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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 extremely dry.

            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 chuckled inaudibly.

            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.

"On schedule so far," he muttered after performing a quick mental calculation.

            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 Heights."  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.

"Are you going over to the Taylor's today?" asked John's father monotonically, as he removed the keys from the car ignition.

"Well 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."

Time passed and there was no reply or follow-up question.  John felt a strong urge to interrupt the looming silence.

"I sure could use a good home-cooked meal ma'.  Pothole food is the pits!" There was another extended pause.

"I'll 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.

"I 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 finals week.

"I 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.

"I 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 watching television.

"Perhaps 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. 

"Maybe 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.

"Maureen...?" 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.

"I guess I fell asleep out here with Ginger last night, Mikey.  I was pretty tired you know." he lied.

"Oh,...Ma' 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.

John 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.

"So Steve, you gotta hear this one," John offered the bait.

"What?" Steve asked.

"I actually walked in my sleep last night!" John chuckled.

"No kidding?  Wow!  How'd you know you did?" inquired Steve.

"I 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 been set.

"Sure.  What?"

"In 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 exposed.

"So...what?  Am I crazy?  Maybe too much studying..." Steve was looking about anxiously now, as if to see if anyone was watching.

"What's wrong, Steve?" John asked. Steve's eyes narrowed and he moved closer to John as if to whisper.  He pointed at John sharply.

"Don't do this here!"  he exclaimed almost under his breath.  He wore an angry, desperate look that John had never seen before.

"Huh?" John was lost.

"I know you're twenty-one also...your parents must've told you about 'em by 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.

"Mikey, wanna set a Santa trap?" asked John.

"A wha'?"

"A 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.

"Yeah!  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. 

"No 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 larger toys.

            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, 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.

"Some 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.

"Sit down, son." His father said sternly.  And they all did.

"Your 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.

"Dad, 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.

"Shut up boy!" His father said in a tone that was usually reserved for Mikey.  His mother was sobbing quite audibly now.

"We 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.

"We don't want to loose you Johnny!" His mother wailed, as if pleading with him for something he could give.

"What do you mean lose me?  I don't get this.  What are you saying dad?"

"They are real, son."

"Who is real?"

"All of them...the Easter Bunny, Santa,...the whole lot!" His mother burst out again and resumed bawling.

"...And, now that you are twenty-one, you have been told," his father continued.

"...What?  Warned?  This is crazy.  You are rational people.  Who fed you this stuff?" John argued.

"This 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.

"Look, 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.


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