Monday, October 30, 2006

 

In Which We Count to Eight...

At 6:15 this morning, Thomas came screaming into the room and yelled

"I turn EIGHT in ONE MINUTE!!!"

right into my ear.

So at 6:16 we were all of us awake to sing a "true" Happy Birthday, as Thomas calls it.

Eight years. Holy shit.

bday03
bday02
bday06
sgrundy

It really was just the other day that we were watching a Star Trek rerun one quiet Wednesday night and Her Lovely Self suddenly made a face like she had the mother of all gas pains and flopped herself over the armchair (the only position in which she was comfortable, she claimed). For the next six hours, she thrashed and moaned in the most disconcerting way while I looked on uselessly and wrung my hands, feeling that never was a creature more singularly ill-equipped to stand by and bear witness to the suffering of a loved one than I, miserable speck of a man that I was.

Finally, when I could stand it no longer and insisted we go to the hospital, the pains vanished and Her Lovely Self simply waddled upstairs to bed.

The next morning, Thursday morning, she felt great. Better than she had in months. Except that her legs were numb and she was having difficulty walking. A panicked call to the doctor revealed that this was not uncommon, especially with a fetus like Thomas, who was known for unexpectedly locking his knee out and mashing on my bride's ribcage or liver or bladder like it was a gas pedal. In this case, the doctor was convinced our little bundle of spastic joy had knocked her a good one in the sciatic nerve or something similar. So HLS spent a quiet day watching TV and reading, while I stayed home from work to make sure she didn't take a tumble down the stairs on those numbed stilts of hers.

I was something of a nervous wreck after the previous night's adventures, so I can perhaps be forgiven for saying insensitive and unhelpful things the next day. The worst of the lot was when I said, "Wow, if that was false labor last night, how are you going to be able to stand it when you have real labor?" The only thing that prevented HLS from kicking me in the nuts there and then was, well, Thomas.

Who, about two hours after I uttered my observation began the old Third Trimester Two-Step again, and this time Her Lovely Self ended up in the bathroom. And she wouldn't come out.

After about 45 minutes on the other side of the door, it dawned on me that my wife was panting and swearing at regular intervals, then lapsing into worrisome silence. The next time she began swearing, I started the timer on my wristwatch and stopped it when she went silent. I did this a few more times and informed her through the door that I thought she might be in real labor, as her swearing fits were almost exactly 6 minutes apart.

"I can't be in labor," she yelled through the door. "It's too soon." And it was. Her due date wasn't for another 17 days. "I think it's just pain because the baby is shifting in the motherfucking goddamn Jesus Christ what the fucking fuck in hell is this son of a bitch doing?!?"

I looked at my watch. Five minutes apart.

When they were two minutes apart, I carried her to the car and drove at a restrained but sedate pace to the hospital, where the OB resident met us, took a peek, and told us HLS was already six centimeters dilated. That was at 2 AM.

Four hours and 16 minutes later, I watched my son being born and for a moment it was a competition to see which of us could cry the loudest, me or him. I was sobbing so hard the doctor almost didn't give me the scissors to do the ceremonial snip of the umbilical, so I had to suck it up and get with the program.

Never before in my life had it ever been so satisfying to take total credit for an effort I had so little--mere milliliters, really--to do with. I strutted around that birthing suite in a way that I'm sure the nurses had never seen before. I was a babbling idiot. More than usual, I mean. But once I was able to form a coherent thought again, one of my first ones was this: It's his birthday, but I'm getting all the presents. It was true. Once the dust settled, Her Lovely Self slept (or, to be more accurate, passed out). So did Thomas, more or less. I was completely unprepared for that. I mean, what kid sleeps through his own birthday?

Myself, I couldn't wait for the party to start. I marched all around the delivery room, holding my son in his little cloth burrito, jabbering away at him about all the things I was going to introduce him to: comic books and baseball cards and action figures, swearing and changing your own oil and offering seats up to ladies. Peeing with accuracy. Riding a two-wheeler. Appreciating cleavage. The list went on.

And then this dried-up old prune of a nurse had to piss on my picnic. "It's not going to be all fun and games you know," she croaked at me, pointing a gnarled finger in my direction. "Having a baby totally changes everything."

(Which, incidentally, goes down in history as the single most unoriginal thing you can say to an expectant parent. I myself have vowed never to utter these words to anyone, because I heard them oh, only about every three minutes of the preceding nine months from both loved ones and total strangers. My advice to the rest of you: think up something else to say to friends or relatives who are awaiting the birth of their first child. In fact, think up anything else to say, even if it isn't true. "He'll be beautiful," for example. It's simple, it's inoffensive, and it completely sidesteps the fact that most babies come out looking like either a wad of alien chewing gum or a pulpy wood-carving of Winston Churchill, as whittled by a man with only seven fingers.)

After I killed the old nurse and stuffed her withered corpse in a medical waste bag, we got moved up to the maternity ward and there the birthday festivities really began. Only I was still getting all the goodies. Never mind the whole son part of it. I got to call the relatives with the news. I got to fill out the hospital paperwork and so was the first person on the planet to write Thomas' full name. I even learned a new word that morning--meconium--and stranger still, I didn't mind the word or its implications for my immediate future.

I learned something else. That old nurse and all our unoriginal friends and relatives? They were wrong, of course.

A baby doesn't totally change everything.

It just totally changes you.

And for the better.

Happy Birthday, Art Lad.


Love,
Dad


 

In Which We Go to the Video...

For those of you who wondered what my old house looked like, esp. the carriage step and the attic window.





Yeah, it's a couple days early but...Happy Halloween, everyone.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, October 26, 2006

 

An October Moment...

October 13, 1983


What? That's it?

Are you fucking kidding me?


No, I'm not voicing your reactions after reading yesterday's post (although maybe I am). I'm sharing my reactions for the rest of that anticlimactic summer.

Coming away from our encounter with the Witch Man, I found myself feeling about as dispirited as I ever want to. Our efforts felt like they had come to nothing, had if anything raised more questions than answers. And as the summer wore on, that feeling only intensified. Shawn stayed with us almost til Labor Day, and during that time he never saw or heard one thing in the house that was anything like the phenomena my family had experienced. And indeed, ever since our trip to the Witch Man, my friend had seemed more distracted and distanced than I'd ever known him, like his mind was already turned to another task, one I wouldn't learn more about for a long while.

After a brief trip to New Hampshire in late summer, my family returned to the house and I began school a short time later. Everything remained strangely quiet and I can't tell you how frustrating that was. Every ghost story I'd ever read--including a lot of "true" accounts--indicated that these hauntings ended only after some crucial turning point: the discovery of some piece of information, a séance that released a spirit from its earthly bonds; some culmination of events had to occur. It seemed ordained. But in our case, all we'd done was dig up an old carriage step and spent an afternoon with a crazy old man. And that was the end to it? It seemed a terrible cheat.

Except that I was wrong on one important score. It didn't end.

I first understood this one brisk fall day at school. I was sitting out on the bleachers, shooting the shit with my friends, when I noticed a woman out in the parking lot, waving to me. It was Mrs. A, the mom of one of my classmates, and a friend of the family. She was a sweet, kind, soft-spoken woman, so soft-spoken in fact that I actually couldn't remember her ever speaking to me before, beyond the usual pleasantries.

But today, she was waving and calling my name loudly across the lot. Curious, I hopped down off the bleachers and strode over. Before I could even say hello, she cut me off.

"Do you have ghosts in your house?" she asked. My dropped jaw gave her all the answer she needed.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"I was just over there," she said.

As she explained, she was running some errands in our neck of the woods and decided to stop by and invite my mom out to lunch.

"I went and knocked on your side door--" by this she meant the kitchen door "--and I heard your dogs barking."

I nodded. This was totally common. Pilgrim and Mayflower were excellent watchdogs, despite the fact that neither of them was any bigger than the head of a rag mop.

"And then," Mrs. A continued, "I heard footsteps and heard a woman's voice say, 'Hush now! Hush up now!' Right on the other side of the door."

"But no one was there," I said.

"No," she nodded. "The dogs stopped barking right away and I waited, but I heard nothing else. No voices. No footsteps. Nothing. I knocked again, thinking maybe your mom hadn’t heard me, but after I knocked again, no one came to the door. The dogs didn't even bark anymore."

That news freaked me out more than anything. Pilgrim and Mayflower didn't shut up for anyone, not even my mom.

"Well, no one was home today," I said. "In fact--"

"I know," said Mrs. A, and together we turned to look across the parking lot. At my mom's old GMC Jimmy. She volunteered at the library on Tuesdays and Thursday. She'd been at school all day. Whoever Mrs. A heard, it hadn't been my mother.

Mrs. A, I learned, had some paranormal experiences of her own as a child and was plenty sensitive to that sort of thing. So as we stood in the lot, I shared some of our experiences with her. She just nodded. And that was the end of that encounter.

That's how it went. Every few months, something new would happen. Nothing earth-shattering, but just enough to remind me that I was living in a mystery. And I came to understand that in my life this might become my unfinished business, one that would ultimately lead me to be some frustrated spectre rolling chairs in an attic or wandering across lawns to knock on doors.

It's a frustrating fact--and one I hate to admit--but life rarely seems to arrange itself in neat chapters and episodes. Resolution is a scarce thing indeed, and sometimes when it comes, we don't recognize it for what it is. My day with the Witch Man, our moment digging up the carriage stone, those were as close to true moments of closure as we'd get.

To this day, the house I grew up in remains a hotbed of strange, unexplained activity. And to be sure, there were more events in that house, but none of them were points on a continuum that I could perceive, none of them added up to a complete picture when I connected the dots. I'd love to be able to tell you that I--with the help of folks like Shawn and Mrs. A and Ruth--unraveled the puzzle of this place and put some restless spirits at peace, but it didn't happen that way.

