“That’s known as the witching hour,” Sarah spoke to her younger brother as she fanned out a deck of tarot cards before him. The two were seated cross-legged on the hardwood floor of the sunlit dining room. Nicholas nodded and looked over the semicircle. Between them, flimsy motes of dust played in the air, glimmering among the mullioned shafts of light and shadows.
“The time between three and four o’clock,” Sarah continued. “It’s when the supernatural is most apparent.”
She drew back her long, blond hair with a wave of the hand and looked at Nicholas with an inquisitive glance. She had always had a fascination for all things mystical and magical and paranormal, and now, at 26, she had gathered a wealth of knowledge on tarot reading, palmistry, and horoscope.
“What are you doing up at 3 a.m. anyway?” Jacky said from across the room. He was lolled in a leather armchair with his feet cast up and over a side, listening indifferently to the conversation between his siblings. He had always had an unyielding skepticism for anything deemed pseudoscience, and now, at 24, he lived with Nicholas and his mother, having suffered a recent nervous breakdown of sorts.
“I get the munchies,” Nicholas replied with a playful shrug.
He swept a finger over the ribbon of cards, hovered his hand above one of the arcana, and then changed his mind before selecting another. He had always had an open mind, and now, at 17, he had the peculiar habit of snacking at the wee hours of the night, something he had picked up shortly after his father’s suicide.
“The Moon!” Sarah said with a beam when Nicholas flipped over the card. “That one’s my favorite.”
The card showed a full moon in the night sky beset by two dark towers and howled at by two canines – one dog and one wolf – and a crayfish in a small pool of the foreground. Nicholas held it up in the light and gave it a thoughtful look with his brow. It seemed to him a curious and fateful thing, full of indecipherable yet valuable meaning.
“I’d like to know what makes you think you hear ghosts,” Jacky shot at Nicholas, intent on provoking his brother.
Nicholas looked up from the card.
“I hear noises,” he said somewhat defensively. “Sounds at night. When I’m all alone in the kitchen. See things too. Like, last night, I saw the lights flicker. All on their own.”
A wry grin rose to Jacky’s lips.
“I’ve seen the lights do that in the daytime,” he said with a dismissive air. “It’s the damn fixtures. All the wiring’s come loose. What noises could you possibly hear?”
“The floorboards creak. The pipes rattle. I hear weird sounds from the basement. Voices even.”
“It’s all in your head, Nick. Every noise has a rational explanation. Wood contracts and expands all the time. Valves open and close. The dishwasher runs. The clock ticks. Echoes carry from the basement...”
Nicholas shook his head and fiddled with the tarot card in his hand.
“You don’t believe it, Jacky? Come to the kitchen at 3 o’clock in the morning then. See for yourself. See how all your reason goes up in smoke. See how fear takes a hold. See how it makes a believer out of you.”
A minute of quiet passed while Nicholas handed Sarah back his Moon card, and from somewhere off in the kitchen came the gibbering of Sarah and Ethan’s infant Lily. Ethan and his mother-in-law were chatting there, watching Lily crawl and skulk along the linoleum floor.
“I’m not doing that,” Jacky said with a note of finality, and he turned to the phone from his pocket.
Nicholas spun his attention back to his sister, who had since been listening to her brothers bickering. She was shuffling the tarot deck in silence, perhaps grown weary over the years of Jacky’s arguments and disbelief.
“Will you do my reading?” Nicholas asked her.
“Yes!” Sarah said, repositioning her legs and hunching forward with excitement. She had a clear picture of the card in her mind, having read it many times before, and now placed it at her brother’s legs.
“The Moon represents your subconscious fears. Your inner demons. The resurfacing of old thought patterns. The illusions which guide your behavior. When the moon card appears, it may be time for you to reassess your past. To free yourself of the pains which you’ve buried or ignored. To heal those wounds allowed to fester. To face old traumas.”
Nicholas nodded as she spoke.
“See the lobster in the water stream?” she continued, gesturing and raising a brow. “It represents the beginning of awareness. The path from the unconscious mind to the conscious one. The way from suffering to something deeper. The Logos.”
Sarah looked at Nicholas as he followed her words.
“See the dog and wolf in the meadow? It represents the mastered and unmastered aspects of our mind. The tamed and untamed parts of ourselves. The balance between the order and chaos within us. The duality of life.”
Nicholas pursed his lips thoughtfully as if trying to take her meaning to heart.
“See the moon in the sky? It represents your intuition. Your perception of truth. The mere reflection we take for reality. The unconscious framework.”
Sarah leaned backward and then forward and came to a resting position with her hands cupped to her chin, apparently finished with her description. She waited for Nicholas’s reaction.
“You got all that from a silly card?” Jacky said from his chair.
She glanced up at Jacky, heaved a sigh, and then shuffled The Moon card back into the tarot deck.
“It’s interesting,” Sarah said to Nicholas, ignoring Jacky’s comment. “To me at least.”
She encased the cards, slid her leather purse across the floor towards her, and pocketed them beside her weathered copy of The Haunting of Hill House.
“What do you think?” she said.
Nicholas was lost in thought, and before he could come up with an answer, Lily entered the room, babbling and crawling on all fours. She had escaped her father and grandmother’s watch. Sarah rose and took the baby in her arms, cooed at the happy child, and rocked her back and forth on her hip, while Nicholas watched them both from the hardwood floor with a troubled half-smile. A moodiness had crept up on his mind.
