Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
You’re right to be scared of the dark.
You know that feeling you get when the covers are pulled up to your face? When you’re lying in the dark with your eyes open but too afraid to look? That feeling that makes you a child again, holding your breath while you say to yourself, If I don’t look, maybe it’ll go away?
If you muster your courage to stare back at the watcher in the dark, it’ll be gone…
…if you’re lucky.
Let me tell you about when my life fell apart.
It was 1982.
I was in the kitchen. Mom said that there were no such things as monsters. I can hear it, now, clear as day.
“You’re too old for that crap.” She spoke over her shoulder from the stove.
I’d been having nightmares and she couldn’t keep waking up in the middle of the night. Work started early and ended late.
“That’s kids’ stuff, Johnnie.” I saw the dark circles under her eyes and the way her face sagged with fatigue. She was working double shifts to make ends meet and it was wearing her thin as a coin passed through too many hands.
“I need to rest,” she said. She wasn’t telling me as much as she was pleading, and even as a kid I could hear the difference. That made my part in it worse.
The pan rattled across the burner and I could smell the sausages browning. It was Sunday, so breakfast was more than Wonder bread and peanut butter.
Gran-dad sat in the kitchen, too. He was drinking his coffee from an off-white mug with a chipped rim.
He had a cigarette in his other hand, and when he wasn’t taking a drag, his hand was on the table next to his GPCs like he was guarding them. Gran-dad called them Good People’s Cigarettes.
His nose was almost as red as the Marlboros he couldn’t afford once he’d been laid off. He coughed, his face blue with the effort. But as soon as he could breathe again, the cigarette was back in his mouth.
Mom dropped two links on my plate from the sizzling pan.
“When I was your age, I was already working odd jobs to help out.”
I didn’t know what to say so I kept my mouth shut.
“And I wasn’t keeping my folks up half the night.”
Gran-dad rescued me. “He knows, Tammy. Give it a rest.”
He looked at me, and I could see that he was asking for assurance. I was just a kid, but also somehow the fulcrum on which the family’s troubles pivoted. Maybe that’s not entirely true, but it seemed that way to me: I was a mouth to feed, a knot keeping the ends from meeting. Those dark circles, that tired sag that pulled at her mouth—one way or another, life was using Mom up. By stealing her sleep, I was tightening its grip.
Shame’s heavy, and it bent me just then.
Gran-dad noticed me sag in my chair. “Johnnie’s just shook up. He’ll be alright.”
He didn’t look so sure, but he gave me a nod anyway.
“Yeah.” I knew I was lying.
So did Mom, but she kept her peace and dropped two dollops of scrambled egg next to the links on my plate.
High-cotton. That’s what Gran-dad said about sausage and eggs. I didn’t feel it, though, not that morning.
He used a fork to cut the links into bits and to mix everything together. I usually liked mine separate and made sure no egg touched sausage, but I watched them meet in the middle as though they were best friends. I had lost my appetite somewhere so far off that even the smell of Jimmy Dean couldn’t call it back.
He watched me scooting my sausages around, took a long pull from his cigarette, and winked. His eyes were playful, conspiratorial even.
Mom joined us with a plate of her own.
“Shit!” she said suddenly. “I forgot the toast.”
In a moment, she was back with a small plate stacked with five or six slices of white bread, a bit more burnt than brown.
“Eat up,” she said. I did, one joyless bite at a time.
High cotton. That’s what Sunday morning meant.
Sunday afternoon was a lazy affair at my house and this one was no exception. Gran-dad leafed through old magazines, nodding off now and then. The pages were dog-eared and he’d read the stories before, but he didn’t mind. Mom washed her hair in the bathroom sink and took a long nap.
I went outside while Mom slept. It was sunny and hot and I decided to poke around in the shed. It was under an old maple and dappled with shade and sun in summer camouflage.
The shed was never locked because there was nothing worth stealing. I opened the door and stepped in. It smelled like rust and oil and old wood and the light that shone through its only window spotlighted the dance and swirl of the dust in the air.
I poked around a bit, looking for something—anything—that might take my mind off my Mom.
I had a file in one hand and I was wearing away at the head one of the bolts attaching a beat-up vice to the worktable. Each push gave a raspy sound and the glint of shiny new steel. One push carried my knuckles too far and I scraped them across the sharp edge of the vice. It peeled the skin back and the blood welled up under the curl.
I stuck my hand in my mouth and tasted the metallic tang. My knuckle stung and I winced as I ran my tongue over the flap of skin.
Then I saw it.
