It Started With A Nightlight - Thomas Joseph Wilson
We bought the house for cheap not because of any advantage in the market but because it was a beautiful manor supposedly made before the Gilded Age of architecture, before Biltmore built his American Versailles, and it was located an hour and a half Northeast of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Penny was the initial finder and supporter of the house. I stewed over building something of our own in Montana.
"Montana is the next thing," said Penny. "We don't want to pick the next thing when we want nothing to do with the next thing."
So we bought the manor house, and spent a sizable amount of money renovating it to our expectations.
Our children, per usual, held a variety of opinions on the house. Brianne said that the house looked like it could fit on the Mediterranean. It did have a roof full of reddish-orange clay tiles, not so popular in the Midwest. Charles, with his keener sense of art, did not offer an opinion at all. He simply admired the house, touching the intricacies of the carved stone entrances and various decorative bas-reliefs. Betsy was indifferent. The house was large enough for her to run around without going outside. This was enough.
Here is what I should start this account with: People underestimate the difficulty of leaving, no matter how old or new the situation. And we habitually underestimate the things we can fix. Certainty and acceptance are elusive at times when it is all too obvious.
"I think that will about do it," I said.
The commotion of conversation did not stop as I said this. Peter laughed at Paul's bawdy joke and stood up while smoothing down his jeans, as was his habit. But we all knew that his jeans were so expensive that they never needed smoothing nor really anything for that matter. Paul’s jeans were so expensive that they were very much self-sufficient. No doubt from another hopeful clothing company trying to enter Silicon Valley. In the past, Peter bragged about his new and expensive clothes and the things that they could do that regular clothes couldn’t. At first, interesting, and then a humdrum of nerd-speak. After some time, he stopped, but considering his ignorance in knowing who is actually listening to him and who is not, the reason was most certainly boredom. That’s the symbol I will remember of my time there: buying pants so expensive and so feature-rich and normal-looking that they eventually just become pants in everyone’s eyes including the wearer.
No one audibly noted that I walked out. It was usual for people to leave.
An hour passed until someone noticed that I wasn't responding in Slack.
"Bert," said Paul. "Are you coming to Brewday?"
This was Wednesday in company terms. At 4 p.m., we would all retreat to the large industrial-sized metal fridges fully stocked with local craft beers and mill around chatting, sometimes distracting ourselves from our friendly non-work-related conversations to do deep-dives into an idea about work. This was the intent, to loosen up, to find those ideas that are truly creative and natural.
"No. I'm thinking of quitting.”
Paul put hand to chin.
“Yes. Quitting the company.”
“Like, this week?"
"No. I'm ending it here. I'll put it in writing, and we can sort it out."
"Bert, this is super unexpected. Are you sure you don’t want some time to think?"
"No. I'll be ready with a plan to leave by the end of the week.“
“Does Penny know?”
“Paul, it’s okay.”
“You haven't told Penny. Bert, are you okay?"
"I'm pretty sure,” and I smiled because I was. But I think Paul took it as vitriol.
I had always had the ambition and the drive to upwardly mobilize myself. It was in the way my parents raised me. It was in the culture of our small suburban town in Northern California. It was American. So I did it because it just happened.
"So, we can go anywhere else?" Penny asked.
"I'm actually not worried."
"Penny, it's going to be fine. Don’t worry."
I thought I'd take a vacation. Do some thinking, some creating. Some hobby-type stuff. Our standard of living, even with such a looming payment on a dream home, was not an issue.
The Midwest would open up work for Penny, and she would be happy to bring some sort of West Coast edge to a community that had none.
"What is there to do in Cincinnati?" friends asked. We'd shrug. We didn't know or care. We were sure there were some things. We'd miss access to the ocean, but we could always fly. The world was no longer location-oriented if you had the means and the work, and we were no longer anchored.
A long time ago, I learned that to be good person meant drinking a lot of water. At some point in my young life, sleep became an issue. I tried everything, even resorting to pills, which were thankfully short-lived. I’d exercise and exhaust myself but only sometimes this would work. Finally, I pinpointed the problem to my body needing an abundance of water in my system for sleep. This meant I needed to accept at least one nightly trip to the bathroom.
Penny has always been amused by this, maintaining that I'm lucky that I was not of a desert people. For some reason, I've regarded this as a dependence. I've tried to train myself back to the uncaring and unsupplemented sleep of my youth, but I just can't sleep without drinking a certain amount of water. I'd still like to think it's because of some learned psychological thing, but I've given up, except for the bad mood I get when Penny makes the joke. The thing is this: it’s tough admitting your body needs training wheels to function.
Usually, I have an idea when I haven't drunk enough water for the night. I gear up by putting my water bottle within arm's reach on the floor beside the bed. I'll wake up at 2 or 3 a.m., tired and flummoxed and disappointed that I'm awake. My anxiety churns. I review small episodes of life, each entertained with some guilt. Perhaps I will dwell on a possibly offensive thing I said without thinking or maybe a time when dickering around with my phone while driving could have possibly killed me. Episodes of this sort will link like a montage until I become aware of what I'm doing and find the resilience within me to switch the system off. I breath. But there is always another sequence. And that ramps me up. The lack of sleep gets randomly placed with that deck of guilt, and I turn all the way around on the mattress trying to find a place that will let me lower my whole mind and body into the bed in attempts to snuff myself out for the rest of the night. Finally, at some point, I’ll get so frustrated that I give in and sit up and drink gulps and gulps of water.
I read somewhere that doing mundane things is the solution to insomnia in the middle of the night, but I can't get myself to get up and do something mundane. So I read in the family room and worry about whether or not my favorite chair's lamp has low enough lumens to keep me from being in awake mode and whether the water is finally working my body to sleep.
These are really my only worries. They come at night, when I feel like I'm the only one experiencing the world. And this is all easily solved, if I remember to stay hydrated.
The manor's living room is a high-ceilinged two story high room. It is like a square was cut out of the first floor ceiling. A tastefully muted wooden railing with a little frill of metal fencing underneath protects the edges of the second floor, surrounding three sides of the living room. There is a way down though: a metal spiral staircase in one corner. Large stain-glassed windows look out the back of the house, toward the wilderness of the manor's property, which extends to some good amount of acres that I have now forgotten. An enormous fireplace takes up a large part of a perpendicular wall of the window side. The previous owner had made this the library room, as bookshelves line most all the walls in the area. Filling those walls was a process that Penny and I cherished more than many things we have done with the house.
At one point, Penny even grew paranoid and wondered if we should calculate the structural integrity of the house and the amount books we were decorating it with. Fortunately, she said this within earshot of a contractor who chuckled and explained the material structure of the place. My eyes glazed over, but Penny was convinced. It was a sound place.
The third floor was relegated to the children. In this way, we could at least create a buffer between their living quarters and the outside. Sensibly, besides the staircase in the living room, there are no other staircases but the main staircase in the middle of the house, a wide square-ish affair with a thick wooden structure. It was a prudent choice for a large house, and it was what made Penny and I convinced of the house’s integrity when we saw it.
We didn't want a Hollywoodesque or royal his/her staircases that came boldly and largely down the middle or separated to meet on the edges of the room. Too gaudy, and I get that this sounds snobbish. That is also the reason we preferred "manor" to "mansion" or anything else. We wanted something modest, and despite the fact that the decorated wood paneling and wooden beams on the ceilings cost a fortune to renovate, everything looked as if a sensibly monied family lived here. And that is what we were. Which all sounds ridiculous now.
Even though we were quite assured that the house was solid, we were happy to be able to hear the faint semi-stomping footfalls of our children at play on the third floor. They had a world up there, yet we were still the gatekeepers.
During that first night, I woke up and had that new house panic attack where you realize things are unfamiliar. Strange, as I had accustomed myself to sleeping in hotels and waking up without any confusion as to where I was. It was part of being "up there" in my work. But something about the familiarity of your own bed makes you forget you have changed places when your eyes first pop open.
As this moment passed, I spent the usual amount of time wondering if I should get up or not, cursing myself for not drinking enough water. I decided to get out of bed and take advantage of the antique comfy couch we just reupholstered. There was nothing but relaxation planned for the morning. I could afford a good dose of a nap midday with little stress.
I made my way down the hallway to the metal staircase down to the living room, noting the activation of the motion sensor nightlights we installed everywhere in the house. I remember being quite pleased with the amber glow of the trail I left as I descended to the living room.
