By Steve Finegan
“I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not.” — Neil Gaiman
Name’s Dan nowadays, but everyone called me Danny way back in ’62. I was eight back then. But not what you’d call a normal kid. You see, I had an overheated imagination that some said was caused by a bump on the head. Anyway, a few of my antics got me into dangerously hot water with my mom; but that autumn I got blamed for a lot of damage I didn’t cause. At least I’m pretty damn sure I didn’t. The way I remember it, the “real” guilty party made his first appearance the day after the Columbus Day Storm, and he was the strangest creature I’ve ever seen before or since, although the two of us didn’t actually come face to face until a few weeks after the Big Blow.
All these years later, it would be easy to say there was no creature—just some kind of hallucination. But I don’t believe that, not entirely anyway. It’s complicated, so I’d better tell my story and let you make up your own mind, and maybe I’ll finally make up mine at last, as well.
But first things first: let me tell you about the storm—and not just any storm, but the most destructive gale to hit the Pacific Northwest since at least the late eighteen-hundreds—because that’s what kicked off the incredible events that followed.
After school on Friday, October 12th, the principal came around to tell us kids to beat cleats home and stay out of the coming wind, which to my eight-year-old mind didn’t make sense, because the weather was really calm, warm even. The only hint of impending disaster: all those yellowish-green clouds piled up to the northeast and back-lit like a scene from The Ten Commandments movie. The calm didn’t last long, though. Eventually the clouds closed in, and by five it was gusting hard enough to rock the house.
My dad was out of town, leaving me, Mom, and my Grandma Nana to ride out the night’s steady eighty-mile-per-hour winds and hundred-plus gusts in the basement. My big brother Richie, who was eleven, was stuck at a friend’s house. No amount of begging and pleading by me could convince my mom to let me venture outside, and when I tried to sneak upstairs, I was snagged from behind. “Oh no you don’t, mister,” she said. Next thing I knew, she’d snapped a leash onto one of my belt loops and slipped the strap round her wrist. Guess she always figured the leash dad bought for the Lab we never got (more about that later) would come in handy one day, and it did—for her.
So I didn’t get to see the trees and power poles snapping like matchsticks; or the airborne acrobatics of assorted shingles, trash, lingerie (days after the storm I found a baffling lacy black get-up with garter straps hanging from a branch of the apple tree in our backyard), dresses, shoes, hats, bedspreads, and even a mattress or two, to name only some of the torn, broken things that littered the neighborhood in the days following the Big Blow.
After our power blacked out with a sizzling zap, we sat in flickering candlelight—no radio or TV news (sorry, no smart phones, computers or internet in those days), and no word from Richie, which made things worse for Mom. When she wasn’t searching frantically for matches or a flashlight or something—dragging me behind on the end of that leash—she sat wringing her hands, muttering Our Fathers and Hail Marys whenever the house rocked and cracked overhead.
Eventually I sat still, holding Mom’s sweaty hand. Was I scared? Mostly I was excited. Excited, and upset that our tiny water-stained basement windows looked out on the wind-blustered undersides of rhododendron and laurel bushes and not on the main attractions in the neighborhood beyond.
We all slept in the basement that night.
Saturday dawned clear and sunny and electricity-free for pretty much the entire city. What waited outside the house can only be described as a war zone (luckily, we’d escaped with little more than a few lost shingles). Robbed of any direct experience of the worst of the storm, what I remember most vividly to this day, after having pancakes cooked on our Coleman camp stove, is escaping from my not-so-vigilant Grandma—my mom had left to go get Richie and walk him home—and taking in from our front porch what must have been a post-apocalyptic vision, but to an eight-year-old boy was Christmas morning on a grand scale.
Everywhere I looked, roofs were shredded, windows broken, trees and power poles split, splintered and blown down, and Alameda Street was a potentially lethal mess of still-live wires. “Keep your grippers off all that hot spaghetti,” called Mr. Schulman from his front yard, where he was inspecting a blown out picture window. “And don’t touch anything made of metal.”
Up and down the street, neighbors were firing up chainsaws and starting to attack the shattered and uprooted trees, some of which were blocking Alameda and its side streets. I read years later that sixteen-thousand trees were downed by the Big Blow, in Portland alone! Sounds like an exaggeration, but if our neighborhood was any indication, that was a conservative estimate. There were more than a few hundred-year-old oaks toppled along Alameda. One in particular, the grandest tree for blocks around lay sprawled across the street like a felled giant. I ran the block and a half to this tree and found Andy and Jake Montclaire, everyone called them the Two Monties, paring the oak’s branches with logger-sized chain saws. I waited for a break in the noise, dusting off flying wood chips and inhaling the smell of gasoline and fresh-cut green timber. Both Monties seemed to notice me at the same time and cut their power.
