My first night in the city

Written by William Campbell

The floorboards just outside my door moaned with the pressure of someone standing just on the other side. Paralysis took hold and held me still in my bed. It was my first night in Chicago, and I was scared out of my mind.

Scenarios raced through my head. If someone burst into the room would I have a chance to jump out the window? No, because it had bars on it. Would I be able to grab something to fight back? Well, the only item in arms length that could possibly hurt someone was just a belt. Or should I just act like I did as a kid and slink farther under the blankets, hoping the monster in the hallway was just my imagination? Though that worked just fine for imaginary monsters, these more realistic versions required something a bit more action-oriented.

Darkness always had a particularly strong grip on me as a kid in the countryside. At night I would avoid looking out the windows knowing with absolute certainty that someone was just on the edge of light watching me. When I dared to look, I would stare out at the blackness of the fields with my heart racing, always knowing that I might catch “its” eye (whatever “it” was). My Dad’s office was just on the other side of the back yard, and when we were younger he’d keep a small fridge full of pop. My addiction to Diet Dr. Pepper was just enough to get me to brave the night, yet to avoid certain death, I would sprint from back door to office door. On the worst occasions when the key wouldn’t work, I would expect to feel the scrape of “its” claws on my back.

Even one of my earliest childhood memories was of me playing a particularly OCD game with the light switch in my bedroom to ensure that monsters didn’t show up before I could run to my top bunk bed. Flip switch off and then back on again. One. Two. Three. Four and five times. Then run.

It got particularly bad after I watched Friday the 13th for the first time. I swore, night after night, that the creak outside my bedroom door was Jason ready to come at me with a knife. My bed was as far away from the door as possible yet right in the line of sight of anyone entering the room. No matter what I might do, I would be seen and slaughtered. And yes boys and girls, my imagination was so overactive that I imagined myself getting cut up horror-movie style. Because my room was over the stairs, I could hear someone coming before they reached the room, so I meticulously plotted out escape plans.

Plan #1: Actually head toward the door itself but veer left into the closet and bury myself in the bags of stuffed animals and old junk.

Plan #2: Slip under the bed and hope this obvious hiding spot wouldn’t be the first place he looked. If it was the second place he looked, I was screwed.

Plan #3: Probably the best but least likely plan (because secretly I knew Jason wasn’t actually in the house), was to climb out the window and hide myself on the roof.

The embarrassing truth was that I was already in middle school at this point because I had moved into my sister’s old room after she’d left for college. In fact, I was sleeping in her old daybed!

For many, the city is a place of danger, and nighttime brings an anxiety about muggings and attacks. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked if I’ve been carjacked or mugged. Its not difficult to find movies that showcase such urban terror (still my favorite to this day is Adventures in Babysitting). For sure, people have had some truly horrible experiences in cities like Chicago, and the last thing I want to do is make light of that. But to me, the country at night has always held more terror. Though the crime rates are obviously higher in a dense urban population, the darkness of the countryside at night activates the most creative aspects of my mind.

Though fear of the darkness isn’t anything unique to my personal childhood experience, when I reflect on it, the part that stands out is the vividness of my imagination in those moments. When I couldn’t see the objects in front of me, my mind created the most realistic and detailed creatures. But interestingly, only ones ever meant to harm me.

It leads me to the question – Why does childhood imagination so easily lean toward fear and the things that could harm us?

This question is something I’m exploring in the book I’m writing. Taking place on a farm where what we imagine can come to life, I want to examine the way that imagination can just as easily create our enemies as our friends. Fear is a product of imagination just as much as dreams and hope.

That first night in Chicago, my childhood escape scenarios kicked back in, but this time I knew that it wasn’t Jason on the other side of the door. If someone real was there, I had no other option than to fight. Not lying in my bed scared this time, I decided to act. I grabbed the limp belt and flung open the door.

As I knew, just as I knew when I was a kid, nothing was there. The creaking was merely someone in the hallway outside of the apartment. My bedroom sat right next to the apartment door, so it was probably a neighbor walking around in the hallway. The idea that someone was outside my door was all my imagination.

But that’s kind of the point.

In the midst of all my ridiculous and made-up fears as a kid, the one that stood out (and still stands out to this day) is the fear that “it” is waiting there, just on the edge of the light, just on the other side of the door, watching me and waiting.

Sure, I knew I was tapping into that same urban terror. Earlier that day I had seen bars on many of our windows and freaked out because I thought it meant there was a history of break-ins. It took awhile to realize these bars made me even safer (and that there wasn’t actually a history of break-ins).

But I also realized that I’d brought “it” with me. Even though the darkness of the countryside held more fear, the “thing” in the darkness showed up in this urban setting. For some reason, fear – and particularly fear of the darkness – is some kind of messed up muse for me. I’ve never quite figured out what “it” is supposed to be in my imagination. It never really takes the shape of any one thing.

When I first sat down to write my book, one of the first images for me was of a child staring out the second story window in the night at the darkness of the countryside. They were looking at “it.” 

So I decided to put “it” in my book. I gave it a name and I gave it a story. That definitely takes away a bit of the fear for me personally, but for my characters its all the more real.

I want to see if fear for them is as powerful as fear was for me. I want to see how they deal with the creature in the darkness. I want to see how they both conquer their fears and learn from their fears to be the creative, cool, and interesting characters I like hanging out with when writing them.

And yet still, when I hear the floorboards creek in my (now suburban) home, I feel like “it” is just on the other side of the door. Luckily this time we have a lock.

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