A common characteristic of walled fortresses, even those made of cardboard, is that by nature, they betray to potential intruders that there are important things behind those walls. Defenses are set up for a reason. No one builds a castle with gates of iron, then seeks refuge on the outside of the castle.
The dawning of inevitability drew perspiration upon my forehead and upper lip while I gazed at our room’s cardboard wall. They were, we were hiding, but the barricade signaled an expectation that the intruder already knew our location. How often has this been rehearsed? How often have they been left alone to fend off this nightmare? Nauseating anxiety trickled down like the sweat on my forehead and took hold in my center. An urgent tug on my arm from the halo child, and my thoughts were arrested.
“C’mon! We gotta hide!” he said in a high-pitched squeal. My legs tripped along behind him, toward the tables and chairs, but my eyes remained fixed on the wall of cardboard, even as I worked to release myself from his clammy grip, Why must he keep touching me like that?
I took several sideways steps before smacking my unshoed foot on something rigid and low to the ground, nearly caught myself before falling completely, but my preoccupation with the wall and the knowledge that the Intruder must have been aware of our location got the better of me. I crashed awkwardly to the floor, and heard a simultaneous ZIP!, followed by blessed silence. It was the skipping music player, shut down by my clumsiness. For an instant, I panicked at the ruckus created by my fall, then dismissed the panic in deference to the deeper, more besetting fear that the Intruder was somehow aware of our location before it even entered the house.
“Go away! This is taken!” I heard from a few feet away, and the halo child, still clutching, tugging at me – in his mind, I may have been a spare appendage that refused to cooperate with the rest of his body – he manifested a festering panic. Shrieks and sobs escaped spasmodically from him as he reached for a chair, then a tablecloth, then another chair, and I saw that all these objects were camouflaging other children – all of them older, by appearance.
“You see?! SEE?!!” he cried, words cutting the air and beating my eardrums. “I…I…I told, TOLD you this was goin’ ta happen! The others kids, they takes all the spots, ev’ry time!”
“What are you talking about?” I gasped, “How many other…”
THOOM! A startling crash and fierce commotion from what may have been the stairway – or perhaps just outside, in the hall, and I suddenly wondered if we’d shut the bedroom door. I was fairly certain we had not. How stupid! What’s with this place and the doors?
I half recovered, half was dragged to my feet, now nearly as frantic as my pesty companion, and it occurred to me that all the potential hiding places he was glancing through seemed woefully inadequate for a grown man my size. In a thousand-and-one thoughts, this dilemma would never occur to the disturbed halo child, who was reduced to a frenzy – a blur in a striped Ernie shirt, sobbing and choking on his snot and tears as he pulled aside another table cloth, now a leaning oil painting, now a dust-coated loveseat – all these shadowed barricades possessing the common vexation of other children in occupation – in each spot, another belligerent, imp of a child. Through waves of terror, I believed I was somehow viewing the same children, over and over, and they were inexplicably shifting about without my seeing how they moved from place to place, but I became more and more certain that I was doomed to remain exposed, in the open – me and this pitiful, blubbering boy.
“STOP!” I screamed and jerked my hand from the halo child’s grip. My own exclamation startled me nearly as badly as the eerie silence that proceeded for several seconds while the boy peered behind a bookshelf, ancient and tacky – another hiding place I knew was taken without looking, and once he viewed this himself, he turned his face upward to mine – a distraught expression, pale like smoke. A conflicting blend of antipathy and empathy came upon me at the sight of him now.
Frequently in my life, I’ve become hopelessly distressed over something troublesome – usually a relationship that has soured, or I fear that I’ve lost something sacred; often I may find myself caught up in a dream about this trouble, and in my dream, everything is OK – the treasure I thought I’d lost is not lost after all, or the relationship I thought ruined is not mired in animus as I’d worried it was, but always there is the morning – when I awaken to the truth that relationships are fragile, and hatred is simple, and sometimes the matters we hold most dear will turn to vapor in our arms. The face of the halo child reflected those feelings – those of hope, desperately sought, considered found, then stripped away by sudden disappointment. For him, this night began as all his nights did – the foreboding over being left alone with others barely older than him, the placing of the sign, the trembling, the trepidation, the despair, because he was always left alone and would doubtless be again, with no hiding place to obscure him from the impending terror that invaded his world over and over. Then I arrived. Hope arrived for him, for a moment, and for a moment he assumed he’d been graced with a defender against this perpetual menace. But with my belligerent shouting and the snatching of my hand, he now understood I was no greater in strength than he was, and I resented his neediness. His respite was at an end, his troubled spirit in worse condition than had he never hoped at all. He had no hope at all, none at all, and I knew this of him, knew it well.
There was more stomping and crashing from outside the room; the invader was quite near, but I paid it less attention, as I was preoccupied with the halo child’s face, ghostly and round, motionless but for a soft trickle of tears. I kneeled, gave him stern focus.
“The thing in the house, what is it?” I asked him. He parted his lips to speak, but nothing came out. He pointed his gaze to the floor. Gently, I reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. He shuddered and pulled away, and I’d never felt like more of a brute. “Hey, it’s OK. I’m sorry. Can you talk to me? Can you tell me what it is?”
The halo child placed his eyes back upon me, his tears becoming streams, lips quivering, and his voice trembled discordantly when he spoke. “S-s-s-ist-t-er c-calls it B-b-bigfoot.”
“Bigfoot? It’s big and hairy, like Bigfoot?”
“I, I, I d-dunno, m-maybe.”
“You don’t know?!” I asked, raising my voice slightly; the boy jolted, and I tried to calm myself. “You’ve never seen it?”
“L-listen, listen ta me. Y-you don’ see it! You run! You hide from it!”
“Oh, I see. So it never comes in here – in this room? It never comes and finds you?” I asked, assuming the answer would be yes and feeling surprisingly relieved.
His glassy blue eyes bored into mine. “No” he said, mouth barely moving. “It alays does. It alays finds me. Only me.”
“I understand. What do you call this thing that always finds you?” The question made me queazy when I spoke it.
“He’s, he’s…the UnBe.” the child gasped, breathless.