BY STEVEN S.
Luke and his father had fought again, and Luke stomped up the stairs and slammed his door, leaving his father in the kitchen, red-faced and upset. He had been an angry child since he was very young, and anger turned into explosive rage over the years. His parents both tried to calm him. They researched theories, read books, talked to professionals. Nothing helped, and now, at eleven, Luke was impossible. Counseling seemed to help when Luke could be convinced to participate, and medication improved his behavior when he could be convinced to take the pills, but neither was a panacea and even during those periods of calm, his parents were so exhausted from the storms that they barely functioned during the lulls.
Later that evening was much like the other evenings, with Luke’s parents at the kitchen table, physically exhausted and emotionally drained.
“God, Jenny, I wish I could just drop him off somewhere, a place where they could just fix him, send him home when he was better.”
“Don’t say such things, Matthew. He’s our son. It’s up to us to show him all the good things, to help him work through the anger.”
Matthew put his hands to his head and rubbed his temples.
“Seriously, I don’t think I have what it takes for him. Why is he so angry all the time? If he hates it so much here, why doesn’t he just go!”
“Matthew! He’s eleven!”
Matthew lowered his head to the table, softly smacking it against the wood.
“Sorry, I’m just tired, that’s all. Maybe tomorrow will be different.”
Jenny reached her arm around him and they sat in silence for a while, then went upstairs to bed. They did not say goodnight to their son.
* * *
That night, Matthew could not sleep. He lay in bed staring at the ceiling. The house was deathly silent. He stared at the alarm clock across the room on the desk as the minutes ticked by. 11:57. 11:58. 11:59. Then midnight. He looked over at Jenny, fast asleep. He closed his eyes, but the more he thought about sleep, the more elusive it became. If anything, he grew more restless. When he opened them again, the moon had reached their window and cast everything in a pale bluish glow. He glanced at the alarm clock again. Still midnight. God, he thought to himself, it was longest minute of his life!
He thought about the previous afternoon, the arguments, the yelling, the explosive rage. Tomorrow he would do better. Tomorrow he would work twice as hard to improve their relationship. Jenny was so much better at it than he. They had reached every goal they had wished for themselves, financially, socially, career-wise – the only thing missing was a proper relationship with their son. He looked over at the clock again. Still midnight! The clock must have frozen. He quietly sat up, swung his legs across to the floor, and crept toward the clock. The colon between the numbers was still pulsing. Strange. That was when he heard the noise.
It came from the hallway. It was the sound of stone against stone, a scraping sound. Strange. He looked over at his closed bedroom door. There was an eerie red light coming from the other side. He stood and walked slowly toward the door. The scraping stone sound stopped but the light grew brighter. He grasped the doorknob, finding it very cold. He turned the knob, slowly opened the door and left his bedroom.
There was nothing in the hallway. The red light was coming from Luke’s room. The door was cracked, and the light was very bright. What did he do now? Start a fire? Matthew thought. He heard a soft thud, then a scream. The sound of his son screaming snapped him out of his late night fugue and he ran toward the room.
He pushed open the door and his jaw dropped. In the middle of Luke’s bedroom floor, the carpet gave way to flagstone, and in the middle was a round hole about the size of a sewer grate. It was the source of the red light. Steam floated up from the inside, as well as a vibrating hum. Luke was in his bed grasping the sheets, a look of horror on his face as he stared into the hole. The sheets had Pokémon characters all over them and the creatures looked garish in the red light, like minions from Hell. As Matthew watched, the hold appeared to grow wider, brighter, and then seemed to almost take a deep breath. He could feel the pulling from the doorway, and he grabbed the doorjamb. Luke screamed as the hole sucked his bed several inches closer. One of his pillows lifted from the bed and whooshed into the hole and disappeared. Another pulse sent the bed scraping across the flagstone another inch. It was sucking him in.
“Luke! Take my hand!”
Matthew clutched the doorjamb with one hand and reached out with his other toward his son. Luke reached out, and Matthew could feel the sucking power pulse even harder, as if in response to his attempt to save his son. Terrified, he retracted his arm and grabbed the bed. As Matthew watched, the bed inched closer to the hole.
“Here! Luke! Take my hand!”
