Every year, for most of my life, my parents have hosted my mom’s side of the family for Christmas dinner. It’s like something out of a Dickens novel, with nearly 30 of us gathering for a night of food, drinks, excited conversation, games, and dancing while doing the dishes. But the best part happens around midnight, after our aunts, uncles, and cousins have bundled up and headed back through the cold to their own homes. That’s when my immediate family — my mom and stepdad, my brother John, my sister Kate, my brother-in-law Robert, and my husband Malachy — we throw on our pajamas, grab blankets, and curl up in the living room. Snow falls outside, there’s a fire in the fireplace, the tree lights are glowing, and we sit and talk, exhausted by the day, but not wanting it to end.
A few years ago, after recapping the day and touching base about plans for the next morning, my parents, brother-in-law, and husband, peeled off into their rooms one by one until just Kate, John, and I were left. My siblings are my best friends in the world, and the moments when it’s just the three of us have become rare as we get older, so that when they do happen, I feel so warm and happy it’s as though someone’s wrapped me inside a thick winter blanket. I want to savor every second.
That night, we kept the conversation going in that way siblings do: talk of high school TP-ing adventures turned to memories of trick-or-treating which rolled into a story about a haunted house.
“I had kind of a weird thing happen at work,” John said. He was sitting in an armchair under a plaid blanket, his dirty-looking cast in his lap, the result of a bike accident a couple months earlier. My brother fishes salmon in Alaska every summer and shovels every winter, and that year, his broken wrist had hindered his ability to work. So for extra money, he had picked up an engineering gig at this old, gothic Presbyterian church, though our family is neither Presbyterian nor particularly religious.
“I’ve been working with this guy, Greg,” John said. “He’s a bigger dude, with this huge smile. Everyone at the church loves him.”
“He’s the guy training you, right?” I asked. I’d heard about him after John’s first day. Greg and his brother were both single dads, and they lived a few miles from each other in the suburbs to help each other out. They were both former members of a motorcycle gang, and while John mentioned how nice he was, he also emphasized that he wouldn’t last more than a second in a fight with Greg. While friendly, he was also big, strong, and tough as nails.
“Yeah. He’s leaving, so he’s showing me the ropes. I’ll take over some of his jobs until they hire someone else.” John detailed his typical day: walking the property, asking people who were drinking on the front steps to leave, roaming the halls making sure the heat and pipes were working. We laughed when he told us that Greg had shown him how to steal cookies from the kitchen, where to position your body and what angle to reach in from to avoid getting caught by the camera.
“After we left the kitchen, the hallways were so dark,” John said. “I said, ‘You must see some ghosts in this place, huh?’ Greg was quiet, which is weird because he’s always joking around. So I was like, ‘Do you see ghosts here, Greg?’ and he said, ‘If you believe in that stuff you could see it.’ ‘Well, I believe in ghosts,’ I said to him. ‘Me too,’ he said. ‘In fact, I have proof they exist.’”
John leaned forward. He rubbed his reddish-brown beard for a moment, as though deciding whether or not to go on. Our wide eyes must have encouraged him. He rested his elbows on his knees, still allowing for some gesture, and started to speak again, his voice dropping an octave and becoming softer, which — though my brother is the funniest person I know — is the telltale sign that he’s dead serious.
He continued. “After we made our rounds, Greg brought me out to the parking lot. We went to his truck and he pulled out a pile of pictures from the glove compartment, shoved them into my hand and said, ‘look at these.’ I started flipping through, and it was weird — they were all old pictures of his family from like, 1992. I didn’t know what to say so I was like, ‘your kids are beautiful.’ He stared right at me and said, ‘keep looking.’ So I flipped through a few more pictures and stopped on this one. In it, there were four kids — his kids and his brother’s kids — two in front, two in the back. Behind them were these big windows, and there was this bright light. At first it looked like the flash was reflecting from the window, but then I looked closer. There was this face. And this face, I’m telling you, it was not of this world. The eyes were sunken, the nose was huge and really round on the sides, the chin was long. It looked like a demon. I know, it’s crazy. But I saw it. And one of the girls in the photo, her face was just, like, tortured or something, so sad and anxious. I was terrified. I handed it right back to him and was like, ‘What the FUCK is that.’ And he said, ‘that’s what we’ve been trying to figure out for years.’
“Greg tells me that years ago, he got a call from his brother. ‘There’s something trying to get in the house, man, trying to get at the kids,’ he says. So Greg goes over and is ready to fuck shit up. I mean, these are goddamn bikers. He gets there and he hears these noises like doors opening and closing and windows rattling, and the kids are screaming and hugging each other in the bedroom. Greg and his brother look inside and outside of the house and they find nothing. So Greg goes back home. But this pattern develops. Every few days, Greg gets a call from his brother saying that there’s something trying to get in the house, rattling the doors and windows of his daughter Sarah’s room. Every time, Greg goes over to look. And every time, nothing. After months of this, Greg starts to worry. See, his brother was a recovering drug addict, so Greg starts to think that he’s using again.”
John stops. The three of us are silent, and I know exactly what’s going through all of our minds, can practically see the thought ripple moving between us as we all conjure up our own image of our dad. For our whole lives he’s battled alcoholism, and the three of us have been through the recovery-relapse dance more times than I could even remember. I know in that moment we’re all feeling it, the twist in your gut that happens when you know a loved one is using again. After three decades, it’s a muscle memory that still pulses the same way it has my whole life. Now, it manifests not only with our father, but as sympathy pains for others dealing with addiction.
