Growing up, Saturday mornings were a blissful combination of sugar, pop culture and a youthful impression of what it means to be “the man”. While Mom and Dad slept, I would make myself a bowl of cereal and watch Cartoon Network or Fox Kids for the latest in animated entertainment. This one morning, I shuffled my way to the living room still wearing pjs and turned-on our 42-inch Panasonic Tube TV using the brick-sized black remote controller. Beams of sunlight slid in through the windows giving the area a sense of peace one only finds in the early hours of the day. A large, framed print of Van Gogh’s Almond Blossoms hung over a dark-gray felt-sofa sitting by the television; in front of it, a rectangular pitch pine coffee table with a few scattered cork coasters and a small succulent on its surface. My usual couch-potato spot was on the larger, but otherwise identical sofa across the screen. After changing channels and setting the volume just right, I made my way to the kitchen which was only a few steps away in the open space. Opening the pantry, it was a tough choice between Captain Crunch and Lucky Charms—but the old sailor pulled through. Next I pulled the stainless steel fridge door and reached for the usual gallon-sized plastic container, feeling mortified when it was nowhere to be found. Nothing worse than a dry bowl of cereal.
I was about to close the fridge when the corner of my eye caught something rather odd hiding in the back: a milk carton. An unopened, old school, red-and-white milk carton. Well, not quite plain red—more akin to the tint of blood—but I wouldn’t have known back then. I picked it up. The logo on the front seemed like a disembodied angry udder sketched in black-sharpie. Entirely minimalistic, the teats looked like appendages, giving the impression that the udder was ready to fight. Two dots and three lines gave the thing a face—emotion even. It was displeased. Amused, I smiled. On the back side, the picture of a boy my age; except it wasn’t an actual picture, but more of a detailed illustration drawn in pencil. Sad eyes, weak chin, shaggy hair and a shy smile. He seemed vaguely familiar. Below the sketch a single word read in all-caps and bold lettering: MISSING. No text of any other kind appeared on the carton; no nutrition label, expiration date, clever slogan, nothing. None of the things you usually find on these types of products. I’d never seen this dairy brand at the store before, but I figured, milk is milk; so after opening and smelling it to make sure it wasn’t spoiled, I poured myself a bowl. Without a second thought, I put the carton back in the fridge and headed back to the living room; Batman: The Animated Series was just about to begin.
The show’s stylized Art Deco intro played on the screen as I sat down holding the bowl of cereal. Two bank robbers manage to evade the police only to meet their criminal end on the rooftops of Gotham City, courtesy of one mysterious Dark Knight. I took the first spoonful. Almost instantly, a dozen different types of sweeteners flooded my taste buds; unnatural compounds giving me both a sugar rush and an early sense of addiction. Dad always cautioned me that these types of products lead to obesity and disease. You gotta choose your poisons, I thought happily, chewing and swallowing in a swift motion. The milk was ice-cold and sweet yet refreshing and light at the same time—like nothing I’d ever had before. Wave after wave in hypnotic fashion I consumed the elixir, even losing slight awareness of my surroundings for a moment; might’ve even had my eyes closed, it was that good. Best. Cereal. Ever. I thought to myself in sweet bliss, unaware my morning was about to take a sinister turn. I set the empty bowl down abruptly and sat there in a mild-shock after a faint, high-pitched scream cut through the living room. I turned my attention to the TV, surely The Caped Crusader was about to swoop-in and save whomever was in trouble. Instead, on the screen, a mysterious ninja infiltrated Wayne Enterprises with utmost ease—a quiet scene overall. The wailing, on the other hand, kept getting louder, more desperate; by now it was clear the victim was young, in torment, and not part of the show. I covered my ears but it made no difference. Every innocent, agonizing cry resonated violently inside my skull. The pain this person was in felt so vicious my entire body collapsed to the ground. I vomited. And in-between gasps-for-air I started screaming in terror, which only made things worse. The louder my screams, the louder the wail. Soon I couldn’t hear my own voice over the deafening cry; I could only feel my vocal cords rattling, tearing themselves in harmony with the victim’s harrowing shriek.
