It was late evening in the outside world. I arranged for us to arrive at a spot just a hundred yards or so from my father’s house. It was a kind of roadside lookout, an odd dead-end cul-de-sac just above a rough little canyon, with a small rocky dome where you could stand and look down the Sorrento Valley towards Del Mar. Gareth and I used to watch the hot air balloons from there. It was public property, and folks weren’t supposed to, but the neighbors parked their extra vehicles there. Otherwise it just another bend in the road, and it wasn’t likely anyone would be paying much attention to it now.
We materialized on a dusty stretch of sidewalk. There were three pick-up trucks along the curb, abandoned along with every other automobile in the world. I pointed out the big Japanese plum tree that marked our front yard and the two towering Ishim nodded their understanding. The evening sky was going dark in the sudden way it can up on the mesa, but of course the Ishim had their helmets and would be able to see just fine.
As I walked down the street, I ignited a round of barking from the neighborhood dogs. I could hear Delilah’s big Dane rumble anchoring the rest. It was so familiar that I found it comforting. When I turned up the walk to Dad’s front door, a new voice chimed in: a scrawny terrier mutt that went from zero to ballistic in an instant. He leaped to his feet and exploded in a huge tirade that was so incongruous it made me laugh—his bark was like a German Shepherd’s, deep and throaty and full of threat, but he just wasn’t big enough to back it up. And his big furry tail was wagging a mile a minute. I’d never seen this ferocious beast before; the last I knew, Dad didn’t have a dog.
I knelt down and held out a hand. In between barks the little furball licked my fingers. The front door swung open. A man stood silhouetted by lantern light, holding a formidable-looking shotgun. “¿Quien es?” he said. My heart sank. Where was Dad? Then he added. “Who goes there?”
Now that was more like it. “Hi, Dad.”
I ruffled the dog’s head and stood. “Some watchdog you got here. His bark really is worse than his bite.”
He set the gun down against the doorjamb. “Graham! Oh my God! I can’t believe it!” I brushed past the still-barking dog and stepped into his arms. There’s nothing quite like hugging your dad. “Come in, come in!” he said. He stepped back, grabbed the gun and pushed the door wide open. He pointed sharply at the dog. “Barney! Quiet!” Incredibly, the dog shut up, as if Dad had hit his mute button. “Good boy! Now, stay! Look out!” Barney turned and sat, looking out toward the street.
“So where’d he come from?” I asked as Dad closed the door and we walked into the family room.
“Barney? I don’t know. He wandered up the drive a couple of weeks ago, looking lost and hungry. Owners dead or stranded at work, I imagine. He was so eager to please I put him to work. As my deputy.”
“Ah. Barney Fife. I get it. Perfect. Suits him right down to the ground.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” He stopped and took me by the shoulders, looking me over. We were almost eye-to-eye; Dad’s only a couple of inches shorter than me. “Well, I see it, but I still don’t quite believe it. Right here in our own house, silver suit and all. My son, the Chosen. What a world we live in.” He gave me another hug. “So. Are you hungry? I’ve got plenty of—”
“Wait a second! What do you know about my silver suit, being the Chosen? How could you possibly—?”
“Are you kidding me? You’ve been all over the TV. In fact, you’re the only thing ever on TV, at least once a day. Ever since Washington. That scene has been shown a hundred times. Dozens more, too. From all over the world.”
I had no idea. “What?”
“The TV doesn’t even have to be plugged in; there’s still no power in the house, but there you are, bigger than life. In living color. And now you’re here! You just missed Gareth, you know.”
“What? Gareth was here? When? How?”
“Two, no, three days ago. He didn’t stay long; seemed in a big hurry to keep moving. Mostly he was looking for you; wanted to know if you’d been here. He had a few choice words about this ‘Chosen’ business, I can tell you that.”
“I’ll bet,” I said automatically. Red flags were popping up all over my hindbrain—I had goosebumps from the back of my neck to my elbows. I needed Dad to stop talking about Gareth. “Hey, Dad? You have running water?”
“Sure. You need a glass of—?”
I grabbed him by the shoulders. He was on Cloud Nine about seeing both of his sons alive and well, but I needed him to think before he spoke. I didn’t know why yet, but I knew it was important. “No, it’s just that I petted Barney out there and I need to wash my hands.” I squeezed his shoulders and looked him right in the eyes. “You know how allergic I am.”
I raised my eyebrows and cocked my head. Are you listening, Dad? You know perfectly well that I’m not allergic to dogs or anything else. “Sure,” he said, frowning. Good; he was confused, which meant he was paying attention. “Here you go.” He led me to the kitchen, turned on the water. Meanwhile, I realized that I didn’t dare even whisper, running water or not; my eardrop was too damned sensitive. And I was absolutely certain that Eloi was listening closely.
