YOU SAID YOU WOULD COME
Published in The Big Book of New Short Horror
Pill Hill Press, September 2011
The phone on the bedside table emitted a shrill, hysterical cry, and Susan James-Howard’s first thought was: The phone is ringing in the middle of the night. Despite the sleep that hung heavily upon her torpid limbs, her heart and mind crackled with electric terror.
Her thoughts went immediately to her son. His face appeared against the insides of her eyelids, white and ghostly in contrast to the darkness. She pictured the unrest that once flickered behind his pale blue eyes, the way his flesh used to stretch over his gaunt cheeks. Tommy hadn’t looked that terrible in over a year, yet haggard and listless was how she remembered him best.
The phone shrieked a second time, and Susan wiped the haunting vision from her mind and picked up the telephone. A thousand morbid thoughts struck at once, yet the voice on the other end of the line eased her fears.
“Mom?” Tommy whispered.
“What time is it?” she asked. The black out curtains, which smothered the sun after Tom Senior’s shift as night foreman at Caravan Quarry & Supply Company, now created a sea of impenetrable darkness. Even the red glow of the alarm clock was lost in the gloom. Susan reached beyond the phone and angled the clock in her direction; it was quarter to three in the morning.
“I’m afraid,” Tommy said.
“It’s the middle of the night.” Susan pressed the phone against her ear and let her head ease back onto the pillow. Her heart slowed its breakneck pace, yet an ominous sense of danger lingered. “Go back to sleep.”
“There are others,” Tommy said. “They’re watching me.”
Susan jerked upright. Her free hand moved to her throat; it felt cold and lifeless against her bare flesh and she shivered. The memory of a sixteen-year-old Tommy sprang to mind; of the night she’d caught him, marching backward in the yard, muttering unintelligible phrases while clutching one of her metal knitting needles.
“Who’s watching you?” she asked, while fumbling for the bedside lamp’s pull chain. A sudden tremble caused her elbow to ram the fixture, and it toppled onto the floor. The pitch-black room felt suddenly cavernous and formidable; the corded phone prevented her from reaching any other light source. She pulled the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes.
“I’m scared,” Tommy said.
“Where are you?” Susan asked. “Are you in your dorm room?”
Only hollow silence on the other end.
She slammed the phone down on its cradle and tossed the covers aside. The unpleasant idea that something—or someone—lurked in the darkness taunted Susan as she lowered her body to the ground, felt around for the lamp she’d struck, and returned it to the bedside table. A flick of the wrist bathed the room in precious yellow light.
She picked up the phone and dialed Tommy’s cell. The call went to voicemail.
Alert and anxious, Susan dressed quickly and decided to wait fifteen minutes for her son to call again; if he didn’t, she would drive to the junior college he attended and check on him herself.
Six minutes later, her cell phone rang.
Susan snatched up the device, thankful she’d turned on the lights; oddly, the screen of her mobile phone remained dark despite the incoming call. Paying little attention to the technical failure, she answered.
“Are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m scared,” Tommy said. “Will you come here?”
“I’m on my way.”
“Do you know how to get here?”
“Of course. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Hurry.” Tommy lowered his voice. “They’re everywhere.”
“Who’s—” The words stuck in her throat as Tommy hung up.
Susan looked around the room, her mind a lumpy bundle of nerves; for a few frustrating seconds, she was unable to comprehend what was happening, yet her body had succumbed to sheer terror: her muscles tensed painfully while a sick, hard cramp materialized just beneath her rib cage. Leaning against the bed for support, Susan took several deep breaths and picked up her cell phone again. This time, she called her husband.
“It’s Tommy,” she said told him. “He’s not well. I’m going to the school to pick him up.”
The silence that followed did not surprise Susan. After the incident with the knitting needles, she had taken her son to a psychiatrist. The visit confirmed a decade-long suspicion that her only child was mentally unstable. The announcement had shattered Tom Senior’s relationship with his son, and it would never be fully repaired, the way a broken vase would always boast a scar where it had been poorly mended. She knew this call conjured ugly and uncomfortable memories for her husband, and while she was conscious of his distress, her primary concern was her son’s safety.
