It was a Friday night when Richard, Jacob, Carol, and I had gone out to the movies. They had warned me in advance that The Harrowing would probably keep me up at night. I felt quite lonely after isolating myself throughout a week of exams and ready to do anything that didn’t involve books or practice problems, even if that meant watching a horror movie. It started drizzling slightly when we left the college campus so we decided to drive down to the nearby theater instead of walking. The robbery that morning near the apartment Richard and I shared was also an added deterrent from walking. The theater was only two minutes away by car, but sometimes college students don’t need an excuse to drive.
“Did you bring your ID Andrew?”, Jacob asked me.
“No I didn’t actually”, I replied, digging through my pockets just to make sure. “Crap, I’m getting too used to leaving my wallet on my desk”.
“Well the movie is rated R”, Richard added. “Hopefully that beard of yours will convince the lady at the ticket counter that you’re over 18.”
We all chuckled and got ready to pay for our tickets. “That will be $11.75 for The Harrowing at 7:40″, the lady at the counter said. Richard handed over one of the coupons we had purchased at the local convenience store that was redeemable for a ticket. “May I see your ID, sir?”, turns out she was carding after all. One by one my friends received their tickets and I got slightly nervous that this woman would actually card me. “Next in line please”, I approached the counter and handed her the coupon.
“One ticket for The Harrowing at 7:40 please.”
“Would you like a Cinema 7 moviegoers rewards card”, she rattled off in the same forced, monotonous tone as she pulled my ticket out of the printer.
“No thank you”, I replied, waiting for her to pop the question.
“Here you are sir, you’ll be in theater 8, which is on the rightmost side past the refreshments counter.” I breathed a sigh of relief and walked off towards the movie halls to catch up with the others. I would have missed the movie if she had actually asked me for my ID since driving back to the apartment would guarantee making my friends late.
“Did she actually not card you?” Carol giggled as I caught up to her.
“Yeah she didn’t bother. I guess the beard has more uses than making my face itchy and collecting crumbs. Where are the others?”
“I actually don’t know. I was just about to ask you the same thing.” She looked around for a second. “I turned away and they had disappeared somewhere.”
“They’re probably just in the hall, let’s go take a look.” We entered the rather empty hall seeing no sign of Richard or Jacob. Besides me and Carol there was one couple in the back getting jiggy with it; so much for a Friday night crowd. We decided to sit down and wait since Richard and Jacob would naturally make their way over once the movie was about to start. We agreed here was no point roaming around aimlessly to look for them. Soon after a trailer came on for a movie about a boy whose dreams come to life. “Jack has a rare gift, he can make his dreams come to life”, an old man told Jack’s mother. “That means he can experience wonderful, enlightening things.” A group of colorful butterflies, flying in unison, appeared on the screen. “But that also means his worst nightmares come to life.” With a bang a mutilated corpse consisting of sewn together body parts knocked open Jack’s bedroom door. Jack was still sleeping, but the corpse let out a terrible scream and made a move for the bed. Just as the ghastly fingernails were about to get to Jack’s throat, he woke up with a sudden jolt and the abomination disappeared. I watched through a hole between my fingers, hands covering my face. “There’s no way I’m going to make it through this movie, this was a mistake. I can’t even make it through the previews”, I said to myself as the next trailer came on. I withdrew my hands from my face and relaxed slightly as the preview sign came on to announce that the next trailer was intended for mature audiences.
“You hanging in there Andrew?”, I turned to see Richard sitting next to Carol with a goofy grin on his face. I knew he was asking the question out of genuine concern, but he couldn’t help being amused at how easily I scared.
“Oh, so you and Jacob finally found your way here. I was too busy putting my hands in my face to notice. I’ll just leave if it gets too intense.” I prematurely covered my face again as the trailer started rolling.
“Yeah don’t give yourself nightmares man. I’d hate to see my roommate tossing and turning all night”, Richard replied. Jacob gave a friendly giggle and focused his attention on the screen. He lived on the other side of campus and wouldn’t have the responsibility of consoling me at night if I got too spooked.
A family of three in the process of moving into a new house appeared on the screen. “Why do horror movies always abuse the idea of little kids getting scared at night,” I wondered to myself. The truth was I already knew the answer; it brings back memories of childish fears and I was one of those children who possessed the uncanny ability to dream up terrible things out of the darkness. Many a sleepless night as a child made the idea of being scared unappealing to me and the little boy’s situation was all too relatable. Turns out the little boy, Mark, was being adopted by the married couple buying the new house. Their biological son had died a couple of years ago and they thought adoption was an appropriate step for them. I shuddered and completely blocked any view of the screen as Mark lay in his bed, trying to fall asleep. Sounds of thunder and lightning sounded off in the background. I opened up the smallest slit possible and saw Mark tuck his face underneath the covers. After a couple of moments Mark was sweating and needed to breathe, so he pulled the covers off his face. Suddenly, out of the background the ghost of the firstborn son came into focus. I quickly smothered my face once again as Mark let out a piercing scream of terror. “You’re not part of the family, little boy”, the ghost said in a croaky voice, void of any character.
