TOKENS

1998 by Michael J. Vavrek, Jr.


Dr. Tobin, I'm not certain how relevant any of this will be to your diagnosis and treatment, but, for certain, you'd better hear the full story. Now, I know this is going to sound crazy, but hear me out. What I need for you to understand is that my brother David and I may have unwittingly come in contact with--may have stumbled upon--certain elements of the supernatural, and we may have opened a door to another dimension, another realm of existence. And unfortunately we may have allowed this door to stay open long enough to let something horrible come in. I'm not afraid to admit I'm scared, and a small part of me even believes the entire world may be in grave danger.

Oh, you're recording this? Good.

Now, this is going to sound strange, and, you know, it's still hard for me to believe, even now, even after what I have seen, that we could have brought such horrible consequences down upon ourselves just by using some simple table salt and some water.

I'll fill you in on the events of last night, but first I need to tell you about a phone conversation my brother David and I had approximately a year ago. In my mind, that conversation precipitated this whole horrible nightmare.

We were on the phone talking about my father--bless his soul, he was still alive at the time--my mother, on the other hand, had died years before of breast cancer--and we were talking about some of my father's . . . well . . . idiosyncracies. My father definitely had his own way of approaching life, and many of his habits--his tendency to be excruciatingly cheap, for instance--were legendary in our family but were also comical to my brother and I.

To defend my father, the man had lived through The Depression and that's why he was afraid to spend money. He always bought everything--even a car--with cash, or he didn't buy it; he never financed anything. And his idea of a car was the most stripped-down--chromefree--model possible; it had to have a manual transmission--he believed a stick shift saved gas while driving in the hills of Western Pennsylvania; it could not have any "luxuries" beyond a heater--no radio, perish the thought; and he fully expected any car he bought to last ten years. Color black.

Anyway, we were discussing some of my father's other weird notions. We got onto this subject because my brother was telling me about how he had been sitting in his living room the night before, watching TV, and in his basement the hook holding his hand drill onto its pegboard outline pulled loose and the drill made a heck of a racket before it finally ended up on the floor. It fell first onto a coffee cup on his workbench and then it rolled off and fell into a metal tub on the basement floor.

So this prompted David to bring up my father's belief in Tokens.

To my father, anytime a nail pulled loose and a picture fell off the wall, or anytime some object that had been performing a tenuous balancing act with gravity finally tipped over on its own accord, making an unexpected noise, that was a Token. My father would have agreed that a Token was like an evil omen, except that there had to be a noise, caused by some physical event, associated with it. Had to make the noise and there had to be some physical damage or cause for the noise. And, to him, a Token signaled only one thing: an impending death. It was kind of like the "things that go bump in the night" forecasting a death in the family.

Now, according to my father, Tokens are produced by harmful, malevolent spirits as they move through the world. These spirits are not from our world but are permitted to enter it for only brief periods of time. They generate a Token as they are preparing the way for their evil purposes--usually they are bringing death--and, either because so many of them are converging on a certain spot at the same time or because the ones sent are so caught up in their frenzy of activity, they inadvertently bump into some item in the physical world that just happens to be unstable or perched precariously, and so these evil spirits give this physical object just enough of a nudge to knock it over or down or whatever and create the unexpected noise.

Oh, yeah. And birds that get into the house are also Tokens but I forget how my father explained that.

During our phone conversation I made the sarcastic comment to my brother that evidently these spirits were not only evil but they were also clumsy. I wish I still thought that was funny.

So, but anyway, a Token was a forewarning that someone was going to die. And my father could recite a whole litany of examples of how, in the past, he had heard strange noises and investigated and found pots and pans on the ground, in disarray, having tumbled off a shelf, or how a jar of jelly had exploded or, etc., and the following day our Aunt Helen had died or his father had died or the neighbor next door and so on. Lots of examples of Tokens.

And the other superstition that my father believed in, that my brother mentioned in that phone conversation, that followed along the same lines as the Tokens, was that things always happen in threes. The third time was the charm.

I, in turn, in order to top my brother (because that's what we do), brought up another strange belief of my father's: the custom of the Meal for the Dead. I thought that my brother would remember all about it. Well, true to form, David acted like he knew exactly what I was talking about and let me go on and on, but in fact he didn't have a clue. Halfway through my discussion, my remembrance of it, he stopped me and made me back up to the beginning and start all over again.

