I heard the front door fly open and slam shut. Desperate panting followed. Then came the click of door locking.
“Fuck,” I heard him say. I knew the voice. It was my favorite uncle, Tommy, and from the sound of it, he was in trouble.
I abandoned my toys on the living room floor and hurried to the front hall. Sure enough, there was Uncle Tommy. He was too busy trying to push a chest of drawers in front of the door to notice me.
“Adam?” my mother called from the kitchen. “What’s going on out there?”
“It’s Uncle Tommy,” I shouted without moving or averting my eyes. Having covered half of the door with the bureau, my uncle pressed his back against it and slid to the floor like melting ice cream. He looked so small and scared leaning against that hulking piece of furniture, his eyes wide and his face drained of color.
My mother appeared in the doorway behind me. “Tommy?”
He sprang to life and hopped to his feet. “Judith!” he called my mother by name. “I have to talk to you. Please.” His eyes were wide and pleading.
Before another word could be said, my mother ushered Tommy into another room and closed the door. I tried not to listen, but curiosity won out. I pressed my ear to the door and strained to make out what the adults were saying. All I caught was the odd word or phrase. “After me.” “Put me up.” “Please.” “Danger.”
There was a pause. The next voice I heard was my mother’s. “All right.”
The door opened again and I raced away from it, attempting to look as innocent as possible. Tommy stepped out first. He smiled slightly, and I saw some of the color had returned to his face. My mother followed. This time, it was she who seemed pale and anxious.
She turned and addressed us both. “I was just about to start dinner. It should be ready in about a half an hour.”
“Thank you,” Tommy said.
My mother gave a small nod, then turned and disappeared down the hall.
Tommy turned to me and smiled broadly, acknowledging my presence for the first time since he’d arrived. “Hey there, Sport,” he called me by his favorite nickname for me. “Looks like I’ll be staying the night.”
“Great!” I exclaimed. It was always a good time when Uncle Tommy paid a visit. “Can we tell ghost stories like last time?”
His smile disappeared. “Um, maybe. We’ll see.”
Satisfied with that answer, I led him back to the living room where we both sat on the floor and proceeded to duel with action figures. As we played, I couldn’t help but notice how often Tommy glanced toward the window. I was always more interested in my next move than I was in whatever he was looking for, and so I never asked him why. Even if I had, though, I’m sure it would have made no difference.
My mother came into the room, her face stony and as white as before. “Dinner is ready,” she said.
Dinner was an awkward affair. We ate mostly in silence. I noticed that mother barely touched what was on her plate. Occasionally, she would ask Tommy, “How are the potatoes? The peas? The chops?”
His answer was the same each time. “Delicious, thank you.” He would punctuate the declaration with another bite, as if he were trying to convince her of something.
At last, Tommy tried to start a conversation. “Judith,” he said, “I really appreciate you letting me---”
“Shh,” my mother cut him off with surprising vehemence. She then seemed to notice how suspicious her behavior was and made an effort to soften her features. “It’s no trouble,” she said. “Really.”
As the meal drew to a close, Uncle Tommy seemed to yawn more and more. He would try to handle the yawns politely at first, but eventually they became so frequent and so deep that he could do nothing about them.
“You seem tired,” my mother said.
“Yes,” Tommy agreed. “It’s been an exhausting day.”
“Why don’t you head up to bed?”
Tommy rose from the table. “I think I may have to.” He turned to me. “Sorry to be so tired, Sport. Maybe tomorrow we’ll tell some stories.”
I made only the slightest effort to hide my disappointment. “Okay,” I said, as I pushed a clump of mashed potatoes around my plate.
My mother followed Tommy out of the room and I heard his manly footsteps climb the stairs. A few moments passed before my mother poked her head back into the room.
“Adam,” she said, “will you help me with something?”
I hopped out of my seat and followed her to the front hall. There, we teamed up to push the chest of drawers back into place. With the task complete, my mother crouched to my level and leaned in close.
