Writing the 58EX23 Universal Remote Control Manual vs Vampire Bat Boy Comics
“Horse, Mom’s dead.” I listened to my sister CJ’s voice crack on the phone. These words shook me even though I knew Mom’s death was inevitable. Cancer cares nothing of its victims.
When I was a boy I hated my first name. My sister had a lisp and called me Horse instead of Horace. I didn’t mind; As I grew up I thought it was cool. Now I just use the initial H. and go by my middle name, H. Wayne Richards. However, to my family, I’m still a boy called Horse.
I write technical manuals. If you own a 58EX23 Universal Remote Control, then you have probably read my work. However, when I was a boy I wrote comic books and believed in monsters. You want to hear something creepy? When I was a boy I remember a vampire sitting on my bed, his big eyes staring down on me. I discussed this with my shrink, Dr. Lynn, just months ago. After my last divorce (I’ve been through two) I needed help. We talked about many things including my vampire.
“Have you ever heard of sleep paralysis?” She asked.
“No, but my last ex said I had sleep apnea and wished I would just stop breathing altogether and wake up dead.” I waited for a response from Dr. Lynn who stared at me like a Zombie not finding any brains. She has no sense of humor. I responded, “Mom said I had night terrors when I was a kid.”
“How is your Mother, by the way?”
“Her cancer came back.”
“Her cancer came back.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Life sucks, but you don’t get an orgasm at the end.” Again, she showed not a hint of smile.
She sort of affirmed my sense humor, “Ok, you are always free to express yourself here.”
“Thank you.” I paused, “So, you were saying about night terrors and sleep paralysis.”
“They are both sleep disorders. Sleep paralysis is a sign that your body is not moving smoothly through the stages of sleep. It occurs when you are falling asleep or waking up and you experience an inability to move or speak. It is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations.”
I leaned forward, sitting on the edge of the couch. “Really? There is something like that?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact it is relatively common, cross-cultural, and there is even classic art that illustrates.” She tapped a few times on her iPad and turned her tablet around so I could see the images of the drawings and paintings. They were mostly paintings of women sprawled out on a bed with demonic creatures hovering near or sitting on their chests. “It is very well documented.”
I carefully looked at the images. “One of these looks like my ex; not the woman, the demon.” I chuckled to myself and the therapist looked at me dispassionately. “Just an inside joke,” I told her. I sat back and we continued to talk about sleep paralysis as I related my experience as a child, feeling a vampire sitting on my chest.
“What did you eat before you went to bed?”
“Usually a glass of milk and a cookie.” Mom was a great baker.
She smiled then asked, “Did you have a cat?”
“Jinx,” I laughed and nodded. Jinx stayed in trouble but he belonged to my sister CJ and the family treasured him except for Mom. He got into things and that irritated Mom.
“There’s an old wives’ tale about cats stealing babies’ breath.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that.”
“They have actually recorded cats sniffing sleeping babies’ mouths.”
“That almost sounds like a felony.”
“You know what they’re sniffing?”
“Since they aren’t dog it must be the milk breath. Aww, the milk. Jinx. Sleep paralysis. It was a mix of Jinx and sleep paralysis that created my vampire? That makes sense.” I realized then that I wasn’t a crazy kid. It wasn’t my Dad’s books. I smiled broadly. “Damn, that’s a relief.”
After my sister’s call I turned off my phone and tried not to cry. Mom was a good woman. She was very devout, yet someone who laughed and had fun. Somehow she held our fragile family together, interceding with Dad, mediating between our sibling rivalry. Mom never failed to answer my phone calls, to listen to me bitch, and to still love me despite my screw ups. She never judged me. Then the cancer came back. Dad had just retired from the firm. Poor Dad. She was everything to him, too.
So, except for knowing that my vampire was a melding of sleep paralysis and our cat, all else in my life was broken. My boyhood dreams about writing comic books, and fantasy stories turned into a college degree, and while I wrote my stories, no one picked them up. I found I had a knack for writing manuals, obviously, a few stray genes from my dad’s chromosomal contribution. I made decent money. But I hated it. That anger led to my two divorces, at least per Dr. Lynn.
Six months after CJ’s call I met my brother and sister at the house (the bungalow we grew up in) to go through Mom’s stuff. Dad didn’t want to deal with it; he just sat in the living room watching ESPN and snoozing. CJ had already been through Mom’s things in the bedroom. We were upstairs in the partially finished attic. Mom kept everything, but didn’t let it clutter her life downstairs. It was boxed and stored upstairs. Every box we opened revealed memories. CJ was sitting at Ralphie’s old school desk looking through photo albums and old jewelry. She was crying and laughing, reminiscing. CJ looked a lot like Mom, who resembled Barbara Billingsley. CJ, like me, inherited the family fat genes, but managed to stay only a few pounds overweight by constantly dieting. She looked good for her age. I looked like shit. I resembled George R. R. Martin, except, by comparison, he looks like a lady’s man.