That was it for me. I wasn’t about to watch a montage of this poor boy Mark getting tortured by this ghost every night. My heart was pounding as I got out of my chair without looking at the screen. “See ya bros. I’m outta here”, I remarked as I quickly made for the exit, without waiting for a reply. The bright lights of the main lobby next to the refreshments stand were very comforting. The darkness and reminders of childhood nightmares were more than I could bear. “They were right, you’re not cut out for this sort of thing Andrew”, I told myself. “You’re going to be spending tonight by yourself whether you like it or not, because you sure as hell aren’t going back in there”.
Then it hit me as I stood there in the lobby for the next five minutes. There were no places to sit and I would be standing around for nearly two hours. “Guess you really didn’t think this one through”, I had an awkward habit of referring to myself in the second person while self reprimanding. There’s a Walmart across the street, but even spending two hours looking at the available video games could get boring. Unsure of what to do I pulled my phone out of my pocket as I walked outside. “Uh oh, you really were didn’t think this one through dude”, my phone was on four percent battery. Forget playing games on my phone or browsing the internet, I wouldn’t be able to call Richard, Jacob, and Carol when they were out of the theater so I could get a ride home. Going to Walmart was out of the question since I wouldn’t be able to keep in contact with them. My only two options were waiting inside the theater or walking home.
“Goddamit!”, I blurted out loud before returning to my own thoughts. “There’s no way I’m standing in the same spot for two hours with nothing to do.” I didn’t even have money to play games at the arcade because “you’re a genius and left your wallet at home!”. Frustrated at my inability to anticipate the likely scenario of not being able to get through the movie, I trudged through the parking lot on my way back to campus. There were plenty of cars in the parking lot and I planned on taking the main road home to be on the safe side. I didn’t anticipate any issues, but the recent robbery had made me weary of traveling through town at night.
I passed Good Taste Buffet, the local American Chinese place and reached the end of the parking lot where farming equipment and tractors were placed for sale. From here on the streets were narrow and lighting was scarce until I reached the town square, which was over a mile away. I waited for a walk sign at the crosswalk and turned my head to the right. There’s something about darkness that has always been disconcerting. I sensed that familiar sensation of the hairs standing up on the back of my neck and my stomach tingling; it was only the entrance to the middle school, but the shroud of darkness that covered it right now made it sinister. The walk sign flashed on and I turned my head away as I crossed the street. There were plenty of cars whizzing by me as I walked down the road and I took comfort in the fact that according to my logic nothing criminal or spooky was bound to happen with so many people out and about. Houses also bordered both sides of the sidewalked streets, many of them showing signs of life.
A hooded man in a camo sweatshirt with baggy cargo pants approached me as I kept walking. The town was working class and even though it was relatively safe it had its share of rugged characters. I disliked how I preached against stereotyping, but my own fears were too strong to walk past such a figure in the dark. I glanced at his dark face for a second, noting his stern features, but my guilt forced me to look away. I knew if I looked at him he would tell the fear in my eyes and if I looked down it would do no better; it was a lose lose situation. “You keep doing that man. He could be completely innocent, but you keep treating random people like thugs just like everybody else”, I scolded myself. Then I quickly dropped it as I remembered that there was too much adrenaline pumping through my veins and I was finding any excuse to scare myself right now. As I walked past him I could make out the stench of cigarettes upon his clothes. Then we were off on our separate ways quite uneventfully.
My eyes darted from side to side as I kept walking. There were so many shady spots to check and my sixth sense was on full alert. Dark alleyways denoted the spaces between the houses. I never directly glanced down their dark entrances, but I made sure no one was there in my peripheral vision. At the next house I crossed I ran my routine alleyway check and jerked forward as a figure moved out of the darkness. A hooded man came out of the shadows next to me and then continued down the street in the opposite direction. “You gotta stop spooking yourself for no reason Andrew. It’s gonna be a be a long walk home if you shiver at the sight of every dude walking in the street. There’s plenty of cars outside and all these people are in their homes five feet from you. Nothing is going to happen.” I tried to comfort myself the best I could, but I still felt uneasy walking the town’s streets. I noted the parking meters and parallel parked cars that obstructed my view of the cars on the street. “What if they can’t see me right now? What it I can’t scream loud enough for those people in their houses to come outside and help me?” My heart started to pound away as my palms got sweaty.
This inner battle continued as I passed the homeless shelter. A man stepped out through the front door, smoking a cigarette while clutching a plastic bag in his other hand. I was instantly reminded of a local news report that indicated drug deals were becoming frequent on the corner by the homeless shelter. The mayor had even called for extra police patrols to deal with the issue. Glancing around me I didn’t see a single patrol car and fear defeated my ability to rationalize. “Let’s just get home as fast as we can” my second voice told the first one, “I’m not about to get got by some drug dealers looking to take my wallet and then figuring out I don’t have one. God what is it with people in this damn town!” My pace quickened, I was getting more desperate to get back to my room. The cars distant driving on the road and the lights in the houses were too distant to make me feel safe. Nonetheless I tried to rationalize the fear away after giving myself a moment to recollect. “Look you idiot, if anything happened to you right now there’s too many people for you not to get help!”
