A Puzzle, Piece By Piece

When I was a young child – before kindergarten, even – someone would read to me every night. It was rarely either of my parents, but that didn’t matter; I just wanted a story told. It was part of the bedtime routine, like brushing my teeth. There was something special about reading, that all those strange little symbols and pictures meant something beyond my comprehension. I thought that if I looked at the book just right, then maybe I could understand it, too. I knew what some of it meant (Wheel of Fortune taught me the alphabet) but I had to make sure. I asked whoever was watching me to read the same stories to me over and over. I had the tales of Peter Rabbit, Goodnight Moon, and Ping engrained in my memory through sheer repetition, so much so that I knew when the storyteller was skipping pages.

That’s right, I memorized Peter Rabbit before I even knew how to read.

Needless to say, the adults in my life were quite happy when I learned to read on my own. Oh sure, I had my share of toys and cartoons, but everyone knew I spent most of my time with books. Visiting a bookstore was like going to Disneyland, and hand-me-downs from a grownup’s library were treasures. My parents weren’t particular about the things I read; if I came across something I couldn’t understand, I’d just ask or pull out a dictionary. Most of my early childhood books were standard for the time. The Boxcar Children was one of the first series I ever encountered, and I loved how the kids had distinct personalities, could solve mysteries, and go on adventures without supervision. There was something striking about its first book, which focused on the group running away from home, dealing with illness and hunger, and attempting to survive in the eponymous abandoned boxcar. Though the writing was easy to understand and led to a happy ending, the ideas it introduced were pretty scary in retrospect. The same could not be said for Goosebumps, which introduced me to zombies, ghosts, vampires, and all those other stock terrors. Those books are laughable now (as anyone who reads Blogger Beware can attest), but most 80s-90s kids followed them religiously.

The mysteries and horrors must’ve affected me more than I realized, because I practically devoured Stephen King’s work. I started with The Shining, and it rocked my little world so hard. You think it’s scary now? Try reading it when the only character anywhere near your age is Danny Torrance. Room 217, man! Long, deserted hallways still creep me out sometimes. I moved on Salem’s Lot, The Stand, It, and beyond, broadening my interests in the supernatural with each passing book. You’d think that such grisly content might traumatize young readers – I wasn’t even in middle school yet – but I just kept turning the pages. My mother kept track of how much I read, earning me in-class awards for extra work and setting records. I’d go to the school library and borrow books by the stack, including relatively age-appropriate works like The Giver, Babar, Tintin, and Aesop’s Fables.

For my 10th birthday, my parents decided that I was ready for classic literature. My gift was a used copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. No, seriously. I’m not kidding in the slightest. I’m pretty sure I was the only sixth grader hauling around a 1,026-page anthology on the playground. You want to get a kid hooked on reading? Try making him or her read a short story every day, and ask them about it. The Tell-Tale Heart is one of my all-time favorites. So is Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose brilliance and eccentricities made him stand out amongst all the protagonists that crossed my path. Even to this day, I still gravitate towards characters like Naoto Shirogane and Batman because of my love for the detective archetype. The rest of the novels collected and read during those years is like a Barnes & Noble classics section: The Odyssey, Les Miserables, Huck Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Dracula, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice…the list goes on and on and on. I’m not sure if I could accomplish that level of retention now that I’m older. By the time I reached AP English in high school, I’d already finished most of the required reading.

Looking back, I probably let books take over too much of my life. You should’ve seen me. A short, shy, quiet, overachieving, ambiguously effeminate boy with big glasses, no friends, and spends all his time reading large books? That’s prime bullying material right there. All I needed was a bow tie, inhaler, and a pocket protector to complete the stereotype. There’s always that cliche of people having huge personal libraries to look smarter. But for me, I read all those books because I wanted to. I was fascinated by all the references and information, and wanted to learn everything about them. I didn’t know anything about Greek mythology until I read Homer. The more I read, the more connections and themes I saw. Religion, psychology, politics, history, sexuality…things kept reappearing, but in different ways. Books became more than stories to me; they were complex puzzles with pieces that twisted and flowed together. If I could see those individual parts, I could better understand the whole. I didn’t say much, but I let my schoolwork do the talking for me. All of my teachers noted exceptional writing ability, especially when it came to critical thinking and analysis. Despite being so quiet and reclusive, I was often near or at the top of my class.

