A year ago, I went home. Home to Los Angeles County, to the little ranch-style shack where I’d lived until I was eleven and my family left the state.
My childhood home was in a certain middle-sized suburb. There’s a few nice parks there. A couple movie theaters. A mall. A highly-regarded hospital. A school district that, by the mid-nineties, had won so many awards that gentrification became a near-overnight phenomenon.
I’m sure a few of you know exactly which middle-sized suburb I’m talking about. If you don’t, here’s another clue: fifteen years ago, a child went missing there. It was national news for, maybe, twenty minutes in the early 2000's, post-9/11, pre-recession.
The kid’s name was Micah Wall. He was eleven years old, short, asthmatic; a good little boy. On a Saturday in May, his mother gave him permission to walk to Atomic Videos, an independent movie rental joint with arcade games, so long as he promised to be back by five for dinner. At three that afternoon passerby witnessed him, wearing his favorite red hoodie, climbing into a white 1998 Honda Civic driven by Kevin Gideon, the thirty-something loner who owned Atomic Videos.
He was never seen again.
They searched high and low for Micah, and found neither hide nor hair. Kevin Gideon was grilled by the cops. He swore he drove the kid home. He left him outside a little house. No one believed him.
He’d always been a creepy guy, Kevin Gideon. And the story he told the cops was suspicious. He didn’t remember what street Micah lived on, and the only details he could recall about the house he’d supposedly left the boy in front of was that it was “white” and “had big windows.”
Half the houses in town fit that description. Micah’s house was blue.
The cops were in the process of obtaining a warrant when Kevin Gideon was killed. It happened outside a 7-Eleven in Pasadena; some local hero picked a fight with Kevin, Kevin responded, violence ensued, and Kevin was pronounced dead at Huntington Memorial three hours after the back of his head connected violently with asphalt.
His ten-year-old daughter, Tiffany, was sitting the back seat of his white Civic, waiting for Kevin to come back with Slurpees. I heard she ran to him. She watched him die.
Then the saga came to a tantalizing, but ultimately disappointing end. The cops finally pushed through the warrant to search Kevin Gideon’s apartment and video store. And, balled in a crawlspace between the ceiling and the roof of Atomic Videos, accessible by dislodging a loose ceiling tile, they found Micah’s red hoodie. His inhaler, with his name and dosage, sat in the front pocket.
His body was never recovered. It became common knowledge that Kevin Gideon killed Micah Wall, and the case went cold.
I had my own ideas.
I’m a high-functioning schizophrenic. People get weird when I say so; they think they’re going to say the wrong trigger word and send me up a bell tower with a semiautomatic. It’s not like that. I’m not like that. I take medication and, 90% of the time, I live my life just like everyone else. But whenever I’ve skipped a couple doses, if I’m excessively stressed out, and during one (particularly scary) period sophomore year of high school when my meds “crashed,” I start hearing voices, seeing shadow people in my periphery, and accusing family members of poisoning the coffee.
It’s not a good feeling. And it makes it impossible to accurately assess memories of the time before I was diagnosed.
It’s like watching a movie with really great CG effects. You know the dragon’s not real, the dragon can’t be real, because dragons don’t exist. But its scales have texture and there’s a soul in its eyes and the child actor playing the squire is just so damn convincing, and there’s a tug on the eternally-infantile curl of your id perpetually asking “what if?”
My schizophrenia did to my childhood what a Mento does to Diet Coke. Or maybe, the schizophrenia was the Diet Coke, and my childhood the Mento. Maybe I was always schizophrenic, or maybe I became schizophrenic because of what happened to Micah Wall.
Micah was my best friend. The second day of kindergarten, he grabbed the bounciest red dodgeball out of my hands; I kicked him in the shin. We were both sent to the principal’s office. From then on, we were inseparable.
