In the darkness of the small room he slept fitfully. Perspiration plastered his brown hair to his forehead. He began to moan softly. His head tossed from side to side on the pillow of his bunk. His breathing became more erratic. The moans turned to sobs as his dreams intensified.
* * *
On a hot August afternoon in 1957, Billy Taylor and Joey Jensen, eleven-year-old buddies, stood in front of the wooden magazine rack in Mr. Barris’s drugstore. Billy sorted through the action comics while Joey picked through the horror section. Mr. Barris stood behind the counter of the soda fountain wiping long sundae spoons with a small dishtowel, impatiently eyeing the boys over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. Every so often, Billy glanced at Mr. Barris out of the corner of his eye.
Mr. Barris finished with the spoons and began rearranging the soda glasses stacked behind him. He watched the boys in the mirror as they pulled out one comic after another. The more they picked, the more agitated he got. He turned, grabbed his dishtowel and walked to the end of the counter near the rack.
Mr. Barris slapped the towel on the counter. His knuckles were white as he squeezed the metal counter edge and glowered at the boys. Billy made a hasty selection and nervously turned to Joey.
“C’mon, will ya?” he said out of the side of his mouth. “Old Barris is getting mad. He’s gonna throw us out.”
Joey flipped through the comic in his hands. “Yeah, yeah, hang on a second. I only got enough for two and I wanna get the best ones.”
“Okay, but just pick something.” Billy eyed the soda fountain. Mr. Barris headed for the cash register. “He’s gonna kick us out and then you’ll have nothing!”
“All right, all right. Hey! Look at this.” Joey plucked a comic out of the rack. “Mind Monster. That’s that new movie that’s coming out. I want this one!”
Billy tugged on Joey’s sleeve, coaxing him toward the cash register. “Come on, Joey!”
Joey grabbed another horror comic and they walked to the register where Mr. Barris waited. They dropped their coins in his outstretched hand.
“Thank you, gentlemen!” Mr. Barris slammed the cash drawer shut. “Please—come again!” he added sarcastically.
The boys walked out into the midday brilliance. They chattered and paged through their comics, each looking to see what the other had purchased.
* * *
That night, Joey lay in bed under the sheet tent he created to read his horror comics by flashlight. Petey, his little brother, tossed around in his own bed. He sat up.
“Ma! Dad! Joey’s reading nasty comic books with his flashlight and keeping me awake,” he yelled toward the partially open door.
“Shut up, you little jerk!” Joey said in a loud whisper. He scrambled and shoved the comics and flashlight under his pillow. From the living room he heard the muffled voices of his parents. His father’s voice got louder, angrier. Joey slipped further under the covers.
The bedroom door flew open and banged against the doorstop. Joey peeked from under the sheet and saw the dark silhouette of his father where he swayed in the middle of the doorway. Dangling from one hand, Joey could see the outline of a heavy belt; the other grasped the neck of a brown, half empty quart bottle of beer.
“What th’ hell’s going on in here?” He flipped the light switch and looked at Petey. “What’re you yellin’ about?”
Petey squirmed. “Uh…Joey’s…looking at nasty comics,” he replied meekly.
Father staggered in. He stopped when he bumped Joey’s bed. “Where’re they?”
“I…uh…I don’t know…I don’t…ah…remember.”
“You don’t remember,” his father mocked. He set his bottle on the nightstand, grabbed the pillow and yanked it from under Joey’s head. The flashlight went with it and bounced on the floor. The comics slipped across the sheet. Joey sat up slightly and backed across the bed, dragging the covers with him. He turned and cowered against the wall.
“You don’t remember! Maybe this will help.” Father raised the belt and cracked it down across Joey’s back. Joey cried out in pain.
Father grabbed the comic books and threw them at Joey. “What’d I tell you ‘bout reading this crap?”
Joey whimpered. “I…ah…y-you told me to quit reading it.”
“What? I can’t hear you!” He swung the belt and struck Joey across the back. Joey cried out louder than before. Petey pulled the covers up to his nose. He peeked out with one eye.
“You told me to quit reading it!” Joey said, tearfully.
“Right! Why’d I ask you to quit?” Once more, he cracked the belt across Joey’s back. Joey cried out and spun around. Hate filled his eyes.