The staircase creaked a tiny bit, enough for some charm but not enough for the kids to hear it through the thick third floor.
I sat down in the plump reupholstered chair, turned on the lamp, and settled back into a book about some new science on creativity.
Before it happened, even as I eased into the cushions of the chair, I had it already in the back of my mind. Anyone would naturally conjure the story. It was the first night, and I was alone in a large manor with a history Penny and I had glossed over in our excitement. And it was the middle of the night, at what I assumed was something like the "witching hour," whatever that meant.
Funny how something like that would wait for night, as if night were a safe place for it, when, in reality, there seems to be no barrier or hindrance at all in the daylight. We would find that out too. But this is later.
It started as the old trope: some hairs prickling, a coldness from the heightened anxiety or some sort of brain preparedness process. And then I reassured myself of science and the ways that all my senses interpreted by my imperfect brain could be all balderdash. A “witching hour” was ridiculous and fictional. But night somehow bends our rationality with the power of fiction.
I swiveled my head around and saw what I knew I would: nothing out of the ordinary. But once you get in such a cycle, and the back of your neck is bared to unfamiliar space, a space you haven't really claimed as your own property, you look once again. And again.
The last time was not because of a feeling at the back of my neck, but the sudden lightness behind me: a nightlight had activated. And when I looked back, there was nothing but it and shadows. I stared at it for a long time, willing to see something. Waiting. And when it turned off, dutifully, after 30 seconds. I got up and said the thing that would make me feel silly if it was all perfectly explainable: "Penny?"
I stood in the library staring into the darkness of the hallway, and then, realizing the other floor, turned my gaze up past the railings, trying to see movement.
And then, shrugging off my anxiety as comical, and deciding to let this energy dissipate by some action, I walked down the hallway, feeling better with every nightlight that turned on and worse when I knew they would eventually and eerily wink out behind me. I tried the front door. It was locked. I realized that I wouldn't let myself not check all the other doors. I made for a light switch. Each one flicked on, making me feel better. I studied locks and hinges. Looked for mud on the ground or any sort of outside detritus. Nothing.
When I went upstairs, I could not bear to turn all the lights off again, but I knew I would be the first one up as I walked back into the sanctity of the bedroom and Penny. In fact, I knew I wouldn't sleep. And I didn't.
"What’s the sched today?” asked Penny.
"What do you mean?" asked Brianne.
Penny's exuberance shattered a bit at that.
"I mean, what is on the agenda? What are you getting yourselves into?"
"What should we do?" asked Charles. This was perhaps a lie for him. He was the introvert of the family.
"You could go explore outside. You could play board games. But it's so nice outside. Something outside probably."
"We’ll figure it out," said Brianne.
In a short moment, Penny grew to be happy at just that.
I walked out of the kitchen and into the living room with my coffee. I would need a nap, so I knew I would need to work the caffeine out somehow before then. My body was rebelling against being upright, and my mind was not a fan of thinking.
I sat in the chair, looking out the window. Deprived of sleep but comfortable, feeling my fears ebb away. Normalcy made me look upon the night as ridiculous, of course. This fit into the ghost mythology as well, I knew. That to let down your guard is folly. That is anxiety for you.
But I grew curious, like the anxiety was a thing to study, and I walked over to the guilty night light. It happened at such an opportune time. What made me not think it was not happening all night without my presence anyhow? Perhaps I had walked into a cycle of malfunctioning and misinterpreted it. The uneasy bit was that these nightlights were designed for movement. A malfunction would be eerie no matter what. And there was no movement to catch. No window to an outside windblown tree and no shimmering curtain. Just hallway and doors, though the nightlight was situated close to where the hallway opened in to the front entrance. There could be something I was missing there.
I googled the name and model of the nightlight and found that such things could happen if each battery’s energy was not equal. I could not remember much about installing the things. So I got up from my chair and found two new batteries to replace the old ones. And then, just to be sure, put the old batteries in a headlamp. The headlamp worked perfectly. But who knew the finicky nature of nightlight technology? I didn't.
I kept up, checking locks and listening to doors close. Pushing on them to see how much they rattled. How sound they were in their jambs.
I was glad at the busyness the house had succumbed to. Even though the kids had left for the outside, their voices in the morning had dulled the unfamiliarity of the house. And I could hear Penny moving in the kitchen, working on something. Such is the cure of all fears of the night.
The nap I took midday was one of those that deepens your dreams and makes you lose sense of the order of things. When I woke, I felt what I had felt the night before: a sense of being where I wasn't supposed to be. But my mind came around, and I found I craved coffee again. I emptied my mug and made a fresh cup, something that always heightened my mood.
I sat down in the chair and felt lively just reading and looking out the window, seeing bits and pieces of what the children were doing: trying to fly a couple kites we had bought them. Amazing that watching such trivial activities can make you love them more. It's in the semblance of their independence, their energy to be alive.
When I looked up from reading to finally turn the lamp on, I saw the dark blues that looked almost gray on the bottom side of the horizon and the wonderful pink shades that grow and fade on the opposite side of a sunset. I looked forward to tomorrow, when the sun would shine through that window, lightly and pleasantly dimed by the top of the window's stained glass. I had looked at the sun so sourly earlier in the day, and I hoped to start anew the next morning.
"I baked us something," said Penny. She was standing over my shoulder, looking out the window as well.
We walked into the dining room, and there were candles, and all the finery of the plates we bought in the move. It was all set up nicely, and the children were there, happy and waiting. I had been so absorbed that I hadn’t heard them come in the house.
Penny's mother is Italian, and she imparted Penny with many culinary gifts, baked Italian food being a specialty at any time of year. Penny and I smiled at each other from across the table, wine glasses in hand, watching the children's honed-in gazes as they scooped food onto their plates and chatted happily about their kite flying.
"It's like we live in another house up there," said Brianne.
"You should all be artists. You have such a wonderful garret," said Penny.
Charles refused to answer to that.
"I feel like I can't make a mess here," said Betsy.
"Oh, you can," said Penny.
"I feel like I can't."
Penny and Brianne laughed.
I opened my eyes sometime in the night and already felt resigned to quit sleeping. I was thinking about that light.
I opened the door and walked to the living room stairs and down them, thankful that I had left a glass of water in my chair before I went to bed. I wouldn't even look down that hall, I told myself. I would pretend it wasn't there and then, as my attention grew, I would sincerely not think about it. It would grow into the mundane. And if the nightlight did turn on, I would just take it out of its plug and fix it later.
A strange memory came to me. When I was young, an old lady lived behind our house. She was an intense smoker and would smoke on her backyard patio, looking as if she was continuously watching our house. Back then, I wasn't old enough to understand that where she looked was of no consequence. She was smoking and that was it. But I always interpreted her sitting there as the most important thing. She was interested in her backyard and interested in the going's on of our house. Were we up to no good? This was, of course, impossible for me to think. My father and mother were model Republicans, traditional in the way I thought older people appreciated. This rendered the situation a bit creepy, but one has weird societal expectations of seniors when one is young.
Sometimes, she would walk down to the fence while I was playing in the backyard.
"Hello," she'd say.
"Hello," I said back, abruptly stopping my imagination. Trying to inhabit the space of an adult conversation.
"Do your parents know your neighbors?"
"Well, tell them that the siding near that window on the roof looks like the wind has had its way with it.”
"Okay," I said.
She would smile and walk back to her post. There was no nice lady chatter there. Just very perfunctory neighborly chat. She was not, like most older people in my life, interested in children.
One day, I noticed a lot of people sitting at her back porch table and realized I hadn't seen in her in a while. There had been some metal sort of dumpster in her yard. I had assumed that she was cleaning. The truth was that she was gone.
The thing that I did not like about that house afterward was that whoever was in charge of it set the basement light on a timer. It would turn on when it got dark, which meant that the house, at night, always looked like it did right before she came down into the basement and then outside her back door onto her backyard porch. It was anticipation lighting, and I would always find myself looking up at that lit-up basement and expect her to be silhouetted there in some way. Just staring out as she did when she was alive. And even though this never happened with each night after the next, I was still convinced that it could happen. Such was my rationale.
My alertness finally settled, and I was able to get lost in my book. This was mostly because I was exhausted. My mind was the only thing my brain could functionally embody, and my limbs and heart and anxiety went into a dormant state.
