When I was four Mom and Dad decided my brother, Aiven, and I were too big for one bed. The day our new bunk bed arrived, I felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I wanted to be a big boy but I was afraid to sleep on my own. Aiven assured me he’d be right there if I needed anything, then promptly claimed the top bunk.
The first night I lay wide awake, staring into the darkness. I knew I was being watched by something hiding in the shadows.
After a few weeks, it got to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore. I threw off the covers and ran into my parents’ room, sobbing and quivering with fear. I didn’t tell them what I had seen because I didn’t understand it myself.
“Mom, Dad,” I remember saying the next morning, “..There were people next to my bed.” My parents sat in the living room.
“People, Emery?” Mom asked. She put down her newspaper, sipped her coffee and gave me a half smile. “It was just a dream honey. There are no other people in the house except us. When you see people in your room at night, it’s just your brain processing things. It happens all the time to the people at the hospital.” She continued doing what she was doing and said, “Everything is fine, honey.”
I nodded. Then, Dad looked up from his laptop and said, “What did these people look like, son?”
“Shadows,” I said.
“Really? Well, I know just the thing.”
They thought a stuffed animal might help my fear of the dark. After all, that’s all it was, right? We went to the Garden State Plaza and I stopped in front of a clothing store. I pointed at a life-sized, expressionless mannequin behind the glass. “They look like that,” I said. “Their skin is see-through like glass and they have stars under their skin. Their eyes are pitch black with little tiny white dots, like the opposite of people’s eyes,” I continued. I pointed at my eyes. “The white part is super bright! Like when the sun is behind a cloud.”
Mom glanced at Dad, then at me. She placed one hand over her chest and fidgeted with her scarf. Dad kneeled and locked eyes with me. “Sounds pretty scary, Em’. A doll—” Dad said. He pulled a small notebook from his coat pocket and scribbled something.”
I thought they understood. I was wrong.
Bears of every color sat on the white shelves lining the “Make A Bear” store’s walls. Plushy dogs, wolves, cats, tigers, elephants, and ostriches scanned the room waiting to be created, then thrown away. The bins had beady eyes and big-googly eyes whose pupils rolled around when shaken; there were also marble, human-like, and empty eyes. I hesitantly grabbed a black dog. “Blue marble eyes. Kanti,” I muttered. Mom and Dad didn’t notice me eavesdropping.
“Ash, maybe we should go see someone about this. I mean what if the bear doesn’t help him? What if he needs help? What if he’s—”
“Relax, Courtney. Relax. Emery’s fine! I had a ton of imaginary monsters when I was a child. I even saw a shadow mannequin myself,” he said nonchalantly.
I pretended to rummage in a nearby bin. I still regret not saying something then and there.
Mom giggled. “Ugh… You did not!” She slapped Dad on the arm.
“I did. I’m serious. But you know what? I grew out of it,” Dad responded. He poked the plushies in the closest bin. “And, don’t get me wrong when I say this, Court, Emery knows a lot for never having attended preschool. Between me teaching him how to read and write, and you teaching him math, we’ve equipped him well.” Dad sighed. I felt him staring at me. “He even read the name of the store without asking if he was right. He’s only four. That kind of confidence only comes with knowledge. I, for one, think his imaginary friends are a manifestation of the pressure you keep putting on him. He’ll be fine if you-I mean, we!-lay off.”
“I’m just worried. What if he’s, you know…”
“A friendless, psychotic loser?” Dad asked nonchalantly. “Well, he can hide it like the rest of us. Besides, he has his mother.” With a smooth gesture, he pulled Mom in close. “ It’s not like Emery doesn’t have friends; there’s Arsenio, the singing girl…Saria, right?”
“Saria’s father landed that promotion he wanted. They’re moving to Manhattan before she starts school,” Mom said. “I’m just concerned that Emery might not be able to deal with overwhelming emotions when he gets older if we don’t find a way to socialize him a bit more. What if he starts seeing these shadow creatures everywhere because he’s lonely, or worse? Remember when Elisabeth–”
“Ok—ok, I get it. Fine.” Dad shrugged, waving his hands passively. “Eventually— Yes, he will need to find his own place among people, decide who and what a friend is, and how he should deal with relationships. But, we can’t teach him that or force it on him. It’d be inauthentic.” He paused and smiled when I stared at them. “Courtney, we can only guide him. So, just for now, we can go along with his overactive imagination. It’s inspiring sometimes.”
Mom went on about how brave I was during the drive home. “The monster was in your imagination, honey,” she said.
“People’s eyes do funny things, son. Especially at night.” Dad chimed in from behind the wheel. “Who knows what can happen when you mix genius, boredom, and darkness!”
Their affirmation and confirmation went on for about a week until I told them the monsters were still there. They bought me a nightlight. I didn’t have the courage to tell them the nightlight traced the mannequins’ silhouettes, making them even more visible.
“Dad, can I tell you something?” I finally asked one day.
He sighed. “What is it, son?”
“The nightlight… it’s not–”
“Don’t start, Emery. The nightlight isn’t working because your imagination is strong.”
“But, I –”
“Enough!” Mom intervened. “You are a big boy, Emery. There are no ghosts, no monsters, no hay nada! Just stop, and grow up! We’re done with this conversation!” Mom erupted. It was the first time I had actually seen her get angry. “On top of that, you look terrible, like you don’t sleep. Do you want people to think you’re a bum? Do you want people like your aunts or my mother to think we can’t raise you right, or that you’re weird?”
“Is that what you want to be, Emery, the weird kid?” Mom finally asked, finishing her rant. “I didn’t think so.”
“Just deal with it, son,” Dad said. He fidgeted with some pens and redirected his focus to his work.
