The Pale One
I originally wrote this story back in 2011, just a little more than four years ago now. It didn’t get much attention when I originally set it up for sale on Smashwords.com for about a buck. I’m not sure what I was expecting, really. I’d just left a job at a hotel that nearly got me killed and my grandfather had only passed away a year earlier and I was falling into some sort of depression. I suppose with a lot on my mind and not much else to do, I got to writing, hoping that somehow, someway it might make something of me.
Nothing really came of it though. But it got me started on something I had long abandoned when I thought to take up film studies in college. Up through high school, I’d been told how creative and imaginative I was by a lot of teachers, so much so that some urged me to pursue it as a career option. But at some point I got it in my head that film-making was a “safer” investment of my time and efforts and I all but forgot about short stories and novels and such for screenplays.
And while it’s been a bumpy road with a much more to travel before I make something of myself, this is really the one that set me back on course after a lot of years drifting about, learning a lot of things about storytelling–just not enough. (But, hey, at least it moved a lot more copies once I set it to “free”, right?)
The Pale One
I’m a grown man with a family of my own. I have a career, and a home, and should have no need to fuss. I never thought to share this story with anyone, having long written off that stormy summer night when I was freshly twelve to a traumatic childhood and a child’s overactive imagination. But my grandfather passed away not long ago, and more often I’m finding myself laying awake at night, watching the shadows of my room stretch and reach for me in the dark, wondering if perhaps what we saw that summer has found its way back.
My grandfather and I often spoke about that night, and did so in soft whispers. It hardly often rained in Southern California, but when it did, winds viciously tearing across the Pacific, lashing out with furious anger, we would look to the other and know to keep the lights on that night. There were so many nights that my grandfather would stay up, listening for that shrill cry that catches in your ear and runs down the back of your neck, waiting for that girl, the pale one, to make herself known in the winds. But the years went past and nothing was made of it again. I can still see him now, a newspaper sprawled out across his lap as he sleeps beneath the shade of our massive avocado tree, the one rooted firm in our backyard, readying himself for another sleepless night.
This, this was our secret, one we swore never to speak of with our family or anyone else. Because believing in it is what we needed then, and such faith for a story like ours would be asking far too much of anyone. I believed him, and he believed me. It was all that mattered to us.
And now he’s dead. My mother told me it was complications from a failing who-gives-a-shit. The man was pushing ninety and his body had simply said, “I quit”. He left me alone. And I don’t think I’ve quite gotten over that, if you want to know the truth. But I loved him, and sometimes I can sleep at night because I let myself believe, at times, not often, but sometimes, that he’s still watching over me, and my own family, on the nights it rains in Southern California.
* * *
Roma hasn’t changed much since back then, I guess – nothing more than a few window dressings, like a different name on one building or another. It still is, and really always has been, little more than a small two street town where only a scant forty-thousand or so people lived, a town where people are always within walking distance of one of a dozen or so corner stores, and always beneath the webs of power lines crossing and cutting not-far enough overhead.
The roads there are narrow with always deepening fissures which run down every lane, and the business in town back then were a slim and dying selection which consisted mostly of the old BLOCKO Company, the Edward’s Cinema, a minigolf course with a video arcade, a lone gas station, this supermarket with a penchant for changing its name almost as often as the wind changed directions, and one adult video store, which I can’t recall ever having seen anyone go in to, or out of, all those years.
I think that’s the thing of it, mostly, about Roma – how the whole town seems to just sit there, keeping to itself. The last of any major or fashionable changes done some fifty years ago. Far back as I can recall, the only drastic change in the last thirty years was when the old hospital was torn down in favor of, well, pretty much nothing for the longest time, to be honest. Now there’s some gated community where it used to be, along with an apartment building full of retired people. I fondly remember the stories my grandfather told me about how Roma, back when it was still unincorporated land, along with the rest of the entire county even, was covered in green fields of strawberries and orange groves, with only the dusty California-39 running through it all.
It still wasn’t much to look at, I guess. But the city did have color then, a certain life to it with all those fields and trees and fruit ripening right there in the sun. But then everything was paved over in favor of narrow roads and cheap track housing. All of that color replaced with dull browns and grays. My grandfather thought it was as if they had paved over the city’s soul, one city block at a time. Not that this mattered much to anyone. People were eager to move into these new, affordable, homes – my grandfather being one of the first to do so, too. In the beginning, neighbors spoke with each other and most of the families came to know one another well enough, many of them even related, too, through one marriage or another. But much of that changed with time, everyone staying in their homes more, and kept much to themselves. Those quaint shooting-the-shit moments over shared fences diluting into little more than a quick wave or nod in passing. Sometimes, the only signs of life in Roma were the red, and blue, and green markings one of the gangs would leave on the side of a business building, or on some billboard. And when it rained, it just made everything worse, between that acrid smell that burned away at the nose as the early rainfall hit the asphalt and the way color, what little there was anyway, washed out with the rain. But the dirt always managed to cling to everything.