Luke looked from his father to the hole, too scared to move. Then to their horror, Luke’s legs lifted off the bed, and he hovered for a moment, horizontal above the mattress. Only his hands were in contact with the mattress, clutching the corner. It was futile. One moment he was there, screaming, and the next, he was gone. Matthew could feel the vacuum as it sucked Luke off his bed and down into the hole. Matthew screamed Luke’s name, and without thinking, let go of the doorjamb. He stood a moment, waiting for the power to suck him down, but whatever power had taken his son seemed to have no effect on him. He took a step toward the hole, then another, and finally, his toes against the ledge, he looked down.
The hole contained too much steam for him to gauge its depth, and revealed only the slowly dimming red light. There was no sound from within. As he watched, the hole begin to shrink, and he heard the same scraping sound of stone on stone. He shut his eyes for a moment, then stepped into the hole. He felt warmth, felt the air whooshing by him as he fell, then felt nothing at all.
* * *
Matthew opened his eyes and saw the ceiling of their bedroom. The sheets were all rustled about him and Jenny was gone. She must have already woken up and is downstairs making coffee. He looked over at the alarm clock and was surprised to see that it still read midnight. Great, he thought to himself, clock’s broken. He sat up in bed and stretched and yawned. What a terrible dream, he thought to himself. He stood, still shaking the cobwebs out of his head. He walked over to the dresser and looked at his watch. It also reported midnight. He stared at the watch a moment, confused. Sunspots? Electrical storm? What in the world?
It felt late. He walked into the bathroom, showered, dressed. He would call the office on the way in and let them know he would be late. He grabbed his suit coat and his watch and headed for the stairs. Coffee. He needed coffee.
Jenny wasn’t in the kitchen. Usually he smelled coffee when he walked in. This morning the kitchen was silent, empty. He realized then, he hadn’t heard the constant arguing with Luke over getting up, getting dressed, eating breakfast. The medication, when he took it, affected his appetite, so eating was yet another source of argument.
“Jenny?” he called out. No answer. He shrugged, started making a pot. It must be later than I thought. Why didn’t they wake me up? How did they get out without me hearing them? He tried to think back on their usual nightly conversation about her work schedule. She doesn’t have any meetings. Is she walking the dog? She never walked him this early! He opened the refrigerator, saw Luke’s lunch still inside. He looked at the clock in the microwave, saw it also was broken, and cursed. Did the bus come already? He stood in his bedroom a moment, confused. Luke was gone, Jenny was gone, and Luke’s lunch was still in the refrigerator.
Matthew pulled his cell phone from its charging cord and started texting his wife but the text failed to send. His phone reported no signal. He stared at his phone for a moment, confusion becoming panic. Something wasn’t right.
A minute later he was in the garage, getting into his car. He turned the key, saw the clock in his dash was flashing midnight, and tried to start the car, expecting the worst. It started. He immediately shoved it into gear and backed out of the driveway. He raced down the street, toward the entrance to their neighborhood. He came to a stop at the red light, anxious, ruminating on Luke and Jenny, the lunchbox in the refrigerator. It occurred to him then that even Lucy, their dog, was missing. After a while he looked both ways and realized he hadn’t seen even one car. Maple was a busy street. Where was everyone? He stared at the red light, beginning to feel anxious. The light never cycled this slowly, he thought. He looked both ways one more time, then gunned the accelerator and sped through the intersection. As he drove up the empty street he thought to himself, but where should I go?
He looked down to confirm his mobile phone still had no signal. The sun was well above the trees, which meant it was at least 9am, maybe later. Where are all the cars? Their suburb was only a few miles outside Washington; there was always traffic. He began having terrible thoughts, worst case scenario thoughts, and pulled to the side of the road to turn on the radio. There was nothing but static all the way across the dial. He felt pressure all around him. His head began to throb. His fingers felt numb. He had heard of people having panic attacks, and wondered if that was how they felt. He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down, to think logically. Her office was on the way to Luke’s school. He would go there first. Now, with a destination, he squealed his tires and re-entered the street.