I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. I just wrote about what puzzle pieces I noticed, and everyone seemed to like it. I was surprised when I was chosen to do a speech at the graduation ceremony; why’d they want a shy, little guy like me up on the stage in front of everyone? Nor did I expect that my General Education courses would be so easy. Even my video game reviews – something I did on the side for fun – garnered a massive readership. I improved my writing with each passing week, but never appreciated the change. It wasn’t until I took a university course in Critical Theory that everything finally clicked together. Someone else understood how I approached reading? There were names for all those pieces? Deconstruction was a thing? The revelation was stunning, and I realized I’d tapped into something awesome without even knowing. I took that knowledge and ran with it all the way through the rest of my degree and beyond.

I still read and write, of course. It’s a not so much of a hobby as it as a necessity. When you’re a quiet loner, you need an outlet for communication and creativity. You’ll drive yourself crazy otherwise. Most people can’t hear me when I speak aloud, but they can read my writing all too well. I love doing critical analyses of works, be they novels, movies, video games, etc. I wish I could write and publish fiction – I dream of an endless library à la Borges – but completing NaNoWriMo twice has left me wary. I’m much better at taking things apart than I am at building them. There are few individuals in my personal life, and even fewer who’ve seen my work offline. Everyone had their own interests, and they consider writing beyond academics to be strange. There’s an unspoken sense of shame and contempt involved; these days, it’s as if writing isn’t worth the time and effort. But I know better. I take pride in what I write. It’s fulfilling and enriching. It allows me to better understand the world, and hopefully pass on that knowledge to others. Like the detectives I idolized, I keep looking for answers.

Life is a puzzle, and I see the pieces. Can you?

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The Inevitability Of Age

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/weekly-writing-challenge-golden-years/

Age. It’s one of the inevitable aspects of our lives. It’s like breathing; it happens to everyone, yet no one notices until you point it out. We try not to think about it too much – our society is very much focused on youth – because of all the implications and associations involved. We live day to day in unspoken denial, with the belief that, unlike those that came before us, we will enjoy boundless energy and health. That we are infallible and invulnerable. That we can mock and dismiss our predecessors for their supposedly outdated perspectives. That mortality – the ultimate equalizer – is of no consequence.

I know better.

Just a quick show of hands: How many you reading this care or have cared for an elderly person? I can’t be the only one. Due to the way the cards fell during the 2008 recession, I ended up staying with and assisting some of my older relatives. It’s been a learning experience just from a medical standpoint. Non-functioning immune systems, cancer, diabetic comas, blood sugar, blood pressure, tumors, growths, astigmatism, partial blindness, weak bones, failing organs, infections, sores, memory loss, muscle spasms, loss of balance, twisted ankles, dental work, infusion clinics, nurses’ clinics, pharmacy pickups, heart problems, depression, sleeping problems, bad backs, bad hips, bad joints, bad everything…Most of the problems are hereditary, so I know growing old will not be pleasant. I’ll be turning 30 this year, and I’ve spent more time in hospitals than any non-medical student should. Do you have any idea what it’s like coming home every night and seeing your family grow just a little weaker?

It eats me up inside.

The same goes for how elders are treated on a daily basis. The slow driver holding up your precious commute? Maybe he’s is too physically weak to drive, but he doesn’t have any friends or money to get him where he needs to go. That old lady at the grocery store that smells funny and is cranky all the time? Yeah, she has a life, just like you. Except that hey, maybe she doesn’t get to see her kids anymore. That her family doesn’t care about her, and they only show up at Christmas in a sense of grudging obligation. Maybe her family is dead, and she has to subsist on what little peanuts her social security provides. That, despite all the government policy claims to the contrary, she has to choose between groceries and medicine. And that maybe she lies awake in her bed at night, wishing her body wasn’t aching and her husband was still alive. Wondering how she’s going to pay the bill next week when she’s out of cash. That maybe she might die in her house and go unnoticed for months, simply because the world forgot about her.

