Tyler Reeves was five years old when his parents accidentally forgot him after a family hike. A local farmer would find the boy dazed and dehydrated, wandering a dried out stream alone. The man would feed and comfort the youngster, caring for him until his parents returned. After the ordeal, Tyler would be fine, for the most part. But when he returned home, Tyler would bring something back, a mysterious condition that would remain with him forever, something that would remind him of the time he was left behind.
The elevator doors dinged loudly, audible even from my unit two-thirds of the way down the hall. A few of the neighbors complained over the years. One even broke her lease early, moving out because the loud, constant noise gave her migraines. Maintenance tried to fix it on numerous occasions but could never figure out how to do it.
I’m glad the elevator remained as loud as it did. Because it always gave me a heads up, six seconds to be precise, that Naomi Donovan could be passing by my apartment at any moment. I was always disappointed when it wasn't her, when a door closer to the elevator banks opened and closed. Or when it was Mrs. Smith passing by after a leisurely stroll with her two poodles. She lived at the far end of the hall and walked her dogs several times every day.
I remember the time Naomi stopped right in front of my unit. I watched her through the peep hole. She had been chatting on her cell phone when she stopped to fish something out of her purse. I didn't breathe the whole two and a half minutes that she stood there. I should have yanked open the door, said something witty and invited her in for a cocktail. But I chickened out.
We had actually shared the elevator on several occasions. I never said anything to her though, not even a “hello, is it me you’re looking for,” as Lionel Richie might have done. That’s because she always had company with her. One year it was a football player, a cornerback for the New York Jets. Big deal, the guy wasn't even a starter. Another year it was a point guard for the Knicks. I guess those are the types of guys you date when you’re a super model. You might recognize her. She is in almost every Victoria Secret’s catalog. In the most recent issue, she’s on nine separate pages, not that I’m counting or anything creepy like that.
So that brings me to “the day,” as in the best day of my life. Better than the day I caught my first foul ball. Better than the day I passed the bar. So why was it so great? Because that was the day I got stuck in the elevator for three hours with, you guessed it, Naomi Donovan.
I had returned from the corner market with groceries — wine, cheese and crackers for a work party later in the evening. The elevator had begun to close when I heard someone shouting to hold it. I did, and it turned out to be Naomi, alone. The elevator jerked suddenly shortly after passing the fifteenth floor. We heard a high pitched buzz and then a loud pop. The elevator shut down right after that. So what happens when you’re stuck in an elevator with the most beautiful woman on the planet? Not much besides silence, at least for the first fifteen minutes.
But then Naomi smiled, and that quickly put me at ease. We chatted. We laughed. We shared my bottle of wine. I had no cups with me so we drank straight from the bottle, as if it was high school again. My buddies and I would pass around a bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill on Friday nights, in the park behind the high school.
Naomi managed to stay awake as I rambled on about life as an attorney. She opened up to me about how strenuous it had been to balance medical school and modeling. You read that correctly. So that’s why it was the best day my life, by a landslide. And by the end of the three hours, we were no longer strangers. I might even say we became friends. I just had to do one thing — suppress a dark secret, an affliction that dated back to my childhood. “Please no,” I pleaded to myself. “You can control it. Concentrate. Keep the monster inside.”
I should explain how this all unfolded, how a deep darkness from my childhood became a permanent part of me. I had no choice in the matter. It’s something that just happened. But why me? It’s a question I've asked myself hundreds of times over the years. I was only five years old when it happened.
I grew up in San Diego, California, the youngest of four boys. I had three older brothers, all obnoxious nitwits that constantly picked on me. It essentially started from the moment I left my mother’s womb. She would do her best to protect me, constantly yelling at them and demanding they stop harassing their little brother. But that only egged them on more. They’d say sorry, but start right back up the moment she left the room.
My father traveled all the time for work as a regional delivery man. He’d be on the road five or six days a week, hauling a truck full of encyclopedias to grocery stores scattered across the western United States. You remember encyclopedias right? You’d get the first volume from the local Stater Bros. for a penny. The remaining twenty five volumes in the set would each cost four or five bucks. Of course my dad was too cheap to actually buy a set. So we never knew what happened after the letter “A.”
