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A Childhood Phone Number

A childhood phone number

Estimated reading time — 39 minutes

It started when a friend of mine came over, which led to us speaking at length about our childhood homes. He grew up in a different province where things seemed so much different than the way it was for me. I began the first few years of my own life growing up on different army bases until the day my parents quit to pursue careers that wouldn’t have them moving around so much. My friend, Joshua, grew up in the city where he and most of his neighbours lived in apartment complexes. We spent the better part of an hour comparing how things were. Very soon into the discussion, I’d managed to tap into a sense of nostalgia stemming from the pleasant memories of one house in particular. It was the house we lived in just before moving to a less remote location.

“You know what, man? I even remember our old phone number,” I said as I gazed almost longingly at a photo I’d pulled up on my phone. A scanned photograph of the old place filled the small screen as I tilted the device toward him to give him a good look.

Joshua gave a small snicker, “Funny, you remember your old number but you can’t remember other things like today’s date.” I playfully elbowed him in the ribs and pressed the home button on my phone.
He shoved me back while saying “Have you ever tried calling it?”

I reached for my cigarettes and lit one with the flick of my lighter, “No, it’s probably not even in service. It’s been years.” I took a long drag and exhaled as Joshua shrugged, cracking open a window to let the smoke escape.

Soon, I was back on my phone, swiping through the hundreds of photos I had on there in some album containing only scanned photographs I’d uploaded to the cloud. After about four or five old Halloween photos, I paused, having seen a picture of my younger brother.

“How did that get on there?” I murmured, feeling muted as I normally did when seeing or hearing anything about him.

Joshua peered over and shook his head, “Uh, no. I get that those memories are important but aren’t you depressed seeing a photo of him?” he asked.

“I must’ve overlooked it when I was putting this album together,” I said as I hit delete on the touch screen.

“Thank god,” sighed Joshua, “It’s already weird enough having gone to your place and seeing how your folks were still so fucked up over him. ‘Course, I probably sound like an asshole talking like this,” he cut himself off, finally noticing that his big mouth might be offending someone. Though he’s got an obnoxious way of bringing up unmentionable topics, he didn’t piss me off. We’d smoked a couple of joints earlier, I never was one for expecting people to have a perfect way of relating information verbally, so I knew he’d be burnt out and sloppy with his responses to pretty much anything.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said while stubbing out my cigarette into the overflowing ashtray and freed some space in my living room by clearing out used glasses.

Joshua got a text from someone and jumped to his feet, “Oh shit. I forgot I have dinner with my folks tonight,” and reached for his jacket.

I laughed while still in the kitchen, hearing him clumsily throw on his sweater and slip on his boots. By the time I got back to the room, he was ready to leave.

“We’re going to have to pick up where we left off,” he said, with a nod towards the television. The Lord of the Rings DVD had been paused earlier in our gloriously geeky marathon, just after we’d begun talking about old houses and numbers and all of that.

“Sure. Shoot me a text when you figure out your schedule,” I said, shutting off the television and holding the door open for him as he walked out into the hallway. He seemed self-conscious about whether I’d take offence to his leaving so quickly. I didn’t mind. I shut the door and sat back down on the couch, dumping the cigarette butts and ashes into the trash can.

I thought about the old number, 786-0154. I knew he was right about how there was only a slim chance that the number would still exist, it had probably been changed at least half a dozen times. Maybe it just wasn’t in service at all anymore, that seemed pretty likely. Over the years, my family must’ve had about five different numbers and almost none were attached to any concrete memories, not for the most part, maybe that was why I could remember this one so clearly. I’m not saying that my memory is perfect, but there was a core group of select details I could remember about those days, even though I was maybe ten at the time.

During the years we had that number, things were pretty great… for most of it, anyway. Those were the memories I’d chosen to hang onto. However, during the last year or so of our living there, we were in and out of the hospital with my younger brother. Those events were the ones I’ve tried to avoid thinking about altogether, choosing instead to pretend like it never happened. My folks never really got over his death because of how sudden and horrifying it was for them both. Nobody really knew what was wrong with him and the doctors they’d brought him to see weren’t the least bit helpful. The times Joshua’s seen my family were unfortunately really close to the morbid anniversary of his death, in the middle of the summer, nearer to the fall. Around that time of year, my mother just goes completely silent, jumping and startled at every little shadow. My father buries himself in his work, refusing to say much more than the typical small talk. They used to keep a photo of my sibling, Art, on a shelf by the fireplace, and I think Joshua once made a who’s-that-little-dork kind of comment thinking the kid in the photo was me, and mom just lost it. She was inconsolable for two hours and anyone who tried to comfort her by rubbing her back or attempting to hug her was met with a sharp gasp of what we had assumed was hysterical fear. She tried to busy herself with dusting or some other thing that was frantically done but was supposed to make her just seem preoccupied. That’s why he was so nervous about offending me. He always forgets I’m more detached from the whole situation, especially as the years continue onward.

My little brother, Art, had an illness that was eating away at his bones and sapping strength from his body, it also brought an amount of pain that couldn’t be eased by any combination of pills or shots. One of the only things I remember with absolute clarity was hearing his shrill, ugly cries late into the night as the springs in his mattress squeaked under his writhing form. No matter what anyone did, he would keep on until sunrise and, as he closed in on the end of his life, no amount of drugs could take away even a fraction of the agony he was in. The photograph Joshua had seen on my phone was pretty ghastly, it was taken one day after Art had been given sedatives to quell his anxiety. He was seven in that photo, the same age he was when he died. It was just past the time when his body had started wasting. He was tucked into bed with his stick-like arms over the blanket and his head tilted slightly to the side. The gauntness in his cheeks was unlike anything that should be present in the appearance of a seven-year-old. He looked waxy and, as much as I hated remembering him so horribly, he almost looked comical, like some bug-eyed husk. No childlike whimsy twinkled in his eye, only a blank stare that was captivated by nothing as it bored into every person or thing that encountered him. The skin on his hands looked like it was stretched over his bones and tendons like wet paper, the only sign of life within him was the occasional incoherent black rage that could only be discerned by looking at the tension held in his jaw as shadows flitted across his pupils. Luckily, this wasn’t properly captured in the photo, but it’s still one of the only things I remember more clearly than technology could’ve ever captured.

