Updated: Nov 20, 2020
One winter weekend, I had attended a funeral at a funeral home that I’ve never been to before. It was early in the morning and there were few people around. After a bottle of water, I needed to use the restroom. I was twelve years old, and the adults were too busy to take me. One person pointed the way to the restroom, and then hurried back to their work. There was only one light all the way at the end of the hall to the bathroom, so it was dark for most of the way. I was small for my age, and maybe the hall was also a long stretch, but I felt it in my gut that was not a place for children to be alone. Halfway down on the left side of the hall, there was a room without a door. It was a display room for coffins, which startled me at first glance, but then I saw a pair of black leather shoes on the floor to the left side of the room. As I walked by the doorway, I saw the high socks, and the black, pleated pants leading up to a set of bony knees. There was a man sitting in the dark room. His body was hidden behind one coffin. It looked like he was sitting in a chair that was right up against the wall between two coffins. The display coffins had short bodies, like they were meant to just show the look and quality of the product. My fear of being alone in a dark part of the funeral home quickly faded, and then I soon reached the restroom.
A woman came out of the restroom and shut off the light in the hall. Then she saw me and quickly switched it back on. She said, “Make sure you turn off the hallway light once you’re done.”
I replied, “Oh. There’s someone sitting in the other room. I’ll leave the light on.”
“What other room?”
“The one with the coffins.”
“Is that person sitting on the floor?”
“In a chair, I think.”
“I’ll turn on the lights in there then.” The woman walked toward the display room.
I quickly trailed behind her; I was scared again.
She switched on the light in the room. We both looked inside. There was no chair or a man in a black suit.
“There’s no one here,” said the woman.
I replied, “I guess he left.” But I didn’t see anyone get up and leave. In such a short amount of time, I would have noticed someone walking in the same hallway. My initial fear was that I might have seen something I didn’t want to see, like a spirit of the dead. I couldn’t believe my luck because I didn’t imagine the man in the suit.
“Turn off the light when you’re done,” said the woman.
I told her, “I’m not going down there anymore.” I didn’t wait around for her, I just returned to the funeral, walking as fast as I could because running inside a funeral home was not allowed. Being Hmong, the belief is if you fall in a funeral home during a funeral, the dead could take your spirit and you’ll soon follow.
Later that day, we had visitors. It was the last week of December, and that meant that it was The Hmong New Year. Which also meant lots of family and relatives would stay with us for the duration of 8-10 days for the day festivals and night parties.
I had two cousins around my age that came to stay, and I was excited to have them sleep in my room because I had two twin beds that year. The beds came together; my mom got them through a relative who wanted to toss them out. We didn’t have very much growing up, so it seemed like such a waste to toss out one of the beds. I didn’t mind keeping both, and I’d alternate sleeping on them to make sure one didn’t feel less wanted than the other (I was twelve).
That night, all the adults left the house for a live concert at the fairgrounds. My mom often left me alone or had me babysit at that age. It was a few minutes past 10 p.m., and my cousins and I were ready for bed. My cousin Lou, and her younger brother, Vue, shared the same twin bed opposite of mine. I double checked both doors and then went to my room. My cousins were already fast asleep. Within minutes, I was also sleeping.
Ring! Ring! The telephone rung from my mother’s bedroom. I didn’t bother to get it. I heard one of my cousins get up and answer the call. It was Lou’s voice in the other room. A minute later, she was standing over me, whispering my name.
“What?” I opened my eyes to see her frightened face.
“There’s someone outside,” said Lou, putting her freezing little fingers on my shoulder. They felt like ice cubes on my skin. She looked like she wanted to be held. Although she was smaller than me by two inches, she was actually a year older than me.
“Really?” I peeked through the blinds of my window, which was positioned between the two beds. I saw the front door to the left of the apartment building. It was dark outside with a thin layer of fog. I looked to the right and over to the small blacktop parking lot. “There’s no one there.”
“But he said he wants to come inside,” said Lou. Even as she whispered, her voice was shaky.
“Maybe it’s just someone playing a joke on us.” I told her, “The doors are locked. Don’t be scared. Go to sleep.”
“Okay.” She went back to the other bed.
The phone rang again.
“Don’t pick up,” I said to her.
The phone continued to ring.
“What if it’s your mom?”
“How? They’re at a party.”
Ring. Ring. Ring. Lou ran out the room and answered the telephone. There was a pause and then she said, “No...no.”
I sat up in bed. Vue was sleeping soundly in the next bed over, it was as though he was not hearing any of the commotion. Lou came back to my room and climbed into bed with me. She grabbed my hands with her freezing, trembling fingers. Tears boarded her eyes. She was quivering with fear.
I asked her, “What happened?”
Her teeth chattered as she spoke, “He said, he’s outside, and he wants to come in now.”
I hugged her. “He can’t come inside. It’s okay.”
“What if he calls again?”
“We don’t answer the phone. I’ll unplug it.”
“No! What if your mom calls? Or our families call?”
“Okay. Come on.” I pulled the blanket over her, and our heads rested on the same pillow.
The phone suddenly rang, startling Lou. She started to cry. “It’s him again.”
“I’ll answer it.” I went to my mom’s room and picked up the phone on the third ring. “Who is this?”
It was silent on the other end.
“Who is this?” I asked again. “Stop calling or I’ll call the police!” It was the only thing I could think of at the time. I hung up and went back to bed with Lou. We fell asleep for a little bit before the phone rang again. “Don’t answer it. Just let it ring,” I said to Lou.
“I think your mom could be calling to check on us. I want to tell them to come home.” Lou got out of bed again.
I got up and followed her into the next room. She picked up the phone and started crying. I took the phone from her and shouted into the mouthpiece, “Who is this?” I listened, but it was quiet on the other line again. I shouted, “Hello?”
Twelve-year-old me ran down the hall and went into the living room with my bible in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other. I opened the door and shouted, “I’m not afraid of you! Come out dumbass!” No one showed. Not even crickets could be heard on the chilly night. My little legs were shaking in my cotton shorts, but I remembered my mother told me that if I ever encounter an evil spirit, be angry at it, shout at it, and scare it away. If it was an actual person, well, that’s what the knife was for and then I would have to call the police.
Lou crept up behind me. “What are you doing?”
“No, don’t tell him to come out.” Lou hid behind the door.
“Stop calling!” I slammed the door and quickly locked it.
“I’m really scared,” said Lou, in tears.
“Okay. I’ll call my brother-in-law to come pick us up.”
“Yes, please call him. Do you think he’ll come get us?”
“Maybe.” I went back to my mom’s room, and Lou stayed close to me. I could see Vue still asleep in my room. I made a phone call to my sister. My brother-in-law picked up. I explained to him what had happened. He laughed at me, and said he’d be on his way. He arrived half an hour later, and my cousins and I spent the rest of the night at my sister’s place.
To this day I don’t remember whose funeral I attended at the age of twelve, but I remember the man in the black pants and his black leather shoes. I plainly recall the cold air of December, my cousin’s shaky voice and her freezing little fingers, and the way she climbed into bed with me. We never received any more mysterious phone calls like the ones we experienced that night, and Lou’s brother, Vue, claimed that he heard nothing that night, not even the ringing phone.
Art by Bao Xiong