Don’t Worry, Little Sis
by Ellen Tremiti
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
New Jersey has monsters.
This may surprise some who are unfamiliar with the Garden State, but it’s true. The Matawan Man-Eater, a real-life Jaws, attacked eleven people between July 1st and July 12th 1916, killing four and injuring seven. New Jersey also has a Bigfoot, who locals call Big Red Eye, our very own Sasquatch. But perhaps most notably, New Jersey has a devil.
Tales of the Jersey Devil began about three hundred years ago. The beast lurks in vast forests, stealing residents from their beds or campground sleeping bags. At least that’s according to my brother. He’s told me everything about the Jersey Devil.
In the early 1700s, a New Jerseyite named Mother Leeds was pregnant with her thirteenth child. She was poverty-stricken, as was her family, and she took the news of her pregnancy rather negatively. According to legend, she looked up to the sky, probably in the pouring rain amidst thunder and lightning, raised her fists into the air, and yelled, “Let this one be the devil!”
When she gave birth the baby seemed normal, at first, but soon dark forces took hold and it changed from a beautiful baby boy into a monstrous beast at an alarming rate. The baby grew to ten feet in length, its body twisting into the shape of a winged dragon with the face of a deranged horse, complete with long spindly horns and skinny legs-like blackened flamingoes’ legs, if flamingoes had hooves. Its eyes glowed bright red, and its thin tail lashed out like a whip. The creature was off-balance. Its physicality went against all logic and spit in the eye of Mother Nature. With its dark transformation complete, the devil attacked and ate its family before flying away to live in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.
Most of the modern sightings I read about usually played out the same way: the Devil steps out of the woods late at night and stands in the middle of the road, just long enough for the driver to catch a glimpse of it in their rearview mirror. Oddly skinny legs, they’d say, its face like a horse, with an oversized body, sinewy black wingspan, and clawed hands: the whole deal.
My brother told me only idiots believe the Jersey Devil wastes its time waving to our neighbors on their drive home from the supermarket. The Devil has plans.
In 2003, I lived in a small, boring suburb on the outskirts of Stillwater in northern New Jersey. It was the kind of town where nothing ever happens; yet the police blotter was the most important section of the weekly newspaper. One time, my neighbor Mr. Donovan was the subject of hot gossip after an arrest for a DUI.
The week after the article ran, he stopped by my house and personally apologized for driving his Ford truck home from Crows, the local pub, after having six beers, and side-swiping our mutual neighbor’s bird-themed mailbox. I heard from my mom that he stopped by every house on our block and did the same thing. The point is, nothing ever happened here, but when it did, it was always a big deal.
* * *
I lived in an average, plain two-story house with a two-car garage. The yard was small and the garden grew wild and untended, growing over a broken cobblestone wall constructed centuries earlier. My mom and dad worked full time, which left my brother and me alone at home, the neighborhood latchkey kids.
My brother, Michael, was my idol. I’d looked up to him as far back as I could remember, back when he was a perfectionist and a straight-A student. Now, I wore his black, baggy clothes to school, as well as his bicycle chain necklace. I guess that made me a goth tomboy, and I was teased for it. But I didn’t care about anyone’s opinion but his.
Michael wasn’t perfect. A summer earlier, he had thrown three separate cordless phones into our front door during arguments with my parents. He left dents in his own bedroom door and ceiling, and I found him once with self-inflicted cuts on his chest and arms. He said the sliced parallel lines on his upper arm “didn’t really hurt,” but he’d show me the one that did. He pulled his shirt up and ran a thumb over a thin, white line down his chest, a healed scar. He told me he was “trying to make a cross but it hurt too much to finish.”
I didn’t understand why someone who wasn’t religious would want a symbol like that on their body, but there were many things I didn’t get at that age. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I didn’t know what this meant, or what it was supposed to mean, and my brother didn’t elaborate.
“You OK?” I said, finally.
Michael shrugged and pulled his shirt back down. “Yeah,” he said.
I nodded, accepting this answer, and left the room.
Not long after that, Michael attended a center for depressed youth called Sunrise House; it’s the kind of place where they take your shoelaces and belt and, when families come to visit, they stick you in a small office with no windows, to have bonding time.
There, a doctor, in a white lab coat with different colored pens sticking out of his coat pocket, told me who my brother was. He knelt down so he was eye level with me, a gesture that was anything but reassuring. He held his hand up in a flat plane and he said, “Most people are like this.”
