The Secret Life
An hour after the monsters chased me out of the woods I was lying frozen on my bed staring at the crack that stretched across my ceiling. Rory hadn’t looked at me since I’d told him about he monsters. At that moment he was in the other room cackling along with the TV. I barely heard him, though. My mind was a beehive of activity as I mentally rehearsed what I was going to tell Mom.
I would start off by explaining that I had been playing in the backyard, minding my own business, when I saw a weird bird. I would just say “weird” because if I told her that it had talked to me she would dismiss the story outright. After that I would explain that the bird had flown into the trees, and I had followed him into the forest where I had been attacked. Mom would immediately want to know what attacked me. I would start to describe what I had seen of the monsters, starting with the more believable aspects and then working up to the metal teeth. From there I would slowly fill in the other details like the bird talking and the fact that I had apparently stepped into another dimension.
Out in the TV room the front door opened, and I heard Mom enter and greet Rory. Holding my breath, I listened to their conversation. She was telling him that the snow had started to fall again outside. Rory was gathering up his things and stating that she owed him fifteen bucks. He wasn’t even going to mention that I had been banging on the door screaming about monsters earlier.
As I listened to Mom saying goodbye to him, I mentally rehearsed what I was going to tell her. Weird bird…went into woods…attacked…fill in the rest. I couldn’t rush anything or she wouldn’t believe me.
“Lee?” Mom knocked on my door as she opened it slowly. There was a pause. I could feel her staring at me lying on the bed. The boards creaked as she stepped across the tiny room toward me. “You all right, honey?”
“Two monsters attacked me in the back yard!” I clamped my mouth shut. That was probably the worst way I could have started the story.
As if to prove me right, Mom gently ran her fingers through my hair. “That was just a nightmare, sweetie.”
“It wasn’t a nightmare! Ask Rory! I was outside playing in the snow when this sparrow started talking to me. He said it was weird I could talk and told me to follow him into the woods to meet this person named Spicket. I went with him and everything changed and…”
“And there were these two monsters. At first I only saw one but…”
“Lee! How many times do I have to tell you to stay out of those woods?”
“There’s broken glass and holes you could fall into, and I don’t want you running into the type of people who go in there.”
“But the monsters…”
“Now I want you to help with the dishes in the kitchen, and if you go into the woods again, no T.V. for a week.” She stood and walked to the door. When she turned around, her face had softened a fraction. “They were probably just a couple kids in Halloween masks trying to scare you.”
I leapt off the bed. “They weren’t kids in damn masks!”
“Watch your language, young man!”
“They were monsters! Real monsters! I almost got my guts ripped out and you’re yelling at me for going into the woods!”
She clapped her hands in front of my face. “Don’t you dare shout at me that way. I am your mother. Now, you are going to help me in the kitchen, and if you even think about raising your voice at me again those ‘monsters’ will be the least of your worries.”
“Why don’t you believe me?”
“Because monsters don’t exist. Neither do talking animals. Either someone played a trick on you or you dreamt the whole thing up.”
I turned away to sit down on the bed. “Great, you think I’m crazy.”
“I didn’t say that.”
I looked up at her and played the last card in my hand. “Then can I just show you what’s going on in the woods?”
Mom pointed toward the window. “Lee, the snow’s piling up a foot a minute out there!”
I jumped up off the bed. “Please! It’ll take two seconds. If you go out there and just look into the woods, I’ll never talk about monsters again.”
“I don’t care if you talk about monsters. I just want you to stay out of the forest!”
“Then I’ll never go into the forest again, I swear. Just let me show you what’s going on.”
Two minutes later Mom was in her boots and jacket again, and I was leading her across our backyard toward the slope. My knees were quivering from anticipation, but at the same time I was filled with giddy excitement. The idea that the creatures were still in the woods waiting for us terrified me. Then again, discovering this “Rift,” or whatever it was, in our backyard had to be a huge find. If I could prove that it was real, they would probably put me on TV.
When we reached the top of the slope, I turned to Mom. “Now it’s very important that you watch the branches. I think the monsters like to hide in them.”
I took Mom’s gloved hand. “We have to be very quiet. If you see anything dangerous, run back to the yard.”
