Janet Sheridan: Self-inflicted fear

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Janet Sheridan

Candy and costumes have lined store shelves for weeks in preparation for the hullabaloo of Halloween, when costumed children dash about to scarily decorated houses so they can get the goods.

It’s fun, but not nearly as thrilling as the fear-provoking tricks children inflict on each other — no adults allowed.

“See it?” Bob whispered as we stopped, held our breath, and searched the night with terrified eyes. “I tell you, it’s following us.”

It had started like any other summer walk home from Great Aunt Bertha’s, where we had spent the evening eating cookies and pumping her player piano. Now suddenly — a mile from home with nothing but fields stretching away from the lane where we trembled beneath distant stars — our lives were in danger.

It was a glorious moment: four siblings, self-panicked, running pell-mell for home, happily scared witless.

I’ll never forget the delicious dread of an evening that started quietly, sitting among a covey of cousins watching television, a new and exciting activity, until Aunt Mary yelled down the stairs that it was time to turn off the TV and go to bed.

We circled our sleeping bags and listened in the dark as Jimmy told us a true story about a man who turned off his TV and sat in front of the blank screen before going to bed.

Gradually, he became aware of a huge eye in the TV: a big, blank, watching eye. The man decided to stare the eye down. But it never once blinked.

They found him the next day, dead on the floor, in front of the TV, both eyes wide open and staring … staring … staring: “LOOK,” Jimmy yelled, “LOOK AT THE TV!”

We looked. We beheld the eye. We flung covers aside, squashed small cousins as we stampeded up the stairs, and flung ourselves, howling, into the midst of the adults.

Lee Ann wet her pants. Norman hyperventilated.

Now that’s fear.

In the middle of a Sunday afternoon beneath skies wide open to a fiery sun, we crawled under an electrified wire fence and cut across a field, keeping a wary eye out for Mr. Gordon’s fierce bull, which could charge at any minute.

My heart tattooing my chest, I quick-walked with my sister, Carolyn, and our friends, Karol and Sheila Anderson, toward a grove of neglected fruit trees at the far end of the field.

We had vowed that today nothing would stop us. We would enter old man Sweenaman’s abandoned house, and climb the collapsing stairs to the bedroom where the ghost of the grieving lady wailed at the window in the deep of night, sometimes waking us from troubled sleep.

We scrambled down the steep sides of an irrigation ditch, jumped the murky puddle at the bottom, clambered up the other side, and halted, steeling ourselves, before dodging through an abandoned orchard of tortured branches that writhed in menace and led to the decayed, two-story, adobe-brick house.

We dared one another across the sagging porch where missing boards revealed clammy earth and a snake’s vanishing tail.

The door hung open on one hinge, welcoming us into the cloying smell of the lady’s house.

Inside, wallpaper hung in swaths, and creatures rustled in the rot of empty years. We stared at the staircase we must climb: a goal many times announced, but never achieved.

Holding hands, Carolyn in the lead, we inched to the bottom step, then took one agonizing step after another, our breath held, our eyes wild. We drew close to the landing, then … a movement, a rustle, a moan.

“The midnight lady,” Karol screamed, “She’s coming for us!”

Once we gained the far side of the ditch, we stopped to catch our breath, staunch the blood flowing from Sheila’s scraped elbow, and look behind us.

”Oh, no, run!” Carolyn shrieked, grabbing my hand, “Run, Janet. She’s on the porch.”

We ran.

It was the best day yet.

Maybe next Sunday we’d make it to the landing.

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