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Homemade HauntingA Novel
By Rob Stennett
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Rob Stennett
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGod and Evil
I would have never followed this path all the way down to its inevitable conclusion if it weren't for two questions.
The first: Does God exist?
And the second side of that question is: Does Satan exist? Not that I thought about Satan very much. And as for God, early on I decided that I did not believe in him in any way, shape, or form. I wasn't a cynic. I believed that people had the ability to do unthinkably kind, generous, and heroic acts. I just didn't believe God had anything to do with them. God can't protect a family as their minivan sails through a crowded intersection, he can't influence the outcome of a football game by commanding an angel to flap his wings to cause a field goal to slice wide right, and he certainly can't convince a man standing on a bridge ready to take the final plunge that life was worth living after all. God couldn't do any of these things. Not because God was a jerk—he simply wasn't around.
I didn't arrive at this conclusion by reading Richard Dawkins and deciding belief in God is the reason there is so much war and poverty in the world. I didn't come to this conclusion by getting frustrated with inconsistencies between the Old and New Testaments. In fact, I wasn't even reading much besides Charlotte's Web back then. And it's not like E. B. White influenced me—a spider didn't appear and weave "God Is Dead" into its web.
But this journey did start when something uninvited came into my room. I was seven years old and it was a sunny afternoon, the type of day where I should have been outside playing baseball until dusk when supper was ready. Instead I was in my room surrounded by Legos because I wasn't very good at baseball. "Wasn't very good" is being kind—I was a train wreck. The first time I ever got a hit I ran to third base. Everyone was screaming "No!" but I assumed they just couldn't believe I'd actually hit the ball. I played left field, and when the baseball came at me, I curled my arms around my face like someone had just lobbed a grenade. After a while I decided my afternoon was best spent skipping the humiliation, so I spent my time alone reenacting medieval battles with Legos. When I was in my room my parents almost never interrupted me, and if they did I knew there was a problem. And on this day there wasn't just one parent; both Mom and Dad were there. Dad stepped foot into the room first and said, "Charlie, we need to talk."
I broke into a cold sweat. Whenever my parents said "We need to talk" it was because I'd done something wrong. They never said "We need to talk" and then spend the next hour discussing what a great job I was doing at school or how proud they were of me. "We need to talk" meant they'd gotten an angry phone call from a teacher or a principal, or one of the neighbors was upset about something I'd done. "He was peeing on my prize rosebushes, Sally," a mom of one of the neighbor kids would say. And then she'd add, "What is wrong with your son?"
In these "We need to talk" conversations I always had a perfectly reasonable explanation. "We were playing hide-and-go-seek and I really needed to go. And I thought it was good for plants. Aren't there a lot of nutrients in pee?"
Dad would say, "No, son, there aren't any nutrients in pee. We didn't raise you to act like an animal. If you can't be civil then we won't let you play outside at all." After that I'd be grounded for two weeks.
But on that day it was different. I knew it was something serious, but their tone was gentle and soft. Something bad was about to happen. "I just got back from the doctor. He said I'm sick, honey," Mom told me. Then she started to cry. I felt like I wanted to cry too, but I didn't know exactly what was going on.
"Your mother has cancer. Do you know what cancer is?" my dad asked.
"Yes," I answered, even though this wasn't completely true. I knew there was such a thing as cancer; I knew cancer was a scary and serious word, but what it was exactly and how it worked was beyond me. My parents accepted my "yes" because they didn't want to get into the specifics. Besides, they were as mystified as I was.
"They're going to give her treatment," Dad said. "And the treatment is going to work, but the medicine will make her tired. So we need you to be really good right now. Help around the house. Don't get into any trouble. We've all got to pull together to fight this. Okay, son?" Dad said.
The treatment did not make her better. It made her skin brittle, it made her lose her hair, it made her sit on the couch around the clock and watch soap operas. And I would sit at the other end of the couch and discuss the plots of General Hospital with her. She was too weak to get up and change the channel (back then, we could only imagine what it would be like to be one of those families who could afford a TV with a remote; we couldn't afford much of anything with all of her hospital bills stacking up) so my primary job for this portion of her life was to switch the TV from General Hospital to Guiding Light to Days of Our Lives.
