This piece is by Jim Offerman.
I lie awake in near total darkness. A few blotches of light on the ceiling and walls reveal the imperfections in the blinds my dad installed when I was four. I’ve always been a terrible sleeper and my parents were led to believe that a darker room would help me sleep better. Now I am a terrible sleeper with a very dark bedroom. I do like the darkness – usually. It helps to keep me calm and often, after staring into the dark until every thought in my head has cleared, I do fall asleep.
Tonight, I’m feeling restless. My hand feels around the side of my bed until I find my nightstand drawer and open it. A bright green light escapes from the drawer to fill the room. I quickly roll to my side to look at my watch. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust before I am able to read the time. Then I shut the drawer and am once again cloaked in darkness. It’s 2 AM.
I lie back down and wave my hands in front of my face. It’s a little game I sometimes play, waving them faster and faster and ever closer, trying not to hit my nose – it’s harder than you think. The restlessness isn’t going away, so I sit and sigh. I swivel my legs out of the bed and feel my feet land softly on the carpet. I stand. Tentatively, I take a few steps. My feet are going somewhere and I want to find out where they’ll take me. A few more steps before my left foot brushes up against my shorts. They are split shorts – little more than a fig leaf to keep me out of the principal’s office. The thing with clothes is they make me feel constricted, like I am suffocating. But people in school are so hung up about wearing them! So, I do. Shorts and a mesh shirt in summer, a track suit in winter. It’s all the clothes I’ll ever need to keep everybody happy – or so I hope.
I continue on and after a few more steps, the tiniest sliver of light appears in front of me. Automatically, my hand reaches out and finds the handle. I vividly remember how proud dad was when he had worked out the perfect combination of brushes and rubbers to have my door functional and also keep almost all of the light out. Stepping through, my feet take me onto the landing. It’s not nearly as dark here as it is in my room, but still there is very little light courtesy of another of dad’s perfect blinds. There’s enough light spilling in that I can see where I am going, but I continue to let my feet give me directions. The worn parquet feels smooth under my soles and slightly uneven. Then my feet walk me down the stairs, careful to avoid the ones that are prone to creaking.
Downstairs, it feels like I am walking on ice. Not slippery, but cold! I quickly shuffle across the unheated stone tiles to the kitchen. The floor there is stone tile too, but at least the builders saw fit to install underfloor heating in this space. I keep following my feet to the backdoor, where they bound about like a dog in need of a walk. I unlatch the door and enter the garden. There is a path that curves from the terrace to the back of the garden, but I cut straight through the damp grass instead. I jump the little fence that is supposed to keep Bella in but doesn’t and jog along the path that runs behind the gardens in my block.
Emerging from the path, I feel like a complete idiot waiting for the walking signal to turn green before I cross the deserted throughway that runs around my neighborhood. On the other side, I follow the path that cuts off from the pavement and through some bushes until I reach the fields. Here, long and narrow roads separate one farmer’s potatoes from the other farmer’s corn. By day, these roads are for tractors and for the tourists that infuriate mom with their loud motorcycles. Now, they are mine – and mine alone. My feet want to run and so I run – and run and run. Exhausted, I make my way back home, where I crawl back into the darkness and sleep like I have never slept before.
Soon, I’ve settled into a rhythm. Every night, I lie awake until the house has settled down and everyone is sound asleep. Then I hold my breath until the only sounds I hear are the crickets outside and the rushing of my own blood. I jump out of bed and make my way to the fields. I’m running faster now, relishing the rush of the wind on my skin. I run further and longer. In the light of the full moon, by the twinkling of the stars and even in the pouring rain. After every run, I return home exhilarated from my brush with nature. Exhilarated and exhausted, I crash into bed and sleep, sleep, sleep. I’m feeling better than ever.
Then, one night, I run into somebody. There is a corner coming up and I’m swerving to the left of the road in order to take the corner without loosing my stride. Rushing out of the bend, I’m confronted with the silhouette of someone. A man. Without thinking, I slow down until suddenly the light catches him. It’s my neighbor, Mr. Welles.
I turn on my heels and run back the way I came even though I was almost home. I run, run, run all the way back, barely able to keep my balance as I stumble through corners. I crash into the garden and limp, crouch and roll back up to bed. Mom comes knocking on the door after all the racket I’ve caused.
“Are you alright?” she asks.
No, I’m not. I stay in my room for three days before mom finally goads me into going back to school. Walking past Mr. Welles’ house, I just know he is in there. I can feel his eyes boring into me through the lush greenery that shields his house from view. I had a secret, a thing that no-one knew about and that made me happy and now he knows.
After school, he awaits me by his front porch. As always, he is wearing an impeccable suit. Always the same suit. The same suit, in fact, he was wearing on the night I almost ran him over.
“Young man,” he says “would you do me the pleasure of joining me for some tea?”
I walk right past him.
“I believe we have some matters to discuss,” he says to my back.
I take another step.
With some trepidation, I turn on my heels and follow him into the house. He gently asks me to sit when we enter the living room. Mr. Welles trots on into the kitchen and soon I hear the sound of water boiling. I don’t sit, but instead move toward the window to admire the front garden. It is meticulously kept, with beautiful plants that are carefully staggered in increasing heights to block the view from the street while still allowing the sunlight to stream freely into the room.
I hear Mr. Welles enter behind me, objects clinging and clanging on the tray he is carrying. I stare into the garden for a little while longer and when I finally turn, he is already pouring steaming hot tea into our cups. “You can take those off, if you like” he says, nodding at my clothes. This was a mistake. I look at the door and consider running out. Reading the confusion on my face, Mr. Welles says: “Oh, please, I don’t mean anything by it.”
“I only assumed you’d be more comfortable without.”
Slowly, I make my way over to the couch, leaving my slippers as I go. I pull my shirt over my head as I sit. All this time, I keep my eyes trained on him. One wrong move and I’ll be out of here. Mr. Welles throws two sugars in his tea and begins to stir.
“Leave those on if you…”
Before he finishes, I’ve torn off my shorts, the little bands that hold the front and back snapping as I go. I have no idea why I am doing this, but once again I am before him as I came into this world.
“Good,” he says.
Mr. Welles carefully places his teacup on the table. He then pushes his chair back a little and stands up. For a moment, he is frozen and then he cracks open. Not just the suit, but his entire body – head to toe. The two halves fold back and wrap behind… something. Before me stands a being unlike anything I have ever seen. It rises to be a head taller than the man I knew as Mr. Welles. The creature has some recognizable features – two eyes, a mouth, and some holes where you’d expect a nose – but free of the mansuit it contorts into a configuration of limbs that is utterly unnatural and yet exactly as it should be. The creature sits, naked as I am, and sips some tea. Finally, it says: “Nice to meet you, Joe.”