I was an artsy kid growing up. With clay, scissors, or glue I could have busied myself until judgment day. The walls of my bedroom were covered with sketches and paper masks. Clay dragons and warlocks stood at attention atop my desk and dresser. Mobiles with gods and ghouls hung down from the ceiling. And an ancient spring-armed lamp shone upon a table in the corner where half a dozen projects awaited completion.
I’d become entirely absorbed in my art, often begging my mother to let me skip meals, showers, and during my most prolific periods, even sleep. Naturally, it was a chore getting me to leave the house. Whenever she needed to pick up a gallon of milk, though, or mail a letter, she knew that she could pry me from my room with one sing-songy promise: “We can stop by the video store afterwards.” And in less than a minute, I’d be buckled and waiting in the passenger seat of our minivan.
Perhaps Mom just thought that I loved picking out movies to watch. That would have explained my eagerness to visit the video shop. In truth, though, I never cared much about the tapes that we always ended up renting. “Homeward Bound.” “Flight of the Navigator.” “E.T” These were all fine. Passable popcorn fodder. But what kept me coming back were the films that I couldn’t rent, namely, the horror films. I remember accidentally wandering into the horror section during one trip to the video store when I was about nine. And like a gust from a gale, I felt the full force of all those pictures and words. Blood and moonlight.
Puddles. Masks. Smiles and screams. They filled me with questions: What are all of these women afraid of? Why is there blood on their shirts? Are they hurt? Who is that man in the white mask with the knife? What does omen mean? The sheer novelty of it all sent my young imagination into overdrive. I felt the world that I had once known roll back, revealing a far stranger realm underneath, one that both scared and fascinated me.
That same day, I brought a copy of “Halloween III: The Season of the Witch” up to Mom. (I know. Not the best movie. But I liked the cover.) Before handing it to her, I somehow already knew that she’d reject it. I didn’t know why. There just seemed to be something inherently forbidden about the tapes from that aisle. And sure enough, she did a double take when she saw it. “Where did you get this?,” she asked incredulously. When I showed her the horror section, she huffed in disbelief. “These are not for children!,” she said sternly. “I don’t want you looking at these anymore, do you hear me?” When I asked her why, she shot me a glare that meant the conversation was over.
We ended up renting “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” that night. And by the time we reached the parking lot, she was asking what kind of pizza I wanted for dinner. She had already forgotten about the whole thing. But not me. I was hooked. From that night on, every trip to the video store saw me making quick dives down “the forbidden aisle” while Mom gossiped with the manager who, luckily for me, was one of her oldest friends. While she griped about my father’s snoring, I’d study Michael Myers’ vacuum-black eyes, Jaws’ dorsal fin, and Carol Anne framed in static. When she finally called my name, I’d run to her, grabbing a tape at random from the family section. And while handing it to her, I’d always feel a pang of regret, wishing that the cover had Freddy Krueger smiling back at me instead of Scooby-Doo.
Then my fortune changed thanks to (of all things) my low math scores at the end of fifth grade. Due both to an inherent weakness in the subject and a penchant for doodling in my notebook during class, I failed the final test. The penalty? One of Mom’s scarier diatribes and a month and a half of summer school. After a single week of vacation, I was back in a classroom studying fractions while the rest of the world overslept. To make matters worse, I had Mrs. Donahue, the school’s librarian for a teacher. She was well known throughout the student body for having a feather-soft voice and a lightning-quick temper. The unfortunate soul who succumbed to the babble-brook of her voice would awaken to the screeching of a rage-drunk she-wolf. It took every bit of strength on that first day to keep my eyelids from fluttering shut while she lilted on about divisibles.
It was while walking home from school that first day that I met Cannon. Cannon Wilks was two grades above me. He too had been condemned to studying over the vacation. Unlike myself, though, this seventh grader wasn’t in summer school just because of a low test score. His sentence was designed to break his cocksure spirit which had prompted him to question his teachers at every turn. In short, Cannon was a know-it-all. He delighted in “correcting” what his teachers said even if his own understanding of the lesson was dubious, and in most cases, totally wrong.
