SLIGHTLY BEFORE DINNER, KEENAN HOUSE, THE GROUP HOME WHERE I live, gets a call that my homosexual exorcism is scheduled to take place next Thursday at four.
“But I’m not homosexual. And I’m not possessed,” I say to Len, my counselor.
“You sure?” asks Len. He cracks open a PBR and takes a long, gurgling sip.
“Bet you’re both,” says my roommate, Jude, pulling on his boxing gloves.
“Actually,” says Len, belching, softly punching his gut, “I think it’s your brother calling.”
Oren. Of course.
Late-afternoon sunlight smears across the cinder-block walls through broken, yellowed blinds. I throw down my graphic novel, which I was actually half enjoying, and roll out of my sagging lower bunk with a groan. I walk down the hall and grab the phone.
“Why are you calling me?”
“’Cause I know you have lots of homo demons inside you,” says Oren, stifling one of his loud, chirpy laughs. “And I thought maybe it was time for a devil cleanse.”
“Uh-huh.” I hear projected voices in the background—like announcements on a PA or something. “Where are you?”
“We’re burying Dad next week. Funeral is Thursday.”
My dad has been slowly dying for forty years. Emphysema, hairy cell leukemia, diabetes, arthritis; it’s like he just went shopping one day for chronic diseases and never made any returns. More recently, he’s been sliding into dementia.
Thing is, this might really be it. The doctors are pretty sure. “He has two weeks max,” says Oren.
“Shit.” I bite my thumbnail—an old nervous habit instantaneously reborn. I’m suddenly terrified that my family, who I was legally emancipated from three years ago, might be planning something deeply, morbidly insane. But it’s not as bad as all that.
Just a live funeral.
“A what?” The phone slips out of my hands. I juggle it back to my ear.
“Dad’s final wish was to be buried alive,” says Oren.
“His what was what?”
Oren’s voice takes on that swoony, nostalgic glaze that always makes me want to stab him in the face with a corn holder. “Just like Veronica Bellwether in The Curse of the Mummy’s Tongue, his first film.”
I hear my eyes blinking. “Is this even legal?”
“I highly doubt it. I’ve made arrangements for you to be picked up at the orphanage at noon.” He lowers his voice. “Are they assaulting you over there, Dario? I mean, sexually.”
I know what he meant. I roll my eyes. “Only on Tuesdays.”
“Do they pilfer your valuables? Beat you with pillowcases filled with bar soap? Glue your eyes shut while you’re asleep? Ejaculate into your socks?”
I refuse to tell Oren that maybe one or two of those things has happened maybe once or twice.
“Have the other wanton orphans there ever tricked you into one of those atomic sit-ups?” He cackles. “Those are cruel.”
“I’m not going. And don’t call me again.” I hang up.
I stand there, staring at the phone. There’s a goopy brown stain on the wall above. Chocolate? Roach repellent? Something worse? I start to itch. Just hearing Oren’s voice gave me hives, dammit.
“I need the phone,” says Hal, an eighth-grade albino with ADD, standing behind me.
I clench and unclench my hands. “I need a moment. And I need Benadryl.”
I head back to my room, pop two caplets out of the foil, and swallow them down with the remains of some warm Gatorade. People say you can slap hives away, but that’s a load of crap, and trying just makes you look like an asshole.
Antihistamines always give me terrifying dreams. That night, with Jude snoring loud as ever above me, I dream I’m locked in a closet. Someone with a nail gun is shooting at me through the slatted door; I see the shadow of a hulking man outside, morphing into unnatural, demonic shapes. When I can’t dodge or duck the nails anymore, they start piercing my flesh, and I slowly transform into that dude from Hellraiser.
I wake up exhausted. I hate that.
That day, after school, I get another call. Expecting Oren again, I bark into the phone to stop calling me, but actually it’s Hayley.
“Oh,” I say, startled and a little embarrassed. “I’m so sorry. I . . .”
“It’s okay,” she says.
There’s just crackling on the line because neither of us knows what to say. The sound of her voice literally flattened me against the wall. I look cartoonish, like someone being chased by a ghost.
My body starts catching up to the barrage of emotions ballooning inside me, their colors merging into a muddy black, so all the physiological shit starts. I scratch like crazy under my chin. My eyes burn.
“I think I’m allergic to these random phone calls from home,” I tell her.
“Home,” she says with a little laugh. “Is that what you still call it?”
“That word just fell out of my mouth.”
“I haven’t talked to you in so long.”
