Dead Space

I was twelve when Bad Ronald first aired. American TV network ABC played it as an afterschool special—a ninety-minute movie aimed at tweens like me. They loaded it with commercials selling cereals and toys and other TV shows I might watch later that night. I can’t remember the specifics, but I imagine a frigid January day, scant daylight remaining after school. Me, lying on our shag-carpet, my head propped up by the tripod of my elbows and chest. My mother telling me repeatedly to get outside and play.

Ronald, an awkward high schooler, accidently kills and then buries a girl in his neighborhood. His mother, worried he’ll be arrested, wallpapers over the entrance to their pantry, creating a hidden room where Ronald can hide out until, I guess, everyone forgets about the child who died. Soon Ronald’s mother dies too, and a family with three girls moves into the house. Ronald spies on the family from his secret room through peep-holes he’s bored in the walls. He haunts the house like a ghost. He eats their food, kidnaps a family friend and locks one of the kids in a neighbor’s basement. The exciting climax comes when one of the kids notices a hole in the wall. She moves in closer for a better look, and suddenly Ronald’s eye fills the space.

I always wondered why the family didn’t notice the dead space behind the walls. When I moved into my house, I quickly noticed that the area above the slanted ceiling of our basement stairs was unaccounted for inside the house. There was an empty cavity between our dining room and our garage. An enclosed room that might harbor a family of possums or a skeleton stashed away when my house was built in 1962 or a bad teenage boy on the lam from the law.

Today, Eli and I ripped up the floorboards in the attic to access this space. Our house came with a light fixture facing out front from the garage. The bulb, a strange fluorescent job with a weird socket, was burned out when we moved in eighteen years ago. Recently, I decided to finally replace the bulb. To be honest, I was somewhat shocked that Lowes had this bulb for sale. The shake-up in lighting regulations over the past twenty years, from incandescent to fluorescents to LEDs, made me doubt I would find such a unique bulb anywhere but the internet, if that. When I snapped it in the fixture, it immediately lit up. And I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.

Tracing the wire, I found it connected to our radon exhaust fan. I’ll skip the long description of radon. It’s a gas, it kills you, so you don’t want it in your home. The fan stays on all the time. Eli and I decided to give the light a switch of its own. We chose the garage wall backing up to the dead space above our stairs. We thought that would be the easiest place to run the wire.  

As we pulled up the floor boards, we joked about what we might find beneath. A box of rare coins; a pentagram painted on the wall; a stash of guns; a mummified corpse. Peering into the hole with our flashlights, what we found was two small cardboard boxes labeled “Handpainted Mobiles by IRMI.” Eli lowered himself into the hole and passed up the boxes. I opened the boxes and shined my flashlight on the contents.

You’ve already seen the photo. Why would someone deliberately leave these mobiles between the walls in an area that wouldn’t be accessed for decades? To be creepy? They aren’t really that creepy. Maybe more so had I been in the dark attic all alone. Eli and I assumed they must be valuable. A quick browse of Ebay showed they still make the identical product today. Vintage sets sell for twenty dollars, a little less than new. Maybe someone wanted to leave something for us to find, and it was the only thing they had. Once when I was helping someone drywall a homeless shelter, we stuck a newspaper in the ceiling as a treat for someone in the future. My guess is someone assumed these mobiles would be valuable by now.

Our wiring worked. It was the sort of job that I can handle, but Eli is far more nimble than I am. When I was Eli’s age, I passed my dad the tools and held the flashlight. Today, I hold the tools and flashlight once again while Eli confidently does the work. I wish we found something cooler in the dead space. Not a corpse, but maybe a suitcase of stolen loot or even a newspaper from 1962—the year I was born. At least I know what’s in that space now. Over the past eighteen years, I often imagined Ronald in there watching me through a tiny hole.

19 thoughts on “Dead Space

  1. Whenever I move house, Jeff, I an always on a search to discover something about a house’s history. To date all I have uncovered is a few old newspapers which where used to line the floor of an attic. I never knew about the practice of concealing items in a house. We are hoping to move house later this year so maybe the new abode might be more forthcoming.

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  2. How intriguing, Jeff. The mobile reminded me of the one my children had as babies. Back then, in the 1980s, it was a Fisher Price one. I think they still make toys. I expect the mobile you and Eli found was older than that. It’s surprising you can still buy those on eBay, but then, it’s surprising you managed to replace that light bulb after all these years, too.

    I love the idea of hiding something in the walls or ceiling for the next homeowner to find. I’d have loved to have found something like that when stripping out my house before decorating. When I recently had the walls stripped back to the plaster in my daughter’s room (it’s my granddaughter’s room now), I got my children to write a message and my grandchildren to draw a picture on the plaster with their names underneath, so if in the future, someone after me decides to redecorate that room, they will find my our ‘art’.

    It’s not too late for you to hide something away in your house yet. Have you closed up the gap where the dead space was? Perhaps, you could put the mobiles back in there, but add something of your own, too – whoever lives in your house in the future might have the joy of finding those mobiles plus something you could decide to add to the space. You could use your imagination to think up all sorts of odd things you could leave there – definitely a current newspaper … I’ll leave you to think up the rest! It could be fun, if not for you, for the future owners of your house.

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    • There’s a cross beam in that dead space. What do you think about me hanging the mobiles in there. That would really be a shocker for someone in the future. Although it might kind of freak them out. Another not-so-nice but clever idea is that we have a decorative skeleton for halloween. I could put that in there. Even though it doesn’t look *that* real, it would seriously surprise someone. Especially if they have the power turned off like Eli and I did. OK, maybe I should find something nice to put in there.

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  3. Damn, Jeff. This is fascinating. I never heard of “Bad Ronald” before. Dead space is indeed rich soil for the imagination. I don’t think I’ll be able to get this out of my mind. Always a sign of something landing. Nice.


  4. We just purchased a vacation home on Cape Cod. It has really cool features like a laundry shoot and short medicine cabinets in the bathroom that look like sliding doors. I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt uncovering the history of the family that came before us. I hope all the discovery is of happy times spent near the ocean. This post will stay with me a while. Thanks Jeff!

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