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Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
The worst thing I’ve ever done in my life happened about twelve years ago, when I was a sixteen-year-old kid living in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the early fall, when the leaves were just starting to turn orange and the temperatures were starting to fall, hinting at the freezing chill that was only a few months away. School had just started, but it had been going on for about a month now, so all the excitement of going back and reuniting with old friends had been replaced by the realization that we were captives in a place that only wanted to load work upon us. Understandably, my friends and I were all eager to do anything that might remind us of the worry-free, responsibility-free days of summer.
Earlier that year, about the time the last school year had let out, one of my friends from work, (McDonald’s, which some people think is lame, but I always had a great time there), had taught me a technique to make yourself pass out with the help of an assistant. It worked something like this: One person would rapidly take ten deep, heavy breaths, and on the tenth, squeeze his eyes shut and hold his breath as tightly as possible while crossing his wrists over his heart. The assistant would then give the person a huge bear hug from behind and squeeze the person’s wrists into his breastbone. Within seconds, the person holding their breath would lose consciousness. The assistant was then in a perfect position to make sure you didn’t totally collapse and crack your skull open on the sidewalk. The effect only lasted for like a second or two–it wasn’t like we were putting ourselves into comas or anything–but it felt like you had been out for hours, and when you came to, the disoriented feeling of not knowing where the hell you were and what you were doing there was awesome.
Now I know some people are like “What the fuck, are you a fucking retard?” And yeah, I know, we were probably killing about a million brain cells each time we would knock ourselves out, and I think probably my memory has suffered for it. But to a bored-as-hell sixteen-year-old, I thought it was hella cool. All the effect of getting your lights punched out, with none of the pain of getting hit in the face. I’d tell you to try it to see for yourself, but after what happened, I would never recommend it to anyone.
One interesting side-effect of doing this, which was really most of the reason we did it, was that while you were out, you’d have extremely lucid, vivid dreams, which you could always recall upon waking (after all, you were only asleep for two seconds). We were good kids, and had never, and would never try drugs, so to us, this was like a poor man’s LSD. These visions, in some way, were usually related to what you were looking at right before you passed out. For example, once I dreamed that I was climbing a mountain. Way up in the Himalayas or something, but there was a handrail there. Who the hell puts handrails at 20,000 feet? When I came to and remembered where I was, I realized I had been looking at the staircase at the corner of my girlfriend’s living room. Another time, I had a vision of Fred Flintstone smiling and holding out his hand in front of a mural with the D.A.R.E. logo. (That’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education, a program cops teach in public schools. You’ve probably seen the bumper stickers). I woke up and saw that my friend Brett had been standing in front of me right before I slipped into dreamland, and that logo was on his shirt. Where Fred Flintstone came from, I have no idea.
The visions were always mundane things like those. Always, until that one day.
Like I said, school had been going on for about a month, and we were already sick of it. We were hanging out one Saturday in “the field,” which was really an easement for the electric company to run their high voltage lines. A few of us were sitting on the metal beams at the bottom of one of the towers. My friend Mike was climbing up to the second tier of beams so he could jump the eight or ten feet to the ground. I thought it was stupid, but hey, I’m the guy who thought it was cool to induce unconsciousness by starving my brain of oxygen.
It was a warm day for October, but the light gray of the sky was slowly getting darker, and in Cleveland, in October, that probably meant that before long, the temperature would soon drop from a comfortable 70 to about 50 in the course of a few minutes, and if we were really unlucky, an ice-cold rain would start to fall. The air was already damp and heavy, and we could hear the quiet buzzing of the high-tension wires above us.
I sure as hell didn’t want to spend the last few moments of a pleasant Saturday afternoon watching this dumbass climb partway up the high-tension tower, jump down, complain about how “that one killed his feet,” only to climb up and do the same stupid thing over again.
“Hey, let’s make ourselves pass out,” I said. By that time, it wasn’t as much fun as it had been in the early summer when we first discovered it, but it was a hell of a lot better than what we were doing. Vince was up for it, so was Richard, but Mike, the guy jumping off the tower, said, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Holy crap, you haven’t been knocked out before?” Vince asked. “No,” was the response. Mike had been at his mom’s house all summer, so he hadn’t been in on all the fun we had been having.