Mother called from the living room. “Frank, what are you doing?”
“Shuddup!” his father yelled back.
“Stop it, will you?” she replied with concern. “That’s…that’s enough.”
“I’m not hurting him…much.” Father said “much” in a quieter voice. He raised the belt, ready for another strike. “Why’d I ask you to stop?”
“Because I have nightmares and I wake you up,” Joey spat out with contempt.
“Very good.” Father smiled and lowered the belt. “See? I knew you’d remember if you just had a little help.” He scowled at Joey. “Now go to sleep!” He raised the belt as if to strike again. Joey flinched, but continued to stare at him defiantly. Father picked up his beer bottle walked toward the door. He looked at Petey. “You too!” Petey pulled the covers over his head. Father flipped off the light and slammed the door.
Joey lay back down on his side. Petey pulled his head out from under the covers. “I’m sorry.”
Joey didn’t answer. Petey waited a moment for a response, then closed his eyes. Joey stared at the dark wall. I’ll hate that man until the day I die.
* * *
The marquee of the small movie theater announced Mind Monster in black plastic letters. It was ten minutes before the start of the matinee on a cool Sunday when Billy and Joey slipped their quarters through the ticket window. They walked in and stood at the end of a line of children who waited to hand their tickets to the usher.
“I heard this is a really creepy movie,” Billy said excitedly over Joey’s shoulder. “It’s about some guy who thinks about this nasty, ugly monster so hard that it really comes to life and kills these guys he doesn’t like and then goes away. But then after a while he can’t control it and it finally takes him over.”
Joey turned to Billy. “I know. I bought the comic, remember?”
“What would you think if that could really happen?”
“I dunno.” Joey shrugged. “S’pose it would be okay if there’s somebody that you really hated and was bothering you and you could get rid of them.”
Billy smiled. “Like Mr. Barris at the drug store?”
“Yeah,” Joey answered. But he was thinking of somebody else.
“Yeah!” said Billy. He thought for a few seconds. “Maybe it could just beat the crap out of him because we still need to buy comics there.”
The line moved ahead. Billy got bumped from behind and stumbled into Joey. Joey winced and sucked in his breath.
“I didn’t hit you that hard,” Billy said.
“My back’s sore.”
“What’d you do?”
Joey turned toward Billy. “You know.”
Billy was puzzled for a moment, then…”Oh, yeah.” He paused. “Hey, what’re you gonna do? One of these days your old man’s gonna kill you.”
Joey was perturbed. “He’s not my old man, understand? Something’s gonna happen…I’ll do something…something…” His voice softened and trailed off. He turned back toward the front of the line.
Billy stared at the back of Joey’s head, a little bit frightened by the look he had seen in Joey’s eyes. He shrugged it off when the line inched forward.
* * *
Joey and Billy slouched in their seats. They took turns reaching into the box of popcorn Billy gripped tightly. Their eyes were glued to the flickering black and white and gray images on the movie screen.
Two thugs are mugging a young couple in an alley. One is holding the woman, while the other beats the man. A solid punch knocks the man back against a brick wall. He slumps to the ground. His face is full of pain and anger. Suddenly his eyes begin to glow. The thug holding the woman raises his hand to strike her. From off-screen comes a loud roar. A monstrous neoprene and latex claw shoots into the scene and awkwardly grabs the thug by the head. Rubber tentacles wrap around him, and rip him away from the woman.
The audience screamed and jumped. Startled Billy tossed the popcorn box into the air. Joey cast a mildly disgusted look at him and tried to salvage a few kernels that had fallen on his head and body.
* * *
The crowd of children poured out of the theater. In its midst, Joey and Billy excitedly discussed what they had just seen.
“Hey…hang on.” Joey grabbed Billy’s arm and stopped him. He reached into the pocket of his light jacket, pulled out some coins and counted. “I got just enough for a horror comic. Let’s go by the drugstore.”
“Okay.” Billy’s tone then became serious. “You sure you want to? You told me what your old…uh…that guy does to you if you have bad dreams.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Joey shifted his shoulders around.
“You said he told you not to buy any more horror stuff.”
