We were on the way to the Jaycees Annual Haunted House. There were seven of us crammed in the car which was okay because it meant there were three of us in the front seat and I was mashed up against Jack and he had one hand on the wheel and one on my knee which was driving us both a little crazy in a good way. We were all wearing those halfway costumes you wear in high school; I was dressed as a gypsy and Jack was some kind of zombie version of Sinatra. It worked on him the way everything did, because he was always the coolest one in the group no matter where we were or what we were doing. I had a mad crush on him that Halloween; it still makes me smile to remember that.
"Has anyone ever lived in a haunted house?"
"A real haunted house?"
"Like in Poltergeist where that little girl got sucked into the TV."
"Ooh, I love that movie! That part where the steak walks across the counter totally freaked me out!"
"It was gross. The whole thing was gross."
"That was a serious haunted house but it was just a movie. You never hear about those messed-up houses in real life. I read that even The Amityville Horror was faked."
"I thought that was real."
"So did I but the whole thing was fake."
"I lived in a haunted house."
Everybody got quiet.
"Really?" said my friend Ana. "You never told me that."
They all leaned toward me—the whole back seat moving forward, their camouflage and sequins and faux fur rubbing together into a costume crash. "Tell us," came four voices from the back seat.
"Yeah," said Ana. "Give it up."
"Tell me," said Jack.
And so I did.
We moved to Jacksonville when I was three years old. My parents had tried to get down to Florida for over a year, and were thrilled when my father was hired at the navy base. He worked at the water plant and my mom stayed at home. My brother was in the first grade. It was 1972 and still five years before they would break up.
In Jacksonville we were still a family.
The house was no different from most; a three bedroom, one bathroom ranch-style with a shingle roof and fenced-in yard. We settled in quickly, my brother into school, my father into work, my mother into everything else. It was a good place for us; there was no reason to think it wasn't a good move. That's important—we had no idea, no sign, that there could be anything wrong with our house. And then one night, the radio started playing.
It was an AM/FM radio, a cheap one that could be mounted underneath a kitchen cabinet. The radio was white and had an ON/OFF switch that was turned on by twisting the volume dial. I couldn't reach it. My father used to turn it on in the morning before breakfast and it played all day while we were home. It was always turned off in the early evening though, before TV and bed. Until one night, it turned on by itself.
We didn't catch it at first, playing so softly that no one woke up. When my father got up early and discovered the radio was playing he blamed it on my brother; sleepwalking, maybe? My brother denied it, of course. And that was it until it happened again a few days later and a few days after that and then all the time. It wasn't one of us—we weren't the kind of kids who would disobey our father for no reason. It was a mystery that just kept on happening, the volume getting louder or softer, you never knew what it would do and my parents just decided, well, maybe it was a short in the wiring or magnets or just one of those things. Odd things happen all the times in houses, don't they?
My father would get up and turn it off every single time. And then my parents would laugh about it like they both thought it was joke or at least hoped it was.
"Okay, this is the part where you should just move out of the house. It happens every single time, something weird goes on then everyone convinces each other it's not really weird and the next thing you know a steak is crawling across your counter."
"Or your kid gets sucked into the TV set."
"They couldn't move and you all know it. Her dad had a job, they would have had to put the house up for sale and find another place to live. You can't just up and go because of a radio."
"We rented," I said turning to look at Jack. "I don't think it would have made sense to them to move for just a radio anyway."
"Your dad was tougher than a radio."
"Yeah," I said. "He was."
"So what happened next?" asked Ana.
"Yeah," from the backseat. "What happened next?"
Something appeared on the walls. It's crazy isn't it—every single haunted house story you hear there is always some kind of funk that grows on the walls, and it was the same thing for us. It showed up in my brother's room first, right over his bed. And then it showed up in mine. It was green or brown or grey. It looked like mold, my mother said. Like mildew or fungus. Just stuff that naturally grows on the walls in Florida. But it wasn't like that.
My mother scrubbed it every day. She made it disappear, made it look like it had never been there, but the next morning she would wake my brother up for school and there it was again. Same ugly stain right above his bed. And she couldn't figure it out because if there was one thing my mother could do it was keep the house clean so she knew it wasn't her; she knew it was something else.
And that radio, it just kept turning on all those nights by itself. The radio didn't make sense either. But what was she going to do about any of it? What could she say? And she didn't know then, she didn't believe then with the radio and the stains that it was something to really worry about, something that was really wrong. But she did know enough to be careful so she went out and she bought a crucifix for each one of our bedrooms and she hung them over our beds. Jesus on the cross. Nothing fancy—we didn't have money for fancy—but that doesn't really matter when it comes to this kind of thing. It's the thought that counts. And she believed. We weren't pretend about God, not even for a minute. There was the Sacred Heart on the wall in my parents' bedroom and a big carving of the Last Supper that hung in our living room—our faith was right there for everybody to see. So she did what you do when your faith is that strong and she put the crucifixes on the walls and the stains went away. She thought it was all taken care of, the answer to a prayer. That's who we were then, people who believed.