“So the family stages an intervention,” John continued. “They say, ‘We know you’re using again.’ And the brother’s like, ‘I’m not, I swear, something is trying to get in this house.’ Greg wants to believe him. But the erratic behavior, the paranoia — it was just like he was using. The family and the brother go back and forth until finally, the brother gives in. ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing trying to get in this house. I’ll stop calling you.’ But the damage was done. The family fractures, and Greg and his brother only see each other at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“Several years go by like this, until Thanksgiving five years ago. Sarah was a sophomore at college. Greg says that before dinner she seemed agitated, and she kept begging her dad to take her back to her dorm so she could get something. They argue, but he gives in. He takes her back to campus and parks outside of her dorm while she runs up. She never comes back. The dad goes to her room and finds that she’s hung herself, an open bible with a highlighted verse underneath her dangling legs. ‘Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, waiting for someone to devour.’
“A month after the suicide, Greg gets a call from his brother. ‘I know things are weird, but I need you to do something, then I’ll never ask you for anything again,’ he says. ‘Can you find any pictures you have of Sarah? Just look at them, and let me know if you see anything.’ So Greg starts looking through boxes of photos, and right away, in the very first one he picks up, he sees this face, this demon’s face. Whether it’s glowing in a light, or a reflection in a window, or a faint cloud in the corner of a frame, in every photo that Greg picks up, he sees this face. He runs to his brother’s house, bursts through the door, and sees his brother sitting in the kitchen, photos covering the table and scattered on the ground. And in every photo with Sarah in it, there’s this face — the same face that I saw — with sunken eyes, this huge, misshapen nose, these eyes of pure evil. And Greg says that’s when he knew.
“So he runs to the church with these photos and and brings them into the pastor’s office. But the pastor says, ‘Get those out of my church. Right. Now.’ Greg begs, ‘Please! We need to figure out what this is!’ And the pastor says, ‘I teach the word of God in my church. I don’t deal with THAT. I’ll give you someone to call, but I don’t want those under this roof for another minute.’ The pastor hands him a piece of paper with a number on it. ‘And don’t ever bring those back,’ he says.
“Greg and his brother go to visit this woman, an older woman from the congregation. She listens to their story and looks at the photos and tells them that for most of her life, Sarah had been haunted by a demon. For years, they had been able to keep it away. But then they gave up. And it got her. And the woman tells them, ‘Good and evil are constantly at war with each other in this world. And if you’re looking for it, you’ll see it everywhere.’”
John stopped talking. Kate and I stared, tired eyes now wide open, jaws dropped, mouths covered with our hands. The flames of the fire had died down to neon orange embers, and the room was suddenly bitterly cold. I noticed goosebumps on my brother’s good arm, saw my sister pull her blanket up to her chin, and I shuddered with the chill of the house, or fear, or both. I imagined Greg and his brother leaving this woman, a tidal wave of regret engulfing them as they walked away, smothering them both for different reasons: the brother, for giving up though he knew in his heart he was right, and Greg, for not believing — or believing in — his brother.
“I can hardly be in that church by myself anymore,” John said, his voice piercing the crisp silence. “Yeah,” Kate exhaled, like she’d been holding her breath for hours. “I believe it,” I said. We sat for a moment, then took a few deep breaths and joked about how we would never sleep again. We stood up slowly, folded the blankets and hugged each other good night. “Go ahead, I’ll get the lights,” I said as they walked to their rooms.
I pulled the metal curtain on the fireplace closed and turned off the lamps, but left the tree lights on, the soft colors radiating an eerie glow. The sentence ran through my mind: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, waiting for someone to devour.” I imagined that demon face, the sunken eyes, misshapen nose, long chin silently stalking, crawling, moving through the world. I shook my body quickly to purge the thought, and started to walk upstairs when I noticed a small light in the middle of our otherwise pitch-black backyard. It shouldn’t have been there. Our neighbor’s homes were completely dark. Our snowy backyard led down to a an ice-covered lake, with no lights anywhere. Yet there it was, in the middle of the yard. A white circle.
I tiptoed toward the window, watching as the circle — about the size of a baseball — hung in mid-air. I took another step, my breath now short and quick. I couldn’t really see because of the tree lights, so I bent down and unplugged them, plunging the room into total darkness. The light looked like it was growing, slowly, like a door from a brightly lit room opening into darkness. I tiptoed forward so my forehead was inches from the window. I squinted and tried to make out the shape inside the light, sinking and protruding. I pressed my face and hands on the glass, a chill running down my spine as it grew brighter, and brighter, then suddenly flashed, forcing me to squint my eyes shut and put my hand in front of my face to shield it. When I opened them, the light was gone. The backyard was completely dark once again, with no sign that anything had ever disrupted the peaceful winter night. But in the outer corners of my eyes the light still lingered, fuzzy and dim, staying there as I walked upstairs through the cold, dark house and into my room, as though something I couldn’t fully see was right by my side.
Molly Each is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer, editor, and storyteller. Her work has appeared in Fresh Yarn, Analemma Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, Hair Trigger, and in Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck, an anthology from 2nd Story, a Chicago-based storytelling collective of which she is a company member.