When I was younger, my sister and I would sneak into the kitchen some nights to listen. Mom and dad didn’t like that and we’d catch Hell if they found us out there but they were never too hard on us since we always stuck to the one Big Rule.
Don’t try to look at whatever was whistling.
My neighborhood is a funny place. I’ve lived here since I was six and I love it. The houses are small but well-kept, good-sized yards, plenty of places to roam. There are a lot of other kids here my age, I turned 13 back in October. We grew up together and would always play four square in the cul de sac or roam around from back porch to back porch in the summer. This was a good place to grow up, I’m old enough to see it. And there’s only the two strange things here; the night whistling and the good luck.
The whistling never bothered me much. Like I said, I couldn’t even hear it from my bedroom. But mom and dad don’t like talking about it, so I’ve stopped asking questions. My dad is a strong guy, tall and calm. He has an accent since he moved to the US as a kid. His family, my grandparents, they’re from the islands. That’s what they call it. My dad, the only time he isn’t so calm is if the whistler comes up.
He talks a little quicker then, eyes move faster, and he tells us not to think about it so much and to always remember the one rule, the Big Rule: don’t try to look outside when the whistler goes past.
Not that we could look even if we wanted. See, there are shutters on the inside of every window, thick pieces of heavy canvas that pull down from the top and latch to the bottom of the window frame. Each latch even has a small lock, about the size of what you’d find on a diary. My dad locks those shutters every night before we all go to bed and keeps the key in his room.
My mom…I don’t know what she thinks about the whistling. I’ve seen her out in the living room before at 3:03 when the sound starts; I could see her if I cracked my door open just an inch to peek. She’s not out there often, at least I haven’t caught her much, but once or twice a month I think she sits out there on our big red couch just listening.
The whistler has the same tune every night. It’s…cheerful.
Da da dada da dum. Da da dada da dum.
Remember how I said there are two odd things about where I live? Well, besides our night whistler, everyone in my neighborhood is really lucky. It’s hard to explain and dad doesn’t like us talking about this part much, either, but good things just seem to happen to people around here a lot. Usually, it’s small things, winning a radio contest, or getting an unexpected promotion at work, or finding some arrowheads buried in the yard, you know, the authentic kind.
The weather is pretty good and there’s no crime and everybody’s gardens bloom extra bright in the fall. “A million little blessings,” I’ve heard my mom say about living here. But the main reason we stay here, why we moved here in the first place, is my sister Nola. She was born very sick, something with her lungs. We couldn’t even bring her home when she was born, only visit her in the hospital. She was so small, I remember, small even compared to the other babies. A machine had to breathe for her.
We moved into our house here to be closer to the hospital. As soon as we moved here, Nola starting getting better. The doctors couldn’t figure it out, they chalked it up to whatever they were doing but we all could tell they were confused. But my parents knew, even I knew, Nola getting better was just another of the million little blessings we got for living in our neighborhood.
So that’s why we stayed even after we found out that, for every small miracle that happens here every day, now and then…some bad things happen. But they only happen if you look for the whistler.
See, our neighborhood has a Welcoming Committee. They show up with macaroni casserole and a gift basket and a manila folder whenever someone new moves in. They’re very friendly. Four people showed up when we moved in seven years ago. The committee made small talk, gave me a Snickers bar, and took turns holding Nola. It was her first week out of the hospital so they were extra careful.
Then the committee asked to speak to my parents in private so I was sent to my room where I still managed to hear nearly every word. The Welcoming Committee told my parents about how nice the neighborhood was, really exceptionally, hard-to-explain kind of nice. And then they told my parents about the even harder-to-explain whistling that happened every morning at 3:03 and ended at the tick of 3:05. The group, our new neighbors, warned my parents that the whistling was quiet, would never harm or hurt us, as long as we didn’t look for what was making the sound.
This part they stressed and I pushed my ear into the door straining to hear them. People who went looking for the whistler had their luck change, sometimes tragically. A black cloud would hang over anyone that looked. Anything that could go wrong, would. The manila envelope the committee brought over contained newspaper clippings, stories about car crashes and ruined lives, public deaths and freak accidents.
