The following is a true story… even the names haven’t been changed.
It was the last week of autumn in West Philadelphia, and the wet, warm smell of falling leaves had just given way to the numbing chill of winter. The year was 1990, and my friends and I had just begun our senior year at Robert E. Lamberton, the same school most of us had attended since Kindergarten. We’d grown up together, and this was our last hurrah. Next year we’d be at distant colleges, carving pumpkins with new families of friends.
My mother went away for Halloween weekend and left me free run of her house. I hadn’t spent much time there in several years, since I lived with my father and my parents’ relationship was contentious. And the house had… other issues.
The neighborhood consisted of tightly-packed row homes, but my mother’s stone-faced house on Brookhaven Road was uncommonly large. It had more square footage because it positioned on a corner, and the basement that most families used for storage had been renovated into an apartment.
The house had a personality of its own, a sort of unwelcome melancholy. It’d never escaped the 70’s: the wood-paneled basement had a bar fronted with stained glass, and a faux-crystal chandelier on the second floor echoed through wall-to-wall mirrors. There was an organ pre-set with awful disco beats, and the couch cushions were imprisoned in loud and uncomfortable plastic covers.
There was more to the gloominess, though—a personal tragedy. My grandmother—my mother’s mother—had spent the last ten years of her life there. She even died in her bedroom on the third floor, in the back corner of the house. It was a slow and pitiful death: a particularly rough—even violent—manifestation of dementia.
I’ll never forget the day I first noticed it. I was twelve years old, and I’d come around the block from my other grandmother’s house to pick up some of my toys. Since I didn’t live with my mother, she insisted that I keep my toys at her house so I’d be compelled to come see her. My grandmother greeted me in the basement, right in front of the stained-glass bar, and asked me if I’d heard it.
“You don’t hear him?” she asked, leading me into my toy room.
This was my fortress of solitude, lined with shelves packed with toys: G.I. Joe, Micronauts, Buck Rogers, TRON, the Six Million Dollar Man, and, of course, Star Wars. I was instructed to keep floor and the ancient, dusty couch toy-free, so anyone could rush in and grab the rotary phone on the far end, but I often forgot to stow the wires from my ColecoVision.
Next to the phone on that far wall was a poster of Yoda, marked by folds and staple holes from the Empire Strikes Back magazine in which I’d found it. Yoda was framed in a close-up shot with an intense gaze, and his off-center eyes made him look particularly like a Muppet. Maybe Gonzo.
“You don’t hear him?” my grandmother asked again.
I thought she was playing a joke… although she wasn’t the joking type. She wasn’t particularly friendly at all. I’d named her “Bah” at a time when that was probably a big word for me. Bah didn’t get along with anyone; my father blamed her for my parents’ divorce, and my mother outright hated her. They only lived together because finances were an issue, and they’d taken to occupying separate floors of the house and interacting as little as possible.
But Bah was always nice to me. Maybe she was trying on a joke.
She didn’t respond to my laugh. In fact, she grew angry. “You don’t hear him?” she insisted. “He’s talking!”
“Bah, it’s a poster. It can’t talk.”
She grabbed me by the shoulder—hurting me—and pushed me toward Yoda. “Listen to him!” she cried.
Suddenly I saw her differently—I was forcibly reminded of things that a kid tries to forget. This wasn’t the Bah who was always nice to me, it was the Bah who’d gotten into physical, hair-pulling fights with my mother, who’d cursed out my father, who’d once even waved a knife to make her point.
Suddenly I wanted out of there. I wanted to run, and never come back.
I said something—I don’t remember what exactly, but it couldn’t have made any sense—and I escaped, leaving my toys behind. From that moment, I never felt safe with Bah safe again. She told us that her friends were secretly aliens, and they were watching her from on top of a radio tower across the street. She roamed the neighborhood, arguing with herself or other people. A few years later, she even wandered into my place of work, a video rental store. When I approached her, she spoke to me like we were strangers.
I don’t know why nobody helped her—why she wasn’t put into a home. You don’t ask questions like that when you’re a kid, you just adjust to reality because it’s the all you know. Her condition degenerated until the spring of 1988, when my mother found her in her bedroom in the corner of the third floor, several days dead. There was no funeral. Nothing. By then, it had no impact on me whatsoever. In my heart, she’d been dead for years.