When he would return home on the weekends, my father would force us all to get together. “Family is everything,” he’d tell us. But he’d be so exhausted from all the driving that he usually just passed out on the couch, leaving me stuck in a small living room at the mercy of my three older brothers. The torture continued for nearly half a decade, until the day of the family hike at Lake Morena County Park. It’s a nature preserve on the outskirts of a national forest about an hour’s drive outside San Diego.
We left early on a Saturday morning, taking three separate cars. My youngest brother, Toby, had an audition for a TV commercial later that afternoon. So he and my mom drove together and would leave the outing a bit early. My dad took the second car, with my brother, Tate, accompanying him. I rode with my oldest brother, Taylor. He had just received his driver’s license the month before the family outing.
There isn't much to tell about the actual hike, unless you’re dying to learn the names of a bunch of different plants. I didn't think so. The return hike is where things got fuzzy. To this day, it’s still unclear who messed up. My vote goes to Taylor. I rode with him there, I’d return home with him, plain and simple. Except he claimed we all agreed I would head back with my father instead. Why that would be the case made no sense at all. During the trek back, my dad had his face buried in a sheet of paper, the schedule for the following week’s deliveries. So of course he denied any such conversation ever taking place. My mom was pissed at both of them.
I had been watching a pack of lizards chasing each other around a rock when I fell behind the group. I was no more than a hundred feet back. But when I arrived at the parking lot, all the cars were gone. I remembered spotting a ranger station a quarter of a mile before the lizards, so I headed straight there.
I must have missed a turn or two, because I ended up off the trail, really far off. Thirty minutes in, nothing looked familiar. An hour later, every direction looked the same. I shouted and screamed. Nothing. I started to get dizzy. Panic began to set in. My throat dried up as my yells faded, eventually turning into total silence. I’d lost my voice. Sweat poured down my face.
I’m not sure how much time had passed when a man stumbled upon me. He spoke a little English but it was hard to understand him through the thick accent. He introduced himself as Achak, and looked to be about eighty years old. The man appeared quite frail, his bones visible through his loose, heavily-tanned skin. He was anything but weak though. He flung me over his left shoulder and carried me to his house five miles away, all while leading a pair of goats with his free hand.
When we arrived at his house, Achak gently set me down on a bamboo cot. His wife, Aponi, placed a wet towel across my forehead before heading to the kitchen. A dozen small children gathered around to look at me, laughing and prodding me with sharp wooden sticks. They scurried away when Aponi returned. She set a hand woven bowl down on the floor and helped me sit up. I’m not sure what she fed me but I was starving so I devoured all of it. Some sort of cornmeal perhaps? I could also taste pine nuts and a sprinkling of fish. Salmon maybe? And a faint taste of pumpkin.
I scarfed it all down as Aponi smiled and nodded proudly. I passed out shortly after the last bite. When I woke up, I was back in my bed at home. I had a stomach ache that hurt like nothing I had felt before. My tummy growled and hissed, and I was certain something living was inside of me, something placed there by Aponi.
I wanted to know what she did to me. But I never saw her nor Achak again. Return trips to find their home all ended in failure, as if their house never existed. But that’s how it happened. Aponi placed a beast inside of me, a monster that would stay with me for the rest of my life.
The demon exposed itself for the first time at dinner on the second night after I had returned home. I had not eaten a thing in over thirty-six hours, Aponi’s mysterious creation still keeping my stomach full. The entire family had gathered around the dinner table to celebrate my brother’s acting debut.
Over seven hundred kids had auditioned for a measly six spots, and Toby was one of the lucky half dozen selected. He would appear in a television spot for one of those hybrid arcade-pizza joints. All the talk at supper was about Toby becoming a big star. Not one word was directed at me, no “are you feeling better?” or “we’re glad to have you home.”
About half way through our meal, I accidentally dropped my napkin onto the floor. It happened when I leaned over to pick it up. A fart. Except it wasn't a fart. It was something worse, something much more diabolical escaping from my anus. It took approximately eight seconds for the aroma to spread throughout the room. And when it did, hell had officially been unleashed.
“What the fuck is that?” screamed Tate.
Confusion swept across my father’s face as he inhaled deeply, uncertain whether it was a dead mouse or a carton of spoiled milk left out in the scorching sun. Maybe it was both. My mom looked under the table, ordering each of us to lift up our shoes for inspection. But there was no visible evidence. The mystery remained unsolved. I kept my mouth shut, avoiding responsibility for the outburst left behind. The smell eventually went away.
