by J. L. SOUTH WORTH
Is it the imagination that tempts our youthful eyes to search the shadowed corners of our rooms or is it something else that calls us to explore the edges of fear? We leave the lights on and our closet doors open in hopes that monsters will shrink from the light. Or we jump from our beds, landing a few feet away just to avoid the hand of a clawing demon that lives in the depths of darkness underneath our beds. We learn to close our eyes and pull the covers over our heads to keep from seeing what we can’t hide from. We cry out for our parents when something unknown slithers over the night light and through the shadows. They come rushing in as the miscreants of our minds fade. Our parents soothe our rapidly beating hearts when they burst through our closet doors and shine flashlights under our beds to find nothing at all. They tell us there is no danger sneaking about our rooms. But as they wish us a good night, promising to leave the hall light on, the shadows bulge with emerging beasts that threaten us with their mischievous, slinking forms.
In the expanding darkness I could see a looming figure coming out of the wall in the middle of my room. The hall light stretched in through the sliver of my open door, leaving what was past it a mystery. The hall light didn’t help. It just illuminated the gothic figure, its glaring, red eyes fixated on me. His pale face, almost iridescent, was cloaked by a dust of shadow. Oh god, I can’t handle this. I looked towards my open door. When I glanced back the figure was gone. This image has haunted me ever since I saw the imagined creature brought to life by the creators of “The Tale of the Quicksilver,” an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. And yes, right now I am.
I sat up. My heart was beating at a dizzying pace. I threw the blankets off my legs and jumped from my bed as far as I could into the light that spread into my room from the hallway. After I hastily cleared a foot length down the hall from my bedroom doorway, I quietly tiptoed toward the living room. It wasn’t late, but I had been forced awake, wide eyed and weary, for an hour after my designated bedtime of 9:00pm.
“Mom?” I whispered, ashamed of my fear, which was generated by pure, lucid imagination.
“Yes?” She looked up from the book she was reading.
My eyes shifted to the left where the television sat centered in the middle of the wall. In the background of my perception, the television’s soft noise distracted me from my delusional sense of fear. I felt silly.
“I can’t sleep.” I glanced at my dad, who was to the right of me and settled comfortably in his recliner. He sighed heavily in response to my confession.
My heart sank.
“Michael,” my mom said. She looked at my dad, her eyes slivered.
“I can’t help it.” My shoulders slumped. I looked from my mom to my dad. I walked over and sat next to my mom. “I know that there isn’t anything that could hurt me.” Being almost nine years old, I realized that. “But there was a show about a monster that came out of the wall to drag this girl back into the wall with him. My wall reminds me of the wall in the girl’s room. I just can’t stop thinking about it.”
After the girl had traced the shape of a door onto her wall with chalk, it began to glow, allowing the monster to appear. My wall was a tall, wide rectangular panel which protruded forward. The sunken-in closet doors were to the left, and my bedroom door was sunken in to the right. This shape was irradiated by the light from the hallway, making me envision some kind of glowing doorway to hell. My imagination has always been easily fueled. It would linger on the edge of daylight and expand with the night, keeping me awake with conjured images and faraway ideas. I’d find something enchanting and hold onto it; keeping it alive, I’d let its embers smolder and smoke into life in my mind. I had seen the show when I was younger, but as intense as it was then, it hadn’t frightened me until now. Before moving out of housing on the military base where my dad worked, I had had nothing to compare to the devilish fantasy world that the television show portrayed.
“Every time I close my eyes…,” I hesitated, “this monster appears floating, pulling itself from within the wall with its arms outstretched and clawing for me.”
“Okay, I have something that will help.” My mom stood and walked out of the living room and into the kitchen. A moment later she returned with a piece of paper, a pen, a lighter, and an ashtray. “Draw your monster,” she said, “exactly how you see him.”
I drew the image of my monster: a dark, cloaked figure with outstretched arms and searing eyes. I wanted to express more of what contributed to my fear, but my pen stopped moving as I could not see my fear but only feel it when I saw the image I had just drawn.
“Now,” my mom said, “rip the paper up into as many tiny pieces as you can and place them in the ashtray.”
I did as she said.
“Now set it on fire.”
I lit the pieces of torn paper from all sides of the small pile. I let it burn until it was a blackened mound, its shape outlined in ash.
“Take this to the bathroom,” she motioned to the translucent green ashtray. “And flush it all down the toilet.”
She followed me into the bathroom and watched me dump my monster’s cremated corpse into the toilet. I flushed him like he was a child’s momentary pet that had been found floating at the top of the fishtank, its golden scales faded.
“Where did you learn how to do this?” I looked up at my mom after the contents of the toilet had disappeared.
“I don’t know. Sometimes when we can simplify the things that haunt us, whether it’s fear or even our own imaginations, they are easier to destroy.”
I rinsed the ashtray, put it in the kitchen sink to be washed out in the morning, and walked back to my room. The door was wide open and the darkness beyond it was imminent. I stepped through the doorway, walked to my bed and as I sat down I looked around my room. The darkness wasn’t impenetrable and the shadows didn’t form shapes I couldn’t name. Nothing emerged from my walls; nothing was living behind the clothes in my closet. And I allowed my feet to dangle, for just a moment, over the edge of my bed. I quickly pulled them up. Lying down, I wrapped myself tightly in my blanket. The fear was gone but the What If could never die. There was still room for a little mystery, and nothing beat the allure of suspense. So I closed my eyes, already dreaming.