Ford will be in office for just 8 more months. Happy Days was in swing. Disco wasn't yet in the American Vocabulary (nor was doing The Hustle). Neither was Punk. But Kiss was. Bell bottoms were worn without irony. As were sideburns. Yeah, I had bell bottoms and I had sideburns.
It was a gorgeous, still spring afternoon. Winter was a few weeks behind us. Nights still brisk, but daytime had that warm spring glow, the type of weather you wish to bottle up because the heat will be along soon enough. The sun was a bright, blazing orb hanging overhead. I positioned myself so I could bask in it for a few.
I admit, I was delaying walking through the door. My mind was swimming in thoughts and faded memories and I was trying to focus on one thing. And that was stepping through that door. I was putting it off because I knew going through would be closure of sorts. Closure I didn't want to face. I watched boys, girls, and adults walk by and around me. All in suits and dresses. Sunglasses. I gave a few solemn nods hello. I recognized some but couldn't name names if under the gun. I thought of him. It was surreal and I wanted to cry but my brain was holding off that switch. Going through the door would trigger it. I needed a few more moments alone.
I smiled as I remembered the walkie talkies. I thought of the closet. And I thought of the ladder that saved James and I. It was real, right? That ladder that lead down to the field, otherwise known as my backyard. The ladder that was thankfully forgotten and left behind. Mercy was handed out to us that night and though memory can play tricks and distort, that night is as vivid as the Northern Star. Still chills me to think about it. I don't generally believe in miracles and don't believe I've experienced one since. We were kids. Harder to appreciate miracles when life experiences aren't yet matured or formed. A miracle can seem like luck. As the years pass the scale starts to tip from luck to amazing, “shit eating grin” luck, to extraordinary circumstance to “it has to be a miracle, because how else?” We were 7.
I had to face it. A shiver ran from my scalp to my shoulders and down my back. I walked through the door.
The casket was at the front of the room. It was open. I could see James' hands. Fingers interlocked, nested on his belly. I looked at his hands, my eyes avoiding going left. I scanned the room. My breathing was shallow. My tear duct switch remained firmly off. I said a few words to an old friend. Over there by the picture board, was that James's father? Holy shit, he's aged. His beard was trimmed but white as a ghost. Pun intended, ha ha. Got a keep a sense of humor about things, right kiddo? He did always have that beard.
21 is a devastating age to expire. Further devastating when an accident. God now has a real charmer up there. I'm not the type to be unobjective and convince you that James was this perfect specimen, but damn he could be fun. When I think back (Jesus, those flaming red eyes...James, James...help, please!), I inevitably think back to that miracle weekend in '62. Images and feelings flood back like an optical viewfinder. Little bits of dialogue as well (“Daddy says it's safe if I'm under the covers, he won't hurt me under the covers”).
I approached the casket because that's what you do. Whoops, there goes the tear duct switch, pushed to ON. Now standing inches away from James. It was an out of body experience. He looked fantastic. Young. My eyes that had averted the corpse this whole time were now drawn into it and hypnotized. The lump in my throat was massive and I tried choking it back unsuccessfully. I kneeled. Faked my way through some prayer. Stood back up and stared in at those lifeless eyes.
Voices from the past echoing (James...it's here, looking at me! Come save me!). Echoing...echoing...echoing...
Friday Night –
The storm raged outside my window. First the massive winds; huge, house rattling gusts. You know the type that occur in the summer. That's how it started. Then came the lightning flashes and then the thunder rumbles, then the combinations of both. The one-twos. Swarming in and surrounding the house, hell, surrounding my room, like an infestation. The lighting was sharp, fierce...letting me know this storm meant business.
