“We have to go back and get our bikes!”
Caleb just sat there in his beanbag chair, flipping through one of his stupid Deadpool comics, pretending not to have heard me. I paced around his room, having a full-blown panic attack if I’m to be perfectly honest about it. Maybe Caleb didn’t care if his bike got lost or was stolen, his parents just bought him anything he asked for. I had to beg my parents for weeks to get that bike, and in the end, it counted as my birthday AND Christmas present. You can bet your ass if I came home without a bike my parents would never replace it, not for two birthdays and two Christmases. Not for a million.
“Caleb,” I repeated, “We have to go back and get our bikes. We have to.”
Caleb flipped a page, clearly staring through the comic and reading absolutely nothing therein. Flip. Flip. He licked his lips. I noticed he always licked his lips when he was nervous about something. There, he did it again. Lick. Flip.
“Caleb!” I repeated, sharply.
As if with great pain, Caleb dogeared the page of the Deadpool comic he was not reading and set it gingerly on the floor next to him. He looked up at me gravely, his hands laced together and index fingers resting on the tip of his nose. This was his serious face. This was his Final Word face. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and I know by now that the next words to escape his lips would be his Final Words on the Subject. He lifted a butt cheek and passed gas, which thrummed against the faux leather of the beanbag chair. This was also a significant tell when it came to Caleb Tomlinson. I grimaced under the neckline of my t-shirt, which I had employed as a makeshift gas mask. I grimaced, but I stood my ground.
“Bern. Bernie. Bernardo.”
The standard preamble of The Final Words on the Subject.
“We are not going back to the park. Not now. We will return to the park in the morning. First thing. I pride myself on adhering to a few simple rules in my life, and one rule of absolutely boundless importance is this one: I do not go to the park after dark. I do not stay at the park when it gets dark. We will not go to the park this evening, because it. Is. Dark. Bernford? This is My Final Word on the Subject.”
“But Caleb-” I began. He silenced me with a finger, and stuffed a fistful of Cheetos into his mouth. Crumbs dripped from the corners and fell down upon his bright red Chiefs sweatshirt like an orange snowfall on an alien world.
“I’ll repeat myself, just once,” He told me through a mouthful of moist corn-based junk food, “but only because I know you to be a simple, perhaps dimwitted soul, if admittedly a loyal and kind-hearted one. Listen carefully, Bernie, and heed my words: I, Caleb Isaiah Tomlinson, do not go into the park after dark.”
I opened my mouth to voice another fruitless protest, but the set of his jaw and the glare in his eyes told me that such a plea would achieve nothing but to earn his ire. Caleb frequently grew violently enraged when crossed. He was my best friend, though. My only friend. I didn’t want to anger him, and not just because it would end with me getting frogged in the arm, or noogied, or any of a dozen other punishments. I didn’t want to anger him because I wanted him to be happy. Simple.
Except it was not that simple. I kept thinking of my bicycle, shining a bright glossy black and Day-Glo green. It was faster than a comet, that bike. Faster than the mounted riders of the great skeleton army, faster than the winged terrors of the demon horde, was my bike. I loved it.
But I was careless.
In my haste to play Knights of the Greatwood Castle with Caleb, I left it on its side in the rubber mulch below the drawbridge. Basically in plain sight. For hours we crossed swords with the forces of darkness and also one another, when fighting imaginary foes grew boring. Kingdoms rose and fell in our adventures, bonds forged and broken, trust gained and betrayed and forgiven all over again. It was our oldest game, and our most treasured.
That day was the first truly chilly day of autumn, a Saturday that followed another endless, epochal week of arithmetic and reading assignments and sour-faced old Mrs. McCabe. I always felt those autumn days were the hardest parts of the year to get through, with the end of summer vacation so fresh in my memory and the next summer vacation so very far away. I needed something to get excited about, something to carry me at least as far as Christmas vacation, and so I floated the idea of a sleepover to Caleb.
A sleepover at his house, obviously. He had a much bigger room, and so many more toys then I had. All new, too. His parents were divorced and his mom had, in her words, ‘made off like a bandit.’ Her new husband was loaded, too. Supposedly she was happy but my dad says that people who go around with a drink in their hand all the time are never all that happy. I happen to believe him.