Aiven ended up tossing the nightlight out when it was clear that I still wasn’t sleeping well. He and I would occasionally talk about the monsters, but he’d just gloss over the subject and pretend like it was nothing serious. “Emery, those things… are nothing. If you ignore them and behave yourself, they’ll disappear. I promise.”
I never asked him if he’d seen them too. I was afraid of what he might say. Following Aiven’s advice, I tried ignoring the monsters for several weeks, but nothing happened. The mannequins just stood there.
Dad had enough. He called me down to the kitchen and made me close the door. “It’s been almost five months, Emery,” he began. “You’re starting school next month. Just be a big boy about it! Drop this monster nonsense! Do you want to make your mom worry?” he asked, frustrated. Dad leaned over the table, staring down at me like I was on trial.
“No sir…” I said, sighing heavily and kicking the legs of the chair with my heels.
“Well then, drop this. It’s big boy time, and being brave is the first step, okay? Don’t embarrass us, especially your mother. We work hard. We feed you, and you’re comfortable. We don’t need this in our lives. Do you understand, son?” he asked.
From then on, I decided my parents couldn’t be counted on. I chose to watch the mannequins. They didn’t breathe. They didn’t talk. They didn’t blink. They just observed me.
When I started kindergarten, even more mannequins appeared. They were like humans, no two looked or dressed alike. It was as if my heart yearned for their presence, but I felt that they were evil. In the dead of night, their whispers scratched the darkness: chanting a name I had always known; a name that made fear spread through my chest like a toxin.
It was then that my life changed. Forever.
My fantasies about flying, being a superhero and having a bunch of admirers eventually turned to daydreams of killing and eating my family, everyone at school and any passersby. The idea of ripping flesh, grinding skin between my teeth was intoxicating. My mouth watered and my gums quivered.
Though the evil thoughts were impossible to ignore, I knew that they were confined to my head, never to happen unless I acted upon them. However, I painfully discovered that unlike my thoughts, the shadow creatures were not parts of my mind. They were everywhere, all the time. I was always irritable and paranoid. I began to shower in cold water to avoid fogging the mirror. I always kept the curtain open and the bathroom door cracked as I bathed.
Afraid I would lose control, I began drawing obsessively. I hid crayon-scribble comics of me hunting, murdering and torturing lesser life forms in a shoe box under my bed. At least my thoughts were limited to where they were safe: paper. I was afraid of what their appearance meant though. It made me anxious. I was constantly paranoid— fidgeting, and erratically looking over my shoulder. There were gaps in time where I’d awaken to crude drawings of heavy, human-shaped scribbles with beady eyes, and foreign handwriting that read, “Do you like them, Emery?”
When I was seven, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression. The medications I began to take only made me feel worse. I no longer cared when shadows entered peoples’ bodies and changed the abductee’s behavior. I made it my goal to be somewhere else in my mind, somewhere where the shadows couldn’t hurt me.
My parents were mortified and confused that they were still getting called to school for something I said, drew or wrote. They couldn’t deal with how much I embarrassed them, so they stopped going to family events and social outings altogether, unless it was work-related. Even when they ran errands or went to the grocery store, they’d never take me with them. My pale, sickly appearance and the dark circles under my eyes raised too many eyebrows.
Every now and then they would have to take Aiven to “visit a relative in the hospital for several days at a time.” They would come back with photos of beaches, resorts, and relatives I had never seen, inscribed with holiday wishes or random times and locations. I was either left at Arsen’s or sedated enough to be cared for by my aunt Elisabeth. I receded into my mind when the drugs wore off, escaping the miserable, pitiful shame of the embarrassing shell called Emery.
As I got older, even the kids who had bullied me since kindergarten avoided me. I wished they would hit me so I could smell the blood as it dripped from my nostrils. When they did pummel me or insult my family, their parents would call my parents and accuse me of bullying their children because, “I wasn’t right in the head and even the faculty at school knew it.”
By the time I was ten, I had been to eleven different therapists. They had all said the same thing in one form or another:
“There isn’t anything wrong with you, Emery. It’s difficult to understand what causes the fear, paranoia and urges you’ve been having. You show no signs of cognitive dissonance and appear to be no threat to yourself or others. Mr. and Mrs. Leheir, those drugs that were prescribed to your son seem to be having an adverse effect on his ability to cope with reality; I would suggest, for his sake, that you reinforce an outlet for his creativity rather than fuel possible mental illnesses where none exist.”
Unfortunately, every time a therapist determined I wasn’t psychologically ill, my parents would try to find another opinion that was closer to what they wanted to believe. Mom wanted me to be ill so she could rationalize why I was the way I was. Dad simply didn’t want to deal with anything that he couldn’t control.
Those days, Aiven was the only thing close to a friend I had, but I tried to burden him as little as possible with my feelings. He never said it but I could tell our family situation was taking a major toll on him. The worse things got at home, the more distant Aiven became. Then, June 6, 2014, a month after my twelfth birthday, he took his life. Mom found his stiff body bound in bloody blankets. I ran to Aiven’s room while she shrieked and cried wildly. His purple lips were whispering something we couldn’t hear. A victorious grin was carved into his stone face. There was a shadow standing over his corpse, but I knew better than to say anything by this point.
When word of his suicide got out, everyone speculated it was because he was picked on for being gay. Everyone, including my parents, took pity on me and started treating me less and less like a lunatic, and more like a wounded fledgling. They even stopped my meds when I hit middle school.
The shadows gradually disappeared as I became more social. I laughed, played and felt mostly normal, despite the occasional lapses of time and urges to inflict pain and misery. I somewhat accepted the flaws, imperfections, and inconsistencies that made me who I despised. I was whole.
I became myself. I was and I am really here.
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