That might be you someday.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t fear death; I’ve come close enough times to know how quickly and easily it can end. It will happen, and I’m at peace with it. The prolonged suffering that leads up to it, however, is something else entirely. It’s hard getting old. If you’ve got the love and support of family and friends, you’re much better off. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Rather than disregarding our elders, we should spend even more time with them. There’s a belief that age begets wisdom. It’s not necessarily true; everyone is flawed and capable of mistakes no matter how old they are. Some of the most immature people in my life are twice my age, and I’ve grown wary of those who use years as a mark of superiority. If anything, age gives you experience; the extra time is filled with possibilities and opportunities, and it’s just a matter of learning from them.

And passing them on, for that matter. I’ve written before about one of my grandmothers, and how she was easily the strongest person I’d ever known. Not physically – her body was badly broken and warped before she died – but mentally and spiritually. She taught me the value of determination; she lived her last agonizing year with nothing but sheer willpower. If a nearly 100 year-old woman can raise her frail, shattered body up to cook and tend to her flowers every morning, then I know I can do better. That’s the kind of thing you can learn only from your elders; It doesn’t matter how badly you age, but how well you live. I just wish more of my generation (and parents) would bother to listen and understand.

If you have an elderly person in your life, tell them you love them. They’ll probably appreciate it.

The Valentine That Never Was

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/writing-challenge-valentine/

You never wanted a Valentine. I knew that right from the start. For you, it was just so many little, meaningless trinkets. You didn’t want flowers; you accepted every bouquet from all those hopeful suitors with a polite smile, but left them on a table in hopes someone would walk by and steal them. You never seemed to care much for expensive jewelry, either; I can count the number of times you wore something extravagant on a single hand. I could always tempt you with chocolate. But then again, we were always sharing food with each other. If I gave you a box of Godiva or Ghirardelli, you’d just split it with me. We’d eat our meals like we always did – book and phone in hand respectively – and the little treats would just be an added bonus. We’d sit there quietly, occasionally exchanging words and knowing glances. As if everything was normal between us.

After a year of unspoken attraction, it was normal.

We made it so obvious. Neither of us was particularly subtle about it. I kept catching you staring at me. All those held gazes, fleeting but genuine smiles, deep blushes, shifts in body language. Hands and lips close enough to touch, the smell of perfume, the massages, the playful tug of each others’ hair. The tension was palpable. Everyone else in our group was terrified of you, and for good reason. You were so wonderfully fierce, headstrong, and ambitious. You relished playing that role, but I saw past it the moment we spoke alone. The stress, loneliness, awkwardness, confusion, the sheer exhaustion from trying to do everything yourself…you didn’t fool me for a second, because I was exactly the same. You would’ve eventually suffered a nervous breakdown, had I not called you on it. I still remember that stunned, disbelieving look on your face. Was that why you were attracted to me? Because I wasn’t intimidated and wanted to see what lurked beneath your facade? Because I refused to worship you and dared to treat you like a real person instead? Because you found someone to whom you could vent your problems? Because I could teach you things about the world you’d yet to explore? Because I could make you – that stony-faced workaholic – laugh with just a glance?

We didn’t fool anyone. They gossiped about us, you know. Made sure we had plenty of alone time. I think they were taking bets over who’d make the first move. But neither of us budged. It was so, so tempting, but we were locked in an emotional stalemate. It’s ironic; we were supposedly the two boldest, smartest people in the room, yet we were too afraid to just say the truth aloud. There was that underlying fear of change, that admitting anything would irrecoverably shift our dynamic and alter our futures. We silently blamed it on the timing, our careers, and ambitions. We didn’t want to hold each other back. So when we inevitably parted ways, there weren’t any tears; we thanked each other for all we’d done, hugged, smiled, and left.

