The Stranger Who Raised Me
As the only child of a man from a broken home, I was lavished with my father’s attention. As the only child of an international shipping magnate, my father’s attention was lavish. I wasn’t spoiled, but I’ve always remembered my father being one of the kindest and most generous men I knew. The thought of a man like Cyrus Aiolus harming anyone was about as bizarre a thought as holding a snowball in the desert. Possible, but only under the right, very specific circumstances.
My mother died of breast cancer when I was still an infant so I never really knew any parental figure except my father. As a result, my father’s shipping empire was heavy in my life. My father’s associates from his shipping business were constantly at my house doing odd jobs or just being…there. These men were always extremely friendly to me whenever I would see them on the grounds. Most of the older associates gave me sweets or toys when they visited the manor. It was almost like they were some perennial pedophiles, but no one ever touched me. Besides, they only stayed around me for as long as they had to. Still creepy how nice those dark-suited men were, but when that was all you knew, what could you expect?
My family owned the biggest estate in the city because my father was almost desperate for that kind of gravitas, for that kind of respect and importance. Even though he controlled nearly every lane of trade throughout the southern range of the continent, he was still tragically materialistic about his gravitas. However, my father was a quirky man with odd interests that no one could really explain. Interests that inspired him to do weird things. Weird things like raise pigs. Pigs of all things. One of the fifty richest men on the continent and he spent nearly all of his available time raising disgusting pigs.
My father was so invested in his hobby that there was a sizable pig barn at the back of the estate. An estate filled with every amenity one could expect from wealth. Regulation sized swimming pools and gaming courts, two helipads, three guest homes with their own features and yet that still paled in comparison to the main house. The manor itself was jam-packed with rooms and devices that got our home listed in multiple fine living magazines. And in the midst of all of this opulence...a pig farm that routinely upset the newcomers to the district.
People who bought homes at these prices usually had expectations of not smelling feces in the air, but anyone who complained was sorted out in short order by one of my father’s many associates. Each instance was solved by a dark suited men who would materialize out of one corner or another, the offended party leaving the compound either ecstatic or terrified. My father’s associates were always uncomfortable discussing the pig barn. Though I could never tell with how hard they fought to make sure he kept it. I always figured it was difficult to explain working for a man who rolled around in the mud with pigs. What other reason could there be to worry about the pig barn?
One of my father’s apparent duties as one of the wealthiest men in the city was hosting these lavish parties throughout the year. Nearly every regional official would appear at these parties and I would be dragged around, shown off by my proud and doting father. I hated it, but he loved doing it, said I was the greatest victory prize ever, whatever that meant. Even though the reason for the party would change, I would see these little white envelopes. My father would be showing me off and his associates would pass out the ‘party favors’ to certain people. There was nothing marking out any of the people who took the envelopes, but the delivery of the favors was always...specific.
I remember one year my curiosity made me ask for one of the envelopes from one of the associates passing them out. This is one of my most vivid memories. It was one of the only times I was refused something in my own home. I was scandalized. I was hurt, embarrassed, and didn’t know how to handle it. My first instinct was to cry out for my father, but he was nowhere in sight. When my cries didn’t work, I gave up and puddled on the ground. My father reappeared with the presentation of the cake. He said he was meeting with a few associates and he apologized for not hearing me. I got a piece of cake and forgot about the incident, but even if there wasn’t a party, there would be people at my house for my father.
My father was loved in the alleyway districts of Sextus. He wasn’t native to the underbelly of the city, but most of his associates came from the area. Nearly all of the associates drifting on the compound were from this area. Usually these nameless men would handle whatever situation arose. They loved my father, but their diligence was clearly because they hated going to that filthy pig barn to call my father. Anytime my father had to be called, the associates would argue, fight, draw lots, or whatever, but at the end, one unfortunate soul was sent. I sometimes offered to go myself, but the men always stopped me. Always. They wouldn’t even hear of me going. My father never banned me from the pig barn so I didn’t understand. I was the one who hated going there when my dad dragged me. I always assumed it was because they didn’t want to explain the situation to a child and let it go. It was adult business and I was a kid. Unfortunately, one can never remain a child.
One time when I was a little older, I snuck into my father’s study to see if I could discover why he always kept the door closed. I’ve gone in from time to time, but he was always in the room with me. I wanted to see if a man like my father had any secrets and that ‘break-in’ was my prime chance. I remember I searched the entire study for the slightest clue, but rather than finding a porno mag like I’d hoped, I found a gun. Some long barreled gold-plated pistol with a mother-of-pearl handle fastened by diamonds. I don’t remember what kind of gun it was, but I could tell that it was expensive and though I was a child, I knew what a gun could do to a person.
I ran to my father, terrified that something was wrong, but he just laughingly took the gun away. I asked him what he needed a gun for and he told me for protection. That answer wasn’t enough for me. My father was a businessman. Who could he possibly need protection from? I asked him and he got uncharacteristically grave.
