1 Uncertain Nightmare
Maybe she put a spell on me, so that I see things not really there.
Baron rubbed the crusted specks from the corners of his eyes, and peered down the second-floor corridor where the stranger, this lady, stood among “ghosts”, phantom beings that floated in a blurring aura that was everywhere, an aura as surrounding as the air, itself. This substance permeated the walls, the carpet, the windows, even Baron himself, and at some point, he was convinced he was breathing it, though, that was the least of his concerns. The three or four, or five figures (it was hard to tell since they moved in and out of the middle lady, the realest-looking of them all), everything about the extended duplicates looked faded, almost transparent. Is she making me see her ghosts? Is this lady a real-life witch for real? He clutched his stomach. Nope, no, no; mom said witches aren’t real, that’s what she told me, and ghosts aren’t either. This isn’t real!
He shut his eyes and shook his head.
“Are you alright?” the lady asked. When she inched forward, her ghosts followed, moving as she moved, mimicking her every motion no matter how subtle, something like motion capture, or finely-tuned theater marionettes hooked on every joint for precise movement.
“Leave me alone!” he yelled, turning away.
He wiped his sweaty palms on the thighs of his denims, the same pair he traveled in the night before, and attempted to steady his weakening knees. His heart raced. Okay, alright. Stop, stop it, he thought, shaking his hands, panicked. He could feel the many goosebumps rise on his forearms, and a wave of chills washed over his shoulders and also swept down his spine. None of it’s real, it’s in your mind, all of it, the lady’s ghosts and everything, it’s not real, it can’t be, just calm down, calm down. When’s the last time you even seen a witch anyway, or even a ghost, huh? For a moment, he thought of the possibility, though his mind was a muddled mess, and his recent memories were also fogged, especially the ones recounting the past several hours. The mental haze was a strange cloud, a sort of sheet over the head, over the eyes, one that was hard to pull off. Well? Well?
He was breathing heavily.
Maybe, well, maybe they are real, he thought, like in the movies. Like if the movies became real life. Oh my God, the ghosts, they might be here waiting for later, for tonight, and when tonight comes, they might want to come for you since they only work at night, I think. When they come, they’ll probably wanna come to possess you like they did that exorcist girl on that show, the one where she twists her body in a weird way, or maybe they’ll even kill you and take your soul.
A bubble of suffocating air sunk to the pit of his stomach and expanded.
Oh no, please no, God, I don’t wanna die. That won’t happen, right? Please, don’t let her kill me, please! Please! And where is my mom, and my dad? Where are they, I need them! Please help, please! Baron’s heart pounded, its powerful pump rivaling that of a plow horse during harvest season, yet his body felt weak, ready to collapse with the undeniable effects of gravity. Even with the several hours of sleep, he was feeling fatigued, like he hadn’t slept enough. It was the rush that kept him standing, the adrenalin coursing through his blood. To make matters worse, his airway, his breathing felt stifled, smothered by the punishing fear, thus he was consciously inhaling and exhaling.
From his peripheral vision, he watched the lady, careful not to look directly at her, as though she possessed the stone-turning gaze of Medusa. From his angle, he saw enough to observe her, to monitor her actions, and with the little energy he had, he was ready to run if she moved any closer for any reason. He was damn near drained for reasons unknown to him, but he was willing to put his small reserve of energy into his legs, all that was left of it, for an attempted escape, if need be. He wasn’t going to be murdered by ghosts.
Oddly enough, though, he couldn’t see her ghosts anymore. Her phantoms had disappeared, vanished or retreated into the blurred aura, and all that was left was the lady and the blurred aura. Was he imagining things? See, Bar…he thought with false conviction, still trembling. The, the ghosts, they were in your, your mind, and look, look, that lady’s a regular person, like you. He stole a quick glance—like you and everyone else, and not like a witch ’cause those aren’t real, they can’t ever be, not ever in a million times infinity years. His knees wobbled and his toes dug repeatedly into the carpet. She can’t hurt you, he continued to tell himself. She isn’t gonna make her ghosts come to kill you, or take you away when you go to sleep, or to possess you or all of that crazy stuff because she can’t, ’cause that can’t happen. That’s make-believe, it’s not…
“Are you feeling okay?” the lady interrupted.