Soon Lily was looking about the room in the way that any child might, swinging her head hither and thither with a curious gaze. A moment of quiet passed, broken only by the heedless chatter from the kitchen, before the baby reached out a hand towards the old cabinet in the corner of the room, where there stood a neat row of picture frames. She clenched her hand into a tiny, pink fist as if beckoning her mother to approach the object of her sight. Sarah obeyed.
“What is it?” she said in a motherly voice. “What do you see?”
The baby clenched her outstretched fist again, and Sarah picked up the photo where Lily’s gaze rest. It was a portrait of her late father, dark and sullied. He wore a broad smile on his cheeks, but it now seemed to Sarah that he wore something beneath the smile, a sullen pain perhaps, an unspoken gloom – a lost and unseen portent. A frown flitted over her lips, and, without a word, she held the photo up to Lily, whose eyes lit up with intrigue. She fumbled an inquisitive hand against the portrait, feeling the surface of its glass, looked at it with a gaze full of intent and gravity, and then at once erupted into wailing tears and whines. Sarah set down the photo.
“Did you know that the ancients once revered babies for their wisdom?” Jacky said from his slouch. “Only babies could remember the world before life. Beyond death.”
Sarah shrank away from the cabinet, shushed and rocked her daughter at the waist, and headed for the kitchen.
When she was gone, Jacky spoke to himself, “how ridiculous.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was not long after that Nicholas found himself alone again in the kitchen at the dead of night. It was 3:27 a.m., and he was standing at the refrigerator door eating cold cuts and bits of leftovers from the day before: a thin slice of pizza and half a link of sausage. Perhaps hunger was greater than his fear. He heard the same, familiar sounds – the gurgling of the dishwasher, the rattling of the refrigerator, the ticking of the clock, the creaking of the floorboards, and the murmuring of the basement – and all came alive to him in the dim, incandescent light. Still, he ate on. He ate on until the lights began to flicker, when fear seized his heart and his chest began to flutter. He stared up at the fixtures hung overhead.
“Do they really do that in the daytime?” he wondered to himself, remembering his conversation with Jacky.
He looked around the kitchen. He had almost never noticed the squalid condition of the room, which, in truth, needed as much renovation as the rest of the house. He had never paid attention to the cracked ceiling, chipped with white paint, the grimy walls, paneled with ceramic tiles, the iron-handled cabinets, coated with soot, or the wooden island, sloped and scuffed. But, now, all these details came together in his mind to form a terrible and uncanny impression.
He thought about the previous owner of the house, an old woman, who had lived there for years, maybe decades, alone. He thought about how little he actually knew about her, whether she had been a good person, whether she had lived a happy or unhappy life, whether she still resided in anyone’s memory. She had left the property to the Church after her death, Nicholas recalled, but, still, he felt no closer to knowing the truth about her.
“Had she died in the house?” he wondered to himself. “Was it her spirit he heard? Maybe she wasn’t the evil type of ghost,” Nicholas assured himself with a look over the shoulder, and he reached for another slice of turkey.
Just then the patter of feet coming down the stairs came to his ears. A wave of adrenaline rushed from his stomach, and he froze into silence as the noise grew louder. It was Luna, the family pooch, to his sudden relief, and she came scurrying down the shadowy hall into the kitchen. When she reached the edge of the light, she stopped, gave Nicholas a doleful look with her swollen, beady eyes, and whimpered to be let out. Nicholas breathed a lighthearted sigh, leashed her by the front door, and followed her outside.
It was a cool, summer night and a waxing half-moon shone in the cloudless sky, casting a pale sheen on the brick colonial home, whose bay windows now gleamed like opalescent eyes. The old tree swing, the weed ridden lawn, the wrought iron gate, and all else were swallowed by the darkness of the surrounding woods and lay in silence, save for the pines which rustled in a dewy breeze. Nicholas and Luna stepped off the porch and out onto the grass, and soon Luna was sniffing the soil for a good spot. Nicholas shoved a hand into his pocket as he braced himself against the cold, and soon he was looking up at the moon. It glowed and glowered among the milky stars, and he thought about Luna, about the nervous demeanor she had had since a pup, and about the name Sarah had given her.
“Who’s my lunatic?” Sarah would often say while smothering the pooch with ear rubs.
She now sidled and stooped along the lawn, stopping from time to time to peer into the hollows of darkness about her, while Nicholas followed, leash in hand.
He remembered a conversation he had had once with his father, about how the moon was supposed to make people mad, about how a full moon was believed to be especially dangerous. He wondered what to make of such an idea, whether his father had believed in it, whether it did not have some grain of truth, and what madness looked like.
“Had there been a full moon that night?” Nicholas now wondered. “All those years ago?”
Luna finally squatted and wet the grass.
He thought about the moon, he thought about his father, he thought about the things he could have said to him.
Luna stretched and kicked up the dirt with her back paws.
He remembered the soccer lessons, he remembered the bad jokes, he remembered the evening talks, he remembered the long drives, he remembered the smiles and laughter, he remembered the funeral. A lump crept up in his throat. Nicholas missed his father.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
When Luna was finished and the two had returned inside, Nicholas unleashed her in the dim foyer, and she traipsed up the stairs into the pitch-dark, leaving him alone to turn out the kitchen lights. He entered the kitchen, looked over the room for a moment, and saw that nothing was changed – the refrigerator was still shut, the dining room was still dark, and the lights were still steady. He thought again of the old woman who had lived in the house, and then he did something that surprised himself. He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the night. The clock ticked, the dishwasher moaned, and the basement breathed. He thought about Sarah, Jacky, and his mother. A creak from the dining room came to his ears. He thought about his father, whether he was still near. Nicholas slid down the wall to the floor. He was listening to the sounds of the night, when the lights began to flicker.