For sale: Country manor home—motivated owner (and how)!
by James Norris ©2008
The voice that woke me still hung at the edge of the room, lingering longer than it should. For a moment, my hands clawed out at the darkness, afraid she was out there, unseen, reaching for me. I forced myself to stop, to breathe, to reach over and click on the lamp. I squinted against the light … and against the possibility of finally seeing her. But the room was empty. It took me a few minutes to gather enough courage to get out of bed. I went through the entire house, flipping on every light, checking in every corner. Each door I opened, each switch I tripped, I flinched, afraid this time she would be standing there . . . waiting for me. It had become my nightly ritual since my “vacation” began. Click, flinch. Click, flinch. But tonight was just like the others. Throughout the entire house I could find nothing disturbed, nothing unusual. I was alone. I expanded my search to the yard. Flashlight in hand, I went around the house checking the bushes, then up the driveway to my car, and finally down to the lake. The only footprints were my own—the hundreds I made doing this search over and over. The moon smeared across the lake in a grotesque shape. It rippled with the faint breeze moving across the water and I imagined for a moment it would leap off the lake and swallow me whole. I yelped when I first saw it, thinking it was her at last—pale and ephemeral. Once back in the house I made sure every door and window was locked. It was the fourth time I’d checked them since the sun set. Then I forced myself to turn all the lights off. I was ashamed to be so frightened of the dark, but I crawled back in bed and pulled the covers over my head like I was six years old again and trying not to hear the creaks and groans of my parents’ old house. Nothing in the house. Nothing in the yard. And yet for the fifth night in a row I was wakened by the sound of someone screaming my name. It was a young girl’s voice. A young, terrified girl’s voice. It was not the kind of sound you would expect—or want—to hear at a quiet rented cabin in the Pacific Northwest. This was supposed to be a stress-relieving vacation. Two weeks out by the lake to collect myself, to get myself excited about work again … excited about life again. It wasn’t working so far. Or rather, this wasn’t the kind of excitement I came looking for. The silence of the house was even worse than the dark. A screech of some night animal made my heart jump, but then the awful quiet pulled itself around me again. I kept waiting for the girl’s scream. Every time I started to drift off I would jerk awake once more, expecting the wailing to begin at any moment. With no television or radio in the house to combat my new fear of silence, I could only shrink further into my blankets. When I was young and my fear of the dark overwhelmed me, my mother would sing a lullaby. I can still remember the many nights I spent clutching at her arm until her voice soothed me to sleep. Out of habit, I suppose, I started humming the tune. I drifted off sometime later and thankfully the voice did not return that night. In the morning I went to the neighbor’s house. Harold Whitman, an old retired teacher, lived a quarter mile farther down the lake. He’d dropped by my first day here, welcomed me, and told me to stop in and visit anytime. I wondered if he would think me insane when I asked him about hearing voices. “Whaddya say, Bruce?” Harold was just coming back from the lake, hands full of fishing gear. His hair was an unruly thatch of gray and his face sported a few days worth of grizzle, but his eyes were sharp and penetrating. He was probably the kind of teacher that could be writing on the chalkboard with his back to you and still give you a stern warning, right as you were in mid-throw of a gooey spit-wad, without ever looking over his shoulder. I always hated teachers like that. “Catch anything?” Harold shook his head. “Nah. The fish are a bit grumpy this morning. I swear I saw one swim past and give me the finger.” “They must have got about as much sleep as I did then.” Harold grew still. “Didn’t sleep, huh?” I cleared my throat and tried not to sound foolish. “I kept hearing strange noises.” “Too much time in the city. Seen it lots of times. Guys come out here, they don’t hear gunshots and constant traffic outside their window, they can’t seem to get comfortable.” “No, that’s not it,” I said. I don’t know why I was starting to feel embarrassed. Probably because Harold didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would be scared of voices. And I didn’t like to admit that I was that kind of guy. “I used to go camping all the time as a kid, always slept fine. Harold, I know this is going to sound a little weird, but did you hear anything unusual last night? Something that sounded like….” “I could use a drink,” Harold interjected. “Fishing is thirsty work. Why don’t you come inside and join me?” The furniture in Harold’s house was worn, as weathered and aged as Harold himself. The chairs and couch looked chewed upon by some animal—a dog most likely—but the offending beast was long since gone, Harold had told me. Just like the wife, he’d added with a wink. A few fishing magazines were tossed on the coffee table, and a whole wall was filled up with old fishing lures in a display case, a few hundred multicolored bugs and tiny fish, with barbed hooks and little bead eyes. Each one in its own niche. All rather gruesome if you ask me. Harold went to the refrigerator and popped open a beer. He offered me one, but I shook my head. “It’s a little early in the morning for me.” Harold grinned. “Great thing about being retired and single. It ain’t ever too early. Or too late for that matter.” “Harold, did you hear anyone last night? Anyone screaming?” Harold took a sip of his beer. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I spent the rest of the day on the lake. I’m not much for fishing myself, but the house came with a little rowboat, so I rowed out to the middle of the lake and soaked up some summer sunshine. It wasn’t long before I felt the sun eating away at my skin, but I stayed out anyway. I wasn’t ready to go back to the house. Only when the sun started to set and a chill settled over the lake did I row back. I lathered myself with suntan lotion—too late to save my face, but it felt cool on the bright red burns—then I fried up some fish that Harold had given me, pulled out a deck of cards, and played a few games of solitaire. Later, when I decided I couldn’t stay awake any longer, I went through my ritual of double-checking all the locks and latches in the house. Then I settled into bed. I just drifted off when it came again. “Bruce!” I lurched upright. My heart flopped against my ribs. “Bruce!” The voice screamed again. I yelped and pulled away from the sound, banging my head against the wall in the process. It was right next to me! “It so dark in here! Please!” “Holyjesuschristshit!” I fumbled for the light switch. The night vanished and I was alone in the room. I gasped in relief. Twenty minutes passed before I could climb out of bed and patrol the house, and I was still shaking even then. I had never heard the voice when I was fully awake before. Or heard it speak anything other than my name. And it had been right next to me! When I gathered up the courage to walk the house and yard again, I found what I always find. Nothing. “That’s it!” I yelled into the woods. The trees absorbed the sound, making me seem quiet and small. “I’m leaving. Do you hear me? Whatever you are! That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? I’m leaving!” No way was I going to stay there another night. No way. I went into the house and packed my things. I wasn’t sure I could find my way back to the highway in the dark, and the thought of being lost in the woods with her sent me to shivering violently, so I kept all the lights on and my back against the living room wall, and waited for daylight. As soon as the sun began to bring color back to the woods, I loaded up my car. Harold strolled out of the forest as I was locking the house. “Leaving us, huh?” I nodded. “Think I’ve had quite enough of this place. The screa . . . well, it is just time to go home, I think.” Harold sighed. “I tried to tell them.” I just stared at him. “I tried to tell them to burn the place down,” Harold said. “I told them they were insane for trying to use the place as a rental. But no one who hasn’t lived around this lake believes in them.” “Believes in what?” I grabbed Harold’s shoulder. I fought the urge to shake the answer out of him. “What has been screaming at me every night, Harold? Is she a ghost?” “Don’t know what they are. You never see anything. No spooky shapes. No dishes moving around the house by themselves. Just the screaming. Folks that live around here just call them the screechers. Some folks come out here and never hear a peep. Others come out and get screamed at the very first night. Sometimes it’s men screaming. Sometimes women. Sometimes it’s a kind of moaning that sounds like it’s from the deepest pits of hell. No one knows why. One theory is it’s old Snoqualmie Indians out for revenge. Another theory is it’s the spirit of some of these old trees trying to talk to us. Lot’s of theories.” “Why do you still live out here then? Jesus, Harold!” Harold shook his head. “That’s the worst of it. That’s why I told them to burn the place down.” “What do you mean?” “You can go back to the city. It doesn’t matter.” “What?” “They follow you.” They follow…? “Once they start screaming at you, they follow you everywhere. Different city, different state, hell even different countries. Doesn’t matter. And the farther you get from the lake, the more they scream at you.” I slumped against the car. “Some folks get used to it. Often they live here at the lake. Sometimes they get brave and live farther away. After awhile it gets to where you can even sleep through the screaming. Other folks . . . well, they don’t handle it so well. Couple o' guys ended up in a mental institution, couple others swam out to the middle of the lake and never came back. The screechers don’t seem to care, though. Don’t matter how many people come by the lake. There seems to be more than enough screechers, 'cause folks say they’ve been screaming around this lake for centuries.” “My god.” Harold gave me a long look. “I hope you’re one of those folks who can get used to it.” He shrugged. “Kinda doubt it though.” He gave me a sturdy smack on the shoulder then turned and made his way back into the woods. I got into the car and fumbled for my keys. The tires spat gravel and I headed toward the highway at death-defying speed. It took me an hour and a half to get back to my apartment. The wailing began just as I was pulling off the exit ramp. I’d never heard her scream at me during the day before. It gave me the chills, but at least she was incoherent. It was worse when I could understand what she was saying. As soon as I was back in my apartment, I clamped headphones over my ears and cranked up the volume of the stereo. Somehow the sound of her still got to me. Her moaning never varied in pitch, but sort of burrowed it’s way into my head like some razor-clawed mole. I could feel it scratching its way deeper and deeper, blindly groping for my most sensitive places. I took about thirty minutes of it before I shoved my face into a pillow to scream and scream. If it was this bad only an hour and a half from the lake, what would it be like if my company sent me to their branch in, say, Boston? Or overseas? I shuddered. She almost killed me a few days later. I was driving, on my way to my doctor. I’d told him I was having headaches and managed to convince him I needed a neurological exam. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . there was something physical behind all of this. Maybe there was something bad in the water of the lake. Maybe a week’s worth of antibiotics and this would all be…. “Watch out! The truck!” Her voice sounded right at my side, and I jerked on the wheel in surprise, cutting across two lanes of traffic and just missed plowing into a tree. Horns blared as I moved back onto the road. “Leave me alone!” The screecher moaned in a high-pitched wail that made my skull feel like it was about to split open. She might have been laughing. The medical exam did nothing to help me. All the high-tech pictures they took of my brain came back normal. The doctor suggested I might benefit from a therapist. There might be a different kind of reason for my headaches, he said. “Maybe you just need someone to talk to,” he told me. “You look a little on edge.” No shit. The doctor recommended someone that he thought might be good for me. I thanked him and left the office. The screecher began her wailing laughter again. I wondered how many sessions it would take before a therapist had me locked away inside a padded cell. I crumpled up the paper with the therapist’s number and gave it a toss. Not too many, I would suspect. She was relentless, my screecher. Not a night passed that she didn’t wake me up, often more than once. Half a dozen times at work she would raise her voice. She would not allow me a meal in peace. Woe to me if I dared attempt a peaceful moment over a book or even a simple cup of coffee. All her screaming did teach me one thing. When she screamed at me still seemed random, still surprised me. But what she screamed about started to make more sense. She was inside my head, and as such had access to all my darkest fears, my most repressed inadequacies, all of my drives and ambitions. This was the material that fed her. My childhood fear of the dark was exploited often. My fear of heights abused whenever I rode an elevator. Any fleeting fear I’ve ever had about pain or injury was brought back into focus. Imagine that for a version of hell. A voice that you can’t stop, can’t hide from, screaming out your darkest fears, laughing at your hidden secrets, digging out all those things you worked so hard since childhood to bury deep in your unconscious. She kept screeching at me, usually when I was least expecting it, and she was diving deeper into my hidden soul. Another week of it and I was into the bottles. Called in sick at seven, dead drunk by eight, puking my guts out by nine. Wake up again sometime past noon and start over. Being drunk didn’t help much. Actually, it made the terror of it all even worse. Being drunk just helped me believe in what she said all the more, made the horror surreal. And the hangovers made her screaming feel like she was bouncing my head off a concrete slab. I was never much of a drinker, so I knew that this was going to kill me. I was okay with that for the first few days. It was a better way to go than drowning in a mountain lake or spending the rest of my life drooling from the medication the psychiatrists would give me to calm me down. Memories of my father were the next on her list of abusive topics. “Where’s daddy?” screamed at you when you’re dead drunk is more than enough to raise the hackles. In a blink I was five years old again, lost at the mall, crying for my father. I can still remember like it was yesterday the feeling of being alone, thinking that I would never again see the father that I loved so dear, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he’d left me there on purpose. “I’ll be better, dad. I promise,” I blurted out. I kept babbling until the banging on the wall, and the neighbor yelling at me to shut the hell up, penetrated the fog in my head. I crawled out of bed and searched the kitchen for a bottle. I stopped, with the bottle raised halfway to my lips, and started thinking about my father, who passed away two years ago. He told me something when I was much younger that I always held on to. He said the true test of a man comes when he has to face down his fears. Never in my life has that statement been so accurate. The dark memories that the screecher dredged up also brought the good memories too. The memories of all my father’s victories over his demons. I decided, dead drunk with vomit staining my shirt, that I still had a bit of my father’s fighting spirit within me, the spirit that got him through a tour in Vietnam and a long battle with alcoholism after he came back to the states. He’d won though, in both cases, and mom and I had so much respect for him because of it. I decided I didn’t want the screecher to win. My father’s memory didn’t deserve that. I poured the bottle down the sink. I was at work the next day, much to the delight of my boss, when