Friday, October 29, 2010

 

An October Moment...

October 14, 1992


I don’t care how rational and level-headed you are, once you get a crazy thought in your head, it’s hard to keep it to yourself. So it was only a matter of time before Tammy shared with her best friend at work her growing concern that she, or possibly her apartment, or possibly both, were possessed. The voices, the smells, the disappearing objects—heck, even the vomiting of blood that everyone attributed to the ulcer that hospitalized her—it all pointed in her mind to this one crazy idea.

I think if she’d been sleeping better, had not been so loopy on whatever medication the doctors had given her, Tammy might have thought it through a bit more. Or might at least have remembered that her work pal, while a genuinely sweet person, also had a big mouth. So it was that by the time Tam returned to work half-days, everyone in our office knew Tammy’s secret. Most folks did what most folks do, chalked it up to confusion and fatigue and illness and let it go. But more than a few had a lot of fun at her expense.

“So I hear your apartment is the Amityville Horror now,” brayed Z, our boss. And then he laughed his terrible “Hyuh-hyuh-hyuhhhhh” laugh. “Should we call a priest and get an exorcism going? Or will that work, since you’re Jewish? Hyuh-hyuhhhhh!”

Still others were overly fascinated, trying to pump Tammy for specifics, which she had been silent about. She had really only gotten as far as telling her friend that she was seeing and hearing and smelling strange things in her apartment. She hadn’t gone into the details of what she’d seen or heard or smelled. Her big-mouthed friend hadn’t given her the chance before she told Tammy she needed to go back to the doctor and get tests, that maybe this was some multi-sensory side effect of her medication, or the result of blood loss to her brain from when she passed out. Oh, and then she blabbed to everyone else that Tammy was under the delusion that she was in the grip of demonic possession.

“I’m not saying another word about it!” she said shrilly to me, late her first morning back to work, when I poked my head into her office during a quiet moment. “I’m not telling anyone anything else!”

“Okay,” I said, turning to go. “But I just wanted to apologize.”

She looked sharply at me. “For what?”

“For not asking you about the old lady. The one I saw in your living room when I stopped by that day.”

Weak though she was, Tam’s grip was viselike when she caught my sleeve. “You saw her!”

I nodded. “Smelled her too.” Tam motioned for me to kick her door shut, and we had a little catch-up.

---

It was a little after 12 when I arrived at Tam’s apartment, a second-floor walk-up over a hairdresser’s establishment. I rang the bell and, after a long moment, she buzzed me in. I walked up the stairs to her apartment door on the second floor.

“It’s open,” a voice called from deep within her apartment. So I opened the door.

My eyes immediately began watering as I was hit by an amazingly strong perfume-y smell. It smelled like Tammy had broken a gallon jug of lilac toilet water just inside her front door. Tammy’s apartment door opened on a main room that contained a few bookshelves, a TV, and a sofa, sitting directly across the room, facing the door. Next to the sofa was the open doorway to the kitchen. And behind that sofa, I could see someone. Not clearly—my eyes really were streaming, I’ve always been ridiculously sensitive to fragrance—but I could definitely make out a woman in a dress, one hand held up in a kind of tentative wave. As my eyes began to clear, I realized pretty quickly that this wasn’t my ailing workmate Tammy, but another woman altogether, an older woman, it seemed. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see that she had white hair, not the long black hair my friend had. I pulled off my glasses and mopped my eyes on my sleeve.

“Hi,” I spluttered, still choking on the lilac fumes. “Are you—?”

I was about to ask the old woman if she was a relative, possibly Tammy’s mother or grandmother or something. But when I looked up, I noticed a funny thing about the woman I was addressing.

She was gone.

I set the container of soup down on the floor, put my glasses back on, blinked, looked around, turned a full circle to see where the old lady went. Not a sign.

“Hello?” I whispered tentatively. Nothing. Feeling a little foolish, I stepped over to the couch and peered behind it to make sure the old woman hadn’t ducked down behind the furniture. She hadn’t. I was completely alone in that room, except for the overwhelming scent of lilacs, although now I realized that even that was dissipating.