As unsatisfying as it is, that's life.

And it took the dead to teach me that.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


 

An October Moment...


I don't know how many of you have spent time in southern New Jersey, but I'm here to tell you it's pretty frickin' humid in the summer in the southern part of the state. It's even more so when you get into the swampy, marshy areas of South Jersey, of which there are a great plenitude. They are nearly impenetrable, completely spooky places, filled with the reek of mud and dead things and a million, million buzzing insects. According to local legend, an early settlement was abandoned and lost for centuries in the swamps near our house because in the summer the colonists were overwhelmed by mosquitoes. Over the years, people have found old graves, a cannon and cannonball and other artifacts, but no trace of the original colony site. Little wonder. With all the rains and flooding and the constant change of the landscape, it's surprising that the swamps have retained any man-made features.

But on that hot summer day when I was 13, my friend Shawn and I found all too many gravel roads and dirt tracks throughout the marsh we rode to, looking for the old psychic that neighborhood kids had been calling the Witch Man.

We had found the Marsh Road easily enough--an old, cracked, but nonetheless paved road that led off the main state highway between our little town and the county seat. It had taken the better part of an hour to ride to this crossroad and when we got there, things didn't look too hopeful. The Marsh Road stretched on into the distance, surrounded on either side by drooping phone poles and tall stands of cattails and rushes. We pedaled for some time, looking for mailboxes or turnouts that might signify a blind or overgrown driveway, but after another hour's riding, we seemed to be nowhere: the reeds and rushes of the marsh rose up all around us and it felt somehow like we were trapped on some hellish circular path.

To complicate matters, neither Shawn nor I had thought to bring food or water with us (it was a simpler age, before every bike had a water bottle holder built into it, after all. And it almost goes without saying that we were stupid) so by mid-afternoon, we were both feeling decidedly woozy, from our exertions, from the heat, from the lack of refreshment.

At length, I collapsed under a scraggly tree that offered a feeble amount of shade. Shawn sat with a whoosh next to me.

"This stinks," he said simply.

"No duh," I agreed, wiping my face with the front of my t-shirt. "Maybe next time we'll write this guy a letter."

"Yeah," he nodded, looking up and down the road. "I guess he must have a box at the post office. I was thinking we'd see a mailbox or something." He paused, drumming his fingers on the dirt of the shoulder. "Any chance there's another Marsh Road somewhere around here? I mean, there are a lot of marshes."

"No," I said, shaking my head. I had a map of the county back home and had looked at it that morning.

So we sat there, soaking up the shade, listening to the ever-so-slightly eerie sound of the reeds creaking in the wind. Somewhere not far, I could hear swamp-like noises--the chirping of insects and the galloomphing of frogs as they croaked or jumped into nearby water. I was sure thirsty, but not thirsty enough to go off looking for a pool of swamp water to drink.

"Well, we're only going to get thirstier out here," I said, picking up my bike. Shawn grabbed the one he'd borrowed from my brother and together we started back.

It's just as well that we were as pooped as we were. If we'd been well-hydrated, we probably wouldn't have been coasting as aimlessly and slowly as we had. And if we hadn't done that, we'd never have seen the tire tracks in the mud.

Shawn spotted them first. We'd ridden right by them on our way down the road, but in his meandering along the shoulder, he spotted a treadmark and braked to a stop, pointing.

The marks were easy to miss: well beyond the shoulder of the road, almost invisible under the overhanging reeds. But they were tire tracks. Indeed, tracks on a well-worn path, as it turned out, once we discovered that the overhanging reeds had acted as a perfect curtain, camouflaging the old dirt driveway that led deeper into the swamp.

"Jeez, does this even lead anywhere?" Shawn hissed, not even realizing that his voice had dropped to a whisper.

"Dunno," I said. "But let's leave our bikes here and walk in a bit." So we propped the bikes a little ways off the road and stepped onto the track.

It was almost immediately darker--but no cooler--on that path. The reeds had a most claustrophobic effect, closing over us and the driveway and making us feel very much like lost children in an evil forest. With each squelching step, I could feel the gray mud pulling at my tennis shoes, almost as though some invisible force was trying to yank me underground, or at least steal my footwear.

The catchphrase "feel the fear and do it anyway" was most certainly not in common parlance then, but if it had been, I would have identified with it. Never before have I wanted to do something so little as walk down that driveway. I suppose I could call it foreboding, but really I was just creeped out. And yet I had a feeling that if I didn't lose my nerve, I could learn something useful to help me out with my own personal haunted house mystery.

I wouldn't call the structure at the end of the driveway a house, but no doubt its occupant did. And to be fair, it had at least been a cottage at one time, maybe even a pretty one. But all we saw when we reached the end of the driveway was a dilapidated old shack with peeling clapboards and a rusty sheet-metal roof. In its decrepitude, it reminded me a little of the old family Homestead back in New Hampshire, where my father grew up. Since my uncle had taken over, the Homestead had fallen on hard times and this place looked like it had the same kind of caretaker.

The shack occupied a small circular yard in the middle of the swamp. There was no lawn to speak of, only mud and pools of water in a cleared perimeter around the house. Next to the house was what appeared to be some kind of henhouse (although we saw no livestock during our time there) and stacks and stacks of scrap wood laid up against a truly ancient and rusting furnace-oil tank.

If it wouldn't have been gay as hell, Shawn and I would have held hands as we approached the screen door that stood in front of us, we were that scared. Instead, we simply stood as close together as possible, our arm hairs brushing each other.

Shawn knocked. Instead of a smart rap, the door seemed limp and moist and almost absorbed all sound.

We waited, listening for any signs of life.

Shawn knocked again.

This time, after a long moment, we heard a noise, but not from the house. We heard instead sharp explosions of noise coming from the bushes behind us and to our right. We waited there for a moment on the sagging steps of the house, hearts racing, mentally calculating the distance back up the road to our bikes, wondering what the hell was going to emerge and greet us.

The thrashing continued for a long, agonizing period, and then finally the bushes parted and out stepped the Witch Man.

He was reed thin and covered in head to toe with bits of earth and mud. His clothes--a denim jacket, overalls and a thin cotton t-shirt--were riddled with patches. For all his dishevelment, though, his face was smooth and appeared recently shaven. His hair was more black than gray and unfashionably long, but not tied in a ponytail or anything. I always find myself expecting psychics to be sharp- and clear-eyed, but this old fellow seemed to have vision problems. One eye was almost completely occluded by a milky-white cataract. The other was either black pupil or bloodshot white. I couldn't discern his eye color to save my life.

He stood across the yard, blinking at us. Finally, he pointed to something we hadn't noticed over by the henhouse.

"Water's fresh," he growled at us. "Get a drink, then come in."

Numbly, we did as he bade, moving as one to the pump. I cupped my hands underneath the spigot while Shawn worked the pump. When we switched places, I was surprised to see the man still standing there at his doorway. Maybe I was paranoid, but he seemed to be glaring at me. We locked eyes for a moment, then he went inside, banging his screen door as he did.

"What do you think?" Shawn asked. "Do we go in?"

"We didn't come this far," I said, feeling suddenly much more alert and intrepid, thanks probably to the water. "Let's talk to him."

Both refreshed, we stepped to the door and opened it. I leaned in.

Helloooaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

I said this last because at that moment, just as my eyes were adjusting to the dim interior of the shack, I felt a painfully strong pair of hands grab me by the elbows and all but throw me inside. Instead of landing on the floor, as I expected to, I hit a card chair with a loud squeak and bumped against a scuffed-up old wooden table.

"Get in here!" the man snarled as he stood between me and Shawn. When my friend stepped in, the man grabbed him and pushed him in a chair opposite me. Then he stood over us, glaring.

You know how some people just have no sense of personal space? Well, this guy was like that. He all but stood in my lap, his legs right up against the edge of the chair, staring straight down at me at such an intimate angle that I could actually count his nostril hairs.

Shawn opened his mouth to say something.

"Shut up!" he yelled at him, then turned back to look at me. "I know you," he said finally.

"You do?" I asked weakly.

He nodded, goggling at me with his milky eye. "You have a Mark," he said simply. And the way he said it made me think he capitalized that last word.

"A what?"

"You're Marked. Cursed. You serve him. The other one. Don't lie. I know! My grandmother could see, and so can I."

"I'm not--" I started, then the Witch Man raised his hand and I thought he was going to smack me one across the mouth. To my own disgust, I flinched.

"The problems you have right now. The people in your house. They're restless. You stir them up! Why can't you leave them be?!?" he was getting increasingly agitated as he said this.

"We found the stone. In the driveway. You were at my house once and said there was something buried there! We found it!" I blurted out, then braced, thinking this time the crazy old shit really would clout me.

The man looked first at Shawn, then at me. "You dug up a stone in your drive," he said slowly, as if tasting the words. "But not a gravestone, was it?"

I shook my head. "A carriage stone."

He uttered a harsh, barking laugh. "So you know what a carriage stone is?" he asked, somewhat mockingly I thought. "Well, well. You found the stone."

Shawn swallowed hard, then forced himself to speak. "Do you know why the stone is important?"

The Witch Man scoffed. "How should I know? Think they tell me everything?!? I just know what I'm told." He was no longer amused. He turned and poked me hard in the chest. "You get out. I won't have someone like you in my house. He can stay--" he pointed at Shawn. "I have some things to tell him. Things he should know. But you--you get out. I want you off my land."