He was there within ten minutes, a trip that normally took Jenny over a half hour. The parking lot was empty and he parked beside the door across two handicapped spots. The lobby door was unlocked and he ran inside into a deathly quiet building. All the suite doors were locked. The complex was built with glass panels on either side of the doors, and he saw no movement within any of them. He turned in a full circle, seeing and hearing nothing. He had seen no one since he woke up that morning. The world had gone silent. It was as if the entire human race had vanished. Surely there was an explanation, something that made sense, but all he could do was panic.
This must be a dream, he thought. It’s a terrible, vivid, lucid dream. Then he remembered his dream from earlier in the night. That one was very real, too. Maybe I’m going crazy. He thought about all the stress he had been under, trying to do right by Luke while balancing all the responsibilities of his career, his marriage. Maybe the emotional toll was more than he realized. Maybe I’m falling apart.
Yet he didn’t feel that way. He didn’t feel like he was coming apart at the seams. He felt stressed, emotionally drained, but still sane, still in control. Was this my body’s way of warning me that I had pushed things too far, that a break was coming? He walked slowly back to his car, trying to keep it together. Next stop, Luke’s school.
Luke’s school was only a few miles away. He was there in minutes. Still not one car. Where was everyone? This time he parked in the bus lane directly in front of the school and jogged up the stairs. The doors were unlocked. Inside there was silence. He walked down the linoleum-tiled halls, the only sound his footsteps. As he walked those halls, he thought to himself, this is no dream. It is too real. What is happening? He felt very warm then, and collapsed into a bench in the hallway just outside the gymnasium. It was the proper size for elementary school children, but for him it was too small and hurt his back. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he heard something.
It was splashing water. He listened carefully, and confirmed it sounded like a swimming pool. He stood slowly, his knees creaking as he stood. The sound was coming from the gym. He pushed open the double doors, and stared.
Inside, the floor of the gymnasium was gone, replaced with a swimming pool. All along both sides, children were standing still, dressed in swimsuits and swim caps. They were frozen, as if they were statues. One child was swimming from one side to the other, quietly, while the others stared straight ahead. There were no adults to be seen. He took a step inside, felt the warm humid air. It was no illusion. The child swam to the other side of the pool, then kicked off and began the trek to the other side. Still, the remaining children looked straight ahead.
When the child made it to the other side, he climbed quietly out and resumed his position beside two other children. He did not move again. The child beside him seemed to shake out of his frozen state, and he dove into the pool. He began to swim. Matthew slowly walked toward them. None seemed to acknowledge his presence.
“Hello? Can any of you hear me? Have you seen Luke Graham?”
No response. No movement. Just the one child swimming.
Matthew approached the line of children, reached out an uncertain hand toward the first child in line. His hand landed on his shoulder, and traveled right through, as if he were an illusion. He tried to touch the next child, but again, he felt nothing. The image of the second child wavered a bit as his hand passed through, but nothing else. He took a close look at the child’s face, but it wasn’t familiar, which didn’t necessarily mean anything; Jenny usually took Luke to his after school activities because of Matthew’s work commitments. The child looked vaguely familiar, but it wasn’t Luke.
He was completely at a loss as to what was happening. He began to walk around, looking carefully at each child. They all appeared to be around the same age as Luke. He walked past the second child, then stopped, backed up, and scrutinized his face. He looked exactly like the first child. Walking along the line, he realized they were all the same child.
Matthew walked around the short end of the pool just as the second child returned to his space and emerged. The process then began with the third child.
Matthew inspected each one, and then about a third of the way across the line, he found him. Luke was there, wearing the goggles they bought him for swim lessons the year before. He complained constantly about swim practice, and eventually refused to attend. He wasn’t a very good swimmer as a result, and Matthew saw that there were only about three more swimmers before it would be his turn.
“Luke! Luke! Come on, let’s get out of here!”
He tried to grab Luke’s shoulders, but his hands passed through just like the others. Matthew just stared for a moment, then stepped out in front of Luke, who still stood with his eyes forward, hidden behind his tinted goggles. He had no reaction to his father’s presence. Matthew tried to shake him again, to no avail. He screamed, a loud, primeval scream of rage, one that echoed across the terrible acoustics of the gym, but it did not so much as rouse a facial tic on a child’s face. He stepped through the image of his son and collapsed onto the bleachers.
He watched the kids as they did their mindless swimming, and when they got to Luke, he dove in just like all the others, began his slow, methodical stroke across the water. Then he returned and emerged from the water. Matthew noticed as he emerged that he was completely dry.
