I used to think of Hell as a faraway place.
For those of you out there who still hold that belief, this piece of my life is for you. Don’t ask me why I’m doing this; I’m honestly not sure. My therapist says writing about our traumas can help our brains cope—make things easier to swallow, a system he affectionately refers to as “remedy-writing.” My reasoning could be something as selfish as that. Perhaps I’m also hoping that those of you who read this will heed its warning. Do not make the same mistakes my ten-year-old self did. Or maybe it is merely the adage: misery loves company.
I grew up in a middle-class suburb in Ventura County, not too far from Los Angeles. Our house was one of many cookie-cutter homes separated by white pickets or chain link fences.
My mom, a soft-spoken, dream-driven woman, worked from home as an editor for a growing magazine. My father spent every day in Simi Valley where he worked as a cargo loader for trucks. After a day of lifting, managing the forklift, and meeting every physical demand, he’d come home sore and irritable.
I remember eagerly staring at the clock, watching it tick revoltingly slower every time I checked. Then came the magical chime that sounded our freedom. Summer break had started, and school finally released us from our desk-shackles. I think I miss that most about childhood—the raw, unfettered excitement I had for things. The sort of overwhelming avidity that kept you awake at night just waiting to look underneath the Christmas tree, just waiting to see your birthday cake, just waiting for a brand-new day. We eventually lose it as adults, once the day-to-day exhaustion and cynicism set in.
With summer came many things that have permanently crystallized in my memories: The smell of backyard barbecues, the giddy laughter of kids running through sprinklers while their parents gossip on the porch, the golden bar of sunset slowly sinking down the street, and of course, how could we forget the ballad of a summer heatwave: the Ice Cream Man’s jingle. That was how it all started.
It was on a warm Wednesday night. An awful gnawing hunger pulled me out of sleep. Unable to ignore it, I slipped out of bed and crept past my parent’s bedroom. I was craving something sweet from the kitchen. Settling on the last of our pudding cups, I also poured myself a small glass of milk. It would be enough to shut my stomach up. As I started back to my room, a faint sound caught my ear.
A song, like the one you’d hear drifting out of a music box, was coming from outside. I walked to the window and peered through it. The muffled tune, more specifically, “Pop Goes the Weasel” was coming from down the street—an ice cream truck.
I’d never seen Mr. Mason out this late before. He was one of the residents of our neighborhood, who decked out his grey van to sell frozen treats. But he usually started his route at noon, when the sun was at its cruelest. Maybe it’s for the adults, my ten-year-old-brain thought.
The truck coasted by my house, moving tantalizingly slow with that happy electronic chime. It wasn’t Mr. Mason’s van. The truck was a pale green with blue accents on the lower half. On the side of its metal body was a large circle with the print of a cartoonish boy in the center. He had blue skin, big black eyes, and a white soft-serve hairstyle. His pupils were notched to create the illusion of a glare on his smiling looney-toon face. One of his white-gloved hands held a fudgsicle to his mouth while the other gave a big thumbs-up. The tip of the swollen thumb, as well as the fingers and wrist, appeared to be melting, just like ice cream. Written above and below the circle, in sizable whimsical lettering:
JOIN THE FUN
That next morning is still such a vivid memory to me. I remember waking up to my father’s fist pounding against my door. He was yelling, ordering me to unlock it. I pulled the bed sheets over my head and curled into a ball. Even now, I can still feel that sharp tinge of anxiety just thinking about it. Then from behind the doorframe, a countdown started from three. You never wanted him to reach zero. God help you if that man ever reached zero.
When I opened the door, he snatched my arm and pulled me into the kitchen. My bare feet dragged pitifully across the floor. The white milk jug was sitting on the corner, its cap still missing. Mom was sitting at the table, her neck deliberately facing the window. Not a good sign.
“Did you leave this out?” he asked with a sullen voice.
When I didn’t give an immediate answer, he twisted my arm. A hot ring of pain coiled around the area. “Yes!” I cried out. “I’m sorry! I left it out! I’m sorry!”
