The checkout line of the local grocery store in the home town you left behind might be the single most torturous place. I tried to keep my eyes forward and avoid eye contact as I paid for my frozen dinner and dessert and hoped to get the hell out of dodge before I had to talk to someone I knew, but hadn’t talked to in 15 years.
“Sam Ross?” I heard a woman’s voice chime from behind me.
I couldn’t help but utter the word “fuck,” drawing a grin from the high school-aged checkout girl who rang up my Lean Cuisine and Dots.
I put the smallest smile humanly possible on my face and looked over my shoulder to see a woman with a poof of frizzy gray hair standing at my hip with an armful of groceries sloppily spread across the chest of the dirty Garfield Christmas sweatshirt she wore in September. I don’t think I had actually seen the woman since I was eight or nine years old, but I instantly recognized her as Barbara Daniels, the woman who ran the daycare I went to when I was very young.
I stuck my credit card in the machine and started the process of paying for my groceries before I spoke.
Barbara’s cracked lips spread into a wide smile across her wrinkled face.
“Yeah, I can’t believe you’ve grown into…a man,” Barbara said.
The cashier handed me my receipt and gave me a stern look which suggested I move on, but I lingered.
“When I used to watch you, you were like this tall,” Barbara said and then held her hand flat at about the level of my waist.
“Yeah, yeah,” I agreed.
I let out a nervous chuckle and started to backpedal, away from the checkout line.
“Are you staying at your folks’ place right now?” Barbara asked.
“The funny thing is, I ran into your sister about six months ago. I’m so sorry to hear about your mom,” Barbara went on.
Barbara ignored the cashier and stuck me with a hug before I could slip anyway any further. I felt her bosom awkwardly smash up against my rib cage.
“Thank you,” I muttered.
Barbara thankfully pulled away from me.
“I told your sister I remembered two things about you. One, you walked on your toes for some reason. Two, you and your sister constantly talked about monsters. You two were always really, really scared of ‘bloody monsters.’”
I couldn’t get the second thing Barbara said out of my head as I drove up the highway towards the house I grew up in and both my parents had died in within the past couple of years.
I called up my sister. She didn’t answer. She hadn’t answered her phone in months. I don’t know why I even kept trying. I left a voicemail.
“Hey Mandy. It’s Sam. It’s funny I just ran into Barbara Daniels. The lady who ran our daycare as kids at the store and she said something weird. She specifically mentioned that we always talked about monsters and being scared of bloody monsters. So weird she specifically mentioned that, but I wanted to talk to you about it. See what you might have remembered since you were a little older. I kind of remember being scared a lot, but would never have thought it would be something enough for her to mention fifteen years later. Anyway. Call me back. Bye.”
I wrapped up my message just as I pulled up to the dirt driveway which snaked up to my parents’ house and the tin mailbox with the name “Ross” printed on it in big, sloppy white painted letters which were so faded they could almost no longer be read.
I expected to feel the familiar touch of dry paper envelopes when I stuck my arm in the mailbox, but instead brushed up against the stiff plastic of what felt like a VHS tape. I grabbed hold and pulled the thing into my car to confirm it was an unmarked VHS tape.
Luckily my elderly parents still had a VCR hooked up and ready to go in their living room. It ironically sat next to a DVD player I gave them about 10 Christmases ago that they never set up.
My fingertips started to sweat when I pushed the tape into the VCR, hit play and looked up at the blue screen of the TV. I had no fucking clue what I was about to watch.
I took a deep breath when I saw the video open up to a grainy shot. I gulped that breath down when I immediately recognized the setting.
The fake wood paneling of the play room in Barbara’s double-wide trailer which housed her daycare was unmistakable. I can still remember the box of a room which was kept empty except for one basket of toys and was lined with a shockingly-thin carpet. All those years later, the stale, empty space still gave me a hollow feeling and tingle in my spine.
The video cut back to blue again then crackled back to life with a grainy image of myself at age seven. I could tell my exact age by the white character date read out in the corner of the screen. Dressed in Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles pajamas and a bowl cut with a cowlick which sat atop a melon head which was too big for my skinny, little body.
