Monday, July 25, 2016
By Daniel Skye
In the cellar, the fluorescent lights flickered as they hummed their insipid tune. Adam Etchison felt a sharp pang in his stomach as he reached the bottom step. He put two fingers to his ceratoid artery and checked his pulse. He counted eighty beats per minute.
Deep breaths, Adam told himself. It’s just a damp, moldy old cellar. Nothing to be afraid of.
Adam had ventured down to the cellar to find the long-box that housed all of the comics from his childhood, the ones he hadn’t sold of yet. Adam was getting older. Too old to still be spending his money on comics and action figures. He had a house now. Sure, it was left to him by his parents when they retired and shipped off to Florida. But he still had to pay off the last of the mortgage and keep up with the rest of the bills.
Even underground, Adam could hear the howling wind. The lights flashed on and off like strobe lights, turning the cellar into Adam’s personal nightclub. Though to Adam, it was something out of his worst nightmares.
Cellars are naturally creepy places. And Adam’s constant anxiety would not let him overlook that fact. As soon as the wind picked up and the lights began to flicker, Adam found the box he was looking for and scurried up the stairs.
The forecast called for torrential downpours and sixty-mile-per-hour winds that would almost certainly knock out the power for a few hours. But Adam was fully prepared. He was going to sift through his old detective comics and read them by candlelight until the storm passed.
It didn’t take much to scare Adam or make him tense. His list of irrational fears and phobias included spiders, escalators, riptides, clowns, department store mannequins, opera singers, and the music of Nine Inch Nails. But the thing that terrified him the most was the dark. More so, it was the fear of what lurked within the dark.
Adam had no affinity for the darkness. Hence the comics. They sparked distant memories from his youth, and alleviated his mounting anxiety. Adam’s immense fear of the dark had carried over from his childhood.
There was no one incident that triggered this fear. It developed at a young age. When he turned four, he began sleeping with a nightlight. He couldn’t sleep without it. And by age ten, he was still using it. His crippling fear of the dark was the most embarrassing obstacle he had to overcome.
And Adam had faced embarrassment before. But this was more embarrassing than wetting his pants on a boy scouts retreat. More embarrassing than seeing his hairy dad wear a speedo at the beach. More humiliating than getting beaten up by a girl in his first and only karate tournament.
But Leonard assured him that nyctophobia was nothing to be ashamed of. However, Adam was a tad ashamed of Leonard. After all, Leonard didn’t exist outside of Adam’s imagination.
Leonard was nothing more than a crutch Adam had invented to combat his fear of the dark. But Leonard was always there for him.
When Adam took up skateboarding because all the other kids were into it, Leonard was there to pick Adam up every time he fell.
When thirteen-year-old Adam shared his first kiss with a girl, Leonard was there.
When teenage Adam drank his first beer at a house party, Leonard was there.
When Adam went to second base at the drive-in theater, Leonard was chilling in the backseat, enjoying the movie.
Though, Adam never acknowledged his presence. Adam learned at a young age that having an imaginary friend would eventually cause his real friends to abandon him. So Leonard was Adam’s dirty little secret. An alter ego of sorts. Leonard was wise, strong, and fearless. Everything Adam could only fantasize of.
Adam cursed himself for being so damn weak all the time. He hated living like this. He hated the perpetual anxiety attacks and being afraid of his own damn shadow. And he hated having nobody to blame but himself. He couldn’t blame his parents. They raised him properly and they never abused him, but they didn’t coddle him, either.
Upstairs, Adam set the long-box down by the living room sofa. He had the lights on in every single room. The whole house was lit up like Madison Square Garden. But Adam wondered how long it would last. It was raining buckets outside and he had already lost satellite reception. The lights were next to go.
The wind picked up, heavy gusts slamming against the side of the house. The living room fixtures shook and lights blinked momentarily. Adam planted himself on the sofa and took a deep breath. There were candles arranged in a semi-circle around the coffee table for when the power inevitably failed.
