There must be a hundred things you can do hunkered away from a nighttime thunderstorm all alone in a dark bunkhouse meant for a dozen people.
You can light your lantern and read, or slip on headphones and play cheerful music, or even just shut your eyes to fade into a dream of someplace brighter, friendlier and altogether less desolate.
The one thing you shouldn’t do is start running through all the horror stories you know that deal with decrepit buildings and sojourners who turn out to be not quite alone as they believe.
But if you’re going to ignore that rule, for the love of all that’s soothing, don’t linger on the spookiest story you know starring a terrifying child when your empty shelter happens to be in a campground that’s otherwise crawling with little boys.
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That, however, is exactly where my mind wandered during our last big storm, while I listened to rain and thunder at the campground where I’d brought my sons to spend the weekend with their scout friends.
I was already a little spooked by the shadows that leaped through the bunkhouse with every flash of lightning, and my subconscious must have taken that as a challenge to hack a path deeper into terror.
With Halloween just a little more than a week away, I lay in my sleeping bag thinking of Neil Gaiman’s “Click-clack the Rattlebag,” a story of man who’s led deeper and deeper into a dark, old house by a young fellow who grows more chilling with each step.
“They come from the dark,” Gaiman writes about the monsters in his story. “And they come in when you don’t pay attention.”
It was with thoughts of those monsters emerging from the night that I eventually fell asleep.
And in the midnight hour, it was with a yelp that I woke up.
While I’d slept, paying no attention at all to what might want in out of the dark, the bunkhouse door slammed open. My eyes snapped wide and I saw silhouetted in the entrance the figure of a little boy. Lightning showed he was dripping, sodden as the long, wet bag he dragged behind him.
And then he spoke.
It was my 9-year-old son.
The only reason I had a 12-person bunkhouse to myself on this camp-out was that he had planned to sleep with me, and scouts have a strict ban against kids sharing quarters with unrelated adults. But he’d decided to spread his sleeping bag in the mess hall across camp for an early Halloween movie marathon with his friends.
When he was left tossing and turning as all the other boys slept, he threw the sleeping bag over his shoulder and trekked through the downpour to the company of his old man.
Now his bedding was soaked with rain, so we unzipped my bag into a blanket and huddled together.
“Do you realize you showed up in this empty building out of the dark just like a Click-clack?” I asked him.
He didn’t want to hear it. His head was still humming from the movies he’d been watching. He hadn’t been scared to be the only kid left awake in the big, dark mess hall, he insisted, but now that he was with me, it was time to hush up and sleep.
I closed my eyes, too — after a quick squeeze to be sure his hand was warm with life, not the cold claw of a monster materialized from the dark.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.