It seemed to work out in Caleb’s favor though, and by extension mine. Caleb had an X-Box One AND a Playstation 4, and a souped-up computer to boot. Caleb had a giant tote box in his giant closet that had nothing but Legos in it. You could have parked a small car inside his toy box, which was full to overflowing. He had two bean bag chairs, his bed was a bunk bed that had the world’s comfiest couch for a bottom bunk, and Dan (that’s his stepdad) said he was getting a MINIBIKE for his birthday.
The one thing Caleb didn’t have in his room most days was a poor friend over whom to lord such finery. That’s where I came in, and that’s why he quickly agreed to the sleepover. We had Chinese takeout for dinner Friday and a trip to Big Event, and tonight was to be pizza and wings. In other words, I have never had a birthday party as fun as the average night at Caleb’s house.
If I had to live under Caleb’s sometimes tyrannical rules, if I had to lose three rounds of Halo for every one that I won (and endure the pain of a Hertz Donut or the revulsion of a Wet Willy for that victory), well that was a price I was more than willing to pay. I was proud, but by God, I wasn’t that proud.
I’m getting off the point, I guess, which was our day at the park. We played Knights of the Greatwood Castle there a million times, and up until today, the setting sun was never a cause for any alarm. Any other such weekend at Caleb’s house, which generally went mostly unsupervised, we would go home only when exhaustion or hunger demanded it.
Today was different. After offering me a hand up after a sword fight ended with me slipping and falling flat on my buttinsky, Caleb looked up at the horizon, saw the blazing orange wheel of the sun touching the edge of the earth, and cried out in alarm. Before I could ask him what was what, he started sprinting in the direction of home. Foolishly, I dashed after him without a thought to my bicycle. It was only when we arrived in his room and the last bits of light was fading from the sky did I stop to think of that most precious object I left behind.
I suppose that brings me back to the beginning of my story. I knew that Caleb had developed a sudden and overpowering fear of the park, but for the life of me I could not figure out why. I certainly noticed no change in the public park most noted for its huge wooden castle in which we had whiled away so many of our days. I could only conclude that Caleb knew something I did not. The thing was, I knew something he did not: This time, I would not let him have his way. I dug my heels in and favored him with what I hoped was a Final Word expression of my own.
“If we hurry we can get back to the park, grab our bikes, and ride them home before anyone knew what was what,” I insisted. “If my bike gets stolen, my mom is going to tan my freakin’ hide! No joke.”
“Well it’s too late now,” Caleb said, as if the subject had already begun to bore him, “Look at the pizza tracker.”
I glanced at Caleb’s computer, which showed a crude animation of a stereotypical Italian pizza chef shoveling pizza after pizza into an oven that was itself a status bar showing the progress of our pizza order. The order was at the seventy-five percent point, ‘Slicing and Boxing,’ which was the final stage before ‘Comin’ Atcha!’
“Pizza and hot wings are gonna get here any minute. I’m not eating ice-cold pizza just ’cause you can’t wait for the morning to get your stupid bike.”
“It says ‘expected delivery time, fifteen minutes.’” I insisted, “If we hurry we can make it!”
Caleb sighed dramatically, and finally, he rose to his feet. He dusted the Cheeto crumbs off his chest and onto the floor, and then crossed to the window. He was silent for a moment, and for that moment I dared to believe that he was giving in.
Instead, and without turning to face me, he said this: “I didn’t want to talk about this, but you’ve driven me to it, Bernie. You just couldn’t leave it alone. I admit it, this isn’t about rules. This isn’t even about pizza and wings. You know I love room temperature pizza. I eat it every other day.”
“Well then what is it?” I asked, skeptically. I thought he was putting on a show for me. He did that sometimes. I bet he saw the whole ‘musing at the window’ thing on some movie and wanted to try it out.
He breathed a cloud of hot, wet, cheese scented breath against the window, fogging it, and drew an angry devil stick man in the fog with his finger. Looking at his work, he scowled and wiped it all away. He did this, and said, “It happened last weekend when you were off with your folks. Turn on some music, will you? I don’t want Dan or Lisa to hear any of this. This is just between us Knights of Greatwood Castle, you got it?”