Adam opened the box and took out the first comic, sealed in plastic. On the cover was an evil looking clown with red eyes and razor-sharp teeth. He closed his eyes and shuddered. As a boy, Adam’s father had taken him to the circus at the Clarksville Coliseum. Adam was never too fond of clowns to begin with. And after that night, he never wanted to see another clown again.
At one point in the show, several clowns had gone up into the stands to make balloon animals for all the kids. One of them approached Adam and rudely asked, “What frigging animal do you want, kid?” He could smell alcohol on his breath, though he was too young to know what it was at the time. Adam remembered his red tufts of hair and that the white grease paint made his skin look all oily and slick. And he vividly remembered his yellow, nicotine stained teeth that looked eroded from years of neglect and decay.
“Come on, kid, I don’t have all night,” the surly clown had snapped when Adam had yet to respond.
“I-I’m fine…” Adam had said and trailed off, sinking down into his chair. The clown shrugged him off and mumbled something under his breath as he stomped away with his flappy red shoes.
Adam tucked the comic back into the box and grabbed the next issue. The wind growled again and the lights dimmed and faded.
Darkness engulfed the living room. It was as if a great black curtain had been dropped over the house. His ceratoid artery throbbed intensely. He dug frantically through his pockets, searching for the book of matches he’d saved. He lit all of the candles, picked one up, and walked towards the fuse box, which was in the utility room, just past the kitchen.
He was hoping it was just a blown fuse. A blown fuse was a quick fix. A blackout meant hours, maybe even days without electricity.
Adam opened the fuse box and checked each individual circuit breaker. He found the culprits in the upper right hand corner, hit the switches, and lights popped back on.
And when they came back on, Adam saw something out of the corner of his eye that made him jump. Flappy red shoes, red tufts of hair, greasy white makeup, and yellow, nicotine stained teeth. He turned to his side, but the apparition had vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
His lungs deflated. Anxiety can take your breath away. And Adam was on the verge of a full blown anxiety attack. It felt like somebody was stepping on his throat.
“There’s nothing there,” Adam said aloud, clearing his throat, trying to shake it off. “You’re all worked up and your mind is playing tricks on you.”
Adam jumped at the ring of the doorbell. He wasn’t expecting company. And in this anxiety ridden state, he wasn’t about to let a stranger into his house. Adam approached the door with caution, but could not see outside. And the front windows offered no vantage point of the front porch.
“Who’s there?” Adam shouted, loud enough for anyone on the other side of the door to hear.
“Let me in,” a familiar voice requested.
“It can’t be…” Adam gasped. “Leonard?”
“In the flesh.”
“No, what’s impossible is you still being afraid of the dark. I thought we kicked this phobia years ago. I mean, it was one thing when you were a kid. But you’re an adult now. You have a car, a job, a house, a bank account. And you still can’t conquer your fears.”
“You’re not real,” Adam said, shaking his head.
“Are you going to let me in? It’s raining cats and dogs out here. Well, not literally. But wouldn’t that be a sight?”
“Go away,” Adam implored.
“If you’re not going to let me in, I’ll have to do it the hard way.”
“I’m not listening to this,” Adam said, slowly backing away from the door.
“Let me in, Adam,” Leonard taunted him. “You know you want to. Accept that you need me. Embrace it. Let me in.”
“You’re not real! You’re just in my head! I created you and I can erase you!”
“It’s not that simple, old friend. I’m afraid I’m here to stay.”
“I won’t let you,” he said weakly and unconvincingly, even to himself.
It soon dawned on him that his mind had possibly snapped, that his sanity had gone out the window. The idea came as a sharp jolt, the mental equivalent of a static shock.
There was nothing on the other side of the door. He didn’t have to open it to prove that. He was having a prolonged conversation with himself. An argument, no less. And on top of that, he was slowly losing the argument.
Adam retired to the living room and as soon as he sat down and placed the candle back on the coffee table, his phone began to ring. Adam owned a cell phone, but his parents had installed several landlines throughout the house when they still lived there. And one of those phones were next to the sofa.
Adam lifted the receiver to his ear but didn’t speak. Just listened.
“Let me in, Adam,” Leonard pleaded.
