Awake

Night again and back to Granny’s basement, this time with Sean swaying unsteadily on the cement stairs, Jeff behind him to make sure he doesn’t topple backward and cousin Daniel in front of him to make sure he doesn’t pitch forward.

“You good, bro?” Jeff says when they reach the dark well at the bottom.

“Uh huh,” says Sean. “Just really tired. Want to go straight to bed.”

Daniel cracks open the basement door and flips on Santa Claus and the other lights. He lets Sean pass him, then falls in with Jeff.

“Okay, so you want me to take the first shift?” Daniel says.

“I got him,” says Jeff. “He’s my brother. But I’ll let you know when I’ve awakened him the first time so you can set your alarm for the second time.”

“Sounds good. I got a watch alarm. I can use that,” Daniel says, pointing to the black sport watch around his wrist.

They walk slowly across the dark basement floor. They watch as Sean tumbles into bed not bothering to change into pajamas.

“I can’t believe my mom didn’t take him to the hospital,” Jeff says.

“Now we gotta watch him,” says Daniel.

“Yeah,” says Jeff.

They had spent the day at a family reunion in Spanish Fork. Jeff knew almost no one, and most of the people there had been his parents’ age or older. He had been glad that their cousins had come along. Halfway through the party, they had been playing on a rope swing suspended from a huge tree. Sean had jumped off it midflight, done half a turn in the air, and landed on his head. Jeff had seen visions of taking care of Sean as a quadriplegic. But Sean had sat up, barely able to breathe, then asked to see their mother. His eyes were glassy and his gait unsteady. Jeff was certain Sean had a concussion. But when their mother saw them, she had looked Sean over and said, “He does stuff like that all the time.”

“I think he needs to go to the hospital,” Jeff had said. “I think he has a concussion.”

His mother had sighed heavily. “If he has a concussion, they will send him home to bed and tell him to take it easy for a few days.”

And that was that. Except Daniel had told the boys that concussions were serious—in the first twenty-four hours after one, you weren’t supposed to sleep eight hours straight because you could die. Your brain could just forget to run. It might forget to tell your heart to beat and your lungs to breathe. Someone had to wake you up every three hours.

Jeff had tried explaining that to his mother on the way back and she had said, “Where do you get this stuff? If you want to wake him up, go ahead. But he’s fine.”

Now, Daniel switches off the hanging lamp bulbs and settles into bed. It’s 10 pm. Jeff climbs into the middle bed. Sean is on a cot next to the old crib, and he’s already breathing heavily and asleep. Did he fall asleep too fast? Does that mean he’s in danger of his brain forgetting to work?

Daniel is also breathing heavily, and now only Jeff and Santa are left against the darkness. In addition to the boys’ breathing, Jeff notices the creaks of people moving around upstairs. He can tell that they are mostly in the family room, but someone has just finished in the bathroom and is heading back down the hall. Then, a creak comes from the kitchen . . . much closer to the door leading to the garage. He strains to make out any further footsteps, but there are none. Something has made a noise, and he cannot trace it to people.

He thinks of the flimsy back door. He ensured it was locked before heading down, but he knew that doing so was close to pointless. Is someone hiding near the washing machine? Waiting until everyone is distracted to head down to the basement? Yes, out there creeping in the night is someone like Ted Bundy who can slip into your basement and take you away forever. And inside Sean’s head is a wounded brain that might forget to function, might forget to tell his lungs to breathe. Jeff’s mother will be down in another hour, but what could she do against Bundy? And she definitely would not be getting up to make sure Sean’s brain did not forget.

Now, Jeff listens closely again to what is around him. Sean still breathing? Yes. Daniel breathing? Yes. A whoosh of water from the wall near his mother’s bed. Footsteps again above. Creaking across the ceiling where no footsteps fell.

Jeff stares into the darkness, seeing geometrical shapes fold and unfold in some realm that isn’t quite real and isn’t quite imaginary. What can torment you and kill you is out there creeping and inside your head as your brain bleeds and playing tricks on your senses and flowing through the water, always toward you and always grasping and reaching and trying to pull you down. And against all of it, Jeff lies in darkness, awake.

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