THE STARING CONTEST
She slapped me so hard, my eyes welled up with tears.
The sting rattled my left cheek while a deep red hand imprint made its mark. All day I had to wear this injury in front of the entire school. It didn’t start to fade until at least fifth period. But this wasn’t as bad as when she took a lighter to the top of my hand. To this day I still have the scar.
We would do stupid stuff like that. Make ourselves pass out. Sniff markers until we got a buzz. Have a slap battle. It was just something we did. Our little crew always did these kinds of things. I think at the start it made us feel connected to each other, like being in a gang. Us against them. And there were scores of them.
We always had some absurd reason for these acts of self torture, none of which made any sense whatsoever. We began to get more and more creative with what we would do next, which by the way, would need to be even more intense then the previous. It wasn’t uncommon for any one of us to have some kind of battle wound on any given school day.
There were four of us in our crew but I’m going to talk about Mindy, the only girl. Mindy was tough. And when I mean tough, I don’t mean ‘for a girl’ tough, I mean tough, plain and simple. I once saw her kick a guy’s balls so hard he cried like a baby. It was Mindy that I had received that punishing slap from that final stage of the slap off. And I won’t lie, her blow brought me to tears.
Aside from holding the title of slap battle champion, she and I were good friends. Looking back I think she had feelings towards me however, this wasn’t mutual. Maybe that’s why she smashed my face as hard as she did that day. But we still remained close through middle school until she left just us before high school. And I don’t mean that she moved away. Let me explain…
Once we began eighth grade our escapades became legendary. We gained a reputation of sorts for being stupid. It had got to the point where kids would come up and suggest different stunts we should do next, some of which we did, others we scoffed at. Keep in mind these were things well beyond the scope of jumping over trash cans with our bikes or smashing mail boxes. We had graduated to more serious endeavors, like glue every window shut in the entire school or start a grease fire inside the cafeteria. We soon gained respect from even the bad crowd.
Everything we did was on the down low at school. No one ever ratted us out or even hinted at knowing who it was that wreaked the havoc. I think it’s because what we did represented some kind of message, like an assault on authority. We developed an underground popularity that made us fearless and have big egos, especially Mindy.
And she wasted no time indulging in her new found fame, getting into fights almost every single day with both girls and boys. It wouldn’t be a normal day at school unless Mindy launched into some kind of altercation. She had become the top bad ass. Everyone knew her, even at other schools and she loved every minute of it.
I suppose this was how he picked her out.
The new kid Alex went unnoticed once he began attending the school at the start of second semester. I remember him start to show up in my homeroom but only in passing. He was the dirty kid with his clothes old and disheveled. His hair was unkept with a distinct lack of any style whatsoever.
I felt bad for this kid, but he was an asshole. A real nasty runt that seemed skilled at getting under one’s skin. It was easy to not feel sorry for him, and there was a part of me that wanted to. I just couldn’t.
Alex approached us one day at our secret spot. We had a hidden grotto deep behind the park that we claimed as our unofficial hangout. To see this kid here only meant one thing, that he had been following us. It was the kind of place that you had to know how to get to, it wasn’t somewhere you’d just stumble on.
The silver tongue Alex had wasted no time. He launched into a vicious recap of our anarchistic activities, debasing them and berating us in the process. We had no come back. It was as if the zookeeper had come to tame the monkeys. I remember having all that ego ripped from my soul and made me feel like the dumb kid that I was, that we all were.
Alex spoke well beyond his years as he dismantled almost everything we ever did. The reasons why we felt the need for attention. The paths we would take into adulthood giving us each customized details. For me, it was taking some steps away only to end up right back in our sleepy little town a lonely old man, telling stories that no one believes. For Mindy it was much more dire.
“You’ll just wither up and die”. His tone was both dark and joyous.
You’d think the four of us would have just pounced this boy, but we didn’t. We all stood there, angry and embarrassed. There was some truth to what he was saying that kept us at bay. Words, the deadliest of weapons.
It seemed to me his focus was on Mindy. I couldn’t tell you why for certain. He kept his eye on her while keeping on with his nasty monologues. And it’s here that he challenged Mindy to a most curious duel, a staring contest.
“You wouldn’t last even one minute” his vile, tiny voice spewed out.
This was something Mindy couldn’t pass up. It was different than just punching him in his stupid mouth, which I wish she would have done instead. This was a challenge to something much deeper for her. Maybe for once she wanted to prove her strength beyond the physical rough ups she’d been known for. It was a challenge Alex knew she couldn’t pass up. And he was right. But the contest wasn’t with Alex, it was to be with his little sister which I think added more insult to injury. Mindy of course, accepted.
On the way to Alex’s house I pled with Mindy to just let it go. Something deep in my gut was telling me this was a bad idea.
“Don’t be such a wuss”. Her answer to my pleads hit me right in the gut.
