Thankful

The day my parents dropped me off, I didn’t even let them stay for more than an hour. I rushed them out of Harrisonburg. I walked them down three floors and told them, “This doesn’t have to be a sad moment.” I hugged my mom and dad. They drove four hours back home. I went upstairs and cried alone in this new room that didn’t feel like my room quite yet. I wiped my face and walked across the street and bought a sub and ate by myself in a Jimmy John’s booth. Growing up was a lot harder than I thought.

I was still 17 that day– my 18th birthday would be the first Wednesday of class, but I still had to get through orientation.

I wasn’t sad about being alone until I realized that JMU was not the best fit for me. It took me about one day after moving in until I came to this conclusion– when the girls in my hall were still acting like girls and not women, when I wasn’t a part of the “cool” crowd, when I realized that people stay the same except for their bodies, and, depending on the body, it’s their bodies that allow them to stay the same.

Fit, nubile and playful, my hallmates were impatient to be used as currency by men in jerseys who would stare at them hungrily. I was, too– or at least I wanted to be ready for this. The tour of greek row, vodka in water bottles, hiding from the RA: these things were rites of passage for college women. I guess I never got there because instead of hitting the frat houses, I watched an open mic night with my new friends Cheryl and Tatum on Thursday of orientation week.

I remember seeing something in them that was so much like what I was feeling; they expected something much different from higher education, they wanted to become more of themselves. We didn’t hate the women in our hall– we just didn’t understand them yet, nor they us.

Instead of roaming dark, foreign streets pining for free Keystone and desirous glances we sat on couches and admired people with acoustic guitars who wanted what we wanted, who felt what we felt, this visceral desire for self-completion, self-actualization. After hours of sitting in a circle, singing and ripping grass out of Godwin field as we giggled and put on our own talent show, we sunk into our beds and I remember wondering how long it would be until I didn’t feel lonely anymore.

I don’t remember the first time I spoke to either of them; I guess you don’t often remember the moments you meet people– you just remember the moments when they made an impact on you.

After four endless days of orientation, school began and I sat alone every day to eat lunch, which was something I’d never done before. I would get pizza because it was self-serve and sit quietly in D-hall. The days all melted together and suddenly, I was 18. Oh yeah, it’s my birthday, the first Wednesday of classes. Yet, not much felt different. I was still just going to class, eating alone, missing home. Nothing automatically changed. I guessed this is what adulthood is, eating alone and sleeping alone and sitting in class alone, not saying hello to the people who live in my same building and screwing my earbuds so far into my ears that they wouldn’t come out, not even for sleep.

I climb the stairs lethargically to my bed after a day of long-winded thought in between classes, but I see Tatum and Cheryl, who usher me into Tatum’s room.

They bought me a cake. In the middle was a candle that we didn’t light. I was presented a red paper crown that I wore proudly during my little birthday celebration with Tatum, Cheryl, and two boys we had just met. The cake was chocolate and rich, and of course we had leftovers– it was only a few of us.

When I went to bed that night I felt something different. I still felt lonely, but something was changing– or, I knew it was going to change. The moment I walked into Tatum’s room and looked at the birthday cake, bought by strangers to celebrate my loneliest holiday yet, I began to think things were going to be okay. When we cut the cake and I wore the crown and we stood in a circle and talked about our new classes and new lives, I knew things were, eventually, going to be okay.

I’m thankful for my two sweet friends for giving me that moment.

Silver Lining Surgery

Once upon a time, my health wasn’t nearly as good as it is now. My freshman year of college was a time of new experiences and meeting people- it was also a time I suffered the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I’m a klutz, so I’ve encountered broken bones and a great deal of discomfort before, but this pain I felt at 18 years old was something I’d never felt before.

 

One morning I woke up and there was a sharp throbbing in my lower abdomen that was unbearable. I was nauseated and in agony, so my RA at the time was kind enough to drive me to the emergency room. After a few tests, I found out I had multiple kidney stones tearing their way through my body and an ovarian cyst the size of a baseball.

