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Castles of Yesteryear


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Seasons Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction?

Some years ago – never mind how many – the last day of school had just concluded and Winter Break was just beginning. There was a collective joy at the occasion as elementary students emptied the holiday-decked halls and gathered by the busy buses. It was colder than normal that day, and the cloudy skies looked pretty ominous, but I thought nothing of it as I waited for my mom to pick me up. After a few minutes, the thin windbreaker jacket I was wearing was clenched between my frozen fingers as the chill of the wind whipped my face and made me shiver. My nose was red and starting to run, and my eyes were starting to tear up a bit as the cool air hit them. My arms twisted and tangled themselves inward toward my body, desperate to locate a source of heat. And then I remembered I had a robe in my backpack!

Tell me how this isn't good enough for a Christmas Pageant.

Earlier that day, I had been in the school Christmas Pageant as a wise-man-turned-shepherd because my robe was considered “too garish” to be in the front row bleachers from where we were singing. I saw nothing wrong with my amazing technicolor dream robe – its stripes and odd splashes of blue, red, purple, and orange made it look like an awesome hotel carpet, but my teacher disagreed, as she often did. And so I was pushed back behind the waves of taller students in order to hide my teacher's shame. She was not a nice teacher, and kept me from getting my class pictures later on in the New Year, and she even argued that the 101 Dalmatians movie with Jeff Daniels and Glenn Close wasn't real. It had been in theaters for two weeks, but sure go ahead and deduct points from my last paper – she was probably still holding a grudge that “I made her look bad in front the Principal.” In my defense, I did not know I needed glasses yet, and the class rules were laminated and posted in just the wrong spot that the glare from the sun at 9 in the morning made it impossible to read from my seat. I had asked if I could move because the sun was making it difficult to read, but she scowled and repeated the command that I read the class rules right there. It wasn't going to happen.

Drive it like you stole it with one of those Econolock steering wheel bars.

Anyway, it wasn't much longer before the buses left and parents' cars could break free from the parking lot. My mom picked me up from school in our white, two-door Oldsmobile, while my older brother went off with some friends to have a sleepover for the weekend. I folded the passenger seat forward and crawled into the back seat. It was weird being alone. There was a Pound Puppy doll in the back seat that my mom told my brother not to leave in the car. Toys were targets for thieves, she would say, so I tucked it under the seat as we neared the mall. It was still daylight out, or as much as it could be, as the sun was blanketed behind those dark, dreary clouds. I removed my robe and placed it on the floor to cover up the rest of the Pound Puppy. My windbreaker still clung to its residual warmth as I hurried to enter the cozy, central heated mall.

Is this the new Zelda Dungeon?  Oh, I can't wait to use the hookshot here!

I loved going to the mall! The labyrinthine layout made it feel like an adventure, and all the lights, glass cases, and windows were so shiny and golden-laced so as to draw you in with their siren's song. My mom told me to stay close and keep my hands in my pockets because thieves liked to steal from people in crowds. Winter Break would release more parents and children into the stores, and thus more targets. This was the last day before the real holiday shopping rush would begin, so my mom and I were on a mission to find gifts for our Secret Santas that were we in charge of this year.

Secret Santas were always a game of Guess Who?.  I was Anita. 

It was a tradition that, during Thanksgiving, my mom's family would all gather together at my Grandparents' house and we would draw names out of a basket to find out which lucky one of our aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandparents we would surprise with a gift on Christmas. It was markedly better than the gift exchange at school where you had to buy a gift that any random one of your classmates would receive – which would most likely be a bargain Barbie or some other drugstore toy aisle reject. The various things I would get through this Secret Santa exchange were amazing in their own right, but that is a whole nother story.

"Remember who you are, Santa. Take your place in the circle of gifts." - Mufasanta

This year, I took the role of Secret Santa seriously, and I was determined to make that jolly old elf proud. Paraphrasing Timon from The Lion King: I was me, but with Power! The Great Santas of the Past were looking down on me from the stars, I could feel it. My mom was noticeably getting annoyed as she glanced down at her watch as I obtusely asked hypothetical questions over what specific relatives might or might not like. It was supposed to be a secret, right? She was not having it. We needed to hurry up and get home, so I was forced to spill the beans and face the fact that I had let Santa down. As we walked by the Mall Santa's Village, I ducked my head to avoid being noticed. The long ride up the escalator to the second floor was torture as I peered down at Santa and the line of kids, tripping a little from the leveling out of the last step. Did he know already? My mind was wrought with guilt over the word Secret.

I'm making myself hungry.

As we walked by the food court, my mom asked if I wanted something to eat. I whirled around to look at the options and settled on a soft pretzel. Those hot and fresh and buttery and salty and savory knots of dough were heavenly. I was drooling. My teeth sank into the smooth pretzel surface and the texture and tang of the salt passed my tongue. So good!  And what better way is there to wash it down than with the refreshingly sweet and tart taste of ice cold lemonade?  I would just keep slurping from the straw, intermittently breathing through my nose, in order to trigger a brain freeze. There is just something inherently delicious about the tart citrus flavor when it strikes that threshold, and I can't explain that sensory explosion.   It was almost enough to get my mind off Santa, almost.

"Thank you for playing my demo for 20 minutes."

Walking towards the back of the Mall, our goal was Sears.  My mom was on the hunt for kitchen supplies, so I asked if I could go play the video games.  Surely, that would take my mind off these Santa shenanigans.  She glanced around for any danger and told me to be careful.  As I was walking away, she told me to be back in five minutes.  That was normally how the video game excursions went, but that was when my brother was with me. He had the watch – Besides, I didn't know how long five minutes was...  But there I stood in Sears planted firmly in front of the new Nintendo System: The Nintendo 64.  Seeing the huge Mario head floating around in 3D polygons was amazing.  I had been blown away by the art style of Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2, but those were on the Super Nintendo.  This was the future! I must have fumbled through the Castle Courtyard for at least three minutes, I was sure of it. There was still some time left, I thought. Then, some tinny voice over the intercom called out to someone who had my name.  Wow, that was pretty cool that someone else was in Sears with that exact name.  What are the chances?  It turns out slim to none.   He had called for me.  My mom had locked herself in place at the register waiting for me to arrive, looking angry that I had not heeded her advice.  She knew where I was, so I don't know why she didn't come over to find me.  It was embarrassing getting in trouble publicly at the mall, and the long walk back to the car was silent as the night. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.  It wasn't night yet!  And we still had to go grocery shopping at Wal-Mart.

This was before SuperCenters came into town.

The sky was getting darker from the strange clouds, but it was still an hour-and-a-half away from sunset.  I slipped back into my robe for the car ride over to Wal-Mart, wringing my hands to warm up my fingers.  And again, I removed the robe as quickly as I had put it on.  While it was not as big and lavish the mall, I still had fun exploring Wal-Mart.  The old store layouts of the Electronics Departments where they housed Video Games, Cameras, and VHS tapes were so aesthetically pleasing.  The smiling face and the green price sticker were staples of the experience.  I was tempted to sneak off to the games again, but this time, I stuck close by my mom.  I had already gotten in trouble with her today, and I had disappointed Santa, and shamed my teacher. But that last one was to a much lesser degree of guilt.

"What's this?"  I don't know, it looks like a leaf?

It should have been a quick mission to get groceries, but it took a bit longer than we expected as something happened midway through our trek of the Wal-Mart aisles. While we were inside, the clouds overhead began to unleash snow!  This wasn't normal for my neck of the woods. The humid and tropical air from the Atlantic Ocean usually prevents snow from forming, and if snow does happen to fall, it evaporates before it hits the ground. This stuff was real, and it was sticking!  Unfortunately, our infrastructure was not built for snow, and the power went out across town, including for the Wal-Mart in which we found ourselves stuck.  I was kind of scared that the lights went out, but something else was on my mind.  Had I caused this?  Was it because I had betrayed my Santa duties?  Surely, if I hadn't caused us to be late getting here, we would have been home safe and sound by now.  My mind raced in a panic of fears, thoughts, and regrets.

The back-up power kicked on with a whir as the emergency lights flickered. Strangers and shoppers groaned at the fact their holiday shopping, or grocery shopping, was canceled.  I was nervous that Christmas itself was canceled! Priorities, people!  You wouldn't be able to get your kid a Tickle Me Elmo this year, big deal. So what? I had heard on the news some guy was selling them from the trunk of his car, cash only.

It didn't take long for the Wal-Mart employees to take charge. I assume the store manager was the one with the megaphone as the blue vests asked everyone to go to the front of the store and be checked out quickly. My mom told me not to leave her sight because the people were gathered closer together. We were so tightly packed that shopping carts were being crashed and smashed together like bumper cars, bouncing into both flesh and steel. The bruises of this great battle would no doubt be felt tomorrow. Winter was here.

PSA: Don't block the entrances/exits, it's a fire hazard.

Eventually, we were checked out, but we still had some waiting to do. The snow was not letting up yet, and my mom told me it was dangerous to get into the parking lot while everyone else was trying to leave. That mad scramble to be the first ones out of the lot might cause an accident on a normal day, but these drivers weren't acclimated to snow. It was safer to stay inside for now. People huddled together in that space between the inner and outer doors were the shopping carts were corralled.

Where did we park?  I think it was next to the white one.

We had 30 minutes left before sundown when the snow let up just enough that we could get through. The tire tracks from other vehicles carved pathways through the snow in the lot, and we safely maneuvered our way out onto the interstate. We had only 5 miles to travel before our exit, and a few blocks after that before we would get home. There was only one problem. Well, maybe two. The first problem was that snow had picked up again, surrounding us in blankets of white, and pouring down in seemingly every direction. The second problem was that our car was white. If we could barely make out the faint red-glow of the tailgate of the people in front of us, how would we stand out to any car that came up to us? It was so tense watching my mom drive straight into the white expansive unknown, turning the wheel left or right, and hoping not to hit anything. I gripped my robe tight and tried to look for trees, houses, the road, anything. In the midst of this white winter hellscape, we almost got hit by an eighteen-wheeler truck. The trailer was all white, but you could see the large dark tires and metal rig barreling down the road pretty fast. I warned my mom, and we luckily avoided a collision. She was exhausted from the stress, and we decided to pull over at the next exit if we could see some lights. By now the sun was setting and the street lights that dotted the highways were lighting up; a sign that power was being restored. The once white skies had turned darker and grayer as the day had pressed on. It was my first experience with a snowstorm, and thankfully it wasn't my last.

I think we found where they shoot those computer commercials.  Must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.

The next time we got the chance, we made it home. Who knows how long it took for the power to be restored in our area? It just was. Our blue Aerostar van was in the driveway, which meant my dad was home from his job. With the Oldsmobile parked safely, my mom tightly fastened the Econolock to the steering wheel as I grabbed my book bag and the shopping bags. I forgot the Pound Puppy was still under the seat, and there it would remain for just a little while longer. Finally free from school, I was wrapped snugly in my awesome robe, and I had come home a little wiser. I threw my book bag down on the floor of the closet and quickly forgot about it. Any papers still left inside would have to wait until next year. This was my much anticipated vacation, and I was not going to waste it.

I had the Snowman Denny's Holiday Heat-Changing Mug, and it always helped warm me up inside.

The stress of the day's harrowing events wore me out. I was ready and raring to lie down in my bed, catch some Zs, and wake up early to seize the next day, but something felt wrong. And it wasn't that I was still adorned in my robe of many colors. My brother wasn't here; he was off with his friends having a slumber party. I wondered if he knew about the snowstorm, if the power had gone off at their house, and if he was as scared as I had been. It occurred to me that this was the first time in my life that I would be alone for an entire night. The light was staying on tonight if I could help it; parents and weather permitting. I fell asleep to the delicate sounds of snow falling, and now... silent was the night.

Cue the Dream Sequence: Traumatic Reenactment

That night I had some spooky scary dreams – It was My Nightmare Before Christmas. I was alone and trapped in that Wal-Mart during the power outage. A blank figure in an all-black body morph suit was slowly walking after me. It looked exactly like one of the beings in the Are You Afraid of the Dark? Episode The Tale of the Super Specs, but the atmosphere was mixed with the emptiness of the mall in The Tale of the Pinball Wizard. It's not terribly surprising – I'm a horror junkie, and that was one of my favorite shows other than Tales from the Crypt. No matter where I ran, this thing was after me. I tried to scream in my dream to wake myself up, I could feel my throat straining itself trying, but I was unable to wake up. I tried running again, but this time my legs felt like they were made of lead. I wouldn't be able to inch away at this rate, so I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could and wished I was invisible. The thing that was after me turned the corner of the shoe department, but it was unable to see me, I think. I was standing right out in the open, the dead center of the aisle. Had it worked? Was I somehow invisible to it?

I can see them without the Super Specs, and they're trying to get rid of me too.

Not one to let the opportunity slip by, I frantically hid in one of the circular clothing racks and waited for it to give up its relentless pursuit. Just when I thought the coast was clear, I made a nervous break for the front doors. Then I saw there was more than one, and they were headed right for me!  My heart raced as I tucked my arms and hands over my head and bolted through this nightmare Wal-Mart's exit door that led directly to inside my house... right through the front door. My house had two floors/stories, but the front door opened to a landing that sat somewhere in the middle. From this landing there were two sets of stairs: one leading up, and the other leading down. My room was upstairs and down the hall, but I struggled to get there. Zombie arms reached up from the stairs, and they reminded me of the zombies that Skullmaster had sent to chase after Mighty Max. The stairs were covered in the same reddish carpet as the rest of the floor, and they always made a squeaky creak as you stepped on them. Luckily, I jumped a few steps and made it to the hall. I didn't take my chances with something being in the hall, I just floored it. Somehow, I made it back to my room in one piece. My brother's bed was still empty, and everything looked normal. My bed was a former crib that had one of the bar-sides and foot board removed. I jumped onto my bed, peered around the room, and thought I was finally safe. But then I heard something from the foot of the bed as I cautiously crept forward and looked over the edge. It was the Cryptkeeper himself, popping upward like in the intro to Tales from The Crypt!  He grabbed me with his bony fingers and was about to go in for the kill, and I screamed as loud as I could.  My body jerked about as my legs and arms tensed up, and I was finally awake!  This nightmare felt like it took forever.  As I woke up, I noticed my throat was sore, nose was running, and my forehead was warm.  Not only was I gripped with fear, it seemed I was grippe-d with a flu.  My plans of enjoying my Christmas Break were not starting off well.

End the Dream Sequence: Traumatic Reenactment

Finding this at the foot of your bed is bad enough, but try waking up next to it.

I was cooped up in bed for most of that weekend trying to get over that sickness, but my vivid love for the weird and macabre, coupled with my overactive imagination had created a nightmare soup that seeped into my dreams.  My covers draped over my puffy face as I attempted to check the foot of my real bed.  Nothing was there, thank goodness.  I'd seen the documentary "A Nightmare on Elm Street" – if you died in your dream, you'd die for realsies.  Normally, I would forget a nightmare as soon as I would wake up, but this one would haunt me for the same three nights that my brother was gone.  Was it a coincidence?  I'd never had the same dream more than once before, so the next two times I tried different things, but very little changed the outcome. Whatever Christmas Spirit wanted to teach me a lesson, they would need to try harder.  I wasn't some cynical, world-weary old man who needed to learn to love his fellow men – I was an eight-year-old kid who who just liked video games and wanted to reward the good and punish the bad with my own phenomenal, cosmic Santa powers. Is that so much to ask?  I'd like to think I'd make a dedicated Santa.  Petty and vindictive, but a dedicated Santa. Maybe I would send my teacher a VHS copy of the live-action 101 Dalmatians; that would sort her out.

"Yes, Virginia, there is a 101 Dalmatians Movie Starring Jeff Daniels and Glenn Close."

When my brother returned on Monday from his weekend excursion, the snow was all gone, and I was seemingly cured of my affliction. I never had that nightmare again, but I told my brother all about it. He talked about those shadowy figures being in his dreams, too, but he didn't seem concerned at all. Quickly changing subjects, he talked about what he did over the weekend which included playing lots of Sonic 3, watching the Back to the Future movies, and relaxing in a hot tub. I was sick, alone, & having nightmares... while he was in a hot tub and playing Sonic 3. Thanks, Ghosts of Christmas Whatever, you're really swell. Why don't you get your pal the Crimson Clown to visit me next time?

I'm ready for you, Clown.  Don't keep me waiting.

So, dear reader, what do you believe happened over the course of that weekend? Was that rare, freak snow storm caused by an eight-year-old not obeying his mother's advice? Or was Santa behind all of the goings on that fateful weekend? He is a supernatural wish-granting being, after-all. How do you explain having the same dream for three nights – the exact three nights my older brother was away? Could that have been the cause of the nightmares? How about the fact that he acknowledged the dream entities, and why he was so quick to dismiss them? Did the Pound Puppy ever get brought in from the car? No, my mom was right about people wanting to steal toys. Our car was broken into through the back seat window before we returned to school in the New Year. The whole car would have been stolen if we hadn't had an Econolock that prevented the thieves from turning the steering wheel, but the Pound Puppy was never seen again.

"Or was this just another clever ruse by our writers?  Not this time."

Perhaps this article was just the musings of an eight-year-old child who strongly believed in the magic of the season and let their imagination run wild when they were alone at night. Whatever the case, I hope you carry the Spirit of the Season with you and yours in order to make your own holiday magic. Spend time in the company of your loved ones, stay cozy and warm wherever you find yourself, look out towards the night sky and dream big, but most importantly... remember to creep out of trouble.  Happy Holidays, Everyone!

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Radical Posted on Dec 24, 2016 at 10:17 AM

Thank you for the nice welcome, Rick Ace Rhodes. Hope you have a Happy Christmas! :)

Rick Ace Rhodes Posted on Dec 24, 2016 at 12:14 AM

Nice to see your return Radical!

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