This happened back when my son, Zach, was less than a year old. As you can imagine, we had a lot of baby toys scattered around the house. Many of them were electronic, including a plastic book that played songs as you turned the pages.
I awoke one morning to the robotic refrain of “Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?” I assumed Zach was awake and playing in the living room. Then I opened my eyes and saw the green glow of my alarm clock. Not morning. Not even close.
Well, that didn’t mean Zach wasn’t awake. He’d probably woken up hungry, and my wife had handed him that song book to play with while she fetched his bottle. I rolled over, fully expecting to find the bed empty. Instead I saw the dark form of my wife beneath the blankets, rising and falling with each breath.
Perhaps Zach had somehow escaped his crib—but that was unlikely. What else? Dying batteries?
There was only one way to resolve this mystery. Feeling quite alert now, I sat up and took a moment to orient myself within the house. My wife and I were accounted for. The next logical step was to check on Zach.
I rose from the bed and crept to the nursery door. I turned the handle, pushing just enough to crack the door open and peer inside without disturbing the baby.
In my narrow view I could see shadows accentuated by a cold glow from the night light. The black bars of Zach’s crib, the pale rectangle of the mattress behind them, and a small bundle sleeping peacefully.
I withdrew, not only because Zach was now accounted for, but because the song, as it repeated itself—“Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing”—was coming from the living room at the other end of the hall.
I turned and made my way slowly in that direction, wondering at the fact of the song’s repetition. That’s not how the toy worked. It played its song once and was done, unless you turned a page, in which case it would start a new song.
As I approached the door to the living room, the song ended. There was a rising chime—the signal that a page had been turned—and once again, “Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?”
The moment I stepped into the living room, the song stopped. Mid-phrase: “Brother John, brother—”
The abrupt silence startled me into stillness. My senses prickled as I stared into the dark living room, waiting for some clue. Then I felt along the wall for the light switch and turned on the lamp.
The plastic book lay in the middle of the living room rug. I thought that, in the course of tidying up before bed, my wife had left it in the playpen, but there it was, on the floor, open.
Something was wrong with the pages. I stepped closer to inspect the book. Each page was made of hard, colored plastic, and the contents were printed on stickers which filled the plastic frame. The current page, featuring the lyrics to Are You Sleeping, was illustrated with a pair of bear cubs. One was asleep in bed, while the other was awake and ringing a hand bell. But the face of the cub in the bed had been scratched out; the sticker was torn up, revealing scuffed plastic underneath.
“Are you sleeping?”
I straightened with a gasp, jerking around to face the empty air behind me. That voice, whispered, had sounded so much like Zach…but he couldn’t talk yet.
I picked up the book, closed it, and placed it back in the playpen. Somehow, putting the book back where it belonged, seeing it there in its appointed place, calmed me down. I could explain this. I only thought I remembered my wife putting the book away before bed. Defective batteries caused it to malfunction. And that voice—
The hairs on my arms lifted themselves away from my skin. No, the voice was just a hallucination. I’d been spooked, and my brain had replayed that line of the song so clearly that it only seemed like a disembodied voice.
I froze in the action of turning off the light. My imagination. My stupid, frightened brain.
“Morning bells are ringing.”
And then the doorbell rang: ding-dong.
I turned and stared at the front door. A small window in the top of the door offered a limited view of the night outside. I couldn’t see anyone out there. Not without going closer and pressing my face up to the glass.
My eyes darted to the VCR clock by the television, and I was reminded of the ungodly hour. No sensible person would be ringing doorbells at this time of night, and no sensible person would answer them. So instead of going to see who it was, I backed into the hallway toward the bedrooms. Whoever was out there, they’d have to give up. They’d have to—
As I cowered farther into the shadows of the hall, the book in the playpen started singing again.
“Mourning bells are ringing, mourning bells are ringing, mourning bells are ringing, mourning bells are ringing, mourning bells are ringing…”
Something in my head snapped. I turned and ran back to the bedroom and threw myself under the covers. My wife whimpered, awake. Not surprising. The house practically shook with all the noise.
And then it all just…stopped. I could hear my wife’s frightened breathing next to me. “W-what’s going on?” she asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.
I rolled toward her, seeking warmth and comfort and safety. Instead I bumped into something cold.
A child-like voice between us whispered, “Are you sleeping?”
Needless to say, our answer to that question for the rest of the night was “no.”
First thing in the morning, I threw the book into the dumpster. The garbage truck took it away, and that was the end.
This was decades ago. In fact, I’d mostly forgotten the events of that night until recently. You see, Zach is all grown up now and has a child of his own. My wife and I visited them for our grandson’s first birthday. The night after the party, as my daughter-in-law was putting the baby to bed, I heard a sound that chilled my bones:
Are you sleeping, are you sleeping
Brother John, brother John
Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing
Ding ding dong, ding ding dong
It was the same electronic voice from all those years ago. I hurried to the nursery and peeked in. My daughter-in-law was sitting on the floor with the baby, playing with a book that I recognized instantly. The shape, the colors, even the bear’s scratched-out face.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
My daughter-in-law looked at me curiously. “You gave it to us.” Seeing the look on my face, she expounded, “It was in the gift bag you brought, in the bottom.”
“…morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing…”
Except, now that I think back on the incident, I can only hear the homophone, mourning. The image of the ruined face is seared into my brain, and I’m worried sick over my grandson.
His name is John.