Well, I never said I was the most popular kid growing up, but this was taking it too far. Shawn thought so too. "He hasn't done--"

"HE'S MARKED!" the man showed, spraying us a little with spit. And then before either one of us could say anything, he grabbed me by the ear and hauled me out of the chair. Instinctively I grabbed the guy's hand, but then he reached in with his other hand and gave me the mother of all titty twisters, pinching the entire right side of my chest and twisting as hard as he could. I swear I heard ribs splinter. Or I would have, if I hadn't begun shrieking loud enough to shatter glass. See, I'm not the most touchy-feely person at the best of times, and am even less so when I'm 13 years old in a strange old, squalid place, being assaulted by a strange, old, squalid man. I'm just funny like that, I guess.

Shawn yelled too and leapt out of his chair to grapple with the guy. He was a head taller than the Witch Man and a good bit stronger than I was. He grabbed the man's hand and pulled--taking a good bit of my skin and all three of my chest hairs with him. Still, my pal meant well.

"Show him! Show him!" the Witch Man howled.

"Get out! Get out!" Shawn yelled at the same time.

Well, if you had a choice between heeding the advice of a crazy old coot in a swamp and listening to your best friend, which would you do?

Damn right I got the hell out of there.

I practically knocked the old screen door off its hinges and was never so glad to be anywhere as I was when I hit that yard. Immediately, I went to wood pile and selected the first piece I could find that had remotely the same heft as a bat. I had no desire to go back in, but I wasn't pussy enough to leave my friend in there either.

I needn't have worried. By the time I got to the door, Shawn was there, his face as calm and impassive as ever. He had a hand up.

"Stop!" he hissed in that exaggerated whisper of his.

"What?" I asked, heart pounding in my ears. But even above the pounding, I realized the Witch Man was no longer yelling. "You lay him out? He taking a nap? What?"

He shook his head. "He calmed right down when you left. Stay out there. Or go get the bikes. If I'm in trouble, I'll yell." He turned to go back inside.

"You want this?" I asked, handing him the stovelength. Shawn just shook his head and disappeared into the darkness.

I backed away from the steps, still holding the stick.

I stood there in the yard, feeling rather awkward and stupid. From inside, I could barely hear the old man talking in a low voice to Shawn. I couldn't imagine what they were talking about, but I could only hope it was something helpful, and helpful was the one thing I wasn't being standing there. So, after several long glances back, I trudged back up to the road and found our bikes. I stood between them and walked them back to the shack. As I did, I felt even shakier than I had when I was dying of thirst earlier. No doubt it was adrenaline, but I was definitely out of sorts. Now that I had a moment to think, it occurred to me that I was in just the sort of predicament kids were always being warned not to put themselves in. I was in the middle of nowhere, feeling more or less at the mercy of a strange man. No one--and I mean no one--knew where we were. Not my mom, not my brother (who would be very put out if we disappeared, and took his bike along with us). If this old man turned out to be dangerously crazy, there was nothing stopping him from killing us and letting our bodies contribute to the general smelliness of the swamp.

And it was as this happy thought ran through my mind that I heard the car turning off the road and through the reeds of the overgrown driveway behind me.

I had all of three seconds to try and move myself and the bikes off to one side, but I got hung up in the reeds and was truly mired down. The car--a small, beat-up hatchback--stopped about a foot from where I stood.

I braced, not sure what the fuck was going to happen next, but I was reasonably certain that whatever it was, it was going to be bad.

So I was completely unprepared for the sight of a kind-faced woman of early middle years, who opened the door and looked out over the window at me.

"Are you okay?" she asked, with what seemed to be real concern.

Dumbly, I nodded.

"Are you lost?" she asked. "Or were you looking for someone?"

I swallowed, then said. "We came here to see the Witch-- the, uh, Marsh Road Family Psychics."

She smiled again. "Well, that's me," she said. Then she gestured down the driveway. I looked and Shawn was walking slowly and thoughtfully toward us. "Did you already meet my father? I'm afraid he's a bit confused and he can be a bit, well, freaky. You have a look on your face that says maybe he was freaky with you."

My chest twinged in agreement, but Shawn remained strangely silent as he approached.

"You okay?" I asked.

He looked at me. "Are you?" he pointed, and I realized I was holding my chest.

And that was pretty much the climax of our day. I know, I know, totally unsatisfying, totally unlike a really good ghost story, but what can I tell you: my life is so like that. Just when I think I'm traveling down a road that will take me to the answers I need, in the end I just get the mother of all titty twisters and then I'm sent on my way. I wouldn't even find out what the Witch Man said to Shawn for years afterwards.

I will tell you this: For my part, later I did tell Shawn why the Witch Man had freaked me out, and would reveal to my friend something no one outside my family knew: the fact that I was born with a third nipple.

As a kid, I was extremely self-conscious about it, so much so that I was positively traumatized that the Witch Man seemed to know about it. To this day I can't explain how this total stranger, someone I'd never met, would have been aware of it.

But for years before I ever laid eyes on the man, I do remember my mother joking that, had I been born a couple hundred years earlier, I'd have been burned as a witch for my little birth defect.

Third nipples, you see, were historically considered marks put on people who did deals with the devil. Something I had never done, incidentally. But try telling the Witch Man that.

One good thing did come of that meeting, though, and it was the Witch Man's daughter, Ruth. She never freaked me out with any strange revelations about extra body parts, but her advice and guidance would prove invaluable as the years passed and my experiences in the old farmhouse grew even stranger.

I'll tell you all about it.

One of these Octobers.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

 

In Which They Come In Threes...

I know, I know: I owe you an update on the ghost story.


But, well, I've been busy.


Though not as busy as Her Lovely Self has been the past 12 weeks.



number3



Which means, I guess, that it's official. So far everyone is healthy, just nervous, for obvious reasons.



I should write more, but except to observe how quietly happy I am, I can't think of anything else to say.


And how often do you read THAT on this blog?


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, October 19, 2006

 

An October Moment...



For months, my mother was beset by a third manifestation in our house that we alternately called Long Coat, the Visitor in White, or simply the Visitor. The Visitor was a visual phenomenon, mostly seen early in the morning or late in the day around supper time. My mom saw it at least a half-dozen times that she can recall. And when I finally tracked down previous owners of the house, it was the one consistent paranormal event that several inhabitants of the house experienced over the previous 50 years (which was as far back as I had been able to trace any living owners or former occupants).

The Visitor first came to call early in our second year in the house. It was dusk--and mom was at the stove, fixing supper. The kitchen was, as I may have mentioned, in the original part of the house--the part built in 1785. The back wall--the wall opposite the breakfast bar that held those pinecones--had a solid old wooden door that opened onto a fairly new concrete porch. The sink was right next to the door and it overlooked a window with a view of the porch, the gravel driveway beyond, and the brick walkway my brother and I had laid between the two just that spring. The stove was adjacent to the sink so my mom was facing the wall when from the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse out the kitchen window of someone loping across the yard from the driveway. By the time she turned fully to look out the window, she had only enough time to glimpse the figure--a tall person, a man, she thought, in a long white coat or cloak--step up on the porch and stand immediately in front of the wooden door, out of view from the window.

My mom waited a beat for the inevitable knock. But none came. Nevertheless, our two dogs, Pilgrim and Mayflower, acted as though someone had just rang a loud freaking doorbell because they came barking and snorting into the kitchen and positioned themselves in front of the door, yipping their furry little heads off. My mom opened the door, but no one was there.

The dogs stood there, hackles up, barking and woofing in the most unsettling way, for several minutes.

The second time, my mom was vacuuming the kitchen floor when she saw the Visitor again, and this time she mistook him for our postman, a tall, gaunt cadaverous fellow who often wore a long, light-colored coat. As he ambled across the grass, my mom was annoyed because it seemed to her the man was going out of his way to avoid walking on the brick walk, and there was a patch of yard between the driveway and the porch that was especially muddy. My mom moved to open the door and tell the postman not to even think of stepping inside her house with muddy shoes. But in the time it took her to slide the bolt and turn the door handle, the Visitor was gone again.

Despite nearly 25 years of ceaseless badgering, BB still insists to me that he never saw the Visitor, but I know for a fact he's lying his fat head off. Once, early on a Saturday morning, we were awakened by an ungodly shriek, followed immediately by an impressive BANG! which itself was followed instantly by the dogs yowling. By the time my mom and I made it downstairs, we found my brother sagging head-first inside the refrigerator, soda cans and condiment bottles oozing their contents at his feet, much the same way that his skull was oozing its contents from an impressive gash in the front of his forehead.

As he later told my mother--after she had falsely promised never to reveal what he said--he had been up early, intent on eating the remains of a tasty breakfast casserole that should have been enough to feed all of us for another couple of mornings. As he was quietly rummaging through the refrigerator for other things to add to his pre-dawn feast--a few English muffins, a pig's worth of bacon, a half-gallon of milk--he had the oddest sensation that someone was in the kitchen with him.

From his hunched position in front of the open refrigerator, he gazed across to the sink. And that's when he saw the head of someone peeking through the window at him. And I mean through the window, as though there were no wall or glass to separate my brother from his voyeur.

BB was so startled he suddenly stood straight up, smashing his forehead into the edge of the refrigerator door, an act which momentarily stunned him and caused him to collapse into the top two shelves of the fridge's cool interior.

He didn't need stitches, by the way, but I'm told it hurt quite a lot. Nearly as much as getting one's pecker caught in a knothole, say.

