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By John Searles. A year later, Sylvie is living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened to their parents. My mother picked up on the first ring so as not to wake my sister, if she was home, or me. In hushed tones, she soothed the caller before handing the phone to my father. His voice was stiffer, more formal, as he made plans to meet somewhere or offered directions to our faded and drooping Tudor on a dead-end lane in the tiny town of Dundalk, Maryland.
There were times when the person on the other end of the line had called from a pay phone as nearby as Baltimore. A priest, I guessed, had scratched our number on a scrap of paper and handed it over.
Or maybe it had been found by simply searching the tissuey pages of the phonebook, since we were listed, same as any ordinary family, even if ordinary was the last thing we were. Not long after my father put down the receiver, I heard them dressing. My parents were like characters on an old TV show whose outfits stayed the same every episode. My mother—tall, thin, abnormally pale—wore some version of a curveless gray dress with pearly buttons down the front whenever she was dealing with the public.
Her dark hair, threaded with white, was always pinned up. Tiny crucifixes glimmered in her ears, around her neck too. My father wore suits in somber shades of brown, a cross nestled in his chest hairs beneath his yellow button-down, black hair combed away from his face so that the first thing you noticed was his smudged, wire-rimmed glasses.
Once dressed, they brushed past my door and down the stairs to wait in the kitchen with its peeling blue wallpaper, sipping tea at the table, until headlights from a car turning into our dirt driveway splashed against my bedroom ceiling. Next I heard murmurs, impossible to decipher from my room above, though I had my ideas about what was being said.
Finally, I listened to the clomp clomp clomp of footsteps as my parents led their visitor or visitors into the basement and everyone grew quiet below. When the phone rang after midnight that evening, I opened my eyes and listened, same as always. Never once, not one single time, did I claim to experience the sort of feelings my mother had, and yet something sawed at my insides, giving me the sense that this call was different from those that had come before.
Three days. This time, all the shrieking and plate breaking and door slamming had been about her hair, I guessed, or lack thereof, since she had hacked it off again. As I lay in my bed, listening to my mother act as a translator between my sister and my father, I stared at the textbooks on my desk. The shelf above was lined with hand-carved mahogany ponies. In the glow of the nightlight, their long, wild faces, complete with flared nostrils and bared teeth, appeared alive. If we want to talk, I heard my mother tell my father across the hall, she says we can meet her at the church in town.
The church in town? The more agitated he became, the deeper and louder his voice. Did the girl happen to notice the blizzard outside? Moments later, my mother stepped into my room, leaned over my bed, and gently shook my shoulder.
Wake up, sweetheart. I opened my eyes slowly and, even though I knew full well, asked in a groggy voice what was going on. I liked playing the part of the daughter my parents wanted.
You can keep your pajamas on, my mother said in her whispery voice. A hat and mittens too. Snow fell all around as we walked outside, hands linked paper-doll style, to our little blue Datsun.
As we drove the snowy roads my mother hummed a lullaby I recognized from a trip to Florida years before. The tune climbed higher until we turned into the church parking lot. Our headlights illuminated the simple white structure, the stack of cement stairs, the red wooden doors, the barren flower boxes that would burst with tulips and daffodils come spring, and the steeple with a small gold cross at the top.
Every Sunday, basketball hoops and volleyball nets were wheeled into a storage room while an altar was wheeled out. Felt artwork depicting the Stations of the Cross was draped on the walls, folding chairs and kneelers were arranged over the court markings on the wooden floor.
Someone was going to drop her here, my mother said. This nonsense has to stop. Once and for all. If she had her feelings about the predicament, my mother did not speak up any further. Rather, she let my father unbuckle his seat belt. She let him step out of the car. We watched as he followed a lone trail of footprints through the lot and up the stairs to the red doors. Though he left the engine running, heat pumping, he turned off the wipers and soon snow blanketed the windows.
My mother reached over and flicked a switch so the blades swished back and forth a single time. The effect was that of adjusting an antenna on an old TV: suddenly, the static gave way to a clear picture.
She suggested I stretch out in back and sleep, since there was no sense in all of us staying awake. For the second time that night, I gave her the daughter she wanted, lying across the stiff vinyl seat with its camel hump. Inside my coat pocket, the book about my parents poked at my ribs, nudging me to pay attention to it. The faintest trace of an accent, left over from her childhood in Tennessee, bubbled up whenever she felt nervous.