Mom’s embrace snapped me out of it. The wail stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Our living room went quiet except for my whimpering and the sounds of combat coming from the television. I was left haunted, in tears, clinging on to a new fragile reality. Dad turned off the TV and kept looking around the house, frantically searching for a threat that wasn’t there while mom held me tight, her back against the smaller couch.
“Someone is dying,” I tried to tell her, but my voice was wounded and hoarse. Pain gripped my throat, the bold taste of blood sent a shudder down my spine.
“Honey what’s wrong? Why did you scream? Are you hurt? You’re safe now,” said Mom, the ever comforting presence. I couldn’t bring myself to answer her question, neither physically nor mentally. The source of my anguish, however, was eerily obvious to me. Terrified, I mustered the courage to raise a finger and point at the fridge.
“Mi...mi...lk...car...ton,” I managed to say weakly, my voice heavily distorted by the recent trauma. My parents exchanged a worried look. Dad opened the fridge and pulled out the bicolored rectangular prism, examining it with a perplexed expression on his face. I shivered.
“No labels or even a brand name, the sitter must’ve left it behind; probably an art project or some new grungie, ironic product teens are getting suckered into by the big wigs,” Dad considered, thinking out loud. “Says there’s a missing kid but it’s obviously not legitimate by the looks of this thing; haven’t heard anything about anyone missing on the news either, have you?” Mom shook her head in response. After opening and smelling it, Dad began pouring the contents down the sink. “It smells just fine, like a whole lot of sugar, no surprise there; because that’s what cereal needs, you know, more sugar. It probably made you sick,” he concluded, throwing the container in the trash once it was empty.
“Was that it, honey? Is your stomach still hurting? I’m taking you to the doctor right now.” Mom’s voice trembled as she spoke, they were both visibly shaken. A sense of dread hung over the living room. No longer sobbing, I remained quiet, convinced I’d heard someone die in a horrible manner that Saturday morning.
The next few days were filled with vocal remedies, doctor appointments and church. I even had to miss some school. During that time my private goal was to numb myself, to move on and forget. I never brought up the milk carton again; there was no point, it was already too late. In the end, the therapist concluded I had suffered a lucid nightmare.
“This type of thing is uncommon but not unheard of,” she explained to my parents convincingly. The fancy leather and mahogany-clad office, decorated mostly by rows of neatly framed diplomas hanging on the walls gave credit to her words. “I’ll write a prescription and we’ll keep an eye on him.” Case closed. Our priest, on the other hand, blamed it on Batman; said the ears on his cowl looked too much like horns. Either way, a few pills and a couple of Ave Marias later, I was declared cured and forgiven. Now everyone could move on.
On our way home from the parish that Friday evening, Mom and I stopped by Blockbuster to rent The Sandlot for the fifth time since its release. It was, and still is, one of my favorites. The video store’s bright lights, colorful decor and popcorn aroma flooded my senses and I actually forgot about the wail, if only for a moment. We were drifting amidst rows of identical shelves, each one of them brimming with a variety of movies arranged by genre and alphabetical order; there was even a whole section dedicated to Sleepless in Seattle. Gross.
Since by now the hype for Benny the Jet Rodriguez and his gang of misfits had mostly died out, we found three available copies on its usual spot, right in-between Rookie of the Year and Sister Act. Walking to the register with a bag of M&M’s in one hand and a VHS box in the other kind of made me feel like myself again. I might’ve even smiled. Flashing her membership card, Mom grabbed a bottle of Coca-Cola out of the mini-fridge and paid the attendant with loose bills found in her purse. For a second there, things seemed to be getting back to normal. We grabbed our stuff and stepped out into the cold February chill. The street was dark and quiet, foreshadowing the days to come.
