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This is the first in a series of True Stories for the season, of eerie occurrences, deathly visits, haunted rooms, and childhood visions.
EPISODE 1 In the House
Fall is the season when things die. The brilliant foliage and bursts of color are a homage to warmer days, a flaming farewell to the passage of summer and the dive towards darkness.
Carcasses litter the road, squirrel guts pushed toward the median of the parkway. Deer, coon, possum. My daughter took her driver’s test and learned, you don’t swerve for a squirrel, or any rodent for that matter. Still, the bump of road kill beneath the wheels is a visual I don’t want, in my mind or in my tire tread. I ask her to avoid them if she has the time and the way is clear.
My senses are ratcheted high. The empty rockers on a porch. The creak of the trees in the wind, crisp leaves scraping and tumbling at my feet. A withered leaf twists in the window, caught in a web, its stem tapping at the pane.
This morning my Tree House was under attack, a rapping hard and fast into the wood shingles. I let that pecker know I was here, approaching his location from behind my book shelves with a counter attack. I slapped my open hand against the wall, again and again. Then I made a fist and knocked my knuckles. He hammered back, the both of us, a percussion chorus. I, however, would be the last one standing. I am louder. I am bigger.
He came back. I slap the walls, knock into the corner. The Tree House is on the third floor and by the leafy branches of the poplar and at the tops of the birch.
What does that woodpecker want? It’s not the first time he has visited, nor is it the last. Does he want a mate, a nest, food, or does he come to distract me? To taunt and to torture me?
Channeling the master and the madman, I beseech that fiend, that demon, that ominous bird of yore:
Take thy beak from out my heart, and remove thy form I doth implore!
Quoth the Pecker, “Nevermore.”
I don’t remember woodpeckers in my childhood in the western panhandle of Maryland, a small town in the valley between the Blue Ridge and Catoctin Mountains. I do remember my mother’s fear of all things snake-like and serpentine, wriggly and worm-ridden. Once I thought it would be fun to put a plastic snake in the hall by my room. She jumped against the wall, screaming, near hysterical. There was no fun in it, only a bone-chilling, heart-thumping panic. I retrieved the snake, hid it away.
Scary memories from that age were scenes from Stephen King’s Carrie. The horror classic was based on his first published novel and the movie was one I only happened upon. This is how TV was in those days; I walked back and forth, taking a break and checking out the tube to see what the folks were watching. I remember hovering near the family room, sitting on the edge of the green velour sectional, seeing Carrie in the shower, then later, seeing the bloodied prom dress. I couldn’t stay and I couldn’t leave. I did both. I left; I came back. I felt like an addict trying to break myself from a bad habit, from something that would hurt me, but something I wanted because of this perverse and savage attraction. I had to have more. Sissy Spacek’s character was a lifelong terror for me, a persistent image, bloodied and possessed and evil.
Those first horror films, the ghost stories of childhood, left images impressed into my brain like a tattoo on virgin skin. First scares are like first loves, so potent and novel, they never leave you.
My father would enlighten me, over his glasses, his stockinged feet up on the recliner’s rest, one ankle atop the other. They are only stories, honey. Make-believe. No such thing as ghosts.
Yeah, right. I knew that. It was just a movie. No such thing as ghosts.
My bedroom was on the east side of the house and my parents room was on the west, separated by the open kitchen and family room. I had a twin with Holly Hobbie bedding, a ruffled canopy atop four posts to match the bed ruffle. The window in the corner of the room looked out onto the driveway, the clotheslines, the outdoor garage, and the corn fields beyond. The empty guest room and my brother’s room were adjacent to mine. I felt safe in my bed, with its puffy comforter, its canopy like a fortress, an enclosure which lifted me up and sheltered me. If my room was in any way unguarded, it would be from the east, the wall with window to the farmer’s fields.
I was a sound sleeper for the most part. My mother would visit to say goodnight with a kiss and would wind up a small music box with a tiny bunch of hanging flowers. Theme from Love Story played, the crisp notes filling the room and slowing as the drum turned. It was soothing and the notes lingered as I drifted off to sleep.