You know what the weird thing is? I don’t miss you anymore. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder; it just makes you forget. I remember those moments and hours we shared. Working on projects late into the night, and you gleefully singing to songs (especially Don’t Stop Believin’) in my playlist. Watching and laughing at terrible movies together. Accidentally walking in on each other getting ready for a dinner, and helping each other get dressed. The one time we went bowling, and failing miserably at it. All the times I playfully mocked you for being such a klutz. The stares, smiles, and sorrows you gave me when you thought no one was looking. I recall all of it, but only through a veneer of faded nostalgia. I’ve moved on, and I’m sure you have as well. And that’s okay. Though I was never your lover, I managed to bring out what you dared not to reveal to anyone. I got you to realize there was more to life – and you – than just a salary. You coaxed me out of my shell, gave me a reason to believe in people, and the possibility that life was indeed worth living. I know you never wanted a Valentine, but I hope you’ll settle for a thank you.

Walking Home In The Dark: Part 2

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

So there I am, standing at the bottom of the hill in the dark. I can’t be more than 200 feet away from the cars, but the drivers haven’t noticed me yet. Good. That’s very good. The cruddy streetlamp is a mixed blessing; as long as I stay out of its dull glow, I should be able to stay hidden. But I can’t stay out here forever. It’s too cold. There’s no way to get in besides the front, either. I have to head into the light…What about a distraction? Maybe I can call the house and have someone turn on the porch lights. The dealers might take it as a sign that someone’s coming out and leave. It’s worth a shot, right? I quietly take out my phone and begin dialing…

Only to discover that the battery is dead. Damn it.

Okay, so much for Plan B. I don’t have any weapons aside from my fists, feet, and teeth. Confrontation is out. What could possibly go wrong if I just walk up there? It’s a small-time neighborhood drug deal, so it’s not like they’re going to shoot me right out front. It’d be too loud and messy. They’d have to dispose the body, the bullet casings…unless they simply abduct me at gunpoint, take me to a warehouse somewhere and do things more methodically. Or maybe they just don’t care and have no qualms about leaving a body count. I’m not afraid of death – I’ve faced it enough before – but there are worse things. What about living through torture and mutilation? The human body is capable of surviving phenomenal punishment…

I’m over-thinking this.

Fine, then. Let’s just keep this nice and simple. I start walking up the hill at a steady pace. I face forward, but keep the dealers in my sight. Fifty feet. Thirty. Ten. I’m crossing in front of the driveway, and I spare a glance at the truck. A crusty blue Dodge, a few dents in the fender. Can’t make out the plate. The stench of cigarette smoke. As I pass the passenger side door, both men stop talking and look directly at me. I don’t even skip a beat; I turn my back to them and wearily trudge up the steps to house’s front walk. I’m moving on autopliot. I’ve done this hundreds of times, after all. I live here, unlike these people. I get inside the house and slam the door shut, then promptly turn on every light I can reach. A few seconds later, the truck rumbles to life and vanishes into the darkness.

And then I start breathing again.

Walking Home In The Dark

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

I’m late. It’s already dark. I didn’t mean stay out for so long. Trips to San Francisco are the highlight of my week, but they’re measured by the daylight. The city itself is fine – it’s got the splendor and filth of any major city – but it’s the commute back home that’s the problem. An hour on the BART train system, getting off almost at the end of the line. Waiting for the next bus to arrive for up to thirty minutes, depending on traffic, delays, or if it even shows up at all. It’s ridiculously hit-or-miss, especially on the weekends. Getting off at the closest remaining bus stop to my house (the city shut down the one just down the street, of course), and walking nearly two miles from the outskirts of town. One marshland/construction zone to pass, two hills to climb, three stoplights to cross. Dozens of minutes, thousands of steps, all while keeping an eye on the setting sun and silently praying I make it back before the light disappears. Those minutes add up fast, and I can’t afford waste a single one.

It’s not safe here at night.