“What’s your name?” A groggy male voice I remembered as belonging to Barbara’s husband Dale asked my younger self as I looked away from the camera.
“Sam,” the younger me mumbled on the camera and winced against the sharp lighting which seemed to be shining in my face.
The camera quickly zoomed out and panned a little to the right to reveal my sister Mandy standing next to me in Little Mermaid pajamas.
“And what’s your name?” Dale asked.
Mandy took a little longer to answer. She quivered. Appeared on the verge of tears. I took some time to take in the setting again. Out the window behind both of our little bodies, I could see it was night. Yet, I had no memory of ever being at Barbara’s daycare at night.
“Mandy,” the word barely dribbled out of my sister’s pursed lips.
I heard a woman’s voice mutter something I couldn’t make out off the camera and then the room went dark. I could now just barely see the outlines of my sister and myself in the almost complete blackness.
The sounds of myself and my sister beginning to cry filled the darkness for a few seconds before being drowned out by the sound of a quick shake of the entire room. It sounded like someone had thrown down a basketball on the floor as hard as they could and then caught it on its way back up. Then again. The crying sounds got louder.
“There it is,” the woman’s voice off-camera got a little louder and I was able to identify it as belonging to Barbara.
“Please. No,” my sister cried out.
One more thud sound reverberated through the room followed by a few seconds of silence and then a horrible screeching sound of a siren rang out.
The screeching siren went for a few seconds and then came to an abrupt stop. The lights flicked on and Mandy and I stood in our same spots, panting and trying to catch our breath.
The thud sound returned. This time, the thud sent my sister and I flying into opposite corners of the room. We each hit the fake wood wall hard and crashed down to the ground.
I cringed as I watched all this play out on the TV.
“Stop. We gotta stop,” Barbara’s voice yelled out from off-camera.
I saw a younger Barbara walk into frame for a second and then the video cut out.
The video came back on and changed to a close-up shot of Barbara sitting in a chair in the blank play room with her plume of blonde hair done up in spectacular fashion and her cheeks rouged. She looked like she was doing one of those old video dating personals from the early-90s.
“My name is Barbara Daniels. I am from Adams Grove, Oklahoma and I believe we have discovered paranormal powers in our home manifesting themselves in the bodies of two young siblings who attend our daycare. What you will see on this video tape is either a spirit or the work of a demon, some kind of pol-ter-a-geist, and we would like to request the Supernatural Advocates come to our home, in Adams Grove, and help us in an episode figure out what is happening with these children.”
Barbara stopped for a moment to collect herself.
“Can you please explain the situation with the kids?” Dale asked from behind the camera.
“Yes. The children are ages seven and ten and attend my daycare. These episodes seem to start when they fall asleep in the night and they wake up in a daze before they fall asleep again shortly after. After they wake up they seem to have absolutely no memory of what happened. However, they constantly talk about how they are scared of ‘the monsters,’ and ‘the bloody monsters,’ though they do not have many details about what these monsters are. We made these tapes to show what is happening to these kids in hopes they can get the help it appears their parents don’t want to get them before something bad happens.”
Barbara looked on the verge of breaking down before the video cut out again.
The video opened again with Mandy and I standing in the room in our cartoon pajamas trembling.
Barbara walked into frame and put her hands on each of our shoulders.
“We’re right here. We’re right here,” Barbara said so quiet the camera barely picked it up. “And this is the last time.”
Barbara got back behind the camera. The lights flicked on and off in the time it took for her to get out of the shot.
The thud sound from the earlier footage began again and the room shook. The younger me dropped to the floor and stuck his face into the carpet. Mandy just kept staring at the camera, seemingly frozen.
Another thud. Mandy dropped to the ground like a bomb went off.
“Fuck you,” Mandy screamed at the camera. “I’ll fucking kill you,” she screamed again and her voice seemed to drop about 10 octaves.
“Has this happened before?” Dale asked quietly from behind the camera.
“I don’t think so,” Barbara’s voice answered back, hushed.
“You’re a fucking cheater. Mike Blake is a fucking cheater and everyone needs to know it. You probably have fucking herpes now or something from her dirty pussy,” Mandy took a few defiant steps towards the camera and pointed a flexed finger at the lens with hate burning in her eyes.