I was on the second floor. It was an old fashioned house, quaint, cozy, unobtrusive. I lived with my mommy and daddy in 1962 and my older sister Cheryl. The past couple of days the house was unnaturally noisy due to some heavy duty construction (asphalt siding, shingle work, chimney fixing, the works). Hammering, drilling, footsteps on the roof, ladders clanking, the laborers whistling at Cheryl as she hopped in the front seat of her boyfriend’s Buick Skylark. But that was bearable compared to this storm. I was wide awake. The clock read 2:08am. I was too proud to run down the hall to mommy's bedroom. She made such a fuss the past year of what a good boy I was for sleeping upstairs in my big boy room night after night. I forced myself to stay brave and ride it out (though would it kill her to poke her head in and check on me?)
Now I should tell you about my closet. 6 feet high. 12 feet wide. Double doors that slid to the left and right. Off white wood paneling. In the daylight, perfectly ordinary. At night, I had an overwhelming sense that there was something in there. Every kid thinks there's something in their closet. Why? Because it's dark. Because nighttime makes strange noises. And because that closet door is shut and off limits. Put it all together and what to you get? The boogeyman that's been making kids shit themselves since before automobiles were invented. Now, I just had this feeling that there was something...off. Something not quite right. A “presence” of some sort that lurked in there in the deepest of night. I didn't hear noises. I'd stare at that door and just have a sense of something otherworldly. Not a crippling fear either mind you. Just this beguiling sense of the “other”.
Genius me, one night I said “let's just keep that closet door open tonight, if I feel something is in there, by Golly, it'll show itself if them doors are open and the closets insides are exposed”. Didn't work. All my toys and games and clothes formed these grotesque shapes in the dark, tricking my eyes in a hundred directions, distracting me, scaring me worse than the shut doors did. So the next night I kept the closet doors shut again. And felt something was in there. And didn't hear anything. And fell asleep as always. Until the night of the storm. Then I heard something and it wasn't just coming from the Heavens above. It came from the closet.
A scratching that was clear and unmistakable. A perfectly raw, crisp, chilling scratching against the closet door. It first happened after a bolt of lightning illuminated my room like a camera flashbulb. I jumped and the taste in my mouth was copper and sour. I squinted at the closet. I waited and held my breath. The rain was pelting down, mashing against the windows in a fury. It was almost as if the “something” in the closet waited for a distracting storm such as this to announce itself. Maybe I wouldn't hear it. Then a thump. Like a sack of laundry dropped to the floor. THUMP. My heart thudded in my chest. It felt like a tray of dry ice was lodged in my belly as my body ran cold.
I forced myself to fumble over the side of my bed and dragged my hand around all over, under the bed, until I felt the plastic item. I gripped it and pulled it up. My walkie talkie. I switched it on, raised the puny antenna and heard that beautiful static thrum. I pressed the “talk” button on the side.
Static buzzing back.
“James. Come in. Can you hear me?”
More static. THUMP. Louder this time. Unmistakable. I felt my bladder loosen and held back the urge to pee. I ducked under the covers. My daddy told me “you'll be safe under the covers. When you're scared , it's a great hiding spot, you can't get hurt under the covers”. Well sure as shit daddy, I'm scared now. More lighting flashed and thunder rocked the house.
Relief, in a small, thankful douse.
“Scotty, this rain is keeping me up...it's like that movie where the bad guy is riding his horsey...
“James, there's something in my closet.”
The hiss and crackle of static. My eyes were adjusting to the light, or lack thereof, under my sheets and blankets. I blinked hard to focus. My breathing was quick and shallow. I peered out for a moment to check the clock. 2:29am. Not even close to daybreak. I took a deep breath and fruitlessly moved the walkie talkie around for better frequency.
“What? There's what?”
“My closet. Something's in there, I promise. I'm really scared”. I was whisper/shouting.