I nod, to no one. “Almost six years, I guess.”
“How are you, Dario?”
“I’m fine. I’m not going to this thing. Oren shouldn’t have told you to call me.”
“Oh.” Hayley calling me out of the blue makes everything seem more real and serious. I never made a purposeful, conscious choice to cut off contact with her. It was just part of the new reality I chopped open for myself when I left home. It became an unspoken rule that it was easier for both of us if we didn’t keep in touch. Hearing her voice, which hasn’t changed one bit, is like remembering a dream.
“I think you might regret it later if you weren’t there,” she adds.
I scratch at my neck. “Why?”
I have a vision of her then: a girl in a flowered dress stained by splotches of buttercups and dandelions, strawberry-blonde hair curled at the ends, blowing behind her in the breeze, running through a meadow on a sun-streaked day.
It’s part memory, part . . . Claritin commercial.
“I think you should say good-bye to your dad.”
I close my eyes and lean my head against the wall. “Did he even ask about me?”
After a moment: “No.”
There’s a wash of silence. For some reason I think of a battlefield, quiet and still, dying flares raining down on bloodstained grass, stamped flat.
“It’s also me being selfish,” she says. “I don’t want to be there without you. It wouldn’t feel right.”
I take the phone away from my ear and press it against my forehead for a second. She says something else, but I can’t hear her, like she’s drifting away. I put the phone back to my mouth. “Sorry. What?”
“I said: I don’t know what else to say. That’s all I’ve got.”
“This whole thing sounds insane, Hayley.”
“Are you surprised?”
My family doing something utterly insane doesn’t much surprise me, no.
“Let me know if you change your mind,” she says.
“I will.” I breathe in, filling my lungs. “Thanks for calling, Hay.”
“I feel like I had to.”
“It’s . . . good to hear your voice.”
“It’s good to hear your voice too, Dario.”
There’s a second of dead air, as if she’s waiting, or we’re both waiting for something more, before she hangs up, with a messy rattle.
I’m so startled by Hayley’s call, at first I can’t fathom what she’s really asking me to do: Go back home. Say good-bye to my dad. Forever. I never thought I’d go back there. But I was stupid to think this moment wouldn’t come. What if Hayley is right? What if I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t see him again before his death?
Later, I run the idea by Jude. He’s sweating profusely, attacking a standing punching bag in a basement storeroom stacked with moldering files documenting every adoption that went awry. “So now, what? What? You want to go back there?” He whirls around to face me, spraying sweat into my eyes.
“Don’t you think I should? It’s my dad’s funeral.”
“The trick is staying away from all that shit that brings back the bad feelings.”
“Yeah. I did. For years.”
“Remember what you were like when they brought you in here? You were an uncontrollable mess.”
He’s right. I was not in a good state. I had anger issues that needed to be dealt with. Those first few months I’d cry myself to sleep every night.
“Like a rabid wolf abandoned by its pack,” he’s saying.
“I’ve put time and distance between me and that stuff.”
“You think you’ve moved on from your crappy childhood?”
“I think I’m better now, yeah. I think we might disagree on this.”
Gradually, I had moved away from the dark thoughts, the negative emotions, and embraced life here at Keenan. I don’t think it’s totally dangerous to revisit the remnants of my childhood. In fact, I think as Hayley said, I could regret not going. And that could haunt me. Getting closure might not be such a bad thing—now that I have this one last chance.
I try to explain all this to Jude.
“Fine. Go! But just for the day! That’s the rule. You come back right after.”
“That’s the rule,” he repeats, all muffled, through his mouthpiece.
“Why are you wearing that mouthpiece? The punching bag won’t hit you back.”
He squints. “Don’t get sucked in, Dar. Don’t spend the night there.”
“There might be, like, hors d’oeuvres or something after the—”
“Huh? What? Just come back right after!”
Jude, oiled with foamy sweat, adopts a mock predatory crouch. He looks like a panther, disturbed in its rainforest ravine, that isn’t going to take any more shit. He can be a little controlling, but I know he means well. “When did your dad die?” he says. “You didn’t mention—”
“Uhhh . . .” I back toward the door, wanting this conversation to be over because I kind of made up my mind already. “Uh, he’s not dead yet.”
Jude’s eyes become bewildered slits. “What?”
I tell him about the live funeral like it’s something people just do on occasion.
Jude smacks his gloves together. “This is real? Like, this is fucking real?”
“Apparently.” I start scratching my neck, my arms.
“Christ, look at you.”
