Authors: Bryant Delafosse
He squinted at the slowly darkening wounds, confusion written across his face. I could see him struggling for a reply, but there was nothing he could say really without calling me a liar.
“We have to do this,” I pleaded. “It could mean the difference between Claudia living and dying tonight.”
“Paul,” he finally responded, using his let’s-be-reasonable tone.
“Please, Dad. Just listen to her for a minute.”
After a moment’s hesitation, he stepped up to the table, setting his Glock on the table with a loud clump. He gripped the back of the chair tightly and clamped his lips shut so tightly the blood drained from them.
I stepped up to the table now, glancing around at the faces of my family—for I now trusted Tracy that much to include her in this intimate circle of protection from the hostile world we had found ourselves.
“What do we do, Tracy?” I asked.
“We have to believe in each other,” she said looking from me to Hank and finally to my father. “We have to trust the other’s instincts. Jack”—my father’s head snapped up—“you know how it is when you’re entering a situation that might endanger the life of your partner. You have to trust that the other has your back, right?”
He simply sighed.
She set the leather bag on the table in front of her and asked, “Why do you hate me so much, Mr. Graves?”
“Do you think I resent you because of what happened in ’83?”
“I don’t have to defend myself to you.”
“Just so you know, I don’t think it would have gone any differently had either of you been there that day.” Her eyes slid from Dad to Uncle Hank. My uncle shrunk slightly beneath her gaze. “Now that that’s out of the way, what’s with this negative energy between us? Is it me personally… or what I represent?”
“What would that be?” Dad responded with a scoff. “Enlighten me.”
“The unseen world. One you can’t control.” She glanced at Hank. “I sense the same resentment toward your own brother.”
“That’s out of line,” he grunted between clinched teeth.
“She’s right, Jack.”
My father straightened and turned away from the table.
“Let’s please cut the shit, Jack,” Hank said in a barely controlled tone. “We haven’t had the same relationship since I entered the priesthood and you know it.”
My father’s shoulder slumped. He ran a hand through his hair. “Your perception, Hank.”
“It’s the truth and I don’t expect you to admit it. I just want you to be my little brother again. I want you to be that same guy who used to trust his big brother’s instincts and take what he believed at face value.”
When he turned back to us, my father’s eyes were different. The hard edges had been smoothed over and he looked worn down. He nodded then and said in as subdued a voice as I’ve ever heard from my father. “I’ll try, Hank.”
“There’s too many walls between us,” I heard myself say aloud, surprised at myself for stating the obvious at such an emotionally charged moment. At some point, I had reached into the collar of my shirt and retrieved the crucifix around my neck.
Dad turned his hard eyes to me and seemed just about to respond, but thought twice about it and shut his mouth again.
“In that case, I’d like to make a radical suggestion here,” Hank said, leaning forward with a posture of a man about to propose a business transaction. “One way we can eliminate the barriers between us is by opening up and admitting something difficult to each other. Look at it as a form of spiritual cleansing.”
My father gave his brother a suspicious glare. “You want us to go to confession?”
Tracy smiled over at me, kneading the bag in her hand. “It’s not a bad idea actually.”
“Since it was my suggestion, it’s only fair that I go first,” Hank said, glancing first at me then my father. He cleared his throat a few times, searching for a way to begin.
Before he could, my father began to speak instead. “The reason I couldn’t pass that psych evaluation… the reason why they wouldn’t let me back on the job after I shot that man, was that I refused to be hypnotized,” my father confided, his eyes reddening.
“Why?” I asked him in a subdued tone.
“They knew that the guy was raving mad on meth and screaming nonsense. That part was in my report, but somehow they knew I was leaving something out,” he told us, staring down at his Glock lying on the table. “What I couldn’t tell them is that the man—a total stranger to me--asked me why I had let Tracy and Ronnie die alone! That… man told me that there was a special place in the Master’s Kingdom—that I remember, those exact words, the
--reserved for cowards and that he would be there to personally welcome me.” My father looked up at me, his eyes glassy and red. “Then this guy smiled and drew a gun.” He shook his head and looked away from me, consciously holding the tears at bay. “I swear, I thought I was going crazy, Paul. So, I told that shrink point blank that I would never allow them to put me under and they forced me to retire.”
I avoided eye contact with my father, not really knowing what I could do or say. Finally, Dad collapsed in the chair beside me and uttered the words, “I’m so sorry, son.”
“Sorry?” I sputtered, gaping at him.
“I let you and your mother down,” he admitted, his eyes avoiding mine.
“You’ve been the best father, I could have ever asked for,” I told him.
Affectionately, he patted the back of my neck. I hugged him fiercely for one brief moment before taking the chair next to him. When we finally separated, I could see tears in Tracy’s eyes.
Glancing around after a few moments of silence, Hank took a seat at the table and began to speak. “The girl I mentioned to you before, Erin… well, Erin and I shared a moment together one night.” His eyes were on the Bible in front of him now, but if he had looked around the room, he would have seen incredulous wonder in all our eyes. Only Tracy looked nonplussed.