“Whatcha doing?” I asked.
“Duh, what’s it look like?” snapped Jake.
“Can I help?”
Jake shook his head as if to say, What a moron.
“Get lost, twerp,” said Andy. “And tell Richie I’m gonna beat the crap out of him and his dumbass friends if they mess with my car again.” No question: Richie got to have all the fun, while Mom barely let me out of her sight.
Hands stuffed in my pockets, I followed the scent of fresh dirt around to the other side of the fallen giant, right up to the half-way-to-China hole in the parking strip where the tree had been wrenched up, scattering sidewalk slabs like so many jumbo dominos. The oak’s enormous root ball towered above me, revealing its secret worm-and-millipede-infested underside, which reminded me of all the guts and organs inside my buddy Gabe’s Visible Man model. Spying a Boy Scout hatchet in the street, I scooped it up and started chopping—harmlessly, I’m sure—at a huge knothole in the big trunk.
That’s when something strange happened.
And it wasn’t my usual funny-in-the-head feeling or anything. Guess I should explain what I mean by that before I tell any more of this story.
A week or so after I turned six, my mom, with Richie beside her on the front seat and me in the back, was doing about twenty-five down Northeast Broadway in her old ’49 Ford Fordor. I remember distinctly that Richie was twisted around facing me, gripping a Jack-in-the-Box toy I absolutely hated. He loved to torture me by slowly cranking the handle, playing that innocent little tune—dum dum … dum dum … dum dumbly dum … dum dum … dum dum … dum dum … dum … dum dum … dum dum … dum dumbly dum … dum … dum … dum … dum … da! Then WHAM! Jack popped grinning from his hatch and lunged at me with his outstretched little arms, evil clown face, and pointed dunce cap. Unfortunately this time Richie had chosen a moving car for his little game; unfortunate because when Jack made his appearance I frantically opened the rear door and leapt off the backseat (we didn’t wear seat belts back then) like a paratrooper over Normandy on D-Day. Even did a tuck and roll in the street, I believe. Mom freaked out and got me to the doc right away. After feeling me all over, he patted my cheek and said I was okay, except for that nasty bump on the side of my head.
On the way home, Richie examined my bump with cold probing fingers—ouch!—all the while sucking air through his teeth, after which he summed up his prognosis for my future in a single word: “Retard!”
Thank God Richie turned out to be way off—at least I’m pretty sure about that, although my grandma said I wasn’t the same kid after that tumble. Well, maybe, but one thing’s for sure: my mom wasn’t the same mom. That’s when she started “hovering,” and telling all her coffee-klatch friends that I had such a “vivid imagination” (shrinks call this “fantasy prone personality” these days), making it sound like a plea for advice—you know what I mean: What am I going to do with that boy? Well, what she did was start driving me to school and watching me while I played in the yard, and she nixed little league that year, and the yellow Lab we were going to get. Richie’s reaction to the dog decision was understandable—he blamed me, mommy’s little baby: “Thanks, buttbreath.” Dad was all for getting a Lab, too, but Mom said dogs were just “too rambunctious.”
The list goes on. Suffice it to say, she became very protective of her damaged little Danny. It wasn’t long after that she started taking me to see all those doctors and head-shrinks, including one guy named Dr. Beekman, who suggested I had something called temporal lobe epilepsy due to a brain lesion that needed to be found and removed—with a scalpel, and no doubt a saw, too. As far as fears went, the prospect of brain surgery made me weak in the knees.
My mom’s determination to fix her broken kid had to do with things that went bump in the night. They got real for me after that knock on the head. Not all the time, but sometimes, for maybe ten to twenty minutes at a time. I’d get this tingly, light-headed feeling, like the kind I remember having late at night on Christmas Eve when I just knew Santa Claus was walking around downstairs (back before Richie let the cat out of the bag about Jolly Old St. Nick, just to ruin the holiday for me), only more real than that. And if that’s not a good enough explanation, try this: I just knew in every fiber of my high-strung little body that the monsters were really there—didn’t matter whether it was day or night—making all those creaks, squeaks, and thumps that scared the crap out of me. And they were coming for me.
It didn’t help that my parents stuck me in a bedroom with a door leading to a dark attic. Seriously. Talk about your ready-made nightmares. And it was a narrow wooden door, creepy as hell, with a one-inch gap at the bottom (perfect for seeing shadowy movement on the other side) and one of those Victorian glass knobs and brass plates with a skeleton key hole you could peer through. I kid you not. I never got over having that door in my room. Even before my “accident,” I’d lay in bed at night, terrified, staring at that creepy threshold, unable to fall asleep for fear of waking up to find the door open and my bed surrounded by eager, groping hands.