* * *
I want to believe what we saw came about on a Friday, or maybe a Saturday. My grandfather had asked me to run out real quick to that supermarket I mentioned before, the one always changing its name – I think it was called Smithies, or something like that, then. He’d been watching me and my sister ever since our mom and aunt decided to take a week off and head out to Las Vegas. It was some six months since we came to stay with my grandfather and aunt. My mother was still in desperate need of forgetting, even for a little while, all of the bullshit her and my father had put each other through. My father – whom I’ve only recently reconciled with – had, far as I knew at the time (which was admittedly very little, being that I was only twelve), left us with nowhere else to go once we discovered the rent was being left unpaid and he completely vanished. I don’t believe my mother has ever forgiven him, not that I blame her. She told me that she long ago learned to get past it all, the pain and memories. But part of me believes that, if given the chance, she’d kick the old man square in the goddamn balls, and wouldn’t let up until her foot came off at the ankle.
Anyway, that afternoon, Grandpa asked me to run to the store to buy some toilet paper, seeing how he was stuck there on the can, and everything, forgetting he’d wasted half the funny pages earlier, and happily told me he now had that pinche Garfield on his ass. Then he asked me if I would mind going by myself – with him drying his ass in the wind and all. I said that I didn’t mind and he told me to hurry before his ass fell asleep. He’d given me some pocket money earlier, not for any reason in particular, but just because he felt like it, I guess. He was always doing that, giving me things because he wanted to give me something, anything at all really.
Anyway, I began throwing on my coat and shoes, to run there and back before it started to pour too bad, and then he got to yelling at me once more. “And don’t go running into the streets, goddamit!” he shouted. “Too many stupid people.”
“Promise to look both ways!”
“I promise, I promise!”
“Ask your sister if she wants anything.”
I was kneeling in the hallway; I had been in the middle of tying my shoes when he told me to do this. I finished making the bunny go round the tree and into its hole as I’d been taught and turned around toward the room my sister shared with our mother. There was a tangle in her hair and it fell long across her brow – hiding her now chubby face as she often did back then. There was a time when she’d been a frail little thing and it made me sad to see how much our parent’s separation affected her. She was sitting on her bed playing with her dolls, or whatever, with her friend – a neighbor girl some two years younger than my sister. I can’t remember the girl’s name if it would save my life, I only remember her being really short and wiry. And I think she caught pregnant in high school years later and got sent to live with some relatives out in Arizona.
“You want anything from the store?” I asked.
She smiled, looking far too tired and broken than any eight year old girl should. Even now, it’s hard to imagine she could have fully understood everything that was going on between our parents – all of that vitriol spewing back and forth. She didn’t have to, though, not at all. It affected her all the same. The weight she’d put on over the last year or two, and all the outbursts during school. She’d go running right out of her class, zoom, right out the door and across the campus. Momma! she cried. I want my Momma! Not that anyone did much to help her, though. Much like myself, she learned to swallow all that nonsense whole and let it sit there like rock in her belly.
“Are you getting anything?” she asked.
“I don’t know what I want. What do I want?”
“How should I know?”
She looked at me with this vapid look, her big brown eyes just sorta sitting there in her head. She didn’t say anything for a real long time, I remember that for sure. Her friend started running off at the mouth how I should get her this or that. I ignored this.
“I’ll get you whatever I think you’ll like or you can go later and get something yourself.”
“Okay,” my sister said. Then she turned back and continued with what she’d been doing before I interrupted her.
“I’ll be back.”
* * *
A bag lady followed me as I walked, standing close behind me as I waited to cross the street. She said nothing to me. Instead, she allowed me to bathe silently in the rich perfume she wore, of rotted banana peels and curdled milk, feeling her hot shaky breath tickling at my neck. As the light said WALK and I began to do so, looking to my left, then right, before I stepped into the street, just as I’d promised my grandfather I would, she grabbed me, seizing on me with a sunken eye that drifted lazily to the right, wheezing. I screamed at her to let me go, to get her goddamn hands off me, or else – without a clue as to what I’d do if she failed to cooperate. She coughed a time or two, as if clearing her throat, but that was it.
“Fuck me Freddy, what’cha go and do that for?” I yelled at her, trying to act big and tough. But I wasn’t, not at all. I was twelve and a bag lady with a lazy eye who smelled worse than she looked had scared the piss out of me.
She took a step back and looked at me, signing herself with the sign of the cross. I can still see her that way, dressed in a Hefty bag coat, and insulated with old issues of the OC Weekly. “God be with you,” she said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell, really.”
She smiled. And I smiled too, sorta. The way some of her teeth were missing, or twisted and covered in a fuzzy green film, made me a bit uncomfortable. When the light said WALK again, I ran across the street and didn’t bother stopping to look both ways.
