There is nothing quite like waking up in the middle of the night and realizing you are just about to die.
It was early October, just months after I’d graduated as an English Literature major, and I was living with my parents while I figured out whether I should get a job or go to grad school and make things worse.
I had moved back into the bedroom I’d shared with my younger brother before we each went off to college. It was a weird bedroom. Actually, the whole house was weird, but this bedroom was particularly funky. The ground floor was a garage that ran the length of the house. The main floor held the main living quarters. The top floor only had this bedroom which opened up onto a massive unfinished “attic.” This bedroom had the unusual feature of having no doors. The stairs up to the third level just dumped directly into the bedroom. One wall of the bedroom sat flush with the front of the house. Except for the wall that opened up to the attic, the other three walls each sported windows. For some reason, the windows were clustered close to the street-side of this room rather than being spaced out. Because of the natural light, we had positioned the two twin beds right by the windows.
I was sound asleep in one of these twin beds when I suddenly woke up, my heart pounding. I knew I was in danger, but didn’t know why. I lay very still, not daring to breathe or open my eyes while I evaluated the situation. And then I heard it: a soft bang on the window just to the left of the bed I was in. The bed was pushed up against that left wall so that meant that whatever had made that sound wasn’t more than an arm’s length away.
I slowly opened my eyes. My clock told me it was 2am. The street light outside provided just enough light for me to see the frilly white curtains my mom had made for these windows. I lay still hoping that I’d just imagined something. But then I undeniably heard sound coming from behind those closed curtains.
Just as the bedroom was quirky, so were the windows. The window was perhaps two feet tall but about four feet wide and it rotated along its vertical access so that when you opened the window, the glass pane was parallel with the floor. It was a stupid design, but it made it easy for mischievous boys to slide out under the rotated glass pane to get onto the roof. Because this was San Francisco, the houses were built right next to each other, and once you were on one roof, you could travel the length of the city block just by walking from one rooftop to the next.
Visions of a would-be burglar taking advantage of this rooftop route ran rampant through my head.
I very slowly and quietly pulled myself to a kneeling position. I knelt there, starting at the window while I tried to screw up the courage to throw the curtains open. My heart was pounding and I was taking shallow, panicky breaths, getting just enough air to whisper to myself “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
I was nearly ready to part the curtains when I heard the unmistakable “tick, tick, tick” of fingernails tapping on glass. Both my heart rate and the quality of my swearing increased exponentially. “Ohfuck! Ohfuck! Ohfuck!”
Surprising even myself, I suddenly reached forward and flung the curtains open—and saw a face staring at me from the other side of the glass!
I screamed and jerked back so violently I fell backwards off the bed. But as I did so, I heard a scream of terror from the other side of the glass as the biggest raccoon I’d ever seen jumped backwards away from the window. Laughing with relief, I realized a raccoon had traveled here to take advantage of the roof over our front porch. That section of roof never drained properly and would often create a shallow pool after heavy rains. This raccoon had come to wash its food and we’d managed to scare the crap out of each other.
About two weeks later, I woke up from a sound sleep knowing something was wrong. My first thought was that the raccoon was back. I glanced at the clock and saw that it was 2am again. Yep, the raccoon was back. But then I realized that the sound was coming from the window just over my head. The window that faced the street. There was no adjacent roof there, just a sheer drop two stories down to street level! It couldn’t be the raccoon.
At first, I couldn’t imagine what it could be. But then I could. I’d been reading a lot of Stephen King at this time. For some reason, and I blame it on being half asleep, I became worried that it was a vampire.
“Do I know anyone who died recently? Vampires can’t come in unless you invite them in so I have to be sure I don’t invite them in. Wait, was this last part true or just Hollywood crap? Wait, what am I thinking? There are no vampires.” I was embarrassing myself with the conversation I was having in my head. Except that something was out there where it was impossible for anything to be.
I slowly and quietly pulled myself to a kneeling position and faced the window.
More soft banging from behind the curtains.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” I was so scared I jumped right past the “shits.”
Amazed at my own courage, I leaned forward and flung the curtains open — and saw a face staring at me from the other side of the glass!
I screamed and fell backwards off the bed—I wasn’t about to abandon a successful technique. Just as last time, as I was falling backwards, I heard a sort of scream from the other side of the window. I had just surprised a huge owl that had been having trouble staying perched on the long-abandoned built-in window box just below the window.
About two weeks later, which happened to be Halloween weekend, I came awake in the middle of the night and knew something wasn’t right. 2am again. I was positive the sound would be coming from the third window. The one next to the other bed. Sure, my parents’ house is only a block and a half from Golden Gate Park, but what the hell was going on with Wild Kingdom here? I was kind of smirking to myself while I waited for the sound to come from the third window. I wouldn’t scream this time.
And then I heard the sound again, and I felt a cold wave of adrenaline flush through my body. The sound was coming from inside the house! I could clearly hear a person walking quietly and slowly on the main floor below. Neither one of my parents would sneak around like that so it wasn’t either of them. I could hear the slow, calculated footsteps passing through the dining room, just past my parents’ bedroom. Now the living room. I was holding my breath, but my heart was racing so fast it almost hurt. Now I could hear the footsteps approaching the bottom of the stairs that led right to this room. The room with no door to lock and hide behind.
Did I have anything I could use as a weapon? Where were my baseball bats? In the basement, damn it! Too scared to get out of bed, I glanced around the room, the streetlight showing me just enough to look for something I could use for defense. My likeliest weapons were heavy, hard bound books. I was too scared at the moment to realize how ironic it would be that I might resort to clubbing someone to death with a copy of Moby Dick.
Our house was nearly 75 years old and I could recognize the familiar squeak of someone stepping on the third stair, the fifth stair, the eight stair. Now the person had reached the landing and was approaching the final five steps to this room. I wanted to do something but was too scared to do anything other than lay on my back and stare at the entryway where the person would step into the room. Humans have a fight for flight response to fear. Apparently, I have a third response: stay in bed and hold your breath.
Three steps left. Two. One.
I saw the profile of a large man step into the room! I sat bolt upright and in a voice hoarse with fear called out, “Who the fuck are you?”
The light flicked on and my younger brother, shoes in hand, greeted me, “Hey, Tony!”
He and a group of his college mates had driven up from Santa Clara University to party in San Francisco. It had gotten too late to head back to school, so he decided to spend the night at home. This was just one of many times I’ve wanted to kill my younger brother. I just never told him I almost did it with that famous white whale.