While the water ran, I tried out my rusty pantomime skills: finger to my lips; hand cupping my ear, then pointing upward; Dad nodded. I gestured writing; Dad nodded again. I gave him a thumbs-up, then turned and washed my hands for real. Meanwhile, Dad grabbed a pad and pencil from the kitchen utility drawer, the same place such things had been for as long as I could remember. It was highly surreal, standing here in my childhood home, playing interstellar cloak and dagger with my dad.
I took the stuff from him and stepped over to the counter. I said, “I’m sorry I missed Gareth. Give him my best when you see him again,” while I wrote, “Where is G now? How does he travel?” I gave him the pencil.
He said, “Of course! He’s going to be awfully sorry he missed you,” a bit stiffly while he wrote, “IDK—RR.” Geez, Dad, you don’t have to write in code; then I remembered, he was the texting champ of his generation: “I don’t know (where he is now)” he was saying. “He travels by railroad.” Then he added, “Lft U ms,” and he turned and pulled a letter out from under a magnet on the fridge.
He said, “How long can you stay, son? I guess you know I’ve got a million questions. Can you stay the night?”
It was tempting to say yes, but if I stayed here for twelve hours I’d be away from “home” at Disneyland for seven weeks. Even as I sat on the sofa and opened Gareth’s letter, a perverse part of me acknowledged that that was the very reason it was so tempting. There was a lot of unfinished business there I was in no hurry to get back to. “I don’t know, Dad. We’ll see.”
“Fair enough. Meanwhile, how about a sardine sandwich?”
Yecch. But Dad was a Navy man, and sardines were a delicacy. Gareth and I had choked down many a sardine sandwich lunch whenever Mom had been away on the lecture circuit. Along with bacon & eggs for dinner and cold leftovers for breakfast, it was one of Dad’s culinary specialties. “Sure, Dad, that’d be great.”
While he put that together, I read Gareth’s missive:
“CHOSEN”: Do I offer congrats or condolences?
Either or both, they’re yours.
Was with JHM on Doomsday. Now on the move. You have heard of APAFA? (Dad has not.)
Can we meet? The Stick?—any Saturday.
So Merriman was behind this Prophet business. And Gareth was with him. I might have known; Gareth had been working on the “definitive” Merriman biography for years; he probably spent more time in Vegas than his supposed home in San Francisco. What I didn’t understand was why either one of them was involved with this APAFA Resistance movement. Merriman was older than dirt, and the most notorious recluse since Howard Hughes. And Gareth was practically the poster boy for political apathy; how had he gotten caught up in this? It didn’t make any sense.
I turned the letter over. On the back was a quickly scrawled afterthought:
PS: Mils says hello.
Millicent? With APAFA? With Gareth? Curiouser and curiouser.
Dad had a nice little blaze going in the fireplace. I walked over to it, dropped the letter onto the flames. Why did it feel like I was destroying a ransom note? It couldn’t have been more cryptic if it had been written in code with cut-out letters. “You have heard of APAFA” was a code of sorts; he only implied he was a part of it. “Dad has not” was his way of telling me there was no point in grilling Dad for more details. Even “PS: Mils says hello” had an almost ominous “We have your girlfriend” ring to it.
What I should do, I thought, is leave right now, report back to Eloi, and pretend I never saw this letter. Let Gareth and Merriman and Millicent and whatever army they’d assembled rant from the fringes. They were the proverbial mouse that roared—less; they were the gnat that roared. What did they believe they could really accomplish? Of course, this was Gareth. When we were kids he had a copy of that old poster with the cartoon mouse flipping off a hawk; the caption? “Last Act of Defiance.” It seemed he was taking that attitude to the ultimate extreme.
Still, maybe I should meet him, try to talk some sense into him, for all the good that would do. No, there was no point kidding myself; Gareth was as hard-headed as a stone idol. The only thing I’d gain by meeting him was a chance to see my brother again.
“The Stick”—Candlestick Park; if he was asking to meet at such a huge venue, he must mean that if I could set up one of our regular public appearances at the stadium, he’d find me during the Q & A afterwards. Well, that could probably be arranged. We had done our Dog & Pony in Sacramento a while back, but San Francisco was probably due for a visit. “Any Saturday...”
“Hey, Dad? What day of the week is it?”
Dad must have thought that an odd question, but he answered without editorializing: “Friday.” He brought the sandwiches to the counter, along with a couple of green apples, glasses, and the remains of a bottle of merlot. “Not exactly cordon bleu,” he said. “But it’ll do.” He had said those same words every time he’d ever set a plate of sardines on the table.
“Looks delicious,” I lied. “Thanks.” Friday. So. While we ate, I made up my mind: I’d arrange for an appearance at Candlestick Park tomorrow. Say noon. It was about seven p.m. right now; that gave me seventeen hours, a good ten weeks in the pyramid. Even if I dawdled here with Dad for a while, tons of time.
There was no need to even mention Gareth to Eloi. I’d suggested locations for our little road show before; he’d have no reason to question this one. And I’d be able to give my brother a big hug and ask him to work with me, instead of Merriman and his wingnut followers. We’d agree to disagree, and that would be that.
What could possibly go wrong?