* * *
Rain tickled at my neck, cold and unwanted, the last few hundred feet or so, but then I entered the market, where only a lone cashier worked a register and a line was wrapping back to the middle of the freezer aisle and the people smelled and the wind rushed through the twin automatic doors. I made a beeline for the toilet paper Grandpa had sent me for, feeling this sense of dread as I got to my place at the back of the line. About ten minutes later, I was still in line, and I could hear the sound of the cold heavy rain waiting for me outside. I got to thinking about how I’d be walking home in that, and my heart began to sink.
The rain flooded across the parking lot of Smithies, or whatever the goddamn place was called, and looking several inches deep in some places. I carefully crept and crawled my way through the lot without getting too soaked. It seems so trivial now, silly even, to think it was so cold back then, because I’ve since traveled outside California and now realize how lucky I was to have grown up where it never got much colder than fifty-five degrees. But, back then, it still felt as if I’d been torn out of my precious summer vacation and thrown into the middle of winter. California winter, sure, of course, meaning it was wet and cloudy for a few days. But, at the time, I wasn’t alone in thinking that, because I watched car after car circle the parking lot in search of that elusive spot, the one closer to the front doors than all the rest, even if they had to wait for someone else to leave first. Everyone flashed their brakes lights, honking their horns at one another as people swooped in and stole parking stalls.
That was when I turned my head to the sound of a car failing to screech to a complete stop, and watched it skid into the intersection where it rear ended an old Chevy– the car still pushing somewhere between forty and fifty. And I stood there in the rain for a long instant, thinking about the promise I had made to my grandfather, the one to look both ways before crossing, and about how I’d darted into the street because of the bag lady with the lazy eye, and that if I’d come out of Smithies two minutes sooner, I would have been hit right along with that Chevy, too.
I stopped once or twice on my way home to find that bag lady I’d run from, scouting the alley behind a gas station, and this dumpster between a liquor store and what’d been a video rental place (both are long gone now; there’s a low-income Dental office where the video store once rented out old VHS cassettes and dusty Nintendo games, and an Ecuadorian smoke shop), and there I saw the saddest thing I’d seen by that point, hell, maybe it still is, a few stacked cardboard boxes covering that bag lady as she slept outside in the rain. That still stirs up a lot of mixed emotions for me.
Had that bag lady not stopped me then and kept me there, I might not be here writing this now (I also wouldn’t have been around later that night to see whatever it is I saw, so I suppose it might be one of those good news, bad news things), but she did. Instead of simply walking away, I thanked her, not entirely sure that she had heard me, or if she were even still breathing – she could’ve been dead, for all I knew. And, being twelve at the time, I left her with what little change was still in my pocket from the money my grandfather had given me. Maybe I thought I owed her, that I needed to show my gratitude, or something like that. I’m not entirely sure.
Ten minutes after that, I was in the shower and enjoying the hot water, feeling I had accomplished something, not quite noble, because I was twelve and had no grasp on things like that. But something, if only a small token, it was something good and from the heart. And it took him a minute to get past how I’d run into the street and then witnessed a pretty terrible car wreck, but Grandpa and I both agreed that it was a good thing to have given that bag lady my change, even if I had maybe only a buckthirty or so in my pocket, it was still something I hoped would help her. She wasn’t anyone I knew or even liked all too much – and I had no way of knowing she wouldn’t spend it on drugs or booze – but it was a good deed all the same. As I stepped out of the shower, I felt happy and relaxed, and nothing could ruin it.
There was no leaving the house after that, and I resigned myself to sitting on the couch and watching television for hours. The worst of the storm was kicking in now and I could hear the rain pounding on the roof and against the windows. It got so bad at times that the TV would go in and out because the wind and rain were batting around our antenna like it owed them money. Not that it mattered, I was wrapped in a warm blanket, safe at home, watching old reruns of I Love Lucy, or something like that, then I dozed off.
* * *
It was dark. I’m not sure what time it was, but it was late and dark now. And not simply darker, what with the storm and the clouds, and all of that. It was full dark. All I can think about is how this shrill scream dragged me from sleep, how I snapped awake with my heart pounding in my chest, and realizing I couldn’t see past the tip of my nose. It’s real jarring, you know, to wake up like that, not knowing why or how everything got so dark. And it took a while, but my eyes adjusted and I spied a soft flickering outside, right through those thin lacy curtains that hung in our window. My heart settled inside my chest, and I realized that I’d slept the entire day away.
I heard a scream coming from outside again, louder than before, but even with all that adrenaline rushing through me, my body telling me to run, as fast and as far as possible, I sat there, frozen right on that couch. All my attention was fixed on that scream, and how it seemed to come from that flickering light out there.
