Lena was raised on violin lessons and minimal parental supervision. She also despised the violin with the burning intensity of an O-type star. Her preoccupied parents barely noticed.
Her father was busy with his work, always clacking intensely on his laptop or swiping away at his phone. Always some fire that had to be extinguished. High-net-worth financial backing, online ledgers, cryptocurrency. Words that meant little to ten-year-old Lena, but the world to her father.
“Does it have to be six days a week, Dad? Why not five?”
“Five days? Pssht. Don’t be ridiculous, darling. Sounds like quitter talk.”
“I could take piano instead. Or … or maybe guitar!”
“Oh, stop. You think I’m raising a miniature Janis Joplin?”
Lena was going to ask her father who that was, why his face scrunched up that way when saying her name, but he was already walking out of the room.
Her mother was in her office, engrossed with work for the animal rescue. Always a new gala or ball or wine tasting to plan, promote, and attend. All for the animals, of course, though the society photographers could always find their invite in the mail.
“Oh, no, Lena. Not until you’re older.”
“But, Mom, I want to see the puppies.”
“No puppies at the Waldorf, honey.”
“I thought you were doing all this to help the animals.”
“It’s for the animals, of course. Naturally. But they’re not the ones with the deep pockets, honey. Now, isn’t someone running late for practice?”
Every month or so, new adoptees from the rescue were brought into the Brown household. Limping dogs. One-eyed cats. Rabbits with nervous tics. New additions to the family, Lena was told. Her responsibility to care for them, between her homework and the lessons.
The animals, imperfect as they might’ve been, were a splash of color in Lena’s gray world of dance, etiquette lessons, and of course that hated violin. Six days a week, two hours at a time, spent with the wooden chordophone propped against her jaw. Never quite pleasing her teacher, never quite capturing the je ne sais quoi of Bach’s Minuet No. 1.
Her furry friends didn’t care about things like violin practice. Didn’t make demands on her time, or correct her grammar. Their heads would bop in recognition when Lena entered the room, racing toward her feet for food or belly-rubs. What a life. They could play or nap whenever they felt like it. No one expected anything of them.
She’d presented a case to her parents before — in as respectfully and eloquently a fashion as possible, of course — about abandoning the lessons altogether. Was greeted with a patronizing pat on her noggin and an admonition that proper young ladies should respect the wishes of their elders.
A few weeks later, Lena had come across the term catgut string and raced into her mother’s chambers to impart the horrifying (and exciting) news. As an upright advocate for their four-legged friends, surely Mrs. Brown couldn’t endorse an instrument that utilized cat intestines, could she?
There was another patronizing pat from her mother, and an assurance that no felines were harmed when manufacturing her instrument’s strings. Likely no sheep or cattle, either. Merely an outdated term. And it was past 3:15, wasn’t it? Why wasn’t she practicing?
It was a boy at her school who’d told her that business about catgut. A checkered smile on his face when he shared the information. A regular irritant in her fourth grade existence named Jeffie, who’d find an excuse daily to slide into the empty seat next to her at the lunch table and share these fascinating tidbits.
Jeffie was grating — not violin-level grating, but grating nonetheless. She didn’t mind his visits, though, because at least he made an effort to acknowledge her existence. The kids at school, the kids in her building, all seemed to drift away after a playdate or two. As if Lena carried a peculiar aura or scent that kept them away.
But who has time for friends, anyway? Where would they fit in a schedule of Capezio dance shoes, careful diction, measured articulation, and the hated violin?
It was during her Tuesday afternoon lesson, another disappointing performance of “Ode to Joy,” when a tap against the doorframe announced their presence. Both parents, a true rarity. They begged forgiveness and asked for a moment alone with Lena.
She was pulled into their minimalist, modern-design living room and seated on the Italian leather couch. Dad attempted a preamble, too flustered to get out the words. Mom interrupted him; had to blurt out the good news.
“You’ve scored the interview! Lena, sweetie, we did it!”
A representative of Collège du Pétain, all the way from Versoix, Switzerland, was arriving tomorrow. Was keen to speak to a girl so committed to animal rights, proper elocution, and, of course, the beauty of the violin.
This was, arguably, the most prestigious all-ages school in the world. The student body rubbed shoulders with royalty; was offered an unparalleled, cultured learning experience only a select few ever enjoy. The graduates left Versoix not only fluent in French, Portuguese, and Mandarin, but also conversant in the language of the elites. The proper forks at dinner, the appropriate manners for greeting husbands, wives, and mistresses.
Ten-year-old Lena didn’t appreciate the significance of all this, but easily could see the excitement burning in the eyes of her normally reserved parents. She could play along. Be happy for them. Ask for an afternoon off from practice to prepare for the interview.
Six hours later, in her darkened bedroom, Lena awoke with a disturbing revelation. Were pets allowed at this place with the funny name? Would she have to leave not only her parents, but also the only friends she could hold onto — the furry orphans with clipped ears and cloudy eyes?
