Built on a slope, at the end of a cul du sac, down a short, steep drive, everything about the holiday rental house feels dark, narrow, sunken.
The owners of the house on the outskirts of Snowmass, Colorado have several Huskies. Or rather, several Huskies own this house, as can be gathered by the Husky-related photos, ribbons, paintings and pillows.
The neighbors next door also have one of these intrepid snow dogs, who sits on the frozen earth, at the end of a chain by their front door, all day and all night.
Quietly watching us come and go.
Everything about the rental house feels well-loved and lived-in – if not a little too. An ingenious plan (or a happy accident) to be staying in a place where messes and mishaps could easily be forgiven.
Where Mom and Dad – determined to enjoy at least some of the family vacation, without the family – can leave us with little worry of expensive damage or extensive injury.
So, with plans for dinner out with friends, Mom and Dad leave the five of us with several pizza delivery menus, cash, and a warning to be on our best behavior.
By the time our rapidly delivered dinner is being noisily digested and discharged in a particularly fierce burping and farting duel between Jim and Mark, we’ve already started getting restless.
But as the moon rises, the explorable world around us shrinks to within the dark rooms and narrow corridors of someone else’s life.
Someone who doesn’t like T.V.
But loves albums.Which Jim discovers (along with a stereo system) while snooping.
Leaving him crouched over the turntable, Chris, Mia and I decide to make a half-hearted attempt to ready for bed – maybe play cards – and head to our shared bedroom.
I look for a corner to crouch in where siblings’ spying eyes can’t see me in my undies.
“Oh, Anne, I used to bathe you for God’s sake!”
Chris’s words offer the opposite of comfort, so I find a spot between the window and bed where I shiver and squiggle into my nightgown.
Just outside the window, I hear a mournful howl that makes all the hairs, on all of my goosebumps, stand at attention.
Peeking around the curtains and rubbing away enough frost on the glass to spy out, there, in the shadows of the bright moon, sits the Husky next door, baying into the starry night.
Receiving no reply to his woeful song.
He howls again and I linger at the window, hoping to hear an answer to this haunting moonlight serenade, but hear, instead, strange noises from within.
Jim is up to something…
We all sense it.
But before Chris, Mia and I even have a chance to share our concerns…
… the entire house goes completely dark.
The Husky howls again, filling the dark room with his sorrowful song.
“Don’t be an idiot, Jim,” Chris shouts through the closed and now locked bedroom door into the unknown. “Turn the lights back on!”
There’s a tap on the door.
Mia, Chris and I look at each other, but say nothing.
There’s another tap.
Mark whispers meekly from the other side, “Come on you guys… Let me in…”
Now, Mark has been Jim’s loyal minion many times before, so we know opening that door might mean the intended ambush is upon us. But Mark is a lousy liar and an even lousier actor and his frightened pleas are a little too real. So, we move en masse to the door, open it only slightly, and grabbing for Mark’s skinny arm in the dark, Chris yanks the youngest our our clan through.
Rubbing his manhandled limb, he pleads innocence as we pepper him with questions. He soon convinces us that he has no idea where Jim is, or what he’s up to.
Before long, we have our answer.
From out of the pitch black, the rise and fall of fluttering notes on a piano (which had become very familiar to us since the day Jim returned home with the album, Tubular Bells, can be heard coming from the living room.
Forever to be fused with the cult horror film, “The Exorcist”, this simple series of horrifically hypnotic notes is currently sending shivers up millions of theater-going spines.
Including those of us not old enough to see Linda Blair’s head spin.
Legendary tales of the movie’s shocking scenes (and cursed actors) have been playground fodder for months.
It’s clear, Jim is out to scare the daylights out of each and every one of us.
He’s spent nearly an hour trying to figure out the house’s electrical panel so he can turn off all the house lights, but leave the stereo playing.
He is truly committed.
Or perhaps, should be.
As the terror-inspiring piano solo plays on, I feel trapped, huddled there in the small bedroom.
Do I laugh?
Do I cry?
Pee my pants?
The longer we stay holed up behind a locked bedroom door, the longer Jim has to think of ways to scare us even worse.
It’s decided. We have to act.
We have to head into the dark.
Face the music.
Or let him find us.
Only guessing at each other’s expressions in the dark and in our whispers, Chris quietly unlocks the bedroom door and cracks it open slightly to see what she can see.
Which is nothing.
She opens it a little wider.
Still more black.
Tubular Bells is now flooding the room.
He’s out there, somewhere. In the dark.
Ready to pounce.
Without so much as a warning, Mark is unceremoniously shoved out the door first. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I watch his small, shirtless frame stall in the center of the hallway, not knowing which way to turn.
“Do you see anything?” Chris whispers.
If Mark replies, none of us hear it over the growing musical crescendo.
He swivels right and begins to head further down the hallway toward the other bedrooms. A daring, devil-may-care move away from all known exits.
We feel obliged to follow, but as soon as the three of us step into the hall and turn toward Mark (who is already nearing the end of it), a dark, bellowing-mass-of-a-figure pounces from a hallway storage closet toward our tiny, hapless human sacrifice.
All I see before scrambling over Chris and Mia in a frenzied retreat, is Mark’s body suddenly stiffen and spring a foot off the ground before collapsing into a heap on the hairy carpeting, in the center of the dark, narrow hall.
Chris, Mia and I scramble over each other to get to the bedroom, then slam and lock the door.
Leaving Mark. In the dark.To fend for himself.
When all is quiet again, we crack open the door to see if he’s still there.
But he’s nowhere to be seen.
They’re nowhere to be seen.
Mark’s defection to the other side is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted.
Yet it’s also unsettling.
In the still, dark bedroom of the still, dark house, all I hear is Chris and Mia breathing.
And the Husky howling.
Long and sorrowfully.