Adam slammed the receiver down in one swift motion. And it brought him a glimmer of satisfaction. That was the only positive thing about having a landline. He could still slam the phone down out of anger or frustration.
The phone rang again, but Adam didn’t pick it up. The answering machine clicked on in the kitchen and Leonard’s voice echoed through the house. “Let me in. Let me in. Let me in. Let me in. Let me in! Let me in! Let me in! Let me–”
Adam picked up the living room phone and slammed it back down, ending the call. To ensure he wouldn’t be hearing from Leonard again, he yanked the cord from the wall.
Then he retreated to the kitchen, to get a glass of water and down some Xanax to alleviate his anxiety. And that’s all the drug really did. It alleviated his symptoms, but it never really cured him. It just made Adam dependent and weak, weaker than he already was.
Adam had always seen himself as a weakling. The kid who gets robbed of his lunch money. The kid who gets picked last for softball. But even in his weakest moments, Adam had clarity. And now that clarity had become uncertainty as his mind continued to slip.
Adam hummed a soft tune to fill his ears with nose. To fill his ears with anything other than the unmistakable ringing that could be heard from the living room. There was another phone in the kitchen, but Adam had taken it off the hook as soon as he walked in.
I know I unplugged it, Adam thought. I know I did. I pulled the cord right out of the wall. I didn’t just imagine that. Or did I? Oh, God, you’re really losing it, Adam. You’re cracking up, buddy. Don’t let this happen. Don’t let the fear consume you. You don’t need Leonard. You never did. Leonard never even really existed. You made him up.
“Not real,” Leonard repeated. “Don’t be so sure.”
Adam spun around, but nobody was there.
“What’s the matter, Adam? Feel like you’re losing it? Your screws need tightening?”
“Fuck off,” Adam barked.
“Now is that any way to treat an old friend? And honestly, I’d prefer to stay. You wasted enough of your life away. It’s time for me to assume control.”
“Over my dead body,” Adam said defiantly.
“Have it your way…”
Every light flickered as the wind shook the house from its eaves to its foundation. In seconds, the power was gone. Darkness enveloped the house and everything was silent. So silent Adam could hear the rapid beating of his heart.
Adam felt the air evacuating his lungs, felt the rush of panic throughout his body. And with that sudden rush of panic came the tingling sensation. Adam compared it to an army of ants crawling around inside his skin. It happened only during his worse anxiety attacks.
Adam gripped the sink counter to stop himself from falling and tried to regulate his breathing. His knees trembled and his feet felt like they were already off the ground.
A hand fell over his shoulder and a whisper traveled through his ears. “Let me in.” Adam closed his eyes and slipped into a world of darkness.
* * *
It had been three days since the storm let up and Adam’s parents were worried about him. His cell phone was going straight to voicemail and they couldn’t reach him at the house, either. So Adam’s mother called Mrs. Glick, who lived across the street since Adam was a teenager.
“No problem, Martha,” Mrs. Glick had told her. “I’ll go check up on Adam.”
“Thank you, Shelley,” Mrs. Etchison said. “There should still be a hideaway key under the front porch.”
Shelley Glick hung up with Martha and walked across the street. She found the hideaway key where Martha told her it would be and let herself in.
“Adam,” she called. “Don’t be alarmed. It’s Mrs. Glick. I saw your car in the driveway. Your parents were worried about you. Your mom said you haven’t been returning their calls. Adam. Adam?”
She waited for a response that never came. Shelley eventually wandered through the foyer, into the living room. The first red flag were the candles that had been left unattended on the coffee table.
The second red flag were the specks of blood that started in the living room.
A trail of blood droplets led Shelley all the way to the upstairs bedroom. It was a ghastly scene, one that Shelley Glick could only hope to forget over time. She cupped one hand over her mouth to stifle a scream.
She found Adam curled up in the fetal position, knees pulled up to his chest. His arms were slashed vertically, from his wrists to his forearms. Three words were hastily scribbled across the bedroom wall in all capital letters. Words that the Etchison family would ponder for years to come.
LEONARD WAS HERE.