Silence. This tended to happen with .75 cent walkie talkies. After a few minutes I calmed down, my vitals all slowly returning to normalcy. I grew some courage and took the covers down over my head. The room was quiet and the storm subsiding. The impact of the rain had lessened to a dull “pang pang” on the windows. The closet door was open just a couple of inches. I SWEAR that the doors were shut before. Yet my emotions have now resided just as the rain and thunder had. I was feeling brave and embarrassed, all at once. I slipped onto the floor and moved toward the doors. Step after slow step. Creak after low creak on the floor paneling. I held my breath. My entire 3 and a half foot tall body was keyed up with fear and adrenaline. I was at the front of the closet. I moved my shaking hand to the door that was inexplicably slid open just a tad. In one swooping motion I opened the sliding door. There was an odor, a pungent, foul smell that wrestled my nostrils. To this day I can't quite describe it, but it was the smell of death. An amalgamation of rotten eggs, bad breath, winter air and summer stench. I found myself gagging. The sense of something in there was powerful. I squinted hard and couldn't see anything but a pile of clothes, board games, toy cars, a couple puzzles, books, roller skates. My bike tucked away. What was that glowing in back of the bike? I was dizzy with shortness of breath and palpable fear. I began to back away and the glowing got stronger. It was two glowing red eyes. Dark, blood red. Peering out and intensely shining. Mean and evil, I felt their stare piecing into this boy's soul. I didn't even shut the door. I ran and as I ran I heard the walkie talkie static crackle again.
“Scotty? Hey, Scotty?”
But I didn't hear James on the other end. At that point I was at mommy and daddy's bedroom door with every intention of concocting a makeshift bed at the foot of their Queen.
Saturday Night -
I had a good day. By morning I awoke on my parents’ floor, the sun shining through their window, pleasantly awaking me. The events of the evening, just hours earlier, seemed surreal and I pushed them deep down in the cellar of my brain and throughout the day, they kept creeping back up to the main floor...and I would force them back to the cellar. And slam that damn cellar door shut. Even at 7, I had firmly grasped the powerful mental crutch known as denial. James and I rode our bikes, played in the yard on the swing set, had some fun with the construction men still working in the blazing heat. I'll always remember this little number - “Hey kids, come here. Hey, why doesn't a bird wear underwear? 'Cause it's peckers on its face!” We kind of laughed and were uncomfortable. “Roses are Red, My Love” by Bobby Vinton blared through the kitchen over the radio as my mom folded laundry.
“Hey, keep your walkie talkie on tonight. I'll sneak ova if you hear the monster again”.
The red eyes appeared in my mind’s eye and struck me like a whiffle ball bat. I could have killed him.
“Uhhh, yeah Jimmy. I think it was the rain though, the noise and the weird sounds...I don't think...”
“But yea, call me Scottso...it'll be a gas! I wanna see a monster!”
I thought quickly on my feet.
“Tag, you're it!” And I took off like a bandit with James running behind. Subject dropped, case closed.
That night daddy tucked me in around 10pm. It was another blazer all day and muggy as hell that night. We had just gotten air conditioning the summer before. It was beautiful, the best invention I could think of. I stuck my face in the cool burst of air before I went to bed and enjoyed listening to the quiet hum of the motor.
“Now Scotty, you sleep tight, ok? No bad dreams tonight. It was that raging storm, I remember when I was a kid, I had bad dreams during storms too. Tonight is peaceful. And remember, you're safe under the covers when you get scared!”
And he covered my whole head with the blanket and shook me and gave me a noogie and a big hug. I can still smell his scent, the cologne mixed with cigarettes. I stayed perfectly still for about 5 seconds.
“Boo!!” I shouted and tore the blanket off my head in one fell swoop.
“Ok, 'night pal. Love ya.”
“Love you too dad”.
He left and my eyes shifted to you know what. I “acted” my way through that ritual pretty well. I promised myself I would not sleep in their room on the floor like a dog again. I'll resign myself to the fact that I'm going insane before I do that again. You see, at 7 (almost 8!) pride is big. And not seeming like a baby to mom and dad was bigger. This night it began almost immediately, as if IT said, “no more bullshit, let's get on with the main event”.
