top of page

'Influencer' by Ross Sullivan

'Influencer' by Ross Sullivan, LISP 2022 Short Story Finalist


It was an evening in September when my father first announced his intention to hibernate for the winter. It was said casually, the way you might mention that you were thinking of taking up the ukulele. But it landed like a human heart thrown onto the dinner table.

We stared down at our plates; cutlery mid-wield. The only thing that dared move was the dust in the air. But whilst pause enveloped us our father continued to tear bread from the loaf at the centre of the table; to corral bechamel and ragu into his mouth, staining the disarranged bristles around it a vivid pomodoro. He told us he would need the extra reserves to sustain him through his torpor as he helped himself to another plateful of our mother’s lasagne.

My youngest sister Dorrie started to laugh and then choke on her food. I slapped her on the back and a lump of ground beef flew out of her nose. We all laughed, and for a brief moment we allowed ourselves to believe it was all a joke. But then I looked back towards my father. At the way he fixated on each mouthful. And I started to feel the way you do in a dream where you're climbing a staircase and it becomes impossibly narrow.

We had wanted to ask why he had been gaining weight. Why he’d grown his beard so long. Why he had stopped meeting our gaze at the dinner table. He had gone from having the frame, the nervous energy of our neighbour’s old Lurcher - the one that ran out into the road that time - to something more suited to survival in arctic waters. But you don’t ask questions that you fear the answer to. Maybe if our mother’s emotional store-cupboard had contained more than carpet cleaner and wood polish she might have talked dad out of it; might have done more than just dust around the problem. To our mother, cleaning was a coping mechanism. Her Oz was one reached not by tornado but by the cyclone generated inside a bagless hoover. Rather than confront him over his weaponised body odour she simply filled the house with larger and more pungent bowls of Pot Pourri.

“Yay, dad's going to hibernate!” Dorrie, was only four and to her this was like your father saying he was going to appear on Octonauts. Too young to recognise the implications, all she saw before her was the kill-screen of show and tell.

Mum started to clear away the plates, despite none of us having finished what we were eating. The clatter of crockery being aggressively loaded into the dishwasher formed the backdrop to a prickly atmosphere; the charged air before lightning. We sat there, our cutlery still in our hands, anaesthetised by the surreality of it all.

“You’re going to hibernate? What does that even mean?” Jennifer, who was about to start university had donned her characteristic look of righteous indignation. The one she paraded when she went off on one of her diatribes about the latest person or thing she wanted to cancel. She looked at each of us in turn, her face a beacon of rage framed by a pixie undercut, imploring us with her polished jade eyes to join her in questioning our father. Her gaze seemed to linger on me.

When it was clear we weren’t capable of the kind of insurrection she was seeking she left the room without asking permission, muttering words under her breath that we had been brought up not to use. Then our mother returned to extract the cutlery from our hands and bade us to leave the table.

My check-ups at the hospital weren't the same with my mother taking me. She diligently wheeled me from Phlebotomy to Speech Therapy to Physiotherapy, to Orthopaedics, to every wing of the hospital. But despite her best intentions she was only capable of providing a kind of rhetorical companionship. The nurses in the physiotherapy pool moved the hair out of my eyes with a tenderness that she had never been able to muster. We would sit in a silence punctuated only by her periodic sighs or glances at her watch. The distance between us wider than the gap between our blue plastic chairs. I missed my dad’s hugs, his words of reassurance, our conversations about science. How in the winter, when it was dark before we got outside, dad would lift me onto the bonnet of the car and we’d scan the inky blackness for satellites.

Over the proceeding weeks divisions coalesced. dad spent more and more time with Dorrie. He bought her a Dwarf Hamster and told her how he was going to make a nest like the ones it made out of straw and cotton wool and even the bits of curtains that it managed to pull in through the bars. He took her on 'foraging' expeditions. They’d be out all day and come home with car loads of branches and moss that they'd collected from God knows where. Dorrie would sit with my father and paint pine cones that she'd collected. I pointed at one, thick with black and brown paint. “What's that meant to be?” I asked.

