All the while, inwardly cursing myself. I want to cry. But even now I can’t force myself to leave this place. Certainly not during the morning times. So I sit at the computer and tinker with it for a while, trying out new ideas for how to make the handful of games on it do something I haven’t already seen.
After a few hours of that, the feeling returns. The feeling that I’m running away from something important. I’m really gonna do it tonight. Aren’t I? Yes...I’ll do it tonight. I really will, for reals. For really real, I will go outside tonight.
I didn’t go outside that night. I wound up in my bed again, huddled beneath the covers, crying tears of frustration. I should just give up. Shouldn’t I? It’s safe down here. I have everything I need. Why should I risk everything for a voice on a tape?
I slid the cassette into the player, then clicked it shut before pressing rewind. After a minute or so it stopped, and I pressed play. Light hissing followed. There’s more and more of that every time I play the tape, I worry it means some part of it will break soon. If that happens I will only have memories of her voice left.
“Welcome to Visualizing Success. This is the third tape in this series. In the last tape we learned breathing exercises. This time we’ll be exploring the power of positive ideation.”
I snuggled into the big pillow, squeezing it closer to me as her sonorous voice filled the soft little cavern I’d formed beneath the blanket. It soon became uncomfortably warm like it always does, so I lifted the corner to let some cold air in. Or is it the warm air that escapes?
“Never convince yourself that what you want is beyond your reach, nor that it always will be. You cannot achieve...until you believe! Picture yourself with whatever it is you desire. Do it until you can see the scene in your mind with perfect clarity, as if it were real. Get in the habit of thinking of this outcome as though it has already happened.”
I did as she instructed, imagining her in my arms. Then would come the holding of hands, and lip pressings. I grew flustered just thinking about it. Just then, I heard a shriek outside. I tumbled out of bed and ran to the trap door that leads up into the house.
What if Mommy is hurt? In recent years I heard her fall more and more frequently. A loud thump, then screaming and crying. Then Daddy yelling for a short while about how clumsy she is. Then he would get quiet and comfort her.
Other times neither of them fell, just knocked something down. They sound very similar. Mommy bursts into tears, Daddy yells grumpy things about how easily she cries, but then they work together to clean up the mess.
I wonder what it will be like when I’m the one to shout at the Lady for tipping something over. She will cry too, because that’s how it always happens, but then I will dry her tears and help her clean up. Then we will be a real married couple.
However I pound on the trap door, neither of them come to open it. I hear only silence above me. Then, a second shriek. Now that I’m out from under the covers I can hear that it’s coming from outside, not the house.
I scamper over to the window and peer out of it. A pale girl with long black hair struggles with a tough looking man. He has her by the arm and she’s beating his face and chest with her free hand, trying to escape.
There are two other men with him who emerge from the black night into the street lamp’s penumbra. They’re saying something to her I can’t make out from here, but it can’t be good, as she looks scared.
I have to do something. Don’t I? Mommy and Daddy would do something. They must be sound asleep or I’m sure Daddy would be out there right now, while Mommy calls for help on the phone. I pace back and forth, pulling at my hair. What should I do? I have to do something, don’t I?
The girl breaks free and runs off down the street, the three men in close pursuit. Something in me forces my hand. What if I’m the only one who saw? Nobody else will know she’s in trouble. I hurriedly pull on all the clothing I have, and with trembling hands, open the trap door.
I’m never to open it by myself. But this is an emergency isn’t it? Besides, if I’m quiet, Mommy and Daddy won’t wake up. They never have to know. Everything in the house is dusty. There are sheets over the furniture. Is this for a party? They’ve often done things like this that I don’t understand.
However that’s of no concern at the moment. I gingerly open the front door, taking care not to let the doorknob hit the wall. I then strain my ears for any indication that either Mommy or Daddy are stirring, perhaps getting out of bed. Nothing!
So I slip out into the cool, crisp night, fastening the door shut behind me just as gently as I’d opened it. Exhilaration overtakes me. This is it! I did it! I’m outside! I’m shaking all over now, but that might just be because it’s cold.
