I Stayed At A Theta Chi Frat House In West Virginia Over The Summer And It Almost Killed Me


It’s the sorority houses that are supposed to be haunted, not the fraternity houses. Regardless of stereotype, the Theta Chi house in Morgantown, West Virginia was haunted as shit. I found this out one when I lived a college boy’s cloudy dream that slipped into sweaty nightmare on the hot nights of my 21st summer.

May 14, 2007

I was the envy of every single one of my friends once they heard about the situation I lucked into heading into my senior year at West Virginia University. My dad’s construction company was going to be remodeling the Theta Chi fraternity house during the summer months when almost all of the school’s students fled back home for the summer and he worked into the deal that I would get to live in the house by myself while the work was being done.

I was not in the fraternity and I could tell it bothered the last of the gang of Thetas as they packed up to head back to their out-of-state suburban parents’ homes and suck at the teat of mom and dad for a few months. The last few departing frat guys would barely even make eye contact with me when I carried my shit into their main lounge and set up my bed in front of a huge window that overlooked the campus.

I could practically still hear the frat boys’ footsteps walking away from the building when I cracked my first beer on my inaugural night in the house. I pounded the first can while I stood in the setting sunlight before the expansive window in front of my bed and thought about everyone I was going to invite over for the opening night.

May 15, 2007

I woke up with a pounding bladder, stomach, and head. I looked up to see the lights of downtown Morgantown twinkling off in the distance from my window. I glanced at my phone to see it was only 4:30 AM.

My middle-of-the-night beer piss wouldn’t be as easy as it used to be. The nearest bathroom in the house was on the second floor, a good walk away from where my bed was, through the cavernous darkness of the old house. The 12 cans of Coors Light pleaded to be let out of the prison of my urethra, leaving me no choice. Naked, I took to the stairs that led up to the bathroom with the camera light on my phone combing through the black of the night.

I had barely explored the house, but the entire thing reminded me of the schools, YMCAs, and churches I spent time in throughout my life. Cold, drafty, and dusty, the entire place was linoleum-floored and perpetually hummed with the rumbling purr of heavy air conditioning.

The stinging smell of chlorine wafted at me from the bathroom. Its soft light called to me like fire to a moth and I looked longingly at the siren that was the relief of my aching bladder. I clicked the flashlight off from my phone and surfed along the slick linoleum in my socks until I reached the glittering haven of the bathroom.

There is a true freedom to standing completely naked amongst a line of eight urinals in an empty bathroom and relieving yourself. I let out an audible, throaty groan as I finished up.

At first I thought what I heard was the sound of my disgusting grunt echoing in the expansive guts of the house, but those assumptions were tossed out the window when I heard the sound relayed a second time from out in the hallway. A swift shiver trickled up my spine and rested at the back of my neck when I heard the sound maintain its volume.

Holding my junk and my phone awkwardly in my hands, I tiptoed out of the light of the bathroom and into the dark hallway. One of the last remaining frat guys had tried to explain to me how to work the lighting situation in the house, but it went over my head and I didn’t want to admit it at the time, so I was living in the dark the entire first day and night there other than for the few rooms which had automatic lighting — like the bathroom, kitchen, and dining hall.

The sound whimpered out again and I could tell it was coming from the opposite end of the hallway from where I had walked up to the floor, near the dead-end wall where a line of small dorm-style rooms flanked the hallway. I couldn’t really make out what the sound exactly was, but from my distant vantage, it sounded like a high-pitched yipping.

“Hello!” I called out, attempting at an intimidating tone.

I flipped my phone out in front of me and hit the flashlight on as I slowly walked towards the sound. It felt like the doors of the dorm rooms started to box me in. I was told all of the dorm rooms had been locked, but I couldn’t help but feel terribly vulnerable when I walked by them, naked no less, waiting for something to burst out and attack me.

But nothing did.

That relief evaporated when I heard the sound kick up, from just across the other side of the wall at the end of the hallway.

It was a cry. The unmistakable whine of a dog. It squealed a few times while I stood with my ear to the wall to confirm what I was hearing.

A tour of the place my dad gave me a week ago let me know that a maintenance area of the building was on the other side of that wall. A dog must have wandered in there and gotten locked in, I thought. I headed back to the soft comfort of my bed and made a mental note to call my dad in a couple of hours to let him know that a dog was stuck in the maintenance room.