With my gaze fixed on the door for long periods, my imagination ran wild. And my mind had a lot to work with. On the other side was a cramped wooden staircase, at the top of which sprawled a huge unfinished room filled with boxes and trunks and cast-off old relics from my parents’ and grandparents’ past, like a hat rack with curving brass hooks that to my imaginative young mind looked like eyes on the ends of stalks. Every creaking, cracking noise that sounded above my head was suspect.
Little did I know, it could get worse. Much worse.
After my knock on the head, the way I dealt with what seemed to me to be a very real threat to my person involved doing some pretty destructive make-believe stuff that involved throwing up a hasty defensive barrier in front of the attic door and standing behind it, wielding a home-made wooden spear and gripping an aluminum garbage can lid for a shield. All for the purpose of repelling an attack from above.
The attackers were shadowy, indistinct, sinister creatures, call them orcs. These orcs lived in the attic and made their creaking, creeping way on squat legs and calloused knuckles, day or night, down the long staircase that led to the door that opened onto my bedroom. This for the purpose of crashing through that door, seizing me by the arms and legs, and carrying me, with a smelly snot-gooed palm clapped over my silently screaming mouth, up to an uncertain but no doubt unthinkably evil fate.
Let me describe an episode for you: One October afternoon, shortly before the big storm, I was playing with plastic army men on my bed when I heard creaking on the attic stairs. I froze; it was as if a claw had reached through my chest and gripped my heart. I couldn’t move and could barely breath. The hair on my head and arms stood up straight. It was all I could do to roll my eyes. Shadows moved at the gap beneath the door. I could even hear their scuffling bare feet and harsh whispers, and smell their armpit stink. There’s a point at which any terrified animal, faced with an attacking predator, shakes off its paralysis of fear and either chooses to fight or flee. I could have run to my mom downstairs, but I’d tried that the first time; from then on I’d chosen to fight.
In an instant I rolled off the bed and ran my small dresser up against the attic door with a crash. Then I grabbed my spear and shield and manned my defenses, expecting the door to be forced open any second. Waiting for the worst is maddening, and I was at once filled with the most intense, adrenaline-pumping fear and rage. These orcs were here to hurt me, to kill me, probably to eat me alive. Me! I gave the door a hallow clang! with my garbage can lid in an attempt to scare off my enemy and boost my courage, and although I didn’t know it at the time (my mom told me later), I was screaming a sawed-off, pip-squeak, but very loud, battle cry. Okay, it was more of a shriek.
That’s when she, Mom, walked into my room. And the orcs retreated up the stairs, as if they’d never been there at all. Then the terror faded, and I was left with a pounding headache and a feeling like my body weighed a thousand pounds. I was so sleepy, in fact, I could scarcely keep my eyes open. Meanwhile, Mom hugged me so hard she nearly suffocated me, all the while murmuring over and over, “What am I going to do with you?” After which she wiped my tears with her thumb and said, “It’s high time I took you back to see Dr. Beekman.”
At moments like this, I wanted to run away screaming, “I hate you!” and curl up and go to sleep in the back of the downstairs closet. Okay, that’s exactly what I did. I know it sounds irrational, but with Mom it all boiled down to that knock on the head; she wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that I was telling the truth. Worse yet, she made me feel like a brain-damaged freak.
Later, Richie poked his head into the dark closet and did a Count Dracula, “Blah! Bogeyman’s gonna get you!” Which was ironic in the extreme, as you’ll see.
Okay, you’re up to speed, so back to my story.
There was a scampering sound on the other side of the storm-downed oak trunk. At first I thought it was a squirrel, that is until I heard a sharp, mean little voice say, “Stop chopping up my home, or I’ll do the same to yours! I know where you live. I know where all of you live. I’ll go from house to house, I have all the time in the world, and make your silly little lives more miserable than they are, but I’ll start with you.”
“Why me?” I murmured.
“Because you chopped at my front door, and made me run out the back, that’s why. As if that big storm wasn’t bad enough! After eighty years, I’m homeless again. Hrumph!”
I didn’t say another word. Slowly, hatchet raised, I edged around the rootball, but there was no one on the other side, no one except Andy bent over gassing his chainsaw with his butt crack showing. So it was him! Throwing his voice like that guy on TV with the dummy on his lap. I heaved a shuddering sigh so loud he looked up and told me that if I didn’t quit sneaking up, kicking him in the ass, and running away he was going to pants me and send me home naked.
“You will do nothing of the sort, Andrew Montclaire!”
Uh-oh. My mom.