“Mom was sure organized for a hoarder,” Ralphie said. Ralphie was the splitting image of Dean Koontz, except his hair was sandy colored and he had a fashionable goatee. Dad wore the same hair style he had when he left the air force, just thinner and whiter.
“She was a sentimentalist,” CJ said. “Remember this?” She pulled out a photo of when we were kids, CJ an awkward 12-year-old, me 10 and Ralphie a rascally 8. We were holding badminton rackets. “You two got into a lot of trouble that day.”
“Me? Horse’s anger issues. Can you still see the scar?” Ralphie pointed to his eyebrow.
“It was just two stitches,” I countered.
“No, it was six and back then I had a smaller face.”
CJ laughed, “Mom was so angry, she and dad ran Ralphie to the hospital and left Horse with me. That wasn’t fun.”
“When Dad got home I got a whooping worse than that little scratch deserved.”
“You deserved it,” Ralphie said. We emptied and repacked boxes as we quizzed CJ what to keep, what to toss and what to give away to the Salvation Army.
“You can’t see it anymore,” CJ said; “it doesn’t mess with your dashing good looks.”
“They could have airbrushed it from your picture on the back of your books anyway.”
“Oooo,” CJ laughed and changed the subject. “You know, Jinx loved it up here.”
“Crazy cat,” Ralphie responded. “You remember when he pounced on Horse’s birthday cake. What was on that cake that spooked him?”
“It was scarabs.”
“Yeah, I remember beetles on the cake. One of your better ideas, big brother.”
“I was into Egyptology at the time. Mom always encouraged our imaginations. She found beetle shaped candy molds somewhere and put the candies on the top of the cake. Jinx attacked it.”
“Mom cried,” Ralphie said. I looked up over at Ralphie and for some reason he was tearing up.
“It wasn’t that bad. She didn’t kill the cat; it died of natural causes years ago.”
“Forget it,” Ralphie said.
CJ left the desk and walked over to him, “What’s wrong?”
“I miss Mom that’s all. We talked every week you know, always. And she never judged me, always loved me. That’s all. And I liked that stupid cat.” He forced a laugh to suppress the tears.
I opened a box. “My comic books!” Each of them was preserved in Mylar. My siblings gathered around.
“I remember those,” my sister chided. Ralph said he didn’t remember. That surprised me. He pestered me all the time about my comics. We leafed through them.
“These are good,” Ralph said. He too became a writer, but a successful one. Along the way he garnered a strong education, ending with a Ph.D. in English. The lucky bastard sold his work (all stuff-shirt literary fiction drivel) and landed himself a tenured position in a small college in Vermont, far away from Birmingham. He looked at me, “Seriously, Horse, these are good. You got anything else?”
“I got piles of bullshit all with matching rejection form letters.”
“I thought you were a technical writer.”
“I hate it; it’s not my dream.”
“So, you want to write graphic novels?”
“Ralphie, I write all kinds of stuff, just no literary criticism.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Maybe I can help.”
“Tell you what, that I never measured up to you? I don’t want your help. I can do it myself.”
CJ broke her silence. She was looking through the books too. “Seriously, Horse, this is good. And I remember when you wrote these. I thought they were good back then. Don’t call it crap.”
“I didn’t. I called it shit.”
Ralph ignored me and agreed with CJ. “Really, this is good. Mom knew it was too. Look how she kept it.” We closed the box and set it aside. The next box was full of notebooks. No comics this time.
“Look at these,” Ralphie rifled through them. Most of the spiral bound colored notebooks belonged to Ralphie and CJ. Ralphie’s were a mix of school notebooks and his own stories written in elementary, middle and high school. About half a dozen were CJ’s old notebooks from high school. They were filled with doodles of hearts and various initials CJ +.
“You certainly got around,” I teased.
“Shut up,” she responded. Ralphie pointed to a CJ + JC on a physical science notebook cover.
“Was that Jimmy Clouse?” I asked.
“I bet it was,” Ralphie interrupted. “Horse, do you remember Jimmy? He wanted to be a cop, and his first week on the job shot himself in the ass”
“Bottom,” CJ corrected.
“Whatever. Anyway, he discharged his firearm while drunk as a skunk in a bar downtown. He fired the sucker right into his…” he looked over at CJ, “bottom. They fired him the next morning!”
“Yeah, I seem to remember that,” I laughed.
“It was hysterical. Damn CJ, he was a real loser.”
“He was cute in high school and nice before he found booze. And I didn’t marry him.”
