Coming Of Age
By Steve Gladstone
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It was the winter of nineteen-hundred and eighty-four, and though
the leaves had long ago browned and fallen from the trees, the weather
had been relatively mild. There
was no hint of the sub-zero temperatures and blizzards that would bury
the northern regions of New York in early January.
The railroad would parallel the shores of the Hudson for most of
the of the trip, providing a pleasantly varying milieu for any
interested traveler to ponder from the windows of the rapidly moving
coupled cars. At near sixty
miles an hour, trees and dense copse would peel away to reveal a rocky
shore to the river. Then, a
hill in close proximity to the tracks would suddenly -- rudely --
obscure the field of view. After
a time, the shore would reappear. Semi-periodically,
the silver cars would roar through an unattended or dimly lit station.
And, there was always the low-pitched rumble of the train rolling
along the tracks. Occasionally,
the confines of a dark tunnel would provide a welcome intermission for
the overly engrossed observer.
John Pyle pressed the palm of his right hand to the window.
It was cold, and though it seemed strange to him, the type of
intense coldness of the window made him believe that the air outside was
Had it been twenty or was it closer to a million times?
Perhaps it was more. He
couldn't remember how many times the Hudson River Line had carried him
from the upstate college to his thoroughly suburban hometown.
By careful reckoning, he had determined that the train trip from
Potsdam College (or, Pothole as he affectionately referred to it) to
Yorktown Heights was almost exactly six hours and thirty-three minutes.
Outside the window, the dark blue station sign read "Rensallaer"
in the familiar bold times font that the railroad had chosen for all
such station signs. As the Amtrak roared through this station, John's thoughts
would always turn towards his closest friend, Steve Taylor.
Steve's family lived just down the street from John's and the
boys had known each other well since their second year of high school.
Steve went to school in this town, at the Rensallaer Polytechnic
Institute. While John was
working towards a degree in Physics, Steve was studying Chemistry.
During the longer school vacations, the two would gather together in
all-night sessions to show each other ideas that the other had pondered
or learned. And, as always,
they would contest and gently quarrel over which of the two sciences was
the more "exact." Between
them, it was an on-going, spirited, but friendly debate that each
eagerly hoped to win someday.
John felt that it would be very good to see Steve again.
Now that finals were over, they would have the entire two weeks
of Christmas vacation to catch up on things.
There was so much to tell Steve this time, John thought, as he
For a moment, he tried to think of how he might express to Steve
feelings for a girl he had recently met and longed for without sounding
too silly or neurotic. Though he barely knew Maureen Ryan, John knew that he was
perched above the dangerous precipice that was called first-love.
And, he wondered if it would be a requited one.
The screeching of the tracks arguing against the train's wheels
awakened him from these intense thoughts as the cars ahead had began to
round a tight curve. As
always, the tracks won the argument and he was relieved.
He looked down at the digital watch that his father had so
proudly given to him upon his high school graduation.
schedule so far," he muttered after performing a quick mental
On previous trips he had tried many things to help pass the time.
He'd read stories, written stories, did homework, fantasized, and
once even listened to a self-hypnosis tape that a roommate had given
him. But, the trip was invariably a long one, and John had grown
more impatient throughout his four years at Potsdam.
This soon-to-be senior was far from the boy that had entered as a
freshman three years earlier. He
often mused about how different he was from either of his parents.
His father was an educated, but sometimes overly-intellectual
man, while his mother was a flurry of emotion and imprecise thought.
From his father he learned the thirst to learn and reason.
From his mother he learned to intuit and the drive to pursue
goals with flare and heart-felt passion.
Though he loved both of them dearly, he often felt as though he
existed in vastly different dimensions from either.
College had been the lens through which John had focused and
reconciled the lessons he had learned from them into a union that he
could live with. Often,
science and reason became the steely armor that John wore to deny and
protect himself from the stabs of turbulence that lurked deep within the
core of his being. Though
deeply felt, his emotions would sometimes be expressed in a staccato or
odd-time, instead of in more common meters which most were accustomed. The result: Though
some considered him a renaissance man, John was often tagged as an
intellectual stoic upon a first meeting.
The Christmas break was a special vacation for John.
He had often wondered why he felt this way, and he had reasoned
that it had something to do with everyone anticipating presents, family
gatherings, and chestnuts roasting...And, pass or fail, he had managed
to answer all of those tricky questions on the quantum mechanics test.
For him, that alone was enough to motivate celebration.
He was quietly confident that his straight-A average would remain
intact, at least until the Spring semester.
