The last time I saw my father I was five years old. After a series of abortive stays with various acquaintances and increasingly distant relations, we found ourselves up in Seal Rock, crashing at the beachfront timeshare of his old college roommate; it was only later that I learned we were in fact trespassing, that my father had shimmied his way in through an unlocked window. He was already far gone by then. Major recalcitrance, off his medication, a typical recidivist bipolar case with a severe paranoiac streak to boot. We spent much of that summer scream-singing “Manic Depression” as we collected driftwood along our small stake of the Oregon coastline.
His latest obsession was aliens. It was the late ’70s, and alien-related conspiracy was everywhere— abduction, invasion, Close Encounters, you name it. Dad considered himself an ambassador to our inevitable interplanetary visitors, someone who could best explain humankind’s myriad customs and foibles. Many mornings he’d take to the beach to draw what he called pictograms in the sand, akin to cave drawings and large enough to be seen by Those Watching From Above. “So they know we’re a civilized people,” as he put it, a staged smile on his face that indicated they might be listening as well.
“I believe you,” I told him. And I did.
Of course, back then I had no idea he was sick. I thought he was a blast, at least when he was capable of getting out of bed to meet the day. One of our favorite games was our own version of Marco Polo called Little Flea, Little Flea, in which the seeker would exclaim “Little flea, little flea, where can you be?” to which the hider would reply “Big flea, big flea, you’ll never find me!” I was the one who hid, and upon finding me he’d shout “You can’t fool me!” and spin me in the air until we’d both crash laughing together down to the water. Sunburnt and delirious, we would play for what felt like hours, until it was too dark to go on.
Little flea, little flea, where can you be?
I awoke one morning to find the house empty and trundled out to the deck. Dad was at work on his pictograms, this time of assorted tools, hammers and screwdrivers and wrenches and the like, rows of them in the sand. He shielded his eyes from the sun and waved me down, drawing stick in hand. When I reached him, I could tell he was more off than usual, his eyes wide and round as half-dollars.
“I wanted you to be here. For this. Don’t you see? Here.” He pulled me over to examine one of the drawings. A bulldozer, perhaps, or maybe some kind of scale? I couldn’t say.
“Is that another tool?” I asked. He laughed, the sound broken and brittle, like ice cracking.
“It is, Donnie, it is.” He chewed furiously at his lip. “Last night, in a waking dream? They came to me. Sent me a vision, to show how they’re going to take me.” He tapped the picture with his stick. “The name is unpronounceable, but it’s essentially a sophisticated transporter device. It’s going to reduce me to energy, then beam me up, up through the clouds and inside their ship. I’m supposed to meet them, out there,” and he pointed the stick toward the ocean and the horizon beyond.
“Can I come?” I asked.
He laughed that odd laugh again, and bent to kiss the crown of my head. “You’re a good kid,” he said, his eyes ticking away, toward the water and the waves. “But I need you to stay here and protect the pictograms until I’m gone. Otherwise they won’t know where to find me. Can you do that?”
I nodded. He handed me his drawing stick, peeled off his t-shirt and shorts, and ran naked into the water.
“Isn’t it amazing?” he shouted from the surf. “They chose me.”
I watched as he swam out, unsure of where exactly he was going, and when he was going to return. He soon grew invisible, the sun rising brilliant over the water until the entire ocean was one massive sheet of silver, like freshly fallen snow.
I sat in the sand, looking away from the water only to check on the pictograms, the tools in their proper place. We are a civilized people, I thought, and rested my head on my knees, the sun yellow and swollen in the sky. I stood to ward off curious gulls, swung at them with the stick, and by late afternoon I grew drowsy. Eventually, I fell asleep.
I awoke past nightfall to a low rumble, to yellow-white lights approaching from the lip of the shore, so very bright against the darkness that I threw my arms over my face before they could swallow me whole. The hard sound of metal on metal, of a hatch opening and shutting, of unsteady movement scuttling across the sand. Water lapped at my feet, the pictograms breached— had I protected them enough? Was it enough for my father to be found?
A new beam fell upon me, stark and white and carrying an unearthly heat; I didn’t know just how cold I was until it found me. Beyond the brightness, the suggestion of an approaching figure, and past it a large transport of some kind, shadows against the waves. I fumbled for the drawing stick, but it was gone.
You can’t fool me, I thought, and squinted into the light.
“Son?” He knelt down. I could make out the dim outline of his ranger hat, the glint of the flashlight, his metal badge. “You all alone out here?”
I looked up and past him, up toward the night sky and moon and planets, to the many stars above.
Robert Levy is an author of stories, screenplays, and plays whose work has been seen Off-Broadway. A Harvard graduate subsequently trained as a forensic psychologist, his first novel The Glittering World was a finalist for both the Lambda Literary Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. Shorter work has appeared in venues like Black Static, Shadows & Tall Trees, and The Brooklyn Quarterly, among others. A Brooklyn native, Robert is at work on a number of projects in various media including a television pilot, a scripted podcast, and a new novel. He can be found at TheRobertLevy.com.