“Great!” His voice rose and cracked. “Now we need more milk. What a fucking waste.” With one of his hands still clasped around my arm, he reached for the milk jug with the other and dumped it over my head.
My mom gasped loudly in her seat, the trademark reaction.
He left for work after that. Evidently, I had made him late. It wasn’t the first of my father’s outbursts, and it was far from the last. The bastard was always looking for a punching bag, and when my mother didn’t fit the role, I was runner-up. Every day in that house was like maneuvering around tripwires. Eventually, you’d trigger him.
My mom scooped me off the floor and took me to the bathroom so I could wash the milk out of my hair. She left a bundle of clean clothes on my bed. That was her time to react: The moment our front door slammed shut and his car left the driveway. Until then, her neck was twisted anywhere else with that same disconnected, faraway look. When I came back into the kitchen, she was making eggs for breakfast.
“What kept you up last night?” she quietly asked me.
“I was hungry. I was going to put everything back, but the ice cream truck distracted me.”
She looked at me quizzically, the blistering hot oil popping in the pan. “What do you mean?”
“He was driving around the neighborhood last night. Didn’t you hear his music?”
She scrunched her forehead and shook her head. “Mr. Mason wouldn’t be driving around that late; there wouldn’t be any point to it. All he would get is no customers and noise complaints. The sweets you ate before bed probably made you dream about it.”
If only that were the case.
That night, my stomach once again woke me. The hunger pangs had come back much worse this time and as much as I tossed and turned trying to ignore them, it wasn’t possible. I sighed and pulled myself out of bed, once again tiptoeing past my parent’s bedroom. The kitchen had nothing for me, not even milk now. My mom still hadn’t been to the store that week, leaving our pantry mostly vacant, save for larger meals. I wanted something sweet.
Then it came again, the melodious music from outside. The ice cream truck was driving its late-night route again. Another sharp twinge stabbed at my stomach. The thought of ice cream at that moment was captivating. If the driver were following the same pattern as last night, he’d pass by here again, right? The idea teased me. I weighed my options. The piggy bank in my room had at least two or three dollars of change in its gut. I could run out, pay him, grab the ice cream, and run back with my folks none the wiser. But if my father noticed—dear God if he saw, I’d have a lot more than hunger pains to fall asleep to. I stood there and pondered. Eventually, hunger won the debate.
I went into my room and opened up my piggy-bank. The mechanical jingle was getting closer; it was nearly passing the yard. I put on my shoes and wrapped a jacket over my pajamas. Carefully, I unlocked the front door, praying that the click wouldn’t be too loud. I discreetly pulled it open, just enough for my small self to slip through. Luckily not enough for the hinges to creak.
I ran across the grass and down the driveway in my sneakers. There it was, steering slowly toward me. The song churning out of the speakers situated at its top sounded similar to “It’s a Small World.” It pulled up and stopped near me. The cartoon caricature with bright blue skin, presumably named Piper, smiled down at me.
Behind the hum of its engine, I heard something suddenly clink inside of the truck. The music stopped, and someone hoisted open the vendor window. I tried to look inside, but there wasn’t a single light or bulb to light up the interior; it was just a metal box of darkness.
“Hello?” I called out.
“Hey, little guy.” The cheery voice that answered was soft and mellow, definitely not Mr. Mason’s smoker rasp. “What can I get for you?”
I shuffled the quarters in my palm. “Can I have a Bomb Pop?”
“You sure can!” the chipper voice answered. Inside the shadows, there were vague signs of movement and quiet humming. The sweet-smelling aromas of hot fudge mixed with other milky flavors created an amalgam of smells that made my stomach growl.
A white-gloved hand melted out of the blackness. Tweezed between its index finger and thumb was my popsicle still in its wrapper. I took it and held my hand full of quarters out to the serving window.
“Oh, no, no, no,” the man said. “Not necessary. This one is on me, free of charge.”
I smiled and pocketed the coins. “Thank you!” I beamed and cocked my head to the side. “Can you see anything in there?”