“I know, I know.” Joey started walking again. “But I’ll be careful. Besides, he can’t tell me what to do forever. Someday I’ll be big and he’ll be old and then we’ll see.”
“I guess. You’re the one that’s gotta live there.”
Joey smiled at Billy and darted off toward the drugstore.
“Wait up,” Billy called and hurried after him.
* * *
Joey walked briskly down the sidewalk on his block, comic book in hand. As he approached his house his pace slowed. He looked at the book, then unzipped his jacket, folded the comic, and stuffed it inside. He sighed, and went up to the front door.
Joey’s father, in his undershirt and drinking beer, slouched in the easy chair watching TV. Joey tried to duck past quickly, hoping he wouldn’t be noticed. It didn’t work.
“Hey, you,” his father called over his shoulder. “Where you think you’re goin’? C’mere.”
Joey walked in slowly and stood by the chair, fear touched with hatred on his face.
“I asked you a question. Where you goin’?” He slurred his words.
“To my room.”
Joey was getting irritated with the interrogation. “To study. I got school tomorrow, you know.”
“Watch it, smart mouth. Where you been?”
His father leaned forward and grabbed the front of his jacket. “Out where?” He yanked on the jacket, almost pulling Joey on top of him. “Spending your allowance on crap? Like those damn comic books? How much do you have left?”
Joey held his left arm tightly to his body in an effort to keep the comic book from falling out of his jacket. He reached into his right pocket and pulled out a nickel.
“Five cents!” He reached up with his empty hand and slapped Joey. “Five cents. And you just got fifty cents on Friday!” He shoved Joey away. Tears welled up in Joey’s eyes.
“Stupid kid. You don’t care about nothing—only junk!”
Mother stepped in from the kitchen. Petey followed and stood close by her side.
“Frank—can’t you just leave him alone and watch TV?”
Father whips around. “You mind your business or you’ll get some of the same.” He glared at her, then pointed at Petey. “You, too!”
Joey backed up slowly, then turned and ran toward the hall.
“Hey! I’m not finished with you yet!”
Joey ran down the hall to his room. Mother stared at her husband. She took Petey by the shoulders and turned him back into the kitchen with her.
“Stupid sonsabitches…stupid…” Father muttered to himself, took a swig of beer and stared blankly at the TV tube.
* * *
It was well past midnight when Father had passed out in the living room. Petey, upset by the earlier confrontation, had asked to sleep with Mother. The house was dark and quiet, except for Joey’s room. Joey slept restlessly. He flopped from side to side, rolling on top of his horror comics, which lay scattered on the bed.
The sounds began faintly at first. High-pitched squeaks from inside the closet door. Barely audible. Joey’s tossing and turning actually made more noise. The squeaks turned to shrill squeals, which gradually intensified and deepened. Joey’s sleep became more troubled. He began to mumble and moan. From inside the closet came a muffled, rattling sound—the attic access panel in the ceiling. Joey began kicking, tangling his feet in the bedsheet. The access panel banged open. The strange noises doubled in volume. Through the narrow space at the top of the closet door, a bright, blood red light painted itself across the Joey’s ceiling. A faint, raspy voice could be heard in the midst of the squeals. “Jo-ey.”
Joey, still asleep, became frantic. He kicked wildly, muttered loudly. The red light in the closet slid downward and shone out through all parts of the jamb. The noises intensified and now sounded like an army of tortured rats. Louder at each pronouncement, the raspy voice repeated “Jo-ey” over and over. The closet door began to strain and creak as if some massive force was about to turn it into a thousand splinters.
When the cacophony reached a peak and the door seemed ready to burst, the voice bellowed out “JO-EY!” The door flew open and smashed against the wall. Joey bolted upright, eyes wide with fear. The blood red light in the center of the closet illuminated a great beast with yellow, burning eyes, as bright as the sun. A repellent, virtually formless beast with many clawed hands and tentacles that snaked around each of its many long arms, it was some type of living flesh and blood, not latex and neoprene and rubber.
Before a scream escaped his throat, a hand clamped tightly over Joey’s mouth.
“Joey, Joey, sshhh!” The hand and voice belonged to his mother. She was sitting on the bed next to him. “You’re having a nightmare. Please take it easy or your father will hear you.”