She stepped closer, cautiously.
Baron backed away, his legs primed for escape.
“If you’re feeling sick, we can see Dr. Nasser,” she suggested. Her voice was softer than he expected. “He’s very nice, I promise. The clinic on Lexington opens in about an hour.” She paused in her steps. “Will you come on, dear?”
He was trapped in a complicated, blurred reality, yet there was the lady who appeared to want to help, to guide him in this instance of dread and confusion; that only planted more seeds of dread and confusion. What was real and what was fake? Blood pumping and thoughts racing, Baron stared deep into space. The environment around him, including the stained horse-and-chariot wallpaper, the fogged, frost-covered windows on his left (which were barred from the outside), the few white doors leading to the other rooms on his right, the trimmed carpet beneath his feet, even the uninteresting ceiling up above, they all appeared to blend in with the blurred aura, the air of the absent ghosts, and every straight edge, every corner of the corridor warped and wavered. There were no straight lines. These “squiggly” visuals, along with the unfocused colors proved mildly disorienting, but most of all, frightening for the child. Yes, Baron was only a child, almost ten actually. Additionally, he had felt not of his own body, not of his own actions since coming to in that nursery-storage type room twelve minutes ago, the room in which he was left to sleep. Upon waking, his head had felt full of air (real air), full of clouds, and still was, and his arms and legs felt weightless, as light as a balloon filled with feathers, like he was on the moon, free-floating in a space without a tether to solid ground, going through the motions of the random forces around him, almost like his soul hovered from his own body. Everything that was happening to him, he couldn’t fathom, much less put into words to explain to himself, or to anyone else who would listen.
“Are you coming with me to my office?” the lady asked. “Or should I leave you out here, all by yourself?” She continued to watch him, patiently, her demeanor more relaxed, more understanding now that she realized he wasn’t a threat, but her gaze turned analytical, more ponderous of his actions; it was her apparent dissection of his behavior.
Meanwhile, Baron’s legs felt like giving out, but he was still up, still standing. He moved his parched tongue around the inside of his mouth, along his sticky teeth and cheeks, then swallowed the dry lump in his throat. He was too nervous to ask for water, and a seat. Feeling he was out of options, and energy, he slowly shuffled through the corridor, keeping his head down the entire journey, and beyond, and his eyes remained locked on his own toes, but also a step forward. It took everything in him to suppress the fearful tears, the trembling. Where did the ghosts go? he thought, as they traveled the corridor together. I know they didn’t just disappear like that because the air is still blurry. Why is the air still blurry if they’re not still here anymore, and where did all the lines go? Why is everything so squiggly and wiggly?
When they entered the ground floor office, the lady took a seat in her black swivel chair and rested her forearms atop the desk. A thin leather-strapped watch cradled her small wrist. She wore a floral-patterned blouse that was styled to fit her petite frame, and her smile was bright, her lips also smeared in a pink lipstick.
“So, my name’s Mrs. Chou.” Her voice turned professional. She leaned in. “And you must be Baron. Or would you prefer I call you Barry?”
He slid into the guest chair, and shrugged.
“You don’t have to be scared, Baron. You’re safe here, I promise.”
He kept his head down, eyes on his lap.
“Okay, well…did you sleep well last night?”
“Good. That’s good. You still seem pretty tired, though.”
“Would you like to go back to bed after this?” she asked.
He shrugged again.
The silence between them prolonged by the second, and soon, by the minute.
