What Makes You Afraid?
Whenever the phone rang late at night, I lay in my narrow bed and listened.
My mother picked up on the first ring so as not to wake my sister, if she was home, or me. In hushed tones, she soothed the caller before handing the phone to my father. His voice was stiffer, more formal, as he made plans to meet somewhere or offered directions to our faded and drooping
Tudor on a dead-end lane in the tiny town of Dundalk, Maryland. There were times when the person on the other end of the line had called from a pay phone as nearby as Baltimore. A priest, I guessed, had scratched our number on a scrap of paper and handed it over. Or maybe it had been found by simply searching the tissuey pages of the phonebook, since we were listed, same as any ordinary family, even if ordinary was the last thing we were.
Not long after my father put down the receiver, I heard them dressing. My parents were like characters on an old TV show whose outfits stayed the same every episode. My mother—tall, thin, abnormally pale—wore some version of a curveless gray dress with pearly buttons down the front whenever she was dealing with the public. Her dark hair, threaded with white, was always pinned up. Tiny crucifixes glimmered in her ears, around her neck too. My father wore suits in somber shades of brown, a cross nestled in his chest hairs beneath his yellow button-down, black hair combed away from his face so that the first thing you noticed was his smudged, wire-rimmed glasses.
Once dressed, they brushed past my door and down the stairs to wait in the kitchen with its peeling blue wallpaper, sipping tea at the table, until headlights from a car turning into our dirt driveway splashed against my bedroom ceiling. Next I heard murmurs, impossible to decipher from my room above, though I had my ideas about what was being said. Finally, I listened to the clomp clomp clomp of footsteps as my parents led their visitor or visitors into the basement and everyone grew quiet below.
That’s how things went until a snowy night in February of 1989.
When the phone rang after midnight that evening, I opened my eyes and listened, same as always. Never once, not one single time, did I claim to experience the sort of “feelings” my mother had, and yet something sawed at my insides, giving me the sense that this call was different from those that had come before.
“It’s her,” my mother told my father instead of passing him the phone.
“Thank God. Is she okay?”
“She is. But she says she’s not coming back.”
Three days. That’s how long Rose—my older sister, who shared my mother’s name but none of her gentle temperament—had been gone. This time, all the shrieking and plate breaking and door slamming had been about her hair, I guessed, or lack thereof, since she had hacked it off again. Or maybe a boy, since I knew from snatches of overheard conversations that my parents did not approve of whomever Rose had been spending time with since her return from Saint Julia’s.
As I lay in my bed, listening to my mother act as a translator between my sister and my father, I stared at the textbooks on my desk. Eighth grade had become easy, just like sixth and seventh before it, and I couldn’t wait for the challenge of Dundalk High School next fall. The shelf above was lined with hand-carved mahogany ponies. In the glow of the nightlight, their long, wild faces, complete with flared nostrils and bared teeth, appeared alive.
“If we want to talk,” I heard my mother tell my father across the hall, “she says we can meet her at the church in town.”
“The church in town?” The more agitated he became, the deeper and louder his voice. “Did the girl happen to notice the blizzard outside?”
Moments later, my mother stepped into my room, leaned over my bed, and gently shook my shoulder. “Wake up, sweetheart. We’re going to meet your sister, and we don’t want to leave you here alone.” I opened my eyes slowly and, even though I knew full well, asked in a groggy voice what was going on. I liked playing the part of the daughter my parents wanted. “You can keep your pajamas on,” my mother said in her whispery voice. “But it’s cold out, so slip your coat over them. And you’ll need your boots. A hat and mittens too.”
Snow fell all around as we walked outside, hands linked paper-doll style, to our little blue Datsun. My father kept a tight grip on the steering wheel as we backed past the no trespassing! violators will be prosecuted! signs nailed to the crooked birch trees in our yard. As we drove the snowy roads my mother hummed a lullaby I recognized from a trip to Florida years before. The tune climbed higher until we turned into the church parking lot. Our headlights illuminated the simple white structure, the stack of cement stairs, the red wooden doors, the barren flower boxes that would burst with tulips and daffodils come spring, and the steeple with a small gold cross at the top.
“Are you sure she meant this church?” my father said.
The stained-glass windows gave off no light from inside, but that wasn’t the only reason he was asking. Since the building was not big enough to fit the entire congregation, masses were held across town in the gym at Saint Bartholomew’s Catholic Elementary School. Every Sunday, basketball hoops and volleyball nets were wheeled into a storage room while an altar was wheeled out. Felt artwork depicting the Stations of the Cross was draped on the walls, folding chairs and kneelers were arranged over the court markings on the wooden floor. So the actual church was a place we rarely visited, since it was reserved for weddings and funerals and the Tuesday night prayer group my parents used to attend but didn’t anymore.
“Someone was going to drop her here,” my mother said. “Or that’s what she told me anyway.”
My father turned on his high beams, squinting. “I guess I’ll go in alone first.”
“I’m not sure that’s the smartest idea. The way you two carry on . . .”
“That’s exactly the reason I should go in alone. This nonsense has to stop. Once and for all.”
If she had her “feelings” about the predicament, my mother did not speak up any further. Rather, she let my father unbuckle his seat belt. She let him step out of the car. We watched as he followed a lone trail of footprints through the lot and up the stairs to the red doors. Though he left the engine running, heat pumping, he turned off the wipers and soon snow blanketed the windows.
