There’s something strange today.
He can’t pinpoint it, but something doesn’t feel right. Something bad is nudging its way into the boy’s world.
It’s the porch. No, it doesn’t look different; it’s still long and narrow, paint flaking off its wood and nails popping up like little metal moles all over. It still stretches the length of the old house, across the front, along the side and into the unexplored regions in the back. Its shadows still shift and flutter in corners every time the cold sun disappears behind the clouds. It’s the same porch the boy has known for the three years he’s lived there.
But something isn’t right. Something’s changed.
He feels it as a sort of electricity, like bundled wires humming from underground, and his eye—his one good eye—is drawn to the rear of the house, where the porch winds away into darkness. He’s never ventured to the back of the house. Why? Because the sight of the porch melting away into that unknown territory always fills him with a vague, stomach-knotting dread. He’s always felt that there was… something. Something back there, not meant for him to see.
But today, this morning, that something is insinuating its way toward him, stretching out invisible tendrils along the porch, snagging the boy’s mind. That something has grown tired of waiting.
That something wants him.
He stands in the light, staring at a point in the shadows at the far end of the porch, stands there holding his battered Batman action figure in one slender hand. He is almost six years old. He is not a good boy or a bad boy. He is only a collection of protons and neutrons, chemicals interacting with each other, electrical charges firing off in his brain unceasingly. His body is alive with millions of bacteria that feed off him, and will one day die within hours of him.
Even at almost six years old, the boy knows all of these things about himself. No one ever told him, but he knows. He’s not even a real boy.
The thing that calls to him from the unexplored back of the porch also knows these things. It’s already whispering in the boy’s brain, saying things like remember, remember, you will die and cold fear is all there is, in the end and there are things eating you alive.
It urges him to move, to place one bare foot in front of the other and come. The boy doesn’t resist. He drops Batman to the porch steps and begins to walk, slowly, into the shadows.
That is the boy’s earliest memory. There is more after that, of course, but even as an adult he cannot say definitively what is true and what isn’t. When he thinks of the afternoon when he was almost six and he ventured into the uncharted jungles of the back porch, he thinks of it as a non-linear patchwork of impressions—sometimes contradicting each other.
He learns at an early age to have no faith in memory, and therefore no faith in reality. If a false memory can feel as real as a “true” one, what good is reality?
There were significant events before his encounter with the shadows, of course, and he was there for them; yet he only knows them second-hand. How he lost his right eye, for instance. He doesn’t remember it. He was too young.
His mother is the bard of uneasy stories and misery. She will tell him many tales over the years. This is how she described the accident that took away most of the vision in his right eye:
“You were three years old,” she says. “I had to work two jobs, you know, so the girl from down the street was babysitting you. I could hardly afford even that, but what was I going to do, leave my baby all alone? I would never do that, my babies are my whole life.
“So you were three, and you were playing in the front yard. You were by the fence, which if I was home I never would’ve let you get that close to the road. Stupid kids are always roaring up and down that road, drinking and being punks. They get away with it because it’s a dirt road and the police don’t patrol it the way they should. So you were by the fence, and you found a broken Co-Cola bottle that one of those punks had thrown right into our yard.
“You picked it up and you were playing with it, although for the life of me I can’t figure out why you thought a broken glass bottle was something worth playing with. Your babysitter was sitting on the porch, I dunno, studying her geography homework or something, and she saw you. She yelled for you to put it down but either you couldn’t hear her or were just ignoring her. So she got up and ran over to you and went to hit the bottle out of your hand. So she says.
“Well, she says you jerked your hand away at the last second and her palm hit the bottle right on the edge and instead of hitting it away from you she hit it right into your face.”
His mother would inevitably tear up a little at about this point of the story. His mother cried a great deal, over the years.
“She hit it right into your face,” his mother said. “And the broken edge got you right in the eye. It cut the muscle that helps hold your eye in place, which is why your eye drifts to the right now. And it cut the iris too, so that your pupil sorta bleeds out into it.”
The boy listens to the story and marvels that he can’t recall one single thing his mother is saying. How could something so traumatic happen to a person and still be completely absent in the person’s head?
His mother’s story continues. Somehow, after the babysitter (who must have been wracked with the most monstrous guilt imaginable, the boy thinks, and he can’t help feel horribly sorry for her) accidently causes his disfigurement, his mother somehow appears on the scene and the boy is taken to the hospital, where, due to his mother’s lack of insurance, the boy is made to wait for an hour or two hours or even three depending on when the story is being told. He’s in shock, and almost bleeds to death before the doctors finally get to him.
The boy does remember, very vaguely, a day shortly after that, wearing an eye patch, like a pirate. He remembers stumbling up the hall in their decrepit, drafty old house, marveling at the fact that he had forgotten how to walk. His balance was shot. He doesn’t recall being troubled by it. He stumbled up the hall and fell into the wall, and, sitting on the floor, he started laughing. He looked up to see his mother looking down at him, and was stunned when she broke into sudden tears and ran away.
And so the porch, almost three years later.
He doesn’t resist the lure of whatever is calling to him, even though every cell and micro-organism in his body is rebelling, trying to pull him in the other direction.
