October 24, 2003

The Chill from an Open Window

By Tenzin McGrupp © 2003

It was about twelve years ago when things went from strange and manageable to fucked up and hellacious in my family’s life. I don’t know where or how all this mess started, but I do know the day that everything got knocked out of whack; the Halloween when I was ten years old.

My life prior to that Halloween seemed outrageously normal. My parents appeared pleasant on the outside, holding up an iron-clad façade, masking their odd quirks and hiding their multi-layer phobias with an intense discretion. My mother, a staunch Southern Baptist from South Carolina, worked as a church secretary for the only Baptist church in Mortonville, our sprawling Pennsylvania town, just fourteen miles south of Gettysburg. My father, a former high school football star from Wilkes-Barre, worked as a shipping manager for a food distribution company. On good days, he was polite to strangers and could make anyone laugh under any circumstances. Unfortunately, when he wasn’t spending most of his time drinking at the local tavern with the increasing number of unemployed factory workers, recanting his glory days as an all-state wide receiver, he would slip into self-destructive mode after he finished a fifth of scotch, picking fights with anyone who appeared weak, while incessantly cursing the federal government for their illegal war in Vietnam, the often-questioned skirmish (and the one that everyone would love to forget) that he was drafted to fight in during the summer of 1967. The day he left for boot camp was when his glory days ended. Within a year, he would be soaking up his troubles in a bar in Saigon, nursing the wounds he incurred when his unit was ambushed, attempting to shrug off the demons that jumped him in the rice paddies of Vietnam. He brought back more than just couple of poorly healed scars and a tragic limp from his tour in Southeast Asia, as uncomfortable ripples of obliteration and conflict consumed my family’s innocent lives for decades after.

A dark, heavy cloud of muddled anger always lingered around our house. That’s why my mother was convinced that it was haunted. Although she never dared question my father’s authority in front of him, I heard her on more than one occasion, speak to her friends about the ghosts that inhabited our house. She was convinced that the dozens of souls my father killed during his time at war had tracked him down, and planned to haunt him and our entire family for as long as we all lived.

When I look back on my childhood, growing up in the house on Miller Street, too many mysterious things happened that went unanswered. Open doors seemed to plague our homestead. We lived in a fairly safe neighborhood and because people knew my father had a questionable temper, no one dared rob us. So I thought. I later found out from an old classmate that all the kids were afraid of my house, not because my father was a drunken Marine, but because they were all convinced that it was haunted. A flash flood of memories involving hundreds of unexplained open doors swamped me. All I wanted were answers. Years later, I am still searching.

We lost several pets while I was growing up. Where did they go? Did all of them escape through these open doors? Where they stolen? My father (when he was sober enough) used to check and double check the doors. We often left our front and back doors shut, but unlocked. After we lost our fifth cat, my father started locking the doors. That’s when we’d find all the windows open. We’d go to sleep with all of them locked and shut tight, only to awake freezing in the middle of the night, finding every other window in our house wide open.

My mother was horrified. She prayed for a solution, but nothing happened. She held dozens of talks with Pastor Burke at our church. She desperately wanted answers.

“I know we have ghosts in our house. I think they are people that my husband killed,” she blurted out, as she wept in the church office.

“You know that we live near a couple of Civil War battlefields? It’s not uncommon for folks around here to see things that they can’t explain,” offered up Pastor Burke.

“Can you perform an exorcism?” she pleaded.

“I have no experience with that. Only the Catholic church officially performs exorcisms. I can make a call for you, but that’s the best I can do.”

A couple of weeks later, Father O’Brien from Gettysburg wrote my mother a letter. He explained that the region of the country where we lived had a high activity of paranormal disturbances. In his town, the sight of one of the bloodiest battles in American history, there seemed to be a surplus of ghosts and unexplained occurrences. Although busy performing up to three or four exorcisms a week, Father O’Brien eventually agreed to meet my mother and visit our house a couple of days after Halloween.

