My dad was closest to me and took me by the arm. He spoke to me in mellow, soothing tones, much as he had when I was a child. “Honey, you need to stop. You’re scaring the children. We are leaving. But we need to pack our things. I can see you’re ready to leave. Why don’t you take Ethan and Hannah now. We’ll grab your stuff for you and meet you in a bit. Rich found some cabins about a half hour from here and we’re checking for vacancies right now.” My dad pointed to Rich who was busy with his laptop at the kitchen counter. Upon hearing his name, Rich gave a half-hearted wave and then returned his attention to the screen. I nodded at my dad’s suggestion and tried to control my breathing. It wasn’t only my record setting sprint that had me fighting for breath.
I called for Hannah and Ethan and they both tromped down the stairs from the upstairs playroom. With my mom’s help I herded them out the door and into the car. While I made sure the kids were buckled in, she gave me quick directions to the new cabins. I would have peeled out if I had been on pavement, but as it was, I blew up a choking cloud of dust in the dirt driveway as I sped away. We made it several turns in the long driveway before the car died completely.
It didn’t even sputter. It just lost power and died. “No! No! No!” I yelled at the car as we slowed to a stop. When was the last time I had taken the car in for service? That had always been Mike’s thing and I had been so busy. When you’re a single mom with two kids, who has time to give TLC to the car too? I tried to calm myself. “Don’t worry kids, we’re not far from the house. We’ll just walk back and get a ride with someone.” There was no response from the backseat. “Kids?” I swiveled my body and stared wide eyed behind me.
In the middle seat, situated between a terrified Hannah and Ethan, sat a hazy figure of a girl in old-fashioned attire. She turned to Ethan and in a raspy whisper pleaded with him. “I told you to leave Ethan. You shouldn’t be here. I tried to make you go. If you don’t go now, Mother won’t ever let you go. She hates me being here with her, but she’ll want you to stay forever and ever.”
A scream tried to work its way up my throat, but it stopped halfway and I choked on it, unable to let it out.
“I tried to save you once, Ethan, but I couldn’t. I’m not much good at anything. I know I wasn’t a good sister most of the time, but I tried. I want to save you this time.” A figure peered through the windshield and the girl's eyes grew wide and scared. “But maybe I’m too late.”
The figure disappeared as I turned with dread to see what could frighten a ghost.
The air in the car turned frigid and a humming started in my head. My terror became dulled. What was I so worried about? Everything was going to be okay. I just needed to sleep for a little while and then we’d figure things out.
I came back when Hannah slapped me across the face. Hard.
My mind may have been sleeping, but my body hadn’t been. I was holding a squirming Ethan in my vicegrip arms. I had left the car and was now several yards into the woods, heading in the direction of the lake. Hannah was screaming and beating at me with her arms. “Mom, come back, come back!” she yelled.
“Honey, I’m here.”
Hannah dropped to her knees in the dirt. “Mom, you didn’t look like you. I’m scared,” she sobbed. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
I gently lowered Ethan to the ground. He didn’t know whether to run away or to cling to me. “Are you my now-mom or my before-you-mom?”
“I’m your now-mom.”
“Good, because I don’t want to stay forever with my before-you-mom. I wanted to come back to my old house. I used to like it here mostly. My before-you-mom used to give me all the stuff I wanted, but it feels different now. It didn’t feel good when she was holding me. I want to go home with you.”
“I want to go home with you too, Ethan.”
I had to make some kind of decision. Should I head back to the lake house and try to get some adult reinforcements in case the sinister before-me-mom tried to inhabit my body again or should we press on trying to outrun her presence? Did the woman have some kind of geographical range she could operate in or would she continue to haunt us now that she was aware Ethan was back? Was Sarah being honest or was she really evil? I couldn’t believe I was considering these questions. How do you make choices when you have no knowledge of this weird dimension you’ve suddenly been transported to? I tried to think of any horror/ghost movies that ended up happily. How did the family survive in Poltergeist? I couldn’t remember. Did they run away? Was I going to have to go into head-to-head battle with this other mother? What happens when a ghostly mother-bear takes on a mortal mother-bear? How do you permanently defeat someone who is already dead? I was fervently wishing that we had never taken this vacation--that I was at work today at my job, sorting out the company’s accounts while trying to decide what to make for dinner after picking the kids up at day camp.