She’d sneaked up behind me, and Richie was beside her, quiet, eyes darting everywhere but in Andy’s direction.
“Danny, drop that ax this instant.”
“It’s not a—”
“Don’t talk back to me. Drop it.”
The hatched clattered on the asphalt.
“What on earth…? Take my hand. Carefully! Watch out for splinters and, especially, wires.”
In a few steps I was within reach, and she snatched me up and hugged me to her like she was rescuing me from the Titanic or something. “How did you get out of the house?” she demanded.
“Ah, I …”
“Never mind. Let’s go have a word with your grandmother.”
And so I went back to being a prisoner. The storm clean-up took weeks—two weeks to get our power back, so long in fact that when Dad came home from his business trip, we checked into the Heathman Hotel downtown. But it wasn’t long before the Big Blow was ancient history, and I started thinking about Christmas presents.
Mom always hid our Christmas presents in what she figured was an impregnable secret hiding place in the basement. Of course, Richie showed me where it was the year before: a cubby closet way in the back of the furnace room. There, like a circus ringmaster—step right up, boys and girls—he introduced what “Santa” had in store for me, which in hindsight was a really crappy thing to do. I mean it was only natural for me to be curious, right? And my mom, how lame was she? Since no hiding place was safe from Richie, she should’ve known better and locked all that stuff in her bedroom closet. Worse, once I knew, I was like an addict being lured to his next fix. Thanks, Richie! I mean, how was I expected to wait for Santa when I knew what I knew?
The enormous kettle-like oil furnace was roaring behind its asbestos jacket as I scooted behind it and stopped. On the unfinished wall above a rickety bookshelf hung a water-stained old sepia portrait of my great-great-grandfather, Gramps, sitting ramrod straight in his Union Army uniform, upper lip hidden beneath a walrus mustache. I always got goose bumps under his hawk-eyed gaze, but today was worse: I couldn’t budge. Somehow Gramps knew what I was up to. Why was he down here anyway? I drew a deep breath and blew it out. If I wanted a peek at those presents, I needed to suck it up and get past him. It didn’t occur to me at the time that maybe he was warning me to turn back.
You’d think the crash and clatter of toppled toy boxes in the cubby closest would send me hightailing it for daylight; instead, it got me over the hump with Gramps. Heart hammering, I squeezed between the shelf and the furnace, and approached the closet door—it was ajar.
The furnace shut down with a clunk.
Suddenly it was eerily quiet. Now, I heard a leathery shuffling behind the door, mingled with the sound of ripping, tearing cardboard and cellophane.
“Mom?” I hissed. The ripping stopped abruptly.
Still no answer. I was nearly leaning against the door by now.
Slowly, on the verge of hyperventilating, I reached for the knob. Stopped. Then stepped back and swung the door open. I gasped and would’ve run, but I couldn’t move my sneakered feet. There, holding a G.I. Joe action figure by both arms, as if preparing to rip them out Mongolian-ritual-execution style, was the strangest creature I’ve ever seen, then or later. It was about two-and-a-half feet tall, naked, with leathery wrinkled russet potato skin and lots of thick bristling gray hairs on its head and body. Its fingers and toes were long and frog-like, and it had hobbit-sized feet. Most terrifying of all were its bead-black eyes, long hooked nose, and the angry gash that passed for a mouth.
It made a crinkled potato face and pulled Joe’s arms out of their sockets, then threw the doll across the room, which was littered with fragments of cardboard and plastic.
“W-Who are you,” I stammered. “And why—”
“Told you I’d make trouble for you,” said the same mean little voice I’d heard by the storm-downed old oak a few weeks ago. I hadn’t forgotten that pebbly voice, like a talking crow, but I’d chalked up hearing it to Andy Montclaire.
“But I didn’t mean to …”
“Doesn’t matter. Home’s gone. Your fault.”
“My fault! How’s it my fault?”
“Your fault,” repeated the creature, reaching for another box, a plastic model World War One Sopwith Camel bi-plane. I loved those.
“Stop!” I shouted.
The creature suddenly cocked its ugly bristling head like a dog, listening with long, pointed, radar-like ears sprouting tufts of gray hair. “Uh-oh, time to go.” Then right before my eyes, it vanished.
I heard footsteps in the furnace room, high-heeled footsteps. I looked around the closet. “Uh-oh is right,” I mumbled.
“Danny? Is that you making a racket?” Mom’s approaching footsteps were inexorable, like the Columbus Day Storm. “Danny, you down here? You shouldn’t be snoop—” She was behind me now, taking in the shambles of that little room with a strangled, choking sob.
Finally, she said it: “What am I going to do with you?”
“Not a word.”
“But it wasn’t me!”
“Then who was it?”
