NEAR NAPLES, FL -- 1991
The tapping began one heavy July evening, almost two months after my eleventh birthday and about a year before we moved out of Florida.
I first heard it in the bathroom and assumed, given our house's history, that it was another bout of plumbing indigestion. Likely sink water gurgling through. Or the shower dripping. But in consciously stopping to listen there was no mistaking the metallic thunk of the drainage pipe being struck in the sideyard. Glancing out the window solved nothing; I didn't really expect it to. Encompassed by an abundant froth of greenery, the woods at night was one big apocalyptic shadow.
As a child, I was not exactly gifted (or burdened) with an overstock of imagination, and so I let the noise be, my developing science-mind assuming it was nothing but rocks in the gutter or some rambunctious bugs or animals.
But it seemed to grow louder. Bigger. I heard it from several different areas and always at night, usually late -- one time it even woke me up. There was nothing predictable about it; I think it happened arbitrarily four or five times in the span of a few weeks, and it never lasted very long. After the first two or so incidents my parents took notice and they began to think, as I did, that someone was throwing rocks at the house, using the cover of darkness to conceal best they could their launching point. Thankfully none of the ammunition struck a window.
"It's definitely rocks," my dad said one night at dinner, not twenty-four hours after another small barrage on the outside of the den. "I'm noticing clumps of them around the house, near where there's some nicks and dents in the wood."
Initially I was the prime suspect. Not me personally, of course, but they asked if I'd made any enemies at school, or if some bully had found out my address and was trying to scare me. I said I couldn't think of anyone who'd be doing such a thing, or why. My parents talked to our nearest neighbors but no one else reported similar circumstances, nor had they seen anyone armed with rocks slinking through the tangled wet bush that permeated town.
"Too bad Comet ain't around to sniff 'em out," Dad said, referring to the dog we'd had since before I was born who was put to sleep earlier that year. It was a subtle but salient observation -- Comet's absence made us feel more vulnerable, even if he'd largely retired from guard duty the last year of his life.
We all knew the obvious solution would be vigilance, to keep ears open, keep the sheriff on call or somehow stake out for the perpetrator, all of which could prove difficult of course given the randomness of it.
But you know...there was something else, too. We never spoke of it -- at least, I never heard either Mom or Dad speak of it, but there was a baseless, outsized terror associated with these rocks that was wild and everywhere, amorphous and silent but undeniably strong. I was scared to step outside at night. And my father, while a proudly individualistic third-generation Southerner, had little room on his broad face to hide the irrational fear that grew there, his eyes the first to showcase for me that look, that toxic flame I would see numerous times in personal interviews later in my adult life.
While not directly encountered, towards the simian cellar of our brains we knew something was going on, something that made its presence felt behind the rocks, powerful enough to enflame the African-savannah instincts of a comfortable American rural family. This had me both terribly anxious and anticipatory of whatever was to come, even if much of me expected it to subside without any resolution.
That wasn't exactly the case here.
"Something smelled bad last night," Mom said one morning.
"The trash?" Dad said.
"No, Jeremy took the trash out yesterday." She gave me an appreciative smile, which I acknowledged with my eyes over the glass of orange juice I held against my face. "I checked almost every room. It didn't seem to be coming from anywhere. But it was there."
The smell, which Mom described as "like a rancid skunk", returned only in brief and isolated pockets, a sort of noxious ghost sweeping through, an odorous hit and run. It never stayed as long as Mom described it that one night, and, so far as I could tell, it was never as strong.
Until, that is, I saw the damn thing.
A couple weeks passed without any further anomalies and for me the beginning of junior high had eclipsed any other concerns. The school was K-12 so I knew I'd be seeing the same faces, but the prospect of what I was in for academically and the notion I was a mere three years removed from high school weighed on me, frightened me. Stuff was happening too fast -- I was probably one of the few kids who didn't really want to grow up.
The eve of the first day of school found me sitting on the back porch with my parents, nursing what was probably my fifth Pepsi. My parents were lenient with that kind of thing, though I found out later they were secretly playing the reverse psychology card, hoping my bubbly bingeing would exhaust my taste for cola. It worked in the long run -- I scarcely touch it now.
The phone rang and my Mom, expecting a call, went to get it. Dad and I sat silently for a few moments, Mom's voice abuzz in the kitchen, nearly drowned by the natural symphony of the swamplands before us walled up behind the neural weavings of dark gnarled cypress trees. Dad was smoking, characteristically pensive. When he finished his cigarette he patted my thigh and excused himself to the bathroom. Said he'd be right back.
The night is a bristly alive thing in the Florida summer, and it spreads from the shadows and comes in close and suffocating while concealing secrets rarely glimpsed. I was a kid when I encountered one of these secrets, barely a decade removed from my physical birth, and it was then that the real Jeremy Fishleder was born.
As I sat alone the smell returned but it was faint and hollow, so much so I initially took it as an imaginative perversion of some other smell, if not downright fabricated by my heightened, caffeinated senses.
I righted at the sound of disturbed foliage and snapping branches. Something big lurked on the fringe our backyard, just beyond the light of the back porch. Fortunately for the adult into whom I would later develop, my young fears weren't big enough to drive me into the house, screaming and disrupting Mom's phone call and who knows what else. At this point -- God knows why, given the last month -- curiosity trumped fear.
I waited and tried to peer past the foliage, then got up and went down the porch steps to the grass when something truly did make me halt in fright: the smell, oh God the smell, that sulfurous stench that was like a harsh olfactory whip, bladed and terrible, worse than anything I'd smelled of it prior.
There was something there. Two eyes glinted back at me from the brush, elevated in the darkness. I assumed it a deer, especially in the way the animal froze.
But the smell grew. Deep and musky. Wild.
Then the lighted eyes rose -- it was definitely taller than a deer. Maybe six feet. I stepped back. We stared at one another across a gulf not only of species but of spirit, two entities from two different dimensions suddenly intersected.
The eyes rose a final time as it stood its full height, and for a long second all of civilization drained from me. It was gargantuan.
And cautiously, it came forward and the light drew it further and further into form.
The thing emerged from the fringe of the backyard and I stepped back. Our eyes remained dead-locked and I could see them better, see them deeper and they were orange-tinted, small citrus gleams alien but identifiably terrestrial, even twistedly empathetic. The animal was bipedal, more erect than most people I see, and so goddamn massive -- to my child brain, a Rose Parade float. All functions in my young body came to a standstill. It was like a childhood fantasy thrust upon me, a trespassing dream lost in reality, and I had no reaction other than a strange sensation that straddled the line between awe and terror.
The creature stood and looked towards the house, then back into the warm syrupy wilderness from which it had come stomping. The odor held firm and strong, a noxious force field. It opened its mouth as if to yawn and I could see long wet canines. Then the mouth closed sharply and the head -- which was fastened directly to the shoulders with no discernible neck -- slanted back and from the depths of its throat issued a burst of whooping noises that ranged from fleeting to full, long and slow. Its body responded to each whoop with a tremble that ruffled the lengthy silver-blue hairs hanging like coarse tinsel from its skin.
Then it turned, moved, and was gone.