Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010: Patrick White - In the Dark With Monsters

Sometimes when I was, and am, scared, I lock the door to the basement. It’s the scary place where the monsters dwell, and on particularly threatening nights, they come out of the basement, feeding off your fear, and do whatever it is that monsters do. Unless you lock the door. In that case, they are stuck down there, pacing up and down the stairs, helpless until the door is unlocked, in which case you are no longer scared, and they are no longer real.

When I was ten, I had recently been granted the privilege of going home after school instead of to a daycare (which I attended until an embarrassingly old seven years old, the shame) or to my Mom’s office. On this fateful day, there was a storm brewing. I was watching Wheel of Fortune on NBC before the news came on. The wind was howling and the rain was pelting the window behind me, so I had to turn up the volume to hear. On the bottom of the screen, the scrolling bar listed Sioux county (“That’s where I live” I thought) as under a tornado watch. Of course, I knew even then the difference between tornado watch and tornado warning. "Watch" meant nothing, an empty threat. Maybe I’ll come and be a menace, just you wait and see, and there’s a chance I’ll come and possibly get you. Warning meant everything, a threat come to fruition. You’d better run and hide because I’m not coming anymore. I’m already here.

Partway through a commercial break, it started to hail outside. I could hear the house being struck repeatedly by marbles of ice. Thunder crashed around, and the sky was dark purple, giving that color about as ominous a presence as possible. I, a child who delighted in scaring others, was now on the receiving end of fear. I was waiting for Mom, Dad, someone to get home so everything could be okay. Pat Sajak and Vanna White checked to see if there were any RSTLNE’s on the board. I saw the contestant pick, but could no longer really hear, their additional letters and vowels. MCDO. Not much help, this one would be difficult. And the timer started. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. No right answer yet. Five. Four.

Then the sirens went off around town. Knock, knock. Guess who? I knew the drill: go to the basement, it’s the safest place in town, get away from all windows and glass, and bunker down ‘till danger passes. I chased after and grabbed my cat, then sprinted to the basement entrance, where I stopped.

I stared down the stairs, which changed direction a quarter of the way down, leaving the rest of the basement in mystery until you were already there. It was a large place, and it felt old, almost a dungeon. There were several rooms, many of them with offshoots, and nothing was quite level. The walls were white stone of some kind, but you could see the individual bricks, and the wall bowed in and out. Some doors wouldn’t shut unless real force was applied, and then they were twice as difficult to open. And of course, this was where the monsters lived.

I used to go “monster hunting” with friends, snorkels refashioned as guns, and even at two o’clock in the afternoon, I would feel uncomfortable in the basement. After all, we were just playing. We didn’t want to find an actual monster. Monster hunting was much less intimidating looking around the shrubs around the neighborhood.

I looked downstairs, struggling to find the courage to do what I knew had to be done. Outside, the wind and hail were creating a background of apocalypse. I closed the basement door behind me, sealing myself in. I exhaled, reaffirmed the grip on the cat in my arms, and took the stairs one by one. The small, feeble basement windows rarely let enough light in on the brightest days of summer, and at present I could see virtually nothing. And step by step I descended below the ground until I felt the cold floor under my feet. I was in the main chamber, and I traveled by memory to the next room, shuffling along, holding out my cat-free hand feeling for the door, dreading finding something else or, even worse, something finding me.

The door knob was in my small hands, and I slipped into the laundry room, windowless and as tornado-proof as any room in town. I closed the door tight, and wandered forward, now in complete darkness, swinging my arm to find the light cord. I was petrified, because I knew that this was the room where the monsters sprang from, and even though I wanted the light, I was reasonably certain that when I turned it on, there would be something right in front of me. At least in the dark I wouldn’t know, and maybe it would be over before it began.

I gripped the cord, the moment of truth at hand, and I tugged. But something went wrong. The string snapped, leaving the light off, and I was suddenly trapped by the darkness, unable to see or perceive the orientation of the room. I frantically grabbed for the rest of the cord, hoping it had broken low, but to no avail. It was out of my reach. I grabbed my cat closer, and sat down, as terrified a child as possible. Outside, thunder crashed relentlessly and the sirens continued to blare. And I sat, alone in the dark where the monsters lived, clutching my cat, crying for someone to save me.

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