It started with the Nut-boy and a challenge.
“Tell me a story,” a tiny voice came from the back of the car one evening. Because we lived in such a rural area our family often found itself driving home on weekend evenings listening to the radio until my children became bored and wanted a story. I had all but exhausted all the G and PG stories about my childhood and did not want to wander into the R rated material until my children were well on their way out of college and had their first jobs.
“Is there a type of story you want?”
“Tell me a scary story,” Dylan said before Emma had a chance to express an opinion.
Now a mature adult would tell young children a scary story about a wind storm and a tree brushing a window, or a story about a dark hallway, but my children have only one mature adult in their family and it is not me.
“On a night like this one. In a place like this right here.” I pointed to the dense forest surrounding the car. “There was a little boy who went to bed and heard a scratching on the window.”
“This is not a scary story.”
“I’m not done,” I glanced at my wife in the passenger seat and continued. “Anyway, this little boy began to wonder what was scratching the window so he went to look. And there just outside his window was the Nut-boy.”
“Dad…what…is…a…Nut-boy?” Emma asked, her breathy voice chopping like a computer program from the 1990s.
“I’m glad you asked Emma. The Nut-boy was a boy from an area near here who would sneak into bedrooms at night and eat the fingers and toes of little kids.”
Now I don’t know about any of you, but a boy sneaking into my childhood bedroom and eating my fingers or toes would have terrified me as a child.
“That’s not scary,” said the five-year-old critic behind me.
I took the evaluation as a challenge. “You know the Nut-boy was spotted near here just last week. He was hiding near the road and throwing rocks at passing cars to knock out the engines. He would then break into the cars and eat the children’s fingers and toes.” I took the car out of gear and pressed on the gas pedal revving the engine. I glanced at my wife, she did not look entirely pleased, but she did not demand that I stop. “What happened? The engine isn’t working.”
“I don’t know Emma. I will pull over and see what happened.”
“Dad, you’re lying,” Dylan chuckled, but there was a hint of worry as his right thumb darted into his mouth and his left hand began pulling on his left ear.
The car drifted off to the side of the road onto the narrow shoulder slowly coming to a stop near a large group of cedar trees. I revved the engine for effect and then looked over my shoulder at my children locked in their child seats. “I think I saw something in the woods. I think I saw something move behind the car. I’m going to roll the windows down so you guys can see.” As soon as the windows began moving both children screamed loudly.
“Roll up the windows,” my wife intervened. She looked at me like I was a junior high boy who had just farted in her class. I rolled up the windows, put the car in gear and pulled back onto the road pleased that I managed to scare my children.
“That wasn’t scary,” Dylan said.
Before I could respond my wife verbally stepped between the two immature males in the car, one six-year-old and one thirty-eight-year-old, “We are done with scary stories tonight,” she announced.
That night the kids snuck into our room and slept in our bed.
A week later after a day in Olympia we were heading home through the dark. “Dad…tell…us…a…scary…story,” Emma requested.
“I’m not going to tell you guys a story because you can’t handle it,” I replied.
“I wasn’t scared.”
“Why did you end up sleeping in my bed then?”
“Tell us a story; we won’t sleep in your bed.”
It was a beautiful Western Washington coastal evening. A full moon shone over the tidal flats and wetlands giving all the cedar and spruce trees a yellowish glow, the afternoon fog and breeze had evaporated into clear skies and mild temperatures. It was the perfect evening for a scary story.
As I mulled over the possible story ideas a thought entered my mind: What if I drove down by the John’s River boat launch and got out of the car? Now that would be scary.
John’s River came twisting out of a dense evergreen forest and meandered through about 300 acres of wetlands before running by a boat launch near John’s River Bridge and out into the mouth of Grays Harbor. Under the full moon, the shadows of the trees, the slow moving water, the bridge, the wetlands would all provide an especially creepy environment to end my story-telling that evening.
Ten miles from the boat launch is the Stafford Creek Correctional Facility, rural America’s greatest growing industry: a prison. As we passed the correctional facility I started my story, “Did you hear the Nut-boy escaped from this prison right here? He escaped on a night just like this one. He wandered into the woods and waited. He was waiting for some new victims, some young victims, some young victims with plump fingers and toes.”
“This isn’t scary,” Dylan laughed.
“Sure Emma, the Nut-boy is real.”
“No, he isn’t Emma your Father is telling a scary story,” my wife cut in. “The Nut-boy is just a story.”
“Dad is just trying to scare us Emma,” Dylan laughed again.
“Oh…this…isn’t…scary,” Emma laughed along with her brother.
“Did you see that?” I asked, “I just saw the Nut-boy standing by the edge of the road.” The laughter stopped and I could hear Dylan sucking on his thumb.
As the road emerged from the forest and headed out across the open wetlands towards John’s River, I shouted, “There he is! I see him! Do you see him running across the wetlands? I see him. Let’s go get him!”
Dylan pulled his thumb out of his mouth long enough to assure his sister, “He’s joking There isn’t any Nut-boy. This isn’t scary anyway.”
“This isn’t a story Dylan, this is real. I see him down there by John’s River. It looks like he is going to swim across. Let’s catch him. I’m going to catch him!” I slowed down as we drove over the bridge and turned on the turn signal.
“Jon, where are you taking us,” my wife whispered.
