We stayed in the van while our mom gave the ghost tour. These nights scared my sisters. They didn’t believe in ghosts. One of them had told me once that they were staunch materialists. They were precocious, having an otherworldly knowledge of things they shouldn’t know. It was child’s play stoicism. But these nights they couldn’t appeal to cold logic to save them. They couldn’t escape the confines of their fearful little bodies. Maybe it was the half drunk shadows leaking out of the alleys, or the stench of death wafting up from the sea just out of sight. Either way, they were spooked.
The sun draped a shadow on the big wall of the library behind the half bent palm trees. They looked ill, like they were about to vomit into the street. The tourists didn’t mind. Maybe they didn’t even notice. But to my eye everything looked wrong. The normal world had called in sick.
We used to go on the ghost tour with Mom, always haunting the edge of the little group of tourists.
“Whose children are these?” a concerned mother in a too small one-piece bathing suit asked once.
Mom didn’t answer, so I said the twins were mine.
“No wonder,” the woman said, watching the twins as they skipped rocks into the busy street.
Mom was mad that night. We weren’t supposed to disrupt her work. She exploded in marvelous mayhem, had tried to rip the seats out of the van in her rage. She’d gnashed her teeth and howled. We’d stayed in the van ever since.
The parking lot was full now. Mom told us to be invisible. We weren’t supposed to stay in the van, not in the summer. We could suffocate in the heat. Strangers would report us to the police if they saw us.
“Do you want to go to jail?” Mom had demanded before she’d left that night.
We all shook our heads no.
“Then disappear,” she said.
The girls hid under a big quilt in the back of the van. They couldn’t help but peek out every so often to see if the world was still there. I usually sat in the front with the window rolled down, drawing in my notebook or reading the haunted history books Mom used for reference. But tonight, something felt off, and I decided to hide with my sisters. I tried to convince myself I was doing it to comfort them, but I felt a little scared, too.
The sun stained my sisters blood red through the quilt, both of them looking serious and removed. Their jaws slack, their eyes half open. Sweat wet the big valleys etched in their foreheads. They were identical twins, and I could never tell them apart. They were much younger than me, eight years old to my sixteen. A double mistake, I guessed. We’d never been close. I’d always found them a little disturbing, even as babies. Ghostly and absent. I used to try to make them smile. I’d coo and caw next to their stinking ugly faces. They would stare, indifferently. That’s when I decided I never wanted to be a mother. It only made sense that they’d eventually emulate rationalists.
The twins were making jewelry from shells and blood stained teeth they’d found on the beach earlier that day. One held a red thread while the other pushed its tip through the big open gulfs in the chipped and dirty shells. They were saving the teeth for a bracelet.
“Where’s our dad?” one sister said.
“We don’t have one,” I answered. I peeked out from under the quilt and saw our mother pacing the edge of a ring of tourists outside. Her strides were quick and erratic like a caged animal.
“That’s impossible,” the other one said. “All things necessitate a cause.”
“He’s a spirit. He’s a ghost.”
“Shutup, that’s witchcraft.” one said. The other started crying.
I liked popping their balloons when I could. I wanted to deflate them when they got too confident. Otherwise, they’d just float away to the Platonic heavens. They wouldn’t survive like that.
Our father had run out on us years ago. The only thing he’d left us with was this van and a stack of Hustler magazines. At least, that’s how our mother told it. She’d say he was a deadbeat, always had been.
“And his penis,” she’d continue with a sense of disgust. “Always swollen and sick. The cheating bastard,” and then she would cry and cry while the twins and I watched, helpless.
But I knew the truth. Mom was the sick one. The girls were still shielded by their innocence to this fact. To them, our mother was just our mother. She was only strange if you knew that other mothers existed. That there was a possibility of other mothers.