I peer back over my shoulder at the little window, at ground level, that I’ve spent countless hours peering out through. It feels indescribably strange to see it from the other side. Another distant shriek echoes faintly through the night.
I take off down the street in the direction I saw her run. Upright at first but then on all fours. All these years beneath the floorboards have made me more accustomed to moving this way. My heart beats faster and faster as my ungainly lope becomes a gallop.
Finally, she comes into view. The men have their pants around their ankles. I blush and try to avert my eyes. Besides that, they’ve torn up the girl’s clothing somewhat, and I know I’m not supposed to see any girls without their clothes on. For that matter, I’m not supposed to be up after my bedtime. I’ve really become a rough, dangerous boy, haven’t I? I worried this might happen.
The girl notices me. I sink back somewhat. The men follow her gaze and turn to confront me. “What the fuck is that thing” one of them says. “Look at his fucking arms, Jesus.” They grudgingly pull their pants back up and refasten the zippers.
“Get the fuck out of here asshole.” I frown and tell him that he’s used a bad word. They look at each other for a moment, then laugh. I threaten to tell his Mommy and Daddy on him. They only laugh harder.
“Fuck, I was scared for a minute. He’s not gonna call anybody, look at him, he’s retarded or something. All fucked up and shit, look at his eyes. Get the fuck outta here, Lurch.” How can they not be afraid of what will happen if their Mommies and Daddies find out? They must really be bad men.
“Listen you fellows” I tell them. “You don’t have to be bad. You really want to be nice don’t you? I bet you’re really nice fellows after all. Why are you fighting with that girl? Do you know each other? I bet if you get to know each other, you won’t want to fight anymore.”
They stop laughing and become very serious indeed. Then they get knives out and begin approaching me. The girl looks a lot more scared now, even though they’re ignoring her. I gesture for her to run away.
She does not leave. Instead something I don’t understand happens. The shadow under her splits into many, which slide across the ground until close to the men. Then pale, slender arms emerge from each shadow. The men recoil and cry out in fear when they notice, but the hands grab them. So many hands!
They struggle, but are pulled into the shadows. I balk. How can that happen? Shadows are just dark spots where light doesn’t go. Could there be holes there I didn’t see? The shadows then reconverge under her, and once again take the shape I would expect her shadow to be.
“W...what!” I stammer. “What was that!?” She slowly approaches. “You really shouldn’t have come after me” she says. I insist that I couldn’t simply do nothing when I saw the men chasing her. I knew from one of my books that it’s really bad when that happens.
“I was just luring them away from the houses so nobody would see what comes next” she explained. “I do this every night, I was never in any danger. Who are you?” I told her my name. She rolled her eyes. “No, I mean what’s your story? Why would you do something like this?”
I told her about my books. About how whenever a dragon kidnaps a princess and puts her in a tower, a brave sir knight comes to rescue her. “Sometimes a wizard helps” I added, “but I don’t know any wizards.”
She looked irritated at first. But then more and more amused as I kept talking. Something I said must be really funny but as I searched over my words inwardly, I could not determine what. “You’re not a knight” she pointed out. “And trust me, I’m nothing like a princess.”
I ignored it, and asked if she was hurt. “There is a phone back at the house. I can call you a hospital car. Mommy and Daddy will wake up and I will be punished, but if you’re hurt, I don’t want to-” She interrupted here. “Did you...call it a hospital car?”
I nodded. “The white car with the loud whoop whoop and the red shape like this on the side.” I put my fingers together, one perpendicular to the other. Her face kept making that same expression, more and more intensely. What does it mean?
“Did you say Mommy and Daddy? Dude, you look thirty at least. How old are you?” I tried to remember all the marks I made on the walls for the days, but then realized I’d run out of space long ago and couldn’t add up all the existing marks in my head anyways. I told her so.