“Dude, you gotta try this. Watch, we’ll show you.”
Vince and I got off the tower, stood in the grass at the center, and I did the customary ten deep breaths. I squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath so hard that if they hadn’t been shut, they’d have probably popped out of my head. Then I felt my friend clamp down on my arms in front of my chest, and suddenly, as if there were nothing more natural in the world, there was a giant lobster, climbing around a lobster cage, and I was under the ocean with seaweed growing from the sandy bottom under my feet.
The next thing I remember, I was awake and Vince and Richard were asking me, “Dude! What did you see? What’d you dream?” The back of my head was killing me.
“Fuck, did you let me fall?” I wasn’t really that heavy, but Vince was pretty weak. He just stood there, looking guilty, and Richard told me he had. “What’d you see though?” he asked.
I rubbed my head and said it was a lobster. It was pinching Vince’s head off with its claws.
I turned to Mike, watching from the L-shaped beams above, and said, “See, it’s fuckin’ awesome.”
“Whatever, I don’t trust any of you enough to do that shit to me.”
“Come on man, you gotta try it. It’s no more dangerous than what you’re doing now. I promise I won’t let you fall like this bitch did.”
He squinted in the way people do when they’re trying to decide if what they’re thinking of doing is worth the risk or trouble. He jumped down one last time, got up and said, “Fine, once.”
If only he would have thought a little longer, or just flatly refused.
He repeated the ten deep breaths, with me as the assistant to make sure he didn’t fall. He held his breath and I helped him slip into that other place. It’s something I’ve regretted ever since, that, and when I think back on all the things I wish I had done differently in my teenage years: girls I should have tried for, classes I should have tried harder in, all the things I should and shouldn’t have done, putting him in that bear hug and squeezing him into unconsciousness is the thing I most regret.
I felt the dead weight shift from his feet onto my chest, and he was a pretty big guy, but I made sure to let him down easy and not knock his head against the hard-packed earth. Just as I laid him on the grass, he came back.
He woke up screaming.
“FUCK! HOLY FUCK! GET AWAY! GET AWAY! GET AWAY!” he screamed as he leaped up to his feet and flailed his arms around his head. We all jumped back, afraid of being hit in his frenzy, but more afraid, so scared we almost shit our pants, of what we were seeing.
After about five seconds, which is about twice the time it normally takes a person to realize where they’re at and remember what they were doing, he slowed down. “Shit. Shit! Holy shit!” He was breathing heavily, gasping deep breaths and hunched over at the corner of the tower. It’s a wonder that in his maddened state he didn’t run right into the supports and knock himself out for real. But he just stood there, bent over at the waist, then fell to his knees. With his back turned to us, he started rocking and wringing his hands and muttering to himself.
“Holy mother of fuck!” said Vince. “What the hell did you see?” But Mike didn’t answer. We approached him slowly, and as we drew near we could hear him quietly sobbing. In our macho world, that was normally a crime punishable by death, but at the time, of course, we didn’t say a word. I reached out a hand to his shoulder. But as soon as I touched him, a touch so tentative and light that he shouldn’t have even been able to feel it, he shrieked and jumped away, clanging his back into the corner of the tower. He pressed up hard against it, staring at us with a look of terror in his eyes so real you’d think we were demons from the pit of hell.
If ever in those few moments I thought that he was “putting on” to fuck with us, that look put all my doubts to rest. That and what happened afterward, of course.
None of us said anything, but after about ten minutes Mike had calmed down enough that Richard was able to coax him to his feet and lead him back to his house. As I had suspected, the temperature had fallen like crazy in just a few minutes and, just as I figured it would, the freezing cold drizzle started to fall. I told Vince I was just gonna go home and I’d see him tomorrow. We always spent the evenings and rainy days playing Mortal Kombat on our SNES, but he didn’t object. I think he probably wanted some time alone to reflect on what horrible thing we had done to our friend, just like I did.
