01 Feb How to Lose Friends and Terrify People
Hey folks, this happened a long time ago, when I was just seventeen. When the mood comes over me and I think about it, it still creeps me out. Thought I’d share.
I was a nerd with only two best friends, Byron and John. We did everything together. Usually ‘everything’ meant watching kung fu movies and playing Magic: the Gathering.
This was summer after graduating high school. We didn’t have much longer before we all went off to college, so we were trying to spend as much time together as possible. That’s when I noticed John was pulling away.
Little things at first. Like, he kept trying to give me stuff I knew he cared about: his collection of Heinlein novels, some old Nintendo Power magazines, his Battle Beast figures. I told him to keep them so he could pass them on to his kids some day. He said they’d just end up in the trash if I didn’t take them.
When we’d visit him, he would hardly make eye contact. He’d say a few words and stir his tea, but he wouldn’t drink it. Like he was just waiting for us to leave so he could drink it alone. Each stir was like a “Go away, please!”
He stopped wanting to go places with us. If we pressed him to play a game or watch a movie, he’d do it, but we could tell he didn’t want to. Wasn’t long until he told us he’d given his Magic cards away.
Byron finally asked if I noticed something was wrong with John. He drove me out to the beach first. Like we needed to be somewhere sunny and cheerful to talk about it. I didn’t think there was much to say, but when I told him I’d noticed, turns out there was a lot to say.
“I heard something weird from Don,” he said, “I think we should keep it to ourselves.” Don was a mutual acquaintance, sometime buddy. He came from a different circle.
Don told Byron something he heard from his cousin, Sandra: One night at 2am she hears a commotion in her mom’s apartment. When she comes out of her bedroom, there’s this man in a mesh shirt arguing with her mother and some woman on the couch. She didn’t recognize either of them. She thought she was dreaming at first. Her mom is a middle-aged waitress who’s into cats and yoga. That’s when John’s dad walked right into the apartment without knocking. John’s dad was a math teacher. Super-boring guy, like Ben Stein on Ritalin. Not somebody you’d ever expect to see at some government assistance apartments at 2am. He mumbles a few words to everyone in the room, picks something up off the table, and tucks it into his trench coat. He looms over the woman on the couch for a moment; she seems to recoil. Then he leaves. After the others leave, her mother comes up to her, puts her hands on each side of her face, and tells her she has to forget what she saw. She told Don it scared the bajeezus out of her. There was no way she’d ever forget.
“This is a guy whose bedtime is probably 7:30,” Byron said. “What’s he doing making housecalls at 2am? How does he even know those people? It’s so weird.”
I pointed out we couldn’t verify that it was really John’s dad. If it was him, though, it was super-weird. I still wasn’t clear on what that had to do with John. Neither was Byron. Just the possibility that things were not well in the household.
On our way home, we noticed a large group of people standing in the cemetery. No cars were around, so they must’ve all walked. They were staring at something in the sky. Byron pulled over so we could look, too. But there was nothing in the sky except the sun. I told Byron to stop looking before he goes blind. They’d turned their attention to us, anyway, and we were anxious to leave.
John was refusing to do anything by this point. “You’re gone whenever I wake up anyway,” he said.
I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I suggested we have a sleepover, like old times. He ignored me.
So we didn’t see him the rest of the summer. We didn’t even know what college he was going to. We decided to confront him at his home, see what was up, before it was too late.
As soon as we got out of Byron’s car, we could hear loud music. We exchanged glances. John’s family weren’t the music types.
We saw his dog, Petey, tied outside. He looked like he hadn’t been fed in a week.
“What is going on here?” Byron asked.
I brought Petey in John’s house with us and gave him my beef jerky. I could tell the music was a single song playing on a loop. Ballroom Blitz. I’d always liked Ballroom Blitz before that day.
We called out John’s name, but he wasn’t answering. Petey darted past us upstairs. We followed.
The stereo was at the top of the stairs, where they had a large landing. Byron turned it off. I thought I heard whimpering from the nearby closet, but Byron said I was hearing things.
We kept going down the hall to John’s room. He was sitting inside wearing sunglasses, despite very little sunlight entering the room. He’d draped himself in some floral pattern sheets. I wasn’t sure he was awake or not, so I moved in to touch him. He recoiled like I had leprosy.
“My skin is sensitive right now,” he explained.
I asked if he was okay, because that sounded like something serious. He said he was fine. We asked where his parents were.
“They’re gone,” he said. “Here, have this.” We both told him we didn’t want anything of his, but he handed us each a hard, misshapen plate with a face on it. It gave me the creeps.