I looked around furtively again, in the manner of one afraid of being caught doing something childish. Tam was a practical, level-headed sort—what would she have made of me if she saw me now? All the same, I was just 23, still a kid, and not so far removed from the weirdness of my childhood in New Jersey. Whatever compass needle that had become attuned to things unseen when I was a teenager was still spinning somewhere in my head. I took a deep breath and extended my hand into the empty air behind the couch, tensed in the manner of one expecting to dip his hand into ice water.

Nothing happened.

I relaxed after a moment, confused, then waved my hand around some more, feeling for something, but not finding it. Beginning to doubt what I’d just seen (although my eyes were still smarting a little from the lilac smell) I went back, grabbed the soup, set it on the counter in the kitchen, then made my way down the hall to a closed door I assumed was Tammy’s room.

I tapped on the door. Tammy screamed in surprise. “Who’s there?” she yelled.

“It’s MM!” I answered. “Who were you expecting?”

Tammy got up and opened the door.

“Are you okay?” I asked, wiping my eyes one more time to clear them. Tammy gave me a funny look before she turned and shuffled back to her bed.

“Sure!” she said, in a forced way that suggested she was anything but. “Sure. I’m just not sleeping well. Must be a side effect of the meds they’ve given me.”

“Well, are you hungry? I can find my way around the kitchen and find a bowl for the soup I brought,” I offered, and began stepping out the door.

Tammy sat up again. “O-okay. But, do you mind if I eat in here?” she asked, her face showing the slightest pink as she blushed. “I don’t usually entertain in my bedroom, but I’d rather—well, I’m just so tired--"

“Sure,” I said, as I backed into the hall and turned to head back toward the kitchen. “I’ll see if I can find a tray or—" As I turned fully down the hall, I saw a head peeking around the corner at the far end, near the kitchen. But the moment I was turned fully to face it, the head ducked away.

“What?!?” Tam asked as I hopped back into the room.

Okay, now you’re just freaking her out. Get a grip! I thought. “Never mind,” I said. “Be right back.”

I walked, quietly, gingerly, almost on tip-toe, down the hall, bracing myself to see something around the corner. Again, nothing and no one was in sight. I thought I could smell the lilacs again, but I may have been kidding myself. I peered around into the galley kitchen. The soup was sitting there where I’d left it, in a Styrofoam container on the counter. Right next to a large bowl. Was that bowl there before? I wondered.

I looked around, now feeling somewhat peeved, more at myself than anything else. I had forgotten some of the tips I’d learned as a teenager from Ruth, the daughter of the Witch Man, my name for the local psychic/crazy guy who had freaked me out when I went looking for him one summer to try and get to the bottom of the weird shit that had been going on at my own house. He had been of no help in the end, but Ruth turned out to be awesome. She had been a font of all manner of tips and strategies for dealing with this stuff. And one of her tips had been Don’t be afraid to talk to them. As a corollary to this, she probably should have added Don’t be afraid to feel stupid when you do it either because I did feel stupid, especially with my sensible, level-headed colleague just down the hall.

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“Anyone there?” I asked, then kicked myself. Ruth had often said you shouldn’t ask a question unless you want to get an answer, and in this situation, that answer was likely to get me suffocating on that overwhelming lilac smell again. I tried a different tack. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just a friend bringing some food.” Oddly, just talking like this almost immediately put me at ease, made me feel less stupid. I might have been talking to my plants, or a dog, or just muttering to myself. Okay, yes, that still felt stupid, but on another level, it felt right, too.

I jabbered on. “Just gonna heat this soup up—thanks if you put the bowl out, although I really don’t know if you did or not—and bring it to her. She needs to keep up her strength and get her rest and I’m running out of things to say. Please don’t jump out at me as I carry this hot bowl of soup on this tray down the hall. I like to hum “Pomp and Circumstance” when I carry hot liquids. I don’t know why, it’s just my way. Dahhh dah-dah-dah dahhhhh-duhhhh, dahhh dah-dah-dah duhhhhh-duhhhhh...”