My uncle continued: “She… she told me that she was pregnant. Well, I did the only thing I could do and asked her to marry me, but she refused. She told me that she’d lost the baby and that she never wanted to see me again. And I never did.”
I took a furtive glance at my father. His head hung down toward the table as if he himself were reliving his own personal tragedy instead of my uncle’s.
“My life would be completely different today had I married Erin. Had that baby survived.”
With his last observation, Tracy’s face broke. She dropped into the chair before her and began to sob with abandon. Hank reached out and touched her arm. “Oh, hon, don’t worry about me,” he consoled. “I couldn’t be happier with the way my life turned out.”
“You don’t understand,” she exclaimed, her words pouring out between heaving gasps of breath. “The baby
Hank stared at Tracy in confusion. My father nearly rose from his seat.
“I met Courtney Noble in a psychiatric hospital when I was nineteen. She was fourteen or fifteen. Her mother had died from a drug overdose when she was five, and she had been in and out of foster homes most of her life. We instantly took to each other because we’d essentially lived the same lives. Abusive drug-addicted mothers. No fathers. Her mother told her that her biological father had abandoned them both.”
Staring at Hank with apologetic eyes, she awkwardly struggled through the story, her face ashen-colored. “When she told me who her father was—because to her credit, her mother had never hidden your identity from her—I decided that fate had joined our paths for a reason. Refusing to believe that the man who had given me back my life would abandon his own daughter willingly, I tried to convince her that she should contact you. Though by the time I’d left, she was still wallowing in self-pity.”
Hank took both of Tracy’s hands in his and said, “What’s past is past? Whatever your reasons might have been for keeping this to yourself, there’s no forgiveness necessary. I’d just like to know, where is she now?”
Tracy hid her face from Hank and tried to pull away from him but he held fast. “When I found the House, I contacted Courtney at the same time I did Ronnie. After we filled her with stories about how you and her Uncle Jack would be there to help us destroy it once and for all, she ran away from the hospital and met us a few towns over, eager to meet the family she never had.”
Now she turned her tear-stained face to my father and continued in a hushed tone, “But you never came. When Ronnie started the fire, something called to her in there. Before we could stop her, she rushed inside.” Tracy raised her scarred arms in a grisly display, tears streaming down her face. “We couldn’t stop it once it started, but it burned like the fires of perdition! We tried so hard to stop it! We tried!” She folded against Hank, her entire body wracked with sobs, my uncle’s hand stroking her hair mechanically, but his eyes told a different story. He had a thousand-mile stare like a soldier that had just witnessed a horror so hideous that it would color his remaining days a darker shade.
I couldn’t possibly imagine learning that I had a daughter and that she had died violently all in the same few minutes. It was enough to shatter the stoutest of hearts.
It was father’s voice that finally broke the silence. “That was when you took her identity?”
She pulled away from Hank, blinked back the remaining tears and nodded to Dad. “I could never be fingerprinted again.” She displayed her smooth reddened scars of her palms as evidence. “And it didn’t hurt that we were almost identical in height, weight, and eye color. She had darker hair but when my hair turned grey ten years later, I stopped dying my hair altogether.” She stared from my father to my uncle. “I meant no disrespect when I took her name. In fact, I did it in part so I could never forget her.”
Hank stroked her head affectionately, his eyes profoundly sad.
The room held its somber tone for several moments more before I could take it no longer. I cleared my throat and turned to my father. “Guess it’s my turn to come clean. Remember grandma’s crystal punchbowl?”
He gave me a frown and a nod. “The one that turned up broken at a Halloween party when you were seven?”
I gave a simple nod, and doing my best to hide the slowly building smile, I stated, “It was me. I broke it.”
Tracy brought a hand to her mouth in an effort to stifle her laughter, but attempting to hold it in only made it worse.
“That all you got?” Dad grumbled, his serious expression crumbling. “Not much of a confession, kid.”
“Hey, it’s been really tearing me up for years,” I murmured in mock defensiveness.
Tracy and Dad laughed openly now and a smile had finally appeared on Hank’s face as well. He flashed a look of appreciation over to me and said, “I think it helped. At least it did for me.”
We all nodded in turn, our eyes shifting as if one body to the table. For the first time, I noticed that there was an object laid out before each one of them but me; the leather bag in front of Tracy, the Bible below Uncle Hank, and the gun beside Dad’s hand.
Before I had even thought about doing it, I took off the friendship bracelet Claudia had given me and placed it on the table before me.
“The greatest of these is love,” Hank proclaimed. He then pointed at the leather bag. “Do you have a Native American background, Tracy?”
“Shamans aren’t indigenous to the Native American people.” She gave him a gracious smile. “This is a form of the traditional medicine bag adopted by followers of voodoo, though theirs became more of a symbol. The medicine bag of a Native American shaman might be compared to a laborer’s tool belt, the size depending on their age and experience. As you can see, though, my knowledge is still quite limited.”
