What is real and what is dream; are light and dark quite what they seem?
Nothing attracts a child like light. We pretend we are strong and that we are not afraid of the dark, but we exalt in the sunlight, and weep if someone turns out the bathroom light at night.
I stayed away from the clearing for months after the incident at Derrick’s house. Whenever I went anywhere, I went with a friend, or even my folks. My mother was flattered, then concerned when I spent so much time at home doing chores and helping her in the garden. But I never saw the stairs when I was with people. It was like they were my own private mystery, some stone ghost with no likeness a person, but a personality nonetheless; and a terrible, dangerous fascination. And for a while, not seeing was bliss.
The fact is, though, that the longer I avoided circumstances in which I might see those weird stairs, the more I wanted to see them. I missed them, like a friend who is a tough big kid, but still able to get angry and turn on me. Like they were a missing part of my world. LIke they were part of my blood.
And I think maybe they missed me, too. Or maybe they needed me somehow. Or we needed each other? I never have really figured out which way it was, but either way, the stairway reappeared when I least expected it.
I had to go to the bathroom one night, just after Halloween. I never really liked going to the bathroom after everyone had gone to bed, because my parents turned out the hall lights. Sure I was twelve, and should have been a big boy who was never afraid of the dark. But the worst monsters and darkest desires live in the hearts of children in that strange, awkward borderland between childhood and young adulthood. Now they call it the “tweens.” They say it’s a unique developmental phase. They call them the “formative years.”
Whatever you call it, when you’re twelve there is no possibility of monsters lurking in the dark. It is a certainty.
I had talked Mom into leaving a nightlight on in the bathroom, but Dad usually forgot to turn it on, if he was the last to bed. When it was on, it was that beacon of light, the open door of salvation at the end of a dark tunnel of excruciating possibilities. When it was off, the bathroom took on a sinister, malevolent feel, a mouth waiting to swallow me out of the silent hallway into some dark reality that should never be.
I know it all sounds like fine prose, when you read it back, out loud, far too dramatic and too serious. But try to think back to that time, when you were sure monsters were just stories, but just as certain that every evil thing ever imagined was real. Try to put yourself back in those shoes, back to when the world was shrinking around you, but was still frighteningly large and unknown. Get back into that young body, that young mind. Walk with me toward the pale light that is safe, that is not-dark. Turn your head with me and look into that doorway to relief. Now try to absorb the sensations when, instead of the pristine commode and tiled floor beneath the faintly orange light of the nightlight, there in the doorway is a set of stone stairs leading downward. Downward into some darkness that is exciting and alarming. Downward into darkness, yes; but glowing a soft, gentle light at the first step and fading slowly, finally succumbing to the ethereal night four or five steps down.
I remember clearly how I felt. I thought I might wet myself while I was standing there, but I knew that I probably couldn’t squeeze a drop, I was so tense with surprise and fear and wonder and longing and joy.
The creek behind the house on a summer day would not have been as cool and refreshing as the light at that first step was, there between the improbable stone railings leading into our bathroom. I felt my mouth hanging open a little in wonder. The light was the most wonderful vision in the world, and there was no hope of denying its call that night. I walked forward a step, and it felt good. It felt natural and right to walk toward those softly glowing stairs. I moved forward like I was gliding, and reached out to the decorated, intricate newel post as I would would reach out to toward my first kiss years later. Longing and fear; hope and excitement.
My hand touched the stone. I remember that. I touched the stone. I felt it. I felt it throughout my being. It was right and it was organic and it was terrible. The solid, cool banister was firm beneath my hand, immovable, permanent. This had to be real; this must have always been real, no matter how much I had tried to convince myself otherwise. I stood there at the edge of the first stair, my hand on the smooth, worn stone, and my whole self vibrated like a piano string.
Just one step. The first step is the hardest; it’s downhill from there. Just one step.
I repeated it to myself, counted three several times, screwed my courage to the sticking point and had screw it back again. And still, I could not start that journey. I yearned to take that step, to--
“What the hell are you doing, Mike?”
My father’s voice startled me out of my skin, and I looked at him like I had just murdered our family dog. His face was confused, and a little irritated.
“Are you comin’ or goin’, kid? You gotta take a leak, or are you making sure the bathroom door doesn’t drift off into space?”
I looked back into the bathroom. The stairs were gone. Instead, there was the white ceramic of the toilet, the super-pale blue tiles of the floor. My hand clutched the doorknob tight enough to hurt. I looked at it like it was someone else’s hand; and it could have been, for all I knew. My hand was sitting on a cool stone railing, ready to lead me down into answers to questions I had not yet thought to ask.
I looked back at my father like he was a stranger. I was so confused. The stairs had been so much more real than this squinting, scowling man in green boxers and blue tee shirt.
“Come on, Mike. I gotta go, too. In or out.”
Dad’s impatience somehow penetrated my daze and broke whatever weird spell had me in its thrall.
“Um, sorry, Dad. I was…” I looked again, just to make sure the steps hadn’t magically reappeared. They hadn’t, but that pull began to take hold again, softly, insinuating itself into my desires and fears. “I guess I was...um…”
Dad came over, and I thought he was going to hit me. I don’t know why I thought that. My father never struck me in my entire childhood. When corporal punishment was needed--and this was only when all other means of correcting me had failed--it was my mother who administered the spankings. My father would stand and look at me with a look of such disappointment that it hurt even more than the spanking. So we were both surprised when I flinched away from him, closing my eyes and raising my arms defensively.
“Mike?” Dad sounded worried. “Hey, easy, buddy.” He reached out slowly and gently, and took my hand in his big, calloused palm. “Come on, let’s head back to bed, kid. I think maybe you’re sleepwalking.”
As he gently guided me away from the bathroom door, I felt the queerest sensation of being tugged in opposite directions. Father, comfort, safety; or…
He led me back to my bedroom, and I slipped back into a half-daze. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe the stairs were just some weird recurring dream that I kept having. ...But I felt that railing! ...But it could have been the doorknob. ...But the light…
“Here ya go, pal,” he said, folding me back into my bed, under my Captain America blankets. He brushed my hair back from my forehead like he used to when I took fever when I was younger--so gentle and strong and soothing. “It’s just a dream, now. You’re alright, okay? Go on and go back to sleep. We’ll talk about it in the morning if you remember anything.”
My body felt his comfort while my mind chased itself in circles. It was real...and it wasn’t.
...but the light...
He tucked me in like he did when I was little, then walked out of the room, looking back before he closed the door.
He even left the hall light on for me.