May 18, 2007

Watching Gavin roll his Midnight Special tobacco up caused me physical pain.

“You know you can go into any store and they sell things already rolled up for you?” I asked snidely.

Gavin took a second to respond, his mouth occupied with licking the paper shut.

“I’m not putting that mass-produced chemical garbage in my mouth,” Gavin fired back, disgusted.

Gavin was my school-assigned alcohol counselor. A pseudo hippie with a long, graying ponytail at the back of his nearly bald scalp. He was born just a little too late to truly be part of the flower child generation and instead spent his formative years dousing his insides with vodka and working at record stores before they all closed down. In the end, he turned his midlife-formed sobriety into a career as a drug and alcohol counselor.

“Because you want to make sure you are making healthy choices when you are putting cigarette smoke into your body,” I shot back. “You probably used to smoke some American Spirit bullshit before you started rolling like a complete poser.”

Gavin’s lack of a response confirmed my suspicions.

I loved and hated Gavin at the same time. He was such a ridiculous wannabe hippie with good intentions, he was hard to hate…but at the same time, he was an utter blowhard and whiner who loved to drone on about his past. He was one of those Facebook users that frequently shared Upworthy videos and I only saw him because I legally had to. The reason for me being pointed in Gavin’s direction was no biggie — I just got drunk and crashed my truck into the drive-thru window of a McDonalds when I passed out waiting for two cheeseburgers.

Because of this, I had to go to Gavin’s fern-filled office every Thursday afternoon and talk about my addiction while fighting the urge to inform him his sweat smelled like chili cheese Fritos that was so awful it almost burned my fucking eyes.

“But you mentioned something about not sleeping well in the house?” Gavin asked after a long drag of his hand-rolled tobacco.

“Yeah, not really, it’s not a big deal though, I think I’m just not used to sleeping in such a big drafty place,” I said, casually holding back the fact I was getting hammered every night since I moved in (which likely played a role in my sleep difficulties).

“Oh-but-it-is,” Gavin ripped off the words, deathly serious. “Sleep is everything. You said something about a dog barking?”

I regretted mentioning the dog incident to Gavin. I only mentioned it because he was putting the screws into me about looking so tired and disheveled. The truth was, I was out of it because I had hosted booze-fueled parties every night since I moved into the house, but I obviously couldn’t tell him that. So I pinned my tired eyes, yawns, and greasy hair on the dog in the maintenance wing.

“There’s been a dog every night since I moved in getting trapped in a maintenance room in the house,” I said. “It barks and cries, but when my dad and his crew show up in the morning it takes off,” I explained dismissively, leaving out the part where there were no openings in the room for the dog to get in and out of and how that mystery was playing a part in me struggling to sleep every night.

May 19, 2007

The barking woke me up earlier than usual. The mournful yipping and yowling pried my eyes open around 3AM this time. I woke up in a sweat on top of my covers still dressed in the uncomfortable outfit I had worn to try and impress the girls that actually never showed up to the mini-party that wrapped up a couple of hours ago. When I moved into my own personal frat house, I had visions of every night winding down into a Playboy Mansion-style orgy, but every night so far came to a close with a bunch of guys singing “Nothing Else Matters” around the fire pit.

The jangling opening notes of the song were ringing in my head when I got out of bed and trudged up the stairs to the bathroom too drunk and groggy to be unnerved by the mysterious Hound Of Baskerville that was playing its disappearing act in the maintenance room again.

“Shut the fuck up,” I called out through the fog of a nearly-crippling headache before I fully ascended the stairs.

I shoved my next planned words back into my throat when I reached the top of the stairs.

Waiting for me at the palely-lit entrance of the bathroom was a German Shepherd – its bushy coat furrowed and agitated to a raise on its back, its lips curled back grotesquely as if they were being pulled back by a dentist’s speculum, and its yellow eyes shimmering in the darkness of the hallway, dead set on me. The dog’s painful howls were replaced with a low, rolling growl that sounded like the menacing purr of an idling Harley sitting outside of a blue-collar bar.

At first glance, I thought it was just a random dog, but a few frames of vision provided me with an unmistakable identification. Jutting raggedly from tip of the dog’s cold, wet, black nose was thick cake of a trail of scar tissue that meandered up the dog’s face and curved around one of its eyes and spiraled round and round just above its eye like a deflated noise maker you would get from a child’s party.

I was there when the dog got that scar.