In the corner of my eye, I could just make out a shadow, blacker than the black against which it stood. Two long arms with long hands and long fingers that looked more like claws to me.
It was just my imagination.
No, it’s not, John. My father’s voice.
My eyes were on the workbench but I focused on the shadow without looking.
It grew, stretching in the dark, raising those long-fingered hands.
My breath caught. I dropped the file and it clunked on the wood floor. I forgot about my knuckle. The hair on my arms stood up and I could feel my heart skipping, starting, faster, pounding, trying to escape my chest. I was too scared to look at it directly. I thought about running for the door, but the shadow was right there, just beside it.
It had long arms. I’d never make it.
I edged into the light from the window, trying my best not to look.
I thought that maybe if I just ignored it, it’d go away.
But you tell yourself that, too, don’t you? Late at night?
Something in me knew better. Something in you does too, I bet.
It was moving, inching toward the mostly closed door.
I was pretending not to look, but I took another sideways step into the light. I could feel the sun on my skin. In the light, the darkness deepened.
I couldn’t make out the shadow anymore, but I knew it was there.
It’s there alright, Johnnie. Don’t you doubt it. Now the voice was Gran-dad’s.
The door closed with a thud.
My chest ached from the effort of keeping my breath in check.
I had to do something.
I grabbed a hammer—a big heavy one with a painted red wooden handle.
“You stay away from me!” I yelled. “I mean it! You just…”
My words died in my throat.
It was there. I could see it now, blacker than black, getting darker every second.
It was creeping closer, sliding like it was on rails.
My hands shook and I my lower lip begin to quiver. White-hot panic burned in my mind and every thought but RUN! was smoke in its wake. But I was frozen and my feet wouldn’t budge.
It stopped at the edge of the light.
It slid around the side, staying just beyond the patch of white on the floor.
It was close, really close. The light was small but it was everything.
Mom wasn’t much on church and she never taught me to pray. But I prayed my heart out that some passing cloud didn’t happen by, just then.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t holding my breath—I was trying to take one and it wouldn’t come.
We stood like that for a long time. The hammer got heavy and my arms ached, but I didn’t dare lower my guard.
It was trying to get behind me when the shed door opened.
“What the hell are you doing?” Mom asked.
She noticed the wet patch on my jeans.
“What the hell, John? I mean…”
I stood there, lip quivering, hammer held high, until she took me by the arm and dragged me out into the yard and the sunlight
and into the house.
She was angry about my wet jeans but I didn’t care.
Mom was making dinner in the kitchen.
Gran-dad and I were in the living room. He was on the couch. I was on the floor, sitting Indian-style.
He turned off the TV. I wasn’t watching anyway.
“What’s wrong, Johnnie?” He took a long pull and breathed out through his nose. His face was wreathed in blue smoke.
I eyed the window. The sun was setting and it would be dark soon.
“Nothing,” I said, trying to guess how long the light would hold, watching the shadows grow across the front yard.
“Doesn’t look like nothing to me,” he said. “Come up here and talk, man to man.”
I joined him on the couch and he crushed the nub of his cigarette into the ashtray. It was brown glass, made to look like amber.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, tousling my hair.
He could see that it was something and the tousling stopped.
He caught my eye with a long, sideways look of one milky, brown eye.
“Some men think they should keep their troubles to themselves. Not me. A trouble shared is a trouble lessened, I say.”
He paused for a breath or two and I could hear how bad his lungs were.
“What’s your trouble, Johnnie?”
“In the shed…well…” It was too ridiculous to even say.
Kid’s stuff. It was Mom’s voice in my head. You’re too old for that crap.
“What about the shed?”
“You saw something, didn’t you?”
“I thought you might. The nightmares…” He coughed, one of the really bad ones that doubled him over and brought tears to his eyes.
“They’re not just nightmares, Johnnie.” He wiped his eyes and his voice was high and tight and wheezy. “Some folks are more…sensitive. The nightmares let you know when it’s around.”
That got my attention like a slap. “What’d you mean?”
He had recovered and his hand wandered over to the pack of GPCs. “Well, some folks see things other folk can’t or won’t.” He had my eye again and I could feel his intensity.
“You follow me?” He fished a cigarette out the pack and held it, unlit, rolling it in his fingers.
“I guess,” I said.
“You’re at that age, now, that age when either you stop seeing it, or start seeing it more than you’d like.”
The way he said it quickened the hair on the back of my neck. Every follicle was alive and tingling.
“The shadow…?” My voice was barely a whisper.
“Yeah,” he said.