The thing is, it’s actually better than riding all the way into town. Most of the buildings on the old main street are boarded up and riddled with graffiti. Only the seedy lounge, an adult novelty shop, and a grimy convenience store on the corner are active at this hour. The rest know better than to keep their doors unlocked for too long. Most businesses packed up and left when the city declared bankruptcy years ago, opting instead to seek fortunes on the other, still-developing side of town. Drunks and drug dealers reign supreme over the remnants. A man was murdered in broad daylight not a year ago, his body splayed and bleeding in the street about four houses up from mine. Thievery is practically a given. The police only show up in extreme circumstances; their budget has been recently slashed. They don’t have the resources to stem the flow of daily crime. In the deepest, darkest hours before dawn, you can hear sirens and alarms on the wind. Sometimes gunshots.

And rarely, a scream.

So, I take the slightly less dangerous route. It’s longer, but there’s less of a chance of me running into someone or something unpleasant. But now that the sun’s gone, all bets are off. It’s okay, just have to focus and keep a low profile. I get off the bus, shove my hands in my pockets, and start walking. There’s a homeless man reclining in one of the construction site tubes, and I hope he won’t try anything as I pass. The street running alongside the former marshland is lined with lights, but there’s a narrow sidewalk on only one side. I have to walk against speeding traffic, shielding my eyes from the glaring headlights of passing cars. It’s too dark for them to notice me. Good, that means less chance of catcalls and muggings.

I reach the first light, punch the signal button, and wait. It’s freezing out here. I can just make out the vapors of my breath in the pale light. But I’m burning up; I can feel the sweat coming off arms, and the blood pulsing in my ears. A guy pushing a shopping cart full of odds and ends passes the other side of the intersection and vanishes into the shadows. The signal beckons me forth, and I practically leap into the crosswalk. I stride briskly to the other side, feeling the eyes of the drivers on my back. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around, it’s okay, just keep going. I make it to the second intersection and do it all over again. I turn right and start climbing the hill.

Now that I’m off the main drag, it’s much quieter. But somehow, it makes things even worse. This neighborhood is one of the oldest in the entire city. The pavement is uneven, cracked, and weedy. Its houses are grand, rotting relics…and so are its streetlamps. There’s a sickly yellow glow coming from each lamp, but they’re way too far apart. There are long stretches of dark in between, abysses that seem to devour everything that gets too close. There could be anyone – anything – in those pockets of nothing.

And there’s no way around them.

I take a few deep breaths and sprint up the hill. I spare a glance at the old, hollowed furniture shop as I pass by – someone cracked its front window recently – and hope there’s no one lurking inside. None of the houses on this street have their lights on. Not a single sign of life. The other side of the hill is much more inviting. Brighter streetlights! Cars! One last intersection! And…Mexican music playing somewhere up the street? Fine, I’ll take anything over the silence.

I shuffle down the slope and make it past the final crosswalk. I stride past the rumbling vehicles without a second glance. I pass by a house with a fenced yard, and a little white dog yaps at me from the shadows. Someone left a couch on the corner; it’s laying on its side, stuffing bulging out and cushions faded with dirt. It’ll be gone by morning. It’s okay, doesn’t matter. I’m too close to care. I turn left and start making the final climb up the hill. My house is only a few hundred feet away. I look up the street in eager anticipation…

And freeze.

There is only one old streetlamp on my block. It’s halfway up the hill, right in front of my house. And in its splash of muted light, I can see two cars parked with their engines running. A blue pickup truck and a brown, rusty sedan. Neither of them belong to anyone in this neighborhood. There’s a guy sitting in the pickup, and he’s talking with the guy leaning against his window. Most likely a drug exchange.

And they’re parked right in front of my house.

To Be Continued

Weekly Writing Challenge: Ghosts of December 23rds Past, Or: The Christmas Cancellation

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/writing-challenge-ghosts/

It’s December 23rd, 1989. It’s a late night. Much later than I’m normally allowed to stay up. I’m spending the last half of December at my Grandma’s house. The American one, not the Filipino one. The house is bustling with activity; it’s the place everyone in the family visits on Christmas Day, so we’ve got to get ready. My Grandpa and uncle hauled in a real, 10-foot tree a couple of days ago, and it’s still not completely decorated. The angel on top is beautiful, like a big hazy star that’s somehow floated into the room. Some of the ornaments higher up – the ones made of metal and glass – shine and sparkle against the flickering lights. Grandpa lit up the fireplace a few hours ago, and the heat feels wonderful. I could watch the flames dance for hours, but I’ve been tasked with an important duty: dusting.

