Papa’s gone. And I’m alone. Again.
As dusk is swallowed by night, I peer through the glass of the front door at a world that carries on without me. In the dirty, etched glass that serves as my window into the world I rarely enter, the reflection I’ve grown use to stares back at me. As the years have passed, I’ve come to realize the face is mine. But I know it’s not the one I was born with.
There’s a smell in the air. It frightens me…
Outside, tall oak trees cast long shadows across the road that snakes past our home — sharp fingers scraping the pavement, desperate to crawl away from the setting sun. Their branches are engaged in an ages old battle, pummeled by the invisible fists of a foul-smelling wind. Between the rustle of leaves, I hear the roar of the metropolis that lives around me. It must now stretch for miles beyond our neighborhood – a secluded enclave reserved for the city’s elite. We were once the families of the ruling class – the wealthy, the industrialists, and ‘the ones with the most to lose,’ as Papa would often say.
Automobiles rumble by in the distance, their angry horns bleating dissatisfaction. A trio of motorcycles growl, carving their own paths down paved streets far beyond where my eyes can see. Overhead, gleaming airplanes leave white streaks in their wake as they crisscross the sky. The patterns remind me of Tic-Tac-Toe played on scraps of paper with Mama, so many years ago. The din of the sleepless city invades this home that Papa built, as he says, ‘to protect us from the evils that dwell beyond our granite walls.’
Inside, my guts churn. Something’s coming…
Papa is a good man — a proud man. But even though he doesn’t say it, I know he’s also a very sad man. There was a time when Papa feared nothing. Now, it seems, fear consumes him. Sometimes I imagine I can see the terror that hides behind his eyes — wicked shadows living just below their surface. I can’t help but feel that he wants to make sure his fears find a new home, somewhere deep inside of me.
Papa doesn’t want me to go outside alone anymore. He never explains exactly why, saying only that so many horrors ride on the back of every wind, and that they’re particularly dangerous for a ‘little boy like me’ — a phrase he’s very fond of using.
While I often ponder what Papa sees on the wind, something tells me I already know, without him having to speak the words.
When the wind blows, I believe I can sometimes sense Papa’s fears. I smell their rotten odors as they arrive on the slightest of breezes. And their stench grows stronger as frenzied gusts howl through the trees. I like to believe that what I smell is simply the decay of the city; but deep inside I know it’s actually something far, far worse.
The thought turns my skin to gooseflesh.
While known for his honesty, I don’t know if Papa’s been entirely truthful with me. If nothing else, I fear he’s keeping things from me, sharing only what he wants in order to protect me from what he’s sure exists outside – ‘evils too dangerous for a little boy like me.’
I can’t count the number of times Papa’s told me how much he can’t bear to see me hurt. I know he’s talking about something much different than scraped knees or broken wrists. And I can’t help but think it’s my ruined face that has him so concerned.
Rather than risk his pain, I now try to do as Papa asks. I stay inside as much as possible.
Here, locked behind the door, I stare through the window and wait, watching day bleed into night and then back again. It’s an endless procession of time that marches past in a world that has forgotten I ever existed.
The wind blows harder. And the stench grows stronger. Oh, Papa, where are you…?
Today had been the same as most. Papa was dressed in a meticulously appointed suit — the creases of his pant legs pressed so sharp they looked as though they could slice a finger. Like clockwork, he placed atop his head a matching black top hat. When he dressed this way it reminded me of the days when he used to work at the bank. That was when Mama was still around.
“Son, I’m off to pay a visit to the Goldbergs. You remember Samuel and Rita Goldberg, no?” Papa asked. I nodded, even though I didn’t.
“I’ll be lunching with the Rubensteins, and then need to check in on the Schultz sisters before returning. You know, they don’t have many callers these days, the poor, lonely dears.” I thought his last statement rather ironic.
This was almost verbatim what he said every day. Only the names changed from one to the next.
“And Robert, remember…stay inside. Don’t open the door for anyone but me,” he said, pausing. “You know how much I care for you, son. You’re all I have, and I don’t know what I’d do if anything happens to you…”
He stopped before uttering the final word, but I knew, even though unsaid, he meant to end his sentence with ‘again.’
Papa rubbed my head, mussing my hair.
