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, and really, really hairy.
The owners of the house on the outskirts of Snowmass, Colorado own 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 where messes and mishaps can be easily forgiven. Easily hidden. With little worry of expensive damage or extensive injury.
So, determined to enjoy at least some of the family vacation (without the whole damn family), Mom and Dad make plans for dinner out, leaving the five of us with several pizza delivery menus, cash, and a warning to be on our best behavior.
By the time dinner is being noisily digested and discharged in a particularly fierce burping and farting duel between Jim and Mark, we’re already restless, as the explorable world around us shrinks to the cluttered rooms and narrow corridors of someone else’s life.
Someone who doesn’t like T.V.
That’s how Jim discovers the stereo.
Leaving him happily crouched over stacks of albums, Chris, Mia and I decide to get ready for bed before playing cards. Looking for a corner of the shared bedroom where spying eyes can’t see me in my undies, I find a spot between the window and bed where I shiver and squiggle into my nightgown.
A mournful howl just outside the window gives my goose-pimples, goose-pimples.
Peeking around the curtain and rubbing away enough frost on the glass, I see the Husky next door baying in the shadows of the bright moon. Receiving no reply to his woeful song. I linger at the window, hoping to hear an answer to his haunting moonlight serenade, but instead, hear strange noises from within.
Jim is up to something… We all sense it.
But before Chris, Mia and I even have a chance to express our shared concerns, the entire house goes completely dark.
The Husky howls again, filling the pitch bllack room with his sorrowful song.
“Don’t be an idiot, Jim,” Chris shouts through the closed and now locked bedroom door into the dark and unknown. “Turn the lights back on!”
There’s a tap on the door, but we 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 in the past, so opening that door might very well mean an ambush. But Mark is a lousy liar – and an even lousier actor – and his frightened pleas are a little too real. We feel our way, en masse, to the door, open it only slightly, and grabbing Mark’s skinny arm in the dark, Chris yanks the youngest through.
Rubbing his manhandled limb, he pleads innocence as we pepper him with questions, soon convincing 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 familiar rise and fall of notes on a piano can be heard coming from the living room. The haunting song is “Tubular Bells”, better known as the theme music for, “The Exorcist”; a simple series of horrifically hypnotic notes currently sending shivers up millions of theater-going spines.
Even for those not old enough to see Linda Blair’s head spin, the tales of the movie’s shocking scenes (and cursed actors) have been playground fodder for months and it’s clear that Jim is committed to scaring the shit out of us, spending nearly an hour trying to figure out the house’s electrical panel so he could turn all the lights off, but leave the stereo playing.
Truly committed… or perhaps, should be.
As the terror-inspiring piano solo repeats for the umpteenth time, we feel trapped, defenseless, directionless. The longer we stay holed up behind a locked bedroom door, the longer Jim has to think of more ways to scare us.
It’s decided. We have to head into the dark. Face the music.
Find Jim, or he’ll find us.
Chris quietly unlocks the bedroom door and opens it a crack to see what she can see – which is nothing. She opens it a little wider. Still more black.
Tubular Bells is now flooding the bedroom.
He’s out there, somewhere.
Without ceremony, we shove Mark 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 musical crescendo. He swivels right – as if he’s heard or seen something – and begins to head down the hallway toward the other bedrooms – 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, a dark, moonlit, figure growls and lunges toward our tiny, hapless human sacrifice from a hallway storage closet half-way down.
All I see before pushing through 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.
Leaving Mark in the dark to fend for himself, Chris, Mia and I slam and lock the bedroom door.
Moments later, all goes quiet…
… too damn quiet.
We crack open the door to see what’s become of Mark, but he’s nowhere to be seen. His defection to the other side is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted. And very unsettling.
In the still, dark bedroom of the still, dark house, all I can hear is Chris and Mia breathing, and the Husky howling, long and sorrowfully.