“For-eh-ver...for-eh-ver...for-eh-ver!” proclaimed police chief Squidman Palledorous, enunciating the three syllables ominously while attempting to hide his own fear. On the TV screen, Squints was just about to finish telling The Beast’s origin story when the phone rang, breaking the scene’s dire atmosphere. The living room was mostly dark, illuminated only by a dim floor-lamp and the television’s blue glow. An empty bag of chips sat on the coffee table alongside a bowl with a few pieces of chocolate left in it. It was a little late for phone calls, even on a Friday. I grabbed the remote and pressed pause. Mom picked up the call in the kitchen.
“Hello?” she asked in her usual upbeat demeanor, no doubt expecting one of her sisters on the other side of the line. A second of silence followed by a casual greeting; it was Ruth, a fellow parent she’d met at a PTA meeting a few years back. They’d been friends ever since. Usually their conversations revolved around school matters and the latest gossip; in a way, this time would be no different. Instead of their trademark back-and-forth, however, mom was mostly quiet. When she did speak, it was in short sentences and whispers. Back against the wall, she gripped the phone’s cord clutching her fingers around the loops and although I couldn’t quite see her face in the shadows, it was obvious something was very wrong. Mom hung up the phone, sat by me, and in a calm, yet serious tone explained the situation. A fellow student, a boy one grade-level below me, had gone missing earlier that day. Taken from his very room. Family didn’t hear or see anything.
I could tell by her demeanor there was more to the mystery, details Mom wouldn’t dare tell me; the type of things no child should ever hear about. The type of things that’ve kept me up at night for years.
Ultima School of Arts and Science was a prestigious, private K-12 school. The relatively small number of faculty, staff and students made for a tightly-knit community; the disturbing notice that one of our own was gone so suddenly had everyone on edge. Though the city’s police department hadn’t released an official statement, local news headlines were filled with grisly adjectives and macabre claims. A leak from inside the PD revealed that given the amount of physical evidence left behind on the crime scene, it was only logical to assume the victim, wherever he might be, was no longer alive. Still, the incident was initially filed as a Missing Person Case given that there was no body. Stories ranged from filicide to extraterrestrial probing; some swore it was the act of a lone maniac, others speculated on the occult. None of these conjectures were confirmed. For obvious reasons, the PD kept the investigation very close to the chest. One thing was for sure though and everyone knew it: the boy had suffered a violent death.
On my first day back to school since that Saturday, the old building felt empty; hallways were silent, everyone closed their lockers carefully and no one dared talk above a whisper. The usual Monday-morning buzz had been replaced by a grim stillness. I walked into Ms. Lisa’s classroom and spotted a group of my friends huddled around something over in the back. Our teacher sat on her chair at the front, crossing out days on her desk-calendar with a red marker. She looked tired. Amongst several other pedagogical tools tacked behind her on a cork bulletin board, a colorful star-chart made it easy to tell the Type-A students from the rest.
One of the boys noticed me, took a quick glance in Ms. Lisa’s direction, then motioned with his head for me to come over. A pair of girls was sitting in silence near the chalkboard, tears running down their sullen faces. I looked away and walked towards the scrum.
“How was the family trip?” asked Matt, the one who spotted me earlier.
“It was fine. What are you guys looking at?” I asked quickly, still a bit hoarse and eager to change the subject. No one said anything. I leaned in to take a look. It was a yearbook. What they were doing became instantly clear.
“D-do you want to see him?” asked Greg, holding the book open for me, his eyes looking for mine. The rest of the boys exchanged glances, anticipating my answer.
“Ok.” I replied, resenting the moment; afraid to face what I’d been dreading since Mom shared the news with me two days before.