“I’ll give Mrs. Rubenstein your best wishes,” he said, with a flash of a smile and a wink of his right eye behind which I was sure I could see the darkness that terrorized him. Then Papa was out the door.
He’s afraid. And so am I…
Hours had passed since Papa had left, and he was still not home yet. This was unusual, even for a man as busy as he.
Staring out into the dimming light, something felt strangely different about today.
That’s when I noticed the car approaching on the road. Anxiety chewed at my insides.
Oh Papa, Papa…you need to come home soon.
It was almost unheard of to have visitors these days. We never saw the friends or family who once streamed into our home for dinners, holidays, or simple chats. I suppose time takes its toll on everything, including the memories of those you once loved.
While not exactly out of the ordinary to see cars pass by on our private lane; it was a rare occasion when they actually stopped. Usually, they’d be filled with loud, drunken teenagers who’d roam across our lawn, not hesitating to relieve themselves behind hedges or at the base of our trees. This would continue until Papa grew weary of the cacophony and put an end to such escapades. He’d step through the doorway — voice booming — and send them scattering back to their cars where they were quickly on their way.
Taking special effort not to be seen, I hunkered down and peered through the bottom of the window in the front door. Through the security bars bolted to the outside, I watched the car creep into full view. It was one of the late-model sport coupes that interested me so; but it was badly in need of a wash. Beneath the grime I could tell it was probably a brilliant red.
I gagged on the decay…
I breathed a small sigh as the car continued past, sure it would be on its way. Then came the tell-tale flash of red that erupted from its back end as the driver brought it to a halt. My heart slipped into my throat. I slid to floor.
The car was still, its engine rumbling in the early evening. A fine mist of exhaust belched from the tailpipe.
Then it backed up to our concrete walkway.
It’s coming here…
The shadows of the oak trees threw the car’s internal compartment into darkness. Somehow I knew this vehicle carried no mischievous teenagers, but instead something far worse.
The air around me was heavy with the smell of rot. It squeezed my body in its tight grip, choking me and calling to attention the hairs on the nape of my neck. The last time I had this feeling was so many years ago it was barely memorable. But the reflection of the gruesome face staring at me in the glass broke the dam that held my memories in check.
Oh Papa, Papa…WHERE ARE YOU?!
The windows of the car were tinted. It almost impossible to see inside. I noticed movement behind the darkened glass. It was nothing more than a shadow turning to look at me. Inside the darkness, a set of green eyes stared out at door behind which I cowered.
Cold fingers scraped my spine as its gaze located me through the thin layer of glass. My reflexes slammed me backward, away from the window. I squeezed my body into the wall, willing myself flat, hoping to disappear and remain unseen.
In the few minutes that my heart threatened to jump through my chest, an eternity seemed to pass. Then, from outside, came the distinct sound of fallen leaves crushed by heavy footfalls as something crossed the lawn.
Then came the sound of leather soles on concrete.
Click… Clack… Click-clack…
No matter how much I willed it, I couldn’t summon the courage to peel myself from the wall and race to safety far from the door.
The shoes grew louder as they neared the door. Tears streamed from my eyes.
Then the crash came, reverberating the door and echoing through the house.
My body frozen, I watched the knob on the inside of the door turn slowly — first to the right, and then back again to the left, creaking with each movement.
Drums beat loudly inside my ears, and my thoughts were a chorus of screams.
Again, the doorknob moved — this time a complete turn.
And the door opened. A foot stepped inside. Followed by a leg.
The crease in the pant was as sharp as a knife.
I ran to Papa, grabbing him tightly around the waist — an act I’d normally think better suited for a child than for the full-grown 14-year-old boy I was.
Rivers of tears flooded from my eyes. They flowed over the rugged landscape of my scarred face, salting my gums and dripping onto my tongue through the hole where my right cheek had once been.
Cautiously, I peered around Papa. The car was gone.
It was my imagination after all… Papa’s fears HAD found a new home.
But in the distance, the flash of brake lights caught my eye in the night.
A new breeze blew across the threshold of the open doorway. I could taste the hint of rot as it dissipated into the cool, evening air.
It was then that I realized that Papa had been right. There are evil things in the world that are much too dangerous, especially for a little boy like me. And I knew it would be back.
(To be continued…)
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