“What even. You’re some kind of weirdo, aren’t you.” I nodded, figuring that was probably an accurate summary. I’m certainly not one of the perfects, anyway. She asked me to come all the way into the light.
When I did, she walked slowly around me, closely studying my body but saying nothing about it. I became self conscious anyway. “Something tells me you don’t get out much.” I asked her how she knew that. “You’re nearly as pale as I am, for one thing. Then there’s your clothes.”
I asked her what happened to those men. She got real quiet. “The same thing that was gonna happen to you until you started telling me all this. You’re cool though, aren’t you? You’re not gonna tell anybody about this.”
I answered honestly that there was nobody to tell. That after I made sure she didn’t need a hospital car, I would return to the crawlspace and probably never leave it again. “It’s a lot more dangerous out here than I expected. I didn’t plan for any of this, and I’m up way past my bedtime.”
She just stood there, eyes wide, absorbing all of it as though I’d said something remarkable. “So...Nobody else knows you live down there?” I shook my head. “Nobody but Mommy and Daddy, and they keep me a secret. I’m really not supposed to be out here.”
She rubbed her chin thoughtfully for a moment. “Show me where you live.” I told her I wasn’t allowed to have anybody over, especially girls. “It’ll be fine. I’m very, very quiet and good at hiding. I don’t take up much space. Besides, I have nowhere else to go. You don’t want me sleeping outside on the cold, wet ground, do you?” She pouted, held herself with both hands and shivered.
“Absolutely not” I replied. Such a thing would be unthinkable. Ladies must sleep indoors on fine linens. She really was quite small too, perhaps five feet and worryingly frail. I would have to remember to rehydrate some food or kill a rat for her when we got back.
She didn’t want it. I insisted but again and again she simply answered “that’s not what I eat”. So I scarfed it down, not wanting it to go to waste. That’s what Mommy always told me, that there are starving boys in the crawlspaces of other houses who are less fortunate than I am. They don’t have enough to eat like I do, so I shouldn’t waste anything.
As I did so, she slowly walked around studying all of my things. Impressed, maybe? I do have many nice things after all. “If you don’t have anything of your own you can choose one thing from here that you like, and it will be yours from now on.”
She smiled again and assured me that wasn’t necessary. “I just need somewhere secret. Somewhere safe, to sleep...and do other things.” I shrugged. More for me, I guess. I went to work fluffing up the other bed, and choosing one of the least dirty blankets to put on it.
“Oh, I don’t need a bed either.” When I turned to ask why, she was upside down. Clinging to the ceiling somehow, though really it’s the underside of the floorboards. I stared in amazement. I’ve never done that. I tried climbing up there too, but found that I’m just too heavy and my fingers aren’t strong enough.
“How come I can’t upside down like you? How are you even doing that?” She scuttled across the ceiling effortlessly, as though she weighs nothing. “One of my many talents.” That didn’t actually explain anything, which frustrated me. But if she was content to sleep up there, I was content to let her.
“I have a good feeling about you” she muttered, eyes closed, as I crawled into bed. “Me too” I answered. “You seem like a good, nice and okay lady. You can stay here as long as you need to. Bad men can’t get you down here, not while I am king.”
I kept an eye on her a while after that, just to make sure she fell asleep ok. I kept waiting to see her breathing steadily until I realized her chest wasn’t moving at all. I added it to my list of strange things about her, shrugged again, then drifted off.
When I awoke, I initially did not remember the events of the prior night. So it came as a big surprise to see a girl sleeping on the ceiling. Once it all flooded back into my mind, I calmed down. I then stacked some boxes around the hole for privacy while I used it. “You can do your potties after me” I called out. I heard stifled laughter. “Potties”? What are you, five?”
I wanted to contradict her but I don’t really know my exact age. “Oh, of course. I meant to say “do your bathrooms”. You can do your bathrooms after me.” Judging by her reaction, that wasn’t correct either. I gave up on it, finished washing up, then began preparing breakfast.
