Gray Goes Black - Complete

Chapter I: Snakes

I love to tell the story, even today; especially when the setting is just right, any situation that might be suitable for a ghost story, perhaps at a dinner party, drinking with friends, mixed company of strangers and casual acquaintances.  The topic is always easy to introduce, because frankly, almost everyone has a personal scary story, an inexplicable happening from a moment in their life.  The innocuous anecdotes are typically the ones told by the storytellers; it’s always that an object moved, a lost item was found, a voice was heard, or something trivial, safe that makes it easy for the narrator to broach the memory.  That’s the area that my story falls within, a comical, slightly spooky yarn with no real negative consequence or conclusion; however, my sister’s story is altogether different, lasting, and according to her, terrifying.

It’s almost too easy to contend that the more serious of the two varieties of stories actually haunt the storyteller, but that’s exactly what happens.  A happening that leaves such an indelible, psychic scar on the person that they find themselves either avoiding the story at all cost or inadvertently removing it from their memory altogether.  My younger sister falls somewhere helplessly suspended between both scenarios, frightened not only by the sharp, horrific images of that night, but more importantly, by what it might allow back into her safe world as a wife and mother.

In her adult life, my sister doesn’t take shit from anybody; a seasoned business woman, fearless in almost every part of her life, with the exception of this strange, inexplicable memory of a night from almost thirty years ago.  She’s been running from it her entire life; sleeping on my bedroom floor for nearly a year after the incident, until the family disbanded, moving from the house in quiet relief; in her high school days, demanding that everyone address her by her middle name, rather than her first (to this day, I’m one of only a few people that still call her Holly, much to her dismay); and even today, when she leaves the table after dinner if she thinks it even remotely possible that I will bring it up.  Running, protecting herself like a strong woman should; running, protecting her family from a memory that is so scary that she dare not even mention it even as a joke or as passing fancy; running, protecting her older brother from things that perhaps he doesn’t remember accurately about that night, because if he did recall it correctly, he wouldn’t be so eager to talk about it. 

Regardless, there are two occurrences in this story, but only one person who touched, experienced both, and that person, for better or worse, was me.  I was fifteen years old, it was summertime in Texas in the late 1980s, adorned with spiked bleached hair, bangles, and tons of misplaced attitude.  My mother and step-father bought a house on Lake Granbury the year before; a modest two story, home set against a rocky bluff face that stretched down to idyllic Lake Granbury, teeming with kids skiing, wake boarding to escape the suffocating Texas heat.  The house included a small boat dock that set at the base of a winding, stone path that my step-father was perpetually repairing.  In fact, part of our daily regiment when heading down to ski, swim, sun bathe was to carry an arm load of bricks down to whatever area he was working on – a practice both my sister and I resented.

Still, we did it, mostly out of respect for our young mother, who was love struck with her newly acquired husband, who wasn’t a bad guy necessarily, or at least not during this period of their marriage; a few years after the happening, he broke her heart completely after a scandalous affair at his workplace.  Dick.

Our summers were fun, hours listening to music on that boat dock with both friends and family; as well as countless moments of early morning, late evening skiing behind the Mastercraft that cut beautiful foam lines across the glass like surface of the lake.  That summer my skin turned coco brown, hair white, and legs and arms muscular from the hours of slalom skiing and knee boarding.  It was also the first year I was allowed to take the boat out on my own with friends, which meant opportunities to get into all kinds of trouble.  Drinking beer, smoking pot, chasing teenage girls; all the things healthy, first world boys did in a suburb of Fort Worth back then, and probably even now.  My mother wasn’t stupid, and my occasional slip up would lead to a week without privileges, but as long as my infractions were seemingly innocuous then I was allowed to climb back on the horse of adolescence in all its meaningful glory. 

It was an important, action packed period of time; my sister and I more than ever sensing the age gap, awkward teenage brother preoccupied with girls, music, and smoking pot, juxtaposed with pre-adolescent sister who was strong, but still innocent in only a way a girl at that age can be.  She was spirited even then, the squeaky wheel of the family that demanded attention regardless of whether it was in a negative or positive light, she was perpetually at odds with our mother, quarreling over things like clothing, make up, and jewelry.  That summer, she covertly purchased a single set of bright pink earrings resembling two large fishing lures that proved to be a particular source of tearful deliberation throughout the summer.  Gaudy, tacky and utterly inappropriate for anyone other than a pro bass member, she sported them whenever our mother wasn’t around, bouncing up and down the path to and from the dock, whirly gigs hanging, twisting, and shining from beneath her tangled, dish-water hair.  There’s a photograph somewhere in a dusty shoebox of her standing in a bathing suit, sans smile with hands on hips and those fluorescent ear rings suspended just an inch from the crest of her tanned, freckled shoulder.  Defiant, not taking shit from anybody.