My concern, I recall was not because of what we were about to do, but more of where we were going. We followed Alex to the outskirts of town then down the ‘old road’ which led deeper into the dense country that surrounded our town. We’ve never ventured out this far by ourselves and for good reason. The stories we’d heard kept our main base of operations always within our town. Tales of crazy people, wild animals, ghosts even. These parts were only seen when driving to the big city with our parents. But there we were, marching deeper into the infamous ‘dark hills’.
Alex’s house was buried deep within the decayed black walnuts and decomposed oaks. There was no real road that led to his house and was even devoid of a driveway once we arrived. It was yard of dirt and gravel right up to the rotten wood slats of the front porch. By now we had lost our two other companions who had wised up and turned back. I don’t know why I stayed with her. She was tough enough to do this alone. Tougher then I was. Maybe because she called me a ‘wuss’.
Alex led us into his house where a strong odor of stew hit my nose. It was an aroma I’d never smelled before, and certainly not from my own kitchen at home. One of poverty, maybe even below it. This didn’t seem to phase Mindy at all but it gave me intense anxiety. ‘We shouldn’t be here’ I thought, for a childish schoolyard staring contest. But there we were.
The inside was just as rundown as the exterior however neat and tidy. The furniture looked as if handed down through generations. It was like going back in time with the only indication of modernisms lay within the television that sat in the corner against the lamps’ dulled lighting. The other missing aspect of the house were people. It seemed empty despite something cooking in the kitchen and the television on.
Alex led us through the house towards a back bedroom. He opened the door where a little girl played in the corner.
“Tessa”, Alex called her name.
She stopped to look at him. Her shoulder length matted hair complimented her tattered dress. Tessa couldn’t have been more the six or seven years old. I remembered her to have pale skin that made her deep blue eyes protrude from their sockets. Alex led her over to a chair where she climbed in to sit as if she already knew what was about to happen. Alex pulled up a chair for Mindy. The two were now squared off in front of each other. I heard Alex whisper soft words into Tessa’s ear that sounded like a foreign language. It was English, but with a guttural twang if you will.
“First one to blink loses” Alex spoke with a demented excitement.
They sat there for almost an hour staring at each other. Alex was fixated, a Devil’s grin painted across his face. Mindy shifted in her chair as time inched on. Tessa sat there without emotion, lifeless even. Within Mindy’s movements I sensed she was in pain, trapped. I didn’t know what to do as I didn’t know what was happening. I just felt a thick uneasiness fill the room as Mindy squirmed and writhed in her chair, staring into Tessa’s now darkened blue eyes. There was something familiar about them, the way they settled onto her small face. I realize now, she was blind.
Shadows caught my attention from the dirty window where I heard movement outside. I looked over and saw a pair of eyes peeking in from behind the grime and soot. Someone was watching us.
I’d had enough. It was time to get us out of there. I reached over to grab Mindy when she collapsed to the floor. I gathered her up into my arms. Alex stood over us laughing like a maniac.
“You lose!” he said, pointing his pale finger at Mindy, limp in my arms.
I pulled her up to her feet. I could tell right away she was, different. I looked over at Tessa still sitting in the chair, calm and blank. With Mindy under my arm I pulled us through the house and back outside. Once there I shook Mindy’s shoulders for a response. She looked back at me with a blankness that shook me right to my core. A long stretch of drool fell from her mouth. The Mindy I knew before was gone.
I muscled us back through the hills as the evening sunlight disappeared above the treeline. All the while I heard footsteps crunch into the dead twigs and fallen leaves close behind. I heard whispers of foreign languages taunt us as I struggled us back to our hideout. It was night by the time we’d arrived. Mindy seemed to come back but she was not herself. She was there enough to hold onto my waist as I rode us back home on my bike. I left her as she dazed toward her front steps.
The next day Mindy wasn’t at school and neither was Alex. I had a sick feeling in my stomach that I was about to find out something terrible. None of the other guys believed a word I said about what had happened the day before. They were convinced Mindy and I were playing some kind of joke and she was at home like a big faker. I wish that were the case. After school that day we found out Mindy had been admitted to the hospital for severe pneumonia. A week later she slipped into a coma. Alex never returned to school. When asked why, no one at the school had an answer or seemed to care. He was just gone.
In the months that followed I did my best to convince everyone what had happened to us. The story would always fall on deaf ears. It was to the point where my own parents punished me for disparaging the sudden illness that Mindy had succumbed to by telling my tale. It was dismissed as ‘disrespectful’ every time.
Over the years I’d hear stories about the illusive gypsy people that inhabited the hills beyond our town. Stories of cannibalism, incest, witchcraft, you name it. I spoke with a woman who claimed that a young man had come out from the dark hills and told her in detail about everything that would happen in her life, even the day she’d die. I wondered if one day there would be my story about a soul stealing blind girl and the staring contest. Sounds crazy right? I always thought so too.
The town hasn’t changed much over the years. A few more houses have been built. They put in a Walmart. The dark hills have made way to a few more roads but they still surround us, ominous and fierce. It’s been almost thirty-five years since I dropped Mindy off that night. Not a week goes by that I don’t pay her a visit. Every time, as I watch her lay there trapped in her coma, I wonder if she’s still locked in the staring contest hoping maybe one day she’ll win and return to us. But week after week she just lies there, withered up, and waiting to die. I can still feel the sting of her slap as if it were yesterday.
