A meal becomes the link between one boy's memory and a little girl's nightmare.
An old brass colored chandelier with exposed wires loomed just above the small boy’s head. One bulb had expired, dead in its socket, slightly darkened by the remnants of a once luminary miracle that was now just dead science. But the remaining bulbs lived on, creating a visual controversy of light and shadow, an unresolved argument of dimensions. And amidst the fallout sat Jake, slightly hunched over a steaming bowl of macaroni and cheese.
His toes were planted on the hardwood floor, feeling every scratch and every dent. He imagined himself on the deck of a ship when he first sat down, overlooking the open sea, watching the dolphins playfully hurl themselves out of the ocean into the air, as if to experience for just a moment what we experience for an entire lifetime.
He looked down into the yellow pile of lazy pasta, hamburger meat, and Tabasco sauce, suddenly forgetting all about the dolphins and the cold wooden floor beneath him. He began to jab at the lump of food, mixing, uncovering, swirling, and swishing spoonfuls around and around to let out the heat.
The fleshy noise made his skin crawl. It sounded to him like he was mixing a bowl full of intestines, organs and blood. How he would ever know what that sounded like was baffling to him. It was just one of those things you are born with, he thought to himself, uncomfortably.
The silence gave way to a sound like two wooden ships crashing into each other at full speed atop a tranquil sea.
“Behind? Above? Underneath?”
He thought to himself. He looked around slowly, hoping and not hoping to see but couldn’t tell where the sound had come from. Nothing. He considered for a moment looking underneath the table but an imagination as great as his was, especially at this moment, would not let him. Then what seemed like minutes later he glanced back down, gazing into the bowl. The hair on the back of his neck had refused to lie down and so did his appetite. He thought about eating but knew that something or someone had caused that creaking noise and was probably still there. He couldn’t focus. The thought took hold of him, breathing for him, seeing for him, living for him. He was no longer in control. Something told him to eat. His arm began to move, and he did.
It felt good to eat. In some way the cheesy goodness derailed his otherwise hyper focused attention to the thing that was out there in the shadows of the old house; one bite, then another, quickly overlapping the first, never allowing for an empty mouth, or a quiet moment.
The silence was slowly drowning in the sound of chewing and swallowing. The hairs on the back of his neck began to collapse one by one and the attention to whatever made that noise fell to the background of his mind.
Then suddenly he felt the boards underneath his feet start to bend, like there was something extremely heavy standing next to him. He froze, spoon in mid flight between the bowl and his mouth, and listened as hard as he could. The sound of bending wood stopped. A single piece of macaroni fell to the table as the spoon began to shake. He did not react. The floor remained in its depressed form. Whatever it was did not go away. It was still there. Slowly and with caution Jake let his elbow fall to the table. What was left of the mac and cheese on the spoon rolled casually onto the cheap wood. He followed it with his eyes only. That’s when he noticed the dark at the edge of the table. It was even darker than before, so dark that he could not see through it, only at it. Beads of sweat began to penetrate his skin from the inside. Arrows of nerve pierced the lining in his stomach.
Had he really heard something? Was he trying to hear something? Like most boys on most days, or so he thought, Jake heard things, felt things and imagined things, always imagined things. But this day was somehow trying to prove different.
“Mom?” he thought out loud, but she wasn’t home and he knew that even before the word escaped his slightly agape mouth. Nobody was home.
But what did he hear if she was already gone? And what was standing next to him? He slowly pushed the chair back and lowered his head to see if there was anything under the table. There was nothing there and his feet were just as flat on the ground as ever.
But the thought kept tugging at his reality, pulling it down just far enough for the unknown to seep in uninvited like the morning light through the blinds in his bedroom. Slightly above and outside his vision it hovered. It reminded him of the old rusty rake that hung in the shed outside his grandfather’s house. In all his life he had never seen that bow rake anywhere but up on that hook inside the shed. It just hung there, all day and all night, waiting patiently for little Jakie to come wandering in.
Sitting back up he noticed he hadn’t let go of the spoon, but gripped it tight. Maybe it’s the rake. But how could the rake be here and who or what is holding it?
It’s gonna get me! I know it is!
Then out of the corner of his right eye, Jake sensed something move.
He rolled his eyes to the side of his head as far as he could without moving his head. He couldn’t see anything but was not convinced. He had to see for himself. So after a moment of internal conversation Jake succumbed to his fear and slowly craned his neck around.
But the kitchen had gone dark like the rest of the house. He found himself staring at a wall so black that it looked like the end of existence and the beginning of infinity. He suddenly caught a whiff of Tobasco sauce which made him a little more at ease, he still had one foot, or at least his nose, in reality.
Then suddenly a tiny light at the end of the black came into being; the veins in his neck throbbing as they were stretched almost beyond capacity.
