Do You Know Who I Am?
by David Desjardin
“Eric, wake up. Tommy’s dad is on the phone.” My mother’s hand is on my shoulder, shaking me, and I don’t have to pretend to be struggling into consciousness. I had tossed and turned most of the night before falling asleep just as the sky started to bring light to my darkness. It felt like only moments before. I glance at my bedside clock: 9:30 on a Saturday morning. Or is it Sunday? My thoughts are still fuzzy. I sit up, rubbing at my eyes, trying to push away the feeling of dread that her words reawaken.
“Do you know where Tommy is?” she asks, those six words so similar to the ones that had started this waking nightmare:
Do you know who I am?
I sit up, wrapping my arms around myself as if cold, even though it is warm in the room, wondering if Mom can see me shaking.
She can, and touches the back of one hand to my forehead, the other holding the cordless phone to her chest. “Tommy’s dad woke up a few minutes ago and found his bed empty. He’s asking if you know where he is.”
Tommy’s father, Terry Pritchard, hard worker, heavy drinker, had probably wandered in late last night and fallen into bed without even checking to see if his son was safely at home.
“No,” I mumble, which is true. I begin shaking even more, fear imitating fever. A fever of fear. I want to laugh but I don’t, knowing that if I do I won’t be able to stop.
“We were at Christy Lyndon’s party until eleven-thirty,” I continue, “but it wasn’t very good, so we hopped on our bikes and went to the store to grab a couple of Red Bulls. Then we rode around for a while, you know, around Chinatown, and then we stopped at Booth and Somerset and talked for a while before he took off and I came home.”
Knowing, as I babbled, that I was providing too much detail. Liars did that, I’d read somewhere. Mom doesn’t seem to notice, although she’s frowning.
“You know that’s after curfew,” she says.
“Sorry. We lost track of time.”
She seems to accept this. Far too trusting, but she’s had no reason not to be until now.
Do you know who I am?
I can’t get the words out of my head.
“Richard says he doesn’t know,” Mom says into the phone.
“They split up after 11:30 and the last time he saw Tommy was
on Booth riding his bike.” She stops for a few moments, listening to what Tommy’s father is saying on the other end, and then says, “Yes, of course. I’ll have Richard call their circle of friends and see if they know anything.”
I’m only partially paying attention, my thoughts diverted by the mention of Tommy’s bike. Will it still be where we stashed it the in the overgrown lot behind the tenements?
“Please try not to worry,” Mom is saying into the phone as she looks down at me with concern. “I’m sure he’ll turn up.” Then she pushes the disconnect button and holds the phone out to me as she says, “Although if you don’t know where he is, I don’t know who would. You two being joined at the hip and all.”
It was true. We’d been best friends for almost a decade, coming together in the emotional wreckage of his mother’s death. She had died while Tommy and his father were on a fishing trip together, one of those father and son things my own father used to take me on before he’d withdrawn into his sad little world. She’d been murdered at home by someone never found, an intruder who had broken in and taken a couple of hundred dollars worth of stuff along with her life.
All those years of growing up together. As tight as… brothers. I shake my head at the offer of the cordless – dinosaur technology – and reach over to grab my cell. All our friends’ numbers – Tommy’s and mine – are in it.
“And you know how I feel about those energy drinks,” Mom says as she leaves. A parting shot from the dutiful parent.
I begin calling everyone I know, hoping that it will turn out that
Tommy crashed at somebody’s house, that last night’s events were just a nightmare produced by my caffeine and alcohol-addled mind.
Do you know who I am?
I don’t want to, but I start re-living those awful moments. It had all been Ellen Menard’s fault, the one mountain Tommy and I had failed to conquer. We’d had an unofficial contest going ever since Jennifer Hogan had kissed him on the lips in grade eight and he’d discovered he liked it. He had dared me to follow suit, and we’d been trying to make out with every girl we knew ever since. Except that… I never really enjoyed it.
Nevertheless, I had followed his lead, as I did in everything. He had always been the leader, slightly better at sports and school, wanting to prove himself just a little bit more, and that was okay, because he was the brother I never had, the one person I loved more than anyone else. So chasing girls became a part of my life, even though I never understood the attraction.
Ellen Menard, though, gorgeous and un-climbable – one of those “pledgers” apparently, who was saving it for marriage – had resisted every advance. Then last night, perhaps under the influence of too much illicit wine, she had hinted that “maybe” she would stop resisting. Maybe. If we did what no one else in our school had dared to do.