“It was …” But I saw the look on her face. If I told the truth it would only make things worse, much worse. I dropped my head and burst into tears.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “Hard to lie when you’re caught red-handed. Listen, I’ve done everything the doctors and therapists asked, and it isn’t working. I’m taking you back to see Dr. Beekman.”
I nearly peed my pants, literally, I was so scared. “The guy who wants to cut open my brain? No, Mommy, please.” After that my knees buckled and I fell into her arms begging and pleading and blubbering.
Her cheeks glistening with my snot and tears, she hugged me so hard I could barely breathe. “Danny, he doesn’t want to operate. He just wants to help you. You want to be normal again, don’t you?”
Like you’d ever treat me like I was normal.
“Please, Mommy!” I gasped between sobs.
“Let’s just see what he says.”
“PLEASE!” I’d become a red-faced bowl of weeping jello.
Mom held me close, shushing in my ear and thumbing away my scalding tears. Finally, she said, “One more stunt like this—”
“Okay, then. Settle down.”
I had to pull out all the stops that time. It wouldn’t work again. That’s when I realized: I hadn’t been seized by fear and rage, nor did I feel all heavy and have a headache, or want to shout “I hate you!” and run off to curl up and fall asleep in the back of the downstairs closet.
In bed that night, I thrashed around, unable to catch a wink of sleep. I mean, potato-man (I’d decided “it” looked more like a he than a she), with his very next appearance, could condemn me to an appointment with the dreaded Dr. Beekman. He could do anything he wanted, and I’d pay the price. I was the perfect victim. It occurred to me that he might be in the hallway bathroom at that very moment, getting ready to plug-up the tub and overflow it, or pour all Mom’s expensive lotions and powders down the sink, or something far worse than my eight-year-old imagination could concoct. Richie was right! The bogeyman had gotten me!
Wait a minute!
What if I could catch him? Red-handed. With my mom standing right there to see for herself. Not only would I prove I wasn’t causing all the trouble, but also that the things that went bump were real, after all. At least one was. But how? I mean, that sneaky little spud could disappear in the wink of an eye. How was I supposed to catch him in the act?
Suddenly the attic floor above my bed creaked and groaned, as if someone was walking across on hobbit-sized bare feet. I shrank down beneath my covers and stared into the dark. It was him, toying with me. After my experience in the furnace room, I was starting to ask myself: Can he read my mind? Just how much power he had over me depended a lot on the answer to that question. If he went off up there, I’d get the blame, even if Mom and Dad found me cowering in my bed. There just had to be a way to bottle him up, like a genie, but I fell asleep before I figured out how.
I woke at five in the morning with the answer. I didn’t have to trap the beastie if I could lure him out into the open long enough for my mom to see him. I lay back with my hands behind my head, and doing my best to force every other thought out of my head, I imagined making a surprise pancake breakfast for the whole family. I pictured every detail: Getting out the mixing bowl and the Bisquick and the milk. Using the hand mixer to make the creamy smooth batter, just like Mom did. Getting the frying pan nice and hot and greasy with butter … I heard a bang in the kitchen below. Gotcha! I kept thinking about making breakfast as I climbed out of bed and sallied forth to wake my parents and Richie.
After a lot of swatting and grumbling and burrowing under covers, all three stumbled down the stairs behind me. “What’s burning?” yawned Richie. We all picked up the pace. I expected to hear noise, but it was eerily quiet as I ran ahead into the kitchen. “Gotcha!” I cried. Then I looked around with my mouth hanging open (I’m not sure it was really hanging open, but that’s how I imagine it now). Batter, syrup, ketchup, mustard, you name it dripped from the ceiling and down the walls. In the sink, a jumbled pile of dishes, plates, pots and pans teetered dangerously above our heads; while beneath our feet, the floor swam with spilled milk, mixed with soil from the geraniums that had been uprooted from their pots on the sill and tossed on the floor. At the center of all this carnage, a shallow lake of burned-black butter smoldered in the griddle.
The bogeyman was nowhere in sight.
“Shee-it!” cried Richie, waving his hand in front of his face. “It stinks in here. What’d you do, tardface?”
“Watch your mouth,” said Dad.
I ignored Richie and kept an eye on Mom, who was doing a little smoldering of her own, alerting me to imminent volcanic activity. Sure enough, she blew her top with a loud cry of dismay, then—leaping right over her stock What am I going to do with you?—she shouted, “That’s it! I’m making an emergency appointment with Dr. Beekman.”
In that instant I realized: my mom was probably right about me. Still, Dr. Beekman? I blasted past her and raced up to my room. Slamming the door behind me, I spun round and listened for her footsteps on the stairs. Nothing. Instead, I heard my dad say, “Sally, just let him be for now, okay?”