---

“Oh, my God!” Tammy cried as I related this (even, God help me, humming "Pomp and Circumstance") in her office. “Why didn’t you say something? I thought I was going crazy!”

“Well,” I said, “you’re no crazier than me, if that’s any comfort.”

“You really saw her?” she asked, practically giddy with relief. “I’ve been freaked out for days. It’s like a horror movie. I’m gone for a week and come back and my apartment is possessed! I told my boyfriend—he said he could smell the perfume, but I think he was humoring me because then he wanted me to call the doctor and see if I had brain damage or something. Oh my God! I’m always hearing someone puttering around out there in the living room and I’m too scared even to go to the bathroom. This is just not something that really happens, you know? What am I going to do, MM? Is Z right? Am I going to have to call a priest? I’m Jewish! I don’t think my mother’s rabbi would go in for that sort of thing. I’m totally talking a lot, aren’t I? You really saw her?”

“Saw her, smelled her, the works,” I said. “It’s not something I talk about much, but I have a little experience with this stuff. I mean, not exactly like this. It’s weird that there’s no cold spot. That’s usually how I know—well, never mind. But I don’t think your apartment is possessed. Not the way you think it is. So nothing like this happened before you were sick?”

Tam shook her head. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me in my life! First night by myself and I could smell that lilac stuff everywhere. Then in the morning, I went to the kitchen to get some water and heard someone say, ‘Well, hello!’ Like they were right there in the living room. I almost called the cops until I saw no one was there! I really thought I was losing my marbles. I had my boyfriend sleep out there until he got fed up and left.” She grabbed my sleeve again. “You really saw her.” It wasn’t a question, but a hopeful statement of confirmation.

“Oh yeah,” I said, nodding. “And it’s not the devil. You don’t need an exorcism, I don’t think.” I paused a minute, wondering how much of a discussion the level-headed Tammy was willing to entertain on this subject. “Have you ever gotten a good look at her? I mean, does she seem familiar to you?”

Tam just stared blankly. “I don’t understand. I told you nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I don’t believe in this stuff! So no, I’ve never seen or heard anything—"

“No, no,” I said, a bit sheepishly. “I meant, did she remind you of anyone you’ve ever known in your life, like a grandmother or—"

Tam was shaking her head. “No, no, no. My grandmothers both died before I was born,” she said, a little irritably now. “You’re not trying to tell me some dead grandmother came back from the grave to take care of me, are you? Because that is just crazy!”

“Tam, having some strange old lady stinking up your living room with lilac perfume is crazy too, but it’s happening, right? So let’s just try to embrace this for a minute.”

“Ok. Sorry. No, I guess I get what you’re asking. She doesn’t seem familiar. At all.”

I thought about this. “Maybe...maybe she latched onto you at the hospital. I had a friend, Ruth, who used to say that sometimes people—you know, spirits—get confused. They don’t quite get that they’re dead. I’ve read cases where sometimes they see a person who reminds them of someone they knew and they latch onto them. Maybe she thinks you’re her daughter or granddaughter or something—"

Tammy threw her hands up. “Great! So I AM possessed!” I could sense that I was fast exhausting my coworker’s patience.

“No! Believe me, that’s a whole other thing. And if that were the case, I think you’d know it. I don’t think you’d have spent one night in your place, no matter how sick you felt. Look...you said you could hear her talking. Maybe you should try talking back.”

“What? No! I should go back there tonight and talk to thin air and tell her she’s in the wrong apartment and is freaking me out and needs to beat it? Are you serious?” And she gave me a guarded look that I had seen once or twice, the look I got when somebody began to wonder if maybe I was the one who wasn’t getting so much blood to his brain. The look that made me stay quiet about this stuff for years—until I met all of you, in fact.

“Well, I’d be a little nicer than that, but basically, yes,” I said, perhaps a bit stiffly. Then I left pretty quickly.

