“My street name is Nightmare, but my real name is Frank.” The rat’s nest of rainbow curls was swept off by one gloved hand, revealing a sensibly-cut chevelure of strawberry blond underneath. It was the same color as Frank’s hair, but he had been kidnapped by the Understreeters six years ago…
“If you’d just let me in, I could wash off my makeup and you’d see mother’s upturned nose, father’s blue eyes – how silly of me!” His jaw dropped low and he reached into his mouth to remove the set of jagged canines he’d been wearing since he tapped me on the shoulder at the nightclub.
Nearly scared me to death when I turned around – but he didn’t conversionalize me, and no one else stopped rocking out to “Intergalactic Breakup Song” to notice who’d crashed the party. And he said “Hey, Parasaurolophus,” which was my special nickname from childhood. No one outside my family would be privy to that information. And somehow, there was something in his deep blue eyes, if I looked beyond the dripping violet eyeliner and creamy white-frosted face, that told me not to be scared. So either the loganberry punch was really impairing my survival instincts, or this Understreeter had something going on under his intimidating costume that the lonely journalist in me wanted to investigate. And let’s face it – they were our father’s eyes.
Now, standing in the lobby of my compartment complex and trying in vain to ignore the perturbed stares of passersby, I was having second thoughts. “Tell me something only Frank would know,” I demanded.
“What about this?” He pulled off his left glove to reveal a skeletal white hand, palm open like a flower in bloom. Gingerly, I lifted the hand closer to my eyes – the lines on his palm formed the shape of a face with one winking eye. Suddenly I was back in our old yard around 5 am – the uncut grass, the treehouse crippled by rain, and us two on the porch swing. I was reading him Cinderella for the umpteenth time. And when he reached out to turn the page, I caught his hand and traced that face – head thrown back in tortured laughter like the faces of our parents on the Easter Sunday when they were taken by the Understreeters. The monsters, the real dictators of Comatropolis. The same troop I was told had been seen conversionalizing my brother while I was interviewing for a job at the Comatose Press. The same troop whose deadly purple insignia was stitched into the green velvet on the chest of this man who smelled like Mom’s spice cabinet, where Frank used to hide during the storms.
“I don’t know what to say,” I stammered at last, which is basically the same thing as saying nothing. But what could I say? Here before me was my last living relative, estranged from me for six years. Yet if his getup was any indication, he’d spent a good part of that time hypnotizing civilians with nightmares that erased from their brains any inclination except to spread the disease.
As if he’d read my mind, Frank said softly, “I did take some people. But that was before I woke up. Now I’ve set all of those free, and I’ve started working on a few more of our old friends – old Mrs. Rotwurst from the library is almost ready.”
“Ready – for what?” My hand was still tightly grasping my cell phone, but I wasn’t sure whether to navigate to the laser-paralyzer app or the camera to capture this impossible moment. Glancing up from my home screen, I saw a tear rolling down his cheek, carving a path in the white makeup. If only more tears would rain down and wash all that artificial mirth away!
“When you wake up,” he whispered, “It’s like you’d just been lying in bed crying for a week because someone told you that you died, and then you looked at a calendar and realized that was April Fool’s Day.”
“I’d be pissed,” I remarked.
“What I mean is, it’s like coming back to life on the day that happens to be your surprise party. Doctors, politicians, they’re all saying it’s hopeless, that there’s no cure and no way to save the city. But all it takes is a few blasts of a well-tuned alarm.”
He pulled a quaint little device out of his pocket – one of those analog clocks I used to see in history museums, with two bells like little teddy-bear ears, one on each side. When Frank flicked one bell, it chimed like an ancient call to prayer. He then adjusted the arrows on the clock face and rang again – it was the cry of a hungry baby. “Everyone has somewhere to be,” he explained. “Not even millionaires get to sleep their whole lives away. When you remind people of their pressing obligations, they tend to come through.”
“How did you discover this?”
He grinned, a sweet grin with just the slightest hint of saltiness. “I saw you in a bar the other night. I always told you, whatever you do when you live alone, don’t get drunk.”
“I wasn’t drunk!” I protested, though I couldn’t have been more delighted to remember that moment with my little brother as we loaded boxes into the hypertrain. “I don’t need your protection!”
“Well, aren’t you glad I was so overprotective?” His smile was tremulous, like it didn’t know whether to take flight and make for the window or slump into a frown.
“Why today? Why now?”
I sank into a chair, wondering if I was hallucinating. Maybe if I sat here for a minute, perhaps spent some time on social media, the apparition would disappear.
Frank knelt by my platinum heels, hands in some yoga mudra. Apparently not. “Seriously, Arlene, I found Dad. I tried all the settings I could program on this alarm – big band music, car horns, even a recording of his boss yelling. When Dad speaks, he says one word – your name.”
Slowly I began to nod. Dad was always the one who helped me with my math homework, and when I was scared at night I preferred his comforting scientific proofs that the trees outside were not in fact zombies as opposed to Mom’s lullabies. Don’t get me wrong, I love lullabies – but there was something peculiar about me and Dad.
“Do you think I could wake him up?”
Judging by the look in his eyes, that was a dumb question. “Can you be ready to head downtown by tomorrow at 7?”
“I’m ready now,” I said. “In the column on this, do you want to be referred to as Frank or Nightmare?”
For a second, he just stared at me. Then he cuffed me on the shoulder like we always used to do, and we walked out laughing into the frigid dark, and for the first time in years I knew I had nothing to fear.
Image credits in order of appearance:
“Faroe stamp 415 clowns”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Faroe_stamp_415_clowns.jpg#/media/File:Faroe_stamp_415_clowns.jpg
By Aeplyh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“Alarm Clock 3” by Alan Cleaver – originally posted to Flickr as Alarm Clock 3. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alarm_Clock_3.jpg#/media/File:Alarm_Clock_3.jpg
“La Bañeza – graffiti 37” by Zarateman – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Ba%C3%B1eza_-_graffiti_37.JPG#/media/File:La_Ba%C3%B1eza_-_graffiti_37.JPG