Monday, October 31, 2016

A Few Hours in the Darkness

It’s funny how belongings mean so much to people, but in the end, they have so little value.

I had crammed box after box full of my mother’s trinkets from every corner of my childhood home, but as the deadline to move out crept ever closer, I just rented a dumpster. What had started as a careful process to preserve my mother’s legacy had degenerated into a last minute dash to the trash. My mother’s favorite china was nice, but it was old, heavy, and worth about seven bucks. I cringed as I heard it smash against her rocking chair. As I hurried away from the overflowing dumpster, I could still hear slivers raining down though the refuse, a reminder of the sin I had just committed. The lid slammed shut, as if in protest, as I stepped back in.

After a dozen sacrificed weekends, hundreds of sentimental knick-knacks put out to pasture, and thousands of miles on my odometer, the house was finally starting to look empty. The new owners were gracious enough to give me another week to straighten things out. They were set to move in tomorrow, November 1. Things could have gone smoother if my sisters had been around to give me a hand, but for the first time in weeks, I could honestly say the house was in good shape.

I guess the neighborhood kids knew of my mom’s passing or put two and two together when they saw the dumpster in the driveway. Either way, I’d gotten not a single trick-or-treater. When I was a kid, we’d all gather in my living room and trade our candy until we all had “the good stuff.” I was vaguely aware of a steady stream of drugstore Yodas, ragtag ALFs, and haphazard He-Men at our door while we shuffled through our treasures.

Now I didn’t even hear the telltale laughter of children out for candy, just the breeze whipping though the branches and lifeless leaves tumbling to the ground. From the most popular house in Podunk to an abandoned shack – another reason to forget this place and move on.

It was probably for the best anyway. All I had were a few Tic-Tacs and a grimy quarter from my last hurried meal at the burger place in town. Thirty years ago, an offering like that would have made me a prime target for some trickery. Then again, 30 years ago I was the most powerful force in America and it took more an a few rotten eggs to scare me. But now, as a “normal” adult, I was thankful I wasn’t going to have to add picking eggshells out of the shutters to my to-do list.

The front door slamming behind me dragged my consciousness back into the present. Must have blown shut, I thought.

I stood with my hands on my hips, surveying the bottom floor of the house. It was getting tough to see with just a few candles to light my way, but I was pretty sure everything had been taken care of. The electric company cut off the juice last week, as I had asked. What I hadn’t anticipated was needing extra time. So while my plan to get everything finished before dusk had failed, a few of mom’s ancient, ugly candles were as reliable as ever. If it meant I didn’t have to pay yet another bill, a few hours in the darkness was fine by me.

All that was left was the basement. Not too much in there, I wagered, since I had helped my mother clean it out a few years ago. Great, I’d be done soon and I could start the long drive back to my apartment.

I scooped one of the candles off the floor, turned the rickety old handle to the basement, and pushed open the door. Though the squeal of rusty hinges, I thrust the candle forward, parting the darkness like Moses parted the sea.

The funk of decades of mold brought memories flooding into my mind: getting the basement key, finding Great-Grandfather’s Diary…

I didn’t remember making it to the bottom of the stairs. But there I was, shining the light around the cellar, searching for anything to bring upstairs and throw away so I could finally go home. And all I wanted to do was just go home again.

On one of my passes with the candle, something yellow caught my eye. A plastic wiffleball bat was propped up in the corner, complete with duct tape mending the crack I’d put in it ages ago. The handle was freezing, like it had been left out in the snow.

I could have sworn that I tossed that thing, aching to be rid of the artifacts of my childhood. I guess I had just dumped it down here, but I didn’t remember coming across it when Mom and I had cleaned the basement out. I slid the bat under my arm and kept looking. As its chill bit though my shirt and onto my skin, I started to feel a little woozy. All that dust and mold I’d stirred up must have been getting to me.

Turning to head up the stairs, I glanced around one last time. Thought the darkness, I could see the oaken altar on which I had discovered Great-Grandfather’s Diary all those years ago. It had been too heavy to move for my mother and me, so I certainly wasn’t going to be able to drag it upstairs by myself. I toyed with the idea of leaving some cash for the new occupants, so they could pay their moving men to do it. But all I had on me was my credit card and that one quarter. I was either going to have to leave it, or break it down and take it to the dumpster in pieces.