As for me, I’ve never been able to leave our fair town. There have been times when I managed to make it to the big city but this would always be short lived and fall apart. I’d find myself coming right back to where I started and telling this story that nobody believes.
IT WAS THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS
At some point in every life there is a moment where innocence is lost. It most often comes at times when we least expect it. For me this happened much, much later in life.
You could say I had to grow up fast, going through life poor and without a father. I was forced to endure and experience things some kids would never go through. Having to watch all the other kids at school with their complete, almost perfect families. Wearing new clothes. Riding shiny bikes. Listening to them talk about how their Dads can do this or that. It was a world I didn’t know, and in many way still don’t.
Maybe this is what sets me apart from everyone else. Even though I’ve done my best at becoming a responsible adult and raising a family of my own, there’s always this feeling that’s never left me. One I could never put a finger on. An, uneasiness I guess. Darkness, maybe. And for all these years I had no idea why. Now I do.
The first time I ever saw the Man was walking with Mom on the way home from school. I must have been in first or second grade at the time. That calm and peaceful afternoon was ripped in half by the roaring engine of his beefed-up muscle car. A car, now looking back, that screamed of shortcomings.
He pulled up alongside to pace us as Mom turned our casual gait into a brisk walk. Within the shadow of the driver seat I could barely make out his sunken cheek bones and gaunt complexion. I only knew that he was smiling at me. I don’t recall the brief conversation that occurred between them other than that one clear piece within the small talk:
“Leave us alone!”. Her tone erupted into both terror and anger. One I’ll never forget. He sped off with the same fury to which he had arrived.
It was a short time later, a month perhaps that he showed up again. This time we were at the grocery store where he had been following us. He gave my Mom such a fright we left a full cart of groceries right there in the aisle. This was the first time I got a good look at him. As I told the police, who had come later to our house, he had dark bushy hair, was tall and stood a little hunched over. I saw the policeman write down on his note pad the words “bad posture”. That a stuck with me. At the time Mom always used to tell me to stand up straight or I’ll end up having bad posture.
I was warned to make sure and call the police or to get an adult if I ever saw him around again. And in the months that followed we never actually did, but we knew that he was there. I’d find a shoebox on the doorstep with a brand-new pair of sneakers. Or a shopping bag with a new dress for Mom.
Sometimes there would be an envelope mixed in the mail with a few hundred-dollar bills inside. My Mom would gather up whatever was left at our door and throw it away in the dumpster behind the liquor store, even the cash.
I would argue with her about keeping the stuff. We were poor and could most definitely use the money. But she refused.
“Don’t you EVER take ANY of it!” I didn’t understand why at the time.
On top of everything the news around town was becoming equally troubling. It was as if bad news was waiting for us in every corner. I recall a girl at my school had gone missing and a family of four were killed in a hit and run incident a town over. Mom was glued to the television every time there was a report and it felt like something new would happen almost weekly. An assault, a kidnapping, another family gone missing, these were dark times. Broken, perhaps.
One night I awoke to hushed voices coming from somewhere outside. It was Mom. She was pleading with someone outside her window.
“Please, please leave us alone”.
I heard her voice tremble, breaking into muffled cries. I could almost feel the terror as she repeated to whomever was outside to leave us alone.
Once she slammed the window shut I heard footsteps shuffling closer. I jumped back into bed and buried myself under the covers. I lay there frozen, listening. The shuffles approached louder and louder until they stopped right outside my window. I slowly peeked out from the safety of the blankets and saw a dark figure looking in at me. It was him.
He stood there for what seemed like forever. I mustered up the courage to peek again, but he was gone. I could hear Mom in the next room sobbing uncontrollably. This was the first time I really felt the pain of not having a Dad, or someone to protect us. It was awful.
A few weeks later we quietly moved to a different town, then a few months after that moved out of the state. I recall acclimating to the new town and especially a new school to be quite challenging, but soon things became normal. Before I knew it, high school was just a summer away. Mom was doing well too and had found a good paying job. She even started seeing someone, a guy named Gary. It was nice having him around. He made us feel safe but especially because he made Mom happy.
The best thing about all of this was that we hadn’t heard or seen the Man at all. I had tried to ask Mom about him a few times.
“Don’t you talk about him, EVER”.
I admit, it left me wondering. But I was a young teenager and things were going so well I eventually forgot all about him. That is, until one day after school.
There was a detective sitting in our living room next to Mom. I knew that look on her face. It was one I’d hope to never see again. I instantly knew he had come back. But that’s not why the detective was there. He was there because of Gary, dead from an apparent suicide. Gary was found in his apartment hanging in the closet with a belt around his neck. This didn’t make sense. I knew right away that Gary would never do this to himself. Mom and I locked eyes as the detective wrapped up his interview. We both knew. He had found us.
In the weeks that followed, familiar news reports began to surface. More assaults, another kidnapping. There was a kid at school whose Dad had gone missing. It was as if a dark cloud had descended upon my new town. Again, there was bad news waiting in every corner, like a killer stalking its prey.
