until then. My mom came into my room to see me ready, and she only sighed.
“Come on then. Let’s go see him.”
It became our Saturday tradition. After lunch, I’d get dressed in my nice clothes, I’d go wait in the car, and we’d drive to the prison my father was kept in. My father would be brought into the room, still chained up like some sort of wild animal, and we’d play card games. Go Fish was my favorite, but he taught me how to play Old Maid, War, Crazy Eights, Rummy… for being a kid obsessed with video games, I really appreciated that simple deck of cards and the dozen games my dad knew all the rules to. It was a real celebration when I finally beat him at Go Fish, I ended up leaping off my chair and giving him a big hug. I don’t think he expected that. I’d never touched him before that, he was usually the one giving me a pat on the shoulder or a tousle of my hair. He was ice cold to the touch, but after a moment of shock, he did his best to hug me back.
I wanted nothing more than for him to take his chains off so he could really give me a big hug back, but I knew better than to ask. If he was allowed to have his chains off, they wouldn’t be on him during our visits. But sometimes I’d imagine what it’d be like to go out and have a real father son day, like the rest of my friends got to have. Maybe go to the movies, or to a theme park. Have a real day outside with him, so I could show the world I had a really good dad.
Of course, as I grew older, I realized this wasn’t a normal relationship to have at all. And this wasn’t a normal prison either. Come on now. What kind of prison only has one prisoner kept underground in literal freaking chains? I wasn’t allowed to roam the place, but it only took some craning of my neck to realize there was just no other place down here for someone to be kept.
Why was my dad down there? What did he do that was so horrible that he couldn’t even be let outside for some fresh air? I didn’t know how to ask my mom… but I decided it was best to go straight to the source on this.
I was sixteen. I’d not yet missed a visit with my father, and I still dressed to my best when I went to go see him. You couldn’t force me into anything other than my basketball shorts and hoodies then, unless I was going to see my dad. In which case, suit, tie, combed hair.
I was shuffling the deck for another round of War when my mom left the room to go to the bathroom, accompanied by a guard escort. This was my chance.
“Why are you here?”
My dad cocked his head to the side. “Here, as in the room with you? Or do you mean here in general?”
I gave him a dirty look. “The latter. And you knew I meant that,” I said.
“I know, I know, I had to tease. Well, right now, it’s convenience. I’m at war myself, you see, and not just with these cards.”
I frowned as I handed him his half of the deck. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’ve had enemies, right?” My dad set down a card, and I followed suit. “Some enemies are just… irritating. Like mosquitoes that rise from a swamp, easily swatted, but barely worth the effort in the long run. Then there are enemies that are like wolves. Dangerous, feral, wild beasts, thirsty for blood and hungry for death. My wolf thinks he owns the entire world. I disagree. Unfortunately, after an injury during my war, I was taken here. At the moment, it’s simply convenient to play along. Oh, War.”
I’d not even noticed we had the same number on our cards.
“Convenient? Dad, you’re in prison, chained to a table, like a mile underground, with enough armed guards to blow you to pieces. There’s nowhere you can go.”
When my father smiled, this time I saw the darkness in it. The amusement. I glanced around the room and saw how none of the guards could make eye contact with me.
“Oh, this isn’t myprison. This is my castle. I’ll stay here for as long as it suits me… it does… make it much easier to see you, after all. And I like seeing you.”
Really, what I should’ve taken from this was that my father was possibly delusional given he saw his prison as a castle. What I did take from it was that my dad liked me. Or at least liked to see me.
I would have asked more but my mom came back then, so we just resumed playing War like none of the previous conversation ever happened. Even our goodbyes were just the normal ‘see you next week’ as the guards escorted him back out the other door.
On the way home, I did ask my mom one thing-
“How did you and Dad meet?”
My mom visibly flinched and I knew I asked something she didn’t want to answer. So she didn’t, she just gripped the steering wheel tighter and remained silent the rest of the way home.
She never liked talking about him, my dad. Six out of the seven days of the week, it was like he didn’t exist to her. They never spoke to each other, and whenever my dad referred to her as ‘dear’ she looked ready to sock him in the face, but she kept to her side of the room and just waited for the visiting hour to be over. I didn’t have the nerve to ask her to leave, even though I was clearly old enough that I didn’t need my mom supervising everything I did.
I love my father, I really do. It’s wrong, now knowing what I know, but I love him. So I didn’t ask any more hard questions that I didn’t really want answers to. I just wanted to spend time with my dad.
But last year my mom went to the hospital feeling alittle weakness and came back with a breast cancer diagnosis. She tried to seem calm about it, just stated how far along it was and what they’d have to do in order to treat it. But she was scared.
She knew she was going to die.
It was fall, right before she passed away.She was watching reruns of MASH in the living room, lost in thought. I was working on job applications, when she turned the TV off and blurted out, “You need to know something about your father.”
I practically threw my application across the room as I hurried to her side. She gripped my hand tightly and bowed her head.
“The first time we went to go see your father was the first time I’d met him in person.”
My expression must’ve been hilarious, given how my mom actually laughed at it. “It makes sense, honest. My husband… he couldn’t have children. We decided to have someone donate, so we went to the clinic. At the time we thought the donor was acollege professor. But when you were born we knew that wasn’t true.”
