Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Till the Morning Comes

It was supposed to stop after that summer. My mom told me it would, and when she told my dad about it—him just home from third shift, his whiskers all grown back in already, eyes hungry for something none of us ever had for him—he just licked his lips and told me to get on back in there. That he wished he had the luxury of being scared.

Because my mom couldn’t help me then, because all she could do was sit on the couch, I’d do it; I’d walk down the hall to my room. Or, our room then, mine and Nicholas’s, my little brother, who my dad called Señor Accidento, like the Spanish was supposed to hide what he meant.

Before Easter that year, it had been my room and only mine. But that Good Friday, Uncle Jamison was at the door, smiling a guilty smile. He had just turned twenty-six. I only knew it because I heard my dad say to my mom that twenty-six was too old to be living like he was. My mom didn’t disagree, but still, Jamison was her little brother, and he didn’t have anywhere else to go. And anyway, his plan wasn’t to stay forever. He was just going to work for a couple of months, maybe get enough bread saved to move on to the next thing, whatever that was going to be.

I know I should have idolized him or something, let him be everything I planned on being, but already with Jamison you could tell he was a walking public service announcement. I guess I should thank him, really. I might never have gone on to college without the warning he’d been.

But I’m not going to thank him.

For his room, the one that had been Nicholas’s—the one that my dad had had pool table plans for, before Señor Accidento—Jamison unboxed all his old high school stuff that my mom had been keeping in the attic for him. It was mostly old crackly posters and flags and t-shirts too ratty to wear anymore, but—his words—”good for display,” to remind him who he was, to show that he was still being loyal to his old plans.

Four years after what happened happened, I’d find one of those memory t-shirts in the rag box in the garage, hold it to my face and not let myself cry.

As for his posters, though, they’re gone. I burned them myself, especially the velvet ones that felt like the fur of some animal not quite from our world. Band posters, from when Jamison had been on the road, all over the country. They had intricate, stoned designs all over them, and always skeletons, skeletons, skeletons.

That summer, I was twelve. The skeletons were the reason I was afraid to go back to my room anymore. To mine and Nicholas’s room. They didn’t glow, quite, but they held the light from the hall in a way that made me want to look away.

I knew they were just pictures, paintings, whatever, but still, the way Jamison had them on either side of Nicholas’s bed, like guards, they were always looking at me when I walked past, their mouths somehow smiling like they didn’t care at all about this “being dead” thing.

I’d tried walking close to Jamison’s side of the hall, then just darting across at the last moment for my room, but it didn’t help. And running—that was the worst. The one time I’d tried, I’d been sure those long spindly fingers were just skating down the back of my shirt, waiting for a bunch in the fabric to grab onto, pull me in.

I’d started wetting the bed again, yeah. After two years dry.

Every time it happened, Nicholas would be sure to announce it at the breakfast table. My dad’s bleary eyes settling on me, some Spanish name for me forming in his head, I knew: El Pissorino, Pancho Yellowpants, Señor Wetsheets.

I hated him.

But, my mom said, she’d had the same problem until fifth grade herself. It would pass, it would go away, and everybody would forget.

And Uncle Jamison, he was on her side about it, almost by default, just because my dad was tolerating him so poorly. Making such a show of it, how encumbered he was. How much he wanted to be playing pool. Every day he’d circle classifieds or advertisements for eight-foot tables, and leave them where we could all see how put upon he was being here. How Jamison was just one more nail in the coffin of my dad’s dreams.

But I’m not stupid, either. He was just a dad, like all the rest. You check your dreams at the door, pretty much.

Uncle Jamison, though.

The job he got, from his time in the Army, it was driving an ambulance. In a perfect world, he’d have worked the day shift, so been gone when my dad was home, then been home when my dad was working. But they both worked nights that summer. And every breakfast—dinner for them, in their backwards world—after Nicholas had announced that I’d “tee-tee’d the bed,” Jamison would draw what attention he could away from me, regale us with stories of the last night’s calls.