“Who is Mike Blake?” Dale asked.
“No idea,” Barbara answered back.
I knew the answer to the question. Mike Blake was my sister’s soon-to-be ex-husband she broke up with just a few months before because he was cheating with a bar slut from town.
Mandy collapsed onto the floor on the screen and younger me rose to my feet at just the same time as the lights started flickering every half-second the way they do when you take the light switch and flick it up and down as fast as you can.
“No, no, no,” my young voice cried out over the sound of my sister sobbing next to me. “That isn’t what you promised Kylie.”
I dropped to my knees in my parents’ living room. I had screamed those exact words, just about five years before when my long-time girlfriend Kylie left me just after college and moved to Austin. My seven-year-old self was screaming out the most-painful sentences of my life nearly 20 years before they happened on video tape.
I almost had to shut the tape off, but stopped myself.
While I looked away, Mandy had risen to her feet and put her arm around me as we both sobbed horribly and looked down at the floor.
“She loved you more than you even knew,” Mandy said to me.
Mandy said those words to me as we consoled each at my mom’s grave less than a week before I watched the tape.
I reached over to stop the VCR, but stopped when I noticed something in the window behind the two of us in the old playroom.
I wasn’t going to waste time with a call now. I got back into my truck and drove straight to Mandy’s house on the other end of town.
Much like my parents, Mandy lived down a long, muddy private driveway which snaked off the highway and led up to a large, but worn-down and rustic house at the top of a steep hill. A pack of filthy dogs announced my arrival when I pulled into her gravel driveway and looked up at her house as a thick stream of smoke billowed out the chimney and into the tall trees.
The dogs nipped at the dirty cuffs of my jeans when I walked up to the porch and noticed there didn’t seem to be a light on anywhere on the property despite the fading sunset and near darkness of the wooded world around the home. The only light I was able to see came from a candle lit in the window of the living room which sat next to the front door.
I knocked softly on the wooden front door with my eyes stuck on the living room window. I noticed a breeze walk by the lit wick of the candle a few moments after my knock. I held my breath as I listened to footsteps approach the door on the other side.
I was shocked by what greeted me when the door opened. I recognized Mandy, but it looked as if she was wearing some kind of Hollywood special effect makeup which made her look like a real life witch. Wrinkled and just slightly hued yellow, her skin looked like that of an 80-year-old dying woman’s, not that of a woman just in her early-30s. Her eyes were sunken in her skull like a shrunken head and her hair was a tangled rat’s nest on the edge of dreadlocking.
I feared I visibly winced.
“You shouldn’t have talked to her,” Mandy said before I could get a word out.
“So you got my message?”
“You shouldn’t have talked to her,” Mandy repeated.
Mandy waved me into the darkness inside her home and shut the door behind me.
The house was as cold as it was dark. I shivered through my winter coat when I followed Mandy into the candle-lit living room. I took a seat on the dewy couch in front of a coffee table littered with dirty dishes and dirty laundry.
“Jesus Christ it’s freezing in here,” I muttered through clenched teeth.
I looked across the room to see Mandy offering me a cigarette from her seat in a stained easy chair.
“No thanks,” I said with a shake of the head and took the VHS tape out of my jacket pocket.
“So about Barbara Daniels…
“You shouldn’t have talked to her,” Mandy cut me off and eyed the tape I had slipped out into my lap. “And I’ve seen that tape too. Or, well, I have my own copy of at least something like it.”
“At Barbara’s house? The lights going on and off, us flying around the room and talking about horrible things that happen later in life?” I asked.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
Mandy lit up another cigarette.
“You know that thing Barbara told you about us always talking about monsters? That was the monsters on that tape. She told me something where we had to stay the night there and they noticed we had night terrors and these poltergeist abilities and they recorded it to try and get us on some nineties paranormal show where some experts would try to help us, but they ended up never sending in the tapes. I eventually told her to get lost, but regardless, we’re both fucked, because I think talking about it, made the monsters come back.”
One of Mandy’s cigarettes started to sound really good after that piece of information.