After walking just a minute or two from school, I heard from behind me, “That’s a nice bit of Navajo you’ve got there!” I turned around to find a lanky, bespectacled boy walking towards me. “On your backpack,” he said, pointing. When he got close enough, he reached around and took hold of a beadwork key chain hanging from my bag. “Have you been to the southwest?,” he asked while inspecting it. “That’s where you find stuff like this.”
“Um….No,” I stammered back. “I got it from my uncle. He lives in South Dakota.”
“Huh,” was all he said.
Years later, I would ask my uncle about the gift and discover that it hadn’t been bought from the Navajo but from the Lakota people who are native to the Dakotas. Upon first meeting Cannon, though, I couldn’t have possibly known that he was already making things up as he went along.
We walked together that day, and after talking for just a short time, we discovered that our houses were only a few streets over from one another. “That’s great!,” Cannon beamed. “We can walk together from now on!” At first, I was a bit skeptical about having him as a walking companion. I was a pretty quiet kid. Cannon, on the other hand, never stopped talking. He’d talk about the types of trees we passed on the road, the years, makes, and models of cars parked along the side streets, and his grandfather who had purportedly been best friends with Louis Armstrong.
That first day, he talked all the way to his house. “Well, this is it,” he said, motioning towards a wide lawn darkened by hemlocks. The walkway where we stood snaked up to an ironwork porch flanked by tall arborvitaes. The shrubs all but hid the first floor, making it seem as if the second story hovered above the ground. Cannon started up the walkway. “So I’ll see you tomorrow?,” he asked over his shoulder. I was about to respond when something past his left arm caught my eye. There was a boy standing beside the house. I remember being particularly surprised by his clothing. Despite it being in the 80s that day, he wore long corduroy pants and a thick black hoodie.
“Who’s that?,” I asked.
Stopping and turning to follow my stare, Cannon replied,“Oh. That’s Wilson, my older brother. He goes to the high school.”
“Why’s he dressed like that?,” I asked. “Isn’t he hot?”
“Who knows?,” he said with a shrug. “He’s weird. We don’t talk much.” And with that uncharacteristically brief explanation, he turned and ran for the house. I stood there for a moment longer watching that sullen figure by the bushes before continuing on my way home.
The following day’s walk started off similarly to the first. Cannon began talking almost immediately. He barely seemed to take time to breathe. But then, after going on for about ten minutes, he randomly stumbled upon my most cherished interest: horror movies. “You want to talk about a kid with problems? Look at Jacob DeForest in my class. I watched him all last year. You know. Monitored his behavior? And the way that he follows Miss Mulligan around like a little dog, you’d think she was his mom or something! Classic case of Abandoned Child Syndrome. His mom probably travels for work or ran away with his father’s best friend. Who knows? But there’s always a reason for that sort of thing. Even in ‘The Exorcist’! I mean, sure we’re supposed to believe that it’s a demon making Regan act that way. But in the real world, that whole movie’s just about a girl whose father forgot her birthday!”
The moment that Cannon mentioned the title, a Rolodex in my head began turning furiously, going through all of the titles, words, and images I had amassed during my video store wanderings. Exorcist. Exorcist. The Exorcist. And then there it was! The cover. A man in a wide-rimmed hat standing in lamplight. The title hovered above him in purple. THE EXORCIST! “You’ve seen ‘The Exorcist’?!,” I blurted out. Cannon stopped and looked at me askance. A “tss” of air hissed from between his teeth.
“Are you serious?,” he huffed haughtily. “I’ve seen it like a hundred times!”
Licking my lips greedily I stammered, “C…could you tell me about it?”
