[The audio version of this story can be found HERE.]
Every kid is haunted by monsters. Some lie dormant just inches beneath the floor, under the bed. They rise through the carpet like a corpse from the earth, only at night, after the lights go out. They wait anxiously – emaciated muscles as tense as cables – waiting for a juicy little foot to swing carelessly over the edge of the bed. Some live in the closet, coiled up behind a pile of old sweaters. They watch silently through that space under the closet door, praying you’ll accidentally leave it open (just a crack) so they can peer out with curled lips and one wide, bloodshot eye and claw restlessly at themselves while they watch you sleep. Still others would rather catch you at your most vulnerable. They stalk you even in the light, just over your shoulder at the blurry edge of your peripheral vision – streaks of shadow and subtle movements that you try to convince yourself you didn’t see. They lie patiently in wait in the back seat of your car when you drive alone, waiting with rigid anticipation to spring up and tear the hair off of your head. They stand just behind you in the shower – haphazardly toothed mouths agape and preparing to shriek… bony fingers ready to grasp your throat as you close your eyes and wash the shampoo from your hair…
…but you open your eyes just in time, and there’s nothing there. There never is. You can’t see or touch these monsters, and as kids grow up, they leave behind their monsters to torment the next generation of vivid imaginations. Well, I had a different kind of monster, and I couldn’t shake him. I saw it every day of my life. I touched it. Cold. Hard. Hungry. Nah, I wasn’t molested or beaten. This isn’t one of those stories. I loved my parents… until he took them away from me.
“Okay honey, it’s time to feed the toilet monster!” I was three years old, in the big blue house at North and Bevier – Aurora. To this day, I don’t know if I actually remember this, or if I’ve just pieced it together from Mom’s stories – but whatever – if it didn’t happen this way, it might as well have. I stood at the open door of the bathroom, mom gently pushing me from behind. The tiles were ice cold on my bare feet, and I wanted to turn around and retreat, but mom’s hand was firm against my back. I dropped my pajama pants and walked out of them, glancing back only once. Mom’s smile was reassuring. The toilet monster was huge, and his one silver eye, long, squinted, and discerning, stared expectantly from above his broad porcelain lips.
Mom was with me – I felt safe. Confident. I was a “big boy”, after all. I stood on the two phone books that she’d placed for me, climbed on, and wiggled until my tiny butt hung into the toilet monster’s gaping lower jaw. I had to hold myself up on either side, but I’d done it. “Feed the toilet monster, honey!” she repeated, her hands clasped and her eyes shining with pride. I let loose with conviction, with purpose – sating his alleged hunger.
That was the first and last time I ever used that upstairs bathroom. The very next day… Well, I remember that day vividly in comparison…the paint on my memory’s canvas is still wet, saturated in sickly greens and reds that quiver and crack at the edges a little more with each replaying, like some old reel of 8mm film that begs to be tossed in the fireplace.
I awoke early the next morning – the morning that changed me. The air tasted burnt and buzzed with a curious energy even a three year old kid recognized as sinister. I butt-scooted carefully to the edge of my bed and lowered my feet onto the bridge of light streaming in from beneath my bedroom door. Three long steps and I was at the door, turning the flanged glass knob with both hands and hanging from it like a sock monkey until I’d pulled the door ajar. I crept down the hallway with terror in my guts – I still can’t tell you why, or what was driving me. Beneath the wandering eyes of an unfamiliar audience of framed strangers, past the baby-gated stairs that lead down to the kitchen, past my parents’ bedroom door… slightly open?… quietly, very quietly, I walked to the end of the hall.
I stopped there and stared at the bathroom door, half open and blindingly bright to my sleepy eyes. I squinted against the light and peered, with one eye, through the spaces between my tiny fingers. I leaned into the door, but it wouldn’t budge. I pushed again, harder, but something was blocking the door from the other side. I recognized the smell – my dad was using the bathroom.
I shoved the door again, and squeezed my body through the opening and into the bright, cramped bathroom, heavy with sensation. There, on the toilet, sat my father, slumped forward over his knees, the top of his bald head shining, and his left leg leaning against the inside of the door. My dad always used this guest bathroom at my mother’s behest – he was a big man, and when he did his business, it was big business.
