My stepfather yelled from the ground floor, “GEOOORRGGEE!” My stomach dropped, as it always did when I heard him bellow like that. I crept out of my room and stood at the top of the stairs. “GEOOORGE! GET DOWN HERE. NOW!” I slowly and quietly walked down the stairs as if being delicate might save myself from whatever trouble I was in this time. I reached the bottom then turned the corner and saw my stepfather, Richard, standing in the kitchen. The trash can was knocked over, full food packages tossed around, opened and spilling onto the counter space and floor. The refrigerator open, a carton of milk on its side dripping, pasta and tomato sauce leftovers splattered on the linoleum. My shock was genuine, but I suppose he didn’t see it. He had one culprit in his head and it was the 13 year old boy in pajamas standing in front of him.
What ensued was an epic rant, even for the short tempered Richard who was making the mess worse as he exaggerated his frustration by tossing already wasted food, knocking over chairs and even breaking a glass. It sounded as if he had worked out with his small thoughts exactly how I’d pulled this culinary crime off.
I did what I always did in those situations, stood still, stared straight ahead and tried to go anywhere else in my head, anything to avoid further ire or lest feel the violent, meaty hands of Richard.
Through my mind I saw the tree-line just outside our house, a half a mile or so in there was my creek where I spent countless hours in solitude during the day. I heard the water trickling over the rocks. I tried to imagine I was there listening to the wind in the trees, the dappled sun on my face.
My vision was interrupted by Richard who moved in an inch from my face, asking his patented question, “D’YOU UNDERSTAN’ ME?!”
No, Richard, I don’t.
I nodded ‘yes.’ Richard always had a temper but it was made worse when he was drunk and I knew from his invasion of my personal space that he most definitely was. The sweet, acidic smell of cheap beer on his breath. Thank god he managed to consume his nightly 6-pack before the kitchen was destroyed.
“Clean it up! You’ve got two hours til yer mother comes home. I wan’ it spot-hiccup-less!”
Richard slid away, stumbling like the man of distinction he was. I heard the T.V. turn on from the living room and as always turned up way too loud.
Left to myself and not having to pander to Richard, I took the scene in. I knew I didn’t destroy the kitchen because I did what I always did when my mom worked the late shift and I was left with Dick; I stayed in my room, reading comics and eating snacks. I then quickly jumped to the conclusion that Richard had done all this, a sort of gas-lighting that drunken stepfathers must take a class on.
I stood there and with each passing second I heard the T.V. straining to operate at full volume, I grew more furious. I imagined the creek again, this time at night, the water that moved over the big pile of rocks in the center as if-
“I DON’T HEAR NO CLEANIN’!”
I had to get out of the house. I felt the walls closing in, my body running battery acid, I couldn’t look at the corn flakes smashed on the floor or the orange juice dripping off the counter anymore, let alone clean it. I crept back upstairs to my room. I quickly changed into a pair of jeans and a hoodie and grabbed my backpack that was always equipped with a small tent my mom bought me shortly before meeting Richard. I crept back downstairs, my practice of stepping lightly coming in handy in times like this. I couldn’t get out through the front door, he would hear that, but I could go through the side door in the kitchen. I made my way through the mess and when I went to unlock the side kitchen door I noticed it was already unlocked.
This door was always locked, mostly because the deadbolt was sticky and it took quite a bit of effort to work. It was a question I could ponder later. I opened the door as slowly and as minimally as I could and slipped out. The cool night wind met me immediately and my knotted stomach began to loosen. I started towards the direction of the creek, my sanctuary.
Our house then was mostly surrounded by fields, with a tree-line about a half a mile away. We had neighbors on each side but no fences. This was closer to farm country and acres of land between homes was only distinguished by mowing patterns in the grass. I had run away before, sort of. Usually I would only allow myself to meet the tree-line, prop up the tent and wait out whatever I was escaping. It was usually my mom that found me, she would come in with a soft reassuring voice that would quell whatever I was seething over.
But this night was different. I felt different. One of those moments that define your teenage angst as you test your individuality. I didn’t want to be found. I was mad at Richard’s latest stunt and his acrid breath, I was mad at my mom for being with him, I was mad my mom was working the late shift and leaving me with that man who wasn’t my father. I was mad at my real father who left me before I knew him. I wanted to watch it all burn down. My veins were pumping lava.