Maybe I should have known that he might not remember it, as he had been only six at the time these events had occurred.

I'll tell you the story just as I told him.

It was back in the mid fifties. I was about ten. At that point of my life my grandmother, my mother's mother, was my favorite person in the whole world. She was a tiny little woman, wrinkled and round, and she could never seem to kiss me enough. Her hair was long and grey and she wrapped it up somehow, and it sat on her head like her very own turban. She was a terrific cook--I still remember her chicken and dumplings which were clumpy, very doughy dumplings mixed with large chunks of chicken and all drenched with a chicken gravy that had the consistency of and looked like wallpaper paste. Sound terrible? Boy, was it good. And for dessert she made baklava, a very sweet, almost honey-coated, moist and flaky pastry filled with crushed walnuts. She taught me how to sew, which was perhaps a strange thing to teach a young boy, but I could spend hours embroidering--you know, with the hoops--while she burned some kind of soapy-clean-smelling incense in a little pot, and I would be as happy as a child could be. What else--oh, yeah--she must have needed dentures, but rarely wore them, because she could take her lower lip and pull it up over her nose--something that never failed to amuse my brother and I. And she would do it just to make us laugh--can you imagine a woman today doing such a thing?

But this sweet person was old and she got sick and died. Around Christmas. Back then, for some reason, it seemed like everyone used to die around Christmas. Needless to say, losing my grandma, I was heartbroken.

Remember now, before I go on, that this was back in the fifties! Probably to save money--just a guess, considering my father's frugal nature--my grandmother's body was laid out in the living room of our small house. The downstairs of our house consisted of four rooms: a 12 X 14 living room with a front door that exited to the street, a 9 X 12 dining room with stairs up and down, and another 12 X 14 area that was split into a bathroom to the left and a kitchen to the right. Upstairs were two small bedrooms. Somehow the house lived much larger.

So my grandmother lay in her coffin in our living room. I don't remember the coffin colors--they must have been reddish-pink, though, as her first name was Rose--you know how women co-ordinate those things--but I do remember the rosary she had in her praying hands and how it hung over the side of the coffin and, on occasion, seemed to sway.

That first night we had a few people stop by, tracking snow into the house, but the big day and night was yet to come. After the undertaker--I remember him fussing about, a very prissy sort of man--had finally assured himself that things were secure and allowed himself to leave, I noticed the light was still on in the kitchen. I went to see if my father were sleeping in his kitchen chair. Shift work in the steel mills really did my father in, and it was very natural to see him asleep in the corner in his chair. Often when I think about him even now, in my mind I see him sleeping in that chair in the kitchen, not lying on the table, mind you, but leaning backward into the corner, eyes closed, mouth open, not snoring but breathing deeply. Out.

Our kitchen was truly a small room. You entered through an archway, and to the immediate right in a row were the refrigerator, the sink, and then the stove. That's the extent of how deep the room was. On the left a table was pushed up against the wall and on this end in the corner, was my father's chair, and then there were two chairs on the side, their backs to the sink, and my mother's chair was on the far end.

My mother came down from upstairs, probably after having put my younger brother David to bed, and we entered the kitchen together. Funny, my sister Louise is not part of my memory of this event although she was four years older than me, so she would have been fourteen.

My father, it turns out, was very much awake, and he was arranging some items on the kitchen table. There was a clear glass of water next to a white paper napkin, and my father had a salt shaker in his hand and he was sprinkling salt on the napkin. He then pushed the salt around with his forefinger until it formed a little mound right in the middle of the napkin.

I asked him what he was doing and he told me that he was setting out the ritual Meal for the Dead. He further explained that this was an old Czechoslovakian custom and that it had to be prepared within a certain time of the death, and if all went well then my grandmother would partake of this meal, in some fashion.

My mother seemed skeptical, but she allowed him to continue. It was her mother after all, I thought, and she was the one who should have objected if there were anything wrong with this idea. I, needless to say, was fascinated by the whole process. Somehow on our mundane, chipped, enamel-coated kitchen table we were establishing a link to the supernatural. Neato!

So, anyway, there it was. Shortly after that I went to bed, pausing on the way upstairs to lean far out over the bannister and look at my grandma, who continued to lie in her casket and pray her rosary. I remember getting stabbed in the stomach by the dry pine needles in the Christmas garland that was still wound around the bannister; my mother, obviously distracted by the death of her mother, had forgotten to take them down. When the pine needles broke they gave off that pine smell. I didn't look at my grandma very long in case the rosary beads would begin swaying again.

