A coughing fit seized Jamie Landreau as he climbed out of his mother’s SUV. The humid air slammed into him, twisting his lungs. He dug out his inhaler and took a drag.
“You okay, honey?” his mother asked from the driver’s seat.
“Fine,” he said, red-faced, trying to catch his breath.
She rummaged through the pockets of his backpack but didn’t find what she was looking for. “You didn’t pack your other inhaler?” she asked. “Is that one full?”
He shook it. “Half, maybe.”
She handed him his backpack. “Take it easy and that should last until I pick you up on Sunday. If you need anything, you call me. Got it?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said, closing the passenger door.
She pulled away, leaving him on the curb. He looked up at his father’s dark Craftsman—a slouch of a house that needed plenty of work when his father bought it. He intended to renovate it, but like many of his father’s big plans after splitting with Jamie’s mother, that never quite happened. Four years and it still slumped like an old man waiting for death to amble his way.
The next two days weren’t going to be easy. Jamie hadn’t seen his father in months, almost all of tenth grade, and they’d texted only twice during that time. It didn’t stop Jamie from believing this weekend would erase all of that.
Jamie had a key, but the door was unlocked. He pushed it open and stepped into the silent gloom, expecting to see a half-drunk Bernie Landreau sprawled on the couch in a rumpled suit, all undone, snoring through the six o’clock re-run of I Love Lucy. Instead, the television was dark, the living room empty.
A blanket was thrown over the back of the couch. One of the throw pillows had a head-shaped dent cradling what looked like a tiny brown box. Jamie got closer and saw it was an old voice recorder. The kind his dad used to use before he switched over to his smart phone to record his whispered notes during late night work sessions. A note was taped to it, written in his father’s blocky writing: PLAY ME.
“Dad? I’m here,” Jamie called into the house, self-conscious of the echoes bouncing back. A floorboard popped in the silence.
He turned the recorder over in his hands, not sure what to make of it. Bernie Landreau wasn’t the game-playing type. He was a litigator. Serious as contempt of court, he would’ve said, laughing at his own dumb joke. A band across Jamie’s chest tightened. He took a pull from his inhaler, feeling its effects immediately. He scrolled through the saved audio files on the recorder—there were ten—and found the first one. His finger hovered over the PLAY button. He pushed it.
– FILE NO. 1 –
Hi, Jamie. It’s Wednesday night. Or Thursday, now. I’m not sure. You’re coming here Friday and we’re supposed to spend the weekend together. I’m not sure I’m going to be here then, so I’m recording this. You’ll have questions, so I’ll answer them as best I can.
This “thing”—I don’t know what else to call it—started on Wednesday. I was sitting in the bleachers of your baseball game. I had so much work, but I came anyway. I know how much it meant to you when your asthma doctor cleared you to play. I looked up from my phone just in time to see you tag a line drive between second and third. Then the next batter walked up and my phone buzzed in my lap. Another email. They never stop. Don’t follow in my footsteps and become an attorney. The work isn’t worth the sacrifice. Trust me.
The email was from Bob Newmanson, General Counsel for Quantum Products. I think you met him at the firm’s Christmas party last year. It was some crisis. Everything is a crisis with him. I began typing a quick, “I’ll get right on it” reply, when I heard the unmistakable clink! of an aluminum bat hitting a foul ball. I saw a black speck from the corner of my eye and ducked. I lost my balance, fell forward, and rolled down the bleacher’s concrete stairs, banging my elbow hard at the bottom.
I looked up, dizzy. Everyone stared. I expected them to have scattered to avoid the foul ball. Instead, they looked down at me like a bunch of curious monkeys. One of them pointed at me. Someone else snickered.
“Everything okay?” a mother finally asked. She was sitting next to her pretty friend, the one who laughed.
The ump waved an arm and yelled “PLAY BALL!” The mother offered me a hand to help me up.
“Where’d the foul ball go?” I asked her.
“Off toward the parking lot.” She gestured in that direction, which seemed miles away from where we were sitting. The ball had come nowhere close to us.
I sat through the rest of your game, wondering what the hell would've made me take a flying leap down a bunch of concrete stairs.
Now I have a pretty good idea.
The recorder clicked off automatically. Jamie stared at it uncertainly.
“Dad?” He walked into the kitchen. A cold pan of macaroni and cheese sat on the stove, part of it charred. Dishes were piled in their usual places on the counters and in the sink. No sign of Bernie Landreu.
On the recorder, Jamie found the second file and pressed PLAY.
