Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Ungeziefer

"I've got a story that's scarier than anything you've ever heard."

I had barely known Mr. Thompson for a few hours. I still didn't really know anything about him, except that his daughter was in my class and I was in love with her. My friends and I were huddled up in our respective sleeping bags, reeking of campfire smoke and pretending to not be cold. We figured that after the grown up had left our tent we could talk about girls or play Truth or Dare, but until then we were telling variations of the same scary stories we'd been spinning over our last few years of camping trips.

Most of our stories were about serial killers or ghosts, and about a third of them ended with the storyteller abruptly grabbing someone else in the tent and screaming. None of our stories were scarier than the idea of four boys camping in West Virginia with an adult none of us knew particularly well, but we were all too young to realize that.

It was an elementary school version of the Fisherman's Argument ("I caught one this big." "Yeah, well mine was this big!"). Pulling from various sources--sometimes Alvin Schwartz, Goosebumps, Tales from the Crypt or someone's dad's Twilight Zone tapes--we'd tell each other the most horrifying stories we could come up with, each of us trying to be scarier than the previous narrator and braver than the other listeners. It wasn't something we consciously planned to do, just something that happened, as naturally as roasting s'mores, hiking up to the bald or Travis falling into the marsh. Little tests of bravery for a gang of prepubescent miscreants whom, as far as I knew, had never actually encountered the Mad Axeman or received a call that turned out to be coming from inside the house. But if any of us ever did, we would be prepared.

Daniel was smarter and more well-read than the rest of us, and his retelling of The Masque of the Red Death the year before had put me in permanent awe of him. But Travis' parents let him watch Child's Play and Nightmare on Elm Street, so there was no telling who would have the best stories. Jeff was too laid back to compete with the rest of us, but he seemed completely unaffected by our stories, pointing out to Travis that a serial killer's spirit actually couldn't inhabit a boy's Chucky doll, or correctly guessing that my protagonist was a ghost all along minutes before I got there. It was a game in itself to come up with something that could hold Jeff's attention and live up to his standards.

I hoped no one remembered that I'd already told the one about the aliens who wanted "to serve man" last year. Maybe I'd embellish the details this time, though that never seemed to help before. The more creative I would get with the plot, the less effective my stories would be. I could try the one about the bank robber who tried to sneak out of prison in a coffin, but Jeff was sure to know how that one ended.

"I've got a story that's scarier than anything you guys are talking about," Mr. Thompson said. I didn't even realize he'd been listening to us. "You're too young to know it now, but maybe when you're older you'll get into it."  

"Is it Edgar Allan Poe?" asked Daniel.

"Scarier than Poe."

Daniel, like the rest of us, wouldn't admit that anything scared him, but he was still willing to test Mr. Thompson.

"Is it Michael Crichton?"

"Scarier than Michael Crichton."

"It's not as scary as Freddy Krueger," said Travis.

Jeff, who had been quiet up until now, turned over and sat up in his sleeping bag, smiling at Travis. "I thought you said Freddy Krueger didn't scare you," he said. Jeff always had the right thing to say.

"Shut up, Jeff," said Travis.

I would have been happy to watch Jeff and Travis duke it out for a few minutes, but Mr. Thompson squashed the whole issue. "Different from Freddy Krueger," he stated. "Freddy Krueger's scary when you're a kid. This is something for grown ups."

"What is it?" I asked.

Actually, I wasn't sure I wanted Mr. Thompson to tell us what it was. I had hoped to stay up talking with my friends, but I did want to get at least some sleep. None of my friends' stories had ever given me nightmares before. Maybe grown up scary stories were different.

"I'll read just a little from the first page, because it's late and you guys have to go to bed," Mr. Thompson replied.

He opened the book, a small, white paperback that looked older than any of us. I tried to get a glimpse of it, but I couldn't make out the long word or the illustration on the cover. Mr. Thompson found the page and began to read.

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. He was lying on his back as hard as armor plate, and when he lifted his head a little, he saw his vaulted brown belly, sectioned by arch-shaped ribs, to whose dome the cover, about to slide off completely, could barely cling. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of rest of him, were waving helplessly before his eyes."

Mr. Thompson closed the book. "That's all you get tonight," he said. "It's called The Metamorphosis. It's by a guy named Kafka, who lived a long time ago. Maybe you'll read the rest of it when you're older."

"Goodnight. Sleep well boys--I'll be in the other tent if you need anything."

Mr. Thompson climbed out and zipped up the tent from outside. We heard him walk away until the crickets drowned out his footsteps.

I didn't know what to say.

"Jeff, truth or dare," said Travis.


"I dare you to tell us who you like."

I was trying to remember everything Mr. Thompson had read to us. Was that really scarier than anything I'd ever heard? What had I missed? Was I going to suddenly get it later on in the night and be petrified? Was it going to take me years to understand what I had just heard? What had Mr. Thompson left out of the story? Maybe things got even worse for Gregor, but Mr. Thompson had known it would be too much for a bundle of fifth graders to handle.

I had already forgotten the name of the author. It felt like the moment when you're desperately trying to remember everything that happened in your dream, right when you're waking up and can already feel it evaporating. Had we really just heard that?

Jeff had gotten Daniel to admit he liked a girl he met at summer camp. Daniel swore us all to secrecy, but with Travis in the tent we all knew that everyone in school would know by fifth period Monday.

I wondered if the other guys had been scared. If they weren't, maybe they didn't want to admit it either, unable to let the adult know that we didn't understand what we had just heard.

I really wanted to read that book.

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