I was stunned. It was like I’d known a secret that no one else can share and suddenly I found out that everyone already knows. Gran-dad knew. He’d seen it too. As real as the shadow had been, this was impossible to believe.
“You see it, too?” I asked.
He looked at the cigarette in his hand and then back at me.
“Really?” I asked.
He nodded, a slow-motion move of his head.
“You be careful, Johnnie,” he said. Some things lose their power when you say them aloud. I found out then that this wasn’t one of them. It was way worse after he had admitted that it was dangerous. Way worse.
I was about to ask more when Mom came in. She didn’t want to hear this and I knew it and I couldn’t bear to make it harder on her.
“Dinner,” she said.
“Later,” Gran-dad said. “We’ll talk about it later.”
Mom had a double-shift the next day and went to bed early.
Me and Gran-dad waited till we were sure she was asleep.
I watched the windows like a hawk. It was full dark and the hair on my arms was at attention.
He took one last glance at the hall. Then, his voice as low as a cricket’s belly, he said, “Johnnie, you got to watch out now.”
Hearing him say it gave me the shivers.
“Once it knows you can see it…”
“It’ll come for me, won’t it?” I asked, barely able to get the words out.
He was having the same trouble so he nodded.
Millions—hell, billions of parents tell their kids that there’s nothing in the dark that’s not there in the light. You’ve done it yourself, haven’t you? You repeat it until you believe it, or nearly so, and you hope your kids believe it too. But maybe it’s you who need to believe, maybe it’s you who need the consolation. Maybe because you know, deep down, that there are things that go bump in the night.
I knew it and so did Gran-dad.
“I’m gonna watch over you tonight. You’ll be safe as houses, I promise.”
That helped a little.
“But I’m not always going to be here.” I shook my head but he continued. “And when I’m not, you’ll need to keep watch yourself.”
“You hear me?”
“Yeah.” The word was more breath than speech.
“Good. When the nightmares come on heavy, that’s a sign it’s around.”
“Why does it…”
“I’m not sure. Maybe it feeds on us at night, stealing a little bit of you when you sleep…”
He lit a new cigarette from the old one and puffed it to life.
“I think it comes for those who can see it and maybe it ignores them that can’t, or won’t. You know what I mean.”
I did. Even if Mom saw it, she would convince herself that she hadn’t.
I said so and he nodded.
“Yeah.” His tone told me that he wanted to be a little more like Mom.
“But what can I do? I mean to stay safe?”
“The light, Johnnie. Stay in the light.”
Neither of us could bear to talk about it anymore. There are things you can say in the daylight that you won’t dare in the dark.
Instead, we watched Hogan’s Heroes and Sanford and Son with the volume down low so as not to wake Mom. Normally, we’d have been laughing, but that night we didn’t even crack a smile.
It was getting late and Gran-dad told me to get ready for bed.
I had the covers up like a shield.
The lamp was on and my room was fairly well lit. The overhead was busted, but it had always been busted and there was a problem with the wiring.
Gran-dad was in the corner in a battered fabric chair. He was wearing his red and black plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up and he had a big, silver Rayovac Sportsman with him, the kind that took two D-cell batteries. Something about the chrome reminded me of a knight’s a sword. I felt a lot better with him there.
“I’ll watch over you,” he said.
I tucked my head under the blankets. I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to see it.
I was tired and scared but my eyes were heavy. At some point, I fell asleep.
I woke up suddenly. Gran-dad was still in the corner, but his flashlight was on and he was shining it under the bed.
I sat up and he saw that I was awake.
His face was pale as fresh paint and the Rayovac shook in his hand. I could hear the batteries rattle.
“Don’t get out of bed,” he said.
“Wha…? Why?” I rubbed my eyes. I was still groggy.
“It’s under the bed, Johnnie.”
I was wide awake then.
“Don’t get out the bed!” he repeated. He wasn’t asking.
I jumped to my feet, the saggy mattress bouncing slightly under my weight.
“What’d you mean?”
“It’s under the fucking bed! Don’t move!”
I was ten years old and I’d never heard Gran-dad so much as say “shit.” This was bad, real bad.
I couldn’t stay on the bed—no way, no how—so I ran the step or two the end of the mattress and jumped for all I was worth.
“No!” Gran-dad yelled.
I traveled too far and too fast and hit the window in mid-air, flattening the blinds and tangling in them, ripping them from the wall when I fell backward toward the bed.
Toward the bed.
Gran-dad was off the chair in an old man’s flash, but my hand was falling into the shadow even as I tried to stop it.