August 27, 1991

I wasn’t supposed to play in the cabins at the back of our property, but there was no way any red-blooded boy of my generation was going to be able to resist playing cowboys and Indians in a cluster of cabins connected by a boardwalk of rotted wood that looks like they were stolen from a John Wayne movie set. I spent my first summer break sneaking all around the outside of the cabins crafting childish storylines in my head and playing characters.

My dad had tried to scare me away from the rustic playground with a bit of a rural legend. He told me that the cabins had been part of a mining camp in the 1800s, but were abandoned decades ago after one of the miners, Mountaineer Jim, had gone crazy and murdered everyone there with a pickaxe. He claimed the ghost of Jim still haunted those cabins and that if you listened closely at night, you could hear his pickaxe beating against the rocks in the wood behind the cabins.

Even at the tender age of six, I was skeptical of my dad’s story and figured as long as I only played there during the day, I should be fine. Ghosts were allergic to the light of the sun, I was sure of it.
My belief in that theory would vanish on this sunny August day as I tried to wrap up my imaginary heroic storyline in one of my last days of freedom before I had to head back to school.

I was in the middle of a gunfight in my head between two steely desperados on the porch of the biggest cabin when I noticed the rickety wooden door slightly ajar. I had never seen that door open before. After all, it was supposed to have been locked. My little heart stuttered when I saw the door drifting just a little bit in the wind and I froze up when I felt hands descend on my back.

I escaped my assailant’s loose grip with a whirl, turned around with a scream and locked eyes with a scowling, decrepit man covered in gray hair.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” the old man hollered.

I was so shocked and disgusted by the old man’s face that I didn’t notice his thick hunting knife clasped at his waist until it was too late. I fell over backwards in shock and felt my body drain itself of all of its energy and I went limp.

I closed my eyes and waited for the worst. I felt a heavy tumble on the boardwalk next to me and heard old man cry out in pain. What I saw was my German Shepherd, Shotzee, ravaging the old man with a furious combination of bites, growls and scratches.

I cheered Shotzee in my head and scrambled to my feet, eternally grateful for her defense, especially when I saw the old man’s hunting knife slash the brave dog across her face just before I ran away back to my house.

August 28, 1991

I was horrified when my dad pulled me out of bed a little bit after midnight before the first day of school. My mom had scolded me just a few hours before for drinking a Pepsi, as the caffeine would keep me up past my bedtime and make me tired for school.
My dad put a finger to his lips before he pulled me out of bed. We tiptoed out the backdoor of our house and into the dark of the night. Even at that young of an age, I knew not to even question my dad, especially when I saw the presence of a red can of Schmidt wrapped up in his palm as we crossed the backyard and headed towards the stale blackness of the woods behind our house.

An unmistakable cry cracked through the still of the chilly late-summer night out in the woods. We followed the sound as it whirred like a police siren until we were surrounded by the swaying trees of the forest and stood in front of Shotzee who was tied to tree, head bowed, snout still bleeding.

“No,” I shouted at my dad for the first time in my life when I saw his hand drift over to a shotgun that had been propped up against the base of a tree.

I tried to stop him with my body, but there was zero chance. I ended up harmlessly clinging to his legs as he went on.

“There is an order in the world that needs to be upheld. A dog cannot bite a man without consequence,” he said, his voice booming.

The last thing I heard before my dad did something that permanently cemented him as a dark figure in my brain and heart was a cry that I wouldn’t hear again for nearly 16 years.

May 20, 2007

“It’s funny how the brain works. That story took 20 minutes for me to tell you through my mouth, but it flashed through my head in less than a second last night when I saw Shotzee. As soon as I called out her name, she vanished before my eyes and I was back in the house by myself,” I said.

Gavin looked down his nose at me through his glasses. He sat forward in his squeaky chair and then let out a deep exhale. I swear, Gavin probably saw a few movies and TV shows featuring psychiatrists and crafted his own persona around it.

His eyes swept whimsically around the room before he slapped his hands together.

“Totems,” he said.

I let it absorb for a moment before getting up out of my chair.
“Seriously Gavin, I stayed here longer than I had to because I like that you were going to give me some real counseling on this shit, not that heavy bullshit that you usually scoop onto the alcohol counseling.”

Gavin shot up from his chair.

“Oh, but I couldn’t be more heartfelt about this. I know the word totem is something that you associate with Native Americans which is something you probably have your long list of ‘Shit Gavin talks about that you tune out,’ but I could not be more serious.”