“Just down to the boat launch,” I said as quietly as I could. We pulled off the main road and turned onto the dirt road leading down to the boat launch. The wheels rolling over the gravel crackled and the sucking noise from the backseat increased. “Keep your eyes open kids and let me know if you see him.” There was no response, this would have been a great place to end the story, a mature adult would have ended the story here, but you already know all about my maturity level. Instead I pulled the car down to the water’s edge, close enough to make my wife tense her body. “Look around kids, do you see him?”
No response, Dylan sucked on his thumb so loudly it sounded like we had a baby calf in the backseat.
I glanced into the rearview mirror, “I see him! He’s behind the car!”
“Run him over!” Dylan blurted.
“I’ll get him!” I opened my door and both of my tiny, innocent children screamed. Leaving the door open, I hopped out of the car and ran toward the trunk. I knew neither of the kids could see me since they were locked down in their car seats so I let the evening take over for a moment. I stood behind the car listening to the pleas of my children before I scrunched down low and snuck up beside Dylan’s window and like the mature adult I am, sprung up into his field of vision screaming like a madman. The look of terror on his face is not something I am proud of but like any storyteller, I was happy I managed to pull off a successful scary story.
I stood up walked around the car and got into the driver’s seat. Both of the children were quiet, but as soon as I pulled the car out of the dirt road and back onto the pavement Dylan said, “That wasn’t scary.”
“My ears are still ringing from your screams.”
It wasn’t scary.”
“Dylan, you were scared,” my wife laughed.
“Were you Emma? I thought that would be a good scary story.”
Both kids spent the night sleeping in our bed.
The “scary story” became a tradition of late-night drives and I expanded my repertoire while toning down the theatrics.
There was a giant banana slug that slithered out of the fog and pressed itself up against doors waiting for someone to get the morning paper. The police would find a long slick trail of ooze leading off into the ocean. The giant slug eventually met its match when our dog Steffi sniffed it out and alerted the authorities. All the stories from that point became opportunities for “Steffi the Wonderdog” to rescue the family.
Next was the armless crab fisherman who wandered the beach dunes crying out, “I wants me arms. Who has me arms?” I did not think that this story was especially scary, but Emma actually told me told me to stop telling the story.
“Emma he’s an armless fisherman, he can’t even open a door.” That information helped some but until “Steffi the Wonderdog” attacked the fisherman the kids were eerily quiet.
Then there were the little people who snuck into houses and stole things that weren’t put away. These little people seemed unthreatening to me but once we got home the kids picked up all their toys. Dylan told me years later that he would get up in the middle of the night and check to see if the little people were there.
Although these stories seemed innocuous to me, my children remember every detail of each story and spent nights in their rooms fearful of the various monsters running through their minds. Emma refused to go out to the hot tub if it was foggy, “What…about…the…giant…slug?”
I remembered being terrified of many things as a child and my parents did not tell me scary stories. My dad did tell me one time that the meat in beef stroganoff was made from cowboy fingers, I never ate beef stroganoff again. The flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz gave me nightmares. The child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sent me scurrying for safety every time I watched the movie. There were people in my neighborhood who scared me, people in wheelchairs scared me, trees scared me, thunder scared me, shadows, old people, gopher holes and heights all scared me. I spent a good portion of my childhood cowering in a corner.
I wondered about what it must be like for my children growing up in a house where the father, the protector, was busy doing everything he could to terrify his children. I looked at the wild land surrounding our home with a child’s eye instead of an adult one. There were terrifying dark places surrounding our house enclosed by overgrown bushes and trees just feet from our home. Along our driveway was an abandon house that was slowly caving in upon itself. The front door was gone, the windows had all been smashed and the brick chimney leaned like the tower in Pisa. The house was so scary in the daylight that I had only looked in through the windows and never ventured beyond the threshold of the front door. At night I had a feeling that rats and other furry rodents battled it out on the floors and walls of the structure. I could only imagine what kinds of terrors a place like that would hold in a child’s mind.
I decided that it was time to stop telling scary stories. It was time to grow up and begin nurturing my children. It was a good, mature decision, a decision that lasted about two weeks.
One evening we were heading home from Olympia, my mother-in-law happened to along with us and as we cruised toward Westport Dylan requested a scary story.
“I’m not telling you guys scary stories any more because you can’t handle it.”
“Your stories don’t scare us. We won’t get scared.”
I continued on the adult high road deflecting the insults for about ten minutes, “Okay, I will tell you a very short scary story.” My plan was to stall until we got home and then say, “Boo.”
It would make my wife happy, my mother-in-law would think that her daughter had married an adult and I would look like the mature adult I kind of wanted to be.
So I continued leading the kids on until we arrived at our driveway, as I turned onto the dirt road Dylan said, “I knew you couldn’t scare us. I knew you weren’t going to tell us a scary story.”
We were about 100 yards from our house and I should have been able to make it, but the juvenile delinquent in me took over and I began rolling everyone’s windows down and turned off the headlights. I cut the engine and rolled the car right next to the abandoned house. That was it: Windows down, lights off, parked next to the most terrifying house within 20 miles.
I am certain that the neighbors living hundreds of feet away on all sides heard my children screaming, some of the neighbors might have even considered calling 911, but after five seconds of screams I rolled the windows back up, turned the car on and drove into our carport. Once the car had come to a complete stop I turned to the kids, “Pretty scary huh?”
My mother-in-law looked a bit shell shocked and none too pleased.
Dylan shot back, “I wasn’t scared.”
That night the kids crawled into our bed and slept secure in the knowledge that I was still one of them.