I should preface this story by explaining that my parents have always told me that I had a very vivid imagination as a child. They said I was always prone to flights of fancy and wild stories, even though I remember being a peculiarly practical child in my own way. Still, I’ve always figured they remembered things better than I did; so any time I had a memory that didn’t seem to make sense or to match up to the way the real world should work, I’ve just chalked it up to one of those “flights of fancy” and assumed it was my memories playing tricks on me. (You can imagine how vindicated I was when I finally saw the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’…but I digress.)
The point is, it seems obvious in retrospect that the man in the wall must have been a figment of my imagination. It was when I was on the cusp of six or seven, even though I can’t remember for certain which side of the divide I was on, and we were living in a cheap apartment in downtown Minneapolis. The walls were thin, the paint was peeling, and the carpet was old and tatty, but it was where we’d been living as long as I could remember. I knew every stain and crack like they were old friends. My parents, understanding that thin walls and six-year-old children didn’t mix very well, had given me the bedroom between the living room and their bedroom, facing an outside wall on the second floor.
And one day, I was lying on my bed and reading, and I heard a voice from one of the cracks. “Hey kid,” it said, in a rough voice, “you want a dollar?”
I looked up. This particular crack was over my bed, just tall enough that I could look inside it if I stood on tip-toes. It had gotten a little wider lately in the way that cracks in old buildings do, and it was now wide enough to be considered a gap–this had initially attracted my interest, but I’d grown bored with it when I realized that the gap didn’t go all the way through the wall to the outside. (Why I thought a hole in the wall would be exciting or interesting, when it was less than two feet away from a window, is probably one of those things you can just toss into the pile labeled “Because I Was Six” and leave at that.)
I must have looked at the gap for a while, trying to decide whether I’d really heard what I thought I’d heard, because the voice spoke again. “Come on, kid,” it said. “You want a dollar or don’t you?” It was a rough, scratchy voice, the kind you get when someone who’s not good with people and knows it tries to talk to small children. It sounded male, older but not elderly. It wouldn’t have been out of place on a middle-aged truck driver. It certainly was out of place coming from a hole in my wall.
I got up on my tip-toes and looked into the gap. It wasn’t very big, just an irregularly-shaped hole about an inch wide. The last time I’d looked, I hadn’t seen anything. Just blackness. But now there was an eye pressed up against the hole, looking back at me. “Who are you?” I asked.
“Listen, kid,” the voice responded. “I ain’t got time to play Twenty Questions, here. I got a brand spanking new one-dollar bill here for you, and all you got to do to earn it is just do me one little favor. Now are you listening, or does this dollar go to someone else?”
I went back down off my tip-toes and kneeled down on the bed. After a second or two, I crawled over to my window. It was painted shut, a sensible precaution when dealing with small children on the second floor, but by crawling all the way over to the far side and leaning my head against the inside wall, I could see the outside wall for a considerable distance. There was nobody on the other side, not on a ladder or hanging from a rope or any other way. I looked at the width of the wall and did a few spatial calculations to the best of my six-year-old mental ability. It didn’t take me long to reach the conclusion that the wall wasn’t even thick enough for me to fit inside, let alone a grown-up.
I got back up on my tip-toes in front of the hole and looked the eye in the eye. It seemed like a normal human eye, brown and maybe a little bloodshot. The hole was too small to really see much around it. After a moment, a piece of green paper slid up between the eye and the hole. “See? I ain’t lying, kid. It’s right here.”
I thought about it for a moment. This wasn’t so long ago that a dollar was unlimited largesse, or anything, but it was long enough ago that you could still find sour cherry candies for ten cents a box (and also long enough ago that they could get away with calling them “Cherry Clan”, and putting a mascot on the box that had slanted eyes and a coolie hat, but I digress again). Ten boxes of candy seemed like a pretty good deal for one little favor.
But on the other hand…it’s strange, but looking back, I don’t remember finding him inherently untrustworthy because he was an impossible man looking through a hole in my bedroom wall. I was six, after all, and had not yet developed a very good sense of what was strange or unusual. But small children are much better than most adults remember at being attuned to the mood and temperament of the grown-ups around them. It’s a sort of survival instinct, I suppose; sometimes knowing whether to trust someone is the only real defense a small child has. So while I hadn’t yet decided that the situation was unusual, I knew that I needed to ask a few questions before I agreed to our bargain.
