I don’t expect anyone to accept that the events in this story happened exactly as I remember them. It would call into question too much of what we think we know of reality. A child sees wonder and mystery in all that we as adults come to think mundane, and millennia of evolution have primed us to see patterns where none exist. Mistaking a shadow in the cave for a man-eating predator, for example, would cost us nothing, while a mistake in the opposite direction could end an entire gene pool. I only became truly afraid of the dark when one night as I waited for sleep I lay gazing at my toy shelf, and found there between my stuffed frog and fire engine an evil little man extending his forefinger to trace a circle in the direction of my face. Although I didn’t learn about sleep paralysis until I was much older, throughout my childhood I was plagued by visual and auditory hallucinations, even after I began sleeping with the light on. Most frequently, I’d hear a booming heartbeat issuing from somewhere inside my bedroom ceiling. Usually I’d lie frozen in terror until the sound subsided. On those occasions when I managed to extricate myself, I’d run to my mother’s bedroom and beg her to let me stay—only to be scolded and sent back to the source of that terrible sound.
I mention these details only to place my narrative in context. I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a complete autobiography. To understand the point of all this, you must understand that I’m dying.
I spent my childhood with my mother in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I made friends with a neighbour named Theresa who was about my age. We were often left alone in her living room, with its brown tile floor that sweated in the summer, the futon bed folded into a sofa, and hanging above it the painting of a dying Christ with his organs torn from his chest, his hand extended. I always wondered whether the gesture meant he was begging mercy from his tormentors, or demonstrating his own in spite of what they’d done.
I adored Theresa with all the mingled camaraderie and latent attraction that can inhabit a young boy’s heart, and I well remember her cartwheeling across the floor in her faded denim overalls and vermillion-rimmed glasses on the evening that marked the end of our friendship.
We were frolicking around the room, talking in fits and starts. Catching her breath after too wide a tumble, she scooted quickly back toward me saying something about coming too close to the “scuttle behind the shelf.” I didn’t know what a scuttle was, and her tone, which bordered on panic, had me intrigued. I insisted she take me to it. Reluctantly, she consented. She took my hand and led me from the living room to the hallway, which faced the brightly lit kitchen and extended rightward into a passage of darkness. Next to a coat rack, under a rotary telephone mounted on the wall, was the shelf. Theresa said that if we moved it we could see into the scuttle, but that it was forbidden. Somehow I bamboozled her into helping me push the shelf. Behind it was a rusted metal grate held in place by four loose screws—which, finding a screwdriver in the tool kit on the shelf, I immediately set to removing.
“We can’t tell my mother we did this, okay?”
At the sound of Theresa’s whisper I noticed her lips were trembling. A part of me wanted to push the shelf back into place and forget the whole endeavour. But my curiosity compelled me not to desist until I’d had a glimpse into the scuttle.
The space beyond the grate would’ve been just wide enough to accommodate a child of our size. Removing the grate exposed a distant inner wall just barely disobscured by the light from the kitchen. I’m sure I was not hallucinating when I saw a humanoid shadow moving in our direction—a hazy shadow of something as tall as a man, with a distorted nose protruding a hand’s length from a chinless face.
At the instant a wave of terror shot through me, there came a pronounced thud from beyond the kitchen. Theresa gasped and scrambled to replace the grating. It was too late. Her mother stood over us, hollering.
Theresa struggled to stammer out an excuse that wouldn’t incriminate me. I can recall nothing her mother said—none of it made sense to me. A vicious wallop to Theresa’s back knocked the wind from her lungs. As soon as she could draw breath, she burst out bawling. “Why’d you do that for? Just to get me in trouble?”
I was sent home, understanding nothing. I only wanted to go back to play with Theresa and be as happy as we’d been before. I went to sleep in desolation and dreamed of that ghastly silhouette ambling along the wall outside my bedroom. Though I’d remembered leaving the door fully open, it was then only slightly ajar. Into the gap peered my first and only vision of a face I will never forget. The long, gnarled beak and unctuous skin. The long serrated knife in its and. And those eyes—that mouth, and the way it curled into a grin.
I tried to scream. All I managed was a feeble groan.
I said nothing to my mother. She’d be taking me to my grandmother’s house that day, as she often did when she had to work late, and I’d have the opportunity to consult the wisdom of advanced age.
