The approach was from the southwest side of my house, which gave us the best cover from the bushes in my front yard plus two large Alder trees that stood parallel to the sidewalk. This side of the house sat in shadow from the buzzing streetlamp at the end of our driveway on the northern border of our property. Our left hands gripped the brick foundation of my house as we peered to the Northeast from a darkness which did not allow us to see our own feet. The Van sat across the street from the driveway, facing North-Northeast, so we would only be visible driver’s side blind-spot for a few seconds while we zipped across the street 30 yards behind it.
Old Mr. Silas had two rows of Arborvitae flanking his driveway, running perpendicular to his sidewalk, which would afford us sufficient cover on the other side of the street. From there we could casually enter the passenger-side sidewalk at a distance that was minimally observable in the passenger-side mirror. We were wearing dark colors, but nothing too suspicious. We had one set of binoculars and two walkie-talkies set to Channel 3, but didn’t bother to synchronize our watches because neither of us had watches. However, per the new Mission Protocol, we silenced our cell phones.
The first sprint from the house to the Alder trees made the mission become Real. Now we were no longer a part of the pedestrian, car-washing world; we were definitely up to Something. The unequivocal rush of danger pumped with the blood beating in my ears as I braced my back against a giant Alder and carefully craned my neck around toward The Van. It had not moved, but from that sharp angle I couldn’t see the person inside. I needed the binoculars, which Stevie had. I signaled back to Stevie, still ducked behind the bushes, to make his run to my tree. The original plan had him running to another Alder tree further away from The Van, which had a worse line of sight, but I wanted him to run to the same tree where I was so I could get the binoculars. We didn’t have a signal for that, so he ran to the other Alder tree instead, like he was supposed to. Now he was waiting for me to make the sprint across the street.
Improvise. I ducked down around the far side of my tree and crawled on my stomach towards Stevie’s tree where he was hiding, trying to get a look at the van. He had moved around the other side of the tree, out of my sight now. Halfway there, I realized that I might startle Stevie and give us both away, so I turned and started crawling back. “Dumb idea, J.B.” I thought. Reaching the base of my tree, still on my stomach, I thought maybe I could get a better view by crawling a little closer to The Van, but there was no more cover. Too exposed. “No, stick with the plan...” I crawled back to the South side of my tree. I looked back and saw Stevie’s head peeking around the North side of his tree, then saw his arms go out on either side of it, as if asking what the hell I was doing. I shimmied back up to a standing position and tried to signal something about the binoculars, gesturing towards The Van, and then waved my hand like a third-base coach, sending the runner home. Stevie understood that signal and made a quick bolt towards me, then jumping and sliding the last several feet. I had to give him credit for his effort and athletic prowess. He was always good at baseball.
“Binoculars!” I whispered loudly.
“Here,” Stevie wrestled them out of his jacket pocket, “What the hell were you doing?”
“Never mind.” I dismissed him.
“What do you mean ‘never mind?’ We have a plan! And you’re crawling around like a…”
“Shhhh!” I hushed him violently.
“Alright, but no more commando shit!” Stevie demanded, still lying on the ground in a position that was sure to make his arm fall asleep soon.
“Okay!” I agreed and then put my index finger across my lips, pointing towards the moonless sky.
Stevie nodded in acceptance of the terms of our agreement and swung his legs around to flip onto his stomach. I trained the binoculars at the driver’s-side mirror but saw nothing but the bright yellow glare of the buzzing streetlamp. Damn. I gave Stevie a quick “pssst!” and then patted my forearm twice before pointing across the street. I’m not sure what the meaning of that signal was, but I had seen it in movies so I tried it. I’m not sure Stevie knew what I was signaling either, but he seemed to get the drift. He got into a crouched position, ready to make the sprint across the street. He was staring at me now like a good dog, waiting for the next signal. I didn’t know any other signals, so I tucked the binoculars under my arm like a football player and started running. I was always better at football…
I felt like I was running ridiculously fast, too fast for my own feet, like I might trip and fall, but I made it to the Arborvitae bushes on Silas’ side of the street without incident. Stevie was only a few steps behind me. We looked at each other for a few seconds, panting, and then smiled. This was the Real Life that we were constantly seeking; this was the Challenge; this was the Magic in the night. To us, “the middle of the night” was a world of endless possibility, and we were sharing it. Catnerds For Life. Once we had caught our breath, I signaled with my head towards the sidewalk, and then performed a gracious bow and the sweep of the arm, indicating “After you, my fine fellow…” I stuffed the binoculars into my pocket and followed Stevie into the buzzing yellow light of our imaginary stage...