I met Tommy, who played soccer with Micah, and Luke, who lived with his grandmother across the street from Tommy. The four of us formed a tight group; we’d spend afternoons and weekends playing Mario Kart or exploring Allister Park, the tree-filled oasis-in-the-city down the street from my house.
We called ourselves the Four Grand Adventurers. We’d been raised on Nickelodeon and Goosebumps. But, as our town was lacking in evil sorcerers and scientific experiments gone wrong, we had to content ourselves with battling the monsters in our imagination.
We made do. We were imaginative children. We came up with our own mythology, our own fantasy world, with its own hierarchy of horrifying creatures, all possessing powers and weaknesses. One of them - a spider-like creeper with long purple arms that shot poisonous quills like a hedgehog - lived in my closet. It was scared of chocolate milk, of all things. The powdery brown stuff that came in a tin with a bunny on it.
There were a bunch of them, our imaginary monsters. But to me, they weren’t imaginary. I’d swear up and down I actually saw purple tentacles, sliding like worms, inching from my open closet door to the foot of my bed, and I felt the shooting sting of needles striking my body, shielded only by my knit Pikachu blanket.
And the king of all the monsters - known simply to us as The Daemon - lived under a warped old tree deep in Allister Park.
Allister Park had a strange layout. The front portion was a playground - swings, lego-colored play structure, tall metal slide. There was a basketball court and a softball diamond. Then, behind all that was an acre of trees, mostly oak. It was designed to be a little mini-forest in the city.
But whoever did the designing hadn’t thought to put in any footpaths and the city didn’t maintain the area as well as they could have, so by the time I came around, thick weeds, discarded beer cans, and jutting roots made it a difficult place to enjoy. Teen-agers went there to get drunk. We called it The Forest.
Micah and I got lost in The Forest once. We were eight, and it was getting dark. We ran in frantic circles for an hour or so, and then we found the warped old oak tree. Embedded in an acre of graceful, healthy trees, it stood out. It had a grey trunk a yard thick; scraggly, naked branches threatening to impale eyes; twisted, exposed roots.
Finally, sweaty and dirt-caked, we scuffled our way out. From that day on we were terrified of The Forest. The Daemon lived there, we told Luke and Tommy.
I saw it. Micah said he saw it, too.
It reached for us with thick, grey, scaly tentacles. It growled like a steam engine, flashing foot-long, rotten black teeth. It opened its glowing orange eyes, and in them I saw death and hatred. And we ran, just narrowly avoiding its grasping, putrid appendages.
I’ve reached into my subconscious many times to extract my last memory of Micah. The best I’ve come up with is the two of us, swinging in my backyard. Him wearing his red hoodie; both of us giggling about some cartoon episode.
Then, there’s nothing but blackness. As hard as I try, I recall nothing of the day Micah disappeared.
Apparently I was playing in my backyard with Tommy and Luke. My teen-aged sister, Alicia, had been watching us. Then, we departed for Allister Park to play hide and seek, which we did until dusk. We hadn’t invited Micah to come along. We were mad at him because he’d ratted me out to a teacher for copying. That’s what Tommy and Luke said. That’s what Alicia said. For me, it’s all a blur.
The next memory I pull from the recesses of my mind is that of the children’s psychiatric hospital waiting room, sitting on a chair with my bags, waiting for my parents to pick me up. I’d been there for three weeks.
Because, for months after Micah disappeared, I woke up screaming. I told my parents I’d seen him die. The Daemon got him. He’d been at Allister Park with us; we’d been playing hide-and-seek, and we ventured too deep into The Forest. A grey, warted tentacle shot out of the darkness and wrapped itself around his waist. Micah was dragged across the littered, weed-dense floor. And, before I collapsed into hysteria, I saw the waning sunlight reflect off sharp, rotten teeth, and the angry flash of bulbous orange eyes.
It was then I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. My parents drove me straight from the hospital to the airport. We were moving to Miami. That had been the plan since before Micah disappeared - my dad had grown up there, and wanted to be closer to his aging parents. And, with all that had happened, my parents wanted to get me out of town as soon as possible.