After BB's encounter, and at the suggestion of my friend Shawn--my best friend from my years of growing up in Kansas--I began to treat the strange occurrences in our house as parts of a detective case that I should attempt to solve. And of course, I was in the presence of a mystery, but not of any kind of mystery I ever wanted to be part of. As a child, I enjoyed crime stories, not ghost stories. Whenever one of my favorite shows, In Search Of..., came on, I learned from bitter experience to avoid any episodes involving ghosts, poltergeists, demonic possession or similar. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this sort of content scared the crap out of me, and not because I had an overactive imagination. Just the opposite, in fact. Thanks to a few renditions of my great-aunt Helen's tale involving her dead husband, I knew that there was some funky unseen shit out there, and I wanted to be a total ostrich about it. Until now.

So when Shawn called a few weeks before school let out and not only finalized his plans to come spend the summer with me, but also suggested I start researching what he began to call "the ghost case," it was one of those smack-yourself-in-the-forehead moments. But for my own childish mental block, I should have thought of this sooner.

I busied myself the next month by beginning research on two fronts: first, I began trying to find more information about the history of the house, the property and the people who had owned or lived on it going back to the Colonial period. Being only 13, it was difficult and time-consuming getting permission to look up rare and archived records at the town library, the county historical society and the county seat (where all property and tax records were kept), and I wouldn't make much progress on that front until much later, when I became involved in the restoration of a local lost cemetery and suddenly had street cred among the county record-keepers and bureaucrats.

On the second front, information was much easier to access. I gave myself a short course on the paranormal, reading anything I could find on "true" accounts of hauntings and ghost encounters. This meant that I became well-acquainted with the works of folks like Hans Holzer, and I also read a lot of crap too, I'm sure. But it was valuable research that gave me a working vocabulary for--and partial understanding of--what was happening in our house.

Which, if you believed the parapsychologists of the day, could be one of a couple of things. Either A: I or someone in the house was manifesting X-Men like mutant psychic powers such as levitation (the practical application of which might be the hurling of pinecones at your brother's ear) or B: I or someone in the house was sensitive to some form of psychic media that had been imprinted on the house and at certain times--not of our conscious control--we were able to playback that media, which might take the form of a vision of a lady in blue, a gentleman caller in white, or a physical disruption that caused chairs and pinecones to move of their own accord. There was also C, which was a combination of A and B. And of course, it was entirely possible that we were all victims of mass hallucination, which even my brother refused to believe after the pinecone incident.

Some adherents believed in D, the idea that there were actually trapped spirits--or fragments of a spirit that became trapped--in a particular place, fated to repeat signal events in some long ago life. The prevailing wisdom was that these manifestations were almost always the result of someone dying in such a sudden and unexpected way that the person in question didn't understand that he or she was dead. A similar theory--Option E--held that whoever was haunting the place had some kind of unfinished business in the world of the living--in the most fictionalized, romantic extrapolations of this theory, that usually meant someone who had hidden a will or a treasure and died without revealing its location; a woman who died in childbirth; or a person whose body had been interred in some unconsecrated way, such that it could not rest until the body was found and given a proper burial.

And, of course, there was always Option F, in which "F" stood for "fucking nuts."

Sometimes, my books informed me, you could communicate with whatever--or whoever--was doing the haunting. Once, when the chandelier in the foyer started flickering, my father, during a rare visit home, spent a good chunk of the weekend checking wiring, installing new electrical switches and changing lightbulbs in a series of increasingly frustrating vertical expeditions involving a rickety stepladder. By evening, he was thoroughly annoyed with the chandelier, and remarked to my mother, "By Jeezuz, if that's the goddamn spook, it better knock it the fuck off or I'm tearing out this Christly chandelier with my bare hands!"

The moment he said this, the chandelier glowed brighter than normal, flickered one more time, then burned brightly for the remainder of my father's visit.

But mostly, I found I could no more communicate with whatever was in the house than I could get the Red Sox to listen to me when I shouted at them on the TV. And of all the strange things that happened in that house, the only one I didn't personally witness was the Visitor.

That doesn't mean I didn't have an impact on him.

Summer arrived, and with it the second half of Detectives, Inc., my friend Shawn. I was excited, not just because it was a chance to spend time with my best pal, but also because we were a kick-ass team who was tough to beat. At least, that's what we liked to tell ourselves.

Shawn, for all his encouragement, arrived at the farmhouse in a fairly skeptical frame of mind. Of the pair of us, he was always the more rational. He had been doing his homework, too, of course, and he quickly came to believe that most ghost experiences could be explained away by scientific means. And it must be said that for all my high hopes, his first vacation with us did little to change his mind, even after everything that eventually happened.

But before stranger events transpired, something else happened one hot July morning, something completely ordinary and pedestrian, and yet it would lead to me to one of the most rattling events of my young life. And it all started with a newspaper.

We were sitting up in the small guest bedroom that sat directly over the kitchen. This room was accessible in two ways: via a small door--and by small I mean 5 feet high and 19 inches wide--set into the back wall of my bedroom; and up the original staircase, a steep rickety affair that sat in the squat, dark passageway between the kitchen and a large pantry.

Shawn and I were sitting on his bed, reading the local paper (their motto: "If it happened today, it's news to us!"). This was not a common occurrence for us, but my mom had promised to take us to a movie that evening if we could decide on one, so we were reviewing our options.

Once we settled on a film, I grabbed the section containing the comics while Shawn read through the local news. It was one of those moments of fate--I would never in a million years call it luck--that caused Shawn to linger on the classified ads, in which he saw two notices for local psychics. The first one was a woman out on the airport road who offered palm readings and "Tarrot cards" [sic] but the second one caused my friend's eyebrows to rise as though attached to invisible hooks.

"Maybe we should ask this person to get rid of the ghosts," he said, and handed the paper to me.

I never kept a copy of the ad, although it ran in the local paper for many years (and may indeed be running still) but it said something like this:

Marsh Road Family Psychics
"The REAL Thing"
Seances Conducted, Exorcisms Done, Ghost Communication
(Y-E-S Psychic Readings Too!)
Spirit Mediums for 50 Years

There was no phone number, only a mailbox number, but as soon as I saw the first two words, I realized with some surprise that I might have heard of this service.

"I wonder if that's the Witch Man," I said.

The Witch Man was, as far as I could gather from the neighborhood kids, the local crazy guy and boogeyman rolled into one. He lived in an old shack out in the marshes, in the wasteland between our little town and the county seat. The marshes were a creepy, dank, smelly pesthole of New Jersey, or so I had always thought whenever we drove through them on our way to another part of the county. It seemed an altogether dead place to me, and so was the ideal place to set up shop if you were part of a family psychic practice, I suppose.

I had never seen the Witch Man myself, but I was assured he was all too real. According the older brother of the kids next door--a nice enough twentysomething named Sid--the Witch Man had come door to door one October, telling the residents of the old, Colonial houses that dotted the neighborhood that he was offering to rid their homes of spirit infestation. The dad next door sent him on his way, but Sid insisted that the Witch Man had spent some time next door--at my house, in other words. And if he had not convinced the owners at that time to let him offer his peculiar brand of pest-removal, he nevertheless lingered long enough to make a scene.

"I was just little when it happened--younger than you," Sid said to me. "And I remember him standing in your driveway, yelling at the people in the house. I could hear him just fine because my room was on that side of the house. He was shouting that there was something right there, right under his feet, and the owners were too stupid to see it."

"What did he mean? What was under his feet?" I remember asking.

"Somebody's body, ba-doi," Sid said, with a note of contempt that suggested there could be nothing else.

Thinking of that exchange, I looked out the window of Shawn's room now, out at the gravel driveway beyond. Where had the Witch Man been standing, I wondered, when he told the previous inhabitants of the house that a body--or whatever--was buried?

Well, of course, if you've ever been a young person in summer, you know there's no way in hell two boys can form such a question without acting on it, especially if one of those boys was me. I suppose we would have gone over to Sid's house and determined within a square mile exactly where on the driveway the Witch Man had been standing when he made his pronouncement all those years ago. But of course, we didn't do that. And in fairness, I had a feeling that if we focused our efforts on the 15-foot strip that sat in view of the kitchen window, we just might find something.

Now, if any of you have ever wondered just how much damage two 13-year-olds can do to a gravel driveway, the answer is Quite a lot. We found a couple of iron rakes and my dad's old Army spade and we dug as though we'd heard there was oil down below. We didn't stop until dusk, when my mom pulled into the driveway and narrowly missed breaking an axle in one of the four-foot-deep sinkholes we'd created.

Seldom have I worked so hard for no money. But it was, I must admit, an interesting day. We discovered many things during our excavation. For example, we learned a great deal about the extent of the root structure of the hedge on the other side of the driveway (which turned brown and died suddenly and mysteriously early that fall). We also learned that, when covered with dirt and bits of grass, a visible portion of metal electrical conduit can easily be mistaken for a leg bone, right up til the moment you pull on it and watch your lamppost shift--noticeably and permanently--to one side.

It was an hour before dusk when Shawn's shovel made a promising clunk in the dirt. He was near the edge of the driveway, ducking under the off-kilter lamppost when his shovel struck home.

At first, I wasn't impressed. "Oh, that's just the big rock I keep dinging with the lawn mower," I said and turned back to my work. I had seen and heard the jutting edge of this stone before, just below the grass-line, and dismissed it quickly.

But Shawn had fresh eyes. He carefully began digging around the perimeter of the rock until he was able to get the blade under and heave. I turned and watched as a startlingly white slab of hewn rock burst from the ground.

"Oh MY GOD IT'S A GRAVE!!!" I informed the entire populace of southern New Jersey.

It took the two of us, but together we got the stone free and once we did, we stood over it, scratching our heads in what can only be called growing puzzlement. If it was indeed a gravestone, it looked like no stone I had ever seen. For one thing, it looked like a stone cube, about three feet long by a foot wide, too small by far to be any headstone I'd ever seen (I didn't know about footstones then, but if I had, I would have dismissed that possibility too. It was too big to be a footstone).

