Every summer, when my sister and I were young, my dad would set up a tent in the backyard. I have fond memories of afternoons spent playing in our super-secret clubhouse. To enter, visitors had to either recite the password, or pay a reasonable entrance fee: one cookie per club member. The tent was ours and ours alone, and we could leave it in as big of a mess as we wanted to without getting scolded. Comics, toys, blankets, and even clothes were scattered about on the floor, but neither of us minded the chaos. On rare occasions, dad would let us spend the night alone in the tent.
Those nights were particularly special to us, as they were the only times we got to do anything “outdoorsy”. We lived in the city, and the closest we got to nature was a small forest separating our yard from the neighbor’s home. The trees were so thin and far apart from one another that we could clearly see through to the other side. It barely qualified as a forest, but despite this, I learned one night that something could hide in it, just out of sight.
That night was the last I ever spent in the tent.
It happened when I was about 9-years-old. I woke one morning to the sound of my dad shutting the attic door. The noise could only mean one of two things: either he was feeling nostalgic and wanted to look at our family albums, or it was time for the tent to come up. I ran out into the hall, only to see him hauling the lumpy bag that contained our childhood fort. My dad smiled as I squealed and bounced with excitement. While my sister and I ate breakfast, he slaved away in the backyard, pitching the old, patchy tent onto the freshly cut grass. From time to time, we’d hear him curse, but whenever we looked out the window, he’d just smile and wave. He wanted to make us happy, so he hid his frustrations as best he could. In hindsight, he probably would have spared himself a lot of grief if he’d taken the time to find the assembly instructions, but he always managed to figure it out on his own eventually.
We knew we were in for a special treat when my father momentarily disappeared in the garage, only to return with an extension cord and the small TV that used to belong on our kitchen counter. It had broken a few months back, but evidently dad had found a way to repair it. He ran the extension cord from the socket near the sliding glass patio door, all the way into the tent, where he then plugged the TV. Upon his return, he declared that my sister and I were going to have a special movie night, as a reward for our excellent report cards. We were elated.
That night, dad brought us popcorn, candy, and a thermos full of hot chocolate. He kissed us goodnight and left us to our marathon of Disney VHS tapes. We fell asleep to the sound of crickets chirping outside and anthropomorphic animals singing on-screen.
It must have been near midnight when I woke up, my bladder almost exploding from all the hot cocoa I had drunk earlier. It was eerily quiet outside. If not for the sound of the static coming from the TV, I would have thought someone had swallowed all the ambient noise. Just as I started to unzip my sleeping bag, the motion-sensored porch lights suddenly came to life, casting both bright rays and an odd shadow on the wall of the tent.
“Dad?” I asked weakly, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
I heard an unnatural shriek in response, not unlike the call of an eagle, though the sound was lower and more drawn-out. I examined the shadow. Its proportions were stretched and exaggerated, as though someone had made a semblance of a human out of pipe cleaners. As the distorted shape drew nearer, I fearfully reached a hand towards my sister, shaking her sleeping bag. She was tucked in all the way with only her dark matted hair sticking out from the top. She’d always been a heavy sleeper, so when she failed to awaken, I wasn’t entirely surprised.
Thumping sounds resonated on the porch as the figure moved. It began to circle around the tent. As terrifying as its shadow was, it was more terrifying to lose it from view every time it reached the back of the tent. Little by little, the stalker walked circles around the tent, drawing ever nearer with each rotation, until it was within arm’s reach. Its fingertips – or what I assume were fingertips – crept along the fabric, producing a noise like paper being torn. Fortunately, it didn’t seem capable of piercing the protective mesh.
Suddenly, the TV jerked violently towards the tent’s entrance. The thing was pulling on the extension cord. The zipper began to unravel as the power cord lifted against it. I dove towards the TV as swiftly as I could, and unplugged it. There was so much tension on the cord that my actions caused the form to fall back with an angered shriek. This time, I heard my sister stirring in her bed. I barely had time to process what happened, when I saw something slide into the tent from the small opening it had just made.
Its texture was unlike anything I had ever seen, or have ever seen since then. I’d say it was similar to a lizard’s scales, only more porous. With a frightened yelp, I smashed the TV against the finger, causing it to retract. Quickly, I pulled the zipper back down to the ground, only to feel the creature pulling in the opposite direction. It wanted to get in, but I wasn’t going to let it. I may have been just a child, but I was stronger than I looked. In the midst of a temper tantrum, my father had once tried to lock me in my room. Despite the fact that a grown man was holding the door shut, I still managed to crack it open a few times by sheer force of uncontrolled will. Now, I was doing the same, but with a flimsy zipper instead.
A snap resounded in the backyard, and once again, the creature fell and bellowed. I could only deduce that the slider on its end had broken. Its ear-piercing howls made me quiver. I felt paralyzed, but I kept my hands firmly in place. My sister, on the other hand, merely turned over in her sleeping bag.
As I sat there in abject horror, I heard the creature’s footsteps head towards the woods, where they grew more distant. Even when the motion-sensor lights finally turned off ten minutes later, I remained vigilant, never letting go of the zipper inside the tent. I imagined myself as a brave centurion dutifully protecting its post, until I eventually passed out from exhaustion.
Come morning, I could still see my sister’s form snoozing lazily in her sleeping bag. I flew out of the tent, zipping it back up behind me. I felt like she’d be safe in the light of day, and I’d be able to go get my dad. However, as I reached the patio door, I saw my sister sitting at the kitchen table, happily swinging her legs while she scooped up her favorite chocolate-flavored cereal.
The sound of the zipper slowly opening behind me brought a wave of numbing fear to my chest. My head turned slowly towards the tent, just in time to catch a glimpse of something running into the woods away from my house. Something with black matted hair and strange proportions. It was gone in a flash, but from what little I could see of it, I could tell it was smaller than what had been outside my tent earlier.
My sister had woken up long before me that night. The click of the VHS tape coming to an end had woken her up, and she’d gone to sleep inside where it was warmer.