Suddenly, it was as though a dark cloud had passed over me. I felt depressed. Joshua was right, I shouldn’t keep photos like that around. I was going to have to go through my albums again so that I didn’t run into any more morbid imagery. I pressed the button on my iPod, music blasted out from the tiny yet effective speaker near its base. I’d been through enough therapy sessions to know that what I had to do now was change my train of thought. I focused on happy memories like the ones shown in the old Halloween photos that made me feel nostalgic. It wasn’t easy but I felt determined to avoid another dip in my mood. I thought again about the phone number, whether it was still in use or if someone in another house had chosen to claim it. I reached for the leftover roach in the ashtray and lit it, inhaling a thick cloud of smoke. I felt a type of giddiness that served only to remind me of something I probably would’ve done when I was a little kid. I could always call the old phone number and see who picked up. I reached for my cellphone and debated dialling, hesitating for a moment, mentally kicking myself into giving it a shot. After all, what harm could there be in trying?

I punched in the number, or tapped it, since the phone I had possessed a touch screen. I listened for the first and second rings, resolving to hang up if it got to a third ring because I realized how it just so happened to be around dinner time, which meant I could be disturbing someone’s meal. Unfortunately, nothing happened and the sound of the automated operator played.

“We’re sorry. This number cannot be reached right now. Please hang up and-“

I hung up, feeling surprisingly disappointed but also a little relieved. Why did I think the same number would be assigned to the old house, anyway? Even if someone was living there, there’s no guarantee they would’ve kept the number. I finished smoking the roach and ground out the papery remnants, lighting a stick of incense to cover the smell. I usually don’t smoke when I’m on my own but I was looking for a distraction. It wasn’t such a good idea because I still was seeing leftover images of Art playing through my mind, which was strange because this never happened unless if I purposely focused on him. Normally, it was easier to blot him out of my thought process. I decided to lie back and rest my eyes for a bit. I fell asleep.

I awoke a few hours later to the sound of the phone ringing. When I opened my eyes, I saw that my cellphone had been propped up near my chin as if I had reached for it in my sleep and dialled a number. I wondered whether I had started sleepwalking again. When I looked at the screen I saw that, somehow, the old phone number had been dialled. I won’t lie, I was quite startled in my confusion and disorientation. Just before tapping End, I realized I must be dreaming because the call was actually going through. I tucked the phone away and chose to reorient myself. This was starting to feel a bit surreal. Out the window, I could see that the sky had fully darkened and clouds had rolled across whatever phase the moon was in. It wasn’t long until I heard the vibrating sound of my phone beneath the pillow. Damning myself for having such good hearing, I dove for the device and silently peered at the screen as it approached its third ring. The screen showed my old phone number, 786-0154. My heart thumping heavily in my chest, I chose to answer at the last possible second. Pressing the phone back to my ear, I heard nothing, save for a dial tone. I hung up, checked the call log and, sure enough, the number had been accessed as a redial. Shaking my head in disbelief, I wondered how this could be possible.

This was getting far too bizarre and I felt way beyond creeped out for someone who had to live alone. Casting a sideways scowl at the ground-out roach in the ashtray, I blamed my jitters on the effects of my smoke and decided to take one of the strong sedatives prescribed by my shrink. I felt close enough to an anxiety attack so I gulped down a cup of water after knocking back two of the pills. I then sat back down, awaiting their effect. That night, the heaviness of sleep had blotted out all possibilities of dreaming save for the way my mind played a grim soundtrack of nails scraping against a hard surface.

I awoke the next morning and checked my cell phone. No new calls. There were a couple of texts from Joshua saying he wouldn’t be able to finish the movie marathon until next week or so. I didn’t feel like responding or putting any effort into planning so I plugged the phone into a charger and busied myself with preparing breakfast. It took me a few moments to remember why I felt so groggy and unfocused, but I figured it out after seeing the bottle I’d left on the coffee table. Shaking my head, I put on a pot of coffee and waited for it to brew. Seating myself once the cup was full, I reached for the cellphone and called my parents to ask them how they were doing. My mother answered, her carefully measured voice doing its best to project an air of tranquillity. I’m sure she could’ve fooled just about anyone else but I was one of the only people who were forever able to detect the slight quaver in her tone. After going through the usual formalities of talking through how our weeks went and what each other’s plans were for the coming weekend, I felt a strange urge to bring up the old phone number.

“So, mom, I was thinking about some things from the past… and it turns out the main thing I remember about growing up was the old house. You know, the one with the woods out back?”

She went completely silent, so silent that I’m sure she was holding her breath. I decided to press on.
“I was talking to Josh about our childhood and I just thought it was kind of weird that the number was one of the only ones I could even remember from back then.” I finally heard her make a sound, she seemed to be giving a long sigh. When she spoke, the quaver in her voice was so pronounced that I felt awful for even mentioning anything to begin with.

“Honey, your dad and I always knew you had an exceptional memory, especially for technical details. Do you remember the number, now?” She was trying to keep it together. I heard her open a pill bottle to take her medication.

I gave a slight chuckle that sounded artificial as it left my mouth, masking my dread at remembering how the old phone number had called me back last night. I responded, “Of course, it’s 786-0154.”

I heard her drop something, hearing her curse under her breath as she gave me a “One minute, Roge” to set the phone down. She probably went to pick up the fallen pills. The next time I heard her voice, it had grown extremely tense and strained. I worried over whether I’d pissed her off. She said, “Roger, I don’t think that’s the right number. I think you’re off a digit.” I opened my mouth to correct her, but she beat me to speaking and changed the conversation with one of her avoidant segues. She almost snapped, “Do you know what you’re having for dinner? Your dad and I are going to order takeout.”

I finished the conversation with her and eventually hung up the phone. I mentally kicked myself for even bringing up the old number. Nobody was affected by memories in the same way my mother experienced. I knew what bringing up the past did to her, so did my father. I’d be expecting a curt text from him for the rest of the day. These types of conversations were never easy on mom, even on the phone where I didn’t have to see her physical reaction to the topic. I finished my coffee and did some reading for the rest of the afternoon. I needed a distraction after that and I had no intention of having to take another pill to calm my nerves.