Christmas was so magical to John as a child.
The presents seemed so big and Santa Claus so real.
He remembered how he would hide behind the blue couch by the
fire-place with the milk and chocolate-chip cookies plainly in view --
bait to trap the jolly old soul. But,
invariably he would fall asleep on one of the soft pillows and awaken
sometime later with all of those toys in view and the cookies missing.
John wondered if Mikey would set the Santa trap.
Perhaps Mikey might be smart and tie a string or something to the
milk glass. "Why
didn't I think of that idea way back then," he snickered silently. And, he wondered if his father might even stumble into the
trap, that is, if he wasn't wearing his glasses.
Mikey was John's seven year-old brother.
Though he had minded the age difference much more during high
school, John was glad that "surprise" Mikey had happened to he
and his parents. He enjoyed
the perspective that seeing his parents raise a small child afforded
him. But mostly, John loved
Mikey. They were close and
there would always be a big hug waiting for him when he arrived home,
for this holiday in particular. He wondered if Mikey would like the Tonka truck that he had
picked out as a gift.
The angry squeal of metal-against-metal caused John to shake off
these thoughts, as the train's brakes engaged.
The blue sign read "Yorktown
Once again, he had successfully completed the pilgrimage home.
On the platform below, John could see his parents standing
together, and gazing intently at the slowing, long line of silver
box-cars, waiting for the appearance of their first-born.
Mikey was kneeling, ear to the ground, no doubt enjoying the
earthquake simulation that the train provided.
There were several moments to wait until the cars had come to a
complete stop and the air brakes hissed in relief from pressure.
John used these moments to frame a mental snapshot:
He noted the somewhat haggard, but upbeat appearance of a typical
Westchester County middle-class family.
It was only a ten minute drive from the station to Windmill
Drive. The white house
looked as it always had, though a new flood-light had been installed
above the front door. John
could see Ginger, the family Airedale terrier in the living room’s bay
window, peering out in a wary pose.
Nose pressed against the window, she would stand with her hind
legs on the couch, something John's mother would swat her for.
But not everything was as John had left it. Though Mikey seemed himself, his parents seemed to speak in
tense, constrained tones.
you going over to the Taylor's today?" asked John's father
monotonically, as he removed the keys from the car ignition.
dad, I'm pretty beat. Besides,
Steve's just getting home today too, and I'm sure he probably feels just
about as tired as I am."
passed and there was no reply or follow-up question. John felt a strong urge to interrupt the looming silence.
sure could use a good home-cooked meal ma'.
Pothole food is the pits!" There was another extended pause.
heat you some beef stew when we get inside," she replied
uneventfully. If anything
would stir his Italian mother into excitement, it would be John
requesting to be fed upon arrival.
But, this time there was only a somber smile.
As John stood behind the white Chrysler waiting for the trunk to
open so that he could remove his duffel bag, he felt a tug to his left
sleeve. Looking down, he
could see Mikey.
lost my toof!" Mikey laughed.
The somewhat toothless smile and contents of Mikey's outstretched
hand confirmed this fact. "Ma'
says I gotta put it under my pillow and the toof-faery will come and
give me money!" John smiled and nodded knowingly.
When they arrived inside and were thoroughly sniffed-out by the
dog, John felt as though his parents wanted to tell him something.
He could tell because both his mother and father seemed to be
hovering around the kitchen. His
mother was nervously sponging the top of the stove, while his father
leafed - no, rifled - through the daily newspaper.
In almost all cases John knew that these mannerisms meant only
one thing: a family
meeting. But, the long
train ride had exhausted him, and besides, he had not slept well during
think I'm gonna crash awhile," John said as he made a hasty exit
from the kitchen after devouring the stew.
The trek from the kitchen to his old room seemed a long one.
Though tired, John took the
opportunity to look for any decorating changes that had taken place
since his last visit. Crossing
the living room he noted nothing significant, except that his father's
favorite chair had been moved further from a corner of the room.
This had been done to accommodate a lavishly decorated seven-foot
high Christmas tree. The
old and familiar couch, bookcase and entertainment center were there
also. Ginger lay sleeping
in her favorite spot near the fire-place, her paws twitching
spastically, as she frolicked somewhere in doggie-dreamland.
John looked forward to relaxing in this room later because he
knew that his father would stoke the fire, and he very much enjoyed the
observance of this bit of Americana.
The living room led to the long main hallway of the single-level
house. All of the bedrooms
and bathrooms were accessible from this hall.
