I was in the third grade the first time I witnessed torture.
I was sleeping soundly the morning of the incident at my Uncle Wes’s house down in Florida, where I was on vacation with my family. It took me hours to go to sleep the night before, the very idea of our first trip to Disney World the next day stimulating my brain so much that it was on par with the excitement that kept me awake each Christmas Eve. When I had finally fallen asleep, my dreams naturally were of meeting Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other cartoon characters come to life.
But at some point a noise had invaded my dream, a real-life noise that translated into something sinister in my world of dreams. I couldn’t identify it at first; it sounded vaguely like a rabid animal growling unceasingly. It transformed my sugar plum dreams into something vaguely dangerous and frightful. Still asleep, I dreamt of waking up in the morning to find that something was preventing us from going to Disney World. It was something big and mean, lurking outside and barely visible in shadows cast by the rising sun against the blinds that covered the sliding glass door in the room where we slept.
I bravely peered my head out from the sleeping bag where I slept on the floor. My brother was sound asleep beside me, apparently unable to hear the snarls as I could. My mother was likewise still slumbering, completely unaware of the impending danger. Though I knew something was out there, I was powerless to do anything to stop it, frozen in fear and unable to do more than peek around the edge of the plush fabric of the sleeping bag.
I glanced back at my mom and was considering waking her when I heard the crash of breaking glass. Oh no it got in it broke through the door and got in I can’t look I can’t look. I buried my head back in the folds of the sleeping bag like a tortoise. The rumbling noise grew louder and I trembled. I commanded myself, You have to look! You have to try to save Mom and Nate! You have to do something. Minutes passed with the noise growing louder and my body would still not follow my brain’s demands.
Finally my adrenaline was surging from my fear and I knew I had to act. Just look; you have to breathe repeated in my brain over and over until finally I quickly thrust my head out through the seemingly unending layers of blankets that covered me to come face to face with the beast prowling outside.
The so-called “beast” wasn’t evil or monstrous in the least. It was an animated bear, sniffing around the bottoms of our sleeping bags like it was looking for honey. Apparently my earlier dreams about cartoon characters come to life had mingled with this nightmare to produce a “monster” so foolish that I couldn’t help but laugh in its face. It growled at me once, feigning anger, but quickly returned to sniffing around the room for a snack.
I awoke instantly, chuckling to myself quietly about the absurdity of my dream. But I quickly became aware that the sound I had been unable to identify in my dream was present here as well. For a moment I thought to myself, Am I still dreaming? Is this real? But the noise presented itself so vividly that I knew it had to be real even if everything else around me was false.
I picked up my glasses off a nearby nightstand and put them on as I moved toward the glass door, where the noise was strongest. A sense of bravery had carried over from my ridiculous dream, empowering me to move beyond my fears of the unknown. I pulled the blinds apart slightly to glance at what might be outside making such a noise, trying to make my disruption of the blinds so small that no one outside would ever notice their movement.
The instant I looked outside I was able to recognize the sound that had awakened me. The damp and blurry glass told me the truth as my view of the outside became twisted like something in a funhouse mirror. It’s just water, I thought with relief. The water was surging violently and slamming into the side of the house, rolling down the aluminum siding, sometimes crashing against the panes of glass in the nearby windows.
But it’s not raining, I realized then. The sun is out, so what can be causing this water to pour against the house? I was determined to find out, so I slowly crept past my sleeping mother and brother to go out and investigate. I departed the relative safety of the bedroom and entered the foreign environment of my uncle’s unfamiliar house.
My uncle and Dan had apparently been living there together as roommates since shortly after they came to visit us in Illinois the previous year for Thanksgiving. I had felt unsure of myself around Dan ever since that visit, not quite afraid but never even close to comfortable. He creeps me out, pure and simple, I thought to myself as I slowly moved down the hall toward the living room, passing a closet with white slates for doors. Nate and I had been disallowed from going into this closet, even though I knew for a fact that it held Uncle Wes’s Dr. Who board game.
The mysterious, unexplained nature of it being forbidden added to the sense of uneasiness. I didn’t like not knowing why I couldn’t do something. It’s like they’re treating me like I’m stupid, I thought to myself. The night before, as my brother and I buzzed about in anticipation of the unique experience the next day’s trip was sure to be, my mother sat at the dining room table with Dan, listening to strange music I had never heard before while they talked. At one point when I started to bug my mom about playing that Dr. Who game with me, Dan asked her when my bedtime was, all the time staring right at me.
Not at me, I thought then. More like past me, like I was invisible or not worth his time or something. Mom doesn’t do that. She knows I’m smart. If I ask for a comic and I can’t have it ‘cause we don’t have any money, she tells me. She doesn’t just say no for no reason.
Unless there’s a reason why I shouldn’t know, like there’s something really really bad in there. Thinking about what could possibly be in that closet that I shouldn’t see gave me a sudden chill, so I quickly skulked past the closet into the living room.