Toward the end Dad told me, "It's looking bleak, son. We're going to need a miracle for her to make it now." My dad was raised Catholic so we started going to mass to pray for her. I remember going up to the front of the church and lighting a votive candle for Mom. I remember sitting and staring at that candle and imagining God way up in heaven looking down at us on earth. I pictured God using his X-ray vision to look inside the church and see my candle burning so brightly and profoundly that he would use his powers to heal my mother. I fully expected I would come home from church to find my mother completely healed. She would pick me up and kiss me over and over again and say, "I'm healed!" through her tears.
But every time I got home she'd still be lying on the couch—brittle and as close to death as ever—watching soap operas. We recorded soap operas over every VHS tape we owned so Mom could watch them day and night. We recorded Guiding Light over The Twilight Zone, As the World Turns over Jaws, and General Hospital over season 2 of Silver Spoons. Our lives were being taken over by bad dialogue and unbelievable plot twists. But they were all Mom wanted to watch. Game shows were too loud; sitcoms too silly; my horror shows were too scary. Mom found her only solace in affairs and mistaken identities and confessions of secret desire.
Mom watched soap operas (it got to where she almost never left the couch) while Dad and I went to church to light candles and pray for her. And there was one night when I looked at all the lit candles and wondered how many of those were for other moms who were dying of cancer. Why didn't we hear good stories of things happening with these candles? Why was it the same people every Saturday night, the same hopeless stares, the same candles flickering pointlessly?
When we got home Mom wasn't there. We learned later she'd called a neighbor who took her to the hospital. By the time Dad and I arrived a doctor was waiting to meet us. He asked to talk to Dad in private, and through the glass in the other room I saw Dad cry for the first and only time in my life. He was still strong as my dad always was; he locked eyes with the doctor and nodded as the doctor was no doubt giving him the details of my mother's death. For a moment Dad looked away from the doctor and caught eyes with me. His look told me everything. It said, Well, it's just you and me now, Charlie.
When he finally came out of the glass room Dad wasn't crying anymore. He knew it was his time to be strong as he told me, "Charlie, your mother isn't with us anymore."
I was crying now. I asked, "Can we see her?"
"Sure," Dad said.
When I looked at her, I thought of the bouquet of helium balloons I'd gotten for my birthday that year. At the party they were colorful and full of air. They seemed ready to race to the sky—if only the ceiling weren't in the way. But slowly, over the next two weeks, the life started to leak out of them. At first I noticed they were no longer reaching the ceiling, then it seemed like just staying off the floor was a chore. Finally they were lying on the ground, flat and lifeless, and I could barely remember when they were so vibrant and full of life.
My mother was a helium balloon.
Life had been leaking out of her ever since that day she and Dad told me she was sick. Maybe that's why seeing her there pale and dead wasn't all that much of a shock. I did think about the last thing I said to her, which was, "I think Dr. White is secretly in love with Susan Ward."
We had been discussing the latest General Hospital. I was the only one around for Mom to discuss soap opera plots with. I loved those discussions because Mom didn't look at me like a child. I was a peer and a friend. I think this change happened when she started realizing her fate. She understood she'd never get to see me holding a college diploma, she'd never help me think of creative ways to propose marriage, nor would she give me advice on how to raise my own kids. The most adult moments she'd ever get to have with me involved the plots of As the World Turns.
When we went back to mass for the funeral I stared at those candles again. As everyone bowed their heads to pray I held my head up because I knew there was no God to pray to—if he was out there he would have healed my mother. He would have done something for me and for all those other people who light candles and cry out for him to save them.
The pallbearers carried my mother's casket, and I followed it and left the church.
Any chance I had at having faith in God left with me.
Chapter TwoMoving Day
For the next thirty years I did not seriously wrestle with any questions about God, Satan, the paranormal, and/or supernatural. But those questions started to reappear in my life shortly after we moved into the house at 1282 Voorhees Lane. Of course when we first moved I wasn't thinking about anything particularly existential or philosophical; I just hoped the plumbing worked.
Rachel tried to put a good face on the house. She said, "It really isn't that bad" as she pulled a stack of plates wrapped in newspaper out of a box marked "Kitchen." The sunlight shining through the sliding glass door made her hair glow like fire. She'd aged like a bottle of fine cabernet. Not that I was a wine connoisseur. I wouldn't know what a bottle of fine cabernet should taste like. What I did know was that Rachel was gorgeous as ever and I was lucky to be married to this woman for the last thirteen years. And she followed me here. To this place. Our new home.
She was being kind. She was trying to put some sort of optimistic, glass-is-half-full —
(Full of what, I'm not sure, but at least it's half full)
— face on this whole situation. The truth was this place was run down. It wasn't a pit. It wasn't like the front door shook when I sneezed. But it was half the size of our old house. And I'd moved us here so I could chase a dream.