The next day, I awoke and went downstairs to wash, having, like a child, forgotten all about the solemn ritual that had been performed the night before. It all came rushing back, though, and slapped me rudely in the face when I rounded the corner and bounded into the kitchen. My father was engrossed in the newspaper in his usual chair at the near end of the table. I was going to get a bowl of cereal when my gaze fell on the table, and the events of the previous night suddenly cascaded into my consciousness.

The water glass. Some of the water had disappeared. Definitely disappeared. That much was obvious. And far too much was gone to blame on overnight evaporation.

But the most obvious change on the table, in this macabre place setting, the change that made me, at first, gulp and then made me unable to do anything further but stare, was the change in the napkin. The napkin. The napkin was now crumpled. Very crumpled. So crumpled in fact that it startled me.

And the salt? The salt had been scattered. Strewn every which way. Even if I had wanted to, I could not have determined if any of the salt was missing, or no longer there, or if it had been . . . what . . . eaten? In short, the napkin was so crumpled and the salt had been brushed aside so violently that the salt was dispersed all over the red linoleum kitchen floor, in the throw rugs, etc.

And my father's reaction when he noticed that I had fallen silent and was staring at the table. "Yeah, well, she had her meal." He acted as though he had seen all this before and what I was witnessing was no better or no worse than had occurred all the previous times. I must have been too shocked to speak or even ask questions as I didn't really find out much more about the Meal for the Dead at that time. Or ever. I think, though, now, looking back, that I was so frightened and puzzled by the sight of the physical violence that had been perpetrated on that napkin, that I was in a state of shock. I hope I have portrayed my grandmother correctly. She was a kind, gentle person. But, judging by the scene on the kitchen table, the . . . what . . . thing? . . . that had scrunched up that napkin, had to have been something ferocious and destructive.

So, then I guess I must have repressed this memory over the years, but then it surfaced suddenly about a year ago in that phone conversation with my brother. My brother was himself startled when I related this story to him, and in fact he said it gave him the creeps and sent shivers up his spine. Other people who I have since told this to, have pooh-poohed me and said thing like, "Oh, sure! Get real! Your father crumpled the napkin, of course," as though this were a story like the Tooth Fairy, but, you see, my brother understood. He knew my father, and he knew my father simply did not do things like that. It would have been so out of character for my father to have done something like that, that . . . well, I don't know what. It wasn't that my father had no imagination, but the man was the ultimate pragmatist. If it worked, then it worked; otherwise, he didn't fool with it. He could have fun but he had no time for the frivolous. That's one of the reasons that my brother and I were so fascinated by his superstitions: my father must have seen some practicality to them, and so for us there was some practicality to them.

At the end of our phone call, David, who lived in the same town as my father, promised he was going to ask our dad about the Meal for the Dead for my grandmother. End of our conversation. That took place about a year ago.

It never happened. My brother never got to ask my father about the Meal for the Dead. The next day, following that phone conversation with my brother, my father, who was 72, was coming home at night from playing the lottery and he went to step up onto a high curb and must have gotten dizzy because he fell over backwards and cracked his head open on the concrete street. He managed to say something to my brother when my brother was called to the hospital, but then dad went into a coma and his brain stopped functioning. The undertaker later said that my father's skull had been smashed in so badly, that he looked like he had been hit by a car, but no other injuries confirmed this.

My sister-in-law notified me and I drove the seven hours here to our home town and arrived while my father was still in his coma. He looked good! But, even before I stepped in the room to visit him that first day, I was informed by the nurses that, "Your family has to make a decision." My dad stayed in that coma a few days while the hospital personnel annoyingly on a daily basis pushed us to pull the plug. Probably because of his age, I guess. I consulted by phone with my sister Louise, a nurse, and, at her advice, I insisted the hospital perform an EEG on my father, which, believe it or not, they hadn't done as yet, and when this test did confirm that his brain was not active, I agreed to allow his machines to be turned off. He died quickly after that. We should all be so lucky. What he had most feared in his life was that he would get old and be sick a long time and run up a lot of doctor bills. Thrifty to the end.

So, maybe my brother had experienced a Token. See?

