Prompt #3: A piece about an unwelcome surprise
I’m a notoriously light sleeper. I toss and turn merely trying to fall asleep, and when I finally crash, it takes only the slightest noise from all the way across the house to instantly wake me up again. It’s always been that way. I envy the people who can pass out in thirty seconds and sleep a solid seven or eight hours with nothing but sweet dreams running through their heads.
My brother Charlie knows this, and yet he called me this morning, lightly whispering, “Hey. Hey, are you at home?” What the fuck, where else would I be at 3:32 a.m.? “Can you come downstairs? I’m in your lobby. I have a, umm, situation.”
Well, I’m awake now, I thought grudgingly, and hung up with a grunt. The moon was barely a sliver outside my window, providing the only light creeping into my room as I pulled on yesterday’s jeans and the closest shirt I could find. This had better be good.
Charlie had a knack for overreactions. When he was 11 and I was 15, he was convinced our neighbor was a serial killer. He’d get off the bus with me and tiptoe absurdly all the way down the road in case Mr. Sanders was outside and knew he was there.
“For god’s sake, Charlie, let’s go home! Mom’s waiting.”
“Shh! Did you hear that? It sounds like screaming.”
“All I hear is a lawnmower.”
Meanwhile, he would drop belly-first into the ditch in front of Mr. Sanders’ house, using his cheap plastic binoculars to peer in the windows. “Come on, Charlie, we’re going to get in trouble!”
Every week without fail this happened, until finally Mr. Sanders moved away. Charlie insisted on going to the open house — to his embarrassment, and probably disappointment, no mass-murder weapons were discovered anywhere on his property.
In high school he turned into the biggest of hypochondriacs, constantly complaining of new medical maladies that he was sure were cancer, leprosy, scurvy. I was relieved to be headed off to college where I’d be free of him, but even his letters were fraught with confusion and panic.
“Did Mom tell you about my doctor’s appointment yesterday? He said it’s just allergies, but I don’t know, I’ve heard meningitis starts with similar symptoms.” Charlie, for god’s sake….
Suffice it to say, I was resigned to these sorts of announcements. So when I ambled downstairs into the lobby of my apartment at 3:44 a.m., I was not at all surprised to see Charlie pacing back and forth in front of the door, wringing his hands anxiously. When he saw me, he took three giant steps toward me and yanked my arms toward him, holding me still like a mummy lying in a sarcophagus. “Dude. Dude, you have to come quick. You have to help.”
“Charlie, Charlie, chill out, man. What’s going on? What are you doing?” He let go, and I rubbed my eyes, still trying to wake up.
“Okay, so remember a month ago when I fell off my bike at the park?”
“And my helmet rolled away into the ditch near the sewer?”
“And then when we went to go get it, we saw that little kid who was lost?”
“Yeah, Charlie, so we helped him find his way home. Get to the point of the story already. I have to work in” — I clumsily pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time— “four hours.”
“Okay, okay, sorry. So, like, I didn’t tell you this, but I went back there the next day and found, well, I found something I didn’t know what to do with.”
“Okay, and?” I yawned. Considering the excitement Charlie created in his own head for himself, I had forgotten just how boring his storytelling skills were.
“I guess I just panicked, and I- I took it because I didn’t know what else to do. I thought it was that kid’s, and I was going to find him, but I didn’t know how. And I- I think it might be bad, bro.” Charlie pushed open the lobby door and went outside to wear his car was parked at the curbside, rust, key scratches and all. “I didn’t think there’d be any problems in taking it, but I feel really weird about it now and I don’t know what to do now. So…”
As he spoke, Charlie reached for his keys to get inside his car. The pre-dawn street was barely lit, by a single streetlamp a quarter-mile down the road, and even that was flickering. I should move, I suddenly thought to myself. Out loud, I said nothing, and merely stood there with my arms crossed as my little brother opened his trunk. I was half expecting the little boy from the story to pop out, the way Charlie was so anxious; the thought made me snort.
When he opened the trunk, I leaned forward to see what was inside the darkness below me, and when I did—
The next thing I remember is lying on my back on the sidewalk in front of my building, a few pigeons wandering near my aching head and the sun rising just past my vision back behind my eyelids. The taste of blood lingered in my mouth, and when I gingerly sat up, I noticed my shoes were missing — as was Charlie — and I was wearing a woman’s yellow coat. I rubbed my eyes and checked my watch: 6:57. With any luck, I’ll still make it to work on time, I thought. I stood up, shrugged, and went back inside, nodding at the doorman in a knowing way.
To make a long story short, I don’t answer the phone in the middle of the night anymore.