Monday, April 24, 2017

Night Suntan

There is a place back behind the old Lochiel Hotel where some disused railroad tracks have been rusting away for over a century in an overgrowth of wild trees and scrub.

If you stand there for an hour or so in the middle of the night, even the darkest night, in the morning you will find you have a suntan.

Or rather, you will find in the morning that you have what looks like a suntan. It may be a slight reddishness, but it will be noticeable.

It doesn’t matter what clothes you wear. It doesn’t matter whether or not the moon is shining, whether it is summer or winter.

You just have to stand back there, behind the Lochiel Hotel, in the right place. The place where it happened.

You see, that is where two trains collided in the middle of the night, over a century ago. One train was filled with sleeping passengers. And the other was filled with freight. When they collided, one train poured its steam into the other one, the sleeper train, and roasted alive the people in there. The victims of the train wreck looked like hot dogs which had been boiled.

If you bring an old radio back there and listen through the static on the A.M. side, you can sometimes hear voices from the accident. There is one man’s frantic voice which keeps crying out, “Tell Alice! Tell Alice!”

Five of the victims from the wreck were never identified and are buried in a cemetery nearby. It is believed that the “Alice” voice people hear on A.M. radio is the voice of one of the men buried there, a young man who never made it home, still trying to find a way to explain to his wife or girlfriend what happened to him over a century ago.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

I Had an Evil Doll Once

I had an evil doll once. It strangled my best friend’s dog. It was with Katie when she disappeared on the hiking trail. They haven’t found her bones yet, but soon the heavy snows will melt away from the woods. It’s almost spring. She should come up fresh as wintergreen.

My parents started to get suspicious after Katie. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when the doll killed them. I was surprised anyway. He made the fire look like an accident. He woke me where I had just enough time to escape, but where I could do nothing to save my parents. Or my little brother. I opened my bedroom door and the house was just a total conflagration. I had no choice but to escape out my window.

The doll’s, I mean the killer’s, name is Vlad. This horrible homunculus was given to me by my creepy Russian grandfather, just before he choked to death on a bunch of sardines. Go figure. Of course, the doll was there when he died. We found it sitting on his chest. I can still hear my mom screaming when she found them that way.

The doll looks like a little well-dressed banker. He looks like a little guilty man pretending to be innocent. I was so happy when he disappeared. I didn’t care if the police had him or even if he had gone and thrown himself into the river or even burnt himself up. Good riddance! I was so happy. Past tense.

Because just Tuesday I saw him again. I saw him in the park. I don’t think he noticed that I spied him. He was hiding in some shrubs. But I saw what he was doing.

I know exactly what he was doing, what he is planning. He’s watching my new family. Anybody that likes me, he’ll come for them. Sooner or later.

My one uncle is really starting to get on my nerves. He keeps calling me and bugging me with questions about my parents’ deaths.

I think he’s gone senile. Because whenever I mention Vlad or my Russian grandfather, he gets upset. He keeps insisting there never was any doll in our house and that I don’t even have a Russian grandfather.

I wish someone would help that poor guy get his head checked.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Atonement Room

My colleague from overseas was explaining the origin of the atonement room and its place in posthumous spirituality.

In his country of origin, people would construct a miniature house or sometimes a single room next to the grave of a man or woman who had died in a torturous way. This could be the grave of a murder victim or it could be the grave of a tortured soul who had been a murderer in life.

The idea was that the soul which crossed over through such a terrible absence of grace might be blinded, stunted, trapped down there in its grave, trying to work out the sum of its terrible end on earth, asking itself over and over why its life had been so horrible that it existed on even now as this echo of discontent. We are talking about those souls in a kind of purgatory or bardo hell.

