The Blue Curtain
It was waiting for me, behind the blue curtain. I should explain. It wasn’t always like this. For most of my life, I shared a room upstairs with my younger brother. But when our older brother Eric moved out, I pleaded with my parents to let me have the room. My parents did the rare thing and listened. I moved into Eric’s room that night.
The first few nights, I felt like I was renting out his room. All the things had stories that weren’t mine. Posters from bands and movies I had never heard of hung from the wall, with strange figures posing heroically or walking calmly away from explosions. The dresser was filled with clothes that wouldn’t fit me, and its surface was crowded with keepsakes and memorabilia. I set about the task of transforming the room with an energy exclusive to eight year olds.
The bed was moved out and the posters were removed, in favor of new posters and maps from the fantasy worlds I loved. I dreamed of hanging all my accomplishments on that wall, a dream which sometimes scared me, because it was so wide. The dresser was emptied and cleared and I stuffed it with my clothes, which my mother then refolded. She even made me help, which annoyed me because I was staging an army figure war on the folds of my comforter. I brought in my plush bean bag chair and tossed it into the corner, under an old, rusted lamp my father had bought at a garage sale. I spent hours in that bean bag, sinking into it as I sank into Redwall or Harry Potter adventures. I would only get up every few hours to refluff the chair into a beautiful robin’s egg blue blob, before flopping back down with a satisfying funf! I even strung up some Christmas lights my father had failed to untangle. They cast a warm rainbow glow into each corner of the room. The room was mine, in body and soul.
The only thing I kept was the blue curtain.
It seemed like a useful thing to have, especially when I was running out of the shower with only a towel wrapped around me. Or, when I wanted to make an entrance, I could throw the curtain aside in a twirl, the plastic rings would glide across the railing, and there I was, center stage on opening night. But these were the only convenient things.
Eric’s room was in the basement, a small side room that might have once been an office, so there wasn’t a proper door. You never got full privacy from basement activities, which usually meant young siblings with young friends who wanted to know your business. When you were angry, there was never a door to slam to let everyone know it. The curtain would just slide, its rings rattling in place. Sometimes, when I was upset, I would punch the blue curtain in my frustration, hoping to hurt something. It would dutifully absorb all my hate, and when I had finished, sweaty and panting from the effort, it would be just fine, nothing wrong here.
These things were inconvenient growing up, but the worst thing was that sounds changed behind the blue curtain. Behind a door, everything sounds soft and faraway. You feel people talking almost as much as you hear them. But when night fell, the basement became very still, and a whole host of tiny sounds began to play out.
There’s something terrible about living in the basement, even if the room is completely yours and you don’t have to share with anyone. There’s the understanding that you are completely alone on one level, and that you’re two floors beneath the people you love. If that coat hanging from the wall actually turned out to be a crazed murderer, as I always suspected when the lights went off, he could cut my throat and no one might ever know until morning.
I had gotten used to listening to the many fine sounds of the house at night, but I missed the sound of my brother breathing. Everyone has their own way of breathing when they sleep. It’s like the heartbeat of their dreams. They tell me I draw in very slowly—snnnnnn—and push it out in one short gust—fnt. I knew the ways that everyone in my family breathed when they slept, and everyone knew my father’s. I think even the neighbors knew. When I started to feel scared at night, I would listen to my siblings breathing peacefully, entirely untroubled by any dreams or nightmares. Sleep always came after that.
But that was before I took Eric’s room, and before I changed everything, and before I started to really grow up. The realization that I was isolated, away from my family and from the sounds that comforted me, changed me.
Nothing went wrong the first nights. I was too excited by the fact that I had my own room that the excitement tired me out. I would open my eyes just before they’d close for the night, and the newness of my bean bag chair or the lava lamp or the Christmas lights quieted any other thoughts in my head.
Then, one night, I heard the clinking of the furnace, just outside my room. It did that all the time, even during the day. But during the day, the lights were on. I knew it was the clinking of the furnace and nothing else, so I stayed in bed and pulled my comforter up to my chin. But the clinking wouldn’t stop, and soon I could hear other sounds. The rushing of water through the pipes, the pitter patter of feet between the floors, the drip-drip-dripping of a leaky sink. Then there would be something else, a sound that didn’t belong. The basement door always made a zippery sound when it passed under the chain for the hallway light. And I knew that someone was coming to kill me.
I stayed up and waited for the first sign, a ripple in the blue curtain or the grunt of a burglar. All the other sounds continued, making it hard to hear. I could hear everything happening inside the room, but only some of the things happening outside of it. The last hour I remembered was three in the morning, and then it was morning, and I woke in a cold sweat.
Going upstairs to the breakfast table, I felt the terror of the previous night fading with each step, until I had talked myself out of telling my mother I wanted to move back upstairs. Besides, the doors were still locked and our TV hadn’t been taken, so I came to the same conclusion I had before.
It was my imagination, playing tricks on me.
I went on to have a fantastic day at school. I came home and watched cartoons for hours, all of my favorites. Mom still went to work, back then, and Monica always let me watch cartoons if I promised to eat what she made for dinner. I watched Jackie Chan adventures and Men in Black, then switched over to two hours of Toonami before scrubbing up for dinner.