“Daddy's faecal plug.” she replied.

Dad started taking meals in the garage. We hardly saw him but we knew he was home by the muffled rasp of his saw. We were kept awake by banging, and shouting when the hammer missed its target and landed on something soft and full of nerves. When we did see our father it was seldom. He was now twice his old weight and his once sinewy limbs the texture and colour of tallow. On occasion he came out with blood running down his forearm or his leg or his gut when a new part of his physique had stumbled clumsily into the path of his carpentry. His beard beiged with sawdust and nut kernels. But Mum was grateful for the stains he left in his wake. She absorbed herself in the task of creating poultices from household cleaning products to make our carpets white again.

Jenny and I kept our heads down at school, hoping nobody would find out about dad’s ambitions. But the news had already escaped and it carried on the air like pollen. One Tuesday evening there was a knock. Mrs Evans from two doors down was standing there holding a Cottage Pie. “It's for your father” she said, “We are all thinking of him.” she walked back down the steps but then turned back. “It's a brave thing he's doing.” and then she was gone. Soon afterwards a man from the local Gazette called wanting to write a story, then the national newspapers heard. Soon there were white vans parked along the street adorned with an alien cityscape of aerials and dishes. Besuited men and women clutching microphones and pieces of paper began to outnumber the residents.

People were rooting for my father, fascinated to see whether or not he’d go through with this bizarre experiment. And if so, whether or not he would survive the ordeal. He was David Blaine. He was the man who was going to fly over the Grand Canyon in a rocket-powered car he’d built himself. Everyone wanted to see him do it, or explode in a ball of flames.

A bunch of kids at the back of my biology class were hunkered around a phone. Furtive glances in my direction. Sniggering. In hindsight it seems naive not to have anticipated that it would be picked up by the influencers. That they wouldn’t smell the scent of unexploited likes. He appeared on all of the biggest channels. Logan Paul wanted to spend the night with him up a tree, he’d even been challenged by Charlie D’Amelio to do the Renegade dance. He became a thirst trap for Furries. He was flashed by the winner of Love Island, challenged to a fight by KSI and invited to spend the night in an ice hotel with Claudia Winkleman and Jonathan Ross - although what this had to do with anything I didn’t really understand. Memes appeared in which my father was stealing picnic baskets, eating marmalade sandwiches and defecating on Smurfs.

As the days passed more gifts were left on our front doorstep. Mother had to drive to the Post Office to collect parcels from every conceivable country after they refused to deliver them due to lack of resources. My dad agreed to an interview with the BBC and halfway through it Dorrie proclaimed that she was going to hibernate as well. That she didn't want dad to be on his own all winter. That she would keep him company. Dad had a look on his face we all recognised. The one we'd seen in our baby pictures. This was when my mother finally put down the bleach and took up arms against my father.

My mother described Doctor McCormack as “a good egg.” He had been dad's doctor since my father was four and had somehow got a toy fire engine stuck up his nose. “Could you come and take a look at him?” she implored over the phone, “examine him at home?” To my sister and I this felt like a slam dunk. “There will be strong men with him” she warned us, “Stay out of the way until they have gone.” It felt like waiting for someone to capture a tiger that had broken into your home. At 2pm McCormack arrived in his car, an ambulance closely in tow. Two men got out. One was skinny with tattoos. The other broad shouldered like a cage fighter with a bottle tan and a beard clipped with the precision of a theodolite. Both wore shirts and trousers so white they seemed to luminesce. They chatted for a few minutes, casting furtive glances over at the house before finally advancing towards our front door.

As they pushed their way through the foliage of journalists and onlookers, I could see discomfort gnaw at them. Something told me this wasn't going to go how we wanted it to. And after Dr. McCormack had spoken to my father, he emerged to report that he could find nothing wrong. Then he and his brilliant-white companions climbed back into their vehicles and disappeared like foxes over a fence, not wanting to be the men remembered for spoiling everyone's fun.

My mother polished the taps in the bathroom for so long that night they no longer had any chrome left on them.

