Chapter IV - Faces
The exterminator was perplexed. For a second time in a month he had removed, killed the writhing baby snakes that were living in the downstairs fireplace, only to have them return a couple days later. Always the same tangle of six inch vipers covered in gray soot, black diamond eyes, tapping away at the glass with their cracked, flat noses. Our step father was convinced they were coming in from the trees that hovered over the house, a solution that seemed impossible to everybody but him. The young, wiry exterminator wasn’t buying it. He believed they were entering from a small hole somewhere in the foundation of the fireplace, gaining entry from below the house, beneath the foundation,
During our time in the house, we kept a series of outdoor cats that were not only beloved pets, but also helpful in keeping the lake snakes at bay.. Figgit was the name of the small, wiry black and gray ring-tailed feline that summer; sweet, but ferocious when it came to other wild animals. Figgit also gave the entire family ringworm the following Spring, eventually losing her own ninth life after a particularly violent altercation with a mean raccoon. I cam still hear my mother begrudging the vet bills, “I just spent $500 on a cat, and I don’t even like cats.”
Still, that summer I tried repeatedly to bring Figgit into the downstairs living room to see if she could scare, exterminate the snakes in the fireplace; but the normally calm cat turned into a roaring bag of nerves when carried within ten feet of the glass doors, Clawing, screaming like a feral bobcat, eventually scratching my face so badly that I swore I would never bring her in again. The cat wanted nothing to do with these snakes…or that room.
The summer burned on; I was preoccupied with the exhilaration of youth, taking full advantage of my locale near a large city to investigate live music and girls. It was the best of both worlds, a teenage boy living on a lake, but less than an hour drive to all the allure of urban virtue. Staying up all night with like minded punks for concert tickets, smoking cigarettes and a little pot on Friday, then spending the following day skiing on the blue surface of the lake, bathed in the Texas sun and the promise of the future. My younger sister and I bickered, and since it was the first time in my life that I had the means to come and go freely, it’s not surprising that our relationship was changing that summer. Like many siblings, we were closest when we were children, and this was the first period in our young lives that we started to echo who we were becoming as adults, especially myself as the slightly aloof, older brother.
The final dark happening of the season was by far the most dramatic of all, and even though my role was small in comparison to my sister, it still had a lasting impact on me. It is, after all, the climax of this story, a perpetually more sinister juxtaposition to the image of three boys frightened by a bag of old clothes and a pair of red shoes. When I tell the story, I pull the listener close, regardless of whether it’s an audience of one or ten; as my brow furrows, eyes widen, and normally animated hands become tight and clinched.
I arrived home just before midnight, tipsy as a tripped through the front door, clamoring loudly down the stairs, although I was trying to be quiet. My mother was out of town on business, my step-father upstairs sleeping, and my sister and her friend Tamra huddled together on the living room floor playing a game with the television on mute in the background. I sat briefly on the arm of the couch, talking with the preteen girls, watching the fireplace all the while, but not saying anything, knowing the snakes scared my sister. I looked intently, but saw no movement, and heard no tapping. Just blackness behind the closed glass doors. I shivered silently, rubbing the small, red welt on my arm.
I yawned and said goodnight, stopping only to pee and brush my teeth in our shared bathroom en route to my bedroom. I quickly undressed to my boxers, turned on the stereo, and crawled into my cool, dark bed. “Well you know just what you do to me, they way you move, soft and slippery…” by INXS quietly wafted over me as I rolled onto my stomach, reflecting back on my night out with a heavy metal girl donned in a ripped RATT t-shirt, skin tight jeans, and cigarette smoke. I was more accustomed to the new wave girls smoking fancy, designer cigarettes, but this chick had been chain smoking Marlboro Reds between putting her tongue in my mouth and climbing all over me, and I was more than a little intimidated and titillated. I mean, fuck…Marlboro Reds were harsh. Still, her brash, loud, sarcastic persona was on my mind as I drifted off licking my lips, searching for that cigarette taste while rubbing the small welt on my right arm where she had pinched me as I kissed her goodnight.
Cool, dark, sweet surrender.