The next day, Tammy was back at work. She looked better, more rested anyway. But when she poked her head into my cubicle, she had that guarded look about her. “I just wanted to say thanks. I know you’re trying to help me, but I think maybe we’re both a little crazy, and I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Okay,” I said. And that was that. I felt a little sad, closed off, I guess. And I itched to know what happened, but could never bring myself to ask her. I really liked and respected Tammy, and I wanted us to get along and work well together, so I shoved the whole thing aside.

Within a few months, I left that job anyway, and lost touch with Tammy, so it became a moot point. Sure, I sometimes wondered how she was doing, if she ever resolved the situation with her unwanted roommate, but I figured I’d never find out.

And then, this past spring, out of nowhere, completely unlooked for, this message popped into my work email inbox:

Dear MM,

I just saw the press release—a few months old—about your new job as editor-in-chief. Congratulations! I was so happy to find you—I’ve been out of magazines for years, but I think of you often and am so glad to see you’re doing well.


[redacted boring paragraphs about life, love, marriage, moving around, finding new careers, etc.]

While I would love to hear from you and catch up on everything, I feel as though I should take a few lines now to thank you for your advice way back when I was sick, and had that little “problem” I refused to talk about. It really weirded me out, and I was mortified that people at work were talking about it. But you were really trying to help me and I shut you down and I’m sorry about that.

So...I thought you’d like to know that I really did take your advice and started talking to my unexpected "friend." It took a long time, but I did it. I mean, we never had a conversation or anything. I just talked out loud in the apartment and acknowledged that "Grammy"—that’s what I started calling her—was there. All the weird stuff stopped mostly (things stopped disappearing, anyway, which was a relief because that was the thing that bothered me the most) and it actually became kind of nice to have her around, if that makes sense.

I lived in that apartment for a long time, but when I was getting ready to get married, and preparing to move out of that place, one of my bridesmaids came over to help pack. She'd never been to my place before. She was like you—she’d grown up in an old house where all sorts of stuff happened—and she knew right away that Grammy was lurking around. She’s really into parapsychology and she called up a friend whose mother is a psychic and she insisted on coming over. I hadn’t talked to anyone about this in years—and never told anyone about our conversation.

So, the psychic came in and immediately said that whoever was in my apartment had been sick in the hospital for a long time, years and years ago, and just stayed there. When she saw me (when I was in the hospital), I reminded her of her daughter and she followed me home. I got chills down my spine when she said this. Do you remember how you said pretty much the same thing?!?

Anyway, the psychic did a “cleansing” right there in my living room. Can you picture me sitting in my apartment with lit candles (lilac scented candles!) while this psychic lady talked to my little “problem”? It sounds hokey—the whole guiding a lost spirit toward the light—but it was kind of cool. Afterward, the psychic said that Grammy had moved on, and I should feel blessed that I helped her do that.

Well, I just thought you should know. Please call or write when you have a chance (but I’ll understand if you don’t. I must sound crazy to you now, but who cares?) I’d love to catch up.

PS: You should feel blessed too.


I do, Tammy. I really do.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

 

An October Moment...

October 2, 1992

I’ll call her Tammy. She was a brilliant young woman who worked for a trade magazine in the Chicago area. Tammy was a very even-keeled, deeply practical and rational woman. Not the sort of person given to flights of fancy, but level-headed, the sort of person who is very good at the sort of work a trade magazine demands.

She was also a kind person, particularly to her coworkers, most especially to new ones, who she took under her wing, showing them the ropes with unfailing patience. She especially helped her colleagues, new and old, when it came to coping with the innate craziness of the boss, a fellow we’ll call Z. Suffice it to say, Z had a tendency to create high levels of stress in the office. He had this way of hounding his editors, of making them feel that their work—and their general existence—were so far below par as to warrant an emotional response from him that was somewhere on the underside of contempt.

Tammy had done an admirable job putting up with Z. All told, she had worked for him for going on five years, and seemed more or less immune to his abuse, which he ladled on her at least as often as he dumped on everyone else. Tammy had some resistance to him because she was already a pretty harsh critic of her own work, which was needless, of course. But Tammy was a bit of a perfectionist, tended to set a very high personal standard, and was consequently merciless with herself. That probably made Z’s rants and criticisms sound like just another echo in an already loud chorus.