The next day I went to see how Mike was doing, but he and his dad were gone the whole day. I asked him later where he went, but he wouldn’t tell me. I think it must have been to a psychiatrist, because by Tuesday, the next time I saw him, he seemed to be better, if a little zoned out. I figure he got some drugs to calm his nerves, but that’s just a guess. I never really found out. Over the next few days, the four of us hung out, and while Mike was quiet, he didn’t say anything about what had happened. We just talked about stupid, unimportant stuff. Girls we liked, classes at school we hated. I wish we had said something to him now, though I don’t know if it really would have helped, we had no idea what we were facing, and to this day, I still have no clue. But we avoided the subject of what happened that Saturday, and the practice of passing out in general, like it was the plague.
It wasn’t until the following Saturday that he said anything related to what was happening to him.
We were walking down the quiet street of our neighborhood, towards the wooden footbridge that crosses the creek that runs between the houses, separating the development into two halves. I was going on about this hot girl who was a grade above me and who, consequently, wouldn’t give me the time of day, and he, staring at the ground, walked on with his hands in his pockets. Suddenly, out of nowhere and right in the middle of one of my sentences, he says, “I won’t be around much longer.”
“They’ll be coming again tonight, and I don’t think I’ll be able to keep them out this time.”
“Hey. Hey, what are you talking about? Who’s coming tonight?”
“The hands, the voices.”
At this point, I was like, “Holy shit!” I could feel my breathing get quick and shallow and I felt my face and hands get hot to hear him talk, so matter-of-factly, about some horror that I couldn’t even imagine. But I’ll never forget that conversation. It’s etched into my mind like the stone tablets in the Ten Commandments.
I stammered a few times, then said, stupidly, “What hands?”
“At night, I look at the tree out my window, then it goes black and the hands, dozens – a hundred of them – push in against the glass.”
“And what do you do?”
“I push back. All night. But I’m tired. I can’t keep them out anymore. And the voices say I have to let them in. Little kid voices, and little kid hands.” He lowered his voice to a whisper, but I could tell, in what he said next, that he was struggling to keep the panic at bay. “Sometimes, I see their faces,” he said in a trembling voice.
We had come to the walkway up to his house. He stopped and finally lifted his face to me. “Tell Vince he can have my Super Nintendo. He doesn’t have one and his mom sure as hell won’t buy him one. Richard can have my CD’s. I know you guys don’t like rap, but he does.”
I started to say something, but he turned and walked up to his house. He went inside and closed the door. How I wish I would have gone up and knocked. Told him I would have stayed the night. But we were sixteen, and at that age, guys didn’t do that anymore. So I just went home. I didn’t even answer the door for Vince when he came over later. When I went to bed, I didn’t sleep well, and I was constantly listening to every creak and groan that the house made, listening for the voices of a multitude of children. I normally slept with the curtains open, but tonight, I closed them tight.
The next day, we learned someone had broken into Mike’s house. A police car was there in his driveway, and I about shit a brick when I saw it. Later, my worst fears were confirmed when I learned that it was Mike’s bedroom window that had been broken into. He was missing, was all they told us. The cops asked all three of us a ton of questions, and people from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children came and asked us more. I’m sure I looked as guilty as shit, but when I said I didn’t know what happened; it was, after all, halfway true. They were looking for some pervert that had abducted Mike. So no matter how hard they grilled me, they couldn’t get any information relating to that, of course, so finally they gave up. He was on milk cartons and missing children TV shows, but to this day, his is still an unsolved case.
After it was all over, I went to the library to research what the fuck happened, because in those days, while the internet was a research tool, it was only for rocket scientists or people who could afford a $5000 computer. I didn’t find much. The closest thing that I think is related is something I only discovered later, in my Junior class on World History. Apparently, Egyptian priests used to seal themselves in coffins for just long enough a time to almost die. They would then be resuscitated so they could relate the things they saw in the netherworld while dead to the other priests. I can only figure that perhaps the electricity in the air, or the weather, made Mike go under deeper than we ever had and gave him an experience something like what the Egyptian priests had. But Vince knocked me out too, in almost the same spot where Mike was standing when I did it to him. Could he have just been more receptive to the call of that other place? Or had knocking my head on the ground somehow jostled me free of their hold? I don’t know, and I don’t think I ever will, but sometimes it still makes me shiver.
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