While I was in town I stayed at my father's house. And so it was there on the very same kitchen table, on the first evening after my father died, around 6:30 p.m., that my brother and I set out his Meal for the Dead, even though my father's body lay in the funeral parlor two miles away. Glass of water, napkin, mound of salt in the middle of the napkin. Curiosity. Killed the cat. We had set out this ritualistic place setting before that night's viewing, and so we left it there, and we went to the funeral parlor to greet friends, relatives, and other visitors.

My sister Louise arrived that evening and came straight in from the airport. She lived in Florida, had young children to look after, and was ill herself, fighting a prolonged battle with ovarian cancer--the women in our family have had a tough time--so she could not arrange to come when my father had met his accident, but she had kept in touch and was certainly in on the decision to remove his life support systems. She, as a nurse, had been a big help in understanding all the medical terms and she assured us that we had done the right things for my father.

My sister did not look well; she had dark circles under her eyes and she seemed to be distended--swollen--due to her condition and her treatments, whatever they were--some kind of injections, I believe. The prognosis is never good for anyone with ovarian cancer; usually it is so far advanced when it first produces symptoms, that it's already too late. But you know that.

So, it was agony to see my sister in such distress, and the night was doubly disheartening.

When I finally got back to my father's house around midnight, I didn't even think about anything but the bed and I went upstairs and immediately fell asleep. I believe anything could have gone on in that house that night and I would have slept through it. We are a family of good sleepers; it is a blessing.

The next morning I got up and went downstairs, planning to make myself a cup of coffee. In the kitchen I stopped in my tracks.

Did I make the point, before, that despite all my father's cheap ways, he was a kind and gentle man, also a fair man, and a good friend? My psychiatrist, who had been born and raised in Ireland, once, after listening to me talk about my relationship with my father, referred to him as mean, but, interestingly, the word "mean" means something else in the King's English: it's more like our word stingy. My father would never have been considered mean in the American sense of the word.

An example of his good qualities: I remember when I was a kid, around the same time as when my grandmother died, maybe before, that my father worked with a black man in the steel mill, Mr. Henry Donahoe, and Mr. Donahoe was an older man who had never been married, and he had mentioned to my father that he was frustrated because he had been courting a much younger woman, and she had agreed to marry him but only if he would finish building her this house. Mr. Donahoe had started building a house, but he had never built a house before and was having problems. My father drove up to Mr. Donahoe's land--it was on the side of one of Pennsylvania's beautiful rolling hills--and looked at what existed so far of this so-called house. At that point it was only a dug basement with some planks and the only lumber consisted of the bare wooden frame of one wall propped up precariously, and all this was open to the elements. My father could see that Mr. Donahoe needed lots of help, but he also noticed that the man owned a nice piece of farmland adjacent to the house. Well, my father made Mr. Donahoe a proposition: my father would help the man finish the house if my father would be allowed to farm his land for a number of years--it must have been three. And that's what happened. My brother and I and my sister spent a lot of our summers there. I remember how they poured the basement for the house and I remember that I actually pounded some nails in some sheetrock, and I remember the Donahoe wedding and his beautiful bride and the reception, and later I remember picking corn, potatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, and string beans on that land. We always had plenty of food for everybody and my father gave it away proudly and my mother canned quite a bit. But best of all I remember how very much those very nice people were just like us, a memory that has helped me see the whole racial conflict thing in a different light from many, most, in this country.

Sorry, I digressed, but I wanted you to know that whatever it was that had worked over our kitchen table that night--between the time my brother and I had laid out the napkin, salt, and the water, and the time I saw it that morning--was not my father's gentle, kindly spirit but had to have been some kind of a vicious beast.

This time, the glass of water had been overturned, and the water had flowed onto the napkin and it was pretty much soaked. The salt, it seemed, had been scattered prior to the water's being introduced into the equation, and there was not a crystal of salt on the napkin but it was pretty evenly distributed over the area of the table. Again, I couldn't have determined if any was missing. The napkin had been crumpled, but also, strangely, it was now shredded in one corner, almost as if very sharp fingernails had been drawn across it, and in the same corner it was discolored almost as if it had been faintly scorched. Needless to say, I was stunned, and puzzled, and scared all at the same time, but, you know, I never once thought I was in any danger. I was thoroughly naive, to say the least.