I remembered a gratifying feeling when I envisioned Richard bellowing from the living room, trying to compete with the T.V. asking if the kitchen was spotless yet. Eventually he’d stumble in, see the mess but not me, he’d scream and scream my name, maybe even bound up the stairs to get me from my room, but I wouldn’t be there either. I remember smiling, genuinely feeling happy for a split second at his eventual dismay when he’d have to explain this to my mom.
There was no real trail to my spot by the creek, although I had been there enough times to make some sort of path. The quickest way would require crawling over a fallen tree and pushing through a thick brush. I’d never done this at night, only in the daylight. You often hear things look different at night and perhaps I should have been on alert, but when I reached my spot it was exactly how I had envisioned it would look in my head. The scattered moonlight highlighting the small stream, the sound of the trickling water over the mass of rocks in the center, the occasional hoot of an owl. Perhaps I should have been more on alert, but I wasn’t. Considering the scene I’d just left, this solitude was welcomed, nothing could be worse than being trapped in a house with Richard and that damn T.V.
I smiled. This all felt right, as if I was supposed to be here. That I had listened to an unheard voice, that I flipped a switch and was now letting the universe guide me. I opened my bag and took out the tent, a small pop tent that I was able to get up in a flash. I crawled inside leaving the flap down so I could look at the water rushing over the rocks.
I had gravitated towards this spot because it felt like something out of a movie. It was just so picturesque, even to this day despite what happened, I can still imagine it in my head. A small tuft of tall grass is where I propped my tent, a foot away was the craggy stream that jutted and banked in odd directions. Directly in the eye-line of my tent was a mound, maybe four of five feet in height that was entirely composed of rocks that seemed impossibly smooth, they shimmered just below the constant thin covering of creek water. From time to time there would be a smell, it would range from earthy, like dead leaves, to a sweet pungent smell, like trash left in the sun.
I must have been at my spot for a half hour or so, lost in a daze and trying to let my thoughts slow down, when I started to smell the creek. It started as dead leaves, but then quickly turned to a sharp odor, like when a mouse had died in my bedroom wall earlier that year. The breakdown of organic matter. It was so intense that I had to put my hand to my nose, I gagged, then pulled my hoodie up so it would cover half my face.
I stared at the rock mound and saw reflections adjust at the very top, as if one of the rocks had shifted position. I thought it was the moonlight playing tricks, but then a small rock fell from the top of the mound and landed with click-clack splash. Then, I heard another one. Click-clack splash. Then another. Click-clack splash, clickclack splash, clickclacksplash, clickclacksplash. My heart skipped a beat. Something was moving just behind the mound. I then saw what looked like a twisted clump of twigs, leaves and algae come rising over the mound, it then stopped on top of the biggest rock in the clump, near the top.
In the night light, I felt like I started to see the silhouette of a person in the mound. The brush of twigs and algae formed the hair, the big rock on top the head, its body made up of the other disconnected rocks. As if the form was sitting. Obviously my mind was playing tricks on me I thought. I knew there wasn’t a person in the rocks, but once the image was in my mind I couldn’t un-see it.
I sat there for what seemed like hours, just staring at the rocks, not daring to move. My body grew tired and I realized I had been tensed for as long as I’d been looking at the rock form. The smell was still prevalent, even through my thick hoodie, dead mice and now what seemed like burnt hair.
I thought of the voice that led me out here, that internal voice which the universe was speaking through and radiated in my chest was betraying me. Something was wrong.
An owl called out with a raucous hoot in full surround sound. It snapped me out of my daze and I moved to zip up the entrance of the tent. I didn’t think of running back to the house, I didn’t want to expose myself in such a way. That sort of irrational feeling of hope to just think whatever it was out there wasn’t looking at me. I sat in the tent, hearing the wind move through the trees outside, hearing the creek water trickle past. I heard what sounded like plastic crinkle, an unnatural sound in this natural setting. I then saw something fly up against the tent and get caught on one of the corners, crinkling. Despite my fear, I slowly and quietly unzipped the tent flap. I cautiously peered out and held my breath. I saw, a potato chip bag, Ruffles, laying against the tent, slowly moving in the wind. Had the kitchen not been destroyed I wouldn’t have thought anything of it perhaps. But my kitchen had been destroyed. I had those sour cream and onion Ruffles that evening.
Up until this point, you could perhaps chalk these deep seeded memories up to an overactive child’s imagination. I’ve replayed this story countless times in my head and I’ve been able to find rational in these events.
Until, I heard more rocks fall.