She once again refused to eat. Exasperated, I asked when she planned to eat something. She shifted in her seat, seemingly uncomfortable. “Tonight probably. I was going to last night before you barged in and ruined it. Don’t worry about it though, I can feed myself.”
I harrumphed. Hardly right to let a guest in my kingdom see to her own food. But she seemed quite insistent about it and I didn’t want to impose. While cleaning up after my own breakfast, I heard something fall behind me.
When I turned, she stood there looking surprised at a mess of books she must’ve accidentally bumped. I stormed over to her and shouted at her for being clumsy. This only further shocked her. I waited for a bit, then whispered “This is the part where you cry, then I help you clean it up”.
But she didn’t cry. She just looked at me as if I had two heads. “Go on” I urged, “cry”. She backed away, brow furrowed, before addressing me. “Is this a game you play? Don’t ever shout at me like that again.”
I explained to her how often I’ve heard Daddy shouting at Mommy when she does something clumsy, then how he settles down and comforts her while they both clean up. “That’s just how it’s done when there’s boys and girls” I conclude matter of factly, folding my arms.
She raises one eyebrow. “Dude, you’re messed up. Even more than I thought. That’s not normal, nobody should do that. Don’t yell at people for accidents.” It baffled me. How could what she said be true? If that’s not the right reaction, how come…
I let go of my confusion to focus instead on picking up the books. In the process, though the whole matter still confused me, I apologized. “I don’t ever leave this place. I mean I have a few times, like last night or when I was little. I guess I don’t actually know as much as I thought about how other people do things.”
Her expression softened. She tousled my hair. I pulled away, startled. As we finished collecting the books, one in particular caught her interest. It was about the Moon landing. “That’s one of my favorites!” I gushed. “It seems too amazing, but Daddy says it really happened.”
She informed me that she knew all about it, which diminished my excitement. I’d prepared to regale her with the story, but there was no point now. She seemed to sense my disappointment and invited me to tell her about it anyway.
“You know the big round light in the sky at night? That’s not just there for provide light when it’s dark out. It’s a real place people have gone to.” I flipped to one of the illustrations, depicting a rocket launch. “They go up in one of these. It comes apart on the way up so it can get lighter. Only the itty bitty part on the very top actually goes to the Moon.”
I flipped to an illustration of a man in a space suit planting a flag in the grey soil of the Moon. “The reason they go up there is to put flags on it, so nobody else can put their flag there first. Then they just kept doing it, putting more and more flags there so everybody would know who it belongs to.”
She smirked. It proved to be a pattern with her. Every time she did it, I tried to work out what I said was funny. She would never tell me when I asked, either. “I have a game of it actually! I am so good at it I think I could go to the Moon one day, and do a pretty good job of landing on it.”
She followed me over to the computer. “Geez. I haven’t seen one of these since before...I mean, since I was a little girl.” She ran her finger over the extruded plastic logo, reading “TI-994A”. I pulled out the cartridge that was in there, then fished out the Moon Lander cartridge from the shoebox where I keep all the games.
I plugged it in, powered the computer on, and typed in the command to load the program. There was a brief wait, then the title screen came up. I bounced in place on my butt, excited to finally have somebody to show off to.
When I glanced over at her, I found myself briefly captivated by how the flickering light from the monitor softly illuminated her smooth, unblemished porcelain skin. When she noticed me staring I blushed and hurriedly focused on starting a new game.
The little glowing green Lunar lander module descended from the top of the screen. I stuck my tongue out the corner of my closed mouth. It never seems to help me concentrate but I have seen characters do it in some of my comic books when they are thinking hard.
With some deft manipulation of the joystick, I pivot the lander and apply thrust. My fuel counter goes down. The altitude reading decreases somewhat more slowly as a result. I then counter my momentum by tilting the other way and applying an equal amount of thrust.
At last, I set the craft down gently on the landing pad, then beamed proudly at her. She just looked bored. “It’s really hard!” I exclaimed. “You try.” She reluctantly took the joystick from me. The craft descended anew. “By the way” I added, “You never told me your name.”