(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
“Give it back,” your mother says loudly.
There are only two people in the room: she and you. But she’s not addressing you, nor is she talking to herself. She does this whenever some object is missing that was definitely there earlier. Everyone’s looked everywhere. So she thinks it must be your great-grandfather who took it. He’s dead and he thinks it’s fun to inconvenience the living.
The thing is, sometimes it works. She says, “Give it back,” and then whatever you’re searching for turns up in some place where you definitely looked before. It’s just weird, but you don’t want to give it much thought. As you often tell your friends, your mom is a total freak.
And, if you’re my daughter, you roll your eyes.
But you’re not my daughter. You should thank God for that, because when this story takes place she is twelve years old, which you may remember as a time of secret torment and unwanted hair.
The missing-object incidents can happen anyplace, but at the moment we (my husband and daughter and I) are in the “big house” on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard. Next door is the “little house,” where my parents built a small cottage in 1987 to spend their summers. The big house is for their children and children’s children to enjoy, whenever it’s not rented.
The "big house" in 1934
Grandpa bought the big house in 1934, a couple of years after it was built by his brother-in-law. (The two of them also built a 9-hole golf course across the road: why not?) He adored the place. It was in the master bedroom where, felled by a massive cerebral hemorrhage, he died at the age of 75.
Kids love the big house because it’s full of bizarre stuff like antique harpoons and ship models, and a box mounted on the wall of the kitchen that has little flags marked with room numbers that pop up whenever someone buzzes a servant. The buzzers don’t work anymore but the servants’ quarters above the kitchen are perfect for kids, the rooms are so tiny; and there’s a door and then a step down and then a second door that used to separate domestics from their employers, or now, rambunctious rascals from their parents. There are many, many doors; some are closets and some are hiding places that you open with old cast-iron turnkeys, if you can find the right one for the lock. If you pull on a ring in the second-floor ceiling, a panel opens and a ladder unfolds, but no one dares explore the attic. It is vast. At the top of the ladder, you see nothing but broken glass, rolls of rotted carpets, and bird dander. At the other end is whatever you can’t see, and you can bet it’s covered in dust, feathers and ooky cobwebs, so you don’t want to investigate. Plus you aren’t allowed up here.
The days are spent on the beach or biking into town, but at nightfall, around 9, when everyone’s exhausted from sun and supper, and the DVD du jour has ended, the house takes on a kind of creepy aspect. Old brass floor lamps with fraying cords are all that light the rooms, casting the corners and eaves into darkness. If the wind off the water is up, a classic eerie moan rattles the old windows, maddening to hear (we used to call it “Blithering Heights”).
On this night my 12-year-old daughter and I are lolling on the couch, trying to summon the energy to go to our beds. She likes sleeping in the servants’ wing as far away as possible from me, but sometimes I have to escort her up the backstairs because the wind moan spooks her.
Tonight the wind is quiet, though. When we switch the TV off, the house is silent. Then we hear a creak. Or more precisely, creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeak. We look in the direction of the sound. The door is opening slowly. My daughter tenses up, huddling against me, and mews with terror.
“Hi, Grandpa,” I say calmly to the empty doorway. “Wow, it’s been a while.” The door opens a little further.
“Mom, shut up!” I guess it compounds her fear to see me blithely entering lunacy. So your mom’s a freak – whose mother isn’t? – but when she starts talking to the dead, it’s a whole other matter.
“It’s nothing to be afraid of. He’s completely harmless.”
The light across the room blinks rapidly, then stops. My daughter whimpers inarticulately as she waits for the dude with the mask and the knife to crash through the window.
I sharpen my tone. “Okay, that’s enough. We know you’re here. You can go.”
The light blinks again, as if to acknowledge, and then the opposite door creaks open just a hair, as if to let something out.
“It’s over,” I tell my daughter. “He was just kind of giving us the high sign.”
She spends the night in my room.
There were a couple of more incidents that summer of ‘98, once when my husband was present. He frowned on my ascribing the blinking-creaking thing to Grandpa; he didn’t want our daughter to believe in ghosts since it clearly frightened her. I thought it best to show her it was no big deal, that she could tell the spirit to go away and it would. She’d get used to it. But she never did. Thankfully, she never got a visit from her great-grandfather again.
The odd part was, I had almost forgotten about the old guy. There had been no manifestations for a very long time, since before I got married. I figured he’d completed his mission with me and gone home to glory. Why did he come back now?
I posed this question to an astrologer friend later that year. “How old was your daughter when this happened?” she inquired straightaway.
“Puberty,” she nodded with satisfaction. “There is often increased paranormal activity around children that age. That’s why the writer of ‘The Exorcist’ made the little girl twelve – he obviously did his research.”
That was helpful, but I took her explanation a different way, and smiled to myself. The moment she said “puberty,” I realized: it must have been one of his little winks, to remind me of the time we worked together, back in 1977, on a show subtitled “Songs of Puberty.”
Actually, I would have preferred not to be reminded. It was a venture that didn’t turn out too well.
(To be continued)