There were home abortions, there were knife fights, and, twice, there was a woman standing on the median with a human ear in a plastic baggie, like she was just the delivery girl.

But the story I remember most is about a family.

The call Dispatch got was second-hand somehow, just that somebody’d seen some headlights dying way down the hill, like maybe a drunk had missed the turn. But that was over by the tracks, where the ground just fell straight away like cliffs in the movies. You didn’t drive down there, you slammed down there, and only came back up on a towrope. According to Jamison, when the cars nosedived off there, after the riders had been declared dead, they’d wait until the car’d been winched back up to even peel the people up from the seats and headliners.

Anyway—you’ve got to picture Jamison telling it, his spoon full with eggs (he hated forks), the way he’d lean forward, his hair shaggy, his eyes hot and staring at all of us, trying to make it real—Jamison took his paramedic Robbie out there, and they found the headlights like they didn’t want to, and it was an old VW bus, all painted paisley with flowers. Hippies. Deadheads. Jamison’s old running buddies, pretty much. Where he was headed, anyway.

“And?” I heard myself saying, even though I had to pee again, bad.

He smiled, had me.

It wasn’t a busload of Deadheads at all, as it turned out. Well, just one, one who’d grown up, got out, had kids now, but just had never sold his old three-hundred-thousand-mile bus, because that would be like cashing in his past, trading it for a used dishwasher. Not all dads leave their dreams at the door, I guess. Some hide them in the closet. And, Jamison, he was talking about this dad, sure, this Deadhead, but he was really making an argument for his posters, that he insisted to my mom would just scare me more if we packed them away with the sheets and towels. Better to leave them out on the wall, let me get used to them, let me beat them, learn to walk down that hall, right into manhood.

“You mean to tell me some of you actually and really grow up?” my dad said then.

Jamison grinned and looked the opposite direction.

It wasn’t a real grin. Not at all. More like he was giving my dad this one free, just because it was morning, just because the sun was shining.

My dad snorted and threw his balled-up napkin down onto his plate, clattered off to the morning news, the volume jacked as high as it would go.

“Jamison,” my mom said then, when it was safe. She was warning him about this story, about his audience here—us—but he held his hand up that it was harmless, that this was nothing.

“And when I turned the ambulance off, we could both like hear it,” he said, “coming through the window and all. Singing. Somebody down there was singing, man, just real light, real perfect like.”

“Singing,” Nicholas repeated, as if tasting it, hearing it like Jamison had.

“But when we got down there, that’s when we saw it,” Jamison went on, his voice dropping to a whisper now, because my mom was all the way over at the sink, with my dad’s dishes. “The two kids, this old reformed hippie’s two kids, they were in back, seatbelted in like they should have been, not hurt at all, hands in their laps just like they were at church, man.”

“‘Who was that singing, y’all?’ my medic Robbie he asked,” Jamison said, his face somehow even closer to us now, then he nodded, getting us to already believe the next part: “‘It was Dad,’ the kids said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.”

Only, as Jamison told it, the dad here, this old freeze-dried hippie out to show his kids the way it used to be, he’d been dead-on-impact five or six hours ago, the steering wheel coring his heart right out of his body.

But the song.

Here Jamison started snapping, just slow at first, and then humming it in his chest, and when I heard my own voice falling in—I knew the song from somewhere, must have heard it leaking under his door once—I pushed away from the table, tried to swallow whatever was in my mouth, and stiff-legged it back to mine and Nicholas’s room, only—

This is the part I hate.

As I passed Jamison’s room, trying to avert my eyes from the poster-space above his bed, I saw something stepping neatly into his closet, something only still there because I wasn’t supposed to have walked down the hall as fast as I had.

A heel, bone white, no sound at all.

My heart fell into my stomach and I peed myself right there, started crying until my dad came back to stand over me, disappointed again, enough that it came off him in waves.

For the next week, I slept maybe four hours total, each minute of that by accident, so that I woke shuddering.

“Was it real?” Nicholas asked me once—Jamison’s story about the singing dad who was already dead—and I told him no, and then he asked why I was doing that, then?

