Saturday, October 28, 2017
Crack-Up—Another Original Short Story for Halloween
by Tim McMullen
"One...two...three candles!" cried Jenny Ashton. "C'mon, everybody, let's sing. Then you can blow the candles out, Willie." Her thin lips punctuated around a wide grin, she raised her slender, mauve-tipped hands in unison and then dropped them for the downbeat. "Happy Birthday to you .... "
On the cul-de-sac where the Ashton family lived, Willie's older brother, Jeffrey, with his precocious, "TV kid" quips and his dark, tousled hair fringing grinning grey-green eyes, had achieved something akin to "star-status." In this new tract, where ancient oaks had ultimately acquiesced to a baneful sprawl of beige boxes, Jeffrey had been the first of the block's new batch to walk, the first to talk, and, by the age of three, the first to read. At about this time, perhaps even in celebration of his future brother's feat, little William had been conceived.
Gazing up from his infant's crib on his first day home from the hospital, Willie had gurgled happily into his brother's anxious face. Jeffrey proffered a tentative finger to the tiny pink alien, and it grasped the extended digit in its wrinkled little fist and bubbled with delight.
"This baby is my brother," a beaming Jeffrey had announced to his elated parents.
From his earliest months, Willie had loved the sound of people. Music boxes, rattles, musical mobiles, and other devices designed to engage infant attention were equally ineffectual. For this reason, story telling emerged as a major preoccupation for the Ashton household.
A discomfited, wailing Willie became a cooing, sedate Willie at the drop of a "Once upon a time...." Although initially entranced by all the stories which were recited to him, first by his parents
and, later, by his brother Jeffrey, the toddler became especially enchanted by the fantastic visions of Lewis Carroll and the Brothers Grimm. His narrators, particularly Jeffrey, responded by filling his nighttime wanderings with dragons, goblins, beasts, and monsters.
By the time he was two years old, Willie had been initiated into the Secret Society of the Supernatural; its founder and only other member was his brother, Jeffrey. Starting with traditional superstitions like ladders, black cats, and sidewalk cracks, Jeffrey quickly became expert at inventing little diversions of imagination which could utterly thrill and, ultimately, terrify his little brother. Jeffrey was both his teacher and his tormentor. Willie knew that Jeffy had been scolded repeatedly for "scaring the pants off" him, as well as the other neighborhood kids, but the scoldings neither deterred Jeffrey's creations nor jaded William's credulity.
Despite the air of festivity and excitement surrounding Willie's third birthday, Jeffrey seemed distracted; he even mumbled to himself, as if he were trying to recall some misplaced or forgotten something. Willie had wondered about his brother's curious behavior several times. At dinner he had almost asked Jeffrey why he was looking at him so funny, but his father had asked him a question and the moment passed.
Willie was very excited at dinner, and he received several jovial reprimands about speaking with his mouth full. Despite his obvious anxiety, it had been decided that the dinner dishes should be cleaned up before Willie opened his birthday presents.
While the others were busy, Willie sidled in and surveyed the shared kingdom of his and Jeffrey's bedroom. His blue, He-Man blanket dripped a corner off of the bottom bunk and onto the floor. He crossed to the bed, lifted the wayward corner, and pulled the blanket toward him. Draping it over his shoulders, he tied two of the ends around his neck and flung the rest of the blanket cape-like behind him.
Alone in Castle Greyskull, he again turned his attention to his surroundings. Before him loomed the magical enchanted tower where the evil ones held the princess. Grabbing his sword, HeMan made a daring leap for the ladder that lead up to the tower. His foot slipped on the rung, and he nearly plunged down into the moat where the alligators and dragons swam hungrily, but he clung bravely and began to climb. At the fifth rung he stopped and turned his head to look over his shoulder.
"Wow!" he gasped under his breath.
Willie had never viewed his world from the vantage of his brother's top bunk. This ascent had been strictly forbidden by both his parents and his brother, and he had never dared venture up the ladder for fear of being caught; the height of the perch had also been a significant deterrent. But the cape and the sword had propelled him upward, and now he gazed out on virgin territory.
