My brother and cousins and I used to play a game whenever we had a sleepover. It was simple: we’d stay up and scare the living fuck out of each other. When we were at Erin and Kyle’s house, it was the scariest by far. Her house was haunted. That’s what everyone said. Even her parents knew it. “Don’t worry about Mr. Toombs,” they’d say. “He’s harmless.” Then they’d laugh and go back to what they were doing.
Mr. Toombs was the man who owned the house before Erin’s parents. He died all alone and no one realized he was gone until many months later. Even though the house got gutted and renovated before it went on the market, we had this feeling he’d died in the basement right near the furnace. The air there just felt thick and heavy – like old, sour breath.
We’d have our sleepovers a few times a month. Our parents all worked at the same factory. Whenever they had to take third shift, we’d either stay at home and Erin and Kyle would come to our house or Greg and I would go over to Erin and Kyle’s. I never minded all the moving around until Kyle said we had to play that game. I hated it.
Kyle was the oldest and could be mean if he wanted to. He wasn’t a bully; he usually knew when to back off and genuinely felt bad if he made one of us cry. But he still liked to get his way. And that meant we’d have to play the sleeping game.
The first time we played the sleeping game, we were at our house. The four of us were in our sleeping bags in the living room and Kyle started to tell a really terrifying story about a skinny alien that comes through the window and cuts you up in your bed. Greg, Erin, and I hated the story, but I could tell Erin was especially horrified. She was only six. I kept telling Kyle to take it easy on his sister, but he was relentless. To Erin’s credit, she didn’t cry, but I think that was the problem. He probably would’ve stopped if she had.
The game went like this: after the story, you weren’t allowed to get out of your sleeping bag. No matter how scared you were, you couldn’t get up to get water, you couldn’t go to the bathroom, and under no circumstances could you run upstairs to get comfort from the grownups. If you did, you’d have to get an indian burn from the rest of the group.
The night of the alien story, I couldn’t stop looking at the living room windows. Whenever a car went by and cast its light against the wall, I’d shiver and feel my balls drawing up into my body while goosebumps rose on the back of my neck. Stupid Greg and Kyle were asleep already. Erin, whose sleeping bag was next to mine, was crying to herself.
“I need to pee,” she whispered. “And I’m too scared to get up and I don’t want to get an indian burn when I get back.”
I looked at Greg and Kyle. They were both completely out. “Go ahead,” I whispered. “I won’t tell anyone.”
Erin gave me a tight-lipped smile and snuck out of her sleeping back and padded down the hallway. Right around when I’d assumed I would hear the bathroom door close, she screamed. It was a shrill, horror-filled explosion from her tiny lungs, and the three of us, now wide awake, vaulted from our sleeping bags in her direction. We got there a couple seconds before my parents were thundering down the steps. They flipped on the lights.
Erin was in the corner of the bathroom, sobbing. Her pajama pants were soaked. Mom picked her up and held her to her chest and asked what happened.
“The alien,” Erin whimpered, then pointed to the shower curtain. Dad opened it. Nothing was there.
“It was just a shadow, honey,” Dad told her. He glared at us. “Come with me, boys,” he ordered, and brought us back into the living room while Mom drew a bath for Erin.
After a long lecture from my father, we agreed to not tell any more scary stories. Erin eventually came back to her sleeping bag, and with Dad snoring on the couch, we all went to sleep.
The next night, of course, brought more stories. They were much tamer, though. Greg told a dumb one about a lady who gets pulled into a grave by a killer. I told an even worse one about some teenager whose baby brother’s head came off. Erin actually laughed at that one it was so bad. We got ready to go to sleep, still bound by the agreement that we couldn’t get up for any reason until it was morning.
At some point in the middle of the night, Greg shook me awake. “Hey, we caught Erin coming back from the bathroom.” She was already rubbing her arm in discomfort from the burn her brother had given her. Greg grabbed her other one and twisted, making Erin yelp. I took her arm and just squeezed it a little. I felt bad.
Months went by and we played the sleeping game every time we were together. Everyone got caught at least once trying to sneak out. Indian burns were had by all. Erin, though, got the most. It was obvious she wasn’t having any fun. To make matters worse, she looked exhausted on the mornings after we played. I brought it up to Kyle, and he thought about it for a minute, then said we’d do it once a month instead of every time. I didn’t argue.
