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You Can Call Me Alfie

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It was a dark, cold morning when Warren slipped from his house. The house itself was not particularly nice, so the chill of mist provoked no major shock. The morning breeze was the type that cut straight to the bone. He was barefoot, and the stars, not yet obscured by daylight, set his pale hair alight.

He carefully pulled on a sweatshirt, and stood a moment outside his house, a lone figure against the darkness of the grass. He shut his eyes and calmed his breathing. His aunt Ada was a light sleeper, and she was wary of his early wanderings. Yet this morning, he seemed to have escaped unobserved.

Warren had no particular plan. He stepped lightly and quickly alongside a dirt road, not entirely sure where it led. He had only lived in this small southern town for three days, and those seventy-two hours had not been sufficient time to memorize each thin trail snaking from the center of town. Several times he had gotten lost, and yesterday morning even triggered a search party. Ada was stupid that way, worrying when he was gone. He always came back, even though it sometimes took a while.

People thought he was strange. At school, he had overheard a group of girls his age whispering things, and giving him odd, secretive looks. But this was nothing new. The only new thing about odd looks was the location in which they occurred: a high school in a new town. Not in Illinois, or Tennessee, or Mississippi, or Oregon, or London, or New Hampshire, or Arizona, where he'd lived before. So even the newness wasn't new.

Warren did not particularly care what people thought of him.

The cold air sinking into his bones invigorated him, made him feel alive and competent and alone. His feet were tough from past morning wanderings, executed so early it was sometimes still night. He preferred to sneak out around four o'clock, three o'clock if Ada planned to wake up early and stop him.

Warren picked his way silently down the moonlit road, and twenty minutes into his walk, he slowly became aware of footsteps. They were separate from his own. He continued walking, giving no indication of his suspicions, but strained his ears to analyze the sounds. They were the practiced steps of a child remarkably like himself; light and accustomed to soundlessness. And then, they abruptly changed. They faded and Warren became aware of a new set of footsteps crowding in on the recently vacated silence. It was still a child, and it stepped lightly, but the steps were clumsy. Different. Warren stopped in his tracks and struggled to maintain his composure.

"I know I'm being followed," he said without turning around. "I will stand here until you show yourself. You'll find I can be incredibly patient. Or, you can just come around where I can see you."

"Okay, okay." Warren stood stoically until a boy his age walked from behind, smiling sheepishly. It was a boy from school. Warren remembered that his name was Alfred.

"Hello, Alfred," Warren said, his voice edged with impatience.

"Hey. Warren Carranza, right?"

"Yeah, I'm Warren. Are you going to say why you were following me?"

"You can call me Alfie," Alfred said.

"I'll stick with Alfred," Warren told him. "Stop following me."

"I saw you leave yesterday, and decided to tag along today. Where are you going?" Alfred asked. Warren could tell he was genuinely curious. He was a nice kid, not one of the ones who laughed at Warren. Alfred had a round, freckled face, dark curly hair and intelligent eyes. A nice kid.

"I'm not nice," Warren said brusquely.

"What?"

"If you're looking for a friend, I'm not it. That's all I'm saying. It's kinder to tell you now."

Alfred looked taken aback, but then his friendly eyes took on a steely glint. "Who said I was looking for a friend?"

Warren shook his head. "Whatever. Fine, you can come with me. But you better not rat me out. That's all I'm saying."

"I won't rat, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die."

"I've never heard anybody actually say that," Warren said, despite himself.

"Neither have I," Alfred admitted. "But I guess you just did."

"I guess I did. Alfred?"

"Yeah?"

"One more thing. On these walks, I don't talk."

Alfred pretended to zip his lips, then gave Warren a thumbs-up.



Warren and Alfred walked silently for several hours. Warren had never been along this route, and if Alfred had, he said nothing. They passed farms and houses, one jogger, and a large pond. It was all very rural, and Warren felt out of place. He was had been born and reared mostly in cities. His street sense was well honed, and was also totally useless in this little town.

Warren and Alfred continued walking. The sun came up, and Alfred finally spoke.

"They'll have noticed you're gone by now."

"My aunt is used to it," Warren said. "But what about your parents?"

"I left a note saying I was out running," Alfred said, smiling a little. Warren frowned.

"Why are you smiling?"

"I don't run," Alfred said. "I cannot run. My mile time in gym was eleven minutes. And I didn't even walk."

Warren whistled. "That's awful. I used to be on the track team, back at my old school. My best mile was 5:54."

Alfred appeared impressed, but before he could express it in words, his attention was drawn by something behind Warren. Warren turned around. Alfred was frowning at a lone house, clearly empty. Rubble was strewn on the yard, and the glass in the windows were smashed out. There were no signs of life. Through the windows, Warren saw nothing, just blackness undisturbed by daylight. Alfred whistled.