I regard my angry, red, mottled skin. “I know.”
“You think you’re past it all, but look at yourself.”
He may have a point. But this is just stupid: getting a rash just because someone called from home. This is childish crap that I need to get over. I have to confront them. I have to confront my past. Then there won’t be any more hives.
“This is just residual weakness,” I say, regarding my skin. “I can get stronger. I need to get stronger.”
“You are strong. You were strong when you left.”
Jude gives me a hard look, shakes his head at me and socks the bag. “Just make sure someone there has an EpiPen.”
Oren sends a black hearse, because you know, why the hell not?
Sunglasses on, I slide down the cool leather seats, wanting to be swallowed up by the car, which smells like Windex and pine trees. After about thirty minutes of queasy twists and turns over hills and quaint covered bridges, I see the sign approaching.
As the ivy-covered gates swing open, I get this flashbang of anxiety, and my confidence weakens. I sit forward and open my mouth, about to tell the driver, Please, for the love of God, just turn the hell around. But we’re already through the gates, crawling up the long, winding driveway. I catch my breath again, which keeps fluttering away like a kite, as the castle looms over me, guilting me for being gone too long. The hearse lurches to a stop. I just sit there for a second. Then I open the door and step outside into the chilly, late-April air.
My father is ninety-one years old, meaning he was seventy-four when I was born. My older brother, Oren, is twenty years older than me. He probably should have become a surrogate father to me, given our weird family dynamics. But Oren has always been . . . Oren. Too consumed with the studio, and its innumerable daily needs, to deal with anything else. And slowly, as my dad began descending further into dementia, Oren became Moldavia’s de facto studio chief as well as its principal producer.
And my mother was committed to a psychiatric hospital when I was seven. So no one was really looking after me by the time I left this place. When I was twelve, I rode my bike over a small cliff. I broke my collarbone and two ribs. I was in the hospital for five days before anyone from home realized I was gone. A week later I had a lawyer. Two weeks after that, I began the process of moving into Keenan House.
Now, I make my way onto the sloping meadow of the east lawn. The grass is always a healthy, gleaming green, impeccably maintained, and seemingly never ending, as it stretches for miles. They filmed Undead Nocturne out here—four weeks of twilight shoots, chasing that thin window of cerulean light, actors twirling through the grass in gossamer rags, their herky-jerky zombie ballet restless, tragic, and hilarious all at once.
It became one of our biggest cult classics, bootleg DVDs circulating for years on eBay in the cinema geek underground. We went massively over budget on that one. Someone had to remind my dad we make B-movies here, and he’s not Bertolucci. He might disagree.
In the early days, Moldavia had distribution deals with various Hollywood studios, but as interest waned, Moldavia began distributing its own films. Film scholars and pop culture writers frequently compare the studio, and its weirdly inclusive family, to Andy Warhol’s Factory and John Waters’s Dreamlanders.
“And here’s Dario,” says Oren in his deep, booming voice, arms extended, “the prodigal son.” He’s holding court by a long table draped in white linen, near the entrance to the lawn, where a bartender is handing out glasses of wine and champagne.
Oren rips himself away from the small, intense crowd. I’m not sure who they are. They look like a combination of random mourners and obsessed horror fans (Oren calls them “squeezers”). But that makes no sense, since outsiders aren’t allowed through the gates. Oren is holding a white-tipped cane even though he can walk just fine.
He’s wearing a dark-purple tuxedo, white shoes, and a top hat.
He takes my arms and extends them out like he’s measuring me for a suit. “Ack!” he says, doing that thing where he makes random noises. He frowns at me—my faded Fangoria T-shirt, my ripped jeans—like I’m the one who showed up dressed all wrong.
He clucks his tongue. “You didn’t have a suit, Dario?”
“You look like Mr. Peanut’s closeted uncle, so let’s not judge.”
“Come, come,” he says, pulling at me, wanting me to meet the gaggle of mourners/squeezers, all of them decked out like they’re attending a Mardi Gras party in the underworld. But my eyes are locked on Hayley. She’s coming toward me with the sweetest smile, champagne flute in her hand, auburn hair flowing in nervy, seismic curls over her shoulder. A quiver runs through my body.
“Just a sec,” I say to Oren, wriggling out of his grasp and away from the hungry crowd. I steer Hayley into a more secluded spot.
“I’m glad you came,” she says, hugging me.
“Yeah, well, I had no other plans, so.”
“I’m surprised, actually.”
I’m not sure what to say. I’m kind of surprised myself.