My mother reached over and flicked a switch so the blades swished back and forth a single time. The effect was that of adjusting an antenna on an old TV: suddenly, the static gave way to a clear picture. She suggested I stretch out in back and sleep, since there was no sense in all of us staying awake. For the second time that night, I gave her the daughter she wanted, lying across the stiff vinyl seat with its camel hump. Inside my coat pocket, the book about my parents poked at my ribs, nudging me to pay attention to it. My mother and father were angry about so much of what the book’s author, a reporter named Sam Heekin, had written, so I was not supposed to read it. But the things my sister said before leaving home had gotten to me at last, and I’d snatched a copy from the curio hutch in our living room days before. So far, though, I’d only been brave enough to trace their names in the embossed subtitle on the red cover: The Unusual Career of Sylvester and Rose Mason.
“I don’t know what’s keeping them,” my mother said, more to herself than me. The faintest trace of an accent, left over from her childhood in Tennessee, bubbled up whenever she felt nervous.
Maybe it was that lilting sound, or maybe it was that book; either way something made me ask, “Do you ever feel afraid?”
My mother glanced my way a second before facing forward again and flicking the wiper switch. Her eyes, glittery and green, watched for my father. It had been twenty minutes, maybe more, since he left the car. She had turned down the heat and things were getting cold fast. “Of course, Sylvie. We all do sometimes. What makes you afraid?”
I didn’t want to say it was the sight of their names on that book. I also didn’t want to say that a prickly feeling of dread filled me up at that very moment as I wondered what was keeping my sister and father. Instead, I paraded out smaller, sillier fears, because I thought that’s what she wanted to hear. “Not passing my tests with perfect grades. Not being the smartest in my class anymore. The gym teacher changing her mind about giving me a permanent pass to the library and forcing me to play flag football or Danish rounders instead.”
My mother let out a gentle burble of laughter. “Well, those things do sound terrifying, Sylvie, though I don’t think you have to worry. Still, the next time you feel afraid, I want you to pray. That’s what I do in scary situations. That’s what you should do too.”
A plow rumbled down the street, its flashing yellow lights reflected on the snow covering the rear window. It made me think of when Rose and I were younger, the way we used to drape blankets over the wingback chairs in our living room and hide beneath with flashlights. “You know what?” my mother said when the roar and scrape of the truck faded in the distance. “I am getting a little worried now. I better go inside too.”
“It hasn’t been that long,” I told her. It had, of course, but I didn’t like the idea of her leaving. Too late, though, since she was already unbuckling her seat belt. She was already opening the door. A gust of frigid air blew into the car, causing me to shiver in my pajamas and coat.
“I’ll be right back, Sylvie. Just close your eyes and try to rest some more.”
After she stepped outside, I reached over the seats and adjusted the switch so the wipers would stay on and I could keep an eye out for her. All alone, listening to the patter of wet snow, I braved the book at last. The darkness made it difficult to read, and though I could have turned on the interior light, instead I made my way to the photo section wedged like an intermission in the middle of the text. One picture in particular, a blurred image of a farmhouse kitchen, caused my breath to catch: the chairs and
table were toppled, the window over the sink shattered, the toaster, teapot, percolator scattered on the floor, the walls smeared with what looked to be blood.
It was enough to make me shut the book and let it slip to the floor. For a long while, I did nothing but stare at the church, thinking how my father’s and sister’s faces contorted at the height of their arguments until they resembled those horses on my shelf. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed; still none of them emerged. At last, I grew tired and allowed myself to lie back once more. The cocooned feeling of the car led me to think again of those tents Rose and I used to make over the chairs. Some nights Rose convinced our mother to let us sleep in them, though the blankets always collapsed. I used to drift off imagining endless stars twinkling in the vast sky overhead; I woke with nothing covering us, and only the blank white ceiling above.
Those were my last thoughts as my eyes fell shut in the backseat.
All my life until that night, I’d never heard such a horrible and unforgettable sound. When I did, I woke with a start, sitting up in the backseat. The car had grown cold, all the windows except the front covered with a thick layer of snow. Staring out at that church, it appeared as peaceful and sleepy as one inside a snow globe, and I wondered if I had dreamed the noise, if the images from that book had slipped into my sleep. But, no. I heard it again, the second time more ferocious than the first, so loud it seemed to vibrate against my chest, causing my heart to beat faster, my hands to shake.
I don’t know why, but the first thing I did was reach forward and turn off the car. The wiper blades halted in their path across the window. Except for the wind and the scuttling branches, the air was quiet when I pushed open the door and stepped outside. I hadn’t thought to turn off the headlights and they lit the footprints before me, the first set almost completely dusted over with snow. How long had I been asleep? I wondered as I left the Datsun behind.
The next time you feel afraid, I want you to pray. . .
I tried. I really did try. In my nervousness, however, too many prayers clashed in my mind and tangled on my tongue so what came out was a mangled version of them all: “Our Father who art in heaven, the Lord is with thee, I believe in his only Son, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified and buried. He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, from thence he shall judge the living and the dead. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen. Amen. Am—”
At the bottom of the cement steps, I fell silent. For a long moment, I stood listening for some sound of them inside the church. But none came.