My mom leaned forward, brushing her hand against my cheek. “Your eyes were black. Pure black. I was so scared… but then you looked like every other baby. I couldn’t forget that though. My husband never recovered from that shock, it’s why he left. He couldn’t stand to be even in the room with you… he said he was seeing things in the shadows. Monsters.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t exactly call my mom insane, I knew she wasn’t even if she sounded like a complete nutter.
“Ryan, you’re not a normal boy. You’re different. You’ve always been different. A few years before we began seeing him, men in black suits came to the door. They inspected you, explained what you were to me. They said they had your father somewhere where he couldn’t hurt anyone. But they also said that one day they might need my help to keep him locked up in there… earning his cooperation was vital to their success.”
“Is that why you took me to see him?” I asked.
My mom nodded. “Yes. They called me that day and let me know that Soich had requested to see you. That’s his real name, it’s a strange one, I know. I thought it was going to be a one time thing, but he kept insisting I bring you every week… I didn’t want to see him, Ryan. I’ve never wanted to see him. But it was the best way to make sure he didn’t try to escape.”
My head was reeling. It was so much to take in. I sat back in the couch, just trying to make sense of what sounded like complete nonsense.
The only thing I could think of saying was, “Why do they not want him to get out?”
My mom shuddered and looked at her hands.
“… Next time we go to his castle, ask him.”
My mom would never go see Soich again though. By the end of the week she was hospitalized. It was the first time I missed going to see my dad because I was by her side. I didn’t leave it until she was gone.
I knew where the ‘castle’ was, my mom had it plugged into the GPS, but after the funeral was the first time I went by myself. Taking the journey by myself made it all seem even more insane. It was far in the woods, no one could just stumble on it accidentally.
When I flashed my ID at the gate, I should’ve known that the look the two guards exchanged meant nothing but trouble for me.
My father was waiting for me in the meeting room when I got down there, and he was clearly agitated. “Where were you?” He said as he got up, the chains jerking at the table.
I didn’t say anything, I just sat across from him and stared at him.
He breathed in sharply before taking a seat. “The cancer?” He asked.
“Damn. I rather liked her.”
“You didn’t even know her,” I blurted out. “She told me… she told me that there was a mix up with the donors. She was never your ‘dear’.”
Soich cocked his head to the side. “Just because I wasn’t intimately involved with her doesn’t mean I didn’t like her. She was a good woman. A good mother for you. I liked her spirit.”
“She told me that you’re a monster.”
I expected him to be… I don’t know, at least annoyed, angry by that. Instead, he just nodded.
“That’s bullshit!” I slammed my fists into the table. I’d never once gotten angry at my dad before then. The only times I came close were when he kicked my ass in cards for the tenth time in a day. “You can’t be… I’m not…”
Soich chuckled darkly, shaking his head. “You really don’t get it, do you?” He leaned in close, close enough to where I could see into his dark eyes.
They flooded with black, and for a moment I felt that fear my mother must have when she laid eyes on me for the first time.
“I’m a king. An unknown king of shadows, and you are my prince. They were just waiting for a chance to get their hands on you, and now you’re here.”
I felt ice cold. I glanced at the guards at the door before I got to my feet.
Both of them pointed their guns at me. The opposing door slammed open and I turned to see more guards entering… with chains just my size. Soich glanced at them before rolling his eyes and getting to his feet.
“Ryan, all you have to do is tell me. Do you want to leave?”
I was scared. Terrified. But when I heard my father telling me that, I knew that he was my only chance.
“Please. I want to go home.”
My father nodded.
Soich pulled his arms, ripping the chains straight out of the ground, links snapping like twigs. The guards barely got their guns pointed at him when he gripped onto those chains and started slamming them around the room, using them as weapons.
I dove to the ground as the guns began to fire, shielding my head with my arms. I heard my father’s laughter as the guards began to scream, and I lifted my head to see that the chains that once seeminglyheld him down were soaked in blood. Guards crumpled as my father beat them with his makeshift flails, sending them to the ground.
It was when his shadow started to ripple that I clambered for the door. The guards that had been blocking my way were laying far too still on the ground. I looked back one more time to see a clawed hand paw its away out of my father’sshadow, and that was the last I saw of him.
I ran. I ran out of that prison and got in my car, speeding out of those woods so fast I definitely broke the speed limit.
Up until now, I’ve had nightmares that I’d answer the door to men in black suits waiting out there, with chains to hold me down. Whatever they’d do to me in that prison, god, I don’t even want to think about it.
Last Saturday… I decided to go back. I needed to see why they weren’t coming for me. I wasn’t sleeping. I was too scared to even leave my house.
I don’t know what I expected when I turned the corner, but I certainly didn’t expect that the prison would be gone.
The fence is little more than shredded bits of wire, and the building itself is just a pile of rubble. I can’t even get into the basement, even if I wanted to. No guards. No sign of life. Just the remains of a building.
Before I left though, I saw something in the treeline. At first I thought it was a dog, but it was far too large. I felt it watching me, and I felt it hated me.
But it didn’t approach me. It only howled before it bounded back into the forest, and in moments it was like it was never there to begin with.