I’d seen all of Mom’s terrifying transformations. From the erratic beauty, to the wrathful possessed. Her final form, the desperate sea witch, the one she’d been stuck in for a while, was the saddest. I’d find her every morning passed out on the shore, washed up there like the other trash that lined the sea wall. Only waking to cry out for our father. She’d sow his name in the salt and sand, which would then swell with the tide, pregnant, and fill her mouth with what she’d wrought until she gargled, limp, drowning. She was swollen and sick. A body grabbed by the sea and transformed into a bloated corpse. A zombie from one of her books. A ghost of a lost dream, still wandering the mortal world in search of happiness. She’d driven our father away and kept him out of our proximity like a confused ward. It was she who was a hex on our house.
But I couldn’t let the girls know this. God, they were already so fucked up as it was. Crawling around the beach like little demons. They didn’t even know their own age. Didn’t know basic math. Had never been to school. They were cursed, I knew that. But I wanted to protect them as much as I could.
The night before Dad left, he cradled me in his arms on our rotting porch swing outside of our old house. He rocked the twins, babies then, in their car seats with his feet. The air was thick and hot, and his skin smelled of cinnamon and salt. Inside, Mom smashed glasses on the kitchen floor. The little explosions sounded like ghostly fireworks, crackling all around us as night began to fall. She spewed incoherent curses all over the house. Dad’s face was absent, staring out into the many branches of the overgrown magnolia tree that dominated the backyard. Neither of us spoke. The twins didn’t cry. We were sharing a silent language of resignation. We couldn’t figure out why she was so mad. What had we done to awaken the demonic presence that so often haunted her body?
“We’re all going to have to get away, one day,” Dad said to the tree.
The next day he was gone. He didn’t say goodbye. Mom spent a week yelling at the walls, demanding that Dad feed the babies, who often sat so motionless that I thought they might be dead.
I cried in my room.
Maybe he got kidnapped. Maybe he fell into a pond and drowned.
These thoughts were oddly comforting. They were more tolerable than the reality that my father had simply vanished, seemingly indifferent to our fates. When Mom finally understood what had happened, she grew enraged, slashing at the wood panel walls with a kitchen knife and ripping out the electrical sockets from every room, leaving their red and blue veins twisted and menacing on the ground. Once she’d gutted the house, she gathered up a few bags of clothes and threw me and the twins into the back of the old van.
“What will we do? What will we do?” she said over and over as she drove for days across a monotony of Texas flatness. We finally ended up parked on an empty beach on some abandoned stretch of Galveston Island.
It got dark and late, later than usual. This used to happen only occasionally, if one of the tourists thought they’d seen a ghost in a window or a spirit in a drain. But Mom was staying out later now that she’d added the Dream House as the final stop on the tour. I’d seen posters hung outside the library advertising the place.
DREAM HOUSE, PORTAL TO MAGICAL REALM, big block text read on pink paper. COME FOR THE FINAL SUMMONING. GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN.
I’d seen the house once. It was like a cult compound. Hooded figures prayed in the street. Mom had parked on a curb beside the rotten place and had gone inside to check it out, leaving us in the car. Weirdos and druggies were scattered on the house’s sinking porch. The place looked like it might implode. Shadowy figures controlled the front door, admitting some and driving others away in sudden bursts of violent yelling. Whatever was happening inside wasn’t good. Maybe Mom had made an arrangement with these people. Maybe she was getting a cut for bringing her tour group here.
But Mom seemed to like the place more than the tourists did. Sometimes the tour group would walk back without her, wading through the dark night until they stumbled on the little parking lot where they’d started their journey. They’d awaken their sleeping cars and veer off back into the ordinary world, leaving us in total darkness. Mom would show up later, depleted.
I told my sisters to stay in the car. I’d go find Mom. They huddled next to each other, their mouths downturned and clenched.
Outside it was humid. The storms had left large reflective puddles buttoning up the slick black streets, each one mirroring the orange street lights that hovered just above.
