In the years leading up to my tenth birthday, my summers were spent along a stretch of Long Island known for rich people. My family was far from rich, but for a few years we rented a tiny, sand-choked basement in a beachside rambler inhabited by an old woman that we never saw. My mother, my father, my little brother, and myself.
Every year, we crept from the city in a VW bug cut with rusty holes, that required wood planks on the floor so we couldn't see the street roll by us as we puttered along. My brother and I would sing Beatles songs over the roar of the engine, and occasionally, pee in a Nehi bottle.
We always arrived at the house at dusk, and the sun would be going down and it would be cool and our skin would be warm and the feeling was always the same: of the world emptying out. Like it had been cleared of people and we were the only ones left to sift through whatever would remain, tomorrow.
It felt like a good end.
My mother would put us to bed in the creaky, ship-themed bunk beds and the night would be cool and the rooms small and the house would shift and move with every footstep, every door opening. The first night was always the best.
Past that, time flew.
My friend for those summers was a boy named George. We ran in the dunes, throwing clots of sand at one another, launched water rockets into the sky and other things. Every day was the same, but somehow different; repetitive yet endlessly entertaining.
George’s mother owned an antique shop on the main strip of the town. A huge, red, barn-like house. Three stories, with a boom and hook and open barn door to the attic, where she stored the large antiques they'd winch down into the back of someone's truck.
Rich tourists might buy a German armoire, or a French table of chair, something old, maybe once a month, and each summers’ proceeds would support the family during the off season, when the town was abandoned to winter.
George was the youngest of four, with three older sisters who haunted the house like teenage ghosts. Their perpetual nightgowns and cold-creamed faces completing the otherworldly illusion.
George and I would play ColecoVision, or spend time in the basement playing ninja, flinging insanely dangerous ninja stars at a dart board, but then one of the sisters would float into the room and glare at us.
Invariably a meeting with a sister guaranteed ejection from the house, usually after a shouting match. Sometimes George, who was big for his age, would hit them, and they would scream. Sometimes, they would scream if he simply made a move towards them.
I'd always stand nearby, infinitely uncomfortable, eager to look as uninvolved as possible.
Then George's mother would come and paint a picture of the beauty of the beaches and nearby parks in an exasperated voice. She'd hand us our towels and give George some money and then we were gone.
We didn’t mind. We preferred to be outside most of the time anyway. These were the days before the parental obsession with “safety”, so outside, we were always alone.
We'd swim two-hundred feet offshore to climb a slimy jetty of wrecked cement without any supervision, with waves strong enough to knock you off your feet smashing around our ears. We’d jump off thirty foot sand dunes and tumble down the 45 degree incline. We’d jump from the swing twelve feet in the air, arc, and slam into the ground so hard our legs would vibrate. In short, we did a million things which should have gotten us killed, and today would have had our parents arrested for negligence. Back in the 1980s, it was just the way things were done.
Besides, it was fun.
The storm came sometime in July and it was unlike anything I had seen before. Before the storm, each day was like the last, a slow burn in the morning, a blaze of heat during the day, and then a mild, breeze filled evening.
But on the day of the storm, the sky was dark at dawn. Clouds crept across the sky, low, but towering above them were deep, grey heights filled with rain. The local radio issued increasingly panicked warnings, beginning with a casual alert, arriving finally at a general lock-down of the entire town. Locals hunkered down, tourists fled.
We, somewhere in between, remained in the dingy seaside basement with my family as the first drops of rain began to fall. Big ones. They stuck the glass. Tapping a flat tone that soon became a relentless hum.
I was resigned to a night of Legos and the Muppet Show when the phone rang.
George invited me to stay the night at his house during the storm and I accepted. My parents were more than happy to have me gone for the evening, I imagine. They were still young after all.
I walked the four blocks to the barn just before four under a gun grey sky. The air was rich with ozone, but the rain wasn’t too bad yet. A summer squall, and though I was soaked through when I arrived, it was warm.
George met me at the door with THE TERRIBLE ATTACK TRAX. We played in the house as the wind began to abuse the town and rain pelted the windows.