I walked outside and saw Adam pulling a box out of the moving truck. Adam had brown hair, strong cheekbones, and freckles. The girls were going to love him. Actually, I hoped they hadn't started loving him yet. But he was a good-looking kid; he actually got a lot of his looks from his mother. Rachel hated that he had her freckles. It never bothered Adam. Actually, not a lot bothered my son. Not even moving. There was a bounce to his step as he carried the box inside. Moving meant new people and new places to explore. He could start over at a new school. Maybe this time around he'd be the school jock or rock star.
"Where does this go, Dad?" Adam asked.
I looked at the box marked "Living Room." We borrowed these boxes because we didn't have money to buy new ones — we didn't have money for much of anything. The previous owner marked this box and only Rachel knew where it actually went, so I said, "Better ask your mom."
"Sure, Dad," Adam said and ran inside. "I love this place, Dad!"
"Me too," I answered and wished I meant it. What I'd give to have the optimism of an eight-year-old. I tried to find some as I stood next to the truck and drank in the sight of our new home. The front lawn was completely dead; there weren't even dandelions or weeds growing in the soil. It was like the previous owners had watered it with arsenic. The whole neighborhood seemed like it was dying. Its heyday was probably around the mid 1980s. I could picture what the neighborhood would have looked like back then: women in shoulder pads driving to work and men in bathrobes grabbing newspapers with Ronald Reagan on the front page. I could almost smell the exhaust fumes of a Corvette down the block as some blond guy with a mullet and an electric blue tank top worked on it while Van Halen blared on his boom box. That young guy with the mullet was probably now balding and that businesswoman nearing retirement.
(You don't have to stay here forever, just until you finish.)
I grabbed another box, walked inside, went to the living room, and placed the box on the couch. I looked at the wood-paneled walls. It was hard for me to imagine wood paneling ever being fashionable. After this house was built, did some young wife turn to her husband and say, "Oh, Lance, this is perfect! I LOVE the wood paneling in the living room. It'll feel like we're watching The Golden Girls in our very own sauna!"
The kitchen was better, but the countertops didn't have nice tile with a colorful backsplash like our old kitchen did; this was cheap white laminate with weird shapes everywhere. The den had shag carpet with a nice mildew scent.
I went in the kitchen and Rachel cracked open a new box and put silverware in a drawer—the drawer I'd be directed to for the next few weeks whenever I asked Rachel where we kept the spoons. Rachel already knew where everything went, but it would take me at least a month to understand the layout of our new kitchen. Lucy was helping Rachel sort through the forks, knives, and spoons. It was great that my daughter wanted to help, but I think Lucy really just wanted to have a say in where everything went.
The move may have been hardest for her. She cried when I told her we were moving school districts so she'd have to make new friends in the first grade. The new house we found (at a price too good to pass up) was in Castle Rock, about forty minutes from our old home in Boulder. We were close enough to stay in touch on the weekends, but for the most part my wife and kids had to make new friends. This was especially hard on Lucy. She'd gotten popular in kindergarten. Now she had to start over. Organizing the kitchen was her way of coping with the move, a small way she could assert control on shaping our new life. It was her version of building Lego castles.
I wrapped my arms around Rachel and asked, "How are you feeling?"
"Good," she smiled. But it was a smile that said, Oh please, God, let everything be okay.
* * *
Her smile had changed in the last month.
At first it was the smile of a fearless woman who wasn't afraid of anything. Back then she thought all of this was a good idea. The first time she ever heard my plan was at my birthday dinner. Rachel and I were celebrating like we always did, downtown at the Black Olive. I wore my navy blue suit and she wore her red dress with pearls. Dressing up for a birthday dinner should have made us feel special, but I think it reminded us that this was something we could only afford to do every six months.
"You still haven't told me what you want for your birthday," Rachel said after our plates were cleared.
"You don't have to get me anything. This is perfect," I said.
"No, I want to get you something. But it's hard to know what to shop for after being together for thirteen years. If you could have anything in the world, what would you want?"
I'd want to be able to finish my horror novel. But Rachel wasn't a genie—she wasn't offering to grant one wish. She was just asking what sort of gift she could get me. My problem was I didn't want golf clubs or a trip to Hawaii or anything else she or anyone else could buy. What I wanted was time to work on my book.
Excerpted from Homemade Haunting by Rob Stennett Copyright © 2011 by Rob Stennett. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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