He laughed at the face I made. Laughed as though the whole thing was a joke. Laughed as though in reality he didn’t have a care in the world. But I saw the look in his eyes, the look of soul-draining weariness deep in his brown eyes and I knew my father wasn’t joking. I was never closer to the truth than on that day, but I wouldn’t have been ready. No one is ready to lose their life.
When I was a teenager, my father enrolled me in the most exclusive private school in Sextus, the Saint Thoth’s Young Mens Preparatory Academy. The school wasn’t cheap and so consequently, many of the friends I made lived in the same district that I did. This resulted in trips to their houses after school. It didn’t dawn on me until my friends visited my house that my house was different from theirs. Significantly different.
As a child, I always assumed that every house had ten foot walls surrounding the compound. Who wouldn’t have a security system equipped with cameras, motion sensors and a plethora of guards patrolling with dogs at every waking hour? When my friends saw just how locked down my home was, they joked about my father. At first he was some kind of underworld mercenary with a long rap sheet. Then he became a captain in the Syndicate of the Eight when the associates kept popping up. When one of my friends suggested that my father was one of the Eight themselves, we nearly pissed ourselves laughing. No man who goes around calling people ‘my guy’ like a Damoklian Townie could be taken seriously.
Iotan gangsters had a certain swagger to them as they prowled the night hours looking to kill, steal and destroy. You could feel the danger emanating off those men when you were near them. Actually, many of my father’s men had that kind of swagger about them but that was natural with an Alleyway district upbringing. My father was different. My father was a wrinkled old man. He had white hair and kind brown eyes. He was smarter than most people gave him credit for, but that was only because his demeanor was so off putting. He was always smiling, making hit or miss dad jokes and just being a weirdo with his pig farm.
After my exit exams, I enrolled in the main Damokles campus of the United Universities in Central Iota. My father pushed me into the College of Law so that I could ‘help take the family business to the next level.’ I personally had architecture in mind, but my father was my beacon and guiding light so I obeyed him. While at school, I found myself going home less and less. The justifications I’d held onto since I was a teenager became harder and harder to rationalize. Especially as my knowledge of the law grew.
In college, my father was an innocent wealthy man with many spinning plates. How could he be expected to know the law for every aspect of every venture he was involved in? Even though his company was technically owned by the Nelson Trading Corporation, my father still had thousands of people working for him. Of course one of them could be the one involved in the illegality, but never my kind quirky father. Cyrus Aiolus was innocent. I still strayed from home. Returning less and less until I stopped going altogether. I loved my father too much. He meant too much to me as my kind quirky father. I wasn’t ready to see a different man wearing my father’s face.
While at school, I met this girl, Joselyn. Long story short, we got close very quickly. College quickly. We started dating and when we talked about our parents, what she, as a fellow law student, was saying about my father was too much for me to handle. There were actually five separate times we came to the brink of breaking up because she kept talking about my dad. We stayed together through college, but my unhealthy ignorance laid the foundation of our eventual separation.
I got my terminal level degree in Criminal Law in eight years. The final two years were spent staying away from home to ‘devote my full attention to my studies.’ My father had visited me in Damokles from time to time, but he was missing his only child walking the hallways of his home. Each time he would come up, which was oddly often, he begged for me to come back home over winter break. I missed him terribly. I was severely homesick by the end of my two year isolation, so when the semester ended, I quietly picked up my degree from the Deputy Headmaster’s office, and returned home to Sextus.
It’s the greatest tragedy of my life, that first week home. Everything was exactly as I remembered it. All the associates constantly appearing all over the grounds, the guards roaming the estate, even the pig barn looked the exact same. When I entered the gates of my home, I was terrified that the façade I put up my entire life would be snatched away. But to my complete and undiluted pleasure, I was able to believe all my suspicions were baseless. That first week back at home was one of the happiest stretches of time in my life. I was living the life I remembered as a fully rational and appreciative adult. I was even getting sweets from the really old associates and I was still as happy as could be to get them. As the final seven days of that year came and went, my apprehensions about my father were dispelled and I actually felt guilty for doubting him in the first place.
The night following the New Year celebrations, I couldn’t sleep so I was watching television in the living room late that night. I had a cup of warm milk and cookies, my father’s goto remedy for my late night maladies. I was flipping through the channels, dunking my cookies and munching away when I passed a breaking news bulletin on the local news channel. I’m not ignorant, but the news was the last thing I wanted to watch before I fell asleep. And yet something odd flickered past my eyes and after changing two channels. I paused for a full second, frowning and trying to explain what I saw, say and do whatever I needed to in order to not go back to that channel. Nothing worked and I went back, my mind dizzying as I saw what glared on the TV.
Uncle Teddy was one of the kindest and most honorable men I knew, the kind of man who always had a piece of advice and a piece of peppermint for me. I wasn’t sure of his place in my father’s company, but I knew he’d been with my father for a long time and was one of his best friends. His kids were like my cousins and none of them were bad people. Yet as I finally caught wind of what the person was saying, I dropped my late night medicine and turned up the volume.
