Everything I once had is gone. It wasn’t a lone thief who’d snuck in during the middle of a single night to clean me out. It was instead a series of small burglaries, committed by an efficient team over more years than I recall. Their robberies began when I was just a boy and when, like most children suffering from few friends and social isolation, I spent most of my time alone — hidden away in my room, surrounded by the few possessions that made life bearable. I didn’t realize it then, but it was this solitary life that offered the opportunity for the shadows to begin slipping into the world of walls that I’d built…
When I awoke this morning, my sheets were wet with sweat. It may have been due to the nightmares that had returned with renewed fervor, or maybe it was only my body signaling the return of the heat. The mercury in the thermometer was rapidly approaching the 90-degree mark; and it was only 9:00 am.
Outside, the Sun burned through a cloudless, blue sky. A single step onto the porch allowed the Michigan heat to wrap its humid fingers around my throat, squeezing the breath back into my lungs. Down the block, amid joyful screams and shouts much too raucous for early morning, a group of overheated kids cooled off in the gallons of water that gushed into the street from an open hydrant. Their shrieks turned urgent as a sad-eyed, pony-tailed lookout alerted her comrades to the approaching police cruiser. As the children scattered, I stepped back inside to begin what looked to be a long, hot and profitable day.
Even as a child I knew the shadows that haunted my nights were the manifestation of something very bad. They gained access to my room by flattening themselves as thin as pieces of paper and sliding silently beneath the door. As I cowered in my bed, with my sheets bundled tightly under my chin, I watched their darkness stream across my threshold. Once inside, they’d pick themselves up off the floor, some of them growing so tall that their jagged heads bounced off the ceiling. Then they’d creep slowly around the walls, slipping into the corners of my room where they’d wait, sitting quietly until my body was forced to accept the sleep that my will denied it. All the while, the shadows flashed gashes revealing stained teeth, and their yellow eyes glowed at me from the dark…
The years haven’t been kind to Detroit. The loss of jobs, home foreclosures and increased suicides as savings accounts vanished have made life hard and finances tight for those left behind in this dying city — myself included. While I rarely credit my painful experience growing up on the farm for much of anything, I do attribute that life to my enduring work ethic and the reliance on self that’s led to my having survived in the city all these years.
While I work hard when I have the work to do, my job itself is seasonal. As such, it’s important I take advantage of the warm months when fresh food is more plentiful and less expensive. Falling back on farm tradition, I still spend much of my time preparing foods to carry me through and earn extra money during this off-season, when I’ll sell some of the canned preserves, cured meats and pickled sundries I store in my pantry. It’s curious, but the demand for life’s basics never seems to dry up in the city.
Thinking back, I remember so many nights spent lying in bed in the farmhouse, the fear paralyzing my body, as I stared out at the monsters through squinted eyes. With my heart beating so fast I thought it would jump from my chest, I’d sometimes work up the nerve and risk a peek at the shadows that now shared my room. I’d look on as they tore themselves from the darkness, only to have some of them crawl onto my bed and stick sharp fingers in my ears or rub greasy palms across my skin, all while their slithering tongues dribbled hot spittle into my face. Others would go to work searching my room. They’d rifle through my belongings, snatching from me whatever they chose to make their own…
I can’t really complain about the work I do. Growing up without much of an education, I’m become quite satisfied with my how life has turned out. I’m my own boss. I control my destiny. I’m able to provide for myself well enough; and I still find the time to help so many.
While not very social, it’s rare that I get the chance to discuss my humanitarian passions with others. But when I do, people are rarely impressed. Nobody much cares about the needy anymore. So, when the topic is raised, I’ve learned to just say I work in heating and cooling. This keeps the pain of conversation short.
