I was probably six or seven when I went to visit my aunt and uncle in Prosposil for a week-and-a-half over the summer. What, you’ve never heard of that country? You know, I’m not surprised. Most of my memories of the place have faded into snippets of senses in the thirty years since I visited. My aunt making dinner with this meat that was pink and sweet and I have never been able to find since. The music playing over the radio that was both atonal and melodic at the same time. The smell of my uncle’s cigar smoke filling the tiny apartment with its rich scent that stuck in the nose even after a shower. It was all so foreign and yet so comforting at the same time. What I remember the most, though, what still is burnt into my memory decades later, what I cannot escape even with therapy and alcohol and all the rest of what I’ve used to pollute my body…what I cannot forget are the thick black curtains over all the windows.
I asked my aunt what they were for when I first got there. She had been chattering away in a language I could never quite pin down but went silent when I asked. With her wide, happy face now like a mask of stone, she grabbed me by the arm and sat me down at the rickety dinner table. I remember how sticky the table was and how she took my hands in hers and held tight as she stared at me. Her eyes were sad and scared and wide. I had never seen an adult look like that before and something deep inside me twisted just a little.
Haltingly, she spoke in her broken English in one of only a few times she did so during my visit. She told me that the windows stayed covered. Always. Especially now, during the time of some holiday, the name of which has somehow been sandblasted away from my memory. I asked her why, but she refused to say. Instead, she repeated that they had to stay closed and that I was to listen to any instructions that came over a loudspeaker and do as they said immediately, without asking questions. The tone of her voice, her use of English (which was always difficult for her), and the look on her face all told me that my curiosity would not be welcome in this respect.
She asked me if I understood and I nodded. As if nothing had happened, she let go of my hands, her face brightened, and she began talking happily again as she busied herself around the kitchen. Being a kid, I forgot about the strangeness of the situation and explored the apartment, finding toys in a closet. They had been my cousin’s from years past and my aunt seemed happy to see them being played with again. When my uncle came home, he gave me a big hug, swallowing me up in his huge arms, and sat on the floor to play cars with me. That’s stuck with me too. This big man, who must have been tired from a long day at work, sitting on the floor with his nephew to play pretend. I think that’s love.
The next few days passed fairly uneventfully. My uncle would go to work, my aunt would make me breakfast, and then we’d go out and explore the city. She would point out historical landmarks, we’d get lunch, I’d run around a playground, and just enjoy being in a new place. I found out later that my parents were having problems and wanted to work them out without me around, which is why they sent me to visit, but it was a lovely trip all things considered.
Until Friday afternoon.
We had finished our lunch at one of the little cafes near the apartment. It was a cute little place, with a few tables inside and a few out on the patio area. The place was open to the air outside and the smell of fresh bread and other dishes permeated the area. It was one of my aunt’s favorites and she had spent much of it chatting to one of the waitresses there. I didn’t mind, since the lady was pretty in a way I hadn’t seen before and I never went through the whole ‘cooties’ stage where I didn’t like girls. As I was half-heartedly eating my lunch and trying to avoid being caught staring at the waitress, a noise ripped through the idle chat from somewhere on the street. It was loud and harsh and serious-sounding. All the conversation in the restaurant stopped immediately as everyone turned to look and listen to the announcement. Everyone walking outside did the same. One word kept being repeated over and over, though I didn’t know what it meant.
I was about to ask my aunt what it meant when she stood up, picked me up in her arms without a moment’s hesitation, and literally carried me across the street, up the stairs, and into the apartment. She did not stop, though I know I was heavy for her. As soon as we entered the apartment, she let me go, slammed the door shut, turned every lock on the door (of which there were many), and placed a heavy wooden beam diagonally across the door, bracing it underneath the door handle.
I started to ask what was going on, but she shooed me into the tiny bedroom. From under the bed, she pulled out a blanket that looked like it was of the same material and color of the curtains. She pointed at the floor and told me to lie down. I did so and she tossed the blanket over me. It was heavy and hot and stank of old feelings. I started to fuss around in there but my aunt shushed me loudly and told me to stay still. I waited and waited and waited. After what felt like an eternity, I was restless enough to try to get up. As I started, the world around me shook. It wasn’t an earthquake – I had been in enough of those in California with my parents. No, this was more like…
I laid back down on the ground and waited. Finally, the siren from outside came back on and announced what was likely an ‘all-clear’. When it did, my aunt pulled the blanket off of me and gave me a hug. It was tight and warm and just what I needed. I didn’t ask what that was. I knew she wouldn’t tell me. This whole sequence of events repeated over the next couple days. A nice day out, the alarm went up, we ran home, got covered, and were patient as the world shook around us. It became a routine. It wasn’t fun but it was tolerable.
I almost got used to it until Monday.
My aunt had gone to visit a friend north of the city. My uncle had the day off of work so he was going to stay with me and teach me how to carve wood and maybe even go fishing. However, after my aunt had been gone about an hour, my uncle’s work called and told him that there had been an accident and he needed to come in to help with clean-up. He protested that he was home, but they must have either threatened him or bribed him, because he apologized to me, threw on his work clothes, told me he would be back soon, and that I was to lock everything until he called and said he was on his way home. I agreed and he left and then I was finally alone.