Some time went by before I heard a switch-like sound that accompanied the small hue of light on the pages of my book, creating a defined shadow of myself cut through the middle part of the book.
I looked up at the window, seeing the reflection of that light and nothing else I could discern. I debated the power I would give fear if I turned and looked, knowing I would find nothing amiss.
I got up and attempted a perfunctory turn and walk to the light, turning on my phone's light in anticipation of the darkness that would settle when I unplugged the nightlight.
With the nightlight in my hand and the pale white of the LED light from my phone, I walked back to my chair, trying to ignore the feeling of coldness creeping up my back as my mind shrugged off the exhaustion and activated the skin of my back and shoulders.
I put the nightlight down on the side table and picked up my book, feeling a sort of darkness fill the vacuum of what the nightlight served as guardian to.
How many times do we confront darkness normally, without fear? We go to the bathroom in the middle of the night; we do laundry in a basement; or get into a car in the darkness, having faith that there is nothing in the backseat. What stories we give ourselves, what worries.
After a good amount of reading, I put the book down and then realized that the book lay flat on the table when it should have disturbed the nightlight that I had put in the same spot. A glow from behind me was the answer.
I looked at the dim light, providing light and shadows down the hallway, making whatever was past that nightlight a deep black.
If I walked back and grabbed the nightlight again and brought it to my room, would I direct whatever this was to our room? Or did it already have reign over the whole house? What did this even mean? What was the portent?
These semi-rationale thoughts left me as my better side made the decision for my tired body to rise and to walk up the stairs and back to the bedroom. Just before I made my way up to the second floor, the nightlight, hitting its 30 seconds of no movement, went out. The second story hallway nightlights winked on as I walked to the bedroom. I closed the door to darkness and felt Penny's orienting presence. I closed my eyes so as not to see the dim light underneath the door go out, but I could somehow sense it even with my eyes closed. I put my hand on Penny's thigh and felt her move and audibly sigh from her new position.
I opened my eyes and got lost in my phone, thankful for the inexorable pull of the internet, and attempted the byproduct of imposing a normal reality onto my memories.
Lack of sleep was my problem, and I knew the beginning of it to be bad. I had a conference call that day. So I went downstairs, ate breakfast, and then forced myself to run on the one lane roads surrounding the area while worrying that my wandering state of mind would put me at tantamount risk of being hit by a car.
It was, at least, a more visceral worry to me.
Five minutes after I left, Penny was in the kitchen making lunches for the kids so that they could have a picnic. She was using a butcher knife when, somehow, she sliced down the right side of her index finger. She had not felt it until the cut was done. That was probably the most normal part of it.
A car came up behind me, and my senses went up and I swerved in my step. I heard the engine dim, the distinct sound of slowing down. It was Penny with her window rolled down.
"I cut myself, Bert."
"With a butter knife?"
"No. I was cutting peppers and onions. The butcher knife."
"Is it bad?"
"I think so."
"Do you want me to get in?"
She got out and moved over, and I could see the red in the towel that she had brought with her.
"A towel? Did you put hydrogen peroxide on it?"
I pulled my phone out of my workout belt and popped in the nearest hospital. It would be a long trip.
"I don't know. It kind of scared me."
"It's that bad?"
"I think so."
"What are the kids doing?"
"Brianne knows what to do."
"Probably shouldn't have left the kids alone."
It was on our drive up to the hospital that Betsy slid while running in the hallway. She put her hands out to balance but didn't realize her speed and went into a doorway corner. She screamed at feeling the jagged gash and on her forehead and the blood on her hands, which alerted Charles, who bravely tried to help her down the stairs and lost his balance and fell with her, breaking his right arm. Betsy, somehow hit so as to double the trauma in her wound, sending more blood down her face.
Brianne found them at the bottom of the stairs, shocked and crying softly. Apparently Penny left a couple windows open and the kitchen door responded quite violently to a seemingly very strong gust of wind. It broke Brianne's nose and bruised both eyes as she ran to the kitchen telephone to call Penny.
In that morning, I felt a dread I could not tell my family. Was I lying to them by omission? I did not yet have the vocabulary or the courage to relay a silly happening with the nightlight and why I took it so seriously.
We arrived back in time from our two trips to hospital in the waning sunlight. I had somehow slept in the hospital waiting room and felt a bit more whole.
All these accidents could be explained logically. It was the nightlight that was aberrant. And this was why I took them back to the house and how I told myself this was all fine. I was not to blame at that point.
It wouldn't be long until I was really to blame.
When one first watches heroic movies, it seems to be that if you have a good imagination, you start bending the realities of life. You start wondering if you are going to be the exception; if you aren't something extraordinary yourself. It's a kind of hope you take seriously and then don't. You know in the back of your mind that some sort of power isn't really waiting for you or some master of profound powers will not seek you out because of who you are at some apropos moment in your life.
When I was in pre-school, we had this graduation ceremony in a small outdoor amphitheater. I was scared because I had this fascination with driving when I was young. Just a passing kind of phase that grew out of my Matchbox car collection. But its symbolism is something I understand now.
Most of my understanding of driving up to that point in my life was passenger related. Being the driver meant you had the power of travel and were relied upon. As a child, I imbued driving with a sort of everyday courageousness. I imagined it would be fun to be in control of such a powerful machine. And who drove the most important vehicle in my life? School bus drivers.
The graduation ceremony was set up as a mock high school graduation: You walked across a stage, received some sort of diploma, and then said, "When I grow up, I want to be a [blank]." All of this to an amphitheater of jolly-fied parents.
I was terrified of saying that I wanted to be a bus driver. Everyone had, so far, laughed at such a professional dream, but I still sought it even when I knew people thought it to be silly. This was the passion of the ardent four-year-old.
I was saved by the girl before me. She walked across the stage, and said, "When I grow up, I want to be a bunny rabbit."
In my jubilant mind, I was dismissive. I had unknowingly adopted the judgment of those who had ridiculed my dreams. All I could see was how easy she had made my life at that moment: knowing that my exterior dreams were more reality-based than hers. And really, a bunny rabbit?
Of course, I had lied. I dreamt, vividly and avidly, of someday finding some power. Of being special out of all the other people who had grown up in this world. For that was the dream I would never divulge. I wanted to be a Jedi or a benevolent vampire. I wanted to be Superman or Spiderman or Gandalf.
I even maintained this childhood fantasy through high school and college. I would revisit it and revisit it. Even so far as to try and bend my mind to something fantastical like seeing in the dark or reading minds or finding some drastic amounts of speed in my legs. And when I failed, I would laugh at myself, but not for long.
This all of course waned in an active sense, but the feeling never left me. My confidence grew stronger in the things I could achieve.
It helped me through the trials of college. Talking to girls was not a problem. In my eyes, the world seemed always to hesitate, always second-guessing. And then I was getting into the Silicon Valley game and founding my company, Haste. Eventually making more money and notoriety than most people in the country. Feeling very much real in the sense that I was not like many people, that I did have sort of a way about me. I was powerful with what I could do.
This is narcissistic, and I know this. But you also must know it’s easy to explain such things or ignore such things when the world feels drawn to your planned destiny.
I did not sleep the night after the hospital visits. And I did not go down to the library. I stayed in my room and moved the lamp to the floor where I could read and wait for sleep.
The next day, I hardly remember. I used to scoff at the amount of sleep I needed in my younger years, and now I knew that age had caught up to me. I can not sleep less than six hours without having a huge part of my brain impacted.
During the day, we mostly stayed inside the house, finding our own quiet things to do. Maybe the children went outside again, just to get away from it. Penny and I discussed school and the children’s impatience for it to start. Maybe we needed to get out and do something. Perhaps we had miscalculated how much time we’d needed to acclimate to the new house.
That night, I was in a delirious sort of state. And sleep would not come again. The carpet and the wall that I had used in the bedroom the night before simply was not enough. My fear level was low. I went down to the living room and sat in the chair and just stared out the dark of the window.
My thoughts returned to the extraordinary things that had happened in the past couple days and the imaginations of my youth. I began retracing a lot of things I had believed as fantasy but possible, squashing them as I grew older. It was the most delirious thinking I had done on the subject, the kind that negates who you really are. That’s the only way to explain the depth of aberration of my state of mind.