When I meditate, reflect hard on that summer I’m astounded that I didn’t, don’t think about it more often; a missing cat, the family dog barking at a wall, mysterious voices, horrific middle of the night happenings, inexplicable daylight occurrences, and snakes in the fireplace.  Tiny, soot covered baby snakes tap, tap, tap tapping on the glass door with their flat noses, waving tiny black forked tongues.  The fireplace was in the downstairs living room that separated our bedrooms, adjacent to a mud room and shared bathroom; with our own private entrance that spilled onto a back porch that led down to the dock.  For two days I noticed, misinterpreted the micro vipers for a trick of light, reflection against the glass door.  Finally, on the third evening while watching Late Night with David Letterman, I recognized the same familiar flash, but thought it strange since there was no sunlight to cast a reflection.  Squinting, I crawled off the couch to get a better look, pressing my face inches from the glass, then, tap, tap; a tiny, triangular head with diamond eyes rose from the gray ashes to scare the living shit out of me.  I screamed, recoiling across the room as fast as I could crabwalk backwards into the glow of the television.  “Fuck” I gasped, goosebumps waving across my body.  Nothing in the world scared me more than snakes. Nothing. 

I didn’t sleep that night; still respectful enough not to wake my mother and step-father, but not equipped or adult enough to deal with removing them myself.  Instead, I fled to my bedroom, carefully stuffing punk rock t-shirts into the gap beneath my door, then climbing into the cool sanctuary of my waterbed; watching, listening intently; and just as I was about to drift off, hearing the dark tap, tap, tapping of scale on glass that ultimately prevented my slumber. 

All summer long, the baby gray snakes were removed, but after a day or so there would be more to take their place. My mother and her husband were perplexed; where were they coming from? Perhaps the trees that hung over the house; unlikely. Maybe the exterior door that was used to remove ash and soot; probably not since it was ascended from the ground several feet. The only other explanation was that they were entering from inside the house; from the confines of the downstairs living area that I shared with my sister. I was mortified; and although the snakes made their way into one other area of the house that summer, their presence was by far not the scariest, or most terrifying part of this story. The snakes were just the beginning.

Chapter II: Stairs

Despite the gray, soot covered snakes writhing in the fireplace, I was having a great summer on the lake. The amalgamation of damp hair, jams, t-shirts, and Chuck Taylor converse was an appropriate uniform of for the hot season in Texas, and with the exception of my small lawn mowing business, I was responsibility free. I was also incredibly girl crazy, chasing after not only the familiar young women from my high school, but also the slightly more punk rock female persuasion from Dallas and Fort Worth. My mother and step-father traveled extensively that summer on both business and pleasure, sometimes apart but usually together, which meant plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the adult-free house while they were away.

Although there were larger parties in years to come, that season yielded mostly small gatherings that led to smoking, drinking, listening to music, jean scrubbing, and a lot of fumbling with clips, snaps of bras and swimsuits. Even at that age, the lake was an aphrodisiac, especially with the water slowly rolling beneath the dock, new wave music wafting, and teenage desire realized. I was mostly exploring the idea of lust, but It was also the first time I experienced the pangs of falling in love; even though I was completely ill-equipped to know how to appropriately deal with it. Awkward, feigning shyness, premature, immature, and savoring every delicious minute of it. Hearts were broken, mended, and re-broken that summer and the sexual imprinting that occurred would help define the type of women that I would find attractive both physically and mentally for the rest of my life.

Beth was the girl I found myself day dreaming about the most while lounging on the lake or mowing the same patch of grass three and four times while listening to my walk-man; she was smart, intellectual, funny, donning Molly Ringwald red lips, slightly dark new wave fashion, pale and freckled with long curly hair that sculpted back atop her head; not at all like the teased bangs that most of the other teenagers were sporting, but rather, long tendrils that hung abrasive, sexy. She smelled exotic, and listened to sexy British gothic music…even posting obscure vinyl covers of albums by the Cure, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, and Depeche Mode artfully on her bedroom walls. I blew it the next year after smoking too much pot at a Cure show, to the point I was uncommunicative, and she sadly mistook my immaturity for being dismissive. But that summer, she had my attention and my heart.

So, yes, there were myriad distractions that undoubtedly shifted my attention away from the black happenings in our house; and in hindsight, I probably should have been more cognitive of those indicators; but the later diagnosed “Peter Pan” complex that hovers like sunshine above my life even today, causing as much harm to relationships as good, probably started because I’ve always been easily distracted, and quick to shrug off negative, dark energy. Within a week of the snakes, another strange thing occurred that I had completely forgotten until recently.