Mom nodded, glancing at her watch.
Telling myself that we were safe, that we wouldn’t go more than a couple steps into the other world, I took a deep breath and led Mom between the trees.
The trees were still thin and tightly bunched together. There was still litter sticking out of the snow. Bushes still formed solid walls on either side of us.
“Lee….” Mom was hunched under the low hanging branches.
“It’s around here!” I reminded myself that it hadn’t happened right away. I had taken a few steps before entering the other world. Gripping Mom’s hand even tighter, I led her farther between the trees.
The world refused to change. The forest remained claustrophobically overgrown. There was no sign of monster prints in the snow. “It’s gotta be here!” I yanked Mom farther.
“Lee, stop it!” She pulled me back. “There’s nothing there!”
“But it was right here!” We had passed the spot where the world had changed, but I still tried to drag her forward. “The monsters were right here! Why isn’t this working?”
“All that’s in there are trees and garbage. There aren’t any monsters.”
“But I saw them!” Tears bubbled inside me. I tried to dam them up. Mom had to see that I was an adult who knew what he was talking about. “I really saw them! They were right there! And there was a stone with pictures on it and a talking sparrow. He was going to take me to see someone called Spicket. It’s true! I swear!”
Tears ran down my face. Mom looked between me and the empty forest in front of us. She was on the verge of tears. Finally, she put her arms around me, hugging me tightly. “I’m sorry, Lee.”
“You believe me, right?” I murmured.
“I believe you saw something,” she whispered. “But whatever it was isn’t anything that’s going to hurt you.”
A minute later we were walking back down the slope. Mom looked down at me. “Hey, would you feel better if you told Dad about it?”
I knew that Dad wouldn’t believe me either, but he was more open-minded than Mom. Maybe I could at least convince him that something weird was going on.
When we got inside, I sat down at the kitchen table to call Dad. I was rehearsing what I was going to say again when I began to wonder if I really had imagined the whole thing. I’d heard stories on TV about people having hallucinations. Maybe someone had slipped me a drug, or maybe I was just going crazy.
No. I hadn’t imagined anything. My head still felt light from the terror of seeing that creature rise up out of the bushes, and my cheek was sore from where a branch had smacked it. What I had seen had been as real as the kitchen I was sitting in or the phone I was holding.
I dialed Dad’s cell. Within seconds the ringing on the other end of the receiver was joined by a high-pitched disco beat coming from the TV room. Mom followed the sound, reached down between the pillows of the couch and pulled out Dad’s tiny silver cell phone. She held it up and rolled her eyes. “Fantastic.”
I groaned and hung up the receiver. Mom began flipping through the contacts on the cell phone. “Hey, I’ll just call your Dad’s company. They would have the number of the hotel he’s staying at. He might not be in, but we could at least leave a message.”
I shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal, Mom.”
“Well, we should at least have his number in case there’s an emergency. I’m just surprised he didn’t call earlier about losing his cell phone. Knowing him, he probably hasn’t even noticed it’s missing yet.” She found the number she was looking for on the phone and hit dial.
When Mom finally got in touch with someone at Dad’s company, she smiled, “Hi. I was wondering if you could help me with something….” She explained that Dad was on a business trip for the company, and she needed the number of the hotel where he was staying. When she was done talking, the person on the other end put her on hold. Mom leaned against the counter as the tacky electronic music hummed in her ear.
After several minutes I heard the music cut off and Mom asked, “Were you able to find the number?” She paused for a moment. Her smile faded. “Wait, are you sure you have the right name? He’s on a business trip. Your company sent him to Buffalo for a meeting.” She paused again. “Well you must have offices in Buffalo. He’s flying out there all the time.”
I sat up straight. It was already obvious that something horrible was about to happen. For a moment I considered going into the other room to watch TV just so I wouldn’t have to hear what was coming, but I was rooted to my chair.
Mom was pacing through the kitchen. “Every week you’re flying him out to Chicago or Buffalo or New York! Are you sure you have the right name?” She sat down across the table from me. “Well then check a third time!”
I lowered my head and rested it on the tabletop. From far away I heard Mom shouting, “Of course I’m sure he still works there. He’s been working there for seven years!”
