It’s my oldest memory. I’m standing in dad’s office, books are raining from the shelves as the ground shakes under my feet. It’s an earthquake, my first one so to me it’s pretty scary. Cap is still in diapers. He won’t remember any of it.
Dad’s bookcase slides over and a big crack appears in the wall behind it. It sounds crazy but there’s darkness leaking from it, like bars of smoke shooting out in straight lines.
Mom comes in with Cap under her arm and drags us to the basement. Not sure why, the whole house could come down on us. Cap is my brother. His name is Josh but when he was born dad joked that he would be the captain of our family, that from then on we would do what the baby wanted.
Dad was pretty funny back then. Now he’s all smiles even though the jokes are murder.
After the quake I notice that things in the house are still shaking. Lamps. Flower pots. Mom says it’s because of tremors, that after an earthquake the aftershocks can last for weeks. I don’t know what to believe. When nobody’s watching I sneak up to dad’s office and stick my hand behind the bookcase. I feel the warm air hissing through it. I pull my hand away and my fingertips come back coated with soot.
I tell mom and dad about the crack but they can’t see it. Only I can.
This is when the dreams start.
It’s not right to call them dreams because they don’t happen when I’m asleep. There’s just no other word for it. Sometimes I’ll be sitting in front of the television and bam!—all of a sudden—the whole room goes dark. I look around and find the windows gone, the furniture gone, everything gone. The walls turn into some weird kind of breathing metal. It’s hard to explain but you know how if you close your eyes and look at the sun the light bleeds through and you can see all the nerves and veins in your lids? Well, that’s how the walls are.
Doorways don’t go straight up anymore, ceilings are skewed and slanted. But the craziest thing is I’m not scared. It’s a night world. Everything is silent except for the furnace that’s always humming. To come back all I have to do is go upstairs and touch the crack in the wall. Then, no matter where in the house I’d been when it happened, I wake up on the floor of dad’s office.
I have to tell you about Cat Boy.
Cat Boy lives at the heart of Night World, which is the other side of our kitchen. In place of our stove there’s a furnace shaped like an igloo. Cat Boy sits on the igloo. Does he have a tail? I can’t remember. His body is covered with soot so he’s kind of like a shadow, but made from solid stuff. I know when Cat Boy’s watching me because it feels like a draft of cold air from an open window.
Like I said, slipping to the other side feels like a dream so it’s impossible to describe how it really is. This would all be ancient history anyway if you weren’t forcing me to remember. He was always there though. That part I’m sure of; it’s not like I invented Cat Boy later.
I slip about a dozen times that year. Then something strange happens. I’m hanging out with dad, watching him work under the car. I turn my head to look inside the house and see a boy that looks almost like me. He’s crouched under the kitchen table, his body coated in black soot. His eyes are white like tiny hard-boiled eggs. I’m so startled that I knock over a jar full of nuts and bolts. Dad yells so I get down on my knees and scoop them back in. When I look again, he’s gone.
At school I’m learning about fairness, so being fair I decide it’s wrong for me to go to Cat Boy’s side if I don’t want him coming to my side. I’m about to start grade three and suddenly my days aren’t endless. If I’m not at school then I’m at soccer practice, or at my friend Billy Cooper’s house, or playing with Cap in the living room. We make our heroes out of play-doh. Mine look like Superman. Cap’s look like starfish.
Night World still flickers at the corners of my eyes but I push it away with words and thoughts. And I never let it get close if Cap is around.
One night, the black smoke coming out of dad’s office crawls all the way to my room. It curls under my bedroom door like a claw. I wait till everyone’s asleep then I follow it to the bookcase and stick my hand behind it. I feel around for it but the crack isn’t there anymore. Instead, my fingers find something hard and dry and pointy. I fish it out. Turning on my flashlight I see it’s one of Cap’s starfish, only the play-doh isn’t soft and yellow anymore. It’s black and burnt like an overcooked cookie. If I close my fist on it the starfish will crumble. But I don’t want to destroy it. I want to understand what it was doing here.
Dad flicks on the light and asks me what I’m doing here. Thinking quick, I hide the burnt starfish behind my back.
In my room I take my soccer cleats out of their box and put the starfish inside. When I wake up, aunt Lori’s drinking wine in the kitchen. Mom and dad took Cap to the hospital.
They tell me Cap has a deformed “ay-or-ta,” which means he has to stay in the hospital where the doctors are listening to his heart. For the first time in a while, I don’t push Night World away.
