Creepy Tom and the Empty Chair

When I ran into Creepy Tom after ten years without seeing him, I knew exactly what I wanted to ask — but that was neither the time nor the place.

He was the one who told me there were rules to these things: a careful set of rituals you need to follow before even mentioning the subject. We would need an empty chair. The two of us would have to be alone. The lights had to be dimmed. It would have to be night. It was 3pm and the dairy aisle of that convenience store did not meet any of the other conditions, so I asked for his number. We had to meet again.

The last time I had seen him, we were in his basement. At least that’s the last time I remember seeing him. At school, he wasn’t very memorable — sat quietly, studied hard, stayed out of trouble. What earned him the nickname of which he was openly proud were those sleepovers we and the other boys had at his mother’s house.

We always spent hours playing horror games on his PlayStation, but that was just to wait until it got dark. Then the ritual started. He would go to the basement alone, and after a few minutes one of us would follow him. The others would stay in his room, each waiting for their turn.

In the basement, we all knew the ritual. Tom’s eyes were closed. In front of him, there was a table with an Ouija board and two chairs. Tom’s guest would sit on one of the chairs and leave the other empty. When Tom opened his eyes, we had to close ours.

He would always ask the same three questions. Who do you want to contact? What do you want to know? Why? Once we had given those answers, we were allowed to open our eyes again. He would sit still until he felt a presence in the empty chair. Then he would place his hand gently on the heart-shaped piece of wood and it would start moving toward the letters.

My father had died when I was too young to remember. I got to know him thanks to those nights in Tom’s basement. He would tell me to be a strong man, to respect my mother and my older brother, to concentrate on my studies. I once asked my brother if that was the kind of thing he would say. “That sounds just like him."

I didn’t tell him what happened in Tom’s basement, of course. That was the final rule of our meetings: never mention the Ouija board to anyone else. Someone must have broken their word, though, because one day Tom’s mother laid down new rules. There would be no more horror games, no more sleepovers, and the basement door had to stay open.

His mother’s decree was a killing blow to Creepy Tom’s popularity. Friends who used to beg to be invited for a sleepover suddenly stopped caring about him. I’m ashamed to say I was one of them. Randomly meeting Tom ten years later made me wish I had stayed in touch. We had each other on Facebook but never talked. If we were still close friends, it would be a lot easier to ask him what I had to ask.

A couple of days after our chance meeting, Tom came over to hang out at my place. Pizza, beer, Xbox. My roommate had just bought the new Call of Duty. There was no way Tom could say no. We spent the first hour catching up, chatting about life. We were both in our senior year now. He was studying engineering. Creepy Tom at MIT. I couldn’t believe it. I always thought he would become a priest of a mysterious religion. There were loads of engineers in the world, but very few people like him.

After a few cans of beer, my roommate had to go pee. His chair was empry now. As soon as he closed the bathroom door, I got up and dimmed the lights.

—What the fuck, dude?

—Tom. Do you still go to that basement?

The look of surprise on his face gave way to a sarcastic smile, which he quickly tried to conceal. In a few milliseconds it would change into the expression of pity I was sick of seeing on the faces of everyone around me. But then my eyes would already be closed.

—Please. I need to talk to my brother.

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