The thought kept her up the rest of the night. At the break of dawn, she donned bunny slippers and lumbered into the kitchen. Miss Princess, the calico afflicted with hyperesthesia, a nervous disorder that required enough anti-anxiety medication to dope a fully grown man, greeted Lena’s legs. It was the usual routine — a steady forehead rub followed by a love-bite, then a flop-over, curl in a ball maneuver, followed by Miss Princess gripping all visible flesh with her claws.
Lena stepped past her attacker, then headed to the counter to prepare the calico’s breakfast/morning dose. Two distinct sets of footsteps were entering the kitchen.
“It’s not fair, Richard. She’s worked so hard.”
“Blanche, I’ve done everything I can to — ”
“You’ve done plenty. Yes, Richard. I know.”
Lena’s father didn’t say anything in response, stepping into the room and realizing they weren’t alone. She watched her father’s expression turn from agitation to downhearted regret. “Lena, dear. I’m afraid … I’m afraid we have some bad news.”
Mom took it up from there, explaining in an icy manner the interview had been canceled. That Collège du Pétain wouldn’t be in Lena’s future, and there’s nothing the family could do about it.
Lena faked disappointment, then asked permission to leave the room and take care of her anxious fur-baby. Out of sight of her parents, Lena pumped one fist in the air and danced happily in place for several seconds.
That afternoon, in the moments Lena had between the feeding of her green-cheeked parakeet (afflicted with droopy eye, but healing nicely) and the hated violin practice, she passed the glass sliding door guarding their balcony. The shape of her father, clad in his tucked-in button-up shirt and tailored trousers, was hunched over the railing.
Knocking against the door as she opened it, Lena asked if she had approval to join her father on the balcony. He motioned for her to come closer.
Such an odd sight. His clothes, normally pristine, now creased and messy. His rigid posture melted down to the lumpy form of a lesser man. She felt his arm close around her shoulder, gripping much tighter than she could’ve expected.
“You doing okay, darling? I know it’s got to be a bummer.”
“I think I’ll be okay, Dad.”
“Sadly, we’ll just have to remember that life isn’t fair. Much as we wish it were, hard as it is to accept, we do live a life of disappointment. Disappointment and regret.”
“I still have school here.”
“It’s a fine school. And, given the trouble we had with Admissions there, maybe we should’ve seen this coming. Still, I thought Europe — Switzerland of all places — I thought it would be different.”
“Dad, why don’t these people want me in school?”
“Oh, it’s not you, darling. Don’t ever think that.”
“But it has to be. The kids at school … they come over once, and it’s like they disappear. Like they just know to pretend I don’t exist.”
“You don’t need to worry about those kids, Lena.”
“Maybe these kids and the adults at that school know the same thing. Know I shouldn’t be there.”
Her father’s back stiffened, as he held onto a breath and took hold of the railing. “Lena, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a smart, compassionate little girl, and I’m immensely proud of you. But, Lena dear, there is something I think you should know.”
Lena watched as her father silently removed a silver iPhone from his pocket and kept tapping until he’d found … something.
He brooded over the image for a moment before handing the phone over to Lena. She noticed his face had turned a new shade of pale.
The phone felt cold in her hand. The image on the screen, the one Dad seemed to think would answer everything, could only vex Lena. It was a gaunt, malnourished man in torn clothing, gripping a microphone decorated with spiders and skulls, mouth agape in mid-scream. His teeth were capped with gold and silver. Black lipstick blotched across his mouth. Sweat had glued long, stringy hair, dyed shock-red, to his shoulders. On his chest, jagged cuts, splashing crimson against alabaster skin. The wounds dripped blood all the way past his diminutive waist.
She swiped to the next photo. A wider shot of the same image. A rock band on stage, dressed in outrageous outfits that complemented their frontman. The stage decorations were like a cavalcade of horrors. Guillotines manned by clowns. A mustachioed carnival barker that breathed fire. Black, demonic steeds as carousel horses.
The kind of thing Lena experienced once in her nightmares, after disobeying curfew and watching an R-rated movie in the guest bedroom.
“Why … Dad, why are you showing me this?”
“Well, Lena, see that scrawny twerp trying too hard to be spooky?”
“The guy who really needs a sandwich? Who wants to be some kind of movie monster?”
“That confused young man is your father, dear.”
Her face twisted. “No.”
He laughed. “Yes.”
Lena couldn’t look at the screen any longer. She thrust the phone back in her father’s direction.
“See, dear, there was once a thing called ‘shock rock.’ Actually, it’d been dead since I was around your age. But your father, well, he’s the dummy who brought it back.”
She stared at her father, truly absorbed his features for the first time.
“I didn’t grow up in a place like this, Lena. Left home at sixteen.”
Hair the color of ashes.