But it was the gifts left at our doorstep that reinforced our claim. There were three old brown bags. Inside of them were rotting and withered groceries. The stench from the rotten meat and liquefied vegetables made me gag when Mom and I shoved them into the trash. I noticed mixed within the variety of foods a box of cereal that at one time had been my favorite. And then it dawned on me, these were the same groceries we had left in the cart the last time I saw him. He must have bought and kept them. It had been at least five years, maybe more.
That night Mom and I had an intense drag out. An argument like this had not happened before. It was teenage angst, I guess. It filled me with such lethal anger that I didn’t know what was really happening. I begged Mom to tell me who he was and to call the police, but she wouldn’t. She stood her ground.
“It’s for your own good!”
But I didn’t let up. I kept pounding away, driving her to her breaking point. Her voice was broken. The last time I’d heard those muffled cries was that night he stood outside my window. I remembered that moment like it was yesterday.
“Please, you won’t understand”.
She pleaded with me to stop my tirade. I eventually did. But it wasn’t until she was completely torn down.
After that day Mom and I hardly spoke to each other. It was the beginning of the end. Our relationship did nothing but deteriorate in the years that followed. I felt a darkness that had been building inside of me for the first time. I had unspeakable thoughts.
And it wasn’t long before I began to act on them. First with a couple of verbal arguments at school that quickly escalated into daily street fights. It got to the point where I’d take out my dark anger on anyone in my way. I was infected with a hatred that resonated deep within the very marrow of my bones. I could feel it. Taste it. I once beat a homeless man until the flesh peeled away from his cheekbone. I might have left him for dead.
I believed the Man was still out there, periodically watching Mom and I struggle on
with our lives. And each time I felt him, in a familiar turn of events, the local news would spit out deranged stories of murder and loss. I once thought I saw him amongst the crowd at my high school graduation, another time when I had moved away to college. But the biggest surprise was years later at my wedding. I saw him standing down the road from the reception as my wife and I drove away in our limousine to start our life together. I dismissed it as a figment of my imagination.
It had been quite some time since I had felt his presence. But inside, I knew it was him. We had received an unmarked envelope within our wedding gifts. A few hundred-dollar bills were inside. It was all too familiar. He was still there, watching.
Shortly after the birth of my son, Mom developed cancer and passed away. I was at her bedside when she quietly left our world. We still hadn’t spoken to each other the way that we should have. I regret that.
“Remember, it was the thought that counts”.
The last words that her dying body could muster were ones I’ll never forget. It made me sick to my stomach that in her final and dying words, she attempted to condone the Man’s actions. If I had any innocence left it was ripped from me like a band aid exposing the bloody wound beneath it.
I have never told my wife about the Man that had barged into our life and stalked us throughout the years. It was just us three now and all I wanted was to put those rough times behind me. My wife had lost both of her parents when she was young. All that mattered was our son, now a spunky second grader, and things were going really well.
…until I received a call from my wife yesterday.
It was about our son. He had gone missing from school. At some point during morning recess he simply disappeared. There was a furious search throughout the neighborhood. The police had set up a base camp in my front yard. I sat in my living room, helpless. All I thought about was the Man. He was here, and he had my son.
There was an intense debate inside my head. I needed to tell them. But what exactly? About a Man who had stalked Mom and I for our entire lives? It sounded crazy to just think it much less say it out loud.
Then out of nowhere, my son came walking down the street. He was alone. My wife scooped him up with a furious hug. Tears poured down her cheeks. My son wore a most confused look on his face at the police presence in our house. He didn’t seem phased at all. I noticed immediately his shoes, brand new sneakers.
The police sat him down and began their questions. As he explained calmly, a nice old man had come to see him again during recess. He had dark bushy hair and stood hunched and thin. One of the officers asked if the Man ever said his name. My son turned to look directly at me when he gave his fragile answer…
He’s a burly and loud mouthed annoying motherfucker.
That’s the best way I can describe him.
We met on the fourth of July, which I’m not quite sure is fitting or not. I was shooting sky rockets into the air with some friends, watching them explode into a million pieces of spark and sizzle. They were nothing to brag about. Just a fun distraction on a boring but altogether peaceful holiday. I remember watching the tiny particles illuminate into the night sky feeling a strange connection with them. A magnificent spectacle that would only last a few seconds before disappearing forever. Like life itself, I recall thinking.
And this is when he showed up out of nowhere. I thought it a strange coincidence that he just happened to be walking down the street but fate has an ugly way of finding you . He was marveling at our cheap illegal bottle rockets acting like a lonely or unlucky kind of guy. I made the mistake of offering him one of our beers.
Shoot forward exactly one month to the day and he’s sitting next to me on the couch plotting out the next move.
“We’ll just filet this fucker into six parts” he said plainly.
You see, to properly dispose of a body it’s best to remove the four limbs first, then the head which will leave you with six parts – one head / four limbs / one torso. From here you can dispose of each at random and control the mess. It was all his idea.
