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.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wow. WHAT a great read. Thank you for that :)
Oooh. Oh my. Very scarier indeed.

Good to have you back, MM. Ideally I would lurk, but I get the feeling that if I don't comment you'll disappear into a puff of smoke. I started reading your blog at the same time you stopped writing regularly, and am reading my own October Moment into that coincidence.
AWESOME story, MM! Thank you for taking the time to tell it to us.

And long time readers now get an additional tease of a Demonologist (!) on the BB Ouija board story. I still really want to read that story. But after a tease every year for 3 or 4 years, I'm starting to think it can't possibly live up to the hype.

Good luck with your move, your job and everything else, MM. I think we all know you blog when you can.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Followed firmly by You're A Terrible Tease. I suppose all should be forgiven, at least for the moment, given your extenuating circumstances. Good luck with it all. As usual, it seems you have your work cut out for you.
YIKES! I haven't even read this whole post yet. More tumultuous change, I hope your new job works out well, and I'm glad you sold your house successfully. Now back to reading the post.
Sorry the Eclair was scared, but it sounds like the Brownie is the best security blanket in the world.

And your job situation and moving across the country has one upside: You won't have to worry about anybody dognapping Blaze.
You Sir are a born story teller. Up there in my humble estimation with Mr King and Mr Twain both! A book please Sir, if you would be so kind!
It must be immensely comforting for the Eclair to have a big sister like the Brownie on her side. Very scarier indeed!
Wow, I think it's a good thing Anna's on your family's side. :)

Congratulations on selling the Magazine Mansion and good luck with the move and the new job! I hope it all goes as smoothly as possible.
You definitely know how to tell a story!
You are, most definitely, a great storyteller and a fantastic writer! Hope things work out great with a new job but at least, you don't have the worry about selling the "Mansion" now, do you?
Must've been my own October Moment that made me check your blog on the very day you posted something new. So glad I did! Great story, and much luck in your new job and home.
You, sir, have an absolutely terrific eldest daughter with some mind-bogglingly confident and mature psychology skills. I'm sitting here kinda wiped out by this latest story. Thank you, thank you.

Congratulations on the new job; just remember that The Closing, The Move, etc will also pass. Enjoy your transitions.
Where do I start? Congrats on the job and selling the house. Great to see the post. I was hoping against hope you would post an October moment and was not disappointed! Loved it! Your girls are a treat (but it looks like you need to brush up on the old detective moves huh)
yay, you're back! with another damnable cliffhanger. boo!
Far OUT!!! What a great story! i can't wait until the Brownie is old enough to have her own blog.

Still wanna hear the ouija board story, you're not off the hook, but you've bought some time.
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