Lake Effect, Volume 27: "Arms"


By Andrew R. Touhy

     Something’s under the bed. Progress? He was three when a skunk, giant or perhaps the size of a man—I can’t know how my son imagined the creature—came to the loft door and knocked. Did we open up? Did it force its way in? The fear seemed to begin and end with the outsized skunk suddenly on the step. Knocking. As any visitor would. 
     A whisper: Will you check? 
     Me: There’s hardly room for anything scary. 
     Well, I said, in compartment one is your jammies bin. And you wear a lot of jammies. In compartment two we have the Millennium Falcon filled with all of your Star Wars guys—and you have an army of those. Two Lukes and even two Vaders, last I counted. In compartment three, your adventure toolkit and the sack of silver coins TT gave you and your green money box, which is bursting we all know with hundreds in unearned allowance. 
     Is it more than that now? 
     Monsters can fit anywhere, he said. I have a bad feeling tonight. 
     A hand found mine under the covers, closed tight around my pinky. 
     What bad feeling? Did something happen at school? 
     I’ll say after you check. 
     Polished concrete floors looked snazzy in the day. Ours—jug-wine brown—shone sleek as a red sports car in the afternoons, when bathed in sun from the trio of soaring windows. But dead of winter, and you’ve made your kid’s room out of a narrow walk-in closet, they are little more than cold hard slab under the knees.
     I poked in this nook, that. I rummaged—a mild rummage. I stared, not that he could see me seeing nothing. But I wanted him assured. I wanted to say with heart that I’d been thorough. 
     Then I looked, really. Maybe something was there. 
     It was utterly black darkness. Not the kind like in your mind, behind shut lids, where light inevitably finds its way to tint your thoughts. Here was vast, empty, forever-eating dark spread before me, bending around me, it seemed, drawing me forward. I kept my eyes on it. I felt its tug on my insides. It could take me at any moment, I knew. This force could gather me up and pull me apart and carry my bits and pieces off to where there was no me, never a me. 
     I put a hand in, I don’t know, a foot from my nose. Waved. There wasn’t anything. Just space. Air, of course, which we touch every second but can’t feel, or feel touching us, right along with all those other subatomic whatnots we’re so smart about but forget, or ignore, largely. And then there’s the stuff we know zilch about, particles they now think hold the world together like mortar, except that they’re the bricks. Bricks that float through our bones or Earth’s nickel core all the same, in and out of black holes just as they please. 
     So what do we know about what’s out there? That is to say, right here. 
     Could be dragons. Ghosts. Boogeymen. Why not. Could be Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, werewolves, zombies, aliens, ourselves— 
     I reached all the way in. 
     Anything? came a whisper. 
     An icy chill shot through me. 
     I found him through his dinosaur comforter. He’d drawn it taut across the bed, up to his chin. I got to my feet, gave each aching kneecap a squeeze, then slid back under the covers. Quick came the steamy press of his body to my side, warm running down my hip and thigh like the old days when he wet the bed.
     Just us, I said. 
     You’re cold! 
     Not beside you I’m not. 
     He pressed harder. You checked everywhere? 
     Well, there’s under the bed and—you live in a closet. 
     You weren’t afraid? 
     Funny, I was. Just being older doesn’t make you any less scared, I guess. 
     When you were little, I meant. You weren’t afraid of anything as a kid. 
     Oh, that’s not true, I laughed. 
     Big strong Daddy? 
     There were plenty of monsters in my room. 
     There are no monsters you said. 
     In my head—monsters I made up. Stuff I imagined. 
     Which ones?
     I thought honestly about this but came up short. Then I remembered the night I stayed up watching one of those Nightmare on Elm Street movies. I must have been in middle school, ten or eleven years old. The living room in our house had this big picture window. When you turned off the television all that glass lost its reflection. Everything out front—the porch and driveway, the island of lawn running to the street—came clear into view, suddenly alive in the dark. 
     It’d stormed earlier that night. 
     The drive was wet still, a slick black. A leftover wind worked over the thinnest of the palm trees, their ragged fronds whipping at themselves. But the sky was clear. The moon full, low. And there was Freddy, standing beside our tan station wagon. He wore his beaten fedora and that ratty striped sweater, of course. But his arms were off. This came straight from the movie, the scene that really got my blood going. His arms were extra long and oddly bent, like the shadows cast by arms, or the trunks of those blowing palms. 
     He opened them wide and stepped forward and the arms grew longer, and kept growing longer, as he moved toward the house. 
     I couldn’t budge. It was all I could do to keep from bolting to my room. But I couldn’t budge. It was like I was glued to the couch. 
     Even the remote control stuck to my hand. 
     When I looked up he was on the porch. He was inside. Ugly face sneering through those horrible burn scars, cackling, and I screamed for God. This he said—drawing sparks from the wall with the razory nails of his glove—is God. 
     There was a man with long arms, I told him. 
     How are long arms scary? he asked. 
     They aren’t, I said. He wore a leather glove. Listen. I’m a bad parent if I tell you about him. You don’t need any more fuel. You can watch the Freddy movies yourself when you’re old enough. Bedtime. 