"What happened to that?" He said. "That was a normal house a week ago. Empty and a little beat up, maybe, but nothing like this."

"You tell me," Warren said impatiently. "I wasn't here a week ago."

"Right," Alfred said. "Well, I have no idea what happened, obviously. I've only been this way a couple times; I was last here just six days ago. Only a few people live this far away from town."

Warren acknowledged Alfred with a brisk nod, then climbed to his feet. Deaf to Alfred's protests, Warren circled the perimeter of the house. He knew a bit about architecture, and figured the structure was relatively intact. The damage was only cosmetic. They could probably even climb to the second and third floors safely, although it might be a bit risky. But Warren weighed only one hundred and fifteen pounds, and he figured Alfred was about the same. Surely even damaged supports could manage their weight, if they moved carefully.

Warren returned to Alfred. "I'm going in," he said. Alfred visibly drew away from him.

"Are you insane?"

"No, just bored and vaguely curious," Warren said. "It should be pretty safe. Come with me or don't, I don't particularly care. But decide now."

Alfred sighed and said, "I'm coming. But let me say now, this is stupid. Abandoned house. Stupid kids. How many horror stories have started this way?"

"Plenty to make me curious," Warren said, smiling for the first time that morning. His smile, though brief, was mesmerizing: it was quirky, satirical and slightly maniacal. His eyes lit up.

The house was not quite as dark on the inside as it appeared on the outside. Shadows fell in stripes across the dusty floor. Warren stepped carefully, inspecting, every sense instinctively on alert. He creaked past the first floor, his heels raising small dust disturbances. The rooms were utterly empty. He saw breaks in dust where a table had once rested, the bare paint patches on the walls, the dangling chains from a missing chandelier. All the furniture, everything that had marked the house as belonging to an individual, was gone. It was an empty, carved-out husk of a house.

"Haunted," Warren said dryly. He heard Alfred flinch behind him as Warren confirmed the most shameful, childish fear that cropped up in Alfred's teenage heart.

"You're joking," Alfred said after a careful beat.

"Yeah." From the quickened breathing and completely controlled voice, Warren knew Alfred wanted nothing more than to leave. The house was freaking him out.

He wanted Alfred to leave.

Swift as a shadow, tiny as a mouse, he could hear the footsteps again, the ones that were not his nor Alfred's. They were the footsteps that had died as Alfred came near, the ones that shied away from another human soul.

He heard the footsteps and wanted Alfred to leave.

Alfred, like a good friend, had trailed silently behind, but when Warren put his sneaker to the first rotting step, Alfred caught his arm.

"Are you crazy," he said. It wasn't a question.

"You hardly know me," Warren said impatiently. "You are not responsible, and you have no authority over me at all. I'm going up. I should be fine. Come if you want, don't if you don't."

"I'm coming."

Warren walked up the stairs, vaguely disappointed, but when he strained his ears, still heard a faint pitter-patter of invisible feet. Alfred's clumsy stalking steps all but covered them up, but they were still discernible.

Warren made it to the second floor. The floor was clearly unstable in places, but he no longer cared. He stepped around the danger spots, trusting Alfred to follow his lead, and continued to the third floor.

Three times the charm.

This time, when Warren stepped onto the third floor, he took time to wander. The third floor, like its lower counterparts, was entirely deserted, with the exception of one room. Warren's heart unwillingly quickened and he swallowed hard.

"Alfred," he said, turning around on the threshold of the room. "I want you to go. Now."

"Why?"

"No reason," Warren said. "Nothing at all. Except…"

The room was stripped, like the others, except for a pathetic collection of personal belongings set up neatly in a corner. A small child's bed, covered with a patchwork quilt. Several worn books resting at the pillow. A magazine picture of an elephant taped onto the empty wall. A tattered shoebox with bits of paper spilling from it. A mobile bobbed on the ceiling, a whole zoo of brightly painted animals floating in endless circles. It was the only movement in the room, the drifting and creaking of the mobile.

Warren's breath caught in his chest, and he felt like he was drowning.

"Warren?" Alfred was several feet behind him, craning to catch a glimpse over Warren's shoulder.

Warren backed away, then turned and slammed the door in Alfred's face.



Alfred and Warren exited the house soon after that. Alfred had waited outside the door, pounding and shouting uselessly, until Warren finally softly pulled the door open and proclaimed he was ready to leave. He would not look Alfred in the eye.

They were walking back home, perhaps on their third mile, when a police car cruised up next to them.

"Get in," the officer said. They did. They sat in the back, Alfred both proudly and sheepishly. He had never been given a ride home by a policeman before. But he knew the policeman wasn't particularly interested in him; he was generally a good kid. Warren was the troublemaker.