They said I didn’t have to do it all in one day, but I want to do my part. Besides, there’s only this living room left. But there’s so much to see! All the old paintings from someone’s previous adventures, the relics of family members long past, the treasure trove of books lining a wall, the new crack near the ceiling from the earthquake, the huge garland they somehow managed to string from one end of the room to the other…and the stockings. There are so many stockings, each with their own design and hanger. Mine is fuzzy penguin with a winter cap and red earmuffs. It’s hanging from the hook of a tiny, smiling Eskimo. The stockings are empty and flat; no one touches them until Christmas morning. The grownups keep telling me that filling the stockings is Santa’s job, but I don’t believe them. How’s Santa supposed to get down the chimney if a fire is going? Won’t that burn him and all the presents? It doesn’t make any sense. The smell of freshly-baked cookies wafts in from the kitchen, and I run off in hopes of a dessert.

The dust rag is forgotten.

It’s December 23rd, 1994. Late night. I probably should be in bed, but I’ve got too much energy. I’m back at Grandma’s again. As usual, it’s really busy. My grandma and a couple of aunts are working feverishly in the kitchen, bringing forth tray after tray of cookies. I’ve stopped try to keep count. A couple of hours ago, I helped clear off the dining table and put the huge green table cloth over it. It looks so different with all the fancy dishes on it, and I’m proud of how it looks. I set the table all the time at home, and I finally got the chance to show off my skills. If I stand on a chair, I can almost reach the upper part of the tree. The top is still beyond me. It’s okay, at least they let me handle decorating all by myself. I’m granted access to half a dozen large boxes crammed full old ornaments. Each trinket has a story, and I ask about everything that looks interesting. A crystal sailboat from Carmel. Aluminum stars from the 1870s. An old watch my great-great grandmother found while traveling through Southeast Asia. A garland of what resembles dried Froot Loops. Now that I have glasses, the angel at the top actually looks like an angel instead of a star.

I wonder if I’m asking too many questions, but the grownups don’t seem to mind. Everyone’s been nice to me since my sister left a few months ago. I’ve been tasked with putting wrapped presents on display, and most of them are already done. I’ve been told not to touch mine – I know the sound of shaking LEGOs – but I can guess based on the size of the boxes. One of them is the size of a Super Nintendo cart. It’s probably Donkey Kong Country. I’m also holding out for some Pogs. I just hope I don’t have to wear that nasty sweater Mom gave me early; it’s this red, white, and black wool monstrosity that makes me itch and sweat. Someone turns on the cassette player in the next room, and a soothing voice starts singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I’ve run out of decorating room on the tree. I eagerly hop off the chair and run to the kitchen, hoping to show someone what I’ve done.

It’s December 23rd, 1995. It’s getting late. The work has stopped for the night. We’ve already got the majority of the chores finished. The cooking and presents are done. The process seems more subdued. Everyone is tired, and I know why. It’s Grandpa. He’s been sick for months. He’s in a big bed installed a couple of rooms over. They say there’s something called a tumor growing in his brain that’s making him sleep more and more, so much that he barely stirs when you talk to him. It’s so quiet and somber in the house now; the tree lights have been turned off early, and no one bothered to put on music. I’m already in my Charlie Chaplin pajamas, but I don’t want to go to bed yet. I’m watching an I Love Lucy rerun on Nick At Nite, the one with the chocolate factory. Grandma appears in the doorway, and something’s wrong. I can see it on her face.

“It’s Grandpa. We think…he’s dying.”

Her voice breaks on that last word, and it occurs to me that I’ve never seen Grandma cry before. I numbly get up and walk the twenty feet over to Grandpa’s bed. I peer at his face – there’s only one dull overhead light in this room – to see for myself. No movement, as I’ve come to expect. But now he’s not breathing. There’s no sound in the room except for my Grandma sobbing in a chair in the corner. I mumble some kind of prayer in hopes that I’ll see him again someday. I’m then ushered back to the bedroom. I’m put under the covers and told to go to sleep. No one else does. I can see light from the next room pouring in the doorway, and the sounds of what can only be paramedics. I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again, but I do eventually.

