Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Yesterday I posted about unexpected footsteps, and so today I thought I'd post about another incident of unexpected footsteps, from a long time ago. But I want to warn you that this is a very long post. A very, very long post. If you don't want to invest that much time (and I can't blame you) you might want to stop reading now. If you're going to read, you should probably top off your coffee and make a pee run first.

This is a true story. Everything that happened to me happened just as I describe it. The things that were told to me, that I am passing on to you second hand, were told to me just as I relate them. I have changed only two things: First, the name of the male principal, because I have a (possibly unreasoning) aversion to mentioning, on the public Internet, the real names of persons, especially when I've been out of touch with them for a long time. They may have other lives now. And second, for some reason I've forgotten the name of the female principal, so I've made one up for her.

This story happened in the late seventies. I was about 22 years old, and I had a house-mate named Denny (not his real name), who was 19 or 20. Let me tell you about Denny: Denny wasn't merely good-looking -- he was downright cute. And while lots of cute guys are self-centered, Denny wasn't -- he was just the opposite. When you first met him, he seemed shy, and then as you got to know him you found that he was funny, and interested in you, and he listened as much as he talked.

As you can imagine, with his combination of cuteness and personality, Denny was a babe magnet. He moved in a constant cloud of girls. We always had girls at the house, if he was home. But he never took advantage of them. While I knew him, he had only one girlfriend at a time, and was always loyal and attentive to her. The other girls were literally "just friends," who hung with Denny either because he was fun or maybe because they hoped to become the next girlfriend. But he never led them on or played them against one another.

When Denny had been young, before he could drive, he didn't have transportation during the summers to see his school-year girlfriends, and Denny always had a girlfriend, so he had tended to have summertime romances with girls who were visiting from the north -- spending the summer, say, with grandparents or a non-custodial parent. Anyway, he would meet a visiting girl, sparks would fly, and they would spend a mAgIcAl sUmMeR together. Then the girl would have to leave, to go home, and there would be heartbreaking separation, anguish, and promises to write. Denny would be torn up for a day or two. Then he would get up one morning, shake it off, put it behind him, and be over it.

It sounds as though I'm saying Denny was callous, but I don't think he was. I believe he was sincere. But Denny always lived "in the moment" -- the here-and-now. I never knew him to make a plan for the future. And things that happened in the past were water under the bridge. All he was interested in was what was happening right now. That was his personality. I believe that even if he had suffered some catastrophic accident -- lost a couple of limbs, say -- he would have been bummed for a few days, and then be over it and just be happy with what he was. That was Denny.

The house that Denny and I shared had been built back in the fifties by a professional builder. Well, okay, all houses are built by builders, but what I mean is this one was been built by a builder for personal use. He had built the one next to ours for himself and his wife, and then built ours for his wife's sister and her husband. When a builder builds a house for himself or a loved one, he goes all out, and our house was beautiful -- polished wood walls and ceilings, a huge kitchen with lots of counter space and lots of real wood cabinets -- stuff like that. Most rectangular houses are set with the long side facing the road, but this house had the short side facing the road, and the long side faced the neighbor's house. I think this was so the bedrooms could be as far from the road as possible -- they were at the back of the house. From the kitchen there was a long, tiled hallway. If you went straight down this hall and through the door at the end, you would be in the master bedroom -- mine. Just before the door to my room, the hallway took a dogleg to the left, and if you turned there you would be at the door to the guest bedroom -- Denny's.

Okay, I think the stage is set. So this is what happened that night, almost thirty years ago:

I had been sleeping, but I woke up. I think it was about 1:00 am. I don't know what woke me, but as I lay in bed I heard a tap. A tap that sounded like a footstep in the hall. I listened intently, and then there was another tap. It was definitely a footstep. And it sounded closer than the first tap. As though it was coming down the hall, from the kitchen. Tap. They were definitely footsteps. And they were definitely coming down the hall. Something was coming down the hall.

Was I scared? Nope. Was I afraid? Nope. No, I was PETRIFIED! Literally. Think about what the word means (pet-ri-fied adj 1: converted into stone). I was so filled with terror that I. Could. Not. Move. Get out of bed? Escape out the window? Forget it. I was paralyzed with fear. I used to be afraid that way when I was a small child and heard monsters or aliens in the night, but this was the only time I've ever felt that way as an adult. All I could do was lay there in absolute terror and listen.