“I couldn’t really remember the monsters or ever really thought about them until I ran into fucking Barbara at the deli, but now, I think they’re back. I think they are probably coming back for you too. They terrorized us as kids. I keep seeing this horrible, dead-looking man all around the house…and I’m not talking about Mike. He took off to fucking Tulsa,” Mandy explained.
“What are they? The monsters? I asked.
“They seem to change, but they come when you try to go to sleep and they hide in the shadows – cling to the corners, closets, where it is dark. I don’t actually get a good look at them much, but they seem to just look like hideous people. The one I see the most is this guy covered in blood.”
The images started to come back to me just a little bit. Like the mismatched puzzle pieces of a night of blackout drinking might after weeks or months pass by. I could picture myself waking up in the middle of the night in my parents’ house, tiptoeing in the dark on the way to the bathroom, or Mandy’s room to seek shelter and seeing the shadows down the hall or behind the shower curtain or shaking the doors of my closet.
I suddenly felt as if the monsters were crawling all over the room. The childhood fear which paralyzed my every step once the sun went down started to come back. My panicked eyes scanned the room, looking for them. I saw none, but I felt them.
“If these things work in the dark, then why don’t you have any fucking lights on?” I asked.
“You try paying electricity bills when you can’t sleep and your piece of shit husband who had you stay at home for nearly ten years to watch his kids takes your kids and leaves you alone. They shut the power off.” Mandy finally seemed to show some energy when she spoke.
“Well, what are we going to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Mandy mumbled.
“Should we go to Barbara with the tapes?” I asked.
Mandy slowly nodded her head.
I hadn’t been in Barbara’s driveway for about 20 years, but everything was exactly the same. Raised double-wide with brown and tan paint and a wooden deck raised up off the ground level and a big tool shed. I almost felt like I had traveled back in time just going to the place.
It took some coaxing to get Mandy to join me at the door when we knocked, but she eventually did it. We stood there together as we heard someone approach.
Barbara gave us a frazzled look when she saw us standing on her porch. She followed it up with one of those looks someone gives when they pretend to be excited to randomly bump into someone, but are actually horrified about it. You could see the breath get sucked out of her in an instant.
“Oh hi,” Barbara finally spoke after a few frenzied seconds. “Do you want to come in?”
“No,” I answered flatly. “Here’s fine.”
I whipped the VHS tape out of my jacket pocket and pushed it in her face.
“What is this?”
Barbara squinted at the tape for a few moments.
“That’s the tape we made for the paranormal help show.”
“Why did you stick it in our mailbox?” I cut off Barbara.
“I didn’t put that in your mailbox,” Barbara said defensively.
The gears started to turn in my head. She was telling the truth. Barbara was behind me in line at the store when I bumped into her and I went directly to my truck and raced to my parents’ right after that. There are ways she could have gotten that tape in there before, but they were all pretty elaborate.
“I admit,” Barbara going on broke me out of my thought process. “I took that video, but I gave it to your grandmother years ago, both tapes.”
My father’s mother was a very complicated topic and figure in our lives. I vaguely remember her as a steady presence in our lives in my very first memories. A rail thin woman with long red hair and pale skin, I seem to remember her always giving me really good salty, sweet cookies that she made, so I thought she was pretty cool.
Then, suddenly, she was completely out of our lives. No Thanksgiving, no Christmas, no birthdays, no weddings, funerals, just gone. Without any explanation from either of my parents. It was like she had never even existed.
I didn’t think about my grandma after she disappeared until high school, when Mandy told me she found out our grandma was the person who ran the psychic business along the highway a few towns over in Branchford. I thought about dropping in there for years, but I never actually did it.
However, I figured it was high time to finally pay that palm reader by the highway a visit.
The red and purple neon sign I remember from high school still buzzed in the window of the little house on the edge of the little village of Branchford. It was nearly 9, but the sign still burned the word OPEN into the night.
“You think she’s still alive?” Mandy asked as we sat in the truck, looking at the house. “Mom and dad are already dead.”
“Well they died super young. I think she’s only like in her late-seventies, or something. We’ll just have to find out, I guess,” I answered.
We walked up to the door and pressed an electronic doorbell. Classical chimes rang out from inside of the home.