The thump occurred at 10:30pm. Just as loud as last night. Then again. And the scratching was really loud and defined. It was as if seeing me mano y mano last night, looking into its eyes, had only made it grow more ballsy. I reached over and adjusted the AC's setting to high. Yeah Scotty, that'll do it, drown out those noises with mechanical cold air.
Fuck no. Impossible. My mouth turned dry as high grit sandpaper.
“Scoootyyyy you saw me...and I saw youuuuu”.
It was an awful, low, raspy voice. A whisper but crystal clear as a bell. I whimpered, mumbled, hugged myself. I pulled the blankets over my whole body and head and shook like a leaf on a tree. A single leaf clinging to life in a goddamn hurricane. A half hour must have elapsed. I must be hearing things. My mind must be tricking me. I was getting sleepy and the AC hum had a somewhat calming effect. It was getting hot again and a little hard to breathe under here. I swear, I was about to take the covers off when I caught a red glow through the blankets. My eyes saw nothing but clean linen but beyond that linen was a red haze. It was getting clearer now. Two red orbs, distinctly glowing and getting closer. It was the eyes, no question. That bastard is no longer in the closet, it's in my room. Inching closer and closer, this awful red glow. I can faintly smell the odor, the familiar stench of last night's circus.
“Scoooottttyyyy, come out and playyyyyyy”.
That was it. I felt a thin trickle of urine leak down my leg. I gasped and shoved my hand in my mouth to muffle my scream. I stiffened and braced myself for...something. Like a soldier prepared for death, getting read his last rites. My eyes were squeezed so tightly shut they ached. Behind my eyelids I couldn't make out the red glow. It started to fade. Then and I'll never forget this – a single finger touched my shoulder through the blanket. A single, gentle finger...
“Plaaayyyyy with meeeeee”.
I tore off the covers, now in hysterics and tore out of there. Ladies and gentlemen, I couldn't tell you if I saw the monster or if it was a ghost or it was nothing at all. I think I ran like a blind man and luckily found my door and ran like hell to my parents’ room. Screw pride. I was sobbing in heaping waves. Daddy hugged me and saw that I was pretty inconsolable and could barely speak. He just hugged me and eventually I calmed. I slept in their bed that night. I had a dream but can't remember it, except for an awful voice calling for me...”Playyyy with Meeeee”. I woke up in their bed in the morning light and the smell of bacon and toast wafting upstairs and I felt safe, scared and ashamed, all rolled in one. I didn't even call James, I should have tried James last night...
Sunday Night (endgame) -
It was the hottest day I could remember. Triple digits the TV said. I recall the construction workers packing up, the sound of their truck engines rumbling away. For a fleeting second my young mind thought, “maybe it was one of them, playing tricks on me. If nothing happens tonight, it'll be too coincidental and I'll know it was one of them. Maybe one of them turns into a monster at night like from that Werewolf movie. And they don't smell good either, that would explain the odor.”
I was withdrawn and apprehensive for most of that Sunday. And tired. James and I played but my heart wasn't in it. He got a new remote control car for his birthday and he chased it around my driveway, while my dad stood in the front yard admiring the newly furnished siding on the house, looking on with satisfaction (as if he did the work all by himself).
Dinner was uneventful. My parents talked about the heat and now the radio man spoke of “high velocity winds expected tonight”
“At least that will cool things off” dad said.
I took my bath. I was in my room after and I stared into the closet. I looked in it hard. I got down on my hands and knees, I moved junk around. I said “hello?!” I faced my fear and it was so much easier in the light of day. There was nothing. Maybe a hint of the odor, but a hint and nothing more. I read a comic book. I watched Gunsmoke with Mom. I got in my PJ's. I was mentally exhausted and that overtook my fear. I felt brave as I got into bed that night, I remember that vividly. That feeling of boldness and courage. It was the tiredness that drained me, but I felt confident. The worst may be over. IT couldn't hurt me. You always hear about monsters scaring kids, but never hear about kids getting hurt, right?