My family is afflicted with various illnesses, mental and physical. Thing is, aside from certain physical conditions, nobody really has ever talked about any of it save for with our psychiatrists or psychologists. Nobody wants to talk about it and everyone expects each other to attend therapy sessions to silently work through their issues until everyone can seem as happy as possible. My mother’s struggled with panic disorder and, I’m guessing, mania or psychosis of some sort. I’ve never seen or confirmed her actual diagnosis, if she’s even got one, but I do know she’s on a few medications she desperately needs to help her cope through nightmares and altered states.

My father has some issues with poor impulse control, addiction, or depression- who knows. He also keeps to himself, something ensuring that any serious conversation will feel like pulling teeth. Along with heart conditions, juvenile arthritis, and being plagued by allergies, our family would probably be considered pretty sickly compared to most others. Unfortunately, the combined years of therapy and sporadic treatment programs didn’t enable my parents to be more open about their struggles. As a result, the rest of the world, myself included, has always simply reacted to their behaviours and habits without really understanding their behavioural shifts. The main thing I’ve noticed over time is that no matter how many sessions they’ve gone to, nothing could have ever prepared either of them for what happened in that last house, the one that old phone number was associated with. I knew that, even now, mom was most likely sitting in her favourite armchair, waiting for the drugs to kick in because the very mention of that old number must’ve set her off. The final year of Art’s life was burned into her memory and, most likely, still kept her up at night.

I think she took it the hardest because of how close she was to him. She had been driven to a dangerous point during the stage when she and my dad were visiting every doctor within a 100-kilometre distance. They tried to get in touch with specialists across the country, asking for second, third, and fourth opinions because nobody could give them a clear answer for what was going on with my little brother. Mom would stay up all night reading through medical journals and diagnostic manuals even though I’m sure she didn’t understand all the medical terminology that was peppered throughout. I was only 10 at the time but I remember the weeks that went by where she would spend all day taking care of Art. She tried feeding him and mopped up the perpetually vomited soups and mashes that were rejected and ejected from his dying body. She carried him around the house, bathed him, and changed his clothes because he was too sick to make it to the toilet when he had to go. There were many times where the entire house stank of piss and vomit no matter how many times it had been cleaned with bleach and other household products. I don’t remember her having that many wrinkles but, during that one year, it was as if she had aged by two decades. She had also developed this greyish sort of complexion that worsened when Art would start screaming bloody murder into the night. A long time ago, if someone was was sick or in pain, she’d kneel or sit beside the afflicted and do her best to rub their back, speaking in a soothing voice. When Art was dying, all she could do was hold her breath through the worst of his screams and pray he’d finally pass out and be too exhausted to continue when or if he woke up. My father sometimes watched over her through these hard times, but only when he wasn’t throwing himself into his work. When he was present, he was completely silent as his large, clumsy hands patted my mother’s shoulder, almost as if he was trying to mimic how she comforted us kids. Funny that it was all coming back to me now.

At the end of Art’s life, he would weakly wriggle around the mattress as if he was trying to imitate the movements of a dying fish. He alternated between giving long, drawn-out gasps and gurgles to shrieking for hours until his voice gave out. I swear, you could hear his vocal cords rubbing together like sandpaper. His whole body shook most of the time but, on bad days, especially near the end, he couldn’t even lift a hand to feed himself or reach for the sippy cup he needed to drink his juice. He couldn’t hold the cup properly with the tremors wreaking havoc on his motor skills. No doctor ever got back to my parents with any useful news. They were flabbergasted at Art’s condition but claimed they couldn’t find anything physically wrong with him. One summer when I was almost 10 I remember my dad yelling over the phone at someone who was probably a doctor. He demanded they do more tests, that the ones they’d already done couldn’t possibly have come back negative for some sort of rare illness, that they needed to try harder. Despite both of my parents’ demands and frustrations, nobody could come up with an answer to what could have caused Art’s illness. The doctors simply began writing prescriptions for painkillers and sedatives, something to shut him up. I have vague memories of my parents trying to talk things out with one another, with my mother crying and my father giving one-sentence responses to her choked ramblings. They spoke of how angry they were at the hospital for not trying hard enough, that they were purposely neglecting to impart information that might make everyone understand the situation a whole lot more. They later felt that the doctors and nurses were working against our family to keep Art sick, giving temporary solutions like useless medication to dull his pain until he was finally dead or dying. I also remember the time mom completely broke down after Art had passed out for the day. She wept into a pillow for hours, sobbing that she couldn’t wait until her son’s pain was finally over. I knew what that meant, even at age 10. I also knew what my father’s mute, tear-stained face meant. He, too, was waiting for their son to die.

Eventually, when Art was finally dead, I wasn’t allowed to see his body. I knew it had happened because the smell had permeated every stitch of fabric in the house. It wasn’t exactly decay, but it was so powerful that it couldn’t be scrubbed out with bleach or anything else. I also knew it happened because of the sound of mom puking her guts out. She wouldn’t leave his room for most of that first day. My father eventually came home from work, and that’s when my mother’s screaming and sobbing started. I couldn’t imagine what she was feeling, but I knew from the sight of her eyes and her ashen face that she had seen something no parent should ever see. Beyond the endless nightmares she had endured, starved of sleep and joy, something else had been carving away at her. Strangely enough, what happened afterwards remains a mystery to me because all I remember is us packing up the house and leaving shortly after Art was gone. When I say shortly, I mean that it felt like it took less than a week for my parents to pack up and stay in a hotel until we were able to move on to the next house. The full extent of whatever happened must’ve been stored in my bones because around the same time every year, I feel weak and overwhelmed with pain… almost as if I was supposed to experience bits and pieces of what Art had gone through. I’ve never been able to explain it, not to myself nor anyone else, I thought that it might have been an ordinary part of grieving. I never tried to delve into what little I had of that memory because it just seemed best that I couldn’t recall much from those times outside of what was safe to remember, all of the happy stuff from before the horror of tragedy struck. Damn it all for coming back so clearly, especially after all this time.