Later that night, I crawled into my bedroom closet and tried it again. Nothing happened at first. I was about to leave the closet when I heard the hissing sounds, the moan of a gargled evil spirit whispering “let me out.” It was a bad idea to try it in my closet. I know that now. The smell of death quickly filled the tight space. My eyes instantly watered, the tears burning my face like acid. I kicked the door open and crawled out, gasping for air.
I began to fade out of consciousness as I struggled towards my bed. The room began to spin, and when it stopped, I fell onto my back. I stared straight up at the ceiling. But all I could see was Aponi’s smiling face, nodding at me once again. When I closed my eyes and reopened them, Aponi was gone, replaced by a ceiling fan turning slowly, mockingly.
Two weeks later, we headed to the pizza arcade to watch and support Toby. The finished commercial would only last thirty-seconds. But it took over seven hours to shoot it, and we remained there for every single minute. Sometime during the afternoon, as I returned from the bathroom, I heard the cries of a young girl. I peeked around a corner to see a girl with pigtails standing at the entrance of a plastic ball pit. A boy guarded the entrance as four other boys swam atop the rainbow colored balls inside the netted play area. “No stupid girls are allowed,” the boy proclaimed, his hand help up high, symbolizing stop. “You’re a stupid girl.”
I watched for several minutes as the standoff continued. The girl didn't leave and the boy refused to budge. I expected the girl’s mother or father to stroll up at any minute, opening up a can of whip ass on the rotten brat. But no one showed up so I cautiously approached.
“Hey, do you want to join us and play with our balls?” asked the boy. It wouldn't be until years later that I learned there were probably a dozen better ways to ask that question. I nodded, and the guardian stepped to the side to let me enter. He quickly slid back in front of the entrance, reassuming a position to block the little girl. I didn't even want to be in the ball pit. I stood in the center of the play pen and watched the girl wipe away tears. And that’s when I decided I would use my power for good.
I closed my eyes and took three deep breaths, then unleashed my fury. It quickly cleared out the pit. One boy screeched in pain as he stumbled over the balls trying to escape. I extended by right foot and tripped him, forcing him to marinade in my toxic aroma for a few extra moments. When all the boys had departed, I edged towards the entrance. “Would you like to join me?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the girl, an ear-to-ear grin spread widely across her face. “Thank you very much. You are so sweet.”
I returned a smile and extended my hand, helping her climb inside. The stench immediately crushed her like a brick wall. I should have waited for the air to clear before inviting her in. The girl gagged twice before vomiting all over the ball pit. I suppose I didn't really think that one through.
It took years to refine my craft. I learned how to increase and decrease the intensity of my leave behinds. I could control the duration of the stink. What I ate, how I dressed and the degree to which I squeezed my cheeks together all had an impact. If I pressed two fingers into the side of my stomach, the end result was something the NSA could no doubt categorize as a weapon of mass destruction. I mostly used my power for good, like sticking up for the young girl I told you about earlier. But with power comes responsibility, and there were times I lost sight of that.
There was the incident in college during my sophomore year. I had a Politics in Russia midterm on a Friday morning. The night before the exam, I had barricaded myself in my dorm room, intent on pulling an all-nighter. But as soon as I popped on a pair of headphones, I heard a knock at my door. Jake, a neighbor two doors down, stood at the threshold with his little sister visiting from Maine.
“Oh, hey Tyler. What’s up? Sorry, did we interrupt you?” asked Jake.
“No, not at all. Sorry, I had music blasting in my ears. Nothing like Metallica to pump you up for midterms,” I said confidently. I lied. It wasn't Metallica, but rather a Cover Girls and Bananarama mix tape. Of course I couldn't say that.
“Nice. This is my sister, Olivia. She’ll be a freshman here next year, so I’m giving her a little taste of college life. Dutch’s little sis is here too. We’re gonna have a get together later if you want to swing by.”
“Thanks, Jake. I’d love to, but I have to jam for this test. Nice to meet you, Olivia. I hope you have fun during your visit.”