– FILE NO. 2 –
I stayed up late, reading briefs that weren’t brief. I’d just finished one when something black appeared in the corner of my eye. I remember swatting at it, absently thinking it was a mosquito in the house. This summer has been so humid the mosquitoes were out in force. But it wasn’t a bug. Or a foul ball. It was a tiny black speck hovering at the edge of my vision. After a few minutes, it disappeared. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I fell asleep right there on my desk.
When I woke up in the morning—that was Thursday—the black speck had returned. Once I discovered it, I couldn’t stop looking at it, like picking at a scab. It stayed there most of the day: through my morning commute; through my two morning meetings; through the two bourbons I had at lunch.
I called my eye doctor, Dr. West. You remember him, right? He had the Highlights magazines in his office and you used to love the hidden pictures. It’s been a long time since you’ve seen him. Your mother takes you somewhere else now.
Dr. West saw me at two-thirty. He did all of his standard tests, but found nothing. I gave him a polite piece of my mind, letting him know in no uncertain terms that there was something. I could see it. Why couldn’t he? He had no answer to that.
By the time I got home, the spot had grown bigger. In the inky blackness, there were now specks of gray and white and red.
I poured myself a bourbon and sat in front of my computer. I tried to read a few emails, but I kept staring at the spot. I gave up and watched some T.V. By the time Happy Days came on, the black spot was as big as a dime. I tried to ignore it and watch Richie Cunningham decide between dates for the prom, but the more the spot grew, the more I looked. And the more I looked, the more it grew.
I poured myself another drink. That was three. Maybe four, I don’t know. I sat down at my computer. I fell asleep before I had a chance to take a sip.
Jamie opened the door to his father’s office, expecting to see his dad slumped over his computer, asleep. But he wasn’t there. His drink was. Jamie got close and smelled the weak, dead-leaves stink of the brown liquor. He touched the glass. It was room temperature.
He checked the bedrooms upstairs, but they were empty. He went back downstairs and sat on the edge of the couch, staring at the slender brown recorder in his hand. Where was his father? Why did he leave these confusing thoughts behind?
Staring around the eerily empty house, Jamie decided he’d call his mother, tell her what’s happened. Maybe she’d know what to do.
He pulled out his phone and scrolled to her number, but stopped before hitting send. It occurred to him that maybe his father had gone to the store or something. Maybe this whole recorder thing was a joke (not very funny) and his dad would come home and they’d laugh about it. If he called his mother, he could already see the judgment on her face. He could already hear his father: You couldn’t wait ten minutes until I got back before calling your mother? Ten minutes, for God’s sake!
Jamie put his phone away. He found file number three and pressed PLAY.
– FILE NO. 3 –
I woke up, my face pressed to my cold desktop. My head ached. The room was dark. I went into the bathroom and flipped on the light. The brightness temporarily blinded me, but when my eyes adjusted, I panicked, Jamie. I yelled and couldn’t stop. I jumped away from the mirror and fell into the bathtub. Ripped down the shower curtain. Pulled myself out of the tub and ran. I’m so sorry to admit it, but I ran.
All to get away from the thing staring at me.
I threw myself onto the bed, buried my face in a pillow. As long as I kept my eyes shut, the thing wasn’t there. After a minute, I sat up against the headboard and flipped on the light. Let out another howl because I couldn’t hold it in.
There—right there, for Chrissake!—where the black spot used to be, was a face! A goddamn face, Jamie! The skin was covered with splotchy red stains. Volcanic pimples oozed yellow streams toward the thing’s chin. Orange eyes with black slits like cat’s eyes stared back at me. Sharp brown teeth jutted over cracked lips that whispered to me silently.
I ran downstairs, the face following me, and I turned out every light. I pulled the drapes to stop the streetlight from pouring in. The face descended into blackness. Good.
I fixed myself a drink in the dark and downed it in one burning gulp. I poured myself another one. That’s when I remembered this voice recorder in my desk. Maybe Dr. West committed some kind of malpractice on me. I had to make a record if anything happens to me. I don’t think it will, but just in case. You know?
Jamie dropped the recorder. His breath was cut off and he yanked his inhaler from his pocket, accidentally spraying a precious shot of medicine into the air. He sprayed a burst into his lungs, savoring the acid taste on the back of his throat.
A face? he thought. The sheer insanity of the idea made him want to run from the house, calling for help with whatever breath he could muster.
It was surely time to call his mother, wasn’t it? But for reasons he couldn’t have explained, he pushed PLAY instead.
– FILE NO. 4 –
It’s Friday morning. I woke up and expected that horrible devil face, but all I saw was the black spot. I dug out Dr. West’s phone number.