Suddenly I felt the presence of something over my shoulder. I looked over my shoulder to see no one behind me. Then creepily enough the sensation stayed behind my shoulder as I glanced in different directions. The image of a menacing skull with silver wispy hairs attached to the dome became fixated in my head at that moment. “Stop it…”, before I could finish scolding myself for scaring myself again, a shriek from across the street caught my attention, forcing the image out of my mind. “Eaghhh”, a man hit the front steps of a house with a thud. “Please! Don’t! No I..” he couldn’t finish his sentence as he coughed up blood. Several burly, obese men surrounded him with girls standing behind them, looking on. One made a move to grab the man by his collar and repeatedly punched him in the face, until blood gushed out of his mouth, dribbling onto his shirt. I stayed on the other side of the road, walking continuously as I watched all the cars pass by the bleeding man and the lights in the houses did nothing for him either. “What the fuck are you looking at!”, one of the girls turned at me to scream.
I kept walking, but walked a little faster. The strangers across the street kept walking parallel to me on the other side of the street. A red light at the intersection a couple of blocks away brought a break to the steady flow of traffic. My eyes were fixed straight ahead, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the figures cross the street. I felt something over my right shoulder and the nasty skull popped into my mind again. Adrenaline coursed through my veins and all I could do was walk. Behind me I heard footsteps in the distance. “Just keep walking Andrew, they’re too fat to catch up to you. There’s no need to aggravate them by running away. That will only make it look like you actually noticed what was happening.”
I kept walking and walking, with sounds of footsteps behind me and the feeling of this strange skull floating over my shoulder. It became too much to bear and I hastened my pace to a power walk. That didn’t ease my fears and I bolted off towards the town square. After a steady minute of running I looked behind me into the darkness. “No burly dudes or their girlfriends, and no skull”, I made the mental check. Then a tingling feeling over my shoulder accompanied my mental image of the skull at my shoulder. Dazzling lights of the town theater marked the square as I kept running, then came to a halt as exhaustion overwhlemed me. A man and his wife were walking their friendly dog to my right and a large family exited the local diner across the street. I stood there for a moment in confusion, unable to rationalize my fears or continue to be afraid. Suddenly I felt the skull snarl at me and cackle in a sinister way. I didn’t run, I didn’t move, I just looked at this dog trying to lick my hand. I refused to be afraid.
“May I pet your dog?” I asked the husband.
“Sure can, little Alfie don’t bite or anything.” I reached down to pet this dog and he ducked under, slobbering salvia all over my hand with his tongue.
I continued on my way, wiping my hand with tissues I kept in my pockets in case of a runny nose. The skull had gone nowhere. In my mind it’s image steadily floated over my shoulder, but “How can I picture it floating over my shoulder it I’m looking straight ahead? It must be my imagination as usual.” It cackled at me and screamed throughout my walk home. The cars passing by and the lights in the houses once again became my comfort. Then I stopped in front of the door to my apartment. “Real or not I’m going to be alone with that thing when I get back in there”, it adorned an evil grin as I said those words aloud to myself. I stepped out into the parking lot of my apartment where I could see some drunk sorority girls partying in the distance, hoping for some company in the darkness.
I’m just happy to have made it home that night. Richard, Jacob, and Carol came back eventually and found me wandering in the parking lot, shivering and talking to myself. I told them about my encounter with those thugs on the street, beating down that poor man, but I left out any mention of that skull I felt over my shoulder. They are good friends and eventually calmed me down to bring my back inside. I was given a cup of hot chocolate and snuggled underneath some blankets as I always do when I’m scared. Exhausted from the emotional roller coaster I eventually fell asleep.
The following week I had another problem set due for my math class. I always dreaded starting them since progress was slow and I was rarely rewarded with good grades. I sat at my desk aimlessly watching Youtube videos, having time pass by. Soon it was two in the morning and Richard was heading to bed. “Wow, it’s really late Andrew, you need to get started on that homework”, I told myself. I had lied to Richard, saying I had already finished it, in an attempt to allow me to procrastinate the maximum amount possible. The time had come for me to finally put together some pathetic resemblance to an answer sheet, but I wasn’t finished with my Youtube videos yet. There were so many more videos I would rather watch than start my homework.
Suddenly the chilling feeling over my shoulder came again. The cackling, howling, and shrieking commenced. This time it was worse. The skull rattled around, flinging its hair in every direction. I curled up with my head flat on the desk and my arms in a square. I sat there paralyzed not knowing what to do. “It’s just your damn imagination Andrew, don’t let it get to you. You don’t have to be afraid.” Abruptly I flashed back to that walk home at the thought of the feeling over my shoulder. If it hadn’t been for that feeling over my shoulder, I may have stopped instead of being too scared and continuously walking. Then who knows what would have happened to me. “Well thank you sixth sense”, I said to myself with a sigh while reaching for my notebook. Fear has a weird way of representing itself, but for now the skull would be my companion.