When I was fourteen, my best friend disappeared.
I don’t talk about this very often - hardly at all in fact - and for good reason: I don’t want people thinking I am insane.
It’s been around thirty years since I last saw my friend, and is it bad that I don’t really remember what his voice sounds like anymore? I can still recall his face, but it’s hazy somewhat, slightly blurred even; memories taken out of focus. But his voice, his speech, it’s lost to me - my recollections of things he said, jokes he told: they’re in my own inner mind’s voice now. It’s like my mind is actively erasing him from existence.
And here’s the thing: that last day, before he ‘went,’ I feel terrified when I think about it, when I think about my friend. I don’t want to remember him, not really, not anymore, and that makes me feel awful… but I’d rather feel guilty at wanting to forget than feeling like looking behind me every time I walk alone at night, because of that feeling that something is behind me even though I’m fairly sure there’s nothing there.
I need people to understand this requirement to not remember. And as always, at this particular time of year, with the daylight hours getting shorter and the dark hours of night getting longer, with Halloween approaching fast, I am constantly reminded of him and those last few days I spent with him. Keeping this bottled up inside for three decades can certainly not be healthy, and I’ve been told that telling someone about it - writing about it even - could go a long way to dispelling these feelings. And who knows, maybe someone can rationally explain it all.
My best friend’s name was Ronnie.
I had known Ronnie for most of my life at that point. We were both born in this small town and lived but a short twenty minute walk away from each other.
His birthday was on the 30th of October, a few days after mine. This worked out quite nicely, because we shared two common interests: music and movies. When you’re young, you can bond over pretty much anything, and as it happened we both loved horror movies and listening to records. So, when I inevitably received horror movies on VHS or a new Queen or Motorhead record for my birthday, Ronnie would be the first person round to watch / listen with me. And when his birthday rolled around the following week, I would find myself at his home, watching & listening to whatever his parents had bought him. We both discovered many favourites this way.
For his birthday in 1992, Ronnie’s parents gave him a copy of John Carpenter’s The Fog on VHS, and a birthday card stuffed with cash for him to spend on whatever he wanted. After school that day - it was a Friday - we both went into the local antique shop in the centre of town. They sold the usual boring dusty antique fair (boring for a couple of teenagers like us anyway) but this store also had a neat section for second-hand books and records and was a great place to find the occasional gem. I can’t remember the name of the shop now but it closed down around 20 years ago and was replaced with - if I remember correctly - a hairdresser’s.
It was in this antique shop where Ronnie found the LP.
It was a near mint copy of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. An original UK Parlophone copy from 1967, in mono, complete with an untouched cut-outs insert. We both liked The Beatles - a common affliction of being your parents’ kids in the 80s was that you probably grew up listening to the music your folks listened to when they were your age (this can be both a blessing and a curse) - and as neither of us had a copy to hand in our respective homes, it seemed the right thing to do for Ronnie to purchase it. Believe it or not, my parents did not own a single Beatles LP - with all of their Fab Four collection being exclusively on 45s - so I had never heard the album in its entirety.
“God the cover is fuckin’ mint!” Ronnie said, ‘mint’ meaning ‘cool’ back then (us kids wouldn’t start saying ‘cool’ for a couple more years yet). I could only agree. I struggle to look at the album artwork now without feeling a sense of cold anxiety (for many years I couldn’t look at it at all) but at that particular moment in time, there was nothing wrong with admiring the famous creation. I may be imagining this part, thirty-odd years of nightmares and panic attacks have a habit of making you mis-remembering things - smaller details warped into something resembling your state of mind rather than the facts of the occasion - but when Ronnie handed over the LP for me to have a look, I had the distinct sensation of my finger tips being burnt as soon as I touched the album. It lasted a split-second and it was so immediate and fast-to-pass that my only reaction was a sharp intake of breath. Ronnie didn’t notice, or if he did I can only assume he thought it was my reaction to seeing the album cover, and my brain was quick to rationalise that of course my fingers weren’t hurt in any way. Maybe it was just some kind of static shock. Nevertheless, I smiled and after trying to name all of the figures in the picture - and failing quite spectacularly - I handed it back so he could go and pay for it.
With it being a Friday, the plan was for me to stay at Ronnie’s until the following afternoon. We would eat dinner, listen to records, and then stay up late to watch The Fog. It was set to be a great night and I for one was very excited: I had not seen The Fog nor listened to Sgt. Pepper.