That was what was going on in my head. Out loud, I just asked, “What do you want me to do?”
The man in the wall must have liked what he heard, because his voice took on the wheedling tones of a poor salesman who thinks he’s close to sealing a deal. “Nothing big, kid, nothing big at all! I just need you to widen out this hole a little. Just get something sturdy, stick it inside, and lever it out a bit.” There was a pause, during which we were both probably thinking the same thing from different angles. He spoke first. “It’s just so I can see better. That’s all.”
Again, it’s more than a little strange to look back on my thought processes from an adult perspective. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the fact that a strange man wanted to see into my bedroom; the idea of voyeurism hadn’t really even entered my mental landscape as yet. But I knew deep in my gut that I’d get in big trouble for breaking off a piece of my wall. My daddy always grumbled about how cheap the landlord was and how he’d use any excuse he could to stick us with the bill for repairs; if I ripped a hole in the wall, nobody would believe me if I said it was there already.
But then again…even without the incentive of a dollar waiting for me on the other side of the wall–and a dollar, no less, that I could probably hide under my mattress to wait out my time in dutch–there was something perversely exciting about the idea of breaking things. Everyone feels that way, I think, even if we all repress the urge because society demands it. There’s something fun about wielding physical power without having to care about the consequences, watching plaster crumble or glass shatter or paper burn. I was six, after all, and not particularly used to restraining my less-than-savory impulses. Sticking a pencil or a ruler into the hole and watching it get bigger and bigger with every wrench of my tiny arms…it sounded like a pretty cool idea.
The voice must have decided I needed a little more convincing, though, because it spoke again. “Come on, kid, it’s okay. It’s a crummy old wall anyway, it’ll probably fall apart on its own someday. Just break off a hand’s width, that’s all I need. Just a hand’s width, and you can have that dollar.”
I’m not sure what it was in that voice. Maybe it was the naked greed in the words ‘that’s all I need’, and the way that the man on the other side of the wall couldn’t keep it out of his voice no matter how hard he tried. But I remember suddenly feeling a little bit nervous about the man in the wall. And suddenly a question occurred to me. “How did you get in there?” I asked.
“What kind of question is that, kid?” the man answered. His voice had that tight, strained politeness you get sometimes when a person who hates kids is trying very hard to keep his temper. “‘How did you get in there?’ Sheesh, I didn’t ask how you got out there.”
“I’ve always been out here,” I said, somewhat bewildered.
“And I’ve always been in here,” he said. “Now come on, let me out and you can have that dollar.”
I don’t think he actually meant to say the words ‘Let me out’, not out loud. I really think, to this day, that the words just slipped out in his haste to convince me to widen the hole. But once he’d said them, they couldn’t be unsaid. They hung in the air, ominous and terrifying, making the silence stretch out longer and longer and feel more and more horrible. “I…I don’t think I should,” I said at last, edging back from the hole just a bit.
“Oh come on, kid!” the voice shouted. “I ain’t gonna hurt you or anything!” And those words chilled my blood, because even at six, I knew that nobody ever says they’re not going to hurt you unless they’re going to hurt you. Nice people say things like, ‘It’s safe,’ or ‘You’re okay’. People who will hurt you as soon as they get the chance say, ‘I ain’t gonna hurt you or anything’. “I just wanna get out, kid! You gotta let me out!” The voice had started to get angry and urgent, but suddenly it stopped short. When it came back, it was with its original pleading tones. “Come on, buddy. Just five minutes work, and you can have that dollar.”
I remember thinking that I didn’t know what to say. The sour feeling in the pit of my stomach was telling me that ‘yes’ was a really bad answer, but I also remember being pretty sure that the man in the wall wouldn’t like it very much if I said ‘no’, either. So I did what little kids do in situations like that. I changed the subject with a total non-sequitur. “What’s your name?” I blurted out.
The response was impressive. The eye darted every which way, back and forward and up and down and side to side three times. It retreated from the hole altogether for a moment, only to be replaced by another eye…but this one wasn’t brown. It was red, bright red, and it was slitted like a cat’s eye. It squinted at me for a moment, and I could see a third eyelid slide in just a bit like a lizard does when it narrows its eyes at you. Then it pulled back and was gone again, so fast that I almost thought I imagined it, and the brown eye was back. “None of your business, kid,” the voice snapped at me. He sounded shaken, though, the dismissal more bluster than threat.