I knew the route. I walked the edge of the Moody Mansion, which was lit a sickly green. It was the first stop on the tour, and the whole place was secluded behind a pointed metal fence that reached high into the sky. A chain rattled. A child’s ghost was supposed to haunt the place. I watched the window of the tallest pillar of the castle-like house where she was said to appear but didn’t see anything.
Two men, both holding heavy plastic sacks, walked by in the middle of the street. One of them tipped his dirty cap to me as they passed. Just beyond the mansion a large wooden mast from an antique pirate ship leered next to a towering cruise ship. The old rotten pole called like a siren in the dark. The ships were like portals. Escape routes. Maybe one day I could float away on one. Maybe we’d all go together.
Everything was pale in the darkness, and I could hear rowdy laughter echoing from the Strand, the block where the tourists would flock to drink before their cruises, just a few streets over. I looked up and down the street but didn’t see Mom.
I went back to the van. My sisters were still under the quilt. I locked the manual locks.
“Did you find Mom?”
They looked down, holding each other’s hands.
Everything was black outside. The girls dozed off. I couldn’t sleep. We didn’t have phones, so I had no clue what time it was. I doodled in a little notebook I’d found by a peer, my body still hidden under the quilt. It was hard to see. I drew little monsters peeking through the windows of an old Victorian house. Then the petals of imagined flowers, serrated and vicious. Then skulls.
Once, when I was young and still in school, I’d been named Most Artistic in my second-grade class.
Dad stood in the center of a mass of clapping mothers as I shyly accepted the award, my name shining in gold sharpie on the milky paper. Mom was unsurprisingly absent.
“You’re going to do great things,” my teacher, a young and energetic woman, said to me. “You’re going to be the next Michelangelo.”
When Dad told Mom what the teacher said, she tore up the award and threw it into the trash.
“I hate Michelangelo,” she said. “All the flaccid Greek dicks. The idealizing of the mortal coil. The imagining of God and spirit as toned muscle and sinew. Disgusting.”
Someone knocked at the window. I peeked out from the blanket. It was too dark. All I could see was their ghoulish outline. I put my head back into the quilt. They knocked again, harder this time. Disappear, I thought. Finally, someone unlocked the door.
“Get buckled,” Mom said.
Even in the darkness she looked pale and limp, extinguished.
“What’s wrong?” one of the twins asked, rubbing her eyes.
“Get buckled,” she snapped.
“Was there a ghost?”
She didn’t answer.
The pirate ship lurched silently behind the big steeple of the church as we pulled into the street, its fingerey mast disappearing in the darkness behind us as I tried to buckle in one of the twins.
“I want to go home,” she said sleepily.
I didn’t know what home meant to her.
My sisters were throwing rocks at the seagulls next to the dunes, while Mom smoked a cigarette in the wet sand staring into the ocean. The water was gray and endless. She yelled at it, ranting loudly, her words drowned out by the waves.
“No more bodies!” she screamed. “Take this shit back!”
A purple flag flew from a dilapidated lifeguard post. Jellyfish. The flag fluttered wildly in the wind. It must have been an old flag. This beach was basically abandoned. Sometimes a naked elderly man would run over the dunes and toward the developing neighborhood to the North. I could never tell where he came from. Besides that, the place was dead.
We were close to the Galveston State Park, where we usually parked the van and slept at night. But the twins were bored of the place and had acquired the bad habit of hunting water snakes in the swampland. So the beach was their new playground.
I felt like a tether between the twins and my mother, sitting in the sand halfway between the girls’ idle wandering and mom’s angry tirade. She was far out in the ocean now, chain smoking. She’d found a little bank of sand so that she stood atop the water as if floating there, a thin and crumbling lighthouse. The cigarette’s cherry pulsated like a pathetic guide for someone more lost and weary than herself.
One of the twins screamed.
I ran over to the dunes where they’d huddled under a split wooden pole. They were clasping one another, one hiding her face in the other’s shoulder. A crab moved mechanically in place, a large stick impaled through its back so that it was stuck there, foaming wildly.