I slowly felt my way over to the window, and peeked through the curtains. The light was bobbing around in the distant darkness, but grew closer. For just a brief moment, it seemed to fade out, like a candle at the end of its wick, but returned brighter. I thought I saw someone beneath it now, that light, but it was too far for me to make anything of it, and all the sodium lights above the street were out too. I could hardly see the tree in our front yard, or the rain either. I only heard the soft pitter-patter as it struck against our roof and windows.
Then a rather rational thought crossed my mind: perhaps the bag lady was the one out there in the rain, searching around for food or somewhere better to sleep, or whatever. I knew this wasn’t true, of course. It was only the weekend (I can remember that much, even if I may not be too sure if it was a Saturday or not – maybe it was Sunday now), so no one had their trash bins out curbside for someone to go digging through. And there was the way the light bobbed and weaved, not here and there – the way it would if whoever carried it was going around looking for something – but gently up and down, side to side, as it got closer. The glow was heading more or less forward in a straight line. Even with it being so dark, I could see it doing just that.
And that wasn’t what had me bothered either: it was the way that scream sounded, and I was pretty sure it was coming from whomever was holding whatever that flickering light was – if there even was anyone out there holding anything (my twelve year old mind absolutely loved toying with the idea that it might be some ghosts or ghouls or goblins out there). It was this real sad sounding thing, low and heavy-like. It reminded me of the way my mother sounded when she would cry, like how her voice seemed to stretch on forever, shaking in her throat, or one of those giant beasts from an old Japanese monster movie. Once I had read this article in one magazine or another, like Fangora, where they talked about how they made some of those noises by putting salve on a rubber glove, then rubbing it across a cello, or something like that. Maybe it was King Ghidorah the three headed monster, coming to eat me as it stomped all over Roma. But as I stood there, straining my eyes as I fixed on that little glowing ball flickering out there in the dark, none of that mattered. It was the screaming itself that mattered, after all, and how it followed every flicker of that light same as thunder after a flash of lightning. Being twelve, I knew I shouldn’t be there in the window, because I knew that whatever it was out there was getting close and I didn’t want to be standing there long enough for it to see me. Now it was a block away, and now it might notice me. It would notice me and I wouldn’t be able to run or scream or do much of anything but stand there and let it reach right through the glass and take me back to wherever it came from.
As I stood there between the curtains – my feet firmly weighted down because they’d apparently turned to solid iron – I heard a loud crack coming from behind me. I think I screamed, I’m not sure, but I may have sounded a lot more like I was squeaking. It was a sharp and heavy sound, like a baseball bat hitting a ball, and not one of those aluminum deals, but solid wood, a classic Louisville Slugger kind of thing. Except I knew that it wasn’t someone hitting a few zingers in my backyard; it was coming from the room I shared with Grandpa. All I could think to do was run down the hallway to look in on him to see if something, anything at all, had happened. He lay there in his bed with a comforter wrapped tight around his body and his personal space heater lifeless on the floor beside his bed. He was fast asleep, and that was good enough. As I got back to the window – cracking my shin against this goddamn wooden hope chest my mother insisted on keeping there in the hallway – the flickering light was gone, and all I saw was the darkness.
I grabbed at the doorknob and threw the door open in a childish fit that would’ve had my mother yelling at me, it being the middle of the night and all. The rain, sharper and far colder than what I’d been in earlier, hissed and fell in sheets out there in the dark, the chilled night air twisting, sending shivers up and down my spine, and splashing me as I looked out into the dark nothing of my neighborhood – it must’ve looked a lot like what a dark moonless night did back when my grandfather was my age, none of these dingy orange sodiums or flickering headlights of cars putting along the CA-39, or even some poor bastard caught out in the rain holding a flashlight. How dark everything was out there with no moonlight or no electricity was the last thing on my mind, I guess, so when the storm let up long enough for the moon to peek through those thunderheads, I hardly noticed. I seized on the thing that had dragged me from sleep with its screaming. A small girl was standing in the street, right where Pine meets Cherry. Her face was wide and round. She was pale with blue hair, a knotted scraggy rats nest, and kept dry beneath the hood of a makeshift Hefty rain slicker. She was very short. She was carrying an unlit lantern in her right hand, and I knew that it was the light I’d seen, because the candle inside it was still smoldering. And I don’t know why I did it, because even then it felt as if my body may be moving on its own, and there was no stopping, and I might’ve even forgotten to breathe the first few steps. Her eyes were fixed on me – no darting about or looking elsewhere. I was more than a little terrified as I stepped out onto our dark stormy lawn, I guess. I was frozen on the inside, my lungs icing over as I forced myself to suck wind as I reached the curb.
I was soaked, and the blue denim of the jeans I was wearing had turned a darker blue. I hardly noticed the chill running through my body, nor the way my clothes and hair were sticking heavy to me, and I looked at the pale girl standing there in the middle of the street and looking at me, and I could see that her eyes were large red coals burning inside her head and a hundred tiny teeth were stretched into a smile from ear to ear. I could see faint scars ringleting around her eyes and down her arms and legs. Not so much as a peep was coming from her. And she was just standing there looking at me.