“That’s a sculpture of me as a cookie,” he said. “Imagine being nibbled to crumbs, feeling my crumbs in your mouth.”
It didn’t look anything like him, but it still disturbed me. I put the plate down.
Byron went straight to anger. He threw the ‘sculpture’ against the wall, shattering it. John didn’t react. That only made Byron angrier. He got in his face and shout-asked him why he was being so weird and why he was pulling away. Byron meant emotionally, although he was physically pulling away from Byron.
“I’ve decided to join an Ashram,” John answered sternly. “The same Ashram where Bede Griffiths lived. I care about understanding the spiritual nexus of mankind. I leave next week.”
“Since when!” I snapped. “Since when do you give a shit about any nexus!” It wasn’t a question. Exclamation point.
“You guys remember the time we all went down to Todd’s farm?” he asked.
“You remember the old shed we found way back behind the farm, where Todd’s dad told us not to go? Oh yes, you remember. Wood was all rotting away. It smelled like—well, there wasn’t anything it smelled like. Piss. Dead raccoons. Chewing tobacco. Gunpowder. That’s some bouquet.”
While he spoke, his head wobbled back and forth, like Stevie Wonder giving us a fantastic solo. I didn’t know why he was sharing this banal memory with us or what it had to do with anything, but I felt mounting anxiety.
“We had to slide our asses down thirty-feet of cliff to cross the creek just to get to it. Todd said strange people used to come onto the farm. He figured they were doing drugs back there and that’s why his dad wanted to just ignore them. They used that shack. It was theirs. It felt dangerous.
“We went inside, thinking we were gonna find a briefcase full of cash or a bundle of weed. There was nothing but candles, grease, bones, and bottles. Except one wall wasn’t the real wall. Mmhmm. We could see the cracks between the planks of wood and yet no light was coming in. There had to be a secret room back there, right boys?
“You remember what happened next? You were like, ‘John, get in there.’ So I slipped through the largest crack, into the darkest darkness ever. That crack was only 2 inches. I shouldn’t’ve even fit, not even close. But I slid in like paper. You remember that? Whoosh!
“I fell in the dark and I stayed there, still in my blood. We can see you, in stock in the shed. But I was nowhere. I have no place. It was quiet. I thought I was alone, but there was something else. Felt it closer. Whispered greasy like static. I heard the voices heard. Heard ’em, boys. No way back, they say. No way back. And all this here is just dream.”
Byron and I looked at each other, but we were speechless.
“Excuse me,” we heard a man say behind us. I audibly gasped.
A man in a suit brushed between us. I had never seen this man before.
“Time for him to use the restroom,” he said, offering John a hand.
John walked with him. We heard John vomiting and laughing in the bathroom. And the man was saying, “There, there.”
When they came out, the man suggested we had “better go now.” As John walked by us, I felt him poke at my side. I instinctively pulled away and felt guilty about it.
We left as instructed. The man in the suit followed us to the stairs, where he turned the music back up. I asked him if John was going to be alright.
“I’m new,” he said and turned the music up more.
When we got in the car, Byron let out a long sigh. We sat in the driveway looking up at the house for a while, as if John would come out and say it was all a joke.
“He’s crazy,” Byron said.
I wanted to agree. I just couldn’t. I remembered the shed on Todd’s farm. The smell of goat fat and things charred. I remembered the strange, dark cracks in the shed wall and us warning him to stay away. And John laughing as he slipped through, slid in like paper. Byron teared up and nodded. He remembered, too.
“Did he ever come out?” he asked.
“He had to have,” I said. “We were just talking to him.”
“But do you remember that?”
I did not.
After Bryon dropped me off and I was hitting the head, a wad of toilet paper fell from my pants. John had to have slipped it into my waistband. I unraveled the wad. He’d written a message in eyeliner.
On one side, it said, “SORRY,” and on the other, “If u r not dream, how m I n ur closet?”
I flushed the ‘note’ and stood in front of my bedroom closet for a few minutes. I was physically shaking. I kept seeing his face in my mind, grinning on the other side of that door. I knew it was impossible. I was being foolish. Then I heard a hanger fall. I left without opening it.
Left town soon after. Never opened that closet. Never saw or heard from John again. The house was put up for sale a few years later. I did see the man in the suit again, though. Saw him stocking shelves at a Walmart in Kanata. He pretended to have no idea what I was talking about. Then why did he start sweating when he saw me?
There are still some days, like today, when the sun hits just right and the whole world feels weak and wavy, like a mirage, I get a whiff of turpentine and death, and I wonder.