\r\n\r\nI recently had the enviable task of reading nearly every story Richard Matheson ever wrote and selecting 33 tales to be included in Penguin Classics\u2019 The Best of Richard Matheson. This turned out to be like stepping into a time machine, transported back to the age when I started reading him. I was fourteen. The year was 1986. My introduction to his fiction, his short novel I Am Legend, was one of the first books that made me run up to my friends and tackle them so they\u2019d all check it out, too.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nIf you haven\u2019t read it (what the hell is wrong with you?), it manages to be a work of science fiction, a vampire story, a progenitor of the \u201cbiological plague\u201d apocalyptic novel, and also an excellent thriller. All that in about 160 pages. I had to find out more. I dove into The Shrinking Man (the film added \u201cIncredible\u201d) and Hell House and wow. I wish I had a more sophisticated way to describe my reaction to the seismic effect of Richard Matheson on my young mind, but \u201cwow\u201d gets at the raw, awestruck nature of thing. And then I came to find out the man had written short stories. I tracked them down with gusto, with glee. And with time I began to relate to the man\u2019s writing in a way that seemed damn near mystical.\r\n\r\n\r\nI want to explain exactly what I mean by that.\r\nThere\u2019s a lot I need to say about Matheson, and the importance of his fiction, the reasons why this collection is so vital and worthwhile, but I can\u2019t get to that directly. I will go there eventually. But first I have to tell you about my Matheson moment. I don\u2019t mean that I met the man. I mean I stepped into a story he could\u2019ve written. I have to tell you about Cedric and his mother.\r\nMy mother made good when I turned fourteen.\r\nAt least that\u2019s how she saw it when she moved us out of an apartment in one part of Queens and took us to a house she\u2019d bought in another. The woman emigrated from Uganda in her twenties and now, in her forties, she\u2019d worked like a machine to stop renting and start owning. From a two-bedroom to a two-story home, damn right my mother felt proud. Me, my sister, and my grandmother were the grateful tagalongs.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nWe moved in over the summer and when September rolled around I started going to school. The local public school was Springfield Gardens High, and just before I arrived the place had been outfitted with the newest, latest technology: metal detectors. And with good reason. This was 1986, the Crack Era, and as old news reports will tell you some people had a propensity to shoot guns wildly in places where teens gathered. My mother took one look at the school where she was meant to send her child and she made changes posthaste. This woman was not about to have her kid ushered through those contraptions every morning before heading to homeroom. More to the point, she didn\u2019t want to get some phone call about how I\u2019d been caught by Stray Bullet Syndrome while standing around outside. She found a private school out on Long Island and before I could say \u201cwhere the hell is Nassau County\u201d she\u2019d gotten me enrolled on a scholarship. My mom was no joke.\r\n\r\nMy mom also wasn\u2019t a car owner.\r\nShe got to work and back by taking a bus to the Long Island Rail Road and the train into Manhattan. Suffice to say there weren\u2019t any such choices at Woodmere Academy. People either got dropped off by their parents (Mercedes, BMW, Audi) or they took a school bus. Mom enrolled me in the pickup service and every morning, around 7:45, I\u2019d go out and stand on the corner of 229th Street and 145th Avenue and there I\u2019d wait for one of those long yellow buses to pick me up.\r\n\r\nI waited in front of a single-family home with yellow aluminum siding. One morning, maybe around November or December, when the chill weather set in heavy, the front window of that house slipped up and a kid my age stuck his head out the window and called to me.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nI turned, baffled. He had an enormous round head and close haircut. This gave him a kind of Charlie Brown look. A brown Charlie Brown. He wore a white tank top. He was, by no definition, a skinny kid.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\u201cCheese Bus,\u201d he said again, and I realized he\u2019d given me a nickname. Before I could speak he reached one meaty hand out of the window and waved me away.\r\n\u201cGo stand down the block,\u201d he said. \u201cYour bus is fucking up my vibe.\u201d\r\n\u201cYou don\u2019t own the sidewalk,\u201d I said. Citing basic property law was the best I could do.\r\n\u201cYou sound like a herb,\u201d he said. \u201cCheese, are you a herb?\u201d\r\n\u201cWell how come you\u2019re not getting ready for school?\u201d I said. What kind of kid treats cutting school like an insult? This one. And with that I cemented my herb status.\r\n\u201cI would try to help you,\u201d he said. \u201cBut I can\u2019t even guess where I\u2019d start.\u201d\r\nI walked up to the chain link fencing at the edge of his parents\u2019 property and leaned my elbows on it so that I was posed just like him.\r\n\r\nSeriously though,\u201d I said. \u201cYou\u2019re skipping ?\r\nHe thought about this a little bit. He sighed and said, \u201cI\u2019ve got company coming over.\u201d\r\n\u201cLike, you\u2019re having a party?\u201d\r\n\u201cParty for two,\u201d he said, then he looked to his left and pointed, discreetly, with one finger.