Part of my regiment during this period of adolescence was traversing the line between getting high and then dealing with trying to prove to my parents that I was not high. Usually it was after I had been out with friends, washing up at the convenient store located outside our gated community to obscure smell of pot, a splash of water, cheap cologne, or a dab of wet towelette that also helped me sober up. But still, on more than one occasion I found myself mis-gauging potency, timing and then trying to talk to my parents or their friends while being cotton mouthed and stoned out of my skull. I typically managed it, but not before being ridiculously paranoid.

On this occasion, I was playing tennis with a friend at the private courts near our house after smoking pot, when I suddenly witnessed my mother’s minivan careen into the parking lot and screech to a halt near the fence. “Dude, you’re busted,” my friend said as she rushed onto our court with my pre-teen sister in tow. I stood there holding my racket, mouth agape, waiting for an accusation.

“Were you just home?” my mother asked quickly, nervously smiling. My sister had tears running down her cheeks.

“Uh, no…we’ve been here for like 20 minutes..” I awkwardly said . My friend hopped over the net, loving every minute of my discomfort, paranoia.

“Be honest, if you beat us down here and were just trying to scare your sister, you’re not in trouble, I just need to know..” she continued with furrowed brow, nervous smile dissipating.

“Case, swear to God!” my Holly screamed. That forced the other people playing tennis to stop and take notice.

“I swear to God,” I answered, “What happened?” Realizing that my step-father was out of town for a couple days as I asked the question. “He should be dealing with whatever this is,” I thought to myself.

“Somebody that sounded like you making a funny voice said ‘mommy’ when we first got home,” my mother said. Now there were other tennis players gathering around the four of us. Just then the lights to the courts blinked on as the day went from dusk to night. My sister whimpered, staring at me.

“C’mon, let’s go check it out,” my friend urged.

“Wait a second,” I said a bit too loud, trying to clear my head.. “What do you mean somebody said ‘mommy’? I mean, who said it?”

My mother’s nervous smile reappeared, feeling a little embarrassed now as other tennis players took a break to drink water and hear the story.

Apparently, after grocery shopping, my Holly ran ahead into the house, and as my mother entered the landing and started to climb the stairs with an armload of brown bags, she heard someone say “mommy” in a falsetto voice. Stopping halfway up the stairs, she called up to my sister, but my sister emerged from the downstairs, not from the direction of the voice; then believing that her son was the source, she smiled and called out my name; and with my sister standing next her now, the voice slowly, loudly called back “MOOOOOOM-MEEEEE!”

Holly screamed, my mother nearly fell down the stairs, and they both bolted out the front door and up to the detached carport, clamoring for keys and each other as they squealed down the hill toward the tennis courts.

My mother had calmed significantly since her arrival, but my sister was still crying, scared. The other male tennis players crowded in close, offering masculine assistance, I suspected only because my mother was attractive and a little frightened. People were always mistaking her for my sister or girlfriend, which I hated, but she loved. It was enough to motivate me to leave the courts so we could investigate ourselves, tennis rackets and bottled Gatorade in hand.

Chris and I drove separately with my little sister in the back seat, and my mother close behind in her minivan.

“So, you heard it too?” I questioned my sister. “What did it sound like?”

“Yessss…it sounded like you!” she kept saying. “Swear to God it wasn’t you! Swear!” My heart broke for my sister; she was prone to crying out of frustration for not getting her way…not because of being scared or terrified.

As I parked, I was surprised to see that all the lights from inside the house were on, shining bright through the trees and darkness that had fallen. Chris and I bounded down the rock walkway, giggling, sweating, exhilarated and out of breath . I pressed in first, looking up at two bags of groceries sitting side by side at the top of the stairs. “Hey!” I yelled.

“Okay,” I whispered. “When we get up to the kitchen, let’s both start screaming like crazy; it’ll scare the shit outta both of them…” Still a little stoned, he started laughing in anticipation. “Shut up, man.” I giggled back.

Then calling up to the carport toward my mother, “Guys, come on in…there’s nothing here!”

They started to make their way toward me, my sister pressed tight to our mother.

“Thank God,” she said as she approached the door. “…is there milk everywhere?” My mother walked into the landing and immediately went slack jawed. My sister screamed and bounded up the stairs toward the carport, my friend close behind her.

