Every town has that house. The one that's stood empty for too long. The one children discuss in hushed tones at sleepovers. My town is no different. This particular house has stood vacant for close to twenty years. Those who are brave enough to steal a peek through a dusty window report that it is still furnished, a living monument to the family that abandoned it all those years ago. Only, this house is different. At least to me it is because I know why it stands vacant all these years later- I was there the night the terrible events transpired. I've tried to put the past behind me, but time has done little to temper those memories.
The summer was unusually dry that year. By fall, the foothills were set ablaze, blanketing the valleys with ash and a veil of smoke that made it hard to breathe. There was talk of canceling the homecoming game over air quality concerns. I remember Courtney telling me all about it. It must have been a Thursday because she was wearing her cheerleading uniform. “My dad said that the whole thing was started by those protestors,” she said as we raced across the crowded quad. She navigated the crowd by walking in a straight line, confident the other students knew well enough to get out of her way. “They camp way up in those trees and smoke pot up there, my dad says you can smell it from a mile a way. Why can't they just get jobs like everyone else?”
Courtney's dad worked for the federal government, making them one of the wealthier families in our small town. She even got a new car for her sweet sixteen that stood out like a sore thumb among the beat up pick trucks and broken down sedans in the school parking lot.
“Can you imagine doing all of that just to save some stupid tree?” I wanted to remind her that it was really about the owls more than the trees themselves, but decided to save my breath. There was no reasoning with her, especially when she began channeling her dad. Growing up in a small town, we were all naturally pro-logging because the everyone depended on those jobs, as scarce as they were, but Courtney took it to a whole other level.
She was just about to launch into a tirade on how evil the newly elected president was, when bam, she ran headlong into a poor girl who hadn't the good sense to get out of her way.
“Oh my god!” Courtney screamed. The girl must have been carrying a hot lunch because Courtney was covered in what looked to be salisbury steak and gravy. The poor girl stood wide eyed and tried to scrape the mess off of Courtney's uniform. “Don't touch me,” Courtney snapped as she recoiled. A semi circle of rubbernecking underclassmen had begun to form around her. I wondered if they were hoping for a fight because Courtney was beet-red with anger.
“Don't touch me, get away from me. Don't even look at me.” Courtney stammered, trying to properly express her rage. The girl just stood there, petrified. She must have been new because I didn't recognize her. She had thin blonde hair and ragged clothes that draped from her boyish frame. It was an odd sight, even for our school where hand me downs were the norm.
“Who are you?” Courtney demanded. The girl reeled, trying to speak but unable to get the words out. “On second thought, never mind, just go away. Go away, I said. Don't even look at me.” The girl turned, then paused. As if part of a dare, she grabbed a piece of spilled bread from the ground and took off running.
The other students began laughing and, before Courtney had a chance to react, I grabbed her by the arm and marched her to the locker room. “Here, these should fit,” I said, taking a spare outfit I had in my locker. “You always said pink was your color.” She had also said that it made me look sickly, but I decided to let that one go for now.
Finally cleaned up and presentable, she regained her composure. “Who was that girl?” She asked bitterly. I told her I didn't know. “How can you not know, you know everyone in this stink-hole.”
That was true. Not because I was popular or anything, but because I came from a big family; two brothers and three sisters, which meant that there were always people coming and going from our house. Besides, it was a small town and there just weren't that many people to know.
“She must be new here, probably just some hill trash. Did you see what she was wearing?” Courtney said, still trying to soothe herself. “I'm going to make her pay for this, she'll see.” I tried to calm her, telling her it was an accident and, when that didn't work, that she was “just hill trash,” like she had said. Not worth the trouble. The latter seemed to assuage her damaged ego.
“Anyways, my dad's got some big conference in Portland this weekend and he's taking my mom, so do you want to spend the night tomorrow?” Her parents traveled often and she'd always ask me to come stay with her. I welcomed the break from my hectic house and I think her parents always felt better knowing I was around. I guess they figured things wouldn't get out of hand if I was there.
