Max shook his head to dispel the bleak mood that had dominated his evening, but strange daydreams lingered and his dark mood deepened. He glanced at his glow-in-the-dark watch. It told him that over half an hour had passed since he had begun to stare at the meaningless images on the computer screen. Now it was nearly , and he had accomplished nothing but to increase his already high level of anxiety and self-pity.
He pushed back his chair and stood quivering in the center of the room.
Mom should be home soon, he thought with desperate hope.
He crept to the bedroom window and pulled up the dusty blinds. It hardly mattered that he was nearly naked, wearing only dingy pajama bottoms, because the room was dark and no one was on the street. The only illumination came from a single streetlamp, which threw a sickly pool of amber light onto to the empty sidewalk. A blanket of crusty snow carpeted the landscape, and the air had that special crystalline quality that signaled the onset of an extremely cold night. The thermometer outside the window read minus 12o F.
Max hoped his mom wasn’t going to have trouble starting the car. After all, in
Feeling dejected, Max crawled into bed under a heavy quilt, leaving the blinds open so he could watch for his mom’s headlights.
Just as he had finished snuggling down he saw something moving outside the window, a shadowy figure that was creeping toward his front door. It paused at the top of the porch and looked cautiously down the street. Apparently satisfied that there were no witnesses, it rapped on the door.
Max gasped and rolled out of bed away from the window, bouncing with a thud onto the cold wooden floor. He waited expectantly, naked and exposed, his heart hammering. He hoped that the intruder wouldn’t peek through the window; that the stranger would go away.
A key rattled in the lock.
Terrified, Max scuttled crab-like under the bed, his sweaty skin squeaking against the cold wooden planks. Breathless, he waited for what seemed an eternity. Above the deafening roar of his own heart, he detected the distinctive creaking of the front door’s hinges. The intruder had entered!
“Are you there my dears?” came the hoarse and malicious voice of his landlady, Mrs. Mungus.
Mrs. Mungus, whom everyone called Mrs. Fungus, was the bane of Max’s existence. He would rather eat cow pies than talk to her. Unfortunately, she lived right next door. She never let his family forget that she owned the property and that they had to do whatever she demanded. She was the most horrible woman Max had ever met.
All day long Mrs. Fungus sat perched in her recliner like a great spider, pointing her bulbous nose and bulging eyes toward a large picture window, monitoring the activities of her neighbors and waiting to pounce. And pounce she did. Whenever Max tried to sneak into the house after school, Mrs. Fungus stormed out the front door, with her frowzy hair flying in all directions, demanding that he get moving on some highly important chore.
“Cut the grass.”
“Trim the hedges.”
“Clean those rocks off the sidewalk, you horrible, lazy boy.”
One year, Max had shoveled the snow from Mrs. Fungus’s driveway for the whole winter but had never received a word of thanks. Come springtime, all she had said was, “It’s about time you did something useful, you awful child!”
And now Mrs. Fungus was in his house…in the dark…with him…alone! She had obviously decided that no one was home and that a little reconnaissance mission was in order. Max could hear her heavy footsteps treading across the living room carpet. He could hear her muttering.
“What a bunch of slobs. Look at this mess.”
It was true. Max’s house was a bit disorganized, but his mom worked full time instead of sitting on her butt all day.
Max could now detect Mrs. Fungus’s presence near the bathroom, just outside the room where he lay cowering under the bed.
She grumbled in disgust, “Don’t they ever close their shower curtain?”
Max wondered how she was able to see into the dark bathroom, but then he noticed a circle of white light randomly traversing the floor. Mrs. Fungus had obviously brought a flashlight so she could accomplish her mission in absolute secrecy.
This was breaking and entering! This was a felony!
Undeterred, Mrs. Fungus continued her investigation, this time at Max’s computer desk. Max forced his head from the floor and twisted it around. He could see Mrs. Fungus’s greasy black boots dripping slush onto the floor, and he could smell her aroma of moldy, wet wool.
A teeny tiny voice in his head chanted, “Evil be gone, evil be gone.”
He wished he could do something – anything – but he simply remained curled up and cringing, a scared, gutless mouse.
“What a wasteful boy to leave his infernal machine on day and night,” Mrs. Fungus said. “Wretched child. If he were my boy, I wouldn’t spare the strap.”
She wandered around for several more minutes, handling and poking Max’s personal belongings with distaste. Finally, she harrumphed loudly and left the room. Several seconds later, the front door opened then closed with a click. Mrs. Fungus was gone.
Max remained unmoving for fifteen more minutes, attempting to calm his wildly thumping heart and to slow his frantic breathing. Only when he heard the sound of his mom’s car did he venture forth into the new and dangerous world of his own bedroom and brave a speedy dive beneath his quilt.
