CW: Mention of intrusive thoughts
Emil’s mother told him that he got his cowardice from his father. His father neglected to be a part of Emil’s life to disprove this notion.
“He told me that he loved me,” she told him, words made brittle after years of erosion as she said them again and again. “That he would marry me. Didn’t matter if we were seventeen and poor. Then you were born and all of a sudden he had better places to be and better women to sleep with.”
She had no photographs of Emil’s father, nor would she speak aloud his name. His surname wasn’t his father’s, nor his dark eyes or molasses-coloured hair or the shape of his nose. He was a mirror image of his mother, with only a misplaced cleft in his chin to remind anyone that it took two to tango.
As the story went, his father’s promises of marriage flew out the window the minute Emil started kicking in his mother’s belly. He did not even announce his leaving, only wrote a note justifying his abandonment. Whatever his defenses were, they were burned up by a Bic lighter and never spoken of again, so naturally the blame fell on Emil for being born.
He inherited his weak will from his father, although it was not fair to say it was entirely natural.
“The hell is the matter with you?” Mum would say when he was a child begging not to go to school because his classmates bullied him as if they would get graded for it. “They attack you because all you do is tuck your tail between your legs. How did someone so yellow-bellied come out of me?”
She said this because she thought shame was the same as courage, which fueled her since she was a teenage pariah with no one to hold her. But she didn’t tell Emil that, so he simply thought that she was ashamed of him.
“Where’s your mum?” the schoolchildren sneered at him while he waited at the school door, the last to be picked up on the last day of school. “Got stuck in traffic riding another man?”
Emil mumbled something in response, and the ringleader leaned forward mockingly.
“What’s that you’ve got to say?” he said, excited for whatever pathetic retort he had to say.
Emil's voice dwindled from his breath, which only made the bullies laugh harder.
Mum thought that he was being bullied because of his timid, defenseless nature, and he did not have the heart to correct her.
Maybe he was a coward after all.
Emil assumed that his father was the ugliest creature known to man. It seemed easier that way.
The features themselves varied. Most commonly he imagined an orc from the Lord of the Rings in a wife beater and sweatpants. The man should by all rights not take up any real estate in Emil’s mind and yet he haunted him like the bogeyman at bedtime. His father was sloppy, selfish, and socially awkward, everything that he should have the pleasure of never knowing. Either that, or Emil was sloppy, selfish, and socially awkward, and everything that would reasonably drive any father away.
But then there were the dreams.
No matter what Mum told him about his father, no matter the feeble hatred that Emil could muster up against a phantom, they did not chase away the man in Emil’s dreams who appeared with a bicycle by his side.
He had sleepy blue eyes and a neat beard—he wore a soft grey jacket that made him look like a finger puppet, and when he smiled his eyes crinkled. Emil never saw this man in his life, but in his dream-world, he knew that this was supposed to be his father.
“Hey, kiddo,” his dream-father said. “Want to go for a ride?”
Emil had not learned how to ride a bicycle—his mother would not afford one and the idea of accidentally veering into traffic terrified him. But in a dream, Emil immediately climbed onto the shiny blue bicycle; he knew exactly what to do and exactly who he was with. His father’s hands steadied his sides, and there was not a single car on the road.
“Look at you!” his father said when Emil balanced perfectly on the towering bicycle. “You’re a natural! I’m speechless, kid.”
When Emil woke up, his heart burst with longing and shame. He felt like a traitor just for waking up, but to whom he could not tell.
He tried to commit to memory this dream-father’s face, the shape of his eyes and the hook of his nose. But it did not take long before the memory of it crumbled like stale biscuits as he pushed through the day thick with anxiety. Until all that had made it to the other side was his father’s encouragement whistling with the wind in his ears and a fragile belief that maybe this could be true.
He asked Mum once, if his dad liked cycling.
“What does it matter?” said Mum. She hated his father because she once desperately loved him, and thought that inspiring that same hatred in their son could ever be a worthy retaliation. “He wanted nothing to do with you, or me for that matter. He could be the Tour de France champion for all I care.”