Matthew continued watching them until they reached the end of the line. At that point, the sound of a whistle came from nowhere in particular, and the first child on the far end began once more. Matthew couldn’t take it anymore. He approached Luke one more time, passed his arm through him, whispered that he loved him, and stood behind him.
Matthew waited. The clock on the far wall reported midnight just like all the others, so he had no idea what time it was. He watched the children jump, one after the other, swim out and back, then emerge, completely dry. When would it end? As time passed he reflected back on his dream the previous night. Perhaps this was all part of his dream. He wondered what it would take to wake himself up. He pinched his leg, which hurt, but triggered nothing else. He smacked his head on the bleachers, which only gave him a headache. Then he stood, walked through the line of kids, and jumped into the water.
When he landed, he hit nothing but parquet wood. The visual of the pool was there, but he was standing on the gym floor. The entire picture was nothing but an illusion. A very real, very vivid illusion. He walked across the water and back to his spot on the bleachers.
It seemed like hours passed, but the clock remained stuck on midnight. As he stared, he realized the second hand was still moving, but the other hands were frozen. He wondered whether it would ever end. His mind wandered as he waited for something to happen. He thought to himself that if Luke were here with him, he would be staring at the clock, counting the minutes, then counting the number of letters in the word minute. Luke often counted the number of letters in each word he heard. It became a terrible distraction for him at times, which contributed to his anxiety and short temper. It was one of the many triggers that would send him into a tailspin.
Matthew leaned back and closed his eyes, deep in thought about his son. Suddenly the splashing sound stopped. Michael jumped to his feet and found himself in an empty gym. No pool, no kids. They were all gone. He panicked again and ran for the exit. The halls were all empty. It was still daylight outside, and he wondered how long he had been inside. Now what?, he thought.
He wandered the halls until he came upon a large map posted on the wall. He traced the corridors with his finger until he found the fifth grade wing. There were similar maps on each corridor and he checked each one as he passed to make sure he was on the right track. He had never been to Luke’s classroom; his wife Jenny was always the one to attend any classroom functions. He vaguely remembered the name of his teacher, and hoped he would know it when he saw it.
He went downstairs and turned a corner and came upon hallway 9, the fifth grade hall. He walked slowly past dark classrooms, doors shut, with nameplates identifying each teacher posted to the side of each door. He finally came across a nameplate that said Ms. Henry. That sounded right. The classroom was dark. He walked along the hall outside the classroom; posted in disordered rows along the wall were self-portraits the children made. Each child had signed their work. Some were headshots, with big, lopsided smiles. Some were whole body drawings, portraying children in fields filled with animals, a large yellow sun in the sky. One boy drew himself as some kind of winged creature with five legs. Toward the end he found Luke’s drawing. It was a close-up drawing of himself. It was strikingly accurate; Matthew could have recognized the face without Luke’s name on the bottom. Matthew stared at the portrait a long time. Luke’s was the only portrait with the eyes turned away from the camera. They were looking down and to the left. His mouth was closed and expressionless. There was no background, and no color except for the eyes, which he colored bright blue.
Matthew stared at this portrait a long time. That’s exactly what he looks like every morning, and I never noticed it, he thought to himself. Why have I never noticed him this way? Luke had drawn in the top of his collar, and part of his neck, and Matthew noticed he had drawn in the very top of a necklace, just the tiniest part of something. And on that tiniest of pieces, he had added the slightest bit of turquoise.
Matthew stared at that tiny splash of color for a long time. About a year ago, Matthew had to travel overseas on business. While he was there, he purchased a necklace from a street vendor. The necklace was black leather and held a crystal made of what the vendor swore was real turquoise. Matthew hadn’t noticed Luke wearing it for the longest time. Jenny told him Luke lost it soon after receiving it. But there it was. He took a step back and looked along the wall, at all the portraits together. Above them all was a poster upon which the teacher must have written the words “ME, A Self Portrait.”
Matthew looked at Luke’s portrait, surrounded by all the happy faces of his classmates. Suddenly, the rectangular window in the classroom door filled with light. He looked inside and found the classroom full of children. He opened the door and stepped inside.