Joey breathed rapidly. Perspiration dripped down his forehead and dampened his pajama top. Mother kept her hand over his mouth until his breathing slowed. “Joey, are you okay now?” He nodded and she dropped her hand.
“Ma, it was there!” he said breathlessly, pointing to the closet. “It came down from the attic. It was calling me!”
“Joey, Joey, honey. There’s nothing there. It’s just your closet.” She got up and walked to the closet door.
Mother opened the door and pulled the chain, which lit the bare bulb on the closet wall. “See, Joey? Nothing.”
“Just some old books and toys.”
“But Ma, the attic…”
She looked up at the access panel in the ceiling. “You remember, Joey. That’s where we keep all our Christmas decorations…up there in the attic with a lot of other old stuff.”
Mother reached in the closet to the left, dragged over a folded stepladder, and leaned it against the back wall. “Remember? You help your father get our Christmas things down when it’s time to decorate.”
She climbed the ladder and pushed up on the access panel. It slid off to the side, and she tugged the string for the attic light. “See, Joey? Nothing but our Christmas things and old junk.”
Joey nodded but didn’t move off his bed. Mother shut off the attic light, slid the access panel back in place, and climbed down. She tugged the light chain and closed the door, then came over to the bed and sat next to Joey. Her hand touched one of the horror comics.
“Joey, you’ve got to stop reading these horrible books like you father asked you to.”
Joey frowned. “He’s not my father and I don’t have to do what he says!”
“Stop it! Frank is your father now and you’d better listen to him.” She stood. “Look at this room,” she said, gesturing to the walls covered with monster pictures and horror movie posters. “I’d have nightmares if I slept in here. And you have a little brother.”
“Mama?” Petey called from the other bedroom.
“Alice! Where…what’s goin’ on up there?”
Mother looked at Joey and put a finger to her lips. She took a step toward the door. “I’m just checking on the boys.”
“Never mind! They should be sleeping.” His voice became angry, threatening. “They are, aren’t they? That damn kid isn’t having another nightmare, is he? I’ll go in there and break…”
“No, Frank,” she interrupted. “Everything’s fine! Please be quiet before you wake them up.”
Father muttered something and his voice trailed off. Mother ran over to Joey, gave him a kiss, and settled him down. She slipped out the door with a small wave. Joey stared at the closet door briefly, the rolled over and pulled the covers up around his ears.
* * *
An October wind blew orange leaves up against the classroom windows where Miss Krankower doled out arithmetic instruction to the sixth-grade class. She turned away from the blackboard to her pupils. Each listened attentively—except for Joey, seated near the back. He was very involved in something on the top of his desk.
She continued pointing at the board, then…
“…isn’t that right, Joseph?”
Joey heard his name. He dropped his pencil and it rolled off the desk.
“Ahh…” He tried to think of something to say while bending down to get his pencil. As he did, he knocked his notebook off the desk, scattering papers across the floor. Miss Krankower walked slowly down the aisle toward him, lightly rapping her wooden pointer across her palm.
“Ahhh, I…” Joey frantically tried to stuff his papers into his notebook.
“I asked you a question, Joseph.” She stopped where he knelt on the floor.
“I…uh…I know, Miss Krankower. I…I’m just trying to think of the answer.”
“Don’t you mean ‘an’ answer? Because you don’t have ‘the’ answer, do you? She leaned over the top of him. “Do you, Joseph?”
Miss Krankower cracked the wooden pointer down on Joey’s desk. She straightened up and noticed that her pointer had come to rest on top of a penciled monster picture. She looked down at Joey. There on the floor, mixed in with his other papers, lay a horror comic. Miss Krankower bent and poked the comic with the tip of her pointer.
“I warned you about this. Take this useless rubbish and throw it in my wastebasket. I want never to see the likes of it in my classroom again.”
“Yes, ma’am. I mean, no ma’am.”
“And when you’re finished with this mess, you go stand in the corner by the blackboard with your toes against the wall. Do you understand?”
Miss Krankower strode to her desk. Joey set his notebook and papers on his desktop, took his picture and comic, and headed for the wastebasket. As he was about to drop it in…
“Just a moment. I have a better idea. You leave that artwork and that awful book on my desk. I believe you parents would be very interested in your schoolwork.”