     His name’s Freddy? 
     The reason I think skeletons aren’t creepy— 
     Skeletons now? 
     He said, I just need to say this last thing. The reason they aren’t so creepy—and I’m getting a little worried thinking about them but—they don’t have a brain, right? How could something without a brain hurt you? 
     I can’t argue with your logic. Bedtime. 
     What about that? 
     That is still bedtime. 
     But, Daddy, I’m serious. 
     You’ll need to be more specific with your seriousness. 
     On the door, he said. I think it’s a scorpion or some kind of scorpion-snake. 
     Those I believe are Mardi Gras beads. You found them someplace . . . Live Oak Park. We hung them there on the coat hook long ago. 
     I found a chicken bone too that day, crawling with ants. Do you remember The Darkest of Dens? 
     I had to laugh. Lord knows the hours I spent watching him and his cohort thrash around under that footbridge, little preschool boots and slickers covered in mud. 
     You were brave ogre hunters. 
     He was a troll. 
     Ogres or trolls, brave the same. Not that you aren’t now. 
     I didn’t have to think about it then, I just knew I was fine. It was a game. 
     You know what I think? Maybe bravery takes practice. Instead of hiding from a fear, and feeding it, you run to it. Run at it. At least then you know what you’re up against. Otherwise you imagine anything—you think everything’s out to get you, buddy. 
     What about behind my stuffies hamper? 
     Kid, I sighed. There’s nothing there. It’s flush in the corner against the wall. Full of all your stuffed animals, starting with Momma’s old polar bear. 
     It doesn’t have a nose. 
     You can see that in the dark? 
     It makes him look like a creature that wants to eat me. 
     Not having a nose doesn’t change his diet, I said. Plus he’s been noseless since      Momma was a girl.
     Not true. Pirate bit it off. 
     When you went to work and forgot to lock his crate. He also ate the pocket off      Momma’s nice jacket and poetry book you left on the coffee table. 
     I don’t know if all that happened. Not on the same day anyway. 
     Then look no further. Pirate’s our monster. 
     I’ll take the bear from the room. 
     His arm swung like a gate across my chest. The weight of it, which is to say his strength, surprised me. 
     We’ve had a lot of late nights. Let’s settle our mouths now and go to sleep. 
     His arm softened then drew back. I could hear him sucking at his checks. Then he was yawning, or blowing on something, and I remembered his whistle. I’ve tried to teach him, the same way my father taught me: Wet your lips, say Chubby bunny, and blow. But his mouth always makes the ch of chomp, and he’s all but dropped the habit, except when too tired to help it. 
     Last last question? he asked. 
     It better not be a glass of water. 
     No. I’m not thirsty. 
     You have to use the bathroom, I said. 
     I went already. 
     Ask it then. 
     Remember you said before, that you were afraid—what of? 
     Mm. That’s a longer story than we have time for. I’ll say in the morning over pancakes, if you still want to know. 
     But if I forget. 
     You won’t. 
     His body came away from mine as he shifted around for a comfortable position. He slapped, right beside my ear, at the pillows. Finally, after a while of shaking legs, I put my hand on his knee. 
     In a whisper: Last last last question. 
     You promise, he whispered back, to stay after I’m asleep? The whole night. 
     I promise I’ll stay until you’re asleep. We’ll see after that. 
     You’re a good daddy, he yawned and, turning to the wall, pulled the covers with him. 
     A few sighs later his breath thickened, grew ragged. I closed my eyes and saw the glow-in-the-dark moon and stars on the ceiling of my room. How I picked them off one day when I was hanging rock posters—too grown up for that sort of thing. I’d start with those tomorrow. We’d stick them on together after school. He could make his favorite constellations. They sell all the planets, even demoted Pluto. The closet had no electrical outlets, but I could mount a little battery-operated nightlight on the baseboard. We’d grab that at the store too. 
     Then it was quiet over there. 
     Slow at first, then at once, I got up and stood leaning over him. A sweet bready smell rose from his head. He wasn’t feverish, just damp with sweat. His breathing steady as the sound of distant traffic. 
     I heel-toed lightly to the door. The knob was tricky, not that there was a trick. It squeaked no matter how you twisted. A knocking started in the wall he shares with the neighbor beside us. When I turned it became banging that climbed up and spread across the ceiling. It was pipes; she was showering, or washing dishes. It’s an old building, a first-wave conversion full of dated plumbing I knew, and retold myself, though not before that cold chill ran through me again, like ice poured on my back. 
     But the shiver was part embarrassment, too. My body’s way of rehashing something I said that was so stupid as to be shameful. 
     Practicing our bravery? And how do you run at the monsters when they’re on the inside? When it’s more like they’re bursting out of us? Are us? And long arms are scary. They can reach you anywhere. They get into your head when you’re awake, and when you dream. They get into your gut, your heart. They can wrap themselves around you and squeeze no matter how far you go or how fast you run. Though I suppose they work the other way also, or the same way, when they’re good and loving. 
     I lifted the covers and pulled him in. 
     ​​​​​​​Daddy his voice hugged.