The door opened before the chimes stopped and we came face-to-face with the grandma we hadn’t seen in more than 20 years. Her long red hair was shorter and had turned gray and her face was a lot less sharp, but it was definitely our grandma.
“I knew you were coming,” grandma said before ushering us in.
Grandma sat us down in her fortune telling/palm reading room and poured us cups of hot tea without asking if we wanted them.
“You watched the tapes?” My grandma said once we all sat down on deep purple furniture.
“Yeah, look, I don’t know what happened between you and mom and dad, but I don’t care. I just want to know what this is and what the hell we can do about it,” I explained. “I don’t want to end up like her,” I finished and pointed to Mandy.
My grandma took a deep breath and started in.
“It’s a lot more simple than you might think. When you two were young, I started to notice you had some of the psychic traits I have. They say things like this skip generations and it’s true. You are more like your grandparents than your parents in many ways.
“The two of you could see things that hadn’t happened yet, or see people in places before they were there or in states, ages, they had not appeared yet. Understandably, this scared you. Your parents wanted to put you in therapy, to block it all out, but I knew the only true way you could get through it all was to fully understand it and embrace it. Otherwise, you would just be putting a band-aide on a wound which needed stitches and medicine. I tried to tell your parents that, but they wouldn’t have any of it. They just put you straight in therapy to block it all out, and it worked, for a long time, but not forever.
“I instead tried to work with your babysitter, who was a client and it started to work, but your parents somehow found out. Then they cut me off. I had to wait until they died to reach back out to you about it and it is good timing, because I can tell your powers have come back and they only come back in this way, when something very big is about to happen. Something the power wants to tell you about. That’s why I put those tapes in the mailboxes.”
“Great, well now what?” I asked.
My grandma’s face lit up.
“You need to come back. I can explain to you that what you might think are monsters are not really monsters at all, they are probably just people you know flashing before you at different stages, moments, of their lives that you will see. You need to be prepared for the night visions experienced on those tapes as well, because they are coming back. They are terrifying, but they can help, but only if you are ready and trained.”
“Okay, great,” I said sarcastically. “I know my vision. It’s of me, getting on my flight back to Houston tomorrow with a good night’s sleep.”
I got up and Mandy followed me out the door.
Grandma stumbled after us with tears in her eyes.
“Please, you have to come back. I feel something very big coming very soon,” my grandma pleaded from her open doorway.
Mandy and I ignored grandma. We walked out to my truck, got inside and drove away leaving her crying in her doorway.
We pulled away with a tension sweating out of our pores and into the cramped cab of the single bench truck. Mandy wasn’t talking, but I sensed she may have thought I made the wrong decision in leading us out of grandma’s office.
I reached over and turned on the radio to try and cut through the animosity in the air.
All that came out of the speakers was static. I scanned through more stations. Nothing but static.
I stopped the dial when I finally reached a station which appeared to have sound. The nasally drone of a newscaster speaking in a monotone leaked out the blown speakers.
“Tornado warnings have been issued for Shelby, Brockton and Ogden Counties. Residents are advised to seek shelter immediately,” the newscaster’s voice announced.
“Shit!” I yelled.
The world outside had seemed to maintain an eerie calm all night, but I noticed the tall tree which lined the highway were swaying violently. Large piles of debris and shrubs were skating across the highway in front of us. We drove into a tumbleweed which lodged in the grill of my truck.
A branch broke off a tree and landed in the bed of my truck with a hard thud.
The world outside the truck had turned into complete chaos as we drove into the meager downtown of Branchford. Branch after branch was falling off of trees and crashing down, smashing into parked cars and buildings.
A strangely familiar sound cut into my ears as I slowed the car next to an abandoned church. It was that siren screech from the VHS tape where my sister and I were in the playroom at Barbara’s house. It was a tornado warning siren, bellowing from the fire station in the middle of the town.
I parked the car in front of the church.
“Come on,” I screamed as loud as I could as I opened the door and let in a horrifying gust of wind.
I pushed myself against the wind and out the door. I dodged a small row boat which was rolling end over end through the grass front yard of the church.
I kept running until I reached the open front door of the church and dove in to avoid a wheelbarrow which flew in my direction.