 

The kidney stones would pass on their own time, and were the main cause of my pain, but the worst part of it all was that I would have to have surgery to remove the cyst. I was extremely lucky though; the cyst was benign and the c-word (cancer) were nowhere to be found. Although this was good news, I was terrified. Having surgery was something so foreign to me-something I only could only correlate with movies and TV shows.

 

The worst part was the date of my scheduled surgery. Christmas Eve. There I was, doped up in a hospital bed during my Christmas break, going through one of the most traumatic incidents of my life. Nearly everyone else outside of the hospital was celebrating the holidays, while I was pressing my pain pump for more numbness.

 

I was so focused on having the surgery, I didn’t realize how difficult the recovery would be. I could barely walk afterward, and the pain made me grateful for the invention of Vicodin, but I left the hospital and I was healthy and had my family to take care of me. Knowing I had a support system in my family and friends made me realize that my life was something to be thankful for, and I found the silver lining in my situation.

 

Looking back on that time now, I don’t take for granted that my diagnosis could’ve been so much worse. The fact that I had only one surgery and my cyst was benign was extremely lucky. As I look forward to Thanksgiving break, I am tremendously thankful that I have my health and I always make it a point to send happy thoughts to those who are not as fortunate.

The Ghost of 44 Russell Avenue

According to my mother, I wasn’t exactly the kind of kid you could trick with ghost stories. Precocious, shrewd, and more than a little bit of a skeptic, I asked too many questions to be fooled for long. Or I asked too many questions for any adult to successfully stick to the story for long.

Despite being an analytical child, I avidly engaged in fantasy. Playing pretend wasn’t enough, oh no—I quickly branched out into making up fantastical tales and sharing them as fact. (This tendency would get me into trouble numerous times as a child.) I found myself stumped when trying to think of scary stories I believed as a kid for this blog, so I turned to my mom. Unfortunately, she couldn’t think of any either. She did, however, share that “I used to believe many of your tales, but inevitably, a unicorn would appear in the story and that was when I knew we were in fantasy land.”

Spinning scary stories was never my favorite pastime, but my house at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey (I’m an Army brat) was ripe with opportunities for ghost stories. Built in the early 1920’s, it was a large brick home with a roomy attic and plaster walls. It had tall, slender wooden doors with small, brass knobs that creaked in the winter, and a spooky basement with an old-fashioned cellar door that pulled open from the outside.

The last house on the right is 44 Russell Avenue.

The attic had obviously once been used as a bedroom, and the exposed pipes and supports that crisscrossed the room had been painted in bright bands of red, white, and blue. The ceiling leaked in one spot near the dormer windows, and an old tin bucket was already in place collecting errant rainwater when we moved in. The steady metallic “plink” of water into the bucket, the sound of wind around uninsulated walls, and the creaking and settling of the old wood were the soundtrack of the room. Long rectangles of light streamed in from the dormer windows, but the sloping corners of the rooms were constantly in shadow. Though I found it rather charming overall, it was all too easy to twist the generally cheery ambiance of the room into something sinister.

I started constructing the story of the little boy who lived in the attic room not long after we moved in. Reginald, I thought, was a fine name for a little boy born in 1932. I imagined Reginald to be much like myself—prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy, fiercely patriotic, and convinced that his father could save the world.

A consummate history buff, I delighted in associating him with historical events. Reginald was nine years old when the US entered World War II, I decided. He would work in the family’s victory garden and volunteer with his mother and three older sisters, of course, but he wanted more. He wanted to fight. So, the intrepid Reginald snuck off base one day and enlisted. Apparently, my imminently practical eight-year-old brain did not find it difficult to believe that an Army recruiter could be fooled by a ten-year-old.

By the time I was this far along with my creation of Reginald’s life, we were approaching our first Halloween at Monmouth. I’d already gained a bit of a reputation for my storytelling, and more than once other children asked me to tell scary stories. I didn’t have any. One day, as my friend Emily pestered me for a spooky tale, it hit me— Reginald. Poor, poor Reginald, run-away-to-war Reginald—dead Reginald? And so, the ghost of 44 Russell Avenue was born.