As we casually approached The Van from the passenger-side sidewalk, now 20 yards South-Southeast and moving hastily with stiff steps, I could feel the singeing tingle of madness in my stomach, those strange thoughts of entering an Unknown, both physically and mentally. Death might be waiting there for us, or a psycho with a knife clenched in his teeth. Or nothing might happen. The infinite possibilities invoked a range of danger that made my teeth chatter and my stomach punch-tight. I felt sick. I thought about real soldiers in real wars, and I felt truly bad for them, walking blindly into maddening situations over and over until their minds were programmed to distrust even the most innocuous streets and buildings; until their minds were melted with the molten alloys of fear and desperation and the insanity of explosions and amputated limbs falling from the sky like sleet; until they couldn’t possibly care anymore if they died or not...
We were in front of Mr. Silas’ house now, about 10 yards from The Van, anxiety building with each step. I decided to duck into the trees and try the binoculars again. I had to try and get a glimpse of whatever we were walking into, and Old Silas’ trees were our last cover. I grabbed Stevie’s arm and pulled him into the Arborvitae. He gave me a scornful look that was about to turn into a scornful remark, but I cut him off with an aggressive “SHHH!” before he got any words out. Stevie obliged by looking around nervously. I pulled the binoculars out of my pocket and looked for a clean shot through the branches.
After searching across the magnified white chaos of the van, which was much closer than I expected through the lenses, I finally located the mirror. This time, I could see Something, but I couldn’t tell what the hell it was. At first, I thought I was seeing the trees on the other side of the street... maybe the angle of the mirror was wrong?
“What do you see?” Stevie’s voice drifted into the side of my head.
“Nothing… I don’t know. Trees, I think,” I replied as I adjusted the focus on the binoculars, kept scanning.
“Trees?! What the hell are you looking at, J.B.? What’s inside the van?” Stevie pleaded.
“I am looking inside the van! I think… I just can’t tell what the hell that is… wires maybe…” my voice trailed off as I double-triple-checked that I was actually looking at the side mirror. Yes, mirror confirmed... and the mirror was definitely reflecting a tall dark shape that looked like it had wires or branches sticking out of the top, silhouetted against the bright orange of my garage under the streetlamp. I was looking for the long, spiky hair and baseball cap that I thought I remembered seeing before, but this silhouette was different. It reminded me of people being electrocuted and their hair shooting out wildly in all directions, never to lay down naturally again.
“Wires?!?… Can you see anybody, J.B.?” Stevie’s voice, again, exploding out of the dark silence of my periphery.
“I don’t know! Maybe they’re not in there anymore?” I realized how confused I was as I said it.
“Goddamit! Let me look.” Stevie’s voice was getting louder, too loud for the situation. I pulled the binoculars down and hushed Stevie again.
“Okay, you take a look, but shut the fuck up, man! Old Silas will come out here and blow the whole thing!” I tried to pull the volume of the conversation down while still maintaining the force behind my instructions.
“Okay, okay! Give me the binoculars...”
We quickly, clumsily switched places. I crouched down on my haunches and peered through the branches, trying to get a glimpse of the side mirror at real distance, but my focus didn’t last long as I began wondering if the person inside The Van had already escaped. “Holy Shit! What if they were inside my house right now murdering my whole family? My Mother? My Father? Lucie? What if this psycho was in the bushes watching us right now?” I became locked in fear, too afraid to turn around and look, like all those times coming up from a dark basement when I was too scared to turn around even though I felt like Something was behind me, about to grab my leg, and I would sprint up the last few stairs, scared shitless, into the safe light of the kitchen.
“Stevie! Is he in there?” I was straining to whisper without betraying the shaking in my voice.
“I don’t know, man. I can’t tell. There’s Something in there though…”
Stevie dropped down next to me like his legs had just disintegrated, turned and sat with his back facing the van. “Holy shit! I think I just saw his eyes!”
“What do you mean?! Did he see you?” I turned around to face Stevie.
“I don’t know… I don’t think so, but there’s definitely somebody in there! I think they’re wearing a baseball cap.”
“Why is that good?”
“Because that means that he didn’t escape...”
We both sat reticent for several seconds thinking about the possibilities of what that meant, what any of it meant. I wasn’t telling Stevie all the terrible things I was thinking because I wanted to “protect” him, even though I’m sure he had equally disturbing thoughts running through his head that he wasn’t sharing. Neither of us were sharing anything at this point. I wondered if he was as scared as I was. If he was, he wasn’t showing it, so I couldn’t show it either.
“The plan. We need to finish the Mission!” I was trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, thereby displaying my bravery.
“Oh. Yeah. Okay, let’s go.”