Inside! Get inside the damn house, right now! my mind shouted at me, angry, and concerned, sounding a lot like my mother. Get in the house before I count to three, or else!
“Hey, you alright?” I asked. Boy, was I a stupid kid. I mean it, I really was dumb as rocks then. “What are you doing out here? It’s real late, ya know. You really shouldn’t be walking around out here, it isn’t safe.” I was trying really hard to make myself sound a lot older, very concerned. But my voice was really shaky and I stammered everything, so it sounded more like, “H-hey, yuh-yuh-you alright?” and “Whu-what are you d-d-doing out here?” I don’t know who it is I thought I was fooling with that act, I really don’t.
Finally, the pale girl came walking toward me, because whatever she was trying to say to me, it got lost in the rain, and I couldn’t hear a word. The other voice in my head was screaming at me, loud, and scared, to not let her touch me and to go back inside already. But I must’ve been just about the stupidest kid in the world because I told myself she was only a scared girl, a kid, no different than me.
But she really wasn’t. The pale girl in front of me was neither a kid, nor a girl, if you want to know the truth. I’m not kidding, I know for sure that she was something else entirely. You live in a place like Roma, with a family like mine, and you’ll hear all sorta of stories being told by this person or that, but most of them you don’t bother to take very seriously and forget as soon as you get to be too old for them to scare you.
“You should really get back home now,” I told the pale girl. “I mean it. If you don’t get back home your mom will get real worried, and she might come looking for you any minute. Did you want me to go inside and call someone to come get you?”
“What?” she said. She wasn’t even listening to me. She was too busy shuffling toward me without falling over, tripping and stumbling over her own feet.
“I said don’t you think your mother might get worried about you being out here so late and in the rain?”
She said something again. But it sounded more like grunting.
“Well, I should get back inside, ya know. I’m going to catch my death of cold out here. And my mother would just kill me, she really would, if I were to go and get sick or something. So I’m going to go back inside now, is that alright?”
“I can smell it on you,” she said. She hadn’t been listening to a word I was saying.
She just kept on creeping and wobbling right on up to where I was standing on that curb.
“You really should get going back to where you came from.”
“Well – I guess this is where we say goodnight. Don’t be afraid to ask to use the phone – to call your mom, or dad, or anyone – I’ll be just over there trying to get some sleep.”
She was right in front of me now. So I stood real still as if I could trick her into thinking that I’d disappeared right in front of her eyes, or something. We both stood there. God, I could feel my bladder let go right then and all this warm stuff was running down my leg and all over my foot. It was real unpleasant. I hadn’t gone and done that since I was a kid – I must’ve been maybe four or five and I was real sick and didn’t have time to make it to the bathroom before it happened – but there I was pissing myself in front of her, and she was leaning in real close, sniffing me with her nose stuck out like she was smelling flowers, or something, and I think she might’ve been smelling the pee, but then she finally spoke to me. “You smell like blood,” she said. “I think you might know the one I’ve come to see tonight. That smell. She smells like you too. She’s here.”
“You’re crazy,” I told her. “You’re really crazy, you know that?” She smiled bigger when I said this. She smelled like sewage. I could hardly keep myself from throwing up right there – all over her, with her crazy eyes and toothy smile. She got real close to me right then.
“Here! She’s come back now!”
“Nobody. No one. No one’s here but me and Grandpa,” I said. “I only live here with my grandfather whose like seventy years old. And you sound like you’re looking for a girl, and my grandmother died a while back and its just the two of us now.”
“Where’s your mother now, hey, if you don’t mind me asking?”
She whispered real raspy. She sounded old, slow, like she might stop breathing.
“Where’d you come from?”
She didn’t answer me, though. She was busy looking over my left shoulder to the front door I’d left open.
“Where did you come from?” I asked her again.
“Beneath, everywhere,” she said. She was laughing as she told me this.
“You’re a pretty funny girl, you know that?” I said. “A real riot and a half.”
“We’ve been waiting.”
I shoved her. She went tumbling back head over heel. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking doing that sorta thing to her, but I did. I really let her have it too, I woke up the next day and my shoulders just about killed me – I thought I’d killed her. Killing her hadn’t been what I wanted to do, but the thought of her getting in our house scared me something awful. Somehow I knew that I needed to stop her no matter what.
“It’s impossible to hide her,” she told me. “Hey, how old are you now?”
The way she said this pissed me off. “None of your business,” I shouted at her.
“Just go right back to where you came from.”
“What’cha say, let me in for a minute so she and I can catch up on lost time,” she said. “If you’re going to keep her from me, I’d like to say my peace before I go, if you will.”