She lowers her head. “I wasn’t sure. About calling you. But I felt it was the right thing to do. I’m so sorry, Dario.”
She takes a sip of champagne, giving me a slanted look with the glass to her lips. I never forgot her eyes are the color of bruised pears. “About your dad.”
I nod. “So this is . . . actually a real funeral, then?”
She considers this. “More a . . . send-off.”
“Yes. Gosh,” she says, reaching down to readjust her perfectly white high heel, “you really grew up.”
Yeah, you too, I want to say, but don’t. She fixes her smile on me, sipping champagne. Her pearl-colored blouse neatly tucked into that black skirt makes me think of bad porn about offices after hours and misbehaving secretaries. It feels wrong to be having these thoughts. This is Hayley, Hugo and Aida’s daughter. I want to punch myself in the head.
“You should see this.” She leads me down the lawn. Past a row of sycamores there’s a roped-off area, a hole in the ground with a mound of neon-green Astroturf, and a man with a shovel.
I rub the back of my neck. “He’s really being buried on the grounds?”
She nods. “It’s what he wanted. Isn’t it . . . sort of beautiful?”
“It’s creepy as fuck, Hayley.”
I’m not processing any of this the way I should. I feel removed, like this is happening to someone else, and I’m just a witness. But no matter what happens today, I’m going to see my dad, that’s for sure. I can’t even remember when I saw him last.
My dad was great at keeping me at a distance—and he’d make a point of it. That’s when I hated him the most. But I hated myself when I’d realize how desperate I was for any kind of connection with him. It was tough accepting that I simply didn’t matter to him. That I was nothing more than a footnote to his famous, busy, bloated life, his persona always larger, more immediate than me. As a kid, I found that trying to get something more from him was always a losing game that I’d keep playing.
“Are you okay?” Hayley asks me.
“Yeah.” My skin feels kind of hot, though.
She points to an old oak, which once had a tire swing attached to it. “We used to play in the pachysandra under that tree. Remember?”
Hayley and I would throw a jar of swirled marbles into the air and then hunt in the pachysandra, like truffle-sniffing pigs, for every single one. I was six; Hayley was eight.
The castle and grounds have been passed down through generations of my mother’s family—a family of business magnates and industrialists. Mental illness ran in their DNA as fervently as fair skin and blue eyes runs in others.
My great-grandfather was an insane gardener. Literally. Both those things. I’ll never forget coming outside one day when I was little, just as spring had sprung, to find exotic flowers blooming everywhere—the grounds exploding with crazy combinations of color, like I had just entered an acid-coated Oz.
Of course a week later it rained jumping spiders, their webbing coating the tops of trees and shrubs like shredded silken parachutes. The crew ran around tearing off their shirts, flitting them out of their hair. A production assistant was reduced to tears.
Hugo told me that some of the blossoming trees, imported from exotic locales, also held exotic spider eggs. Soon after the flowers bloomed, the eggs hatched too. That’s when I first learned that with beauty comes a little bit of terror. That pretty much sums up my childhood here: something cool would happen immediately followed by something traumatic. I could never deal with that.
I give Hayley a half grin, half grimace.
“What?” she says.
“I just don’t get how you’ve been able to deal with this place for so long.”
She shrugs. “I grew up here.”
“Me too,” I say, feeling weirdly defensive all of a sudden, because we both know it was only to a point. I left. She stayed.
“I have my own apartment, in the Hitchcock Wing, overlooking the Shakespeare garden,” she says. “I’m head of accounts now.”
“Really? Oren made you head of accounts?”
“Well, your dad did.”
I’m happy for her, but I also suddenly feel a little jealous. A question I used to ask myself a lot bubbles up to the surface: What if I hadn’t left? Part of me never stopped wondering what my life would have been like had I stayed here.
“Thank you,” says Hayley. “The studio’s failing, though.”
“But hasn’t it always been? Wasn’t that, like, always the point?”
“Well. It wasn’t explicitly the point. Criterion reissued Black Blood Picnic and The Vomit of Sergei Ramona.”
I press my sneaker into the grass. “I heard.”
“That was huge for your dad. He felt validated, he was so proud.”
I nod. “Good for him.”
“Hey, we still make four features a year, and we have solid VOD sales. People still buy DVDs, if you can believe it. Parts of Central Europe love us—we’re huge in Slovakia, for some reason, and our films still get a theatrical release there. But it isn’t enough. The landscape is changing.”
“You mean people don’t want to watch grainy creature features anymore? Because it’s not, like, 1952?”