He eyed the dresser with particular interest. The dresser top was too tall for him, so he kept his bank and his other personal possessions on the little orange plastic table beneath the window at the foot of the bed. Occasionally, he had pulled out the bottom dresser drawer and used it for a step up to the top, but he'd never dared more than a few seconds' peek before he jumped down. Now, from the top of the bunk ladder, he could see everything.
Jeffrey kept a blue pig filled with pennies and nickels; it was there in the far corner standing guard over Jeffrey's possessions. A plastic tortoise-shell comb and brush set nestled beneath the pig. To their right lay a pile of objects. Willie couldn't identify everything, but the ring of keys, the marbles, and the bits of string suggested the probable importance of the other objects. Suddenly, though surrounded by the other things, and undoubtedly hidden on purpose, a black plastic whistle poked its snout out from the pile. It looked like a real playground whistle, the shrill warbling kind like they used at the park.
Willie found that his feet were entangled in his cape as he hastened to descend, so he paused for a moment, untied the blanket, and let it drop to the floor. Birthday avarice in his eyes and the whistle in his mind, he pulled out the first two drawers in stair-step fashion and clambered up onto the dresser top. He carefully extricated the whistle from beneath the pile. It had a cord looped through the hole at the end, and he delicately slid his head through its noose. He let the whistle dangle on his stomach for a moment, then he brought it slowly to his lips. The whistle wheezed a muffled chirp from Willie's breathing, and he quickly clapped his hand over it. Carefully holding his breath, he clamped the whistle tightly between his teeth and looked at himself in the dresser mirror.
Hey, you kids, stop that, he shouted silently, then he held the whistle and blew an imaginary blast on it. The kids stopped instantly, and Willie viewed himself proudly in the mirror.
"Watch out, Willie!" Jeffrey suddenly cried from the doorway. The whistle shrieked in Willie's mouth, and he nearly toppled off the dresser.
"You must be crazy! Did you check for cracks, Willie? Did you?" Jeffrey demanded in frightened tones.
"Wha...what?" whimpered the confused child, spinning from the mirror in alarm.
Jeffrey grabbed Willie, pulled him down from the dresser, and placed him emphatically on the floor.
"What cracks?" Willie ventured hesitantly. "The cracks! The mirror cracks! They might have got you, Willie. You might have been a goner if I hadn't caught you!"
The little boy's face worked and wrinkled itself to the verge of terrified, trembling tears, but the older boy put his arm around his brother, reassuring and calming him.
"It's okay now, Willie...it's okay," he whispered earnestly and hugged his shoulder. "It's okay. I was just afraid that that might have been one of the mirrors of death." He paused to allow the weight of his words to sink into the credulous consciousness of the little boy.
"M-M-Mirrors of death?" came the inevitable reply.
"Sure, haven't you heard of them? I guess nobody told you 'cuz you were too little. They don't get little kids. They can't get you until you're at least three years old." After another pointed pause, he continued. "That's why I shouted 'cuz now you're three, and they can have you if they want!”
"Who? Who can have me, Jeffy?"
"The people in the mirror. The...uh...mirror monsters!! The ones who've been trapped inside and can't get out."
"Inside the mirror? How, Jeffy? It's too thin, isn't it?" he asked, regarding the mirror warily.
"Jeffrey! Willie!" Their mother's voice startled them, and Willie jumped. "What are you boys doing? You're so quiet!"
"Nothing," Jeffrey answered, "We're just playing." There was a long silence while they listened to their mother puttering in the kitchen.
"Willie, you remember Wonderland, and Alice and the White Rabbit, don't you?"
"Well, don't you remember her other story of the Looking Glass room, where everything 's backwards?" William nodded, and Jeffrey continued, "Well, that was just a story, of course, but some of those things are true. About the mirror was real, only that's not how it happens. Inside the mirror world it's not as happy as Alice, and you can't just step through like she did; but on the other side, they sit and watch and stare at us, just waiting for someone they can take."
"H-How do they do it?" William had taken several steps back from the mirror, and he now gazed intently into Jeffrey's earnest face.