I roused myself out of the disturbing memory pit I’d dug and proceeded through the rest of the day all the while trying to prevent my thoughts from returning to the analysis of different parts of those memories. I felt exhausted by the time I got to bed later that night, even though it took what seemed like hours to finally fall asleep.

My dreams began as fuzzy grey outlines and crawling figures with no faces. It was all rather similar to many other nights, however, this time the gossamer film dissolved from over my eyes. With my vision restored, I found myself standing on the second stair from the top of the staircase in the house where Art was sick and dying. I stood there listening to the sound of my mother stumbling around as she made her way toward the shed in our backyard. She thought everyone else was asleep. She knew where dad had hidden the body.

Of course, I thought to myself, he’s dead now. He’s finally dead, and this is mom’s way of dealing with the grief from it all.

I peered down into the darkness of the ground floor of the house and tried to see where Art was. I wondered if dad had moved his body since he technically didn’t need his bed anymore, it had to be somewhere mom wouldn’t think of checking. I heard a scraping sound from the backyard and made my way closer to the door, soon feeling the dewy grass beneath my bare feet. I saw her in the shed, crouched and huddled around a mass of blankets she clutched to her breast as she let out silent, shuddering sobs. A stick-thin arm slid out from the mass of blankets. It was then grotesquely clear that she was clutching Art. I froze, my bones grinding to a halt. She didn’t seem to detect the movement of his fallen arm, possibly because she refused to look at him directly even as she held him, but continued allowing herself the luxury of pretending he was still alive. Then came more of those horrible quiet sobs.

She muttered, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” over and over again, rocking Art’s shrivelled, stinking, motionless body. Eventually, she tucked his arm back within the folds of the cloth. My heart was stuck in my throat, I couldn’t stop watching the terrible scene until the stench became overwhelming. My heart stopped me from gagging, it kept me from being able to move. I felt shaky, like I might pass out.

I awoke drenched in an ice-cold sweat, with clammy fingers reaching for my cellphone. I could’ve sworn I’d heard it ring while I was still just at the edges of waking, but nothing seemed to be happening now that I’d escaped the nightmare. Wrenching myself out of bed, I flung on some new pants and a shirt before going about my daily business while intermittently shaking my head to rid myself of leftover images from that dream. I thought to text someone but what could I possibly say about it? Nothing about it made sense, anyway, even if it was a memory and not just something my mind had made up. The only person I could tell would be a shrink and I hadn’t been to see mine in several months. I told myself it was just traumatic residue dredged up from that time in the past, a typical sort of glitch. This was a flood of information caused by that scanned photo and, of course, my own mental prying. I was thinking too much, I needed to tune out for a while to regroup my thoughts.

I went out and sat at a coffee shop, glad to escape the confines of my place. I greeted some random person I thought I knew and chuckled over the mistake, feeling relieved that something had taken my mind off of the dream. My phone buzzed in my pocket during the misadventure although I couldn’t reach for it until the third buzz had ended. I glanced at the screen and saw that, somehow, two calls had been missed. One was from my parents’ number and the other was my childhood phone number, the very same one I had tried to discuss with my mother. A knot formed itself at the base of my throat and, with twitching fingers, I deleted the missed call from the phone’s log. This was getting to be too much.

I couldn’t call anyone back, not before work. I stammered and shook through my shift at some nameless grocery store, refusing any coffee while abstaining from food on breaks. My stomach felt sick and the feeling lasted until I was making my way home. I checked my phone again, no missed calls, not this time anyway. Even so, I heard a sigh of relief before realizing that it was coming from my mouth. Back at my place, I watched the clock and checked my cellphone like a maniac. After some time had passed and no additional missed calls had appeared, I took to biting my nails until I eventually began to calm down again. I decided to surf the internet, which is one of the best ways to kill time and find mindless distractions. I attempted to surf Reddit but grew bored of navigating the threads. I signed into Facebook and checked the number of notifications I’d acquired over the past couple of weeks when I had refused to sign in during what was deemed a social media detox. I heard my cellphone ring and, thinking that it could be one of my parents, I picked up.

At first, there was no response. I spoke, “Hello?” but heard nothing but a small sigh, like a child had been getting ready to make a prank call but hesitated.

“Hello?” I asked again, growing frustrated, but to no avail. The kid hung up the phone. My brow furrowed, I checked the call log and nearly dropped the phone in mute shock. It was that old phone number, I could scarcely believe it. I hit redial with my mind going two hundred miles a minute. Throughout the mess of half-formed ideas and disbelief, I was able to pick out two or three distinctly formed thoughts.

What in the fuck? Who is this little shit and why is he trying to mess with me? How is somebody calling me back from that number when it wasn’t even in service before this whole thing began? Oh God, his voice sounds familiar.

I didn’t speak any of my thoughts aloud, I just held my breath until there was an answer.

“H-hello?” came that kid’s voice, sounding like a little boy, younger than a 10-year-old. I couldn’t find any words to say in response.

“Is anyone t-there?” he reiterated, sounding like he was out of breath, the air squeezing out of his lungs in a half wheeze.


“Yeah. I’m here,” I finally returned, now annoyed that I was so freaked out over a little kid, “Why are you calling me?”

The kid made a sort of noise that sounded like “Hm,” and then said, “I’m not calling you. You called me.”

“Now you know perfectly well that you called ME more than once. Were you trying to play a prank or something?” I felt my temper flare up pretty quick.

“No. I didn’t do anything.” He was being evasive, as clumsy as his attempts were. He sounded so awkward, probably because he had been caught in the act and felt ashamed of himself.

I couldn’t help but grin a little disdainfully. Kids are weird. “You did call. There’s no point in trying to lie. I have caller ID, I just dialled the number that showed up on my phone,” I explained carefully, trying to mask my anxiety.

“Oh, okay. Sorry,” he mumbled. He sounded nervous, somehow strained.

“Just learn from it. Don’t prank call people, especially if you don’t know how to go about it,” I offered, trying to impart mature advice in light of his inevitable embarrassment over this mishap. “Bye kid,” I ended the call before I found myself lecturing him some more.

“Bye Roge,” and he hung up the phone before I could feel the breath catch in my throat. Did I somehow let slip my name throughout the conversation? For a moment, I assumed he just saw my name come up on his phone since almost all phones have caller-ID nowadays. The thought comforted me.