I nodded, opened Spotify, turned on ‘Caleb’s Tasty Jam Mix,’ and gestured for him to go on. Inside my head, I was rolling my eyes. Another dramatic gesture, ‘the secret revelation.’
“I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get to sleep that night. I dunno, I guess it could have had something to do with the two-liter of Mountain Dew I downed while playing X-Box. Anyway, I got it in my head that I should go out to the park and run around a bit, and maybe that way I could wear myself out and fall asleep. You know?”
“Yeah,” I said, settling down into his desk chair. The pizza tracker was already at ‘Comin’ Atcha!’ and I could feel my heart sinking into the pit of my stomach. He wasn’t going to cave. Still, I have to admit I was momentarily drawn into his tale.
“So what happened?”
“Well, I guess it wasn’t until I got to edge of the park that I stopped to realize how dark it was, how abandoned everything looked when it was that late at night. It was about midnight-about one A.M. I think. Real late. Darker than the devil’s dingus. I rode out there real fast, so I was already kinda breakin’ a sweat. I thought one or two good trips through the gauntlet would be all I needed, and then I could go back home. I wasn’t creeped by then, you know? It was dark and abandoned, sure, but I’m not no weenus. I’m not afraid of the dark and I’m not afraid of being alone. I’m Big Cal, I ain’t afraid of nothing!”
I knew differently, but on this subject I kept my own counsel. I didn’t want to drag this shaggy dog story out any further than necessary.
“So I started climbing the rope ladder, and already I could tell something didn’t feel right. I didn’t know what. I didn’t hear nothing, didn’t see nothing, didn’t smell so much as a rabbit fart. Just, I dunno, I felt something. It felt… hinky. Only I ignored it because I’m Big Cal and Big Cal don’t scare. I got to the top of the rope ladder, started going across the monkey bars, and I felt the whole thing, the whole castle, just give a big shake. Almost shook me off the monkey bars, tell you the truth. But I kept my grip.”
I sat there with my elbows on my knees, hands under my chin. He was on a roll, and when he got this way I knew that not even the imminent arrival of the pizza and wings could stop him. His stories, no matter what the subject matter might be, were always little more than a delivery method for self-aggrandizing statements. With every line his gestures became grander, his voice more bombastic. How long had he rehearsed this? I wondered.
“By the time I got to the rock climbing wall, I knew that something was up in that castle with me. Something big. Something terrible. It was waiting up in the slide tower, lurking in the shadows. I could hear its wet bubbly breathing, could smell the foul fetid stench of its rancid dripping poison breath. I could hear the flabby flopping lurches of its bloated nasty body scraping against the timbers.
“I shoulda ran, I guess, brave or not, but I didn’t. Even though my brain was screaming at my feet to take a powder, they somehow didn’t get the memo. They just stepped ever closer to the tower across the draw bridge, zipped me along the zip line, and climbed the final stairs. I think maybe I just had to see it with my own eyes. I had to convince myself there really was something up there. I had to.”
“What did you see?” I whispered, drawn into his tale in spite of myself.
“I saw the beast,” Caleb told me, eyes blazing, milking the tale for all it was worth, “Just a glimpse, you understand. Just a glimpse and thank the old guy in the sky I finally found the sense to skedaddle before it was too late. If you ask me to describe what I saw, I can’t. It was gross and grisly, that thing. I know that. It had pale and putrid skin, great busted teeth and glimmering eyes.
“It was a thing. It was a monstrosity. It lives there at night, I think, when the darkness comes and no one is there to see it. Maybe it waits there for the brave and the bold to venture into its lair so it can eat them up. Or maybe it called to me somehow, all the way from the park to my bedroom. I think maybe that’s it, don’t you?”
I made a show of giving the subject much thought, and finally, I said, “I think you’re full of it! You just don’t want to go back for the bicycles, because you don’t care. Well, I do care, and I’m going with or without you. That’s all there is to it!”
I turned away then, feeling the hot sting of tears in my eyes, brought on by the sudden burst of feeling that came with my declaration. I didn’t mean to call him a liar like that, only I was sure he was lying. Just trying to put a scare into me.
