In this Story Time, we walk the line between imagination and something being terrifyingly real. Happy Halloween everybody.
“Don’t forget to grab your blankie before you go to bed,” Mom said with a smile.
“But Mom,” Nate whined. “I can stay up late. It’s not even 9 yet.” He made the sad face that usually melted Mom, but it ran into some kind of interference that he didn’t understand. She was giving him the pleasant look that meant she was not going to fall for any of the usual shenanigans.
“Dad?” Nate asked hopefully.
“Sorry Nate,” he replied.
“But why?” Nate asked, crestfallen.
“Well kiddo,” Dad said. “What’s today?”
“Thursday,” Nate said without taking his eyes off of the floor.
“And what does that mean?” Dad asked.
“Date night,” Nate whined. “But I’m not sleepy, and I want to watch the movie too.”
“Oh honey,” Mom laughed. “You don’t want to watch this. It’s a scary movie.”
“Really scary,” Dad said handed the case to Nate, whose eyes went wide looking at the cover. It had letters that Nate couldn’t read, but the 2 lidless eyes on the cover made Nate shiver. Also, there was something about the box that made him feel sick. Something about the oily black cover made Nate want to throw the box away, take it way outside.
“Oh Adam,” Mom scolded and took the box away from Nate, “Why would you show him that? He’s going to have bad dreams now.”
“From the box?”
“Yeah. I mean, I don’t even know where you find these. I’ve never even heard of this one,” and she threw the box back to Dad. She gave Nate a hug. “Come on sweetheart, how’s this? Go up to your room and you can play with your toys for a little bit, and you can go to sleep when you want. I’ll come up and check on you later okay?”
“Okay,” Nate said, even as he thought about the 2 white eyes again, and how his hand felt dirty somehow. He gripped his blanket and padded off to his room. Downstairs he could still hear his parents talking.
“Alright babes,” Dad said. “Now let’s see what 2000 watts of audio power can do.”
“If you wake up Nate on a school night, then we’re not doing what I had planned later.”
“He’ll be fine,” Dad said.
“So you hope,” Mom said. “In the meantime, I’ll make some popcorn.”
“You do love me,” Dad said, and the rest was lost as Nate closed the door. Scattered about on the floor of his room were his favorite toys. Donatello, Michelangelo, Cobra Commander, He-Man – all the usual suspects. Nate wrapped himself in his blanket and sat down on the floor, and soon the crew were all stuffed into the Turtle Van and cruising over the carpet.
“Cowabunga,” Nate said in a too high approximation of Michelangelo’s voice. “We have to get to the Technodrome! Shredder and Skeletor are teaming up with the Joes!”
“Oh no!” he said, and shook Cobra Commander back and forth. “But they’re the good guys! I’ll help too!”
“Okay,” Donatello said. “But just know that we don’t trust you Cobra Commander. Look out for that pillow!” and soon the Turtle-Van crashed over onto its side in a thunderous crash. “This pillow looks like the work of Krang! And…”
The shrill scream from downstairs cut off the rest, and sent Nate under his blanket. Beneath the soft fabric, felt safe. It was safe, that was the rule. Everybody knew that. Even Mom knew that, which is why she let Nate keep it even though he was now, by all accounts, a “big boy.” That and if you could see it, it couldn’t move and it couldn’t hurt you. Monsters attacked when you weren’t looking, so even though Nate had his blanket shield, he needed to be vigilant.
But then there was another scream and Nate shut his eyes under the blanket too. The horrible white eyes from the cover of the movie flashed back into his head, except now they were looking at him, and somebody screamed again in his imagination. He could see the eyes, and the pale skin around them, the bloody fangs hanging from the gash of a mouth. Nate shivered, even though it was warm in the house.
“Bad monster,” he whispered. “Scary monster,” and he felt his heart thunder in his red ears and temples. He wanted to open his eyes again and be watchful but he knew, just knew, that if he opened them up then the whatever it was would get him. The monster on the cover, the monster in the movie was there, he knew.
But he breathed and slowly he loosened the grip on his blue blanket. Then the shock of the awful noise from downstairs began to fade from terrifying to simply fearful. Now with his eyes open to the blue cocoon around him, and his head safely under his blanket, Nate found that it was getting stuffy inside – just a little too warm.
“I need to get to the…” and he stopped himself before he could finish the words. Stupid Nate, he thought, you were going to say your plan out loud? Where the monster could hear? He tucked his feet under the blanket, and started to crawl like a caterpillar towards the door. The sharp wooded thump on his head let him know that he had arrived, and he stopped dead. No, no, no! The monster, he reasoned, would have heard that and now it knew what the plan was anyway. There was no place safe from this monster, with it’s pale, slimy skin. So he’d have to go fast.
With a cry, he flung open the door and threw himself blindly out into the hallway. The loud bang when he hit the floor reverberated through the house. Out of his room, Nate could hear sounds of chopping, and wet meat and whimpering. Nate felt that if he could just get to his parents, everything might be okay. The real trick was doing it while wrapped in the safety of his blanket. He stopped short when he heard heavy pounding come up the stairs, and soon felt the presence of someone, or something looming over him. When the hand touched him on the shoulder, Nate squealed.