Dr. West didn’t find a damn thing wrong. I yelled at him. I spouted off about malpractice. I’m sorry for that. He was always so nice to you. He didn’t deserve to be yelled at.
I sped home, fuming at the black spot that has now become a part of my life. Distracted, I almost hit a kid on his bike. The little shit rode right into my blind spot and I couldn’t see him. That scared me. He looked a little like you. I was more careful the rest of the way.
Now I’m sitting here in the dark. My head throbs. I’m terrified to open my eyes. I know the spot is still there. I feel like I’m losing my mind. All because of a goddamn spot.
Sorry about the language.
I’m wondering if maybe it really isn’t there. Maybe it’s a brain tumor. Something bad. Maybe I should call the Emergency Room? Maybe Dr. Nelson? You know Dr. Nelson, that court-appointed psychologist who decided you’d be better off with your mother than with me?
But I can’t call anybody. Dr. West was risky enough. Remember that judge who ruled you could live with your mother after hearing from Dr. Nelson? Said she would provide a better home for you? Said I drank too much, worked too much? Money isn’t everything, Mr. Landreau. You’ve got problems you need to work out, he said. Imagine if he heard about this? God damn him.
Sorry again about the language.
Of course Jamie remembered that judge. Yelling at his father like he was making a claim to a son who wasn’t his. His father worked too much, sure. Maybe drank too much. But he still loved Jamie and he tried to be a good father.
For the first time, Jamie noticed how dark it really was in the house, even though the afternoon sun was still out. How the stale air stuck to his lungs.
– FILE NO. 5 –
Oh my God, Jamie. I don’t know what to do. Oh God.
I was thinking of that asshole judge who took you, my Jamie, away. I felt a soft breeze on my cheek and heard a strange sound. Like breathing.
A devil, the devil, I don’t know, was blowing its hot, horrible breath into my face. It’s still here next to me, watching me talk into this recorder. Its eyes stare, the cat pupils opening and closing in rhythm. Its green tongue licks its rotted fangs. Its cracked lips move, whispering something in silence. It smiles once in a while.
WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT?
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. Probably scared the neighbors. But I had to let all the crazy out. You get it, right?
Of course, it doesn’t matter. The thing ignores the shouting. It smiles with its sandpaper lips and continues that silent whispering.
It has a red-splotched neck now, too skinny for its head. It looks like an oozing Jack O’ Lantern on a stick. I can see its shoulders, naked and red, blue veins pulsing. Its emaciated chest emerges from nowhere. Its claws pull aside our reality like a curtain.
I can’t look. It doesn’t matter. It still whispers to me.
I’m sorry for crying. I never wanted you to hear me cry.
Jamie took another panicked pull on his inhaler. It wasn’t nearly as full as he thought.
– FILE NO. 6 –
It’s laughing at me.
– FILE NO. 7 –
I drank the rest of the bourbon, straight out of the bottle. The thing is still here, now with a full torso, floating just inches away from me, waiting for a drink, waiting for something.
I’m drunk now, but I don’t care.
YOU GODDAMN DEMON! SEE WHAT YOU MADE ME DO IN FRONT OF MY SON?
I don’t know if you remember, but when you were five or six, I’d take you out back at our old house and pitch whiffle balls to you. Once you hit yourself in the forehead with the bat. You looked up at me, teetering on the line between crying and laughing. I said, “I think your head looks like a whiffle ball. I can see why you’d hit it.” You giggled and stood up for another round.
It’s been way too long between then and now, don’t you think? Too much work, too much drinking, too much everything. Sunday we’ll go to the batting cages.
My phone’s buzzing. Probably Bob Newmanson again. I think I’ll throw it away.
Of course Jamie remembered his father and the whiffle ball. That his father did, too, produced a surprising pain in his stomach.
– FILE NO. 8 –
The devil has legs now. It stepped through thin air, one leg, then the other. Hunched over, it looks like a stick man, huge head and thin body, a bag of bones. Always whispering.
I have to get rid of it. I can’t touch it. I won’t touch it. Won’t give it that satisfaction. But I can do something.
This is all I can think of, Jamie. I’m so desperate to have more time with you. I hope you understand.
I have an idea.
– FILE NO. 9 –
I’m back. Ignore my sobbing. I can’t cry anymore and my eye sockets still hurt, but the pain is fading.
Your mother put my granddad’s old straight razor on the bathroom counter because she thought it would look “decorative.” I always thought it was dull and useless.