The houses would be charming little creations, miniatures for sure, so small that not even a four year old could enter one. There might be cheerful, tiny curtains set in a little kitchen window through which one could spy a cup of tea waiting on a lovely table with a brilliant centerpiece of red and green and purple. This might be tea laid for the soul of a savage man who killed seven teenage prostitutes. But the idea was that here his soul would reflect, in this sweet house of eternal domesticity. The idea was that he might be liberated, his soul somehow repaired and fit once more to face God. What kind people these peasants must have been who could practice such generous, spiritual rites.

My colleague friend went on to explain that sometimes you would even see several little houses in a row next to the grave, each consecutively larger, for the soul to adjust its residency here on earth in careful increments, like the stages of pupa, chrysalis and imago in the insect.

These I thought of as serial nunneries, insect dollhouses, boxes preparing the post-mortal soul to slowly take on its true dimensions of sky.

Our experiment was set to coincide with his country’s traditional Atonement Day, when many citizens set aside a special room in their home for the welcoming of a troubled spirit who could seek atonement over the course of one night, star-rise to star-fall.

My colleague led our version of this experiment and set up a separate room at our university with some dummy controls. You darken a room, he explained, and you gather the members of the seance. You target the individual you wish to help spiritually advance on this night where we were to be (lore maintains) assisted by angels.

Our group had selected the soul of Mary Ulweather, the “Hatchet Widow of Elmo,” as our star sinner for the night. Elmo was a small town near our university that boasted several centuries of paranormally-tinged history. Mary went through four husbands in her lifetime. Three went missing, as did the fourth, but since he was recovered with a hatchet in the back of his head, she was sentenced as a four-time murderer and hung on the outskirts of the only town she had ever known.

She had been known to manifest for centuries, virtually non-stop since her death, in various parts of the town. Her spirit had been blamed for more than one suicide, more than one murder.

Mary hadn’t been penitent at the time of her hanging, but we all hoped that four centuries of unrest had perhaps brought her soul closer in tune with the idea that confession and redemption could set her soul free.

We sat down and began the seance and it did not take long at all for Mary to manifest vocally and even visually. Several members of the parties received nasty cuts on their legs and forearms. But these were like paper cuts, only discovered after the seance. It hadn't felt like much of anything at the time, just some cloth brushing us. We figured it was the confusion of emergence for Mary. It must be a strange feeling to be pulled between worlds like that.

Following our colleague's instructions, we did not interrogate Mary. As soon as she manifested, we fled the room and sealed it shut. It was a windowless room. We left the candle burning. We knew we could not film the goings-on are we would all be at spiritual risk. But we could listen at the door as the long night passed.

We were all very pleased to hear Mary crying in the room at various times throughout the night. She would suddenly weep and wail. The walls would shake as presumably she pounded them. It was as though she were beseeching heaven for something. Surely it must be grace.

We waited until we heard the call of a crow (actually brought to the university expressly for this experiment!) and then we knew it was safe to open the door. We rushed in, hoping to find testimony. It was said that tortured saved spirits often left notes of gratitude in the atonement room to angels, their Maker, even the souls who had helped them achieve atonement. Would we get a Thank You note from Mary?

What we saw on the table in the center of the dark room, the site of our last night’s seance, was the paper we had left. There were bloody fingerprints all over the pages and words in an almost indecipherable red scrawl.

“Can anyone read what she’s written?”

“I know the witch’s handwriting,” said Julie, with a dark expression.









So we counted our experiment half a success. We had managed to acquire a subject for the trail run of the atonement room.

We had failed, however, in finding a soul desiring atonement.

But we figured there was always next year.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Her Boyfriend Went MIssing

Her boyfriend had gone missing. Lovable, nerdy Adam. She had gotten a dog right afterwards. She’d take him with her everywhere. Even in the car. Really, can you blame a girl for wanting to feel safe? But here’s the weird thing. You’d only see her walking the dog or taking him out to the car with her at night. I guess night is the scariest time. But we all wondered: wasn’t she afraid to be out at night like that after her boyfriend had just vanished?