I realized that I had a book in my hand and had not turned on a light. I reached for the light, and something about the way that I was sitting meant that the light was out of my reach, but I knew that it had to be within reach. The darkness was complete in the room, and I knew the light was there. I waved my hands and reached more. And then at a point of this stretching, there was a sense of something new. I felt the movement and heard the light edge across the table, smoothly. And I felt the brass heft of it in my hands.
I immediately turned on the light for I had not realized what I alone had done. I dropped the book in my quickness to stand and gaze toward the nightlight. It was not on. The lamp was the only light in the room.
I moved the lamp back to the space I had thought it was in before and reached my hand out. Had then nightlight entity moved it? And then my supposed premonitions came to me, each time the nightlight went on, was it me? No. It couldn’t be possible.
I laughed and reached out my hand, at first as a silliness and then reaching for it like I did in the dark, expecting it to be where my hand was. Somehow, I felt it, felt around it, and pulled. It moved across the table again.
A great tiredness fell over me, mixed with some excitement and a lot of relief. But my rationale was not there. Was I the source of all this stuff? Could I control it now?
Regardless, everything would be okay. If anything, it was me, my hallucination or not.
Instead of glorying in this, the culmination of my realization was a feeling of peace. I went upstairs and fell into a deep sleep.
Nothing is better than waking up to a household in a tumult of activity. Some may feel as if they are missing out on such a bustle, but I always feel like I've got the better deal: more sleep, and the feeling of being welcomed back into the world by those toiling without me.
On my way downstairs, I stopped and made way for Betsy who flew past me up the stairs with Charles close behind, unheedful of the danger of learned experiences so fresh in their minds.
The kitchen smelled like breakfast.
"Are they going to be okay?" I said as I hugged Penny from behind.
"I'd stop them, but I'm just happy they are happy.”
I felt the urge to argue with that.
"Are you making breakfast? What is it, 12?"
"Yep. We lounged in the living room for a while. Read some books. Just had some good downtime. I gave Brianne some coffee. I think we may have a convert."
"Maybe too early for her."
"Well, you usually guard the coffee. I think we will be okay."
Penny started plating eggs and sausages. She pulled out hot sauce from the fridge. Then she opened the oven and pulled out French toast that had been warming.
"So what is the uninjured man of the household doing today?"
I looked at her bandaged hand and thought that she too was braving the situation. I wondered, humorously, if Brianne was running through open doors at this moment.
"I don't know. I'm thinking of taking it easy today. Maybe spend some time on the computer thinking up things. Tinkering. Maybe go for a walk. What about you?"
"The kids and I have decided that we need to shop. There is a mall an hour from here."
"Ah. My fate has already been decided."
"I'm afraid so."
I smiled and took a sip of coffee. I always made better coffee, but Penny’s care was something to appreciate.
I got up and put some cream in the cup and ignored the glance I knew Penny gave me.
"Thanks, babe," I said.
"That's the deal. I didn't marry a shopper."
I kissed her forehead and walked to the table, hungry and wonderfully appeased to have a peaceful breakfast with my family, refreshed and ready to go.X.
After they left, I went back to the familiarity of the lamp and repeated what I did the night before. It was a relief to know that it all wasn't some somnambulant sort of hallucination. I tried to see how many books I could pick up, watching them smoothly hover in the air.
I turned lights on and off from across the room, somehow, without fingertips, feeling the smooth plastic nature of those tiny little switches.
The pinnacle of my experimentations was picking up the heavy chair I was sitting in. It was relatively easy, but I could sense a sort of strain. I tried a second time. I could feel the chair shake and push up into the air, but it didn't go far before I felt a hard limit, and I let go, feeling my body go limp and then realizing that I was deeply sweating into a now soggy robe.
I laughed and went into the kitchen to find some food. I called Penny and asked if she could pick up pizza on the way home. For some reason, Southwest Ohio had some solid pizza recommendations, and I was keen on trying them.
The pranks started as soon as they came home. As I sat at the table, I started adjusting the resting locations of simple objects. A fork would slide away from a lowering hand or a napkin would somehow crawl under a plate.
I kept in the mirth of the pranks somehow until I, in the thrall of prank power, slammed the kitchen door very loudly, which made everyone jump. It was behind me, and I had hardly moved. But I could see their reactions as the door creaked and wavered before gaining force and slamming into its home. Everyone saw it. No one chewed.
"What is going on with this house?" asked Brianne.
I had been so enraptured that I hadn’t thought of the portent of slamming the same door of Brianne’s accident. Penny looked at her and then at me. She was waiting for me to say something to reassure.
"Okay," I said. "Okay."
How do you divulge such a thing? I was afraid that if I said anything and nothing happened, I'd be carted off to some sort of asylum, but when Penny's plate hovered up slowly, making her scoot back swiftly and stand, I knew that it was real.
"Bert?" said Penny.
"I found out I could do this last night. I'm not sure what it is or why I can do it. But I can do it. I've tried lifting books and turning off light switches and even lifting that heavy chair we bought in the living room. I stopped after lifting it with me in it. I think it has a sort of muscle quality to it. I could get stronger."
"Dad," said Charles. "Are you doing this?"
"I think so."
I think about that moment. My son confirming something, thinking of his father in a different way, but not asking what he wanted to ask. And I do not like dwelling in how he viewed me in that moment, with all the pranks I had just pulled. But something stayed him.
"Honey," said Penny. "This is crazy."
"I know. And I don't know what to do about it."
After dinner, we all sought our solitude. What should have been a conversation of wonder turned into a dimming of energy. I can now imagine running through the house with excitement, picking things up for the delight of the family. But I went back into the living room to get back to the computer and lose myself in the internet. I didn’t get very far into the depths of the web before my mind wandered towards guilt and to the power that I somehow had, wondering what the hell it all meant or what it portended. I thought about the nightlight again and knowing what I know now about what it took to move something, I couldn't square me making that happen. But I had been tired quite a bit since we moved in. So maybe that was to blame. I really didn't know the extent of this power.
Somehow, I fell asleep with the computer on my lap.
I woke up to footsteps running down the hall. I jumped up from the chair to find Penny grabbing my shoulders and turning me.
"Did you do this?" she asked, out of breath and hair a mess.
"What? No. I didn't."
"You were asleep?"
"I think so."
She broke off and looked at the kitchen and let go of me. We both stared at the kitchen door, and I wondered what the hell had happened. Penny fell in behind me as I walked toward it.
The door was ajar, but I opened it cautiously, as if I was approaching someone that had broken into the house. All the pots and pans, all the kitchen utensils, everything in the cabinets were stacked neatly around the island.
"I walked out to wake you, and then realized I had forgotten my phone. It was only a matter of five or six seconds out of the kitchen. And it was like this."
Had I done this? I didn’t remember any dreams. I had no knowledge of this. I stood there, figuring it, knowing that Penny was getting more frantic with my silence.
"I may have done it. I don't know."
"Bert, this is scary."
We both turned and saw Charles, standing in his pajamas, sort of standing askance as if he wasn't sure if he was supposed to be there or not.
"Honey?" Penny said.
"There was someone in my room."
"I think there was someone in my room. There was someone in my room. It was a woman."
"Honey," said Penny. "Are you okay?"
"I know," said Penny. "Here, we will come with you to check."
When we got to Charles's room, there was no one there. Penny got Betsy and Brianne up.
We had them all sleeping in our room while we cleaned up the kitchen. And although it felt more awkward than the conversation yesterday, I told Penny about the nightlight.
"Do you think it's me?" I asked.
"I don't know. If you don't know, I don't know. Bert, maybe we should call someone else."
"Who would know what to do?"
"Maybe you should show someone what's going on with you."
"I don't think I'm ready for that. I'm not even sure who the hell to talk to."
"Can we try something?"
"Well, there is a church here. Maybe we could ask someone about the house. Like, has anyone else done something with it religious-wise."
"You think it's a ghost?"
"I don't know. It’s like this thing with you, that hits another note. I'm just trying things out."
It made sense as a fact-finding mission. Was there other occurrences?
We would split up. Penny would take the kids to Cincinnati and get everyone's minds off it. Maybe the zoo. I would call the church and then meet up with them afterward.
"Hello. Is this Father Harrington?"
"My name is Bert Cainnes, and my family and I just moved into the manor house down the road. I was wondering if I could talk to you about the history of it."
And that's where I didn't know where to go. Anxiety hit me. What the hell was I doing calling this man. What the hell was he thinking?