Now there are windows in the walls. Tiny ones. I have to stand up on my toes to look through them. When I do, all I see is the wall of the house next door, and through it, the shadow of a boy who’s playing in his own night world. I hear big machines working in the floors and ceilings but no matter how hard I look I can’t find them.
I’m not alone anymore. Burnt dolls made of charred wood and leather, all wrapped up in copper wire, follow me wherever I go. One has spikes sticking out of her head and the other has spaghetti noodles for arms. Like Cat Boy their bodies are covered in black soot. I never see them move but I know their eyes are watching me.
I hate the dolls. Especially the one with the spikes in her head. I call her sunflower because one time she fell over and a bunch of seeds spilled out of her face. Night World doesn’t feel safe anymore but it’s still better than the other side where mom and dad are always fighting about Cap even though they tell me that Cap is gonna be okay.
The second time dad catches me in his office he really does sound furious. Mom gets out of bed and then they yell at me together. They want to know how I’m baking the play-doh in the oven without them noticing. I tell them it’s not me, that the burnt dolls are coming from the furnace on the other side of the wall.
You think they listen?
“Isn’t it hard enough with Josh in the hospital? Do you have to burn the house down too?”
That’s what mom says. I take the shoebox out of my closet and let them see it. Dad takes off the lid, then he passes it to mom. The box is full of dolls that are weirder than Cap’s starfish. When I ask for the box back they won’t give it. I start to cry. Mom and dad aren’t supposed to know about these things. Night World things are supposed to stay in Night World.
Mom tries to grab me. Her hands are black with soot so I push her away. Dad gets in between. I see the soot on his hands too and throw myself against the window screen. I slip, back into Night World. The little windows from before have all stretched out. I’m hanging halfway out the other side of one! For the first time I get a good look at the world beyond my Night World house.
I see a gray land bathed in dead moonlight. An emptiness so vast that my eyes ripple when I look at the horizon. Somewhere a lizard-man is bent over a black puddle. I hear his tongue lashing at the water. Looking down I meet the eyes of a crazy-looking guy who’s staring up at me. His chalk-white face half-shrouded by his dirty knotted hair. He’s wrapped up in a trench coat ripped and torn along the sleeves. The scissor blades he has for hands explain why.
His eyes are empty wells going endlessly deep into his face. A cry of thirst erupts from his mouth. Thirst for something that he craves inside of me.
I wake up in the same hospital as Cap. On the same floor but not the same room. The doctor says I missed Cap so much that I jumped out of a window just to be with him. I say no. That’s not what happened. We talk about the burnt dolls and where they come from. I don’t like the doctor. He talks like a lizard. I picture him crawling around the hospital on his belly.
Cap goes home the next day but I’m stuck until the end of the week. When I do go home I bring a friend with me. His name is pills and he lives in our kitchen cupboard. Pills is supposed to keep Night World away but all he really does is kill the fire in the igloo. Then Night World turns from a warm place into a frozen one. Cat Boy is still in his spot, only he’s curled up into a ball. The windows are as big as doors now. Scissor-Man climbs in and out of them as he pleases. The sound of his boots cracking the icy floor sends me looking for a place to hide. Sometimes he’ll stand on the stairs so that I can’t get to the crack. He wants to keep me on his side for some reason, but I don’t know what it is. Days pass when I can’t tell which world I’m living in. But as bad as that is, nothing compares to when Cap slips.
I won’t describe Night World Cap. You can’t make me. He had parasites in his chest and—I couldn’t take it anymore!
What happens next is that my normal parents disappear forever, leaving Sunflower and Spaghetti in their place. I hide from them—especially from their creepy yellow-toothed smiles. I want to run away but that’d mean leaving Cap to take my place. I have to do something. I look around for Cat Boy but he isn’t here. I even look for Scissor-Man and he’s gone too. That’s when I realize that I’m not the kid I used to be.
I go to the kitchen and I find a knife. I do it because I have to. It’s the only way to keep the dolls from hurting Cap like they hurt me. Afterwards I go to dad’s office. I almost use the crack to get back but at the last moment I decide not to. Instead I find the closest window and I throw myself out of it.
I run until I can’t see the house behind me anymore. I’ve been alive in Night World ever since.
Night World isn’t a dark place, it’s a place so bright that there isn’t any room for shadows. The people that I meet here have no version of themselves on the other side anymore. If they did though, they’d be the most awful, evil people you could ever imagine.
I’m more like them now than I ever was like me. Or maybe this was always me and the kid in the other world was just a dream that someone else was having. That makes the most sense, especially as I sit here, watching you through the weirdly breathing walls of your very own mind.
Credit: Hugo Dark
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