A Child’s Nightmare
by Hollis Whitlock
Jeff is sitting silently in the backseat of a rumbling station wagon. Rain patters on the rooftop and runs in thick streams down the windows. His sister is whimpering in the seat beside him. He looks to his mother, but she is transfixed on the road ahead. The windshield wipers slosh back and forth. Dusk brings darkness and transforms color to black, gray and white.
His mother breaks outside of an old single story home, in search of his father. Jeff and his sister slide forward in the unbelted seats.
“Wait in the car. I’ll only be gone for a moment,” his mother says. The wind slams the door shut. His mother hurries along the walkway toward the house. His sister’s whimpering becomes screams. The car shakes from gusts of wind. Jeff looks out the window, through the flowing rain, at the blurred landscape. He sees a surreal painting of trees, shrubs and houses. His mother knocks repeatedly before the door opens. She screams.
Jeff awakes in darkness to the cries of a child. He shakes, as he calls his sister’s name. She does not answer. Rhythmic moans resound from the wall behind him. Jeff sits up and peers around. Faint light seeps under the door. Footsteps and cries approach. The door opens. Bright yellow light pierces his eyes. Jeff winces, as a crying girl enters. My sister and father he thinks before seeing five children, groaning and tossing.
“Go back to sleep. It’s still dark,” the man says, as he leads the girl to her sleeping bag.
Sunlight streams through the westerly window. Jeff awakens and looks for his sister. She is not there. Five strangers, ranging from the age of three to six, stare.
“Who are you?” Mike asks. The children look at Jeff and laugh. Introductions are made. Jeff is three and the smallest other than Sally.
A man dressed in a red robe opens the door and calls them into the kitchen. The children bustle to the table and sit. A woman of sixteen years and her nine-year-old sister are serving porridge with corn syrup and milk.
“After breakfast I’m going to teach you to play a game,” the man says smiling.
The robed stranger leads Jeff to a room. Jeff sits in front of an eight by eight board. The game is called the king of Scotland. It encompasses kings and queens, bishops and knights, great castles and pawns that reluctantly march forward trying to be queens. Jeff stares at the pieces, in silence, waiting for the game to begin. He feels the glares of strangers that are not present through the lens of an eye.
“Pawn to king four,” the man says, as his round flat face widens. Jeff is bewildered and unsure of what to do. “Do what I do,” the man says smiling. Jeff moves his king’s pawn forward.
“Pawn to king four,” Jeff says meekly.
“Pawn to king five,” the man says, with a tap of his hand upon Jeff’s. The man counters with knight to king’s bishop three. Jeff feels threatened and vulnerable. He places his knight to queen’s bishop six. “Relax, it’s just a game.” The man moves his bishop to queen’s knight five. Jeff stares at the pieces and then at the man. He pushes his queen’s pawn one space forward. The man pushes his queen’s pawn two spaces forward. Jeff grabs for his knight. The man taps the top of Jeff’s hand while shaking his head. Jeff’s knight is pinned and unable to move. Jeff moves his bishop one space diagonally.
“Pawn times pawn,” the man says.
“Pawn times pawn,” Jeff replies
“You are learning fast.” The man moves his bishop to queen’s bishop four. Jeff moves his bishop to queen’s bishop five. The man moves his knight to king’s knight five. “Are you enjoying the game.” Jeff shrugs his shoulders before moving his king’s knight to bishop six. The man picks up his king’s knight and removes a pawn on king’s bishop seven. Jeff’s head sinks until he is staring at the floor. “You can do this with your new friends tomorrow.” Jeff nods and helps place the pieces back to their original positions.
They enter the living room. The children are sitting around the television waiting for the next cartoon to start. Steve is absent. Moaning, from the bathroom, distracts Jeff. He looks to the door and giggles. Steve appears with the sixteen-year-old girl. His face is red. He laughs uncontrollably before sitting on the couch.
“Did you have fun?” Sally asks grinning.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m going to do it again,” Steve replies. The children laugh and yell, as the cartoon’s title -The Granny from the Bronx – scrolls across the screen.
A gray rabbit walks along the crumbling sidewalks of Brooklyn dressed as an elderly black woman wearing a faded dress and gray wig. The rabbit protrudes his lips and neck forward while peering through a thick pair of spectacles. His eyes look excessively large. The children laugh. The screen changes to a black duck, and white and black cat standing in an alleyway smoking a cigarette and chatting with a New York accent.