"Okay," he said, finally.
"How long have you been in this area?"
"Oh, let's see. I started young here. Just out of seminary. Probably been in this area for near 50 years. Very quiet and humble around here. Suits me just fine. And what about yourself?
"California. The San Francisco area. We just moved in this month."
"Well, listen. I could talk to you over the phone, but I feel it's probably better to have a conversation in person. I don't want to sound insincere. I hope you understand. Is that something you'd be willing to do?"
"I'm okay with that. Does that mean you are coming here?" I worried at that. I did not want to get myself into some sort of house exorcism. Also, some sort of deference had creeped into me at the sound of Harrington's voice. It bothered me.
"Oh, better to come here, if that's okay with you. We are just down the road anyway. Okay?"
"That's fine. At what time?"
"Well, I can put on some coffee and breakfast now if you'd like. Come around the back of the church, and you’ll find a little white bungalow there. Knock and I'll open up."
Harrington's bungalow was in a style relegated seemingly for the English. Huge trees surrounded it making the structure seem smaller than it was. I could see why such a place was appealing. I wondered at his parish though. It must have been full of an older generation. It seemed certain that an old country was dying and a new country had all but engulfed the old. I felt solemn walking up to the door.
He gave me a cup of coffee, and we sat down in his small living room. It looked lived-in, but held aspects of a museum due to the year-by-year settling of things in a house, when objects find stability among the intricate furnishings of living spaces. He was not wearing his priestly garments, which made me feel more at ease.
He rubbed his glasses with a cloth he pulled out of his back pocket and smiled at me.
"Well, shall we?"
"I am not telling you what I’m about to tell you to scare you off. And I realize this is quite awkward to begin. I hope we can allay that. We must get through some other things first. We’ll go slowly. Carefully. But let’s start here: Who did you talk to before you bought that house?"
"The real estate agent. That’s it. The rest was from the internet.”
"Did you hire anyone local to help you with the house?"
"No. I don't think so. Most companies were from Cincinnati or Dayton."
"And you didn't ask about the house's history before you bought it?"
"No. I mean, my wife may have."
"I understand why you wouldn't. And I know also that real estate agents do not need to disclose traumatic happenings if they don't involve the structural integrity of the house. Realtors call it ‘stigmatized property.’ So I'm going to tell you that house's history. And then I'll let you ask me the questions you came here to ask."
"Have you done this before?"
"We will get to that. It's a part of it."
He took a good sip of coffee and kept the cup in his hand before he thought better of it and put it back down on the coffee table. He fidgeted a bit with the coaster before he leaned back in his chair and then leaned forward in a kind of hunched-over tell-all pose.
"The house was built in 1876 by a New York City family of quite some means. A Hungarian family of the name of Betliar. They were involved, I believe, in the railroad system. Of what nature, I do not know. But their family had settled in New York City in high society and were very much established.
"The father and mother, Harry and Florence Betliar, moved the family out here in a peculiar way. Now, I have not traveled to New York City to know any of this. This is all hand-me-down. I've even had some people around here print me out some things they have found on the internet about the place, especially after the last incidents.
"They had four children amongst them, and the eldest, Dorothy, is the focus, I believe.
"Now, you must understand that I can't put a sign on the place to come and see me before you buy the thing. What you do after I tell you this, is what you do. I don't know you or your level of belief in things, and I'm unsure I know how the Lord works and what's out there. The world is as mysterious as the Lord made it.
"In the early 1870s, there was quite a murder spree. It started as a trickle, and then it began to be very frequent. They were gruesome affairs, and any police or medical examiners involved were hard-pressed to find a murder weapon. Some of the bodies looked cleanly cut up, and the others seemed to be ripped. The nature of these, I will not get into, but let us say that someone was very thorough in the experimentations of death. All murders were of males except for one female death. The count varies, but it goes upwards of the 30s, and there are some estimates of the 50s and beyond, But nothing was solved or linked. No confession to tell the complete story.
"It is right around this time that a servant of the Betliars was found dead. The body was buried in a closed casket funeral. The reason being that the cause of death was from influenza. No one took chances with such a seemingly incurable disease. The family took much means to aid the family of the servant and did not spare expense on the funeral arrangements. This was thought very highly of, but there was gossip that the servant died by other means.
"The family built the house in the year of 1875, and it was complete in 1876, which is quite astounding in architectural means of the days, but the Betliars had money to spare for expediency.
"The move made a sort of half sense in terms of Betliar's business: there was a lot of railroad to expand upon in the West. It was the boom of that time. But it was curious for the family to move only halfway across the country. Neither Cincinnati or Dayton were any sort of hubs of the railroad industry. It was assumed that Betliar might want to get into other industries and help build a burgeoning economy in the growing industry of both cities.
"The Betliars settled without much fanfare for a year, and the gossip died down.
"Now, we should switch to what is made of the children. When they moved to the area, only one child was above the age of 16. This was Dorothy. She was, at the time of the move, 26. She was by far the eldest. In fact, much was made of the difference between the ages of Dorothy and her siblings. It was as if Florence had a child and thought better of it for ten years. And then had three other children in rapid succession.
"And then there is speculation that Dorothy's conception was the reason for the marriage. Regardless, Harry was a very respected man of the community. No scandal and no mistresses to be accounted for. He worked hard and was good to his wife, who accompanied him everywhere.
"Dorothy was very precocious. There are mentions of her being very interested in becoming a scientist or a doctor. Biology fascinated her. She earned herself, quite early, a place in society and gossip columns. And she was much sought after for she had the beauty of her mother.
"But she never dated for very long, and when she got older, into her teens, she began to do worse in school. Apparently, she did so poorly that either a popular private school of the day expelled her or Betliar himself took her out. Afterward, she spent most of her time in odd adventures, spurts and stops of societies and the like.
“There was a dark side to her. At the time of their departure of the city of New York, there were some who said that she could be vicious and flippant to her friends. She did keep a couple supporters that were ardent in her favor, but there were some who were just as ardent against. Stories of manipulation and fraud began following her, and then the death of the maid ended all of that. There was nothing more to talk about as Dorothy had moved west with the family.
"The Betliars weren't known for parties or socials or anything like that. Betliar was much too practical for them. And, anyway, with their new location, it might seem a bit too much to ask former friends to make the trip for one night of celebration. So it is no surprise that on New Year's Eve, there were no invitations to the house. It was a normal night.
"That night, the servants had left and only the Betliars remained in the house.
"A cook and a maid who were always the first to enter the house to prepare for morning services found Horace Betlier's body on the path leading up to the kitchen side door. The maid went for help while the cook ventured farther in and found Harold, Florence, Harry, and then Fanny. Unfortunately, for the cook, there wasn't much for him to put together who was who. It was a bloody affair, like a beast or some marauder had broken into the home and destroyed it and the Betliars.
"Windows were shattered and chairs thrown. A couple doors were off their hinges. The kitchen was in disarray: plates and glasses in pieces. The bedrooms upstairs were the only things unmolested, except for Fanny's room. Her body was found seemingly untouched except for the fact that she was clearly dead.
"Dorothy's body was never found. There was gossip that she was the one who was behind it all. That she had either hired people herself or had taken a lot of pains to cover up the deaths by setting up the scene to look like brutal killers had happened upon the place.
"People did puzzle quite a bit over Fanny's death. There was no physical trauma to speak off, but she most assuredly was murdered. The police thought poison. Her body was hastily sent to New York City for an autopsy because, I think, they rightly deduced that there was something in her death that was a clue. Perhaps the type of poison or something else.
"When they opened the body, the found her heart in a mass, as if it had exploded. The autopsy results were inconclusive.
"Betliar's associates stepped in, and knowing of the reticence that Betliar had with his life, quickly quieted up the case of their deaths and buried them all in a small ceremony.
"And so it was that Dorothy's disappearance became the basis of some very haunting stories in this area. Her name would come and go, but she was the ghost that was threatened when parents wanted to outline boundaries for their children. But her disappearance too was forgotten and only this little town really had any echoings of the name of Betliar.
"Of course, I'm sure the name is somewhere in New York City on some building, but it is removed from what happened here. Betliar's associates were thorough, and you must respect that sort of duty after one's death.
"It was quite assumed that Dorothy had been kidnaped, especially concerning her age and her beauty. Other more speculative gossip claimed that she fled or escaped and changed her name and location so much that she was never heard again.