The Harvey family ca. December 2003. Author is on the far right.

I told them of Reginald as though he was real, as if he still swung from the painted pipes and crowed with me over games of marbles. At first, it was benign. I’d created an image in my head of a boy who might have been my friend, and I was loathe to let go of it. But children are bloodthirsty, and my friends wanted something more frightening than a friendly ghost. Tales of ghostly heads popping out of walls or non-corporeal fingers dragging icily across a neck for a laugh only went so far.

Too proud to disappoint, I reluctantly turned my purported interactions with Reginald sinister. No longer did he appear to me bright-eyed and well-groomed, with a pressed uniform and a jauntily-angled hat; instead, he was dirty and bloodied, with ragged clothes and a thousand-yard stare. Reginald, you see, did not make it home from the European theatre alive. I started doing research on the second world war, looking at haunting images and reading frightening accounts of soldiers who were never the same.

My stories turned dark. Reginald no longer waited for me to come up to play, but haunted me at all hours of the day and night. I told my friends that sometimes he kept me awake with whispered pleas—to apologize to his mother, to watch out for his sisters, to bring them peace of mind—crying at my bedside, begging with tears in his eyes. Other nights, I said, he would scream—at the enemy, at his fellow soldiers, at God—angry and broken and desperate to move on.

At some point, even I started to forget that the stories weren’t true. A boy with haunted blue eyes and a torn uniform began to haunt my dreams. Every rush of water through the pipes or creak of the sighing house made me flinch, wincing in anticipation of a ragged voice that would never come. My friends were no longer so excited for ghost stories, the images of a boy destroyed by war a bit too close to home on a military base. Halloween passed, and they were happy to return to games of make-believe, no ghosts allowed. They forgot Reginald and my haunted attic.

I never did. Reginald would follow me for years, the embodiment of a story taken too far, a constant reminder not to forget the line between fantasy and reality. The attic, once the focus of my romantic notions of a garret hideaway on top of the world, never regained its appeal. My escape was irrevocably tainted with the specter of a little boy who never was.

I Sleep in the Ghost Room

Growing up, I played with toy animals a lot, making them talk and telling different stories through them. But even though I named them all and treated them as if they were living beings, I knew that they were not supposed to move on their own.  

Toys moving on their own was not the only reason I suspected that my house was haunted. I thought that someone had died in it, even though no one ever had and it was a fairly new house. I had several memorable dreams about this and even one instance of sleep paralysis where it felt as though something floated my body all the way downstairs and back up. Despite this and my spooky unfinished basement, the guest bedroom seemed the most haunted.  

I was scared of the guest bedroom even though no one ever told me that it was haunted. It was colder than the rest of the house, had creaky floors, and always felt eerily empty even when someone was staying in it. There was also an old mirror that scared me half to death, even though it should have been cheerful with its wooden-engraved parrot. The mirror could only show your face and neck, and every time I looked into it, I thought that someone would appear behind me if I stared for too long. Still, that room had the best space where I could create different scenes with my animal toys without having to clean up every time.  

On the day of the “incident,” I went into the guest bedroom to practice violin. Not only was it the best play space, but it was also where I was far away enough from my mom to practice in my screechy eardrum-bursting way. On that particular day, I brought one of my teddy bears in with me to keep me company. I sat it on the dresser facing away from me as I played terribly into the mirror.  

Even though I usually avoided the mirror, sometimes turning it away from me, on that day I stared into it as I played song after agonizing song. After a while, I decided to quit playing because I felt so uneasy. I packed up my violin and turned to take it and my teddy bear back in my room with me when I froze. The teddy bear was staring directly at where I had been standing, and I definitely did not move it there.  

I didn’t ignore it, scream, or even run. I simply dropped everything and sped out of the room, casually terrified. To this day, I know that the bear moved to face me and I still cannot find an explanation why. For years to come I would not play in that room alone, although I ignored the creepy feelings when I was with a friend. I did stop caring eventually though, because I moved out of my tiny twin-bed room into that bigger queen-bed room several years later. Now I share a room with the ghost that moved my bear.  