George’s mom served dinner to a table full of children and teenagers and it struck me then, I had never seen or heard of George’s dad. I wondered if he was the man on the photo postcard in the kitchen, sunburned and squinting on an oil derrick in Iraq.
It was quickly forgotten as I tried to choke down the alien food so unlike what I was used to eating. Small, hard crouton-like things with rice and flat, orange beans, food from another ethnic planet.
Nothing I recognized. I put it in my mouth, chewed and swallowed it, all the while attempting not to taste it. It was difficult.
Later, as the storm picked up and rain fell in gouts on the small, square windows, the family curled on the couches in the living room the size of the apartment we were renting. Reruns were watched. George and I stayed in the dining room and quietly played slot cars.
There were no fights. The rain lulled everyone and the night was warm and smelled of ozone. Everyone seemed close to sleep.
Finally, after television, it was time for bed.
The building was old. It wound up two stick-like staircases to the loft storage. A huge room with a high ceiling that shrunk to a three foot clearance on either side. In this room, dozens of pieces of furniture were stored, the biggest in the middle.
This was where we slept, for some reason in the summers.
In the dark, or near dark, it was a sea of uncertain shadows. Boxes and blocks and triangles of wood which caught the light to paint weird shapes. Standing up, and still, with the lights off up there was intimidating. There were a million places to hide. A thousand cubby-holes. Inside boxes. Under chairs. Next to standing bureaus.
Still, it didn’t disturb me, and instead filled me with a giddy excitement. It was thrilling, and so unlike the submarine-like quarters of our rented house.
As the storm bucked outside, and rain poured beyond the long overhand of the barn roof, and pattered above our heads, we settled down into our sleeping bags (which were too hot) and told jokes.
Finally, George stood and pulled on the chain to shut off the lights. Then, darkness and wind, and the patter of rain. Occasionally a door would shut somewhere below, or wood would creak, and it was the only thing informing me there was anyone left in the world at all.
For a time, I slept.
I woke because I had to pee. I had made the trip down to the bathroom at the base of the loft stairs many times before, so, groggily, I stood and felt the chain of the light sweep past my neck.
I grabbed the chain and pulled and for a moment, just stood there.
The light popped on with a CLICK-DING and, the chain released, began to swing lazily. There was no rain, no wind. Just the cool, damp air and a strange stillness.
Across from me, perhaps fifteen feet away, there was an old, wooden chair. Something huge and dark with black leather, looking like something that had formed. It was old and beaten, and portions of it were torn.
It faced me perfectly, framed in my view, and something was on it.
The shadow of the thing danced and doubled and swung as the light moved. Though it was not moving, my mind marked it as something alive.
The little man was perhaps a foot tall. I never saw the chair again, so there’s no way to verify, but it was small. Too small. Still, it was fully articulated, with the proportions of a normal man at that height, but something was wrong with its head.
Where the proportions of the body were normal, the head was huge and lolling, like a pumpkin fastened to a mannequin. Its face was pale and split like a shrunken apple, with wrinkles that cut deep lines from its grinning cheeks to the pits of its eyes. Or lack of eyes. Its brow was so protruding and thick that nothing below the shelf could be seen. Tiny, diamond shaped teeth like a rat pointed inward.
It wore clothing I evidently could not see properly. Colorful and brocade with folds and turns, but even then, an hour later, I found I couldn’t think about it. Today, when I think about it, I think about melted mixed sherbet somehow painted on to curtains, though that still is not it, precisely.
I stood, stock still as the light’s swinging slowed, and thought for a moment doll.
Then, it rose to full height, and its huge head swung down and forward, almost pulling it off its feet, which poked two deep divots in the leather.
A tiny human hand as as small cat’s paw with perfect, black nails, pointed up at me.
A small, repeating croak came from it, like some sort of machine clogged with water trying to work. A moment later, I realized it was laughing. Laughing at me.
I began to scream.
The ending was predictable. My father came to get me. I don’t remember the rest of that evening, really. Or the end of that summer. I never went back to that house, and I never saw George again.
I still think about the little man in the chair, and wonder if he was there, at all. Or, if he is still there.