“Not everyone dies,” I heard the head of the committee tell my dad. “But the life goes out of ‘em. Even if they live, there’s no light in them ever again, no presence.”
My mom, I could tell she wasn’t taking it seriously. She kept asking if this was some prank they play on new neighbors. At one point my mom got angry, accused the committee of trying to scare us out of our new home, asked them if they were racist on account of my dad being from the islands. My dad calmed her down, told her he could tell our new neighbors were sincere and they were just trying to help us. He explained that he grew up hearing these kinds of stories from his mom and that he knew there were strange things that walked among us. Some of those strange things were good and some were bad but most were just different.
After the committee left, dad went out to the hardware store, bought the canvas blinds, the latches, and the locks and installed them on every window in the house after dinner. That first night in our new house, I crept out of my room at 3 a.m. only to find my dad awake sitting on the living room couch, holding my baby sister. My dad held up his finger in a shh motion but patted the couch next to him. I sat and we waited.
At exactly 3:03 we heard the whistling.
Da da dada da dum. Da da dada da dum.
It came and it went just like our neighbors said. The whistling returns each night and we never look and we enjoy our million little blessings every day. Nola breathes on her own and she’s grown into a strong, clever girl. My dad even joined the Welcoming Committee. We don’t get new neighbors often, why would anyone want to leave? But when a new family moves in, my dad and the committee bring them macaroni casserole, a gift basket, and the manila folder. I can always tell by the look on my dad’s face when he comes back if the family took the committee seriously or if we’d be getting new neighbors again very soon.
Not long ago a family moved in directly next to us. The previous owner, Ms. Maddie, passed away at age 105. She’d lived a good, long life. Our new neighbors seemed like they’d fit in just fine. They believed the Welcoming Committee, took my dad’s advice about the locking shutters since they had a young child of their own. Whatever newspaper clippings were in that manila envelope, whatever evidence, my dad never let us see. But I imagine it must have been awfully convincing since our neighbors got along with no issues for the first month.
One night, when our new neighbors had to leave town, they sent their son, Holden, to stay with us. He was 12, a year under me in school. I didn’t know him well before that night but as soon as his parents dropped him off after dinner I could tell it was going to be a bad time.
“Do you know who is always out there whistling every night?” Holden asked the moment the adults left the room.
The three of us were sitting in the den, some Disney movie playing idly on the television.
My sister and I exchanged a glance. “We don’t talk about that,” I said.
“I think it’s that weirdo that lives in the big yellow house on the corner,” Holden said.
“Mr. Toles?” my sister asked. “No way, he’s really nice.”
Holden shrugged. “Must be a psycho killer, then.”
“We don’t talk about it,” I repeated. “Let’s go in my room and play Nintendo.”
We spent the next few hours playing games, eating popcorn and then watching movies. A typical sleepover but I could see Holden was getting antsy.
After my parents had wished us a good night, locked the blinds, and gone to bed, Holden stood up from his bean bag and walked over to where Nola and I were sitting on my bed.
“Have you ever even tried looking?” he asked. “It’s nearly time.”
Like most sleepovers, we’d conveniently ignored any suggestion of a bedtime. I was shocked to see he was right; it was almost 3 a.m.
I sighed. “We don’t-”
“See, I can’t, I can’t even try to look because my dad locks the blinds every night and hides the key,” he continued, ignoring me.
“So does our dad,” said Nola.
“No,” replied Holden. “No, he doesn’t.”
“You saw him do it,” I said, a little sharper than I meant to sound.
Holden grinned. “Your dad locks the blinds, yeah, but he doesn’t hide the key. He keeps it right on his normal key chain.”
“So?” I asked, worried I already knew what he would say next. Because I had noticed that my dad didn’t bother hiding the key anymore after all of these years. Because he knew we took it seriously.
“So, after your dad locked up but before your parents went to bed, I went to the bathroom. And on my way, I may have peeked into their room, and I may have seen your dad’s key chain on his nightstand, and I maybe went and borrowed the key to blinds.”
