Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Bogeymen

     When John and his brother Stuart were very young, their father and mother gave them classic stories on vinyl records to encourage the development of their imaginations. The brothers played the stories over and over again on an old record player. Their favorites were The Knights of the Round Table and Robinson Crusoe, which they loved for their heroic characters, even though the Robinson Crusoe record skipped in the same place every time they played it: "… and knocked down one of his pursuers."
     Imaginations are impressionable, and the brothers listened to two of the stories only rarely, when they could work up the nerve: The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. The Poe story was so frightening, with its rhythmic narration matching the imagined beat of the heart beneath the floorboards, that they could listen to it only during daylight hours or it would cause terrible dreams. By comparison, the Irving story was all-consuming. The image of a headless horseman charging his red-eyed stallion down upon the helpless Ichabod Crane and hurling his flaming jack-o-lantern caused frequent nightmares. John would awaken in a cold sweat, imagining himself knocked off his horse by the vengeful horseman. As he lay awake, waiting for his own telltale heart to stop beating in his chest, he would listen to the silence. On summer nights, when the windows were open, he imagined he could hear the headless horseman breathing outside the ground-floor window of the bedroom he shared with his brother. On particularly bad nights, he imagined he could hear the headless horseman scratching at the window screen.
     One rainy Saturday afternoon, when John and Stuart were racing their slot cars around the track in their bedroom, their friends from up the street, Gary and Dean, who were also brothers, knocked at the door. John and Stuart’s father answered the door and invited the brothers in out of the rain. Dean was holding a small white jewelry box in his hand. He announced that he had found the mummy’s finger and lifted off the lid. Inside was a ghostly pale finger surrounded by cotton batting. As everyone leaned in to get a closer look, the finger wiggled, eliciting shrieks of fright from everyone but the jokers, Dean and Gary, who laughed uncontrollably. Dean had powdered his finger and put it through a hole in the bottom of the box. He said that he and Gary played jokes all the time, like wandering the sleeping neighborhood and making noises outside windows. John’s gut tightened. He suddenly had an explanation for the sounds he heard at night.
     The next time John had the headless horseman nightmare and awoke in the middle of the night, he listened more intently than ever. He was so sure he could hear the breathing and scratching that he said as quietly as he could, “Dean?” The imagined sounds ceased immediately, replaced by the noise of crickets and the hum of distant cars on the highway. Then there was a new sound, a whispering. John strained to hear, not believing his ears. The silence that followed made him doubt he had heard the whispering at all. But then there was an answering whisper. Now there was no doubt. “Gary?” John pleaded in a soft, hoarse voice. There was no response. Blood pounded in John’s ears. He lay on his back, frozen in fear, until he lost consciousness.
     A few weeks later, John and Stuart’s family drove the brothers a couple of hours away, to their grandmother’s house, to spend a week with her, just the three of them. Grandma’s house had only two bedrooms, so John and Stuart shared a double bed in the front bedroom. It was hot enough that the ground-floor bedroom window was wide open every night. John slept peacefully, with the confidence that the headless horseman could not possibly have followed him to Grandma’s house.
     On the last night of their stay, Grandma made some popcorn, and they stayed up late to watch an old movie. It was after ten o’clock when the movie ended and they went to bed, more than an hour past John and Stuart’s regular bedtime. Stuart fell immediately into a deep sleep, but John lay awake, playing the movie over in his mind. As he lost control of his thoughts and drifted into sleep, the movie scenes melded into his recurrent nightmare of the headless horseman. At the moment when he expected to be struck by the flaming jack-o-lantern, he snapped awake. Nightglow flooded the room through the open window. There should have been cricket noise, but the room was quiet. He could hear Stuart’s soft breathing next to him, and beyond that, from the window, a second set of quiet breaths. His explanation that Dean and Gary were outside the window was suddenly so implausible that it was like a trapdoor dropping out from under him. He held his own breath and strained his ears, expecting to hear scratching at the screen. Instead, he heard a muffled tearing sound, like someone slowly cutting the screen, thin wire by thin wire, with a sharp pocketknife. He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t release his breath. He wanted to flee, but he couldn’t move. He lay trembling, tears squeezing out of the corners of his tightly closed eyes.
     The cutting noise stopped. John expected to hear the sound of someone crawling through the window, but there was only silence. Then he heard the sound of breathing, and it was coming from right next to the bed. He could almost feel the breath on his face. There was a strange smell. As he tried to make sense of it, the rhythm of the breathing changed, and he realized that there was a second breather. The one closer to his face started whispering. It was the same voice from home! They couldn’t have followed him to Grandma’s house. They must have found him somehow. The other one responded, and John realized that he could not understand a word but that they understood each other clearly. He recoiled as he felt hands lightly touch his chest and legs. His body lifted slowly off the bed, floated through the slit in the screen, and drifted up into the night sky.

No comments: