Down the hall there stands a wall;
its angle wrong, its tilt askew;
you’ll hit your head or scuff your shoe;
but if you’re dead, you go right through.

Jamie was only seven, but even at seven he could see the door was just a distraction – a fabrication for the eyes, which is where most people kept their minds. But Jamie’s mind was where it should have been – that is to say, everywhere.

The door was too pretty. It was blue like bluebirds are blue – not real bluebirds, but the ones in Saturday morning cartoons. There was an elaborate glass knob and an old fashioned keyhole on a copper faceplate with a skeleton key stuck in it. And there was an unnecessary little rug in front of it, like a welcome mat with a pattern in woven gold thread, only it was inside the house. You didn’t track mud down the long hall to that door unless you never wiped your feet downstairs, and it would have all come off on the carpet anyway.

Everything about the door said the room was welcoming and inviting, and it was. Jamie had been in it several times, and it was just an ordinary room. It was too ordinary for such an elaborate presentation. Maybe some doors were about what was on the other side, but this one was there to take your attention from the wall.

The head and the jamb were straight, but the floor tilted slightly as you approached. That made you look at the door even more, and reach for the handle for security. It was just the smallest tug at the instinct to fear falling down. Jamie didn’t know that, at seven, but he knew he didn’t like being even a little afraid.

When you thought there was a monster in the closet, you turned on the light and you checked. You didn’t lie there waiting to find out if it was your older brother having one over on you. Tommy always did that. He always tried to scare you, but he wasn’t very alert in general. He never saw what Jamie saw. ‘You’re just a little moron,’ Tommy would say. And sometimes Jamie felt like a moron, because no one seemed to care about his observations. ‘You’re too young to be having observations, on life or anything,’ his mother once told him.

She was like that. She always talked about stages in life. You turn 16, you date girls. You turn 26, you get out of grad school. You turn 30 or so and you have a baby. A baby like Tommy once was – her first, or like they thought Jamie was now. But he wasn’t a baby, at least not anymore. And he did think sometimes it’s important to be observant. There were so many interesting things if you looked, and some of them were unusual. Maybe people don’t look so hard at unusual things, because that’s how they avoid being frightened.

Jamie looked at the wall. It was ugly. It wasn’t the kind of ugly you fixed with paint or plaster. It was ugly in the way it seemed to tilt toward you, away from the floor. Like it was going to fall on you, not like a regular wall fell. He’d seen walls falling when they tore down the old hardware store at the end of the block. This wall wanted to fall on you the way something hungry in the woods fell on lonely prey in the Winter.

Jamie got lost in the woods one year, out behind his Uncle’s farm. He had been a little scared then. More of freezing than being eaten by wolves. But there had been wolves. He knew there had, even if they told him later it was only dogs. Dogs didn’t howl that way. Not the dogs that lived on the farm, and certainly not any dogs in Jamie’s neighborhood. Only something hungry howled like that. They said he had got hypothemia that time. He only knew that meant you were really cold.

There was also the way, if you looked at it long enough, the plaster seemed to ooze down the surface of the wall like it was still wet and too heavy. There were lots of walls in any house, and lots in Jamie’s house, but none of them seemed quite as liquid when you really looked a long time. Sometimes he thought he saw it move, just a little, like the surface of a pond, or like a ripple rolling slowly over the milk in your cereal bowl when the L-train passed over.

The wall was wrong, and he knew it was wrong, and it wouldn’t do any good to try to tell anyone. They would say he was a baby. They would say he was a moron. They would say he should do his homework, which he always did anyway, except when it was stupid. And even then sometimes he did it, just so people wouldn’t call Jamie stupid.

Jamie wasn’t stupid. He had seen scary movies. He wasn’t supposed to watch those kinds of movies, of course, but Tommy did, when his friends were over, and that meant sometimes Jamie could watch and nobody would tell, because then they’d all be in trouble. One movie was from a Stephen King book. They didn’t even have books like that in the school library, but you could see them in the window of Kramer’s Books, and he knew it was the same story.

A boy about Jamie’s age was riding a tricyle through a house. You weren’t supposed to do that. It was like the welcome mat in front of the door. It didn’t make sense. The family’s house was a hotel, but you didn’t ride a tricyle in a hotel either. It was doors, in that movie, that were wrong – even more wrong than the trike. In Jamie’s house it was a wall. The wall at the end of the hall where there was a room that everyone agreed was ‘lovely’ but no one seemed to feel comfortable using. His mom would show other ladies who came over, and they would talk about this chair or that lamp they had from an antique store. His mom liked to go antique shopping. She liked any kind of shopping. Even for socks, which didn’t make any sense.

Most days between 4:45 and 5:30, no one seemed to care where Jamie was. No one asked. Tommy was still at school, doing some kind of junior varsity sports. Mom was downstairs making dinner. Jamie’s father either came home at 6:30 or sometimes not until after dinner. It was at 5:30 that Mom would call his name and remind him to wash his hands. He always washed his hands, but it wasn’t like they were very dirty. Jamie mostly stayed inside, and did his homework like he was told, and on week days, when he could, he left his room at the other end of the hall and sat cross legged part way down the hall from the blue door and looked at the wall.