“I see everything,” the voice chortled. “Where are your friends?”
I scuffed the curb with one of my soles. “They’re probably all asleep. Everyone is. Why do you drive around so late?”
“Well, I was born sick you see, the type of sick that makes me sensitive to the sun. If even the slightest bit touches me, I’d whistle, I’d whizz and then I’d FWOOMP like a firework!”
We both laughed at that. From within the lightless interior, I could make out a vague face with perked smiling cheeks.
“Would you like another Popsicle?” he asked.
I itched the back of my neck. “I should go now. If my Dad sees me out here, I’ll get in trouble.”
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed. “We wouldn’t want that. Drop by again, okay? Bring some friends next time!”
“I will.” I smiled and waved as I carried my free popsicle back to the house. The door quietly closed behind me; my parents didn’t hear a thing. On my way back to my room, I peered out the window. The Ice Cream Truck was still out there, sitting motionless in front of my house. Finally, the wheels started turning, and the music began a new chorus of “Home on the Range.”
I ate the tri-colored popsicle in my room. The flavor that tingled over my tongue was like nothing I had ever experienced. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that words will not do it justice, but I’ll do my best. It was a beautiful mixture of cherry, lime, raspberry and something else, something different. It was like a literal rocket had propelled itself through my system and left a sputtering trail of joy. Each bite only brought me to a higher atmosphere. It was fantastic, enjoyable, and worst of all, unnatural. I slept like a baby that night with a more than satisfied stomach.
The next day I biked around our neighborhood with a few other kids. We had chosen a miserably hot day for it and quickly regretted the decision. Luckily, we found a large tree and sat with our bikes in its cool shadow.
“Have you guys heard it too, the ice cream truck at night?” I asked everyone.
They shook their heads, trading off skeptical looks at me, except for one boy: Matthew. He was pudgy, wore a pair of square-lensed glasses that complemented his round face, and had cheeks splattered with freckles. We weren’t close friends but mostly knew each other from school.
“I’ve seen it, parked right outside my house,” was his tepid response. “The guy waved at me from the window. I thought it would wake my mom up, but she slept like a boulder.”
Before I could answer him, it was as though the devil himself had heard our chatter, and we heard the music. Mr. Mason’s ice cream van rounded the corner, blasting the first few bars of its tinny melody. That was just what we needed right now, the perfect solution for a brutal summer day. Ever since the Bomb Pop from last night, I’d been craving another. My thoughts kept returning to it, the lingering flavors still flickering in my mouth. I was almost drooling. I wanted more.
Mr. Mason quickly spotted us and pulled up with a smile. He spoke in a grizzled, unique voice, which I now realize was a thick Turkish accent. I handed him the change in my pocket and waited for the wondrous rocket-shaped popsicle. The moment I grasped it, I immediately tore the wrapper off and sunk my teeth into it. Then, just as quickly, I stopped and gagged. It was bitter, like I had just taken a bite out of frozen wax. The taste covered my tongue and clawed the back of my throat.
I let each of my friends have a lick, except for Matthew who immediately declined. They all said it tasted normal, not sharp or waxy at all. My friend who had asked for the same thing even let me try his. It was horrible, absolutely horrible.
None of them could taste it, the disgusting flavor.
I lay in bed that night, staring at the ceiling and shaking. The pulsing red numbers next to my bed read two in the morning. My eyes were red and swollen from hours of crying. Pain lanced the purple, pear-shaped bruise on my leg. A reminder, courtesy of my father, that after a grueling day of work he did not deserve to come home to a bike left in the driveway. It would, unfortunately, be another nine years of this before the untreated blood clot in his leg would take his life. A few days before the accident, I had told him to go fuck himself.
But my father wasn’t the reason I couldn’t stop shaking; it was the cravings. The throbbing spasms of hunger had been haunting me for the past few nights. They were back with a twisting vengeance, worse than ever. After Mr. Mason had given me the popsicle, I’d spent the rest of the day trying to get rid of that vile taste. Nothing was working; in fact, every sweet thing I tried tasted just as bad. Even my favorite juice was developing a sharp, greasy aftertaste. I bit deeply into my knuckles, a nervous habit I’d acquired over the years, which has now left a row of callused depressions there. I needed something sweet; I’d have killed for something sweet.