This stopped him again. “You’ve never seen ‘The Exorcist’?!,” he asked, wide-eyed in disbelief, as if I’d never heard of apples or something. I shook my head. “Oh, man! You’ve got to see it! It’s a classic! I don’t know if we have enough time before we get home, but I can give you an abridged version of it. That’ll have to do.” I nodded vigorously and followed him, collecting the words that he left behind as if they were rare and precious stones.
From that day on, Cannon recounted the plots to all of those movies that were, as my mother said, “not for children.” He had seen them all. Everything from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” to “Candyman.” Mentos were sucked and chewed by the roll. Cans of grape soda passed between us. And in a theater of burning pavement, shady yards, and panting dogs, Cannon fleshed out teeth and murder, wind and Ouijas with the paintbrush of his words. I met Leatherface in front of Rocco’s Pizza on Main Street. Chucky worked a voodoo doll by the power plant on Dupont. And Mia Farrow birthed the Antichrist among clanking recyclables at the redemption center on Tapley. Every yard and alley became the haunt of a hundred ghosts and madmen. Every tree and shop donned an air of menace. And all of those faces on the covers of video tapes squirmed to life under the magic of Cannon’s words.
So enthralled was I by his daily stories that five weeks of summer school passed before I even bothered to look at a calendar. There remained but one more week of Mrs. Donahue’s pond-soft voice and the danger of sleep. One more week of studying fractions as the clank and shriek of playgrounds beckoned from the classroom windows. I knew that I should be celebrating. Yet, not until summer school’s end was in sight did I truly understand how much I enjoyed my walks with Cannon. Despite an inability to go more than two steps in silence, he had a contagious passion for the world around him. His daily summaries of horror films, undoubtedly colored by his own creative flourishes, inspired a fervent curiosity in me that I hadn’t known until meeting him. More than rejoicing in freedom from school, I was going to miss this odd figure who, over the course of a month, had become my closest friend.
On the Monday of our final week at summer school, I was especially eager to see him. He had promised to tell me about “The Shining,” a movie that I had been curious about since my first trip down the forbidden aisle. Jack Nicholson’s crazed, demented grin had made regular appearances in my nightmares after first glimpsing the cover. Who was the character, though? What made him crazy? These were the questions tugging at their leads as I exploded through the heavy school doors that afternoon.
But to my surprise, Cannon wasn’t there. No one stood beneath the beech tree jittery with words. He was absent the next day as well. And the next. I asked his classmates if they had seen him. But no one had. My daily walks past his house yielded no further answers.
Nothing stirred in the dark windows. The hemlocks’ lethargic limbs hung over the yard as if exhausted by the heat. Once, I found Wilson standing by the side of the house dressed in a scarf and parka. Yet the questions I called to him from across the lawn sent him waddling back behind the house without a word. On Thursday night of that week, the night before my final day of summer school, I humored the possibility that I wouldn’t see Cannon again for the rest of the summer.
Then on that Friday, after all of the classes had finished for the day, I was heading for the exit when Miss Mulligan, Cannon’s teacher, approached me and asked if I’d drop off an envelope at Cannon’s house. “I’m sorry to ask,” she said. “But there’s an urgent issue at my daughter’s daycare and I know that you live near Cannon Wilks.”
And that’s how I ended up seeing Cannon again before summer’s end. Looking back, I wish that Miss Mulligan had just missed me. Perhaps she could have run to the bathroom as I was leaving school. Or maybe a backfiring car could have masked the sound of my shoes squeaking down the hallway. Then she would have been the one to deliver the envelope and behold the real-life evil that lived in that house. That’s all in hindsight, though. At the time, I considered it my good fortune to have bumped into her. It gave me an excuse to see my friend one more time, to see if he was alright. And who knows? Perhaps he even had a few extra minutes to tell me the story he’d promised me.
Wilson wasn’t roaming around the shrubs that day as I made my way up the long walk to the front door. Nor did I see anyone in the windows on the second story. The whole house had a stillness reminiscent of a model or a picture in a children’s book. The stillness remained after I rang the doorbell. As the chimes died away, I heard no telltale patter of feet on carpet. My heart began to sink. Perhaps no one was home.