The plan was simple. 1): cover the kitchen with a plastic tarp on the floor and counters, where… 2): He would hide in the kitchen. 3): Invite the “target” over for a beer. 4) Drink a few beers, then casually ask said “target” to go into the kitchen to grab a few more.
You can guess where it would go from there.
“It’ll get real bloody” he said, which was what the plastic is for.
Preparation. It’s key.
The target was this poor guy from work. I made the mistake of connecting these two together for a twenty dollar pill exchange. It went bad.
I don’t even know how things became so ugly. It should have been a big clue once my friends stopped coming over or returning any of my phone calls. In fact, they’ve disappeared altogether.
He was a problem right from the start, always coming over and inviting himself becoming overly protective of everything I did. And I’ll admit it felt nice at first to know that someone finally had my back. I was always the brunt of the joke. You know, the one tricked into eating cow balls, or waking up with my eyebrows shaved off. There was one time where they laced my sandwich with laxative then posted the video of my two hour shit fiesta on YouTube. This type of stuff all stopped once he came around. He put an end to it all.
But now he won’t leave me alone and it’s horrible. The other day he pummeled the face of our Uber driver into lasagna and stole his car because he didn’t like the way the guy was driving. He only believes you should make right turns anytime we drive to save time and energy. The poor Uber guy didn’t agree. He also choked out the janitor at my work because he didn’t wipe down the toilet to an appropriate standard. HE DOESN’T EVEN WORK THERE…
But it’s this sad fucker, gaging on his own blood and laying on my kitchen floor that has me peeing my pants. I had no choice but to agree with his plan. It could be me laying on that floor if I didn’t go along.
The anxiety was eating me alive, as we made right turns in a stolen Uber, and getting closer to our first of a six body parts dumping. The whole time he’s explaining the meaning of being ‘cognsant’. I was surprised he even knew how to pronounce it.
I kept thinking, tomorrow, that’s when I’ll make my escape. But the days kept flying away like those cheap bottle rockets, in a magnificent fizzle. It didn’t help that my escape plans were so pathetic. I’ll go to work like nothing is happening. Then break for lunch as usual. But then I wouldn’t come back. I kept telling myself over and over that tomorrow will be the day.
I was always prepared and ready. My backpack was stuffed full of necessities. Some underwear, socks, a few shirts, a couple pairs of pants, and some other stuff – a toothbrush. I had what I needed, the rest I’d leave in the apartment, like the shit hole furniture. It didn’t matter. Most of it came with the place. The bed was starting to rot anyway. My pillow though. I sure loved that pillow.
I needed to get my head straight and focus on work and hope to God he doesn’t show up here unexpectedly. He’s done that before and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t happen again. But I hadn’t heard from him since yesterday. No calls, visits, nothing.
Maybe that’s exactly what I needed to do, just focus on my job. There was an opening for a new position at a [REDACTED] location in Texas. I could transfer out of here and never look back. I could easily get the job. I’m always on time. Never bother anyone. Consistently performing on a level above and beyond the average person that works here. My aisles are flawless, except for the one my resting bitch faced boss yelled at me about today.
I managed to make myself feel a little better until the two detectives showed up. They snooped around asking questions about our janitor. His wife is freaking out because he hasn’t been home in like a week. I remember the last time I saw the guy, getting his face smashed inside one of the toilet stalls. And now he’s missing.
The two detectives went around talking with people. They brought in the other workers and had small private interviews. They asked me if I’d seen anything. For a split second I thought maybe I should tell them about how I saw HIM choke the guy until his left eye popped out of his head. But I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut and played dumb. Once lunch time came around I knew it was time to put my plan in motion once and for all. So I did. There was no choice really.
I sat at the bus stop waiting. I didn’t have a destination. Anywhere but here. Maybe I’d have better luck in a different city or state where he won’t find me. I could blend in and disappear. The thought of these possibilities brought me a brief comfort. They were set ablaze once that same stolen Uber pulled up in front of me. The door swung open. Here we go again. Another one of his plans.
He went through my backpack and knew what I was doing, slamming his foot on the gas in frustration. He was angry at me for trying to leave. He didn’t come right out and say it, but I knew it’s what he meant. I actually felt sorry for him as he sped into traffic making his hard rights.
The only thing he wanted was a friend and that friend was trying to leave him. It was beyond his comprehension. I wondered what would happen if there were no more right turns for him to make. He’s been lucky. That left turn is waiting for him somewhere.
We eventually came to the edge of town and took the interstate out into the desert. I asked where we were going. He ignored me and just drove too angry to speak. The silence in the car was thick. I could barely breath.
We pulled off onto a nameless road and drove until it became dirt. Soon we were making our own path. We stopped at an old and dilapidated house. The windows were boards and the roof had gaping holes. It was on the verge of falling apart. I heard some weird shit coming from inside like babies crying or something. Someone was in there. I could see a light.
We exited to the back of the car and popped the trunk. My resting bitch faced boss was laying on top of that unlucky janitor with his eye popped out. He smelled of decomposition, she was still moving. Below them both was the Uber guy. He smelled even worse.