Toseph from Gym Class

Many memories from my childhood, after deep retrospection and reevaluation, turn out to be complete and utter lies. I was a gullible sprout; I believed every story, scary or fantastic, regardless of probability. But sometimes, my naiveté worked both for and against me in mysterious ways, like in sixth grade when a boy from gym class—we’ll call him Toseph– complimented me on my silver Asics.

Toseph didn’t say anything that could have been memorable to anyone but me on that September day in the gymnasium. I was merely minding my own business when the class clown and sixth grade heartthrob Toseph walked up to me and blurted “Hey Shelby, nice Asics.” He immediately darted back to his hairless and giggling 11-year-old friends. I wasn’t particularly into Toseph per se, but he was a popular boy. A popular boy who liked my Asics.

For the entirety of the bus ride home that day, the prepubescent ring of Toseph’s voice droned musically in my mind. Floating around in grey matter was Toseph’s utterance, repeating:

“Hey, Shelby…”
“Nice Asics…” 
“I love your Asics…” 
“I also love… you, Shelby.”
“Will you marry me?”

Yes, TosephI thought. What if… this is just the beginning of something… beautiful? 

Months passed and nothing but indifferent exchanges occurred between Toseph and me, but I made damn sure that I wore those silver Asics every single day. I wore them with all of the hottest trends of 2007: Asics with bell bottom jeans, Asics with ruffle skirts, Asics with those ratty basketball shorts that every middle school girl insisted on wearing with the t-shirt tied up like a rat tail in the back. I wore them in gym class, in English class, and on the way to dance class after school. Toseph wouldn’t have seen them anywhere other than P.E., but I wore them proudly, for they were Toseph™ approved.

The shoes eventually wore out, as nothing gold (or silver) can stay. Paint-splattered and hole-punched, the Asics were on their last leg (or foot). I retired them with much anguish, but took solace in the fact that I could– and would– build upon the fashion empire that I had created. Asics this year– flats the next. Who knows where that silly thing called life was going to take me if even my most daring fashion choices were landing me reverence from the elites?

It couldn’t have been less than six years later that I realized Toseph’s “compliment” was completely ironic. Should I have known? Absolutely. If not by the sardonic tone of his F-Sharp voice, then by the fact that he and his friends were laughing hysterically from the other side of the gym at my flattered and foolish reaction.

Asics were not cool as casual shoes at the time, and would never be cool within any 50 mile radius of Corporate Landing Middle School during the paradoxically short and eternal 3-year span of my time there.

How could I have been so blind? I thought, a 17 year old, still clinging onto the nearly half-life long lie that I made Asics cool in the sixth grade. 

I was a trend-setter, wasn’t I? How could this be? All this time Toseph was… lying to me? 

The Asics were a matte silver with purple stripes on the side. They were skinny and with that classic Asics netting on top of the toe. That year, I was very insecure about my shoes since what I really wanted was a pair of skinny Pumas. When my parents and I scoured the nearest Payless, the Pumas were 90 dollars– and Asics it would be for me that year.

Maybe Toseph gave me something good that year, I began to think.

As much as the current feminist in me dreads to say it, Toseph gave me a little bit of confidence to keep going– whether he intended to or not. And while Toseph did make me believe something quite scary (that Asics are a fashion statement), he made me believe something beautiful as well: that I was a darn cool 11-year-old regardless of my shoes.

And for that, Toseph, I thank you.

A Story Too Scary

Any basic scary story growing up involved the typical monster under the bed, or the boogey man in the closet. Although these didn’t scare me as much, I would still check my room before sleeping, to make sure I was safe. Being alone in your room, in the dark, though, is completely different than when having a sleepover with your friends. When I was younger, any time someone had a successful sleepover, a scary story was told late at night to keep the adrenaline at a peak as the sugar high wore off. At sleepovers, I was usually the one telling the scary stories. The classic, Bloody Mary or Redrum (spoiler: spelled backwards it’s murder) were my go-to classics to freak out my friends. Although telling these stories was fun for me, the scary story I couldn’t shake as a kid transpired from the movie: When a Stranger Calls.  

