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Tommy Nightmare

By:J. L. Bryan

Tommy Nightmare


J. L. Bryan

Chapter One

Tommy heard the clatter in the hall, then a loud thump, followed by the old man muttering. The old man typically blabbered long streams of incoherent mush, which occasionally contained a fully-formed word or two along the way.

Tommy tried to ignore the gibbering voice outside the door. Nobody else stirred at the sound. The other foster boys—Luke, and Jeb, and Isaiah—continued sleeping in the double bed they shared next to his.

Tommy had a bed to himself, though the boys were supposed to share them two apiece. None of the other boys would sleep with Tommy because it gave them nightmares. For the first couple of months Tommy had been here at the Tanners’ house, the two older boys—Luke, who was fifteen, and Jeb, who was thirteen—forced eight-year-old Isaiah to sleep with Tommy.

Nearly every night, Isiah’s screaming and crying woke them all. In fact, Isaiah screamed his head off any time Tommy touched him. Tommy sometimes had that effect on people, especially if they were already scaredy-cats.

Eventually, Luke and Jeb showed mercy and let Isaiah sleep with them, probably just so they could have peace at night. Tommy had slept alone for a couple of years now.

Luke called him “Tommy Nightmare.” The younger boys had taken up the nickname, too.

In the hall, the old man’s muttering grew louder, accompanied by the sound of fingernails scratching the wall. The old man was just lingering there, on the other side of the wall from Tommy, making his pathetic blabbering and whimpering noises.

The old man was Mr. Tanner’s father, and he lived in a room down the hall, next to the master bedroom where Mr. and Mrs. Tanner slept. The Tanners had no children of their own—as they put it, “The Lord had a different plan.” They only had the four foster boys currently entrusted to them by the State of Oklahoma.

Outside the door, the old man’s scratching and gibbering grew more insistent. Tommy sighed and slipped out of bed. The night was freezing cold, and the Tanners only gave him worn old pajama pants to sleep in, because they said suffering was good for a child’s soul. The hardwood floor was so cold it burned his bare feet.

He tiptoed around the other bed, where the three other boys looked very warm, and he felt a pang of jealousy.

He eased open the door, wincing at the creak. He didn’t want the other boys to wake up and start yelling at him. And he really, really didn’t want to wake up Mr. Tanner.

Tommy peeked out into the hall.

Mr. Tanner’s father—whom Mr. Tanner insisted the foster boys call “Pap-pap”—lay sprawled on the warped old boards, one arm draped across his overturned walker. His shaking, liver-spotted hand grasped and released the walker frame, over and over again. Tommy thought of a fish freshly pulled from the creek, how its mouth kept opening and closing as it died.

The old man faced the floor, blabbering nonsense and drooling. His other hand scratched uselessly at the wall. His bathrobe had hiked up, revealing his withered old legs, the color of dead snakeskin. His ankles kicked in the air as if he were pedaling a bicycle.

“Pap-pap?” Tommy whispered. “Do you need help?”

“Muuhwuhh,” the old man said. His whole body shivered on the cold wooden boards.

Tommy looked up and down the hall. He didn’t know what to do. If he woke up Luke, Luke might get mad and punch him in the nuts. He ought to wake up Mr. Tanner, but that idea terrified him. He’d rather get punched in the nuts than walk into Mr. Tanner’s room.

“Okay,” Tommy whispered. “I can help you up, Pap-pap. I’m twelve now. I’m pretty big.”

“Gaaaah,” Pap-pap said. He turned his head and looked at Tommy with one rheumy eye. He stopped scratching the wall, and instead starting grabbing the air. “Guuuh…Guuuuh…”

“It’s okay, Pap-pap. Sh!” Tommy walked softly to the old man, avoiding the two squeaky spots in the hallway floor.

He took the old man’s hand.

“Guuuuh! Guuuh!” The old man trembled harder now. His mouth opened wide. His gray tongue flapped against his black gums.

“Shhh!” Tommy turned the old man over and slid a hand under his side. Tommy could feel his ribs through the threadbare blue robe, and the man was shaking hard. “I just got to prop you against the wall,” Tommy said. “Then we can get your walker. You hear me?”

“Gaaaah..” The old man made a choking sound. He quaked and stared at Tommy.

“Okay, here we go.” Tommy heaved and strained. The old man was frail, but Tommy wasn’t really very strong himself. He wrapped both his arms around the old man’s torso. Tommy tried to imagine he was a superhero, like Batman, sneaking around in the night and helping people. But mostly he felt scared. Pap-pap frightened him. Especially when you knew Pap-pap was the father of Mr. Tanner, who was truly scary.