FICTION: Pillar of Fire 5.5 Interlude – Little Tommy

The universe is believed to be about 13.7 billion years old. It’s still expanding and eventually will start contracting. So if we built a spacefaring vessel that could travel at the speed of light, picked a direction and cranked on for billions of years, would we reach the end? Is there an edge?

Apparently, many of the most brilliant human beings that ever existed believe that the universe has no center. The Big Bang wasn’t an explosion in the sense that we know it where an event occurs at one spot and then the forces rush out in all directions as time passes.

There was no place and no space for an explosion to occur in. It was an explosion of space — the rapid expansion of space and time. Not in space and time.

Your car, your dog, your children, your left flip flop, morning eye gunk, yams, clouds, uranium, chicken nuggets, Saturn’s rings, the memory of your first crush; ultimately all cooking in the oven of existence 13.7 billion years ago.

Some say that the center of the universe — that single infinitesimally small point containing all of the matter and energy that will ever exist — was everywhere. Is everywhere.

Try to wrap your head around that. You can’t. We have to use mathematics to truly and accurately describe it, and metaphors and analogies in a feeble attempt to understand it.

Then again, if anyone can come to grips with being (and having always been) at the center of the universe it’s a bratty four year old. They come equipped with the self-affirming Proof of Egocentrism and the linguistic-behavioral expression of this fundamental law — the tantrum.

I happen to live directly below a four year old. Little boys especially spend most of their day affirming their existence and importance in the world in the form of noise and vibration. They rarely walk. They jump and stomp. They invent their own soundtrack for life with random shouted words and calls of “Mommy!”.

The light fixtures rattled above me again. Three hours straight of thunderous little footsteps tearing across the floor of the apartment above me punctuated by strategically placed booms at the most resonant points in our shared floor/ceiling surface.

Unable to concentrate enough to write anything, I had finally had enough. I set the iPad down, changed into a pair of jeans, put on my shoes, and began mentally rehearsing a firm but neighborly tone to ask the mother of that little s — I mean, the precious child’s mother to maybe at least put some shoes on his precious little cloven hooves.

I’ve seen him and his mother in the garage and even at the local supermarket. We’ve exchanged pleasantries. She always looks exhausted. I’ve seen them directly after what must have been an F5 level tantrum. His mom looking spent, the kid with tears drying on his little cheeks. She nods a tight-lipped greeting in my direction. He gives me a mischievous smile like, “Mwah ha ha haaa! I win again.”

I’ve heard some of those tantrums coming from the apartment above. They can last a good ten or fifteen minutes. I don’t want to stress her out. I don’t want the little guy to not have fun, and I certainly don’t want to pick him by his Osh Kosh B’goshes and drop kick him down the hallway. I just don’t want to live beneath a bowling alley earthquake thunderstorm munitions testing range Incredible Hulk holding pen.

I left my apartment, locked the door, and headed to the stairwell. When I opened the stairwell door he was standing there looking up at me. I looked down at him. There was an awkward silence. Young kids are usually shy or precocious. There’s not much middle ground.

I waved even though he was standing about two feet away. “Um. Hello.”

He said, “Mama says not to talk to strangers.”

“My mom told me the same thing. What’s your name?” I still hadn’t moved. He was blocking the entrance to the stairwell and the door would have hit him if I let go of it. It was like a standoff. “Where’s your mom?”

He pointed up. I assumed that she would be right behind him. I figured it could be a good time to broach the subject of neighborly apartment living. Another awkward span of time passed and his mom was nowhere to be seen.

I said, “Is your mom’s name Rosemary?”

He looked at me like I was stupid. “No. It’s Mama.”

“Right. Is your name Damien?”

Some kids enjoy roundabout conversations. They get the fact that you’re playing a game. Verbal sparring. It’s good mental exercise. But every now and then they’ll recognize sarcasm in your voice. They might not get it but they get the fact that you’re talking down to them. Basically, it’s like having a conversation with a drunk person that you don’t like. They pick up your vibe and they think they’re hiding their disdain for you even though it’s clearly showing on their sneering face.

That little guy actually stepped to me. “My name is Tommy.”

Okay. So, my bad. Even if he can be a little brat it doesn’t give me the right to be a jerk. To a child. Besides, he was right there at head-butting an adult in the groin height so — you know. De-escalate. “Does your mom know you’re here?”

He looked sheepish for a second but I guess he realized that there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

I said, “Okay then. Well. I guess I’ll just go back to –”

He looked at me and said, “I know where you were going.”

“No you don’t.”

“Yes I do. You were going to tell on me.” He narrowed his eyes at me and crossed his arms.

“And how do you know that? Did you go to Village of the Damned Elementary?” I know. I couldn’t help myself.

He tapped the side of his head. “I can hear you thinking. You better not be mean to me.”

Creepy kids are the worst, and any kid who knows how to play mindgames with you qualifies as creepy. But then I started to feel bad for him because it must be hard being a creepy kid. It’s not his fault, right? I know what it’s like to be the sole Lincoln Log in a plastic bin full of Legos.

With no warning, he darted past me out of the stairwell, around the corner and down the hallway. There was a one hundred percent chance that he was going to fall and hurt himself. You know kids have those big ol’ heads making them top heavy. Falling is inevitable. Then there would be crying and wailing in the hallway and who would he blame amidst tears and shrill, snot-filled accusations? Me.

I walked after him. I didn’t want to chase him but with kids you usually want to be close enough to at least catch them on the first bounce if they fall. He ran all the way to the end of the hallway.