I suddenly became hyper-aware that I was sweating profusely, my pits looked like black holes in an otherwise grey t-shirt. I changed before opening a window, fidgeting and biting my lip through it all and feeling pretty helpless in my confusion. After calming my thoughts, I reached for my phone and checked the option that would allow me to change whether or not my number would show up on someone’s caller-ID. To my dismay, I found the box checked, meaning my number couldn’t be seen by anyone if I called them. I felt a headache brewing, making my skull tight and like it was being squeezed in a vice. I spent the rest of that night wondering who this kid was, if he actually said my name or if I had just imagined that detail, and how the hell he could know that information. This was too fucking out there, it didn’t make any sense whatsoever. I gnawed at my hands, squinting against the growing headache until I succumbed to taking another couple of pills. I would’ve been up all night, otherwise. My heart raced on and on until the sedative hit and I was flung into a restless slumber that felt more like a twilight state.

In the beginning, all I could pick out were my own thoughts crisscrossing in the air above me, playing in weirdly distorted layers of non-existent sound. What are you supposed to do with a dead body? What do you do if the body belongs to your family member? Why did she still have Art’s body if he was dead? Why was I back at this fucking house? My eyes fogged over in fear and dread. I could barely make out her rocking form. Her muttered apologies continued on and on. It was so confusing, it all felt so wrong. My mother’s back suddenly stiffened and she wiped her face with her sleeve, setting Art down on the floor of the shed. His mouth hung open and a thin stream of dark vomit trickled onto the cloth wrapped around his face. Blood remained crusted around his nostrils, blackened by the moonlight, but the worst part, the very worst part that was too horrifying to even put into words, the part that made me want to shriek endlessly into the night was that his eyes were open. His empty, postmortem gaze felt as though it corroded my skin but, somehow, I knew that was just the fear I felt from looking at him.

My screams were what woke me up, making me pitch forward and out of bed before colliding my shoulder with the door frame as I hurled toward the bathroom. The afterimage of Art’s lifeless eyes stayed with me along with a sickening feeling of fear coupled with fresh grief. Just the tumultuous memory washing over me was enough to make me sick. I vomited for a good 15 minutes into the toilet, going so far as to try forcing my eyes open as I gagged so that I wouldn’t have to see Art’s face imprinted on my eyelids. When I was finally finished, I’d realized it was already morning. I washed my face and gargled mouthwash, then brushed my teeth twice. The rest of the day had me finding excuses to leave the house to escape having to be around that phone. It wasn’t easy and I don’t remember much of it in clear detail because all I could think about was why that kid called, how he knew my name, and so many other things until I found myself walking across the street after having left the park. A sudden realization jolted me so severely that I couldn’t do anything for a minute except freeze and allow the thought to pass through me. That kid on the phone sounded like Art.

Suddenly, the blare of a car horn sounded in my ear and I turned my head just in time to see some woman roll down her window to scream at me. “You’ll get yourself killed,” she shrieked, so angry that I could barely make out her facial features.

I watched as her car sped off as it screeched down the street, but I wasn’t shaken. It felt like nothing could pull me from my current state. I guess it’s good that I wasn’t hit by her car. I jogged the rest of the way home, entering my living room and stumbling over the rug before I could reach the phone. There was one missed call and I knew all too well which number had tried to contact me. There was also one voicemail. I accessed my inbox with trembling fingers and listened to nothing but a low sort of giggling sound that ended in a repulsive cough. That was it. I hit redial and waited through the first and second rings, grinding my teeth as each second passed. Someone picked up on the third ring and I knew, somehow, that it had to be the kid.

“Hey, don’t you hang up. I know you called me again, what do you want?” I demanded forcefully. I heard him cough but he didn’t make another sound.

I wasn’t able to stop the words that then came out of my mouth, “Kid, HOW do you know my name?” The note of desperation I heard in my tone was enough to set me off into a spiral of anger. I set my jaw, awaiting a response.

He hung up without saying anything. I threw my phone in a mixture of panic and rage but then tried calling him back. An automated message sounded and told me the number couldn’t be reached. I was seriously beginning to lose my fucking mind here. It took three pills to get me to sleep that night. It was almost as if my dream self knew what scene would greet me after the blackness dissolved away.

I was in the backyard, back by the shed. Mom now reached for Art, lifting him with shaking arms. She stared into his blank eyes and half stumbled out of the shed, making her way past the boundary line between our backyard and the woods behind our house. I felt my feet move even though I wanted nothing more than to run back into my room to hide in my closet. My brain couldn’t even process what was happening anymore, certain parts of my thoughts and vision were unfocused, unclear, disoriented. Within every possible emotion and thought was a dagger of fear that twisted and turned until I felt my upper torso flailing madly while my legs walked on. They finally stopped as I saw mom come to a halt after walking for what felt like ages. I craned my neck to see what it was that made her stop. With a sudden petrified sense of clarity, I saw a small recently-dug pit. She stood at the edge, arms outstretched, letting fall Art’s body. We both watched it flop through the air. I’m sure neither of us could hear anything else aside from the dull thud of his small, putrid body hitting the dirt. She then took up the shovel and began filling the hole at an agonizing pace. No expression crawled over her face, or maybe none that I could see in the near pitch blackness of the woods. She just seemed stony and muted, as if she were in an old photograph, while her hands and arms busied themselves. It felt like it took well over an hour for her to finish, and I was deaf throughout the entire process until that last soft thump of dirt was thrown over what had so recently been an open grave. That sound sent a jolt of electricity through my frozen body and, finally, I was able to take off. At first, I tried leaping a few steps backwards, though after turning clumsily, I raced back to the edge of the woods until the trees became more sparse. I then continued through my backyard, half tumbling, half sprinting. When I reached the back door of the house, I leapt up three of the steps of the staircase and scrambled up the rest. When I got to the top of the staircase, I heard my mother call my name. I froze with my foot on the top stair, the shock and panic were so great, and my body went rigid. I fell backwards, tumbling down the stairs, feeling each step smash into different parts of my body as my vision faded to black, overpowered by the return of that gossamer film.

