I try not to think about the past much, but when spring turns to summer, I can't help myself. Little things trigger it - the scent of suntan lotion, buzzing mosquitos, a cool breeze after a blistering day. And then I'm right back. I'm 12 years old, lying in the grass, overlooking the Moondance Drive-In Theatre.
It was 1993. I was an adopted kid with few friends in a quiet, Midwestern town. My adoptive father got transferred a lot, and we were on our fifth home in eight years. Eventually I quit trying with other kids. It was just easier that way. Moving towns was hard enough, but when the other kids found out that I was adopted...they were merciless. I was adopted when I was 4 years old, and I didn't know much about my own history - only that I lived in an orphanage the first few years of my life. My real parents were a mystery to me. My adoptive parents were hesitant to speak of them.
My classmates were always more than willing to fill in the blanks. Told me I was abandoned because I was evil. That I was my adoptive father's love child. That I wasn't a real son.But in that particular summer, it was okay. I had my headphones and my sketchbook - and I had the Moondance Drive-In. It was all I needed. The theatre was a short walk from my house - I only had to criss-cross through some yards, hike up a small hill, and I was overlooking the outdoor theatre through a cluster of trees. I couldn't see the films themselves - I was facing the back of the screen - but I was just in range of the theatre FM station. I tuned my Walkman radio to the correct frequency, and the soundtrack piped in.
Only having the sound of the movie made the experience more memorable. I'd lay back, listen to the story unfold, and sketch what I imagined on the screen in my notebook. Every now and then I'd sit up, gaze into the small valley below, and take it all in. Hundreds of cars lined up in rows, mattresses in pick-up truck beds, kids playing frisbee in a grassy patch off to the side. The aroma of buttery popcorn sometimes wafted up my way, and my stomach always rumbled. But I never went down there. I never actually saw the movies. I wasn't supposed to be there, and there was the chance I'd be caught.
My adoptive mother was very strict. If she knew I sneaked out after dark...there's no telling what she'd do. For as long as I knew her, my mother was cold and distant. There was always something bubbling right below the surface, and I spent years just waiting for her to snap. I never knew exactly why, but I was always on eggshells around her.
The Moondance Drive-In was my escape. Jurassic Park was released in early June, and it was so popular it played every weekend for months on end. It was always the first film in a double-bill, and I was there every Friday. Sprawled out on the sometimes damp grass, staring up at the stars, cheap foam covering my ears. It was my own private theatre of sound.
I got my routine down pat - retire to my bedroom at dusk, stuff pillows under my blanket, and slip out through my window around 9pm. I always made it to the top of the hill right around the part in the movie when the grandkids arrived at the visitor's center. I'd stay through the end credits, then I'd head down the hill, sneak through the same yards, and climb back through my window. The perfect crime. There was something magical about Jurassic Park that always seemed to lift my spirits. The breakneck plot, the soaring score, the roars of the dinosaurs. And this was without ever seeing it and having no idea what happened the first thirty minutes of the film. But it didn't matter.
The experience was always thrilling. I'd clutch my cheap headphones to my ears and smile in awe and terror as the devastating footsteps of the Tyrannosaurus Rex rumbled throughout the park. I sketched a picture of that immense creature crushing a car with little stick figure children screaming, their arms poking out of the windows in horror. And even when I knew it was coming, the reverberating roar of the T-Rex always made me jump. My drawings improved, and my sketchbook was bursting with pictures of dinosaurs, some ferocious carnivores and others lumbering, peaceful beasts.
A flyer arrived in the mail sometime in mid-July. The Moondance Drive-In was having a promotion called "Film Roulette". On Thursday nights they'd play a "mystery film" - you'd have to show up to see what it was. I was falling in love with the Moondance, and it felt like that flyer was just for me. I was intrigued.
The first Thursday of the promotion I climbed the hill at 9pm, leaned back against a tree, and fired up my Walkman. The film was different - I'd never heard anything like it. At first, I thought I had the wrong frequency. All I heard was soft, carnival-esque music in the background and the sounds of a giggling child. I double-checked my Walkman - I had the right station. I peered down at the theatre, and I only saw a dozen or so cars. I spotted the tiny light from the projector in the small booth below, and I concluded it was just an odd film. Something foreign or an arthouse film, maybe.
After about twenty minutes of listening, the laughing of the child subsided, and the carnival music slowed to a stop. Just kind of petered out, like it was running on dying batteries. A hushed whisper filled my ears, shushing and cooing over and over. I shivered, and I noticed the goosebumps on my arms. It didn't feel right. I yanked the headphones from my ears, and the chirping of crickets and wind in the trees above was a welcome respite. I quickly made my way home, not able to shake the feeling that I was being watched the whole time.
I returned the following Thursday. I wanted to know more. What was a fearful experience the week before had evolved into a morbid curiosity. I had cleansed my drive-in theatre palette with another dose of Jurassic Park the previous Friday, and I was feeling courageous. Inspired, even. I was a kid with nothing to lose, and the sense of purpose was intoxicating. I'd never felt it before. I was ready for the second round of mystery theatre.
Again, about a dozen cars littered the theatre lot. I slipped my headphones on, adjusted the frequency, and listened in. The signal seemed to have weakened - the film was interrupted by mild bouts of static, and a steady hiss was present underneath the soundtrack. I had to really focus hard to hear anything - and when I finally heard it, my stomach dropped a bit. It sounded like a child sleeping. I heard slightly labored but gentle snoring, and behind it that carnival theme. The music was light and at a snail's pace, as if it was playing in slow motion.
The voice kicked in after a few minutes. Daniel, the voice whispered.
Over and over. Daniel. It was soft, but gleeful. I couldn't take much. My newfound courage evaporated quickly. This time I ran home, not looking back.
I took a few weeks off from the Moondance Drive-In - no Jurassic Park, and certainly no mystery theatre. But I soon found that without the drive-in I didn't have much. I had no friends, my father worked a lot, and the times I spent with my mother felt tortured. I had little to look forward to, and without the drive-in theatre, I truly had little joy. And again, that sense of nagging returned. Purpose filled me again.
Just what was the mystery film, and who was Daniel?
I tried to piece it together. Being alone most of the time led me to think I was the only kid in the world. That everything was about me. I drew a carnival scene in my sketchbook, and below it I sketched a tunnel that seemed to stretch forever. A child lay in the tunnel, and a voice bubble trickled in from the darkness behind him.
Daniel, it read.And I believed I was meant to see the mystery film. That it was about me, in some form. Maybe I was found cowering in a sewer, maybe that's where I came from. My adoptive parents had never told me. Maybe I was Daniel.
I returned to the Moondance Drive-In one more time on a Thursday night. I traveled light - no sketchbook - in case I needed to escape in a hurry. Armed only with my Walkman radio, I climbed the hill in the cover of darkness. I overlooked the theatre yet again, and I spotted the small light of the projector and the scattered cars in the gravelly lot. I leaned against a tree, slipped my headphones on my head, and spun the Walkman dial.
It was exactly what I'd heard the last time: the hiss, the static, the slowed-down carnival theme, a sleeping child, and a voice whispering Daniel over and over. I stayed strong. As much as I wanted to rip off my headphones I didn't do it. I shut my eyes instead and listened intently. The whispering voice seemed to get closer and closer. I covered the foam pads with my hands, and the whispering got louder and louder.
Everything intensified. The static, the hissing, the music, the whispering, the soft snoring. They all merged together as if forming one giant sound that would smack me in the head and knock me off my feet. The noises crescendoed and then zap...they went dead. Silence. And then a terrible, awful voice filled the headphones:
RUN TO YOUR MOTHER, it snarled.
At that same moment a hand clutched me on the shoulder, and I screamed absolute bloody murder. I whirled around and was face-to-face with my father. I whipped the headphones off of my ears, and I completely broke down. Crying and shaking, I fell into his arms. He practically carried me home, and I was in near hysterics the whole way.
When I got it together back at the house, we had a family meeting. As I wiped away tears with tissues, my father explained the horror they felt when they realized I was gone. He found my sketchbook in my bedroom and flipped through my drawings of dinosaurs. My father had a hunch of where I was. Somehow he knew it in his gut, he said. Couldn't believe he found me.
I started at the beginning. Explained how for weeks I'd been sneaking off to experience Jurassic Park, and how it led to the Thursday night mystery theatre showings. My father listened and nodded, and I felt empathy and understanding. My mother silently seethed.
I explained the strange films of recent weeks. I began with the carnival music and child giggling. My father's lips pursed. My mother's eyes widened a bit, then she looked away.
I said the name...Daniel. My father's eyes shifted in surprise. They darted to my mother. She began to shake.
"And the last thing I heard was, 'Run to your mother'," I said.
My father raised his head in shock. My mother turned her head towards me, her eyes fueled with rage.
"I knew it!" she screamed. She lunged towards me, reaching and stretching and clawing. My father leapt up and bear-hugged her as she violently thrashed about. "You know something! Where is my boy? Where is my little boy? Tell me what you know! Why haven't you told me?"
The police were called. The rest of the night was a giant blur of confusion, but I did learn a few things. I learned that when I was adopted, my adoptive parents had a six-month old boy of their own named Daniel. We slept in the same room. Daniel had a mobile above his crib - he loved to reach and grab for the colorful animals that hung above his head. The mobile had a wind-up music box. When wound, it played a carnival theme.
One night, Daniel disappeared from his crib. Just vanished without a trace. I have no memory of this incident. Zero.
My mother claimed she awoke in the middle of the night and heard a terrible, wretched voice down the hall growl, Run to your mother. And then I entered my parents' room, half asleep. When they took me back to my bedroom, Daniel was gone. No trace of him was ever found, and the pain was just too much for my mother. She never spoke of him, didn't hang any pictures on the wall, threw out everything of Daniel's - including the mobile. We never stayed in one place for too long. Once we settled, my mother started to feel the itch for Daniel. So we kept moving on.
I never knew I had a brother, and as far as my memory went, that awful night never existed. I never heard the voice the night Daniel vanished, never heard run to your mother until that Thursday night at the Moondance Drive-In Theatre when I was 12 years old. I did my best to explain it to people. My parents, the police, detectives from our old state, a psychiatrist. My mother doesn't believe me. I'm sure of it.
I'm older now, into my mid-thirties. I keep in touch with my father. My mother, not so much. They eventually split. Everything was too much.
Like I said, I try not to think about the past. I do own a copy of Jurassic Park - against all odds, it still brings me joy. And I always start the film thirty minutes in. For some reason, not knowing exactly how the movie begins brings me a small amount of comfort. Like we can all have fresh beginnings. That the beginning can be as beautiful as we can imagine it to be.
But when spring turns to summer, that's when I can't help but relive everything. And I feel terribly alone, because I know no one believes my story. Not my adoptive father, not anyone. When I initially told a policeman about the Thursday night mystery film showings all those years ago, he looked at me, quizzically. He made a few calls, and he told me:
"Son, the Moondance Drive-In Theatre is closed on Thursday nights."
I tried to find the flyer. Tore apart my room looking for it. But it was gone.