When I arrived at her house that Friday evening, everything seemed to be back to normal. Courtney had me drop my backpack and sleeping bag on the floor next to her bed. Their house had several rooms, each with spare beds, but she always insisted that I sleep on the floor. She maintained that her parents didn't want to fuss with cleaning the sheets, but it always made me feel like I wasn't completely welcome in their home.
“The pizza's on its way,” she said as we made our way downstairs. There were plates and sodas waiting at the kitchen table. I went to open a soda when something caught my eye; a Ouija board, still in its box. “Oh, that's just something for later,” Courtney said with a smirk. Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing, or the time Courtney made me play Bloody Mary at a sleepover some years earlier. She turned out the lights and chanted “Bloody Mary come and get us” only to scare me by producing a papier-mache head that she had made in art class. When I saw the third head reflected in the mirror, I ran home crying and vowed never to speak to her again. An oath I obviously didn't keep.
“You know I don't go in for that sort of thing,” I told her. Courtney just smiled. “Oh relax, I bought it at the toy store, you don't really think it can hurt you, do you?”
Before I could answer, there was a knock at the door. “That must be the pizza, you don't mind getting the tip do you?” She always insisted that she didn't have any small bills, and she knew I didn't like handouts, so it was a way for me to contribute something.
“One extra large supreme, hold the sausage, hold the pepperoni,” Denny said as he handed the pizza over. He had graduated a year earlier and always made sure he picked up Courtney's route when she called. “So what do you two girls have planned for tonight? All alone again?” he said inching his way in. Courtney grabbed the pizza curtly. “None of your business,” she said.
“Let me know if you need a man to come by and check on you later,” he said, leering his way in.
“If we needed a man, you'd be the last person we'd call, Denny.” She answered, her eyes trailing past Denny. Standing on the porch behind him was a familiar face, but it took me a minute to place her. It was that girl from the other day, the one that Courtney nearly ran over in the quad.
“Oh good, you made it, I didn't know if you'd be able to follow my directions,” Courtney said; her eyes lighting up with a mischievous glow. The girl was wearing the same tattered clothes as the day before and carried a worn out bedspread and plastic shopping bag. Denny shot me an inquisitive look, but all I could do was shrug in response.
“Well, don't just stand there, come in, come in,” Courtney said. “We're going to have so much fun tonight. The girl looked at her shoes, second guessing the invitation. “It's okay, Megan's here too. Besides, we have pizza.” The offer of pizza made the girl's face light up. “Oh, I almost forgot. Megan, don't be rude, tip the poor driver.” I handed Denny a couple of dollars that he accepted with a curious look.
Once inside, it was impossible not to notice just how ragged the girl looked, and how strongly she smelled. It was a cloying odor of rotting fruit and cheap air freshener. It was overwhelming, but Courtney seemed to ignore it. Instead, she again thanked the girl for coming on such short notice. I tried to get Courtney's attention, but she was going out of her way not to make eye contact.
“You remember my friend Megan, right?” Courtney said. “And Megan I want you to meet my new friend . . . I'm sorry, I'm so hungry I can't think of your name.”
The girl looked at the floor and mumbled something.
“I'm sorry, I didn't catch that, you'll have to speak up” Courtney said.
“Neyna,” the girl said. At least it sounded like Neyna, she spoke so softly I couldn't quite hear her.
“That's a funny way of saying Nee-na,” Courtney said, dispelling any doubts I’d had about tonight going smoothly. “I was feeling so bad about the way I acted the other day that I invited Nee-na over as a goodwill gesture. Don't you just hate starting out on the wrong foot with someone?”
I nodded in agreement and sort of half waved to Courtney's new friend. I knew she was lying. Courtney wasn't one to apologize and she would never invite “one of the poors,” as she called them over to her house.
“Enough small talk, let's eat,” Courtney said. She set the pizza down and we all grabbed a slice. But before I could even set mine down on my plate, Neyna devoured hers in one long eager bite. She licked the grease from her fingers without the slightest hint of self consciousness then sat silently, staring at the open box.