So it was something of a shock to her coworkers late that summer, when Tam suffered a rather sudden and precipitous decline. First, she started having terrible stomach pains. Her friends and family and coworkers had begged her to see a doctor, but she was getting ready to travel for the magazine and wanted to get ahead of her deadlines a little. If anything, she was pushing herself even harder.

So it was that one day, while eating lunch in the atrium of her office building, Tammy collapsed. Her coworkers managed to revive her, but almost as soon as she was sitting upright, Tam began vomiting blood, so someone called an ambulance and by the time the EMT squad arrived and loaded her onto a stretcher, she was white as a sheet—well, the parts of her that weren’t covered in blood, anyway. The doctors told her she had a perforated ulcer, and was bleeding directly into her digestive tract. Although, it must be said, they were a bit tentative about the diagnosis, especially since she'd had no previous symptoms or signs of trouble before the most dramatic ones manifested themselves.

Tam was in the hospital for a week before she went home, where she was told to rest and avoid strenuous or stressful activity for another two weeks. At her insistence, her parents took her to her apartment, which was just outside the city of Chicago, in the suburb known as Park Ridge. Tammy lived alone, but she insisted on going there, even though her parents wanted her to come home with them. “I really need some peace and quiet,” she had told a friend over the phone. “Staying with my parents would have killed me.”

Having grown up in Chicagoland, Tammy had a lot of friends as well as coworkers who were only too willing to help her. Several of them took turns bringing her meals or running errands for her. Tammy was glad to see them, and often became anxious as they were getting ready to leave. This seemed quite out of character for her. Tammy liked her own space—even her longtime boyfriend kept his own apartment, more at Tammy’s preference than his own.

Toward the end of Tammy’s first week home, it fell to one young coworker, the rookie of the team, to bring her some soup, as well as a few movie rentals from the local Blockbuster. This fellow liked Tammy, but didn’t honestly know her all that well, so he was intrigued to visit her in her apartment and get some sense of what she was like when she wasn’t at work. Before he left to see her, the young editor was taken aside by one of Tammy’s best friends. “Don’t just drop stuff off and go. Stay with her a little bit. Maybe eat lunch with her. She doesn’t seem like herself and the more people spend time with her, the better,” she said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, she just seems jumpy. And she’s definitely not getting much rest. She’s got dark circles under her eyes and she just seems...not herself. Stay with her a bit. Tell her one of your goofy stories,” she suggested. The young editor nodded in understanding. In his short time on staff, he had unaccountably gained a reputation for relating oddball anecdotes about his life and family, which Tammy in particular seemed to enjoy.

Thus it was, a little after 12, that the young coworker arrived at Tam’s apartment, a second-floor walk-up over a hairdresser’s establishment. He rang the bell. Tammy heard it and buzzed him in from the intercom in her bedroom. Ever since her first night alone back at home, she hardly ever left her room. In the distance, she heard the footsteps as he walked up the stairs to her apartment door on the second floor.

“It’s open,” she called from deep within her apartment. She heard him open the front door. Then all was quiet. Too quiet. And for too long.

Suddenly, there was a soft tapping on the door. She screamed in surprise. “Who’s there?” she yelled.

“It’s MM!” he answered. “Who were you expecting?”

Tammy got up and opened the door.

“Are you okay?” he asked, as he removed his glasses and wiped his eyes. Had he been crying? She decided she was too tired to ask and turned and shuffled back to her bed.

“Sure!” she said, in a forced way that suggested she was anything but. “Sure. I’m just not sleeping well. Must be a side effect of the meds they’ve given me.”

“Well, are you hungry? I can find my way around the kitchen and find a bowl for the soup I brought,” he offered, and began stepping out the door.

Tammy sat up again. “O-okay. But, do you mind if I eat in here?” she asked, her face showing the slightest pink as she blushed. “I don’t usually entertain in my bedroom, but I’d rather—well, I’m just so tired--"

“Sure,” he said, as he backed into the hall and turned to head back toward the kitchen. “I’ll see if I can find a tray or—“ As he turned fully down the hall, he froze, then turned and stepped back into the room.