Joey panicked. “Miss Krankower, you can’t do that!”
“You…you can’t do that!”
“I most certainly can do that! You put those things on my desk this instant!”
Joey reluctantly obeyed.
“Now get over there with your toes against the wall!”
Joey turned and solemnly shuffled toward the corner. The class, which had been silent during the ordeal, began to murmur.
“Quiet!” Miss Krankower shouted. “Open your books to page twenty-four.” The murmuring stopped, replaced by the sound of turning pages.
* * *
Joey lay on his bed in fading daylight. His eyes slowly moved over the monster pictures and posters on the walls. Anxiety washed through his insides as he waited for the inevitable phone call from Miss Krankower. His hand rested on a sealed manila envelope that lay next to him, addressed to his parents.
Joey didn’t realize he had fallen asleep until the ringing of the phone in the hall awakened him. His room was completely dark. The ringing stopped. Someone had picked up the receiver. It was then Joey noticed the strange noises coming from his closet. Squeaking. Squealing. Faint at first. He turned his head ever so slightly toward the closet door. The access panel in the attic ceiling began to rattle. Joey lay frozen in his bed. The squealing noises increased; the access panel banged as it was opened and pushed aside. “Jo-ey” came the rasping voice through the closet door. A red glow shone out across the ceiling through the top of the doorjamb. It moved down until it shone out on all sides.
Joey shivered on his bed. I’m not sleeping. This is real!
“Jo-ey.” The voice called more loudly. The door began to creak as it strained from a force behind it. “JOEY!” The door suddenly flew open revealing the gruesome, shapeless, glowing-eyed beast from his nightmare.
Joey bolted upright. He slid up against his headboard, too frightened to scream.
The bedroom door opened. Joey turned and saw his father. The heavy belt dangled from his hand. He had been drinking.
Choking back a scream, Joey turned back to the beast. He only saw his closet door. Father moved into the room, swinging the belt.
Joey gritted his teeth. He knew what was next. Barely perceptible, even in the dark, Joey’s eyes flashed yellow.
* * *
Next to the closet, by the heat register, Joey sat on the bedroom floor. He leaned against the side of his dresser reading his worn Mind Monster comic, out of sight from any unannounced visitors. He heard footsteps coming down the hall and slid the comic under the closet door. Mother walked in, buttoning her worn, blue winter coat.
“Joey, honey, Petey and I are going shopping for the day. Frank should be home soon. He’ll need you to help him get our Christmas decorations down from the attic, okay?”
Joey glanced up over his shoulder at the closet door. “But Ma…”
“Please don’t make him angry, okay, Joey?”
Silence, then “Okay.”
Later that afternoon Joey was still reading. A half dozen comics were scattered on the floor around him. The front door slammed. Joey tensed and listened. It’s him. He jumped up, opened the closet, and stuffed the comics in a stack of old Boys’ Life magazines. He closed the door, ran over and sat on Petey’s toy chest. Father opened the door.
“What’re you doin’?”
He entered the room. “Well, it’s time to do something. You’re gonna help me get the Christmas stuff down from the attic for your Ma.”
“I…I don’t think we should.”
Father walks over and stands in front of him. “Don’t you start any of your bullshit with me or you’ll get the strap again.” He leaned almost nose-to-nose with Joey. “Understand?”
Father grabbed him by the front of his shirt and lifted him off the toy chest.
“I said ‘Understand’?”
Father dropped him. He walked over, opened the closet and pulled the light chain. Joey watched nervously while Father tested the stepladder to make sure it was solidly propped against the wall. He climbed up and began to push on the access panel.
“No!” Joey cried.
Father stopped and turned around.
“I don’t want you to open it.”
Father let the panel back down. “Get over here…now!”
Joey didn’t move. Father’s face reddened. He jumped off the ladder, stomped over to Joey, and grabbed him by the arm. He jerked him off the chest and slapped him across the face, then dragged him to the closet and planted him by the stepladder.
“When I tell you to do something, you do it!” He climbed up the ladder. Joey backed away. Hate replaced the fear in his eyes. A bright, intense yellow glow flashed through the tears. Joey stared at Father as he pushed the access panel open and slid it off to the side. Joey held his breath.