“Hey buddy,” Dad said, and all of the fear in Nate vanished in a moment. Dad was there. Dad could make everything better like he always did, because Dad was bigger and stronger than the monsters were. He said so. Nate flung the blanket back and grabbed onto his dad instead.
“I heard a,” Nate rambled, “I heard a, a, yelling.”
“Yeah, somebody screamed. That was just the movie,” Dad said, lifting Nate up to his shoulder. “It’s okay. Come on, I’ll tuck you in.”
“Okay,” Nate said and he was carried back to his room.
“First though, security check,” Dad said with a sly look. He looked under the bed with a quick motion, “A Ha!” he exclaimed. “Nothing. Oh I know,” he said and lunged for the closet. He opened it with a flourish, and looked defeated. “No monsters in there either,” he smiled and Nate laughed. “It’s a real shame too. You’ve never got to see the old man really show a monster what’s what.” He picked up Nate’s blanket and tucked him in. “There you go buddy. Want me to leave the light on?”
“No,” Nate said, trying to sound braver than he felt. “It’s okay. I’ve got my blanket.”
“Okay,” Dad said and gave Nate a kiss on the forehead. “Goodnight.”
As Dad reached the door Nate said, “Hey Dad?”
Nate looked up at the ceiling, wanting to ask if Mom and Dad would stop watching the movie. He wanted to tell him that the movie made him feel bad, and not like a scary movie. More like it was a scary thing, and Dad should take it back. But when Nate tried to say the words he couldn’t, because he didn’t want Dad to think he was afraid. So instead of saying any of those things, Nate just said, “Night night.
Dad smiled. clicked off the light and closed the door. Nate sat in the darkness for a few minutes and his eyes slowly adjusted. The smiling brontosaur night light seemed to grow brighter, and soon Nate could see the outlines of most of his room in ghostly green light. Soon his mind had forgotten all about being scared, and he imagined his dad as some kind of knight from the future, fighting monsters with a laser sword, blue cape billowing in the wind. They wouldn’t even know what hit them, Nate thought, smiling. Soon, he began to drift off to sleep.
His eyes snapped open again when he heard the sound of shattering glass from downstairs, and a woman scream, “What!?” Nate scanned the room while trying to remain as still as possible. Everything was right where it was before, and the brontosaur kept glowing cheerfully. He strained to hear anything, and held his breath. What was the breaking glass, he thought. It didn’t sound like a cup or a plate, Nate knew what those sounded like when they broke. Maybe a window? No, he figured, it was the movie. That’s why Mom and Dad didn’t say anything. Yeah, it must have been…
A woman screamed “No!” and sent Nate under the blanket again. “Stop! Stop! Ada…” and it was cut off with a horrible screech and crash. Nate panted under the blanket. It was just a movie, it was just a movie he thought Dad said the new stereo sounded really good. That must be it. That must be it. But no matter how many times Nate thought it to himself, and then whispered it to himself, Nate didn’t believe it any more. That voice had sounded like Mom. Did she almost say, “Adam?” He could have sworn she almost did. Nate wiped his hand on his shirt, and those white eyes kept forcing their way into his imagination.
He held his breath again, trying to hear anything. Now all he could hear were wet noises, like a big dog was eating something. Crunch, crunch and slick slop. Then another thud like something was thrown away. It’s just a movie, and Nate could feel his pulse beat in his throat as he tried to believe that. He struggled and gulped.
Inside his cocoon of safety, his breath was making it very hot. Nate felt a drop of sweat run down his forehead, and thought about wiping it away, but then the monster would see him move under the blanket. It would give him away. But the sweat drop slowly carved its way down, leaving an itchy trail as it went. crossing from one thin eyebrow to the other. Higher up, Nate felt another sweat drop form, and threaten to move too, and before he could stop himself he wiped them both away.
Nate held his breath for the next few minutes in terror. He had moved. If the monster had seen that, he figured he was as good as dead. Why didn’t he just leave it alone? Why did it have to be so warm? Stupid sweat! Now he found he had stopped breathing. If he breathed now the monster would see the blanket move, and it would be all over for him. But if he didn’t breathe Nate knew he would die. Colton at school had said so, he said if you held your breath for too long you would die. That’s what he said. But now Nate’s chest hurt from holding his breath. His cheeks puffed out in the darkness to keep himself from breathing, but it was too much and slowly, ever so slowly, he exhaled.
If fighting not to exhale was hard, it was nothing compared to fighting the instinct to inhale and Nate breathed deeply, if slowly. His breath came in ragged gulps because he shivered almost uncontrollably. Then he breathed again, and again, and nothing happened. Still though, Nate thought, it was hot. He would have to bring out the big guns – Operation Tunnel. He reached up towards his face slithering his hand up his chest, across the Spider-Man logo. It was a move that had worked before, since monsters couldn’t see it. It was risky though, since every time there was a chance they would find out. Nate was terrified of the day when they would find out his secrets. With sneaking fingers he started forming the tunnel in front of his face. Millimeter by millimeter he moved his hand, slowly making a cavity that turned into a tunnel. Then, finally, he pushed up with his index finger and exposed himself to the outside world. Cool air rushed in and Nate breathed deeply.