I didn't touch a thing and called my brother. David left his house immediately and was there in a half hour. It was interesting to monitor his reaction to this table-top landscape, this frozen still life. As he first looked down at the scene on the table he inhaled sharply and it was quite audible, almost a whistle. You see, I hadn't warned him of what he would see; I just told him that he would have to see it for himself.

He kept trying to come up with a question, but then each time he probably realized that I couldn't possibly answer the question, so his words just got swallowed and he ended up sounding like he was muttering to himself.

Finally, he said, "It's just like you told me about, after grandma died. It's bizarre. I don't know what to make of it."

"I know," I said. "I guess the thing that puzzles me most is: why the violence? What's that all about?"

I had to believe that my brother certainly had nothing to do with this, although he could have, as I had been out like a light the night before. But he could never have acted that surprised; I know him that well. Also, he's very much like my father, even though he would never admit it: If it doesn't function as advertised, he doesn't have much use for it either. A fairly practical person.

That was a little over ten months ago.

This, of course, leads us to last night.

But first let me fill in the history. My sister Louise, as I had mentioned previously, had cancer and it had gotten worse--her treatments had proven ineffective--and she had been hospitalized and was in pain and it was so bad she was receiving morphine. My brother and I flew to Tampa and visited her in the hospital. When we arrived, her doctors had by then been able to stabilize her condition, but she was never going to be able to leave the hospital, as she was filled with cancer and her intestinal tract was compromised. They fed her intravenously.

My brother and I stayed at her house with her kids. We stayed two days and pretty much ended up saying our good-byes to her at that time. Her estranged husband . . . I don't know what else to call him . . . was there and was much more supportive to her in her illness than he had ever been in recent years. I felt that we were going to lose her soon, but that he could be trusted to comfort her. So we left. She lived another week.

My sister's life had never been easy. And she had become a difficult person as a result. She was strong-willed and always felt that she deserved some degree of happiness but she never seemed to be able to achieve it with the people at her disposal and so she decreed that if you weren't on her side you were against her. In other words, she needed a lot of love and never seemed to get enough and reacted like a hurt animal. On the other hand, she was a very empathetic person who loved strangers and must have been a terrific nurse. Her death was simply a crying shame.

She had wanted to be buried in our family plot, so once again she returned to our home town, but this time with no pain.

I drove back to my hometown once again and unloaded my car at my father's house, where I had decided to stay once again. My brother's daughter Krysta had set up housekeeping in that house, which was empty after my father had died, and therefore I uprooted her; she was already gone. But she would be okay; she was going to stay with a friend until I left. I didn't mind that she had moved in there, because we couldn't get insurance on the place otherwise. My sister's body had been flown up the day before and she was going to be available for viewing that night. I cleaned up, preparing to making the mortuary scene. My sister had been very popular and had known quite a lot of people, especially in our home town, so I was expecting to meet and greet a lot of people. Before I left the house, though, I couldn't resist--even though I actually underwent a shuddering spell once, while doing it--I couldn't resist setting up the Meal for the Dead for my sister. Once again, a glass of water, a napkin, and a mound of salt in the middle of the napkin. On the very same kitchen table.

As there had never been a formula established for this ritual, I wasn't certain whether this was going to work the same way as it had for my grandmother and father. My sister had died in Florida, after all, and four days had gone by already since she had died. But, you know, I just was as curious as hell, and I wanted to understand something about this whole process, what caused it to work, what would prevent it from working, etc. I wanted to know something about death and dying, as we all do. I had always been one of those kids who would take a clock apart to see how it worked. Nothing wrong with my instincts. I just was tinkering, tampering, with the wrong mechanism.

Token? Of her death? Not that I know of. Maybe they got it in Florida.

As I suspected, there must have been a record set that night at that funeral home for the number of visitors. And that was only the first night. One more to go. I informed my brother--he made it a point to ask me about it--that I indeed had set up the Meal for the Dead for my sister, and I promised to let him know how it turned out.

As things would have it, I ran into so many people I knew, that I ended up going out after the funeral home closed with some friends, people I had gone to High School with, John Blaczek and Sally Mohner who are now John and Sally Blaczek. These are people who had known both me and my sister. We hit a couple of bars and finally ended up closing Sully's, a bar not far from the funeral home. It was fun talking about the old days. John had once dated Louise, it turns out, and I, of course, went to school with Sally and actually had had a relationship with her that John knew nothing about. It was both an embarrassing and an intriguing meeting, as John tried to impress me with stories about his successful business and Sally quite deliberately brushed herself up against me several times.