A loud knock resonates off the front door. The man shuts the television off and tells the children to go to bed. They whine and complain while being escorted to the bedroom by the older girl. She turns the light off and closes the door behind her.
The children huddle around the door, peering through the keyhole, trying to see the visitor. Jeff hopes that it is his father, but he is unable to recognize the stranger’s face. The red robed man hands the stranger a package.
“You can pay me, when you get the money,” he says sternly.
“It won’t be long,” the stranger replies. Jeff listens, in silence, from his sleeping bag. The same moaning of the night before rings in his ears, as he succumbs to his nightmare.
His mother is slowly backing away from the house. Rain drips from her fingertips, to the concrete. She steps in a puddle and stumbles, as she turns to face the car. Her hair mats to her face. The wind animates the deciduous trees, creating the illusion of tormented specters writhing in agony. Jeff’s sister screams, as his mother’s complexion turns ghostly white. His mother opens the door and starts the engine. Jeff looks back at the house, through the doorway, and sees the color red, as his mother accelerates down the dead-end street, screaming his father’s name.
Jeff awakens to the shouts of the older girls. He crawls to the door and peers through the keyhole.
“Keep your mouth shut!” the older girl yells at her younger sister.
“I don’t want to do it!” the younger sister replies.
“This is our only hope! You better do it! And don’t tell anyone.” Jeff opens the door and strolls into the kitchen. Both older girls become silent. Jeff sits at the table. The children join him for pancakes. The man enters the room carrying a puppy and a caged cobra. The children yell and giggle.
“Today is the quest to be the King of Scotland. Jeff can play with Sally. You’re both three years old. It should be an even match,” he says. Sally looks at the floor and then at Jeff.
After eating Jeff and Sally are led into an empty room. They sit on the floor in front of a board and stare at the pieces. “Go ahead, start playing.” Jeff looks at Sally. She turns her head to avoid his stare. “Jeff you go first.” Jeff looks at the board.
“Pawn to king four,” Jeff says.
“Do I have to. I don’t like this game,” Sally says.
“Yes, it’s your turn. Do as he does,” the man says. Sally moves her pawn to king five and then stares at the floor. Jeff forgot most of the previous day’s game, but he knows that the objective of the game is to mate your opponent. He places his queen on the king’s bishop three. Sally unenthusiastically moves her knight to queen’s bishop six. Jeff slides his king’s bishop to queen’s bishop four. Sally reddens and moves her pawn to queen three before turning around and staring at the floor. Jeff looks at the man. “Go ahead Jeff.” Jeff plunges his queen to king’s bishop seven and removes Sally’s pawn. Sally stands with tears in her eyes and runs out the door. Jeff looks up. The man smiles a white toothy grin.
Jeff and the man return to the living room. The children are sitting on the chesterfield playing with the puppy. The cobra lies in a glass cage next to the television. Jeff sits on the couch next to the puppy and rubs its head. He looks at the television.
The granny, from the Bronx, strolls into the alley. Graffiti adorns the red brick walls. The two street thugs are smoking and chatting.
“What time is it sunny?” Granny asks.
“It’s four twenty,” the cat says with a slur.
“Yeah, you got a couple dimes for us?” the duck asks, looking nervously in both directions.
“I sure do,” replies granny, reaching into her purse. The duck hands her a dime bag. Granny strolls to the street.
“Alright everyone time for bed,” the man says, turning off the television. The children scurry into the bedroom and huddle against the keyhole hoping to see the late night events. Jeff lies in his sleeping bag next to the wall and listens. “The little ones put on quite the show today. Jeff really got into it.”
“Let me have a look. He’s the new one isn’t he,” the older girl says.
“Yes, you can teach him some new moves tomorrow.”
“It will be my pleasure.” Jeff looks at Sally. She is weeping in the corner. Jeff closes his eyes and drifts to sleep.
Jeff is sitting, in the old car, next to his sobbing sister. His mother is frantically looking out the window for Jeff’s father.
“There he is mom,” Jeff says, pointing to an outline stumbling towards them from the bushes. His mother breaks hard. Jeff and his sister slide forward.