He stopped long enough to turn around and make sure I was following. When I got within three steps he took off running again toward the end of the hallway with the mirror.

“Hey,” I said. “Your mom’s going to be worried about you. You don’t want her to be sad, right?”

“Mama’s sleeping,” he said while he ran.

We reached the end of the hallway standing next to the big mirror. I tried to reason with him. “Well, what if she wakes up and you’re not there? She’ll be worried, right?”

He shot me the biggest s— eating grin. “Come get me!” Then he ran straight into the mirror. No. I mean he ran in through the mirror like it was an open doorway.

I looked around. This was a very “You’re on Candid Camera” moment. Nothing. I looked at the mirror and saw my reflection and the hallway as expected. I took one hesitant step closer to get a closer look and then one step back out of self-preservation. “Tommy?”

He stepped out of the mirror and impatiently stood in front of me. “Come on!”

I took another step back. “Um. No way.”

He ran behind me, braced his hands on the backs of my legs and started pushing in earnest. He was stronger than you’d expect. “Come. On! Go in!”

“How the heck did you do that, Tommy?”

He was still pushing with all of his strength. “Go in and I’ll tell you a secret.”

“Yeh. No, I don’t think so.”

He switched tactics. He stopped pushing and gently took my hand like a Cub Scout escorting an old lady across the street. “It’s fun.”

I was curious. Don’t get me wrong. But my mama didn’t raise no fools, you know what I’m sayin’. “What’s in there, Tommy?”

He started to say something but changed his mind. Then he said, “Your girlfriend. She said to come in.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Um. I know,” he said matter of factly. “You don’t know her yet. She’s in there. She said to come inside and she’ll be your girlfriend. She’s reeeally pretty.”

“Tempting,” I said. “Does she work out?”

Just then a heat started emanating from the mirror and our reflected images started to ripple. A hand from the other side slowly reached through and then an arm up to the elbow. It was a large, muscular, dusky, thoroughly tattooed arm. The tattoo sleeve was rife with beautifully crafted but grotesque scenery. More vivid than any ink I’ve ever seen. I noticed one section that depicted a violent orgy illustrating a number of taboos before I realized that I was walking backward away from the mirror accompanied by the sound of my pounding heart.

The hand coming out of the mirror grasped the mirror’s frame. Tommy was still holding my hand or maybe I was still holding his. The further away from the mirror we went the more normal it looked until at one point the tattoo sleeved arm yanked itself back in as if it had received a static electric shock.

I don’t believe in cursing around children but come on. “What the f— was that?”

Tommy and I were both staring at the mirror in disbelief. I don’t know what he saw in there whenever he went in but whatever tried to come out was not it. He looked as terrified as I did.

A voice rumbled out from the mirror. It was a man’s voice with an accent I didn’t recognize. It was a mellifluous baritone but there was something in it. There were overtones and undertones that made my eyeballs vibrate and I had to concentrate to not lose control of my bodily functions.

The voice said, “Tooooooommy.”

I picked Tommy up and ran down the hallway as fast as I could. He was in shock like a deer in headlights and then started to cry as he wrapped his arms around my neck and buried his head so he couldn’t see the mirror behind us. I rounded the corner to where the elevators are, burst through the stairwell door, and ran all the way down and outside. I stopped, panting, and turned around to see if anything was behind us. There was nothing.

I patted Tommy on the back awkwardly. “There, there.” That’s the best I could do at the time.

Tommy raised his head, snot running down his face and on to my shirt. Gross. He had composed himself already and wriggled like he wanted to be put down. He wiped his runny nose on his sleeve. “Can you let me in?”

“Uh, sure.” I punched the code into the callbox and the door unlocked. “Here. I’ll walk you to your apartment.”

We took the elevator up and as we rounded the corner to his apartment his mom stopped short. “Tommy!”

She bent down and picked him up. She kissed him on the cheek. “I was wondering where you were. I was so worried about you, my little baby boy.”

“Okay,” I said. “I saw this little guy downstairs and thought he might be lost.”

Tommy’s mother looked at me. “Thank you. He likes to run off.”

“You okay, big guy?” I said to Tommy. He gave me a thumbs up. Then he stuck his tongue out at me for good measure.

I started to turn to walk away but thought better of it. “Oh. One more thing. I live in the apartment below you and sometimes –”

She nodded apologetically. “You can hear him playing, yes.”

“Right. It’s not a big deal but sometimes. You know. Kind of hard to concentrate.”

She nodded again. “Thank you again. I’ll see that my little super hero behaves. Isn’t that right? You’re going to be a good boy?”

Tommy didn’t answer her. He just held on to her pants leg and did his sheepish, mischevious grin.

“Okay. Thanks,” I said.

I turned to walk away and changed my mind again. “Oh. Also, um. I don’t know how to say this. If I said mirror portal, possibly evil–”

She paled and looked flustered but only for a moment. She held Tommy up eye to eye and said, “I thought I told you to never–.” She sighed in resignation. Then she turned, went into her apartment and locked the door.

I walked back downstairs. I cautiously went to the hallway with the mirror at the end and looked down it at the mirror, barely poking my head around the corner. Nothing out of the ordinary. So I went back to my apartment, grabbed an orange shandy, sat down, picked up the iPad, sent off a quick message about what I had just seen to Lily, reclined, and started writing until the sound of little feet above me running, stomping, jumping and falling broke my concentration.

I couldn’t help but grin to myself while I looked for my noise canceling headphones. “That little s—.”

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