Book Idea: Chapter 6

Danny, that imagined tough boy who quailed at the sleepover with Dad and Uncle Artie, the one who’d said “seven foot man!” and cried inconsolably until his dad came and got him, well, his spook sightings didn’t end there.  Even though he never tried a sleepover again, Danny’s friendship with Dad and Uncle Artie continued.  He continued to come over to Dad’s, especially on lazy summer days, to play.  But he preferred to stay outside.

Dad had set aside most of the memory of Danny’s anti-sleepover, as he calls it.  You know, he was willing to let bygones be bygones.  Dad’s cool like that.  You mess up, reveal your worst to him.  But no matter.  Your secret’s safe.  He doesn’t tell anyone about it, no matter how unusual, embarrassing, or funny—or all three—it is.

So one afternoon in late summer Danny was over, along with some other neighborhood boys, playing a favorite neighborhood game, Ditch-’em.  It was a variation on Hide-and-seek.  Except once the “It” found someone, that someone would then join the hunter to find the hunted, and so on until everyone was discovered.  Boundaries were the property lines—staying outside of all buildings, of course—a generous few acres of mostly avocado trees.

It was here, then, in this setting, when Dad began to make room in his mind for the possibility of the paranormal.  For it was here that Danny revisited his earlier scare.

“Danny, you can come down,” Dad shouted; “I see you.”

The way he tells it, Dad was “It” and was going through the usual rounds in his usual methodical way: starting at the top of the property and moving his way, one row of avocado trees at a time, towards the bottom.  Dad was savvy at this game and knew the best hiding spots.  He had the home team advantage.  And there, near the top of one of the best of the climbing trees on the whole property, Danny sat still as a bird.  He was looking away, up the hillside north of the property line.  And he made no response to Dad’s call, visibly or audibly.

“Come on down, Danny,” Dad said again, louder this time.  “I see you at the top of the tree.”

Still Danny said nothing.  But quietly and quickly he moved his right hand, first in an open-palmed position toward Dad, as if to say halt; then, more slowly, he raised an index finger above his other cupped fingers, as if to shush Dad or to say wait a minute.

Dad humored him.  Another of Dad’s traits is patience, or stubbornness, depending on how you look at it.  He’ll outlast anyone when he wants to.  Besides, this was where all the action was at the moment.  The other boys—the hunted ones—could wait in their respective hiding spots all afternoon for all Dad cared.

Anyway, after a few minutes of this patient stubbornness Danny began to inch his way down.  Another minute or so Dad said, in a conversational volume, “Bird watching?”

“Ssh!” Danny whispered loudly, if that makes sense.  “I saw him again.  And I don’t want him to hear us.”

“Okay,” Dad whispered back, “I’ll play along.  Who’d you see?”

“The seven-foot-man!”

Apparently, according to Danny, the seven-foot-man was bearded, very dirty, greasy-haired like he hadn’t bathed in weeks, wore an olive-drab jacket, and was hungry.  He’d been eating a squirrel, Danny said.

“How come I don’t smell him?” Dad asked.

“You don’t believe me, do you!  You want to see?”

“What, the seven-foot-man?  Yeah!”

“No, not him.  He left.  That’s why I came down.  I figured it was safe.  But the squirrel.  You want to see the squirrel he was eating?”

“Uh, sure,” Dad said, “I guess.”

And so Danny led Dad up the hillside a little way until he thought they were at about the correct spot.  After looking around for a bit, here and there, sure enough they found a fresh squirrel carcass.  And, though Dad said nothing about it, he did actually notice a faint smell to fit Danny’s description–aside from the matted carcass and fresh blood of the squirrel.  Something like rancid milk; something that he’d actually smelled before, distantly, under the spiral staircase.

“See?” Danny said, still whispering.  “What’d I say?”

“Okay,” Dad said, not caring to whisper now.  “But how do you know it wasn’t a—”

Dad was going to say dog.  “But how do you know it wasn’t a dog?”  But before he could get the word out two significant things happened in quick succession: a cause and an effect.  The cause was a rotten avocado hitting Dad squarely in the back—pffft-splat!  And the effect was Danny pointing in the direction he’d been looking earlier, screaming seven-foot-man, and sprinting away, back down the hill towards Dad’s property.