“She killed it!” one of them said.
The other watched her prey wriggle before her.
“It was basically already dead,” she said. “It was the ethical thing to do.”
Mom spent the rest of the afternoon burning her extra clothes on the beach.
“That’s what freedom smells like,” she said.
The twins tried to warm themselves by the flames.
Mom packed us back into the van early. The clouds funneled over her wild hair; her jeans dyed dark up to the crotch by ocean water.
“Today’s the day, girls,” she said. “It’s time to escape the prison.”
“Socrates drank the hemlock because he was ugly,” one of the twins said indignantly.
“Stop talking!” Mom demanded as she slammed the back doors.
After a long sullen drive, she pulled over at a peer and unlocked the doors.
“Take them to get dinner.”
She handed me a five-dollar bill.
“I don’t think this is enough,” I said.
She put the van in drive and started inching forward.
“I’ve got a meeting!” she barked.
I got the girls out and the van sped away toward the Strand.
“I hate this place,” one of the twins said, pointing to a large devil’s face painted on the side of a building. Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier a big unlit sign read.
We walked out onto the pier, each twin holding one of my hands, and looked for a place that was open. The ocean whirled in the distance, clapping its hands in thunderous waves below heavy black clouds. The only thing that wasn’t closed was the gift shop. Its windows were adorned with bright pink Galveston TX shirts, each one inhabited by sharks and tribal tattooed fish. I’d never seen a shark here and doubted that they existed in these waters. During the Ghost Tours Mom would often tell the story about the historic synagogue that sheltered people during the great hurricane of 1900. People had hidden in the attic until the wild and roiling waves invaded that place too.
If the waves didn’t get you, the sharks did, mom would say.
The gift shop was cold. The twins played roughly with wind up toys next to a large sign that said You Break it You Buy it! There were Galveston themed snacks, like Chewy Jellyfish O’s and Shark Jerky and Clam Chips. I bought two bags of gummies and some water from a bubbly girl at the counter.
“Y’all enjoying your vacation,” she asked.
I started to answer, but something rattled behind a closed door and the girl turned and suddenly became vicious.
“Jesse, you better stack them right this time!” she yelled.
“Enjoy the beach, hopefully the storms calm down for y’all,” she said, her smile barely containing a seething rage.
She handed me back a ten and a five, thinking I had given her a twenty. I quickly pocketed the change.
“Let’s go,” I said. The girls had assembled an animal menagerie on the ground, the wind-up sharks and dogs seemingly fighting below their removed gaze.
“It’s a hierarchy,” one said.
“You’re at the bottom,” the other chimed in. They both cackled wildly.
We ate at a picnic table at the edge of the pier next to the water. The ocean was wild. The waves rose up high, almost kissing the blackheads pimpling the clouds. It was raining softly, and both of the twins’ long dark hair had matted like demon masks on their miserable little faces.
“This tastes terrible,” one said, a gummy hanging from her pale lips. But she ate the whole bag anyway.
The twins took turns having diarrhea in the old bathroom behind a boarded-up bar. It was raining hard now, and we all were soaked and cold. There was no sign of Mom.
We went back to the gift shop and the bubbly woman greeted us again, not seeming to remember us at all. I bought three ponchos and a Mountain Dew.
“Y’all having a good vacation?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” I said.
We all put on the cheap ponchos and stood in the rain at the entrance of the peer. Blurry headlights splashed past us.
“Where’s Mom?” the twins asked in unison.
She’s a ghost, I wanted to say. We’re orphans.
It’s survival of the fittest. That might appeal to their dispositions.
But, as I looked at their impish faces twisted around like whirlpools, I felt a deep and painful sympathy for them.
Poor little demons.
“Let’s go find her,” I said.