Also--and this was really the confusing part--there was no writing of any kind on any side of the stone, and we went to some grunting pains to check every side. One side of the stone appeared to have been rubbed or worn in some way, but if there had been any engraving, it seemed likely that we'd have spotted it. Just to be sure Shawn, smart guy that he was, had gone in the house to find some paper and a crayon so we could do a rubbing, while I got the idea that maybe this was just some small brick of a larger stone monument, and returned to digging in earnest.

Yeah, that was when my mom showed up.

I'm not saying we didn't get in trouble, and I'm not saying we didn't learn a valuable lesson about flinging dirt too far from holes you're going to have to refill, because boy, we sure did. But my mom most definitely was not as mad as she could have been. Not once she laid eyes on the stone.

"Mother of Gawd!" she cried, her South Boston showing. "I haven't seen one of these since we used to go out to your great-granfathah's at the old stables in Stowe." She bent down there in the gloom and rubbed her hand appreciatively over the worn surface. "Look. This was the top. You can almost see shoe prints."

"What is it?" I asked as Shawn came out with his paper and crayons.

Mom smiled. "It's a carriage step. This driveway was probably the original drive back when the house was first built. Horse-drawn carriages were high off the ground, you know, and this gave you something to step on..." As she said this, my mom trailed off and looked toward the house.

I probably don't have to tell you that it was at this point that my mom realized the carriage step was in direct line of sight with the kitchen window. If you walked in a straight line from that step to the house, you'd miss the brick path my brother and I had so carefully laid.

You'd be walking in the path of the Visitor.

Which sounds kind of exciting to me now, but I have to tell you, at the time, it was a bit of a downer. All that digging and all we found was a step? What would that matter to a ghost? Where the fuck was his body?

The next day, when my mom wasn't watching, I dug a few more experimental feet under where we'd found the step, making up stories in my head about late-night travelers murdered by highwaymen as they alighted from their carriage, but I never found anything remotely interesting. So Sid had been wrong: there was no body in the driveway.

Funny thing, though. After the night we found the carriage step, none of us ever saw the Visitor again.

As unsatisfying as certain aspects of this event were at the time, it clinched a couple of things for me. First: there was apparently some truth to the theories espoused in my books. We may have uncovered only an old carriage step, but it was obviously something that was important to whoever had been haunting it--I'll probably never know why--but in the act of uncovering it, we had evidently done enough to placate the Visitor.

Second: Evidently, this Witch Man, whoever he was, however crazy he was purported to be, had some psychic juice. After all, we never would have thought to dig up the driveway if it hadn't been for him.

Shawn must have been thinking the same thing that night, as we laid in our bed, each of us staring out our respective bedroom windows, down at the bone-white carriage step, which almost seemed to be glowing in the moonlight.

"Here's an idea..." he called from the next room.

"About the Visitor? About the Witch M--"

"Bingo!" he hissed. "You think we could ride a couple of bikes all the way out to this marsh where he lives?"

I shivered for a second at the thought of riding my bike into that steamy, stinking wasteland. "I guess," I said finally.

"I think we should go see this guy tomorrow," he said, then added brightly. "Well, g'night!"

Sure, easy for him to say...


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

 

An October Moment...


(If you're just joining us, it might be helpful to start here. That way there will be absolutely no doubt as to the level of sanity you're dealing with here.)


October 1980 and afterward...

Ever since I was a kid, when I've chosen to share my experiences of "growing up in a haunted house" (a phrase that was never of my choosing, but which was inevitably to be associated with this time in my life), I've always hastened to tell people that it was a positive experience, that I never felt particularly scared living there, and I suppose that's true, if you were to take my experience as a whole. Yeah, I was pretty shaken by my experience in the attic, but I was just as shaken when I fell out of the old willow in the back yard. Didn't mean I stopped climbing the willow; I just stayed off that high branch, much as I stayed out of the attic when I could help it. The rest of the house was quite an amazing and even fun place to live out my adolescence. I spent many nights there by myself, especially in my late teens, and even today would have no compunction about spending any amount of time there alone.

But not being frightened is still a long way from not being disturbed or unsettled by a place. Make no mistake: that house was a pretty odd place to live. But humans are amazingly adaptable to their surroundings, and I suspect that few humans are better at adapting, at coping with the unusual, than kids.

The plain fact was, regardless of what I'd witnessed, my parents weren't about to pick up and move again so soon after relocating to this place. My brother was already a sophomore in high school and I would start my freshman year soon. My parents, God love 'em, thought we should finish high school in one place. But there's always a deeper truth, and in this instance, there were several.

Truth #1: Not too long after he took the job that brought us to this place, my father had a falling out with his bosses and became a free agent of the welding world. He quickly found himself with numerous job offers which, while lucrative, involved him being on the other side of the country. But these jobs were just too good to say no to, especially since the hiring companies were in some cases tripling what my father was making in New Jersey. He reasoned that with this money, he could afford to fly home on weekends and still have plenty of cashflow left over.

Truth #2: In the event, my father flew home every month for the first few months. By New Year's, he was coming home on a quarterly basis. One year, he came home exactly twice. I once estimated the actual time spent with him when I was between the ages of 12 and 16--nearly the entire time we lived in the house--and it amounted to something like 90 days. Hey, I didn't say these were happy truths.

Truth #3: I didn't say they were exactly sad either. In the moment, we were perfectly fine to see less of my dad, since he was at that time pretty much in full pursuit of his real vocation, which was heavy drinking. We didn't know this--well, to be hindsightedly honest, we didn't allow ourselves to believe this--but we knew he was increasingly not a great guy to be around. Which brings us to...

Truth #4: We just plain didn't want to move. Not simply because we wanted to go to high school in the same place and not simply because we all sensed some distance from my dad would be a good thing. For want of a better way to put it, there was something about that house that made us want to stay. I'm not going clean round the bend here and suggesting that we were in the grip of an unholy force. I'm just saying that there was something about the place that made us feel we were meant to be there for a while.

And if you accepted that truth, then you had to accept everything that came with it. We all had our ways of coping with the strange shit that went on in the house. My brother didn't want to talk about it. End of story. Bringing up the subject of the Blue Lady or the Man in the Attic (for some reason, we all felt that whatever was in the attic, it was male) was as uncomfortable to my brother--and as likely to result in an impromptu pummeling--as reminding him of the time you caught him playing with himself in the back seat of the car. It was personal, it was nobody's business, and it wasn't a topic that invited scrutiny of any kind.

That could be because BB was singled out for one of the few poltergeist events that occurred in the house, and the only one that was witnessed by everyone.

It happened in the winter of 1981. We'd been in the house about six or eight months. It was just after supper and my brother and I were doing our homework. Being an old house, it was, of course, a drafty house, and the warmest place to be of a cold winter evening was in front of the old Franklin stove that sat in the family room just off the kitchen. We had a small breakfast table in there and it became our de facto dining room in cold weather. We sat at opposite ends of the table, my brother and I, me writing a 250-word essay about Christian Youth or some similarly pointless assignment for religion class; my brother engaged in the laborious process of reading Arthur Miller's translation of An Enemy of the People, which he had taken a good running start at earlier in the week. BB was on page two.

Mom was further down the room, closer to the massive oak door that led to our gorgeous but seldom-used living room, a part of the house that dated to the 1830s, along with the slightly opulent foyer with its double doors and its pull-chain doorbell. We knew this because that's what the realtor told us, and also because the previous owners had left a few scraps of provenance behind, including a faded copy of a work order for the addition of the foyer, paid for in full by a "Captain Weber" who I would later find out was a personage of some importance and means in the region.

So there's my mom, at one end of the room. At the other, by the stove, BB and I are studiously attending our devoirs. Behind my brother is a breakfast bar, installed when the previous owners put a fairly large hole in the kitchen wall and laid a couple of boards down to act as a counter. We almost never used the bar, so my mom had taken to displaying kitchen-related antiques there, including some old crockery and two wooden sifters, both of which were filled with pinecones that my brother and I had collected from our hill in New Hampshire.

My brother loved throwing these pinecones at me. When I say "loved," I mean that second to eating (and perhaps playing with himself in the car), nothing gave him greater pleasure than pegging me in a soft place with a hard, surprisingly sharp pinecone. And the worst thing was, these pinecones were virtually indestructible. They were the Last Pinecones of Krypton.

And I don't know what it was--whether he had simply decided that the plays of Ibsen weren't his cup of tea, or he just remembered some injustice I had done to him that warranted belated revenge, but my brother reached behind him, palmed a pinecone, and hit me on the crown of my head, just as I was copying a small excerpt from Vatican II about the apostolate of the laity, or some fucking thing.

"Quit it!" I growled. "I'm doing religion homework," I added, as if that made me more pious and above attack.

My brother didn't share this view. The indestructible pinecone skittered back to him--a rebound shot--and he winged it at me again. This time, I managed to deflect it with my religion text, Faith Under Construction (a singular work whose sole value in my life was the pleasure I derived from referring to it by its acronym whenever I could get away with it).

I had long ago learned that it was better to move away from my brother at moments like these than to involve my mom. If I tattled, I would of course be branded a pussy, which was unacceptable, but I was also worried that my brother's antagonism was entirely justified and in reporting him to the authorities, BB would simply counter by turning state's evidence and get me in deeper trouble.

So I quietly gathered my books and papers and moved over to the couch, putting me within about five feet of my mom and her ironing board. BB made a face at me--he couldn't throw a pinecone now without risking hitting Mom, and we both knew it.

