We came back from my granddads wake in a dust-smelling station wagon full of old things, his beat-up World War II trunk sticking out the open tailgate like a coffin. Mom and Dad had looped a pair of orange nylon straps around the sides of the car through the back seat windows to keep it from sliding out, and when we got home, they put the trunk in the basement in a back corner next to the furnace.
I really wanted to open it just to see what was inside, but whenever I would even think of going down there, Dad somehow knew and did his whole I forbid it routine. It was a routine he did a lot. I was forbidden from going on dates even though all the other guys in my year had girlfriends. Just like I was forbidden from keeping the wagon out after dark when everybody else had cars of their own. Once, he caught me smoking in the backyard and smacked the cigarette out of my mouth. Nothing bled that time and the sting went away pretty quickly and there were plenty of other times when it hurt worse and Id just try to shut it all out by imagining the ways other people have it bad too, try to make it seem like nothing.
But the trunk was this thing down there in the basement, this life force or whatever. It just kept beating at me, the strange coolness of it. Dad was always saying, Some secrets need to stay secret. Except Granddad was dead and I couldnt see any reason not to check it out. I know he had a tough time in the war—sometimes hed tell us stories about how he enlisted early on, how he saw all sorts of messed-up stuff in Japan—but its not like he wouldve brought back anything too crazy, a skull or a live mine or something.
So one day, when Dad was at a conference, I went and jimmied the lock on it (same lock Mom kept on the liquor cabinet). I dont know what I was expecting, but it was just old military uniforms at the top, which I suppose were kind of cool, and then further down there was a Colt pistol and a bayonet with spots of bloodrust. There was a canteen, too, a flag patch on some tan cloth, a helmet and—this was the best—a hand-cranked air raid siren. It was green and the siren part was round and the legs of it folded over like a handle. I wanted to know if the siren still worked and for some reason I thought itd be a prank to go out into the backyard and let it rip and see if I could get anybody to freak out. Sort of a War of the Worlds type of thing.
There wasnt much going on outside. The evil neighbor kids from across the way werent out like they usually are after school and the sky was clear except for a couple of planes and the sun was hot because it was getting to be summer. I started it up, cranked it a few times, and the first note of it scared me a little. It was so loud and whiny, I was afraid it might distract the one plane flying low over the neighborhood, and I was worried it might crash or something.
I cranked anyway and the thing was screaming, echoing off all the houses. It had a music to it and the faster I cranked, the higher the pitch would go. I mixed it up with high and low and made a sort of song out of it. Three more planes came flying over. They were painted green and looked like old military jets, like maybe there was an airshow nearby, and I wondered if maybe they could hear it, or if maybe Dad could hear it, all the way downtown. Part of me hoped he could, that maybe hed be annoyed by it, maybe itd make his ears hurt. They did a circle and came back with a couple more planes and it was really happening now, this awesome siren I could make scream just by twisting a handle. Then another group of planes came in from some direction I couldnt see and they swooped down in a V formation, the siren still going.
Thats when the bombing started, first on the other side of the neighborhood. The bombs whistled as they fell and the ground shook after they hit. I kept going with the siren, now more as a warning than anything, even though there probably wasnt anybody else who had any idea what it was supposed to mean. One of the planes flew right over our backyard and it was a second or two before our neighbors house exploded into dirt and splinters and shrapnel. I remembered then that the evil neighbor kids were on vacation, so I didnt worry too much about it. I figured theyd just think a tornado came through or something while they were gone.
Still, I stopped the noise. It wound down into the low pitches like it was sad or dying. I figured Dad would say Id done enough damage so I put the siren back in the trunk where I found it and I never took it out again. It was one of the bad ones, that night. Got me pinned up against a wall so I couldnt move, couldnt do anything about it, really.
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