Tap... closer.

Tap... closer.

It seemed like forever was passing. And then...

...tap. The footsteps in the hall were at my door.

Another forever... and then...


The footsteps had turned down the dogleg to Denny's room!!! I know this makes me sound like a coward, but I'm going to tell the truth, and the truth is that I was awash with relief. Whoever it was, he or she was after Denny, not me! The paralysis left me. I was able to think. To plan. I waited to hear the intruder enter Denny's room, and I was calculating how long it would take me to jerk open my door and run down the hallway and grab the butcher knife from the knife drawer. How long would it take the intruder to get down the hallway after me? Would I have time to duck behind the refrigerator and stab him as he came around the corner? I remembered that you're supposed to stab in the gut, under the ribs, and angle sharply upward, going for the heart. (Thank you Bridge Over the River Kwai).

I'm not making this up. All these thoughts rushed through my head. And then, while they did, I heard a sound from Denny's room. It was a high-pitched buzzing, like a dentist's drill. What could it be? My first thought was that someone was drilling through Denny's door, but that made no sense: We didn't lock our doors, he only had to open it. Then the sound seemed to be moving around inside Denny's room. What could it be? I thought and thought. Could someone be attacking Denny with a dentist's drill? Really dumb things occurred to me, like did the burglar have one of those flashlights that's powered by turning a tiny crank? I was afraid again, not paralyzed afraid, but still afraid of the sound that as hard as I thought I couldn't figure out. I didn't dare leave my room until I could identify the sound. Nothing made sense.

Then the sound stopped. There was a long pause, while I waited for something to happen, and then...

Tap. In the hall.

Tap. The footsteps were clearly going back down the hall, away from me.



Tap. And then...

Nothing. Silence.

So I got up and opened my bedroom door and turned on the hall light. Nothing. It was empty.

I checked the front and back doors. They were locked. From the inside. I checked all the windows (turning on every light as I went). There were shut tight.

So... whoever it was, he was still in the house.

I searched the house. I looked in all the closets. I opened the kitchen cupboards, in case someone had squeezed in there. I looked everywhere that anyone, no matter how small, could hide. I even looked in the refrigerator -- I know it sounds crazy, but it was a crazy night, and I'm telling the truth.

Finally, I opened the door to Denny's room. He was in bed, his back to me, and I could see that he was breathing. I turned on the light and checked his closet and under his bed. Nothing. (I should mention that Denny was the heaviest sleeper that I've ever known. Once he went to sleep, there was no waking him. I don't even think a fire alarm could do it.)

So... I went back to bed. And, eventually, to sleep.

Sleep is like a gulf: It creates a distance between you and whatever happened on the other side of that gulf. When I woke up the next morning the events of the night didn't seem so harrowing. I got some breakfast and was sitting at the kitchen table. I was probably reading a book, though I don't remember exactly. I was facing down the hall. I also faced the refrigerator. I saw Denny come down the hall, disheveled and stumbling a little. This was typical for him in the morning; he was not a morning person.

"Good morning," I said. (I was a morning person.)

"{mumble that might have been 'good morning'}"

"Did you sleep well?"

"{mumble that might have been 'okay, how about you?'}"

Denny was getting milk out of the refrigerator and pouring a glass.

"Not bad," I said. "There was one weird thing. I thought I heard footsteps come down the hall and go into your room."


I will remember what happened next until the day I die. Denny was putting the milk back in the refrigerator when I said, "Yeah. And oh, I thought I heard the sound of a dentist's drill in your room."

I could see Denny clearly with my peripheral vision: It was like some of the life just drained out of his body. He had been closing the refrigerator door and suddenly he turned and sank back against it. His mouth fell open. His eyes lost their focus. His arms went limp by his sides.

"What is it?" I said. "What's wrong?"