“Wow, and I thought I was hungry,” Courtney said, “please have another. Have as much as you like.”
Neyna looked up, still unsure if Courtney was being genuine. “Please, eat,” Courtney assured her, nudging the box towards the girl. Neyna snatched the box and began devouring the pizza. I was half disgusted by the sight and half afraid that the girl would choke. Flecks of grease and crumbs went flying as she went on to eat the entire pie. She scraped the box with her hands, picking up every last bit of dropped topping and didn’t stop until every morsel had been accounted for. Neither Courtney nor I had taken even a single bite of ours. In unison, we pushed our plates towards her. She greedily accepted them and greedily descended upon them.
Apparently satisfied, she again looked up and wiped the grease from her face with a dirty shirt sleeve.
“Well, you certainly have a healthy appetite. I wish I could eat like you and keep my figure,” Courtney said, still unfazed by what we had just witnessed. “But I gain weight just thinking about food.”
The sights and sounds and smells were overwhelming. I excused myself to the restroom, worried that I might throw up. I washed my hands and tried to breathe. I was unnerved by what I had just seen and wanted to go home. I still didn't know what Courtney had planned, but I knew her well enough to know that I didn't want any part of it.
I dried my hands and tried to think of an excuse to leave, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Are you okay in there?” It was Courtney. I opened the door to see her standing there, smiling ear to ear. “Aren't you going to come out and join in the fun?” She asked. “What are you up to?” I asked. “You don't have to prove anything to that girl, you know.”
“Who said I was trying to prove something? Besides, she's enjoying herself, come see.”
I followed Courtney back to the table. The pizza was gone and in its place Courtney had laid out a spread of leftover chinese food in those characteristic paper cartons. Neyna was so busy eating she didn't even raise her head to acknowledge our presence.
“Are you getting enough, sweetie? I swear that you're a bottomless pit.” At this, Neyna stopped and raised her head, her mouth too full to speak. She looked us over as she chewed and foisted a handful of noodles into her mouth without so much as an answer. She continued stuffing her face until every last bit was gone and again wiped her mouth on her sleeve.
“Why don't we take a break and play a game,” Courtney said at last. “Do you like games, Nee-na?” Neyna gave a lazy nod. “Good, because I bought this one especially for tonight, it's an old slumber party game.” Courtney pushed the Ouija Board to the center of the table and unwrapped it. She laid the board on the table and set the planchette in the center.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked. Neyna looked the board over and nodded again. “It's a talking board,” she answered.
“Yes,” Courtney answered emphatically. “It allows you to reach out and touch someone on the other side. Do you want to play?”
“Courtney, you know how I feel about these sorts of things,” I said.
“God, Megan, relax already,” Courtney responded. “You're not afraid, are you Nee-na?”
Neyna shook her head.
“Good then let's play,” Courtney said, placing her hands on the planchette. “Come on, Megan, you know it doesn't work with just one person, and besides, they say a virgin really gets the attention of the other side.”
I don't know why, but her words stung. I apprehensively placed my hands on the planchette. “Good,” Courtney said. “Nee-na, come complete the circle.” Neyna moved to place a finger on the planchette, but before she could touch it, it flew from under my hands and against the wall. The flimsy plastic reverberated against the hardwoods as it settled.
“That's odd, the spirits must be active tonight,” Courtney said as she picked up the planchette and again placed it on the board. She placed a heavy hand on the planchette and again invited me to follow suit. “Nee-na, let's try that again, come complete the circle,” she said melodramatically. Neyna again went to poke at the planchette and again it flew across the table, this time knocking over a vase that was sitting on a bookcase at the other side of the room.
Neyna tucked her hands under her legs and looked down at the table as if ashamed. I shot Courtney a look but she just shrugged. “I've never seen that happen before, let's try that one more time,” she said to which Neyna just mumbled: “It's not going to work, not that one.”
“Oh, why not,” Courtney asked.