This was going to be bad.
The house was a complete shit hole. It smelled like rotten fish and dirty laundry. I wanted to puke every time I took in some of its filthy air. I wore the stink like a jacket. There was no escaping it. I could hear his voice somewhere inside the place complaining as he finished with the Uber guy. My job was packing them up. It’s been five hours of plastic tarp and duct tape.
The house looked familiar. I don’t know why. It was like I’d seen it in some vivid dream like I lived here before. I knew the rooms, the walls even the entire floor plan. It was like childhood memories or something. I’d been there before in some way.
We took a short break to have a few beers that were stashed in his cooler. He was calm for a little bit. Just the regular guy I’d met shooting off fireworks. He had a way of justifying everything with his distorted sense of humor. It wasn’t what he’d say, it’s how he said it. There was some disturbing truth to it all. Like us being at a party and him telling me how seventy three percent of the girls in this place have had a cock in their mouth at one time or another. Probably just as many guys too. Or trying to bet me what kind of food would be in the janitor’s stomach (Mexican food – he was right). Or how making right turns saves time and energy. Even the plans for disposal of this mess we made. It’s a sick way to see things. What made them sick is that they were true. It’s strange but I started seeing the world a little differently once he showed up. I can’t put my finger on it but a part of me was happy he showed up in my life. I asked him where he was heading the first time we met.
“To help someone” he said.
I’m not sure if he meant that someone was me. Sometimes I think I might of asked him to show up without even knowing it. But how exactly? I had trouble remembering things. It was as if my life started a month ago and I have no fucking clue where I’d been before. I got flashes of life before him, but that’s it.
Like this one time, I was around ten or something, I got my ass kicked on the way home from school by these two junior high school kids. The shoved my face in dog shit. All the other kids were watching. It was humiliating. Especially when Mom scolded me in front of them for getting my ass kicked. I don’t know why I was singled out. It’s been a pattern ever since, being singled out wherever I am. Even as an adult, while innocently shooting bottle rockets on the fourth of July.
Maybe he’s what I needed, a guardian demon to help me survive in this pathetic excuse of a world. Or at least to feel safe again. It’s been a long while since I felt that way.
We packed up the Uber and started driving. I had no idea where we were going. He just told me to pack up and get in. He seemed worried. It was a different sense of urgency. I’d never seen him like this.
We drove a few hours before finding the interstate. He got angry again over nothing. I told him to chill the fuck out which only pissed him off more. He couldn’t be reasoned with. It was a lost cause to try and say anything to him. And the more I tried the more enraged he became. His foot would just press harder on the gas pedal.
He went on and on about my attitude. How if it weren’t for him I’d still be waking up with a stomach full of cow balls. I couldn’t get a word in to defend myself between his yelling and shouting. I thought this was it, when he would finally turn violent towards me. I told him to pull over and let me out of the car.
“We’re in this together!”.
The sheer volume of his voice almost shattered the windows as he shoved a crumpled paper into my chest.
I unraveled the jumbled wad into a readable shape. The words were written in blood:
“I _____ invite the uninvited, signed ______”.
I’d never seen it before but he insisted it was mine even though the names were blank.
“It not mine!!” I screamed.
I never wanted any of this! I JUST WANTED TO GET OUT OF THE FUCKING CAR!!
The police were behind us. Their lights twirling like blue and red flames with sirens screaming into the empty desert. Of course he blamed this on me. It was always my fault. I didn’t ask for this. All I did was try and be nice and he took advantage. They all do. EVERYONE TAKES ADVANTAGE…
He kept yelling about how he wouldn’t have been there either if it weren’t for me.
“YOU ASKED FOR THIS!!!”, he screamed at me under those black stormy desert clouds.
I had no idea what he was talking about. Maybe it’s because I really am weak. Maybe it’s my severe lack of self esteem. Or because of that stupid look on my face as my mom would so eloquently put it.
Yeah okay. It’s been a tough road. But I’m always trying to be a better person. Like when I confessed to everything we did. He just doesn’t understand and is too busy yelling at me to realize it.
I’ll admit that I’m a vulnerable and pathetic mess sitting on death row…
…but at least now I can make a left turn.
NEVER TALK TO PEOPLE WHILE WAITING IN LINE AT DISNEYLAND
Let me first get this out of the way… I LOVE DISNEYLAND!
I always have. The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain. Call me a goofball if you want, I love them all. As long as can remember there was always a certain rush of magical excitement whenever I talked about it. That smell of the train’s axel grease mixed with fresh popcorn as you take first steps down Main Street. Your first glimpse of Sleeping Beauty’s castle sitting bright and vibrant against the Southern California sun. The wonderful dilemma of having to choose between The Matterhorn or Mr. Toads Wild Ride. All of this comes with one caveat, the crowds. But with such great adventures about to happen, who cares? We’re all there for the same reason. Well, maybe not everyone.