“Now, Adam,” she began. “I need you to listen very carefully. You’re to go straight to bed and stay there. Do not come out of your room until morning, for any reason.”
I was confused. “Did I do something wrong?” I asked.
“No, no,” she said, petting the sides of my face. “You haven’t done anything. I just need you to do this. For me. Just stay in your room until the sun comes up. You’ll be safe, I promise. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. Even at such a young age, I had a sense that questioning would lead nowhere. Instead, I headed up the stairs to do as my mother asked. As I rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, I caught a glimpse of my mother turning the lock on the front door. Weird, I remember thinking. I could have sworn Uncle Tommy locked it already.
I must have fallen asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow because it’s here that my memory stops. The very next thing I remember is awakening in the darkness of my room. The only light came from the digital clock that sat beside my bed. The time was 3:33 AM.
As I lay blinking, trying to set the numbers right in my vision, I heard a strange sound. It began as a soft, faraway click. I realized very quickly that it was coming from somewhere outside. The click came closer and developed into a rhythmic thump. Footsteps, I decided. Heavy ones on the road below, heading past the house.
The thumps were now closer than ever when they suddenly stopped. Whomever had been walking outside seemed to have stopped right in front of the house.
I was just about to roll over and try to go back to sleep when a new sound stopped me in my tracks.
“Tommy!” a voice called from the street below. It was one I hadn’t heard before, a strange middle tone that made it hard to tell if it was male or female.
“Tommy!” it called again. It kept calling. “Tommy! Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!” Over and over, it called my uncle’s name. The call was rhythmic, almost unnaturally so.
As the calling continued, I realized I was shaking. Something about that voice was simply wrong. I could feel it. There was no other word to describe how I felt.
And it got worse. The rhythm persisted, but each repetition of my uncle’s name now became frantic, grating, as if the caller were desperate for his attention, as if their life depended on it.
“Tommy! Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!”
I couldn’t help but start crying. I grabbed my pillow and covered my head with it, repeating my mother’s words over and over in my mind. “Just stay in your room until the sun comes up. You’ll be safe, I promise.” I prayed she was right.
I feel some amount of shame now as I look back on that night. My thoughts were mostly for my own safety, when it was my uncle’s name that the voice kept calling. I should have been thinking of him. But again, even if I had, I’m not sure I could have done anything to change what happened.
That scream will forever be burned in my memory. The one that came from within the house. Tommy’s scream. It drowned out the endless repetitions from the street.
With my head still under my pillow, I heard the door to Tommy’s room fly open. Still howling in agony, he bounded down the stairs. The front door opened and slammed shut again. He was screaming in the street now, trailing further and further away along with the frantic caller who would not stop shouting his name. Their voices became fainter and fainter until I couldn’t hear them anymore.
I lay shivering in the dark silence. It must have been more than my child consciousness could withstand because I soon fell asleep again.
The next thing I knew, it was morning. The events of the night before swirled in my brain. According to my mother, it should have been safe to come out of my room now, but safe was the absolute last thing I felt. I sat in my bed and I waited for some sign that all was well and I could move again.
It came in the form of a delicious aroma.
“Adam,” I heard my mother call from the bottom of the stairs. “Come have your breakfast.”
For the first time since 3:33 that morning, I felt my muscles relax. I took a deep breath and pulled myself out of bed, feeling much better about everything.
I found my mother in the kitchen, assembling two hearty breakfast plates.
“Did Uncle Tommy leave?” I asked.
My mother frowned. “Oh, yes. He just left. He said he couldn’t stay for breakfast. He’s sorry he couldn’t stay and tell you a story.”
“He just left?” I asked. “I thought I heard him leave really late last night. It was still dark. He took off screaming. There was even a voice---”
“Shh!” My mother cut me off. The urgency in her eyes frightened me. She must have known because, again, she softened. “You must have dreamed it, bud,” she said.
A smile formed on her lips, but it never quite reached her eyes.
Written by Jdeschene