Nothing happened. Father stepped up on the next rung. He was now halfway in the opening and turned to Joey.
“Get up behind me on this ladder.”
Joey shook his head.
Fuming, Father cursed under his breath and started to climb down. In his haste his foot hit the stack of Boys’ Life magazines. The stack tumbled. Hidden horror comics and monster pictures scattered on the floor with the magazines.
Father became livid, barely able to speak. “Wha…why, I’ll kill you, you sneakin’ little bastard.” He was about to jump off the ladder at Joey when a monstrous roar and a blood red light issued from the attic. Taloned tentacles uncoiled down, catching Father in mid-jump and wrapped themselves around him. He screamed as the talons tore into his flesh. A large, crab-like claw clamped itself over his head, stifling the scream.
Joey slipped down to the floor, paralyzed with fear. The sound of cracking bones mixed with the loud, high-pitched squealing that filled the closet. More tentacles dropped down and wrapped themselves around Father’s body. He kicked wildly as he was wrenched upward. Joey began to scream, unable to turn away. Blood ran down onto the steps of the ladder as Father disappeared into the blinding red light in the opening. Something slammed the panel back in place. All was quiet except for the muted whimpering from Joey, curled into a fetal position up against the side of the dresser.
* * *
The psychiatrist leaned back in his chair, his form dimly lit by a desk lamp, the only light in the office. The door opened and a young man in a sport coat entered. The doctor stood and extended his hand to the man.
“I’m glad you could make it tonight, Mr. Jensen. I’m afraid your brother is worse.”
In the darkness of the small room Joey slept fitfully. Perspiration plastered his brown hair to his forehead. He struggled against the shackles that keep him in his bed.
“In what way?” Peter asked.
“After you granted us permission to try chlorpromazine his nightmares had been less intense. There were even periods when he was somewhat rational. This led us to believe that eventually we might communicate with him. But the nightmares returned, and now continue even into his waking hours. The medication was no longer effective. Even shock therapy was useless. He is intractable. We’ve had to restrain him again.”
Joey tossed his head more violently. A bright, blood red glow began to seep through his cell door. A faint, raspy voice called “Jo-ey.”
“My stepfather must know what happened…to him and Joey…if he’s still alive after all these years.”
Joey became more violent, the light brighter, the monstrous, raspy voice louder. “Jo-ey.”
“Mr. Jensen, your brother may never be able to tell us. Please come with me.” The doctor led Peter out of the office. “You may want to consider having him lobotomized, for his own good.”
Joey became frantic trying to break free from his shackles, the light outside the cell door, brighter. The squealing noises intensified. “Jo-ey.” The door creaked and strained. Joey’s squeezed his eyes tightly shut. Veins in his neck bulged. The cell door burst open. The hideous, tentacled, formless beast filled the opening.
Joey screamed at the top of his lungs—a long scream that echoed throughout the halls of the institution.
Peter looked at the doctor and broke into a run.
“Mr. Jensen…,” the doctor called after him. “This is really nothing out of the ordinary.” He hurried after Peter.
When they reached the cell, two attendants were already there, looking into the small barred window in the heavy metal door.
“Open, please,” asked the doctor. One attendant opened the lock and pushed the door. It squeaked open. The light from the hall fell on an empty bunk. The doctor stepped in and examined the shackles. Amazed, he looked back at Peter.
“The shackles. They’re’ still locked.”
* * *
The windows of the house where Joey, Petey, Mother and Father once lived are boarded up, deserted for many years. In the empty bedroom the boys once shared, the closet door hangs partially open, held in place only by its upper hinge. Behind the door the access panel to the attic rattles. Bumps come from something above.
The panel is thrown to the side. The blood red light in the attic pours over the rotted flesh of a living skeleton, which crawls into the opening. Tattered strips of fabric, remnants of the clothes Joey’s father wore the day he disappeared, still cling to the bones. Desperately the abhorrent corpse thrashes, trying to climb down, trying to escape. But two long tentacles of a monster in the attic have already wrapped around the bony neck and rib cage. It drags the flailing skeleton back through the hole where the red glow illuminates the beast’s grinning face—the mutated, hideous, distorted face of Joey.