Then it returned, the music outside my window. Just down the street, the late-night ice cream truck was making its rounds. That was it, the answer to my prayers. Without thinking, I sprang out of bed and grabbed my jacket and sneakers. Slipping out of the house was just as easy as the first time. Mostly fueled by hunger, I ran to meet the truck halfway.
It rolled to a stop, clearly spotting me. Not that I was hard to miss, of course. I ran next to its minty green body and impatiently waited. But nothing happened.
“Hey Kiddo,” the voice said through the open passenger window. “Sorry about that, my hatch is stuck and won’t open. What can I get for you?”
“Another Bomb Pop—please?” I asked pitifully. Hiding the pleading whine in my voice was impossible.
“Not a problem, let’s have a look-see.” I could hear him rummaging around, muttering incoherently to himself. He returned, sounding less than cheerful. “Well, that isn’t good.”
My heart sank like an anchor. “What isn’t?”
“It looks like I’m out of those for the night. Dang, what bad luck.”
A painful throb racked my stomach, making me wince. “Something else,” I begged. “Can I have something else?”
He rummaged around some more and sighed heavily. “I’m sorry to say, but it looks like I have nothing left.”
Tears rushed to my eyes. Hopelessness bubbled up inside me. My solution, the one sure thing I needed to get rid of these cravings, was gone. I’d have to wait until tomorrow night. I started the miserable walk home, back to the bed I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep in. My sneakers dragged along the asphalt.
“Hang on a tad,” the voice said. “Looks like I have one more left, just for you.”
I whipped back around and raced to the passenger window. “Really?” I said, wiping the trailing tears from my face.
“Of course.” I heard something unlock—the passenger door. “I found it right up here, come get it.”
A chorus of alarmed voices called out to my brain: Not safe, this a stranger, go home, not safe. Of course, there were red flags, obvious ones. But I was not thinking clearly. My logic had whittled away. All that mattered was the craving—the unusual desire for that exquisite taste. It possessed me. I knew there were risks, but my fatigued boyish mind was done compromising.
I pulled the green metal door open. The cabin was expectantly as dark as its backside. An invisible coldness permeated the air, about as cold as you’d presume an ice cream truck to be. The tart, dancing smells of chocolate, strawberry, bubblegum, and other flavors graced my nose. A single grated step led inside. I spied a vague silhouette sitting at the driver’s seat with my Bomb-Pop in hand.
From atop his dashboard, the bobblehead of a grey cat jiggled its head.
“Go on, it’s all yours,” he said pleasantly.
I leaned inside the truck, planting one foot over the metallic step while the other remained on the pavement. The dim outline of the driver held out the popsicle, just inches from my fingers.
“Come on,” he said again. “Don’t you want it?”
Just as my fingertip grazed the foil casing, I heard something. Something that without a doubt saved my life that night. A strained voice squeaked out of the truck’s insides.
The hand holding the popsicle lunged at me, seizing my arm as I tried to pull back, grabbing a handful of sleeve instead of skin. I gasped, too shocked to muster a scream, and jerked backward. But his grip was relentless. The darkness around us dispersed, and in an instant, I could see everything, like some veil, had lifted.
A nauseating texture coated the ceiling, rust perhaps. It crawled down the inner walls in a reddish-brown crust. There were scuff marks on the stained floor. A foul eggy smell thickened the air. Every window was impossible to see through, smeared with grime and networking cracks. But the worst of all, the crux of my persistent nightmares even now, was the thing in the driver’s seat.
