People are Strange
This is the end for my dad, but he’s died before, so maybe I’m wrong. I know it’s a cliché, but deathbed regret is a real thing. As his chapped lips quiver with soundless words, I’m ruminating about how, as a child, I found my dad suspicious, even before I knew what that word meant.
He never bathed me. If my mom had to get something in another room, he’d linger in the doorway watching me, making sure I was safe. But he’d never step foot in the bathroom if water was in the tub. I always thought this was one of my dad’s little quirks. Those odd behaviors you notice as you get older and see your parents for who they truly are, warts and all. Because parents are strange.
People are strange.
But it was more than a quirk. It was a whisper of a different life seeping through. Now I know the tub was a memory of his first death.
There were never any photos of him before he married my mom, almost as if he didn’t exist before they met. Oh, but there were photos of him. They were literally everywhere. I just didn’t know it at the time. I would’ve asked my grandparents if they had photos of their son, but I never met them. They were never even mentioned. It was as if they, too, never existed.
People are strange.
His howling singing voice would sneak out as he cleaned dishes or drove me to school. I would say it was unlike any voice I’d ever heard, but that would poke a hole in the conspiracy theory about my father that only came into focus during a trip to, of all places, Tower Records. As Brian Jones’ rattled through Ruby Tuesday and store employees debated whether or not Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, I flipped through records looking for any excuse to spend my allowance. There was Hendrix. There was Joplin. And there was my father as a young man, staring back at me with the same expression he made when he had to sign one of my failed Biology tests.
I bought the record, went home, and tore apart his home office, looking for anything to compare this unearthed cover to. The album’s psychedelic organ rattled the floor speakers as I dumped the contents of his desk drawer to the ground like an FBI agent raiding a house. And in the pile, I found what I was looking for. A UCLA Student ID cut in half. A photograph of both my father and the man from the album cover who died decades before. Here was a man with bushy long hair and possessed eyes, but also the square plumbing supply salesman who only listened to Barbara Streisand and canvassed for George HW Bush.
Opposites, but somehow the same. The inverse of each other.
“He doesn’t remember,” my Mom said from the doorway, a cigarette pinched between fingers, “that’s part of the deal.”
“What deal?” I asked as I spun around in his desk chair, the organ keys pounding my chest.
“This is all speculation, based on what I’ve gathered from being married to him for the last twenty years,” she said between drags, “I think wishing for a new life only works if you accept one that is the complete opposite of what you already have. That’s why wishes rarely come true; it is so rare that someone would want the opposite. But for him, the inverse was precisely what he wanted.“
“So that’s him singing?”
“The day he supposedly died in that Paris bathtub was the same day I found him passed out in the Kansas country club I was waitressing at. He had no idea who he was or how he got there. He didn’t even remember his name. But I did. How could I not? It was so obviously Jim.”
“Why didn’t anyone else recognize him?”
“Sweetie, you should know by now. You can hide anything in Kansas.”
“What happens when he hears one of his songs? He must—”
“He’ll maybe hum along to it, but that’s it. That life is long gone, now just a shadow of a memory. Go back and watch his last performances. He was worn down. He wished for something else, for simplicity.”
“Wished to be some boring old plumbing supply salesman—”
“He wished for you. For me. I’ve told you the first thing he said to me was—”
“‘Hello, I love you—’”
“‘…won’t you tell me your name.’ And the rest is history. The rest is us.”
I accepted her story as fact, as ridiculous as it all was. And only then did I see my dad as one person, not two personalities at war with each other. Years passed, and the shadow of his first life would continue to seep out from time to time. Singing in the shower, sporadically dancing with my wife at our wedding, violently throwing himself on the dancefloor, or telling my kids bedtime stories of a lizard king that seemed almost too real. But after that talk with my Mom, there was no more suspicion. He was simply Dad. A dad with an unexplainable past. But what parent doesn’t have an unexplainable past?
Because people are strange.
I held his trembling hands as full minutes passed between breaths. It became so long that I was convinced he had finally taken his last. But then he took one last gasp in, prolonging his time, extending his set. His grip tightened around my hand like he was loosening a mic stand. His eyes exploded open with fiery possession, wildly staring at something only he could see. The other side. And for one last time, he sang in his signature howl, “This is the end, my only—.”
And then he let go. Then he was gone. Maybe off, starting yet another new life somewhere out there. I doubt it, but who knows? People are strange.
I realized nothing lasts forever when my favorite mall died an unceremonious death. Almost overnight, it was abandoned and left in ruins; light fixtures hung from stained ceiling tiles, and security gates were locked in front of each empty store. The mall closed, but the doors stayed unlocked for some reason, and the muzak still played, echoing down deserted, poorly lit halls. The geriatrics in town adopted it as their indoor walking path, and teens did more nefarious things in the shadows of the six hundred thousand square foot building.