Both of the boy's bedrooms were located at the far end, Mikey's
on the left and John's on the right.
The first opening of the door to his old room always caused a
thousand childhood memories to come flooding back to him.
There was the first-baseman's mitt that his father had given to
him for his twelfth birthday, and there was the second model rocket he
had built on his own. He
even recalled the launch day, that it flew, and that the parachute had
opened. He set down the
overly-stuffed black and gray duffel bag with a groan and resolved to
unpack later. By now sleep
was gaining a firm grasp on him. Looking
up from the twin-size bed he managed to muse that even the familiar
stucco-like patterns on the ceiling hadn't changed.
hope home never changes," he dimly thought.
Then the sleep took him.
Foggy-eyed, but relieved, he awoke gazing at the cherry-neon
numbers worn on the face of the night stand's LED clock:
10:34 PM. John
realized that he had slept a long time.
Listening, he could hear nothing from down the hall that might
signal that the rest of the family was gathered in the living room
Mom and Dad put Mikey to bed and then turned-in themselves," he
thought. For a moment he
was sad because, if it were true, he had missed the stoking of the fire
for that night. Hungry
again and desiring some sort of company, he decided to venture to the
kitchen once again.
the dog is up," he smiled.
After the ham and cheese sandwich, he wandered back into the
living room. The last
embers of the fire were dimly, but warmly glowing. He knew that it would
be some time before they flickered out completely.
John sat down on the couch and ran the tips of his fingers gently
across the coarse weave of the bluish fabric.
He noticed that Ginger had vacated her spot by the fire-place,
probably in favor of a softer, warmer one on Mikey's bed.
It was dark and extremely quiet, and there was only the tocking
of the grandfather clock and an occasional rumble as the old heater in
the basement toggled on or off. For
a few minutes he merely enjoyed how the flickering of the Christmas tree
lights reflected randomly from the tinsel and garland, and he thought
fondly of his far-away love...
The dark and the quiet had its effect on him again, and he began
to feel sleepy. Making his way from the couch, he entered the long hallway
once again. It was at this
moment he saw the figure of the young woman at the other end.
She had long golden-blonde hair, and she was dressed what
appeared to be a ballroom gown. Even
in the darkness of the hall, the sequins seemed to shimmer with light.
The stranger seemed to be daintily backing out of Mikey's room,
and with a wave of something she had in her hand, the door to Mikey's
room seemed to slowly close. John
stopped at the entrance to the hall and stood squinting in the darkness
with his mouth agape.
he quietly whispered his heart's hope.
But, it became clear to him after a moment that it was not.
The woman had heard the whisper and turned quickly to face John.
As she did so he could hear the fabric of the gown whoosh against
the wooden floor. He could
see her eyes fixed on him now, and they were a clear and brilliant blue.
Her facial expression was one of feigned recognition and there
was a faint, knowing smile. But,
John did not return this smile. Instead,
he began racing towards the woman in order to confront her.
As if she had only that moment realized that she was not in a
place she should be, her smile faded and her eyes widened.
From a fold in her gown, she used her hand to draw out something
that looked to John as a shiny iridescent sand.
He stopped just short of her and his mouth had just begun to open
with the first of many questions when she threw the faery dust at him. There was a jingling and a tinkling sound and he could feel
his knees buckle, as though a soft but heavy weight had been thrust upon
his head. As the thick,
black sleep stole his consciousness away, he wondered if she really did
have pointed ears.
"Why are you sleeping here?" Mikey asked, still in his
pajamas. Mikey was looking down at John, who was lying prone in the hall
just outside the young boy's bedroom door.
At this moment John felt a bit embarrassed, because he realized
that he had walked the house in his sleep.
Though he had never done it before, it seemed the only rational
explanation to the set of events before him.
guess I fell asleep out here with Ginger last night, Mikey.
I was pretty tired you know." he lied.
was right! Look what the toof faery gave me! Money!
I am gonna buy a whole packa baseball cards.
'Bet I get all the best ones too!"
Mikey was ecstatic and ran down the hall towards the living room
to dance about the tree.
took that opportunity to pick himself up off the floor.
He felt relieved that his one of his parents had not discovered
him sleeping there. From the cold quality of the light streaming through Mikey's
window, John could tell that is was still early. He knew that his parents would sleep in, especially with it
being the day before Christmas.
