By Corey Davis
Like it is to all children, bedtime was oppression to the boy. Banishment to his bedroom so soon into the night with teeth brushed and pyjamas donned was almost too great an offence to the inexhaustible kinesis of youth. How could he possibly be expected to wind down with the ontology of that constantly whirling in his body?
So then, the stroke of nine P.M. turned into something that needed to be shrewdly negotiated into a perpetual extension of fifteen minutes more: to the end of the half, to the end of the chapter, to the next commercial break, please, please, please. If this strategy were met with opposition, then the boy would be forced to push it further and implicate his elder siblings, claiming for the sake of fair and equal treatment that, if they got to stay up, then he should be allowed the same God-given freedom. But his narrow miss of their God-given teenagehood was what usually sunk his case. The final verdict was always a kiss planted on the top of his head by his mother, followed by a sympathetically amused ‘sleep-tight-don’t-let-the-bedbugs-bite.’ By that point, there was no use in looking to anyone else for a bailout; the boy’s father made sure to exclude himself from all bargaining sessions, preoccupied as he was with the Cowboys or the Celtics or his nightly beer sweating in his insurance broker grasp. Thus, the boy had the floor no more.
Foiled, he would sulk back down the hall to his room, sprawl out under his covers, stare at the posters on his walls in the dark until the images started to disfigure, listen to the even-paced murmur of the TV still going in the living room. Sometimes, in an attempt to put his encumbered energies to use, he might close his eyes and splice together a highlights reel of the school day’s happenings. He considered the kickball game that had dominated recess. He considered the chicken tetrazzini the cafeteria had served for lunch. He considered the silent reading period when JP Walburn caught a salamander by the sink in the back of the classroom and managed to keep it hidden in his desk for the rest of the afternoon without getting busted. This recollection he liked best. It naturally led to a rumination on what else might be successfully stashed in the inner compartment of one’s desk: a terrarium of playground wildlife? A box-sized jungle habitat? A whole miniature scientific ecosystem?
Sooner or later, as always, the purpose of this mental exercise would backfire on the boy. His eyes would droop. His mind would grow foggy. His breath would even out into a soft, buzzy snore, and an enemy slumber would prevail.
Sleep was a sneaky and potent incapacitator. Sleep was a heavy hitter and a fleet runner. One instant, the boy would be holding a clear thought in his head, and, the next, he was being jolted awake by the inopportune honking of his alarm clock, the whole night having already trundled past without him even knowing it. Only occasionally did its tranquillizing power wane halfway through the night, interrupted by a bad dream or a sick stomach or, more commonly, the excesses of whatever liquid the boy had last downed before being sent to bed.
Those halfway spells were the ones sought after at sleepovers and campouts—the silliest of hours. They gave off the same feeling as did standing on one’s head to the hilarity of one’s friends, blood rushing down and delirium filling up like helium. But alone in a pitch-black room, entombed within the stuffy heat of one’s blankets? In that case, one and two and three in the morning were odd, quiet tourniquets of time existing in their own freestanding dimension, belonging neither to the old day nor the new one ahead—only to the no man’s land in between.
On one such occasion, what did it for the boy was the bottle of Yoo-hoo with which he had washed down three Oreos for dessert during the evening cartoon block. Even though he had taken care to empty his bladder before begrudgingly hitting the hay, his body must have nevertheless hoarded water, because he awoke abruptly from a deep sleep to pressure in his gut, and, of course, when he studied the digits on his clock with scrunched eyes, it was no earlier than two-thirty. Strange magic indeed.
The boy shuffled down the hall, past his brother’s room, past the linen closet, past his sister’s room, and to the bathroom. The house was as still as the night outside was, disrupted only by the tonal music of the toilet bowl. The boy was careful to keep one arm slung over his eyes to ensure that he stayed primed for sleep against the better wishes of the hall light shining in through the doorway. Once his relief was procured, he reached for the flush lever, and that was when he heard the noise. It was coming from elsewhere in the house but carrying down the hallway right to his ears: a slow and rhythmic creak-crick, creak-crick, creak-crick.
“You’re like a watchman?”
The boy stopped and listened. It sounded like a frog’s two-tone belch or the squeaky hinges of a trunk lid being worked up and down. He didn’t think to call out for his parents as if it was in any way probable that the two of them might be busy oiling up the living room furniture in the wee hours of the night. He didn’t think to arm himself with a weapon either—his sister’s nail file within arm’s reach on the bathroom counter or the can of deodorant to wield as a pepper spray. Like a bloodhound dutifully tracking the scent in front of his nose, the boy hiked his pyjama pants up and sought the noise out himself, curious yet alert on all fronts.
When he stepped ever so lightly into the living room, he saw amongst the shadowy arrangement of sofa, chairs, coffee table, and a television set that a man was sitting there. In the weak reaches of the hall light, the boy determined that he was dressed in a deep grayish-green, with a wide-brimmed hat and a long trench-like coat and boots—like a homemade Halloween costume of Zorro, minus the mask. The noise in question was coming from the rocking chair that the boy’s mother usually read her historical fiction novels while his father snoozed in the La-Z-Boy while waiting for the sports segment of the nightly news. The man was rocking placidly in it with one leg propped on the opposite knee, and the creak-crick, creak-crick sound carried on even as he raised his gaze and caught the boy frozen in the doorway.
