Terrified Toast editing this post.
Part one of this Halloween series can be found HERE, but don’t worry, you won’t need it to follow along.
Tonight I padded upstairs after having kissed Miss Oat goodnight and covered up her house (my turkey girl likes total darkness for a peaceful night’s sleep). The motion light burned bright on the half-landing staircase, telling me that Blue Eyes had recently climbed them on his way up to bed. I flipped the rocker switch, leaving the ground floor in darkness save for the under-cabinet lights, warm and luminescent in the contrasting dim. I glanced back and silently mused that my kitchen resembled a jack’o lantern bidding me good evening. Under the interrogation of our master bathroom lights, Blue Eyes asked around his toothbrush “Did Toast come back inside?”
“Toast? No. Didn’t he come upstairs with you?”
“No, he wasn’t done in the backyard when I called him.”
Oh no, poor Toast. As you all know, Toast is a smidge neurotic and easily spooked. And his parents just locked him outside in the terrifying backyard, where all manner of creeps and crawls are afoot and aslither. I shuddered at the abject terror he must surely be gripped by as I recapped my Tom’s of Maine toothpaste and rushed back towards the stairs.
Sure enough I heard his desperate paws performing their signature rhythmic ricochet off the beleaguered sliding glass doors as I navigated the dark staircase, only waking the chandelier as my feet hit the landing.
I pulled open the door and as he scampered past me in relief, I couldn’t help but indulge in a momentary glance out into the soft, watery cover of night. Just what was out there? Were there things we don’t see? Things we won’t see? Things we only see if we believe them to be real? I could hear the leaves, batting eyelashes raining butterfly kisses on the cheeks of the night. I thought I saw a shimmer of movement in the abstract stand of shadows, but who can really be sure. Our minds play tricks on us, giggling like children as we turn pale.
11 o’clock was born by the choir of our grandfather clock. I jumped at his song, snapping me out of my backyard investigation. I pushed the heavy door shut and rolled my eyes at myself. All make believe. Why have I not yet outgrown the need to remind myself of that?
You see, I don’t know that I ever will. Because in my house, it wasn’t all make believe. It was real and it was present.
You always see those parents in the movies who assure their children “that’s not real, honey; it’s all make believe”. Maybe your parents did the same? Not mine. Like their parents before them, my mom and dad told us ghost stories as warnings, not playful pieces of Halloween merriment. They were raised as we… to believe in ghosts and hauntings and things unseen.
But here’s the thing. I saw things. Real things. I saw things move, untouched by human hands. I saw a white, gauzy figure standing at my window every Wednesday night at 8:35 for weeks at a time. I heard tapping on the glass while my dad crouched in a corner insisting no one was standing at the other side. Things vanished. TVs turned on.
I remember my grandmother visiting from Pennsylvania when I was 12. She bought me so many new outfits, the bag was wider than I stood tall. I dragged it by its plastic handles to the corner of my bedroom. A few days later, Nana had flown home and I decided it was time to organize my family and assorted stuffed animals for a fashion show. Once they were all seated astride our brown and orange corduroy sectional, I skipped down the hall to my bedroom. Only, the bag wasn’t in the corner. It wasn’t in any of the corners, or the closet, or under the bed. The thing was like Santa’s toy sack, and it had just vanished into thin air.
We never found that bag.
My cousin Leah used to come from Pittsburgh to stay with us in the summertime. We wrung every drop of fun out of those summers, and they were some of the best of my young life. As children often are, we were somewhat disinclined to follow the rules. In my house there were very few of those. And only one was a deal breaker: absolutely without a doubt no touching, playing with, or even being in the same room with a Ouija board. Yes. A Ouija board. The game you can buy at Toys ‘R’ Us. We weren’t allowed anywhere near them and under no circumstances were we ever to bring one anywhere near the house. When we reached the age that sleepovers become a regular part of a child’s life, we were instructed in no uncertain terms that if at any time our hosts wanted to pull a Ouija board out from under their bed and hold a seance, we were to call home immediately and my mom or dad would come and pick us up, no matter what time.
In my world, it was an unchallenged fact that even so much as touching a planchette was enough to throw the door wide open and invite spirits to follow us home.
Naturally, one mischievous afternoon, Leah and I decided that we were going to make one using construction paper and crayons. We were maybe 8 and 9 at the time. We arranged the letters and numbers, YES and NO in approximately the right places, using our memories of movies as our guide. When we were satisfied with our flimsy facsimile, we tore one more sheet from the pad to cut into the shape of a planchette.
Before I had fished my safety scissors from my backpack, there was a knock at the locked door, followed by my dad calling from the other side of it. Panicked, I grabbed the sheet of paper, folded it in four, and stuck it between the pages of my 2nd grade yearbook. Then I opened up the nearby Monopoly box, shoved the yearbook inside, closed the lid, and pushed the whole offending package underneath my bed. Leah turned the lock just as the pink dust ruffle swished back into place. My dad stood looking back and forth between us, our small faces clearly painted with guilty expressions. He gave us a look as if to say “I know you two are up to something in here”, but the words were never spoken. They didn’t need to be.
I don’t remember exactly what it was my dad came to the door to tell us. I only remember that when Leah pushed the door closed behind him and turned back to face me, she was suddenly pale as a porcelain sink basin. I turned around and realized what had bleached her cheeks.
The folded piece of paper was on the brown carpet behind me.
Impossible. I’d sandwiched it in the yearbook within the board game box underneath the bed. It was like an inedible turducken! And turducken do not just come apart all willy nilly, now do they? Frantic, I pushed past the dust ruffle, tore open the box, and shook out the yearbook. It was empty.
We realized then that we’d done something bad, something bigger than us. We threw open the door, and ran half hollering, half crying down the hall. My dad came immediately from the living room. We met him there and pulled him by both hands, two tiny reindeer, back to my bedroom.
I remember hoping that it was gone. That way, I could dismiss it as another player in a child’s imagination. But there it sat, looking both innocuous and menacing. It was then that we told him exactly what was written inside the folds of that construction paper. He didn’t hesitate for a second before bending down and picking it up. He never once opened it, just grabbed a lighter from my mother’s purse, and took it out into the backyard. I’ll never forget the tenacity of that folded piece of paper.
The thing would not burn. The flame went right around it, water around a river stone. Dad disappeared into the house once more, re-emerging with a white bottle of lighter fluid. The fibers drowned in it then, giving up, breathing in water, letting the flames overtake them.
I watched the paper curl into a fetal position in the grass, bits breaking off and flying in the midday sunlight, at once dead and free. We got a stern talking to about the danger of what we had done, reemphasizing that a Ouija board is not a toy, it’s a dangerous weapon.
I never touched another Ouija board again. In 31 years on this planet I have still never seen a real one. I don’t know what is real and what is make believe. Can we imagine things into being simply by virtue of believing in them? This is the notion behind things like telekinesis and a woman exhibiting strength that defies the laws of physics to save her child. Does faith beget reality? Conjure energy? I know what I saw. I know what I felt. I know that bags the size of giant carnival prizes don’t just get up and walk away.
And I know that my refrigerator makes all sorts of creepy noises and I’m losing the adult fortitude with which to say “It’s only the ice maker. There’s nothing in this dark room with you…”
So this is PB, signing off. For tonight. In the next chapter later this week, I’ll tell you about the thing outside my window, the knocking, the cemetery rock that had poltergeist tenants and how my parents discovered it in my closet, and the West Virginia hill up which my car was pulled, backwards. Not running. With the parking brake on.