This story is part of a series I’m doing on childhood dreams, nightmares, and distorted perceptions of reality. Some of the stories have autobiographical ties, but they are mostly fiction. And some of the stories reflect fiction I was writing at that age. It might help to consider all of them and how they all fit together.
Jeff’s parents have begun leaving him home alone for an hour or two to get him used to more independence. In this case, they are at Granny’s house in Utah, and the girls are out shopping for dresses. Sean has gone with their Dad, their aunt, and one of the cousins to shop for a baseball mitt.
The red-brick home is near Orem High and was built in the postwar boom of the 1950s. The linoleum in the kitchen is original and worn through to the wood in many places. The yellow carpet throughout the main level could not have been replaced more than once, if ever. The family room looks out on a backyard with a cedar tree, apple tree, cherry tree, and oak.
The bathroom is down the hall on the right, a study is across the hall, a bedroom is next to the study, and Jeff’s father’s boyhood room is at the end.
Jeff sits in an old green rocking chair that doubles as a recliner. Until his death the year before, Jeff’s grandfather regularly sat here unless he was back in bed. A plastic phone with a cord sat beside him on the lamp table, and back then, the phones had been wired so he could call any other phone in the house to ask Granny for help.
For the whole time Jeff knew him, Grandpa sat stoically in this chair, dying slowly from diabetes. During visits at night before bed, Jeff would lean over him, give him hug and a kiss on the cheek, and Grandpa would say, “I love you, my boy.” Grandpa smelled of Vick’s vapor rub and Latter-Day Saint garments tinged with day-old sweat. Jeff would feel strange inside as he felt the bristly whiskers on his grandfather’s cheek, and he would whisper back, “I love you, too.”
The old house is noisy. The floorboards creak even when no one stands on them. The running of water or flushing of a toilet sounds like an engine starting up if you happen to be in the basement. When the air conditioning kicks on, some of the foil duct work crinkles loudly as it expands. Granny almost always has a sprinkler running in either the front or backyard, so the hum of water is nearly constant. And during cooler evenings when the windows are open, winds through the valley rustle the oak out back and the aspen out front.
“Houses make noise,” his mother has told him at least a dozen times. “When you’re home alone, if it scares you, turn on the TV or radio and think about something else. You’re getting too old to believe in ghosts and monsters.”
So now, he rocks in Grandpa’s old chair. The TV is on, volume halfway up, and Bob Barker is saying with a big smile, “Actual retail price? $500! Judy! You’re the next contestant on The Price is Right!”
Jeff hears water moving through pipes in the wall between the family room and the kitchen. No one is here. How could that be?
He stands up and slowly makes his way across the living room, listening carefully as the water continues and Judy celebrates and tells the audience about Fresno, California. At the opening to the kitchen, he stops and feels the house creak and groan. The sound of water is distinct now and not muffled by the wall, but he can see the sink and no one is there and the water is not running. His pulse pounds loudly in his ears, and he creeps forward slowly, step by creaky step. When he draws even with the refrigerator he exhales slowly, feeling relief and stupidity at the same time. Of course! His mother started a load of laundry before leaving, and the washing machine is next to the refrigerator and running. He retires quickly to Grandpa’s chair.
Judy has made it to The Big Wheel. As she gets ready to spin, Jeff hears the glass storm door at the front swing open and the deadbolt of the front door unlock. He breathes a deep sigh of relief. He has made it through the planned ninety minutes. He hears the door creak open, hears rustling and the storm door swing shut.
Then an unfamiliar man’s voice calls, “Helen! Helen? Whatever’s in the pot smells great!” Jeff bolts up but freezes. Has to be someone in the wrong house. But how does he have a key?
“Helen? Where are you, Babe?”
The door swings shut and then footsteps move from the door to the main hallway. Jeff stares at the sliver of hallway he can see, but no one is there. Should he pretend not to be here? Should he escape out the front or kitchen? Should he follow down the hallway?
He hears the creak of his dad’s bedroom door and the voice says mildly, “There you are. I didn’t mean to wake you, but I suppose you had better get up. The stew smells done.”
Who else is here? Who is Helen?
Jeff rises and starts on tiptoes across the room. He winces at every creak. He is sweating and breathing rapidly. As he starts down the hall, he sees that the door at the end is slightly cracked.
“Come on, hon,” the voice says. “You must have taken your afternoon sleeping pill late today.”
Jeff pins himself against the wall opposite the bathroom and creeps along quietly until he hears, “Oh, Lord! Helen! Oh no! Helen!”
Jeff hears thrashing in the bedroom and the sound of a door swinging open. He feels a blast of wind move past him up the hall, and a voice calls out, “Help! It’s Helen!” The front doors open suddenly and swing shut and the house falls quiet except for the washing machine and the groan of creaking wood. Jeff steps slowly to the back bedroom and gently pushes the door open. His father’s scriptures are open on the bed, and his slippers are at the side of the bed near the closet. The room is as it normally is when they stay here.
As Jeff walks back to the green chair, his eyes well up, and tears flow. He uses his forearms to wipe them away, and he sobs as he hears a bell ringing on the TV: “You’ve won it all, Judy! The appliances, the new lawnmower, and a trip for four to Hawaii!”
“You have a very active imagination,” he says out loud. “Nothing happened here. The washing machine is running. That’s it.” He sobs and tries to choke it back. “Just the washing machine.”
He gets up again and heads to the bathroom. He starts one of the faucets and splashes cold water on his face. Then he grabs a cup near the toothbrushes, fills it partway, and drinks it. The tears have stopped, and he stares at his eyes, trying to ensure the red fades away.
When he walks past the front door again, he notes that it is dead bolted, and nothing is out of place. He cannot say what has happened, and now, he has convinced himself that he imagined it.
Twenty minutes later, when his mother, sister, and grandmother walk through the door, he has a practiced look of boredom on his face as Days of Our Lives plays on the TV.
“Soap operas?” his mother says.
“Granny doesn’t have cable,” he says. “There’s nothing else on.”