“You see, nothing but woe is attributed to her demise. But that house has given me thoughts otherwise. It is the reason I noted the murder spree in the beginning.”
A moment slipped between us, both leaning forward, perhaps both of us knowing the story was not over.
"I'm sorry, would you like some more coffee?"
I had been habitually sipping coffee that was nonexistent for a while, and I put the mug down.
"Sure," I said.
He took my mug and went to the kitchen.
When he sat back down, he was all but smiling, energetic and spry. Though I could feel his concern, this was interesting to him. I had thought I would come here to see a frail man secluded from the world in his little building, but here I found a man focused and in full control.
"The house remained unfilled for a great while. I don't know how long, but there were many plans thrown around as to what could be done. In the end, no one wanted to put money into it to change it from anything else but a residency. So it sat there for a long while as titles changed hands.
"The area is not prone to rich people, so to speak. But around the time I came here, the house was purchased by a family of an executive in Q&H. And they had the money to take the house and modernize it, which they did.
"They took many pains to transform the house, and I remember being called in there to bless it as one of my first duties in this parish. The ceremony went without anything notable happening, and I stayed and chatted with the family.
"Five days later, I received a call from the man of the family. I believe his name was Foster. Well, Mr. Foster told me he'd like me to come back and bless the house again. I was a little miffed, but I couldn't fathom someone with such success to pull one over on me, so I went.
"Now this was back in my 20s, when idealism is the tantamount motive of the mind.
"When I got to the house, Mr. Foster sat me down and told me in the last five days, his family had been hurt in all sorts of odd and coincidental accidents: a rather bad fall down the stairs and a happenstance trip on a tile into a doorjamb. Another, I believe, was an accident with a hot pan or the stove itself. And Mr. Foster said, to my incredulity, that things were inexplicably moving when they were not in the room. Lastly, there were electrical anomalies. Lights flickering or turning on and off without a human hand involved.
"At that age, I took it for fact that the world was beyond me, but I was sure I did not believe Mr. Foster. But part of my duties is to listen and to assure people in whatever way possible that the Lord will look out for them, even in dire circumstances.
"So I blessed the house again. Mr. Foster was satisfied.
"A day later, I had heard that they left the house. I had first thought it was some trip or vacation. But they never came back.
"Initially, I thought it was something I had done. I tracked Mr. Foster down and called him up. He was short with me. They had changed their minds about the area.
"Years later, the house went into foreclosure and it stood vacant again.
"The Burgesses and the Beckers all purchased the house with similar fates. Each, to my curiosity in the matter, thankfully Catholic. I was there to bless the house and to do a sort of follow-up. Each left within a week or two of living there.
"I, of course, was upfront with the history of the house by then, being enticed by the Fosters leaving so much money behind. And I had begun to wonder what kind of negative magnetism the place had and why. I consulted many things that I would never have believed I would ever consult. And thus far, I have not gone up the ladder, so to speak. Fear is what has stayed me. In truth, then, I still thought a reasonable explanation was to be had. The house creaks or groans or is built on some sort of unheard of fault line.
"And then the Audens came, and I was called upon again to bless the house. When I told them the history, they were adamant that nothing would happen. They did not believe in ghosts, which I felt relief at. But seeing how serious I took the issue, they offered up one of the empty rooms to me while they settled in. I accepted.
"It is quite a beautiful place. I know Catholics get dinged for beautiful structures juxtaposed with Christ's piety, but such is the least of our concerns on this world. I am fond of wood paneling and the library strikes much jealousy. And its beauty as you approach it from the start of the clearing is wonderful. Of course, it has had much help over the years: four renovations.
"I moved in when they did. I took a room on the third floor that would be a nursery for a child Mrs. Auden was five months pregnant for.
"The Audens bustled about, chipper in their new surroundings, unheedful of the priest in their midst and what he was there for. I felt alone amongst them, and this feeling grew as I heightened my senses for whatever was to come.
“On the first day, I mostly kept to myself, except when we ate. The children were young enough to not ask too many questions about why I was there. I was a feature of the move. And it was their first.
"It took me quite a few times to get Fred Auden to talk to me about the things that he saw. The activity seemed to begin in the hallway to the living room. A small ornament-type trinket kept falling off a small table in that hallway."
"What side of the hallway?" I asked.
"The wall facing the front doors. And, what was it for you?"
Harrington nodded and shifted his hands to his lap.
"Fred thought it was the wind, which seemed ridiculous as there was no reason to open a window during a hot and humid summer night. But Fred was confident and dismissive.
"On the third day, there were accidents. Jeanette Auden dropped a dish on one of her children who was playing on the floor. When she bent down, in terror at what she had done, she somehow fell and caught the edge of the island, putting a gash above her left eye. Fred and I were talking on the third floor, and I rushed ahead of Fred. I seemed to miss a step on the stairs but managed to skid down it on the back of my heels instead of my behind. Fred, probably acting in haste because of me, went to grab me and went down head first, passing over me and landing awkwardly on his shoulder. When we went to the hospital, we found that his collarbone was broken.
"At the hospital, Fred agreed for me to do another blessing. I called a friend that was more into the Benedictine side of Catholicism, and we discussed the matter hypothetically. I couched the lines of questioning so as to be authentic but with the main goal to ease the fears of a new inhabitant. And that was how I learned of a more exorcist-like approach to the house. Very esoteric.
"That night, the family went to bed, and I went into the hallway and began the process. I went through verses and spread holy water and made the sign. I was thorough and repeated myself many times. But I witnessed nothing. I at first hoped this was a good sign, but I was ill at ease because I had anticipated some sort of fighting back or a sign that things were working. But the Lord works beyond our cognition, and thus is faith. So I went to bed satisfied that I had done what I had came there to do.
"Things settled for two days. And then I saw her.
"I had been thinking of leaving, but the previous family's arc stayed me. I wanted to make sure I was thorough. But I was at some ease that everything had been quiet.
"I woke in the middle of that last night and could not get back to sleep. On my way to the bathroom, I heard a faint cough from below. I walked down to the second floor and saw a light in the living room. Cautiously, I moved to the second floor balcony to see Fred reading in a chair.
"He couldn't sleep either, and we discussed the quietness of the house. In a small pause in our conversation, the ones that come when a topic is exhausted, a small clattering came from the hallway. I saw it, that small little ornamental basket, bouncing on the floor and coming to a stop. Both Fred and I stared at it, and then watched it cleanly move across the floor, stopping, and then lifting in the air, tumbling over and over in the air, as if for show. And then it shot out and hit Fred on the forehead. It was fast, and Fred jumped back as the thing landed harmlessly on the floor.
"Fred got up and back-peddled toward me, and we watched as the little basket lifted up in the air, tumbling around before it once again shot toward Fred and hit him cleanly on the forehead. This time, the basket did not fall to the floor, but went back to where it came from, just tumbling in midair.
"And that is when we noticed her, standing in the hallway. She was in black garb, very simple but clearly not of this century. It was frilly in subtle ways. A little baggy. Her hair floated out, like a black halo of hair tendrils. Her face determined, eyes open, and yet her eyelids looked strained. She was beautiful, angular in a way that made natural shadows on her face. But, of course, terrifying in the context.
"I began the exorcism process again, and she laughed. My voice grew stronger in the face of it. Thus was my concentration that I can remember the look of that laugh by not the sound, if there was one. I started walking forward, my eyes focused on hers. The basket hit me in the forehead, and I stopped for a brief moment. I took another step and stopped when I noticed that the basket was not the only thing hovering in the air. There was now a lamp and a potted plant and a small side table. Her face held a tension, a downward tilt.
"All the while, she had made no movement from her place in the doorway. We stared at each other, and I could not say a word. Her beauty struck menacing notes in me. And then I saw the rush of shadows and woke up on the floor, Fred over me, gently prodding me.
"All four objects had converged upon me, hitting me in the chest, head and right leg. My two front teeth were broken as well as two ribs. I had a major gash in my forehead. And I lay in the midst of the shattered lamp, plant pot, and soil.
"The Audens left after a hurried morning and did not return. Nor would I. And the house remained uninhabited until you came."
He crossed his legs as he said the last line and took a sip of coffee, which was, to be sure, cold by then. While my cup had seemingly long been empty, he had not taken more than two sips of coffee during the entire monologue.
