Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
“Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not, and in the end there is only darkness. Sometimes we find others in that darkness. Sometimes we lose them there again.”
-Stephen King, “The Green Mile”
I’m a grown woman and I’m well past needing my father to come save me, but even so I wish he were here now. I guess I never realized before just how much he’s always been there for me. Sometimes I wonder—
Wait, let me start from the beginning.
When I was six years old, I became obsessed with seeing the pirate show.
I overheard a kid at school talking about it. He said it was a puppet show about a little girl who’s friends with pirates, and that it was on in the afternoon. Once I heard that, I had to see it. You know how little kids get obsessed with one particular thing for no reason? For me that thing was pirates. I’m still not sure why but, hey, I was six.
The boy did not want to tell me what channel it was on, but after I pestered him enough he gave in. After school I ran to the TV to wait for four o’clock, but when the time came nothing was there; the channel was just static. I flipped through all the stations looking for the show. The next day I accused the boy of making the whole thing up, but another girl in the class said no, the show was real, she’d seen it too. I asked her why I couldn’t find it and she didn’t have an answer. The boy said that really I shouldn’t watch it anyway, but he would not say why, and after that he stopped talking to me at all.
Every day at four I sat in front of the TV, hoping that the pirate show would magically appear. I even asked Dad to call the local affiliate and ask about it (Dad would do almost anything for me…), but they said they’d never heard of it. I was crushed.
Months went by, the school year ended, and I became less zealous in my four o’clock vigil, but I would still check from time to time. One day I went down to the basement where Dad kept the old black and white TV in his workroom. Back then I had the idea that different TV sets showed different shows, so I would always check both if I couldn’t find what I wanted on. It was four o’clock and I turned to channel 58, just like always, but this time something was different: I heard static, but underneath it, just barely there, I heard music. Strange, bouncy calliope music. And although the channel was still scrambled, I could just barely make out a picture.
There, after all this time, was the pirate show. There was the little girl, and there were the pirate marionettes, and there was the ship with the talking figurehead. It was just like the kids at school described. Of course, the picture was a mess and I could only hear half the dialogue, but I didn’t care. I was ecstatic.
I don’t remember much about the program. It was half over by the time I turned it on. The only thing I really do remember was the part where the little girl and the pirate are standing outside of a cave and the ship tells them: “YOU HAVE. TO GO. INSIDE.” Just like that. I guess it doesn’t sound like much, but at that moment I became very scared, and I turned the TV off and almost ran out of the basement. Suddenly, I wasn’t interested in the pirate show anymore.
That should have been the end of it, and in fact I’d like to think that it was. I’d like to think that what happened next was all a dream or the product of a six-year-old’s imagination. For most of the last forty years that’s exactly what I have thought, but now I’ve started to wonder.
That night, probably around two o’clock in the morning, I went to use the bathroom (I was never scared of the dark when I was a kid, and in fact I was a little proud of how I felt brave enough to wander around our old, creaky house with no lights on). On the way back, I noticed that the basement door was open, just a crack. And I heard something down in the basement: It was that strange, jumbled circus music from the show. It was still playing.
I stood there for a long time, not sure what to do. I heard the music and the voices of the characters drifting up the basement steps, plain as day. They were very loud, and there was no more noisy static. I told myself that I had simply left the television on (even though I knew I hadn’t), and that Dad had somehow missed it before going to bed (even though I knew he never would). Yes, that would almost make sense. Except that it didn’t explain why a kid’s show (which up until that afternoon seemed never to be on at all) would be on at two in the morning.
I was, as I’ve said, never a child afraid of the dark, or of much of anything else. So despite the strange circumstances, I resolved to go down and turn the old TV off and go back to bed. It didn’t seem like a completely good idea, I’ll admit, but I certainly wasn’t going to run away from a television. I opened the basement door all the way and would probably have gone down if not for the fact that at the very moment I prepared to put my little bare foot on the first basement step I heard that voice again:
“YOU HAVE. TO GO. INSIDE.”
But it did not sound as if it were coming from the television.
There are limits to what even the bravest six-year-old will do, and I had reached them. So I ran all the way to Dad’s room and woke him up. He listened, very calmly, to my story, and when I was done he picked me up and carried me with him to the basement door. There was no music now, and no voices, just darkness and silence. He set me down and as he prepared to go downstairs I wanted to stop him. I was sure, all of a sudden, that whatever was down there, I didn’t want my daddy to be down there with it. But I couldn’t think of anything to say. So I just watched him as he marched down those dark steps, one at a time.
I have never been as frightened as I was for those minutes that my father was down in that basement. A part of me was certain he was never coming back. I even imagined that, maybe, something else would come back instead. But I wasn’t sure what…
But of course, he came back. He said that I’d left the TV on, just like I thought. I asked him what was on it and he said, “Nothing.” Just that: nothing. And then he tucked me back into bed, and sang to me and stroked my hair until I fell asleep.
I loved my father very much.
After that I more or less forgot about the whole thing. If it ever crossed my mind in the years to come, I chalked it up as a nightmare. Dad never mentioned it either. There is one thing I noticed, though, that I never really thought about until tonight: Dad got rid of that old TV shortly after. In fact, he stopped watching television altogether, and he stopped working in the basement too. After I went to college he cancelled the service and got rid of the other TV, and as far as I know never got another one. I wonder about that now.
Just like I wonder about those times, as a little girl, when I would catch my father staring off at nothing with his head tilted a little to one side, like he was listening to something, a song or a voice that only he could hear. And I wonder whether it’s just my imagination or time tampering with my memories or if my father didn’t have a strange look on his face when he came out of the basement that night. And had his voice quavered a little? And hadn’t he been down there just a little longer than it should have taken simply to turn off a television set?
I guess those are questions only my father could have answered, and now he never will. Today was his funeral, and that’s why, tonight, for the first time in twenty five years, I’m sleeping in the old house alone. As they lowered his casket into the ground, the unwelcome image of him marching down those basement steps came back to me, and I shivered. This time, when my father went down into the dark, alone, I was sure he would not be back. That was the first time in a long time I’d thought about the pirate show or the night in the basement. I’d prefer not to keep thinking about it, especially since I have so much else on my mind, but I’m afraid I don’t have much choice.
You see, when I came in tonight, the basement door was open. I can hear music down there, and voices, ones I haven’t heard since I was six. And I’m sure that if I open the basement door all the way and stand at the top of the stairs I’ll hear another voice telling me that I have to go inside.
But I’m sure there is no television down there.
I don’t want to go. I want to run to my daddy’s room, and wake him up, and have him sing me to sleep again, but of course, I can’t. I do not think it’s a coincidence that this is happening the same day we buried him. I think, somehow, that this is something my father has been protecting me from for a long time.
Or maybe not. Maybe there was nothing sinister in the basement forty years ago, and maybe there’s nothing down there now, and maybe this is just the stress of the funeral making me crack. They tell me that grief can induce hallucinations, sometimes. It could be there’s nothing to be afraid of down in the dark after all. I would very much like to think that that’s true.
I guess once I go down and see I’ll know for sure. I guess, if I don’t come back, you’ll all know too.
Good night, Daddy. Sweet dreams. I love you.
Credit To – Tam Lin