“They don't want to talk,” Neyna said flatly. “Nothing you can do if they don't want to talk.”
“We had our fun, why don't we just call it a night,” I suggested, hoping Courtney would call off her charade, but she was unfazed.
“Well,” she finally said, “well, if they're shy, we'll just keep calling until they're forced to answer. Works with telemarketers.”
Courtney got up and walked over to where the planchette had crashed. “Where did it go,” she asked, “I don't see it.” Confused, she went to pick up the fallen vase with a shriek. “This is real crystal,” she said, holding up a cracked vase. It wasn't until she walked closer that we saw the source of the shriek- a trickle of blood ran down her fingers.
“They said they don't want to talk,” Neyna said in her casual drawl. “Best leave it be.”
Courtney was livid. “Nobody hangs up on me like that,” she said angrily. “I want to talk and I'm not taking no for an answer.”
“I think you need to bandage that finger,” I said, hoping to change the subject. “Don't you have a first aid kit?”
Courtney studied her hand and finally agreed. “Yeah, it's in the medicine cabinet,” she said. Then her eyes lit up. “That's where we saw Bloody Mary, isn't it Megan?” She turned to Neyna. “It's true, we summoned her and she came and she was so terrifying that Megan ran home crying. Isn't that right, Megan?”
A chill ran through my spine. “That was a long time ago, Courtney, we were just kids.”
“See, it's true. Do you want to see, Nee-na?”
Neyna again just shrugged, seemingly apathetic to the whole ordeal. “I thought you said there was more food,” she finally answered.
“Just leave her alone and let her eat,” I said. “I think the blood loss is affecting your judgment.”
“Let's just see if she's still there or not, okay? And then we can eat. Neyna,” she implored, “did I mention we had dessert?” Neyna perked up with pleading eyes. “Two big cartons of ice cream and anything else you want to eat. But first we just have to see if she's still there in the mirror.”
Neyna nodded and they both stood up and began walking towards the bathroom. “What's wrong, Megan, you're not afraid are you?” I was. I wanted to go home, but I didn't feel right leaving that girl alone with Courtney. Or maybe vice verse.
“I'm not afraid,” I finally answered. “I just don't think this is a good idea.”
“Relax, we're just having some fun, right, Nee-na?”
Neyna gave an ambivalent shrug.
“Fine,” I said, “But after this she gets her ice cream and whatever else she wants to eat.” I said, trying to bargain on the poor girl's behalf.
“Anything she wants,” Courtney answered.
The three of us walked to the bathroom. Once inside, Courtney wrapped a tissue around her bleeding finger and lit a small tea candle. She turned off the light and the room was filled with the faint glow of the candle.
“Bloody Mary, come and get us. Bloody Mary, come and get us. Bloody Mary, come and get us,” Courtney began to chant emotively. Her acting was so bad that I had to suppress a laugh.
“It's not going to work,” Neyna finally said. “You're doing it wrong”
“What do you mean, isn't that how you summon Bloody Mary? She's the wife of the Devil and she just loves Megan's virgin blood.”
Neyna shook her head.
“Don't tell me the line's busy again,” Courtney snapped impatiently.
“She'll come if you compel her, but not like that.”
“Then compel her.”
As quick as a flash, Neyna snatched Courtney's hand and scrawled a backwards “C” bisected by a diagonal line on the mirror with her bloody finger. With a clear voice she said “Lady of darkness, lady of night, sweet lady find us tonight.”
“She'll follow the blood,” Neyna said. “Just don't tell her I'm here.” With that, she turned and left the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
“What a psycho,” Courtney said, nursing her hand. She trailed on, but her voice suddenly sounded as though she were at the far end of a tunnel. I felt her hand close tightly around mine and followed her gaze to the mirror. I saw our reflections, we both looked shaken by what had just happened. Then something else caught my attention: another face appeared between ours in the mirror, rising slowly behind us and coming into focus. It was obscured by a dark veil that faded in and out as the tea light wavered and cast long shadows across the cramped room. I could feel a quick breath against the nape of my next as the candle flickered and died, leaving us in complete darkness.
