Beep, beep, beep.
The alarm clock pulled Jennifer from her dream, which she felt a loathing toward. She did not know why, but there seemed to be something about the small remaining fragments, those disjointed images of fire, those half-remembered faces, and that voice that was a dark, sweet sound speaking words that no longer existed in her mind, that were frightening to her. But by the time she had risen from bed it was totally forgotten, as so often happens; and she was haunted no more.
Since the death of her husband Arnold, she spent as little time as possible in bed. Without his presence, she felt she could be swallowed by the emptiness it, and simply vanish from this world. She showered in the master bath connected to her room, and dressed for work. When she was done, an hour still remained before she had to leave.
She went to prepare breakfast for herself and her children. Scrambled eggs and sausage was the meal of choice, despite the love they all shared for pancakes, especially Jennifer’s pancakes. She had won more than one baking contest with them. But the pain associated with those pancakes was too much. They had been the only things Arnold would eat for breakfast, and now eating them only brought back the pain of his passing. So eggs and sausage it was.
Her children would wake up after the sausage had cooked enough to spread its smell through the house. First there would be the muffled thumps of feet dropping lazily from beds. There would be a pause, as they got themselves tidied up and ready to leave the privacy of their rooms. Then, the soft creak of their doors opening followed by the slams as they were closed by uncaring, half sleeping minds. The bathroom door would be opened next, and the faucet would begin to run. Their voices would argue about who should wash first. Eventually they would be ready, and take their place at the table just moments before their meals were on their plates.
But that day, only one boy got out of his bead. Only one door was slowly opened and quickly shut. There was no argument about who washed first. And only one boy sat at his place to wait for his food.
It was Jonah, her youngest. A slightly mousy child of eleven years, he was small and thin, and with short perpetually messy light brown hair. He looked exactly like his father had at that age. That morning, his eyes were somewhat bloodshot, with slightly dark circles under them, and he seemed that he would fall over at the slightest touch.
“Sweetie, do you know where your brother is?”
“He never came back last night. I stayed up a long time waiting to tell him I finally prestiged.”
“How late did you stay up?”
“Not that late really. I fell asleep after a bit.”
“Well, he probably came back after you did. Go see if he’s still sleeping.”
“Do I have to?”
“Honey, just do it for me. Please?”
He slid off his chair, and wandered down the hall. Jennifer knew that he had gone to a party the night before, and she knew the things he did at them. No matter how hard he tried to hide it, she knew. Even if it was never addressed, the whole town knew what happened at the parties. It was all just considered an unchangeable fact of life.
“He’s not here, mom. I told you.”
“Okay, Jonah. Here, eat your breakfast.”
She put his food on his plate, and then placed the pans back on the hot stove before serving herself. She went to the living room and found her cellphone on its charger. She hit the speed dial number for her eldest son, and waited for him to pick up. He must not have been able to drive home, and stayed with a friend. There was no answer, so she left him a message when it switched to voicemail.
“Hey Tommy, I was just checking to see where you are. We’re missing you at breakfast. Uhm, call me when you can. I love you. Bye.”
She went back to the kitchen and served herself breakfast, and Jonah was nearly done with his. The rest of the morning continued without departure from the status quo. Jonah was picked up by the school buss, and Jennifer drove off to work. She worried about Tommy getting to school, but figured he would go with whomever he had stayed with.
And the day continued without interruption. Jennifer worked until six in the evening while Jonah was at basketball practice, and would then go to pick him up. Even though the high school Tommy attended was closer to Jonah’s middle school than the deli where she worked, she felt safer driving Jonah home herself. And so she did, just like every other day.
When they got back home, Tommy’s car was still not there. She checked her phone to see if she had missed the ring when Tommy called, but he had not. He had not texted either. Now she began to worry more. He had never been gone this long without telling her first.
“Why isn’t Tommy back yet?”
“Just go inside Jonah. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Ok.” Though he had been calm up until this point, the fact that his mother called him by his actual name gave Jonah some pause. She only did that when she was angry or, in this case worse, troubled by something. The last time he remembered her using it was while his father was in the hospital after his accident. And that had not ended well.
After Jonah closed his car door, Alice dialed the town high school’s number. She had to know if he had been there. Maybe she had just forgotten that he was doing something after school that day. A sports game, or a study group, or maybe a…
“Hello, this is Mrs. Avron. How can I help you?”
“Hi, it’s Jennifer Blackwell.”
“Oh, hey Jenny. What did you need?”
“Well, I was just wondering. Did Tommy go in today?”
“Well, I didn’t see him. Let me check the records. I’ll just be one sec.”
“All right.” She could feel a sinking feeling in her stomach. She had been darkly preoccupied with the thought of Tommy driving himself since Arnold’s death. She feared almost nothing more than getting the call that his car was wrapped around a light post, that he had not been wearing his seatbelt, that he had been thrown through a store window and was now in the hospital in a coma that may never break, that it was up to her to either allow him to live on as a vegetable for god knows how long or to pull the life support. She did not think she could survive another such experience.