The children were all paying attention to the chalkboard, each with pencils in their hand, each with blank sheets of paper on their desks. They all looked the same. He stepped further inside the classroom and tried to wave his hand through one of the children. His hand passed through, but hit the desk. At least something was real.
He located Luke in the middle of the classroom, the one face that was different. He was staring at the board just like all the others. Their faces were expressionless, emotionless. They were like statues. He stood there for several minutes waiting for something to happen. Then he had an idea.
He approached the chalkboard, turned to the class for a moment, then picked up some chalk. He wrote Luke’s name on the board. None of the children moved a muscle. He returned to the board.
I love you Luke. If you can see me, if you can hear me, I love you.
Still, no one moved. He looked to see whether any of their eyes had even registered him or the writing on the board, but they were frozen. He screamed and threw the chalk against the far wall where it broke with a tiny cracking sound. He took a step backwards and landed hard against the teacher’s desk. He sat back on it, and tears welled in his eyes. He felt futility, frustration, panic, loss, all at once. He remembered feeling the same emotions at home, when things were normal. He slowly stood and walked back toward Luke. He looked at him quietly, searching his face for some recognition. He was at a loss how to reach him. Then he saw the writing.
No fingers had moved. The pencil was still gripped in a hand poised as if ready to take notes, but the paper bore Luke’s messy handwriting.
He tried to grab his son again, but his hands passed effortlessly through him once more. He looked around, frantically looking for a way to communicate with him, then ran back toward the chalkboard. He found another piece of chalk and began writing furiously.
Where are you? How can I get you out of here? What is happening?
He ran back to Luke and looked down at his paper. At first, there was nothing but those two words but as he watched, his writing appeared all at once, like when Matthew was a kid and he made “secret ink” out of lemon juice, wrote secret messages, then held the paper over the toaster until the words appeared.
I fell into a hole in my room and landed here. I’m stuck. I don’t know where I am. Dad, I’m scared.
So it was true. It wasn’t a dream.
He walked quickly back to the board.
We will figure this out. Be strong. I love you.
I love you too.
Matthew looked up from the paper into his son’s eyes. They were fixed and looking straight ahead, but the words that appeared on the paper said everything he needed. He hadn’t heard those words from his son in a couple of years due to his anger, his anxiety, his exasperating flare ups. Such a simple thing to say, words exchanged daily between him and his wife, but his son just didn’t have the capacity, or perhaps the ability, to utter them. There was just too much in the way.
They had tried therapists. Doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, medication, special diets. Although there were occasional slight improvements, his overall demeanor remained one of obstreperousness and opposition. One psychologist described it as internal noise, that it was impossible for Luke to be a normal kid because he was constantly distracted by this noise, under so much pressure from fighting this internal noise.
If this is all real, Matthew thought to himself, I wonder if all that noise has been silenced. Maybe this is the real Luke, without all the distraction, without all that noise.
He looked more carefully at his son, at the others. He noticed subtle changes then. The more he studied them, the more he realized the others were dimmed somewhat, as if the spotlight was on his son. The others seemed to be nothing more than background scenery on a movie set. Extras. Mannequins.
He returned to the chalkboard, prepared to write some words of encouragement, but all of a sudden, the children and Luke disappeared. They just winked out, leaving him in an empty room, lights off, curtains drawn. He cursed loudly and stormed out of the room.
He retraced his steps, passing Luke’s self-portrait. He made his way toward the exit, trying to figure out his next step. It was unlikely there would be another sighting at the school, he thought. He passed through the double doors of the school and jogged to the bus lanes.
He reached his car, pausing to look over at the bus lanes. There were at least ten buses parked, and the ghost of an idea struck him. He looked down at his watch; it still reported midnight, despite the sun in the sky. He jogged over to the first bus and stepped inside; the doors of the buses were all folded open. He looked around and confirmed it was empty. He looked in the second bus. And the third. Then he got to the fourth bus and found it filled with children.
He stood at the front of the bus, staring at the same expressionless children, none looking out the window, none in conversation. They were just there. He walked slowly toward the back of the bus and found Luke toward the back. They all seemed like photographs, three dimensional photographs. He came over and sat beside his son, directly on top of where one of the strange hologram children was sitting. Matthew looked around, wondering if there was a way to communicate with him.