The honesty dripping in Gavin’s voice held me back. I would hear him out.

“I truly believe that you encountered a totem for something that triggered this vision. Something that you saw, you may not even realize it and it fired up the section of your brain where these memories are stored. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in the power of the mind.”

May 21, 2007

Another night of beers, guys, and unfulfilled desires where I ended up standing in the front doorway of the house somberly saying goodbye to my friends, secretly wishing they had crashed at my place so I wouldn’t be left alone with the ghastly feeling that weaved me in. I felt a heavy presence wash over me once I closed the heavy double door behind my friends and returned to the drafty near silence of the frat house.

At least the Wild Turkey I had coursing through my veins was doing its work, coaxing me into a boozy sleep.

It seemed once I placed my head down upon my pillow, I was asleep.

I awoke to the vibration of my phone tickling my thigh in my pocket. My college-aged male senses twitched just like the phone knowing all too well what a text in the middle of the night meant.

I didn’t have the number saved in my phone, but the text couldn’t have been more ideal.

U up?

I could not have replied any faster.

Yeah. You know where I am staying?

This was a delicate game. I had no idea who this was, but I didn’t want to ask or tip that off in any way, knowing that even the slightest misstep could put me back where I started — sleeping alone.

Theta Chi?

My heart started picking up in pace like the score to a thrilling movie. My fingers flew across the screen of my phone.

Come over.

I couldn’t believe that I had blown it. I laid down for just a second while I waited for my mystery partner to arrive and fell asleep.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck,” I cried out and scrambled for my phone that was resting on the bed next to me.

I was a little bit surprised to see I had not received any more texts during my snooze and it looked like I had only been out for about 20 minutes.

Maybe all was not lost.

I fired off a text to the mystery number as fast as I could.

You still coming over?

The number replied almost immediately.

I’m here. You weren’t up. I crashed in the lobby.

Without hesitation, I took off out of the room towards the lobby, which was a small hallway away from the lounge that served as my bedroom.

I stormed into the hallway, but lightened my pace once I was greeted by the sounds of muffled sobs. I stopped myself just before the edge of where the lobby bled into the hallway and peeked around the corner.

I could see who was crying from my vantage point. She was young, probably not yet in college and I didn’t recognize her. I was unnerved by her presence. She was far too young to be the girl I had been talking to and she was far too distraught to be anything but bad news. Fuck, I could have sworn I locked the front door when I said goodbye to my friends and headed to bed. How the hell did she get in?

The cries pitched up an octave and I threw my body back into the hallway when I saw the girl’s head of brown hair turn in my direction. I felt her eyes on me for a fraction of a second before I slipped into the safety of the dark hallway.

My heart raced when I heard soft footsteps flutter in my direction. I fought my fears though and held my position just inside the doorway, until I saw drops of blood start to drip upon the marble floor just outside the doorway. A bloody, pale arm wrapped itself around the side of the door, reaching for me.

I screamed with the highest pitch I had ever produced and sprinted naked out of the hallway to run up the stairs that led to the floor with the bathroom. Running to the only light on the floor, I slipped into the room that was covered from top to bottom in moist tile and threw myself into a stall so I could catch my breath.

What the fuck was that? my brain asked itself before being interrupted the slap of a bare feet entering the bathroom halted my train of thought.
I slipped my feet up onto the toilet seat and squatted while cursing myself for my moronic decision to run into the bathroom and lock myself in. The footsteps aimlessly staggered around the bathroom. I couldn’t see anything on the floor from my vantage point, but I focused my gaze out of the crack of the door to peer out into the hollow yellow light of the sink area.

I watched a figure step into my field of vision and stop just in front of the stall. My vision was distracted by the sound of tiny drips on the floor and I looked down to see deep red drops of blood collecting like flakes of snow on the floor just in front of the pale green door.

My eyes raced back to the crack of the door and I saw a clear reflection in the bathroom mirror of who was outside. It was no longer a girl in her mid-teens, it was a girl who couldn’t have been much older than five, her hair frizzy and unkempt, her piercing green eyes…I recognized her even before we locked eyes. It had been nearly 15 years since I had seen those eyes, that scared face, that frizzy mess of hair.

All these characteristics were already imprinted on me because they belonged to my sister Sara.