The day after the monsters attacked me in the woods was the day Dad was supposed to come home. I spent hours sitting around the house with a cold emptiness in my chest.
Mom tried to be cheerful, but I could tell that she was exhausting herself by forcing a smile across her face. She let me watch as much television as I wanted while she sat at the kitchen table going through Dad’s cell phone. Occasionally she would walk into her bedroom to make a call.
I went to bed as soon as I was done eating dinner. All Mom had given me was a bowl of Cheerios, but I didn’t complain. I couldn’t even force half the cereal down my throat.
I was wide awake when I heard the creak of the front door opening and the sound of Dad’s shoes against the hardwood floor. I rolled over and tried to force myself to fall asleep.
“Hello! I’m home!” Dad’s voice echoed through the house. “Is anyone here?” There was the sudden burst of a laugh track as he turned on the television.
Mom’s footsteps were fast and sharp as she walked out into the TV room. “How was Buffalo?”
“Exhausting. Can you believe that the client was two hours late?”
“And he decided to leave his suitcase back in his office. I swear I almost missed my flight. Where’s Lee?”
“In bed. You left your cell phone here.”
“Oh good. I was afraid it was still on the plane I took up there. I was going to call from the hotel, but you know how these trips are. You even have to sleep on the go.”
“Yeah.” Mom’s voice was drained of life. “I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get in touch with you if something happened, though.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”
“So I called your office.”
The house filled with the sound of the laugh track roaring away. Finally, my father croaked, “What did they say?”
“You haven’t worked for them in two years!”
“Who did you talk to?”
“Where have you been going all this time?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Just tell me who you talked to.”
Mom paused for a moment before stating, “She said her name was Pam.”
“You talked to Pam?” Dad barked a laugh. “Well of course Pam doesn’t think I work there anymore. She’s down in archives. I haven’t seen her since I got promoted.”
“I also talked to your old boss. He said you were fired because you stopped coming in to work.”
“There was a mix up with schedules. I was technically let go but immediately rehired in a different department. I just didn’t want you to worry. That’s what happened when I got my promotion two years ago. Remember? Right when they started sending me on all these….”
“Why do you have an apartment in Edgewood?”
The sound of wood splintering made to sit up in bed. I had been so focused on my parents' argument I had barely noticed the sounds of movement in the trees behind our house. Slowly, I turned my head and stared out the window. In the glow of the streetlights I could see the very rear of our tiny backyard. Something was moving between the trees.
Dad was stammering out a response about how he had no idea what she was talking about, but Mom steamrolled right over him. “I went through your phone today. Found a contact called “Apartment Office.” I called it and talked to a nice man named Frank who says you’ve been renting a place from him in Edgewood for the past several years. You’re a bit behind on your rent so he didn’t mind giving out personal information. He also told me that you need to stop having band practice over at your place because it’s disturbing the neighbors. What the hell did he mean by band practice?”
Inch by inch, I slid out of bed and crept across the hard wood floor. Through the window I could see a figure stepping out of the forest.
“Look,” my Dad’s voice was quivering. “This is something a lot of guys go through….”
“Shut it! I don’t want to hear excuses. I just want to know where has this family been getting all of its money from for the past two years?”
“Well, we’ve been doing a lot of gigs lately.”
“And I had to borrow some money from friends and then there was our savings….”
I pressed my body against the wall and peeked through the window.
The figure slinking out of the forest moved on all fours. Its legs were so long, it reminded me of a giant insect. The creature crept around the circle of streetlight, sniffing the snow. Even in the darkness I could count each of the ribs under its gray reptilian skin. I could even see its joints move when it walked.
Next door the Austins' dogs began to bark. The creature raised its head toward the fence. I caught a glint of metal where its mouth should have been.
For several seconds it stood frozen in the snow. I pressed my face against the glass trying to pick out the details. The creature leapt up onto its hind legs.
I flinched back, and my arm hit the robot dinosaur perched on the windowsill. The toy hit the floor and released an enormous mechanical roar. I grabbed at it blindly and tried to flip the off switch but ended up hitting the volume control. The roar became louder. My fingers somehow found the battery case. I flipped it open and dumped the double A’s out onto the floor. The noise cut off.
