We had just moved to a new apartment. You suggested we have our friend Smarty Pants over, with his Very Clever family. We also had the Screeching Girl and her sister The Tank. Everything was going well, for a while.
In putting a jacket away in the closet, I noticed rather a lot of …stuff inside the cold air return, which had been partially obscured by little running shoes. Rather than point this out to you, I lifted the grate and peered inside. There was a whole room down there.
Much to your distaste, I told the girls about this secret room – it was full of girls’ toys from the previous tenants. It was both exciting and deeply disturbing to find a playroom under the floorboards. The Tank hopped down and began poking through the toys that had been left there. She shot me a sidelong glance and wandered off when she didn’t find anything to her taste.
The Nipper came down next, and tore around the ever-expanding room like a banshee. I looked around myself, and realised it was a whole other apartment but it was the sort of place that must have been boarded up for years.
The linoleum was lifting and curling; the walls had begun to crumble, and there was discarded furniture and clothing and probably some trash as well. The room felt like a lonely and defeated man. I told the children to go no further than the well-kept carpeted area, and everyone but The Nipper listened. Of course.
I grabbed him by the shoulders and, ignoring his excuses, calmly and patiently explained that demons and monsters lived in the places the light from the small fixture in the under-grate room could not reach. I don’t think it was a lie, either, because I could hear something breathing out there, and it was a wet, rasping sound, as if someone were dragging a burlap sack full of bolts through new sod.
The Nipper wasn’t happy with the rule, but he complied when he heard that breathing. The Tank wanted a toy she could see in the half-darkened hall, but Smarty Pants and I glanced dubiously at one another and suggested perhaps another toy would be more prudent.
You walked away from me when we all surfaced. Without another word, you simply turned your back and walked away. I had the sense that you would not be back, and I woke missing you intensely.