It’s December 23rd, 2000. It’s getting late again. Everything’s down to the wire this year; even with my help, all the preparations are just going to be done on time. I’ve just finished putting up the stockings – I’m the only one with a memory good enough to know which belong to whom – and I’m taking a moment to enjoy my handiwork. Everything is centered, with an equal number on each side. Good. Even though I and the rest of my cousins are all teenagers now, we never got rid of our old stockings. My penguin is where it normally is, first stocking on the right side of the mantel. None of them are filled yet, but that’s okay. Everyone’s too busy to show up at the same time on Christmas Day, so we’ve got a few hours of leeway. It’s so cold in here. The fireplace has been empty for years, mainly because no one knows how to properly maintain it. It’s okay, we don’t need it.

My uncle pulls up in the driveway, and I go out to help him bring in gifts. He asks about my father, who suddenly had enough of America, packed up, and left for Malaysia earlier in the year. No, he’s not going to be here for Christmas this year. Or any Christmas. I don’t know if he’s ever coming back. It’s okay. In the deep, secret part of my heart, I don’t miss him. I take a moment to look at the sky. It’s a clear, crisp night, and I can see stars for the first time in weeks. I quietly walk to the side of the house and turn on the outdoor Christmas lights. Three floors lined in shiny white, a simple but elegant attempt to celebrate like our neighbors. Besides, it’s 2000; we had to do something special this time. There’s a vague notion that something is changing, but I don’t know what it is.

It’s December 23rd, 2011. I’m so tired. My head is aching. It’s been a long, exhausting week at work. I stagger in the door and shuffle off my coat, forgoing dinner for at least a few minutes. The recession has hit my family hard, and I’m one of the few that still has a job at this point. There’s no tree this time. No one’s interested in buying gifts. Nor does anyone want to visit for Christmas; why spend the time coming to an old house like this when they can stay home? All of us kids have grown up and made their own families – except for me, of course – so they’ve got their own plans. Everyone’s health problems have flared up, too; my aunt’s been and out of the hospital a couple of times just this past year. Grandma’s got it worst, though. Diabetes, lymphoma, cataracts, and breast cancer. It’s like dominoes. She had surgery earlier this month, leaving her practically bedridden. She’s had an infection and fever since yesterday, and no one knows if she’s going to live through the weekend. She could die in that bed, 20 feet from where her husband died long ago.

I quietly fix a plate of leftovers and take out my passport. It’s about to expire, and Mom said she would pay for its replacement as my gift. I flip through the pages of faded stamps and symbols before settling on the ID page itself. I stare at the picture and come to a terrible realization: I don’t recognize the person the picture. What happened to me? When did I become like this? How have things changed so much? Why doesn’t anything seem magical anymore? How much worse is this going to get? What am I doing here? I stand up and wash my dishes, but everything seems to be going much slower than it should. My hands are shaking, and for some reason I’m breathing hard. A chill creeps through me like a winter breeze, and it takes me a minute to calm down. I turn off the kitchen light, head to my room, and put on a movie.

Christmas has been canceled.

The Door Opens

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It’s 2:13 AM. I don’t know why I’m still up. Too many things to read? Insomnia? Depression? All of the above? It doesn’t matter anymore. The laptop bathes me in the glow of its backlight, like a digital campfire. It doesn’t hurt my eyes. Yet. The fan hums quietly, its white noise ever-present but not comforting. The old analog clock on my headboard ticktocks ten minutes fast, a reminder of my mortality. There is no music left; the night’s playlist has long run out. An empty teacup languishes on a coaster, chilly to the touch. The portable heater sits unplugged two feet away, tempting me with promises of warmth on multiple settings. No, not now. It’s too late for that. It’s too late for anything. I’m no longer sure that I really exist.

My bedroom door opens.