My mother and I stood quietly looking up at the two brown bags sitting next to one another at the top of the stairs. “I dropped both of those bags as we ran out,” she uttered. “they both ripped apart; there was milk, juice everywhere…”

I went cold as we both heard the light tap, tap, tapping of scales on glass coming from the downstairs. My friend promptly made his departure. It took us an hour to coax my sister back into the house.

Chapter III: Bags

The following week, my mother and step-father left town for several days, and I was given the choice to either stay with friends or remain at the house alone. My sister was too young to be given that option, but my teenage desire nudged me in the direction of remaining in the house by myself. A decision I would later regret.

Beth and her friend Shannon were due to arrive Thursday night, so I spent that day on the lake with Chris and another friend named Sean, who’s family also owned a ski boat. It was blistering hot, so the three of us spent the entire afternoon bouncing back and forth across the lake. After several hours of sun and water sports, we returned to my dock and made our way up to the house to find something to eat and to mess with my newly acquired Ouija board, Parker Brothers variety.

The house was silent, bright in the Texas late afternoon, and the first thing I tried to do was show my damp friends the creepy snakes in the fireplace. Unfortunately, there was no gray movement behind the glass doors, so we raided the upstairs kitchen instead, eating chips, swilling juice and milk from bottles and jugs. I offered Chris a jerky dog treat that was stacked in a glass jar that my mother kept for our pet shih tzu, Annie; which he did partially, until he realized what it was and dramatically spit it out in the kitchen sink. Chris was also obsessed with the “bag incident” with my mother and sister from the week before, constantly bringing it up, recounting it for Sean.

Eventually we found ourselves in my downstairs bedroom, which was located at the base of the stairwell leading down from the entryway landing. Next to my door, my mother had left a large plastic garbage bag filled with old clothes to be taken to the local shelter. She instructed me to deliver the bag of clothes while they were gone, a task I hadn’t thought about once since her departure.

The boys and I positioned ourselves on the floor of my bedroom, the Ouija board positioned in the center of our shirtless, sloppy circle. We were listening to loud new wave music from my stereo, wafting and intermingling with cigarette smoke from my room and into the rest of the house. Neither of my parents smoked, but I was confident that I could air out the house appropriately before their return. Again, another decision I later came to regret.

We asked the board ridiculously adolescent questions like: Will I get a hand job tonight? or Will Kelly let me feel her tits? or Will I be rich and famous when I grow up? Things that boys that age, from that period of time thought about; and even today when I think about my own daughter who is about that same age, I can’t help but worry a little about her being the focus of that same adolescent desire, stupidity, awkwardness. We were harmless, punk rock nerds who were guided more by our insecurity than anything else; and although we certainly weren’t the most altruistic kids, we also weren’t nefarious by nature.

Regardless, nothing was happening with the Ouija board; we couldn’t seem to conjure the appropriate amount of seriousness or spirituality to deem it effective. We smoked pot, giggled, and ultimately decided to head back down to the lake for one final ski before the girls from Dallas arrived I was the last to walk out of my room, barreling into the back of both boys as they stopped just a step into the living room. “What the fuck?” Chris shrieked.

It took me a moment to register their hesitation but then realized quite quickly what it was that had stopped them both in their tracks. The large black bag of shelter clothes had been turned out aggressively across the entire floor of the living room. A soft mess connected from couch to chairs, and entertainment center, with an old pair of 501 Levi jeans hanging, spinning limp from the ceiling fan blade, as well as several shirts draped across the fireplace mantle. The other boys laughed, tussled with me because they thought I was the reason for the trick. I laughed too, but not in the same way. I knew they thought it was me, the one who was known for elaborate pranks, but I was more concerned with how one or both of these two idiots had managed to pull this off. They starting throwing clothes at one another, smelling my mother’s old bathrobe, being immature. It was also at this moment that I realized the lights were on in not only the living room, but in fact, every single room in the downstairs area but my bedroom.

I called for the family dog, realizing that I hadn’t noticed seeing her since coming in from the lake. Still laughing, they aided in my search for Annie, hollering her name on the back deck, throughout the downstairs, then clamoring over one another as we ran upstairs, finally finding her in my mother’s closet, curled up sleeping at the base of her well organized shoe wall. Annie looked up from her slumber, wagged her bushy black tail, sneezed, then put her head back down to sleep. Odd behavior for this normally gregarious dog who generally liked company, even when it was my friends who would at times pick her up, mimicking lewd acts like boys do…or at least, like my friends did.

I was relieved when we found the dog, but the three of us were still adrenaline rushed by the mysterious bag happenings downstairs, so we decided to return to my room to attempt another round with the Ouija board, but not before shoving all the displaced clothes back into the black plastic bag. It was Chris that noticed that all the lights were turned back off downstairs, even asking when I had time to accomplish this inexplicable feat while we were searching for the dog. In an instant, we were all very suspect of each another, still laughing but not quite as loudly as before.