When I awoke, my body was wracked in pain. I had bleeding scratches and nail indents covering my arms. That dream was the worst thing to happen to me since… well, since that fucking night I had remembered. As if the nail indents and scratches were a sick joke with a delayed punchline, I realized I had been trying to wake myself up by any means necessary. This had apparently called for scratching and digging my fingernails into my arms until they bled. I laid there with my mouth cotton-dry and tears brimming my eyes until my pounding heart forced me to get out of bed. Feverishly glancing around my bedroom, I searched for the phone until I spotted it on the floor. I didn’t piece together that the whole reason it was on the floor was that it had been vibrating an awful lot and the phone had crawled across the desk on its own. I saw how many missed calls there were, 120, all from that same goddamned number. Again, I felt sick because I saw that two voicemails were waiting for me. The little envelope icon had never looked so sinister.

The first message was nothing but that kid laughing for about ten seconds. The laughter made me feel so sick that my stomach heaved and I had to clap a hand over my mouth to keep from being sick all over the place as my nerves churned disgustingly.

The second message was shorter, but there was more to it. It ran, “Roge. 118 Crescent View,” he made little half gasps in between every couple or so words like he was struggling to breathe, “Crescent View. A hund-hundred eighteeeeee-” I hit the screen to end the call. I knew that address.

Nearly blinded by panic, I bounded outside and toward my car, throwing open the door, getting in, and slamming it shut once my quivering hands found the keys and the steering wheel. I drove like a maniac for almost the entire way to the old neighbourhood, glancing at the phone every few minutes or so. It took about two hours to get there and, for the first hour and a half, I had no idea of whether I was going the right way until I saw the abandoned skate park and the old community centre just at the edge of town. In my current state, I couldn’t feel any nostalgic murmurings in my chest and there were no feelings of childhood reminiscence, certainly not as I pulled up to 118 Crescent View. The old house.

My heart hammered on and anything my hands touched was left moist and clammy with the sweat of adrenaline and apprehensive terror, my teeth felt like they’d chatter right out of my head if I allowed my jaw to slacken. It was still dark when I got to the old neighbourhood, but dawn was approaching. I parked across the street, glancing around to see if my arrival had drawn attention. It hadn’t, none of the lights were on in the surrounding houses of the neighbourhood. The homes on either side of the old houses’ property were an acre or apart, and nobody looked to be awake or moving about.

Studying the exterior of the house or, at least, what I could see in the dark, I noticed a cluttered pile of junk on the edge of the overgrown grass in the massive yard. Families must’ve moved in after us but then had to leave for one reason or another, possibly never staying long enough to remember all of their belongings. They’d left behind dressers, televisions, trash bags filled with debris, and plenty of other junk and it all sat mouldering in a large pile. I wondered why nobody had been hired to come pick it all up for a proper clear-out but then, somewhere in the corner of my mind, I heard that little kid’s wheezy laughter. I shook my head, it didn’t look like anyone lived there now. The house was dirty and weeds had grown up from the cracks between the wooden planks of the front porch. Some of the house’s shingles were flapping in what was barely a breeze, but some were missing altogether. Maybe I should’ve felt some anger at discovering my old house in such a state of disrepair, however, I’d gone back to feeling sick instead. The ridiculous burst of adrenaline had finally worn off and now the mixture of dread and curiosity was what made me get out of the car to cross the road. I made my way across the front lawn, manoeuvring my way through more heaps of litter and tall grass. When I got to the front door, I found it was already cracked open just the smallest bit. I pushed it so that it swung back all the way, listening to it creak as I begged my eyes to adjust quickly to the surprising darkness within the house.


Luckily, the sun was starting to come up and I was able to take in more than I thought I’d be able to see. Maybe it was too, maybe the feeling of dread was very rapidly mutating into horror, but I pressed on. Something in the house emitted a horrible stench and, even to this day, I can’t describe what that smell was like, defying description with its repulsiveness. It clung to my nostrils and permeated my mouth and throat, choking my senses. It didn’t help the growing sickness I felt, only causing that feeling to expand when I stepped toward the staircase. Mould and water stains marred the walls and the few places that weren’t glistening seemed to be clawed up. Pieces of wallpaper in various states of decay had been torn by what I imagined was a furiously wielded set of blades. What kind of a maniac had squatted here? I spotted a few similar areas and, as I found myself ascending the staircase, I noticed one more spot while halfway to the floor above. The small head of a nail protruded from the wall, calling attention to a lighter spot in the shape of a square. Most of the lighter parts had been gouged of its wallpaper. Looking down I saw and simultaneously remembered there had used to be a photo hanging from that nail, a shot of our entire family, Art and all. The image had been extracted from the frame and lost in time, but the wooden square lay uselessly on the mouldy strip of carpeting that covered the staircase. The photo frame was splintered, with its wood rotted and missing a photograph beneath the protective glass. Somehow, my feet kept walking and, although my racing heart was beating so fast that my chest felt completely numb, I kept going.

Getting to the top of the staircase felt like one of those slow dreams where you do everything you can to run or reach a door but are unable to because it feels like you’re moving underwater. When I finally got there, I turned down the hallway and took note of further gouges all across the wall. More rot, more debris collecting in the corners, and now the sun was rising in the sky so I was able to see how discoloured everything looked. Visibly, it was just like the way it smelled, disgustingly fetid. I felt a muscle behind my eye twitch as I came to a doorway, I’d found my parents’ old room but there was nothing in there save for a bag of trash and a dark mass in one of the corners. It smelled mustier than the other parts of the house which somehow made it seem more boring, more uninviting. Feeling strangely dissatisfied and slightly destructive, I kicked the dark mass in the corner with my foot. Turns out it was just a blanket, I believed that passing thought only until, I swear, I heard the sound of dirt hitting the ground, maybe the scrape of a shovel echoing somewhere far off in my thoughts.