One evening, sometime well into the night, I felt a physical presence in the room. Like the child that I was, I pulled my comforter tight around me, tucking it close to my chin. I was in that twilight space between sleep and waking. Was I in my room or was I in my dream? The sense of otherness though was strong. Breathing maybe, the slightest movement. I had an active imagination and I dreamed often.NO! Go to sleep,I told to myself. I was asleep. Or I must have been so, because what happened next shocked me into the physical world. My hand must have slipped out from the covers.
Something touched me! It touched my hand! And, like the sting of a hot stove, I snatched my hand inside the covers. I felt something for sure. This was no dream. My heart raced and I pulled my legs into my chest, tight like a cannon ball, sure that if I was smaller I’d somehow be less of a target. I closed my eyes tight because surely if I didn’t see anything, nothing would exist. I blocked out any sounds, humming ditties and mumbling to myself. You don’t want me, I’m not here. No such thing as ghosts. I huddled in fear, shaking and snug as I could make myself.
My father was a night owl, often up past three in the morning. Did I sneak out to see him? Did I stay in my demon room? I don’t remember. I can see him then as now with his eyes over his glasses, his dad look, shaking his head. Only stories, honey.He patted me on the shoulder and I moped back to my room. I think I did go see him, that I went for help and solace and I knew what I would have to go back. Back to my room, that dreaded and foul place. I hopped in bed, tucked in tight, I lapsed back into my recurring nightmare. The presence, the slightest movement. Is that normal, to have the same dream, again and again?
It was the longest night. I must have drifted off again when the canopy ruffle moved. There was enough ambient light to see movement, like a breeze on a curtain. To feel it. My hand, now the bed. This could not be. I steeled myself against my fear, my wild imagination. This was now my fight, because no one would believe me. I was scaring myself out of my mind, out of my bed, out of my room. Bloody Carrie and ghostly images would not leave me and there was no blocking them out. Hours gone and daylight would be breaking soon; it could not come fast enough. I just needed to hold on a little longer.
I had my head under the covers. With all of me untouchable, surely, I would come out unscathed on the other side of morning. The day would chase all these fears away. It was hot under the covers so I must have sloughed the sheets off my face to breathe.
And then, full on, like the sheet itself was pulled across my face, the flick of a magician’s handkerchief snapped me awake! Back into the nightmare. There was no ridding myself of this fiend! There was no escape. The light was breaking into the window and I saw rapid black movement, could hear the ruffles, a thump at the wall.
I hid in my blankets, my head in the sand, to escape my demons. I was this close. Day nearly here.
Morning came. So did the screaming. Shrieks curdling in from down the hall. My mother.
Get a broom! Get it! Get it!
I slipped out from beneath the covers. Tiptoed down the hall. My father had a broom in hand. The creature buzzed around the room, bouncing off the ceiling and walls. Trapped. It was trapped. It had fled from my room, looking for a way out. A bat in the house.
My heart settled. I breathed out slowly, as I watched my parents jumping around, on edge from this fiendish intruder. No such thing as ghosts, dear. I can’t say, that as I stood there quietly in the shadows of the hallway, I didn’t have the slightest smile.
I’m not sure whether I believed in ghosts as a child, but a lot has happened since my bloody Carrie days. As an adult, I read the book and watched the movie to debunk long-held fears. I found much of it humorous. Now I watch scary films and I have always loved learning true stories, especially about ghosts and the paranormal.
I am a skeptic when I hear them. There was no avoiding that lesson from my father. There is often an easy enough explanation, such as that of my Long Night of the Bat. Over the years I’ve had all manner of intruders: bugs, mice, birds, flying squirrel. I figure, that like humans, they sometimes lose their way. Or they need a warm place to stay or like the brown bat, they’re the ones who are trapped. This summer, a bird was sitting atop my bedroom curtain rod, droppings by the bed. He was completely still, a fixture looking down on us. The room has high ceilings. It was Poe’s Raven all over.
I no longer say I don’t believe in ghosts, but maybe ghost is not the right word. Spirits. Haunts. Visions. Memories. Yes. I believe in those. Maybe the worst ghosts are the demons within: the Bloody Carrie imprint, Poe’s Raven, the bad people we meet, who would do us harm, our own torments.
I have come across a few extraordinary and inexplicable events which I will share with you in the coming episodes. Please stay tuned for real-life horrors, tales from the beyond, haunted rooms, spirit friends, and extrasensory perception.