July 12, 1995

The first 42 days of summer vacation had been nothing but telling my sister there was no way we would ever go out to the cabins at the edge of our property. I deeply regretted telling her about my attack at the cabins on the bus ride home on the last day of school after she asked for about the 100th time about why we weren’t allowed to play any further away from the house than the immediate back yard. I thought telling her the story would chill her to the bone enough to where she would never even consider asking again or going out there.

I was wrong.

A plucky five-year-old fresh off a year of kindergarten, my sister Sara was one of those little kids that seemed to be wise and curious beyond their years. She already had an incredible knack for sniffing out the perpetual bullshit adults and older kids feed little kids to get them to quit talking, but it would fail her in the summer of 1995.

I still remember the unseasonably cold darkness of that summer night as if it were yesterday. I sat in the living room pretending to watch cartoons, but I was really paying attention to the perpetual flood of adults came in and out of the house, holding flashlights, lightly flecked with summer rain and carrying heavy looks of concern on their faces.
Judging by the number of hugs the other adults where laying upon my dad and the length of time it had been since I had last seen Sara, even my nine-year-old brain could do the math about what was going on. My brain created the image of Sara’s little footprints crunched into the tall grass that led to the rickety cabins that were tucked up against the edge of the dark forest.

I pictured her innocently walking up onto the boardwalk of the cabins, playing Wild West the way that I would, lost in the euphoric imagination of a whimsical setting. I pictured one of those cabin doors opening. I pictured the old man tearing out. I pictured the knife. I pictured things that I saw on the video tapes of R-rated movies I watched at friends’ house while their parents weren’t home.

I pissed myself watching Nickelodeon.

I was cleaning up in the bathroom when I heard the screams through the open window that looked to the backyard that would haunt me for years. Looking like the horde that chased down Frankenstein, I saw the adult group maraud through the backyard and toward my house with lanterns and flashlights cutting into the night.

Sprawled out and motionless in the sinewy arms of my dad, I saw the source of the group’s hysteria. My sister’s body, splashed with blood, head rolled back in slack, her face pointed towards the cold glow of the full moon that tanned the grass of the backyard with yellow gold. The next time I would see her body would be in the numbing fluorescent light of the Theta Chi bathroom.

May 21, 2007

I jumped up from my seat on the toilet with a jolt when the stall door started to rattle. A force on the other side fought against the little metal swivel of the lock, shaking the entire row of stalls. My jaw quivered, tears started to well in the corners of my eyes. I felt a cold urge to vomit.

“S-a-r-a,” the one syllable word dribbled out of my mouth as if it was an entire sentence.

I was answered by a slight breeze that swooshed down into the stall and forced me into a spastic shiver.

“Sara,” I called out again sheepishly.

No answer.

I stuck my head out to get a better look through the crack, but stopped when I felt something itch my shoulder. I felt the itch move over to the back of my neck and I jumped up, screaming.

A giant spider scurried across the toilet and tucked itself underneath the toilet seat. The sight of this terror shocked me back into the real world. Using a wad of toilet paper, I smashed the spider into a mess of loose legs and guts in one swift motion and flushed the toilet.

I watched the remains spin helplessly into the dark hole at the bottom of the toilet.

May 22, 2007

“It’s funny for so many men, the fear of admitting that you are afraid is actually worse than the fear of the real terror of the world,” Gavin said as he rolled an earthy booger between his fingers.

“Seeing my bleeding, dead little sister isn’t funny to me though,” I spat.

“The waltz of the masculine male is such a difficult dance. Why do we even still try?” Gavin asked stoically.

I questioned the absurdity of a guy using the word “we” in a sentence when he had a ponytail so long that it flirted with his ass and was so juvenile, he had spent the past 10 minutes pretending to itch his nose when he was really just picking it.

“Have you given any thought to what I told you last time?” Gavin asked.

“That Indian shit?” I replied snidely before I reminded myself he was seeing me unscheduled and without payment. “Totem poles, or something?” I polished the cynicism off of my second sentence and let my eyes linger on the baby blue dream catcher that hung in his office window.

“Totems,” Gavin said a little less grandiose than usual, trying to get me to take him a little more seriously despite the lingering odor of Nag Champa seeping out of his desk.

“I remember.”

“I definitely think there is a totem at play here,” Gavin said with widened eyes that revealed the spider webs of bloodshot that dominated his eyes.