Stevie matched me on every point. A worthy adversary, for sure, and definitely a worthy member of The Club. I wondered for some time if we shouldn’t call our club a ‘Guild’ instead? Guilds seemed to possess a certain ruggedness, a visceral toughness that just wasn’t found in Clubs, like we used steel brushes to brush our teeth and snake fangs to comb our hair and we only wore leather clothes made out of animals that we killed and we were always using heavy iron tools and crafting things out of metal or wood, and there was always a fire burning somewhere. We would use secret passwords, ancient handshakes and mysterious symbols, and conspiracies would continually swirl around us. “The Guild of Catnerd.” I whispered out loud. I thought it sounded cool, and dangerous, and for some reason it bolstered my nerve to complete the mission. I stared at Stevie with anxious resolve, and his eyes met mine and held them for a few seconds until he cracked a smile and replied back, “The Guild of Catnerd.” We were ready.
I gave a definitive head nod over my right shoulder: the signal to move out. He gave me back a single, vertical head nod as confirmation. In seconds we were on our feet, casually walking back up the sidewalk again, approaching the passenger side of The Van, emboldened with a false shield of Guild bravery guiding our steps, buffering us from the impending scene that was about to unfold. With each step closer, we were gaining false strength, a strength that can only come from camaraderie with another person as crazy and scared as you are, and I wondered if part of this bravery came from the notion that I figured I could run faster than Stevie. I thought deeply about the Code and whether or not, if push came to shove, that I would literally push and/or shove my friend into the jaws of Death to save my own skin, or would I rise to the occasion and really be heroic? I wasn’t really sure.
The Van grew larger, its white sides gobbling up more and more of my periphery as my line of sight was consumed more and more with the reflected image in the passenger side mirror. I could see the dark silhouette, its wiry shadows contrasted with the light of the street evening scene. The baseball cap was evident even if it was only an illusion-- at least I thought I could see it. Or was my perception betraying my reality? I stared harder...
And then I saw them, or at least I felt like I saw them. “His eyes! Holy shit… Did he just move? Did he just turn and look at us? Or was he watching us the whole time?” My silent voice-box shook in my throat and any moisture that was left in my mouth migrated to the surface of my palms, some sort of sick magic trick. What possible evolutionary advantage was it to have sweaty hands when in danger or about to hold hands with a girl you like? I shoved my hand into the pockets of my jeans to dry them off, when I felt my knife. I forgot I had brought it along. It wasn’t a particularly fitting weapon for this situation and I had relatively little experience using it as anything other than for opening letters from my Grandmother, who always put extra tape on everything. My fingers closed around it, searching for the feeling of safety...
“What in the world was I going to do with a knife? I’ve never even stabbed anyone! Would Stevie freak out if he knew that I had a knife?” My head: spinning like broken watch gears; my vision: pulsating like dizzying heights. “Just keep walking, keep walking… Oh Jesus! Were his eyes glowing now?!”
Stevie stopped walking because I had stopped a few feet from the window. I didn’t even notice that I had stopped walking. We were staring at each other again. I’m sure he could see it in my eyes: Fear. There is no mistaking it, the look of someone who has just seen a ghost. I let go of my knife, took my hand out of my pocket and pointed it at the passenger-side mirror of The Van. Stevie’s eyes did not follow my hand; he just kept staring at me. His eyes seemed blank now, no emotion at all. He looked like a little kid who just pissed their pants and had no idea what the consequences were going to be. I started absently, slowly walking down the sidewalk again, but kept looking at Stevie and kept my hand pointing at the mirror, for a few more steps.
I was parallel to the window now, fully exposed, and Something inside of me told me that I needed to look. Something overtook me, something pushed me past the old “running up from the dark basement” fear. I couldn’t help it. I broke Stevie’s gaze and turned my head to the window, lowering my hand. The wires were there, everywhere, jutting out from the head and body of this impossible intruder, kinked and jagged, like electric porcupine road-kill. The eyes were there, too, glowing in the terrible glare of the streetlight. The Intruder looked straight into the heart of my madness. For a second, I thought I might already be dead. I crept closer, as if hypnotized. “What kind of person approaches their own inevitable end like a stoned lemming? This was the killer of my family!” Yet I crept closer still, until my face was nearly against the glass...
Then I saw it. The sharp lines of his face, the impossible contours of his designer-cut torso, the freakishly pale, plastic skin, the stiff posture and an angle to his back that could only belong to something rigid and unreal, something without a spine at all. It was an armless department store mannequin, stabbed all over with spikes of short pieces of thick-gauged wire, like the body of an intruding White Man that had just gathered the rain of a hundred angry Indian arrows after unwisely crossing a sacred burial ground, and his eyes, just marbles, beamed at me below the brow of his crooked baseball cap, glowing in the light of the buzzing yellow streetlamp, and I began to laugh…