Once during a pot roast dinner, my mother bravely suggested to my tipsy father that perhaps, all the open doors were somehow related to the fact that our house was haunted by either Civil War or Vietnam War ghosts. That suggestion was swiftly met with a left hook from my father, and a bitter tirade ensued about how our government is filled with lying, merciless thieves that tried to kill him several times. Yes, my father came back from Vietnam a limping-alcoholic-delusional-paranoid with a hundred or so half-baked conspiracy theories: LBJ had JFK killed, the Pope used to be a Nazi, the government had been secretly using LSD on civilians for years for mind control experiments, and my favorite one, that every Bible in every hotel room in the America had a bug and listening device encased inside.

Many of his friends fell ill from Agent Orange. He knew that the government lied to him, his fellow Marines, and the American people about the entire Vietnam War. After a couple of beers, he would sit all of us down, and spout endless stories about misinformation, some of them mirroring Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States, and other times bordering the insane ramblings of a homeless, pathetic drunk. Either way, my father believed in one thing for sure: there was no such things as ghosts. The open doors and open windows were a sign that covert black-operations troops were conducting surveillance and messing with his head. Convinced that the U.S. Shadow Government was out to kill him, my old man slept with a loaded .45 under his pillow, and drove to work with another one stashed underneath the front seat of his Buick.

My older brother, Brent, spent most of this time locked in his bedroom in the basement. When I got to college, I learned that the funny smell wafting it’s way from his room was the combination of marijuana and incense. He dropped out of high school and worked at the Perkin’s restaurant near the highway. That’s where he met most of his clients. Brent sold nickel bags of marijuana to college kids (ironically grown by a collection of rogue, ex-Amish farmers, banned from their communities nearby). He also sold fireworks to the neighborhood kids out of the back of his pick-up truck. He did too many drugs and read too many science fiction novels. He didn’t believe my mother’s ghost stories, nor my father’s conspiracy theories, except one aspect. Like my father, my brother believed in aliens, UFOs, cover-ups, and abductions. His girlfriend once told me a scary story about how they were driving late one night. She saw a huge bright light, then she passed out. She said that she woke up with her crotch tingling, and was convinced that had been abducted by aliens for experiments. (Just last year, I found out that my brother and his friends routinely drugged their girlfriends and took turns having sex with them while they were passed out. That poor girl thought E.T. was probing her insides, while the entire time, it was my brother’s half-wit friends, the Jimmy twins.)

My younger sister, Bitsy, had her own theory: a made-up creature that she called Max. Bitsy was not your average six year-old. She cussed like a Queens cabbie, she could finger paint like Picasso, she ate like a horse, and she talked about Max all the time. Max was an odd creature, something I gathered from all the pictures of him that she created. He was a fuzzy, short, stumpy fellow, with big eyes and extra large hands. And he was purple with yellow underpants to “cover up his pee-pee,” as she explained.

“He looks like a porcupine on mescaline,” Brent commented one day after he glanced at one of Bitsy’s drawings on the refrigerator.

Everyone had a theory about the open windows and open doors, but no one had real answers. My brother firmly believed it was aliens. My mother was freaked out by the ghosts. My father reeked of a sullen paranoia that government agents were the culprits. And my little sister Bitsy was convinced that it was her imaginary friend, Max. The only thing they all had in common was that I thought they were all nuts.

Almost a week before Father O’Brien said he’d visit our house, I sensed that there was something going on. I would wake up in the middle of the night after a nightmare, drenched in sweat and then find myself unable to go back to sleep. Sometimes I would wet myself and wake up covered in sweat and piss. I was bothered by images of people’s faces, all of them I had never seen before. The dream always started out the same. I was riding my bicycle driving down Miller Street, when all of a sudden I got sideswiped by a small yellow school bus (the exact same one that picked up the special-ed kid down the street). I black out for a few moments and when I regain consciousness, I had twenty different people tugging on my clothes, taking off my sneakers, pouring different kinds of liquids all over my body. An old lady with a glass eye gripped hedge clippers and tried to cut off my hair. When she missed and made a mistake, my ear got snipped off. Blood rushed everywhere and that’s when I’d wake up sneering in my own piss.