I wasn’t 100 percent on board yet, but I didn’t say anything to let Gavin know it was okay to go on with whatever theory he was prepared to present.

“There is something in that house that triggered these memories and images. You don’t even know you have seen it, but you have and it has latched onto your brain like a lamprey. It’s like that old horror movie adage, ‘Houses aren’t haunted, people are,’ but it’s true. Your brain is haunted, not the Tappa Tappa Kegga house. Your brain creates these ghosts, but it doesn’t make them any less scary, or important, and only you can wash them out of your brain. The only way you can do that is be first identifying what planted them in your brain in the first place.”

Gavin interrupted himself by opening a drawer in his desk. He took a half-eaten wrapped up chocolate bar of a mysterious brand and slid it across the table with a wink as if he was a mob boss offering me a bribe.

“Eat this, it will ease the nerves, then go back there and do a thorough search of that house to try and figure out what the hell in that place might have set this off. It’s the only thing you can really do.”

Gavin’s chocolate bar tasted like bitter shit. I have eaten my fair share of edibles and the taste was usually awful, but Gavin’s magic chocolate took it to a new level. It was probably some kind of fair-trade weed chocolate or some bullshit he picked up at the Whole Foods version of a drug dealer.

It did, however, do its job when I started tearing through the Theta Chi house, inspecting just about every inch of the place for something that could have infected my brain with a ghoulish parasite. Adrenaline rushed through my body as I was ripped through a dusty trophy case filled with plastic awards handed out for various drinking accomplishments.

That tingly high would linger for a couple of hours due to the generous amount Gavin had slid over to me. I about made my way around the entire house, which was when I began to feel the cold dead hands of sobriety wrap around my neck. The melting of my high made me tired as I combed through a collection of old porn magazines stacked neatly in the corner of the top-story lounge, which housed an old piano littered with dead keys and a filthy pool table.

The slow malaise of the weed mixed with nausea brought on by the alcohol I had foolishly swigged while doing my search began to take their toll. The room started to tilt in my field of vision, making me feel like a kid who had run in circles to give themselves the spins for fun.

I had to lie down. I staggered over to a filthy couch that was probably well marinated with rotten beer and semen, but I didn’t care. I collapsed onto the haggard thing and closed my eyes to stop the world from spinning.

Fucking Gavin.

May 23, 2007

I woke up to the sound of muted piano keys sending waves of hollow melodic vibrations through the room. I sat up in a sobering fog and was greeted by a cold darkness settling all around me.

I felt a presence in the room. I heard a shuffling over by the door and a low human groan cut through the darkness. The numb melody of the piano leaked into the air again and I quickly stumbled to my feet. I pried my phone out of my pocket and turned the flashlight on, casting a bright beacon out in front of me. I pointed the phone at the piano.

Nothing there. Just a hanging mist of dust that swirled in the powerful light of the phone.

I inched away from the couch and headed towards the door. I eventually made it to the door unscathed, but the groan returned once the palm of my hand met the cold hard metal of the door handle.

I turned around and the light of my phone beamed upon a gaunt grey figure. Grotesquely pale, the figure’s complexion was that of old uncooked chicken, bathed in a litter of billowy silver body hair that washed his chest in a shimmering coat of follicles. It all led up to a scraggly beard, which hung from a sunken face of mean green eyes and a bald scalp littered with liver spots. I knew this person. He was the old man who had attacked me all those years ago at the cabins on my dad’s property.

I didn’t notice the sharp knife clutched in the old man’s hand until it slashed through the air, narrowly missing my nose. Just like I had all those years before out by the cabins, I sprinted away from the old man, racing down the slick linoleum of the hallway until I came to a horrible realization.

Falling asleep in the top story lounge was a horrible idea. The room was essentially a hidden secret in the house, accessible only by an unmarked closet in the back of one of the dorm rooms on the third floor. I always heard guys in the frat talking about it on campus, about how they would leave girls up there and it would take them hours to find their ways back because the only way back down was to remember which of the rooms contained the staircase.
The hallway stretched out in front of me felt like something out of an Escher painting. The rows of six unmarked wooden doors taunted high the weed had wiped clean. I was going to have to open those doors with the staircase that would lead to my freedom, and I was going to have to do it with the darkest figure of my past slashing behind me.

With little space between me and the old man, I attacked the first door to my right.