"Gonna get you," I mouthed silently at him.

"Sure you are," my brother mouthed back, making a supremely disdainful O-K sign with his fingers. I quickly gave a hand-sign of my own, the kind of hand-sign you shouldn't make within five feet of your mother, because if you do, it will set off her spider-sense and cause her to look up right away. Which is what my mother did just then.

But before she could even speak to me in a sharp voice, she saw something that caused her to make a strange, stifled cry instead. I looked up and followed her gaze just in time to see the pinecone.

It was a different pinecone than the one my brother had thrown at me. I know this because as my mom and I stared at it--with the kind of open-mouthed awe I'm sure we both thought we'd save for a one-on-one with the Angel of the Lord or the Virgin Mary--it lifted itself from the wooden sifter and flew in a wide, fast arc at my brother.

He turned just in time to register the flying object, but not in time to avoid contact with it. It smacked him in the ear, so sharply that he almost fell out of the chair. So sharply that it crumbled to powder on the side of his face.

"OWWWWWWWWWWW! You SHIT FUCKER!" my brother cried, glaring at me. For him to swear in front of our mother like that, I knew two things: the pinecone must have hurt like a mad bastard, and he was so mad about being hit, he didn't care if mom was there or not. Either way, in his pain and rage, he was convinced I had somehow launched this attack, although even a moron could see I was nowhere near BB or the pinecones. Then again, BB has never let sub-moronic behavior be an impediment to him. With little preamble, he launched himself at me with a single-minded passion he normally reserved for the acquisition of the last piece of pie.

"Don't even!" I cried, climbing up over the side of the couch and grabbing the hot steam iron from my startled mother's hand.

"Stop it, BOTH of you!" my mom cried, then she pointed at the breakfast bar again. "LOOK!"

We both turned--BB with sticky pinecone dust covering one side of his head like a hideous birthmark, me holding the Sunbeam Ironmaster, ready to steam my brother's face like it was a shirt sleeve. And as we watched, all the rest of the pinecones came flying out of the wooden sifter as though they had been in a popcorn popper.

My brother uttered a strangled cry that would have chilled me to the bone if it hadn't been so funny, and then he was up over the couch, past my mother, the iron and me, and on into the laundry room, where he stood, quivering like a Chihuahua.

Well, we were a long time calming down from that one.

After that event, it's little wonder my brother--who carried a red, pineconesque indentation on the side of his face for a good week--wasn't keen to discuss the unseen occupants of our house. What's more puzzling, however, is my mom's refusal to acknowledge that anything unusual had happened. Indeed, for our first year in the farmhouse, my mom treated the strange goings-on much as if she were a government agent trying to maintain a level of plausible deniability at all costs. It wasn't that she refused to believe what was happening; it was just that she wanted us to maintain a cosseted existence parallel to the paranormal. Today, we recognize it for what it was: wishful thinking.

And by early in our second year in residence, it was clear that sort of thinking wasn't going to fly at the farmhouse. Whoever or whatever was there, it wanted attention.

And once it got mine and BB's, it went to work on my mom...


Monday, October 16, 2006

 

In Which We Recover the Baby with the Bathwater...

Talk about eating the whole thing...

...and then my computer drive totally crashed, devouring everything and I spent a week's worth of waking hours trying to rebuild or reformat or regurgitate the whole fucking thing.

EYYYYYYYYYYYAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGG!


EYYYYYYYYYYYAAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!


EYYYYYY--ah fuck it. You get the idea.

I've been around for the crash of a hard drive exactly twice before in my life. The last time was 13 years ago, when I snuck into the office a certain someone and placed what looked like a large, round coaster on the top of the unit. Except it wasn't a coaster: it was a giant magnet. I'll tell you all about it some time.

The time before that, about three years earlier, my beloved MAC SE hard drive--all 8 whopping megabytes of it--vanished in the night, leaving behind only that horrid old bomb screen, followed by the Sad Mac Face of Eternal Gloom.

So, I guess these things come in threes.

The hell of it was, it happened as I was in the midst of transferring all my old crap to a brand new laptop. I was halfway through the task when I deleted something I shouldn't have and suddenly found myself asking the question, "Gee, I wonder how well those restore disks that came with the computer--and that I've never before opened or used--will work?"

The answer is: not very.

At last I got my old laptop back up and in running order, only minus lots of the stuff I was hoping to transfer. So I tried to run a restore from the last back-up I did.

Which, incidentally, was in 2001.

And that was, well, inadvisable would probably be the word. It reinstalled some old system thingies that it shouldn't have and put things on the hard drive that I had long ago removed for very good reasons, most of them involving the fact that I was no longer researching that series of sex articles and so didn't need any of the x-rated video games or grainy homemade porn, or pictures of...good God, is that a pony?

On the complete other end of the spectrum, the backup also left this gem on my desktop, which I remember experiencing but do not, for the life of me, remember filming.



The Brownie was just a few months old, and had only just started to laugh. As a baby, Thomas had to work up to his laughs--they began as mildly startled grunts, then became surprised little coughs before evolving into screeches that made dogs whine up and down the block.

His sister, however, went for the full-bodied belly laugh from almost day one.

And I'm pretty sure this is the only recorded instance of it.

So I leave this happy baby to distract you, while I return to the loathsome job of deleting the porn.

Oh, and rewriting 5,200 words involving my experiences with ghosts.

And I had just got to the part where Shawn and I screwed up the courage to go visit the witch man, too...

All together now:

EYYYYYYYYYYYAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGG!


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

 

In Which I Can't Believe He Ate the Whole Thing...

Yesterday, Her Lovely Self brought in a load of groceries from the supermarket, but she wasn't feeling so hot, so she left them in their bags on the kitchen floor while she went upstairs to take some Tylenol and go to bed. I put away the perishables but left a few of the pantry goods where they lay. I know, I know, I should have put everything away, but it was a nice evening and Thomas wanted to play some catch before it got dark.

I kinda sorta forgot about the bags until this morning. HLS was still feeling ill, so I got up with the kids and went downstairs to make them breakfast. And finally put the groceries away.

With Halloween fast approaching, Her Lovely Self laid in some seasonal provisions, including apples and caramel and an assortment of trick-or-treat candy. Normally we get this stuff in moderation, so I was mildly surprised to see that HLS had purchased a large bag of Tootsie Rolls. I say "mildly surprised" because she's had kind of a craving for Tootsie Rolls lately, so a large bag made sense.

What surprised me was how empty the bag was, after less than 24 hours in the house.

And then I looked closer at the packaging.

102_2859

A 420-count bag? Jesus, there's maybe only a hundred left in here, I thought

"Did you guys snarf some Tootsie Rolls last night when I wasn't looking?" I asked the kids as they ate their breakfast.

Thomas shook his head. "Don't even like them. Too chewy," he said. The Brownie copped to having two or three. But not two or three hundred.

Good God, HLS couldn't possibly have eaten all these, as sick as she's been, I thought, staring at the bag. Who the hell ate all the Tootsie Rolls?

Give you one guess.


102_2858


I'll be honest: It was a long time before I could seriously suspect Blaze this morning. He may steal food off a dinner plate if no one's in the room, but he has never ripped open a bag of food and started gorging himself. And he's never shown the slightest interest in sweets either, so I had some difficulty believing he could be the Tootsie thief. Except for the fact that he was sitting in his kennel, watching me with a look that was the very definition of the word "hangdog."

And there was that telltale wrapper in his cage.

toots

"Oh Blaze!" I said in a tone of exaggerated scorn as I waggled the wrapper at him. "Did you eat the Tootsie Rolls?"

He just looked at me.

Thomas heard this. "You mean Blaze took them?"

The Brownie saw what I was holding. "Well, Dad," she began, leaping to support her dog, a little public defender of the canine world. "If Blazey ate them, what did he do with the rest of the wrappers?"

Alas, we got the answer to that question about four minutes later (click at your peril. You've been warned).

And again four minutes and 12 seconds afterwards.

And yet again four minutes and 22 seconds after that.

And...well, you get the idea.

Oh, do I really need to tell you at this point that a Vomit Warning is in effect?

I hauled Blaze, sputtering and trailing a pendulous string of brown drool from his snout, out to the back and hooked him to his runner, whereupon he brought up yet more Tootsie Roll artifacts. As he alternately retched and chewed up great clumps of grass, I phoned the vet. Chocolate--even something chocolate-flavored, like a Tootsie Roll--isn't great for dogs. Neither is inhaling a shitload of waxed wrappers, so I wanted to see what I should do.

The vet was much more amused about the incident than I was, that's for sure. But she still managed to do a decent job of reassuring me that Blaze was doing the best thing possible for himself, if not for us. My job, the vet stressed, was as vomit support--to keep the dog off food for the rest of the day, to make sure he had plenty of water, to be watchful that he didn't choke Jimi Hendrix style, and in general to make sure he didn't exhibit any behavior that remotely resembled death.

You know, like the behavior I exhibited the entire time I was compelled to mop up his mess.

Excuse me, messes.

Now, I don't know precisely what Tootsie Rolls are made of, but I'm here to tell you that once they're mixed with canine stomach acid, they become a hideous, syrupy form of ectoplasm that sinks into carpet with unimaginable speed. It's not a mess easily cleaned with wet rags and foaming carpet cleanser, that's for sure. And it is most definitely not easily--or quietly--cleaned with a shop vacuum. I will go to my grave hearing the snuffling, slurping noise of the wet/dry vac as it attempted to hoover up what was essentially a 40-foot long loogie composed entirely of Tootsie Roll.