“Daddy.” He was naked. His face was down, and I couldn’t see it, but his hands and feet were… purple. Even at three, I knew it was all wrong. The sides of his face were bloated, swollen, and gray, and he didn’t look… real. He looked like someone else – someone vaguely like my father, but not human. Black blood dripped from his nose and pooled on the white tile around his feet, running in tiny rivers along the grout. I just stood and stared.
The last thing I remember is a scream – my mother’s scream – so loud and piercing and haunting that I swear it stopped my heart and froze my blood solid. I remember hands clawing at me from behind, and then… nothing. The film in my head abruptly ends.
Mom said his heart “just stopped working”, and as a kid, that frightened me. I didn’t realize a heart could just stop. I would lie awake at night for months, consciously feeling my own heartbeat, worried to tears that it might just stop, and then I’d turn purple and die, just like my dad, and mom would scream and lots of people would come to the house and cry. I didn’t want that to happen.
From then on, mom would take me into the master bedroom to use her bathroom. I never questioned it. That big white door at the end of the hall stayed shut and not even guests were allowed in it. All guests would use the downstairs half bath, even if they were staying overnight upstairs. She told people the plumbing was broken, and even put a piece of masking tape across the door, from frame to frame, like her own version of emotional crime scene tape. I didn’t open the door, and neither did she. We passed it quietly, like a mausoleum, as if my father’s corpse were still entombed inside.
One night, two or three years later, I had a nightmare. I dreamed I was that small child again, struggling to push open the big white bathroom door, but at the same time, horrified because I knew what lay on the other side. Still, my body acted without my consent, and shoved itself through the opening, just as it had that day. Inside, my father’s bloated, discolored corpse sat lifeless and limp, just as it had on that day. Only, in this dream, my mother never came to rescue me. I was tense, fists clenched and teeth grinding, waiting for that scream… that scream that made my skin crawl and my hair stiffen. It never came. I continued staring at my father, and then his head began to rise. His hands, almost black, wiggled with tremors, and then his fat neck craned and, slowly, his face began to turn toward me.
“Dad?” I whispered, my voice stifled by the thick air, almost like water around me, filling my lungs to near bursting with every breath. His face found mine, purple and misshapen like some absurd clay caricature. His lips hung long and loose from his face and his teeth spread out and waved like wind chimes. His big, pitted nose seemed to bobble and swing like hot wax melting. He opened his eyes and stared at me – cartoonish, glassy eyes, almost too big for his face, and as white and featureless as cue balls. I was frozen in place. My feet refused to respond, and the air was getting heavier around me, squeezing me and threatening to crush me. I struggled to move against it, but I couldn’t. I tried to close my eyes, but I couldn’t. My father chewed the air and gargled black blood through his piano key teeth, as if trying to speak to me… but before he could, he was suddenly sucked violently backward. His legs folded up around his head and his body contorted and compressed while his arms flopped like dying fish. The toilet was sucking him down the drain.
It chewed and crunched and gulped at him, consuming my dad ass first in a matter of seconds. The last thing to disappear into the bowl was his swollen face, twisted in horror, cue ball eyes staring straight at me. Blood sprayed upward out of the bowl in droplets on the tank, the walls, the white tile floor. Blood frothed out from under and over the seat, and ran down every curve of the porcelain, gathering into a writhing, bubbling, mass around the base of the toilet. The toilet crunched loudly from within, no doubt chewing his bones, and the black mass oozed steadily toward my tiny feet. I screamed silently and my body ached with my need to move… to run… to escape from his bathroom and flee into my mother’s arms at the other end of the hall. I couldn’t.
The black ooze enveloped my feet – cold, viscous, and stinging with pins and needles as if my feet had fallen asleep at its touch. It grabbed tightly and began to pull. Suddenly, I was sliding across the tile, standing upright, and gliding slowly toward the toilet bowl. The toilet was growing, taller, wider, pressing outward on the walls of the tiny bathroom and expanding in diagonals like a German expressionist film. A deafening ringing stabbed into my ears and I began to feel choked, so tightly that I thought my eyeballs would burst. Every molecule in my body was screaming to get free, and yet, I was helpless. The toilet bowl, now at eye level, began to move, to undulate, and lean toward me as I slid on the soles my feet to meet it, until I could see straight into it. The water didn’t pour out – it stayed firmly in the bowl, spinning like a black whirlpool that seemed to stretch infinitely into the void of space. The ringing in my ears became fractured, roughly textured, and wet, like a toilet flushing, but more… organic. The toilet monster had eaten my father, and now it was going to eat me.