"Warren Carranza," the officer said, "you have got to stop this wandering. It makes your aunt crazy, and we can't just keep sending out search parties."

"Not my problem," Warren told him quietly.

"At least be careful not to get lost, then," the officer said.

"I wasn't lost."

"What do you call this?"

"Walking," Warren said. "I was on my way home. I would have made it, too, if you hadn't interrupted."

"Interrupted…" the officer shook his head. "I don't know what's up with you, kid, but if you're going to stay here, you've got to shape up."

Warren's reply to this statement was, "I'm not staying."

After that, it was silence.


Ada threw a fit, of course. She told Warren he worried her, that he oughtn't to stray like that. She asked him to promise never to do it again. He didn't respond, and she didn't make him. They both knew he could promise nothing of the sort.

Warren spent the rest of the day in a kind of furious silence, his body lethargic but his mind racing in a useless whirlwind of activity. He had missed school, but after a restless night, he attended it the next morning. He had to almost physically prevent himself from sneaking out in the early hours of dawn.

School, too, passed uneventfully. Alfred attempted several times to make eye contact, but Warren was too preoccupied to recognize it. The other kids whispered and challenged him, but their comments simply rolled off like the morning rain he was so fond of. And so passed the fourth day in his new, doubtlessly temporary, home.

Alfred was worried, Warren knew. He caught Alfred following him several evenings later. Ada had agreed to let Warren out if he asked first and returned promptly, and it was on the first of these trips that Warren sensed his shadow. He noticed but said nothing, allowing Alfred to follow him uncalled for miles. Warren was sure Alfred knew the destination; the boy trailed diligently nonetheless. Alfred insisted on jumping behind trees and sliding in the shadows, but Warren was not fooled. Alfred was noisy and unused to walking for long distances. His footfalls became clumsy and scuffing the longer they traveled. Warren had to bite down a violent edge of irritation the entire time; people could be terribly pesky. The impatience thundered murderously in his chest.

It wasn't until Warren had reached the broken-down house, walked inside, and climbed the first two floors that Alfred spoke.

"Warren!"

Warren turned.

"Leave me alone, Alfred."

"Please…" Alfred said. "Tell me. Just tell me, what are you doing?"

Warren was about to reply sarcastically, rudely, but Alfred's voice rang in his head.


You can call me Alfie."


He remembered nobody else reaching out to him, only this friendly, clumsy boy withholding needle-sharp wit. Out of the whole town, just one person had shown true kindness. Perhaps he owed Alfred this, if nothing else. He took a breath.

"I'm not…" Warren began. "The thing is, I was never. I was never here. Not all of me."

Alfred waited.

"I was never here," Warren repeated. "I keep hearing footsteps, but I'm not crazy. I'm hearing an echo of myself. There's part of me missing, and I think I've found it. Or maybe its found me. But I'm not who you think I am, I'm not who anybody thinks I am. I'm supposed to be in this house. That's why I came back."

The word "ghost" came to Alfred's mind, but he bit it back. Instead, he said,

"To kill yourself?"

"To be where I belong."

"You have a life," Alfred said in a low voice.

"I don't have a life," Warren said, and Alfred knew it was true. Warren had moved so much, was so isolated, that his mind was the only thing he really had. Perhaps there really was something missing in him. A home. A final resting place, however odd and unworldly it may be. Perhaps Warren was to stay in this house, in that room filled with his childhood belongings, forever. Locked away from time and space in a bubble of home. Never fading, never growing, just existing, living side by side with a part of him that wasn't quite connected. So, to quell his rising fears, Alfred asked:

"What happened here, Warren? Why are you trapped here?"

At this, Warren smiled vacantly and began climbing up the rotting staircase. Alfred trotted at his heels, firing his final questions.

"Tell me this, then. In that room. That's what brought you to this, so what happened in there?"

Warren hesitated a long time before he spoke.

"I met myself."


And then they were at the top of the staircase, facing that empty room together. Alfred and Warren. The bed was covered in the child's quilt,, and the mobile still creaked in a gleeful, quiet circle. The walls were bare except for the taped-up picture of the elephant. Warren was almost afraid to step through the threshold. Beside him, Alfred had sunk into a resigned stupor. And then Alfred spoke one last time.

"Hey, Warren?"

"Yes?"

"Before you… go, one last thing."

"What is it, Alfred?"

Alfred paused.

"Just this. You can call me Alfie."




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This article has 2 comments. Post your own!

smokeycat said...
today at 10:10 pm:
It made me want to cry
 
smokeycat replied...
today at 10:11 pm :
And it kind of creeped me out a little
 
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