Daddy asked if I wanted to sleep in their room again (just come in now, so you don't have to wake daddy in the middle of the night) and I could have and then who knows how things would have turned out. I'll never know but then again, the miracle wouldn't have occurred that shaped me. So somewhere in His plan, just maybe, it was all meant to be.
10:55pm. The wind was howling out there. It was pretty incredible, but I was so tired, my body was lifeless. My mind was racing but my body overtook my mind. I recall a slight fear, a shivery queasiness, but not bad. Then “incident 1” happened. ZAP. Pitch black. Then footsteps down the hall. My dad’s voice “Goddamn wind knocked out the power”. I got out of bed and drew back the curtains to let a little of the night's natural light in. Now I was jolted awake and was frustrated. Mommy came in with a candle lit in her hand, checking on me. Once again, I had the opportunity to sleep in their room. I didn't take it. I peered out at James's house, it was dark as well. I looked to the window in his room. I turned on my walkie talkie.
“Jimmy, Jimmy, come in.”
Static. Pop, crackle.
“Scotty! This is rad huh?! Hey Scotty...the monster come back?!”
And then Incident 2. I was sitting on my bed and my eyes caught that closet door slowly opening, like a magic trick. It slid ever so slowly to the left, on its hinges, as if an invisible hand was moving it or I suddenly developed telepathy and was willing it open with super powers.
Sheer anxiety flowed through me and I lept back into the bed and covered myself and groped for the walkie talkie.
“James! My my my my closet door...it's...”
Loud static and nothing more. Piece of shit, cheap toy!
And then a small chuckle. It was IT's voice, no question. The red glowing eyeballs were back by the closet. And it was chuckling. That laugh chilled me down to the very core and I was pretty much paralyzed. I think James's voice came back through the walkie talkie, but I can't be sure. I may have been under the covers for an hour, 3 hours, 10 minutes. All I know was that it was stifling and sweat dripped down my forehead, soaked my back, my neck. Breathing was difficult. Out of every night to lose power, it had to be 110 degrees that night, didn't it. I was racked with fear, going mental...the heat made my mind swim and that chuckling kept up. I somehow, somewhere deep within myself managed to find a voice and shouted “Go Away!”
“Scottyyyyy, come in here with me. Come see myyyy rooooooom. Haaaa Haaaa Haaaa”.
I almost passed out with fright. I grew faint and my limbs were dead and dangling like a doll's. I was trapped like a rat. IT was waiting for me. It was patiently sweating me out. I soon realized I may die under here from suffocation or I may die from IT as soon as I uncovered myself. Has it come to this? The pure rush of adrenaline overtook me and I, in one second, tore the covers off me and faced the monster. I held my breath and stared it down. It was about my height but it was so dark, it could have been a toy. I recall gasping and sucking up the fresh room air, or attempting to, because the odor was pungent.
“Scottyyyy, come play with me in my rooooooom”.
I could see its red eyes, burning, like the pits of hell...they seemed to be aglow with fire and I could barely make out it's teeth. It was too dark. And then Incident 3.
I wasn't myself I was outside of it, above it. Almost as if I was hovering up by the ceiling and watching this unfold and peering down at myself and the monster from above. It took a step closer. I screamed but it was a silent scream, my mouth thrust open and the vocal chords were choked. I grabbed the walkie talkie helplessly. The monster took another step and another. The red eyes were almost hypnotic and I had a vague sense that if I stared long enough into them, I'd be caught in a powerless spell.
“James!!” I managed. The walkie talkie fumbled and bumbled in my hands. Funny how I thought of him before my parents. Static back, I heard him.
“James, come quick! It's here, looking at me. Come save me!”