Just as my head was being pulled into the darkness, I heard it… from somewhere in the void, beyond the black whirlpool… that scream. That ice cold, splintered-bone, curdled-blood shriek that tore through my mother’s throat so many years ago. It came from all around me… from inside the toilet monster. It was coming from me.
I awoke screaming at the top of my lungs, drenched in sweat, in a hot puddle of my own urine and feces, my mother tearing into my room in a flowing white nightgown like a pale, gaunt specter in full flight.
We moved out of the house the next week and stayed with my mother’s parents across town in Boulder Hill until we eventually got our own small place just down the street from them. I never had the dream again, nor did I see the house again for many years. As I grew, I would find out that my father had actually died of a massive heart attack due to his weight and bad health, and his body had been there for many hours before I’d found him. He was 38. I would also learn that my grandparents had taken over the mortgage payments in the hopes that someone in the family would want the house again – the big house my grandparents had raised my mother in before giving it to my parents as a wedding present only two years before I was born. No one ever did.
I’d been a late baby for my parents, who didn’t marry until they were both in their 30s – a first marriage for both – and I, the only child, a miracle for my mother who’d been told she wasn’t able to conceive. My grandparents were also older and eventually could no longer afford the payments on two houses, nor were they physically able to live in a two story house. When I was 15, my mother decided to rent out the big house at North and Bevier to offset the cost. She would go there for two or three hours every day for a week after she left work in downtown Aurora, just to clean and repaint. I wanted to help but… I always found a reason not to: baseball practice, homework, helping the grandparents, or just “not feeling up to it.” Still, I would always promise to come and help soon. On the fifth day of cleaning, a Friday, I got off the bus at home and found my dinner waiting in the oven. Mom had left a note. “Cleaning the old house. Turn the oven off. I’ll be home at 8. I love you, Mom.”
The guilt of not helping my mother was crippling. I knew it was wrong, but I was still afraid of that place. I knew it was ridiculous. I knew monsters weren’t real, and I knew my dad’s death was a consequence of his own bad choices, and nothing more. I knew these things, and yet… I couldn’t stomach the thought of going back there. In an effort to ease the weight of the guilt, I cleaned our own small house that evening. I scrubbed our one, happy little toilet, and I washed every window. I did the laundry, the dishes, and even swept the driveway… which is when I noticed the sunset. How long had it been? 8:30. She was a half hour late. That wasn’t like her. It was before the age of cell phones, and I wasn’t yet old enough to drive, so I had only two options: either call the old house, or just wait patiently. Mom hadn’t set up phone service at the old house again yet, so… I waited. At 9:00, I phoned my grandparents down the street.
“Grandma, it’s me. Mom isn’t home from the old house yet. She left a note saying she’d be here an hour ago.”
“I’m sure she’s fine, honey. She probably stopped to get groceries or just lost track of time over there. Don’t worry.”
“Alright. I love you.”
“Love you too, honey.”
9:30 came and went. 10:00 came. My guts twisted.
“Grandpa, it’s me…”
“It’s late. Your grandma and I were in bed, is everything okay?”
“Mom’s still not home.”
“I see. I’ll come pick you up in just a minute. Let’s head over and see what’s keeping her.”
“…thank you Grandpa.”
Grandpa pulled up five minutes later in his big blue Oldsmobile, dressed in a burgundy bathrobe with pajama pants underneath. “Get in, little man.” He said with a smile, but I could see the worry behind it. I was still dressed in my clothes from school. I hadn’t even taken my sneakers off.