The house juts up against a hill in the back, overgrown with weeds as tall as the boy, peppered with rusty old bits of detritus, like an old washing machine, part of a car (the kind the boy had seen before in old black and white movies), and a monstrously huge television set with the glass face of it busted out like the smashed face of a defeated robot-monster. The boy can see all of these things quite easily from the side of the porch. And it’s all that trash that makes his mother say Stay in the front, don’t go in back, Old Sam hasn’t cleaned anything up back there in years, it’s dangerous back there, you hear me?
And now he’s doing something he’s never done before. He is deliberately doing what his mother told him not to. It’s dangerous back there, you hear me? Yes, he knows that, he knows it’s dangerous. He knows that even better than his mother does.
He passes Old Sam’s door. Old Sam owns the house. Once upon a time, the place was a mansion, a palace. But one day a long time ago someone came and put walls up inside the house, and instead of one big house it was now five small ones. At one end of the house the boy lives with his mother and his half-sister, and Old Sam lives in a smaller apartment directly behind them. At the other end of the house, another woman lives with her teenage son and daughter (is the daughter the one who babysat him three years earlier? The boy doesn’t know) and above that apartment are two much smaller ones. The boy’s grandmother lives in one of the small upstairs apartments.
Old Sam’s door is the farthest the boy has ever ventured before. On two or three occasions he would accompany his mother to Old Sam’s to pay rent, which the man would sternly accept without inviting them in or offering any kind words. He would immediately close the door in their faces after mother handed over the cash. The boy was more than a little afraid of Old Sam.
But this time he wasn’t thinking of Old Sam. He was moving on, past the landlord’s door, one bare foot in front of the other, moving into the shadows.
Cold fear is all there is, in the end, the thing said from the darkness. And yes, yes, the boy thought, that is true, there is only cold fear.
Years later, his memory of what he saw would change in his mind. The details would shift like fault lines, threatening to collapse out from under him. The way the man moved, sometimes as sinuously as a snake, other times stiff, like a corpse, and the things he said would always be indistinct, as if he had spoken only in the boy’s head.
But the over-riding image of it always remained the same. The boy rounded the corner, heart pounding in his frail chest, and there was the man in the spider webs.
He wore a long black coat and a Victorian top hat, and he was thin and lanky and covered with dust. Spider webs hung like tattered lace curtains over the entire length of the porch, and the man was a part of them—his arms and legs were attached by them, like the limbs of a marionette.
The boy stopped, staring. The man raised his head—or rather, the webs lifted his head up—and a blank, featureless face gazed emptily back at the boy. It was a mask. White and smooth as an eggshell, with only two small holes for eyes. The boy could see that the eyes were blue.
The spider web man cocked his head, and the webs raised up one of his hands in something like a wave.
“Hello, boy,” the man said, his voice muffled by the mask.
The boy wanted to run, but found he couldn’t move.
“I said hello, boy,” the man said, and the boy was unable to respond.
The man’s head jiggled in an up and down movement that was something like a nod. “You are afraid, and cannot speak,” he said. “You are wise to be afraid.”
The webs shifted, and the man took a step toward the boy. The boy’s mouth opened to scream, but there was no sound. It was as if the man had reached down his throat and stolen his voice.
Closer, the boy could smell the musk of age and rot that permeated the air around the man in black. “You are wise,” the man said again. “But it is not of me that you should be afraid. It is of what I have to give you.”
He reached out one long, spindly hand, and the boy could see the spiders running up and down the man’s wrists, over his fingers and in and out of his sleeve.
The fingers touched the boy on the forehead, and a bolt of ice shot through the boy’s brain, freezing, and all those electrical impulses stopped all at once and the boy saw into the man’s mind, he saw an infinite blackness, he heard rust and dank dripping water and the sad lonely creaking of old steel, like an abandoned factory at midnight. It was cold, the cold of space.
“I am the Lost Man,” the black-clothed marionette said. “And my emptiness is boundless and without hope. Do you feel it?”
The boy did, he did feel it, an awful, unforgiving expanse of nothing so total that his heart ached from it. He still couldn’t move, but tears were rolling down his pale face, and he whispered, “Please… I don’t want to know. Please.”
“You can’t go back,” the Lost Man said. “Once you’ve seen it, you can’t go back, boy.”
“There is only cold fear, in the end,” the Lost Man said. “There are things eating you alive.”
“I don’t want to be the Lost Man,” the boy said. “I want to be free.”
“You are alone,” the Lost Man said, and his muffled voice sounded almost kindly just then. “You are alone, and you cannot be free.”
The Lost Man tells him other things as well, things that tear the boy’s heart to pieces.
But none of the words the Lost Man whispers to him will have any meaning, not until years later.
What his mother told him:
“I don’t know what got into you. You just came screaming and wailing into the house, hysterical. You ran into your room and threw yourself into bed and wouldn’t stop crying and carrying on all afternoon. I couldn’t get you to stop sobbing long enough to tell me what was wrong. ‘Bout scared the shit outta me. I almost called the doctor but after awhile you fell asleep and slept all afternoon and through the night. When you woke up the next morning, you seemed fine, as if nothing had happened.”
And that was fairly accurate. It really was as if nothing had happened, because the next day he couldn’t remember the Lost Man. He wouldn’t remember the Lost Man for many, many years.