I wrapped some bandages around my head to stop the bleeding. I crawled into bed, wincing at the pain, and fell asleep. I just woke up. It’s been a few hours, I think. I can’t look at the clock anymore to find out for sure.
There doesn’t seem to be much blood. I’m surprised about that.
Panicked, Jamie scrambled up from the couch. He’d forgotten to check the bathroom. He rushed upstairs only to find the room empty. Crimson handprints smudged the white sink. The air smelled of peroxide and blood. The razor lay on the floor, tossed aside. Jamie wanted to get a better look at the pale wet lumps peeking over the edge of the trashcan, but realization was seeping into his brain like fog and he was afraid to confirm what they were.
He ran out. “Dad! Where are you? Dad! DAD!” He ran downstairs as his heart raced. He noticed the recorder in his other hand. For a second he had forgotten about it.
One file left. He didn’t want to press play, he really didn’t. But he pressed it anyway.
– FILE NO. 10 –
I saw it. A black spot in the blackness. At first I thought it might be a ghost of my former vision. I even swatted at it, thinking maybe it was a mosquito.
In minutes, it was bigger, not so black. I felt my way to the garage and found the secret box that I never wanted you to know about. In seconds, the spot transformed to the demon thing, red all over and oozing. Its neck, shoulders, and chest appeared as if it was pulling back a curtain. It stepped from its reality into ours, into the blackness that is now my world. By the time I got the box down and loaded my gun, the demon stood next to me, whispering and smiling.
I feel it breathing on my cheek. I hear its whispers. It’s telling me to do very bad things to you, Jamie. I could never—
Oh my God, what’s it doing now?
Jamie, I know I never say it, but I love you. I do. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. My insides are on fire at the regret I feel over the last sixteen years, over the divorce, over all the millions of opportunities we had together, squandered because of work, because of stupid excuses, because I was afraid you wouldn’t love me if I wasn’t successful, because . . .
Because, because, because, Jamie. Just because.
I can’t tell you how sorry I am. But you have to understand. And I think you will.
The devil licked my cheek, Jamie.
Actually tasted me. Oh God.
I can’t live like this.
I’m so sorry.
Jamie raced to the garage just as the crack! of a gun shot rang out. He hesitated in the doorway. His father, who he loved more at that very moment than he ever had, slumped in a chair facing the wall, back to Jamie, arms dangling, head lolled to one side.
He’s passed out, Jamie thought crazily.
The gun lay on the floor next to the chair, just beyond one lifeless hand. The smell of gunpowder and blood hung in the air. Gory bits clung to the wall and slowly dripped to the floor.
Jamie ran out of the garage. His chest was clamped in a vice, twisting and twisting until he was sure his ribs would crack. He reached into his pocket for his inhaler. With one pull on the sweet device, he’d feel better. He’d be able to deal with the horror slumped in the garage, the blind dead thing that once was his father—
His inhaler was gone.
He stumbled through the back door, his breath now gone completely. He scanned the living room. Nothing. But then he spotted it, on the coffee table. He threw the voice recorder down as he lunged for the sweet medicine.
He took several deep breaths, wiped the sweat and tears from his face, and took out his phone. He called his mother. While waiting for her to pick up, he swatted unconsciously at something hovering at the edge of his vision. A mosquito maybe.
“Hello?” his mother answered.
“Mom? I . . . uh . . .” Jamie couldn’t find the words. The black spot had grown to the size of a dime.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
The spot grew into a face, formed yellow cat’s eyes and red skin. Its green tongue flicked over cracked lips. It smiled and whispering something Jamie couldn’t quite hear.
“Hello? Jamie?” She sounded worried now. “What’s wrong? I’m coming back.” But he couldn’t answer her. The face grew a neck, shoulders, a chest.
He reeled back and tripped over the coffee table. He scooted away, frantically grabbing at anything for purchase. The demon followed him, hovering right next to his face. It released a long string of drool that landed with a soft pat! on the carpet.
Jamie’s breath caught. He pulled on his inhaler . . . but it was empty.
The devil stepped from its reality to his, one leg at a time. It stood like an oozing Jack O’ Lantern on a stick. It leaned forward and tasted him. He heard what the devil was whispering. The horrible things it was telling him to do to his mother.
The gun, he thought. He ran from the house and threw open the garage door. He picked up the gun. It was surprisingly heavy. He put it to his head, but hesitated. He couldn’t pull the trigger. He wasn’t as strong as his father.
Instead, he sat on the cold garage floor and laid the gun across his lap. He listened as the devil told him that all he had to do was wait.