“Well, he didn’t show up for classes today, but there were several no shows today. The usual suspects. These kids really need to stop par—“
There was a tap on the car window, and Jonah was standing there looking in at her. The sudden noise made her almost drop her phone, and she missed the rest of Mrs. Avron’s sentence. She cracked her window as she said, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t quite hear that last part.”
As Mrs. Avron repeated her admonishment of partying on school nights, Jennifer mouthed the word “what” to Jonah. “It’s locked, I need a key,” he mouthed back. She handed her son the keys from the ignition. He walked back to house, and went inside.
“Well, I’m just a bit worried about him. He still hasn’t come home, or called me. Is there a game or something tonight?”
“Not that I know of. But I wouldn’t worry too much. He’s probably just with friends, and too busy doing God only knows what foolish teenage things to take the time to call his mother.”
“Yeah, that’s probably it.” She paused, to think of what to say next. After a sigh, she continued.
“Well, thanks for your time.” Over the year since Arnold’s passing, she had learned how to mask her unease and fretfulness when talking over the phone, masking it with the verbal equivalent of that overly happy grin seen on the face of so many depressed persons when asked how they feel. She was good enough that you could not help but believe her.
“It’s no problem Jenny. I’ll talk to you later. Goodbye!”
She sat in the car a moment more, before speed dialing Tommy again. Again it went to voicemail. She recorded and deleted several messages. One sounded too angry, one too worried, one was a rambling mess combining anger and fear with an incredibly unfocused dancing about the fact that he was not home. Finally, she decided to leave a simple message. “Hey Tommy. I hope you’re doing ok. I heard there was a big party last night. Look, I know what it’s like. I was a kid once, too. You can come home. Don’t worry about getting in trouble, I’d just rather you be here with us. I’ll be making dinner soon, so if you want some… Well, call me when you can. I love you. Bye.”
And so she went inside her house, and tried to go about her normal nightly routine. She cooked dinner for Jonah and herself, with a little extra to put in the refrigerator for Tommy. She washed the dishes, then put them away. She watched some TV while Jonah did his homework, then said goodnight as he went to bed, and stayed awake for a few more hours, trying to put off returning to that overwhelmingly large bed. She eventually went to her room, and changed in to her sleeping clothes. She set her alarm for the morning, fell asleep, and slipped into the world of dreams. Or, in this case, the world of nightmares.
All around her were flames, but they made no sound, and emitted no heat. She could turn her head, but not move any other part of her. At first, there was nothing beyond the fire but vast blackness, but eventually things came into focus. Faces emerged in the distance, familiar ones that she could not quite place. She watched as one was raised above the other three, and it contorted violently, before falling down into the flames and vanishing. The others then flew closer, and she could see who they were now.
One was Reverend Ted Williamson, but he did not look like himself. His face was twisted with rage, and had a sinister visage that greatly unsettled her. Another was Ted’s younger brother Alan. He also wore an evil smile that completely changed his normally gentle face into that of a monster. His green eyes seemed to burn even more than the fire surrounding him. The third man was a teacher from the high school. He was a younger man, barely out of college, but his face was now aged with an inhuman rage. These faces flew around and around her, just above the flames. And then, something else rose up in the distance.
It was another face, but it was not one she was familiar with, nor was it entirely human. It was a strange thing, with gaunt and narrow caprine features, completely hairless aside from a goatee of pure white, scraggly hair. As it approached, it grew even larger than the other faces, and became clearer in her eyes. She could now see the completely black eyes, whose pupils were indistinguishable, and the small horns protruding from just above its brows.
Now, the other faces vanished, leaving only this immense thing in her vision. Its mouth opened, revealing teeth like a cat’s, though more spread out, with some broken stubs remaining. Though she could not see it, she knew it was staring directly into her eyes, as it spoke. The words from its mouth were completely foreign to her, and came pouring out in a booming bass that she could feel resonating throughout her body. She could not understand any of it, but knew she should fear these words. When it finished, it leaned towards her, and she felt its gaze penetrate her like a knife. And, though she knew not why, she had a desire to say two words. To simple words that now seemed so profound.
With those words, the face smiled the most grotesque smile, pealing back its lips and revealing those knarred teeth, and a laugh blasted out. Now, the flames that had surrounded her flew towards the thing, coalescing and extinguishing, revealing a giant body. From that body unfurled to pairs of ragged, bat like wings. Though there was no longer an apparent source of light, she could still see the creature, and watch as it flew away on those wings. It flew high above her, still emitting that horrid laugh. It was then that a sound reached into her sleep, and pulled her out.
As she sat up in her bed, the laugh still rang in her ears. As she picked up her cell phone, she still wondered what it had been that made her say that phrase in her dream. But those thoughts were forced out when she heard the voice on the other side, the voice that spoke in those sickening tones that were maddening in that they always betrayed the meaning that was supposed to be covered by them. And though the words were never said directly, she knew what they were. Tears built in her eyes, and a wail of anguish escaped her lips.
Tommy was dead.