“Signed the record deal at nineteen. Was convinced the best way to stand out was to push that envelope.”
“MTV put us in rotation. Quadruple-platinum album. Parents groups protesting each show.”
“Band broke up after the third album flopped.”
“Thing is, the money’s great, for a time. But it’s not the healthiest of lifestyles. And when you do grow up, try to move on, certain things stalk your life. Lyrics and song titles we thought were hilarious … people today don’t seem to get the joke. And, unfortunately, it’s the sort of thing that follows you around. Follows your family around.”
“The school … the other kids …”
“No school, no parent, wants their darlings associated with Anton Antichrist.”
Lena’s head cocked. Tried to repeat the name. “Anton …”
“I know, I know. And, now, sadly, my girl has to pay for my edgelord past.”
The contradictory images of her father chased Lena around like an obstinate ghost until the next morning. Even paid a visit in her dreams, two images of one man. The stoic father and his twisted doppelganger, carving a hole through his belly and escaping.
Lena, bleary-eyed, again slid her feet into bunny slippers. Entered the kitchen to find her father on his knees, feeding Miss Princess her medicated breakfast. “Hi, Lena. I was about to wake you. Did you sleep well?”
She gave a white lie in response. Dad explained that their driver had called in sick this morning. He had a rare morning free, though. Gave an awkward smile when explaining he could take his little lady to school in their Lexus RX.
“So, dear,” he tried to tell her after ten minutes of silence in the car. “I guess this is the kind of thing we don’t get to do often enough, is it?”
“That’s okay, Dad.”
“Do you, ah, have any questions about what we talked about yesterday?”
She shook her head. Kept her eyes on the road ahead.
“It’s okay to be confused by something like this. And I realize we’re pretty strict on you. But, dear, I’d hate for you to end up like … well, to make the same mistakes I did.”
She told him she understood. Eyes remained straight ahead.
“I just hate that you have to pay for foolish things I did decades ago.” His voice went down to a muttering sound. “Things people used to love, pay good money to see, but now act as if … well, that’s not important.”
“Dad,” she said, eyes finally turning to him. “I want to hear Anton Antichrist.”
“Oh, sweetie, no. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“But, Dad, it’s … I think this would all be a little less confusing if I had an idea of what he was … or, I guess, you were.”
He breathed in some air and exhaled slowly. “Fine,” he said, before giving a verbal command to his phone’s virtual-assistant app to play Anton’s biggest hit. Then, instantly correcting himself, he ordered the app to stream the song’s radio edit.
The opening notes to “My Spooky Baby” crept through the car’s speakers. A stuttering intro of guitar samples and intentionally erratic percussion. A distorted slide guitar then ripped through the confused sounds, signaling a bracing change of tempo.
A simple groove, one any teenager could bang along to, joined by thunderous guitars and a bass line thick enough to have the vehicle’s side mirrors quivering with the beat. After a minute-long instrumental, the enigmatic vocals of Anton Antichrist entered the track.
His voice — deep, commanding — held its own against the competing noise. He sang of a land devoted to demons and freaks. Of a dark one’s desire for forbidden fruits. Any allusions went over Lena’s head — not that she could comprehend most of the lyrics anyway, as they carried the tone and intelligibility of a malfunctioning lawnmower.
After nearly four minutes, the track was fading out, the closing outro a mixture of guitar feedback and audio clips borrowed from an obscure grindhouse horror film. Thirty seconds of silence followed in the car before Lena’s father dared to ask what she thought.
She couldn’t find the words. Lena could only stare at her father’s needle nose and putty chin and superimpose the face of Anton Antichrist. It still didn’t make sense, yet the thought didn’t seem quite so absurd at the moment.
“Dad, I think … I think I like it.”
“I think I like it … a lot. Dad, please, play it again.”
He asked if she was sure. She agreed, emphatically. The second spin of “My Spooky Baby” was followed by a collection of Anton’s greatest hits. “Halloween Hell-o-day.” “Peeping J. Thomas III.” “Zombie Ecstasy.” “Creep Anthem ’99.” All radio edits, naturally.
As they entered the school’s drop-off area, Lena unfastened her seatbelt. Surprised her father with a hug before she climbed out of the car. “Thanks, Dad. I’m sorry people don’t realize how awesome you were,” she said with her hand on the door handle.
“That’s okay, dear. At least I’ve got one devoted fan.”
She nodded. “Um, Dad, what I said earlier about my violin lessons …”
His smile faded as recognition set on his face. “Oh, I see. Buttering the old man up before asking for what you really want?”
“Well, actually Dad, I was kinda wondering … do you think ‘My Spooky Baby’ could work as a string arrangement?”
With a laugh, he assured her that it could. And that maybe they could work on it this afternoon.
Pulling back into traffic, the radio blaring memories of the past, a grinning Mr. Brown realized there was an entire back catalogue for father and daughter to explore.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now