Then, just as I was lifting my arm to place the envelope in the mailbox, I heard someone coming. The door cracked opened a few inches, and in the space, I saw Cannon…at least what looked like Cannon. His face, which had grown pale and sallow, was mostly hidden by a cap, a hood, and dark aviator glasses.
“Hey,” I said to my own reflection.
“Hey,” he said in return.
For a moment, we both just stood there looking at one another.
“Um…Miss Mulligan wanted me to give this to your Dad,” I said, extending the envelope to him.
“He’s not here!,” Cannon replied in a forceful nervous voice. Something’s wrong, I thought. Why’s he acting like this? It’s like he’s a completely different person.
After another pause, I continued, “So…do you want to give it to him?”
Slowly Cannon reached his arm out of the door. It was covered in a long baggy sleeve. Only a few fingers poked out from the end. He took the envelope between two fingers and drew it back through the space into the house.
Fighting back waves of uneasiness, I asked him “Are…are you OK? You haven’t been in school.”
“Yup. OK,” he said firmly. “Just a little under the weather.”
Had I been a little older, I may have shown some manners at this point. Seeing that Cannon didn’t feel like talking, I’d have said something like Alright. Well, see ya ’round and then walked away. But feeling as though I needed to fill up the long silences with something, I said, “You were going to tell me about ‘The Shining’.”
Looking down at the doormat, he replied, “I don’t know if I’m feeling up to it today.”
I stood there for a moment, trying to think of something else to say, trying to figure out what was going on. But eventually, I just scuffed my foot, said, “Ok. Bye” and turned to walk away.
But I only got about 10 steps down the walk before I heard him say, “Actually, you know what?” I swiveled around. He seemed jittery, as if uncertain about what he was saying. Still looking down, he said, “I…I might feel better if I do some talking.”
He scanned the street from left to right as if checking for someone. Then he opened the door wide and gestured for me to enter.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” he said as I passed from the shady front yard into the living room. After shutting the door, he quickly lead me up a flight of stairs to our left. Following him up the carpeted steps, I couldn’t help but notice his outfit. Along with the dark long-sleeved shirt, he wore thick cargo pants. Save for his mouth, neck, cheeks, and chin, every inch of skin on him seemed to be covered. This was already strange because he was indoors…in August. It was even odder considering I’d never once seen him wear anything besides tee-shirts and shorts.
As we reached the top step, a door down at the end of a long hallway clicked shut. Maybe his brother?, I thought. His mom? He lead me quickly past walls of photos. No time to make out any of the faces. They were all a blur of flesh and gold. Once inside his room, he pulled a chair out from under a desk for me and took a seat on the bed.
“Aren’t you hot?,” I asked, once seated. He ignored the question and began fidgeting with the ends of his sleeves while repeating the movie title over and over again under his breath. “’The Shining.’ ‘The Shining.’ ‘The Shining.’” It was as if he was trying to dredge the plot up from years ago.
Finally, looking out through gauzy curtains over his bed, in a far meeker voice than I was accustomed to, he began:
“So there’s this kid named David. He lives with his dad and older brother, Danny.”
Isn’t it about a father, mother, and son?, I thought, remembering the film’s description on the back of the VHS jacket.
“And the whole thing starts when the dad gets a job to oversee this large hotel during the winter months, when the place is closed. His dad takes the job because he’s a writer and he figures that the solitude and quiet at the hotel will help him finish a book he’s been working on. So Danny, David, and the dad pack up and head out into the mountains where the hotel is.
“At first, David really loves it at the hotel. The place is huge and there are no guests so David and Danny can each have their own room. He spends the first few weeks just having pillow fights with Danny and riding his BMX down the long hallways. At night, he raids the fridge with Danny and they make huge ice cream sundaes and watch old movies on the TV.”
Kids shouted from somewhere down the street. A dog barked. And one of Cannon’s feet started twitching like he’d just downed three cups of sugar.