And Richie: “Yeah, Mom! Let the tard stew in his room. Pancakes still sound great!”
I turned my back on their muffled voices and slumped … then gasped.
The attic door was gaping wide.
I knew what was going on. The little bastard was challenging me to climb those rickety stairs. But wait! If Mom was right about me, there was no bogeyman. I was nuts. A retard. A freak. Just like she believed. Still … This spud wasn’t like those shadowy orcs. I’d seen him and talked to him. And I felt completely myself, just like before in the basement.
Let’s just say he did exist and could read my thoughts, as I suspected: he’d know my whole plan ahead of time, right? I thought I was setting him up, but he’d turned the tables on me, made a shambles of the kitchen and vanished, just like before in the basement. How could I be such an idiot as to think that I could get the jump on him? Looking back, I chalk it up to my age. Here I was, an innocent eight-year-old boy up against a creature that must’ve been hundreds, if not thousands, of years old and wise in the ways of the wicked. The more I thought about recent events, the more convinced I became that I wasn’t crazy at all. I’d been had.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. There was only one thing to do: arm for battle, climb on up to the attic, and confront the little beastie. Maybe I could thrash him. Then again, if he knew what I was thinking, he’d be ready for me. Maybe I could talk him into tormenting the Two Monties. After all, they were the ones who’d made firewood out of his house. That right there was a thought I didn’t mind sharing with the bogeyman.
Beneath my bare feet, the stairs added their creaks and groans to the sound of blood hammering against my eardrums. I’d left my spear and shield behind. What good would weapons be against a supernatural adversary who could read my every thought? Zero. I stopped before mounting the last few splintered steps, wiped my damp palms on my jeans, sucked in a deep breath, and forged ahead, stopping at the top of the stairs to look around.
Back in those days, the attic—really a third story—was a single vast room beneath a ceiling that tapered with the roofline toward the front and rear of the house. Just to the left at the top of the stairs, set in a wall, stood a menacing wooden trapdoor that led to a narrow storage room and the eaves where pigeons nested (my father fought a war of attrition against these squatters, but never won). I could hear them rustling and cooing as I shuffled blindly into the musty semidarkness.
Tiny dormer windows high up in the ceiling were like hooded eyes looking out through cracked, grime-coated panes; beneath these, two streams of dusty daylight pooled on the unfinished plywood floor. The whole place was like a stage littered with cast-off antique props. In addition to all the boxes and trunks, the room was furnished with a faded green couch and a cathedral-like walnut console radio with closed cabinet doors. Oh, and there was the infamous hat rack, whose little staring stalk-eyes made my skin crawl. Several bulky black musical instrument cases were laid out on the floor: two trombones, side by side, a trumpet, and a violin. A tall bass fiddle, which my dad had played in a big band before the war (that’s WW2), stood upright in a corner. I could go on and on. Suffice it to say there was a lot of junk up there, all covered with a thick layer of dust and lacy cobwebs. Fact was, I was too scared to think much about it, let alone go exploring like a normal kid.
Instead, I peered around waiting for my little brown enemy to show himself, with the feeling I used to get when Richie slowly cranked the handle on that scary Jack-in-the-Box toy. Ever since my tumble, I’d hated that thing even more than I hated the hat rack. The very thought of Jack made me shudder.
So I used more than my eyes. I strained my ears to hear the slightest shuffle of bare hobbit feet. I sniffed the stuffy, musty air for the sour scent and taste of him. And every hair on my body stood at attention, feeling for his presence. But he was a crafty little devil. I doubt a German Shepard could have sniffed him out in that dingy room.
That’s when I heard it. The tune: dum dum … dum dum … dum dumbly dum … dum dum … dum dum … dum dum … dum … I spun around, nearly wrenching my neck off. Beside the trap door, sat … Richie’s old Jack-in-the-Box! How’d that get up here? My heart seemed to do a backflip in my chest, leaving me gasping like a landed trout. For some reason I just stood there unable to speak while the little tune slowly finished and … WHAM! The lid popped open and out sprang Jack, bobbing, weaving, and grinning like a demented lunatic.
But it wasn’t Jack on the end of the spring.
“You!” My voice sounded all strangled. The little troll had shrunk to the size of a potato, literally; he wore Jack’s conical hat tipped rakishly low over his eyes as he bobbed and swung at the end of the uncoiled wire, laughing like a wheezy hyena. Goose bumps raced up and down my arms and face. I’m surprised I didn’t tumble head over heals backwards down the stairs.