“What?!?” she asked.

The young editor, never known to be at a loss for words, seemed now to be wrestling with something, trying to find the right thing to say, or perhaps wondering if he should say it at all. In the end, he just said, “Never mind. Be right back.” Good as his word, he returned shortly with Tam’s lunch and they had an amiable, if somewhat subdued meal together. Both of them seemed to have a question for the other, but neither one asked it.

Later, after her coworker had left, Tammy wished she had asked him her question. Asked him why he had lingered so long in the main part of her apartment. Asked him why he was wiping his eyes. Asked him about the smell. Asked him if he had seen or heard anything...odd.

Tammy certainly had. Ever since she’d returned home, she knew something was wrong. In fact, she thought she might be going crazy. She heard voices in her living room. Objects—dishes, jewelry, hairbrushes—had disappeared and mysteriously turned up in different places throughout the apartment.

She had tentatively confided in her boyfriend about this, a big mistake. He had commented on the smell, and so she told him about the other things. He even agreed to sleep out in the living room. But after one night of that he was gone. He told her that morning, in a somewhat shaky voice, that maybe it would be a good idea for Tammy to call the doctor and see if she had suffered brain damage from blood loss or something. That would explain all the other stuff.

But Tammy, rational and level-headed though she might be, thought she already knew what the problem was.

She was possessed...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

 

An October Moment...

Oh, I had such plans for October, and October Moments (and if you're new to the campfire, here's a little background).

This was finally going to be the year that I'd tell the saga of what happened when my Big Brother used the Ouija board in our old haunted farmhouse, of the strange and increasingly disturbing events that followed, of the Witch Man and his daughter, of the Demonologist and his wife.

And maybe by writing that modestly tantalizing paragraph, I'll feel sufficiently guilty (or in fear of my life. I know many of you are frustrated that I have yet to get off my ass and tell this one) to write the thing.

But October has been a busy month, and it's not getting easier. We finally sold the Magazine Mansion, but will be spending the latter half of the month packing and moving all of our crap out of state, then dealing with the bureaucratic beast that is known as Closing.

Oh, and also: I quit my job.

That's a multi-post event in itself, and I swear I'll tell it soon, but suffice it to say I'm at the tail end of my two-week notice period, and I have yet to find a place to live at my new job (editing another magazine, although one very different), never mind figuring out which school to send the kids to, nor all the other details that come with uprooting your family once more and heading off into the great unknown.

So for now, let's just say I have never forgotten the story about the ouija board and it's an October Moment I have every intention of telling.

But for today, this will have to suffice:


Through the Glass

When she was little, the Brownie often demonstrated a sensitivity to—and a more or less total comfort level with—things that most people, children and grown-ups alike, could not see. I’ve recounted a couple of her experiences in previous October Moments, but those moments don’t occur so much any more. Now that she’s pushing 10, she’s morphed into this practical, capable, unsettlingly mature young woman. And while I admire her poise and grace and general levelheadedness (all qualities I lack), I feel at a distance from her. I miss the fanciful little girl who believed utterly in “sugar-plump” fairies, and thought nothing of seeing dead people hanging around on a street corner, nor of having backyard conversations with her great-grandfather, already 30 some years in his grave.

Her little sister, the Éclair, has her own flights of fancy, of course, but aside from a brief period in infancy, when she sometimes appeared to be smiling and cooing at empty hallways and corners, my youngest child seems to have adopted her big sister’s practical, grounded sense of confidence and capability.

So it was something of a surprise this past summer when, at a family reunion just outside of Chicago, the Éclair came tearing down a hallway with a pale face I’d never seen on her before. She didn’t look confident or capable. She looked spooked.