“But while the boys play and have all sorts of fun, the dad isn’t having such a good time. He sets up at a big desk in one of the main halls with his typewriter. And for the first few days, the writing goes well. But soon the silence starts to get to him and his mind starts wandering from his work. He starts thinking about his wife, Wendy, who died in an ice-skating accident the winter before. She took Danny and David skating on a frozen lake near their house. At one point in the afternoon, Danny went skating off to a far part of the lake where the ice wasn’t so thick. The ice cracked and he went under. Wendy skated over to the spot and managed to get Danny out. But as she started to stand up, the ice under her broke. She went under and the boys were too young to help her out. She d…drowned,” he stammered. Cannon’s fidgeting became more pronounced.
“The dad starts to miss Wendy so much. He can’t write. Can’t focus. Can’t even sleep. He mostly just lays in bed. But then one night, he hears a voice coming from the bathroom. It’s a deep, soothing voice. Real comforting like butter or balm that you put on a cut, ya know? Just by listening to it, the dad can feel the hurt for Wendy going away. It tells him ‘Don’t get up. Just listen. Wendy’s safe. She’s OK. She loves you and she wants you to know that she’s OK now.’ And the dad asks the voice ‘Who are you?’ And it says that it’s a spirit, a kind of…of messenger sent to say that Wendy’s safe.”
“This doesn’t sound so scary,” I interjected. “This sounds kind of nice, like a drama or something.”
“It isn’t nice!,” Cannon yelled. I looked into the great dark lenses of his aviators and saw myself staring back. I looked worried.
“That’s what…what lures him in. The kindness and warmth of the voice. But the next morning, when the dad goes into the bathroom, you know what he finds?”
I shook my head.
“He finds…he finds lines carved out of the tile floor! Like claws or daggers. Like big nasty claws or daggers had scraped and carved away parts of it. But even though he finds these strange lines in the floor, he feels surprisingly good. He can’t explain it. His writing goes well. And…and he even has a snowball fight outside with Danny and D…and David.”
Another pause from Cannon. Is it my imagination, or is his lip quivering? Is he shaking?
“But those happy times don’t last long. While David watches old movies and jumps on beds with Danny, that voice comes to visit the dad every night. And each night, it talks softly and deeply to him while he lays in bed. And after that first week, the things it says aren’t so nice anymore. In its honey voice, this thing in the bathroom tells the dad that unless the person responsible for Wendy’s death is punished, she’ll go to hell. This scares the father so much. He asks the voice what to do. And the voice…-
A single tear crept down Cannon’s cheek from under the right lens. He quickly wiped it away with his sleeve, maybe thinking that I wouldn’t see.
“The voice tells him that to keep Wendy out of hell, he has to…to b…beat Danny every night.”
“And does he do it?,” I asked.
More tears started rolling out from under the glasses lenses. He gave up wiping and let them plop down onto the front of his pants.
“The voice is very convincing,” Cannon went on in a quivering voice. “And the dad follows its orders. That night, after Danny and David fall asleep, the dad goes into Danny’s room. He takes off his belt and beats Danny across his back and chest with it. The leather makes a cracking sound when it hits Danny’s skin. Danny screams and his father cries because he doesn’t want to hurt Danny…at least not at first.”
“Doesn’t David hear what happens?,” I asked.
“No,” said Cannon, sucking in some snot. “No, he always falls asleep with the TV on. So he only ever hears laughter and music.”
“And this happens every night?,” I asked.
Cannon nodded, wiping away some tears.
“And the dad only beats Danny because Danny was the one who fell through the ice?”
Again, he nodded.
For a moment, we just sat there listening…listening for sounds from outside the window that might save us from the story.
“So what does David do when he finds out about it? About his father hurting Danny?,” I finally asked.
Breathing in heavily, as if it hurt him, Cannon continued: “David doesn’t do anything…because David doesn’t know about it.”