At around 10:00 p.m., I left my room to drop a deuce, the Hot Pocket from dinner sitting in my gut like a two ton steel anchor. But instead of taking the long route as I should have, I walked right past Jake’s room. Even though he had closed the door, I could hear voices inside, the sounds of multiple females laughing. I stood there for several seconds, contemplating whether to knock. Just as I turned to walk away, the wooden door swung open.
“Bro-seph Stalin,” Jake shouted. “Get your hairy ass in here. We’re doing Vodka shots.”
I peeked into the room. Olivia smiled and waved me in with her finger. Okay, one shot won’t hurt, I told myself. And one shot didn't. Nor did two. But shot number three did, as well as beers one through six.
The next morning, I would drag myself out of bed twenty minutes before the midterm, chasing down four Tylenol with two Mountain Dews. My brain throbbed and I couldn't keep a single thought organized in my head. If I bombed the midterm, which accounted for 40 percent of the grade, I’d be royally screwed.
So I did it. As the teacher’s assistant walked up the aisle handing out the exam, I pressed two fingers into my side. A few moments later, my airborne leave behind had reached epic proportions, affecting classmates seated a good ten rows away. A guy on the water polo team began to dry heave. It snowballed from there. In all, nineteen students gave up their breakfast that morning. The professor postponed the test, an exam I’d score a 98 on two days later.
The worst episode took place at Toby’s wedding, when I served as a groomsman. It was the first wedding of the four Reeve’s boys, so I wasn’t about to spoil it. I made sure I had cleared the magazine clip of all the bullets. I monitored what I ate in the week leading up to the nuptials. I practiced my breathing exercises. And everything would have worked out, if Taylor had not botched his best man duties.
Up until Taylor’s screw up, the wedding day had been splendid. An early morning rain moved on with little negative impact, leaving behind beautiful blue skies and 70 degree weather. The flowers were gorgeous. During the ceremony, all Taylor had to do was reach into his inside suit pocket and pull out the ring and carefully hand it to Toby. But no. As soon as he removed it from his jacket, it slipped from his clutches and tumbled to the ground. It rolled several feet away, stopping when it hit the tip of my left shoe. I didn’t think anything of it. I just instinctively bent over and reached down to pick up the ring. There must have been a bullet left in the chamber that I somehow missed.
Maybe it would be just a trickle, I hoped, something fairly innocuous. Of course not. It ended up leaving a massive trail of destruction, demolishing everyone in close range like a category 5 hurricane with a chip on its shoulder. I remember the image of Toby’s wife. Meredith shot me a death stare, a look as vivid today as it was the day of their wedding. Two of bridesmaids passed out, one receiving a concussion when she hit her head on the second step. I kept apologizing profusely, insisting it wasn't intentional. But no one would hear of it. The entire wedding party ignored me the rest of the night. And for three years after the incident, I was omitted from Toby and Meredith’s holiday card mailing.
Meredith eventually came around. A few years later, I would represent her in an unlawful termination suit. It netted her court awarded damages in the mid-six figures. She went to a competitor the following year. Eighteen months after that, her new company acquired the one from which she had been wrongly fired. She would also grow apart from the concussed bridesmaid, something about the friend criticizing Meredith for not breastfeeding her children. These days Meredith says I’m her favorite brother-in-law. In fact when her firm scored World Series tickets, she took me instead of Toby, who stayed home and watched their three formula-fed kids.
There I was, fortuitously stuck in an elevator with Naomi Donovan. I’d managed to keep things in check, my body cooperating during the most important day in my life. The first hour flew by without even a whimper from my gastrointestinal furnace. I felt comfortable, completely at ease. Naomi edged in closer, her hair gently brushing against my cheek when she reached across me to grab the wine bottle. Pure magic.
About fifteen minutes into the second hour, something happened. A small twitch. Nothing major, really no big deal. I could handle it. The temptation was to scratch it, but I knew better. So I angled onto my side and the feeling went away. “You can control it. Concentrate. Keep the monster inside,” I reminded myself.
As we passed the two hour mark, a soothing voice boomed in from above, though the intercom speaker. “Hello, are you folks okay?” I could have sworn it was Morgan Freeman.
“Yes, we’re fine,” Naomi and I said in unison. She looked at me and smiled again before bursting out in laughter. The wine gave both of us the giggles.