We walked down the street toward the strand. Jeweled eyes watched from patios as we trudged in the rain. Pathetic, I could hear them thinking. Ship rats, they were mumbling under their breath.
The street ran along the Ghost Tour route, and we followed the alleys behind the industrial strip malls and around the barbed wire fences until we got to the parking lot. The van was parked in its usual place, and mom was pacing its edge spitting brown liquid into an empty plastic bottle.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. She’d changed into a stained robe.
“We were waiting for you at Pleasure Pier. You dropped us off hours ago.”
“It’s best this way,” she said. She put her hand on my face and looked at the twins.
“You should know, I’m glad I’m going. I never really liked it here, in this world.”
She handed me the keys to the van, then walked toward a gathering group of fellow occultists, many of them robed. They set off together like a storm cloud hovering out beyond the sea, disappearing behind a bend.
I got the twins in the van. They laid down on the floor, and I covered them with the quilt. They fell asleep quickly, exhausted from the long walk. They’re out of shape, I thought, totally useless in the wild. In an emergency they’d lag behind, would force me to choose between life and death. They were the types who’d be eaten by sharks in the next great flood.
The sun sank away behind the twisted palm trees. The pirate ship mast stared down at us, fading gradually into the darkening sky until it disappeared completely. I could still feel it leering in the distance. It had gotten so late that the lights in the parking lot were falling asleep one by one.
I picked at the skin around my thumbnail, watching the street. I wondered if Mom had actually disappeared. How would we survive? Maybe I could get a job at the gift shop at the pleasure pier. Surely I could do a better job than Jesse. With the right direction I could stack anything properly.
I opened the van door, locked the manual lock, then closed it softly. I waited there to see if the girls stirred, but everything was quiet. I’d find Mom and bring her back.
I walked the tour route past the CVS and around the old synagogue into the little neighborhood where the tour usually concluded. The houses were falling apart, peeling and rotten behind big stagnant puddles. A woman sang loudly somewhere in the dark. I tried to stay on the sidewalk, but it was eventually overrun by big black pools of flattened water, and I was forced to walk in the middle of the street.
I got to the last house before the street dead ended into a large warehouse fence. The place looked deserted. Outside there was a plywood sign that read Dream House in red spray paint. Piles of black robes littered the soggy porch.
I knocked at the door, and a big man in a cut off shirt opened it. He peeked his bald head out into the humid night.
“I need to find my mom,” I said. “I think she’s inside.”
The man shook his head sadly. He looked down at the floor.
“They’ve all been eaten up,” the man said. “They’ve all chosen to be ghosts again.”
He shut the door softly. I waited there, not knowing what to do.
We’re all going to have to get away, one day I thought.
The twins both had their faces pressed against the dark window when I got back to the car.
The night was creeping away slowly as an orange burning finger peeled up the line of clouds on the horizon. Green snot ran down the twins’ darkened faces.
I buckled up both the girls. I got into the driver’s seat and shoved the key into the ignition and twisted it. The van roared to life, and I forced it into the empty street. It creaked and moaned. I’d never driven before, and I got as far as the Strand before parking crooked in a church lot just up the street from our starting point. My hands shook. That was far enough, for now.
We walked to the Strand. In front of a French style café, we found hot coffee and warm sandwiches laid out in open to go boxes. We took the food and walked toward the sea. No one tried to stop us.
The girls tore into the sandwiches like rabid dogs. I’d have to teach them how to eat right. They wouldn’t make it out here like this.
“Where’s Mom?” one of them asked, bacon hanging from her mouth.
Out in the distance a machine emptied a searing pile of red snapper onto a barge. All the fish just lay there. Their faces peered up into the open sky, the patches of blue reflected wildly in their black eyes. They gasped, waiting for water, the seagulls already circling overhead.
Chris George is the author of The Occultation (Surveyor Books). He is a writer, educator, and artist who lives and works in Dallas, TX. You can find him virtually at christopherdgeorge.com.