I turned from the potato chip bag and back to the mound. More rocks falling and then suddenly, the bigger rocks that formed the majority of the mound started to move. The water sound changed like when you stand up in a bathtub, trickles became splashes as the rock form began to stand up. It was as if the rock form had been a person in waiting. Simply sitting in the creek, letting the water roll over it in an ever patient slumber. The earth mound formed what would resemble that of a man or at least that’s what my mind made of it. It stood in the shallow creek, its shiny complexion dripping, its hair of algae and leaves protruded on top of its head.
I sat in wonder. Dumb. My body half out of the tent not believing what I was witnessing. I then heard that damn owl hoot again and as if a gunshot at a track meet I attempted to sprint away. I slipped coming out of the tent and lost my left sneaker. I ran anyway. I ran on instinct, not fully conscious of the turns I was making, but somehow abiding by my loose trail directions. I slammed through the wall of brush, not even feeling the cuts loose sticks where giving me. I hopped the down tree and let out a scream. My left foot had landed directly on a jagged rock. The pain, despite the adrenaline I had coursing was too much. I stopped and held my foot, blood already gushing out. I looked back from where I came, hoping I wasn’t being followed, but I was. The rock form was pushing through the brush with ease. It made this flat thumping sound as it lurched, like when you drop a large stone on the sidewalk. Cracking and heavy.
I crawled as I heard the thump with greater and greater clarity, it was gaining. I grunted and got to my feet where I continued to hobble through the brush. I could see the tree line but still heard the thump of the rock form. I dared to glance behind me and saw the form extend an extremity back and lunge forward, stone hitting me just below the eye. It felt like a baseball bat swung at full force connecting with my left cheek. It spun me around and dropped me to my knees, but I somehow continued to move. I scampered and got to the tree line where I was glad to see, of all things, Richard, standing arms akimbo in the middle of the backyard. I let out a yell that sounded more like a squeal. He saw me crawling on the ground and bounded over. I turned behind me one last time and saw the rock form crumble. The algae hair drop to the ground with a squish, the twigs scatter. The rocks forming a non-descript collection of nature.
I turned back to look at Richard, frown faced, slightly wobbling as he huffed and puffed in his gait. I looked back to the rocks and in that moment knew no one would believe me. I knew there would be no way to spin this. The rock form, reduced to a pile sat there, almost in mocking.
Richard started screaming. He yelled because he didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t look at my face or judge my demeanor, he just lashed out. He demanded that I stand, but when I couldn’t he proceeded to drag me across the lawn, speaking in slurred tones. I remember seeing my neighbor’s lights turn on, I may have even seen some people from a distance on their back porches watching the scene unfold. This clearly drunk man dragging a child across the backyard. It culminated when he had dragged me nearly back to the house and I was blinded by headlights pulling into the driveway, my mom returning home from the late shift. Now I can just imagine the horror from her vantage point. Tired from a day’s work and finding her husband dragging her only child through the backyard, covered in scratches and a brutal black eye forming.
The night was then lost in a rush of loud voices, bright lights and the reality of my new life. Police were called and drunk Richard was arrested. I was taken to the hospital where I needed 21 stiches in my foot and was diagnosed with a broken left cheek bone. I was lucky, I was told, in that I wouldn’t require surgery for the facial fracture. Richard was blamed for everything and while there were moments when I reveled in that, there were other times when I felt sorry. My mom never got a straight story out of me, with regard to the events of that night. Even when I tried to tell the truth, it all came out jumbled. Years of futile therapy were ahead.
I never returned to the woods, never saw my creek again. In the daylight I would sometimes stare into the tree line, looking for the pile of rocks that had collapsed that night, but saw nothing and somehow I knew that had collected themselves and were sitting back in the creek. Letting the water roll over them. I’d have nightmares of that figure, rising from the water. The sound of its heavy composite moving. The smell of dead mice.
I thought of the destroyed kitchen, the potato chip bag that floated by my tent, the chase. I thought of the voice that led me there, that betrayed me… or so I thought. Because in the end, Richard was gone for good, which in so many moments was what I had always wanted. I’ve dealt with these images in my head and the circumstances that led to that night and I’m only left with questions.
Had I manifested this? As so many therapists have suggested. Was there something larger out there granting my teenage whims? Listening for my internal desires? Even now, years later, was it still there, listening? I’ve learned to hold my dreams and never wish for something too hard. I believe there’s something out there I can’t control and I’ll never uncover, a guardian angel who unfortunately wants to help.