Letting out a long breath, I leaned back and looked up at the window. A pair of dead blue eyes stared back at me through the glass.
Shouting so loudly my head almost burst, I scrambled along the floor away from the window. The creature’s face should have been on a handsome sixteen-year-old boy, but its cheeks were pulled back with a grin full of metal teeth.
My back smashed against the bed, but my feet kept kicking the floor, trying to get as far away as possible.
The lights were on before I even heard the door open. There was a stampede of feet and arms were flung around me. Still shouting, I tried to push them away.
“Lee!” My mom cried. “Lee! Sweetie! What’s wrong?”
Frantically, I pointed at the window. “It’s out there! The thing…it saw me!”
I heard Dad move toward the window. For two seconds I held my breath, expecting to hear him start shouting in terror, but there was silence. Finally, he muttered, “There’s nothing out here, Lee.”
Releasing my breath, I turned toward him, expecting to only see darkness through the window. Instead, the figure still stood where it had a moment ago, with cold blue eyes staring through the glass.
“You must’ve had a nightmare, kiddo.” Dad turned to me, smiling.
“It’s right there!” I screamed. “It’s looking through the window at us.”
The creature slammed its palms against the window and let out a roar that shook the glass. It banged on the window again and dropped on all fours. Mom and Dad didn’t even flinch. A second later I caught at flicker of movement as it ran into the forest.
I looked up between Mom and Dad. “Would it be okay if I slept with you guys tonight?”
As it turned out Dad spent that night in the motel on High Street. Ironically it was the same one where he stayed when Mom was pregnant with me and her grandparents wouldn’t let him into the house.
When I looked up Edgewood on a map in the school’s library, I saw that it was twenty miles away. All those times Dad had said he was going to Chicago or New York he was really just driving less than a half hour down the highway.
After that first night in the motel, Dad spent every evening at his Edgewood Apartment but still came by our house during the day. It was almost kind of funny. He was around a lot more often now that we knew about his secret life. When Dad was home, though, he and Mom spent most of their time either sitting in endless silence or arguing in the bedroom.
For the past few years Dad had been living two lives. In one he had a well-paying job at a reputable financial company and was in a faithful if rocky relationship with the mother of his child. In the other life he was an unemployed bachelor who lived in his own apartment and was the lead guitarist for the indie rock band Yellow Box who had regular gigs at local bars and clubs. He had his own home, job, and group of friends we knew nothing about, and I doubt that they had ever heard anything about us.
In a way my father wasn’t even leading two lives because the one he shared with us was mostly lies. He didn’t work for a financial company anymore. For years he had told us that he hated modern rock music. And as for being faithful, when Mom asked if there was someone else in his other life, Dad’s exact response was, “I swear none of them were serious.”
I’m sure that most kids would love to find out that their dad was secretly a member of a rock band, but the idea made me feel like I didn’t even know myself anymore.
Maybe that’s why I began to wonder if the monsters and talking animals were real. I had sworn that I would never doubt what I had seen, but the more I thought about it the more insane it seemed. None of the neighbors had heard the coyote talk. Mom hadn’t seen the other world in the forest. Neither of my parents had noticed that here was a psychotic monster banging on my window.
Of course it would be easy to figure out if I was insane or not. All I had to do was just go into the forest by myself and see if I walked into the other world. I thought about sneaking out into the backyard many times but always found some excuse not to go.
The following week drifted by in a haze. I sleepwalked to and from school. When I was home I lay on the couch for hours trying to lose myself in the TV. My poor mother tried her hardest to engage me. She would sit in the TV room trying to talk about anything. Once she even brought up the monsters in the woods and asked me if I wanted to talk about them, but I just rolled over on the couch and closed my eyes.
During that week there wasn’t a sign of anything from the other world. I didn’t even hear the monsters moving through the woods at night. Part of me almost wished they would come tearing out of the forest to storm our house just so to prove that I wasn’t insane.
Everything changed exactly one week after we found out about Dad’s secret apartment. First of all, that afternoon was the first time Mom ever let me stay home by myself for more than a few minutes. She told me to just stick to the couch and watch television until they came back from Edgewood.