"Who was hurt?" he asked.
"Everyone but me. I was out of the house, running. For exercise.”
"No. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed."
We let the silence expand, letting our concern and perplexity fill it all. There was a eulogy to the normal world in there.
"I do not believe in ghosts," I said.
"I understand," he said.
"Our son thinks he saw a woman in his room last night."
"Was he hurt?"
"No. He was just terrified, I think."
"I'm glad he is safe."
"Should we leave?"
"Yes. It is the easiest and simplest resolution."
"You are done with it."
He took another sip and rearranged the grip of his cup, speaking over the coldness of it.
"I did not sense anything when I was there. Nothing. And it has irked me since. My doubts have grown, but I have done an amiable duty here. And if the Lord is present, then I feel I have done right. I have assuaged the plight of people at least. And that is enough for my life. Does that make sense?”
"Well then, please allow me to help in any other way."
"I'm not sure in what way you can."
"You understand, then."
As I drove home, the finality of the conversation began to ebb away, and my life grew back upon me. Harrington was sincere and alive and seemingly credible. I was in his thrall back there, behind me, living in his story, the gloom and the prophecy of it. But now, every bit of life protested such fancifulness: the technical feat of creating the car I drove, the watch I consulted upon leaving, and the phone I picked up while waiting at a red light. Reality and science. Harrington’s story felt quite ridiculous.
But there was the power that I held. Was it still there? The pen that I kept in my center console hovered in front of me. I felt its weight before clicking the ballpoint nib out of its casing. I let it drop when the light turned green, looking from side to side and seeing if anybody had seen.
I drove slowly up the driveway, scrutinizing the house in a different light. The house itself is boxy and sort of White House-ish in that new roman way. But the roofs could be from a haunted house. They were many of them, and steepled in that Eastern style that must have been leftover in the Betliar's blood since they immigrated to America.
Was the money an issue? Like the other families, I assumed that this would be our final move, and if not, a profitable or at least recuperative turnover.
When I opened the door, even in broad daylight, Harington’s words came back to me, and I struggled with them. So I went to the living room and waited for whoever came first, Dorothy or my family. I practiced my newfound skill and wondered if Dorothy was watching.
"What do you think?" I asked.
I could tell that she wanted to defer to me.
"Would we be okay if we left?"
"I think so."
"It looks like we have no choice."
We exhaled for different reasons.
"Can I wait here another few days?”
“Curiosity. I would like to at least see if this woman is real. I don't feel comfortable leaving this here until I know."
She let that settle, looking to floor and then at me.
"Take a vacation back to California. We have time left before school starts to figure out what we should do next. Maybe we just move back and pick up where we left off?"
I engineered a pause. A precursor signifying the weight of words. It was a very good technique for pitching to investors, for talking to the board.
“It’s not the money. It’s what could be. This could be good. And I want to make sure it’s truly bad before we retreat.”
Betsy ran into the living room, infecting us with her liveliness as she always did.
"Mom, can you read to me tonight?"
"Yes, dear. Of course."
And before I could act, Penny made the decision for me.
"I'll be up in a minute."
I looked at her, and she seemed confident in it. And I let it pass. They could leave, but the place for that conversation ended.
I watched Betsy drag my lovely wife upstairs, excited to be comforted by a story, a girl of my own heart. And I just watched them go up there. The guilt of not telling Penny the end of the story, what happened to Harrington was already pushed out of me.
I practiced some more and read and then practiced when my strength returned. It was sort of like exercising, except I could recover much quicker and heave much more weight. I thought of Dorothy a great deal, feeling trapped more and more as the night went on. But I didn't go upstairs and sound the alarm. I stayed, feeling as if something would happen in my favor. It always did. But hidden behind that was the safety of the priest. He had intervened as well, and I wasn't going to unless it was absolutely necessary.
I had decided to sit with my back to the window, to get a clear view of the hallway and the nightlight. I brooded there. I had stopped practicing in order to preserve my strength. My thoughts went in and out of the now and the past. This moment seemed silly in relation to everything: waiting for a ghost to appear.
I recalled the flight to Cincinnati. The turbulence was so bad I had almost sworn off flying. I was used to some turbulence, not so afraid of the force of it, as nothing in my experience was anything else but some bumps or "rough air" as they call it now.
The captain was gentle with us in the beginning, and I appreciated it: "We will have some smooth air but will hit some pockets of turbulence." I was okay with that.
The darkness enveloped our plane, and I remembered looking up at the stars and down at the lights of some city, thinking of the parallel there. How beautiful to be in between them for a little bit of your life. All of it winked out over Kansas, and then it was akin to The Wizard of Oz. The plane trounced over air, and the cabin shook, anything screwed to the fuselage moving like jelly. There were elevator drops and upswings. It felt as if we were in the lowest of altitude, in high winds, about to land with the landing gear disrupting our aerodynamics, but we were 35,000 feet in the air.
More than once, the captain throttled the engines to find smoother altitudes. There were none. Penny reached for my hand, perhaps sensing my unease. She kept letting go to wipe her hands against her leg, and I then realized that my hands had clammed up very badly. I started some mantras in my head about never doing this again. Why did people think this was safe or fun? Someone once described turbulence as a road through the air: not all roads are smooth and neither is air. I let go of this comforting metaphor as balderdash.
For an hour we stayed like this. I looked at other people, and some looked back at me, and I knew at least we were together in this. I knew we wished we could be the people that silently looked at the back of their screened seats or their devices or the back of their eyelids in deep sleep. Just a bunch of unanxious people experiencing the routine of flight on a plane.
And when we made our descent, we went down into the greyest of clouds. I had the flight tracker on by then, watching our descent. Thinking of a famous crash of that Air France plane. Somewhere in a storm. A malfunction in the aircraft. Two inexperienced co-pilots in the cockpit; the experienced captain sleeping. The plane unknowingly stalled and within 5 minutes, crashes it into the Atlantic Ocean.
We didn't see Cincinnati until 2,000 feet above the air. Humans have conquered so much to make a flight like that routine. Yes, there were errors. That was my way back to feeling comfortable. And when we were in the car, I laughed about the fear, confessing it all to Penny while the children slept with mouths open, exhausted, in the back seat.
The nightlight went on, and I heard something with it. Tinging some sense I could almost feel in my ears.
I waited the thirty seconds, and then it dutifully went out. I will never forget the darkness that replaced the light. Some seconds of it. For when the nightlight turned on again, she was standing there.
She was quite what Harrington described. While Harrington marveled at her beauty and her horror built up into one, I was drawn to the way her clothes and hair moved about, and how her body remained almost rigidly static during the entire event.
The only thing that moved was her eyes and her smile.
I stood up, making sure to be slow about it. I would attempt casualness.
"Hello,” I said.
She stood there, staring at me. That small smile still there.
"Would you like us to leave or can we do something for you?"
The smile amplified slightly, but my confidence rose in the silence. A confrontation is always better than the unknowing.
I focused on the table lamp that was in front of her, and I lifted it up, twirling it back and forth. She did not look at it. But there was something in her face. No doubt, such a perception could be my own doing, a part of my own excitement or triumph.
And then I felt the air change, compress, and my body fold into itself, I felt weight all over. And then, constricted, I rose into the air.
I hardly noticed the lamp crashing to the table and falling to the floor.
My instinct compelled me, and I reached out for her in kind. And I grasped something. I wasn't sure what, but I could reach its contours. And I began enveloping it, holding it, feeling a sort of weight. And then my body jerked, and I felt the weight crashing in, and I pulled everything that I had into the pressure around me, and I pushed and heaved, and I crashed to the floor, exhausted, terrified, heaving for breath, my limbs a fire of pain, my neck immobile. I passed out, and that was at least fortunate.
I awoke many hours later, with a sort of blue hint to the sky from my vantage point below the window, the sun’s rays shooting over the house, making a darkish orange hue.
I could move, but the pain was terrible. I gave myself an hour of movement before I decided whether I needed to go to the hospital or not. I figured I would lie in bed for a half hour first.
I trudged upstairs, barely hearing the metal creak of the spiral staircase. Feeling that perhaps this one time, I was at home, in a familiar place that had altogether been unfamiliar until something refocused my brain.