Emil clamped his mouth shut, staring ahead at the television without comprehending any of it. Mum picked at the dinner of beans and toast he made before she came home, which tasted like monotony.
But what colour were his eyes?
The question weighed a thousand pounds on his tongue. Impossible to lift on his own, but God, what a relief it would be to get it off.
Mum pinched off the stiff crust of the toast and crunched on it absentmindedly.
Ask her, Emil.
His chest cramped. She put the plate aside and turned off the television. Have the rest, she told him, and he would never know if it was because she knew his stomach was still growling, or if because she would rather be alone. She was often in pain, so she thought that absolved her from guilt for the things she said. But she tried her best to love him.
Ask her if Dad’s eyes were blue.
She had already closed the bathroom door behind her by the time he lost his nerve. He did not know what he would do if she told him that they weren’t.
In Emil’s dream, his father adjusted the strap of his helmet, so that it fit protectively on his head. He winked at Emil, and his eyes were a shade of blue that only existed in candy.
“How’s that?” he said. “That feel snug?”
When Emil nodded, his father patted his shoulder.
“How about we take another lap over the hill?”
Awake, Emil would be terrified to try any of this, but this was a good dream, so he said yes. He waited until after he woke up to feel guilty about wanting it.
Even in his dreams, his father always left first.
Sometimes Emil would go down a hill, the swoop in his stomach leaving him giddy, and when he reached the bottom and looked up his father was no longer behind him. Or he would cycle over a bridge and by the time he made it to the other side, the dream became something altogether different, and his father did not follow. Several times, his father would sigh as he squinted up at the sky before walking away, as if to say, I’ve had enough now.
Emil tried to will his father to stay, to muster his subconscious for some control, but his father would not. As if even his imagination could not think of a good reason for it.
But he mastered the bicycle, albeit in his dreams. It gave him the audacity of desperation.
Tonight, after they rode under the hemlock trees, his father looked to the sky again. As if the rainclouds were to blame. Inevitability weighed down in Emil’s stomach.
“Why do you have to go?” he cried out.
He knew that this was a dream, so that even if his father struck him, it wouldn’t hurt. He just wanted for it to finally be put into words, whatever it was that he had done wrong.
His father ran a hand over his paling beard. He showed no sign of surprise at Emil’s question.
“I had to go,” his father said. “I didn’t have a choice.”
Emil waited for the answer he longed to hear to settle in his stomach. It didn’t. The truth demanded a choice to be made.
“But why?” he said.
His father put a hand on Emil’s scabbed knee.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. His voice was placating, almost smothering in its unaffectedness. “I was too young to have you.”
Emil wanted that to be enough. He knew what his father would say if he asked again. What sort of dull blow to the stomach it would deliver. Nevertheless, he asked.
“But so was Mum,” he said. “Why did you leave?”
His father tilted his head.
“Because you are worthless, and I never wanted you,” he said.
His voice was as soft as butter. Emil would have accepted it. The easiest answers to swallow were the ones already in his own mouth. It rattled in his head every day, and scared him off from a bicycle in real life because he knew that it could send him straight into oncoming traffic if he let it.
And yet he had the audacity to want to cry. To believe that there was more, that if he could imagine himself in a kinder universe then maybe he wasn’t all that was wrong in the world.
“That’s not fair,” he said. His throat grew thick; he knew if he cried, the dream would end, so he held on as long as he could. “You almost stayed.”
“I eventually knew better.”
Emil’s shook his head.
“You didn’t know anything,” he said. “You didn’t even know me.”
“I didn’t have to.”
“Yes, you do,” said Emil. His voice trembled. He looked his father in his shifting, malleable face, and did what he could never have the courage or opportunity to do in reality—he defended himself. “I do the best I can. You’d know that if you tried. I could have loved you.”
He felt the warmth but none of the weight of his father’s hand on his sharp knee. His father did not move away. Perhaps for the first time.
