Everywhere I go, I hear footsteps behind me, but no one is there. The worst thing is, they are slowly getting closer with each step.
I wasn’t afraid of the dark, once. It was a great source of pride when my friends dared me to go into some tunnel or basement with either only a candle or no light at all, and I would stand there, whistling, while they made stupid ghost noises and I didn’t react.
I wasn’t afraid of the dark until the old fall-out shelter, the one we found in some warehouse. The door had been hidden under a bunch of rotting crates, and my friends dared me to go down inside with only a candle.
I don’t remember coming out. My friends said I was pale when I did, and I vaguely recall telling them some bull story about how it smelled down there, like something dead.
That’s because of the body; all dried out like a mummy, it’s skin like paper stretched over its bones. I don’t remember telling anyone about it. I don’t think I did.
Thing is, I remember assuming the body some Halloween decoration someone had left behind as a prank. I remember I wasn’t afraid of that body.
Not until it turned its head to look at me, and smiled.
The toy fire engine had seen better days, but Johnny loved it. He pressed the siren button non-stop, except to switch to the radio button. It wailed and called out commands in what was definitely not an inside voice. Johnny’s dad hated the toy, and had a small smile as the siren slowly changed from a screech to a muffled warble, and the voice became a mumbled whisper. Then one day, it happened. The toy was silent.
“What’s wrong with it?” Johnny asked, a small hitch in his voice.
“The batteries must be dead,” Dad replied.
“Can you fix it?”
“It’s not the kind of batteries you can replace.” He had no idea if it was true, but if he didn’t check then he wasn’t really lying. Johnny sniffled, but didn’t cry, and pushed the toy to a corner of the living room. Johnny’s dad felt bad at first, but a fire engine free evening went a long way to making him feel better.
The toy sat in the living room, silent for over a week. Then, one morning while the family was getting ready for work and school they all heard its louder than ever, deep voice announce, “LOOK BOTH WAYS BEFORE CROSSING THE STREET.” The family walked slowly into the living room, and it announced the same warning again.
“You fixed it!” Johnny said, giving Dad a big squeeze, then dashing over to the toy.
“No,” he admitted. “Must have been a little juice left in the batteries,” he added, noticing it wasn’t responding to his son’s button mashing. Johnny soon gave up and sat down for breakfast. The fire engine made the same warning while they were eating, then bellowed it out one last time as they were leaving the house.
By the time lunch time rolled around, Johnny’s dad had forgotten all about the toy, and was headed out to his favorite food truck for some spicy tacos. He exited from the back of the building, like he always did, but his ringing phone stopped him from walking blindly into the alley. Caller ID showed his home phone number, which was odd because no one should have been home. He clicked the button to answer and a car raced down the alley, the wind rippling his dress pants. “Hello?” he answered hesitantly, a little shaken by how close the car came to hitting him, but the line was dead. By the time he got home from work, he had put the incident out of his mind.
The next morning they all received another warning from the toy. “DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS.” Again Johnny was excited, but couldn’t get any more response from the toy. It made the same announcement two more times before they left the house, but Johnny’s dad pretended not to hear it.
At lunch time he looked both ways before crossing the alley, but it was empty, like always. Well, except for the day before, of course. The entire day was uneventful and he had forgotten about the toy’s warning by the time it was time to go home. He was walking through the parking deck towards his car when he saw someone approaching him.
“Can you tell me how to get to Main Street?” the smiling stranger asked him.
Johnny’s dad’s phone rang, and he put a hand up to the man as he saw it was a call from home. “Sorry,” he said, “It’s my wife. Give me just a minute.” The stranger stood there as Johnny’s dad answered the phone call. “Hello?” he answered, and received garbled static as his reply. “What?” he said, putting a finger in his ear, and moving away trying to get a better signal. “I can’t hear you,” he said as he reached the edge of the deck, and then the line went dead. He looked back at the stranger, still waiting on him, and shrugged. The stranger shrugged back, then was plowed over by a driver coming too fast around a blind corner. The stranger died instantly, and right in front of Johnny’s dad. He was late getting home, and while he talked to several police officers that night, he didn’t talk to any strangers.
The next morning Johnny’s dad felt like he was holding his breath, waiting for the warning. There was only silence. Johnny tried the buttons again, but the toy wasn’t talking. Breakfast was quiet, and no voice called out to them as they left for the day. Johnny’s dad looked both ways before crossing the alley at lunch, and made sure he stayed out of the lane in the parking deck when it was time to go home. He checked his phone for any missed calls, but there was nothing there.
When he got home he noticed the toy wasn’t in the living room corner. “Where’s Johnny’s fire truck?” he asked his wife as casually as he could manage.
“Oh, it started talking again, so I made him play with it outside.”
He grabbed her shoulders, “What was it saying?”
“What?” she said, trying to wriggle free from his grip.
“What was it saying?” he repeated, squeezing her harder.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Something about calling 911 in case of an emergency. Ow! That really hurts!”
He didn’t hear anything else she said. He just ran for the phone dialing the numbers even as he heard the screeching tires outside.
J. Daniel Layfield