Well, there was one thing I should go on and mention now. It happened when I was twelve. At the time, I didn’t think much about it but now I realize it was the first indication that I wasn’t going to have a normal life.
My kid brother Tim and I were playing ball in an empty lot with a bunch of our friends. The game was tied up and Tim was at bat. Micky Schwarz was pitching. Normally, Micky is okay but sometimes he just gets mean. That day he decided if he couldn’t strike Tim out he’d settle for walking him – evidently to the ER. Darn fool threw that ball for all he was worth straight at Tim’s head.
I was sitting on the ground facing away from the game, being more interested in Mary Kirkpatrick than my brother’s batting, when I heard something. It wasn’t rightly a sound and definitely wasn’t a voice but it was something I couldn’t ignore. I was on my feet and tackling my brother before I knew I was going to move. Next thing I knew the guys were pulling me off Micky. Somehow, I’d known Tim was in trouble and that Micky did it on purpose. But for the life of me, I didn’t know how I’d known.
I wondered about it occasionally over the years – it was pretty weird, after all. But I hadn’t had anything else happen like it until the night of my twenty-first birthday. The night my life changed forever.
It had been a nice, sunny day. Nice more because of the family moving in across the street than because of the sun. Specifically, the gorgeous red head with the lovely smile and the very lovely body to go with it. I’d just come out of our building when the truck pulled up. It was a good thing I’d taken the day off because otherwise it would have been hard to explain to my boss why I was more interested in helping unload that moving truck than coming in to work. Would have been worth it, though.
The red head’s name was Crystal Jean Abernathy previously of Tyler, Mississippi. She had a charming Southern drawl that would have annoyed me coming from anyone else. She also had an infectious laugh that would never annoy me even if she tried. Her folks had me to lunch to thank me for my help and her Dad had me to ‘help’ him with something in the back of their new brownstone until he was sure how honorable my intentions were. Mind you, I was raised better than have dishonorable intentions but after hearing that laugh, I couldn’t have treated Crystal badly even if I hadn’t known better.
I probably would have stayed ’til supper but Momma was expecting me home for my birthday so I finally managed to say good bye around three. My two youngest brothers were heckling me as soon as I walked in the door, not that I noticed. I barely noticed the double chocolate cake Momma had made for me. My mind was still across the street with Crystal.
It was late evening and I was sitting on the fire escape outside what had been my room which was now Tim’s room, Tim being the second oldest boy. Tim, Kevin and Marty were in the room and we were all taking turns playing Marty’s new guitar. It was a beat up old thing the pawn shop guy had given Marty a good deal on and Marty and Tim had fixed it up decently. It sounded surprisingly sweet, especially where I was on the fire escape. I took my turn, strumming some old country tune Poppa liked but couldn’t ever remember the name of, leaning back on the railing and looking up through the alley at the few visible stars. It was nice.
And then it wasn’t. Something dark passed over, coming out of Old Man Jenkins’ apartment and disappearing into the night. It was fast, too fast to be human yet I’d have sworn it looked like a man. I was moving before I knew what I was doing, dropping the guitar and bolting up the stair toward Mr Jenkins’ window.
The window was open and I stopped. It felt all wrong. I felt wrong – common sense said call and see if the old man was okay. But every fiber in my body screamed for me to chase that thing. Chase it where? I’m four flights up and going the way it did means a very nasty meeting with the alley pavement four stories down. Yet I had to force myself not to jump off the fire escape in the direction it had fled.
Tim called to me, three flights below. I glanced down to see my three brothers coming up after me. I remember thinking they were taking their time when it fact they were running up the stair as fast as they could, just a lot slower than I had.
I shook my head at him and turned to the window. “Mr. Jenkins?” I called. There was no reply.
I yelled back down to Tim “Was Mr. Jenkins home earlier?”
Tim nodded, “Yeah, he paid Poppa on his way up tonight. I carried his groceries…”
I turned back to the window, ignoring whatever else my brother was saying, “Mr J, I’m coming in!” I hollered as I climbed in his window.
It bothered me. He hated leaving that window open. Said the kids kept crawling in, which was probably true. Why would it be open?
Inside, I stumbled over something trying to get to the light switch. Pepe, his Schnauzer, whimpered and I reached down and picked him up. In the moonlit room, I couldn’t see the black pooch but I had no trouble grabbing him or finding the light switch.
The room was empty. A bowl of fruit on the table nearest the window was overturned. I liked that even less, knowing I’d stumbled on Pepe and not the table.
“Mr J! Answer me!” I bellowed. Pepe whined and struggled to get down. I dropped him and he beelined for the bedroom as fast as his toy legs would carry him. I followed.
I’d never seen anything like it before. Mr J was sitting on the chair in the corner of his bedroom. He had been a construction worker and was the ruddiest man I ever knew, but in the harsh light of the bare bulb he was ghostly white. I knew instantly he was dead. I also knew it wasn’t a natural death but I couldn’t say then how I knew.
I caught Pepe before he could climb into his dead master’s lap. Mr J looked anything but peaceful. The terror was still etched on his face. But what really caught my attention was the little trickle of dried blood on his collar.
Tim and Marty were calling my name, closer now. I took Pepe and ran back to the window I’d come in. Marty had just reached it and I waved him off.
“Don’t come in here!” I ordered.
“Why? What the…” Marty tried to ask.
“Just don’t. We gotta get back down and call the cops.”
Tim and Kevin reached the landing, both huffing from the fast climb. Kevin looked at me, understanding instinctively, “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
I didn’t want to tell him. Kevin loved that old man more than any of us, but I couldn’t lie to him. “Yeah…”
The look on Kevin’s face would stay with me the rest of my life. Whatever that shadow thing was, I’d instinctively disliked it. Now I hated it.
“Come on, we gotta get down…” was all I could manage to say.