After returning the refilled, opened bag back to the base of the stairwell, we re entered my room, closing the door behind us. The stereo was turned up, The Talking Heads blaring, “I can't seem to face up to the facts, I'm tense and nervous and I can't relax” Again, we failed miserably at successfully maneuvering the Ouija board, so after several minutes of accusations and punching one another in the arm, we emerged from my room, tanned shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. “Psycho Killer, Qu'est-ce que c'est” For the second time that day, Chris dramatically called out, “Oh, God…what the fuck?”

The first thing I noticed was the family dog sitting on the bottom step of the stairway, looking up at us, wagging her tail, blowing out three tiny, quick sneezes, then barking once before bounding onto the floor. The next thing I noticed was that the bag was no longer resting in the position we had left it; rather it was now sitting, cinched tightly, in the center of the living room. We all three stood slack jawed , standing around the bundle, until finally I bent over to open the bag. It was too tight, so I impatiently tore through the top just below the double knot. The dog barked, startling all three of us at the sliding glass door; and as I broke from the group to let her out, the music seemed to increase in volume, “You start a conversation you can't even finish it, you're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything “

Sean stoically asked, “ And there’s nobody else in the house?”

Chris stomped quickly into my bedroom to kill the music. “No,” I replied, closing the sliding glass door. “There’s someone coming to fix our phone line tomorrow, and other than the girls tonight, that’s it.”

It was true, my parents had arranged for a phone tech to come out on Friday to evaluate the cost of changing the current party line to a private line due to some recent bickering with the British neighbor with the pretty, young wife who currently shared a line with us. In fact, a few weeks early, while on a business call, my step father had curtly asked the neighbor’s wife to “please get off the phone” which caused a rather dramatic confrontation between the two men at our front door moments later. I rather liked hearing the man’s proper British accent defending the honor of his wife to my step father. Regardless, the issue had motivated my parents to arrange for a new private line for our home, and the phone guy was scheduled to be at the house the following day to start the process. But nobody other than him and the girls from Dallas were expected to enter into our very gated, security monitored neighborhood that entire week.

For the second time in a week I found myself “Swearing to God” to someone scared out of their mind. Chris was visibly shaken, pleading with both of us to “get the fuck outta here!” Although Sean was frightened, he was intrigued enough to push onward with me, in search of an explanation. We convinced Chris to stay for one more experiment.

This time we decided to table the Ouija board altogether, leaving the music off, listening intently for something, anything. The house was more than three decades old, and when people walked upstairs, it was easy to hear the floor creak above my bedroom ceiling. So we sat silent for nearly five minutes, a feat nearly impossible for three fifteen year old boys; and it wasn’t until just before we exited my room that I alone heard what I knew to be only the faint, dark sound of tap, tap, tapping of cold scales on glass. I quickly opened the door, both boys standing behind either of my shoulders. Chris moaned slowly, “Oh God..” as we all three recognized the same black bag now on the floor directly outside my room. The bag that moments before had been sitting in the center of the living room was now waiting inches from my bedroom door, turned upside down no less.

None of us wanted to touch it, so we carefully traversed the wall around the ominous bag, arm in arm. Again, we noticed all lights were turned on as we made our way together up the stairs to the second story. Chris began to tremble uncontrollably as we crested the last step, pointing toward my mother’s bedroom. His tremble coursed through Sean and I as we both caught sight of his gaze. Hanging from the outside door knob of the bedroom was a single red spiked heel, and a few feet adjacent was the other shoe, but rather than hanging, the second heel was turned up toward the ceiling.

We tumbled back down the stairs, through the living room, and out the back door down to the dock. Both friends pleaded with me to leave, but in this time before cell phones, I explained that I had no way of contacting the girls from Dallas who were due to arrive in under an hour. We debated, both of them already in the boat while I stood shaking on the dock as I held my dog, despite the 90 degree heat.. I watched them speed away just as the sun was setting, bright red hues dancing atop the surface of the eerily calm lake.

Pressing Annie close to my bare chest, I walked back up, avoiding the interior of the house, making my way around and into the detached carport as the highest point on the property. I sat cross legged on the warm cement, the dog in my arms, looking down for any sign of movement from within the house. I saw and heard nothing for the remainder of the evening; even an hour later as the girls arrived, choosing not to tell them the story for fear they might not stay.. In fact, nothing strange occurred until two weeks later, after my sister returned home, on the night that we both experienced something so terrifying and inexplicable that even to this day she refuses to acknowledge it.

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.