“Oh my God,” his mother says. A red stream flows from the face of the staggering man and drips to the ground in swirls of orange.
Jeff awakes to the grinding brakes of a truck stopping outside the window of the bedroom. The children peer through the window into the street. The red robed man is carrying pizza and ice cream. The children yell and then scurry into the kitchen.
“Sit down at the table. We are having a tournament today to determine the true king of Scotland. The winner can have the puppy,” he says. The children raise their arms and shout. “To be the winner you must be on top. The losers will be at the bottom. This is how it is in life. I hope you all understand.” The children nod.
The man leads Gary and Mike into the room. Jeff stands outside and peers through the keyhole. The boys stare with an unwavering glare until charging with their king’s pawn. Their queens slide to the respective king’s bishop three and king’s bishop six positions. The battle ends quickly. Gary submits. He turns his back and cowers. Then he charges to the door in tears. Jeff steps from the keyhole. The door swings open.
“You were helping him weren’t you?” Gary yells pushing Jeff to the floor.
“No, I wasn’t,” Jeff replies standing.
“Jeff come in. You can play the winner,” the man says.
The game commences. Pieces are exchanged. After an hour of intense glares Jeff is left with only his king. His opponent has a knight, a pawn and a king, but the pawn is left unprotected. Jeff grabs it off the board.
“That’s not going to make any difference,” Mike says.
“The games not over yet,” Jeff replies.
“Actually it is boys. There will be no mating in this one. It is a draw,” the man says.
“But he just has a king. He has to submit,” Mike says.
“You forgot the importance of the pawn. You needed to queen him.”
The boys are led into the living room. They sit around the television with the participating children and are served ice cream and pizza. Jeff is handed the puppy for finishing second. The winner admires the cobra in its cage.
The television screen illuminates in vivid colors of red green and blue. Granny is shuffling along the street, with her dime bags, periodically glancing to her left and right. When she walks around the corner two men in suits approach. One has a long red mustache. The other is bald.
“You’re not going to get away with it gwanny,” the bald man says, pushing her to the concrete.
“We know what you got there in that thar purse,” the man with the mustache says while handcuffing her.
“It’s my medicine!” Granny yells. The show ends.
Gary struts over to Jeff. He grabs the puppy around the neck. Jeff tries to intervene, but is too small. Gary twists until the puppy goes limp.
“You’re going to be a bottom too,” Gary says, handing Jeff the lifeless creature. The winner looks at Jeff.
“Yeah, I’m the king of Scotland. That runt of a puppy was worthless,” Mike says. Jeff clenches his fists and screams.
Jeff runs to the glass cage and grabs the cobra below the head. He attempts to strangle it without success. He runs through the kitchen into the backyard carrying the snake. The man and the children pursue.
“Give me the snake Jeff,” the man yells. The man grabs Jeff around the waist. Jeff tosses the snake onto the lawn. His arms and legs are flailing. Tears are streaming down his face. The man tosses Jeff to the ground and picks up the snake. Jeff runs into the house. The children are sent to the bedroom.
Jeff enters his repetitive nightmare. His staggering father falls face down in a puddle. Blood reddens the dark pool. His mother screams louder than his sister is. Jeff opens the door and runs to his father. His mother follows and grabs Jeff by the hand. A man in a red robe approaches from the walkway.
“He had a debt to pay. I will take your son in exchange for payment,” the man says. His mother reluctantly lets go before falling to her knees sobbing.
Jeff awakes in darkness to the sobs of Sally. She is lying next to him in a sleeping bag. Jeff consoles her with a hug. She stops crying, but rhythmic moaning from the adjoining room attracts their attention. Jeff and Sally put their ears to the wall. The moaning becomes louder. Jeff and Sally creep from the bedroom into the living room.
“It’s coming from that room,” Sally says, pointing at the door.
Jeff closes one eye and peers through the keyhole. The younger sister is sitting at the table with the man in the robe. All of her pieces are gone, but her king. The man has his knights, bishops, pawns and castles. Her head hangs down. Tears drip. Sally pushes Jeff away and looks through the keyhole.
“He does that to me all the time,” Sally says. Footsteps approach from the rear.
“Get away from that door you two,” the older sister says. Jeff and Sally stumble backwards. The older sister grabs them by the neck and drags them back to the bedroom.
A Child’s Nightmare