Once upon a time, I lived in a haunted house. It was the second house I remember from my childhood. The first was the house directly behind it, which was one in which my entire family of seven lived fairly happy days filled with busy-ness, friends, and togetherness. Both houses were single-story, 3-bedroom, 1-bath homes in an unassuming neighborhood near the school. We were always renters. To my knowledge, Dad never bought a house, though he built plenty of them for other people. I think he saw homeowners as being rich, and he always saw himself as a poor man from humble roots. That kind of thinking keeps a man poor, in spirit and in wealth.
Not everything was perfect in the first house, but the second house changed everything.
From that first house, I could interact with the inhabitants of the second house through the chain link fence. The family was, well, odd. I never saw the parents, though I seem to remember there was only the mother, but the two children were very strange. A little girl who was close to my age lived there, and she had an older brother who was probably the same age as my next eldest brother, that is, high school age. The little girl and I would meet up at the fence and play and share mud pies. She looked very similar to me, with blonde curls and blue eyes, but she had a frantic quality to her, always jumping around and hyper-aware. She was very different from her brother in looks, and in other ways, too. He was dark-haired with prominent eyebrows. He always grinned maniacally**, at least as I remember it. On summer days, he would climb high into the chinaberry tree that sat squarely in the middle of their backyard and would talk to himself and laugh. He would throw chinaberries at us. I was afraid of him and his brooding stare.
I don’t remember the day that family moved away, but I was eight years old the summer we moved into the house on Nina Lee Lane. Everything had changed in my life. My elder sister, with whom I had shared a room and a bed for my entire life, was now married and living in Sugarland. My eldest brother was in the Air Force. It was just me, my elder brother (by seven years) and our little sister (younger than me by five years), along with our parents. Things were about to change again.
Moving into that house, in retrospect, feels as though it upended my life. In our lifetimes, we often have emotionally significant events that change everything for us–the way we perceive the world, the way we move through the world, or even the way we understand life. Such events tend to be seared into our memories in a different fashion than other memories. It is almost instantaneous, like a flash. Think of how you remember 9/11 (if you were alive that day). You probably know where you were, how you heard the news, and how you felt. But you can’t remember what you had for dinner last Monday.
While my elder sister was away on her honeymoon in Corpus Christi that August, riding out Hurricane Celia in a hotel bathroom with her new husband, a loaf of bread, and a packet of bologna, we moved into the house. I settled into my new “blue room” where I would have a bed of my own for the first time in my life. I was allowed to pick out my own bed covers, and I chose big, colorful flowers on a dark blue background to go with the pale blue walls. It’s a pattern my mother would have called “loud”, but I loved it. My brother moved into the “green room” where the scary boy had lived. The twin beds in that room were made of a beige particle board. He had green pinwale covers on them. Our baby sister, as she always had, slept with our parents.
Almost from the beginning, things were bad in that house. Strange things happened. Tempers flared more than usual. There were beatings, and police (who were useless) were called. My father seemed to lose his mind, and his anger was all directed at my brother. He would accuse him of smoking and would beat him for it. Our father was a smoker. How could he even smell smoke on anyone else? Why would he care if his almost-adult son were smoking? But Dad was constantly on edge and picking fights. He hit me with a closed hand more than once when we lived in that house. He beat my mother. He got into arguments with neighbors, and his paranoia grew exponentially (and it was much worse in the coming years).
My poor brother moved out as soon as he could possibly get out of there. He lived on the other side of town in an apartment with a friend and rarely came back.
When my brother moved away, I moved into his room. Whereas my blue room had a full-sized bed, we decided to leave the furniture as it was. I was happy to have the twin beds and all my brothers’ things around me. I had always thought of myself as one of the boys. My parents indulged me that in some ways.
Not long after I moved into the green room, the haunting experience began for me. I say it that way because until I moved into that room, I didn’t know that was where the evil was coming from.
At first, it was only subtle movements in the closet. Until I moved into that room, I had never had trouble sleeping, though my father was a notorious insomniac and was often up and about during the night. He never disturbed me. I typically fell asleep quickly once I turned out the lights, and I slept soundly. But that changed. Suddenly, I was lying awake in the dark, night after night, staring at the ceiling. One night, I heard the wire hangers brushing against one another, pinging in the otherwise quiet room. Each night after that, the sound grew more pronounced.
I asked my father to check for drafts in the closet. I told him the hangers were hitting each other in the night. He checked and verified there was no way that could be happening, because there was neither window nor attic access in the closet. There was barely a clearance under the closet door, certainly not enough to allow for significant airflow. He didn’t act as though he thought I were crazy. My father’s mother saw spirits, so I knew she believed. It followed that he might believe, as well.
I would move the hangers apart before bed to allow for more gaps between them. They were always clustered together again in the morning.
To block out the sound of the hangers, I started to leave my radio on at night. I placed it on the vanity that sat against the wall at the end of my bed, and I turned the volume low, just loud enough for me to hear it and focus on it instead of listening for the pinging of the hangers. The old black radio had a sliding volume knob on the front right side. The slider for the station was on the left. It had an extendable antenna on top that had to be leaned against the outer wall to get a clear enough signal.