I kicked the bottom of the altar, trying to get an idea of how heavy it was, and accidently sent caked-on dust fluttering though the air. The years-old handprints of my mother and me were still there from the first time we attempted to move it. I held my hand over one of the indentations – a perfect fit, so it must have been mine. A second, smaller set was my mother’s, obviously. Next to that was another one where I must have run my hand across the behemoth looking for a better grip. The fingers were several inches long, and there appeared to be no middle and ring finger, just one big digit. But while the other two handprints had begun to collect new dust, this last one somehow seemed fresh. Must have been a trick of the lighting.

As I reached down to hold my hand over the odd print, I noticed a magazine where Great-Grandfather’s Diary had rested so long ago. I recognized it from when I was a kid. It was one of those parody magazines, like MAD. The pages were open to a story called “My Secret Life, chapter 3.” I read the last paragraph:

“A police officer pulled me over and asked for my driver's license. He said I was going 20 mph over the speed limit. I instantly pointed to my wife and said, ‘I'm in a hurry, my wife is in labor.’ Fortunately, my wife actually had a big stomach. I hoped he'd let me go with this excuse. ‘Oh, since it's an emergency. I'll lead you to the hospital with my police car,’ he said. ‘Let's get going.’ ‘No, no! We can't! This baby is a demon child!’”

I let out a little chuckle for old-time sake. But as I moved the candle closer to get a better look, I noticed that the word “demon” had been underlined in red ink. Maybe one of my sisters…?

My chest grew tight and my throat tensed. All the dust and mold in the air must have been aggravating my asthma. With one hand on my ribs and the other holding the candle, I stumbled up the stairs towards the door. My breath got shallower with each step. I could see the light of the moon pouring through the window upstairs.

The light disappeared as the door slammed shut. I couldn’t help but chuckle though my gasps. What a cliché, I thought. Stuck in the basement on Halloween night in the dark. I couldn’t remember leaving a window open, but it had to have been the wind. Should have just paid the electric for another week.

I reached out for the door knob and turned it expectantly. It jiggled in my hand, but wouldn’t open. I felt the pain in my chest exploding into my arms and shoulders.

“Why are you getting rid of all my things?” asked a female voice. A gentle hand came to rest on my shoulder, familiar, but ice cold. “Don’t you love your mother anymore?”

My chest tensed again. I had to concentrate on every breath. I tried to turn my head, to see who was standing behind me, but the debilitating pain crawled into neck.

“I just want to forget about all of this!” I yelled. “I want to go home!”

“You CAN come home again, Sweetie. It can be just like it was before,” said the voice sweetly. “Don’t you remember the fun times we had – you, your sisters and me? Don’t you want to go on picnics and build a town out of Legos? Don’t you want to play Super Mario Bros. with me? You can be Luigi. I know how much you like his green mustache.”

My mind buzzed with images of my childhood. The pain started to subside. The hand on my shoulder suddenly radiated warmth.

Then the voice added, “Don’t you want to… save the world again?” I could tell the voice’s mouth had bent into a mocking smile.

“That ruined my life!” I screamed. “I’m just a normal guy with a boring life now. I don’t even have enough money for rent! After all of that, saving the whole world, no one cares about me! And I’m terrified that the alien going to come back! I’m terrified that he’s going to… to… Oh... my... God….”

The pain flashed back into my chest, worse than before, and the warm hand on my shoulder grew fiery hot. I forced my neck to turn and saw four long, ashen digits digging into my body.

“I told you we would meet again,” screeched an otherworldly voice. Though the pain, I was vaguely aware of a serpent-like tail wrapping around my neck.


From the front door, I could hear the muffled voice of a child exclaim, “Trick or treat!”

“Get out of here!” I screamed, banging on the basement door with all my might. It was all I could muster before my voice dwindled into heaving and my arm twisted into a painful claw.

The front door opened, and the child exclaimed again, “Trick or treat!”

“Here you go! Have a safe Halloween now!” hissed the voice of my mother. As the front door slammed shut, my candle flickered out and the basement was plunged into darkness.

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