My parents had an epic fight the night before that almost tore down the house. It ended with Mom shouting, “ Show me this apartment! You becoming completely honest is the only way this family is going to survive.” I remember listening in bed and being overwhelmed with relief. The way she had said those words made me feel like there was some hope that things might go back to normal.
For two hours I lay on the couch staring at the TV screen. When I finally got tired of watching The Lion King, I turned off the DVD player and watched a nature program where a praying mantis was ripping a caterpillar to pieces. The caterpillar writhed in pain as the other insect ripped into it.
I wasn’t interested in the show but didn’t have the energy to find the remote. All I could do was wonder what my parents were doing. I prayed to God that things were going well.
On TV the narrator was praising the mantis’ ability to survive when the front door slammed open. Mom marched in shouting, “I can’t believe you lived like that.” She took two steps through the door, saw me on the couch and gave a weak smile. “How was your day, honey?”
“Are you hungry? Did anything happen while we were gone?”
“Well, I’ll start dinner in a few minutes.”
Dad moved past her into their bedroom. Mom followed him. I knew what was going to happen and jumped up to find the TV remote so I could turn up the volume.
Their door shut. Mom’s voice growled, “I can’t believe you were living like that. That was the most disgusting place I have ever been in!”
“Can I just say something?”
“My God, I feel like I never knew you.”
“Please let me talk.”
“And who was that woman outside your door? Don’t tell me you….”
I jumped as the wall shook. Dad’s fist must've punched clear through the plaster. Finally, he began to talk again. “It is painfully obvious that this is not working out. You’re furious with me for lying to you…”
“…And you want me to be the guy you thought I was. Well I’m sorry to tell you this, but what you just saw in there is the way I want to live. I want to be a slob. I want to live off of what I can make in a band. I don’t need the responsibilities everyone else insists on having. I probably should have done this years ago, but it’s now clear that I should go. I’m going to gather up my things. I’ll have everything out by tomorrow.”
A bubble of ice swelled up in my stomach and filled every part of my body. I couldn’t even breathe.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Mom sounded like she was trying to be angry but her voice was shaking.
“It means you don’t have to worry about me coming around and bothering you. The band is planning a tour that’ll take us on the road for a while. This might be a good time for a clean break.”
“A clean break? That’s your son out there!”
“I’m twenty thousand dollars in debt! How the hell can I support him?”
“Get a job! Stop pretending that you’re going to be the next Jim Morrison or whoever and support your family!”
“I have to do this! I’m sorry but that’s just the way things are.”
His footsteps approached the door and I realized that he was about to open it. At that moment the idea of seeing my father was the most terrifying thing that could possibly happen. I ran for the back door.
Slamming it open, I burst into the yard and ran for the slope. Behind me I could hear my father’s voice calling my name. Slipping on the mud I scrambled up the steep incline and ran into the trees. Branches hit my face. Thorns stabbed me in the side. I staggered, blindly pushing at anything that got in my way.
Something tripped up my leg. I staggered forward, slipping on wet leaves and crashed onto the forest floor. Dirt clogged my mouth. Mud seeped through my clothes. When I looked up I saw that I had stumbled back down the rabbit hole.
The forest was exactly the way I remembered it being. Trees were as wide as houses and the branches in the canopy intersected perfectly like an enormous puzzle. The snow had also melted in this world. I could see the shrine Sparrow had pointed out clear as day just a few feet away.
So I wasn’t crazy. At least, if I was, it was a very reliable kind of crazy.
I pulled myself up and tried to figure out what I was going to do next. Sparrow was somewhere in the forest. I could find him and then he could take me to see this Spicket everyone seemed to know. Maybe she could tell me what was going on and explain how I could turn things back to the way they had been.
It had become perfectly clear that this other forest was responsible for whatever was happening between my parents. Everything had been fine before the talking animals and monsters had shown up. Now my life was a mess, and I was convinced that none of this would have happened if it weren’t for this “Rift” thing.
Trying not to think of the monsters who also lived in the forest or that I could become lost in a matter of minutes, I stepped forward between the trees, determined to set things right again.