Hayley, noting my sarcasm, folds her arms. Any talk of the studio or my dad instantly creates this rush of bitterness in me. I offset that by making fun of this place—since it’s super easy. But it’s my family legacy, so it’s interesting to see Hayley be the one all defensive and proud about Moldavia.
Keeping her eyes on me, she takes another sip and taps her fingers on the rim of her flute. “Well,” she says, “your dad was considering an offer from Rusty Blade Films to buy the studio.”
“Really?” This surprises me. Rusty Blade makes soulless torture porn—everything my dad hates, and everything Moldavia stands apart from. They made like a billion dollars from this insanely gory series called Backpacker about spoiled rich kids in Europe who get kidnapped and put in snuff films.
In the last one, the bratty daughter of a Silicon Valley titan dies by getting wormed. That’s right: wormed. Little green inchworms are dropped down her throat, one at a time (it’s a long scene), while she slowly chokes to death, to the delight of pervy mobsters with unplaceable accents wearing Karl Lagerfeld sunglasses who bid millions for the only existing tape.
If my dad was going to align himself in any way with Rusty Blade, he might have actually been considering his estate and our inheritance, given his condition. But that really doesn’t sound like him, so maybe it was the dementia.
The grave digger walks by, dirt-coated shovel slung over his shoulder. “Alas, poor Yorick!” I shout after him, but he doesn’t turn around. I’m about to ask Hayley what time this whole thing is going to start, when Oren breaks free of the gaggle of clucking squeezers and starts making this hooting noise, hands cupped over his mouth.
I frown at him. “What the hell is he doing?”
“I think we’re starting,” says Hayley.
The crowd, more of them than I thought—who the hell are all these people?—start to converge on the center of the lawn, by the open grave. They creep from all corners of the vast estate in tight clusters, like a half-finished watercolor painting that got tipped upside down.
Suddenly, I see all these familiar faces popping out of the crowd—faces I haven’t seen for years, faces I had forgotten about, some with a little more age on them now—carpenters and grips and electricians, the dudes in the props department, the people in the kitchen, the makeup crew. Hunter Yates, the studio’s marketing director; the kids from the scenic design and special effects teams, teenagers when I knew them—now in their mid-twenties. A few of them hold babies.
There’s Elena Scaler, otherwise known as Mistress Moonshadow, a principal Moldavia actress, who films her famous web series, Live from Moldavia, somewhere deep in the bowels of the castle. I see Lorenzo Mayberry, the aging Italian lead actor of several Moldavia classics, standing in a clump with his costars, a small repertory company of Moldavia regulars known as the Spine Tinglers. Many of them have acted in Moldavia films for decades. Lorenzo, an icon in the horror underground, suffers from vertigo and narcolepsy. As my dad once famously snapped on the set of The Grinning Gargoyle: “Why the hell couldn’t he just be a drunk like everybody else?”
“My God, Dario, is that you?” Franklin Fletcher, the chief legal officer of Moldavia, and one of my dad’s closest confidants, cuts a clean path toward me, moving one or two squeezers aside with a gentle push of shoulders. He’s dressed in a well-tailored dark suit, which matches his personality: organized, humorless, and efficient. I shake Franklin’s hand. He has a firm grip. “You’re all grown up,” he says, removing his tinted glasses. “I’m so sorry about your father. He lived a long life, and no one can say there’s a single minute of it he regrets.”
There has probably never been a truer statement made. I doubt my dad regrets a single thing he ever did, said, or made.
“How is the orphanage treating you?”
“We call it a group home,” I reply. “And I’m pretty happy there.”
Franklin flicks out his wrist to check the time on his gleaming Rolex—the same color as his slicked-back hair. “I’m glad to hear that. How old are you now?”
“He’s seventeen,” says Hayley, who’s moved in close by my side, her fingers lightly grazing my arm.
“My goodness,” says Franklin. “Soon you’ll be off to college.”
“We’ll see.” Pretty much nothing else could heighten my stress right now than hearing the word college. It’s just another decision to make, more uncertainty. And I’m already lost in the disorienting maze of whatever today is going to be.
“Plenty of time to decide, I’m sure,” says Franklin.
Franklin doesn’t hear me. He’s scanning the crowd and then turns toward the castle, where a long white carpet is being laid out, leading all the way from the glass doors of the rear atrium to the gravesite.
