A Halloween Story – Uncle Will

I wrote this story for a Halloween meme back in 2010.   As they say in the movies these days, it is Based on a True Story.  Of course I took a little artistic license.  You know what that is, right?   Lying to entertain. Enjoy if you dare.

We’re going to see Uncle Will tomorrow. I hated those words. Uncle Will was my father’s uncle, a disabled veteran. He lived in one of the ramshackle brick residential buildings at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, which was about an hour’s drive from our house in East Haven. Visiting Uncle Will was worse than boring … it was creepy. His room was painted a pale institutional green but under the yellow light of the single incandescent bulb in the middle of the ceiling, it looked more like pea soup. The hallways smelled of hospital cooking, urine and disinfectant. His room added stale tobacco and an old man’s sweat to the mix. He’d be waiting for us in his wheelchair wearing khaki pants, scuffed military-issue shoes and an A-style undershirt, yellowed at the armpits. He’d force a smile when we walked in. Hi, Frank, he’d nod to my Dad. Hello, Florence, to my Mom. Who’s this big guy?, to me, every time, and I’d have to tell him, I’m Buddy. Frank’s son. As if he didn’t know. He’d extend a hand to shake, skeleton fingers covered with papery skin that I’d try to touch as briefly as possible. That was the extent of the conversation. Mom would dutifully tell him about the lives of relatives whose names brought no recognition to his watery blue eyes and we’d wheel him a couple of laps around the grounds. Then it was time to go … shake that bony hand one more time and try not to notice his dog tags.

Many of the old soldiers in the VA Hospital wore their dog tags, a common connection to the military service that landed them in such a sad place, but only Uncle Will’s had a skull painted on one side in pearlescent white and red stones glued in place of eyes. Uncle Will was an artist before the war, my Dad said. He probably painted the skull to amuse himself while he was in the trenches. More than once, I dreamed about those red eyes on Sunday night after a visit and ended up running to tell my Mom I’d had a nightmare. As Will’s condition declined, our visits became less and less frequent which was fine with me.

One night when I was ten, I awoke with a start from a sound sleep. From my bed, I could look across the hallway to the black opening of the bathroom door, a door from which a pale face was looking back at me. I tried to yell but my voice caught in my throat, so I sat up, trying to see if it might be my Dad. The figure began to motion with its hand for me to lie back down but I was too frightened to move. It was then that I noticed the dog tags hanging below the face, two bright stones glowing. I forced myself to yell … Mommy … and the face dissipated like gray smoke into the hallway air. The next morning, my Mother told me that Uncle Will had died during the night.  After that, I slept with the lights on in my room at night for almost a year but that didn’t keep away the nightmares.  Here I am, seventy-one, and Uncle Will still turns up in my dreams now and then. At least I don’t yell Mommy … most of the time.  My wife kids the crap out of me when I do.


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