“Luke, can you hear me?”
“Luke, maybe you can hear me, maybe you can’t. I don’t know what is happening here. I’m trying to figure it out, I promise.”
Matthew stared at his son, then took a deep breath, absently threading his fingers together and apart, over and over.
“I am sorry we haven’t seen eye to eye over the last couple of years. I just don’t know how to reach you sometimes. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough. I forget that you have, well, that you have so much going on in there. You get so wrapped up with things. It makes it hard for you. I’m doing the best I can to figure this out. Please be patient with me.”
He searched Luke’s face for anything, a glimmer, a spark, but there was nothing. He took a deep breath and continued.
“Mom always says you can’t help it, that it’s how you were made. The medication was supposed to help but it doesn’t seem to really do anything, does it? You’re just so angry all the time. I don’t know how to deal with it.”
“Well, we will figure this out together. You and me. If you can hear me, know that I love you and I haven’t given up!”
Matthew sat there on the bus, his hand hovering over the spectral version of Luke’s, and after around a half hour, they all just vanished again. He got off the bus and walked back toward his car in front of the school. Still, he heard no traffic, no birds chirping, no dogs barking. Time had stopped.
He considered everything he had seen and took an educated guess where he would next find Luke. He returned to his car and drove home. He drove through red lights and stop signs. There was no one else on the road. He parked in the driveway and came inside. He walked into the kitchen and found Luke sitting at the kitchen table, alone. None of the other images were present. He stood in the kitchen a while, just staring at Luke. This must be what it looked like when he returned home from school. Matthew was never around to see this part of the day, the part Jenny sarcastically called “the witching hour,” when he came home tired, hungry and crabby. Jenny always tried to have a protein rich snack ready for him. She would limit her communication with him as she gauged his demeanor, wondering whether it would be a good afternoon or another bad one. Usually they were bad. Matthew heard about these moments in stark, lurid detail after Luke finally went to sleep.
He watched his son as he sat at the table, motionless, expressionless. Matthew’s eyes shifted down to the counter and he realized there was homework on the table. Was it part of the image? He reached out and felt the paper and discovered it must have been there earlier. Luke just happened to be seated in front of it now. It was math homework, fractions. Luke did not do well with fractions. He was intelligent, for sure; they had him tested. But math was difficult for him; he was so easily distracted, he gave up so quickly, he got so angry.
He stared at Luke, stared at the page, and wondered. He approached the counter and started going through the drawers until he found a pen. He sat beside Luke, and started writing on the paper.
Luke, can you read this message?
He wrote the message in between the math problems, printed, one letter below the other. As he waited, he saw more letters appear down the next row. Just as before, words written by an invisible hand.
I can read it. I can hear you too. I heard you on the bus.
Matthew was stunned. He wrote across the open space beneath the math.
Do you remember anything else? Do you see anything? Give me some hints!
There was a long wait, but then the letters appeared, winked into existence just as his image had winked out.
It’s hard to explain. I feel like I am only half way here, and the other half is locked away somewhere. One minute I am at school, then all of the sudden I am sitting on the bus, then all of the sudden I am home. I am moving, but you can’t see it. It’s like we are television stations on two different channels.
His response filled the rest of the page, and he turned the page over, thankful it was blank. It occurred to him that he wasn’t even fully aware Luke had been studying fractions. He thought a moment, then scribbled out a response.
Are you here? Or are you somewhere else? Are you the only one there?
Again, there was a lag before the writing showed up.
I think there is someone else here but I can’t hear or see them. Someone just watching. He’s not bad, but I don’t want to be here anymore. It’s kind of like, kind of like he’s another version of me. A version that doesn’t get so mad. I want to be more like that. Dad, I’m trying to be more like that. It’s just so hard. Dad it’s getting dark.
And then Luke winked out again. Matthew yelled as loud as he could, a scream of rage, frustration, impotence. He stopped, caught his breath, and ran upstairs.
He opened the door to Luke’s bedroom just as he winked into view in bed, his eyes closed. He glanced down at the carpet, confirming the stone floor and strange pit was gone. There was only carpet. And toys, and dirty clothes, all the things normally occupying the free space in Luke’s room. He had always been a messy boy.