The page had a couple dozen tiny boxes arranged in rows and columns, each containing the picture of a proud USAS student. A list of names at the end of every row indicated who was who. The teacher’s slightly bigger photograph beamed at the top while candid classroom shots decorated the edges, framing the whole thing. Greg’s index finger pointed towards one of the boxes on the bottom-right corner of the page.
“That’s him,” he said in a hushed voice. I took a slow, short breath and looked at the photograph. Sad eyes, weak chin, shaggy hair and a shy smile. It was the same boy from the illustration I’d seen on the milk carton—only slightly younger. I felt both a deep sense of fear and terrible emptiness. What is happening? I thought in distress.
“Hey...sorry man…we didn’t realize you knew him,” mumbled Andrew, putting his hand on my shoulder. Surprised at his sentiment, I realized my facial expression must’ve given something away.
“I didn’t.” I replied, still looking at the boy in the picture. Greg closed the yearbook abruptly, other students were starting to get curious about our huddle. We dispersed in silence. I set my backpack on the floor and sat on my desk-chair. Its confined, three-way barrier design increased the sense of doom and paranoia I was beginning to experience. Gripping the edges, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath as Ms. Lisa began to address the class in a calm, reassuring tone. To me, however, her voice seemed muffled and distant, like a prolonged hush or white noise. Instead, I could hear my heart loud inside my chest, beating relentlessly, reacting to the thoughts of terror seeping through the cracks inside my head. Cold sweat on my skin, a sudden tightness around my throat made it difficult to breathe. I felt alone in the classroom, terrified, trying my best not to drown in the memory of the boy’s tortuous scream. Attempting to keep any semblance of sanity...a losing struggle. In the end, my bleak descent into misery would be carved in sincere madness.
Days turned to weeks, then months; then years. Case went cold, no one was ever convicted for the crime and despite an extensive search, the boy’s body was never found. Defeated, the victim’s family moved to a different state amongst suspicion and ill-will from some in the general public; most people though, only felt sorry for them. Tabloids feasted on the tragedy for a while, publishing any and every conspiracy theory that crossed their bullpen. Other more trustworthy news sources followed the case with integrity but, without any new developments, the disappearance stopped making headlines. There was outrage, there were vigils, but no justice. Like with any other scandal, eventually the city and its citizens moved on. Everyone forgot or at least tried to forget. It’s what I did. And it worked for some time. Sort of. Unfortunately, the past has an ugly tendency to creep back into existence.
The steps on the wooden staircase creaked under my feet as I followed Luke, my cousin, up to his dad’s studio on the second floor of their expansive suburban home. Over a dozen Frida Kahlo oil portraits, each one of them painted by a different artist, hung scattered on the wall next to us as we made our way up. With the lights off in the foyer as they were, her collective semblance took on a foreboding form.
It was the middle of summer before we were set to begin tenth grade. Like so many times before, I was spending the night at Luke’s place. We’d been down in the basement most of the evening eating junk food, watching movies and playing N64. Halfway through Starship Troopers, Luke jumped-up wide-eyed with both hands on his head and exclaimed
“Dude holy shit! I just remembered, I’ve got to show you something!” He checked his Casio Databank digital wristwatch and continued, “we just gotta wait a couple of hours to make sure my parents are asleep.”
“Sure, why do we have to wait for that?” I replied, still facing the massive Sony PVM-4300 Tube TV which was currently displaying Colonel Johnny Rico suspended in a healing pod, getting his leg fixed while a few of his trooper buddies teased him and wished him well.
“What are you gonna show me?” I turned to face him.
“You’ll see,” he delivered with an impish smile on his face. We finished watching the movie and played a few rounds of Golden Eye when the clock hit 12 a.m.
“It’s time, they should be snoring by now,” Luke announced with an air of mystery. Thunder cracked in the distance, a storm was coming in. We left the game running on the Main Menu screen, top secret files detailing different 007 missions, and made our way upstairs.
