I’ll have to admit to you before we even get started that it has been many years since all of this had occurred, but I’ll try to recall the details of the traumatizing event as best as I can. It happened when I was a kid, ten or eleven I think. I can’t be certain, but it was close enough to my birthday that either could be true and it wouldn’t matter one way or the other. The only reason I remember that was due to how chilled my bones were from the weather outside. There wasn’t snow or anything like that, just a wretched coursing freeze that would cause your vision to collapse inward from the periphery if you stayed out in it for too long. At least when you’re that small anyway. Looking back, I could probably go out in the same weather with nothing but a thick shirt as I am now, but adults have a way of dealing with things that kids haven’t quite obtained yet.
To make matters worse, neither parent was home and no one knew how to operate the thermostat. My mother had often been in and out of the hospital throughout my childhood and this so happened to be one of those times. For that night it was just myself, my younger brothers, and the man my father had left us with already passed out drunk on the living room sofa. He had been a friend of the family simply due to the nature that he happened to live across the street at the time and for any other reason was beyond me. I recall that we thought it was rad at the time whenever he watched us for the night because he would let go wild and ravage the pantry for whatever we wanted to eat for dinner, but of course, now I realize that he only did so to avoid having to prepare anything himself. His meal consisted of a bologna sandwich and enough beer that he wouldn’t wake until the morning came and he was relieved of his post.
With everyone else fast asleep, there I was shivering with a thick duvet wrapped around me as I worked on a story I was writing at the time. I was often awake at times no other sane person would choose. Over and over they told me that I’d grow out of my childhood insomnia, but that day has still yet to come. I always figured that if I was up I might as well be working on something, so I grabbed my dim little desk lamp and continued to fill the pages of yet my fifth composition notebook on this epic tale I had hoped would blow all the minds of my middle school mates. Sadly, I got so wrapped up in the creative process that I didn’t even notice what had been going on in the dark corners of the neighboring rooms until I heard the obnoxious slamming of a door down the hall.
More annoyed than perplexed, I left the comfort of my work to see what could possibly have caused that infuriating noise. I remember thinking to myself that it was probably just a ghost or an imp; something unpleasant that I wasn’t unfamiliar with. It couldn’t have been either of my brothers, that’s for sure. Both were much too small to slam a door at all, let alone that loudly. I’m not sure I could have back then either. I approached my youngest brother’s room and reached through the door, laying just slightly ajar to allow a modicum of light from the hall to filter in, to flip on the lights. Up and down I toggled the lever, but the ceiling lamp was unresponsive.
Nervously, I tiptoed through the doorway. I always had a problem with the dark, I think at least, in a relatable way. It wasn’t even so much as what could be in the spacious vacuum of potential danger that rests before me, but that no matter what could be there I may never know since I won’t be able to see it until it is too late. Fear isn’t the word I’d used to describe the feeling. Maybe reverence is more appropriate. One reveres the dark because while they may not know what lies in waiting for them they are fully aware of the gamble of proceeding forth. And taking that gamble, I hugged the wall until I ran into my brother’s bed. I swiftly lifted his blanket, but he was not underneath.
Just then, the light in the hall cut out startling me. It would have been difficult for him to reach the light switch, but I wouldn’t have put it past my brother to figure out how to use a large toy to cause mischief. I called out for him, but no answer. Edging my way back out into the hall I called out for my other brother, but still no answer. I could feel the rhythm of my chest increase in tempo as I made my way toward the living room to hopefully wake the only adult in the house.
Boom! Boom! Boom! I wasn’t even halfway down the hall and all the doors along it slam shut in a chain of thunderous claps. Without opening my eyes, I managed to sprint to the side of my sitter only tripping on the coffee table next to him. Try as I did, he was so inebriated that a full-grown man couldn’t have awoken him even without more creative measures void from the mind of a panicking child. Then, in the distance, I heard a click. When I looked back down the hall, I could see the faint light from my desk lamp bending around the corner. I reached beneath the couch cousin below my sitter’s snoring head and pulled out a combat knife far too large for a child my size to be wielding. It was my dad’s from when he was in the army. He liked to keep it there just in case any intruders decided to set their appetite on our lower-class domicile since he often opted to sleep on the sofa.
As I made my way back down the hall, the doors all remained shut. I’m still not sure if it would have been more or less stressful if the doors to the other rooms had opened back up, but it didn’t matter as I clung to the wall opposite of each one with the knife pointed at the furthest extent of my tiny reach as I passed. The blade shook wildly in my grasp. I’m certain it was a mix of its weight and my nerves. The hallway felt longer now than at any other time in my life. And for some reason, the closer I got back to my room the dimmer the light from my end table became. It felt dense and foggy. Not that I could see any sort of condensation in the air. No, it was almost as if there was this thick, invisible miasma cloaking the air around me and letting less light through than should otherwise be the case. Once in my room, the shroud was so heavy that all I could see was the faint glimmer of the bulb and the notebook I had been logging away at just beneath. Everything else was as if it became the darkness. I placed my hands down to feel the bed so I wouldn’t bump into it; then used it to make my way over to the only thing I could fully comprehend in this distortion of my normal reality. Just as I reach the lamp, it too goes dark.