“What? What?” we had asked, not quite simultaneously, eager to conquer whatever challenge she threw at us in order to reach the top of that mountain.
She had smiled smugly and said, “Spend an hour in the Hanover, all by your lonesomes.”
The room had gone quiet. No one in our peer group had ever gone into the Hanover tenements, a whole block of ancient three and four-story buildings standing shoulder to shoulder on Somerset between Hanover and Booth. According to my father, some developer had bought them up ten or fifteen years ago, intending to tear them down in order to erect an edifice dedicated to his own “grasping greed.” But he’d overreached and gone bankrupt. Some bank had taken them over and boarded them up and left them to rot. The neighbours had complained for years, but the bank kept sitting on them, waiting for the market to ripen to the point where they could maximize their profits, and “screw the working Joe who objects because they’ve got no political clout in today’s economic system.” Or so Dad said when I’d made the mistake of asking why the buildings had sat empty for so long. Dad hates the banks almost as much as he hates developers. “Tools of corporate repression,” he calls them.
So the buildings had been left to vagrants and addicts and dealers and other criminals, the cops sweeping through them periodically when the complaints reached critical mass. Then the bank or the city would slap some fresh boards over the windows and doors, but those flimsy barricades never kept people out for very long.
Then, about three years ago, the rumours had started. The addicts and criminals were disappearing from the area around the tenements. Some people even said from within the tenements. The underground community had complained, but the cops and politicians didn’t care, so people in general had started avoiding the place. No winos passed out on the steps, no hookers on the sidewalks, no emaciated losers squeezing in and out from beneath loosened boards. Quiet reigned and the neighbours were happy.
We, the teenagers who walked, rode our bikes and hung out in the area had avoided the place for years (except for the older ones looking to score a little weed), first because of the “criminal element” as our parents called it, and then because the place gave everyone the creeps, although few would admit it aloud.
Now Tommy and I didn’t have any choice. We might have backed down from the chance of making out with Ellen Menard, and would have done so gladly rather than face the tenements, but far too many kids had heard her challenge.
The father of one of our friends had called us the “Young Turks” a few years ago, and we had adopted the title after googling its meaning. The Young Turks had a reputation to uphold. So, fueled on the wine and energy drinks mixed with vodka, a bunch of us had hopped on our bikes and ridden en masse to the tenements, Tommy and I in the lead, as we led in everything. We, with our black belts in karate from Myoto’s Martial Arts Academy, stars of the junior football and hockey teams, we the benevolent rulers of our small kingdom, popular with just about everyone. We even got good marks in school. So we had a rep to protect. We led our small flock of sheep – sheep too smart to enter the den of the boogeyman as it turned out – to the Hanover.
The buildings were ugly in daylight, but now, in the harsh light of the street lamps, their ugliness seemed to go beyond something that offended mere sight. Tommy and I wheeled our bikes out back to stash them while our followers waited out front, not confident that they, loyal though they were, could be trusted to stay with them.
It took a while to find a way in, watched over by Ellen and Guy Lavigne who had overcome their own fear and crept past a rear corner to make sure we didn’t just hang around out back.
“The hour doesn’t start till you’re inside,” she reminded us.
We finally found a loose sheet of plywood covering a gaping, glassless window and crawled in before turning on the flashlights that Ellen had lent us, revealing an old kitchen filled with debris and the stink of rot and piss. It looked like numerous someones had taken dumps in the sink, most of the cupboard doors had been ripped off their hinges, and a stained, torn mattress lay in one corner.
“Ugh,” I said, pointing at it. “Can you imagine sleeping on that?”
It was cold too, not cold enough to see your breath like in some horror movie, but colder than I would have expected at the height of summer. I found myself wishing we’d brought our jackets.
We started making our way through the ground floors. Originally the various buildings had been walled off from one another, but more someones had knocked rough openings through the drywall and cinderblock walls. I figured it was so they could move from one building to the other without the cops knowing they were there.
The floors were greasy with humidity and God knew what else. Tommy and I had to watch where we stepped, and not just in fear of the odd pile of petrified crap. In places the floors sagged visibly beneath our weight, and we kept close to the walls, half afraid that at any moment we’d drop into the basement. Our intent was to make it to the upper floors, and hold court over our subjects from one of the windows overlooking Somerset, but the first staircase we came to had collapsed, and although the second building had an elevator at some point, there was nothing but a gaping hole there now. The door to the stairwell beside it was blocked with debris, so we made our way into the third building through an opening so tight that the damp drywall and masonry crumbled onto our clothes.