And so, when my friends and I took over the house on Brookhaven Road in the fall of 1990, we weren’t walking in to an inviting place. There weren’t any strange whispers or slamming doors, no messages in steamed glass or blood dripping from the walls. The place was just… sad. Sad and cold.
We cut school on Friday and hit the supermarket for the makings for a big spaghetti dinner. And, of course, pumpkins. Once we got to the house, it was time to assign bedrooms for the couples. I called the spacious basement for some privacy with my girlfriend. My best friend, Derek, reserved my mother’s room upstairs for he and his girl. The others found corners or couches for themselves.
Saturday night, Derek gave up the third floor. He said he wanted to stay in the living room. So others moved upstairs: a new couple took my mother’s room, and another shacked up in my childhood room, which was still decorated with Underoos boxes and Black Hole sheets.
Nobody wanted the back room, my grandmother’s room. Everybody knew what had happened.
When we emerged in the morning, I noticed something strange: Everyone had moved downstairs. No particular incident had incited it, and it wasn’t a group decision. There’d simply been a trickle of traffic downstairs all night long. One guy said it was too cold, another said my old bed was too small. Tree said he felt funny “doing it” on my mother’s bed. Okay.
Sunday was move-out day. We gathered our stuff, cleaned up the place and even left a “thank you” jack o’lantern for my mother. I headed upstairs for a last pass at her bedroom, to make sure nobody had left any incriminating evidence. All clear.
When I reached the top of the stairs, I realized I had to go to the bathroom. The closest one was in the back of the house, next to my grandmother’s room. I didn’t give it a second thought; after all, I’d lived in this house for years, and that was where I took my semi-daily childhood baths.
I had to go and I knew my way around, so I didn’t bother to hit the lights. I lifted the lid and began to relieve myself, facing one of those ridiculous echoing mirrors that reflected back upon the shaving mirror over the sink.
There was my head, there was the back of my head. My head. The back of my head. My head. The back of my head…
And my grandmother looking at me.
I immediately looked away, and never looked back. But I know for sure that I saw her—I’ll never forget the image. And even after I looked away, I felt her. She was lonely. And angry.
My aim faltered and I sent a stream all over the ancient pink bathmat. I stumbled to my right, toward the hallway.
The door was wide open, but something was blocking me. The threshold felt tight. I had to squeeze through, shoulder first, and I felt her there. I smelled her.
I raced downstairs, as my throat tightened and heat rushed into my cheeks. I ushered everyone out, but I was lost inside my mind, still seeing that image. I didn’t want to talk about it; I just wanted to leave.
Weeks and months passed, and I put it out of my mind. Various jaunts through the neighborhood took me past the corner of Brookhaven Road, but I tried not to look at the house.
In fact, I only ever entered it one more time, the day after my mother passed away in her bedroom. The house had been left to my stepfather, and I had one day to collect my things.
My friends helped me take the last mementos from my room—the room on the third floor, sandwiched between my mother’s and my grandmother’s.
We took a few trips, and each time I came upstairs, I felt it.
Anger. The conflict between mother and daughter had manifested in tangible, choking hatred. Invisible and powerful. Toys that had stood in place for years had shifted in the dust. A lamp had fallen. The drapes were mussed. It’d begun before we’d gotten there, and it continued while we worked. A battlefield between graves.
As we drove away with a backseat full of my childhood toys, Derek said he was glad to be done with that place. He’d never wanted to go back since that last Halloween stay.
I asked him if he’d seen her.
He shrugged, staring out the window.
As I told him what I’d seen in that bathroom mirror, his eyes watered and his voice grew dry. He nodded. Finally, he whispered that he’d seen it too.
Twenty years later, I still drive past that house on Brookhaven Road. And I still try not to look.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Hugh Sterbakov is offering one copy of his book, City Under the Moon. To enter post a comment in the section below or e-mail email@example.com and put HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail.