"They do it like this," said Jeffrey. "They watch and wait for something to happen. They wait for a mirror to crack, or if they are really strong, they crack it themselves from the inside. They try to keep the cracks as small as possible so's no one will notice."
William sat with his back against their bunk bed and began to cuddle himself into a blue He-Man cocoon created by the blanket which he had plucked from the floor. He sucked on a soggy satin corner of the cocoon, eyes widened in unquestioning incredulity.
"Then, when someone comes up to one of their mirrors with the little cracks, they get ready. If the person gets too close or stays too long, then they've got him."
Jeffrey grabbed William's arm. The little boy jumped and sucked in breath between his teeth.
"You can't get away, and they hold you and pull you until they suck you right into the mirror. But that's not the worst!" The younger boy trembled, and Jeffrey released his arm. "When they suck you through," he whispered, "they like pull you all inside out!" Jeffrey accompanied this narrative with a pantomime of frantic tugging and a graphic slurping noise. "Your brain and...and your guts and everything are on the outside of your body. Then you have to be with the people on the inside... always."
"Why don't we just break the mirrors so those people can't get out?" asked William, squinting hesitantly from the depths of his blue cocoon.
"What, are you crazy? That's seven year's bad luck! You know why? Because when you break a mirror, you let the mirror people have a lot more power," Jeffrey snorted condescendingly.
"Then, what do we do?
"Just be careful! Don't look too long or stand too close to a mirror, and don't be BAD...because they always take mean, bad people...and always remember to check for cracks. Anyway, this mirror is okay, because I've checked it carefully now, and it's okay."
William sat thoughtfully, without speaking, and filed away the information in his three-year-old brain. He glanced sideways at the mirror and then back at his brother. Jeffrey had to look away to keep from laughing, but Willie read the gesture.
With a particularly dramatic facial contortion meant to convey his deep disgust, Willie emitted a condescending snort of his own and then clucked his tongue on the back of his teeth in a "Tsk" of disbelief.
"Willie!" his mother cried suddenly from some distant room. "Come in here, Sweetie, let's open your birthday gifts.
"Okay!" the little boy yelled. He flashed an angry look at his brother, and Jeffrey burst into hysterical laughter. Willie turned and left the room, but he snuck back stealthily and peeked around the door jamb.
Jeffrey stood looking into the mirror, and Willie knew that Jeffrey was ridiculing him. He was pretending to be his little brother, and he approached the mirror with a look of mock dread. He inched closer and closer, laughing aloud at his "Wary Willie" imitation. Finally, he pressed his nose against the glass and leaned his right brow against it as well.
"Hello! Is anybody there? Come in...come in...HELLO!"
Humiliated, Willie turned from the doorway and retreated from the sound of his brother's derisive laughter.
"Stupid Jeffrey! I'll never believe him again, not ever!" he whimpered. A sharp pain swelled in his throat and a tear pooled in his eye as he relived his betrayal. "I hate you! I hate you and I wish you..." Willie stopped himself. Never before had he uttered such angry words, and as he spoke, he felt the hatred flow from his body like the oil he had seen his dad drain out of the car. He ungritted his teeth and unclenched his fists, but the ache in his throat merely crawled down into his chest, and he stopped at the end of the hall and cried softly.
When it came, the scream was so incomprehensible yet so overwhelming that Willie was reflexively flung against the wall. The sound conveyed a sense of pain so much beyond human endurance as to be inconceivable, yet before it had ceased its wail, Willie was on his feet and sprinting for his room.
Without thinking, he ran to the dresser and climbed up on the bottom drawer which he had left open. By this time only one leg barely protruded from the mirror above the dresser. Willie grabbed for it and clung on with every ounce of his three-year-old might. The leg recoiled convulsively, as if trying to kick free, and Jeffrey's shoe carne off in his hands as Willie tumbled backward onto the floor.
When Jenny and Alan Ashton came running into the room, they found Willie sitting at the foot of the dresser, sobbing, with Jeffrey's dirty sneaker pressed to his chest.
©1985 Tim McMullen
All Rights Reserved