And then I saw Charles. His body was facedown, and his head much closer to me, a long trail of blood and things I can't describe marked the way his head had gone from his body. I vomited and cried and wanted to reach out, but the scene, gruesome, stayed me, and I teetered to the side, now horrified by what I might find elsewhere.
Penny had made it out of the bed some. Perhaps she heard the lamp, and maybe my scream and had gotten up. The spot where most of the blood landed marked her torso, everything else, I couldn't tell. I shut the door.
Brianne, like Charles, was in the hallway. Her body was crumpled, purple with interior bleeding but bones broken and shattered. She was the hardest to look at, for the blood did not cover the brokenness of her body or the clothes she wore to sleep.
Betsy was in her bed. She passed like Florence, I imagine. She lay peacefully. Nothing seemed wrong except for that she shouldn't have slept through such violence. I imagined Charles seeing whatever he saw, making it downstairs before being intercepted. I could not imagine what happened to Betsy, to make her keep to her bed, asleep.
Her body was cold already, but I held her, the only family member I could do so to. I cried for a long time, alternating between sitting on the floor in front of her bed and holding her, holding her for everyone I had just lost, not thinking about incriminating evidence or the vacant look on her face that haunts me now.
And this is why I'm writing this all down. I am in this house, stuck, knowing that whatever has happened here will not be understood or will be delayed until it will be understood. There is this power that I have now. It has not waned. But, I fear that it will stop working, and I will know that I am crazy. Things are too surreal. I need more time; no interruptions. And that is why I'm writing this account. I want to at least put it down so that if I am crazy, I can at least be forgiven for being so instead of brutally lucid—and I cannot think from there what that portends.
I have tracked footprints up to the second floor. I have no idea the forensic ability of now, but I decided to take what I could and not go up there for the duration if I could help it. If this somehow works out, I don’t want to contaminate the scene.
I have tried not to think how this could be interpreted. Flashes of crazy parents killing their supposedly possessed-by-demons children are intermittent no matter what I do.
I slept, finally and somehow, in the living room. The grieving will not stop, I know that. But the finality of my decision put me deep into sleep. Waking, hideously refreshed.
I researched the Betliars and found largely what Harrington had said to be quite true. But the information was scarce concerning them, probably because of Harry Betliar's own discretion and those of his friends.
But the murders in New York City before the Betliars moved to Ohio were revealing. I read what Harrington would not tell me, and the murders were more brutal than H.H. Holmes or Jack the Ripper. They were so brutal that the police worried of a panic and largely kept it to themselves. There was a book out about it, The Monster of New York City, and I skimmed through its accounts. It made no mention of the Betliars.
The secret died with the Betliars, and perhaps Harrington and I are the only ones who know possibly what really happened.
I wondered what the Betliars chose to ignore as Dorothy grew up. Was it her fascination with small animals and their "untimely" demises? What other terrible things were entertained under the guise of biological or medical experimentation? What kinds of money did the Betliars lavish upon this fascination in their first child and then realized, with horror, that it wasn't what they thought it was?
Perfect storms occur seldom but create devastation unfathomable. They are things much to be avoided in retrospect, and I thought of the steel pride of Harry Betliar himself. Did he think he could fix it? What was it that prompted Dorothy to kill her whole family? It must have been a threat of some sort. It had to be.
I delved a little bit into supernatural cures, but the writing was so amateur, and the websites so terribly designed and updated, that I lost interest. I thought I would need days and a really good algorithm to find an account trustworthy enough to follow. Harrington had failed. What else could be done?
The one thing that kept coming to the fore was that hallway. Things had always started there. So I went into the garage and got all the blunt objects I could find, including a sizable maul. I hammered to the side of the nightlight, through the plaster and lath, and then, feeling confident I wasn't going to be electrocuted, found a space in between the studs. I picked up the maul.
Midway through the demolition, I put on my headlamp to see inside.
It was a small room. Not even a room. Just an enclosure. No entrance or exit. But it was where I found Dorothy's skeleton.
I jumped as my light hit it: it seemed to be standing up. But the arm and the leg had fallen to the floor. The rest of it was upright, half hidden by a large beam. Covered by black clothes, rotted in most part.
What was curious was that her skeleton was fused to the beam, impossibly. Like someone had split her skeleton in half and hammered it into the wood.
I didn't find anything else. No food supplies. No poison. No means of death besides the skeleton in the wood and some rotten garments on the ground that had dropped over time.
The clue was undeniable, as sure as what I could now do was now undeniable to me. If, that is, I am still sane. I left that small room and sat back down in the living room at the computer to write this.
I do not know what will happen next. Perhaps nor does Dorothy. No one has stayed this long. But the likeliest thing would be for her to finish me off.
It is already deep into the night. Really, morning. And she has not come. Perhaps my suffering was entertainment enough.
I waited two more days. I kept wondering if she was waiting to see how long I could stand my family, upstairs, haunting me. The biological processes horrifying. The future implications upon me as to the cause of their deaths even more so.
I kept my mind on other things: I practiced. I tried to find whatever she found, that she had misused. The thing that killed her.
But she did come for me. I knew I was not ready. I woke up to a wind over my face, and she was there, standing in her spot in the entrance to the living room from the hallway. She was just as last, nothing changed.
"What do you want?" I asked.
She only smiled. She would never answer me.
I reached out for her, and I again felt what I had before, some semblance of something. And I held it before me. And then I felt her do the same. She was strong. But instead of reacting by retreating all of my strength to protect myself, I put it all on here. I pushed inward.
Her face did not engage into that smile, and I took that for good. I pushed, and I could feel a giving. But I could also feel that my lower half was enveloped, and I heard my toes crack and pop. I shuddered and wavered, but I kept on because what else? It was my power to push through, and so I did, despite the pain and the cracks and the future of what a body would be.
There was no scream or struggle from her. I just sensed a crushing and when I could feel her escaping, using whatever power was that followed her into her current state, I caught her, and despite a crack in my hips, the blood pooling in my body and on the floor, I could feel something being destroyed, and then I passed out.
I am losing strength now, and the pain has passed. Though it took much longer than I expected. But I now feel the cold of a body going into shock.
If she still lives, she will no doubt have fun with this. And I will go down in infamy in some way. But at least I will have this account.
And if you find this, you will wonder at how a man crushed his lower half in a living room. And that will be enough for me.
I love my family, and this is how it ended. I made mistakes, a perfect storm. And now, with what I have, this is the way it should be.Addendum
I received this email from Bert Cainnes the night of his death. I'm not the only person he sent it to. But I'm the person that will be sued by the police because I released it. It is, right now, evidence that is supposed to be under lock and key.
I am mentioned in this account, in the very beginning. It is I who makes the bawdy joke.
Bert Cainnes was the reason for the foundation of Haste. He was one of those very rare individuals that knew how to engineer the backends of things in the early days, and then somehow learned how to finagle the front-end of things. We were all in awe of Bert.
We knew each other for a very long time, all the way from grade school. And it was one of those friendships that lasted into whatever we had gotten ourselves into. But, I will never forget the person he became and how I acted to him, especially in the end. I was intimidated. Everyone was. I think Bert knew that, and he tried various forms of round table ways to solve it, but we always regarded him as above us.
So when he quit Haste, it was sudden. He hadn't confided any of it to me, and, I assumed, I was his closet confident.
Bert did not detail the reasons why he left Haste in this account, and I'm ashamed to be in it the way that I am. But it's on the record, and I must respect the last wishes of Bert.
The attempt here is to provide his account because I knew him to be an extremely honest person, someone who did not like having barriers built up. And he built that into our company, in this land of privacy exploitations.
As we all know, parts of this account were leaked, and the articles surrounding the speculation have been various.
If Bert had a nervous breakdown before he left, it did not stop him from moving in an orderly fashion to Ohio. It did not disrupt his faculties. But I am not a doctor, nor do I have access to Bert’s medical records.
I have tried to speak with Father Ted Harrington, but he will only talk to the police. Maybe that will come out someday. It is a black mark on Bert's account, but it can also be interpreted in the opposite way: Father Ted Harrington was scared of losing his position by being associated with such a supernatural event. This seems like something a reasonable person would do.
This is where we must leave it, I think. I have pondered whether or not to put my own beliefs here, but I know enough in my life that stories always develop. But I will say this: so far, all of the physical aspects of Bert's account are true. None of it doctored.
We shall see what happens. The internet is full of cranks, but surely, after this, we shall find the truth.
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