The Sextus Police Department was claiming that for the past three decades, Theodore Ricardus the third had been a high ranking member of the Mountain Swords Association, one of the associations that made up the Syndicate of the Eight. The anchor barely spoke about Uncle Teddy though. Instead, he kept mentioning the Eight over and over again like anyone could forget the syndicate that controlled all crime on Iota. From what little the report said about him, Teddy Three Times had personally killed nearly fifty men and was linked to some five hundred other murders among the litany of crimes he committed. He’d been in custody after a massage parlor takedown in Haava unexpectedly netted the underworld heavyweight. He was implicated in a human trafficking ring and was facing serious time with those charges alone. The report said the police arrested him early last week and had spoken to him a few times, but couldn’t interrogate him until he was back in Sextus. Just a few hours ago, Teddy Three Times escaped police custody with the aid of number unknown. There were nine officers dead and four more on life support while eight of the attackers died in the ambush.
It didn’t take long for my tolerance of the lies to run out. I shut off the television angrily. I sat for a long minute, my fears returning quadruple-fold. In that minute, I surmised that this was some mistake. This had to be a mistake because if a man like Uncle Teddy, a man I knew was close to my father, was involved in these nefarious activities, he could proceed to lie and implicate my innocent father. I knew Uncle Teddy loved my father, but a man up against the wall would do anything to save himself from a date with the Mistress of Death. There was no way I could let that wall appear behind my father. I had to hurry and find him. I wasn’t sure if he’d heard the knew about Uncle Teddy yet, but either way, a man with fex like Cyrus Aiolus would become a target. He needed to get legal counsel as soon as possible and minimize the damage from the fallout of Uncle Teddy’s entrapment. I knew my father would be completely frazzled by the nature of the charges against Uncle Teddy, but I was here for him. I would be able to protect my father. This was why he pushed me into law. Right?
I scoured the main house for my father, but I didn’t see him anywhere. I took my search to the grounds and I still couldn’t find any trace of his whereabouts. I asked a few passing associates, who were oddly light in number that night, and every single one of them just shook their heads nervously. I was too frantic to notice that each time the associates shook their heads, they looked at one another before they gave their halfhearted answers. I found my father eventually. He was where I always knew he would be. The pig barn.
Some of my father’s associates were posted on the barn doors which was odd, but my frantic mind was happy to see them. That meant that my father surely had to be inside. When I approached the barn doors, they tried to stop me from entering. This was a rational precaution, but these men knew what I could do to their careers. I was already on the edge that night and both of them could see it. I didn’t even have to say anything as I approached. I just walked up with lightning in my eyes and thundered past them and into the large barn doors.
The interior of the barn smelled as awful as always. However, I was distracted by the two additional men immediately inside the barn. There were never men posted inside the barn. This was my father’s sanctuary. He didn’t like too many people clogging the space, but again, my logical mind wasn’t registering the oddities. Here too, these men recognized me, saw my face and remained statues as I walked past them.
I zoomed through the next two sections of the barn and approached the back of the barn, back where the prized pigs were kept. This was where my father liked to be most. I never knew why he was always back there nor what he did while he was back there. When I pulled back the thick plastic cordoning off the room, I was slapped by the six-fingered hand of reality and realized I never knew my father at all.
Right there on a blood soaked table in the middle of the room, I saw Uncle Teddy’s decapitated head. His cloudy gray eyes were staring straight at me while his red-streaked tongue lolled from his open mouth, jaw askew and forcing his pale face into a perpetual ‘harrumph.’ Standing over the remainder of the body, I saw my kind quirky father wearing a butcher’s apron. A bloody butcher’s apron dripping with red and purple bits alongside the blood pooling at his booted feet. His brown eyes were as sharp as ever as he held up a bloody machete, taking his final measurements. With a level of mastery I never expected his to have, my father hacked off Uncle Teddy’s forearm was precisely severed from his bicep without a drop of blood. Apparently this was nothing new to him because my father caught the arm before the flailing flesh reached the hay covered ground. He casually tossed the arm into one of the pens before he began measuring once more. That was when I realized he’d been talking.
I subsequently realized that my father was surrounded by his associates and I went on to watch for a full horrified minute as my father cut through the bones, sinews and tendons, of one of the first adults he’d ever introduced me to. He calmly spoke to the men around him as he tossed each hacked piece into the pens of his prized pigs, revealing the abomination of a secret ingredient to his championship feeding pattern. During that minute, I heard my father eulogize Uncle Teddy’s virtues and his downfalls. He emphasized the greatness of gravitas, but upheld the importance of loyalty and honor. He was comparing the moves a man must make in life with the swings he was making to hack apart the cold body of Uncle Teddy and here he fully showcased his intelligence. The morbid precision of the words had me vomiting what felt like everything I had ever eaten.
The trauma of losing one’s father is something I don’t think anyone is quite ready for. Losing the man I loved most in the world was the most painful experiences of my life to date. Losing him and then seeing a stranger walk around with his face was worse. But in the end, I was still the one with the snowball in my hand while under the desert sun.
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