The reunion was held in a partially refurbished old mill, all crumbling stonework and overgrown shrubbery. The mill was one of the oldest buildings for miles around, and had a colorful history. As a working mill, it had closed down in the early 1900s. In the 20s, during Prohibition, it had been a convenient hiding place for illegal liquor and the occasional gangster on the lam. By the end of World War II, it was a locally notorious brothel. For the next few decades, it had been allowed to slide gently into decline, its various sheds and outbuildings slowly sliding down the high bank above the river.

Then a cousin on my wife’s side of the family bought it for a song about 10 years back and had just as slowly been building the place back up. The main building that had once housed the millworks—and several rooms where the mid-century ladies of the night had once plied their trade—were now almost fully restored. But there were still many empty rooms, devoid of heat or intact windows, or sometimes even a floor or wall. In the back, stone pathways and stairs led to precarious falls or balconies that no longer existed. It was not exactly a safe place to let children roam free, and we parents who had brought some along had taken great care to ensure the kids stayed largely in the main house (still massive, with dozens of rooms and stairs and echoing hallways). We had all been assured that the main building was perfectly safe, but here was my daughter, pounding down a hall, looking frightened.

I set down my plate and tried to intercept the Éclair, but she ran by as if she hadn’t even seen me, making a beeline for the front door, the only outdoor space approved as safe, where the Brownie and her cousins were hanging out. They had already explored the house to their satisfaction and were now taking their ease on the porch. In fact, the Brownie had been out there pretty much all day, coming in at only the briefest of intervals to restock on lemonade or cheese doodles.

Over the general hubbub of adults telling family stories and renewing old sibling rivalries, I couldn’t make out everything the Éclair was saying, but the Brownie was hunched over her solicitously. I edged closer. The Éclair had tears standing in her eyes and was gesticulating back behind her to the house.

“…scary lady took my bear. I need my bear!” was all I heard. It was then that I realized the Éclair was indeed not carrying her treasured pink bear, her constant companion, especially when she was at any gathering full of people she didn’t really know.

The Brownie didn’t seem interested in the disposition of the bear. “Where’s the scary lady? In that back room I told you to stay away from?”

The Éclair was silent, then nodded guiltily.

The Brownie stood up now, and she had The Look. This is not one of many Looks her mother has passed on, this is a Look unique to my older daughter. It’s a narrow-eyed, tight-lipped smile of a Look, a Look that says Ass Is About To Be Kicked, and God help you if you are between her leg and that ass. I promptly stepped backward and melted into a wall as the Brownie strode purposefully into the house, the Éclair trotting behind her.

Of course I followed them, sidling down hallways, ducking into alcoves. I couldn’t see my daughters, but I could hear them. Mostly, I could hear the Éclair, whining that she didn’t want to go, that could her big sister just go get the bear for her, please, please, please. The Brownie muttered back words I couldn’t hear, but once I did hear her say, “Elizabeth, you’re coming with me!” The Brownie never uses her sister’s real name unless she’s Very Serious. And it almost always induces obedience in the Eclair. How I wish that tricked worked for her mother and me.

I trailed them on and on, well past the few rooms I’d toured when I first arrived. On we walked, past empty parlors, vacant bedrooms, through a vast and austere ballroom. I ducked under a sheet of hanging plastic, marking the boundary between the mostly refurbished millhouse and the extended network of dilapidated connecting rooms and areas still undergoing restoration. It was a warm summer day, but this part of the complex felt distinctly damp and cold. And growing colder with every step.

Finally I came to a stop in a musty hallway. Broken tiles shifted under my feet. Behind me was a narrow staircase leading up. Off the stairs was an alcove leading to a storage closet and an old phone booth, the ancient hand-crank phone still mounted above the bench inside. To my left and right were two other doorways. I felt like I was in a video game—which route to take? I listened, hoping to hear either daughter, but all I heard was a distant chuckling of the river on the far side of the millworks. I shivered for a second, and it was that shivering that suddenly made me realize what might be going on.

Tentatively, in the half-embarrassed way of a middle-age guy employing a skill he hasn’t used in a long time, I put out my hand, and turned a complete circle in the hallway. It was already cold in this part of the house, but that was just the normal damp and cool of a moldering old stone building settled on a riverbank. Then my hand passed by the left-hand passage and I felt a completely different cold. Ice water mixed with electricity. The hairs on my arms and neck stood up straight. Cold spot, I thought. And I knew exactly which way my daughters went.