something about my screecher’s behavior struck me. Her relentless, and what seemed to me purposeless, activity reminded me of my job and the reason I’d run off to the lake to begin with. I thought about the guys here at the office, the ones scampering around from one errand to the next, their day planners without any empty spots in them. I wondered what it must be like to go through an entire life being pushed forward by your own relentless drives, only half sure of why you’re doing it in the first place, too busy in fact to stop and reflect on anything as trivial as a why, and then suddenly have it end. After death, there is no more way to push yourself, no more meetings to make, no more scribbles in the planner. What then? Wouldn’t that be a kind of hell for these people unable to slow down for even a breath? To just be lying there, in the ground, unable to do anything else … forever? What then would they do? Hang out at some lake, maybe, and wait for some sap to come along to infect? Or was it the other way round? Maybe these guys at the office kept themselves so busy so they wouldn’t hear the voices in their head, the quiet voices that liked to remind you of your mistakes, of all the dreams you left behind, of all the ugly parts of you that you were trying to forget. Maybe if they stopped to listen long enough, they too would find someone screaming at them. The guys at the office. I had to laugh. I was one of them a few weeks ago, a man consumed by his job. My only mistake was I did stop to ask why. I did listen to that quiet little voice. I took a break to head to the lake and wonder. What was that called? Karma, wasn’t it? I was on my way to becoming a screecher, when I stopped to become infected by one. Either way I was screwed. That was my theory, anyway. As Harold said to me, there were lots of theories. I didn’t really know what this screecher was. But I was getting my mind around the whys of it all. I knew that it was time for a change. Hell, I secretly knew that even before I went to the lake in the first place. Only now it was simpler. I could either live in the city and hope that I didn’t go insane, or I could move out to the lake. What choice was that? Really? It didn’t take long to buy that little house out on the lake. The price was far less than the usual lakefront home. The real-estate agent couldn’t figure out why. She checked the price three times to make sure she was reading it right, and even made a phone call to the owner for reassurance. I tried not to laugh at her. I set up and manage computer systems for a living, and a lot of the work I did at my company I could do on-line anyway, so with only a little effort I got my boss to rearrange my schedule so that I only had to come to town a couple times a month. I could handle that. The owner of the house even paid for the phone line installation himself. Four days later I drove back down the old logging road that led to the lake, my car packed full of my worldly possessions. I passed by a couple of men in the woods with surveying equipment, which struck me as rather odd this deep into the mountains. I pulled up into the driveway of my new home. The sun was a thousand beads dancing across the lake and my companion had been quiet for the last few hours. It was the most peaceful moment in weeks. I looked out over the lake at the jagged peaks in the background and sighed. I should have moved somewhere like this years ago, voices or no. I started hauling boxes out of my car. Harold came over when I was about halfway through. He didn’t offer to help. He just sipped at his beer and watched me work. “Saw the car drive past. You’re back, huh?” I nodded. “This lake isn’t such a bad place to live after all.” “Not bad at all.” “What’s with the surveyors back there?” I gestured across the lake. Harold shook his head in disgust. “Guess they’re building a resort.” “A resort?” “Gonna let people camp out in the woods. There’s been talk about letting them bring boats and skiers on the lake. Thought that would be good for the local economy. Maybe add a few more private cabins along that side.” Harold shrugged. “I tried to warn ‘em.” Dear god. I would have to do something about it, I reckoned. How could I let so many other people come into contact with this . . . this disease? I had some gasoline in the garage. Maybe I’d burn down the resort when it was half-finished. Or maybe I’d claim to be concerned for the environment and start up a little eco-terrorism. Spike all the trees or some such. The screechers started in right away. Not just my own, but I could hear others in the background—faint but insistent. As for her, her wailing and howling took on a note I hadn’t heard before. It seems she didn’t like my idea much. Hmm. The screechers were thirsty for a larger audience it appeared. Not that it really mattered what I did to stop the building. If people wanted to make this lake a new recreation center, they’d find a way to make it happed. They never know when they’re better off leaving something alone. They would plunge ahead with their plans, and by the time they stopped to listen to reason, reason would be screeching at them in the middle of the night. People were stupid like that. The screechers were still screaming at me when I was crawling into bed that night. A whole lake’s worth of ‘em. I switched the light off, closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
x x x
I got a sweater for Xmas—better that than a screecher—at least better than the one in this story. What think you, AR denizens?