Not to, er, toot my own horn, but generally I'm pretty unflappable when it comes to mopping up dog vom. Generally. But this! I was beyond horrified, beyond revulsed. I went into a kind of detached conscious state where I was able to cope only by forcing myself to have an out-of-body experience.

And by doing odd things.

Like counting wrappers.

I stopped counting at 316.

So, yeah, it was a bit of a long morning. Too long, to be perfectly honest. By the time I was ready to begin clean-up on site #6, something snapped. I threw in the towel--literally--and called a professional carpet-cleaning service. It was my lucky day, they informed me without a hint of irony. Turns out they had a cancellation this morning and could be at my house by lunch-time.

Which is where they are now. Her Lovely Self just called. Having slept through the kids' departure for school, she only just woke up a few minutes before the cleaning crew knocked on the door, feeling refreshed and pleased.

"What a nice birthday present!" she gushed (her birthday is in two days. And no, I hadn't bought her a gift yet, if you want to know the truth).

"Well...surprise!" I said. "I just thought you'd enjoy it. I mean we haven't had them cleaned since we moved in."

"It'll be great!" she said. Then there was a pause. "Um, why is Blaze out in the back yard?"

"Oh...well..." I paused. "I take it you haven't been in the dining room today."

"N-o-o-o-o," she said slowly. "Do I want to go in the dining room? Did the dog have an accident? Do I want to know any more?"

"Not really," I answered.

"Okay," she said, then abruptly shifted topics. "Thank you again for this great surprise. And for getting the kids out the door this morning. And I see you even put the rest of the groceries away. Boy, you're really on a roll today."

"You have no idea," I said.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Sunday, October 08, 2006

 

An October Moment...

...but not the moment you were expecting.


October 28, 1972


My mom called this weekend to nail down the final details of their bi-annual trip. This time next week, they should be here.

In addition to the usual news from home, my mom reported some difficult information about Great-Aunt Helen, my late grandfather's sister. Helen's in her early 90s and since she was in her 30s, she has kept house in the brownstone on East Boadway in South Boston. But no longer. This week her daughter moved her to a nursing home after it was determined she'd had a series of mini-strokes that apparently added up to a big one. In the space of a month, she's gone from a spry, sharp old gal who still made brownies every time I came to visit, to a shadow of her former self, an old lady confined to bed and only brief periods of lucidity.

"She doesn't really respond to anyone in the room when she's awake," my mom reported. "She mostly keeps telling Jimmy to call the priest and not to throw out the couch."

In other words, she was reliving the death of her husband, my great-uncle Coleman, a man I never met.

Uncle Coley's death was probably the second most profound event in Helen's life. He was, by all accounts, a great man, large in stature, in heart, in spirit. He was the sun around which Helen and her family orbited, and she wasn't the only one who could say that. Coley was, apparently, the man my grandfather most admired and tried to be like, although they led very different lives.

Coley was a detective on the Boston police force, and an unusual one. Unusual in that he was pretty clean by department standards. I can't say that he never got favors or money or special treatment because of his position--I mean, really, how does a family of six afford a three-story brownstone on a cop's salary?--but he was a straight arrow, relatively speaking.

He was unusual in one other important regard. He had, in the words of my grandmother, "a weakness for mysticism." He believed in paranormal phenomena. As a young man, he'd been fascinated with "talking boards" or Ouija boards, as they are more commonly known. He read Fate magazine. He had attended seances. He was one of the first detectives in the history of the Boston police department--if not in all of law enforcement--to consult a psychic on an active case (in the late 1940s. There is, of course, no record of it. And those in my family who remember the story have conflicting views on whether the psychic helped Coley or not).

To the consternation of his parish priest, Coley insisted that he had seen ghosts and could feel "emanations." If he'd been less responsible and solid in all other aspects of his life, it would have been easy to dismiss Coley as a crackpot. But he wasn't. He was a good cop. He went to church every Sunday and Holy Day. He almost never drank. Indeed, his only vice was for pipe tobacco--he smoked Prince Albert (yes, he had Prince Albert in a can). And so his predilections for the unseen were viewed as a kind of harmless eccentricity.

Even my aunt didn't know what to make of it. Mostly she was scared of my uncle's ideas about ghosts, especially when he promised to come back to her. Truth. Just after they got married, he used to say, "Helen, if I go first, I'll come back and give you a sign. Nothing frightening, no chains and groans. Just a wink and a nod to let you know it's all right." He meant it as a comfort, but I don't think it's telling tales out of school to say he freaked her right the fuck out, so much so that after a while, he stopped promising her that he'd come back from the grave to tell her how things were going.

In 1962, Coley came home from an all-night investigation and lay down on the couch in the parlor to get an hour or two of sleep. He often worked nights and, rather than wake anyone up, he took a snooze in the parlor until Helen got up to make breakfast. He never knew that Helen woke up the moment she heard the familiar scuff of his leather shoes in the hall.

And Helen didn't know--until later, anyway--that the moment Coley laid down on the sofa in the parlor of the brownstone on Broadway, a massive heart attack struck him like a lightning bolt. Aunt Helen found him lying so peacefully on the couch when she got up to make breakfast, she didn't even realize he was gone until she had his coffee on the kitchen table. Coley always woke up at the smell of coffee.

When the realization hit, Helen couldn't even go into the parlor. She simply called for her youngest son and told him matter-of-factly, "Ya fathah's dead on the couch. Run down to St. Brigid's and get the priest." It was a minor scandal that she didn't call a doctor or an ambulance first, but only a minor scandal. As Helen said that day and years afterward, "I knew he was gone as soon as I set the coffee on the table. What was the point of calling the doctor? He needed bigger help than that." Despite his weakness for mysticism, the priest gave Coley last rites and he was laid to rest with a full funeral mass, police honor guard, the works.

Helen forgot all about Coley's promise.

Ten years later, on a cold night just before Halloween, Helen was coming out of the supermarket with a small bag of groceries. Her son Jimmy, who still lived at home, was sick and she wanted to get him the Campbell's soup he liked.

As she crossed in front of an alley, two guys jumped her and pulled her into the darkness. Helen should have thrown her purse and run, but she was a spry gal who didn't suffer scumbags lightly. She held on, forcing one of the men to grab her roughly and push her to the pavement, breaking her collarbone. She started screaming bloody murder, from the pain, and from the fear. So the other man pulled out a switchblade, intent on quieting her forever.

Then both men stopped in their tracks.

As Helen later recalled (and I remember well sitting on the couch in her parlor--yes, that couch--hearing this story at the impressionable age of 5), both men were not looking down at her, but up at a point over her shoulder, a horrible species of fear etched on their faces. They dropped the purse and ran the other way as fast as their legs could carry them.

Helen fainted then, but before she did, she swore she heard a familiar scuff of leather shoes on the pavement and could smell the unmistakable odor of Prince Albert pipe tobacco enveloping her like a warm blanket. Then she woke up in the hospital.

That was the most profound event in Helen's life. And she never tired of reliving it.

Now she lies in another bed, remembering the day she last saw her husband. Does she also remember the night she last heard from him, the night he reached out to let her know it was all right?

I hope so.

When I was about 10, after hearing the story of Uncle Coley's Return for the umptyump time, I asked her, "Are you going to come back and give us a sign, Aunt Helen?"

She patted my cheek. "Ah, who knows, hon? Maybe I will. Nothing too scary. Just a wink and a nod. Just a wink and a nod," she said. Then she smiled.

I've been waiting for that sign for nearly 30 years. But right now, I'm not quite ready for it to come.

Be well, Aunt Helen.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

 

An October Moment...



October 24, 1980


It was a blustery Friday. From my bedroom window up on the second floor, I could hear the hedge in the yard below creaking under the weight of the wind. As elemental forces go, wind had always been my very favorite. The sound was exhilarating and soothing at the same time, especially in the fall, when the sound included the rustling of a million leaves swept up by the breath of the world.

I sat at my desk and stared out across the acre-and-a-half of yard behind the old green farmhouse where we lived. As I watched, the wind created small trails in the long grass. For a moment, it looked like the blazed footpaths of a dozen invisible beings as they strode through the grass, heading for the house.

I was 12 years old and all alone in the house. My father was working late at the plant. My mom and my brother were over in Delaware at the mall. They'd left as soon as we got home from school and I wasn't expecting them back until after supper. Being home alone like this was still a novel experience--it was only this year that my mom felt I was old enough to be left on my own, so I was excited to have the place to myself.

Except, of course, that I didn't.

It had only been a few weeks earlier, after all, that I had first seen the woman we had all come to call The Blue Lady. She had been sitting in my parents' bedroom, staring out the window. The first time I'd seen her, I had mistaken her for my mom. But she wasn't. For one thing, you couldn't see through my mom, but the Blue Lady was most definitely transparent. I discovered this the second time I had seen her, just 10 days ago. I'd come upstairs to change clothes after school, and there she was, back to me, sitting on the bed, staring out the window. As soon as I saw her, every hair on my head and neck stood straight up and I had to bite my thumb--hard--to resist the urge to run back downstairs. I managed to fight that urge for a full five seconds.

And in that time, I saw something I'll never forget: I saw that the Blue Lady wasn't sitting on the bed, but in the bed. Her body seemed to end at her waist, as though she was sitting in a chair that no longer existed.

Then I turned tail and ran.

Sitting in the house now, with the light waning and the wind rising, you'd think I'd be freaked out about being alone in a--well, what else would you call it?--a haunted house. But the truth is, up to that time I'd had a very good vibe about our new home. It was the kind of house I'd always dreamed of living in: lots of neat old rooms with twisting stairs and winding corridors. It wasn't a creepy house; it had character. My overarching emotional state was one of curiosity, not apprehension. More than anything, I wanted to learn more about the house and its nearly 200 year history. I wanted to find out something about the people who lived and died here. The idea of being in this place seemed like an adventure, certainly not a fearful experience.