Many people thought it had been a drug hit or the work of the mafia. You know how people always talk that crap. It’s natural to want to blame the victim. He must have been doing something wrong. It gives one a smug feeling of safety to say that and try to believe it.

You must have seen the MISSING posters put up all over this apartment complex and half of the city by Adam’s parents, siblings, friends and coworkers. It was like the dude had just walked off the planet. At twenty-eight. And most of his friends kept saying they were sure he was dead. Because he wasn’t the type to just thoughtlessly vanish like that. Grace didn’t seem to care, wouldn’t participate in the searches for him. She told the police and the media he had just up and left her. She wished him all the best. But she didn’t really care anymore where he was. It was no longer her business. That’s all she’d say to people when they asked. She seemed to believe he was fine.and just living a new life somewhere else. A few gullible people bought this explanation. Most didn’t.

Everyone said they had had a really weird relationship. What people whispered on the grapevine was that she was a crazy domme. They said that was extremely dominant to the point where Adam’s friends believed he had been swallowed up by her. They were sure it was an unhealthy relationship. They even felt he might be in danger. But Adam always told those friends to let him live his life. He said he could handle it. We’d see him with black eyes. His left arm was in a cast for a while. The BDSM lifestyle is one thing. This was another thing altogether. But Adam always told his friends he was getting what he wanted from Grace. He didn’t mind, he said, if people thought he was a freak for enjoying the abuse she inflicted on him.

Yeah, she was a beauty. Grace was. No denying that. Amy Winehouse goddesss hair. Those ridiculously long legs of hers were usually in the sexiest boots. I’d see her smoking a cigarette at night while she walked that dog in one of her short little skirts. I live in that complex too. The one where Adam used to live with her. Some people say she killed him. Or that one of her lovers did. That they’ll find his body in the bay, if they ever find him at all. She always did look like trouble to me. I won’t deny that.

But last night I learned that she’s much worse than that. And he’s not dead at al.. Killing him would have been much kinder.

I was getting back to my apartment from a night jog. She was walking her dog, that big muscular beast we all thought she had bought for protection. I had always wondered what breed it was. I glanced their way to see, since Grace and the animal reached the streetlight at the corner nearest our apartment building at the same time as me. She hadn’t seen me coming up the shadowy side street. She gasped and pulled on the dog’s chain to hurry him away from me. It was one of those long, retractable leashes. I realized then what had happened to her boyfriend. I knew what had happened to Adam.


Talk about the ultimate sub. I wondered how many surgeries it had taken to make him look like that. And what sort of doctor could bring himself to do something like that to a human being? How did they get the fur to grow all over his body like that? He even had a tail. God only knows where that tail flesh came from. Or how those paws had been constructed from what had been Adam’s hands and knees. Now I knew why Grace only took the dog out at night. All I know is that when she whistled, he went running after her, tongue hanging out.

Tongue hanging out.

I really hate to admit this. But he looked like a very happy dog.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Creatures on the Roof

When our mother died in that terrible spring, the one with the record level flooding, my sister Rosalie and I inherited our crazy aunt Esther from her.

Mother had warned us that the responsibility for Aunt Esther’s care would devolve upon my sister and me. She let us know that her older sister certainly had her “peculiarities.” She had wanted us to be familiarized with Aunt Esther’s crotchets before we began helping the octogenarian in the ways mother had outlined for us before she lost her bravely-fought battle with cancer.

Of course, we knew Aunt Esther. We had known her all our lives. It’s just that we rarely saw her, except at the occasional family gathering. So we didn’t really know her all that well, notwithstanding the blood relation. Truth be told, Esther had always been a bit of a recluse.

She lived in the house she had inherited from our maternal grandparents. All her life. Since she had had no children, she had no heirs, mother explained, so we would inherit the house upon Esther’s death. We didn’t have to do much by way of actual personal care. Mother had arranged for two neighborhood girls, Meg and Aurora, to act as personal care assistants (and also perform light housekeeping functions) in morning and evening shifts. We simply had to make sure the house bills and the girls were getting paid. We had to make sure the little bit of yard work (lawn mowing in summer, shoveling in winter) got done. This we could either do ourselves or delegate. And we had to be there for Aunt Esther when she called, which initially was not often.