He had been getting a little closer for the past few weeks, and a lot closer the past few days. It was colder at that end of the hall, but he needed to see it clearly. He needed to because nothing had happened, and yet it had. Jamie had memorized, not purposely, but like you did anything if you paid enough attention over time, the pattern of dirt on the wall surface. He knew it was dirt, and even though dirt wasn’t allowed in the house – you always washed your hands and you wiped your feet at the front door – no one bothered to clean this one part of things. His mother always meant to, but then she forgot.

Jamie became aware, slowly, but he was sure now, that the pattern was changing. It was like the scum on a farm pond. It didn’t move quickly or suddenly but, over time, it was different. It wasn’t the same pond in the same way. Most things changed, if you really looked at them, but this changed in the wrong way. It was like those books you flipped through quickly with your thumb and a little cartoon character walked around as you did, or rode a bike, or swam. This was slower, but there was still a pattern to the change. Jamie just didn’t know what the pattern was.

Thursday, the 14th of December was different. It was a special day. His mom had been talking about it for weeks. His Dad was going. Tommy was going. Jamie, they said, was too young. You don’t take little boys to the Rotary Christmas Cantata, because little boys couldn’t sit still. Jamie always did. It was Tommy who was antsy and couldn’t pay attention. Jamie was pretty sure Tommy had AD&D, just like one of the boys in his class at school. He was glad, though, to be left on his own. Usually Jamie had a baby sitter. He didn’t need a baby sitter. He wasn’t a baby. But the sitter had cancelled, and they were going to ‘trust’ him, Mom had said, to be all right on his own for a few hours.

A few hours to get a closer look at the wall. And that’s what he was doing. He was looking. He tried to be like the frog he’d seen in that film in biology class – the one they always showed when Mr. Grove was sick and they had to have a substitute. The frog was watching a grasshopper, watching it intently, not moving at all. Jamie knew if he watched the wall like that, for long enough in one sitting, he would be able to see it move. And when something did move, he would be like the frog. He would launch himself forward and put his hands right on the place where it moved, and he would hold on and not let go.

Jamie didn’t know what he expected to happen after that. It was instinct, like he had learned about the frog. He knew he had instinct too. And instinct meant that you did something, you didn’t just sit there when something that you wanted to understand made a move. You acted – you moved too and you moved quickly.

And then it happened. He didn’t expect it so soon. He had only been watching for an hour, or maybe a little longer. He was sure Tommy wasn’t sitting still for that long. He was probably stealing Christmas cookies while pretending to go use the bathroom. It was too cold in the hall. It was colder than he had ever felt sitting there after his homework. And a smudgy patch of dirt, maybe five or six inches across, that was shaped a little like Australia – he remembered this from geography class when they talked about “down under” – began to flicker. It faded in and out from grey to silver to brown and back to grey. And it rippled, like it was a cancer patch on his Uncle Larry’s belly when he breathed. It rippled and began to move, like Uncle Larry was turning over in his bed – the one he died in two Winters ago when they brought him home to the old farm to be ‘in his own environment’.

Jamie knew what he had to do. He wasn’t afraid. You don’t get afraid. You check under the bed if you have to, if you hear a noise, but you don’t get afraid.

He was already on one knee, not even knowing how he got there. It was instinct. He ran at the wall the way a frog’s tongue darted for a grasshopper. He launched himself toward the small dark place, the place that was still there even if you turned on the hall light. He leapt forward to touch it, that one patch of living dark. And like the grasshopper, he had it in his hand. He had the wet, sticky plaster in his hand. He had his hand buried in the wall. And the force of his motion kept him going right into that dingy-milk coloured facade – the one the door and the rug and all the pretty furniture were meant to distract you from.

He went right into the surface of something no one ever remembered to clean – right past the scum on the pond. And when he did, he saw what he meant to see, even if he hadn’t known it. He saw what the pattern on the wall had been telling him – saw straight through to the other side. And at that moment he tried to open his mouth – not to scream, but to shout. With all that was in him, he wanted to shout. I am not afraid. I am right to see. I do pay attention.

And he didn’t even cry when the plaster filled his mouth and went into his nose. I am not a baby. He didn’t cry, and he didn’t struggle to be free. He pushed into the wall the way his mom let him push the cookie cutter into dough for the refreshments they were having after the Cantata. He pushed, and he let the doughy plaster fill him. He dug in with his arms and buried his face farther into it, the way you do a warm blanket when you first leap into bed on a cold night, until it held him, and he stayed there seeing, and knowing, and thinking, and not being at all afraid.

Jamie was seven years old, and he would be seven years old forever, but it was all right. He had done his homework. He had washed his hands. And now he could eat or be eaten. He could see as far and as long as he wanted. He was cold, but it was all right to be cold. He didn’t need to move his mouth to laugh. He didn’t need to open his eyes to see. Like the grasshopper on the end of a sticky tongue, he knew what he needed to know. He had his geography and his biology in a single lesson. He didn’t need to go to grad school. And maybe someone would come and clean the wall now. Maybe when his mom got home. And that was all right too.

Down the hall there stands a wall;
its angle wrong, its tilt askew;
you’ll hit your head or scuff your shoe;
but if you’re dead, you go right through.


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