I squeezed Courtney's hand and tried desperately to think of a prayer, any prayer, but my mind was frozen in fear. I grabbed Courtney's hand as hard as I could and, digging in my heels, pulled her with me as I lunged out of the room. Only something stopped me- it felt as though something had grabbed Courtney and pulled her back with such a force that I crashed to the floor just outside the bathroom. The door slammed violently behind me.
“Courtney, Courtney,” I screamed as I pushed on the door. I banged on the door and pleaded, but it was no use. I frantically ran back towards the kitchen to find Neyna seated at the table with the two cartons of ice cream in front of her. She was again eating voraciously and paid me no attention.
“What did you do to her?” I pleaded. “You have to help.”
Neyna stopped, annoyed that I had interrupted her feast. “Only did what she asked,” she answered. “They're calling for you now.”
I followed her eyes to the Ouija Board. The planchette was sitting in the middle of the board, vibrating and pulsing all on its own as if begging to be handled.
I stepped back, trying to keep a safe distance from both the board and Neyna. “You have to help her, she didn't know what she was doing,” I pleaded.
“Nothing to be done.” Neyna answered. She turned her attention back to the ice cream.
“You can't leave her in there,” I said.
Neyna didn't respond. Desperate and emboldened, I raised my voice. “Neyna, you need to leave, you need to leave now.”
“You didn't invite me,” she scoffed, heading back to the kitchen. She began rummaging through the cupboards when I remembered what she had said earlier. “I didn't invite you, but if you don't help me, I'm going to go back and tell whatever it is you summoned that you're here.”
Neyna stopped and turned her attention to me.
“You know her, don't you? Or, rather, she knows you.” Neyna's eyes widened with fear. “I'm going to tell her that Neyna was the one who summoned her, that NEYNA'S OUT HERE WAITING.”
Just then I heard the bathroom door open and an intense orange light emanated from the bathroom hallway, casting a crooked silhouette across the room.
Something was coming.
“I just wanted something to eat,” Neyna said, grabbing a box of cookies and hightailing it to the door.
The light intensified, magnifying the silhouette as it traveled across the walls of the room in jerky motions. I saw a wizened arm reach from the hallway and plant itself palm-down on the carpeting. Then another. Then the crest of a veiled head and the creature slowly began to crawl into the living room. Not knowing what else to do, I followed Neyna's lead and hightailed it out of the house.
It was dark outside and quiet. The air smelled of smoke. I stopped at the edge of the lawn. There was no sign of Neyna, or anyone else for that matter. Turning to the house, I saw the last few flickers of orange light ebb and wane through the open front door until the house at last appeared dark and silent.
I wanted to run home, but knew that I'd never forgive myself for leaving Courtney in there alone. Strengthening my resolve, I turned and headed back to the house. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator . . .” I whispered, hoping to find some strength in prayer. But before I could reach the porch, I looked up to find something obscuring the doorway. I squinted through the darkness, trying to make out what it was. “Courtney, is that you?” I asked softly, stopping myself at the edge of the porch. There was no answer.
I strained my eyes. I wasn't more than ten feet away, but still could not make out what was standing in the door. Then I realized that it couldn't have been Courtney- it was much too tall to be Courtney, or even a person for that matter. My blood ran cold and the prayer escaped my lips. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator . . .” Whatever it was in the doorway must have heard me because it retreated back into the house, closing the door behind it.
The lights began to dance again, brighter this time and in hues of blue and red- it took me a moment to realize that they were coming from the street. A patrol car pulled up beside the house. “The winds have turned, we're evacuating the whole ridge,” An officer said.
I nodded in disbelief.
“Are you alone?”
I shook my head. “There's someone in the house,” I said, “they need help.”