Over the following days frustration and anger gave way to acceptance. Jennifer and I went with him to gather materials. And to our surprise our father was the man we remembered him being. We sang songs in the car on the way to the forest. He pointed out weeds that you could eat with peculiar names like 'Jack by the Hedge' and Hairy Bittercress. Although they tasted acrid and vinegary to us he chewed on them happily as he scoured the forest floor for edible mushrooms and wild garlic to go with them. We promised to cook him his favourite foods when we got home. That night we had braised venison with haricots vert and wild Morel mushrooms; the following evening honey-glazed pork medallions with Goosegrass leaves and Garlic Mustard; then it was pan-fried bream with celeriac puree and wilted spinach, rabbit stew; we ate like Tudors. But there was also no shortage of desserts to follow these with. Eton mess; Baked Alaska; Tiramisu with Frangelico liqueur. Whatever remained on our plate as we sat defeated our father would slowly devour. Like a snail on a leaf, he would work away at a constant pace until it was all gone, sweating and sighing as he did so.

We also helped him with his preparations. I timed him as he practised lowering his heart rate and breathing. We would drive to a lake a few miles away where he'd weigh himself down with a bowling ball and stare up at me from beneath the water as tench and carp dug around in the silt near his feet. I’d wheel my chair up and down the boards of the jetty watching the seconds tick by on the stop-watch. I sometimes imagined what would happen if he didn't come back up. Just disappeared into the darkness leaving me there on my own by the side of the lake. But he always re-emerged and slowly made his way to the shore like it was the most normal thing to do in the world and then we'd drive home. The car smelling of ammonia from the black mud at the bottom of the pond.

And then on Halloween morning he announced that he had begun fasting. The sudden drop in calories would induce Torpor he said, and when that happened, he would be ready to climb into the hibernation tree he had built and erected for himself in the garden. How long would it take, we asked. He didn't know.

My mother preened him. Cut his hair short. Availed him of his beard, which she said made him look old. She insisted that if he was going to do this he should look as decent and respectable as any animal going into hibernation. It was just as important that he take care of his hygiene if he was going to sit in a hole for weeks on end. Otherwise, goodness knew what he would smell like when he came out. Meanwhile journalists and onlookers from all over the world maintained their vigil outside, hoping beyond hope that they would get to witness the next instalment.

And so we got the board games down from the loft and played marathons of Risk and Monopoly and Carcassonne to pass the time. Us drinking endless cups of tea, him only water; maybe the occasional cup of nettle tea for the antioxidants. He laughed each time he rolled a double. We were a family again. We realised what we'd all been missing out on. I slept more and more soundly. No longer kept awake by the noises in the garage or the worry that our father was going to walk out on us. He was his old self again. But then on Guy Fawkes Night, halfway through a game of Mastermind he said it was time. He couldn't put it off any longer.

He zipped himself into a hibernation suit that had been custom-made by a leading skiwear company. A showpiece of breathable waterproof technology, unsure whether it was best suited to the clothing aisle of a supermarket or the camping section. Designed in collaboration with NASA it was capable of recycling eighty percent of his urine into drinking water. He regarded himself in the mirror for a few moments as if not quite sure who the person looking back at him was, before kissing and hugging each of us goodbye, promising he'd be back in February - March at the latest. We shouldn’t try to disturb him before then.

Having spent so much time together we dispersed around the house like identically charged particles to deal with our father’s departure in our own space. I thought back to the night of the accident. It was about the same time of year. The roads were furry with ice; the night brutally dark. The animal’s eyes staring us down as dad swerved to avoid it. I thought about how it must have been difficult for an engineer to come to terms with having to look at something he thought he’d broken, every day for the rest of this life, that he just couldn’t fix.

I sometimes dream that he did return. He just wanders in through the kitchen door, smelling of warm moss and pine needles. He looks how I remember him. Hair dark and neatly combed to one side. Wearing a smart shirt, like the ones he wore at the factory before it closed. He gives each of us a kiss good morning and then joins us at the table and we all eat together, like we used to.



bottom of page