Then the screaming. I startled awake, discombobulated in the dark. “Hey, what?” I yelled. Then more screaming, this time sustained, louder, echoed with commotion and the sound of glass breaking, footfalls, and a door slamming. I jumped out of bed, searching in the dark for a light, the same INXS album playing, but closer to the end, “…I found a love I had lost, it was gone for too long, hear no evil in all directions…” Adrenaline rushing through my body, the red welt on my arm throbbing as I recognized my sister crying, “T-a-a-a-mra-a-a, No-o-o-o-o-o!” The commotion getting louder, closer now just outside as I ripped open the bedroom door, my sister and her friend barreling into my room, spilling onto my bed and floor. Tamra was screeching, cradled into a fetal position on the floor, while my sister was in hysterics, faced buried into the sheets on my bed. I was dumbfounded, shocked, scared that someone had broken into the house. “Holly, Holly, what’s going on?” I begged.
“Don’t look at her, don’t look at her face!” she screamed. Tamra’s moans intensifying to a fever pitch with my sisters plea.
By now, my step-father emerged from the upstairs, bleary eyed and startled.
“I think someone tried to break in!” I yelled. He quickly turned back toward my sister’s room to investigate.
Both girls were crying in unison, faces obscured by arms and pressed violently into the floor and bed. I was terrified. I knelt down between them, trying to comfort, but both recoiled, shivered, screamed louder. Ron returned a moment later, reporting that the downstairs doors were secure. I was having trouble processing the scene as it unfolded, perhaps still a little drunk, I was completely overwhelmed by the sight and sound of my little sister crying, scared in a manner never seen before.
I climbed onto the bed, pulling her tense body up to me, her face red and streaked with tears, eyes closed tight. I asked repeatedly what had happened, worried that an intruder was still in the house, but she just continued to cry, eyes shut. Ron was now sitting on the floor next to Tamra, whose moans had shifted to a steady whimper, quieter but no less intense. I recalled the only other time I had seen her like this, a few weeks earlier at the tennis courts, screaming at me to “Swear to God!” I suddenly realized that her fear wasn’t from someone trying to break into the house. It was something she couldn’t express, neither girl could.
I eventually coaxed her out of hysterics, eyes opening slightly, but only when tuned away from her friend and looking at me or the back wall of my bedroom. Tamra was now standing up, hovering at the door, facing the opposite direction of my sister. Things were beginning to calm, but the girls refusal to face one another was adding a whole new level of anxiety to the room. After nearly ten minutes, Ron and I collectively forced the two to look at one another, at first, each squinting as if walking into sunlight from inside a dark house. They embraced, cried, reassured one another despite their fear; holding tight for a long time before speaking outside their own communication of fear. Holding hands, together they recounted the happening.
What I hadn’t realized in my tipsy, hazy headbanger state was that the activity the girls were engaged in on the living room floor was the Ouija board; and that after several rounds of asking questions they started to get scared, so they decided to move into my sister’s room, leaving the Parker Brothers game behind. Once in the room, they turned off the lights and climbed into bed. While talking they both sensed an ice cold drop in temperature, the air becoming thick, heavy to the point that my sister felt compelled to crawl out of bed, onto the floor toward the light switch near the door; and when she flipped on the light, rather than finding solace, the girls were confronted with something utterly shocking. Their physical identities had changed, altered into something terrifying, inexplicable. Ancient faces, dark skinned, mouths open and slack jawed, bleeding gums exposed with broken teeth, noses broken grotesquely, eyelids pulled up and down as if pinned to an opposite cheek or forehead. Dirty, perverted, cracked, and reeking of dirty leaves, body odor, and sewage. These youthful, familiar faces from a moment before now altered to something unseen, unknown; descriptions that came from both girls, not from only one while the other nodded, but both , each giving quick flashes of a horrific shared recollection.
Tamra never returned to spend the night at the house, and my sister slept on either my bedroom floor or the couch in the upstairs den until we mkved the following year. Small things continued to happen throughout our time there, but nothing as dramatic as the happenings from that summer. My sister and I still argued, bickered like all siblings, but I was less likely to scare, prank her over the subsequent few years…and I never minded her sleeping on my floor, because frankly, I was scared to sleep alone.
It’s understandable that my little sister, who will always be my little sister despite her success as a mother and fierce business woman, still has a deep aversion, knack for avoiding the story from that summer. It was scary, life changing. But my recollection has always been slightly less sinister, at least until recently, last week in fact, when I noticed a slight gray, trick of light in the back of my downstairs fireplace. The exterminator still can’t explain how they’re getting in.