You’re a Big Boy Now
by David Smolenski
|part 1 of 4|
I wish to never wake up with nightmares anymore.
Though Bobby hated nightmares, it was his mother who prompted him to make this wish.
“You’re a big boy now,” she told him, mussing his hair.
Yes. Yes, I am, Bobby thought, contentedly clutching his brand-new, balloon giraffe.
“And you know what that means, don’t you?”
No, he did not.
“It means no more nightmares. Big boys don’t have nightmares.”
Ever since his father had left, Bobby had dreamt that his mother would leave, too. He searched for her through unending hallways and windowless rooms and even in the alphabetized parking lot in which he had lost her last Christmas.
The tall man had saved Bobby then. A Salivation Armyman, the boy remembered, with his bell and red pot. The Armyman had talked to Bobby and held him by the hand until the tears dried and his mother was found, shaken but relieved.
“Just dreams,” his mother had sighed each night as she held him in her bed until he slept once more. “I’m right here.” But now Bobby couldn’t wake in the middle of the night and run to her. Bobby was a big boy and big boys don’t have nightmares. This worried Bobby.
By the time the cake was paraded out to the sounds of an enthusiastic attempt at Happy-Birthday-to-Bobby, the boy had prepared a plan: he would simply wish the nightmares away. And this he did, smiling brightly at his mother as the five candles went out in wispy, whirly plumes of smoke.
Cake was consumed and in the flurry of presents that followed Bobby forgot all about the nightmares he would no longer be having. He was only slightly sad when no wrapped package contained the floppy-eared rabbit for which he had pleaded.
This disappointment dissolved quickly in the laughing faces of a leering clown and a dozen gleeful guests. In fact, Bobby was quite content through the rest of his birthday party and into the evening. By the time his mother came to put toys into closets and Bobby into bed, he was ready and yawning. “It’s time,” she said.
Bobby dutifully dressed himself for sleep and nestled under the covers, waiting patiently to be tucked in.
“You’re such a big boy, now,” Bobby’s mother reminded him. She leaned in to kiss his forehead and said, as always: “Good night, my darling angel.” As always, Bobby smiled and soon, Bobby slept.
* * *
BOBBY. The boy stirred. BOBBY, WAKE UP. He opened his eyes slowly. Had someone called his name? BOBBY. Again: A raspy whisper that seemed to come from everywhere at once. Bobby sat up in his bed and looked the room over. Fresh presents littered the floor, casting dim silhouettes of super-powered action figures and Fisher-Price fire trucks against the wall in the orange incandescence of a soothing night-light.
Bobby’s favorite overalls hung over the back of his brick red desk chair. ‘That stain will never come out,’ Bobby remembered the words his mother had said when she saw the mud and grass frosting their front.
Everything was as it should be... except that the bedroom door was closed. Bobby never closed his door. Maybe his mother had closed it?
Standing, Bobby went to the door. As he reached his hand to the knob — just to check if it’s unlocked; not to open it like a little, scaredy-cat boy — he heard the voice again:
BEHIND YOU, BOBBY. The boy turned and his night-light winked out. The room was dark now; just a little moonlight through the window, but in the far corner Bobby noticed a shape: a darker shape. A crouching shape. Bobby backed into the door. Banged his head on the knob. Didn’t care.
Who’re you? The words wouldn’t come out.
HELLO, BOBBY. Its eyes gleamed red as they took the boy in. And took him in they did. Bobby was frozen with fear. He’d never had this nightmare. I’VE COME FOR YOU, BOBBY. The shape rose and started toward the boy.
Bobby’s fear melted away and was replaced by arid terror. He reached quickly for the doorknob behind his head, turned it and for a heartbeat feared it was locked. It wasn’t; it opened. Bobby ran through the door and pulled it closed with all his weight. After a moment, as he heard no signs of movement from inside his room, he opened his eyes — had he shut them? — and released the door.
Bobby looked around. This isn’t the hallway. Well, it almost was. It was darker now. Darker and longer. It must go a mile, thought Bobby. A mile is a long way. Avocado-green paint was bubbling and peeling from the grime-caked walls. Mildew crept oh-so-slowly across the ceiling. No more carpet, just rotting, stinking grasses under Bobby’s socks. He could feel the wetness creeping through the once-clean, once-white cotton.
‘It’s only a dream, my darling angel,’ his mother would say when Bobby woke and all would be okay. But right now all was not okay. Despite his wish, Bobby was in another nightmare. To make it end Bobby had to find his mother.
