Every summer, when my sister and I were small, our family spent two weeks in Lavalette, NJ - on the Jersey shore. We’d spend the days on the beach, and at night, after dinner, we’d walk the boardwalk in Seaside Heights.
There was a haunted house on the boardwalk that terrified me. I can still remember seeing it for the first time. It was called “Doorway to Hell” and the entrance was a giant skull. You entered, of course, through the skull’s open mouth.
As a child, there was a time when I was quite preoccupied with demonic possession and with the occult. Blame it on my mother’s fascination with the Ouija board. She’d take it down from its shelf in the coat closet after dinner many weekend nights, and the adults would huddle around it, hushed and solemn.
There is a story my mother used to tell about one such night. It was soon after my adoption, and while the adults - my mother, aunt and grandfather - were communing with the Oujia board, they were visited, the story goes, by an apparition who they believed to be a relative of my grandfather’s. An uncle or cousin - thought to be a very bad man with ill intent. They recognized him because he was wearing a top hat.
“You saw him too,” my mother would say to me. “Because you looked over to where he was standing and said, ‘Daddy?’”
They asked the board why they should receive this visitation. “I asked it: 'Why did you come?’” my mother would say. “Your aunt and I - we had our hands on the pointer like this,” she’d say, and show me how you are supposed to hold your fingers lightly over the pointer.
“And immediately, the pointer started moving. And it spelled out: N - E - W - L - I…”
At this point, my mother would pause, looking meaningfully at me. “Well, we just both just threw up our hands and pushed that board away. We didn’t want to see how that was going to end.”
The first time she told me this, though, I didn’t get it. “How was it going to end?” I asked.
“New life,” she said, slowly. “He was coming for you.”
The Doorway to Hell was a two-story attraction, and on the second floor, there were these windows that had orange gels - like the kind in stage lights - which made them glow. That orange glow like fire coming from those windows made my 7-year-old stomach drop. If my grandfather’s evil cousin was coming to take me away, surely, his intent was to take me there, to his laboratory of horrors.
I imagined him carrying me, still in my nightgown, through the skull’s mouth and upstairs, chanting “new life, new life,” as if those were the only words he knew.
That summer, parts of Lavallette flooded after heavy rains. Power lines were downed and we played cards by candlelight. When the rain finally stopped, our street was underwater.
But then the sun came out, and my mother asked us if we wanted to go outside. She was wearing a long gauzy yellow tunic that I loved. The feel of that fabric on my cheek when I hugged her was delicious. I remember that my sister and I had matching red sundresses. We lifted them up above our knees as we followed her cautiously. There seemed something reckless about walking in the floodwater.
On the sidewalk, the cool water came up to our knees. The strange sensation of seeing water where there should be ground. We splashed around while my mother narrated her assessment of the damage. “Oh,” she’d say, “looks like they got quite a bit of water in their living room.” Or, “They really should have brought those lawn chairs in before.”
The air was cool and still after the rain. The sky bright. And I remember an uncommon quiet. Few people, it seemed, were drawn out to the scene as we were.
I don’t remember how long we were out there, if it was really that long at all, but I want to say that we spent the whole afternoon - for as long as there was light - slowly making our way up and down the flooded street, behind my mother, beautiful in her yellow dress, a beacon in the distance, shining.