It wouldn’t have been the first time, you understand. A couple of months ago there was a sort of incident. I played it off like it was no big deal, but really it hurt my trust in my friend. I just didn’t have the tools at the time to confront that feeling or him for causing it.
Caleb came to me, in much the same spirit of gravity and conviction, and informed me that his basement was haunted and that we would be famous ghost hunters if we could just get proof. I gamely agreed to stake out the basement with nothing but a flashlight and a walkie talkie. The whole thing was just an elaborate setup to lock me in the spooky back room of the basement all night while he recorded the whole thing on a hidden security camera and piped in spooky sounds.
So you could see why I was skeptical.
With my final Final Words finally issued, I marched out of his room and down the stairs, where his mom, Lisa, was signing for the pizza while trying to negotiate the boxes of food, her pen, and her cocktail. I could see her totter a bit and knew she was in no condition to take on the challenge, and so I took the food from her.
I snagged a slice of pizza from the box and dashed out the door, saying, “Back in a minute!”
I was gone before she could issue a word of protest. Behind me, I could hear the front door slam again and I knew that Caleb had decided to follow me after all. I considered this to be an astonishing show of loyalty and solidarity, considering the bounty of junk food that awaited him. At least, I thought that for the moment before I saw him with a fistful of wings in one hand and two slices in the other. He was stuffing this repast into his face as he jogged after me.
I had to chuckle. He could be a jerk sometimes, but he always came through in the end. I suppose I have been showing my friend, Caleb, in a bad light. He had a forceful personality, true, but he was really my friend, and I really was his.
“You’re being an asshat!” Caleb informed me, losing a lump of sausage in the process. “No one’s gonna steal your freaking bike from the park tonight!”
“Yeah?” I asked him, still riding pretty high on my act of defiance, “Then what made you decide to come with me?”
I watched the struggle play across Caleb’s face as he tried to find an answer to my question that would sound more like a noble gesture on his part than a concession of defeat. I decided then to accept whatever answer he had to give. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but I realize in retrospect that my friend laid himself on the line with his cock and bull story about some playground ghoulie. I felt bad for calling him a liar. Even if it was true.
“So maybe I didn’t see a monster in the slide tower,” he said at last, with a sigh. “But there was something up there, I swear. I heard it, and it stank, and I saw something. I dunno, maybe it was a gaggle of crackleheads fighting over the last Bugle.”
I laughed, laughed a bit too hard in the dark. Caleb was right, before. There was something strange about walking around the neighborhood after dark when all the other families were inside eating dinner or watching losers try to win singing contests on television. Something strange, like the yards and the streets didn’t belong to anyone. I was glad he came with me.
“I didn’t want some cracklehead to jump off the jungle gym and eat your face, and I notice you didn’t leave the house strapped, so I thought I better come along and protect you. Me and Henrietta here.”
He always called crackheads crackleheads, which cracked (ha ha) me up. Henrietta was the name he gave to his weapon of choice, an aluminum baseball bat. I’ve never seen him hit anything larger than a garden gnome with it, but he claimed the bat has claimed three souls so far. Which of course, I believe with all my heart.
“Thanks, Big Cal,” I said, and I meant it. I seldom called Caleb ‘Big Cal,’ because I thought his ego was big enough as it was, and because I knew it meant a lot to him on the rare occasions when I did. A lot of the other kids saw Caleb as a bit of a bully and so he had few real friends. “Let’s put some boogie in our butts so we can get back to that pizza!”
“Not so fast,” he said, a phrase half-lost in the middle of a lengthy belch, “I guess I kinda overdid it with my roadie slices.”
In the end, we settled for a light jog, and even then we reached the park in no time at all. As I said, it wasn’t much of a trip if we hurried. Contrary to this point, I slowed as soon as we crossed the gates that announced our entry into Teasley Park.
Once again I was struck by how strange it seemed to be in this familiar world, made unfamiliar by returning to it after dark. A sharp chilly breeze sent dried leaves corkscrewing through the air with a constant shushing noise. There was nothing reassuring or familiar about it, then. It sounded like the whispers of dead children in empty rooms.
I shuddered and wondered what put such a macabre thought in my head. I looked over at Caleb and saw that similar thoughts must be rushing through his head. He had Henrietta drawn and was trying to look in every direction at once. I decided I had better clear the air.