“-Listen,” Cannon said, blowing out a hard sigh. “David and Danny are different types of boys. Danny is really quiet. But David…he never stops….” He hangs his head. “He never stops TALKING!…He can’t learn about what’s happening to Danny because he doesn’t listen…only TALKS. TALKS TALKS TALKS! That’s all he ever does!”
“So he never finds out?,” I asked.
This set Cannon’s head nodding. “He does,” he said with a cynical smile. “He does find out. Remember how David needs a TV to fall asleep? Well, one night, the TV in David’s room won’t turn on. There’s something wrong with it. Danny and him had been watching the TV in David’s room. Danny falls asleep. And after he falls asleep, the TV just switches off and won’t turn on again. So David decides to let Danny sleep in his room. And he goes over to Danny’s room where there’s a working TV. He switches it on and gets under the covers. Before dozing off, he notices these big lines cut into the carpet leading up to the bed. They kind of of freak him out, but he suddenly gets so tired. And he falls asleep.
“He wakes up in the dark. The TV has been switched off. He starts to think that there’s something wrong with ALL of the TVs in the hotel. But then he sees something shift in the darkness. Something moving beside the TV. It’s coming towards the bed. At first, he can’t make it out. But his eyes adjust and there’s a full moon that night. It reflects off of the snow. And the curtains are open.
“The thing that comes up to the bed isn’t….h…human,” he stammered as his bottom lip quivered. “At least, it doesn’t look human. It’s naked. The moonlight through the window shines on its white skin. It’s all pasty and veined like the steps in front of the post office. Giant black claws hang down from its fingers and stick out from its toes. The claws make a tearing sound against the carpet with each step. And it drags a heavy tail behind it.
“Its head looks like an alligator’s. Long with a wide part in front. Tufts of fur pepper it’s snout and ring its mouth. A tangle of greasy gray teeth glisten between its lips. They slide apart. David can see a squirming tongue inside. It looks like a small dying animal.”
Cannon became very still at this point. He fell into an almost trance-like state, muttering the words apathetically, mechanically, as if they’d been learned by rote: “When it reaches the side of the bed, the thing stares down at David with pale gray eyes that seem to glow in the moonlight. Its teeth and mouth curl into a half-grin. David is so scared that he can’t even scream. He just lays there, gripping the sheets. The thing stands beside the bed, looking down at him, smiling, as if it’s enjoying the moment.”
Suddenly, Cannon’s voice became louder, as if to talk over some deafening sound that I couldn’t hear. “Then, in one motion, it whips the sheets back and brings its right claw down on David’s chest. The pain is instant. He can feel a light mist of blood on his chin as it strikes him. He tries to squirm away, but it grabs him by the ankle with its left foot and holds him on the bed as it brings the claws down again and again. David screams and screams. His abdomen and arms become slick with blood. Its tail slithers up onto the bed and wraps itself around his neck. It turns him over onto his back. And with his cheek pressed into the now-wet bedding, David feels hot breath on his back…and then the teeth. They bite down hard and bring up blood. The pain roars through him. It’s so intense that he vomits onto the pillow. Before losing consciousness, he hears the deep grunting of the creature over his whimpers. Its voice sounds like something you could go to bed in. Deep and massive. He huffs one final sobbing breath of blood and puke before blacking out.
“He wakes up in the room. The sheets have been changed and he now wears a full set of clean pajamas that he’s never seen before. Underneath the cotton, every inch of his skin screams with pain. He feels parts of the cloth stick to him where the wounds weep. He lays there in bed for a long time, sobbing, holding his body, just feeling the physical agony wash over him. Eventually, he bites his lip and manages to pull himself out of bed. He walks stiffly to the door, pulls it open and makes his way down the hall to his room. When he opens the door, Danny is waiting for him. He’s standing at the foot of the bed, wearing pajamas identical to David’s. Danny stares deeply and knowingly into David’s eyes. Never breaking his stare, Danny slowly removes his pajama top. Underneath, Danny’s skin is almost brown it’s so dark with cuts and scars. Barely a single patch of skin is visible that hasn’t been sliced or bitten. David falls to his knees. He can only muster a single phrase through the sobs: ‘I’m sorry, Wilson,’” Cannon whispered. “’I’m so sorry.’”