Whatever it was, something in me clicked and I realized I was now able to recognize the bunching of fabric I had kicked as the blanket Art had been wrapped in after he died. It was covered in fuzzy patches of mould and slime but there was no way for me to deny that it was the same goddamned blanket. I was convinced. I felt my knees buckle as I grabbed the unpleasantly moist door frame to keep from falling on my ass right there in the hallway. My feet, however frozen I was up top, propelled me forward into the next room. My old room. There was absolutely nothing in it save for an overturned milk crate and what looked like compost in the corner. Nobody could’ve lived here for at least a few years, it was amazing that the whole place hadn’t yet been demolished. This house had been left to go to total shit, what with all the broken beer bottles scattered in the one corner, and I felt all at once disturbed and disappointed. A faint glimmer of sunlight began to swell through the room and something of a realization dawned on me, bringing me closer to having a heart attack as I took note of one specific detail. An old phone had been plugged into the wall, its shape was a faded salmon pink colour and the dark, dirty brown of the square buttons on the dial pad was partially obscured by dust. Across its surface looked to be a trail of clumsy fingerprints that had punched all of the numbers needed to reach me on my cellphone. I heard a dial tone when I picked up the receiver. I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like I was trapped in some fucked up alternate universe and the only way to escape was to see the horrors it presented and then leave, hopefully never to return. So many questions had sprung up in my mind but my mounting panic turned any coherent thoughts into white noise. All I could notice was the reek coming from the final room I was about to visit.

Art’s old room was right beside the staircase. He wanted the one closest to the stairs because he had used to feel that it would give him the advantage to escape more easily when or if the house was to burn down. The walls in this room were completely bare, showing nothing but stains and large areas that seemed to have been scratched and scraped apart. My eyes slowly scanned the walls as if I was trying to find a key detail that begged to be uncovered, very quickly moving to the floor and only seeing more of that faint sunlight that revealed more stains and mould. I stepped all the way into the room and immediately regretted doing so as a wave of stench hit me once more, stronger than anywhere else in the house. I gagged, too sickened to be embarrassed at my weak stomach. When I finished retching, wiping the tears of revulsion from my eyes and covering my mouth and nose with my sleeve, I saw something that had me drop my arm back down in shock, it looked like a dried, stretched-out sack of flesh that had somehow been dried. The fleshy casing bore the vague suggestion of a face, possibly even with a nose, like someone had cut out the eyes and removed the bones from and filler tissues from someone’s body. The smallness of the hands suggested it could’ve been a child but I didn’t even want to think about what could’ve stretched out its skin like that.

I heard a scraping sound behind me and I froze stupidly like an animal that thought it could avoid its predator by staying in one place. I heard a sort of wet, rattling, gurgling that sounded like it was right at my neck. My head turned before my body could catch up with it and I nearly dropped dead with fright. What stared at me was extremely emaciated with grey, papery, dirty skin and way too many bones that were all-too-clearly visible in the morning light. The eyes looked primordial, like those you’d find on a creature that lived so far beneath the waves of the ocean that the pressure forced their faces into a singularly monstrous expression. A black gaping hole of a mouth was lined with dirty jagged lines that I’m sure were supposed to be teeth. The thing hulking toward me uttered another disgusting host of noises, spitting a slimy grey substance that added a whole new layer of filth to everything it touched. It made what can only be described as a gobbling sound, pausing before hissing in a tone that perfectly mimicked Art’s dying voice. Barely intelligible words hissed from beneath a sub-layering of sound that drained the blood from my entire body.

“Home, Roger,” it seethed as it lunged forward with skeletal arms covered in oozing black sores. It took a swipe at me but missed as I narrowly avoided being grabbed. I saw it had several stumps sticking up along a palm that was completely disproportionate to the rest of its body, being too long and wide. Up from the stumpy extremities were these blackened needle-like claws, the very same ones that had torn strips of wallpaper to shreds and stained anything they touched, leaving claw marks cut deep into the wall. I had automatically made a move to leap aside and continued running into the hallway as I noticed I would be able to move around its gangly, impossibly gaunt shape. The thing was so thin that it barely seemed to take up space in the room, even with those freakishly long appendages that I was supposed to have called “hands.” I didn’t look back but instead turned the corner and kept on racing down the rest of the hallway until I reached the stairs. Blind with panic and terror, I forgot how close I was to the top step and ended up hurtling the entire way down, face-first. As I fell, I heard the scrabbling sounds of the thing’s claws scraping the walls as it laughed in Art’s gasping, dying voice as it made its way toward me. When I finally reached the last step and collapsed onto the ground floor, there was no time to waste. I launched myself forward, dizzily toppling against the back door of the house. Throwing the door open, breaking one of the neglected hinges, I continued out into the backyard, reeling at the horrible outline of the woods and catching sight of the old shed. I had never prayed a single goddamned day in my life before that moment but, as I zigzagged toward the shed, I called on every semblance of prayer that I could think of. If there was no shovel in that fucking shed, that was it for me.

When I reached the door, I swung it open with numb hands and gave a loud sob of relief. A rusty shovel had been left beside a mouldy filth-covered tarp, it was the only thing I had seen thus far that didn’t look fucked up or decayed beyond use. Tripping over an untied shoelace and further incapacitated by what I’m sure was a concussion, I grabbed hold of it and listened for sounds of the fucking thing that was surely making its way across the yard and to the shed. I waited, frozen in terror until I heard the wet, guttural rattling of that thing closing in on the shed. I peered out a crack in the wooden wall, finally seeing how tall it really was, much taller than I was, with a height of almost seven feet. It must have just been hunched over earlier on, suggesting that its body contained additional joints connecting its bones, allowing it to fold in on itself and shrink or collapse its frame, the effect exaggerated by its impossibly constricted thinness.
As it reached the shed door, my breath caught in my lungs as more details came into clear view. I saw it was wearing the flesh I had seen back in the house, the discarded skin with the deformed suggestion of a nose. It said my name in an imitation of Art’s whine and, after that, all I remember is thinking that I’d die at the hands of some sick abomination wearing my dead little brother’s skin. It clambered through the doorway towards me as I waited, hunched over in the corner as my limbs vibrated in terror. I didn’t move until I felt a glob of mucous-like spittle spatter across my cheek as it closed in on me with an inhuman shriek. When I felt the cue of its stinking saliva, I unfolded, driving the shovel into its side before swinging the heavy tool so that it made impact with its head. Horrible shrieking filled the air as the thing collapsed in on itself, making a sound that was like Art whimpering in pain. I couldn’t take it anymore, I couldn’t take the sound, so I turned the shovel in my hands and drove its edge downwards and through its neck. The edge of the shovel cut through Art’s stretched-out skin, splitting the sheath like a membrane. I couldn’t take that fucking noise anymore. I couldn’t take hearing the thing’s perfect imitation of Art’s voice. I couldn’t take the smell. I brought the shovel down over and over until it vomited blackness from a mouth that then hung open in silence as shrieks continued to bounce off of the four walls surrounding me. I realized, just as everything went black, that I was the one who had been shrieking.