Luke opened the studio’s door slowly, carefully; we weren’t allowed in here this late. The rain’s pitter-patter played steady over the whole house, giving us perfect cover. We stepped inside and closed the door. There was a big window on the wall opposite to the entrance; through it, occasional flashes of lightning illuminated the ample room. A large maple veneer desk and a tall vintage office chair sat parallel to the window. There were only two items on the desk, a complete Gateway G Series PC and a Moon globe on an iron stand by the corner. Heavy-set shelves filled with leather-bound volumes of encyclopedia, literature and medical textbooks towered over us from either side.
“I need a minute to turn on the computer and dial-in, so just hang out but don’t touch anything,” Luke instructed cautiously.
“The computer? That sucks. I thought you were gonna show me something cool out of your dad’s freak show collection,” I whispered back, but Luke didn’t reply. He was already making his way to the desk, moving effortlessly in the dark.
A great variety of aesculapian oddities either suspended in formaldehyde jars or pinned inside shadow boxes were a near-ubiquitous presence in my uncle’s studio. Beetles, eyeballs, dissections, mummified limbs, tumors, fetuses, tumors on fetuses and all other sorts of anomalies neatly arranged inside curio cabinets spread throughout the space. Most were alway under lock and key. In one of them, a fully-developed adult human brain floated quietly inside a fish bowl—a crude reminder that life is little more than a cruel joke. Shadows crept all around me as I walked slowly through my uncle’s array of specimens when the modem’s familiar digital chirp broke the storm’s steady hum. A bolt of lightning lit up the room.
“Ok so I found this fucked up website where you can find all the crazy fucked up shit that happens all over the world,” Luke said in a hushed voice. Thunder rumbled in the distance. “The other day I found a picture of some dude who got his arm caught in a fucking meat grinder, it's insane man, you can see his shredded fingers coming out on the other end of the machine,” he said, trying not to raise his voice in excitement. Luke always had a taste for the macabre no matter how goofy or gory, from Goosebumps to Grindhouse.
“Can’t wait to see that,” I snickered sarcastically, peering into one of the cabinets. An authentic shrunken head stared back at me.
“That’s not what we’re here for, douche; we are here for something much, much better...or worse depending on how you see it,” he taunted and began typing something on the keyboard.
“What’s the name of this website?” I asked, turning in his direction. To my surprise, Luke was looking straight at me. The computer’s glow gave his face a ghoulish appearance.
“Rotten dot com,” he replied in a somber tone, although he couldn’t help smiling a little as the words came out. “Come check this out, I found it.” His attention was back on the screen in morbid curiosity and disbelief. As I made my way to him, two steel-framed curios solely dedicated to spiders came into view. Dozens of pierced appendages, split-open sternums, poison glands and chelicerae lay motionless behind the glass. Butchered. Lifeless. An appropriate prelude to the horror in pixels that awaited for me only a few feet away.
The computer screen’s blue light hurt my eyes as they adjusted to the sudden brightness. I sat on the brown leather chair and tried to focus on the picture before me. It was red at first glance. Everything. Red. Slowly, details started taking form from under the veil of what was obviously...blood. Lots of it. The photograph’s vantage-point was the threshold for what appeared to be an ordinary bedroom. To the left, a wall-closet stood next to a modest entertainment center; both were covered in blood-spatter. A thin piece of flesh clung to a Nintendo console; underneath it, two tiny fingers laid on the blood-soaked hardwood floor. I took a slow deep breath and kept looking. To the right there was a twin-sized bed with a TMNT-themed navy-blue comforter draped over it in disarray; both the bedspread and mattress were caked in grey matter and a viscous dark red. You could almost feel the wet texture through the photograph. A small jawbone lay in pieces on a sky-blue rug in the middle of the room, bloodied skin still attached to it. The writing desk under the window opposite to the entrance had a matted tuft of hair no bigger than a fist on its surface; next to it, one of numerous yellow alphabetized evidence-markers spread across the bedroom. A kid’s bedroom. I knew what I was looking at before Luke spoke in an agitated whisper.
