(excerpted from: Nights in Haiti)
School had been canceled for tomorrow, and there was already talk of closing on Tuesday as well. We were giddy at the prospect. Mrs. Luciemable kept a little orange hand radio in her kitchen window. She turned the volume up on Chuck Mangione's flugelhorn, and so, for me, "Feels So Good" will always be the song of the blizzard of '78. It was early in February, and my friend Yves and I were anticipating an apocalypse of tremendous proportion. My mother had dropped off a bag of pretzel rods (by special request: I kept it carefully hidden from my hosts) and a change of clothing so I could spend the night, and wake up with my friend and the snow.
Pictures of the Luciemable family covered just about every surface of their house--and almost as many pictures and statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and St. Jude, with many of those pictures framed, as if their last name, too, was Luciemable. The religious pictures left me feeling sorry for the Luciemables, especially since there was a synagogue right across their street, and that was where Sister Christina's professed husband ("Yeshua. Not Jesus. Yeshua!") would have felt most at home today (or so, with Mom safely out of earshot, my father told me). Of actual photographs, two featured a younger Yves, and his brother Emanuel, as old as Yves was now, but with a broader face and wearing a Yankee baseball cap. The older boy's right arm had been amputated below the elbow; and in another photo, almost to the shoulder. So the first thing that shocked me was that this kid's arm was gone, but the next, that some thing had come round for a second bite.
Those days I was obsessed with such "horrors" of nature--the Giant Anaconda, the Great White Shark, the Saltwater Crocodile--that I thought maybe Yves's brother had survived an attack. I had read and re-read numerous accounts of such survivors who (foolishly) stated that they were not to be deterred from swimming in infested water bodies by a single stroke of bad luck; Yves's brother looked like he had pushed his, and lost.
Yves had a little tub in his room, the kind my mother used for washing her feet, with a baby turtle in it, and a bunk bed. This, Yves had made a cave out of by tucking a blanket into the top bunk, and letting it dangle curtain-wise. In the lower bunk, a reading-light was clamped to the wooden support slat nearest the pillows, and an assortment of comic books shoved behind the other slats.
Next to the turtle's tub stood a globe, which had been one of Yves's Christmas presents that year. You could turn it round and tilt it on its axis, and find a country's latitude and longitude. Yves's father had given it to him with coins from different parts of the world, which Yves added to his collection and which Mr. Luciemable used to drill Yves's change-making skills (they'd sit at the kitchen table and shove coins back and forth at each other, in some strange variant of Checkers).
From Yves's room, we could only see the highway, and the snow had erased not only the streets but the traffic with it. The house, whose windows trembled at the passing of eighteen-wheelers speeding down Route 1, had gone completely still. It was strange not to have to talk over Newark Airport's arrivals and departures. We stared across East Jersey Street, at the Temple B'Nai B'Rith Israel, its broad steps and columned porch, and I imagined Mount Vesuvius covering Pompeii in volcanic ash (on my bookshelf, illustrated histories of natural disasters ran a close second to prehistoric and modern-day man-eating monsters). Where cars had been parked along the streets, there were now only rolling white hills.
In bed, I took out my bag of pretzel rods, which I'd had my mother pack for just this moment, and said, "Have a cigar!" Our constant crunching and giggling soon had Mrs. Luciemable poking her head into Yves's room. She confiscated our cigars and addressed Yves in their language, and as she did I imagined myself one of their family; I asked her how to say "Good night," and after she shut his door, I asked Yves how to say "Good morning," so I could surprise her at breakfast.
My leg kept banging the wooden guardrail of the top bunk, until finally Mrs. Luciemable came back, and crammed rags into the grooves to muffle the sound. "Mr. Luciemable has to work," she said, and snapped Yves's reading-lamp off. "You go to sleep now."
We let a respectful amount of time pass before whispering some more. I kept thinking of Yves’s brother, in his Yankee cap, and missing arm; and was about to ask, Which bunk did he use?, but it felt like a forbidden question. So I tried another tack. “Did you know he’s really that small?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The statue of St. Michael. You know, in the church. You know how he’s got his foot on the Devil’s neck?”
“Did you ever wonder why the Devil would make himself so small? A dragon the size of your dog...”
“I don’t have a dog.”
“You know what I mean. If you had a dog. It could take a nap right under your bed, and you’d hear it breathing under there, or brush by it in the dark when you get up for a pee, and you’d think it’s just old Glover there. Until it grabs your leg.”
“I’d just kick and punch the snot out of it.”
“Duh. It’s the Devil, stupid. You think you can kick the snot out of him? And anyway, that’s the first lie the Devil tells you.”
“About his strength. He makes himself small like that so you think you can beat him, or scare him off with a stick or a shout or something, like he’s some kind of strange dog. But you can’t. You need to be, like, an archangel to even hold him down. And you know something else? It’s not good that they made a shape for him in that statue.”
There was silence in the bottom bunk. Then: “Why not?”
“Because now the Devil’s just waiting for St. Michael to get tired. St. Michael’s been standing that way since that church was built, and someday, he’ll be tired enough that the Dragon’s just going to do a death-roll and, watch, the next time we go to church, I bet it’s not even under St. Michael’s foot anymore. Hey!”
“Was that you breathing?”
“That’s stupid. Of course I’m breathing.” His reading-lamp snapped back on.
“Oh. Must be the radiator. It sounds like a couple of old dogs wheezing. Does it always make sounds like that? Like it’s hissing and breathing and--and--talking. Do you hear words in it?”