“Handsome but as intelligent as a rock.” The banter continued with each set of initials.
CJ pulled out a smaller notebook: “What’s this one?”
“That’s mine,” Ralphie grabbed it from her and I then snatched it from Ralphie.
“Poetry,” I said as I flipped through it. “Damn, Ralphie, this is really sappy.”
“I was like 9 or 10. It was a book of poetry for Mom’s birthday.”
“That was very sweet. I don’t remember it,” CJ said.
“I told mom not to tell you two,” Ralphie said. I closed the book and gave it back to him.
Pulling out a ratty notebook out of a big envelope, Ralphie asked, “And what’s this?” It was covered with various cartoons. “Can we guess who this belonged to? And it got its own envelope.”
I grabbed it from him, and leafed through. It was mostly white pages. “I started a journal back when I was a kid.”
“So you wrote more than cartoons.”
“What’s in it?” CJ asked.
I found a long entry. “Damn, it’s about the vampire.”
“Don’t say ‘damn’. Respect Mom.”
“What about ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’?” Ralphie asked.
“Stop it. Read it to us, Horse.”
“Nah, it’s stupid.” It was stupid, about the vampire, my night terror.
“Come on, Horse,” Ralphie pleaded, “read it to us.” They both begged, then demanded.
“You two aren’t going quit, are you?”
“No,” they said in unison.
“It’s about a night paralysis I had when I was a kid. It inspired my Vampire Bat Boy comic.”
“Come on Horse, read it.” So, I read:
I hate my name, Horace.
“Horace, you mean you are named Horace and we’ve called you Horse all our lives,” Ralphie knew I hated my name. “If I knew how much you hated it, I’d have called you Horace your whole life.”
“Shut up Moron.” I continued to read:
I would have a cool name if my parents named me Bruce. I’d love to be millionaire Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne is the disguise for Bat Man. Bat man has a bat cave, a cool car, a utility belt, and gets to be near cat woman. Mom said, “How does she get into those leather pants?” I thought, I have no idea but I like them. Mom said, “She’s my age.” That may be true but my mom ain’t no cat woman.
“Maybe we should ask, Dad, if Mom ever wore leather?” Ralphie asked.
“Oh God no,” CJ responded. Under her breath, “I did find some sexy nighties.”
“Don’t use God’s name in vain, CJ, and I don’t want to know that my Mom wore sexy lingerie. Go on, Horse.”
I’m writing this down hoping my vampire will disappear. I’d rather write about something else, like my comic book, Vampire Bat Boy. Yeah, cool, huh? In my Vampire Bat Boy book, his secret identity is Miami Dolphin quarterback Richard Wayne. That’s a cool name because it doesn’t have Horace in it.
“Too late to play professional football, Horse. You could be a blocking dummy!”
CJ interrupted Ralph, “Leave him alone, Ralphie. Go on, Horse [it almost sounded like Horace].”
I know a lot about vampires. I watch the X-Files and read one of my dad’s Stephen King books, Salem’s Lot. I also read one of his books called, Interview with a Vampire; it was written by a girl. Mom would kill me if she knew I read those books. They scare the crap out of me even though I know it’s pretend.
“Yeah,” CJ said, “Mom would have killed you. Thankfully you never found Dad’s girly books.”
“What? Dad had girly books? Where?” Ralphie interjected.
“In the garage. I found them one day cleaning. Do you remember that, Horse?”
“No.” I didn’t remember that at all. I continued to read without prompting.
I know you think that any boy named Horace and any boy who writes Vampire Bat Boy comic books is going to see vampires at night.
“No kidding, Sherlock,” Ralph interrupted and I ignored him.
That may be true, but I swear, cross my heart and hope to die, that I wasn’t sleeping. I was awake. Mom says, “When you don’t know what to do, and I’m not around to ask, pray.” Last night I screamed for Mom but my voice wouldn’t come out. So, I prayed. That didn’t work either.
“That’s because there must be a god for prayer to work,” Ralphie added.
“Don’t be blasphemous when going through Mom’s stuff.” CJ was frowning at Ralphie’s atheism.
I saw the vampire again last night. Everything was dark, and I was asleep. Then I woke up and he was there. At first I could just feel him. I couldn’t open my eyes; it was like someone squirted superglue in them. And I felt like I was tied to my bed. It was a vampire spell.
I felt his breath. I tried to scream but nothing came out. I prayed, “Dear Jesus, keep me safe from the vampire,” I felt him there, the vampire, not Jesus. He sat on my chest, I could barely breathe. There is a night light cross next to my bed, if only I could reach it. But I couldn’t move.