It took a couple more steps toward me. The smell hit me like a punch and I gagged. My heart was a steam train. I looked around manically for...for...a bat? A hockey stick? I couldn't see shit in the dark. My bravery sapped out of me and I bolted for the door. I hit it with a smack. I grabbed the knob and turned but it was locked. I turned and twisted it. Sheer panic overtook me. I was screaming. The door would not open. I heard the monster chuckling.
“Scotty!” I heard my dad yelling. THANK GOD.
“Daddy! Help! Help!”
Footsteps running. Daddy on the other side trying the knob. The door would not open. I was frantic, as was he.
“Scotty, open this door right now!”
The walkie talkie cracked with life. The monster was now at the foot of my bed. I ran to the pillow end. My dad was pounding on the door, my mom was shouting indecipherably. This was the end.
“Scottyyyyyy” the creature gargled. “No way out, you're comingggg with meeeeee”. It reached it's filthy, stinking arm across my bed and that single finger poked me right in the chest and I burst to the window and climbed half way out. It was the only possible escape. Death by heat, death by demon or death by jumping out window...has it come to this for a 7 year old? My parents were still shouting but now in that scolding tone “Scotty, if you don't open this door right now...”. And there was James. Standing there right below me, 40 feet down in the yard.
“Scotty! I heard it! The monster, I heard it laughing!”
I couldn't speak, I was absolutely lunatic, and turned and saw the creature 1 foot away...gliding across the floor. Its arm stretched out and the single finger protruding. I was 3 seconds from jumping out of the window and facing certain death and then Incident 4. In the distance I heard a scraping across the house. A slow, sharp scraping like a girls nails across the chalkboard. I turned my head and saw James moving a 40 foot ladder across the house, ending up RIGHT OUTSIDE MY DAMN WINDOW.
“Scott!! The guys left the ladder! Climb down!! Climb!!!”
At that very second I felt the finger poke me right in the back, I turned around quick and faced him eye to eye. I saw nothing but a hypnotic pit of fire, his eyes raged and flaming and I felt myself getting weak and drawn in. Almost at peace. Then James's shriek shook me out of it and I leapfrogged out the window, turned over and placed my feet on the top step of the ladder. One hand over the other, I scrambled down that ladder with a pace, fury and athleticism only a kid has. I looked up and could have sworn I saw the monsters hand gripping the top of the ladder, its evil eyes burning looking down.
“Scotty!! Faster!! Faster!”
My mom and dad were next to James now in the yard. All 3 shouting. I skipped the final 5 rungs and jumped down to the grass to safety. All 3 grabbed me, shouting, hugging, asking questions. It's a blur and through it all I was looking up at my window and I recall seeing the red glow fading, the eyes turning from blood red to violet to blue to white and then poof, misting away like the blowing out of a match. Something deep inside me told me it was now over. Perhaps it gave up. Perhaps I outsmarted it. Perhaps a Miracle occurred and the Good Guy up there had beaten the Bad Guy from down below, that had somehow made its way into my closet. I slipped out of the grip of the group. I wrapped both arms tightly around the ladder and wept. James came around from behind and hugged me tight. The sun was coming up from over the trees, the heat starting to lessen, a breeze in the air, the awesome scent of a warm summer morning. The smell of my dad's cologne and cigarettes. My mom’s perfume. James's bubblegum. The cold, steel of the ladder. These are what I remember from that morning. None of us really spoke of it since. But our eyes told the story, for days, weeks and years later. The story was in all our eyes.
I snapped out of my daze and wiped my eyes. I reached for a tissue in my pocket and wiped my nose. James looked beautiful. He was killed just 2 days ago in an auto accident. The story goes that he made a right on red and the truck coming from the opposite end of the street t-boned him with great impact, his Volvo spun around like a ballerina and he died from massive head trauma within 30 minutes. I was out of tears. I stared at him with acceptance. I grasped a blanket that was under his body and pulled it up to his chin. I covered his clean, trim suit and covered him with the white linen, wrapping him like a dad would a child at night. I whispered...
“Stay covered James. You're safe if you stay covered.”