By the time I finally got back to my father's house, it was close to three in the morning and I was a little drunk. As I staggered around the downstairs, after having visited the john, I discovered that I was right outside the archway into the kitchen and it suddenly dawned on me that I possibly had something to fear in there; who knew what could be waiting in there for me? I sobered up immediately, just like that!

The light was off in the kitchen and I would have to walk the whole way--maybe six steps--to the other end of the kitchen to turn on the light switch. I really didn't want to do such a thing; I was spooked, worried that something might be waiting for me. So, I stepped into the room and leaned forward and awkwardly pulled open the refrigerator door and, as the light from inside spread across the kitchen, my feet got tangled up in the throw rug and I pitched forward onto the table. I caught myself just in time, but then the refrigerator door swung closed again and left me in virtual darkness with my head maybe a foot away from where the Meal had been laid out. I can't describe how terrified I became, suddenly hyperventilating and my heart all the while hammering lopsidedly in my chest. I thought I was going to pass out, but then I pushed away from the table and ran over and switched on the light; I put my hands out in front of me, prepared for the worst.

Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised, but I actually was. Everything seemed to be exactly where I had left it. Nothing was awry, disturbed. No visitation by any meandering, wandering spirit. It was all there intact, unmolested.

I don't know whether I was more relieved or disappointed at that very instant, but I do know things caught up with me and I suddenly was so tired I immediately went to bed and slept soundly in an alcohol-induced stupor.

The next morning when I went into the kitchen, again nothing had changed from the night before. It was all still right there. I had a headache, and at that point the whole idea, all of it, seemed so stupid to me. I even doubted whether I had ever had any prior experiences with the Meal for the Dead. Everything seemed so very much like a bad dream.

That afternoon and that night, once again, my brother and I made our obligatory appearances at the funeral home. Ostensibly to be consoled. All of my brother's family was there that night, his wife and children including the daughter that I had temporarily dislodged from my father's house. So were my sister's children and the relatives from her husbands's--she had been married twice--sides of the family. It occurred to me that there were people there that I perhaps would never see again and I tried to take full advantage of the opportunity. I was, in a sense, satisfied that the whole Meal thing had stopped. I hadn't realized just how much of a strain it had placed on me, kind of like waiting for the other shoe to drop, if you know what I mean. After the priest stopped by, we called it an early night as the burial mass was scheduled for early the next day, and that meant getting up early. There would be no bar hopping that night.

I was back at my father's by eleven o'clock and watched a little of the local news on TV but I couldn't keep my eyes open and I was upstairs in bed by eleven-thirty. Asleep by midnight.

A creak. The house was full of them. House shifting noises. But this noise was loud enough to wake me. For some reason I was immediately fully awake and alert and I looked down on the floor at the clock, one of those old glow-in-the dark wind-up alarm clocks. Twelve-oh-five it said.

I listened very intently to the symphony of noises the house conducted and thought I heard downstairs the deliberate regular sounds of the front door being unlocked and pushed open. Squealing hinges.

Probably my niece, I thought, coming back for some clothing or toilet articles she had forgotten.

But the tread, the impact of the footsteps, was heavy enough to quaver the entire house, and I could follow the movement, on the floor beneath me, away from the front door and toward the center of the house. Moving very slowly.

I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, got to my feet, and opened the bedroom door. There was a weak night light in the hallway, but the lights downstairs were still out. Whoever was moving about down there was doing so in the dark. I had a sense of foreboding, that I should be cautious in approaching the situation downstairs, so I didn't call out or make a noise.

Creeping down the staircase, keeping close to the wall so as not to create my own creaking noises, I completed my descent of the stairs and stopped at the landing, two steps from floor level. In the dim light that made its way down the staircase, I just caught sight of something or someone large, going through the archway into the kitchen. It seemed to be a hulking presence, unidentifiable from the portion of it that I had glimpsed.

There was another small light source, glowing close to the floor, in the dining room at the bottom of the stairs. It was a rechargeable utility light, and I stepped down the last two steps from the landing and retrieved this bulky, handle-grip light, without switching it on. Again I turned my attention to the movements I could sense were taking place in the kitchen.