As it gets more crowded, other people start coming over to me, hands grasping, in a Dickensian sort of way, like only I can anchor them in this storm of madness. Barbara Pandova, who helped design the iconic mummy monster in The Entombment of Freddie Fell, gives me a kiss on each cheek.
Samantha Childress, the icy but brilliant head costume designer, wearing this lavender scarf-and-gown ensemble, gives me a hug. Joaquin Joseph, a carpenter when I knew him, and now an internationally recognized production designer, starts sobbing into my shoulder. With each new person, there’s another punch of emotion flooding through me, threatening me with a total loss of control.
People are paying their respects. This is an actual funeral. Even though—Jesus Christ, does anyone realize this?—my dad isn’t even dead yet! He’s really going to be buried alive. This is literally his last hour on earth. I wonder what that must feel like: to know everything is about to end. Every dream, thought, or fear he’s ever had—thrust into oblivion. Everyone he’s ever known he’ll never see again after today.
Surprisingly, I’ve never thought that much about death; it was always an abstract concept, rendered even more unreal growing up around fake ghosts and monsters. But all of a sudden, I feel this prickling coldness. And now, the appropriate emotions, as if governed by a system of ingrained etiquette, seem to decide what’s going to take the lead. As the floodgates open, I get a terrific lump in my throat and my chest starts to feel leaden. “Shit,” I say, softly, to myself, digging my nails into my palm.
I feel grief. I was not expecting that at all.
The crowd of mourners seems to be multiplying. I’m losing the familiar faces in the throng of squeezers, some of them decked out in garish costumes and clownish makeup, many of them dressed, I now realize, as characters from classic Moldavia films.
Some of them hold calla lilies, my dad’s favorite flower, which makes an appearance, however briefly, in almost every one of his films. Ginger Borenville in Wolf Wife dies with one in her teeth after getting shot by a silver bullet from her philandering hairdresser husband (played by Lorenzo, of course).
Hayley explains to me that the funeral is semi-public—open to fans who purchased “tickets” through the painfully outdated Moldavia website.
I turn to her. “Are you serious?”
She nods, slowly.
I guess that explains all this insanity. Why am I even surprised? Of course this is what my dad would want; he always maintained an obsessive relationship with his hard-core fan base—drawing them in while simultaneously keeping them at arm’s length.
I’m older now, my hair is long, tied up into a droopy man-bun, and I haven’t shaved, but (and I was afraid this was going to happen) I get recognized anyway.
Once word begins to spread that I’m here, at least a dozen squeezers come up to me asking for an autograph. Thing is, like it or not, I am firmly enmeshed in Moldavia lore since Zombie Children of the Harvest Sun. When I was twelve years old, my dad made me the star of one of his films. I played the main zombie kid, Alastair, who unites an undead army of hungry children against their very much still living parents and teachers. Hayley was in the movie too, and so was her mom, Aida. They were both great, in smaller roles.
Like me, they never appeared in another Moldavia movie again.
Zombie Children was critically panned. It has such a low score on Rotten Tomatoes they had to come up with a new level of bad, like I think it’s literally certified shit. But for squeezers the movie remains a late Moldavia favorite and has become this big cult thing. I’m probably the only kid in a group home to ever receive fan mail.
Just seeing the grounds again, and remembering growing up here, is giving me a reaction. Hives creep up on the inside of my wrist. My throat constricts.
My dad does his own thing, so there were no union rules, no child labor laws being enforced. Zombie Children was filmed entirely on the grounds, behind closed gates, as all Moldavia films are, with cast and crew living in the castle for the duration of the shoot. Although I had various tutors homeschooling me, or whatever, that stuff was always an afterthought.
Hugo usually did the normal dad stuff with me: playing catch, taking me on walks during my bits of downtime. My dad worked me hard, day and night, pretty much bullying me into giving what’s considered one of the great modern-day horror child performances, despite the overall movie being considered crap.
My dad was notorious for overworking his actors. He’d film screams until voices were completely shot. He felt there was a real terror that would creep into a scream after a certain point. He was always after that moment, that elusive truth. The scene in Hiss for a Kiss when disgraced fortune-teller Charlotte Lockwood sees a cobra slithering across her dining-room table is supposedly the longest scream ever put on film—at two whole minutes. “Scream all night!” my dad would say, gleefully. It became a catchphrase. He started saying it whenever he was about to film a new scene.
He was even harsher with me. He knew he could push me further—and be brutal in an unchecked way—than he could with any other actor he ever directed.
More squeezers run over to me, like I just escaped my booth at a horror convention. They’re getting more aggressive—wanting selfies and hugs, oblivious to the fact that I’m at my own dad’s funeral. I make a beeline away from them, my pulse racing.