I panicked like crazy. The pale girl was sitting herself up on the asphalt, right there by this manhole cover, and was looking right past me to the door again. And then she started screaming real loud – but not sad and crying, real scary. All she had to do was touch me and I might’ve dropped dead right there by my Grandpa’s yellow pickup or popped like a goddamn balloon, I’m not really sure. I wasn’t all too eager to find out, if you want to know the truth. That pale girl scared me. She really did. Every time it rains, I still have this feeling she’s waiting for me out there in the street, and waiting for me to open the door and let her in, or maybe she’s looking to take me back with her, and I’ll see whatever hell she came crawling out of then. Hell. It was the only place it could be.
She was changing right in front of me – I’m not sure how she did this or why – but I saw it happen. The pale girl was laughing as she twisted herself in knots – joints snapping and popping. The two red coals in her head were bulging out real ugly and big. I knew what I was seeing was completely crazy, just wacko. I tried to rationalize the whole thing in my head, that it was a dream maybe. You should’ve seen the way her arms twisted. You could see the bones pushing and pulling every which way beneath her skin. And her face stretched out and jaws unhinged, like a snake, and the skin on her face pulled thin and tore off and hung in sheets off the bone. You’d probably think she looked like something from a horror movie with her skin melting off, and washing away with the rain into the gutter. All this time, I watched her and tried to force my feet to move, to just take a big step back away from her. She started crawling toward the door. And I asked myself what the hell this pale girl could be, but I lack the words to describe what she looked like now. I thought the pale girl looked a lot like a bug, a spider maybe, the way she was walking on her hands and feet, with her elbows and knees all twisted at weird angles. You would think that the way her head was spinning around on her neck that it might pop off and she’d die, but you’d be pleasantly surprised at how wrong you were thinking that.
I yanked at my feet with all that I had – lifting them one by one – and then I ran. The pale girl, before, didn’t seem like she’d be all too fast, but now, now she was different. She was crawling all around me real jumpy, like a goddamn cricket. The only way I’d be able to out run her was if I could get myself to fly like Superman across the yard. So I got a good running start, took a flying leap, headfirst, beating her through the doorway, and slammed it shut from the other side.
“Where?” she screamed at me – furious as hell. “Where is she?”
“Go away, just go away right now. You aren’t real. You can’t be real, so go away and leave us alone already. There’s nobody here for you. Why don’t you go back to hell where you came from and leave us the fuck alone?”
She just kept on pounding at the door and windows, and shaking the whole damned house to see if she could get inside. “You little shit!” she yelled. I thought she’d get in, I really did. I almost told her my mother had gone to Las Vegas with my aunt and wouldn’t be back until Monday. The voice in my head told me that the pale girls-pider thing outside would go find her. Even if my mother was three hundred miles away.
* * *
Here’s the funny thing of it all, though. When my grandfather came stumbling through the hallway, and I knew it was him because he hit that hope chest right in the shin, same as me, and began cursing in both English and Spanish. When he got to the living room where I had my back pressed against the door, he just sorta looked at me, and I looked at him, and neither of us said anything for a long time. It was total silence. Not a window or door shook. No screaming but my own. It must’ve been quite a thing to wake up to so late, the way I was screaming, smelling like piss.
The door had this little gap beneath it, you know where it rests just a little bit above the floor so that it doesn’t catch, well our door was a little higher than most other doors and I could feel the cold rainy wind rushing in through there. But I couldn’t get myself to step away. My grandfather, well he stood there too, not saying a word. He must’ve really thought I’d lost my goddamn mind. He never once said a bad word about me – he really loved me a lot, he really did. I don’t think he knew how to do anything else better. This one time, my Grandpa, he got really frustrated with me. And he never got that way with me, ever. The time I’m thinking about happened maybe a few weeks after we moved in. This only happened once – never to be repeated. He got this idea in his head to take me to get a haircut. He kept telling me my hair looked like shit, not to be mean, because it really did look like shit when it got too long and started to get puffy around the sides. He always took me to get my hair cut. But I refused to go. Maybe I was just mad, for no real reason at all other than I felt like being mad then. But I didn’t want to go with him – I wanted to let it grow. My Grandpa, he wasn’t having any of that, and the two of us screamed at one another. Every time I asked him if he remembered that day, he’d say, “What?” That was something he was more than happy to forget once it was over.
All of a sudden, there was this loud cracking sound, same as the one I’d heard when I was looking out the window. The girl-spider was trying its hardest to sneak into the house. I tried to explain to my grandfather what had happened, but he didn’t say anything. I ran to check on my sister and all. I called to her if she was alright, she grumbled something sleepily, and I knew she was fine. She’d slept right through it all.