Red. Beaming out of the gaping maw of my closet door was light so glaringly red that beneath its gaze no other colors or tones were recognizable. Alarmed, I swiftly leaped up into the top bunk of the bed, only to find that my other brother whom I left up there sound asleep was also missing. I peeked above the guardrail to see a narrow silhouette in the closet so tall that it was cut off by the top of the doorway. In a rather stiff and uncanny motion, an arm stretched out from the figure and grasp trimming or the threshold with its sickly yet still masculine fingers. Crouching down so it could fit through, the entity robotically hoisted its way into my room to reveal that it was actually a man of sorts.
Although it wasn’t the peak of the silhouette, his head still stood higher than the door frame itself. Atop sat a flimsy old top hat with a couple of holes in the brim that was so tall it bent in half and dragged across the ceiling as he walks. With each step, it made a sound against the sponging that went schiff… schiff… schiff. The man wore a dingy black suit, like you would expect to see on an undertaker, that hugged his slender form a bit too much as if it wasn’t quite tailored for him. In his left hand, he walked with a cane, but not with a limp and not in step with his stride which made his motion appear even more discordant. Beneath the hat, his thin, greasy, black hair squirmed down the sides of his weathered face like worms desperately escaping his head. His grin was slimy, filled with crooked teeth, and surrounded by a patchwork of stubble. And in the center of his ghostly pale face sat a narrow, slightly-hooked nose just beneath his solemn black eyes that were so dark I couldn’t make out where the pupil stopped and the iris began.
“Salutations, my new friend,” the tall man said to me whilst licking his chapped upper lip, “How might you be doing this fine evening we have here?”
Not knowing how to handle this situation, I cautiously scuttled back away from the guardrail toward the far corner of the room and remained silent. Not detoured in the slightest, his smile widened as he approached the bed. I have no doubt that… thing could have climbed up between the bunk and the ceiling, sprawled out like a spider, with little inconvenience. Instead, he chose to swing one over the railing and leaned against the bed casually.
“Aw, you don’t want to talk to me?” He asked with a contrived pout. “It’s alright, little boy. You can talk to me. I’m very friendly.”
I still chose to remain silent. He came off as a bad hypocrite and nothing sounded sincere. Displeased with my silence, the tall man reached into his coat and pulled out what appeared from that distance to be some kind of treat.
“How about this,” he said extending his just inches from where I sat. “If you give me your name, I’ll give you some candy. Sounds like a fair trade, right? Very friendly.”
“I was always told not to give my name strangers and you’re pretty strange,” I said, choosing to reply that time.
He chuckled for a second and responded with, “That’s fair, but where I’m from you are the strange one. If you won’t give me your name for candy, how about some shiny new rocks?” His fingers peeled back like old paint to clutch the treats. When his clutch released the candy had vanished and was replaced with tiny gemstones. “I know how much you like collecting these things and brought them just for you.”
I swallowed my own saliva hearing that. How could this monster, whom I had never met, know that I like collecting rocks? There was an assortment of ones I found around the city stored beneath the bottom bunk as we spoke, but only my brothers really knew about that. I panicked and start waving the knife in his direction and shouted, “I’m not buying what you’re selling, mister!”
As if disgusted, the tall man drifted back from the blade immediately. Once far enough away, he collected his composure, dusted off his coat, and began smiling again. His stance slowly cricked toward the closet down as he calmly stated, “I see we are done here, then. There is nothing I possess for which you would give me your name. I’ll take my leave.”
I can’t remember why I said it. Even then I wasn’t sure why these words escaped my mouth, but I muttered, “I want my brothers to be safe.”
Just before crossing the threshold, the creature stopped dead in his tracks. In the blink of an eye, he was back leaning on the guardrail just as before with a wild grimace. He took off his hat as if to show courtesy, revealing that the hair above it was matted and infested with small bugs.
“So, it seems we might come to an arrangement after all,” he snickered.
“What do you mean?” I asked with the knife still pointed at him.
“You see, both your brothers are back at my home,” the tall man replied.
“Then bring them back here!” I shouted without hesitation.
“No can do, little man. I only do favors for my friends. But if you were to give me your name and I gave you mine, I’m sure we could work something out,” He said in a most untrustworthy tone.
“All I have to do is tell you my name and you’ll bring them back?” I questioned suspiciously.