True to my age, I didn’t do much with it except to eat far more cookies than I was supposed to and watch TV instead of reading a book. Still, it was liberating in a small way to be on my own. I felt so grown-up!
Then the alarm went off. This one was louder. Scarier somehow. The same warnings I had learned by now seemed to be more intense and the word being repeated came with a frantic tone to it.
My immediate response was to run to the bed, pull out the blanket, and crawl under it, but I paused. The fabric, thick and heavy in my hands, was there and available for me at any time, but what other chance would I have to see what was happening? I was a curious kid. Too curious. There’s a saying about death and cats and curiosity that definitely applied here. So, instead of crawling until the safety of the blanket as usual, I waited. I wanted to peek through the curtains, just a little, to see what the imberuna really was. What everyone was so afraid of. I had watched scary movies before. How could this be any different?
The phone rang and I went to answer it. It was my aunt and she was extremely unhappy to hear me pick up. She asked where my uncle was and I told her. She was even more unhappy to hear that I was alone and demanded that I lock everything up, though it all was, and put the brace on the door before going under the blanket. I told her I would and she said that she would be home as soon as the danger passed. She hung up and, while I did put the brace and locks in place, I instead sat down on the couch and waited.
When the rumbling began, I felt the urge to dive under the blanket but forced myself to creep forward to the window and crack the curtains just a millimeter to see what exactly it was that terrified people so much. As I peered through the thin seam I had made, I saw…something. You know, it’s funny in a way. I don’t remember what I saw. I don’t remember color or texture or anything like that. All I recall is the bone-deep fear that took me. All I recall is the inhuman screech whatever it was made. All I recall is the rattling at the door immediately after. The howling and banging as the door shook with impact. The slow, creeping shadow sliding underneath, slithering across the floor, crawling up my leg inch by inch. The cold, cold, deathly cold that began to leak into my skin. The words coming unbidden to my head, something telling me to go with it. To join them. I felt my legs moving of their own accord, dragging me to the door. I tried to fight. I couldn’t.
Then, I heard a gunshot. Two. Three. More. The gentle whispering in my head increased in volume until it was screaming at me. No more gentle words. Loud, obscene, profane. All demanding tribute from me. I felt the grip loosen and I pulled away, though the shadow left a permanent mark on the skin of my leg. Every time I look down and see the puckered, withered, discolored flesh, I am reminded of how lucky I was. One last gunshot, this one louder, and the shadow shrieked and disappeared. I stumbled back and hit the wall hard, which knocked one of the paintings down. It landed and the glass cracked and somehow that allowed me to cry.
My uncle and aunt arrived at the same time about ten minutes later. They heard me crying and begged me to open the door. I removed the brace with as much strength as my little body could manage and unlocked the door and fell into their waiting arms. Through my terrified tears, I could only vaguely see smears of some brown-black liquid all over the landing and trailing down the stairs. One of the neighbors, Otto, apparently explained what had happened, though I barely understood any of it. All I know is the aftermath.
The military came through. There were gunshots throughout the night. My aunt and uncle were furious and yelled at me in both English and their own language. I deserved all of it. The next day, I was put on a plane back to America and that was that. I never saw either of them again and my memories of that sad, strange land only exist in stories. I’ve talked to my mom and dad about my aunt and uncle and they have both been confused. They insist over and over that they were both only children. That no country or trip ever existed. I don’t believe they’re lying to me. I can recognize lies and they are genuine in their confusion.
What happened? I cannot explain because I don’t know. I don’t think I ever will. All I can tell you is my life since that day.
It's been thirty years. I’ve been married and divorced three times, though I haven’t had any kids. I don’t think it’s fair to subject them to my nights, of which there are many. I cry in my sleep. I writhe. At first, they are sympathetic. Then, it turns to pity. Soon, it becomes a chore, then an obligation, and then, inevitably, it becomes nothing more than too much and I am alone again.
On late nights, dark nights, the nights where there is no stars and moon to be seen, I hear the voice calling to me. My leg begins to ache and burn and I will look down on it and, for just a moment, I will see a hungry hand grasping it, probing it, looking for a way inside me. I shut my eyes tight and say my prayers and take a drink of whatever I have at hand and usually, hopefully, eventually it all fades away.
I keep my windows, all of them, covered with thick black fabric. I have learned my lesson. I don’t know that imberuna, whatever it or they are, live in this country, but I have opted to be safer than sorry. Tonight, though, I feel lucky. I’m going to leave the curtains open, just a crack. I will be ready.
Why would I do this to myself? Why would I put myself at risk? Simple. See, what it doesn’t know is what I know. I found the plane ticket the other day. I know it’s all real.
And I know that shotguns can kill it.
Here is where I''ll post random stories that aren't, as of yet, in a larger book. Call it a free ride into the mouth of madness, yo.