“I thought you said the brother’s name was Dan-,” I started.
“-The movie ends with the brothers hiding from the monster, waiting for spring to come. At night, they hear it roar from places deep in the hotel. Hoping that he might help protect them, the boys search for their father. Eventually, they find him…but they’re terrified by what they see. He’s in the ballroom sitting on a table. He’s naked. The nails on his fingers and toes have grown to the length of daggers. He snarls through massive crooked teeth that break from between bloodied lips ringed with fur. After jumping off of a table, the thing that used to be their father gallops on all fours towards the back entrance of the room. As he retreats, David can make out a large bump at the base of its spine. It looks like a cyst. And once it burst, David knew what would uncoil from inside…the long terrible cord of a tail.”
We sat there for a long time, Cannon sniffing in snot and me sitting still, too scared to disturb the stillness that had descended on the room. Images from Cannon’s story flashed through my mind. Looking down at my hands, I realized that I too was shaking. It was the scariest story I had ever heard.
Something seemed to have snapped in Cannon. Small tremors ran up and down his limbs. The skin of his cheeks and nose had paled to the sickly shade of gruel. His mouth hung open in a stupor like a zombie’s or that of someone who no longer had a mind left to lose. I knew that something was very wrong with my friend. And I knew that the story he had told me wasn’t a faithful telling of the movie. But I couldn’t piece it all together. My mind was slow and sluggish with fear. “Cannon,” I eventually asked. “Are you al-?”
And that’s when the door opened.
A man stood on the other side. He was tall. Bearded. Dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans, and sandals. A plastic bag hung from his left hand. Somehow, I knew right away that it was Cannon’s father.
“Who’s this?,” he asked Cannon gesturing towards me with the bag. Something glass clinked inside.
“A friend,” Cannon said in a near-whisper.
“Turning to me, his stubbly mouth contorted into a half-smile. “Hey, friend!,” he said.
“Hello,” I replied meekly.
Still looking at me, he said, “Didja do yer chores?”
I saw Cannon nod from the corner of my eye.
“Mm-hm.” He continued to stare down at me. Venturing one quick glance up at his face, I saw his mouth still curled into that odd half-smile. But it was his eyes that were remarkable. They were the lightest gray I had ever seen. Pale eyes that reminded me of ice or moonlight.
His father sighed and said, “Well look, friend. We appreciate you stoppin’ by but we’ve got some stuff to do around here. You understand, dontcha?” I nodded.
“Much appreciated,” he said with a smile-voice. I didn’t dare look up at his face. For some reason, I was suddenly very afraid of him. “Cannon, take this down to the kitchen,” he said extending the clinking bag towards the bed.
Cannon got up from the bed and I followed him out of the room, handing his father the envelope from school as I went. “More bullshit, probably,” he said, letting out a half-laugh and a belch as he flipped the envelope around in his hand disinterestedly.
It was then, while walking down the hall towards the stairs, when four major things happened, all seemingly at once. Because I was walking slower than I had while going to Cannon’s room, I was able to get a better look at the photos on the walls. In passing, I spotted Cannon’s father. He looked younger, shaven, thinner, not scary like the one I had just met. And there was Cannon and Wilson playing in a pile of leaves. Cannon and Wilson having a sleepover. Cannon and Wilson…in ice-skates…on a frozen pond. Further up on the wall, I spotted a row of framed prayer cards. In the middle was a portrait of a beautiful woman. The top of the frame was adorned with black ribbons.
Just as I saw those ribbons, the door at the end of the hall creaked open. All three of us turned to look back. And through wisps of shower steam, I saw Wilson. Only he wasn’t wearing the winter clothes that I had seen him in before. In fact, he wasn’t wearing anything at all. Perhaps thinking that no one was home besides Cannon, he had left the bathroom without dressing.