Those notions ended with a sudden

WHUMP.

I snapped out of my reverie, shifted my gaze from outside to the dimming interior of my room. The muffled noise had almost certainly come from within the house. My first thought was that a breeze from one of the other open windows had knocked something over. Which would have been a good thought indeed, but for one small problem: all the other windows in the house were closed. I had closed them myself.

WHUMP. WHUMP.

Louder now. And it seemed that the noise was coming from above me. Up on the third floor, under the low eaves, were two rooms: First, my brother's room, with his desk and the narrow brass bed he slept on. Then, on one wall of that room, there sat a small wooden door, about four feet square. When you opened it, you immediately descended a rickety step-ladder into the dark room that served as our attic. It was a drafty, unfinished room that smelled that high, sweet smell of dust and decay. That was the only room in the house that unnerved me, partly because it was so dark--there was only one wire in the room, which terminated in a single light socket for a feeble 60-watt bulb. But the other problem was the window at the end of the room. It wasn't a proper window with glass panes, but just an open square that was sealed only by means of a single wooden shutter and a rusty hook-and-eye latch. Because of the age of the house (it had been built in 1785) and decades of settling, the shutter no longer closed quite square on that window. On windy days, you could hear it rattling against the frame, like a crazed person jiggling a locked door in a vain effort to break in--or get out.

Sometimes, one edge of the shutter would blow open just enough to admit small animals. As a result, since our arrival just 3 or 4 months earlier, my parents had had to remove 2 or 3 sparrows, a few chipmunks and several bats from the confines of that dark room. Occasionally, the animals were still alive when my parents found them, but often they had died, especially the birds, which often as not broke their little necks by flying headfirst into a low rafter. And once, my father had found a luckless bat whose head got caught between the shutter and the frame, where it strangled to death.

WHUMP. WHUMP. BA-WHUMP.

I leaned across my desk and lifted the screen on my bedroom window, then craned my neck out to look up. The attic window was just a dozen feet above me and in a blink I saw the cause of the noise: The shutter had finally broken free of the old latch and it was now swinging freely against the house. Each time the wind blew it, the heavy old shutter flung itself against the clapboards and made that deep, frame-shaking whump.

The noise didn't bother me.

The idea that I was going to have to go upstairs and into the attic to close that window did.

But there was no one else to do it, and I couldn't very well leave it open til my mom came home. The weather was calling for rain and if enough rain blew into that open attic, it could cause a leak in my bedroom ceiling. I was 12. I was in charge of the house while everyone was away. It was my responsibility.

I opened a footlocker at the foot of my bed and rummaged until I found the webbed Army belt that contained my Mobile Crime Lab from my days as a boy detective. In one pouch, I found my pocket flashlight. The batteries were old, but the light was strong enough. So, with a deep breath, I started up the stairs, ducking as I went to avoid clocking myself on the hard plaster of the eaves.

Although it had been a fairly warm day and the topmost part of the house tended to retain heat, I was surprised to discover the third floor was several degrees cooler than the temperature in my bedroom. It wasn't that I felt a cold spot; it was simply cold up here. And windy. With the attic window open, a surprisingly strong draft was coming from under the crack of the attic door. It made a strange and decidedly eerie moaning sound as the air was forced through the narrow space. I grabbed the old wrought-iron handle of the door and thumbed the latch.

At the same time, there was a sudden gust of air and the force of the wind blew the door out of my hands. It swung wide and hit the plaster wall, making a teeth-rattling BANG! as it did. Dust flew up from the attic floor and caught in my hair, my eyes, my teeth. Down the step ladder and across the dark room, the old shutter flailed ever more wildly, like the blinking eye of a blind old giant.

Flashlight on, I scuttled down the steps and turned on the single bare bulb, illuminating the room in a thin, gray light. Here were several old moving boxes, plus some of my parents' antiques that they hadn't yet found a place for: an old butter churn, a battered pine dresser, a small stack of ornate picture frames, some of them gilded in gritty, flecked gold paint. I stepped over these to the window and caught the worn, black-painted shutter as it swung back to the house again. I looped a finger under the hook and pulled it toward the eye set into the frame. I started to secure the shutter, then noticed that the eye catch had twisted in the wood, so that as soon as you latched the hook into it, it simply fell back out. I gave the eye a couple of hard twists until I felt it bite into the wood, then I latched the window securely.

WHUMP!

I whirled at the sound and was just in time to see the attic door swing shut, cutting off the light from my brother's room. Now my heart was beating in my ears and I half-expected the bare bulb above me to blow out, or my flashlight to go dead. Neither of those things happened, but I still felt very much in a dark place, surrounded only by the weakest cone of light.

I started back for the stairs and immediately tripped over the stack of picture frames, landing across them and scuffing my hands on the hard floor. The flashlight skittered from my grasp. A couple of the topmost frames made cracking sounds and later I found flecks of gold paint ground into my pantlegs. I rolled across the floor and jumped to my feet. Flashlight forgotten, I crossed the attic in three quick steps and jumped up the stepladder, feeling for the latch. After a lively moment's scrambling, I found the cool metal catch and lifted it. I heard the latch on the other side.

But the door wouldn't open.

Any good vibe or comfortable feeling I'd had about the house evaporated in that moment.

I pushed hard, thinking that surely the wind must have jammed the door into the frame, causing it to stick. The damn thing wouldn't budge. I took one more step up the ladder and pushed harder, this time throwing my shoulder into the door. It creaked, but still didn't open. Now just a wee bit desperate, I began beating the old door with my hands, pummeling it so hard I later discovered blood on my knuckles. Finally, I made a fist with both hands, raised them, and brought them down as hard as I could in the center of the door. There was a brief lurch, then the door flew open and I flopped onto the floor of my brother's room.

I crawled the rest of the way out and stood, swaying there under the eaves. My teeth were chattering so violently, I shredded my lower lip. It wasn't just cold up here, I realized. It was freezing.

And then I felt it.

It was like a large something, had brushed by me, and brushed hard. It was no errant gust of wind. What brushed by me had moved with a will. I staggered to my right as whatever it was came from behind me--from the direction of the attic--and headed straight to the other side of the room where my brother's bed and desk sat. Right before my eyes, the brass bed began to shake, jangling like a dozen broken bells. Next to the bed, my brother's sturdy secretary's desk sat, stacked high with papers and boxes of model parts. Between the bed and the desk was a heavy oak chair that we called the Railroad Chair. It had belonged to my great-grandfather, who was a signalman for the railroad in Boston. He found the chair in a scrap pile behind the signal house and brought it home to fix up. How he ever carried it back to Watertown, I'll never know. It weighed at least 50 pounds and at that age, I could barely lift it. Even my brother, a big strong kid, found it quite the chair to hoist. Of course, its heft gave it stability and strength, more than enough to support my brother's larded ass.

Abruptly, the bed stopped shaking. For a second, everything was quiet.

Suddenly, in one swift and violent motion, the oak chair flipped over and hit the floor with a deafening CRACK!

The chair had a rounded back and it rolled on that rounded back now, like a topsy-turvy rocking chair. I stood, rooted to the spot and watched it rock back and forth on the floor, making a hideous squeaking as it did.

Then I heard a strange rustling, rasping noise, almost like a hoarse voice whispering words I couldn't make out. The noise seemed to rise and fall, like an awful wind. And as it filled the attic, the railroad chair suddenly began rolling straight toward me.

For an awful instant, time seemed to go all dream-like and slow, too slow. I understood that I was not going to be able to get out of the chair's path in time. My limbs were impossibly heavy, as though attached to lead weights.

Then I half-jumped, half-fell across the floor and down the first flight of strairs, my hands and elbows juddering against each step as I went. Behind me, the railroad chair hit the banister with force, leaving a deep gouge in both the banister post and the hard wood of the chair. I flopped down the steps, all the way to the second floor landing. The rustling, rasping noise I'd heard earlier was replaced now by a loud, shrieking cry which, it took me a second to realize, was coming from my own mouth. I got to my feet and took the rest of the steps three at a time, all way to the front hall and out the double doors of our house.

I stayed on the porch, huddled against the steps, until my mom and my brother returned. It was well after dark when they got back and when I told them what had happened, my mom's first reaction was to accuse me of trying to freak BB out. He had never much cared for his bedroom. He hated the dark, close confines of it to begin with. Now to hear my story, he turned a shade of pale I would have found satisfying in any other circumstance and if you were my mom, it would have been all too easy to suppose this was just another mean trick I was pulling on my brother. But then I said something that made my mom realize that I was telling the truth: I turned to my brother and asked him--begged him--to sleep downstairs in my room. Granted, I wasn't that interested in his well-being--I just didn't want to spend the night in the house by myself. "But you'd been bitching to have your own bedroom for so long, I knew something had to be wrong for you to voluntarily invite your brother to move in downstairs with you," she said later.

So my brother ended up sharing a room with me again. And for the rest of that long fall and winter, our good vibe about the house had been replaced by a heavy dose of unease. Several other strange and almost sinister things happened over that cold season--too many for me to relate here today. But by the time next spring rolled around, I had come to the conclusion that the Blue Lady wasn't the only spirit in the house. Clearly, there was something else in occupation in the rooms at the top of the house. Something not altogether friendly. Something I needed to learn more about if I was ever going to feel at ease in my own home again.

Thus it was, on that blustery night in late October, I quietly resolved to get to the bottom of what would turn out to be the greatest mystery of my life.

Which I'll tell you more about as this month progresses.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


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