During my childhood my family was like a drop of water in a vast river, never remaining in one location for long. We settled in Rhode Island when I was eight, and there we remained until I went to college in Colorado Springs. Most of my memories are rooted in Rhode Island, but there are fragments in the attic of my brain which belong to the various homes we had lived in when I was much younger.
Most of these memories are unclear and pointless – chasing after another boy in the back yard of a house in North Carolina, trying to build a raft to float on the creek behind the apartment we rented in Pennsylvania, and so on. But there is one set of memories which remains as clear as glass, as though they were just made yesterday. I often wonder whether these memories are simply lucid dreams produced by the long sickness I experienced that Spring, but in my heart, I know they are real.
We were living in a house just outside the bustling metropolis of New Vineyard, Maine, population 643. It was a large structure, especially for a family of three. There were a number of rooms that I didn’t see in the five months we resided there. In some ways it was a waste of space, but it was the only house on the market at the time, at least within an hour’s commute to my father’s place of work.
The day after my fifth birthday (attended by my parents alone), I came down with a fever. The doctor said I had mononucleosis, which meant no rough play and more fever for at least another three weeks. It was horrible timing to be bed-ridden– we were in the process of packing our things to move to Pennsylvania, and most of my things were already packed away in boxes, leaving my room barren. My mother brought me ginger ale and books several times a day, and these served the function of being my primary form of entertainment for the next few weeks. Boredom always loomed just around the corner, waiting to rear its ugly head and compound my misery.
I don’t exactly recall how I met Mr. Widemouth. I think it was about a week after I was diagnosed with mono. My first memory of the small creature was asking him if he had a name. He told me to call him Mr. Widemouth, because his mouth was large. In fact, everything about him was large in comparison to his body– his head, his eyes, his crooked ears– but his mouth was by far the largest.
“You look kind of like a Furby,” I said as he flipped through one of my books.
Mr. Widemouth stopped and gave me a puzzled look. “Furby? What’s a Furby?” he asked.
I shrugged. “You know… the toy. The little robot with the big ears. You can pet and feed them, almost like a real pet.”
“Oh.” Mr. Widemouth resumed his activity. “You don’t need one of those. They aren’t the same as having a real friend.”
I remember Mr. Widemouth disappearing every time my mother stopped by to check in on me. “I lay under your bed,” he later explained. “I don’t want your parents to see me because I’m afraid they won’t let us play anymore.”
We didn’t do much during those first few days. Mr. Widemouth just looked at my books, fascinated by the stories and pictures they contained. The third or fourth morning after I met him, he greeted me with a large smile on his face. “I have a new game we can play,” he said. “We have to wait until after your mother comes to check on you, because she can’t see us play it. It’s a secret game.”
After my mother delivered more books and soda at the usual time, Mr. Widemouth slipped out from under the bed and tugged my hand. “We have to go the the room at the end of this hallway,” he said. I objected at first, as my parents had forbidden me to leave my bed without their permission, but Mr. Widemouth persisted until I gave in.
The room in question had no furniture or wallpaper. Its only distinguishing feature was a window opposite the doorway. Mr. Widemouth darted across the room and gave the window a firm push, flinging it open. He then beckoned me to look out at the ground below.
We were on the second story of the house, but it was on a hill, and from this angle the drop was farther than two stories due to the incline. “I like to play pretend up here,” Mr. Widemouth explained. “I pretend that there is a big, soft trampoline below this window, and I jump. If you pretend hard enough you bounce back up like a feather. I want you to try.”
I was a five-year-old with a fever, so only a hint of skepticism darted through my thoughts as I looked down and considered the possibility. “It’s a long drop,” I said.
“But that’s all a part of the fun. It wouldn’t be fun if it was only a short drop. If it were that way you may as well just bounce on a real trampoline.”
I toyed with the idea, picturing myself falling through thin air only to bounce back to the window on something unseen by human eyes. But the realist in me prevailed. “Maybe some other time,” I said. “I don’t know if I have enough imagination. I could get hurt.”
Mr. Widemouth’s face contorted into a snarl, but only for a moment. Anger gave way to disappointment. “If you say so,” he said. He spent the rest of the day under my bed, quiet as a mouse.
The following morning Mr. Widemouth arrived holding a small box. “I want to teach you how to juggle,” he said. “Here are some things you can use to practice, before I start giving you lessons.”
I looked in the box. It was full of knives. “My parents will kill me!” I shouted, horrified that Mr. Widemouth had brought knives into my room– objects that my parents would never allow me to touch. “I’ll be spanked and grounded for a year!”
Mr. Widemouth frowned. “It’s fun to juggle with these. I want you to try it.”
I pushed the box away. “I can’t. I’ll get in trouble. Knives aren’t safe to just throw in the air.”
Mr. Widemouth’s frown deepened into a scowl. He took the box of knives and slid under my bed, remaining there the rest of the day. I began to wonder how often he was under me.
I started having trouble sleeping after that. Mr. Widemouth often woke me up at night, saying he put a real trampoline under the window, a big one, one that I couldn’t see in the dark. I always declined and tried to go back to sleep, but Mr. Widemouth persisted. Sometimes he stayed by my side until early in the morning, encouraging me to jump.
He wasn’t so fun to play with anymore.
My mother came to me one morning and told me I had her permission to walk around outside. She thought the fresh air would be good for me, especially after being confined to my room for so long. Ecstatic, I put on my sneakers and trotted out to the back porch, yearning for the feeling of sun on my face.
Mr. Widemouth was waiting for me. “I have something I want you to see,” he said. I must have given him a weird look, because he then said, “It’s safe, I promise.”
I followed him to the beginning of a deer trail which ran through the woods behind the house. “This is an important path,” he explained. “I’ve had a lot of friends about your age. When they were ready, I took them down this path, to a special place. You aren’t ready yet, but one day, I hope to take you there.”
I returned to the house, wondering what kind of place lay beyond that trail.
Two weeks after I met Mr. Widemouth, the last load of our things had been packed into a moving truck. I would be in the cab of that truck, sitting next to my father for the long drive to Pennsylvania. I considered telling Mr. Widemouth that I would be leaving, but even at five years old, I was beginning to suspect that perhaps the creature’s intentions were not to my benefit, despite what he said otherwise. For this reason, I decided to keep my departure a secret.
My father and I were in the truck at 4 a.m. He was hoping to make it to Pennsylvania by lunch time tomorrow with the help of an endless supply of coffee and a six-pack of energy drinks. He seemed more like a man who was about to run a marathon rather than one who was about to spend two days sitting still.
“Early enough for you,” my father asked with a hint of sympathy?
I nodded and placed my head against the window, hoping for some sleep before the sun came up. I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder. “This is the last move, son, I promise. I know it’s hard for you, as sick as you’ve been. Once daddy gets promoted we can settle down and you can make friends.”
I opened my eyes as we backed out of the driveway. I saw Mr. Widemouth’s silhouette in my bedroom window. He stood motionless until the truck was about to turn onto the main road. He gave a pitiful little wave good-bye, steak knife in hand. I didn’t wave back.
Years later, I returned to New Vineyard. The piece of land our house stood upon was empty except for the foundation, as the house burned down a few years after my family left. Out of curiosity, I followed the deer trail that Mr. Widemouth had shown me. Part of me expected him to jump out from behind a tree and scare the living bejeesus out of me, but I felt that Mr. Widemouth was gone, somehow tied to the house that no longer existed.
The trail ended at the New Vineyard Memorial Cemetery.
I noticed that many of the tombstones belonged to children.