The change of scenery was good for me. On meds, away from my hometown and everything that reminded me of my vanished - presumed dead - best friend, the nightmares stopped.
My therapist said I should get this all down. Put it all in one place, feel the emotions I need to feel, write an ending to this strange, fucked-up chapter in my life. I need closure, she said. I’ve consulted the journal I kept during that time period and somewhat reconstructed it, but I haven’t transcribed it directly. I was ranting and raving by the end.
It’s been over a year since the events of June fifth through ninth, 2016. My life’s been great since then. I love my new job, and I’ve started working out in the morning and writing at night. My medication schedule is organized to a T.
Yet still, I go back. Sitting at my desk in my Venice studio apartment, grading math worksheets, my mind wanders. I’ll find myself humming along to Mathilde’s little rhymes. I imagine walking to my kitchenette, taking out the tub of Nesquik I still keep in the back of my cupboard, and pouring a thick line of brown powder at the foot of the coat closet. Or I’ll come across a hedge of jasmine flowers and instinctively look to the sky for the shape of the moon.
The memories elicit fear. But also a rush of excitement, ecstasy, then longing. Because for those five days, in the midst of my descent into the fantasy realm of my childhood - or my descent into madness - I was the real me, more myself than I have ever felt since I first left the little house on Briar Rose Drive.
June 5, 2016
The decision to spend the summer in my childhood bedroom was made out of convenience more than desire. Our grandparents were dead. The Miami house was sold. My parents were in Europe for the summer, on a long-deserved vacation. They wouldn’t be back until late July, when their new condo in South Pasadena was completed.
I was supposed to move into own apartment. I’d finished college and found gainful employment, I was pious with my Halodiperol, and I hadn’t had a schizophrenic episode in five years. My mother worried to the degree required of mothers, but she, my father, and I were in agreement that a twenty-five-year-old adult should have her own space.
Particularly a twenty-five-year-old adult about to start a new job. Come September, I’d been hired as a teacher’s aide at Bayside Montessori in Santa Monica. If all went well and my condition didn’t become too difficult to manage, I would begin applying to Master’s of Education programs in the spring.
I had found the perfect apartment. The catch was I couldn’t move in until the previous tenant’s lease ended in August. Until then, if I wanted to live indoors, I had two choices. The first was to find a sublet on Craigslist. Two forty-something creeps offering me a stained mattress “for free” while staring inconspicuously at my ass later, I deigned that option moot. The second was to move back into my childhood home with my sister Alicia.
We hadn’t returned to the Briar Rose House since we left California, but we still owned the property. My dad didn’t want to sell it. He wanted to knock it down, put up a mansion, and flip it for seven figures. Property values were skyrocketing and, pre-recession, that’s what everyone else on the block seemed to be doing - each year, another post-war, ranch-style shack was bulldozed. For the time being, he’d sized up the rental market for the neighborhood and put off his scheme indefinitely. The rental income payed the mortgage, the property taxes, and then some.
That summer, though, there were no renters. The last family moved out in February, and my dad hadn’t found a replacement. He was going to finally do it. When he and Mom returned, he planned on utilizing his father’s life insurance payout to finally bulldoze the little house and put up a tasteful two-story Victorian. The plans were already drawn.
I drove past my street. I was distracted by Allister Park, down the block, across Fifth Avenue, which ran perpendicular to Briar Rose Drive. The steel slide was still there. The lego-colored play structure had been replaced (I don’t remember there having been rings), but even the upgrade looked overused and sun-bleached. The sand had been replaced with that spongy black turf; it was probably easier to maintain. The grass was brown.
Beyond, The Forest still stood. Tall, thick oak trees, dry and wild, extending backwards forever. Well, not “forever.” Extending backwards to a fence separating them from some suburban neighborhood. In the seventy-degree, cloudless daylight, there was nothing threatening about Allister Park. The scariest thing that resided there were temperamental squirrels.