When his mom peeked into the room and said “Good night honey,” Max replied as cheerfully as possible, “G’night Mom.”
Afterward, an awful thought occurred to him. He had forgotten to close the window blinds. Now he would have to hide under the covers, completely smothered in blankets until morning. He wasn’t going to risk looking out the window into the dark, frigid night. He would wait until morning, when things looked better.
Things sure couldn’t look any worse.
# # #
As Max lay in bed, still wide-awake after several hours, he cursed himself for his cowardice and blamed himself for the horrid condition of his life. Bleary eyed, he checked his watch for the hundredth time, but only ten minutes had passed since he had last checked it. He was feverish and was pestered by a constant urge to toss and turn. The air was stale beneath the quilt, making it hard to breathe, and his cheek was numb on the rock-hard pillow.
Try as he might, Max had been unable to clear his head. Troubling images kept rolling around like billiard balls, endlessly bumping and rebounding. Max just couldn’t erase the image Mrs. Fungus’s greasy, black boots. He couldn’t erase the image of his schoolmates’ taunting faces. Worst of all, he couldn’t erase the image of his window. The blinds were still open. With sudden and dreadful clarity, Max knew that in order to shut the blinds he would have to jump out of bed, pull the cord, and jump back into bed – tasks that should be easy, but he couldn’t do them.
Once again, Max flipped in bed, remaining completely swathed in quilts. The heat was intense. He felt suffocated, boiled. Even so, he was unable to poke a toe from under the blanket.
He again checked his watch, which now read It was going to be a long night.
The clock slowly ticked to
Max’s eyes few open.
“What was that?” he said. He had heard something.
It was the rumble of far-away thunder.
“Oh, just thunder.”
With great relief Max slumped against his pillow. He was not afraid. Instead of provoking fear the sound released a flood of warm memories. As a child, he had loved thunderstorms and had spent countless summer nights in the garage watching them with his parents. While nature’s fury raged above, he and his family had remained safe under the garage’s protective roof, where they had munched on buttered popcorn and had cried “oooh” and “aaah” after the most beautiful lightning displays. Those were safe and happy times for Max.
The thunder he had just heard, however, was different.
“Wait a minute,” Max said. “It doesn’t thunder in February.”
Max was fully awake now. He strained to hear the thunder again but couldn’t. Instead, he heard a different sort of rumble, one that sounded more like the whoosh of wind or maybe like the howl of a bonfire sucking air to feed its greedy flames. The whoosh grew louder and louder, nearly bursting Max’s eardrums.
Max’s quilt, which normally provided safety and comfort, suddenly began puffing upward like a crazy floating parachute. Max quickly yanked it back into its proper position, but his hands were now trembling, and his mind was racing with confused terror.
A zap of hot electricity whizzed through his body, making his hair bristle and his skin prickle. He heard the sound of fluttering papers. He heard the sound of his desk chair rolling toward the bed, eventually tipping over and dragging across the floor. And he heard another sound, an even stranger one, a deep throbbing hum that reminded him of a heart monitor turned to full volume.
Max remained stone-cold still under the blanket, absolutely petrified. At first he thought the throbbing was coming from his own heart. Finally, however, he realized that it was coming from the wall next to his bed, a mere three feet away. His muscles clenched, and his tongue glued itself to the roof of his mouth. Despite the paralysis, Max made a valiant attempt to call for help. Unfortunately, the only word he managed to utter was a raspy croak, which even he could barely hear.
He tried again.
The words were a mere squeak.
After that, no words came. In his terror, Max had forgotten how to speak. The only thing he could do now was curl into a ball and wait for death.
Two minutes later, death had still not overtaken him, but the throbbing hum continued. It resonated all the way to the Earth’s core.
Above the hum, Max began to hear odd chattering noises, as though someone had released a cage-full of chipmunks. The animals seemed to be right in his room, beside his bed. For a moment, Max believed he had gone crazy; either that or he was having an incredibly realistic nightmare.
After a few more minutes of total paralysis Max managed to gather some courage. He tested his muscles and found he could move them again. He twisted his arms and flexed his legs, preparing them for a panicky sprint toward the bedroom door. Next, he tested his breathing and realized that, although he had been holding his breath, his lungs still worked. Gingerly, he grabbed the edge of the quilt and readied himself to take a quick peak. If everything looked okay, he planned to run like mad to his mother’s bedroom.
Now or never, he thought.
He took a deep breath and said, “One, two, three…”
With the flaming teeth of terror biting at his heart, Max lifted the corner of the quilt and glared bug-eyed at the wall.
What he saw was unbelievable.