He jumped down, landing on his big frog-toed feet and stood squarely in front of me at his full height again, all two-and-a-half feet of him. “You can’t beat me,” he said in that mean little voice; then he laughed again, a high-pitched donkey bray that set the big bass fiddle humming. When he was finished, he tossed Jack’s hat aside and said, “I’d forgotten what fun it is to make your little lives miserable. I’ve lived too long in my tree. I should have come out for a visit years ago. Then he sighed. “Well, you make it fun. The others, they don’t believe in me. If I burn their toast, they call it gremlins—hateful little beasts, gremlins—but they don’t really believe in gremlins. They believe in chance, accidents, coincidences, bad luck, raw deals—bad boys! They don’t see the supernatural intelligence behind it, and that saps all the fun.” He glanced at the instrument cases. “I could conjure music out of thin air up here in the middle of the night, and they’d still find a way to explain it … rationally. I should burn the house down! See what they say then.” He followed up with a loud “Hrumpf!”
I don’t know why I chose that particular moment to act, but fast as humanly possible I made a grab for the creature, but he slipped neatly between the thought in my head and the breakneck movement of my arm, and my fingers closed on thin air. It was like trying to swat a fly with a two-by-four. “Hey!” I stumbled backward, arms windmilling, found empty space behind, but regained my balance an instant before falling backwards all the way down the stairs. As it was, I wound up two steps down from the top.
“Heehee! Not near fast enough!” said a laughing voice.
That voice! Right in my ear, in my head! I turned to find the bogeyman perched on the banister, his bead-black eyes staring me in the face. “You can read my mind!” I squeaked, stating the obvious.
“To some I pay attention,” he said, “and when I do, I hear thoughts, as well as sounds, and thoughts carry over many of your city blocks. And if I pay very close attention,” the creature leaned in like a gargoyle—it had breath that curled my eyelashes—“I can hear thoughts from the great ocean in the west to the mountain in the east. Now, you, boy, would like to trap me and present me as a gift to your mother and thus prove to her—and to yourself—that you are not damaged goods.”
I looked down and kicked at a splinter in the step, knowing that he knew that I knew he was telling the truth, so why argue.
“You’re going about this all wrong, you know.”
“Huh?” I nearly fell again. “Whaddaya mean?”
“I admire your pluck, boy, and then some. But it’s high time we had a talk, you and I. Arrive at an understanding. Come up here.”
I obeyed and soon found myself standing in one of those spots of daylight in the middle of the attic, facing the bogeyman, who’d climbed down from the banister and clambered up onto the faded green couch to sit with his legs hanging over the edge and his arms folded under his whiskers, gazing at me from beneath bristling brows.
“You know,” he said at last, “Most people who can see me ask for a wish.”
“You’d do that, even after …”
“But you wanted to make my … our lives miserable.”
The bogeyman waved this off. “Justifiable anger. Listen here, boy, not just anyone can see me. That makes you special. You get that, right?”
“Yeah, right. My mom thinks I’m a freak. She won’t even let me have a dog.”
The creature shuddered. “And why would you want one. Foul beasts with their sniffing and licking—and biting.”
“I fell out of the car and hit my head. It did something to me. I’d like it to go away so I can be normal again.”
“Maybe you had it in you all along.”
I just stared.
He waved his hands as it to say, Never mind. “So you’d give up the gift of being able to see me, and …” The creature made a bitter face and mumbled something I couldn’t hear, like he was arguing with himself.
“Listen, boy, if you can see me, then you can see where I came from—originally, that is—and that’s a place some would sell their own mothers to see. That’s false modesty, it’s a place some would sell their souls to see. Some spend their entire lives trying to find it, and never do. Some stumble upon it in their imaginations and write stories, songs, and poems about it, but they’re only nibbling around the edges of the truth of it.”
“What place is that?”
A wind gust made the house creak, rain spattered the dirty window panes above my head, and the pigeons cooed plaintively outside among the eaves while I waited for an answer. After what seemed like minutes, I got one.
I didn’t know what else to say, because I didn’t know what kind of place Faery was. I knew that a fairy was a little person, usually a girl, with glassy butterfly wings, like Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, and I figured that maybe Faery was where these butterfly girls came from, but I wasn’t sure, especially if that’s where the bogeyman came from.”
“I could show you,” he said, staring at me with a sparkle in his eye.
I really didn’t know what to say, so I just sort of nodded my head.
The pigeons continued to coo. Downstairs, someone, probably Mom, clattered pots and pans. A toilet flushed with a whoosh and hiss as the tank refilled. A gust of wind made the whole house creak and groan; then it was quiet, so quiet I could hear the little bugger’s raspy breathing as he stood eyeing me with one brow cocked. I experienced … a strange tingling in my fingers and toes and scalp, followed by the smell of apple blossoms and a sort of hazy, emerald-fringed tunnel vision. I tried to shake it off, tried to cry Make it stop! but I was too scared and just stood there like a moron.