“Say, Caleb,” I said, seeing the castle emerge from the far side of the park through a sparse copse of dead trees. I thought I could see my bike’s reflectors shining in the dim light of the street lamps and my spirits lifted a little. “What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino?”
“Dunno.” Caleb whispered, snapping his head suddenly to the left as if he heard a branch break. I didn’t hear anything. “What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino?”
“Elephino,” I said, diffidently.
Nothing, at first, and then a short sharp laugh like a hiccup bubbled from his lips. Two more quick ones, Heh-heh, and then he said, “Good one.”
I picked up the pace a little more, the light jog turning into a brisk jog. We were almost there. Both our bikes were still right where we left them, completely unmolested.
“Why are skeletons so lonely?” I asked him, smirking.
“Why?” He asked, puffing a bit but in better spirits. I could tell.
“’Cause they ain’t got no body!” I crowed. Caleb groaned but he smiled as he did it.
We reached the drawbridge and picked up our bikes, making a show of checking them over for any damages or signs of misuse. Neither of us had anything to report.
Caleb immediately straddled his bike and duck-walked it around in the direction of home. I, however, found that with that ephemeral fear that welled up within me successfully dispersed, I was curious about Caleb’s supposed monster.
“Not so fast,” I said, gazing up at the slide tower with its three different slides branching off in all directions. The twisty tunnel was, by far, my favorite. I couldn’t see the inside of the tower from where I stood, and if there were any grotesqueries lurking within, I could glean no sign of them. “I think we should go up to the tower, climb to the top and slide to the bottom. Then we leave.”
“Hot take, Bernford,” Caleb said with only the slightest of quavers in his voice, “but I’m gonna pass, I think. Hard pass. Let’s hit the road, huh?”
“Ah, come on,” I said, “You said Big Cal don’t scare, right? Well, I don’t want people to think Big Bernie scares either. If there was a cracklehead up there, they would have chased us off by now, don’t you think?”
Why I tried so hard to sell him on the idea, I can’t say. Maybe I just thought of our little outing as an adventure, and the adventure couldn’t be complete without a final test. The final test had to be a confrontation in the tower. That was just the sort of quest into which the Knights of Greatwood Castle always found themselves embroiled.
At any rate, I could see that Caleb was wavering. Maybe he saw things the same way I did. I’m sure that was it. He said, “Oh fine, real quick. But I’m tellin’ ya now, if I so much as hear a mouse fart inside that tower, I’m getting the heck out of here.”
Since I felt much the same way, I found his terms easily agreeable.
“Shall we go by way of the gauntlet,” I asked, gesturing grandly toward the rope ladder, “as is the tradition of our sacred order?”
“Aye,” he said, mentally playing the part of Sir Caleb the Mighty, gruff champion knight and victor of ten thousand battles. We set off to the rope ladder, Henrietta left behind with the bicycles so that both Caleb’s hands could be free to climb.
I gave a three count and we both scrambled up the ladder and over the top to the first drawbridge, pushing and shoving and tugging at one another’s shirts to try and be the first to the monkey bars. That was the way one ran the gauntlet. My mother never quite understood this tradition and the toll it took on my t-shirts. Mothers never understood such traditions.
In the end Caleb reached the monkey bars first, which granted him a huge advantage in the race. That was okay when it came to the gauntlet the thrill of the race itself was always greater than the thrill of victory.
Nevertheless, I pursued him with great vigor and all fury through the second bridge and on to the rock climbing wall. The wall could be climbed two abreast, the knowledge of which did little to dim the intensity of our struggle.
Still, Caleb maintained his lead as we reached the wall, and he was a master at the wall. Don’t ask me how I don’t know. He must have been half mountain goat. I saw the soles of his sneakers disappear over the top before I had reached the halfway point. He would win the gauntlet for sure now.
I climbed over the top and could see Caleb already crossing the third and final bridge that lead into the slide tower. Beyond the door and under the tower’s domed roof, an impenetrable darkness. I sprinted after Caleb, crossing through that doorway just behind him.