But where is Mommy? Bobby thought as he slowly started down the hall. He wasn’t scared, he told himself; he was a big boy. A few steps and the boy found a light switch, flipped it on. An ooze-covered bulb in the ceiling flickered once feebly before flashing and shattering with an electric Pop!
Despite the dark, Bobby continued down the crooked hall, determined to find his mother, but watching the drifting shadows warily. No telling what might be in them.
At last Bobby came to the door to his mother’s room. Long gouges scarred the wood. Three of them, side by side. They looked like claw marks. Bobby chewed his lip a moment before trying the knob. Locked. He yanked and pulled and tugged.
The knob came off in his hand. Dropping it, Bobby pushed at the door. Nothing. He knocked. Again, nothing. He shouted for her: “Mommy?” Waited a moment, then again: “Mommy!” Bobby pounded the door with his fists, tears threatening to spill from his eyes. She said she’d never leave.
Sobbing now, Bobby sat down hard, back against the door. For a while he just sat, feeling the tears slip down his pudgy cheeks and drip onto his favorite pajamas. The Superman ones, with the cape that his mother said he couldn’t wear to bed. She didn’t want him to sufflicate — ‘That means choke,’ his mother had explained gravely.
Now she was gone.
No. I can find her. Bobby stood. I can be a big boy for Mommy. Wiping the tears with the sleeve of his pajamas, Bobby looked around. It was dark. And dirty. He didn’t like this house. He didn’t like it at all.
Bobby was sitting in the middle of the hall. To his back, Mommy’s door. To the right, his bedroom and those burning eyes. To the left, the hall continued. That must be the way.
Sniffling slightly and still tasting salt on his lips, the boy stood. He started down the hall, away from his mother’s locked door and away from whatever lurked in his own room. On and on the hall went, monotony broken only by the bits of rubbish that littered the floor: rusted out lamps and pots; broken tables and bits of chairs; sticks and stones and a dead rat.
Bobby stepped over the mess, inch by inch, until he heard the faint sound of laughter. He followed the sound down the hall to a doorway. Peering through, Bobby saw a room beyond.
This used to be the living room. That festering lump of cushions and stuffing had probably been a couch once. The walls were gone though; there were only trees now. Sad trees with raggedly bent trunks and branches which droopily joined overhead to block out the sky. The grasses here gave way to muddy pools of fetid water and swarms of glowing fireflies.
There, in the middle of it all, stood a clown. He wore a filthy, three-piece suit that may once have been checked in red and white and yellow. His face was smeared with as much soot and dirt as poorly applied grease paint. On his feet were enormous shoes, scuffed and torn in places. The clown pranced about the murky clearing, laughing happily as he caught glow bugs in gloved hands and squashed them between his fingers.
As Bobby entered the room, the clown stopped his prancing and stood silently a moment, staring the boy down. Then he sputtered and erupted into laughter once more.
Just as abruptly the clown ceased his merrymaking and tipped his hat to the boy. It was the kind of hat that magicians wear, but this one was ragged and worn. The band was in tatters and the brim was bent and torn. “Hello, my boy!” the clown pronounced around a smile, when Bobby said nothing he continued: “Don’t be scared, my boy. It’s just a dream.”
Bobby stood in the doorway, hands clasped behind his back, brows knit, chewing lip. He was not at all sure if his mother’s rule about not talking to strangers applied in dreams.
“I’m Oscar, my boy. Oscar the Clown.” With that, the clown curtsied low and smiled wide to reveal row upon row of rotted-out teeth and a bloated, black tongue. Bobby cringed, but tried to remember: it’s just a dream.
“I’m B-Bobby,” the boy stammered, tentatively stretching out one hand in greeting. “Please to mee’chu.” The clown giggled loudly. Why is he laughing? Bobby thought he had introduced himself the way his mother taught him. Perhaps he had done it wrong.
“I’m looking for Mommy.” Oscar hooted harder; Bobby said it louder: with more insistence: “I need to find Mommy!”
“I don’t know Mommy,” Oscar chuckled, shrugging his shoulders and scratching under his hat. The clown wore a bald cap. Stringy, gray hair sprouted through in places where the rubber had ripped. “Is that her only name?”
Bobby thought hard. Daddy said ‘Karin’ sometimes. “I think her other name is Karin.”
Oscar clutched at his sides and guffawed. ‘Karin,’ he mouthed, falling into the mud, writhing helplessly and splashing muck all over Bobby and his Superman pajamas.