It did not seem weird to me at the time that Dan and my uncle were grown men and living together. Bert and Ernie were roommates; why couldn’t Dan and Uncle Wes be? But still, something about Dan always struck me as sinister. He had a dark moustache that was always hiding his true expression. When he laughed, the weightless cackle seemed to come from within the moustache itself. Why would Uncle Wes wanna live with such a creepy dude?
Following the noise to its source, I wandered through the living room. The noise had gotten quieter when I had left the bedroom, but each step forward had made it seem to grow in volume. Now I moved past the huge glass coffee table, thinking of how Dan had told my mom the night before that we should be very careful around it when we played. It’s not ‘cause he’s afraid we’ll get hurt on one of those jagged edges. He just doesn’t want his stuff to get broken.
My uncle and his roommate Dan kept tropical birds, dozens of them, all exotic. But Uncle Wes had recently caught a bird disease from handling them, so Dan had moved them all out onto the screened-in patio. There they were massed together into a giant cage he had built that stretched from ceiling to floor. The noise is coming from out there, I thought as I turned right in the living room to cut through the dining room, moving towards that patio where the birds were kept.
As I crept by the giant wooden dining room table, my mind flashed back again to events of the previous evening. While Nate and I were playing, Dan started whispering to my mom at that table like he didn’t want us to hear. I wondered to myself what they had been talking about; had it been Uncle Wes’s bird disease they discussed? He better not be trying to move in on my mom. If Dad hadn’t been forced to stay home and work at the last minute, he’d never have a chance to be so underhanded, so sneaky. He won’t get away with it if he does try anything; I’ll tell Dad when we get home. I let such thoughts slip away as I came to my knees and crawled beneath that table towards the patio, where I was now sure the noise was coming from.
It was there on that enclosed terrace that I was forced to look on, aghast, while an act of cruelty occurred before my wide eyes.
When I got close enough to the glass doors, I could just barely make out the source of the water that had been slamming against the house. Outside, Dan had uncoiled the hose and was spraying water at the birds through the screen. The bright metal of the nozzle of the hose reminded me of a gun. What’s he doing? I wondered. Is he giving them a bath, trying to get rid of whatever germs might have caused Uncle Wes to get sick?
But I quickly realized that this was not the case. Dan would slowly and calmly take aim at one of the brightly colored birds, sweeping the stream of water over it with a slight smirk on his face. The bird’s green and red feathers would darken under the blast of water and it would be thrown back and practically be bound to the inside of the cage by the torrent. Then Dan would hold it there for a moment under the gushing stream and cackle lightly to himself before moving the vicious flow away from the bird.
Time and again I watched the birds get pinned to the side of the cage by the forceful jet of liquid, then fall to the floor when the stream was moved away from them. It made me think of shows I had seen on television, when policemen would turn the hose on rioting criminals, knocking them over with the force of the water. Each time the birds would try to fly back up to their perches, their wings too heavy and damp to succeed, and Dan would catch them in mid-flight and renew his delight in their torment.
Why is he doing this? Can’t he see he’s hurting them? But I knew the answer to my question. He knew he was causing them pain, and he didn’t care. I got suddenly scared as I sat there under the dining room table. It felt like the table was slowly lowering down upon me, and at any moment I would be crushed.
A flood of water hit the glass doors of the patio with a violent crash, and it startled me so much that I almost screamed. But I couldn’t. I wasn’t able to make any noise or any movement whatsoever, and the table still felt like it was falling down onto me. I was forced to watch the birds being tortured, frozen like I had been in my dream, yet this time thinking to myself continually, Don’t look! Turn away!
After I watched the water wash over the poor birds again and again, the deluge suddenly stopped. Instantly my mind sprung into action. He’s going to see me! I came back in control of my body, but rather than scream as I had tried to moments before, I scurried back to the safety of my bedroom as fast as I could. I pleaded in my head to God as I ran. Please don’t let him see me! Please let me get away! Please please please!
I dove back into my sleeping bag and hid within it just as I had in my dream, not caring if I woke up my mom or brother in my rush. My mom did wake up then, and she saw me trembling there on the floor under the covers. “Steve, are you OK?” she called out to me with concern in her voice.
“I had a bad dream,” was my timid reply.
“Well,” she said, pulling the covers off of her, “it’s time to get up anyway.” Her hand fumbled around on the nightstand in search of her glasses. “Just a few more hours ‘til we go to Disney World,” she said reassuringly. She found her glasses and placed them on her face, looking over at the nightstand as she did so.
As she sat up from the bed, I heard her mumble something to herself about my glasses not being there next to hers. All I could see was her feet from where I lay on the floor. Disney World? I can’t go there now, not with him! My mom’s feet were headed for the bathroom door as I pulled back into my sleeping bag shell. Maybe if I pretend to be sleepy still, they won’t make me go.
But what about Mom and Nate? I realized then, drawing my head in even deeper. I couldn’t leave them alone and let them go there with him, but I couldn’t think of a way for us all to get out of it. Instead I sat frozen, my mind racing with the simple desire to return unharmed to the dreams I had been having only minutes before.