“I can’t leave the site,” Tom said. “Will you be okay alone?”
Susan hung up, calmer now despite her husband’s indifference. She left the house, pulling her sweater close as the cool fall breeze penetrated her thin pajama pants. The car’s leather seats offered little warmth as she started the vehicle and maneuvered down the block in the direction of Tommy’s dorm.
College had been Tom Senior’s idea. After three years of treatment, Tommy’s doctors had prescribed a pharmaceutical cocktail that virtually eliminated his symptoms. After his nineteenth birthday, the Howard family experienced normalcy for the first time: lucid conversations, uninterrupted sleep, physical affection. One year later, Tom Senior insisted their son was ready to strike out on his own. He made a great fuss about Tommy’s progress and future prospects, but Susan knew he wanted to rid them of their son’s presence. Her husband couldn’t accept that their son walked a precarious line between sanity and instability; he would rather avoid him altogether than acknowledge his abnormality.
Nearing the college now, Susan was sure the decision had been a terrible mistake. Something had knocked Tommy off-kilter—the pressures of a full class load, the overwhelming task of meeting and making new friends, the isolation of living alone in the dorm—and he must have, perhaps consciously, stopped taking his medication.
She entered the dormitory lot, parked the car and called her son. When he didn’t answer, she headed toward the main entrance. A scrawny, exhausted-looking teen slouched behind the front desk, a thick textbook open before him. When Susan entered, he straightened up, his sluggish demeanor transitioning to an air of displeasure.
“Can I help you?”
“My son, Thomas Howard, lives in room 308. He’s not well and I need to go upstairs to see him.”
The kid’s gaze fell to a thin, leather-bound journal beside his textbook; the pages were filled with hand-written notations. “You’re not in the visitor’s log. He’ll have to come down and get you.”
Susan pressed her fingertips against her temples; her head was pounding. “My son is ill. Just give me the key to his room and let me check on him.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” Susan asked, exasperated. “Would you rather something terrible happen? Just give me the goddamn key.”
The kid mulled it over, checked the time, and shrugged. He handed over the key but required Susan to sign the guestbook. She quickly noted the date and time of her arrival: October 23, 2011, 3:33 a.m.
Susan bypassed the elevator and opted for the stairs. The foreboding she’d felt during Tommy’s first call had spread and now filled her like a cancerous growth; she hesitated at his door, frightened, before knocking.
When he didn’t answer, she let herself inside. The room was dark, but the bold campus streetlights surrounding the building offered sufficient light. Susan closed the door behind her, turned around, and fell to her knees. In her mind, she screamed; in reality, the cry was too enormous to pass through her throat.
Her son slumped against the wall in the corner of the room. In one hand, he held a bottle of pills, in the other, his cell phone. Pinned to the front of his shirt, a sheet of paper announced: “I’m sorry mom. October 22, 2011, 7:13 p.m.”
Susan lurched forward and knocked the bottle from her son’s hands. It was empty. She felt for a pulse. Nothing.
Despite the gruesome scene, she couldn’t look away from Tommy’s message. She thought about what she’d just written in the dormitory log: October 23, 2011, 3:33 a.m.
The loud peal of her cell phone startled Susan, and she pressed the device against her ear, never taking her eyes from her son. Her mind refused to accept the scene before her as reality; perhaps if she heard her husband’s voice, she would be roused from the nightmare.
The voice on the line sounded hollow and distant, but belonged, unmistakably, to Tommy. Chills attacked Susan’s flesh; her heart, precariously close to failing, twitched painfully in her chest.
Susan placed a trembling hand over her mouth and stared, unbelieving, at her son’s lifeless body on the floor. She waited for him to laugh, climb to his feet, and clap her playfully on the back.
But she knew he could not be revived.
“Mom? Mom, are you there?”
“I’m here sweetie,” she whispered.
“But where are you?” Tommy asked. “You said you would come.”
This time, Susan was unable to suppress a desperate, heaving sob.
“Mom? Where are you?” Tommy repeated. “You said you would come.”