Past the end of the tunnel he could see the green brontosaur night light and it smiled. As the cold air filled up the blanket, Nate felt a sense of peace. He was still safe in his blankie, but now he needed to keep watch on the entrance. Nate slowed his breathing again and listened. There was nothing. No sounds at all. Maybe the movie was over, he thought, thinking that he must have fallen asleep. Just on the edge of his hearing the light staccato sounds of pop pop, k-pop. When Nate inhaled he smelled a strange smell. It smelled like popcorn.
The stairs creaked, and Nate’s heart jumped into this throat. It was a footstep. Nate knew what his parents’ footsteps sounded like. He could hear them through the floor, and would put away his toys and jump into bed. That was the secret to staying up late. Mom had soft footsteps, and Dad’s were quicker and louder. This footstep on the stairs didn’t sound like either. It was soft thud, slow but heavy. Nate listened for another in case he had just imagined the first one. It was possible.
Then a footstep made the stairs creak again. This time he heard something else. It sounded like a scrape on the wooden stairs, like something was scratching. Nate looked at the smiling brontosaur night light, and realized he was facing away from the door, and to see it he would have to move. He decided that he would need to, but something in his trembling body refused the order from his brain, and he stared through the end of his blanket tunnel in terror, scanning the small portal for anything he could see.
The smell that came in through his blanket window smelled different now. It smelled like something was burning. It smelled more and more like smoke, and Nate didn’t understand what that meant. His entire attention was on the slow footsteps that kept coming up in the stairs. He’d counted them, and whatever was making them wasn’t on the stairs anymore. It was in the hallway now.
He heard another footstep, and another, and the soft one after that as it stepped onto the rug. The smell of burning was almost so strong now that Nate wanted to close the tunnel in his blanket, but he remembered how hot it was before. Suddenly, the sharp noise of a screaming alarm knocked his thoughts away from him. It squealed throughout the house, and Nate tried to hear any other sound, or any of the footsteps, but the alarm was too loud, and now the second alarm upstairs was blaring too. Nate couldn’t just smell the burning smell anymore, but could taste smoke too. A part of him wanted to throw back his blanket and see what was the matter, but no matter how hard he tried he just couldn’t force himself to move. He imagined something watching him, waiting for him to make a move, to give him away. Nate imagined those lidless white eyes.
But before, when the smoke alarm had gone off when Nate tried to make cookies by himself, his parents had rushed around to turn them off. Mom opened windows to let out the smoke. Dad had reset the alarms so that they stopped making noise. Why…?
Nate’s train of thought derailed as the door handle turned. Mom said she was going to check on him. She had said that she was going to see how he was doing. So maybe, Nate thought as the door opened., that this was just Mom. But if it was a fire, why did she open the door slowly? Why were the alarms still blaring so loud? Past the smoke, Nate could smell something different now. It wasn’t just smoke, but it smelled like metal. Or maybe, like that meat Dad had left out for too long. It smelled sour and rotten.
Footsteps slowly walked across Nate’s carpet, and Nate held his breath. He stared wide eyed through the end of his tunnel. The light of the brontosaur night light was softer now, since the door was open – casting a rectangle of light onto his bedroom wall. The footsteps walked further, and Nate heard the sharp plastic clatter of his toys being kicked by clumsy feet. In his terror he imagined Michelangelo and Donatello fighting for him. Cobra Commander and Shredder driving the Technodrome to protect him.
The fire alarms screamed and they were the only noise in the house, but Nate heard his heartbeat pound in his ears anyway. The footsteps walked around his bed and Nate saw the sick silhouette cast on the wall. Nate couldn’t see the whole thing, and he dared not move. But what he saw didn’t look like anything he had ever seen before. It jerked and twitched its thin arms and neck, and soon it had passed beyond that light too and Nate didn’t see it anymore.
But he could still feel it, standing by the side of his bed. Nate strained to see anything without moving, but only the smiling brontosaur night light was visible. Then the light in the dinosaur went out, and the light outside in the hallway went dark too. The smell that came through the tunnel was almost enough to make Nate sick, but he forced himself not to blink. He knew that if he blinked, it would see him. Right? That’s how it worked. Everybody knew that. He just had to follow the rules, and rule number 1 was that he was safe under his blanket.
In a flash, the darkness at the end of his tunnel was different. Nate wasn’t just looking out into his dark room, but was looking at something actually dark, something that was moving. His lungs screamed for breath, and Nate ignored them. He was safe, he thought. This was just a nightmare and he would wake up soon, and Mom and Dad tell him it was okay like they always did. And Nate would tell them that he had a really bad dream and he didn’t know what to do, and Mom would hold him and Dad would look under the bed – because that’s what Dad did and there would be nothing there. There was never anything there.
But now there was something there. And it was in Nate’s room, and he wasn’t imagining it this time and it was moving. Then, just before Nate screamed, it looked inside his tunnel with lifeless white eyes.