The air catches in my throat. I don’t turn my head to look. Just my eyes. I stare frozen and wide-eyed at my door. The white paint has faded over decades, and a couple of shirts hang from the top. The doorknob is a massive chunk of brownish metal, with an old-fashioned keyhole beneath it. Quaint. But there’s no lock. There never was a lock. The latch has slipped loose, and now there’s a half-inch gap between the door and its frame. And within that half-inch, there is nothing but darkness. An endless, inky expanse that devours all who ventures into it. No light, no sounds. There is nothing out there.

Reality does not exist beyond that door.

I sit there for what seems like hours, transfixed by that narrow crack in reality. I’m shaking, and it’s not just because it’s freezing outside. How did the door open by itself? Is there someone or something out there, peering at me? Waiting? An icy wind crashes headlong into the house, and snaps me out of my thoughts. Of course! It was the wind! It stopped raining a couple of hours ago, but the wind is still going strong. This house is old – at least a century – and it’s got plenty of drafts. The breeze must have gotten in and pushed the door. It’s powerful enough to do that. I can hear the fallen leaves rattling on the pavement outside. They’re being stirred up by the wind, not the footsteps of some beast lurking in the cold. It’s okay. You’ve just got to close the door and go to sleep. It’s fine. You’ve just been awake way too long. I choke out something that resembles a laugh, stand up, and grab the doorknob.

Are you sure it’s safe?

Damn it. I can’t remember if the side door downstairs is locked. It’s the only way someone could sneak inside without causing detection. Or slightly opening doors to spy on impressionable, insomniac writers. Okay, I have to go down there and check. It’s the only way to be sure. I grab a small flashlight, swallow hard, and open the door wide. The hinges creak, and I practically jump out of my skin. Idiot, calm down!  I hope I didn’t wake anyone up. And if there’s someone prowling in here, they know someone’s awake. They’re probably hiding, or looking for an escape. Oh, I’ll give them something to escape from! I reach behind me and grab my walking stick. Anger replaces fear, and I step confidently into the darkness. Flashlight on, nothing moves. I’m surrounded by silhouettes that vaguely resemble my home. But I know better.

At this hour, anything is possible.

I miraculously make it down the stairs without stumbling over anything. I tread lightly, avoiding all of the creaks and cracks that I’ve spent years memorizing. The carpeted surface is a mottled relic of the mid-70s. Still-life paintings and photographs line the stairwell, and I’m grateful that none of them feature people. I don’t think I could handle seeing a human face staring back at me in the dark. An old cane hangs from the lower banister, a remnant of a someone long past. The door is right there, and both locks on it set. I jiggle and twist the doorknob a few times just to make sure. Good. Ye gods, it’s cold. I once nicknamed this lowest part of the house the Ninth Circle of Hell, because it’s always freezing down here. It’s not an exaggeration this time; I can see my wispy breaths float in the glare of my flashlight. Shivering, I walk over to a window and peek out. I can just make out the trees thrashing in the wind, but a plastic rainwater bucket steals my attention. It’s filled to the brim, and the water is frozen solid.

It’s too cold for this.

I make my way back to the stairs and glance back. Everything is fine. Freezing, but fine. I sigh and take a step up. A low creak rises up out of the dark, and I freeze. What was that? I turn around and fumble the flashlight. I know I heard that. It came from somewhere down here. Thirty feet of dusty storage boxes and relics of days long gone stretch out before me like a labyrinth. The light switch is on the other end, and I don’t think I’m in the right frame of mind to go searching for anything. It’s okay. It was probably nothing. It could’ve been something. No, the door was locked! You’re done, go to bed! I take a step backward and stumble. I feebly grab the railing, and in that brief second I glimpse something in that darkness, some unspeakable horror poised to kill.

I’m beyond thinking at this point. I scramble up the stairs and frantically speed-walk back to my room. I shut the door with a shaky hand, and stand there panting. It’s okay. There’s nothing there. There’s nothing there. The door is locked, nothing got in. I shut off my computer, and my world is silent save for the endless ticktocks. 2:19 now. It’s pitch-dark, and I practically fall into my bed. I lay there on one side, wishing the blankets would warm me up faster. I let out a sigh and close my eyes.

My bedroom door opens.