Mother had made us promise not to send Esther to a nursing home unless it became “absolutely necessary.” She had told us that many people had insisted our aunt was suffering from dementia. But mother insisted that Esther always did just fine with a little bit of help. It couldn’t be real dementia, she promised. It was just the fogginess of age. We had nodded our acquiescence to this wish, just before mother died. So it was a sacred vow. We felt duty-bound to honor it. Rosalie and I would come to regret this. By the next summer, we become convinced that our mother could not possibly have had a real conception of how poor Esther’s mental faculties had become.

Both my sister and I began receiving barrages of phone calls from our frantic aunt, at all hours of the night. She would rant about “the creatures on the roof.” She insisted there were some unidentifiable little beasties scrambling over her roof at night. It had been going on for quite some time, years in fact, but she hadn’t trusted us enough to tell us. At first.

As soon as caregiver Megan went home, it would begin. The creatures would seek her roof then. And then she would make those terrified phone calls to us. Rosalie told her that it must be squirrels. Or some larger species of bird. Turkey vultures were known to perch on roofs in our area.

“They have huge claws to match their ridiculous wingspans,” Rosalie explained to her.

“No, no, no!” Esther would shout at us through her old landline (she didn’t even know what a cell phone was). “These are different things altogether! I’ve seen them more than once. In darkness, yes, but I saw their forms. They were little creatures, like little men, like children…but not quite that. Their faces are unformed. They can draw their faces with their fingers. I saw one of them do that once. Just drew itself a human face while I stared at it through a window. It gave itself a child’s face. A little girl’s face.”

We had gone through the mythological catalog together, Rosalie and I, to get a little humor out of the situation. Gremlins? Trolls? Elves? Evil sprites? What magical beings could crazy Aunt Esther be entertaining on her roof? Should we show her an encyclopedia of magical beings and ask her to select the critters that most resembled her nocturnal visitors? (We would never actually be so cruel.)

But Aunt Esther’s phone calls really began to get under my skin. I hate to confess that I went and talked to someone on my own. Without even consulting Rosalie. I sat down with a social worker and we had a serious discussion. It was decided that an evaluation should be done on our aunt. Her mental faculties should be checked and we could decide where to go from there.

Rosalie was angry at me for going behind her back on this, but I also sensed a bit of a relief. We knew something had to give. We were getting phone calls all night long from Aunt Esther. Almost every night. She had begged both of us to leave our homes and families and come over in the middle of the night. She wanted us to bring guns. To shoot the creatures off the roof! Imagine. Save that story up for the competency hearing, I thought.

“You don’t understand,” her frail voice would explain through the wires. “They come and steal your memory. When you sleep! Once I woke up and there were wires going into my head! Into my brain! Do you understand? They steal your memories. That’s why I am the way I am now. That’s why I forget things. If you would just kill them, I’d get better. They did the same thing to Norma across the street. She saw them on her roof too. And then she just lost her mind altogether. She’s in a home now. I told father when I was a child I heard them on the roof and he admitted to me he knew they existed.”

“Wait? Are you saying Grandpa Lutz saw these creatures, Esther?”

“Yes, they came for his sister back in those days. Don’t you remember? She lost her memory before she was forty. Don’t you remember what happened to your great aunt Melissa? They steal your memories to help them pass. They pretend they’re children. People even adopt them. I’m not the only one in this family who knows the secrets. I was taught as a child. They follow our family for some strange reason. For heaven’s sake, I’ve thought of burning the house down. I told Father he built the house too close to those woods. When Reuben was alive, he would keep a gun trained on the woods at night. He even killed a few of them. But they’d pick up their dead and run with them. You have no idea how fast they are. You don’t know these family stories. You see how close the woods are to the house. They come out of there at night. They live in the trees. They travel from the trees right onto the roof. They just sail right over…”

I had to hang up. It was making me nauseous to hear what an insane hell the poor woman lived in. Medication could help her. It could calm her down, even if it couldn’t restore her grip on reality. It was time to move on a new plan. Rosalie agreed. We had honored our promise to our mother. It was now “absolutely necessary” that Esther live in a structured, safe environment.