“What?”

“With your—” He did his throat to show: I was humming. The song. It was the only way to keep myself awake.

Because Jamison worked at night, his room was empty, and because of the air conditioner in his window, my dad wouldn’t let my mom keep his door closed, so all night, sitting in my bed, I could see his room with the light off. Part of the room.

If it would have been school, my grades would have dropped, but as it was, the only thing that fell off was my eating.

“He’ll snap out of it,” my dad told my mom, staring at me over her shoulder because it wasn’t a prediction he was making here, but a threat.

“Sixth grade will be here before you know it,” my mom promised, whenever he was at work.

I hummed to myself instead of answering, and Jamison—sent by my mom— made the effort, tried to sit me down, tell me he’d just been joshing, that of course the music never stops, that it had probably been the radio, some old eight-track or another, the kids had been confused, in shock from losing their dad, but it was too late. I already knew the song. The words had even started to come to me, some, from a place inside me I didn’t even know I had.

Nine days after the breakfast story, deep in the watchful night, something crossed again, moving from alongside the bed to Jamison’s closet.

I couldn’t even pee myself this time.

And then my dad was standing there in the doorway.

He’d been drinking, was home early, too early.

He just stared down at me, lying there breathing all wrong, so obviously not asleep.

Nothing crossed behind him.

I wanted to sneak out, sleep in the living room, and did once, but woke to Nicholas tugging on my blanket. He’d got scared.

I went back and we both slept in my bed together, front-to-back, instead of him in the cot, and in the morning he told on me again, about having an accident, and this time I hit him. It was supposed to be on the side of the head but caught him on the neck. He held the pain down under his hand and glared at me, his lips tight, but didn’t tell. It was the end of him crawling into my bed, though. The end of me using him as a shield. The end again of anything like sleep.

At night my sheets, they were starting to feel furred, velvety, so that I’d have to turn my lights on to be sure they weren’t, then turn them off again, in case my dad pulled up, saw my window glowing, wasting electricity, trying to light the whole neighborhood.

By the time summer was halfway over, I’d convinced myself it was all made-up, that I was scaring myself, and even managed to sleep with my back to the door a time or two, but then I heard the humming again. The song. And it wasn’t coming from me.

Nicholas. In his sleep.

I shook him until he cried, never really waking up, then I was secretly relieved when my mom came to sit by his cot until he went to sleep again. She made it safe enough to close my eyes. Her feet swished on the carpet as she left.

Except, when I opened my eyes, she was still there, her head on Nicholas’s cot, her breath regular.

Meaning that those footsteps—

I shook my head no, no, and the days started to blur into the nights, the breakfasts into the dinners, my days and nights upside-down now too, and some afternoons I even stood right there on the edge of the doorway to Jamison’s room, and watched the skeleton faces watch me back.

What I was doing was willing myself to grow up.

But that was coming.

And my mom was right, probably: it would have all passed, been over with the summer, or at least with Jamison moving on to his next big scheme.

Except one night, the smell of urine rising from my bed again, me breathing harder than I should have been, I heard the footsteps again, that bone smoothness across the carpet.

It was Nicholas, groggy.

“I’m telling dad,” he said, and I reached out, grabbed his arm.

He looked down to it, up along it to me.

“No,” I told him, and then felt it for the first time: the breeze, the wind, the pull.

It was crossing me, moving towards Jamison’s room.

I breathed in, breathed out. Shook my head no but could still feel it.

“What?” Nicholas said, trying to pull away, and I closed my eyes, said it to him, what I never should have: “Just get me the extra sheets, okay?”

Our linen closet, it was the second closet in Jamison’s room. The far door.

To seal the deal, I promised him a little car I didn’t play with anymore, the one I always caught him playing with, had to hide.

“The red one?” he said, falling asleep again just standing there.

“The red one,” I nodded, and then he slouched away, stepped across the hall into the velvet darkness, and, moments later the air stopped crossing my bed, and the next thing I knew, my mom was shaking me, then my dad was, until he felt the stickiness on my skin, pulled back in disgust.