He became so mesmerized that he didn’t even notice. The light seemed to be getting closer, and changing shape. But it was so subtle that he only noticed when he blinked. The tiny spec of light began to elongate and grow teeth at one end. Jake closed his eyes for one more blink. When he finally convinced himself to open them one more time, he saw what he didn’t want to see.
At first the image was a little blurry, like an undeveloped Polaroid. But then it became clear, too clear. It was the rake. Then as if the house itself was opening its eyes the rest of the kitchen began to form around the rake. The rusty garden tool that he had never seen anywhere but in his Grandfather’s shed was now in the kitchen. And it was coming to get him. The end of the wood handle hovered just above the floor and the head was high up in the air leaning forward as if someone were holding it there, tines pointed slightly downward. They looked like the Devil’s incisors, sharp enough to slice through little boys. And somehow it was moving towards him. He sat there paralyzed with sheer terror.
Suddenly it started to thwart itself in a swinging motion towards the ground as if someone were holding it, making violent arcs riddled with murderous intent, but there was no one there to make it do the thing it was doing. Cemented to his chair Jake sat in fright, alone, desperate, hungry, terrified, powerless.
Little Jakie should have done his homework. Little Jakie should have paid attention in class. Little Jakie should have done what he was told to do. Little Jakie is now gonna pay the price of a thousand sins!
Down came the teeth, gouging the floor. The clang screamed through the empty house giving voice to the shadows that lived in the vacant mouths. The vibration sprinted through the floor, up through the table, through his bones and into the back of his teeth.
He thought of the time he accidentally bit into the foil wrapping around an uncooked hot dog. It was like someone hammered a nail into his molars. His nerves felt electric.
He opened his mouth wide to scream only to find that somehow this terrible monstrous rake had reached into his body and clawed his voice to shreds.
He slammed his eyes shut so hard his cheekbones felt like they were now touching his forehead. He didn’t want the vision of bloody tines and torn flesh to be the last thing he ever saw so he imagined the only place in the world he felt completely safe, the little fortress in the sky, his treehouse in the backyard. But the second his lids closed he saw the rake again. It had burned its own image onto the back of Jake’s eyelids. He couldn't escape the movie that was playing inside.
He sat in loud silence, eyes still shut, heart pounding, sweat now beading on his neck. What felt like several minutes ended with a sudden inward contraction of his entire body, like a balloon that released the last of its air collapsing into a small piece of insignificant rubber, Jake let go. Slowly his left eye forced itself open, nothing, and then his right. He looked around and behind. The kitchen was dark, but as far as he could see it was empty.
Where the hell is it? Where did it go? Did I imagine it? Maybe it wasn’t real. But I felt it, and I saw it. And what was the thing that was standing in my place? Was it him?
With his heart still thumping and his mind still racing, he continued to eat. But this time Jake was careful. Every spoonful was now followed by three seconds of silence, just in case. Just in case the thought of that rake was more of a premonition than a memory of what might have been; a memory that might have been an imaginary made up thought to begin with. But that was too much to consider in the short time he was left with to make what seemed to be a life or death decision. Now he sat quietly, chewing slowly so he could listen for the thing that he knew was there. It seemed as if each moment was now stretched out like a rubber band, just on the verge of being snapped back into the present and crashing into the past. So he waited.
Chewing….. imagining….. hoping….flashing images of that rake sometimes intervening.
He could not decide what was worse, the thought of being brutally attacked by a murderous rake or imploding into nonexistence from fear. Either way it was the worst fear he had ever felt in his entire life.
Then as one more spoonful of meat and little yellow tubes of cheese, but mostly meat, made its way into his mouth, he heard an explosion of crackling wood. And this time it was extremely loud, too loud for the small house. Jake suddenly imagined the house and earth below splitting wide open, exposing teeth as big as buildings ready to grind and chomp everything in its path, including little boys. What little sanity he thought had returned, left for good. It was just too tired of living a lie and escaped, leaving Jake all alone with the enemy. He turned to face the kitchen one more time. The explosion had come from that direction.
“Mom?” he asked with such trepidation that his cracking voice sounded just like the noise he was so afraid of.
He knew she was home this time. He was sure of it. She came back in through the back door because she forgot something. She was always doing that. Then he heard the sound of footsteps, but he could tell that whoever it was, was not wearing shoes. They were soft footsteps, not loud like when his mom would walk around the house with high heels. He called out to his mother again, knowing that it wasn’t her. He heard the echo of his voice bounce back at him as if there was another little boy on the other side of his world crying out to his own mother. He shivered.
What if that was true? Does he need help?
He knew that whatever it was that just came in the house would devour him. He only wanted it to end quickly because he did not want to see its face, if it had one.