Everywhere I look, I see a scene from a Moldavia movie. I spot the shrub where the half-devoured remains of Lionel Gimpin were found in Shapeshifter. I see the yellow rosebush where Parma Quiota was summarily dispatched by a gang of serial-killer ghosts in The Stranglers of Strangelove Cove. I see the tree where Puritans hanged teenage witch Betsy Norris in Dial W for Witchcraft. Over by the lattice gazebo demonologist Uriel Orloff was struck by lightning in Coal Black Soul. And by the big old fountain, where stone angels perpetually piss water, the vengeful countess Antonia Rigg started feeding her possessed pet Rottweiler junk food in Devil Dog.
I’m also very much aware of who I don’t see: namely, Hugo and Aida.
“You doing okay?” Hayley’s managed to find me in the scrum. As I turn to her, I start a little, because I didn’t notice the gold locket around her throat before. Now the light is hitting it just right, so it gleams. That’s my mom’s locket. I recognize the engraved profile of the little boy with the sapphire eye. His face snaps open; my mom had a little photo of me at two years old trimmed and glued inside.
I don’t get a chance to ask Hayley about it. The glass doors of the atrium suddenly open, and four men in kilts, playing bagpipes, come marching down the long, white carpet.
I’m a little confused, since there’s not a drop of Scottish blood in my family.
Seven pallbearers, all in white tuxedos, appear behind the bagpipes, carrying out my dad, who also wears a white tux. He’s sitting up, leaning against the back of the velvet-lined dark-wood casket as if he’s taking a dip in a Jacuzzi. The pallbearers follow the procession of the bagpipes, all of them solemnly marching down the carpet from the castle to the gravesite. “Who the hell are we burying, Braveheart?”
“Bagpipes feature prominently in The Psychic Sisters of Edinburgh,” says Hayley. “He must be paying tribute. It’s one of your dad’s late favorites.”
“I didn’t know.” I haven’t seen any of the recent Moldavia films.
Hayley looks at me. “You stopped watching them, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” I watch the procession. “Hayley, what is all this? This is madness.”
My dad, clearly out of his mind, is blowing kisses and throwing calla lilies at everyone while holding a lit cigar in his other hand. People throw lilies back at him, so it all looks like one bizarre calla lily fight. Another pallbearer drags my dad’s oxygen tank behind the casket, head down, looking pretty grim, like he never got the memo that this is actually a giant yard party.
“This is what your dad wanted,” she says. “You know he gets what he wants.”
“How could he want this? Everyone’s acting like he’s already dead. We’re actually going to bury him alive?” I can’t fully comprehend what I’m seeing.
“This is how he felt he could take on death. He wanted to go on his own terms. Make his death a celebration of his life, leave with dignity.”
“Dignity? Hayley, he’s not in his right mind!”
“Thank you for coming!” my dad is saying. “Thank you!” He looks frail and shrunken, more so than I remember, which makes a weird match to his bright, maniacal energy. He got so old. He spots me, and his face changes: the lower half sort of falls, goes slack. He looks as if he’s desperately trying to see something through a wall of cotton.
“Dario?” he says, recognizing me, but seemingly baffled by my presence. Then a fan runs over, stealing away his attention, and I wonder if that’s all I’ll get. I didn’t know what this was going to be—Jesus, who would?—so there was no way to prepare.
It’s funny how Hayley told me I might regret it if I wasn’t here. There’s this pinch of regret I always fend off whenever my dad comes into my thoughts—that I left him here, a lonely old man, and maybe there was a chance things could have changed; a chance for mutual forgiveness. That pinch just got sharper, because now I’ll never know.
As he gets closer to his grave, I start to panic. I grab Hayley. “I should . . . um . . .”
“All right,” she says, nodding at me, understanding. Hayley motions to Oren and then waves at Franklin. She hustles me quickly through the crowd of leering faces and vulgar costumes. Franklin stops the procession and pushes everyone out of the way so Oren and I can approach the casket. “Step aside, please,” says Franklin.
“Why’d we stop?” says Oren, running over, hands out, in the manner of an annoyed wedding planner.
“He wanted to say something,” says Hayley. She frowns at Oren. “Don’t you?”
“It’s okay,” says my dad, taking my hands in his—they’re cold, limp, trembling.