When the clown had calmed, he struggled to stand and brushed mud from his clothes before offering: “I don’t know any Karinses, my boy, but perhaps this will help?” Oscar pulled a black rubber balloon from his ear.
Magic. Bobby timidly took a step forward, keeping his hands behind his back. ‘It’s silly to be scared of dreams,’ his mother always said. But he was anyway.
The clown blew raspberries into the balloon noisily. Tying off one end, he began to twist and turn the inflated rubber deftly. In a moment he was done; he winked at Bobby, holding out the shape. The balloon was now a kitten.
Smiling now and less scared, Bobby took the proffered balloon-kitty in one hand and petted it with the other. ‘Softly, Bobby, softly,’ his mother always reminded. The kitten moved, nuzzling its black rubber head against the boy’s hand. It purred, making a sound like two balloons rubbed together.
While Bobby admired his new pet, Oscar pulled a long, rusty needle from one drooping sleeve. Holding the sharp sliver of metal gingerly between two fingers and grinning slyly, Oscar stabbed at the kitten. The deflating balloon phttt’ed off.
“Now, isn’t that better?” Oscar teehee’ed as he tossed the needle away. “Best medicine, my boy. Laughter’ll cure just about anything. Bruised knees and rainy days and...”
“It doesn’t cure finding Mommy,” Bobby replied. Or Daddy.
“Oh.” Oscar almost looked disappointed for a moment, then he brightened: “Alright, how about this?” The clown beckoned to the boy with one gloved hand and removed the hat from atop his head with the other.
Kneeling, Oscar held out his hat. “Hold that for me, my boy. I’m gonna need both hands for this one.” The clown winked at Bobby, who regarded the dark interior of the upturned hat, curious. The clown stood and began carefully rolling up his filthy sleeves. “Now, watch closely, my boy,” Oscar reached one lanky arm into the hat. Wrist deep at first, feeling around. Hmm, nothing there.
He reached further in, up to his scab-covered forearm. Still nothing. Oscar feigned a look of concern. Perhaps the magic was failing. Shaking, the clown tried to suppress laughter with tightened lips, but it came out anyway in hisses and grunts.
Oscar dug deeper. He was into the hat to his shoulder now, rummaging about until: “Ah-ha! Here we go, my boy!” When the clown withdrew his hand Bobby saw that he was holding a rabbit.
The creature did not look well at all. Its fur had probably once been white, what remained was manged and mottled brown and gray. There was blood smeared across its face and one ear was torn clean off.
Holding the hare high by the scruff of its neck, the mirthful clown laughed hysterically. He dropped the animal into the mud and it limpingly moved toward Bobby. Before it had gone far the clown lifted one oversized shoe and brought it down on the pitiful creature. Bobby heard a squeal that ended in a crunch. The clown tittered delightedly and Bobby recoiled in horror.
“Stop it!” he shouted at the clown fists clenched at sides. Oscar looked at the boy seriously, or tried and failed. The straight face he made was quickly interrupted by a new bout of giggling. The boy was on the verge of tears. They welled up wetly, blurring his lucid view of this dream.
“Don’t worry, my boy,” Oscar chuckled, lifting his foot to reveal only mud. “See?” The injured rabbit was gone. “No harm done; just magic.” The clown gave Bobby a wide, rotten-toothed smile. Bobby calmed down, but he realized that although this clown looked like a grown-up, he was no help at all.
Before he could think what to say next, the fireflies flickered and went out. Dark. Just as suddenly, the clown was silent. No more laughs. No more chuckles or titters or guffaws.
“Where’s the lights?” Bobby asked.
“It took them.”
“Don’t just stand there, my boy.” No time to laugh. “Run!” Oscar took off awkwardly, loping through the marsh in his enormous shoes.
Bobby followed as best he could on his little legs. Then the voice: IT’S ME, BOBBY. DON’T RUN. Startled, Bobby stumbled and fell in the dark. Stubbing his toe, bruising his knee, losing his breath. Bobby felt the dark coldly fingering at his back.
There was something there, but Bobby didn’t look. He rose and ran faster, or tried, but tripped and rose again. On and on he went until he was covered in mud and scrapes and prickles.
Bobby fell one last time, his feet caught in some unseen sinkhole. He lay, coughing out the fetid water that had found its way into his mouth, too tired, too sore to move. So he lay still, hoping it would pass. Hoping the dark would pass and the shape and those eyes.
And they did. Off in the dark Bobby heard Oscar laughing. Laughing in fear. ‘No,’ the clown laughed. ‘Please! Don’t!’ And then silence.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by David Smolenski