I advanced, thinking it either had to be my niece or my brother, but I was puzzled by all the skulking about. I crept to one side of the archway and peered around the corner. It was very dark in the kitchen except for an LED clock, probably on the stove. This person was still an amorphous black mass to me and I still couldn't tell for certain who it was. It seemed to be bending over the table doing something purposefully. Despite the darkness it seemed to be able to see just fine.

Then, the thought hit me that it was simply my brother creeping about, planning to scatter the Meal for the Dead in order to play a trick on me. With that spark of realization I switched on the light, shone it down the back of the dark figure until it reached its shoes, thought I recognized my brother's loafers, and said, "Aha, you asshole. I caught you." The large bent figure suddenly stiffened but remained turned away from me. As I fully rounded the corner, I could see in the light that one of its hands was extended out in front of it and in the hand was the napkin being crumpled right in front of me.

Suddenly the figure whirled and faced me.

It was my brother.

It was his body. But it wasn't my brother's consciousness.

It was immediately clear to me that my brother's body was now inhabited by another creature. A dangerous creature. The eyes were a dead giveaway. The eyes were open but there were no pupils visible, just the whites, and the eyelids fluttered uncontrollably. And it was almost as if the eyes were lit from within by a reddish glow. Also, I had the distinct impression that this person was looking at me, and saw me very well without even needing those eyes, but yet it was trying hard to get those physical eyes under control. To appear normal.

Around his mouth there was some kind of a white residue and at first I first thought it might be foam, you know, like maybe he was foaming at the mouth, but then when I angled my light upward it turned out to be crystals of the salt stuck to the skin on either side of his mouth and also stuck in his five o'clock shadow. When I recognized the salt, my stomach wrapped itself in a knot and I bent in fear.

Initially, when he had first spun around, I had the light in my right hand so I raised my left arm and elbow for protection, and I became more or less paralyzed in this position, afraid to move and trembling. I was so very confused, thinking this was not my brother and fearing for my life, and the next instant thinking this was my kid brother and I'd better not hurt him.

Then, as if to confirm every fear I could have imagined, the lips of this creature, using my brother's body, went through a series of physical spasms, pulling back from the teeth and up in a snarl and then pursing and puckering and then suddenly he smiled in a parody of a smile, in a rictus of a smile, a smirk really, and then this creature, through my brother, spoke to me. How can I describe that voice? It was like the buzzing of bees and it sounded like it was coming out of a loudspeaker from a great distance and yet I had no trouble understanding the words. And this, unfortunately, is exactly what it said, word for word: "You have summoned me three times. Now I can remain in this world. I will remain here until everything alive is dead."

His hands suddenly came up from his sides and, eyelids still fluttering, he lunged at me, trying to grab onto some part of me. I was still too frightened to move and he got me by the neck--I think you can see the scratch marks--with both hands, and my best reaction was to hit him with the light as my arm with the light was the only one cocked. Purely defensive. A reaction. It was a cheap utility light, plastic, and it smashed to pieces on his head. And then went out, of course.

I was being choked and I was then abandoned in the darkness, and I expected his hands to tighten on my throat and my breath to get squeezed out of me, but then he kind of fell away from me and I heard another dull blow in the darkness--a blow having nothing to do with me--and then his body sagged to the floor. When I gingerly stepped over him and switched on the overhead light I could see that he had struck his head on the enameled-metal sink and he was unconscious, although his eyeballs were still twitching beneath their closed lids.

So, I tied him up--I did--seriously--well, you know--I used rolled-up garbage bags, bound his hands and feet, and then I called for an ambulance.

So, that's how it happened.

And, so, now you say that my brother David has a closed-head injury and you can't predict how long he may remain in a coma. I love my brother, Doctor, but as I described, I'm afraid that it may not be him that will emerge from that coma. I recommend that he be held under restraint and watched closely, day and night.

I wish to God I hadn't heard his last words--I still hear them ringing in my head. The creature that spoke to me wants to kill everything that's alive. He sounded like he could be a threat to all of existence. I just hope there's some way, other than killing my brother, to stop whatever has inhabited him. But then I wonder if even killing my brother can stop such a foreign, evil-purposed, non-corporeal creature. This may be one of the Token sounders, one of the actual purveyor of death, and providing death to us humans may be the only purpose for its existence.

We may be in a battle for the future of life itself.

THE END