\r\nWhen I looked up I saw two things: my bus\u200a\u2014\u200athe cheese bus\u200a\u2014\u200achugging toward me; and a girl, fourteen, moving down the block with much more grace. This would turn out to be Lianne, Cedric\u2019s sweetheart since seventh grade. They kissed sweetly when she reached him. He led her inside without even saying good-bye.\r\nAfter that me and Cedric talked each morning. He\u2019d lean out the window and gab with me before the bus showed up. I made nice, but not because I found him so charming. I\u2019ll admit I had ulterior motives. New in the neighborhood and being bused to a school miles away. How was I going to meet anyone? I wanted to girlfriend, too. Couldn\u2019t Lianne call in a friend for me?\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nIt turned out to be surprisingly easy to cut school.\r\nJust don\u2019t be on the corner when the bus shows up. After two minutes the driver simply drove on. Meanwhile I\u2019d been tucked inside Cedric\u2019s house, peeking out through the blinds like some secret agent at risk of having his cover blown. The bus left, then Cedric tapped me on the shoulder and said, \u201cStop hiding.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nEasy to do when two young women knocked at the front door. Cedric went to let them in and I stood there in the living room feeling quite sure I\u2019d ascended to some higher plane of existence. Or was about to. He opened the door and kissed Lianne, then stepped aside so she and her friend Tasha could slip in. The front door fed right into the living room where I stood. The living room fed right into the kitchen. Apparently there were two bedrooms elsewhere\u200a\u2014\u200aCedric\u2019s and his mom\u2019s. When I\u2019d asked him if I could use hers\u200a\u2014\u200ain case things went well with Tasha\u200a\u2014\u200ahe patted me on the arm and said, \u201cDon\u2019t get ahead of yourself.\u201d\r\n\r\nAnyway, I\u2019m standing there and Tasha and Lianne are coming through the doorway and then I heard it, a sound in the kitchen. Knocking. Not all that loud, but I was close to the kitchen and getting closer. By that I mean that Tasha and Lianne were taking off their coats and I ran away. Later I told Cedric I went to \u201cget them water,\u201d but there\u2019s no other way to say it: I fled.\r\nAs soon as I entered the kitchen the knocking stopped.\r\nI figured it might be their boiler kicking in. It was winter after all. I knew I\u2019d run away though so I came up with the water idea and went scrounging for cups. This led me on a chase through the cupboards as, in the other room, Cedric called for me. And then I reached their pantry door. This style of one-family home had a separate little pantry, about the size of a small walk-in closet. I found the door there and, still hunting for glasses, I tried the handle and found it locked. Then Cedric walked into the kitchen.\r\n\r\n\u201cCheese,\u201d he said. \u201cYou making me look bad.\u201d\r\nWhen he said it he didn\u2019t sound playful. He\u2019d convinced his girlfriend to bring someone with her and then his boy had gone and run into the kitchen. But I also wondered if that was really the reason he seemed unhappy with me. He peeked at the pantry door then back to me.\r\n\r\n\u201cCups is over here,\u201d he said, taking four down from a cupboard by the sink. Then he rushed me out of the kitchen.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nHe put on a movie. I definitely don\u2019t remember what it was. He closed the blinds so the living room went dim. Lianne leaned into him. Tasha and I hardly spoke. She was as nervous as me.\r\nAt some point Cedric went to the bathroom and left us alone in the living room. Lianne patted the cushion beside her and Tasha hopped over, the pair whispering and I sat there alone. Hadn\u2019t even sipped my water once. And then I heard it\u200a\u2014\u200athat knocking\u200a\u2014\u200acoming from the kitchen again. I didn\u2019t hesitate. Maybe I felt stupid sitting alone. I walked in there and went quiet.\r\n\r\nThe knocking, low and insistent, came from the other side of that pantry door. I checked for Cedric but he wasn\u2019t around. I tried the door but found it locked. Meanwhile the knocking kept on, regular if weak. It damn sure wasn\u2019t the boiler.\r\n\r\nI whispered, \u201cWho is it?\u201d\r\nWhen I spoke the knocking stopped. I mean instantly. What followed next was a scratching sound. Claws on the floor. I even thought I heard something panting softly.\r\nA dog.\r\n\r\nCedric had a dog and he locked it up when company came over.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nI got to my feet and laughed at myself and now thought only of how I would not fuck things up with Tasha, who\u200a\u2014\u200ait turned out\u200a\u2014\u200awas exactly as geeky as me. All I had to do was finally speak to her and find out. We finished the movie together in the living room, all four of us. By the time it was over even me and Tasha were kissing. At some point she mentioned a smell in the room. I almost laughed because I knew it was just the funk of four teenagers fucking around. But she persisted. It was worse than that. Could there be something going rotten in the fridge? In the walls? Maybe there was a mutt somewhere in the house, an animal that had had an accident.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nObviously I\u2019ve turned this history into a story, my homage to Richard Matheson, to my old friend Cedric, and even to his mom. While some of this tale is indeed fiction, there really was a monster living in that house.