Unlike my Mojito sisters who all have a hard time coming up with more than one true ghost stories, I've got a pumpkin's head full of them right here.
That's because I lived in a very, very creepy house, in a very, very creepy neighborhood. This is coming from a chick who is living right now in the #1 haunted city of all the United States, Savannah, GA.
No, this house I'm talking about wasn't in Savannah: I think it would have been too creepy for all these good meaning pirates, black cats, and fair maidens dwelling in these lovely Victorian homes. This house was the thug of haunted places: think Amityville. Think The Omen. The kind of house that plays with your head, making you think at first you're a little tired, maybe, that maybe you really did leave the back door open four times in the span of one hour, and no it didn't really shut in your face when you went to lock it again for the fifth: surely it was the wind! It was the kind of house that wants to terrify you slowly with sudden drops in temperatures, and a strange kind of energy that makes you feel like you're being watched and not in a good way; a house with creaky ceilings, missing items, and electricity gone haywire, voices of weeping women floating in as if from a radio hidden somewhere, playing at very low volume. The kind of house that wants to kill you like a frog in a boiling pot.
When we first moved into this house I was a tween. My family had just spent a year living in a condo in bustling uptown New York, but my father was seduced by the idea of realizing the American dream: a house in a quiet neighborhood with plenty of room for the kids to grow and play and sprawl, with so much land in the backyard and even a basketball hoop in the front.
We should have been tipped off to the weirdness by the address: 39-1/2. We laughed about it. Ha ha, these crazy Americans. It became less funny when we realized that the guy who owned the original lot, the guy who now lived in #39 was a widower, a married widower, married, that is, for the seventh time. Wife #7 was dying of cancer, by the way.
On the other side of the fence, in house #40, our neighbor was a very nice family: three kids, a man and his wife. Except his wife died only after a few months after we moved in. She drowned in her own swimming pool. Not funny: the father, owner of #40, married again not six months later, and his brand new wife was, you guessed it, very, very pregnant. A year later, however: so sorry. Father also dies. Drowned.
As for our house: all we knew about the previous owner was that he was an "Arab" (real estate lady's words). His son, it came out once, long after my dad had signed the mortgage, had tried to axe "the Arab" to death. We could, in fact, still trace the axe mark in the room across the hall from mine, a room we called the yellow room because when we first bought the house, every room was painted a bright pastel color. Whether there had been any casualties, we could only guess.
What we didn't have to guess was that something was wrong with the neighborhood altogether. Not only were our friends to the left and to the right of us contaminated with serial death. We were, like our Amityville friends across the bay, built on Indian burial ground. I hated walking home from school after dark: it was like I could feel the darkness watching me and hating me.
The worst part was "the howl": it happened exactly at 4:30. It sounded something between a tortured dog and an agonized human, more like a dog than a human. The howl was so chilling, so painful or angry or...something that it literally chilled the bones to hear it. It went on for about 30 seconds, long enough for any one unlucky enough to hear it to make us drop our jaw and try to understand :WHAT THE HELL IS THAT, HUH? WHAT IS IT? WHAT THE HELL IS IT? Then it was gone. And it always sounded like it was coming from everywhere. From the north, from the south, no, no, from there, from there back in the woods! Who knew.
When we asked our neighbors they said they hadn't heard it. Then they heard it and they said it was the woman who was sick of cancer who lived in the house in front of us, from where, I was sure, the howl had not issued. And why was it always coming at 4:30?
I told my friend at school about it and she thought the story interesting enough to nod. Then one afternoon she came home with me and we played hoops, and I was beating her ass, but she got the basketball and 4:30 ticked in and the howl came. My friend dropped the ball and began to shake.
"I told you!" I said to her. By now I was used to it.
"I have to go home now," she said. And she never came to my house again.
As for the house: at night I heard the unmistakable sounds of someone in high heels walking the length of the bedroom a floor above mine. She'd go to the end of the room, stop, and then walk the length back. Only problem: there was no floor above mine, only a lot of insulating material, not the kind of place anyone could walk on, let alone in high heels.
The house also had fun playing with electricity: the garage door opened and closed at will. The lights would turn on and off in different bedrooms, sporadically. The drier was in the habit of starting a cycle all of its own will.
My father, a skeptic to the end, called an electrician to inspect the house. "Nothing wrong," said the electrician. We complained about the garage door opening and closing at all hours of the night. "It's another garage door opener that's somehow got its signal mixed up," said the pragmatic man.
"But what about the alarm?" my dad inquired.
The alarm had gone off throughout the whole house a few night before the electrician came, setting the whole house a-ringing, tearing us out of bed in the wee hours of the night. It shut itself off after we had all scurried out of our rooms and met with wide, glassy eyes in the hallway, looking to one another for the next thing to do.
"What alarm?" said the electrician like we were trying to trick him.
"The alarm" my dad pointed impatiently to the windows, where he imagined it would have been installed.
"Sir," said the electrician backing away from my dad, "I've checked your entire system, outside and inside. There is no alarm set up in this house."
Once, after school, as usual we called my mother to pick us up. She said, "I'm on my way," and hung up. An hour later, she still wasn't there. We decided we could start walking towards home, like we often did, and meet her on the way. But we went all the way home and Mom hadn't left the house. When we got inside, we found her stomping around, crying, holding her hair and cursing under her breath.
"My car keys," she cried, as soon as we stepped in. "Did you do a joke on me?" I dropped them right there, right there!" she pointed at her bed. We (my brother, my sister and myself) all searched the bed, we retraced the steps to the kitchen as we tried to calm her down, to the bathroom, back to the bedroom. Not trusting my own eyes, I began to feel the whole length of the bed from left to right, then again from right to left. I removed all the pillows and searched again. No keys.
I went to look for my sister, who was in her bedroom, looking at a creepy doll she kept on the pillows of her bed and, not seeing me there, she asked the doll in all earnestness: "Was it you? Did you eat the keys?"
I left my sister's bedroom and turned back to my mother's bedroom, and there, like a bad joke, the keys of the car sat on the bed, just as my mother said. I pointed, I said "There!" My mother looked, her breath failing her. "I swear," she muttered, "I swear I looked."
She looked that same way another time, too, also in the middle of the night, on a night when my dad was traveling. She woke us up with a terrified scream that went on and on and on and on.
We ran to her bedroom and found her in bed, all the lights in her room on.
She was holding her head, looking agape at all the different lamps, her bed lamps, her three way light standing lamp across the room.
"The lights turned on all at once!" she finally gasped. "All at once. All of them."
They were each on different switches and different systems.
You will hear a lot about this house, especially on Halloween, when I tell you the motherload of all the Ghost Stories of 39-1/2. But for now, this will do.
Tag, you're it, Tina Whittle.
Laura Valeri is the author of Safe in Your Head (Stephen F. Austin University Press) and The Kind of Things Saints Do (U of Iowa Press) both award winners. Visit Laura Valeri's blog at www.lauravaleri.com