Upside-down on the floor, I could see it too, flat as a doormat in the shadow under the bed.
I snatched my hand to my chest as it reached for me and not even a hair’s breadth separated its fingers from mine. It was cold and misty, like my hand in the freezer to get ice.
“I’m OK! I’m OK!” I said, finding my feet. I hopped up and down like it was Christmas morning. “I’m OK! I’m OK! I’m OK!” I was yelling, but I didn’t know it. Gran-dad didn’t either, but we figured it out when Mom burst through the door.
“What the hell!” she yelled, her bathrobe trailing behind her like a cape. “John? Mack?”
“What the hell is going on?”
Her hands were on her hips and her face was as red as Gran-dad’s nose.
She pointed a finger at Gran-dad. If it had been a gun, he’d have been be dead.
He gave me one long, pitiful look that said, “What can I do?”
Mom stood her ground like a titan and he trudged into the hall past her, his head down, defeated, worried, afraid.
Then it was my turn.
“You! In the bed!”
What was I supposed to say? That there was a monster under the bed? That I needed Gran-dad to keep watch?
Haven’t your kids said the same thing?
I picked up the Rayovac and leapt into the bed. Not flounced, not jumped, leapt. Like Bruce Fucking Jenner in the Olympics.
“When I get home, John…” That threat needed no conclusion.
She turned and slammed the door.
But not before she switched off the lamp.
I sat with the flashlight on and I knew it wouldn’t be enough.
I was on the tracks tied to the rails and the train was coming and there was no hero waiting just off screen to run in and save the day.
It was really dark in there and there wasn’t even a light peeking under the door.
It was in its element.
I could hear Mom giving it to Gran-dad in the kitchen down the hall, but I couldn’t concentrate on the words. My heart was at least as loud as her cursing and my mouth felt like it’d never known a sip of water.
I had the Rayovac in one hand like a spear, and I was shining the light at the edges of the bed, moving frantically from this side to that, from the headboard to my feet and back again.
It was waiting, savoring my fear.
You know how it does that, don’t you?
That’s when Mom came in.
In the instant before the bulb blew up, she saw it and her mouth dropped open and her eyes grew just like the did on Saturday morning cartoons.
I heard her take a loud breath, the substance of a scream filling her lungs, but it was black now and there was a rush of air and she was gone.
She was gone.
I was screaming, tearing at the doorknob, running down the hall toward the light. My socked feet slid on the kitchen floor and I smashed into the cabinets hard enough to send my head spinning. The Rayovac skittered across the tired, yellow linoleum.
Gran-dad overturned the table. He saw something, too, because it was few minutes before I could get him to see me or answer my frantic questions.
It had been right behind me in the hall all the way to the edge of the kitchen.
We waited there till morning.
That sounds crazy—I know it—but we did.
Even then, every light in the house was on as we searched my room for Mom.
Of course we never found her.
Folks think she ran out, just like Dad did. That the double-shifts and bills and me and Gran-dad were just too much in the end.
We knew better.
I knew better.
That was 1982. A long time ago.
Gran-dad and me had a hard time of it, and soon enough, I was working those odd jobs to make ends meet. They never really did. Not even close.
Gran-dad passed before too long and I got more help from the state and foster care. The Willis’ weren’t so bad, and Fred and Rita did as well by me as they could.
I sold the house when I turned 18.
I’ve got stacks of bulbs in the kitchen closet: 60 watts, 100 watts, fluorescents—you name it. My lights are all rigged to a master switch in each room, too. One flip and everything’s lit.
I won’t have it any other way.
When the nightmares come—and they do come—I keep the lights on all night. The Rayovac’s been replaced by a Maglite rechargeable, and I keep a Q-Beam by the bed, just in case. Every room has a few lamps and an overhead. The wiring’s like new.
I want you to know that when you get that terrible feeling, that feeling of being watched from the dark, you’re not alone. When you pull the blankets up like a shield and slide your head down and pull your feet up, I do too. When you feel it watching from the dark or pull back a cold hand dangling over the side of the bed, when you feel like a kid and try to tell yourself there’s nothing there but your imagination, even though you know there’s something there…
Kids go missing all the time don’t they? And sometimes they die in their sleep even though there’s nothing wrong with them.
And sometimes parents just get up and go when they’ve had enough.
But maybe, just maybe, not all those kids ran away. And maybe, them that die see something before they do. And sometimes, just sometimes, those parents didn’t run off when times got hard.
And you’re right to be afraid of the dark and what’s in it.
Credit: jd lucien