“Why did you leave me?” Emil asked.
His father turned to look Emil fully in the eye. His frigid blue eyes were sad; his lips twisted into something shameful.
“Because I was a coward,” he said. “I was scared shitless of a life I didn’t know, and I ran away.”
His spectre of a hand rose from Emil’s knee to lift his chin. Emil felt existence come as a shock, like falling into ice cold water. Every nerve was suddenly aware of the whistling cracks in his shattered heart as the figment of his imagination gently cradled his face to tell him what he longed to be true.
“It wasn’t your fault, Emil,” said his father. “It was never your fault.”
Emil’s face screwed; the moment a cry escaped his shaking lips, he was lying in his bed with his Star Wars duvet twisted around his small body, his pulse heavy against the pillowcase and a strange stillness in his ears.
He blinked rapidly in the darkness as the sight of blue eyes faded into wispy floaters in his vision. With a breathless voice, he tried those words for size, which will take him years to believe. It was never your fault, Emil. It’s okay.
He did not dream of his father again.
Emil was twenty-six years old, cycling through the forest trails and listening to a podcast, when without warning he saw a man with candy blue eyes.
He skidded to a stop immediately. The man had a neat beard and a cleft dented in his chin. He wore a weathered grey jacket that had seen several thrift shops along the way. His navy blue bicycle was parked to the side as he quietly observed a pair of robins hovering over a nest, in the crook of a hemlock tree.
It had been more than a decade since Emil dreamed of a father. He had forgotten by now what he had imagined his father to look like, after so many nights in between. But when he caught a glimpse of the man’s face, he felt ten years old again.
It’s him, Emil thought as his gut clenched. It’s him.
The man considered the robin pair for another moment. He then swung his leg over the other side of the bike.
Emil did not know what he would do if this was true.
“Excuse me?” he blurted out.
The man stopped. He swung his leg back and turned around. His eyes made Emil drowsy just looking at them.
“Yes?” said the man.
Emil’s heartbeat matched each step he took closer to the man as he gripped tight on his bicycle like it was all he had to lose. He didn’t even know a name to ask the man.
“Do you know the way to the hill from here?” he said.
“Oh, sure,” said the man. “It’ll be another three quarters of a mile from here, then take the fork to the left.”
His voice fit neatly in Emil’s memory, like a puzzle piece he had lost for years underneath the drawers.
“Cheers,” said Emil. “Do you cycle here often?”
The man shrugged politely.
“Been here for years,” he said. “It’s something I like to do. Is this your first time here?”
“Yes,” said Emil. “Any bike paths you recommend?”
“Oh—” Taken off guard by this extended small talk, the man hummed. “The trail that goes around the hill is good. You get a good look of the city.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Good for families?”
“Might be hard for younger kids,” said the man. “But they can take it slow.”
“Have you got kids?” Emil asked.
The man blinked. Perhaps it was Emil’s imagination, but his voice dipped, like a leaf that collected too much rainwater.
“No,” he said. “I don’t.”
“Right,” Emil said softly. “I thought that might be the case.”
The man frowned, just for a second, before ducking behind a polite smile.
Dad, Emil thought. I’m twenty-six now. I helped Mum pay for her new car. I know how to drive stick shift, I know how to shave. I’ve made friends and lost family, I’ve fallen in love and I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve seen a shooting star. This means nothing to you, but they matter. And it isn’t my fault.
Say it, Emil, he thought. Now is all you’ve got.
“I taught myself how to ride a bike, you know,” he said. The weight slid off his heart like melting snow. “It used to scare me.”
The man stammered. He did not seem to know what to say.
“That’s quite impressive,” he managed.
Emil smiled wryly. A shame, he thought to himself, that this man will never know how true that was.
“Have a good rest of your ride, sir,” Emil said.
He climbed back onto his bike. By the time the man could manage a goodbye, Emil was already leagues away. His own steady breath whistled in his ears.