Still, though, I shuddered. Childhood fears cut deep.
I saw the street sign too late. I pulled a U-turn on Radley Boulevard.
It was an easy mistake to make. I barely recognized Briar Rose Drive. What had been a lower-middle-class neighborhood was now a manicured block with Stepford aspirations. Multiple copies of last year’s Mercedes Benz. Lush lawns, kelly-green despite the oft-reported California drought. Cobblestone driveways. Sprawling abodes with Spanish roofs.
Except mine. I recognized mine in a second. My childhood home and the neighbors’ to the right - its exact double - were the only two on the block that hadn’t been sold, flattened, and upgraded. They crouched amongst the mansions, like a shriveled old couple on the bus.
Cream-colored stucco walls. Chipped blue garage door, huge bay windows, front porch running the length of the house. The lawn was yellow now. The row of juniper trees that lined the west edge of the property had been cut down. Once, ferns and lilies crowded the tract of dirt directly in front of the porch. The last tenant tore it all out, replaced flora with gravel.
I didn’t see Alicia’s car. I found the key my father had sent me and grabbed my suitcase from the trunk of my rented 2008 Civic.
My first thought, upon opening the door for the first time in a decade and a half, was just how small it looked.
The brown shag carpet was still there. Save for a tattered, stained old couch and a yellowing pile of mail beside it, there was no furniture. I walked through the empty living room and down the small hallway, peering into the master bedroom. There was a double bed there, with messy blankets and a plugged-in Macbook Air. I saw Alicia’s books piled on the floor.
Across the hall was the small bedroom, the one that Alicia and I used to share. There was a mattress and boxspring in the corner. It looked… alright, though I wouldn’t want to shine a blacklight on it.
Again, I was overwhelmed by how small my old bedroom looked. I remembered our deep red chest of drawers, the little shelf where I’d arranged my dolls and stuffed animals, the figurines Alicia used to collect. We’d had bunkbeds. I’d had the top.
A large window overlooked the backyard. Across from the window was our hole-in-the-wall closet with sliding doors. The closet where the quill-shooting monster lived. It had served more as storage than anything else - old toys, nice clothes we rarely wore - as it was tiny and perpetually dusty. Before we’d moved to Miami, my mom found a termite’s nest in the closet, and we’d had to have the entire house fumigated.
I felt an unwelcome pang of fear. Stupid. I was way too old to be scared of the monster in the closet.
We had a big backyard. It was the greatest hit of my childhood - the huge lot on which my small house was situated. There had been a swing set. Once, thick jasmine hedges had grown along the entire length of the west and south fences, shielding us from view of the neighbors, and producing creamy, delicious-smelling flowers in the summer. The grass, while never cultivated, was green and plentiful.
Now, the ground was yellow, brown, and dusty. My mom had the carcass of the swing set removed four years ago. The sweet-smelling hedges had been torn out and replaced with high cinderblock walls. The only thing left in the yard besides dead grass and dirt was my dad’s chipping, rotting old shed.
The shed - now that’s a fun story. After my parents bought the place, they found a small, collapsing underground bunker from the Cold War in the backyard. My dad found it hilarious that anyone thought the thing would survive a nuclear blast. He’d doubted it would survive the next rainy season. So he filled it with dirt and concrete and built the toolshed on top.
I took a couple steps. I fished for sunshine-y memories: playing tag with Micah, Luke, and Tommy. Sitting on the swings and talking for hours, until the sun set and my mom insisted my friends call their parents and go home.
I’d always felt guilty about what happened to Micah. We’d been mad at him, so we hadn’t invited him to come over and play with us. If we had, he wouldn’t have been at Atomic Video that day, and he wouldn’t have died.