But this isn’t about the death of Metcalf Mall, but about the disappearance of my asshole little brother Jamie.
Days after Thanksgiving, the year Metcalf died, my family (mom, dad, me, and my evil incarnate little brother) piled into our Toyota Previa so precious little Jamie could tell Santa what he wanted for Christmas as if he would ever be on St. Nick’s Nice List. We drove in filled silence because, as usual, Jamie was in one of his foul moods. We were so used to his anger, his hits, strangles, and threats that we simply sat back and hoped it would pass.
“Dad! Stop. Look!” Jamie screamed, saying something besides wishing us dead, as we drove by the deteriorating carcass of Metcalf Mall. He pointed at a new banner hanging over what once was the JC Penny sign.
“See Santa at Metcalf Mall Now Till Christmas Eve!”
“Turn the car around. We’re going there instead.” Jamie ordered, speaking in a soft voice everyone outside his family thought was adorable.
“Great idea, Jamie,” Mom agreed, terrified of upsetting her demon son.
Amongst the abandoned stores was a smattering of families standing in front of a blood-red stage covered in fake snow and plastic pines. At its center was a candy cane throne where Santa sat waiting to hear Christmas wishes. We were in line mere minutes before I realized something was wrong.
“Where’s Jamie?” I asked.
We screamed his name and checked the bathrooms, but he wasn’t there. He was gone.
“You two go down the hall toward Victoria’s Secret! I’ll get security. The escalators are blocked off, so he couldn’t have gone far,” I said as I started running.
I ran past abandoned stores, catching glimpses of flickering lights, creating shadows I hoped were just that while fearing the worst.
I had no idea what the worst was.
I soon would.
I slammed into the Security office, where I found a man staring at a wall of brand-new monitors, covering every angle of the abandoned mall. And there, on one of the monitors, was Jamie, trapped inside what was once Foot Locker, gleefully whispering to . . . someone.
Or, as I would later learn, something.
“How did he get in . . . Who is he talking to?” I screamed at the Security Guard, who acted like I wasn’t there.
I leaned closer and watched as my parents tried to pull open the locked gate, and my brother giggled inside, cupping his hand to whisper into an invisible ear. I turned to the Security Guard, “You have to help my brother! Please!”
The man didn’t move. He didn’t even get up. He just sat and stared at me. “I’ll make you a deal,” he finally said, “if I help you, you gotta do something for me.”
“What? Like some perverted shit?” I asked.
“No, no. Nothing like that.”
“Fine, whatever. Just get him out of there.”
And he did. I followed him to the main floor, where he pushed my parents out of the way and unlocked the gate. They rushed in and pulled Jamie kicking and screaming out, not wanting to leave the black abyss of the former Foot Locker. After the excitement died down, my parents got back in line to see Santa, but Jamie wouldn’t follow. “Get the car. We’re going home.”
“Don’t you want to tell Santa what you want this year?” Dad asked.
“Oh, I already did,” Jamie said with that wolf-like grin none of us miss. Scared to argue with him, we made our way towards the exit. As I took my first step outside, the Security Guard stopped me.
“Hey, kid. Come tell me what he got for Christmas, and we’ll be square.”
I went to bed on Christmas Eve in the house I lived in my entire life. I woke up on a cushionless couch in an apartment with fire-charred walls. I wore stained clothes that reeked of rotten milk, and my teeth hurt like I’d never owned a toothbrush. Everything was different but my soul.
I began to panic. Where was I? What was happening? Hoping the cold would calm me down, I stepped outside and immediately recognized where I was.
On our way to school every morning, Jamie and I would pass a run-down apartment complex called The Twin Oaks. And Jamie would scream every time we passed it, “Look at that Scuzz Hole!”
This scuzz hole was now my home. But how?
I heard someone scream my name. My parents, who looked as disheveled as I was, were huddled in the apartment complex’s potholed parking lot. I ran to them, and they wrapped me in their arms, smelling of cigarettes and body odor.
“Those aren’t my kids. Why are they calling me Dad?” Dad said, pointing back at an apartment where a family watched him bitterly from their duct-taped front window.
“Babe, get your ass in the car!” a man screamed at my Mom from a sputtering Trans Am behind us.
“Who’s that?” Dad asked.
“Supposedly, my fiancé. Where’s Jamie?” Mom asked, and then it all made sense.
I knew what that little asshole had done.