“Hello--Mom?” Hannah interrupted me. “What are we going to do?”
I made my decision. I figured we better head back so my family could help me if I succumbed to the presence of the mother again. Whatever happened, I better have reinforcements. I decided to try the car again before we started hiking back and it started right up.
I told the kids to get in and both Hannah and Ethan looked at me like I was crazy--which frankly was the way I probably would have looked at myself too, considering we had just had a visit from the ghostly Sarah in the backseat. “Just do it!” I commanded. I cranked the wheel and somehow got us headed back to the lake house on the narrow driveway.
We blew up to the home with even greater velocity than we had left it not too many minutes before. Ethan, Hannah and I bounded out of the car and were up the porch steps and inside the great room before anyone could greet us. The rest of the family was gloomily assembling in front of the fireplace, ready to file out to the vehicles. My mother and Karen immediately saw that Hannah and Ethan were in shock and moved to comfort them. My dad looked at me, bewildered by our reappearance. “Dana, what’s going on? You look as though you’ve seen a gho . . .”
I held up my hand, stopping him in mid-sentence. “We need to leave, but we’re all going,” I said with finality.
“We’re ready. I just need to grab your stuff from your bedroom,” my dad informed me and turned to head up the stairs.
“No way, Dad! Leave my stuff. We’re going now!” I grabbed his arm to halt him.
At that moment, a chill wind blew in from the front door we had left open and traveled up the stairs, slamming doors and freezing everyone in their places. As we all stood in the great room, we heard the voices of a woman and a girl beginning to argue from upstairs. From the room that had briefly been mine, we could hear the sounds of a struggle starting. It escalated. It sounded like furniture was being knocked over. The wrought iron bed scraped above our heads. Pictures fell off walls. And there was the distinct and irregular ping of porcelain breaking. The voices rose and fell over each other, creating a jumble that was hard to distinguish. I could recognize some words: murder, hate, love, Ethan, again, never, mother, drown.
And then one of them was wailing, her voice slicing like ice down my backbone. The cry rose and then fell, abruptly breaking off into nothingness.
We stared at each other. Even though we were all stock still, our breathing was labored like we had just finished a race. I couldn’t help but wonder if we had just born witness to the same type of scene that Henry had been fighting to forget for decades? Had this mother somehow destroyed her daughter a second time?
The silence from upstairs was suddenly broken by the sound of a door opening and footsteps coming down the stairs. All of us in the room who had stood paralyzed through the fight, instinctively became reanimated and we moved like a wild herd out of the house and into the cars. I prayed as we all sprinted that we wouldn’t lose anyone in the human stampede. A frenzied body count on the run and then we all tore away from the house in a crazed caravan, doors finally slamming shut yards down the road.
I chanced a peek in the rearview mirror as we careened down the driveway. Hannah had one arm protectively cradling Ethan who lay huddled with his head in her lap. Hannah braced herself against my seat with her other arm. Thankfully, there was no ghostly third passenger in the back seat.
I followed my mom and dad’s SUV as they headed out to the main road. They had slowed just enough to convince anyone passing us that our speed was only negligent and not completely insane. As we approached the road leading from the property back to the real world, a figure in a long dress caught my attention. She stood framed by the branches of the birch trees and the dappled sunlight seemed to pass right through her. Please let this be my imagination. Please don’t be following us. Please don’t disable my car again. Ethan was sitting up now and the three of us turned to stare as I gunned the car around the corner.
Sarah looked solemn, but gave a hint of a smile as she waved goodbye to us.
A few miles back down the road to civilization, Ethan’s six year old voice piped up from the back seat. “Mom?”
“Yeah, Baby?” I had to force my voice out. I was feeling glad that Ethan hadn’t been traumatized into being completely mute.
“The next time we have a family reunion, can we make sure it’s just our now-family that’s invited?”
I smiled ruefully. “I think we can manage that. Put your seatbelts on kids.”
Hannah clicked herself in. “I’ve always wanted to go to San Francisco. I’ve kind of felt drawn there, you know? It’s far away from here anyway. Maybe we can try it next time.”
I gave Hannah a non-committal “hmmm” and mentally added San Francisco to the list of places our family would never venture. “I think the three of us may be off the house finding committee the next time a reunion rolls around.”
Hannah, Ethan, and I settled into a comfortable silence as we followed my parents down the road.
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