We rose quickly to our feet, my own mind filled with thoughts of rats and cockroaches. The rooms and halls of all three buildings seemed curiously lifeless though. On the other hand, maybe that was true of all old, abandoned buildings. I hadn’t made a habit of exploring them; these were the first.
“Do you know who I am?”
Tommy and I both yelped and spun around, the beams from our flashlights slashing through the blackness as we tried to locate the source of the voice.
“D-did you hear that?” Tommy asked through chattering teeth. I would have made fun of him if my own hadn’t been clacking away. I tried to tell myself that it was just the cold.
“Who’s there?” I called, lowering the pitch of my voice to sound bigger and older than I was. There was no answer.
“Maybe Guy and Ellen followed us in,” Tommy suggested.
“You’re kidding, right. As if they’d have the guts.” But just in case I yelled, “I’m gonna beat the crap out of whoever that was!”
When Tommy called out a second time and received no answer, we shook our heads and moved on.
The third set of stairs that we came to was one of those steel and concrete set-ups. It seemed solid enough. As I peered up, a draft of cold air touched the back of my neck, and I gasped.
“Woooo,” Tommy cooed, and I realized that it had been him blowing at me from behind.
“Asshole,” I muttered, and he laughed in reply before running past me up the stairs, forcing me to follow. At least the floors of this building, more solidly built than the previous two, were firm underfoot. The walls, though, were a ruin, holed and covered in graffiti. The stink of piss seemed stronger than anywhere else. We crept down a hall and into one of the apartments at the front of the second floor, still half-afraid that we’d stumble onto a drunk or addict and get knifed. All three of the windows facing the street were boarded up, and although the glass was gone, the boards were in better condition than the ones downstairs. They refused to yield to shoulders or palm-heel strikes.
“Watch this,” Tommy said, and delivered an impressive looking side kick only to stumble back when the plywood failed to yield.
“Oooh,” I teased. “The karate kid in action.”
It was only after five or six kicks, the two of us taking turns, that the nails along the bottom half of the board screeched free and we could push it out just enough to see our friends gathered beneath us on the sidewalk.
“Losers!” I yelled. “The Young Turks rule!”
“Hey, Ellen,” Tommy called. He took out his cell phone and glanced at the display. “In forty minutes you and me’ll be doing the horizontal mambo!”
“You wish,” she cried.
“Hey! A bet’s a..”
There was the blast of sound from a siren, and our dearly beloved friends scattered in half a dozen directions. A police cruiser accelerated down the block toward the spot where they’d been. Tommy and I let the board drop back into place.
We crouched down below the sill and doused our lights. The car stopped with a faint squeal of brakes and we waited for the sounds of opening doors and pounding feet and calls to, “Get down here!”
The car doors did open and close with a slam. We could hear voices – a man and a woman’s – and then a flashlight beam played across the board above us, the light finding chinks in the wood and the frame that it fronted.
“What did you see?” asked the woman, her voice clear in the quiet air.
“Thought I saw some movement,” the man said.
“Think we should check it out?”
There was a long pause, and then, “Nah.” Then his voice rose for our benefit. “Even if some half-wit loser is in there, he’s not worth breaking a sweat over!”
There was another pause, and then “Did you see them scatter?”
The man laughed in reply. “Like chickens in a barnyard.”
“Probably half-way home to change their underwear.”
More laughter, and then the sounds of the doors opening and closing before the car accelerated away.
Tommy and I switched our flashlights back on and looked at one another before falling on our butts, backs to the wall, filled with a sense of exhilaration and camaraderie. I was intensely aware of him, of his physical presence, of his arm and thigh touching mine. I wanted to reach out and caress his face, but of course I wouldn’t in a million years.
“Hey,” he said, still speaking softly even though the cops seemed to be gone. “Selfie.”
He held his phone out, and we both stuck our tongues out as he took a picture.
“We should just go,” I said softly.
“Cluck, cluck, cluck.”
“Well she’s gonna welsh on the bet anyway. Why sit in this mess if we don’t have to. Unless you like the smell of piss.”
Tommy grimaced and said, “Fine, let’s go. There’s no one to say we didn’t stay the hour anyway.”
That was when my nostrils were assailed by an unidentifiable odour, too strange for me to decide whether it was repugnant or attractive. I made a face any way. “Ewwww. What the heck is that?”
But Tommy’s head was back, his nose in the air. As I watched he inhaled deeply, and then again.
“What?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. It smells like…”
“Like Mom’s perfume. I still remember it.”
“You’re kidding.” I climbed to my feet, hauling him up after me. That was when we heard it again.