We took Dad’s car, a red Firebird that wasn’t his car but was in this reality, back to our house. Our real house. A house that was decorated differently. More inflatables. Tacky colored lights, like Jamie always wanted. Through the front windows, we saw that little shit in a sea of presents, bookended by two new parents straight out of central casting. He caught us peering through the chilled windows and cracked his signature, bone-chilling smile.
This was his wish.
“We gotta go to Metcalf,” I said, staring into my kid brother’s wicked eyes for the last time.
Even on Christmas morning, the doors remained unlocked. We ran to the Security office and found the Security Guard watching the monitors like he never took a day off. “He wished for something bad, didn’t he?” he said, not looking away from the monitors.
“How is any of this possible?” I asked.
“If I knew that, I’d be out of a job.”
“Can this be undone?” my parents asked.
“Go wander around and hope it warms to you.”
“You can stay here and ask questions or try to get your life back. It was moving through JC Penny the last time I saw it. I’d start there.”
“This is why you’re here, isn’t it? Why everyone left in such a hurry?”
“Better get moving, kid.”
We split up. I took the cavernous lower level, where only red Exit signs lit my way. The echoing muzak coughed through blown-out speakers, and water from ceiling leaks tapped me on my head as I passed my favorite old Metcalf haunts. I heard hums from within walls. Flickering lights beneath locked doors.
Metcalf Mall had died. It was now something else.
I found a bench in the blood-red glow, closed my eyes, and hoped whatever evil lurked there would ask me to sell my soul. It felt like hours passed as I waited in the darkness, wondering what I would ask for if given the opportunity. It was getting late, but I was in no rush to leave since what was waiting for me out there wasn’t my life but a nightmare my hellhound younger brother wished for.
Then I heard my father scream. I tore up the shut-off escalators and followed the Security Guard to what was once Victoria’s Secret. Behind a familiar-looking security gate was my mom in a trance-like conversation with thin air.
It had her. Whatever It was.
We unlocked the gate and pulled her out when the whispered conversation ended. “It asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I answered . . . . ” her voice trembled, too exhausted to even stand. “Take me home.”
She smelled like her Mary Kay lotion again, my father his typical Old Spice scent. We helped her outside where our Toyota Previa was now parked where we had left the Firebird. We felt a flicker of hope as we drove back to what was once our family home, but we barely said a word to each other, scared to jinks what we hoped was waiting for us there.
But whatever my mom did worked. It was a Christmas miracle. The house was our house again. Gone were the tacky inflatables and the sea of Jamie’s presents.
We were home, and not a creature stirred.
“Where’s Jamie?” I asked, remembering how this all started.
“Who?” my mom said without an ounce of remorse. “Merry Christmas, my loves.”
A One-Sided Explanation to my Judgy Older Sister
on How I Fell In Love with a Shadow Person Fuckboy
. . . we first met when he snuck into my room while I was unconscious—no! wait, wait, that’s not . . . sorry, I’m nervous to . . . yeah yeah, I know that sounds horrible, I just, I know you’re gonna get all judgy or say I’m making this all up like you always—you know what, screw it. I’m in love with a Shadow Person. Yeah, the supernatural black mass entity with moon-bright eyes that stares at you while you’re in the throes of a crippling night terror. Uh-huh, yep, the ones with the elongated arms and nail-like fingers—yes, they exist! Of course, they exist! I’m in a fucking relationship with one, Shannon! Obviously they fucking exist. His name is Trip—yeah, I named him. Shadow People don’t talk. They fester, trapped between the dream world and reality, silently terrorizing people. I mean, usually. Not me, but most people. He doesn’t have to talk, he LISTENS! Ever had a relationship like that, Shannon? He’s patient and sweet and—oh like you should talk with your track record—No, no, if you’re going to sit there and pick apart my relationship then I can—WHY WOULD I MAKE THIS UP! The first time he appeared, he stood over my bed, lovingly staring down at me with his mouth wide open in a silent, eternal rage-filled scream. That’s too wild to make up, and it still gives me butterflies thinking back—what? No, seriously, what? You were divorced by nineteen, but you’re judging me? Well, he—sometimes—can I?—I’d love to tell you about him, you know, if you’d let me talk. He’s so adorable. When he thinks I’m asleep, he’ll materialize through my closed door and fire up the Golf Channel or scroll through my phone—that’s not weird, it’s a way for him to get to know me better! Or he’ll use my Peloton. He likes to keep fit, so what!? Well of course he can touch things. He’s a Shadow Person, Shannon, not a ghost. His parents? Obviously, I’ve met his—you think I’d go this far without meeting—friends, of course, he has friends, Trip’s really popular. They’re great. I mean, yeah, most of them anyway. They’re obviously misunderstood, you know, brooding, intense, but yeah, they’re—single? Yeah, all of them. Why? Well, I mean, sure, I could definitely ask—