For those of you who are unaware of the plot, the story focuses on a high school girl who is babysitting two kids in a giant house in the middle of nowhere. The parents pay her to watch television and the kids are already sleeping when she gets there. Sounds like easy money, right? Oh, you’re so wrong.  

The babysitter gets creepy calls from a guy all throughout the night. His voice is scratchy and chilling, especially to me, as a thirteen-year-old girl watching this for the first time. He nefariously whispers questions through the phone like: “why do you have the lights turned off?” Or, “have you checked on the children?”  

Can you imagine being in the middle of nowhere, in someone else’s home, and a psychopath is somewhere out there watching you? That is equally as terrifying to me now as compared to when I first watched the movie. The babysitter calls 911, which I would do too, and they say if she can get this freak to talk to her for a certain amount of time, they can trace the call. So, the babysitter finally gets the psycho to talk for over a minute by asking him questions back, and come to find out he is in the house. This may sound lame to those who watch hardcore horror films, but as someone who grew up making her money through babysitting gigs, you can only imagine my dismay after finding out the killer is in the house. I was the babysitting guru back in my day, but after that movie, I changed to walking dogs during the day.  

After When a Stranger Calls came out, I swore off scaring my friends with my own shuddering stories. To this day, this is the tale that still frightens me. Although I don’t have sleepovers with my friends anymore, if I ever were in a situation that prompted scary stories, this particular one would be off limits. 

 

Things I used to be Afraid of or: Teen Wolf lied to me about what to expect with my public school experience with werewolves

I used to be terrified of the idea of things coming to life from my nightmares and walking around with me during the day. I would dress in my red, green, and black plaid jumper uniform, with a white button-down shirt and red snap-tie, and head into elementary school like everything was normal in the aftermath of a nightmare. In the watery sunshine of a Hampton morning, fog rolling in off the James River into the backyard, “older kids’ playground,” things seemed just a bit unreal every morning. It was just surreal enough to look like the opening to a fairy tale that nightmares seemed a plausible reality. Things would start to appear in the corner of my eye, the candles at mass seemed to jump and flicker just a bit more than usual when I walked by, and I kept thinking that someone was calling my name when no one was, keeping me in a perpetual half-turn. 

I have a vivid memory from when I was a kid about walking downstairs after a nightmare to get a glass of water. I walked into the kitchen after carefully walking across the creaky hardwood floor in front of the stairs, and just happened to look out the big floor-to-ceiling panel windows that looked out into the side-yard. There, perched in-between the softly swaying pines and bushy mint stalks, was a big, black, furry thing with glowing, red eyes, and what I’m sure were huge teeth. At this point my brain was screaming at me to FORGET THE WATER KID LET’S GO, but for some reason I stood there and stared at it until it lumbered off. Thus satisfied, I quickly walked-maybe ran-upstairs to bed and promptly fell back asleep.  

I had an active imagination as a kid. I read a lot of books that I probably should have waited until I was just a touch older to read. But, somewhere around sixth grade I had a revelation, and I’m not entirely sure but, I’m placing the blame squarely on Stephanie Meyer’s crappy writing shoulders with all the Twilight hype that was going on–all terrible middle school ideas should be her fault. Anyway, I had this idea that things only became nightmares because there was no one to love them wherever they were, you know, trapped in the liminal space between alive and somehow not, all alone in the dark only to interact with people in their nightmares.  

So, it became my little sixth grade mission to lucid dream in my nightmares and try to hug creepy demon-monster things, and then during the day try to put out enough “I am a happy and loving person who totally will be friends with anyone who needs one” out into the ether. I’m not sure if it worked or not, but I haven’t had many nightmares since then. I do sometimes catch myself skating my eyes over the corners of rooms, and almost turning to respond to someone saying my name.  

The Heart and Soul of James Madison University