We stood in the cramped space, waiting for our eyes to adjust a bit and reveling in the success of our venture. Both of us were breathing hard, clutching one another’s shoulders and laughing. I guess that’s why we didn’t hear it at first. Didn’t smell it over the ripe odor of Cheetos, pizza, and Buffalo wings. Not until we heard that thick, mucousy grumbling growl, like the snores of pigs dying of head colds in the muck.
There was something in the slide. Something big. Something terrible.
“What is it?!” I asked, shamed somewhat by the fear that found it’s way back into my voice. I wasn’t having fun anymore.
Caleb did not respond in any coherent way, but he fished his smartphone from the cargo pocket of his shorts and tapped on the flashlight mode. Together we leaned toward the hole, ready to sprint as far away as we could after we saw the thing we came to see. We peered within.
It looked like a crude rubber mask of a human face with a streak of red paint around a gaping mouth and a bluish blur ringing its bulging, rolling eyes. It looked like a human face, except that it was stretched over a body that fit snugly within the tube as if they were made for each other. Its skin was a greasy, tallowy pale yellow like piss-stained bed sheets. The thing let out another belching, putrid, gasping growl and lurched up the tube-like an overgrown earthworm, its milky gaze fixed upon us.
Caleb turned to run away, only to crash into me. I was standing, transfixed, giving no thought to the prospect of my own escape. We bounced apart, and I landed outside the tower on the bridge. Caleb landed on his back with his head pointing toward the loathsome worm thing, which I could see in the dankness had already emerged from the tunnel.
Its underside was busy with writhing feelers and skittering grabbers. And teeth. So many teeth. The thing’s clownish mouth split open at the bottom, revealing a bottomless maw of unequaled foulness. The great beast enveloped itself over the shrieking form of my friend. It spent a very long time indeed in taking his life.
All the while I could not seem to will my limbs into attempting any manner of escape. I could only watch in horror as it swallowed the last of him, collected itself, and slowly began to advance upon me. Strangely, it did not strike out at me. It only looked down upon my prone form, seeming to… smile?
As it smiled down at me and I oggled up at it, I suddenly remembered something I had forgotten before. Something from my night in the basement.
After a moment it sucked itself back down the tube and was gone. For a while, I just sat there. Just sat there and stared until my own laughter came in hiccups and breathless wheezes. I laughed and I tugged at my hair, and I thought I would go mad. Then I laughed harder.
That night I was locked for hours in that damp basement room with nothing but the sound of the sump pump to accompany me, I thought I would lose my mind. I thought I already had, in fact, when in the dim light a massive, abominable serpentine thing pulled itself up from the floor drain and gazed that oddly gormless visage down upon me.
It told me in a voice older than time and far more terrible, that it was a wyrm. Perhaps, it mused, the last of its kind. The modern world was not kind to it and its ilk, and it could no longer take to the skies and find its prey in the natural way. So, over the millennia, it had wasted away and grown weak.
I asked the thing what it wanted of me, knowing in my heart that it meant to eat me up. As if it could read my mind and see my fear (and for all I knew, it could), the wyrm assured me that it need not eat me that night. In fact, if I agreed to help the creature, it could gain the strength to pay back my kindness with all the wealth and power its ancient magic could grant.
All it needed was for me to lure a plump and juicy child somewhere beyond the eyes of those who could do it harm. There the wyrm could lay in ambush and consume the child at its leisure. With my fear of the creature abating I was left only with the fury I felt at my so-called friend, and so I told the Wyrm I had just the child in mind.
Together we hatched our plan and sealed our covenant. With this done, the wyrm concealed the memory of our meeting so that I would not get cold feet. It promised it would return my memory when the deal was done, and true to its word, it did.
When I got home, no one asked about Caleb or even seemed to wonder where I had been. It was as though Caleb never existed, except that I remembered him.
Soon thereafter, I learned that the wyrm kept to the rest of its word. My dad came home early the following Monday to announce he had been given a huge promotion at work, only to learn that my mother had won one hundred thousand dollars on a lottery ticket. It was only the beginning.
Twice a year since then I brought the wyrm another plump little child to eat, and my fortunes have grown ever brighter. I have more wealth than any man or dragon could ever need. I’ve never once questioned the cost.
Ha ha! I can see it in your eyes! You understand now why we are here, don’t you? No, don’t get up, it’s too late now.
It has come for you.