“Do you know who I am?”
The voice was clearer this time, although I still couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.
“That’s it!” Tommy yelled. “Someone’s in for a hurtin’!”
We ran through the apartment into the hall before Tommy stopped dead. I crashed into his back.
“What the crap!” I don’t even remember who yelled it, although I’m sure we were both thinking it.
The gaping doorway that should have led to the landing led instead to something else, replaced by a scene too bizarre for our minds to define: a vague, yet utterly alien landscape, a place of half-formed shapes and flashes of colour, a poorly realized dream, unfamiliar, unknowable and yet… something there and then gone made it seem imminently attractive. All of this was glimpsed and then obscured by a figure of black smoke that roiled through the doorway.
It flowed toward us, about the height and shape of a medium-sized man, and we stumbled back, getting tangled up with one another for a moment before we were able to free ourselves enough to run back into the apartment. We came to a stop in the living room, unable to decide which way to go. All of the rooms were dead ends. The figure flowed in after us, but it didn’t move very fast and we danced away. The only furniture in the living room was a mouldy sofa, which gave us some room to maneuver. Tommy inched along one wall and I another as we tried to go around it.
“Do you know who I am?”
There was no doubt that this was the source of the voice, the voice of a stranger, but to my amazement Tommy stopped moving.
“Mom?” he asked.
The figure had been moving toward me. Now it paused.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked, peering around it. “That’s not you’re mother, you idiot. You know it’s not.” I didn’t add that she was dead, I shouldn’t have had to, but Tommy’s face had taken on a look of wonder. He stopped trying to elude the strange apparition, and waited as it moved toward him.
I knew I had to distract it, to give him time to come to his senses. I stepped forward and delivered a roundhouse kick at what passed for its head. My shin passed right through it, but my leg felt as if I’d just plunged it into ice water. I screamed in shock and tumbled onto my back.
The figure stopped and reversed direction again.
“What are you doing?” Tommy demanded from behind it.
“Don’t hurt her.”
I was rubbing at my lower leg which seemed partially paralyzed.
“Her!” I yelled, peering past the approaching horror to glare at my friend. “Her? I told you, that’s not your mother.”
But Tommy was looking at it with a mixture of love and awe.
“It’s okay, Mom. I won’t let him hurt you.”
The figure reversed direction again. “Mom,” it said in an oddly mechanical manner. “Mom.”
Tommy held out his arms as I struggled to my feet, my leg still tingling painfully. I stumbled around the whatever-it-was and grabbed Tommy’s hand, but he pulled away, and then shoved me. I fell down in a heap, and could only watch while it touched and then enfolded him while repeating, “Mom.”
Then Tommy was gone, and all that stood in his place was that oh-so-alien shape. I waited for it to come after me, but it only hovered for a moment and then drifted toward the hall, like a sated predator not interested in more prey. I climbed to my feet and cautiously followed as it drifted down the hall toward that strange portal.
“Tommy!” I yelled, and it paused, the roiling shape of it filled with shifting shapes and colours, just like the world it had come from.
“Tommy,” I repeated, my voice filled with longing and loss, and for a moment, a moment only, the smoke resolved itself into his face and his form. Then it entered the doorway, and both it and the strange world were gone, replaced with the banality of the litter-strewn landing.
I’ve run out of numbers to call, so I walk into the bathroom, turn on the water in the sink, and stand for I don’t know how long staring at my ashen face in the mirror. I had grabbed my bike, leaving Tommy’s in the bushes, and ridden as fast as I could all the way home, fuelled by terror and grief and confusion, two questions repeating over and over in my mind.
“What was that thing? Where had it taken my friend?”
Now, after a fitful sleep, after hearing my own mother’s voice, I know what has happened to Tommy and all of those missing people, those sad, needful people. A heavy knot forms in the pit of my gut, and I’m filled with a terror so profound that it threatens to choke me. It’s only a matter of time before one of our friends spills the beans about where we had been last night. If the adults find nothing, if they decide that I had something to do with Tommy’s disappearance, God only knows when I’ll get the chance to go back there.
I don’t want to go back, but it needs to be done. I can’t face it again, but I must. I’m so afraid I just want to lie down and never wake up, but I have to return to the Hanover, because that’s the place where I’ll find him… Tommy.
David Desjardins is a free-lance writer living with his wife in Quebec, Canada. He has a degree in English literature from the University of Ottawa, and has worked as a clerk for the Bank of Canada, a reporter for two community newspapers, and a stay-at-home father. His other interests include karate, photography and anything to do with the outdoors.