These feelings I have towards the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ were ones I so wanted to share one day with my own kids. And for the most part I have. My son, who’s ten years old, is just now appreciating the magic. Admittedly, not as much as I did at his age. However, last week I saw his excitement finally spill over as we parked the car and hopped on the tram for our annual summer visit.
In late August the crowds sometimes thin out as school seasons are beginning. This is different for us; having home schooled our son since the fourth grade. We have more freedom with our schedules than most and this trip to Disneyland has become our unofficial end to summer and a start to his school year.
We all have our favorite rides. My wife and I, the Haunted Mansion (of course). My son’s favorite, surprisingly, is the Jungle Cruise. Looking back, it was a fitting place to meet them, while waiting in line for a ride with a savage survivalist theme. A boat ride where everything goes wrong and you’re attacked by all sorts of wild animals. Because that’s what they were, wild animals.
They seemed normal enough, a wholesome family of five and friendly as can be. It was the young boy, about the same age as my son that started the conversation. I hadn’t noticed that they were talking, but soon we all became locked in an enthusiastic conversation about our favorite place in the whole world. And they sure knew their stuff. Like what years the rides were built, oral histories about rides long gone, and when I heard the dad, Walter, call his daughter Ariel I knew these people were way hardcore Disney folk.
Walter and Belle have been together for over twenty years and with their three kids Ariel, Donald (Don) and Woody make up the most intense Disneylanders one could ever meet. Everything about them was branded by Disney in some way or another. From the matching mouse ear tee shirts, to the branded lanyards filled with collectable pins, right down to Ariel’s pink Minnie Mouse sneakers. Even the teenager of the group, Woody, wore his fair share of the Magic Kingdom flair.
And they talked about the place as if was their home, addressing some employees by their first names. Funny thing, the employees certainly didn’t respond as if they knew or even recognized them. It was nothing but confused looks in return. Maybe that should have been the first sign we could have picked up on. Or the fact they were all named after Disney characters. But we didn’t. In fact, after that first ride, we became ‘Disney pals’ so to speak.
We went on a few more rides together and it was nice, especially for my son. Since he’s home schooled, making friends can be challenging and watching him mixing it up with Ariel and
Donald was gratifying. Both Walter and Belle were nice too and filled to the brim with all sorts of Disneyana facts . Woody, however, was not so friendly. He would stand there quiet and observant.
After a ride on Peter Pan’s flight we stopped off to get a refreshing cola and have a quick rest. We sat together in the shade as we waited for the kids to finish their drinks. Meanwhile, Walter’s Disneyland stories started to become strange.
“I’m actually a lifetime member of Club 33!” Walter said at one point out of nowhere with an infectious enthusiasm.
For those unaware, Club 33 is an exclusive, nearly impossible to get into, VIP only private club located in New Orleans Square. It was hard to swallow that he was a lifetime member and my gut instinct called this out as bullshit. But his promise of us having lunch at this exclusive club kept my doubts at bay. Maybe it’s true I thought.
“Let’s do a few more rides then head over,” he said.
I politely tried to steer in the direction of breaking away but he insisted we join them. I could see that look in my wife’s eyes. The one that’s telling me to man up and cut this cord. But hey, Club 33 is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
As we all got up to leave I noticed Walter take my son’s empty soda cup from him. He proceeded to dump the leftovers into the trash can then take the mouse ear lid and straw combo. He handed it over to Belle who placed it in her fanny pack. Walter looked at me and smiled, exposing his bright white row of teeth.
“Everything’s a souvenir” he said.
We should’ve left them right then and there, but we didn’t, instead the kids began deciding which ride to go on next and being the passivists my wife and I are, we just went along with it.
My son broke out his park map to give it a look. Somewhere in the process he gave himself a nice and deep paper cut across his thumb. I didn’t notice until we were all waiting in line at the Haunted Mansion when I heard Ariel explain to my son that he should suck on the cut to stop the bleeding. I gave him a napkin to use instead. She kept insisting that he suck on the cut. I found her persistence about it unnerving. But it wasn’t until later, within the darkness of the stretchy elevator that I saw Ariel with my son’s thumb in her mouth that my unnerving turned into terror.
I was frozen in shock at what I was seeing and so was my son. She was sucking the blood from his cut. My fatherly instinct grabbed his hand and pulled it away from that little shits’ mouth. She looked at us both as innocent as a porcelain doll, stoic and calm. I looked around to see if my wife had noticed but Walter was talking her ear off. In fact, everyone’s ears.
“This ride was the last one Mr. Disney worked on himself before he died,” he boasted out to the annoyance of everyone in line.
I tried to corral my family so we could ride together, but in the nonstop conveyer belt commotion I saw my wife ride away with Belle and I was stuck with Walter. I made sure my son was squeezed in with me. Ariel and Donald rode together, Woody rode alone.
For the duration of my favorite ride Walter proceeded to explain away details from every scene we passed through. The hydraulics in the animatronics, the techniques used to create the holograms. I learned more than I needed to or ever wanted, sitting there while he systematically ruined my most favorite and cherished dark ride. But even more disturbing to me was the little blood sucker in the car behind us and my wife sitting next to god knows what to our front. We were trapped. All I wanted to do was get us the hell off this thing and away from them. As the ride finally came to an end, the narrator’s warning “Beware of hitch hiking ghosts” suddenly
took on a whole new meaning.