Like I said, kids have a good instinct for the moods of adults. If the question had rattled him, it must have been a good one. “Tell me,” I said, “or I’m not going to help you.”
The eye retreated again. This time, it was replaced by a different eye, jaundiced yellow where the whites should be with a milky white cataract across the pupil and iris. “Is that a threat, you little shit?” the voice snarled out. “You think you can conjure with my name, is that it? Draw it in your bile on a dead man’s skull, I’ll still eat you up and shit out the pieces. I’ll find your scent wherever you hide, across an ocean or on top of Mount Ararat, even if it takes me a thousand times ten thousand years. Never again, do you hear me? Never again will I be trapped on the Outside, not by you or any child of Adam.” There was a sudden thump from the other side of the plaster, hard enough to shake dust from the crack but nothing more. “Now LET. ME. OUT.”
I did something then that was, in retrospect, extremely stupid. But I was six, after all, and I thought I had gotten a pretty good handle on the strange rules of the situation I’d found myself in. So I pressed my face right up against the hole, trying to get a good look at the man in the wall and see just how many eyes he actually had and why he could fit into such a tiny space and just what he was.
Instead, I saw teeth. Long teeth, dagger-sharp teeth the size of fingers gnashing away less than a half an inch from my eyeball. I pulled back so fast I lost my balance and fell clean off the bed, and I swear to God that I saw a claw the length of a ballpoint pen sticking out of that hole for a fraction of a second as I was going backwards. The wall was thumping every few seconds now, and I could hear the voice chanting, “Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!” in time to the pounding. I didn’t know what to do, but I was pretty sure that I didn’t want that dollar anymore.
I still can’t explain what happened next. (Then again, I can’t explain what happened before, either.) I ran out to the kitchen and grabbed the roll of duct tape that my daddy kept in the kitchen drawer for emergencies, and I brought it back into my bedroom. The wall was still thumping, and the voice was still coming out of the hole. It sounded less like a man now; it was more harsh and moaning, like the sound rusty sheet metal makes when it tears. The crack looked a little bigger; I’d say it was just my imagination, but like I said, I’d gotten to know the cracks in my wall pretty good by then and I knew how long they were supposed to be. It occurred to me about then that I knew why that particular crack had been getting wider lately, too.
Seeing that, and thinking about what it implied, gave me a little boost of speed for what I did next. I peeled off the longest strip of duct tape I could–I know it doesn’t make sense to adult logic, but I was six years old and the only way I knew to fix things was to put duct tape over them. I climbed back onto the bed, reached up and slapped it over the hole.
And it all stopped. The plaster stopped thumping, the voice cut out like I’d turned off a switch, and everything went right back to the way it was. Except that I couldn’t tear off the duct tape, and I didn’t want to pull it off, so I just unrolled it all the way down until it was sitting on the bed. Then I went back to reading comic books.
My daddy kind of chuckled when he came in and saw it, and of course he didn’t believe me when I told him why the tape was there. He’d been in the living room the whole time, and he said he hadn’t heard a thing. But he didn’t take the duct tape off when I asked him to leave it, and the next day he called the landlord and complained about the crack. It took about a week, but the landlord finally sent a handyman up there and they plastered over that hole. My daddy grumped for days afterward about it, said that was just about what he expected from a cheap SOB like that. (Not that I knew what an SOB was at the time.) He said it was shoddy workmanship and he couldn’t stand seeing someone do a job if they weren’t going to do it right.
A couple months later, it stopped mattering so much. Daddy finally found a good job and we moved to a better apartment, and I got a room without any holes or any cracks in it anywhere. The man in the wall became just a family story, something he told my kids when he wanted to embarrass me a little, and I forgot about it.
Until the news came on last week. They spent the first five minutes talking about the triple homicide in downtown Minneapolis, a mom and two kids found dead in their apartment. The details didn’t come out at first, because nobody wants to put that kind of stuff on the nine o’clock news, but a few days later in the newspapers the police finally admitted it was a messy one. I was pretty sure which apartment they were in even before I saw the photos, but the picture in the paper confirmed it for me. My old bedroom, just as ratty and cheap as I remembered. Police tape on the door, and a few smears of dried blood on the walls, right next to a big hole in the plaster that didn’t lead to the outside.
I don’t know what came out of that hole, and I don’t know where it is now. But I guess they must have found someone who really wanted that one-dollar bill.