From the Mouths of Babes

When she was just a young girl of five or six, my sister began to have panic attacks. I don't remember exactly when it started. I was just a child too, 15 months younger than Linda. I can't really say I recall any time in our lives that my sister's behavior wasn't odd. But the attacks took us all by surprise; the attacks we kept hidden. To this day my mother remains aloof to the severity of Linda's childhood problems preferring to soak in the bliss of forced denial common to those suffering boundless guilt. It keeps her from confronting the fact that she never did anything about it. But that's a story in itself.

About the attacks. They came on so quick sometimes. First the room would start to throb and the faintest and slightest of sounds would pound in Linda's eardrums as if a train were crashing through the walls; she'd scream uncontrollably as she rocked on the floor, or pace anxiously from room to room waiting for the nightmare to end. She would shake her hands desperately, flapping them like little wings, trying to rid her body of some filth, like there was a toxic slime burning her hands that she wished to fling off finally.

Her angst was palpable and was usually focused on some innocuous and completely random sensation. It could be an object, a smell, a light turned on in the wrong room at the wrong time. But most often it was sounds. Anything could be the catalyst. Music, laughter, the rumbling of the train behind our house. The attacks erupted independent of the volume or duration of the noise. Sometimes we could listen to loud rock music for hours, other times the phone would ring and all hell would break loose.

As children, we feared the episodes and used every trick we could to conjure a picture for Linda of a perfect little happy world with no hidden surprises. It was a lack of control, no matter how small, that woke her demons.

Linda's fears extended to the most mundane objects and circumstances. Once, in early fall when the leaves were browning and just beginning to lay like carpet on the sidewalk, my mother prepared to take Linda and me for a ride to a farm in the country to gather pumpkins for making pies. But halfway to the car, Linda froze unexpectedly and refused to move. A small hum began in her throat and slowly built into a howl. We rushed toward her but she screamed for us to get away. For 45 minutes she sat motionless and mute in her torment while we watched from a distance.

It was the leaves she explained later on, after we had managed to coax her back into our home putting the journey we were about to make on hold. What about the leaves? I don't like them. It was useless to press her. Repeated questioning only served to agitate Linda, and anyway, we knew she couldn't explain it any better than that.

It was difficult to predict what might set her off, and everywhere we went, with us followed the prospect of a complete meltdown. The fear pursued Linda incessantly, hovering at times like a shadow, while other times it might go weeks without revealing itself.

As I got older, I began to suspect that Linda's demons were punishing her for some ancient indiscretion that must be following her soul through its eternal travels. My mind was broad for a child and I often conjured up vivid scenarios of the tribes of ghouls and hellions that were tormenting my sister, dancing around her in a mad orgy, satisfying their beastly urges toying with this young girl's soul. I began to fear her, not in the sense that she might do something to hurt me, which in the course of one of her blackouts was certainly a possibility, but rather I was afraid that something of her curse might rub off on me.

After seeing the Excorcist with my father when I was seven, I became convinced that my sister was possessed and began to put as much space between us as was possible for a brother and sister.

As winter gave way to spring each year we started going out more as a family. My father was a painter and valued isolation. He spent much of the winter in his studio working, going out only to attend functions that absolutely required his presence. Since he was a successful artist, these events were few and far between, and he was usually able to conduct his business through an agent. He was detached and awkward in our presence. We were Mother's problem.

But as the gloom of winter parted and offered us the bloom of spring, my father emerged from his workshop more often, and at least until the summer heat drove him underground again, we were able to enjoy frequent outings.

On Linda's last day with us, we were preparing for such a trip. We piled into the car; Linda and I sat in the back, my father drove and my mother sat next to him, shifting nervously in her seat. We were driving out to a small park near the lake where my father wanted to take some photographs for a series of watercolors he was working on. A large duffel full of his equipment - cameras, tripods, batteries, and film - sat between my sister and I. We had driven for less than 15 minutes when the sky began to darken. I saw my parents exchange a quick worried glance before the sky broke and we were in the midst of a Spring storm. Lightening flashed and the car shook with a crash of thunder.

Next to me, Linda was becoming visibly agitated, and before I knew what was happening she was on me. She gripped my forearms and burrowed into me. They're coming. With every crash of thunder she dug her head deeper into my body until it was like we'd become a single child. Her nails stung my arm and my skin was stained with tiny streams of crimson. Suddenly and without warning, she sat rigid, wide-eyed, and let out a short yelp. The next flash of lightening illuminated the car in electric blue just as a stream of bile shot violently from Linda's mouth and all over the vehicle's interior, covering the equipment bag and the back of my father's head. Startled, he veered the car left and right before gaining control, nearly scraping the highway guardrail.

The rain sheathed the car in its gel-like envelope, the wipers dancing quickly back and forth. I pushed myself away, as far away from Linda as I could. My arm was pressing so tightly against the car door that I was beginning to lose circulation. I stared at Linda who was slumped over, a string of mucus swaying from her bottom lip; her eyes were dead. The rain subsided. We pulled over and cleaned out the car, as Linda sat mute on the guard rail, the rain dripping down her legs.


- Christopher Moraff