I poked my head into the next room, skin prickling, ears ringing, not sure what I was going to find. But there was nothing. It was just another room, a chamber of bare brick walls, glistening slightly with moisture. The window was long gone from this room and I could hear the river more clearly here. To my left, across a floor of more broken tiles and some dirt, I saw another opening—a doorframe missing its door, a tattered and stained flap of plastic wafting partially across the space, making a combined crackling and rasping noise that set my teeth on edge. Nervous now, I crept to the doorway. Just beyond it was another room, a ramshackle foyer leading out to one of the balconies that overlooked the riverbank. This room did have a door, with two stout planks nailed across it, because the balcony beyond it, I found out later, was not merely structurally unsound but entirely absent.

The Brownie and the Éclair were standing in front of it, their backs to me. The Éclair was clutching her big sister’s leg with one hand, while the other hand clasped her bear, a little dusty and cobwebby, as though it had been dragged across the dirty, tile-strewn floor. The Éclair had her face buried in the back of her stuffed animal, something she usually only does if her brother is viewing a scary TV program and she can’t bear to watch, but can’t quite bring herself to leave either.

The Brownie wasn’t averting her eyes. She appeared to be staring straight up at an oval window set in the wall next to the door. The window was cracked and dirty, but it had once been a fine thing of glasswork, all etched around the edges with fussy designs.

Then I saw something outside, something flit by the window—something shadowy and head-shaped—and I forgot all about the fussy edging.

I felt all the muscles in my hands and legs lock up, my lips clamped down across my chattering teeth. I was scared in that moment, and it wasn’t the mundane fear of a 40-something man with children to care for and bills to pay. It was fear shot through with excitement. It was the fear of a child. Well, someone had to be feeling childlike fear at this moment. My nine-year-old daughter certainly didn’t have any.

“Stop that,” she said, speaking to the window—and whatever was beyond it—in the imperious voice of playground authority. You’d have thought she was scolding a playmate who tried to cheat at hopscotch, not a shadowy something standing on a balcony that no longer existed. “Just stop it," she said. "It’s not funny."

And would you believe it? It did stop. Skin prickling, ears ringing, intense cold, it all melted as though someone had just opened a door to the outside and let a gust of summer air in.

“See?” the Brownie said, trying to get her sister to look up. “The scary lady’s gone. It’s not even really a lady, it was just—"

But I’ll never know what the lady really was or was not, because the moment she turned to talk to her sister, the Brownie saw me, cowering in the doorway. She gave me her Look for a moment, and in that moment I thought that maybe she was going to make me go away too. But then the look melted into her usual expression of amused disdain.

“Oh, hi Dad,” she said.

The Éclair did look up at this. “Daddy!” she said in an awed whisper. “The lady took my bear and Anna—“

“Shh,” the Brownie said, and the Éclair was instantly silent, a paranormal event all by itself. Then the Brownie picked the Éclair up and the pair of them nudged by me, back into the party.

I tried, I really did. I looked for quiet moments later that day to quiz my older daughter on what her sister had told her, what she herself saw, what she did, whether this is something she deals with all the time. But she rebuffed all attempts at conversation with the same maddening mixture of silence and offense, as if I were quizzing her about something intensely personal (as I suppose I was). Even the Éclair, who can sometimes be tricked into revealing sisterly secrets, was frustratingly circumspect. The most I ever got out of her was, “The scary lady took my bear. But Anna got it back. Because she is very scarier.” She repeated this last sentence with heartfelt emphasis, and beyond that she would not be drawn further. And why should she? It is the truth.

But it hurts a little to be on the outside of a mystery, a shadowy figure on the wrong side of the glass. I guess I just miss that fanciful little girl who thought nothing of sharing her unusual experiences with me. On the other hand, I am enjoying getting to know the woman she’s becoming.

Even if that woman is indeed very scarier.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

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