We took Broadway along the Fox River to the old house – we spent the ten minutes in silence. The tension was palpable, but every couple of minutes, Grandpa would glance at me and smile reassuringly. I was glad to have him there. I trusted his strength. The old streets were so familiar, though I hadn’t seen it in so many years. We approached the big blue house along North, and as we rounded the corner onto Bevier, Mom’s sedan was parked in the driveway. “There! See?” Grandpa said through a smile. We pulled in behind her and got out. The house was smaller than I remembered, and it seemed dry and tired, slouching and sagging under the weight of its emptiness. Grandpa walked straight to the door and let himself inside, leaving his driver’s side car door open. I hurried to catch up. Once inside, I was stopped in mid step by a flood of memories. The house was empty, but the ghosts of old furniture faded in and out of existence in my mind’s eye. I hadn’t thought about this place in years, and hadn’t been here since I was tiny, but I knew exactly where things had been. I knew the colors of the curtains and the way the magazines would stack on the oak coffee table. I knew where the Christmas tree stood and where my parents would sit to watch television. My grandpa emerged from the kitchen with a slightly worried look, then he suddenly smiled at me. “The place looks clean! Your mom is doing a great job!”
He continued toward the stairs, but stopped at the bottom and called my mom’s name up the narrow stairwell. No answer. He called again, louder, with the slightest edge of panic in his voice. No answer. Something grabbed me by the heart and pulled me forward. I ran toward the stairs, slipped past my grandpa and took the stairs two at a time. He called after me, but I didn’t stop. I just ran. There, at the top of the stairs, I saw the light streaming from the open door of the guest bathroom, cutting a diagonal line across the dark brown shag carpet that crooked and crept up the far wall. I topped the stairs and rounded the corner to the left, and time slowed.
I moved as if in a dream. Effortlessly. Gracefully. I hovered inches above the floor and glided into the bathroom holding half a breath. There on the white tile, in a puddle of fresh, crimson blood, lay my mother. Her eyes were half open, but rolled up, and her body was contorted as she lay on her back on the small floor, yellow rubber gloves on her hands and bottles of cleaning chemicals strewn about. I fell to her side and grabbed her face. I must have been screaming, but I heard nothing. Hands. They grabbed at me from behind again. They pulled me, but I refused to let go. Strong, thick hands lifted me away from my mother and back out into the darkness of the hallway. I turned to see my grandfather, red faced and gasping for breath. His lips formed words, but I couldn’t hear them. He stood taller than I’ve seen him in years, and his eyes weren’t panicked at all. He looked strong and full of authority. He looked at my mother for only a second before pushing me gently to one side and easing himself painfully down to her side. He clutched her face and neck in his hands. He turned to me. More words. He turned back to her and slapped her face gently, his lips moving. He turned to me again. More words. Firm, hard words. I still couldn’t hear them. He repeated them, and as if echoing from faraway walls, I heard the softest reverberation of “Get Help!” I stood for only a second. I saw my mother’s eyelids flutter, and her eyes rolled forward and looked at my grandfather, and then at me, and I ran.
I ran downstairs and out the front door. I ran into the dark, silent street, and I froze. Where do I get help? Who is here to help me? In the midst of the moment, an image rose up from the dark basement of my brain – an image of a giant, living toilet with a black whirlpool in its throat. The sound of a scream from beyond the void grew louder and louder. White light grew in intensity around me until I felt like I was going to pass out. I turned to the left. Headlights. The scream became a car horn.
There I was, standing in the middle of Bevier while a truck sat only a few feet away, headlights flashing, horn blaring. I couldn’t see into the windshield, and I did the one thing I knew to do.
“HELP!” I don’t know if I screamed it once, or a thousand times, but in seconds, a man had emerged from the truck and grabbed me by the shoulders, demanding to know what was wrong. I pointed to the open door of the old house. “MY MOM! SHE NEEDS HELP!”
The man ran toward the old house. Neighbors had appeared from their houses to investigate the commotion. One of them took me into the front yard of the old house and hugged me. The man ran back out from my house and spoke with some of the neighbors. They hurried into their respective houses. Still others gathered in groups and talked quietly, staring at me with confusion and worry. Distant sirens grew louder. Lights. Police. Paramedics. My mother on a stretcher. “She’ll be okay,” one of them said, “she’s alive. She’ll be okay.” My grandfather guided me to his car and buckled me in.
