We lived in a two-story wooden house in a part of Berkeley where the tall shade trees were as old as the University of California itself.
I was a bookworm, the kind who would read with a flashlight under the covers after he was supposed to be asleep. Occasionally, I would be left alone at night, and I would lie on my stomach with my book propped on my pillow, immersed in fantasy as only an imaginative boy can be immersed in the creations of writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe.
My bed lamp hooked over the headboard was the only light on in the entire house, and my bed was like Robinson Crusoe's island.
Whenever I was home alone like that, I would hope I could enjoy my snug solitude until I heard our car outside, the front door opening downstairs, and had my evening of pleasure capped with a glass of milk and a peanut-butter-and-marmalade sandwich. But sometimes I was disturbed by noises I would try my best to ignore.
One of the noises was an eerie creaking – a prolonged ee-ee-ahh-ahh – which, try as I might, I couldn't help imagining was the sound of a secret door being opened by a hooded figure who shared the house with us and only came out when he knew I was alone.
There it was again – that ee-ee-ahh-ahh, so much like rusty hinges. And occasionally there was something much worse – the clump, clump, clump that seemed to be coming up the stairs. It was no good trying to retreat back into whatever I had been reading. The words under the glaring light bulb became as incomprehensible as hieroglyphics.
The ensuing silence was just as bad, because I kept listening even more intently for the next creak or clump, or imagining that whoever was making those noises had decided to be more careful so as not to alarm me. Then I might only hear a click or a tick ... or a tap.
I suffered through these episodes of terror for several years. But then one night – about the time I was entering puberty – something unexpected came over me, making me feel as if I were a different person. I suddenly became outraged at the thought that I should be trembling there in my own bed imagining creatures that not only had no business trespassing in my house – my house! – but probably didn't even exist.
I flung aside the covers, jumped out of bed, pulled my door open, and stomped out to the top of the stairway, ready to confront the worst and order it to be gone. "Present fears," as Shakespeare says, "are less than horrible imaginings." When we face our fears they shrink in size or turn out to have been nothing but illusions.
The staircase was empty. They were the same familiar, green-carpeted steps I had seen a million times before. With newfound courage, I skipped down to the landing, made a 90-degree turn, and continued to the bottom. Everything looked exactly the same as usual.
Without even switching on any lights, I turned right and walked through the living room with all its shadows and bulky furniture, through the dining room with its oval table surrounded by empty high-backed chairs, across the cold linoleum of our big kitchen in my bare feet, and back into the front hallway, which was furnished only with a little three-legged table and a tall free-standing antique coat rack nobody ever used. Everything was dark but friendly and familiar.
This was my home. All of it was mine. And any intruder had better watch out for me. I had come of age.
That house – with its generously proportioned rooms, its superfluous glass-front cabinets, its rows of long bookshelves filled with complete sets of venerable authors like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain as well as the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Harvard Classics, its cozy window seats, and its neighborly front porch – is still standing on the corner. But it has been converted to a rooming house for college students.
I used to see one boy silhouetted against the drawn blind, studying into the wee hours in my former bedroom on the top floor, and I wondered if he was ever troubled by weird sounds while reading something like "The Cask of Amontillado" or "The Fall of the House of Usher." I could have told him they were only the sounds of an old house growing older. The heavy beams could be forgiven for creaking under the weight they were supporting so faithfully. The squeaks and squeals, as I had long since realized, were only the protests of tenacious old iron nails being tugged by weathering lumber.
Only these and nothing more.