Considering his 12 years was easy to accomplish in the blink of an eye. It was a very short time to consider. Christmas, birthdays, grandparents, family dogs, brother, school, 7-11, mac and cheese, dirty magazines, Christina, the girl next door, tree forts, and a million other images raced around his conscious, swirling at such high speeds that some became merged with others that were too slow to leave, causing blurred manipulations of thought, pseudo memories of a short life.
Jake sat frozen in time as the footsteps got closer and closer. They were coming through the kitchen, but there was no one there. A single tear managed to escape his left eye. He could not move his arms to wipe it away so it ran its course. He started shaking violently but there was nothing he could do so he slammed his eyes shut, squeezing the lids with such force that he could feel the shape of his eyeballs. But he heard the steps even louder, sounding like a loud and soft thud followed by the creaking wood. Jake’s guts turned to razor blades and the walls behind his eyelids projected fear in its purest form.
The guttural shriek of what sounded like a small goat that was being slaughtered woke Christina from a dead sleep. Her eyes shot open. Then she quickly noticed her heartbeat. It was beating so hard she thought that it would detach itself and descend into her torso, bouncing off the other organs like a pinball, then land softly at the pit of her stomach.
“Hija?” she asked while reaching to the bottom of the bed where her robe lay along with yesterday’s outfit.
Getting no answer she finished wrapping herself and got out of bed. Walking out of her bedroom doorway into the hall she was struck with the smell of last night’s dinner.
“What the hell did I cook last night? Smells like Mac N Cheese. But we had meatloaf. Mffhh Strange” she thought.
She walked past the stairs, glancing down slightly as she always did, and down the hall into her daughter’s room. Light was still just a memory from yesterday.
“Hija?” She stared at the indistinguishable shape on the bed.
There was still no answer. She moved closer, eyes slowly adjusting, and heard the deep, short breaths of air coming from her sweet little girl. Her hands were clasped together gently upon her bosom as if they were placed there by someone else.
She thought of the time she went to her grandfather’s funeral. They had an open casket beforehand. She was so terrified. There he lay in that coffin, stiff, unawake, gone, just a body that had no insides anymore. And now here she was, standing over her daughter’s bed in the middle of the night thinking of corpses and death, and all the things we think we know, and think we want to know, just so we don’t feel so much of the terror that goes along with not knowing.
But there was only Jessica, right here in front of her having some kind of nightmare. She lowered herself onto the bed next to her. “Honey? Sweetie? Are you okay? You were having a nightmare.” Christina said with kindness, and then gasped suddenly at the sight of her daughter’s eyes which were open wide with terror.
She leaned down close to her daughter and hugged her. She did not respond. She brought herself back up and realized the pillows were gone. Her daughter was flat on the bed. Her hair had spilled out onto the white sheets, creating rays of brown all around her head. She thought of an angel, her little angel with wide eyes.
“Hija?!” This time louder and with a little more concern.
Suddenly one of her eyes blinked, then the other, causing a stream of tears down both cheeks simultaneously.
“Dios Mios!” Christina said out loud. “Thank God you’re okay!
“Settle down class” Mrs. Flayner said.
“Alright boys and girls, instead of our regular afternoon reading from The Call of the Wild, we have a special guest with us today.”
As the class loudly expressed their interest with ooohhhhs and awwwwws she leaned over and whispered in his ear.
“Okay. Today we are very honored to have a published writer in our presence and he will be reading from his first ever published collection of short stories. The reason it is such an honor is that he was my student a long, long time ago.” She was smirking and blushing while saying this as it occurred to her just how old she really was.
“His name is Jake Price. And in fact he used to live right next door to your mother Jessica, right over there on Sutton Street. Then a few years before she had you she bought the house next door, Jakes house.” Mrs. Flayner said proudly.
Jessica perked up just a little; suddenly remembering the stories her mother had told her about the little boy who used to live in their house. Now here he was standing in front of her, all grown up. And now she knew his name. She had only ever referred to him as the little boy. But then her curiosity retreated, and she slumped back down into her desk, almost wearing it like a winter coat. The sneers and gasps from the boys and girls sitting all around her justified the decision to collapse as she always hated attention, good or bad.
“Hi everybody! I hope you like scaaaary stories,” he said with a touch of that old boyish charm that Mrs. Flayner had always adored.
A small but noticeable sensation suddenly made her aware that she was still a woman. She glanced at the top of her shoes for just a second before sitting back down at her desk.
“Does everyone here like Mac n Cheese?” He said excitedly.
“Yeah! The entire class responded in almost perfect unison, except for Jessica.
“Because that’s the name of today’s story, Mac N Cheese.” Jake belted with pride, and a little hunger. For a long second, his eyes met hers.
Her stomach suddenly started to twist and turn into knots. She felt like she was falling from a ten story building. “No way! It couldn’t be.” She thought to herself.
Her cheeks suddenly felt cold as the tears began to run. Without wiping them away Jessica glared at the man standing before her.