It was gone.
“Never mind!” he snapped, knocking me out of my trance, and leapt off the couch onto the floor. “Here’s what I propose …”
“Hey, I never meant to make a wish.”
“I don’t grant wishes,” he snapped, “that’s someone else.”
“But you said …”
“I said that people ask me for wishes, not that I grant them. So here’s what I propose to do.”
I was holding my breath.
“I propose that I … move out of your house.”
All the air came rushing out of my lungs with a whoosh.
“Don’t get all teary-eyed about it,” said the bogeyman. He padded closer, gazing up with his dark little eyes. “I’ve found a tree, an enormous, beautiful, knotty old oak still standing on Alameda Street. Nothing less than the best for me.”
“But why?” I blurted. “No, I mean I’m happy you’re leaving, but …”
“I’m tired. The world has changed. Moved on. Yes, I’ll leave your house and never come back. I’ll leave every one of you big oafs alone and go to sleep for a hundred years; maybe I’ll even go home to Faery and find a new line of work.”
“You don’t have to leave the Two Monties alone,” I said.
He ignored my joke. “What’s more, I’ll give you a small gift in parting.”
I was surprised by his offer and by my own feelings: I was starting to kind of like the little spud. “What kind of gift?”
“A gift that will solve your problem with your mother and everyone else in this mundane, ordinary world of yours.”
“And what’s that?”
“Pinocchio wanted to become a real boy. You merely want to become a normal, ordinary, unexceptional boy, like nearly everyone else. That’s easily done. With a twitch of my whiskers, I can make you the most normal boy on this planet, so normal your mother will brag about you to all her friends, and buy you a dog, and sign you up for swimming lessons and baseball … So normal you’ll never see the likes of those orcs you’re so afraid of …”
I sucked in air and looked around the attic as if they might come charging out of the woodwork.
“… or me for that matter,” he continued, “even if I’m standing right in front of you. So normal—”
“So normal I won’t have to be operated on by Dr. Beekman?” I was getting ready to jump up and shout hurrah!
“If you think your mother would really do that to you.”
“Wait a minute!” I said. “Are you saying she wouldn’t?”
He stopped me with a gesture of his froggy hand. “I’m not at liberty to reveal what I know.”
“So she still might …”
I opened my mouth to say more, but he glared at me and said, “Will you please let me finish! What I was going to say before you so rudely interrupted me is that I can make you so normal you’ll never have even the remotest chance of seeing, let alone stepping into, Faery.”
This whole conversation had left me with a sort of hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. “But what if, someday, I change my mind … about visiting Faery?”
The bogeyman shook his head.
I stood there blinking for a second or two.
What the heck was I waiting for: “Okay, deal!” I stuck out my hand to shake on it. His felt dry and rough and leathery like a dog’s paw pad (I have a dog nowadays), but his grasp was surprisingly gentle.
“Pity, that,” was all he said.
And that’s how it all ended. I never had those funny feelings again: no more headaches or sudden sleepy sensations. Never saw the bogeyman again, or felt the presence of an orc. Fact is, I never let the things that go bump in the night drive me under the covers ever again. Even Richie’s Jack-in-the-Box and the hat rack stopped bothering me after that. Best of all, I never had to see Dr. Beekman, and eventually Mom stopped asking herself what she was going to do with me and taking me to all those therapists. Of course, she had no reason to talk to her lady friends about my great imagination, but she was able to brag about my grades and my first Varsity letter and making All-American in baseball at Oregon State.
So, was the bogeyman real or all in my head? Now that I’m a “normal” adult, I lean toward him being all in my head, him and those orcs. And yet … I was “different” once upon a time and had extraordinary experiences; then suddenly I was just another kid with a dog and a baseball glove, and everything about my life was ordinary. A figment of my imagination couldn’t have cured me, if there was anything to cure, so … maybe I just grew out of it all of a sudden. I’ve read about things like that happening. Still, if you’ve read my story, you know I have my doubts.
And maybe you do, too.
And maybe we’ll never know for sure.
Every now and then I walk my Lab, Margie, to a certain oak tree up on Alameda Street and imagine that the bogeyman is in there, and while Margie pees on the parking strip, I wonder if he’s asleep, or gone back to where he came from, or if he’s standing right in front of me, reading my mind. I like to pretend he is, because, even if he was imaginary and a huge pain in the gluteus maximus during the short time I knew him, I miss the little bugger. But most of all, I regret never having visited Faery.
Nowadays everyone is living happily ever after.
Well, almost everyone.