Nola and I stared and his grin only grew wider.
“You’re lying,” I said.
Holden shrugged. “You can check if you want. Just open your parents’ door and look, you’ll see his keychain right there on the nightstand.”
“Stay here,” I told both of them. “Don’t move a muscle.”
I hurried over to my parents’ room but hesitated at the door. If Holden wasn’t lying…my dad would be angry. Beyond angry. I was scared thinking about it. But more scared of an open window with the whistler right outside. I opened the door, barely an inch, and looked in but it was too dark to see. Taking a deep breath, I walked into the room.
Two steps into the dark I froze. The whistling started. And I could hear it clearly…from my parents’ room. I never realized but they must have heard the sound every night since we moved into the house. They never told us. I don’t think I could have slept through it.
I stood there, listening to the whistling come closer, unsure whether I should turn on a light or call out for my dad. Soft sounds from the living room brought me back to reality.
“Nola,” I yelled, running out of my parents’ room.
Holden and Nola were standing near the front door next to a window. Holden wasn’t lying. I could see him fumbling with the lock on one of the blinds. I heard a click. He did have the key.
Holden let out a quick laugh. Nola stood next to him, hunched up, afraid but maybe curious. The whistling was right outside our house now.
I think I made a sound, called out. I can’t remember. Time felt frozen, clock hands nailed to the face. But I found myself moving. I’m not fast, I’ve never been athletic. Somehow, though, I covered the space between myself and Nola in a moment. My eyes were locked on her but I heard Holden pull the blind all the way down so it could release. I heard the snap of it start to raise, and I heard the whistling just on the other side of the window.
But I had my arms around Nola and I turned us so she was facing away from the window. At the same time, I jammed my eyes shut. The blind whipped open.
The whistling stopped.
I felt Nola shaking in my arms.
“Don’t look, okay?” I told her. “Don’t turn around.”
We were positioned so that she was facing back towards the hallway and I was facing the window. My eyes were still closed. I felt her nod into my shoulder.
I reached out with the arm not holding Nola and tried to touch Holden. My hand brushed against his arm. He was shaking worse than Nola.
“Holden?” I asked.
I reached past him and gingerly felt for the window, eyes still sealed shut. The glass was cold against my fingertips. Colder than it should have been for the time of year. I moved my hand up the window, searching for the string to the blind. The glass began to get warmer the further I reached and there was a gentle hum feeding back into my fingertips. I tried not to think about what might be on the other side of the window. Finally, I touched the string and yanked the blinds shut.
I opened my eyes. In the dim light leaking out from the kitchen, I could make out Holden, pale and small, staring at the now closed window.
“Holden?” I asked again.
He turned towards me and he screamed.
Everything became a flurry of motion. Lights sparked to life in the hall, then the living room. My parents’ footsteps thudded across the hardwood floor. I didn’t turn to look back at them, my eyes were glued to Holden.
He was pale, had bit his lip so hard there was a thin red line of blood running down his chin and he’d wet himself.
“What happened?” my dad asked from behind me.
I managed to swivel away from Holden and look back. “He looked.”
I’d never seen my dad scared before but I saw it that night, in that moment, an old, ugly terror stitched on his face. A parent’s fear.
“Just Holden?” he mouthed to me.
I nodded yes.
My dad let out a breath. He looked so relieved I nearly expected him to cheer. But then he turned to Holden and my dad’s face changed. I wondered if he felt bad for feeling good that Holden was the only one that looked.
There was a knock at the door.
We all froze. Holden whimpered.
“Don’t answer it,” my mom said.
She stood at the threshold of the hall. I’d always thought she was a skeptic and just humored my dad about the windows and the whistler but that night we were all believers. I noticed that both of my parents held baseball bats they must have taken from their bedroom.
The knock came again, a little louder this time.
“Please don’t open the door,” Holden whispered.
My dad walked over to him, hugged him close.
“We won’t,” my dad promised, still holding his bat. “Nothing is coming in here tonight.”
