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… Once upon a time
very, very scared
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Story of the Month: October
Voices in the Dark
The house breathed noisily around the sleeping girl and dog.
This house was too new for ghosts to have gathered, but floors creaked and walls settled in stealthy metabolism. Blown by the whirring fan, summer-light white eyelet curtains sucked the screens. Outside in the big dark beyond the open windows, cicadas shrilled. When a breeze stirred, enclosing junipers ran their green fingers down the screens’ outer skin.
Inside, the bedroom was hung with the humidity of St. Louis August. The water glass sweated on the bed table. Limp sheets stuck to limbs.
The dog was noisy too, with exhalations bigger than its size as it twitched and sighed in dreams.
The girl slept through the noise and through the heat. The pressure of her open book, imprinting on her cheek, did not disturb her. She had fallen asleep midchapter, but enough consciousness had lingered to switch off the light.
The room was dark, as dark as could be in a mid-century suburban street blooming with streetlights and search-lighted, now and again, by the headlights of returning cars.
It would be hours before the headlights of her mother’s convertible Ford Fairlane tracked up their drive and into her window. Then, still in her high heels from her night at the family restaurant — The Stymie Club Supper Club and Cocktail Lounge they called it — her mother would turn on the hall light and come into her room.
Sitting on the bed, she would slip off her shoes and caress the girl’s damp forehead. “Sandra, are you awake?” she would ask and the girl would half-waken to her voice and aura. Her perfume, Joy, mixed with smells of tobacco, liquor and food. The girl and the scruffy white dog would smile and be back to sleep before their mother had gotten three words into the story of her night.
That was the surety of the night, and girl and dog slept well.
The dog heard it first, the sound that did not belong in the symphony of their sleep. Her pointed ears pricked up, tingling with blood surging in veinways beneath the pink, fine-haired inner skin. Her bearded muzzle rose to alertness.
The girl gasped awake when she heard it, and adrenalin flushed her cheeks and arms.
The sleeping house was full of human voices.
These voices were not her mother’s.
They gripped her like a nightmare. Echoing and laughing, they grew enormous and pressed around her until all she knew were their sound and her fear.
The little dog quivered in suspense and licked her face.
They were together, but they were not alone.
The loudness of the voices filled the darkness of the house. Surely the people full of these voices were in the house — though she had not seen the headlights of their car. Not heard the turning of the doorknob. Not heard their footfalls on the thick orange carpet. Were they in the living room?
She listened. She did not breathe. Her only sense was sound.
They voices cracked and burbled and soared.
She and the dog listened, so tight in their skins with fear they must burst and the explosions give them away.
Were their faces — stacked one atop the other — peering round the doorway? Had they turned the corner?
She was frozen in fear. But the dog, thawed, leapt under the bed, growling and gnashing her teeth from cover.
The voices surged. Now, she knew, they’d be bursting into her room and she would die of fear when she saw who made these calls and bellows. Now she understood that they were demons, burst up from hell through the drain in the laundry room. They had crept through the paneled basement, but they could not keep their glee silent. They had laughed up the stairs, chortled through the kitchen, advanced giggling down the hall.
And now they had her.
The little dog howled, and the girl closed her eyes and signed herself with the cross of the God who she was sure did not believe in her.
Nothing, though minutes plused through her veins in heavy-blooded anguish. Nothing but the voices.
The dog scooted out from under the eyelet bedskirt matching the curtains and leaped up beside her.
When finally she was too afraid to endure any longer, she crept out of bed, snaked down the hall, pulled the black phone off its hall table and into her lap.
She nearly shrieked when the dog leapt atop her. Instead, she bit her lip till the blood ran metallic into her mouth.
Then she dialed. PA 77552.
When the bartender, her friend, answered, she could hear the loud chatter of people — they’d be perched on highs stools, standing arms draped over one another, sitting at two- and four-top shiny black bar tables — loosened by drink and having the times of their lives. Frankie Lane crooned over the jukebox. Ed’s big voice tried to get her to tell him what was the matter.
She blubbered, and the dog licked her tears.
When he finally understood her, he shouted for her mother to take the phone. While the long cord was still dangling — this she did not see — the young Washington Redskins fullback vaulted over the bar, ran to his Mercury as if he were on the football field in season instead of bartending in the off season and flew the six blocks to her invaded home.
Where the girl sobbed as her mother, over the phone, told her it must surely be a nightmare. It was not, she bawled, it was real and people — or devils — were there. Now as her tears fell she was confident of rescue but certain it would not come in time.
It was no nightmare. The intruders — two men and two women — had left the Stymie drunk, hot and in the mood for a swim. They’d driven, weaving, to the owners’ house where men had been for card parties. There they’d climbed the redwood fence, thrown over their beer and stripped to their underwear for a swim party.
That’s how Ed found them and where he gave them the bum’s rush.
By the time he turned to the girl and her dog, they were in her mother’s arms.
Ed Quirk was the girl’s hero that night, and she has loved him ever since. She cried that hard again when his end caught him nine years later: an after-hours heart attack in the parking lot of his own bar.