“Mhmmm, how about it?” He asked right back.
I retracted the knife back to my chest and thought it over for a couple of seconds. I knew that I had no reason to trust if this man even had my brothers, but both of them were missing and with the paranormality of all this I doubt they could have escaped him if they tried. I may have just been lucky that he’s seemed to be afraid of the knife. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to tell him. I took a deep breath and could see every single one of his teeth for how wide his smile grew.
“Don’t even think about giving that liar your name,” interrupted a rough yet girlish voice. “It’s not just an exchange of pleasantries. He already knows your name. Giving it to him is how he gets you since as a kid that’s all you really have to give away.”
There on my dresser sat a young girl just about my age and size in pigtails and pajamas. She had a cocky air about her without an ounce of fear toward this creature looming over her at roughly twice her height. I couldn’t really place why, but it felt like I had known this girl for a really long time. Maybe I had. Everything was getting fuzzy in that red light and all I could recall was who I was as well as my missing brothers.
The tall man broke character and for a second set of eyelids opened up to reveal that beneath those fake, drawn-on black irises were glowing red eyes that matched the light gleaming behind him in the closet. He wrenched his body over to her and angrily screamed, “You mind your own business, you realmless urchin! This is between me and the boy.”
“If it involves this boy, it is my business,” she laughed “Besides, you don’t scare me. You have no real power in this realm, you glorified scarecrow.”
The tall man raised his cane like he was about to strike the girl, but recomposed himself yet again instead. He swiveled back to me and said, “Fine. If we can’t make a deal then I’ll leave with just your brothers in my possession.”
“No, wait!” I hollered possibly too quickly. “You need to give them back!”
“I don’t need to do anything,” he retorted. ” Your parents gave them their names and then they gave them to me. By the rules of my land, they belong to me now. Of course, maybe we could shake on a deal and I could trade two for two. Both of you are far more interesting than those snot-nosed brats anyway.”
“Ha! I’m not giving you my name for anything in the whole universe,” scoffed the girl.
“No dice, then,” he replied.
Then I blurted out, “What if I went and got them myself?”
The pigtail girl shook her head rapidly side to side with utter disagreement with this plan, but the tall man seemed delighted by the notion.
“I control this gateway here, you see,” he stated in a bow, gesturing to the closet. “I’m not just going to let some kid waltz right into my home and take what is mine. Even to do that, you’ll have to give me something I want.”
In a possibly foolish act, I jumped off the top bunk and landed between the tall man and the closet door. He reached to push me out of the way but stopped when he saw I was still holding the knife. Reflexively, he pulled back toward the nightstand where I had worked previously.
“How about your life; is that worth it to you?” I said in rage. The girl was giddy and wide-eyed trying to figure out where this was going.
“You’ve put us in a tight spot, lad,” he said in a more serious tone. “If can’t get past you and your fancy little plaything, then I can’t get home. But likewise, if I were to perish the gateway to my realm will close on its own. The only way I can see about solving a dilemma like this is to make a wager.”
“Don’t make bets with devils,” the girl cautioned. “It never ends well.”
“What kind of wager; what are the terms?” I nervously asked as the girl grasped her face in disappointment.
The tall man’s boney fingers curled across and stroked his chin as he pondered what the bet should be, though he probably already had it in mind from the start. He raised up just one finger to display that the terms had come to him and spoke, “I shall be gracious enough to allow you entry into my realm, but you must traverse it to my home yourself. Should you manage to reach your brothers, to simply touch the littlest piece of them, then I will not only allow all of you to return home, but I will escort you there myself.”
“What’s the catch?” queried the girl.
“Unfortunately for you, the road is not an easy one,” the tall man replied. Especially for someone of your size. There will be many things that will wish to see your demise. Should you fall in my realm, your soul will be mine.”
“I don’t really like those terms,” I said while lowering my knife just ever so slightly, “but deal.”
“Then we must shake on it,” he said slyly.
I reached over with my weaker hand so I could keep the knife in a fairly defensive position and he reached over with his in turn. And just as we went to shake, I felt another hand clasping mine. It was the girl’s.
“You want in on this too, pigtails?” he chuckled.
“Not really,” she groaned. “But if he’s really committed to doing this, I guess I’m going, too.”
“What is it to you if he does?” the tall man curiously questioned.
“Now, that is actually no business of yours,” she replied.
The hands went, then the hands went down. Again the hands went up, then the hands went down. Thrice the hands went up, but on the third time that they went down red light behind them cut out. I heard a hollowing tap on the floor, despite the room being lined with carpet, and this time a pale cyan light shone in from the closet.
“There’s your door, children,” the tall man whispered between them menacingly. “Just cross that threshold and your challenge will begin.”
And of course, that’s exactly what we did.