I peeked through squinted eyes; his big empty eyes stared back at me. I don’t think people know that vampires have huge eyes, to see in the dark. They have big gray heads, slit noses and small mouths. He just stared down at me never blinking. I kept screaming, but nothing came out. It seemed like forever. Then he was gone. I jumped out of bed, ran to the bathroom, peed, and then crept into my parents’ room. They were asleep. I checked on my little brother and big sister. They were asleep. Our cat Jinx followed me through the house. The vampire was gone. I returned to the bathroom, looked in the mirror and checked my neck for bite marks. There were no holes. Maybe vampires feed on my fear not blood.
“That’s scary shit for a little kid.”
“Watch the potty mouth.” Ralphie rolled his eyes at her. “Did you really check on us?” CJ asked.
“I don’t remember.”
“Did you say ‘potty mouth,’ Sis? You’re hysterical. How old were you, Horse?” Ralphie asked.
“I don’t remember.” I didn’t want to remember. I closed the notebook and we continued to
look through boxes. Neither of them talked about my vampire the rest of the night.
That night we stayed with Dad, bedding down in our old rooms. Ralphie ordered Chinese. We ate family style, steamed rice, pork, bamboo shoots and tofu, dumplings, and roasted duck.
Dad eventually pushed away from the table and stood, “I have something I want to share with ya’ll.” Out of the freezer he pulled out a plastic cool whip tub wrapped with cellophane. He reverently sat it on the table. Then he pulled out of the fridge a half gallon of milk in a glass bottle.
“Where’d you get bottled milk?” I asked.
“At a dairy farm down in Clanton. Reminds me of when I was a boy and the milkman came.” He smiled weakly, poured four glasses of ice cold milk and then unwrapped the tub. Inside were a dozen frozen cookies. The three of us stared at the contents as if they were shiny gold doubloons.
“Are these Mom’s?” CJ asked.
“Yeah, the last dozen.” We each took two, offering Dad a third one, which he refused. We each looked down on the cookies on the little saucers thawing in front of us. Dad’s eyes were closed. We talked as they thawed.
“God, she was a good baker,” Ralph said.
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Ralphie.”
“Connie Jean you sound like your mother.” We all laughed, knowing what Dad said was true, and because we had been teasing her all day. We were silent again. I’m sure we were all remembering Mom in the kitchen, baking cookies, singing, setting a plate aside with nine cookies, two for each of us and three for dad. She ate a sample cookie out of the oven, but never later. I remembered the warm cookie, soft in my mouth, the rich taste. I loved her peanut butter cookies, greasy, fork imprint on the top. We were all four lost in our own memories of Mom. These were chocolate chips.
“I have her recipes if either of you want them. I can email them to you.” We nodded to her.
“You do her proud, Connie. Let’s pack up and save the last four,” Dad said.
“Definitely,” Ralphie answered. We all began to eat our thawed cookies, each in our own ways. CJ broke them in half and then ate, I ate around the edges and then the soft center as the last bite. Ralphie and Dad dipped them identically into the milk savoring each bite. Ralphie looked like Dad.
“You want to play a game, Uno, Parcheesi, or something?” CJ asked.
“I’m tired. I’m going to bed,” Dad answered, he got up and left, leaving his mess. Mom would clean up, she always did.
“Pass, big sister. I have some reading to do before lights out,” Ralph said.
“I’m not up to play, but I’ll help you clean up,” I told CJ.
As we finished picking up, rinsing plates and putting them in the dishwasher, we talked, about nothing in particular, but mostly about Mom. We laughed as we cleaned up because Mom taught us to rinse the plates before putting them in the dishwasher. CJ quizzed me about my work, the last divorce and about my writing. “CJ I have tons of stuff. I’ve been writing all my life. I just need a break.”
“Why not pursue Vampire Bat Boy again? And why not let Ralphie help?”
“I don’t want his help. Do you really think it’s that good, seriously?”
“I don’t want his help. Do you really think it’s that good, seriously?”
“Yeah. It would be great middle school fiction. There’s a demand.”
“Maybe I’ll try again.”
“Bed time for me, Horse. I need to call Dale and the kids. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Mom had always told us that. We smiled at each other, hugged, sniffled, and then went to bed.
As I lay in my bed that night I drifted quickly into sleep. Sometime that morning, when it was still very dark, in the still, quiet, darkness, I felt him. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn’t. They were glued shut. I screamed. Nothing came out. I finally managed to open my eyes and I saw him, gray, oversized head, slit nostrils, thin narrow mouth, and large empty eyes staring down on me. Somehow I remembered my conversation with Dr. Lynn. It’s sleep paralysis. I’m hallucinating, milk and cookies. And that damn ca. . . Wait! There is no damn cat! I again tried to scream. And then I prayed, because Mom wasn’t there.