After ordering his food, Aloysius sat in a cozy window seat to study his twilit house down the block, still struck by the improbable events that brought him to it. The meal was consumed and, with no other excuse to procrastinate, the uncle moved outside to drop a few coins in the pay phone at the curb.
The painter was not a family man. He seldom interacted with his father, and because the two men were so much alike that they had little in common. When his younger sister Miranda was born and brought home from the hospital, Aloysius, then four, reportedly took one look at his new baby sister and left the room without comment. He did not engage her again until she began to crawl. He could only justify his detachment in rarified “artistic” terms, although this disposition was challenged by the birth of his special-needs nephew Aaron, who required as much forbearance as demonstration of familial regard. Aloysius expressed no more sentiment as an uncle than he had as either a son or brother, although he made some small show at all three.
Aaron, for his part, was not a cuddly boy. He had a predilection for small-scale thievery, and peppered his disjointed, monotone speech with phrases picked up from television. He was in the habit of chewing on his shirt collar, and given to hiding from company in strange places (as evident by his collection of upholstery staples and nickel slugs punched from electrical boxes). In many ways he was like the other men in his family, yet differed significantly in one respect: He insisted on family interaction. Aloysius regretted he did so little to add qualitatively to his nephew’s life, but the duty-bound uncle always called the child on his birthday.
His sister picked up on the other end of the phone, and before she spoke, her youngest, Amelia, was heard raising a ruckus in the background. Aloysius made a pass at penitence. “Sorry, Miranda. I forgot to buy Aaron a present.”
It was hard to tell if Miranda was ever angered by her brother’s lack of family feeling. “It’s okay, Aloysius. Aaron just loves to hear from you.”
“I should have sent him a card, at least.”
She paused to let him feel his negligence. “But you called.”
He changed the subject. “Have you found a buyer for the house yet?”
“The market is fairly bleak at present, But I’m taking in a boarder to make extra money.”
“A boarder…?” the brother mumbled nervously. “Is he a drifter?”
“With his insurance money, I should think not. He’s an invalid, and recuperating from an accident. I’m putting him in the guest room off the hall bathroom. I’ve just painted it.”
Aloysius heard Aaron pawing for the phone. “Why would you put him in a second floor bedroom if he’s an invalid?” he asked.
“His physical therapist looked over the house and recommended it.”
Aaron jumped at his mother’s elbow. “Uncle Ally…! Uncle Ally…!
Miranda threw out a caution before handing the boy the receiver. “Aaron visited a petting zoo today, so he’s rather wound up.”
It was an ongoing challenge to understand the ADD child, but it was doubly hard when he was excited. “Uncle Ally!” he exclaimed. “I saw some biddy goats today! And some emus and monkeys! I bought some sunflower seeds whiff me, but da ducks radder chase me dan eat da sunflower seeds! So I ran! I ran! I ran! I ran! I ran as little Jimmy Grimaldi ran the other day!”
Aloysius left many of his old sci-fi videos at the family house when he moved away to college; Aaron committed random dialog from them to memory. The boy’s tendency to garble consonants was absent whenever he quoted from movies, as his perfect diction on these occasions was a dead giveaway he was parroting. The uncle pushed the conversation forward. “Have you met the boarder, Aaron?”
“Yes,” he said gleefully.
“Is he from out of town?”
“Very owled of town,” the boy intoned.
“What’s his name?”
Aaron was referring to the actor who played Klaatu, the visiting space alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still: Klaatu moved into a boarding house where he befriended a boy and his mother.
The uncle sighed, “Is there anything else you can tell me about the boarder?”
“In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked…”
The boy’s recitation was loud, but Miranda was still heard in the background playing with Amelia.
Aloysius tried another question. “You had fun at the farm?”
“I did! I rode a pony and feed some pigs! Vietneeze pigs! And saw some biddy goats. Bahhhhh… ahhhhh… ahhhhhhhhhhh-hhhhhhhhh.”
At first it sounded like Aaron was mimicking an animal, but the uncle quickly realized something was wrong. “Aaron…?”
There was no break for air in this discordance—or any wavering in its intensity. His sister and niece were surely in a different room and unaware of the seizure. The uncle panicked and fumbled—no human child could emit this noise.
Presently the boy’s voice dropped in register, sinking into the bog while acquiring, simultaneously, an element of distance. “hhhh— -hhhhhhhhh—hhh— —hh——h —- - — —- - —-”
Aloysius yanked his short choke-chain-of-a-cord, thinking the sound followed the contours of dark cornfields to reach him. He listened for crunching footsteps in the leaves, and believed that an ominous presence was nearly upon him. At once, the frequency became too low in pitch for the phone speaker to relay it. The tone nevertheless tingled in the uncle’s ear, and sympathetically vibrated the muscles of his throat. Its disturbing character did not, in any stage of this transformation, interrupt Miranda and Amelia’s soft background banter.
“Aaron!” he yelped.
A thump came to the fore. It was not from shoes but from where the dropped receiver on the other end struck the floor. Patter of quick tread put someone (presumably the nephew) heading out of a room. Aloysius spied his own house up the street. A light—a candle—ebbed away from one set of upstairs curtains to reemerge in another.
“Who are you?” he demanded feebly.
A silence rejoined his sister and niece. It occupied the opposite side of the kitchen table—the opposite side of the house. It drew off dark, uninhabited rooms, and made perceptible fact of itself only through an act of imagination, an act of fear. Had he chosen to ignore it, it would not have cloaked itself in a child’s voice. “Aaaallllllooooooooooooooooo!”
The light in his distant bedroom window trailed off with the ghostly moan, and Aaron was again heard, though away from the phone and playing with his baby sister. Another rustle arose nearer to the phone. Miranda’s voice was clear.
“He must have dropped the phone, Aloysius. You know how easily distracted he is.”
“Is the boarder there with you?” asked the shaken brother.
“Is the boarder there with you, now?”
“I just painted the room. Of course not.”
Aloysius would not enlarge on the remark, and listened inattentively while his sister completed the rundown of Aaron’s birthday activities. She then reminded her brother about their parents being in Chicago for Christmas and that he should come home to see them. The conversation was wrapped up before the nephew’s seizure could be mentioned, though the uncle could not honestly say what he heard. He limped up the block and reentered the house, where he peeped from the foyer, “Hello? Is anybody ther…?”
Glare of a flashlight appeared in the stairwell, past the entryway. It outlined the elongated shadow of a man with a toolbox. The caretaker was ebullient. “Set the traps for you!” he said, moving toward the backdoor without breaking stride. “Sorry again about the power still being off. It should be on later this evening.”
Aloysius looked around with warier eyes once the man was gone. Streetlight pushed through the window curtains, while shadows thereabout resembled undiscovered doorways, and perhaps those of a child’s acquaintance.
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Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.