When I awoke, I saw a bright light and the silhouettes of two figures examining me. They stopped as they noticed I struggled to open my eyes. I attempted to jolt into a sitting position, or at least tried to, and gasped for air in a constrained position on my back. Prone and helpless, I felt a surge of panic as I remembered the last thing I’d seen before somehow waking up in what seemed to be a hospital bed. I was held down by leather straps and couldn’t move anything except for my neck.

“Roger,” said one of the figures, his voice encouraged my bout of tunnel vision to subside enough for me to see the somewhat familiar face of the doctor at the local hospital. I realized he was the same doctor who had watched me grow up for the few years my family had lived in the town. He sounded intent as he spoke my name, “Roger, it’s me, Doctor Pike.”

I knew him, but all I could do was watch as I blinked slowly, trying to clear my vision a bit more to see the rest of the room around me. Nothing else came into clear focus.

“You’ve been injured and we had to place you in restraints due to the state you were in when the paramedics found you. I’m sorry for this, son, but you were a danger to yourself and those around you,” he continued in a severe tone. He glanced over his clipboard, staring at me with lined, nervous eyes.

I flinched as I saw a flash of the fucking thing wearing Art’s skin stretched over its skeletal head, over its impossibly long and thin limbs, as it lumbered towards me. Pike cleared his throat, watching my eyes roll back and forth in my horror and confusion. Weak and groggier than I thought was possible, I had no idea what the fuck was wrong with me. I couldn’t form words.

Pike’s features blurred in and out of focus. He continued, “I’m afraid this may have been a long time coming. You see,” He held up a sheet of x-ray paper just a few inches away from my face, dangling the sheet from his fingers as it was positioned in front of a small light somewhere in the background. I saw that the label on it had Art’s full name, I could also see an x-ray image of his skeletal structure and organs, but there was also something else. Something had taken up space in his insides, within the contours of what had been his small body, its shape taking up space internally in ways I couldn’t grasp. It had tried to flatten itself to various organs, tissue, and even bone. The thing at the house had started growing inside of his body one day, slowly taking up more space and crushing his organs and veins with its spindly form. It was suddenly clear that Pike had kept the nurses from showing my parents all those years ago.

He explained as carefully as he could, “What on earth could we tell them? How would they have reacted to this? After all…” He wasn’t going to say it, almost as if he caught himself before going on with the sentence. I, on the other hand, knew exactly what he meant to say as I watched a sad smile taint his expression of concern.

After all, your little brother was already on his way out. Nothing anyone could do.

He continued. “Other hospitals your parents had gone to had copies of another child’s x-ray, you see. They would request this information from us because your parents had been struggling to pay the bills they had accrued and could not afford many more x-rays,” his voice had grown faster as he spoke. “Here is another x-ray, the very last one we had taken of your little brother,” he held up another. I tried to study it as much as possible before my eyes went out of focus. I saw Art’s shrunken body had somehow continued to hold the creature as it grew, clearly the source of his endless suffering as it took up more space and yet, somehow, did not distend or otherwise distort the exterior appearance of his body. The thing had grown a shocking amount, compressing and crushing his organs, spreading its size through his torso as it materialized and expanded further. Even in the x-ray, I could make out its inhumanly slitted eyes, the same oozing, black slashes in that terrible leering face.

Pike drawled on almost excitedly, his smile more fascinated than sad, “Your parents were notified of the truth several weeks ago, we were permitted to report these details to them now that enough time has passed since your little brother’s death. You may have not been told of it, particularly considering the severe trauma you experienced close to the night of his death, understandably so.” He reached for one of the tubes sticking out of my arms and adjusted the IV bag, then he stuck a needle into one of the tubes and injected what I knew was a sedative. I felt myself wanting to know what the fuck had been going on in that house and what I had done to get back in this hospital. The doctor wet his lips, seeming slightly nervous, and just kept talking while squinting to watch my eye movements. I still couldn’t focus on him at all, but he kept fucking talking and talking.

He droned on, “You called 9-1-1 from a telephone in the house, I suppose it hadn’t been deactivated since the last residents lived at that address, perhaps? Whatever the case, when paramedics arrived, you were found to have dragged a mutilated mass of flesh covered in what is believed to have been some type of blood as well as a shovel. You were found bent over it, beating it with the tool, screaming.”

The vacuousness of the thought completely betrayed my true feelings as I realized how I had come to awaken in that room. Pushed over the edge of my frayed sanity, I had made sure that thing was dead, it had to have been. For the first time in days, I felt tired, exhausted even. I shut my eyes, ignoring the doctor while hoping that he’d go away. I felt a gnawing pain that tugged at my insides, scraping against my rib cage, but the sedative muted the effects of whatever injury I’d sustained. After all, I had fallen down the stairs, hadn’t I?

I turned my head as Doctor Pike tutted and said, “We’ll be sending in a psychiatrist to see you as this may help you get well again. Retraumatization is a very serious thing, but we’re here to help you, Roger.” He stepped away from the bed, collected the sheets of the x-ray images, and left the room.

That was weeks ago. The dreams haven’t stopped and I relive the same things night after night. My body aches and all I can do is lie here, mute, barely able to move. My guts are constantly in knots, the gnawing feeling worsens and wakes me up at the crack of dawn. The doctors come in every day, waiting for me to talk, talking to me, but the only sounds I hear are the noises that thing made. They pretend to understand me as they fill out their charts and wheel me to and from the x-ray room. I pretend to know what they say as they talk to one another in hushed tones and monitor my vitals for something they never mention outright. I pretend they’re waiting for me to die just like they did with Art.

Maybe tomorrow, their lips mouth, or maybe not.

Credit: J. Dessarroy


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