“Dude, remember that third grader who disappeared and got butchered or got butchered then disappeared or whatever? That’s it! His bedroom! Someone leaked one of the police department’s crime scene photos!” That much was obvious given the hard flash which gave the picture that cold, mundane character forensic photographers seem to favor. I took another slow, deep breath and kept examining the slaughter. Under the bed, just behind the tainted comforter, a pair of white Adidas sneakers were freckled in blood.
“Do you think he screamed?” I asked calmly without taking my eyes off the screen. A WWF Big Boss Man poster decorated one of the closet doors, multiple red streaks strode over his blue uniform.
“The kid? Fuck yea he screamed. I mean, at least for some of it right? Family said they didn’t hear a peep. Bullshit. I bet they did it, it’s just the ‘how’ that doesn’t make sense; even just practically speaking, fuck. Plus where’s the actual body?” Luke paused, there was a stillness in the air. “Maybe it was aliens or a werewolf like the tabloids said, doesn’t change a thing does it?” He pondered, trying to make sense of carnage; a privilege reserved for either the young or foolish. I shut down the computer. Without the screen’s pale glow the studio was left mostly in darkness again, home to a thousand monstrosities. Slightly swiveling to my left, I looked up at Luke; he was no more than a shadow in the dark.
“If you could, would you want to hear his screams?” I asked him, the storm kept steady outside. Luke reached for the Moon globe with his left hand.
“I think so, it’d be crazy though. Somehow listening to him shriek through a tape recorder seems a lot more personal than looking at the aftermath through a screen you know?” A bolt of lightning illuminated the studio for a brief second and for a brief second, a sinuous smile crept across my face. “How about you?” he asked. “Would you want to hear the kid getting murdered if you could?” Luke was facing the window now, leaning on the desk; not a care in the world. I swiveled back and reclined on the soft leather chair, resting my head. My uncle’s entire collection stood before me in the dark; benign items in possession of a terrifying disposition. A true army of the dead.
“No, I don’t think I would,” I spoke, staring into the abyss; thunder bellowed unopposed. “I think if I ever were to hear something like that I wouldn’t be able to get it off my mind. I think his wail would follow me insidiously, quietly burrowed behind every waking thought; deafening and alive in my nightmares. I would probably end up going to therapy and it would help some; I’d even learn to live with it but I would never be the same again I don’t think. Something would be wrong, something inside of me. I’d be afraid most of the time, just waiting for the next panic attack to show up. Even now I would be able to hear it, soft and in agony—have you ever woken up in the middle of the night covered in sweat?” The question was rhetorical, I continued without pause. “It would be a sad, ugly affair to hear a kid get bludgeoned like that. I think it would fuck me up pretty bad to be honest. There’s always pills though, to quiet things down, so at least there’s that. I wonder what the boy was thinking about in those final moments as he was being torn to pieces.” The grandfather clock in the foyer downstairs chimed for 1 a.m. “Truly, God is a monster.” I muttered mostly to myself, suddenly feeling tired and alone. An old man on his death-chair I remember thinking.
“So that’s a hard-pass for you, got it. Pussy.” Luke chuckled, breaking the spell of my words while mindlessly inspecting the backside of his left elbow. “Quit fucking around and let's head back down to play some Smash Bros, bet you can’t stop my Samus. Cool pic though right?” he asked, slowly making his way to the door. I stood up and followed.
“Yeah, cool pic.” I replied, lying through my teeth.
We left my uncle’s studio as we had found it, in darkness devoid of life; plagued by both knowledge and the unknown. Cursed in more ways than one. Part of me remains there to this day, a certain innocence; another wound tied to another unpleasant memory. Buried, like the rest. The good years of my life were coming to an end. Ignorance is a momentary bliss. Eventually, inevitably, I would live to regret ever drinking from the haunted milk carton.