“Where is he?” my mom was saying, insisting.

My dad just looked at me, waiting.

I sat up, pushed back into the corner, and nodded across the hall, to Jamison’s room, and in two strides my dad was over there, turning it over, ripping it down, until Jamison got back, stood there, and that’s when my dad did what he did to Jamison, that the cops had to come stop, finally, and Jamison’s paramedic Robbie had to clean up even though it wasn’t his shift anymore.

And then all of us forgot how to sleep.

Me and my mom sat in the living room watching nothing on television, her crying in her chest every few minutes—her son gone with no explanation, her brother in a coma, her husband in jail for the weekend, her other son a bedwetter, a fraidy cat, a traitor.

Every light in the house was on.

Three nights later, my dad knocked on his own front door, waited for my mom to open it back for him.

We went to see Jamison together, as a family.

His face was a mummy face, plastic tubes taped all over him, his life reduced to an electric green beep on a monitor.

“They shaved his beard,” my mom finally said.

It had been one of my dad’s complaints.

And as far as Nicholas, the police had nothing. They were waiting for Jamison to wake up, explain it all somehow, but were ready to write it off as another runaway too.

On the way back to the house we stopped at Nicholas’s favorite place, the hamburger joint that used to be the concession stand for the drive-in, when there’d been a drive-in.

We chewed the food and swallowed the food and never tasted any of it.

Halfway home, my mom motioned my dad to stop so she could throw up. He reached across, held her hair up for her, and in that moment it was good between them again. Good enough.

That night, they ushered me back to my room in a way that I didn’t take to mean that my brother was gone, but that I’d lost him. That I’d traded him. And I had. Then my mom squeezed my hand goodnight, my dad patted my headboard, and they closed their bedroom door, chocked the chair under the knob like they did. I knew the sound, what it meant: another ritual. For Nicholas.

Usually, when they’d start—but this time was going to be quiet, I knew, both of them probably crying the whole time—I’d cross into Nicholas’s room, wrench the dial on the air conditioner over, to drown them out.

This time, though, it was already on, already blowing.

For maybe five minutes I made myself stand at the door, feeling that coolness wash past, staring into the wreck of Jamison’s stuff, but I still couldn’t cross over.

Instead, I got the wooden bat from my closet, held it backwards to hook the butt of the handle on the edge of the door, and pulled it shut. Told Nicholas I was sorry sorry sorry. Prayed at first that he could hear me, and then a more guilty prayer: that he couldn’t.

Before going to my bed, I stood over the toilet until I finally peed a trickle, like that was the trade I was offering.

It didn’t work.

Because my parents still had their door shut, I shut mine too, laid a pair of pants down along the bottom to hide the light I was leaving on.

I had to sleep, I mean.

Already there were fuzzy, moving things at the edge of the tunnels I was looking down. The tunnels that were getting skinnier and skinner, turning more into straws, pinholes, the world farther and farther away. Or maybe it was me who was backing away.

When the sounds started from my parents’ room finally, I rolled over on my bed, wound the sheets tight and pressed my pillow over my head, and somewhere in there, for the first time in I didn’t know how long, I fell asleep.

I didn’t know it, of course, or, only knew it in the past tense, when I woke up all at once staring not at the wall like I’d meant, like I thought was safe, but at my door.

What?

It was still shut, there was nothing wrong.

But there was.

I felt the yellow warmth pooling under me: the pair of jeans I’d stuffed along the bottom of the door, they were gone.

And the cold air I’d felt washing past me before, it was going the other way now. Again. Pulling.

And there was the humming, the song.

It was coming from me, I was making it without meaning to, but it was larger too. I was singing with the song that was already happening.

I shook my head no, pushed as far into the back wall as I could.

The light in the hall was on too. Or, worse, light was spilling from Jamison’s room.

“Mom,” I creaked, hardly even a whisper, and immediately wished I hadn’t.

There were two shadows on the other side of the door. Feet.

“Mom?” I said again, shaking my head no, my bladder emptier than it had ever been.