With all the noise I’d been making, you’d think my sister could be at least a bit worried. I thought she’d have been bothered enough by all the noise to go walk out there to the living room and ask what had happened – not that I wanted her to see this or anything, because I didn’t, but it seemed like something any normal person would’ve done. I didn’t care, though. She would make things a hundred times worse, I know she would, asking all sorts of silly questions and not listening. If someone told her to stay where she was – so that she wouldn’t get in your way, and everything – she’d stand there and look at them without even doing as they said, asking every question that popped in her little head until it drove them crazy. I would’ve told her to go back right back to bed if she’d come out doing all of that.
“Papalote, listen to me,” he said from back in the living room. He would call me that, Papalote, for as long as I can remember. Not once did I ever bother to ask him what it meant – my mother told me, just after he died, that it meant “kite.” That was my Grandpa, never one to make much sense. I looked at my mom’s empty bed a little bit longer. Then Grandpa came over to where I was and put a hand on my shoulder and I looked up to him – I remember how tall he seemed then. “Your mother’s fine,” he told me.
I hugged him tight, not quite able to reach my arms around him, and cried into his ample belly. He smelled like a warm dusty closet.
I closed the door to my mother and sister’s room soon after. It was pretty late anyway, and my sister was sleeping pretty sound. The pale girl-spider thing, it was still crawling around out there and on our roof, and making all sorts of racket up there instead of breaking in through a window or a wall or anything. There isn’t a night that goes by that I don’t snap awake when I hear our house pop and snap as it settles. Not without thinking that damn thing is up on our roof.
* * *
“You stay right here, goddammit,” Grandpa told me, leaving me in the doorway of our home as he ventured outside into the street – with no attempt to convince me that what I’d seen was nothing more than a figment of my imagination. That would’ve done very little to ease my troubled mind, I guess, but how he went out there, dragging his feet, slow and heavy, flashlight shaking in his left hand, a pistola in his right, only made things worse. I couldn’t convince my grandfather to leave things be, to go on back to bed. There was something, and I’m not entirely sure what, even now, but back then, something about this had my grandfather very uncomfortable – and mad.
“Do you see it?” I called. I’d managed to take a few steps out from the doorway, not many, but enough to where I was now beneath the oak tree in our front yard.
“Goddammit—dammit—dammit,” he groaned.
He slowly knelt down. I could almost hear the stretching of his tendons and popping of his joints as he did this… years of working in masonry, now his whole body quaked with arthritis. He’d found it, though. He had found the lantern the pale girlthing had left out in the street. I thought to go running out to him and take it from him, but I had this feeling if I ran out there that thing would swoop down from its hiding place and take me away (what it would’ve done with me served as the driving force behind the many months of nightmares that would follow), or slip in through the door, undetected until we heard it slam shut. Neither happened.
My grandfather brought it to me, soaked from head to toe, and he told me to take the rusty thing, and I did. There was another crack, loud and close. A mixed look of concern and anger crossed his face, then he looked up. “Get inside,” he said. “Do you know where your mother keeps the matches?”
He nodded and waved. “Then go light this thing before more of those things come. Hurry up. And don’t drop it.”
* * *
About three minutes later, the two of us stood in the middle of our backyard, where many of those pale girls watched us from the roof and walls and trees all around us with their glowing eyes. I had the lantern in my hand – I’d lit it on my third try – and my grandfather was at my side with his flashlight steadied, fixed forward. I heard a crack once more and flinched. We continued further, my grandfather and I, then the flashlight began to flicker. And then the damn thing stopped doing much of anything.
Shit, oh shit! Piss! Balls! Aw, tits! Why’d it have to go and do that? Those had been the only words my twelve-year old mind could muster, and once I thought them, it entered our yard, crawling through the remains of the wooden gate hanging from its hinges along the eastern wall. The thing over there was twisted and ugly as any of those pale girls… except it was bigger. There the girl was big and pale and the size of a full grown man.
I looked up and watched this thing convulse and change like the other had, but this one only had a single big red eye rolling around freely where its head had been. Four willowy arms stuck out from its body at odd angles, ending in massive pincer claws it was using to angrily scratch and dig at the earth. A sharp pointed tail hung over its head, twitching, dripping with something white.
“Stay here,” my grandfather said, walking to this thing, with arms out stretched, as if meaning to welcome or maybe even embrace it like an old friend. I stood where I was, holding the lantern uneasy in both my hands as the light flickered, my entire body shivering in the wind and rain. Maybe it was the feeling of being watched by all the burning red eyes; I had this idea to drop the damn thing and run like hell, to keep going until I found myself in Las Vegas with both my mother and aunt.
That thing readied its pincer claws, raising its tail high as if preparing to strike down my grandfather. It wrapped it claws around him and I saw its tail grow tense. But nothing happened and it eased its grip, lowering its tail slowly.
Then my grandfather knelt down, filling both fists with the wet earth until they were full, then threw what he held at the thing. I still don’t know what he was doing. He gathered himself and walked back to where I was, crying. He snatched the lantern from my hand and put the flame out. He relit the candle. When he returned the lantern to me, I saw the flame was different somehow. I looked up to my Grandpa and saw a defeated look in his eyes.
