Be Home Before the Lights Come On
We often joke about being home before the streetlights come on when we were children. This rule prompted another guideline my father had for me and my siblings. If he whistled and we didn’t hear him, it meant we’d strayed too far from home. He didn’t have an ordinary whistle. It was one of those piercing drill sergeant whistle sounds that seemed supernatural because it could be heard at least four blocks from our home. To this day, I still don’t know how people can project sound like that out of their bodies to be heard miles away. Nevertheless, he was one of those people and when we’d take longer than his liking to answer the call, he’d remind us that his whistle just might save our lives.
It wasn’t often we’d miss his ear-splitting signal but there was a time I can remember like it was yesterday. Me, my siblings, and friends were doing our usual on our bikes, heading to the nearby creek that could be mistaken for Ferngully. The lush forest consumed our time with frog catching, bird watching, playing tag, throwing rocks and anything else our imagination could conjure. On this day, we stayed in the tunnel covering the creek so long that we didn’t notice the sun had gone down.
By the time we looked up, it wasn’t just darkness staring back at us. It was two huge looming figures hovering, one at each end of the tunnel, blocking our only way out. As they glided closer, I thought I could hear my father’s whistle. I was terrified because of these menacing shadows and knowing that if we ever escaped, we’d have to face whatever punishment my equally terrifying father would have for us.
We feverishly fought our way out of the stranger’s grasp, but everyone didn’t make it out of the tunnel that day. When we made it home, we couldn’t help noticing our mother’s tear-stained face as she hugged us close to the point of suffocation. Never had us coming home late caused such visceral reactions but we would later find out why they seemed to be overreacting. Despite their bone crunching embrace, we were sent to our rooms while they waited to hear if the other children had returned home safely.
None of us were allowed outside for a while so the neighborhood had an eerie silence that was especially foreign for the summertime. When we were given a bit of freedom back, it only extended to the end of the block so we could be seen from the porch. As odd as things were, we still didn’t fully understand the reasoning until we found out why two of our friends never came out to play. Both funerals were closed casket because of how badly their bodies were brutalized. None of the parents told us they’d been kidnapped and murdered but we figured it out.
Back then, all parents and grandparents watched the news and I’d hear about the Atlanta child murders but one day I heard the names of my two friends. This is when it clicked that this was why we never saw them again until their funerals. They weren’t in the house on punishment. They were never coming back to play and didn’t die of something all that mysterious, like the parents allowed us to believe. Every kid in the tunnel that day knew it was the terrifying tunnel men.
We didn’t question if more than those two men we saw were involved in the abduction and murders until more children started to disappear. As the numbers increased, our parents enforced stricter rules to keep us close to home. We went from having a long leash with my father’s mutant like whistle attached, to not being able to go beyond the end of the block, in front of the house or on the porch, to ultimately the short leash of staying in the house or backyard.
Some of us still casually joke about being home before the streetlights come on when we were younger. It all stems from a fear of what can happen when the sun goes down. A knowing, that there are far worse things in the world after dark than when we have enough light to guide us back home.
This is a fictional short story submission I wrote last month for a contest. It was written more so to inject some fuel into my writing engine versus just to win. It worked to a small but significant degree.