There is a story from my childhood that I have never told, a fantastical tale that I know to be true, even though the passing years have undoubtedly obscured some details. I have kept the story close during my lifetime because of its unpleasant nature, but I am now prepared to account for the events.
My name is Toby Clark, and in 1968, I was an ordinary kid living in an ordinary town with an extraordinary problem. Having just turned ten, I was the only child of a middle-class family. My dad, Steve Clark, was a mechanic working for the town’s only car dealership. My mother, Mary, worked part-time in a bookstore near the town center.
The small town of Stark, aptly named, had nearly 5,000 inhabitants and was built on a flat midwestern plain resembling an island of homes and streets surrounded by an ocean of corn. No interesting features made up the town with even less of interest to do. People who lived there complained of a wind that never rested. Its unsettled nature, irritating to many, became hauntingly unbearable for me.
I was a frail child who had fallen ill with the flu right before my 10th birthday. After spending three days in bed burning with fever, fighting chills, and battling nausea, I woke on the fourth morning drenched in sweat with a feeling of lightness. A tremendous internal battle fought, the combatants weary, had left my body.
On the last night of my illness, blackness from both sides, like thick curtains closing on a final act, narrowed my vision of the incoherent dreamscapes beyond. I felt darkness around me and wondered if my defenses had nearly lost the battle.
Frailer and more diminished, I lay still watching the motion of the sheers where my mother had cracked open a window. Although too close to the source, a sick smell permeated the room. During this in-between groggy state, I heard the first strange voice. “You’re better; you’re better.” Not a question or a statement, more like a rote affirmation lacking emotion or conviction. The words whispered were faint but distinct, repeating in sync with the billowing of the translucent material. Exhausted and unable to think, I drifted off.
In the coming weeks, I found it difficult to remember when the wind was just a sound of nature. Now, every light breeze manifested into whispers that ramped up into angry shouting during storms. The words were often incoherent ramblings and, other times, chilling and commanding my attention. There were hundreds of voices, and their onslaught on my psyche was relentless. I tried everything to escape, but nothing drowned them out for long.
I remember when it started, watching the expressions of people around me and realizing in horror that I alone could hear them. I desperately wanted to tell someone, anyone. Each evening, my dad seemed unapproachable, looking exhausted and sitting hypnotized by the television. My mother, who rarely smiled, and had a habit of berating me for not being like other kids, was out of the question.
When possible, I stayed indoors even though I could still hear the voices sounding like a room full of incoherent conversations. When riding inside a car, the sound mimicked a radio tuning knob turned quickly through the AM band-only single words or partial words were distinguishable. The multiple tones and pitches are a disturbing reminder of the number of otherworldly conversations on the air currents.
There was chaos to my days, forcing me to seek solace wherever I could. Sometimes there were no words, just laughter or breathing at night, that never failed to raise hairs on my neck.
On days with gentle breezes, words were whispered, lending them a sinister secretive feel. Many dealt with people performing bad deeds, “Brad is bullying Christopher, Shelia is drunk, Marge is cheating on her husband.” Other times they spoke of people alone and scared in desolate places. “Elizabeth is lost in Baker Wood.” The latter gave me an uneasy feeling about the person’s welfare.
Typical for my age, I disavowed any unnecessary affiliation with my parents when my friends were present. Still, on days when I was alone in my room, I felt better if I could hear my mom rummaging about in the kitchen.
As spring turned to summer, the hot wind pushed slowly across concrete sidewalks and softened tar in the streets—distant lightning in the evening, the only hope of relief from the sticky air.
Much of the clutter and randomness of the voices fell away as summer progressed, leaving only the lonely voices weak and breathless like the slow-moving air. The whispered words often left me frightened and helpless. “It’s dark; I am cold; I want to go home.”
One of the voices I believed to be of a young girl had a hollow quality to it, and something else in the background I couldn’t make out. I heard her mainly in the evenings, and on this particular night, after closing the lid on the garbage container and hurrying toward the house, I heard her cry for help. It didn’t come from any particular direction; the voice came out of every dark and gloomy corner in the alley. Exasperated, I muttered under my breath, “who are you?” And out of the darkness, her meek response of “Elizabeth Stemple” frightened me to my core. Panicked, I sprinted the remaining distance to the door, jerked it open, slammed it shut, and stood with my back pressed against it.
I shuddered to think that conversation might have always been an option. Since the beginning, however discomforting, the voices had allowed me a level of detachment, like eavesdropping on invisible people. This new and unwelcome development was something else entirely.
Each year as the July 4th holiday approached, a profound sadness would seep into our home and disrupt routines, especially those concerning my mother. My dad awkwardly tried to fill in by fixing TV dinners or bringing home fast food. During this time, my mother rarely left her room, and if she did, she would wander through the house in her nightgown, clutching a worn leather binder. Conversations between my parents were hushed like the voices in church before service started.
I had never seen inside the binder, and it only ever appeared during this time of year. Things returned to normal after a few days, the sadness dissolving into more general unhappiness for my mother.
On Monday morning, July 8, I woke to a silent house, and on closer inspection, the sad time appeared to be ending, and routines, like going to work restored. A note held to the fridge by a magnet in my mother’s handwriting stated she would be home around 2:00 PM. Returning to my bedroom, I hesitated outside my parents’ open doorway and saw the leather binder lying on her nightstand.
Carefully carrying the binder into the kitchen, I set it on the counter. Opening its cover revealed a yellowed newspaper clipping inside a plastic sleeve. A picture between the headline and text showed two young girls in the same patterned dresses smiling out from the page—each girl looking like a replica of a young version of my mother.
Reading the headline, “Identical Twin Elizabeth Stemple Vanishes During Fourth of July Celebrations,” my hands trembled, a coldness like the chills moved through my body as I grasped the inevitability confronting me.
At 2:00 PM, with a tear-streaked face, I stood exhausted and empty, a few feet inside the kitchen door. Clutching the binder in both hands, I heard my mother arrive and braced myself with the small amount of strength remaining inside me. Watching her expression as she opened the door, I saw a flicker of anger when seeing the binder. Her anger turned to compassion at the sight of the vulnerable child standing before her.
“Nobody took me – nobody hurt me,” I said in an unrecognizable voice, sounding hollow and distant. Her eyes filled with tears, and an unspoken awareness passed between us.
“It was my fault – I made a mistake,” the words flowed through me.
Her eyes searched my face with an intensity I had never experienced, like a veil had lifted, allowing her to finally see the little boy, her son, for the first time.
More words came through.
“I couldn’t get out; I tried, the water came fast, trapping me, I tried to climb, I never meant to leave you, I tried.” The words trailed off into silence.
Rushing forward, she wrapped her arms around me and could only manage “I am so sorry,” over and over between uncontrolled sobbing.
That evening near sunset, sitting outside on the front steps, I watched a copper spinner on the lawn, its two wheels moving in opposite directions in the steady breeze. It was a quiet evening, with the only sound, a slight metallic ticking from one of the wheels being slightly out of balance.