Eventually, Mrs. Chou turned her focus to a Manila folder from a nearby thin pile and began reading, mouthing words to herself. Her almond-colored eyes skimmed the file page as her thin lips moved in cryptic whispers. “Ten years old, huh?” she muttered to herself. Her painted fingers moved the few pages of the folder back and forth, likely in search of information. Mustering a little courage, Baron stole a few glances, glances of her and of the room. He guessed she was probably a twenty-something-year-old lady (though she could be a bit older) because her skin appeared smooth, wrinkle-free. She wore make-up, that was the most likely explanation. And she had two tiny moles; one on her jaw and another on her upper neck, and her long black hair was tied in a loose, messy bun. It had a radiant sheen under the office’s bright lighting. Behind her, the wall was decorated with crayon and marker drawings, most of them cats and dogs, goldfish and lizards, mainly pets, and there were a lot of stick figure families holding hands, standing side by side with smiles on their faces, and many of the backgrounds were of green scribbled grass, of a blue sky, and of some yellow (some orange) suns with lines around them indicating rays. He could tell that they were the work of little kids; it was a display dedicated to children’s artwork. Right above them hung several Polaroid photographs of Mrs. Chou with family and friends. She smiled and posed in all of them, and in one particular image, she and a man in a sweater vest were kissing, and there were a few more of them, together, hugging, embracing one another as couples would.
Baron finally lifted his head. His neck was beginning to ache.
The clock high up on the wall read 3:42, but its hands were idle. He felt a subtle pride for his ability to read the clock since he’d only mastered the skill several months ago, having aced the written exam and even getting the extra credit points at the very end.
His legs swung restlessly.
He thought to speak, he had questions for her and other things to say, but something inside him locked in place, or a switch flicked, whichever it was, and he couldn’t say what he wanted to say. This usually never happened. The last time it did was well over a year ago, when he had to perform a song with his chorus class in front of a school crowd, during which he had not sung a single lyric. Under the hot stage lights, he was sweating, a lot, and it didn’t help that his dress shirt was buttoned all the way to the neck or that he was being strangled by his own tie. He had never been so afraid, so lightheaded and confused, with the exceptions being that time on stage, and today, on this very morning. However, this very morning was twenty times worse with the distorted vision and possibility of seeing things, and also the unexplained tiredness.
Mrs. Chou pulled at her own sleeve and looked up.
Baron jerked his eyes away.
“Alright.” She cleared her throat. “Now, I know that—.”
“Where’s my mom and dad?” he interrupted.
Caught off guard, she lightly sighed.
“Well, that is something we should discuss, actually, and we will, for sure. But you don’t have to worry about that right now, Baron. Just know that you’ll be staying here with us a little bit—and the home’s very happy to have you.”
“But where are they, and when’ll they be coming for me?” His tone was desperate as he looked her in the eyes for the very first time. He wanted answers, now, and she appeared to gauge this. Thus, her smile faded from expression. She took a deep, subtle breath, her shoulders slowly elevated, then relaxed. She folded her hands and massaged the backs of them with her painted fingers, then cleared her throat, again.
“They had to leave, and they will not be coming back.” She spoke clearly.
The room was in eerie silence.
It wasn’t until the revelation repeated in his mind, some three or four times, that he picked up on the message and had begun to recognize its possible meaning.
“They won’t be coming back?” he repeated. What’s that supposed to mean?
Maybe he could think back to the night before; maybe then he would find some answers. Brief flashes of his parent’s faces and of the family car emerged in memory, followed by dream fragments that included swimming in a lake of Choc Full of Joy! a fudge-covered cereal. He swam the cocoa lake, breaststrokes along the surface and blind dives to the shallow plastic floor, and he crunched through the large, buoyed puffs that were everywhere, in an area that was vast and wide, with no end in sight—only the milk’s horizon. He drank the endless chocolate milk that submerged him from the chest-down and even bathed in it for some period of time, rubbing and lathering the sugary liquid against his skin, under his armpits and over his face. Yesterday, in the late afternoon, he had two large bowls of it for dinner, courtesy of his mother. At most, she would let him have a serving of the cereal once a week for breakfast—only one—because of its high sugar and fat content. She encouraged healthier options most times and hid the Choc Full of Joy! whenever it wasn’t in use. Last night was strange, different, because she served him the first bowl and left the box out on the kitchen table for seconds, maybe even thirds, and Baron didn’t know why (still, he ate as much of it as he could); he might never know why, and the reason for this was unintentionally malevolent.