It was like I was at the old drive-in before they tore it down. Like I was watching the close-up of some doorknob starting to twist, everybody in their cars holding their breath, only watching through their fingers.

But there were no bugs dying in the cone of projected light here, and nobody was about to honk, kill the moment.

It was really happening.

“Dad,” I finally whispered, my last, lastmost resort.

It wasn’t him either, though.

When this door opened, it was Jamison standing there. Jamison with his shaggy beard, his too-long jeans like always, but different too. His skin loose on him somehow, and crackly, like paper that’s been rained on, then dried in the sun. His eyes already falling back into his sockets.

In his arms, sleeping, Nicholas.

I stood from my wet bed, faced him and shied away both at once. Wanted to hug him and scream at the same time.

Behind his beard, Jamison was mouthing the words of the song.

I nodded, understood somehow, hummed my part, filling the empty shapes he was making, the shapes he was leaving out there in the air for me to color in with my voice.

It was a kind of magic, I think.

The only way it could be.

“Tell Sissy, tell her—” he said, grinning that same grin from the day he’d first shown up, and then just held Nicholas across the threshold, like there was some rule about that too, that he could come no farther, that I was the one who was going to have to finish this.

I shook my head no, that I couldn’t, that I wasn’t stro—that Nicholas was too heavy.

But then he was my brother, too.

I crossed the room on robot legs, took him from my uncle’s arms, and only staggered under the weight a little at first, like I could do this impossible thing, but then it was too much, just all at once.

I turned for a place to lay him down, knew it couldn’t be my wet bed, knew his cot had all my little cars on it already, in offering, and I fell. First to one knee, then forward, trying to cradle Nicholas as best I could. Like a brother should.

It worked.

When he hit the carpet he came awake, looked up at me and then behind me.

I looked too, but Jamison was already gone, the door across the hall sucking shut harder than should have been possible.

The next morning, my dad found Nicholas and me sleeping back to front again, on the floor, and kept his boots on and laid down beside us, held us both so tight, nodding something to himself I think, wiping his face maybe, and at some point the phone started ringing.

My dad still didn’t let us go. The three of us listened to my mom’s footsteps crossing the kitchen, the phone cutting off mid-ring, the murmur of her saying okay to the hospital, of her thanking them for the call, for telling her this news that was probably for the best, and then we cringed from the sound of her hundred pounds falling into the stove, clattering down with the pans, not getting back up from that sheet of curled-at-the-edges linoleum.

“Jamison,” I said.

“Jamison,” Nicholas said too, but different than I had.

My dad just shook his head, pressed his closed eyes into my back, and did he start playing pool that next year, staying out later and later until he finally just stayed gone one night, and did Nicholas try twice to kill himself four years later, each time in the closet of his bedroom? Did my mom ever get up from the kitchen floor, let one of us pick the pans up for her? Years later, burning a pile of posters, would I think I saw Jamison, just hunched over real small in the velvet, walking away?

It doesn’t matter.

All that matters is right then, that morning, having Nicholas back, our dad with his arms around us like it should have been, and that my mom was right: after that summer, I never wet the bed even once, even when I wake in my own house with that hum in my chest some nights and feel my way to the sink, fumble the light on—always the light—and find there in the soap tray, or balanced on the lip of the medicine cabinet, a little red car that wasn’t there before.

Because they don’t know. Because they think that can still work.

You can hide them in boxes, though, if you want, the little cars, and then put those boxes in the attic or the basement, and not tell anybody, just walk through your life with a song in your head, one that scares you, but you can’t stop singing it either, because if you ever do—

Most nights, after fumbling for the light over the sink, I make it to the toilet, I mean, don’t have to explain anything to my wife.

For those other nights, though, I’ve tiled the bathroom floor, and in front of the sink, and when I finally make myself lie back down, I’m always sure to have left the closet door behind me open, so that if Jamison wants to stand there, keep me safe for one more night, he can. Please.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels and six story collections. Most recent are Mapping the Interior, from Tor.com and the comic book My Hero, from Hex Publishers. Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.