Throughout breakfast, John noticed that his mother and father
still spoke in hushed tones, and there was clearly some tension in the
air. Something needed to be
said by someone, but it was not. Mikey
was oblivious to all of this and was instead focused on teasing Ginger
with promises of table scraps. Outside
the window John could see that the white feather-like flakes were just
beginning to fall. He had
not yet picked out Christmas presents for his mother or father, and was
anxious to complete this task before any storm set in.
Also, this would be a good opportunity to get together with
Steve, he thought. He
wondered if Steve had any last-minute shopping to do too.
During the phone call they agreed to meet at the entrance to the
Jefferson Valley Mall at eleven o'clock that morning.
John wondered why his parents stared, seemingly annoyed as he
closed the front-door behind him.
The mall was always a virtual ant hill of activity on the day
before Christmas. There was a mindless look on everyone's face as they
each raced about in somewhat random pursuits.
As he waited for Steve, John wondered how it was that all this
chaos ended up amounting to anything.
After a time Steve arrived and the standard greetings were
exchanged. Sometime later,
with all shopping tasks complete, the two young men found themselves
quite hungry and headed to the second floor food pavilion.
Eventually, the conversation turned away from science, Maureen
Ryan, and more toward miscellaneous matters.
At that point John decided to tell Steve about the previous
evening's strange events.
Steve, you gotta hear this one," John offered the bait.
actually walked in my sleep last night!" John chuckled.
How'd you know you did?" inquired Steve.
woke up outside Mikey's door early this morning.
But it gets weirder. Are
you ready for this?" John asked and immediately felt the hook had
my dream-walk I thought I saw the tooth faery!
You know, the classical image of Good-witch Glenda in the gown,
the wand, magic dust and everything!
I guess all Mikey's talk about his tooth falling out crept into
my subconscious and festered or something." John forced out a loud
laugh after saying this. But Steve was not laughing and John felt a bit
Am I crazy? Maybe
too much studying..." Steve was looking about anxiously now, as if
to see if anyone was watching.
wrong, Steve?" John asked. Steve's eyes narrowed and he moved
closer to John as if to whisper. He
pointed at John sharply.
do this here!" he
exclaimed almost under his breath.
He wore an angry, desperate look that John had never seen before.
John was lost.
know you're twenty-one also...your parents must've told you about 'em by
now...you know that you are not supposed to tell they're real or...he'll
come!" The chemistry major's face had flushed and he backed
away from John. As if he
had said too much about something he wasn't supposed to, Steve threw up
his hands, turned, and raged quickly away from his former best friend.
John found himself alone and in thorough disbelief over what had
just transpired. He thought
that Steve was pulling one of his more elaborate jokes and would return
momentarily to laugh about the whole episode. But, Steve did not return.
And, after some waiting, John left the mall and returned home to
wrap the gifts before Christmas Eve arrived.
Until he could exactly figure out for himself what had happened
with Steve, John decided not to say anything to his parents about the
sleepwalking episode or Steve's reaction to it.
He thought he should try to forget about it for the evening and
enjoy this special time with Mikey.
Mikey was excited because he knew that Santa was supposed to come
down the chimney later that very evening, laden with all manner of
presents especially for him.
In fact he was so excited that his parents tired and retired
before he did. His father
asked him, and John agreed to put Mikey to bed when the child ran out of
steam. John tried to think
of a clever way to wind down the boy, and then the thought struck him.
wanna set a Santa trap?" asked John.
Santa trap. It's where we
tie some string on the milk and cookies to catch Santa when he comes
down the chimney!" John pointed to the sash.
A San'a trap! Let's
catch him!" the young boy wringed his hands and almost squealed.
They set about taping some thin, white string to the bottom of
the cookie dish and milk glass that they placed on a small table beside
the tree. John was careful
to hide the string so that it would not be detectable.
sense waking Mikey up when I catch Dad," John thought to himself
and tied the end of the string loosely around his wrist.
In a familiar ritual, he
moved the blue couch away from the wall enough for both of them to hide
comfortably. With the
cushions for pillows and some blankets, Mikey fell off to sleep in mere
minutes. John felt as
though he had accomplished something significant in getting Mikey to
sleep this night and was reluctant to stir the young boy, lest he
awaken. So, he thought it would be better to just go ahead and sleep
right where he was.
A gentle tug from the loop about his wrist was enough to cause
John's eyes to snap open, but he did not move.
He was still concerned about waking Mikey, snoozing soundly
beside him, visions of sugar-plums dancing in his head.