Thud thud thud
This time the knocking was loud enough to rattle the door. Holden screamed again and Nola clutched her arms around my neck. My mom came over and knelt down next to us, wrapping my sister and me close.
Thud thud thud
“Call the police,” my mom whispered to my dad.
The knocking instantly stopped. My dad looked over his shoulder at us.
“Do you think-”
He was cut off by frantic knocking that trailed off to a polite tap tap tap.
“Police,” something said from the other side of the door.
The voice from outside sounded exactly like my mom, like a parrot repeating the words back to her.
“Police. Call. The police.” tap tap tap “Police.”
My mom pulled us closer.
“Police. Police. Police. Police.”
“Please stop,” I heard her whisper.
“I don’t think calling them will help,” my dad said. “How will we know when they’re the ones at the door?”
The knocking came back harder than before. The door shook. Then it stopped. After a long moment, I heard the knocking again but it was coming from our backdoor.
We all turned together towards the backdoor but the knocking immediately returned to the front door. Front to back, back to front, loud then quiet then loud again. Suddenly, the sound was coming from both doors at once, big, heavy blows like a sledgehammer. Then something started rapping against all of the windows in the house, then the walls. It was like we were living inside a drum with a dozen people trying to play at once. Or we were a turtle and something was attempting to claw us out of our shell.
“STOP!” Holden yelled.
The knocking died.
“I won’t tell,” Holden said, staring at the door. “I promise I won’t tell anyone what I saw. Just please go away.”
We waited for nearly a minute. Then we heard it, a soft tap tap tap coming from the window Holden had looked through earlier.
Holden started to cry, sobbing like a prisoner watching gallows being built outside their cell.
My dad held him, brushed his hair but never lied to him, never told him things would be okay.
The tapping at the window went on for the rest of the night. We huddled together in the living room for I don’t know how long. Eventually, my mom tried to take us kids into my room while my dad stayed to watch the door. But the second we moved into my bedroom the knocking came back, so loud it was possible to ignore. I was afraid the door couldn’t take it.
We went back to the living room and the knocking stopped. Only the tap tap tap on the window remained. None of us slept that night.
The tapping stopped around 7 a.m. That’s about the time the sun comes up here. We waited another two hours before my dad opened the blinds from one window. He made us all go back to my parents’ bedroom first. I heard him open the door then come back in.
“Okay,” he told us. “It’s done.”
Holden’s parents came back around lunchtime. My mom and dad walked Holden over to his house and they all went inside for quite a while. Nola and I watched from the window. She stuck to me the whole day, right at my side, sometimes holding my hand. When my parents came back they looked grim but wouldn’t tell us what they said to Holden’s family. It was a Sunday so we all spent the day together, ordered pizza and watched movies.
That night everyone slept in my room, Nola and my mom in the bed with me, my dad in a chair he’d pulled over. There was no knocking that night or any night since.
We didn’t see much of Holden or his parents for the rest of that week but by Thursday there was a moving truck in their driveway. Nola and I watched them packing up the whole afternoon after school. What sticks with me most is how tired Holden and his parents looked. All three had the same pallor, grim mouths and light-less eyes. Even from across the street I could tell something was very wrong. Holden and his family were gone before sunset.
I remember what the original Welcoming Committee said to my parents when we moved in. Not everyone who looks at the whistler dies, but even those that live have the light go out of them and the rest of their lives are full of misfortune. A million little tragedies.
I think Holden’s parents must have looked, either to comfort him if they didn’t believe or share the burden if they did. I watch Nola some days, happy and young and alive, and I wonder if I’d been slower, if she’d looked out the window that night…would I have looked too? To comfort her? To share that burden? I’m glad I don’t have to find out.
We still live in that house, in that neighborhood. We still hear our whistler walking past every night. The blessings, the luck, the good things here are too good to leave. But we’re careful. We don’t have friends over to spend the night anymore. And my dad hides the key to the blinds very, very well. Not that I’ve gone looking. Some things you just don’t need to look for.