And that night, the sounds returned. Clink, drip, whoosh, zip. I turned my head over on my pillow, doing my best to ignore them and think about the cute girl in 3A, and whether she liked chocolates or not. I was just imagining it, anyway. There was no troop of pigmy monsters, little apish things, climbing up the side of my bed to sew my toes together. Still, I wrapped my comforter over my feet, tucking myself deeper into a blanket cocoon. I would only let them out into the open air when stifling summer heat made it impossible to do otherwise.
I heard my nightmares whispering to each other behind the blue curtain, and I could see them from my bed. A leering, knob-nosed hobgoblin, jeering at me with broken teeth. His malformed shape would poke through his clothing in large lumps, like none of his bones were made to fit each other, and moving caused him extraordinary pain. He chattered in violent, clipped, and mashed up phrases, an unrefined dialect of an unknown language. He would raise a knotted club, knotted like the sinews forced to cover his unfortunate skeleton, and he’d beat me to death in my own home.
And no one would ever know, because he was imaginary.
Other nights, I could see the writhing shape of an underwater creature, a giant, shell-less mollusk. Its flesh was gray and slick with slime, making a sick, sucking sound as it moved—the sound of a man about to vomit. It only existed in the deepest regions of the ocean, where the light never reached and the pressure only allowed for life that was soft and shapeless. It would wrap me in its oozing arms, consuming me in a thousand tiny mouths. This wouldn’t have seemed scary at all if not for the rustling of the blue curtain, which I knew was the wind but felt convinced it was anything but. The next day, I asked if my younger brother wanted my bean bag chair, for his room.
The problem was, the sounds of my nightmares were well hidden behind and between the sounds of real things. And I couldn’t shut those out.
The house settled, and tomorrow I would wake up under crushing gravity. I’d have to spend my life on my hands and knees like an animal. The pipes whined, and there was a tiny doll with a corrupted surface like the bark of a birch tree. It was laughing and waiting for me to see what was so funny, so it could tie its strings to my fingers and control me forever. As you were fading into sleep, something would fall, and even though I knew next morning I’d find a stack of books spilled across the carpet, I still waited for the great mud golem to brush my curtain aside to take my heart and nothing else.
Each night I saw a hundred phantasms, a thousand hiding devils, a million grinning shadows. And each morning I would forget the terror that kept me up, wide eyed and staring, until the time I splashed milk into a bowl of dry cereal. My dreams were almost always peaceful. It was only my waking nightmares that I had to worry about.
As I grew and the nights turned into weeks which turned into years, my nightmares matured with me. I no longer worried as much about the unfortunate hobgoblin. He was smaller than me now, and even if he was bigger, he wasn’t that scary. And what would something from the deep sea be doing above water? It would suffocate, and my hands did not go so quickly to my light switch or the pocketknife under the mattress.
Instead, I worried about a gas leak that soundlessly carried me off in my sleep. I worried about paying for the damages done to my mother’s car. I stayed up on lonely nights agonizing over why she kissed him, and not me. There were nights, as I grew older, that I wished my nightmares beyond the curtain would return, to see if they were as horrible as I remembered. These new nightmares were not as scary, but they made me much more lonely.
The cruel trick of time is that it passes. I graduated high school and, like Eric before me, I would bequeath my room to our younger brother when I went away to college. I thought about telling him not to worry about the blue curtain. Maybe I could even replace it before I left. But there was never time or a good way to start explaining it. Besides, it all seemed kind of childish, now that I thought about it.
On my last night at home, I woke up. The clock read 4:18 am, and as I blinked to read it I banished the last sleepy thought I had. It would be hours before I fell back asleep. So I laid in bed and closed my eyes, hoping my body would be fooled, and I listened to the sounds that had once terrified me in my childhood. I opened my eyes when I realized I couldn’t hear anything. I had gone stone deaf.
I leaned up in bed, whispering a prayer to discover I could still hear. The silence was powerful and perfect, like the house was holding its breath. My eyes fell on the blue curtain, which rippled soundlessly. Something about that night, with my curious sleeplessness and the silence of the home, made me get up from my bed and walk over to the curtain, as I had imagined doing most nights before. I listened at first, to make sure I couldn’t hear a sound, and then slowly I filled the basement with the sound of the plastic rings running the rail.
Against the familiar shapes and shadows of my basement, near the far wall, stood a figure in the darkness.
There are two types of nothing. There is the nothing where something was and is no longer, and there is the nothing where something never was, or could be. This figure was made from the second one. His face was split in a grim and ghastly smile of smooth and rounded teeth, like rows of tombstones catching the light of a full, silver moon. It was the kind of smile you felt when you were in a crowd of people, and knew someone was watching you.
Against him, the darknesses of my basement were just tones of night. I might have said something to the figure, but I couldn’t remember now. It started to walk towards me, and as its hands reached up and touched my skin with a feeling of absence, I knew that all my nightmares had been true. They had just been waiting for me to come to them, behind the blue curtain.
We are very hungry now, and very cold.
But we are also very patient.
Behind the blue curtain.