“I thought you promised me you’d look both ways,” he said, “but you didn’t do it.”
Somehow his words scared me. “I did,” I said. “The first time, anyway.”
“Maybe that wasn’t good enough, not for me but for them. Those things are very mad, and do you know why, Joseph? I thought you were better than that.”
“I’m sorry, I’m really am, ‘cuz I didn’t mean—“
“Its too late for that now and I’m not the one you need to say that to, they are,” my grandfather said, gesturing with a wave of his hand to the thing that had broken down our gate, eyes down, as if he were disappointed with me for something I’d done. I wasn’t entirely sure what I had done to cause all of this tonight. “Go on,” he said. “Give it to them.”
I did as I was told, and took that lantern to the thing standing in our yard, seizing on the burning hellfire spinning round and round in its head. As I stood there, feeling its claw pinch tight around my waist, my mind prepared for the absolute worst. I had this sense that I’d be snipped into a hundred little pieces, and that these pale things would drag me away, bit by bit, to whatever hell they crawled out of.
The claw tightened around me and that tail stuck up high in the air all rigid, and I shut my eyes tight while sucking in as much air into my lung as I could fill – as if somehow doing that would save me much of the pain I’d feel. I could feel that tail strike down, then a sudden lightness in my hands. When I opened my eyes again, all of those pale girl things were gone.
“They took the lantern back with them,” I said.
My grandfather put a hand on my arm. “Doesn’t matter.”
“I didn’t mean to cause all this, honest. I really did mean to look both ways before crossing. I won’t do it again, I promise.” It hadn’t been entirely my fault, no really, that bag lady was the one who’d got me running into the street like that, without looking, and I wanted to tell my grandfather this, but I didn’t.
We walked back into the house and never looked back. My Grandpa locked the door, peeked out the windows, and then checked everything once more to make sure nothing had been left open. He let me stay at his side while he did all this, and I think it made both of us feel safer that way. I followed him to bed where we both lay awake for, I think, maybe, another hour or so.
“You’re a pain in the butt,” he said, “just like your mother.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“If she asks if anything happened while they were gone, you tell them nothing happened, nothing at all. Understand?”
“Okay, I won’t.”
Then he rolled over, the springs in his mattress squeaking like a rusted suspension. He began to snore, slow and loud, a sound which once kept me up for hours. Now it was a comforting sound, one that I will miss very much once it’s gone, and I rolled over to my side. I’d doze off quickly and sleep dreamlessly until noon the next day.
* * *
Almost twenty years have come and gone since that stormy summer night when I was twelve, and I’ve never seen so much as a hint that they are still crawling around. But I hear things, though. Like any boy, I’ve never been perfect, making mistakes now and then, learning what I could from them. But now I’m married, with a child of my own, and I can’t help but use those old stories I’d heard living with the family I had, in the town that I grew up in, hoping my little girl is smarter than I was, that she listens and understands when I tell her, “If you don’t listen to me or your mother, then when it rains, while you’re sleeping, the Cucuy will come and take you away.” My daughter is a sweet and loving girl, much like her mother, and I know that she listens far better than either of us ever did to our own parents (she recently took to swearing in public, but I laugh when she does this). Yet there’s still a part of me that worries, that maybe none of this, me being a better man, or my daughter being sweet and apologetic, is enough to keep those things away. They were real, and we saw them on that summer night when it was raining and I was twelve. I feel its only a matter of time before they come looking for me again – and my Grandpa won’t be here this time to save me from those things waiting in the dark, for a child to do something wrong.
As I sit here at the kitchen table of our home, writing in the dark as I often do, I tell myself that I’ve done right by him – that I’m living a good life, raising my daughter right, and I’ve listened to everything my grandfather taught me. Sometimes, when I’m up late writing like this, I walk into my daughter’s room, just to make sure that she’s still there, safe in her bed. In the dark, where I feel I can write more comfortably, I can watch over my family as they sleep. In the dark there are little pale things waiting for the rain to come so that they may crawl out, and take the wicked little children. And for those children who don’t have a Grandpa like mine, someone to say that it doesn’t matter, that all is forgiven, the next storm may have them washed away with the rain. I’m sorry, they’ll cry in screeching voices, and all the grief they’ve caused their parents will crawl and wash over them. I’m so sorry.
My mother once borrowed my grandfather’s car without asking; the pale one came for her then. But she’s too old to care to run if they were to come back for her. I call her now, whenever it rains here in Southern California, even late at night. She always answers my calls and asks if her granddaughter is alright, I tell her yes, and she’ll say, “Well, then it doesn’t matter.” I suppose she’s right, and that may have to do for now.
But it’s still my turn to keep watch over them.