I only caught a quick glimpse of him because something happened quickly after that. But what I did see was a boy whose entire body was purple, yellow, and black with bruises. Only his face and hands held the normal color of his skin. When he saw me, his eyes went wide and watery with panic. Fumbling to cover himself with a towel, he managed to nudge the door shut again with his knee.
Then came the plastic rustle and a “thud” on the floor behind me. When I turned, I saw Cannon with the contents of the plastic bag at his feet. The handle must have snapped. And there on the carpet, I saw two bottles. One was familiar enough. It was a red liter of Coca Cola. But I had never seen the second one before, the one that rolled up and stopped at my feet. It was a glass one, full of a honey-colored liquid. “Jesus Christ!,” I heard Cannon’s dad say as if from far off. “What’s wrong with everybody in this house!” I barely heard him, because the image on that second bottle brought Cannon’s whole story rushing back.
“Fireball” was written in black on the front of it. And beneath the letters was a creature…a creature that my friend had described to me only moments before. Claws stretched out from its feet and hands. Black claws hang down from it’s fingers and stick out from its toes. An oblong head topped its naked body. Its head looks like an alligator’s. And a tail slithered out from its backside. The long terrible chord.
In a daze, I reached down to get the bottle. Cannon was picking up the Coke. I tried to hand the bottle to him, but a strong hairy arm shot out from behind me. “Gimme that!,” I heard his father say. Perhaps out of fear, I was clutching the bottle tightly. When he tried to take it from me, the force spun me around. And there, inches from my chin, I saw something that I had missed when I first saw Cannon’s dad. It was his belt buckle. Two raw black lengths of leather met at a silver rectangle that was open in the middle. The inner edges were all serrated with angry pewter fangs. A tangle of greasy gray teeth glisten between its lips.
Slowly I lifted my gaze up past the wide plain of plaid to his face. His grizzled chin jutted out below a mouth of clenched teeth. The pale gray eyes glared down at me from up on top of his cheekbones. The look they sent down upon me was too plain and simple to be misunderstood. In that moment, he wanted to hit me. I even saw his free hand snake up to caress the hard worn leather at his hip.
But in the next instant, he was jostling me towards the stairs, down to the front door, and back out into the shady yard, back into the world of sunlight, ice cream trucks, and barking dogs. And just as the door was slamming behind me, I got one final look inside. I saw the white knuckles of Cannon’s dad’s left hand, how tightly those fingers gripped that honey-colored bottle with the monster on the front. I saw a ring finger where a wedding band used to be. I saw the jaundiced glare of an addict, one all glazed and warn by misery, anger, regret, and loss, eyes that were no longer seeing me, but the counter top where a drink would be made once I was gone. And just before the door closed, I saw my friend over his father’s shoulder. Cannon, whose glasses had tumbled off in the shuffle. Only the left eye wasn’t swollen shut. And in that wide, wet, desperate stare, he told me more than he ever had with words.
About a year later, on one of our weekly trips to the video store, my mother was in a particularly good mood for some reason. Shooting me a mischievous you-can’t-fool-me-kid kind of look, she said, “Alright. I’m no dope. I see you looking over there at all those scary movies. Go get one.” While running over I heard her shout “PG rated only!,” as an afterthought. And for a while, I looked around and even humored the idea of renting one. Come on! I thought. This is your chance! You actually have permission to rent a scary movie.
But the truth is, something odd had happened after that day at Cannon’s house. I don’t know quite how to explain it. But all of those sound stage creatures, killers, and spirits lost some of their appeal to me the day I met a real monster. The kind of monster that life can turn you into if you aren’t careful. I don’t know. I guess that at some point, I came to the realization that you don’t find horror on plastic tapes. You find it somewhere beyond the storefront, along the sidewalk, down some suburban street, and behind the door of a house where the children always dress for winter.
Credit: Daniel DuBois
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