It wasn’t until sometime during my teenage years that I allowed my intruders to know I was aware of their break-ins. That’s when all Hell broke loose. Once the shadows realized I knew they were there, they began pilfering at an alarming rate. I suppose after so many years of my acceptance it was only logical their thefts would become more purposeful. And, unfortunately, I didn’t realize the extent of the damage being done…
Beyond the obvious wrinkles on my face, not a whole lot has changed in my life. I still spend most of my time alone, giving me plenty of time to think. I don’t much enjoy looking backwards. There are too many memories I’d rather forget. But I learned long ago that such is the way with life. It often has its own plans for us.
During spring and summer, I drive seven days a week, sometimes for up to 12 hours a day, and with only thoughts and music for company. The truck is old and the tunes play through bad speakers, often repeating the same few songs in what seems an endless loop. While not everyone’s cup of tea, my music has become the soundtrack for my repetitive life; and it does help drown out the many voices from the past that scream inside my head.
I realized several years ago that I had advanced well beyond any normal state of self-denial, choosing to believe I’d simply misplaced the things that, in reality, the shadows had stolen from me. With each incident of their private looting, I became more willing to overlook the evil taking place, choosing instead to leave them to their thievery in peace…
My best customers live among the idyllic, tree-lined avenues in places far outside the city. The streets here flow with enthusiasm as the residents embrace the hope that money and possessions instill. It’s in these bedroom communities where the financially fit make their lives meaningful, choosing to seclude themselves behind groomed hedgerows and manicured lawns where the darkest of life’s shadows often hide unseen.
I sometimes feel like a modern-day Pied Piper, stealing them away from the false pleasantries of pool parties, baseball games, family picnics and lives spent replacing nighttime fears with the daytime horrors of video games. They chase me down with sweat-soaked dollars gripped in eager fists and clamor at my window while the music explains how ‘Weasels’ sometimes go ‘Pop.’ Their voices bark orders, but instead I hear a cacophony of pain crying out for something they don’t realize exists. Sadly, my inventory of fudge bars, frozen treats and waffle cones offer only a momentary chill from the fires I know burn within them. But always among every group of smiling faces seeking sweet salvation from the ice cream man, there’s at least one child whose eyes melt from the heat of the same sadness I know all too well.
I suppose if I’d been a more capable person, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be consumed by the shadows that have waged war on my world. Because of them I now live in a place of secrets filled with sorrow, lies and the searing pain they’ve brought. I no longer care that the darkness inside me has free reign. After all, it was I who allowed the shadows entrance in the first place. And it was I who let them rip me apart, slowly chewing me into pieces over the years, permitting them to ultimately take everything from me and leave only fire in their wake…
With the children long gone, their fires temporarily extinguished, I pull away from the curb as ‘It’s a Small World’ blares from the loudspeaker. Glancing into my rear view mirror, a pair of sad, fearful eyes stare back at me. The delicate gaze of the brown-eyed boy who’s wedged himself between the coolers in the back of the truck may fool some; but he doesn’t fool me. I’m all too familiar with the shadows that visit him as he lies paralyzed in his comfortable bed at night. I know how he yearns to be free of their thievery. And oh how he wants to beg me to extinguish the pain that burns inside him; but the bandana tied around his mouth doesn’t permit it.
Even through the mirror, I can see the dark faces of the demons reflected in his tear-filled eyes. The monsters don’t yet know it, but they’ll soon be evicted from their new home. Won’t they be surprised when I pluck his eyes from his skull and secret them away with the others inside the pickling jars that line the shelves of my pantry. I smell the flesh on his bones. It’s laced with fear, making it by far the best cut of meat for curing. And most importantly, the innocent little heart beating in his chest needs protection from the evil that seeks to steal it from him. It’s this delicacy that I’ll remove with utmost precision and all the tenderness that such an important possession demands. It’ll be stored away safely inside my airtight freezer, where its virtue will be forever preserved from the shadows that seek to cook it on a spit over the flames of Hell.
It is I, alone, who must save these innocents from the demons that intend to steal their souls, leaving them hollowed out and eternally incinerated on the inside. I just can’t allow the shadows to turn another child into the monster like the one they made out of me.
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