Determined not to leave empty handed, I bought a second-hand copy of a ‘Salem’s Lot paperback. I was just getting into Stephen King then, and this would have been my third book of his, the previous ones being The Eyes Of The Dragon and The Shining. My plan was to start reading the novel once I returned home the following day. This was shaping up to be quite the weekend. Ha.
We reached his house just as the last of the daylight was extinguished by night. There was a palpable change in the air as we walked up his driveway; a smokey, bonfire-scented stillness suffused with the bite of cold, thankfully softened by a blanket of warmth once the front door was opened and we stepped inside the house. The smell of hot tomatoes and garlic hit us in the face and we went straight to the kitchen to see what Ronnie’s mum was cooking for dinner that night.
“Spooky spaghetti!” she exclaimed with a forced “creepy” croak, I think forgetting that we were both fourteen years old and were more embarrassed for her than spooked. It didn’t help that Depeche Mode were playing on the radio tucked aside in one of the kitchen shelves.
I said hello in my usual shy manner.
“Spooky spaghetti,” Ronnie said as we went upstairs to his room, and his stereo. “Whatever the fuck that is.” I laughed because saying ‘fuck’ in relation to something an adult has said / done when you’re in your early teens is brilliant.
“Bolognese probably,” I said. “Gory bolognese!”
Ronnie’s room, despite being much larger than mine, resembled my own in quite a few ways. For one thing, his walls were decorated with large movie posters. Films like Hellraiser, The Terminator, A Nightmare On Elm Street,Aliensand The Lost Boys were represented admirably in his bedroom. I had similar, and in some cases exactly the same, images adorning my walls at home. He also had a stereo: one of those midi system jobs, with a record player, amp, CD player and twin audio cassette player neatly put together in one package along with two bookshelf speakers. I had something similar next to my own bed, albeit of a much cheaper make & model.
Ronnie put his newly purchased LP on his bed and took out a record-cleaning cloth from a draw by his stereo. “So you’ve not seen The Fog?”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
He smiled and picked up the LP. “It’s great. It’s going to scare the shit out of you!”
But as he looked down at the Sgt. PepperLP cover, the smile quickly vanished. “Oh bloody hell!” he exclaimed, and licking his thumb, he started to rub at an area on the cover.
“There’s a mark on it, like a smudge. It’s not coming off.”
He showed me, and sure enough there it was: a dark, sooty smudge where Paul McCartney should have been. Like someone had tried to burn the image off with a lighter, except the cover was still smooth to the touch. It was as if it had been printed with the imperfection.
We could hear a rattle of keys from the floor below, and the front door slamming shut. Ronnie’s father, home from work.
“Hang on,” Ronnie said. “I’ll be back in a minute. Can you cue the record up?”
He left the room, closing the door behind him. I could hear his footsteps bounce down the stairs, and his father greeting him. I could hear his mother chirping about something. The steady hum of the extractor fan above the cooking unit. The radio playing something I couldn’t quite make out… Tasmin Archer?
I looked down at the smudge, and noticed it was bigger somehow. Darker. I tried to remember if it was there when we were in the shop. Pretty sure it wasn’t. Pretty sure that you could see Paul McCartney quite clearly in the shop, it was after all “near mint,” and besides: Paul McCartney was one of the famous figures I could clearly identify. Not anymore though.
The slight smell of bonfire that I detected outside earlier was getting stronger, I noticed. I looked over at the bedroom window, wondering if a neighbour was celebrating with fireworks a little early, but the window was closed, and it was pitch black outside, with not a street light or porch light visible through the dark ink of evening. I couldn’t hear any fireworks either, and it was then that I noticed: the room was dimmer, like the lightbulb was about to give out at any moment, and suddenly I was overcome with the most terrifying thought: “the light is going to go out, and it’s going to be black in here. As black as the void on the album cover.”
That’s what it looked like now. Not a stain, or a burn, but a void, as if that part of the image had never existed at all, as if a black ink-blot of nothingness had attached itself to the LP cover and was slowly spreading, almost imperceptibly, across its face. McCartney was gone, and it felt like if I now touched the joyless totality of that mark, my fingers would sink right through… and I would become nothing too.