On the ground of the church, I struggled to breath and looked back out the open door where I saw no sign of Mandy. I waited for about five seconds before I crawled over to the rows of wooden pews and tucked myself under the first one I could reach.
I covered my head, clenched my teeth and prayed the tornado would pass without killing me. I had survived tornadoes before growing up in Oklahoma, but had never been this close to one and was sure I was going to die in the rickety church surrounded by abandoned Bibles and the guilt of leaving Mandy behind.
Looking back now, the time I spent beneath the pew was probably only about two minutes, but the time crawled when I was there, curled up, fighting against the wind felt more like two hours.
I at first thought I was going to be able to ride out the storm in the church, but then I felt my body lift up into the air the way it would have if I jumped off of a giant trampoline. I felt myself soar through the air for a handful of seconds with my eyes shut tight before I crashed hard into the ground and opened my eyes.
I was in the yard of the church facing where the church once stood. The faded white building had been reduced to a few scraps of wood which still stood and some pews which were flipped over on their side.
The siren still rung out at ear-splitting volume, but I heard what is the most-disgusting sound I have ever heard in my life. It sounded like someone coughing, sneezing and barfing at the same time.
I turned around to locate the noise and saw Mandy stumbling around the grass behind me, covered in blood which poured out of deep gashes on her forehead and neck. My heart stopped. I had seen this image before, but instead in the dark of my parents’ house, inside my closet when I opened it up to confront the monsters. The last images I had of my sister, stumbling around covered in blood from the tornado, trying not to die was the image of the monster.
The bleeding woman who haunted my childhood was Mandy.
I tried to scream out to Mandy over the roar of the siren, the blasts of the wind and through my froggy throat, but I couldn’t even hear myself scream, I just yelled in vain until a coat of red blood washed over my eyes and I eventually passed out.
I woke up hooked up to an IV bag in a hospital bed with every single atom in my body aching. I could barely breathe, but I was awake, and I was alive.
There wasn’t a single other soul in the room, just the lonely periodic beep of some machinery, my pain and a little bit of light which came from the hallway through the open door.
I survived. Mandy did not. I would find out later that day that she bled to death in that yard in front of what was left of the church while I was passed out.
There was no one to help me pick up the pieces of what happened, but I was able to figure it out mostly on my own. The terrifying incident that Mandy and I kept having play out in the night that Barbara caught on camera was us seeing the future of the tornado incident where Mandy would die and I would almost die. The monsters we would see were each other, covered in blood, ripped to shreds, 20 years older and not looking anything like people we would recognize when we were kids.
Grandma was right, her feeling that she needed to warn us was true. The visions had tried to prepare us to survive the most-dangerous moment of our lives, but we weren’t able to harness it because we weren’t trained.
My grandma would be the only person who would come visit me in the hospital the week I was there. She accepted my apologies and understood why I dismissed her at first.
We never really talked about the visions or seeing into the future in the hospital. We mostly just bonded and it felt wonderful. She even brought by some of the amazing salted chocolate chip cookies she used to give to me as a kid on my last night in the hospital. We ate them and made plans for me to come back to her office and start working on properly handling my powers after I went back to Houston to get back into work for about a month.
My usual work routine and life helped put me back at ease and heal for the first couple of weeks back in Houston, but it would not last. After about two weeks, the night visions from my childhood started to come back. At first they were mostly just feelings or sounds or a sense that someone was watching me, but things came to a stomach-turning head last night.
I woke up because I felt the blanket pull off of my head as if someone had tugged it back towards my feet. Having to pee, I got up out of bed and headed to the bathroom.
Trying to keep myself from fully waking up, I didn’t turn on the light in the bathroom, just starting pissing in the near dark. Things were going smoothly until I noticed a shadow and heard the faint sound of something swaying behind the shower curtain.
I clenched my teeth hard and whipped open the shower curtain. Dangling from the shower head was the gray, naked corpse of my grandma.
I screamed and ran back to my bed before I was even finished going to the bathroom. I laid frozen until the sun came up.
I started calling the number my grandma gave me in the hospital first thing in the morning, but am starting to get very worried because she hasn’t answered any of my calls.