“Okay, we’ll send over a service technician to your building shortly. A major transformer wiped out the entire zip code, so please be patient. We’ll get to you as soon as we can.”
“Take your slow, sweet time,” I said to myself. Except it wasn't in my head. I had said it out loud. Naomi grabbed the bottle and laughed again, apparently in agreement with my sentiment.
Things deteriorated as we approached the third hour. I should have relaxed my body when things started to go sideways. But the more I thought about it, the worse it got. I tried to will the demon away. Just this one time, I begged. Dig deep. Fight hard.
“Hello again, folks. I have an update for you,” said Mr. Freeman. “We’re at the building next door now. We just need to reset their mechanicals and your building will be next. Estimated time of completion is about fifteen minutes.”
You can do it, Tyler. Just hold on a little longer.
And then it happened, an unbearable and disgusting smell that quickly enveloped the tight quarters. It reeked of a port-a-potty, after three days of Lollapalooza. Yet the smell was strangely unfamiliar, the sensation as well. Or the lack thereof. A subtle vibration. A tiny seepage of air. The intense and rapid contraction of ass muscles. Those were the trademarks of my leave behinds. But shockingly, none of them preceded the nauseating odor.
And that’s when I glanced over at Naomi’s face, flush red. And I knew. What was left behind wasn't from me — It had come from her. She froze, becoming still as a statue. She covered her face with both hands, unable to look at me. I gently pried her soft hands away from her face. I smiled, trying to reassure her that it was okay, that I understood. “It’s fine. It’s not a big deal, really.”
“I’m sorry,” said Naomi, finally speaking. “I’m so embarrassed. I just started a new diet. I guess my body hasn't adapted so well to kale and seaweed.”
“It’s okay,” I reiterated. I tried to push out one of my own, to show her what I was capable of doing. Both nothing. Zilch. What happened next was unclear. I remember my vision blurring and my nostrils burning. After that I blacked out.
I woke up alone in my apartment, in my own bed, donning clean clothes. I walked out into an empty living room. I wanted to rush out into the hallway, to see if the elevator was working. Or maybe knock on Naomi’s door and see how she was doing. But I began to feel dizzy and light-headed, so I plopped down onto the couch. I had just turned on the TV when I heard a flush in the bathroom. A few seconds later, the door opened and Naomi emerged.
“Oh, hi. You’re up. How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I feel good,” I answered. I lied. I felt horrible.
“There’s some Advil and bread on the counter. And I put some milk in the fridge. That should help with your stomach. I should get going.”
“Hey Naomi?” I asked, as she reached for the handle of the front door. “I enjoyed spending time with you tonight. Can I see you again?”
She walked towards me, leaned over the couch and kissed me on the cheek. “I would love to…” she said. I could feel a “but” coming, expecting her to tell me she had just started dating a Hollywood heart throb, an Avenger or the new Batman. “But I’m moving out tomorrow. My parents are coming in from Boston and we’re driving out to San Francisco. I start my residency a week from Monday.”
My heart stopped, and the happiness from the night vanished, replaced instead by a crock pot full of emptiness and sad face emojis. I had nothing to say. I couldn't even muster a “congratulations” or a “good luck.” She waved at me one last time before closing the door behind her. I would probably never see her again, I thought. But for three wonderful hours, I had the best day of my life.
That epic day was ten years ago, today. So what happened to Naomi? I flew out to visit her the following winter. A couple of visits after that, we started dating exclusively. We’d see each other about once a month. When she finished her residency, she remained in Northern California, joining a private practice as a pediatrician. Two months after I moved in with her, I took a job as in-house counsel for a dot com start-up. I proposed the weekend after my first week on the job and we got married in the Caymans sixteen months later. We have a son named Mitchell and are expecting our first daughter in the spring.
“Come on, honey,” I begged as I continued to get my ass kicked in a game of Connect Four by a five year old. “We named Mitchell after your great grandfather. At least let me name our daughter, please?”
“No, dear,” Naomi said adamantly as she kissed the top of head. She handed a black checker to Mitchell, who dropped it into the middle slot to win yet another game. He sprinted off to the kitchen to mark down a seventh consecutive win against daddy.
“I guess you love don’t me,” I replied sarcastically.
“No, I do love you honey, very much in fact. But we’re still not naming our daughter, Aponi.”