“W-what are you doing in my house?” the boy asked, his voice shrunk down to a whisper.
The man didn’t startle. He smiled wryly, never once stopping his rocking. “Ho, ho, ho, I’m Santa Claus,” he answered not in a whisper but a low and rough-shorn voice. He let the joke settle without reception from the boy and then stiffened up slightly. “I’m on the job, mister sir. What about you? What are you doing up with the bats and the beetles at this hour?”
The boy suddenly remembered the hunting knife that his brother kept atop his chest of drawers and considered bolting back down the hall to fetch it. Instead, he said, “Um . . . if you broke in, I’ll call the cops.”
The man feigned offence. “Mister sir! What a gross misunderstanding of what I am! That kind of thing is what I’m here to prevent. So I have not broken into your house, no, no; I’m guarding your house. And what a nice house it is. Always a pleasure to guard.”
He rocked on. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked the time along at an awfully sluggish pace. Apart from that, it was so quiet that the boy couldn’t even hear the faint bell-chatter of crickets or cicadas coming from outside. It was as if he and the man were the only ones awake on the planet, having awkwardly run into each other during the night’s programming gap.
“You’re like a watchman?”
More from Goat’s Milk Magazine
The boy stepped forward into the living room, and, as soon as he did, the man pinned him in place with the beam of a flashlight that had been concealed in his coat sleeve. Then, with a soft chuckle, the man turned the beam up into his own face, illuminating a stubbly jaw and sparse but deep-cut wrinkles and gray eyes and long, curly, wet-looking hair. Like a flame confined to a lantern, the light was blocked by the sides of his hair and the brim of his hat from reaching the ceiling or spreading outwards into the room.
“Of sorts,” he replied, face pale and bright, expression bemused. “There are hazards. There is a call.”
“You do this every night?”
“I make my rounds.”
“How do you get into people’s houses if you don’t break in?”
The man smiled. “Up on the housetop, click, click, click, and down the hatch. Don’t all children know that one? Or else I walk through walls. Works well enough for ghosts, don’t it?”
Now the boy was insulted. After all, he was no baby; the Santa record had been set straight for him at the ripe age of seven, as his sister’s idea of revenge after he planted her failed math test in their mother’s sewing kit to be found out. Thenceforth, all other holiday and seasonal mascots promptly lost their credibility: the Easter Bunny, Cupid, Jack Frost, even the Tooth Fairy. As the logic of the fiction went, these pleasantly conceived night visitors were permitted free reign of one’s home and possessions, so long as they left thoughtful treats in exchange for cookies or carrots or juvenile incisors. But what was the darker equivalent of such? A drop-in house caller with no mythos to abide by and no goods to deposit under a tree or a pillow, who therefore had open access to any plunder of the boy’s household that might pique their interest? The boy was the only man of his house currently conscious. He supposed he had some guarding of his own to do.
“So you’re here to keep burglars away?” he asked, sharpening the question to a point.
“Burglars indeed. Skeptical, are we, mister sir?”
The man’s tone was mildly jocular, but his face sobered as he sheathed the flashlight beam in his coat sleeve once again and leaned back into the shadow.
“The night is so old.”
“You’re at that age, I suppose. Bombastic age it is. Bumps in the night become just squirrels in the attic. You start to need answers for everything, and, worse yet, you start finding them.”
The boy had no clue what a ‘bombastic age’ was supposed to be, but he couldn’t help but wonder what was so disappointing about seeking the truth of things? Growing up was a process rooted in a proud tradition of fact-facing. And, yes, organically and sensibly, the boy had started to come around to his mother’s even-toned insistences, not the least of which involved the scratching noises beyond his bedroom ceiling, which she assured him were nothing more than a rodent problem his father was too lazy to call pest control about. What was so dissatisfying about having answers? Along with the authority to heckle those of your peers still invested in their fanciful childhood lore, answers were essential passes into adulthood; any sixth-grader waving a magnifying glass over his chest in hopes of finding an even a single sprig of hair knew that. Answers were the things that saved you when you were confronted with the fearful kryptonite of any age. They performed the necessary maneuver of ‘bringing the situation back down to Earth,’ as the boy’s mother was fond of saying.
“You mean ghosts and Santa Claus?” the boy said, chuckling with as much seniority as he could simulate. “Is that what you’re talking about? You know, I’m not so little.”
Of all the boy’s statements thus far, that last one seemed to sit strangely with the man. Back and forth, he rocked in the boy’s mother’s chair while his eyes glinted with sharp intrigue. His mouth twisted as if he were humouring the boy with a smile, but there was a pocketed sadness in the final form that it took—an apology, even. Not for spurning the boy’s maturity, but for something beyond the control of both of them. It was the same way the boy’s parents held their mouths when he parroted a joke he had picked up from his brother, the suggestive meaning of which he did not fully grasp then but undoubtedly would someday soon. It was the way children held their mouths the very first time the joy of taunting drew tears from the taunted, the seminal moment when pleasure turned to regret in the yet-undeveloped realization that they would be hurting people too fast to stop for the rest of their lives.
Although the man was now hidden completely in the shadows, his voice was still very much present. “But the night is so old, mister sir,” he said. “The night is so old.”