I rushed us off and asked the first employee I saw where I could find a first aid station. Who knows what kind of disease these people could be carrying and that girl was sucking on my son’s fresh cut. Walter tried to steer us toward Club 33. I took my family’s hands once we were entangled amongst the crowd and changed course to Main Street.
“Keep walking, don’t look back…”
My wife understood what I was doing and went along. We walked briskly, navigating the scores of people for what seemed like forever hoping those weirdos were not behind us. Once we got to Main Street I finally glanced back and saw nothing. We lost them.
I nervously dumped gobs of first aid ointment on my son’s thumb explaining to my wife what I saw.
“You’re not gonna believe what I saw either,” she replied, as I wrapped a Disney theme band aid around my son’s greasy thumb. But there was no time to discuss. We needed to make a decision. We ultimately decided that instead of leaving the park all together; that we would head over to the sister property California Adventure. We did pay for a park hopper pass and those damn things aren’t cheap. Why let some freaks ruin our last day of summer? Fuck them. Plus, we were super hungry.
Once at California Adventure, we sat in the corner of the most out of the way eatery we could find and started to relax as our food digested. I told my wife about the paper cut sucking incident and she told me what she had seen. It was just as disturbing. While on the Haunted Mansion she got a glimpse inside Belle’s fanny pack where she saw a clear plastic bag with stuff in it.
“What kind of stuff?” I asked.
Used tissues, gobs of matted hair as if pulled from a hairbrush, flattened out Disney soda cups, remnants of someone’s leftover fast food from the park, what looked like (to my wife) a used dry and blood crusted tampon, and to top this all off, our son’s mouse ear soda lid/straw combo that Walter had taken earlier.
We sat there stunned, almost paralyzed. The only thought that came to mind was, WTF…
“Look! There’s Woody!”
My son stood up pointing at him. I turned to see his tall and hunched over lanky figure pass by in the crowd. He was alone. I quietly sat my son down and tried to make like a hole in the wall. My wife and I locked eyes again. We knew it was time to go home, but when we got up, they came into the eatery out of nowhere.
“Where’d you guys go?!” Walter belted out with a giant smile full of teeth.
They took their seats blocking us in. I glanced over at Woody, sitting a few tables down all by himself and grinning like a madman. He was following us.
“What should we ride next, friends?”
There was a slight change in Walter’s voice as he spoke. Like he knew we were on to them. “I think we’re heading home…,”
He wasn’t buying my wife’s lie.
“Home? It’s barely two!”
We sat there, trapped again. Then an idea hit me.
I mustered up my best polite person persona and suggested another ride, Mickey’s Fun Wheel. Their kids lit up with excitement. My wife looked at me like I had five eyeballs. I just played along and tried to act just as excited.
“We can get a car all to ourselves and ride together!” Walter was overcome with joy.
While waiting in line my wife squeezed my hand so hard I thought she was going to break it. But, I had a plan and it was nearing deployment, especially as we inched closer to the loading platform. The most important thing was to keep this family of freaks in front of us. Every time my son mingled too close to the front I’d pull him back as inconspicuous as possible keeping us together. And it was working, except for Woody, who kept lingering behind us.
There was only three groups ahead of us and my heart was lodged into my throat. If this plan didn’t work I’m not sure what we could do next. I had to execute this perfectly. The big gamble was how many riders per car, which was eight, perfect!
It was our turn next to board and I managed to get us in the perfect position. They were to our front and therefore would board first, even that creep Woody. When the wheel turned and our gondola was ready I casually took my family’s hands. Game time.
Once the freak show boarded I pulled my wife and son off to the side and squeezed us back through the line. We quickly made our way past puzzled faced until we reached the nearest exit. I looked back to the magnificent wheel now starting to turn, where I saw those creepers crammed into their gondola, trapped.
My plan had worked!
I met Walters eyes one last time before they disappeared higher into the sky. They were pure darkness.
We wasted no time getting out of there, not even waiting for the tram and high tailing back to the parking structure. Once we got into our car I let out a huge sigh of relief.
“What are you doing?! Start the damn car!”
My wife was not so relieved.
And she wouldn’t be until we were completely out of there. I started the car and backed out looking first to my son in the backseat. A feeling of anger came over me. What a shitty day for him. I noticed his band aid was gone.
“It fell off somewhere,” he said.
Fitting, I thought. We drove home in silence.
It’s been almost exactly one week since our doomed trip to the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’. We’ve had a few family talks about not letting things get in the way of our fun time, no matter where we are.
We should not let that bizarre experience get in the way of future visits. I mean, shit happens right?
I was feeling real optimistic about everything until I went to collect the mail yesterday. There was a plain, unmarked envelope mixed within the week’s mail. I opened it and inside was my son’s band aid along with a note written on “It’s a Small World” stationary.
“Everything’s a souvenir – your friend, Walt.”