“Alright, we've got it,” the officer said. He turned to his partner and they exited the car and headed to the door. I couldn't bear to find out what they would encounter in the house. I wanted to warn them, but didn't know what to say. Besides, I thought, they were police, they would know what to do. I, on the other hand, decided that the best course of action was to run home and hide under the safety of my covers.
A couple of days later, the local paper reported that two police officers had died of smoke inhalation due to the local wildfires.
I never saw Courtney again after that. Or Neyna for that matter. Homecoming came and went without the school’s star cheerleader. Then, early one Wednesday, her family loaded up their car and headed out of town without so much as a word to the rest of us. I kept waiting for an explanation; a phone call, some gossip, a police inquiry; but none came. To the rest of the town, she had just moved and there was nothing more to it.
The years passed. I went to community college, only to find it wasn't for me. I got engaged, but called it off. I drifted between dead end jobs. I was haunted by anxiety; a sometimes distant, but never absent fear that Courtney would look me up and hold me accountable, or something else would come back to finish what we had started in the bathroom that night. For years I went without a proper night's sleep.
Finally, some ten years later, I woke from a restless sleep and decided to face it once and for all. I dressed and drove to Courtney's old house. It hadn't changed. It was still the lone house on the hill. The developer was supposed to build an entire community across that ridge, but went bankrupt due to lack of sales. Large new homes just weren't in demand, not on a logger's salary.
I knocked on the door, just to make sure the house was empty. When nobody answered, I let myself in through a front window. The house was dusty, but had barely changed. I walked slowly, armed with only a flashlight and my resignation that if something was still there, then it might as well find me. I called out into the darkness, but there was no answer. Upstairs, I found the sleeping bag and backpack I'd brought with me that night. I decided to bring the pack with me.
It was odd, seeing Courtney's room the way it had been all those years ago- all staged for her to enter and comb her hair at her vanity, or browse a gossip magazine. All the time we spent up there whiling away the hours the way teenagers do. Our friendship was never exactly warm, but seeing the room like that made me miss her; made me miss my old carefree and innocent self.
I was making my way back out of the house when a heavy feeling stopped me. I knew why I had returned and that I would never put any of this to rest if I didn't face it for myself. I made my way back into the house towards the bathroom where it had all happened. Bits of garbage and food wrappers shone under the flashlight as I walked. Once there, I was surprised to find the door locked, especially since it could only be locked from the inside.
I dug my shoulder into the door and forced the knob until it gave. The door gave way easier than I had anticipated causing me to fall into the room. I jumped to my feet, ready to fight off some unseen assailant, but everything was quiet; undisturbed like the rest of the house. It was only when my flashlight shone against the mirror that my fears were realized: There was no reflection. Instead, a large tarp had been nailed to the wall, covering the mirror.
“Hello.” A voice said from the other side of the tarp. It sounded like Courtney.
I froze and held my breath.
“Megan, I knew you’d come for me,” the voice said.
I could feel my pulse racing in my temples.
“I knew you wouldn’t leave me. Now uncover the mirror and let me out.”
“Uncover the mirror, Megan, and we’ll finish our sleepover.”
My mind raced to the events of the evening: Neyna, the face in the mirror, the ghastly silhouette.
“Let me out,” the voice hissed. Only this time it wasn’t Courtney’s. My blood ran cold.
Again, I turned and ran away just as I had done all those years earlier.
I tried doing some research into what exactly happened that night, but when it comes to the paranormal, there aren't any exact answers. The only real lead I had came from the local historical society. It seems that when the town was first settled, there reports from the locals of faeries that would disguise themselves as people and wander into town asking for food or a place to sleep for the night. These reports were always accompanied by reports of missing livestock and, sometimes, even children. These could be attributed to the superstitions of the day- people blaming their misfortunes on the supernatural, or they could be something else. As far as I can figure, the fires drove something out of the hills all those years ago and Courtney invited it in.
I think about that sometimes, when I go to visit the house. When times get tough, I often find myself parked out front with a bottle. When times are dire, I look to the windows as I drink. I look for signs of life, or signs that I had imagined the whole thing. Sometimes I look for an invitation.