Dad followed , sprinting too, temporarily ignoring the pain in his back, now genuinely frightened, at least a little.  He was skeptical about Danny’s story.  But Danny’s behavior was rather convincing.  And that smell!  Still, the avocado had come from the other direction, the very direction, in fact, into which they now ran.

Up till now Dad thought that perhaps Danny had been making it all up, that the crying and sobbing of the anti-sleepover had actually been some kind of act—albeit a darn good one—to cover up something else; that Danny actually wanted to go home because he merely missed his mommy or something, and feigning fright was worth it, was somehow better in his mind than admitting he was a mama’s boy.  That’s what Dad had come to conclude in his mind since the anti-sleepover.  But now!  No, this wasn’t mama-boy material.  This was something more, something to take more seriously.

On the other hand, there’s something about being outside in the daylight.  Back on the night of the anti-sleepover the boys had been down in a creepy, dark basement, near the mouth of a cave-like undercroft.  (Could this possibly be the lair of the seven-foot-man?)  But today they were outside, in the broad daylight, playing in the avocado orchard, a place that felt more like their turf and therefore somehow less threatening, less fearsome.  Danny and Dad slowed to a walk and then stopped to catch their breath.

They were back at the north end of Dad’s property, at the foot of the same climbing tree in which Dad had first spotted Danny.  But now sounds of puerile laughter erupted all around them.  They were the apparent butt of a joke.

“Nailed!” Artie declared, jumping out from a thicket.  “Man, you shoulda seen your face—” which makes no sense, since Artie had pegged Dad in the back, meaning there’s no way he could have seen his face “—grimacing all like a guppy.”

Two neighborhood boys, Mitch and Jeff, followed Artie out of the thicket laughing loudly and obnoxiously as only middle school boys can do.  Instead of calling them all a bunch of a–holes, as would have been perfectly understandable, Dad decided to laugh it off.  Not before noticing the anxiety still on Danny’s face though.

Some five minutes later, now on the south half of the property with the memory of the seven-foot-man growing distant in direct proportion, and still looking for a boy named Curt, Dad hatched a plan to smooth things over with Danny.

“Artie,” he called, “you, Mitch, and Jeff scope out the east half; Danny and I will take the west.”

Sounding good, they split up.  Then, as Danny went on a little ahead, Dad grabbed an avocado and lobbed it to the right where it hit the ground unseen but not unheard.  Predictably, Danny turned his head in the direction of the sound.

“What was that?” he asked, turning his head quickly but trying to appear composed, as Dad tells it.

“Seven-foot-man!” Dad said tenuously, smiling.

Danny glared at Dad briefly.  But apparently Dad’s smile disarmed Danny; for his glare suddenly softened into a smile.

Then, with Danny looking on, Dad picked up a soft, rotting, graying, stinking, overly ripe avocado; and beckoned Danny to follow.  Quietly they sneaked toward the others.  Danny caught on by now and selected a missile of his own, similarly ripe for duty.  Soon enough they had the other three boys in their sights.  And, wouldn’t you know it, serendipitously Curt stealthed up from behind, having surmised from his hiding spot what was about to take place.  He too had a soft avocado in hand.  So,

“On the count of three,” Dad mouthed, “1-2-3 . . .”

The screams of pain must have been quite gratifying for Dad–I can only imagine.  They certainly seem to have been in his retellings.  But my point is that when Artie, Mitch, and Jeff faced their three assailants, they found two of them pointing in a different direction with scared looks on their faces and shouting, “Seven-foot-man!” entirely unsympathetic to their cries of foul.

And so in time it became a part of their boyhood routine.  Any time they’d hear a strange noise or see something out of the ordinary or find something out of place someone would shout out, “Seven-foot-man!”  Once Dad even shouted it after a bird pooped on Curt at school.  That made everyone laugh.  Even Curt.  Even Danny.

Even so, Dad knew he’d deflected.  He’d turned the fright of his friend into something of a playful joke, a game for the neighborhood kids to play, an addition to Ditch-’em, a variation to a variation of Hide-and-seek.  But he suspected now, and deep down he knew it just had to be true, that something—whether material, phantom, shadow, or spirit—something in fact did live under his creaky spiral staircase.

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