And then it came back.
"Okay so the radio I can kind of get."
"No way—are you kidding?! A radio that turns on by itself? What do you get about that?"
"It could have been some kind of weird electrical thing, I mean you can see the radio as explainable but this wall stuff; that ain't right."
"She put crosses on the walls in her kids' bedrooms and thought that was enough? I swear, Bridget, I know she's your mom and all and I like her but still. If you have to put Jesus on the wall isn't that a sign that you are in serious shit?"
"This is why I'm glad my parents are not religious. We would skip the whole God thing and just go. That's the way it should be. You religious people always have to pray first. It takes up valuable running away time."
"It gets worse, doesn't it?" asked Jack.
"Yeah," I said. "It gets worse."
Every day my brother went to school and my father went to work. Dad was still working shifts then, sometimes first, sometimes second. One day he was at the base and my mom put me down in my room for a nap and she was tired so she lay down on the couch in the living room and thought she'd take a little rest too. Just for half an hour or so, before my brother got home. Nothing strange about a mom taking a quick nap in the middle of the afternoon while her three-year-old is sleeping. Nothing for any of us to worry about.
My mom told me later that it had been a nice quiet day. Nothing special, nothing unusual. And then it started to get quiet. The birds went away and then the cars and then the dogs barking. Like a shade going down: bit by bit, all the sounds disappeared. She didn't even notice at first and maybe she wasn't supposed to, maybe she was meant to fall asleep without noticing anything strange was going on, but she didn't—she didn't fall asleep. So when the voices started in all that silence, she heard them.
At first, she heard little girls. Little girls talking and laughing. She thought they must have been cutting through our backyard. She thought about getting up to check, to tell them stay out of the yard, but she didn't. She just kept lying on the couch, thinking about that nap and how she only had a few minutes to do it. And then she heard a man.
The man was talking to the girls. He was telling them to do something, telling them to behave. The girls kept giggling. They made nonsense sounds, high-pitched Minnie Mouse voices saying nothing. But he kept talking to them and my mom couldn't pick out his words exactly, couldn't quite hear them, and really she shouldn't have been able to hear much at all anyway if they were in the backyard because that was through the living room and the kitchen and out the sliding glass doors and too far away for little girl voices to carry. But then she realized they were in the hallway. She was at one end, I was at the other, and those little girls and their man were in the middle.
She says now it was like the earth stopped. There was all that nothing and then all that talking and she knew they were in the house, they were in her house and she wanted to get up, she wanted to go to the end of the couch, to walk past the lamp and look down the hallway and see them. She wanted to see who they were and get past them, get to me. But she couldn't move. She was so scared, so overwhelmed by the impossibility of it, that she lay there and she listened and she never heard enough to know who they were.
And then in a second everything came back. The dogs were barking and the birds were chirping and cars drove by and someone's TV was turned up crazy loud and the little girls and the man were gone. And my mother got up and there was nobody in the hallway. It was as though it had never happened. But later that evening, talking over the fence, our neighbor told my mother the strangest thing: that it had been so quiet for a while that afternoon that she felt like the world had stopped. My mother told her she hadn't noticed, that she was sleeping and must have missed it.
"This is not good."
"Definitely getting weirder."
"Accelerating. Whatever was screwing with you all was accelerating."
"How did she not move? I don't get that. How did she just lie there?"
"Are you kidding? I would have been more freaked out if she did go look."
"Did it ever happen again?" Jack asked, pitching his voice low so only I could hear him.
"No," I said. "She never heard the voices again after that one day."
"You were at the other end of the hall," he said, taking my hand.
"I was okay." I liked it when we held hands; I liked that he would hold my hand in front of everyone else.
"So they were good voices."
"Or they couldn't beat the crucifix," I said smiling at him
"Is that why you wear a cross around your neck?" he asked.
"No," I said. "This is for them, for my mom and dad."
"They gave it to you?"
"No. It just reminds me of who they used to be. It's not about God; it's about us." And anything that was about us was something I wanted to keep.
"Is that the whole story?" asked Ana.
"What do you think?" I said.
There was a storm coming. The air grew thick, the way it gets in Florida, already hopping with flashes of lightning. Thunderheads rolled in and the rain had begun to spit. My father wore a tie and jacket, my mother was in a dress, both my brother and I were polished from top to bottom. We always looked our best for church.
My father went out first, to unlock the car doors so we could run right out to our seats without getting soaked. It wasn't really far from our front porch across the scrubby little lawn, over a few stepping stones, past the single sand pine tree in the yard and onto the driveway. We really missed having a carport on mornings like this, though.