Two-time Emmy-nominated writer HUGH STERBAKOV has sold feature and television projects to Disney, Paramount, Fox, SyFy and AMC. He wrote the award-winning graphic novel Freshmen and the upcoming R-rated animated comedy Hell & Back, starring Danny McBride, Rob Riggle and Mila Kunis. He recently released his first horror novel, City Under the Moon, a highly-detailed technological, political and action thriller chronicling a werewolf epidemic in New York. For more information, visit CityUnderTheMoon.com.
A thunderous vortex drowned out most of the noise as the Black Hawk helicopter descended between the Chrysler Building and the Hyatt Tower, blasting them with gun smoke. It hovered just a few feet off the ground, an incredible presence in the middle of a city street.
Tildascow lifted Lon by his belt and tossed him into the cabin. He bounced off the side-facing gunner’s seat and almost fell out before his foot found the rudder.
Hairy fingers latched onto the ledge on the far side of the aircraft. Then a wrist emerged, extending from a dirty, fuzzy sleeve.
Lon screamed, but he couldn’t hear himself over the helicopter’s roar.
It was a wolf man dressed as Santa Claus. And it wasn’t nearly as funny as it should’ve been.
The Black Hawk’s pilot swung around and fired his gun, hitting weresanta in the chest and slamming it against the side-facing seat.
Apparently they weren’t silver rounds. Weresanta sprang into the cockpit, and the helicopter rolled toward Lon, spilling him onto the street. He crashed onto his backpack and tumbled backward, pinching his neck and biting his motherhumping tongue again before ending up on his stomach. He rolled over—
The Black Hawk was above him, rolled laterally so that he could see the sky straight through the cabin. And then the tail shaft whipped over like a gigantic windshield wiper. For half a breath, the Black Hawk was looking straight down at him. The cockpit window was covered in blood.
That… that couldn’t be good.
The blades cut into an armored personnel carrier—ching ching ching—bombarding soldiers and wolves with shrapnel.
And then it belly-flopped into the Hyatt Tower.
Shattering. A downpour of glass.
Lon curled up on his knees, letting his backpack take the brunt of it. His ass burned hot.
More screaming, howling, crashing. Endless gunfire. Liquid flames falling from the sky. Burning corpses in every direction. A gaping wound cut through the Hyatt, spitting flames so bright he could barely see the skeleton of the Black Hawk.
Men and wolves flickered through the curtains of swirling smoke. A werewolf woman emerged from the darkness, on her belly and dragging herself toward Lon. Blackened blood seeped from her broken nose, making her grunts sound like sniffles. She tried to lunge, but her legs had—oh man—
Her legs had been torn off at the knees.
Lon’s mind screamed, but his muscles froze and his throat misfired.
The werewolf grabbed his wrist—its palm felt like hot gravel—and it pulled him closer to those teeth—
The creature’s chin slammed into the asphalt. Tildascow’s black rifle was inches from its head. The sight of her made him want to cry, from relief or love or just because of his scorched ass.
Her eyes looked like flashlights behind her soot-covered face. “Can you move?” she yelled, sounding like she was underwater. “Are you hurt?”
Lon tried, but he couldn’t answer.
She pulled him to unsteady feet and put a gun in his hand, maybe the same one she’d given him earlier. He couldn’t close his fingers on the grip.
“You’re in shock, it’s perfectly normal,” she said, calmly. How the fuck could she be calm? “Breathe deep and—“ A rabid wolf man hurtled their way and she fired twice, flipping him backward, never breaking her thought. “Breathe deep and stay with me.”
His eyes were heavy. The air was so thick, black and flickering orange.
“This will pass, Lon. You’re okay. Hey…” She looked deep into his eyes and repeated his own words. “We are going to win this.”
A massive figure surfaced through the smoke: Ilecko, blood-splattered and caked in soot. And then came Jaguar and Mantle, sidestepping toward them, eyes constantly shifting. The band was back together.
A thunderous groan came from the Hyatt, where the upside-down helicopter shell lost its grip and fell to the street.
“Get down!” Tildascow yelled.
She pushed him to the ground, but it made no difference. A blast wave of smoke belched from the crash, blinding Lon and ripping the air from his lungs, leaving him in pure suffocation.