I looked to the yard east of us, my house’s double, through the rusted chain-link fence. At the bottom of that fence, at the far end of the yard, was a small patch that looked newer. Once, it had been a child-sized hole. I wandered to it.
I breathed in. They say that smell is the sense tied strongest to memory. And, as the stench of cut grass and festering produce assaulted my nostrils, the memories came flooding back.
An old man lived in that house. We called him Colonel Lewis. I can’t recall if Lewis was his first name or last name, and I never knew whether he’d actually been in the military - the “colonel” part came from the camouflage jacket he wore. All we’d known about him was that he was about a thousand years old (probably closer to 70), overweight, and mostly blind.
My parents recalled a Mrs. Lewis who died when I was a baby, and two Lewis sons who hadn’t visited since then. The old man was too stubborn or too broke to hire a nurse; a neighbor lady did his shopping for him and, besides that, he had no need for assistance or companionship.
His backyard would have been identical to ours, had it not been shaded by a gargantuan oak tree and cluttered like a junkyard. Two old cars sat eternally on blocks, tangled in vines. Stacks of wood hosted cockroaches and beetles. Cinderblocks were strewn all over - once piled, but knocked down by natural forces over the years. The carcass of what would have been a shed sat, roofless and rotting and carpeted with acorns, against the far fence.
Amongst the piles of abandoned construction materials, Colonel Lewis had nursed another hobby - a compost heap. He’d had the gardeners throw grass clippings there, mixed with rotting organic matter left over from his meals. My parents helped - my mom would gather carrot heads, avocado skins, apple cores, then have Alicia or me take them over to Colonel Lewis’s compost heap.
Now, the compost heap was buried under collapsed cinderblocks. The smell of it still hung in the air.
When we’d bored of my house, Micah, Luke, Tommy, and I would sneak through the hole in the fence and explore Colonel Lewis’s backyard. It was always fun to see what kind of crawling things we’d find under the skeletal cars, and the yard’s construction site-like aesthetic was ideal for games of tag. Colonel Lewis would catch us, but he never really minded us being there, so long as we didn't make too much noise.
And he was half-deaf, too. So it took a particularly loud clatter - usually, us sending a pile of cinderblocks careening to the ground - to make him come plodding out and yell to “be careful.”
Micah died thinking we hated him. Thinking we’d never be friends again.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the sour, vegetable stench. When I opened them, I was looking at a little girl.
She stood in Colonel Lewis’ yard, amongst the collapsed cinderblocks, directly on top of the buried compost heap.
She was a small child, maybe eight or nine, with porcelain doll skin and ice-blonde hair. Her face was round and her features delicate. She wore a cute pink dress. Despite the messiness of the backyard, there was not so much as a smudge of dirt on her.
She looked at me. She smiled.
I gasped and jumped back. She hadn’t been there a minute before - I had no idea where she could have been hiding.
“Um, hi,” I mumbled to the little girl. “Where did you come from?”
She took a step towards me, still smiling. She cocked her head. Something kicked in my brain.
Something tapped my shoulder.
I screamed and whirled around, scaring the shit out of Alicia. I’d been so lost in memories I hadn’t even heard her car pull into the driveway.
For the moment, the little blonde girl next door was forgotten. I greeted my sister enthusiastically. I hadn’t seen her since Christmas.
“Fuck, Ansley,” she said, “you’re jumpy today.”
“You’re the one who creeped out here like Michael fucking Myers.”
“I’m creepy? You were staring at the neighbors’ yard like you were possessed.”
“Oh, apparently the neighbors have a kid…” I turned back around.
Colonel Lewis’ yard was empty. There was no trace of the little blonde girl I’d locked eyes with moments before.
I stood, blinking. My internal temperature dropped about fifty degrees.
“What kid? And what neighbors?” Alicia’s voice sounded far away. “The old man - Mr. Carlyle - died last November. That house has been empty since then.”
Read the next chapter here.
Written by NickyXX
Written by NickyXX