“Maybe. But if there was something under your bed, something breathing, you’d never hear it, not with that radiator on, would you?”
“I think you need to shut up and go to sleep.”
For a moment, he sounded genuinely angry. “Okay,” I said. “You going to turn the light off? I can’t sleep with it on all night.”
He ignored the question. The lamp stayed on.
“Well, bon nuit,” I said. “And thanks for giving me the top bunk.”
“Man, I told you to shut up.”
I got an image in my head of Mrs. Luciemable dropping me off at my house, and Yves not even riding in the car--just me in the back, and Mrs. Luciemable driving away without a word to my mother. "You know I’m only joking, right?”
Again, he ignored me.
“Hey, don’t you want to get even with me?”
“What do you mean, get even with you?”
"Like, don’t you have any scary stories?” What could be scarier than those pictures of his brother, vanishing a piece at time?
I was going to ask, Was this your brother’s bunk? But even just holding that question in my mouth made the blood throb in my temples. I had thought for sure that Yves would tell me all about it, if only to even up the score.
“You’re not mad at me now, are you?”
I stretched my hand down to the bottom bunk. “Shake on it?”
Yves shook on it.
"Because you're my best friend, right?"
Yves laughed. "God, man. Just go to sleep, okay? God!"
When Mr. Luciemable came home early from work, he dragged us round the block on a wooden sled. "Boys," he called us, like it was a third name that was ours together. When school was announced closed the next day as well, Yves asked if I could stay over again. Mrs. Luciemable told me to ask my mother, and I asked her if she would ask instead. I told her that maybe Mom would say no to me, but yes to her; but really, I did not want to break the illusion that I had arrived in another country. You don't ask your mother's permission to stay another night in Haiti. You just do.
“But you must promise not to make so much noise," she said. Mr. Luciemable was tired from hauling us through the snow. He had to get up for work.
“Thanks, Ma!" The bag of pretzel rods was on the kitchen table. Yves held them out to his mother and me and said, "Have a cigar!" His mother dipped her hand in. As he showed her how to bite the end off, and proceeded to light it up for her, she even laughed. So when Yves held a pretzel out to me, I said, "I don't smoke."
Yves had sunk pretty damn low, stealing my lines like that--and with such excellent results. Things might have gone south right then, except that Mrs. Luciemable laughed at my rejoinder, too. Her laugh was like the lightest touch of her hand, and so, deflected the worst damage. "Psych," I said, "I'll have one, too."
We were wiped out from playing all day. Even in bed, my fingers and toes still felt the afterglow of their recent thaw. We chatted in the dark, wondering whether school would be shut down a third day (it was!) and ... I don't remember drifting off. But I was wakened by a scream. It was still pitch dark.
My body filled with adrenaline. Had I heard what I’d heard? Had that scream been the remnant of a waking nightmare? From beyond Yves's door it came again, a long penetrating wail that rent the air in half. Left it thinner, unbreathable.
It occurred to me that someone else was in the house. The neighbors to either side of my house had been burgled. But something about that scream didn't fit burgling. I could imagine Mrs. Luciemable screaming at a burglar, but not Mr. Luciemable: short, but powerfully built. The scream was too deep for a woman's throat, and yet it couldn't be a man's. It sounded more than half animal. Or maybe, my imagination running wild, a man turning into one.
Yves lay in the lower bunk sobbing and snuffling back snot.
I was shaking, frozen to the top bunk. A light came up and bled through the hem of Yves's door, and in the light that animal--or whatever it was--began to shout in a voice becoming almost human again, almost Mr. Luciemable's, pounding out the one word it had learned, or remembered, a name it shouted over and over, "Emanuel! Emanuel! Emanuel! Emanuel!"
With that, the same earlier inhuman wail tore out of Yves's throat. He bounded out of bed, ripping loose the blanket-curtain, and busted himself against his door, banged it open and streaked toward that name, as though leaving it unanswered might bring down the entire world.
My friend's cries soon outmatched and tamed his father's.
Then, gradually, quiet filled the house like snow. Yves's turtle sploshed into the water; I jumped.
I was afraid to look up at the shadow that appeared next in Yves's doorway. His turtle had moved exactly the way animals do before a skulking predator. "Al," said Mrs. Luciemable, "I'm sorry. Don't be afraid, okay? Yves sleeps with us now. I'm sorry. Don't be afraid. Everything's okay."
She closed the door.
I was suddenly sure whose bunk I was using, and moved down into Yves's and flipped the reading-lamp on. It went out.
There in the dark, I held my pee and believed in every word that Sister Christina had ever uttered about Hell, while the secret truths that Dad had confided fell completely to ruin. Crouching somewhere between me and the door, The Dragon teased me in a voice the innocent would take for cozy radiator mumblings:
It would be weeks before the snow melted and colored in our city. I’ll never know how long it was before the windows grew light enough to restore the shapes in Yves's room. I lay awake willing them back, until morning slanted in through the blinds and I saw once more, on Yves's dresser, the globe of the world. It’s been a lifetime ago that I knocked my leg into the guardrail of a dead boy’s bunk, sent his half of giggling whisper-chatter into his parents’ bedroom, even--as if no one were paying him enough attention--set his weight beside his brother’s on a sled, while their father dragged it through a world so blank, so still, it felt like God was going to rewrite it.
Andrew Alford grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey and teaches Computer Science at Newark Academy. He has published other short works in magazines like Midnight Echo, Space and Time, and Supernatural Tales.