We kept our little agreement to ourselves because we didn’t want Erin to think we were treating her like a baby. That night, we were sleeping at their house. They had a beautifully furnished basement with a big-screen TV, a ping-pong table, and all sorts of other fun stuff. We set up our sleeping bags and played video games until well after 10pm. My aunt came down and said to turn it all off and get to sleep, so we made like we were getting ready for bed, but when the lights went off, Kyle said it was time to play the sleeping game.
I groaned, but he shot me a look and mouthed “only one,” to me. At least he was holding up his end of the bargain. Like we always did, anyone who needed to get up to pee or get a drink beforehand was allowed to. I went, followed by Kyle, then Erin. We all came back.
In the glow of the flashlight Kyle liked to hold under his chin when he told his stories, Kyle started to talk about a ghost. The ghost. Mr. Toombs. Even Greg looked uncomfortable as he stared at the slatted wooden door which served as the barrier between the furnished and unfurnished cellar. The furnace was on the other side.
“Mr. Toombs waits until you’re asleep,” Kyle whispered, “and sucks your breath into his lungs. The longer you sleep, the more he takes away. And if you sleep for too long, you won’t have any air left to breathe and you’ll…be…dead.”
My eyes were wide with fear and Greg just stared at the ground. Kyle, too, looked like he’d successfully startled himself, especially when the furnace kicked on and we all jumped. Erin, surprisingly, had actually managed to go to sleep first, despite bawling her eyes out by the end of the story and making Kyle promise to give her his snack at lunch or else she’d tell on him. I snuck her one of the Lifesaver candies I’d stashed away to help her feel better. I guess it’d worked.
The rest of us tried to go to sleep. Kyle caught me getting up to pee and gave me a wicked indian burn, but since he caught me while he was on his way to the bathroom himself, I was able to reciprocate. Hard. He punched me in the arm and I swatted him in the balls. I won. We tiptoed back into the basement and got in our sleeping bags. It was the worst night’s sleep I’d ever had; each time the furnace kicked on, I knew I’d see Mr. Toombs floating above my sleeping bag ready to suck the life out of me.
Like always, my aunt came downstairs in the morning to wake us up for school. She started with gentle calls, then hollers, then shouts, then, since we always ignored her, she stomped down the stairs and threatened to haul us out of the sleeping bags.
“Let’s go!,” she ordered, “get dressed and go get your breakfast. Erin, if I have to ask you again I’m gonna flush your goldfish.”
Erin didn’t budge.
“I swear to God, Erin, Goldeen’s going down into the sewer with the Ninja Turtles in 3…2…1…”
Nothing. Concern flashed across my aunt’s face. Kyle, who’d been sleeping next to her, shook his sister. She didn’t respond. My aunt rushed across the room and pulled Erin to her. She hung limply out of the sleeping bag.
Everything went really fast for a while. The ambulance came while my aunt and uncle screamed and cried and Kyle, Greg, and I just sat there in stunned silence. My parents arrived soon after. They were also crying. We were all asked if we saw her drink any alcohol or take any medicine. None of us had. I knew Erin had been the last one to use the bathroom before bed, so I mentioned that. Someone went into the bathroom and returned with an empty bottle of sleeping pills that’d been in the medicine cabinet.
Through her tears, my aunt insisted that the bottle had been empty to begin with; that she’d been saving it so she could remember which kind had worked for her so she could get it again. But there was no other explanation at the time. Erin was dead.
There was a funeral. It was terribly sad. But I went on with my life. Everyone did. I learned years later that the toxicology reports had been negative and Erin’s death had been ruled an accidental asphyxiation. They blamed the sleeping bag, and my aunt and uncle sued for millions.
When Greg was moving out before his first year at college, I was asked to help load the van. I didn’t want to, but I helped anyway. Some of the heavier things were boxed up in the unfinished part of the cellar, by the furnace. I went down and tried not to think about poor Erin.
When I opened the door and entered the warm furnace room, I remembered that feeling I got the first time I’d been in there. An image of Mr. Toombs decaying next to the furnace flashed through my head. I shivered. But then I noticed the familiar, strange heaviness in the air. I noticed the smell. It was different from the sour odor that’d reminded me of the last breath trapped inside a corpse’s rotting lungs. This smell was sweet. It was cloying. Like the breath of someone who’d eaten a lime Lifesaver.