One night, as I was drifting off to sleep, the volume shot up – loud! I sat up in bed and shivered. My father, who was awake as always, came into the room shouting, “Turn that music down!”
“I didn’t touch, it Daddy,” I said. “I was asleep.”
He turned on the light, and I could see that the volume knob had been shoved to the right. Dad huffed and walked over to the outlet and unplugged it. “Go to sleep,” he said.
That was the end of trying to sleep with the radio on, although I will admit that I experimented with turning on the radio and waiting to see if the knob moved again. It did–several times. Every night, I was frozen in fear, the covers pulled up to my chin as I wondered what was next.
What was next were the footsteps. Not content to stay in my closet any longer, the spirit began to walk into the room. I saw nothing, but I found myself whispering, hoarsely, “Go away!” But each night the footsteps came closer and closer to my bed. None of this was helping my sleep problems!
I wondered sometimes if the spirit was good or bad. I wondered if my beloved grandfather was trying to contact me. I got my answer the night the footsteps reached my bed and stopped by it. A cold, unseen hand gripped mine and I screamed!
My father came running. I told him what happened and he looked a little concerned. He went to the closet and looked around again. He checked the window and ensured it was shut. Dad was always afraid of boys peeking in my window or of other (human) intruders. I was more afraid of the supernatural kind.
During that time, all of us kids in the area were warned about people putting things into Halloween candy (razor blades and the like). Halloween, which had always been my favorite time of year, began to be truly scary – not because of ghosts or ghouls but because of humans. Things such as apples or popcorn balls became too suspicious for people to hand out. Four years after we moved into the house, Ronald Clark O’Bryan (nicknamed The Candy Man) killed his own son and attempted to kill other children (to cover up the insurance fraud crime) with cyanide-laced Pixie Stix. He was known to kids later as the man who killed Halloween. It was after that when we all had to start checking candy, if we were allowed to trick-or-treat at all.
The last instance of haunting at the Nina Lee house was on a night when I was so petrified that I decided to leave my overhead light on, trying to scare off any spirits. I didn’t have a lamp beside the bed, so the overhead light was the only one I had to use. My father was a stickler for saving electricity, though. I knew I would be in trouble for leaving the light on. Still, I didn’t want to be in the dark with whatever had touched my hand.
Sometime around midnight, I gave up on sleeping with the light on. In my state of extended insomnia, there was simply no way I could get to sleep with all that light. I got out of bed and gave myself a pep talk. “You can do this. There’s nothing in the dark that isn’t also here in the light.”
As I walked toward the light switch, it sounded as though someone dropped a cannonball in front of me onto the wood floors, between where I stood and the light switch on the wall. I gasped, “Okay! No turning off the light, then.”
Around two o’clock, my father opened my door and asked why the light was on. I told him. I asked, “Didn’t you hear that very loud noise a little while ago? It should have woken the whole neighborhood.”
He hadn’t heard anything. He said it was probably the wood popping, but he walked back and forth in that area and could not reproduce the sound.
He turned off the light and left my door open so that I could see the stove light from the kitchen. I fell asleep at some point that night. Fatigue overcame fear.
To my memory, that was the last time I heard anything in the room. That crash in front of me had terrified me, but it felt as though it were the end. I began having friends over to stay the night on weekends, and I slept with the door open during the week. I started writing stories on the old manual typewriter we had. With my creative mind, I sometimes wondered if the spirit had been in my imagination. Were it not for the sounds, I might have believed it to be so. Or maybe I had conquered the spirit. Or maybe I wasn’t worth its trouble. Throughout the whole ordeal, I prayed. Think what you will, but it felt as though it offered me protection.
That house, I believe, or the spirit that inhabited it, caused more than one injury. A boy in the neighborhood mowed our lawn every week. One day he cut off three fingers when he tried to adjust the mower. He knew better than to have the mower running, so I don’t recall if the mower started on its own or if he blanked out when he decided to adjust it mid-job. All I remember is the string of curse words coming from his mouth and my father wrapping the boy’s hand in a dishtowel to staunch the bleeding.
I broke my arm twice at that house. Once I was skating through the hallway on my way to the door, and suddenly my feet were out from under me. I was a very good skater and didn’t often lose my balance, but that one resulted in two broken bones in my wrist. Another time, I was just taking off my skates on the porch, sitting on the brick flower box that you can see in the photo. I suddenly pitched forward and landed on my elbow on the concrete porch. It was not enough of a fall to have done what it did, which was to crack a full fracture through my upper left arm.
There was never more violence or distrust or malice in my family than after we moved into the house on Nina Lee Lane. That evil infected the family for as long as my father was alive. I feel as though the spirit inhabited him and manifested in some of his worst behavior. I’ve often thought he had bipolar disorder or was schizophrenic, but it seemed to start with that house. Maybe it is that I don’t have a strong memory of him being that way before we moved into the house, but it feels true that the haunting left a man haunted for the rest of his days.
Happy Halloween, and be safe out there, friends. Check your candy and leave a light on.
** (Please, no hate mail. I’m sure the boy who lived in that house was mentally ill, but at that time, I had no awareness of mental illness or its manifestations. I am telling this as I remember it from that time.)