A cool, blue light washed over me once I opened door. It felt as if I was sucked into another existence. I was no longer standing in the dusty hallway in the Theta Chi house with the knife-wielding old man behind me. I was in the door of a hospital room with a steady beep of a heart rate machine serving as a discomforting metronome.

I had been here before. I recognized the chlorine smell of the room, the feeling of the moisture upon my skin that seeped in through the windows on the rainy day, the sound of the heart rate monitor, and most of all, I felt a painful ache of childish confusion in my stomach that instantly turned to crippling sorrow when I saw my mother’s tired face turn to me from the hospital bed.

“Zach…” she whispered from the bed, repeating the script of her last words to me when I last saw her in her hospital bed when I was four years old.

I crashed my way out of the room.

I was back in the hallway, the old man growling just to my left. I dodged the old man’s weak slash and plunged into the door that was across the hallway from the first.

I was greeted by a chorus of crickets once inside the room. The frat house ceiling had turned into a canvas of twinkling stars and walls were now a dark thicket of trees splashed with moonlight.

A new fear had been planted in my heart.

In a flash, the source of my newfound fear was right in front of me, stalking towards me up a muddy path that cut through the knee-high foliage of the woods was Sidney Grass. The older brother of my friend, Howard. Sidney was a developing sociopath who would terrorize us whenever he had the chance. He loved nothing more than to cut off the heads of cottonmouths and chase us around with them.

Sidney somehow stepped up his game from poisonous snakes this particular summer night. He woke up Howard and I in the middle of the night with his dad’s shotgun jammed in our groggy faces. He chased us out into the backyard in our pajamas and then further out into the woods where Howard and I tried to hide while we heard Sidney comb through the woods, hooting and hollering.

I knew exactly what was going to happen next when Sidney flashed his pearly whites at me in the night and raised the shotgun up to my eyes. I was not going to wait for him to pull the trigger and have it click empty this time and then watch him laugh and punch me in the chin.

I rushed back out the door and returned to the stale hallway.

The old man was there waiting for me. I felt the hot piercing of his wielded knife strike across the hard bone of my kneecap and I erupted with a scream. Like a running back escaping an undisciplined attacked, I spun out of the old man’s ambush and rushed into the first door I could get to with my knee weeping hot blood.

A chucked bottle of Old Crow whizzed by my head and smashed into a hundred little pieces of glasses when it hit the wall behind me. I stood with wobbly legs staring at my beaten and bloody dad who stood in his white briefs that were stained red. Based on the fact that he looked like he had been run through a meat tenderizer, I knew he had gotten his ass kicked again down at Gil’s Tavern. I was probably 11-years-old when this happened.

Once the setting started to sink in, I found my footing and realized I needed to get moving or I was going to get belted across the face with a copy of Easyriders magazine. I inhaled the smell of alcohol soaked mildew and turned around to escape my dad.

“You run away like a coward. Like you ran away from your sister,” my dad yelled with a swollen mouth that made it sound like he had a southern drawl.
I didn’t try to decode his comment. I took off for the hallway where I knew the safe haven of my sister’s room still remained, almost untouched since the day she passed. I ran down the hallway lined with a coat of flimsy fake mahogany, leading to the bedrooms of the trailer. The hallway shook as I sprinted down its dirty carpet. The shadow of my dad started stalking me from behind. The smoked and faded portraits of our family cracked and fell from their perilous perch on the walls and started dropping at my feet, sending shards of glass everywhere.

My dad’s Romeo-booted feet were gaining on me, but the stray ink marks of colorful markers and half-peeled away Care Bear stickers that marked the door to my sister’s old room were within arm’s reach and I burst through before my dad could get a finger on me.

I was back in the frat house hallway with the old man who at least was a few yards away from me. I was far enough away to avoid the slashing of his knife, but I could now hear him speak. His voice was familiar for a reason I could not put my finger on.

“Zach,” the old man gasped.

I locked eyes with the fossilized man for a brief of moment before he charged and I took shelter in the next closest, unopened door.

The setting the door tossed me into was not nearly as upsetting as the other ones. I was in Gavin’s office with my nose tickling with the scent of incense. The only thing that was actually upsetting was the smug look plastered upon Gavin’s wrinkled face as he leaned back in his chair with his hands clasped and index fingers pushed into a point.

“You might think your fears are unique, but they are just like everyone else’s,” Gavin philosophized. “What if you are all wrong and they are all right? What if you are a bad person? You can’t escape the prison that is your own mind no matter how hard you try. There is no way out. You are trapped and if something goes wrong in there, there is nowhere else to go.”