My grandparents and I sat silently in the waiting room of Aurora Medical Center until dawn. One doctor emerged and told us she was talking, but with difficulty. They said she remembered cleaning and getting light headed. The police said she’d likely passed out from the fumes and fallen backward, splitting the back of her head open on the edge of the toilet bowl. Later, a doctor would approach cautiously and tell us that her brain was swelling and that she needed surgery immediately. Still later, they’d say that parts of her brain had been severely affected by the trauma, and that her vitals weren’t stabilizing. At some point around dawn, they told us she’d passed.
The rest of that year is pretty much a blur. There was a lot of crying and hugging. There was a funeral. More crying and hugging. I moved in with my grandparents in Boulder Hill, and it was awhile before I went back to school, but I did go back. To be honest, I can’t really remember much of it. I slept a lot. I guess I did most of the things a normal kid does. I wasn’t irreparably damaged by the loss of my parents. If anything, I felt numb. I didn’t have any more nightmares after that. Hell, I didn’t really dream at all anymore. I lived, I worked, I played, I loved, and I lost. Life goes on. My grandparents sold both my mother’s house in Boulder Hill and our old blue house at North and Bevier and used the money to send me to Bradley University in Peoria – my grandpa’s alma mater. I graduated with decent grades and a business degree and moved to Chicago. I’ve been married and divorced since then, though I’ve never had a kid of my own. I wasn’t averse to it… it just never felt right. I visited my grandparents on the holidays until my they died, two years apart, of various natural causes. They died comfortably and happily: my grandfather asleep in his own bed, and my grandmother in a hospital, surrounded by family. They died respectfully – with dignity.
After my grandparents died, I didn’t have much reason to go back to Aurora. So, I’ve never been back. It’s been about five years now, I think. I never would’ve gone back, either… hell, I wouldn’t have done a lot of things if not for that goddamn news article.
“Hey, didn’t you grow up there? Did you know that guy?” My coworker slid the newspaper in front of me and pressed a greasy finger just below the headline, “FATHER OF FOUR COMMITS SUICIDE”. I read the name.
“No, I didn’t know him.” I started to slide the paper away from my ham and cheese sandwich, until my eye caught the fuzzy, black and white photo near the bottom of the article. An ambulance was parked outside of an old, two-story house that seemed to sag beneath its own weight. I slid the paper back toward me and started to read the article. Police say his body was discovered in an upstairs bathroom. I slid the paper away.
That night, I dreamed. It was the first dream I can remember in fifteen years. A long hallway with brown shag carpet. God, no. A big white door – so much taller than me, and widening at the top, and leaning out over me like a surreal authoritarian. Blinding white light streaming from a widening crack. Please, not this. I am being pulled toward the light. My tiny feet aren’t even touching the ground. My stiff body is being held aloft and moved slowly forward, through the door. I struggle, but I am weak. I can’t move. Someone, please wake me up… I move into the bathroom. My ears are ringing painfully. My skin tingles, and my face begins to burn with a feverish heat. My eyes adjust to the room. The angles are wrong. There are no parallel lines here. The walls, ceiling, and floor are warped and stretched, breathing and pulsing with every heavy beat of my heart. The tile floor is a discordant mosaic of sterile white, misshapen tiles. In a distant corner sits the toilet. It twists on its bolts to face me. The floor between us begins to shorten, though neither of us are moving. God, please don’t make me see this again! A sudden squeaking, a jarring screech of rubber across wet tile. I turn my head to see my mother – her body is long and slack, as if her joints aren’t fastened correctly. She slides across the long, tile floor as if pulled violently by an unseen hand. It slings her side to side in a serpentine trail across the impossibly long floor, leaving a wide, cherry red trail of streaking blood behind her. Her bright yellow rubber gloves clutch wildly at the tile, but find no purchase. Her legs wobble and flop like snakes as her body slides like a strawberry blonde mop. Her skin is as white as the tile. Her eyes… open, but empty, lifeless, and brilliantly white. She suddenly stops at my feet and falls limp. The bathroom has become small around us, crushing us. The toilet is there, right in front of us – larger than life and vibrating with an electric intensity that prevents me from looking directly at it without feeling nauseous. I see the lid, in my periphery, slam open, as the toilet begins to warp, and lean over toward us. The bowl grows wide. That familiar black hole of swirling darkness. My mother’s body begins to slide in. Squeaking rubber and streaking blood across white tile. Her arm suddenly shoots out straight and her yellow gloved hand grabs my ankle like a vice. Her pale face lifts up to me, twisted in disgust – her white eyes burning. She speaks without moving her lips, and the whispered words echo inside my skull.