And I knew. I knew that if I touched the black mark I would start to scream and scream, and I wouldn’t be able to stop. And as this thought coursed through my veins along with the adrenaline and blood pumping throughout my sweating body, I was aware that the aural tones of the house had become dulled. The kitchen radio, the father’s voice; muffled, distant, distorted, and then - gone. There was no noise at all, just the pounding of my heart and the swoosh of rushing blood in my eardrums. Even my teeth - which were beginning to chatter now as my jaw was trembling - sounded like it was a million miles away. I was breathing still but in a vacuum of terror. It was as though time itself had stopped. If I screamed now I would not make a noise, and as that utterly frightening realisation hit me, I sensed that I was no longer alone in the room. There was something beside me, just in the peripheral of my vision, but crouched low, something contracted, almost spider like. Something dark.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose. My whole body started to shake uncontrollably as my skin tightened. The dark figure was moving closer, moving without manipulating any of its limbs, as if it were rotoscoped into reality. There was a dull sound of crackling, like burnt twigs, like a fire at the end of its life - it was the only thing I could hear, my heavy breathing silent in that distillation of subsistence. The room was getting hot but the shapeless thing was omitting deepest cold, as if it was sucking the very warmth of life from its surroundings. I felt like my sweat was freezing against my school shirt, and as the creature got taller, and nearer, I began to question whether it was my skin that was making the crackling sound or if it was whatever it was that was now seemingly reaching out for me, with a pair of outstretched arms and long black fingers and with what I sensed was some kind of wide smile on its featureless face. I could not move and if I screamed it would not make a sound and the light was going to blink out at any moment and when it did-
There was a loud clackas Ronnie came in through the door. The vacuum was suddenly filled with air, the sound of the radio downstairs, the smell of cooking, light. “Sorry about that,” he said, and then stopped dead in his tracks. “Jesus, are you okay?”
I was vaguely aware that I was crying. The figure was gone, and in a way I think I was too.
At some point I had dropped the album and it was now face down on the floor, its visage shielded by the warm carpet. I looked at Ronnie and tried to speak, but I just shook violently as my adrenaline raged. I had pain in my stomach. I had never been in shock before.
I don’t know how long I sat on their sofa downstairs before my mother arrived to take me home. A few minutes, an hour - it didn’t matter.
“You need to stop watching those horror movies,” she said, seeing how pale I was, how frightened. As she lead me out to the car, I turned to look at Ronnie. “Don’t-” I swallowed. “Don’t play the album.” At least, I think I said that to him. I may have said nothing, and had just stared at him as I was pulled out of the house. Memories can play tricks on you after all.
I do remember him trying to hand me the copy of ‘Salem’s Lot that I had bought, and me not being able to grip it. The last image I have of Ronnie is of him standing in his doorway, a dark silhouette, holding my book. With the darkness of night contrasting the light of his house, I could not see his features. Was he still looking concerned? Or was he too wearing a wide smile on a featureless face?
Ronnie was not at school on Monday. On Tuesday, we found out that over the Halloween weekend there had been a fire, and his entire house had all but burnt down. Ronnie’s mother’s body had been found in a kitchen cupboard, as though she had tried to escape the flames by hiding there. She was thoroughly cooked through. The father was found lying down on the couch in front of the TV, a steaming charred skeleton. The fire must have been very hot.
They never found Ronnie’s body.
For awhile it was believed that he started the fire and ran away from home, but that was just a rumour, started by a bored school kid just wanting to stir up some shit. Of course, I said nothing. I didn’t want people thinking I was insane.
Eventually Ronnie was classified as dead, like his parents, and the entire gruesome and tragic incident was put to bed, a dark stain on the surface of the town. A dark stain I hoped would not be touched, by anyone but especially by me.
Did I tell him not to touch that record? Or was I so frozen with fear that I couldn’t bring myself to warn him? Was I responsible for it, whatever ‘it’ was that happened? Survivor’s guilt or maybe just plain guilt.
Perhaps I imagined it all, and it was all some kind of trauma coping mechanism, an escapist’s way of dealing with what happened.
I doubt it. It felt real enough.
All I know is that I don’t want it in my head any more.
I don’t like to remember Ronnie, my best friend from school. I don’t like the dark, I avoid it when I can. I don’t like the smell of burning, I refuse to be near open fires. And while I know it’s a feeling we all get from time-to-time, when I get it - the feeling that something is behind me, when I’m alone, and particularly in the dark… I don’t look.
And I sure as fuck don’t own a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
- Mark Anthony Finch