“God has a book with everyone’s name in it,” my grandmother used to tell me. “Every time you do something bad, He puts a black check next to your name. And if you get enough of those checks, you’re going to Hell.” I was terrified into obedience less by her threats than by the depth of her intimacy with all things spiritual. The knowledge that God was watching taught me to sit still, to come when called, to never talk to loud, and to finish everything on my plate even if it made me gag. In time I aged; in place of mystery was a trail of desiccated mundanity, and a paucity of evidence for God, His angels, and Heaven. Now I wonder if my failure to protect my faith has sentenced me to eternal damnation. I’ll know soon enough. I’m in no hurry.
“That’s Mister Death,” my grandmother told me then. “Just like God has His angels, the Devil has a Mister Death.” She may have explained the entity’s purpose. If she did, it eluded me at the time. Nor do I have any memory of it invading my sleep again. All I recall from the following weeks and months is how badly I wanted to see Theresa.
I called her on the telephone, but her mother wouldn’t me speak to her. I expected her anger to subside in a few days. But when I knocked on the door she insisted Theresa wasn’t home. Half hidden by a pair of legs like pillars, my friend lurked timidly in the kitchen.
Eventually, I let it go. The size of our school gave me little hope of finding her there, so that was that. For the rest of the school year I kicked myself for insisting on forcing my way into a forbidden place whose existence my friend had only discovered to me in trust and confidence. At the end of the school year, Theresa and her parents moved away.
I moved in with my father in Manhattan until I finished middle school, then returned to upstate New York when my mother bought a house in New Paltz. There my mother ran into Theresa’s at a grocery store and was told that, two years prior, Theresa’s father had been run over on his way across the street.
Widow and daughter now lived with an uncle—a Vietnam war veteran and a paraplegic—in the town of Highland. We arranged a visit on the weekend and found Theresa’s mother drunk on the sofa, slouched into the taciturn uncle, feet resting on the catheter bag attached to a tube snaking out of his unbuttoned trousers. Theresa’s glasses were gone; the vermillion hue had migrated to her lips. Physically, one might say, she had blossomed—yet in some less tangible way she seemed to have prematurely withered. Absorbed in raucous telephone conversations about shoes and boys, she barely acknowledged me. The adults made excruciatingly bromidic small talk. I sat and waited to go home. Just before we left, though, I compassed enough of Theresa’s attention to comment on how different she seemed.
She shrugged. “People change.”
“Do they?” I didn’t mean it as a barb. I simply couldn’t fathom how someone to whom I’d been so close, with whom I thought I’d shared so much, could transform into a stranger.
Theresa tossed her head, flinging her long hair over her shoulder. She picked up the telephone and thumbed another number. It was the last time I ever saw her.
Years later, we heard Theresa’s mother had shot herself in the head. No one mentioned what became of Theresa or her uncle. It was only as part of my closure that, this past week, I took a drive through my childhood purlieu. I tracked down an old neighbour I’d heard had remained in contact with Theresa. She’d had been married, he said, though the marriage lasted only a few months. Shortly after the divorce she’d overdosed on heroin. A friend had called an ambulance, but by the time they reached the hospital, Theresa was dead.
Perhaps none of this is significant. Perhaps I’m only seeing patterns where none exist. All things considered, I think my life has been fairly good. I always thought I’d taken fairly good care of myself. It came as shock when they told me my cancer had already metastasized by the time they found it. I’ve already gone through the stages from anger through grief, and arrived at acceptance. Perhaps I was destined to become ill regardless of any events in my life.
The last leg of my trip took me down my old street in Poughkeepsie. I pulled up at the site of Theresa’s old apartment building, and got out of my car to for a look at the now vacant lot beyond the fence. The building was called Elysian Heights. They must’ve torn it down years ago.
Tremain Xenos was born in the eastern United States and spent two decades migrating westward. He obtained a degree California, tried and failed to become a musician, and became a linguist instead. He crossed the Pacific to work as a translator, then married an artist and bought a crumbling house in Japan’s smallest and least productive prefecture. Besides struggling to keep his house from collapsing, he raises vegetables and chickens and is currently collaborating on a novel with his lovely wife. His stories have been published in Short Story Town and The Psychedelic Press.