Maybe it was that lilting sound, or maybe it was that book; either way something made me ask, Do you ever feel afraid? My mother glanced my way a second before facing forward again and flicking the wiper switch. Her eyes, glittery and green, watched for my father. It had been twenty minutes, maybe more, since he left the car. She had turned down the heat and things were getting cold fast.
Of course, Sylvie. We all do sometimes. What makes you afraid? Not passing my tests with perfect grades. Not being the smartest in my class anymore. The gym teacher changing her mind about giving me a permanent pass to the library and forcing me to play flag football or Danish rounders instead. My mother let out a gentle burble of laughter. Still, the next time you feel afraid, I want you to pray.
A plow rumbled down the street, its flashing yellow lights reflected on the snow covering the rear window. It made me think of when Rose and I were younger, the way we used to drape blankets over the wingback chairs in our living room and hide beneath with flashlights. You know what? I am getting a little worried now.
I better go inside too. Too late, though, since she was already unbuckling her seat belt. She was already opening the door. A gust of frigid air blew into the car, causing me to shiver in my pajamas and coat.
After she stepped outside, I reached over the seats and adjusted the switch so the wipers would stay on and I could keep an eye out for her.
All alone, listening to the patter of wet snow, I braved the book at last. The darkness made it difficult to read, and though I could have turned on the interior light, instead I made my way to the photo section wedged like an intermission in the middle of the text.
One picture in particular, a blurred image of a farmhouse kitchen, caused my breath to catch: the chairs and table were toppled, the window over the sink shattered, the toaster, teapot, percolator scattered on the floor, the walls smeared with what looked to be blood.
It was enough to make me shut the book and let it slip to the floor. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed; still none of them emerged. At last, I grew tired and allowed myself to lie back once more.
The cocooned feeling of the car led me to think again of those tents Rose and I used to make over the chairs. Some nights Rose convinced our mother to let us sleep in them, though the blankets always collapsed.
I used to drift off imagining endless stars twinkling in the vast sky overhead; I woke with nothing covering us, and only the blank white ceiling above. When I did, I woke with a start, sitting up in the backseat.
The car had grown cold, all the windows except the front covered with a thick layer of snow. Staring out at that church, it appeared as peaceful and sleepy as one inside a snow globe, and I wondered if I had dreamed the noise, if the images from that book had slipped into my sleep.
But, no. I heard it again, the second time more ferocious than the first, so loud it seemed to vibrate against my chest, causing my heart to beat faster, my hands to shake. The wiper blades halted in their path across the window. Except for the wind and the scuttling branches, the air was quiet when I pushed open the door and stepped outside. How long had I been asleep?
I wondered as I left the Datsun behind. I tried. I really did try. In my nervousness, however, too many prayers clashed in my mind and tangled on my tongue so what came out was a mangled version of them all: Our Father who art in heaven, the Lord is with thee, I believe in his only Son, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified and buried. He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, from thence he shall judge the living and the dead.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
Help for the Haunted
By John Searles. A year later, Sylvie is living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened to their parents. My mother picked up on the first ring so as not to wake my sister, if she was home, or me. In hushed tones, she soothed the caller before handing the phone to my father. His voice was stiffer, more formal, as he made plans to meet somewhere or offered directions to our faded and drooping Tudor on a dead-end lane in the tiny town of Dundalk, Maryland. There were times when the person on the other end of the line had called from a pay phone as nearby as Baltimore.
Help for the Haunted: A Novel
Search: Title Author Article. Rate this book. John Searles's Help for the Haunted is an unforgettable story of a most unusual family, their deep secrets, their harrowing tragedy, and ultimately, a daughter's discovery of a dark and unexpected mystery. After receiving a strange phone call one winter's night, they leave the house and are later murdered in an old church in a horrifying act of violence. A year later, Sylvie is living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened to their parents. Capturing the vivid eeriness of Stephen King's works with the compelling quirkiness of John Irving's beloved novels, Help for the Haunted is that rare story that brings to life a richly imagined and wholly original world. Click to the right or left of the sample to turn the page.