The same nightmare occurred for a week straight. I’d clean myself up and after six failed attempts to fall back asleep, I’d decided to stay up on the seventh night. If I couldn’t sleep, then I might as well attempt to solve the case of the open doors and windows. It was 3:38 AM, when I grabbed a small penlight and made my way through our dark house. I inspected all the doors and all the windows. Everything was shut. I checked up on Bitsy and she and our cat slept peacefully. I walked into my parent’s bedroom, and my mother was also fast asleep. My father, passed out drunk, snored in uneven intervals. I made my way downstairs to the basement. My brother’s room was locked so I turned around and went back upstairs. I was hungry and remembered the apple pie that my mother had baked earlier that day. I opened up the refrigerator to get a slice, but the light was out. Funny, I thought. I closed the door and opened it up again. Same thing. No light. I shined my penlight on the dark shelves, but suddenly the penlight stopped working. I attempted to turn on the kitchen lights, and nothing happened. I got very sacred. I rushed into the living room and I saw one of the windows wide open, my mother’s curtains eerily blowing as a chill flashed through my body. I heard a faint voice behind me. I whirled around and saw no one standing there. I got goosebumps all over my arms. My knees grew weak. I cowered where I stood, unable to move. I heard the voice again, this time it was louder. The front door flew open. I screamed and ran upstairs. My mother woke up and caught me in mid-air as I leapt into her arms, as she got out of bed.

“What’s wrong?”

I shivered in fear, unable to speak, my milky white complexion staring right back at my mother’s concerned eyes. That’s when we heard a scream and more voices. My father jumped up ready to fight, with his eyes half-open and handgun pointed at the doorway. He slowly made his way out into the hallway and downstairs. My mother dragged me into Bitsy’s room and we all cuddled together on her bed. That’s when I heard the first shot. Then a couple of muffled voices and another shot.

“You kids stay right here,” my mother insisted.

She disappeared into the darkness and a few moments later I heard her scream. I didn’t know what was going on. Bitsy wanted to go downstairs. I held her back, but my six year-old sister had little fear and she sprinted downstairs. My father sat on the bottom step of the stairway rubbing his temple, while my mother stood in shock over a small bloody animal. At first I thought my father had shot a dog or a raccoon. But when Brent finally woke up and turned on the lights we saw a wounded, hairy creature of unknown origin.

“Daddy, you killed Max!” shouted Bitsy.

“Shut her up,” ordered my father while he waved his gun over his head.

“Mommy! Daddy shot Max!”

My mother dragged a kicking and screaming Bitsy back upstairs while my brother inspected the lifeless creature.

“What the fuck is it?” he asked no one in particular.

It didn’t look purple with yellow underwear, so I knew it wasn’t Max, like Bitsy suggested. A stoned Brent decided that it was an alien. He found a garbage bag and filled it with ice to preserve the remains.

“Not in my fucking house!” my father screamed, as he grabbed a shovel.

He snatched the hefty bag with the dead creature-alien-house-invader and pushed Brent aside. I followed him out to his car. My father, barefoot and wearing nothing but his underwear, threw the bag in the trunk and we sped off.

When we reached the woods, my father dug a ditch, doused the carcass in gasoline, and let it burn. When he was satisfied with his results, he covered up the smoldering remains and drove us back home. We all got dressed for school. My parents got dressed up for work. Brent got stoned and watched cartoons and we never spoke about that night again.

Two days later, I had the same nightmare. The yellow bus with retarded kids, the crash, the random people taking off my sneakers, the old lady with the glass eye and the hedge clippers, and then my bloody ear. The same fucking dream. I woke up in a semi-circle of urine and cleaned myself up. I do not know what compelled me to go downstairs, but I found myself slowly creeping through the hallway. My father, who stealthily stood in the shadows, grabbed me. I nearly missed him, until he tugged me by my pajamas and clasped his hand over my mouth. He made a silent “shhhhhhhh”-ing gesture and pulled out his gun. He made his way downstairs, and like any curious ten year old, I followed.

Before I got downstairs I could feel that all the windows were wide open. A cold draft circulated its way through the house, which felt like a hundred ghosts recklessly rushed past me, whispering warning messages. Everything was calm for a few seconds, before I got a wave of goosebumps. My father felt the same thing and shot twice into the darkness. That was the first time I saw the ghost.

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.

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