Matthew stood in the doorway, unsure what to do. The small clock in Luke’s room still read midnight. Outside the sun was past the zenith, creeping down toward the treetops. Matthew guessed it was around six. He worried about what would happen after dark. He walked in and sat at the foot of his son’s bed.
He stared down at his hands. He began to worry about his wife, Luke’s mother. Where was Jenny? Why wasn’t she part of this? It seemed almost like a test. It almost reminded him of Dickens’s old story about Christmas.
Then his mind stopped wandering. He thought carefully about everything. His son had been circling that pit for a few years, and Matthew just didn’t see it. Luke had been locked in his own world, filled with anger and anxiety, and beneath it all, fear. Jenny had told him numerous times about her conversations with the doctors, about his feelings, about how he was unable to control such things, how she was counseled to love the child she had, not the one she wanted. She had come to grips with it, but Matthew had only paid half attention to it all. He was so consumed with work. Perhaps this macabre day was a warning to him, a last chance for him to get it right. And it was working.
“Luke, listen. I know I am always working, and there’s not a lot I can do about that. But I can do something about the rest of the time. We need to spend more time together. I will do my best to be more understanding when you are having a bad day. I will try to remember that it is usually beyond your control when the dark parts take over. I will do my best to keep an even keel even when you are unable to do so. I love you, kid. Wherever you are, get some rest, know that I love you, and, if all goes well…. Something tells me when you wake up, everything will be different. I think I understand what is happening here, and I know what it will take to end it.”
He watched Luke sleeping, or at least appearing to be sleeping, and found himself unable to get up, to walk out. He pulled out his cell phone again, confirmed there was still no signal. He sat and waited. Sure enough, after a while Luke winked out again. He was gone. Matthew stood up.
As he turned to go, he saw what appeared to be steam coming up from the carpet. He sidestepped around the center of the floor, back toward the doorway. The carpet began to melt, to grow hazy and disappear, to become stone. Then the stone began to flex away, to disappear, leaving a circular hole in the center. There was a red light emanating from within. He stepped up to the hole, saw Luke holding onto the edge, hanging on. Matthew crouched down, grabbed Luke’s arms, and pulled him up. They fell in a pile of dirty clothes, and Matthew held him tight, squeezed him. Luke squeezed him back. Then the entire room shifted, grew hazy, and he felt Luke become lighter, less physical. He screamed “no!” and felt Luke disappear. He was left alone in his room, where it had grown very dark. Then he began to lose consciousness. He fought to stay awake, but something was happening to him and he felt like he was underwater. Then there was nothing.
He found himself back in his own bed. The alarm clock in his room flipped to 12:01. He was in a pool of sweat. Jenny was sleeping soundly beside him. It was pitch black outside.
Matthew stood quietly and left the room. He walked toward Luke’s room down the hall and peeked in. Luke was in bed, sleeping. His sheets were all bunched at the foot of the bed and he was twisted in a position only children can sleep in. Matthew let his forehead hit the trim of the door, flooded with relief. Part of him wanted to rouse him and hug him, but decided against it. He would see him in the morning. He returned to bed.
His alarm went off at 6:30 and he jolted awake. He jumped out of bed, waking Jenny, and ran out of the room. He found Luke still in bed, sleeping. He returned with a smile, finding Jenny sitting up in bed with a confused look on her face.
“What was that all about, Matt?”
He looked at his wife for a moment, unsure how to respond.
“Oh, just excited to get up. Had a lot of trouble sleeping last night.”
She looked at him, a confused expression on her face.
Matthew took his phone from the charger, emailed his office to report he would be late for work, then went downstairs to make some breakfast. He thought about the dream, the details becoming hazy already as dreams were wont to do. He turned to find Luke standing at the entrance to the kitchen staring at him.
“Hi Dad, what are you doing?”
“I’m setting up breakfast for us. How did you sleep?”
Luke walked in without answering, sat at the table.
“OK, I guess. I feel really tired. Weird dreams.”
Matthew returned with two bowls of cereal, placed one on each side of the table. Luke did not look up, did not move.
Luke stared at the table, motionless, and Matthew followed his gaze, and saw that Luke had been staring at his math homework. There, in between the math problems, was handwriting. Matthew’s. And his. Their handwriting. Luke slowly looked up and they stared at each other. Speechless.