“Why didn’t you come help me?”
I awake screaming in wet, warm sheets.
I pull up slow and park my car alongside the curb on Bevier. Pulling into the driveway doesn’t feel right. This isn’t my house. I mean, technically it was…is. It took me all of six months to get the house again. After what happened, the family was eager to sell. They took my first offer. I closed this morning. I rub the key between my thumb and forefinger and glance up the house, and I just as quickly look away. This isn’t my home anymore.
I hadn’t bothered to get the utilities turned on. I wouldn’t be staying that long. I step out onto the street. The pale green street light hums and tiny bits of gravel crunch between my feet and the cracked concrete. I pop the trunk. The warm yellow light is comforting, and for an instant, I consider crawling in, closing the lid, and hiding until morning. I take a deep breath. I need this.
I put the key between my lips – its bitterness seems fitting. I pick up the battery powered lantern in my left hand, the tag still hanging from the handle, and I pick up the duffle bag in my right. I’m trying not to think too far ahead about what I’m doing here. I keep my plans short… simple. One foot in front of the other. Face the door and walk. Step up on the curb. Deep breath. I put the bag down long enough to unlock the door. My right arm is shaking. Another deep breath. Put the key in slowly, turn. The lock sticks. I turn it harder. Click.
The door swings open on an empty house. The creak echoes through empty rooms, waking up the spirits of old furniture, familiar paint, the distant sounds of ancient indiscernible voices, like wind through the trees. Up the stairs that seem to last forever. Two. Three. Four. I count the steps to keep my mind blank. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. The lantern emits a hot white light that shines through the banister posts. A chorus line of dancing shadows on the far wall to the right. The weight of the duffle bag tugs at my shoulder. I reach the top of the stairs. Deep breath.
I turn slowly to my left. The door. Still white. It seems… so much smaller now. I stare at the knob for a few moments. With one motion, I slide the large handle of the lantern over my hand and onto my wrist, and I open the door with my left hand. Immediately, I let it slide back down into my hand, and I hold it up between me and… and… an empty bathroom. White tile. I step inside. I close the door with my foot, and there it is. A cold shiver dances across my ribs, and my breath falters. The same toilet. It also seems… so goddamn small. The lantern light falls across its curves casting shadows like wrinkles across its aging face.
“I knew you’d come,” it seems to say to me. “I haven’t forgotten you.”
I look up and see the pellet holes and staining in the popcorn ceiling. I set down my lantern and duffle bag, and draw the tab down the long, loud zipper.
“I dreamed about you last night,” I say aloud. “I didn’t realize how much I’d grown.”
I reach inside the duffle and pull out my grandfather’s rusted sledge. It was one of the few things I kept from the estate sale. I didn’t know why, at the time, but now, standing here, holding it in my sweating hands, twisting my palms against the lacquered wood handle, it all makes sense. For the first time, I stare into his one chrome eye and I take a deep, slow breath. I am not afraid. I tell him so.
“I’m not afraid of you.”
He is silent.
I hold the sledge high above my head, and I clench my teeth and growl, bringing it down hard and smashing the toilet tank into two pieces that fall off on either side. I raise it again, this time shattering the plastic toilet seat and knocking a large piece of the bowl off the right side. I raise it again. And again. And again. And again. I smash the toilet down to the bolts. I smash every piece until no bit is larger than my palm. I’m heaving, choking, crying aloud. Tears roll down my face, and spit hangs from my lips in strings. I can’t stop. I cry for my father, and I cry for the mother I never mourned. I cry for a terrified child too small to face his fear. I fall to my knees and I weep over the battered, dismembered corpse of my monster, and for the first time in my life, I feel like a man.
I close the door behind me. The air is clean, and I breathe it through the smile of a free man. The pale green streetlight hums, and the night sky greets me like a brother. I walk tall toward the soft yellow light of my open trunk. The world seems a little smaller. I know I’ll sleep like a baby tonight.