It was a little difficult legally, and emotionally difficult as well, but we did get Aunt Esther into a very nice nursing home. She had tried to fight us a little, at first, but ultimately she capitulated. She said she wanted to get away from the creatures. “Maybe I will get my mind back now,” she said, pitifully, as they took her away.

Rosalie and I were going through my Aunt’s things, preparing the house for an autumn sale, when we came upon something surprising. We hadn’t expected our Luddite aunt to own a digital camera, but there was a small one resting on the writing desk in her bedroom. Rosalie turned it on and showed me the photos our aunt had taken of the flowers in her garden. We both got a little teary-eyed at that. She had always loved her garden. It was still beautiful. I looked at this year’s sunflowers from her bedroom window. It could be a Monet postcard, that garden.

Rosalie made a strange sound then. A sort of raspy, choking sound that made me swivel around, fast.

“My God, please tell me what this is?” she whispered throatily.

When I looked at the sequence of photos which Rosalie had just thumbed through, I wondered briefly if we had been pranked for the strangest reality t.v. show ever. But I knew it really wasn’t so.

The photos which had caused Rosalie to choke were of Aunt Esther’s roof, clearly taken from the backyard of the house at night. The flash didn’t illuminate all that well, but one could see pale forms, pale bodies turning away, fleeing across the roof. These were bidpedal….things. The worst photo was the one where you could see the blurry outline of one of those things silhouetted against the window, inside the house.

Aunt Esther later made a miraculous recovery. She did not have dementia. She had suffered some memory loss, but her cognitive function overall was very good. We managed to get her upgraded to a very nice retirement community with the sale of her house. We found her demeanor changed with time, much better, although she still wanted to talk of her experience with the creatures. She told us that a few days before she had been forcibly removed from her home she had finally killed one of them (with a bronze bookend!) and had managed to hide it quickly under her bed before the others saw it and had a chance to collect its body on their retreat. She had buried it in her garden. She paid a neighbor boy five dollars to dig a hole. She told him it was for a dead pet. He never saw what she buried. She said it had “no face at all.”

We asked her why she didn’t tell us that. Why didn’t she call us over to show us the proof that she had been telling the truth all the time. Esther said she had become resigned to leaving the family home, that she was exhausted, and she hoped the things would just leave her in peace, not follow her.

“Anyway,” she explained, “the corpse began to shrivel up immediately after death. By morning the thing had flattened out like an old balloon and looked more like a miniature scarecrow made of rags than any real creature. It looked nothing like it did when it was alive. Most people who would have looked at what I pulled out from under my bed the next morning would think it was just a pile of dirty old rags sewed together by a crazy old woman. So I just buried it.”

Rosalie and I still dare each other (three years later) to go over there and dig it up. Maybe science should have it. Wouldn’t DNA testing tell us much? If the thing even has DNA in it, that is. But the house has a new owner now. Should we have made full horrid “disclosure” before finalizing the sale?. Anyway, it would be awfully hard to explain to that family what we were doing in their backyard with a shovel.

Rosalie and I often wonder if she was right about how they move among us later, after they have absorbed enough faux human memories to pass as human children. And we often wonder what “lucky parents” are adopting these children who grew up in the cold, night trees?

Most of all, we wonder if Esther was right about these things having formed an attachment to our family. We wonder whether we will ever wake in the night to hear the sounds of those things coming for our memories. And neither one of us lives next to the woods. Nor will we ever. I promise you that.