There was nothing else in his memory to help explain Mrs. Chou’s claim.
“They wouldn’t just leave me!” he snapped. She’s being a liar! Why’s she lying to me? “Where are they? What’d you do to them?”
Mrs. Chou cocked her head, slightly.
“Me? I didn’t do anything to them, I promise.”
“Then, where are they, then?”
She separated her folded hands and laid them flat.
“I honestly don’t know, dear.”
Just then, Baron thought he heard grief in her voice. Maybe it was in his head, like the witch and ghost thing. This morning was just one bad feeling after the other. An additional bad feeling stirred in him, a feeling of something bad to come, mixing with his already present dread, and an all-around pressure began caving in, pushing, pressing from all sides. Did he hear her tone correctly? Was she telling lies to spare him the truth? Did something terrible happen to his mother and father? Were his parents not just absent, but actually dead? Dead?
“Did they…did they die?” he asked.
She shook her head with genuine surprise.
“No, no, I’m almost certain they’re alive.”
His heart skipped several beats, and he cracked a brief smile.
“Where are they, then?”
“I really can’t say.”
“They wouldn’t just leave me. Where’d they go?”
“I’ve already told you, dear, I can’t say because I don’t know.”
“Can you call them?”
“I can’t do that.”
“It’s easy. I know my house number.”
She closed the Manila folder.
“Are you gonna call?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“It’s not up to me, Baron.”
“That’s how it has to be.”
The room’s atmosphere suddenly thickened.
He reached for the desk phone. “Let me try…”
She brushed his hand away and pulled the phone to her side of the desk. “The law says I can’t, hon…but don’t worry, you’ll like it here.” She donned a faint smile and inched her seat forward. “Can I get you something to eat? You must be hungry.”
“I want my mom and dad.”
His gaze fell to the floor and he began to tear.
He wasn’t hungry, obviously. Honestly, he wasn’t sure what he was. This lady was lying. Either that, or his parents had wanted to get rid of him for some time, and they did. Thanks to his confusion, dread, and insecurities, the second choice was easier to imagine.
How long had they felt this way? he thought.
For a moment, though, he pondered, or more like fantasized, the possibility of being a kidnap victim. He could not remember how he got here, how he was moved or carried from the car’s backseat to that bed without noticing, if it was his mother or father who did the moving, or if he was taken from the car by a stranger…if that was the case, that would mean his parents were likely out looking for him this very minute. The more he thought about it, the more he tried to rationalize it, but because he wasn’t bound and gagged in rope or duct tape (like in the movies), this didn’t feel like a kidnapping. Even so, the explanations filled him with extra terror because they held something crucial in common, an undisputed observation—right now, in this very instance, he felt alone. He was at the Earth’s very edge, looking beyond the blurred aura, into the darkness of space, into the nightmarish eternal with no one beside him; this advanced feeling he experienced, his child psyche could not comprehend, or express in words, thoughts. The young boy could only react. A cold sweat washed over him, followed by a gradual warmth that expanded in his jeans; in a matter of seconds, his entire front was soaked.
“I can bring you a peanut butter and jelly. You’re not allergic to peanuts, are you?”
Baron remained silent, trembling from the moisture.
“Know what? I’ll make it a bologna just to be safe.” Mrs. Chou rose from her chair and gently gripped his arm. “Come on, Baron, up you go.”
He slowly stood.
“Oh my; you need a change of clothes.”