“Dad,” I say. Up close he seems practically dead already. His eyes are milky, sunken, clouded over with cataracts. He’s so skinny and wasted away he’s almost skeletal. He’s lost the remainder of his thin yellow-white hair. “Dad . . . ,” I say again. I can’t seem to say anything else.
“It makes me happy to see your face again,” he says.
I remember us sitting at the kitchen table, eating yogurt together when I was four. He’s about to be buried alive, and I’m thinking about yogurt. My dad puts his cigar in his mouth, and grabs Oren’s hand too, so now he’s holding on to both of us.
“Okay?” Oren says to our dad, smiling gently.
“Okay,” he says back, grasping our hands.
“WE LOVE YOU SO MUCH! YOU’RE A GENIUS!” a fan shouts.
My dad sticks his chin up, amused, always happy to be called a genius.
“Dad,” I say again. I’m choking here. Why can’t I speak?
My dad drops our hands. He takes us in like he’s trying hard not to forget our faces. Then he looks away, his face tight and determined. “It’s time,” he says.
“Onward!” Oren yells.
I have the sensation of something fading forever as the procession continues, and I fall back into the teeming crowd. I can almost see all the questions that will never be answered blowing away like dandelion seeds—scattered, tiny dark shapes against the flush of the sky, and then just gone.
When they reach the grave, the pallbearers begin their routine of quickly running straps through the handles of the coffin, preparing to lower it. The crowd quiets as my dad sits all the way up in the casket and clears his throat.
“Quiet!” someone shouts.
“As many of you already know, I’m terminal,” he says, chucking out the remainder of the lilies from the coffin in a single fistful. “But I am blessed to have spent my life devoted to my sole passion—making films of horror and fear, envy and spite, love and loneliness, ghastly apparitions, and vulnerable, freakish creatures of the night; stirring emotions through the most powerful medium that ever was. I’ve always done exactly what I wanted—taking control of my life, and stilling it, in a chaotic world. Thank you to the Moldavia family, and to all of you who watched my films with the same passion we put into making them.”
“Thank you!” some lunatic shouts.
He coughs. “I have been sick a long time. But I have resolved not to let this disease win. Instead, my death shall be my final work of art, a tribute to the first heroine I ever put on celluloid, Veronica Bellwether, who was buried alive in a musty sarcophagus somewhere in the hills outside Kutná Hora.”
People cheer at the mention of Veronica Bellwether. I can’t tell if my dad has scripted this farewell speech or if he’s just making this up as he goes along.
“It has always been my lifelong desire to be buried alive,” he continues, “emulating Veronica’s tragic demise, so she and I could commune eternally in the misty zone of the imagination, where everything began for me. This has always been my first choice to exit this life. I leave you happy, content, and at peace with the world.”
My dad waves, signaling he’s done. People get quiet.
As they start slowly lowering the coffin, a Britney Spears song pierces the grief-stricken silence. It slowly dawns on the mourners that this is a ringtone, and everyone looks accusingly at everyone else. My dad is still waving, meekly, almost bored, as they lower the open coffin, but then he plugs his cigar in his mouth, reaches into his jacket pocket, takes out his phone, and holds it to his ear.
“Joe? Hey. Yeah. How are ya?”
My mouth opens. “Is he . . . taking a call?” I ask Hayley, leaning into her ear.
“Um. I think so,” she says.
“How ’bout that? Was it Ed?” He lies back, chatting, as they continue to lower him down into his own grave. We all move closer and peer down into the dark hole after him. The pallbearer trying to maneuver the oxygen tank into the open coffin is clearly struggling. This was obviously never rehearsed, or given much thought at all, and when he loses his grip on the tank, he careens into the other pallbearers, who all lose their grip on the straps lowering the coffin.
The casket tips backward, the oxygen tank smashes against the side, the neck of the tank breaks with this horrible clang, and the lid of the tank pops open. I hear the rush of oxygen just as my dad’s cigar flies out of his hand. “Gosh!” he exclaims, halfway down, gripping the sides of the casket, trying not to fall out. He says it again: “GOSH!”
Then the straps come free and everything falls at once, hard and far, down into the hole, followed by a loud, tremendous fireball, which shoots out of the open grave like hell upending itself. Chunks of mud and splinters of coffin belch out of the flaming grave, sending the mourners flying back, screaming.
“Holy shit!” I scream, my hands flying to my face, just like that famous painting, all madness and furious swirls. “My dad just fucking exploded.”
Franklin, always the coolest cat in the kingdom, brushes off his suit and removes his mud-coated glasses. “Well,” he says, “that was his second choice.”