This was the first scene I was thrown into that I didn’t remember already happening. Maybe it was because I tuned out Gavin’s bullshit at the time or maybe we smoked out before the session, but I didn’t remember this conversation at all.

“I get a sense that a lot has gone wrong in that head of yours, Zach. And I get a sense that you’ve run from all of it. You don’t confront your demons. You look the other way when they pass you by, like an awkward old friend that you bump into at the mall. You act like you don’t see them, hoping that they will act like they won’t see you. You drown them with alcohol in hopes that when you do encounter them you will be numbed enough to take the edge off, or to soften their horns, but when you and them sober up the same problems are still there and your head aches. But, what are you going to do when you have so many dark spots crawling around your head that you have nowhere to look but the black? You run from one demon only to always find yourself dashing into the cold embrace of another.”

I didn’t have an answer for Gavin. I let him go on. He leaned across his desk with his grimy teeth giving off a rotten smell that made me stop breathing.

“That’s when you have no choice but to face the demon.”

Without a word, I got up and walked out of Gavin’s office.

The Theta Chi hallways seemed a little bit lighter when I returned.

I thought about trying one of the few remaining unexplored doors for a moment, but was lured back towards the doorway that led to the fourth floor lounge.

I followed the little cries back to the room I first woke up in.

The sun was starting to rise. Out the windows that glimpsed out to the eastern horizon, the slightest tease of a yolky yellow sun was creeping up into view.

As I expected, the old man was waiting for me in there, looking a tiny bit pinker in the hints of the sunlight. I stood still for a few moments until he noticed me and his wails picked up into shrieks.

The old man lowered his bald head and charged me yet again, but I waited this time, my fingers wiggling in anticipation of having to slap the knife away.

We collided with a force heavier than I anticipated and we both tumbled to the floor. I was able to get a firm grasp on his wrists, but it was far from steady as we slipped around upon the hard floor and crashed into the wall.

The force sent numerous framed photos that hung from the wall above our heads crashing down on us.

Suddenly the fight was over. The man was lying motionless with all his cold weight upon me. The knife fell out of his grasp and skittered harmlessly onto the floor. One of the framed photos had hit him on the back of his head.

I looked down upon the heavy framed photo that had knocked him out, feeling like I wanted to hug it. I stared at it for a few moments – it was the pledge class of 1940. I studied the faces of the 10 or so young men frozen in black and white time, looking like a classic photo of some Al Capone-era gangsters as they stood around an unlit fireplace.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of the picture of the young man in the top left – mustached, wild eyed and capped with a plume of slicked-back hair, his face was far, far younger than how I recognized it know, but it was unmistakable – it belonged to the deflated mass of grey human that was lying upon me. My eyes raced to the name index of the picture and laying my eyes upon the name of the slick-haired young man made so many things make so much sense – George Holverson, a name I had heard before, a name that belonged to my grandpa.

May 29, 2007

“People didn’t really have an understanding for mental health back then, especially men. Mental illness was treated either like leprosy or just a common cold – it either got you an ice cream scoop out of your brain or people just acted like you were a little bit crazy and looked the other way like it would just go away on its own. It sounds like your grandpa got schizophrenia or really bad PTSD and your parents thought they could just hide him out in the cabins, take care of him and hope nothing would happen.”

I picked at my teeth with the cap of a pen and nodded along with Gavin.

“I’m not gonna argue with you on that one.”

Gavin gave a smile and adjusted his glasses.

“But you’ve been staying at the frat house still?”

“Sleeping like a baby ever since and I haven’t even been drinking.”

“And you said his name that morning when he was on top of you and he was gone?”

“It’s hazy, but I felt him start to wake up and I greeted him as ‘grandpa’ and like Shotze and Sarah, he disappeared once I said his name and I was alone in the house again.”

Gavin shook his head in disbelief.

“But I found something up there in the lounge when I went back up there this morning to clean up the glass and grab the pledge picture with him in it,” I went on. “And I want to give it to you.”

I was already clutching the item I wanted to give Gavin as it rested in my pocket. I gave it one last squeeze before I took it out of the darkness of my pocket and placed it on the edge of Gavin’s desk.

A slow smile eased its way onto Gavin’s face when he saw what I had brought him.

It was a small totem pole.