Denny reached out and grabbed the back of a kitchen chair as he stepped over to the table from the refrigerator. He sat down. Pretty hard. And then he told me this story:

The summer when Denny was fifteen, at the start of summer vacation, he met a girl from New York City. I'll call her Susan. Susan was pretty and had dark hair and was spending the summer with her grandparents. Denny and Susan hit it off. On the surface, they didn't seem to be well matched -- Susan was a very serious girl who was very interested in the occult, and Denny was happy-go-lucky -- but however that may be they were together all the time and it was a mAgIcAl sUmMeR. At the end of summer vacation there was a heartbreaking separation. There were tears, and promises to write. Then Susan was gone. A couple days later Denny woke up and got over it.

Susan, however, didn't get over it so easily. In those days, there were no cell phones, no free long distance, no Internet. The only way to communicate over distance that a teenager could afford was to write letters. Susan wrote Denny letters. When he didn't write back, she wrote and asked why. Then, in one letter, Susan said that she was making arrangements with old woman in New York so that she and Denny could be together again. It seemed very mysterious. Denny never did write back.

Oh, before I continue, I need to tell you about the neighborhood where Denny grew up. It was in the middle of leave-it-to-beaver-land. Miles and miles of unbroken white middle-class suburbia. There were no slums, no railroad tracks, no warehouses, no industry, no homeless shelters, no bus stations -- nothing to attract anything but the Beav and his kind.

Okay, back to the story: School had started. One morning early in the school year Denny walked out his front door, heading to the bus stop. He noticed a very dark-skinned black man on the sidewalk in front of his house. The man had a beard, and long hair braided in dreadlocks. His clothing was worn, shabby, and mismatched. His jacket and pants were too big, as though they'd been given to him as charity. A worn green duffel bag was slung over his shoulder.

Denny was taken aback. This wasn't the kind of person that was often (read ever) seen on his street. But the man was walking in the opposite direction from Denny's bus stop, so once he had passed the end of the walk Denny continued on his way. He was on the sidewalk when he heard a voice behind him:

"Hey! Waitup!"

Denny continued walking.

"Hey! Denny! Waitup, mon!"

Denny turned around. Of course it was the black man.

"Denny! I be a friend a' Soozan! She send me wit' a message for you mon. She say she be seein' you soon, so you be lookin' out for her."

Then the Rastaman turned and went on his way.

Denny thought this was weird, but in the end he assumed that the Rastaman had seen him with Susan sometime during the summer, and was playing some kind of joke. Once he got to school, he gave it no more thought. Denny lived in the moment.

But that night Denny has a dream about Susan. In his dream, he was sleeping in his bed when she walked in the door of his room and sat down. The first thing she said was, "Why haven't you written to me?" He answered her, though he was sleeping, and the two of them went on and had a conversation. They caught each other up on what was happening. In the dream.

The next morning Denny remembered the dream vividly, which was unusual, since he hardly ever remembered dreams. He also remembered the Rastaman's words. He guessed the Rastaman had put the idea in his head, and that was why he had had the dream. He went to breakfast.

His annoying little sister was at the breakfast table ahead of him. She had the bedroom next to his.

"Didja get rid of that dragonfly?" she said.

"What are you talking about?"

"The dragonfly that was in your room last night. Didja get rid of it?"

"There was no dragonfly in my room."

"Yes there was. I heard it buzzing around. It kept me awake."

"You were dreaming."

The next night, he had the dream again: Susan came into his room and they talked, about this and that. And the next morning his sister was at the breakfast table:

"That dragonfly was back in your room last night."

"There was no dragonfly in my room!"

"Yes there was. I heard it."

"You're on drugs."

The next night, for the third night in a row, he had the dream, and for the third morning in a row his sister insisted that there had been a dragonfly in his room. He didn't have the dream immediately again after that, but he did have it twice more in the next three or four weeks, and each time his sister said she heard a dragonfly in his room.

That was the end of Denny's story. He and I were left sitting in what suddenly seemed like a very cold and bleak morning in the kitchen of our house. Creeps were running down my spine. My stomach was queasy. I could understand what his sister called a dragonfly. I called it a dentist's drill. And she wouldn't have heard the footsteps, because their house had carpet, not tile.

Denny said, "I haven't thought at all about Susan in the last few years."

He looked at me, and he looked sick.

"But I had the dream again last night."


ohhhh, that's freaky!

that would make a great movie!

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