“Size can be very deceptive,” Hank offered, scooping the Bible off the table and holding it up before them. “The entirety of all of the world’s Judao-Christian belief system is contained in this five by eight inch book.”
“Tracy, what does a shaman do?” I asked.
“Traditionally, they are the human mediator between the earthly plane and the spiritual plane.”
“Can you communicate with whatever’s here?”
For the first time, I noticed that Tracy looked uncomfortable. “Yes, I believe that’s the part I was meant to play here.”
Hank touched her arm. “Wait, what are we talking about here when we say communicate?”
“I suppose I’ll simply open up the lines of communication,” she offered.
“Doesn’t that depend on the cooperation of whoever’s on the other end of the line?” When Tracy gave him a simple shrug in response, he sighed heavily. “Tracy, please. I beg you not to do this. It could be very dangerous.”
“I trust you to protect me, Father.” She touched his arm and took a seat at the table. Hank started to remove the grimoire still lying at its center, but she stopped him. “Leave it.”
I happened to glance at my watch. “What time do the rest of you have?”
Tracy gasped. Dad tapped his watch a few times. “This can’t be..?” my uncle began. “I have eleven twenty-five.”
We all did. At least we knew now that the passage of time remained relatively the same for all of us.
“I’ve suspected for some time now that we might all be in a semi-trance like state—not unlike lucid dreaming--that precedes an out of body experience,” Tracy suggested. “Normally it takes intense effort, strong will, and rigorous mental conditioning to achieve this state, but as we discussed, this house may be situated on an axis between planes, especially tonight, on All Hallow’s Eve, the Celtic Festival of the Dead or Samhain, when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest.” She gave my father a look. “If we’re going to attempt to communicate with whatever is here, I think you should restrain me.”
She set her medicine bag on the table before her and took out several different items, a roughly hewn cave crystal, a sequoia tree cone that I recognized from a trip our family took to King’s Canyon National Park, and a small vial that contained what looked like dirt. Removing a pill case from her pocket, she selected a small tablet and placed it on her tongue, giving my father another one of her appraising looks.
To his credit, he remained silent.
“The rope,” my father said to Hank. My uncle sat completely still as if oblivious to the rest of us. Finally, his eyes slid over to my father, who just stared back with a look of indifference.
With grave reservations, I snatched the rope off the floor at Hank’s feet and stepped awkwardly behind Tracy Tatum. “Figure I learned enough about knots in the Scouts to fill a small book.”
Placing her arms down on the arms of the chair and her legs against its legs, Tracy cast a nervous smile up over her shoulder. I made a couple of loops around the ankles, thighs, wrists, then back around her waist and chest. As I started to tie her off in the back of the chair, she said, “Tighter. Don’t go easy on me, Paul. It may be
life you’re saving.”
I gave it a good tug, yanking Tracy back against the chair. She grimaced and managed a simple affirmation. “That’s better.” I tied it off and returned to my seat, my father and I trading looks.
“What should we expect?” Uncle Hank asked, placing the Bible down on the table between him and the grimoire.
Tracy took a deep breath and gave Hank a wide-eyed look. “Not a clue. I’ve never tried this before.”
Hank promptly took his glasses off and methodically began to clean them. “That’s just wonderful,” he grumbled under his breath.
“Among the shaman, it’s a very secretive practice, unlike a séance where anyone can join in,” she replied. “I was once invited to view one.”
My father gave an impatient sigh and I cleared my throat discretely. “And how did that one go?”
“Unfortunately, Francis, my shaman friend from N’Orleans, said that the guy had performance anxiety from too many Shiner beers.”
Once again, my father surprised me by keeping his tongue. He simply lifted his eyes to the ceiling and cocked his head one way then the other with a loud crack. “Actually a beer sounds really good just about now, huh,” he cracked, casting a look at me. “In fact, when we get out of here, I’m treating you to one, seventeen or not.” He gave my uncle a look and grinned. “Hell, I figure if you’re man enough to wade through shit this deep you earned some alcohol no matter how old you are, right Hank?”
But Uncle Hank wasn’t smiling. He had opened his Bible up and was reading to himself. It was clear this experiment disturbed him to the core of his being.
“I will attempt to contact anyone who remains here. Keep in mind that many of them will be unwilling or unable to assist us for one reason or another. Many of them won’t even know they’ve passed on. Others may have lost what was left of their humanity due to the circumstances of their choices, especially the choice to remain behind instead of moving on.” She took a deep breath and began to look from one of us to the other. “There is a chance that something else might try and take advantage of the situation. Be vigilant.” At the last two words, she looked directly at me.
“What should we do if that happens?” I asked with a shaky voice I hardly recognized.
She looked at my uncle, and he finally made eye contact with her in return. “Your uncle will make it clear that it is most unwelcome.”
Uncle Hank gathered the Bible closer into his outreached arms as if he were swaddling a small child. Then he gave Tracy a single nod.