So he ran out and got in the car and the thunder started shouting and the rain falling and my mom got us ready to go out the door and then there was this boom, this boom louder than anything you can imagine. It was a world-is-ending kind of boom and the porch fell and I remember grabbing my mother, just reaching out for all of her that I could touch and if we screamed I don't know. My mother got us out of there, half carrying us both, running as much as she could. I don't know if my father even had time to react before she had us in the car. He said later that the house was actually hit twice, but the strikes came so close together that we hadn't noticed. They drove away, we went to Mass, and when we came home the rain had stopped falling. The porch had collapsed, the beams had fallen; the whole thing was blocking the front door. There were scorch marks on the wall. We all just stood there, staring at our house. While we were at church, my parents had convinced themselves the storm wasn't that big a deal. But that wreck of a porch proved we had been struck hard by lightning.
First the radio, then the walls, then the voices, and now the lightning. The sky truly was falling on us.
The neighbors said the lightning dropped again after we drove away. It hit the house, bounced onto the chain link fence, ran all the way around the yard and finally disappeared into the ground. They said it wasn't the first time that house was hit. No one told us before we moved in, but they all had stories that day. It was crazy how, out of the whole block, our little house was the one that always seemed to rock when a big storm blew through. There was something about that house.
My father got a job in Orlando a month later and we moved away. We've got some pictures though, two sets. The ones of the house before the storm and the ones of the house after. That's how I know it wasn't all a lie; I've seen the pictures of that porch. And I remember being scared.
Jack parked the car and everyone piled out. We were at one of the older shopping centers; the Jaycees had rented out what used to be a Winn-Dixie. People were standing in line, waiting to get in, half excited and half nervous. Everyone was ready for a good scare.
"So that's it, all that weird shit happens and then your family just moves away?"
"Struck by lightning? That's right out of a movie, it's classic. Was your house built on an ancient Indian burial ground or something?"
"Thank God you didn't have a swimming pool—who knows what might have come out of it."
"I don't know how you can be so calm about this. I would be walking around freaked out for life if that was where I spent my childhood."
"Am I the only one who thinks this whole haunted house idea isn't such a good one anymore?"
"No," I said. "We should go in. It'll be fun; it's always fun."
"It's what we came for, isn't it? To get freaked out?"
"Well yeah but only fake freaked, not the real thing."
"Then you shouldn't have asked for a haunted house story," said Ana. "Keep doing that and eventually you're going to get one."
"Now you tell me."
Jack grabbed my hand, pulling me back, letting everyone else go ahead. He was giving me time to breathe. I was okay though. It was the first time any of them had heard the story but I knew it inside and out. And besides, I hadn't told the really bad part, the only part I didn't like: the part about how things ended.
After Jacksonville, we were in Orlando for a year in a house like every other one in the world; it wasn't haunted. Then my father got a job at the place he had been trying for and we finally moved to the beach, nice house, good schools, a good church. My mother sewed the clothes I wore in my kindergarten class picture, and joined the PTA. I was an angel in the Christmas pageant. We had this big backyard and there was a vacant field down the road where my brother went to launch model rockets with his friends. It was everything we had all been hoping for, nothing special yet perfect all the same. But my parents weren't happy there, and I've always been a little bit angry at them for that.
My mother stayed in touch with a neighbor from Jacksonville, a friend she could talk to about her marriage: how they were drifting apart, how they didn't talk, or listen, anymore. And the neighbor told her she wasn't surprised because that was what always happened. No marriages survived that house; every couple who lived through it broke up. Later, my mother told me it was like a separate haunting: something changed for my father when we lived there.
She told me this when I was eight years old and she kept saying it every time she told the haunted house story. Step by step she would lead us through what happened and then end with her idea of what changed my father. The house made him someone else, she would say, shaking her head. It made him impossible to live with. And so they broke up.
The real way to tell our haunted house story is with the radio and the walls and the voices and the storm. The story needs the details of the crucifixes and the rosaries they both always carried and that mad dash in the rain and the lightning and the thunder to church on Sunday. With my parents convinced that nothing was wrong while quietly certain that something was not right. The real way should have them together, telling the story later to skeptical friends over card games or barbeques or pizza dinners. That way, the story would stay ours; our silly or scary or just unexplainable brush with something other, but still and always—ours.
The truth is, my father didn't change in Jacksonville; nobody did. He just finally figured out that he hated his job and my mother figured out that she wanted to be more than a wife and mother and instead of the two of them sitting down and figuring out how to make a better life for all of us, they messed up and gave up and failed. A stupid possessed radio didn't do that and no voices down a dark hallway told them to either.
We beat the haunted house; it was when we were living happily ever after that the bad thing got us.
"You're not going to scream in there, are you?" asked Jack.
"No," I said. "I'm pretty brave when it comes to the dark." And then he put his arm around me and then he kissed me and that was pretty nice too. We walked up to buy our tickets and have our fun, and as we stumbled laughing and yelling through the tricked-out Winn-Dixie that night, I kept thinking how strange it was that in all those movies the families always drive away screaming but still, they stay together. Even now, twenty years later, I wonder how things might have gone if we'd left town on that day of the storm. If we'd let ourselves be as terrified as we should have been, then maybe we would have made it.
That haunted house was the last chance my family had to stay together; if only it had scared us a little bit more, it might have worked.