With delicate care he stood up silently and turned to whisper to
his father, thinking he might offer some help in assembling some of the
Even viewed from behind, fat St. Nick's distinctive silver-white
beard could be seen plainly. The
crimson red fabric had almost a glowing sheen to it, except where it had
been matted down by friction just beneath the left shoulder.
John's thoughts raced wildly as he attempted to rationalize the
situation. Who was this fellow? Were
his parents safe? John
wondered what manner of burglar would steal children's toys, anyway.
Sensing another presence behind him, Santa put down the cookie
bowl and swung about to face John with a grace unusual for such a portly
man. Even without
fire-light John could see the bearded face of the cherub, complete with
bright red nose and cheeks. This
face wore the same look of feigned recognition that he had witnessed on
the Tooth Faery's only twenty hours earlier.
John took two steps and leapt into the air in an attempt to
grapple with the intruder, but the old man had anticipated the attack.
In one continuous motion, and with an agility that could not be
matched by even someone one-quarter his apparent age, Santa flung the
burlap sack over his shoulder and bounded towards the fire-place.
In the moments following there was a loud crashing sound, and
John found himself tangled in the glitter, garland, and strung lights of
the now-fallen Christmas tree. Even
with all the clattering, John heard the famous voice bellow from the
upper reaches of the chimney.
ho, ho! Merry Christmas to
all, and to all a good night!" it boomed.
It only took a moment to untangle himself, and he was at his feet
and headed swiftly towards the hall, towards his parents room.
But, the hall light was already on, and John's mother and father
were standing side-by-side, as though vigilant sentinels.
His mother's hand held a tissue to her tear-stained face and she
softly sobbed. His father
grimaced with features that had a tense, angular look. It was an
expression that John remembered his father would have just prior to
administering a spanking to Mikey. John stopped before them and began to mouth an explanation.
whacko was...." He began desperately, but stopped. After all of
this commotion it seemed quite strange to John that Mikey was still
sleeping, but he was.
down, son." His father said sternly.
And they all did.
Mom and I have been meaning to tell you something for awhile now, but
something always came up...or, it never seemed the right time,"
John’s father almost struggled to say.
a psycho just came in here and could've killed us all!
Don't you think we should call 911 or something!
We can talk about this stuff later..."
John insisted, but was immediately interrupted.
up boy!" His father said in a tone that was usually reserved for
Mikey. His mother was
sobbing quite audibly now.
weren't sure how you'd take to it...You know, you being in the sciences
and all. Sometimes those
types have a problem with it, and..." John’s father said,
returning to a monotonic tone.
don't want to loose you Johnny!" His mother wailed, as if pleading
with him for something he could give.
do you mean lose me? I don't get
this. What are you saying
are real, son."
of them...the Easter Bunny, Santa,...the whole lot!" His mother
burst out again and resumed bawling.
now that you are twenty-one, you have been told," his father
This is crazy. You are rational people.
Who fed you this stuff?" John argued.
is serious, John. You are
not to tell anyone you know this. You
have to play along, or...he’ll come!"
John was thoroughly trained as a scientist to deal in rational
terms. His conditioned mind
had already rejected wholeheartedly the previous night's incident, and
it simply could not tolerate what they had just told him, no matter how
sincere they seemed.
I am going to the cops right now. This
guy might be going from house to house!"
He darted towards the front door, grabbed his winter coat and ski
hat from the rack. His right hand moved up quickly to the switch to the outside
flood-lights. He would need
to be able to see the steps to the driveway.
He turned to cast one last disapproving look to them. They had stood up from the couch together and were arm-in-arm
once again. There was
nothing more that could be said by anyone.
John turned the silver-tone doorknob and stepped out onto the
first step of the walk. He had been looking down to navigate the course and did not
see the black shadowy figure before him.
It was too late to avoid the soft, but powerful blow from the
dark one. John's head
snapped back from the jolt, and he fell sideways, slipping onto the icy
pavement. Gazing up at the night, he could see that there was
someone...something present that had a darker outline than even the cold winter
sky. It was an ill-bounded
figure, like a midnight mist, its dimensions shifting continuously, but
it had a thoroughly masculine presence.
John tried to rise to his feet, but he immediately felt the full
force of the specter upon him. He
was unable to move.
In moments he felt the weight melt away from his torso, but a
grip tightened about his calves. One-by-one,
the creature pulled John down the slippery brown asphalt steps and
headed for the end of the driveway.
He managed to roll over onto his stomach for a few moments,
enough time to look back and see his ashen-faced parents at the front
door, clutching each other tightly in their loss.
As the vision of them faded, John wondered where the Boogeyman
would be taking him.