A naked, bluish body mottled with dark rashes and boils. Folds of excess skin sagged off of its bloated frame, almost like it was melting. One of its long double-jointed arms was pulling at my sleeve. The loose flesh that hung off of it wobbled and jiggled like sacs of trapped liquid. And then its face, the horrible, horrible face was creased with a clownish smile. Its gums were grey and infected with bent teeth jutting out of them. It looked bald at first glance, but a few straggly white hairs sprouted from its swollen blue scalp. One of its eyes, a pitch-black sphere, was rooted in its cheek, like it had slid down from the socket. The only thing remotely human about the thing was the way it sat in the driver’s seat. One ugly hand on the steering wheel, the other still trying to pull me closer. A guttural voice spat out of its mouth at a sickeningly cheery octave.
“Don’t you want it, little guy?”
I screamed and didn’t stop screaming. The sanity drained out of me in fat seeping tears. My vision was a wet, blurry haze of horror and internal voices screamed for me to run-run-run-run. Suddenly, something was ripping. I flung myself back onto the asphalt. My sleeve was now a bloodless gash of torn fabric. The nude, humanoid thing was exerting a strange huffing, gurgling sound—maybe laughter, I don’t care to know for sure.
The outside of the truck was even worse than the inside. Eating away at the pale green paint was a thick film of black matter. It covered the car in a black muddy ooze, smothering the cartoonish boy and his broad smile. A few letters did show through though: JOIN THE FUN. Parts of the grimy substance were moving, throbbing maybe, as though they had some sort of pulse.
The speakers atop its mucky body, although caked in the stuff, were still spewing out sound. It wasn’t music, not in any way that the human mind could understand. A hollow, high-pitched frequency with a gravelly white noise hiss. Behind the corrupted pitch was something else, something that almost sounded like it was trying to escape from it—choppy inaudible screaming. Hell, I was hearing Hell.
With the last burst of adrenaline my system had to offer, I twisted around and tore through the yard to reach my house. I flung the door open, slammed it shut, and slid down to the floor. I buried my head in the crevice of my knees, drenched in snot and tears.
I sat there wallowing for some time, waiting for my father’s footsteps to come pounding out of his room. But it never happened. Both of my parents were still in bed. I tried to wake my mother up and out of pure desperation, my father too, but neither so much as stirred. The gritty white noise was still screaming from the street. I hid beneath my sheets and covered my ears, trying everything I could to expel it from my head. Help me; the distressed voice had said from the back of the truck, the voice that saved my life.
Finally, after minutes of grueling torture, the truck revved its engine and cruised down the street. The house became silent, save for my sleepless crying.
A child did go missing that night. Matthew, the boy with freckled cheeks and square lenses. I will not be giving out his last name for respect of the family. His parents had woken up to his empty room and their front door left ajar. They called the police and filed a missing person’s report, and the community was notified about the disappearance. I remember seeing a few police cruisers lined outside of Mr. Mason’s house, probably because the boy’s mother heard him spout off about an ice cream truck coming in the dead of night. They found no evidence against him, but the grey ice cream van didn’t leave his garage for the rest of the summer, or any summer after that.
To this day, I can still feel those bitter flavors in my mouth, sitting on my tongue like a pool of chemicals. At first, it only affected sweet things, then salty things, and slowly worked its way up to everything. No matter what I eat, no matter what I drink, my stomach attempts to force it out of my body due to its acrid waxiness. I take no pleasure in food. I eat only not to die. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed something as simple as taste.
Every night a new wave of impulses come back, prying at the last cardboard walls of my sanity. I cram my knuckles into my teeth to trap the screams inside. I beg the dark nothingness of my room for something sweet. That’s how it draws you out: Hunger. When the happy, inviting music gets in your head, it fills you with cravings masquerading as hunger. Don’t bother trying to wake your parents; it won’t work. Not while that truck is in your neighborhood. Then you take the bait, the incredible flavor from your dreams, a taste so perfect you’d kill for a sliver of it again. But when you go back, begging for just one more, it takes you.
So, I implore you, whether or not you decide to believe me after reading this, at least give it some thought. If you are ever stirred awake in the dead of night, and an ice cream truck’s jingle drifts in from the window, go back to sleep. For the love of God, go back to sleep.
Credit : Michael Paige
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