He moved his hand in front of me, like a smooth gliding paper plane. He made little blips with his hand, small hills and valleys; then his hand evened out again.
“Your brother,” he said, “is like this.”
Once again, his hand moved forward but this time, it plummeted downward, then rose, then plummeted, rose, plummet, tiny hill, plummet.
I learned Michael was bipolar and that it was a condition like manic depression. For a long time I tried to decide which one sounded worse until my mom pointed out that they were actually the same thing.
My parents seemed to have two settings to deal with the news: hot and cold. At times, they treated my brother’s appointments like grocery lists: cold, simple tasks that just needed to be checked off day-to-day. But if my brother rebelled, they would explode instantly. “He’s a troubled kid, but we’ll straighten him out,” my dad said once, stone-faced over breakfast as my brother overslept upstairs. My parents didn’t understand him the way I did.
Michael’s hair was a string of different colors: brown to bleach blonde, to hot pink to green to blue-green. One time, I braided it into a hundred little braids for him before his band, Waste, performed at a local theater. I was there to cut up old recreational basketball T-shirts and stick safety pins all over them or lend him a pair of black fishnet pantyhose. That’s what younger sisters are good for: helping their older brothers look extra cool.
“You’re so good at music,” I told him as he sat on the floor and I sat on the edge of his bed, braiding a small chunk of hair, a rainbow elastic between my teeth. “I wish I could play like you. I never remember the sharps or flats.” I took the elastic in my fingers and twisted it around his hair. “And look at your sketches.” I motioned to the wall where he’d stuck some with thumbtacks. “I can’t draw like that.”
“You’re good at other things,” he said.
“Yeah?” I said, selecting another piece of hair. “Like what?”
“Like braids. And not being a pain in the ass.”
His band was made up of three other boys that most parents in town would have labeled “juvenile delinquents.” There was Blake, Blake’s older brother Jimmy, and another Michael who went by his last name, Marx. Their heavy metal world tour consisted of a few shows at tiny cafes and community centers in nearby towns. They also practiced together a lot.
Jimmy was the most talkative, a total contrast to Blake and my brother. Jimmy’s favorite shirt was a black tee with a white pentagram scrawled on it. I knew he sold pot to pretty much the entire public and private high schools, jocks and bookworms alike.
Marx had the pointiest Mohawk I’d ever seen and he wasn’t as close to my brother as Blake and Jimmy. Mostly, he liked playing bass. Blake had piercings in places I didn’t think it was possible to have piercings, like the side of his cheek and over his Adam’s apple.
But Jimmy put away his pentagram tee, Marx flattened his mohawk, and Blake took out his piercings during school hours. The three of them attended a private school on the edge of town, the God-fearing Pope Julius Academy.
Later that summer, my brother was caught with pot and cocaine outside the 7-Eleven. He had to make a court appearance, pay a bunch of fines, and do community service. Through the whole ordeal, my parents bickered and fought over my brother’s behavior while I hid at the top of our stairs. When they spotted me, they put on their matter-of-fact faces.
“It’s time to go to court.”
“Visiting hours at Sunrise House only go until five.”
“You stay home, Beth. We’re going to family therapy.”
They rushed out the door, my brother in tow. Apparently, “family” was a subjective term. I’m not sure what exactly they thought they were shielding from me. In my mind, I had seen it all and they were oblivious for not knowing that.
On Christmas Day, Michael told me he loved me. I was sitting on my bed, a box of consolidated presents on my lap, when he knocked and came in. He looked normal enough, but something was off. He looked really happy, giddy even.
He said, “You know, I love you, sis. I really do.”
“I love you too,” I said. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d said that. I felt, in that moment, that our past and present had connected like tin cans joined by a lifeline of twine. I remembered what life had been like before Sunrise House, before the outbursts, before the drugs.
“And I want to show you something.” He opened his palm, and sitting on his soft pink hand was half of a white pill.
“I’ve been saving it for forever. It’s supposed to feel amazing when you shower.”
And just like that, half of an ecstasy pill cut the twine between us, and I felt further away from him than ever.
He could see some contorted emotion, disappointment and sadness perhaps, on my face, because he put the pill in his pyjama pocket, placed his hands on my shoulders and whispered, “Don’t worry, little sis.”
But I was worried. I worried Sunrise House didn’t help, and I worried my brother had permanently changed. I saw it in how he acted strangely, telling little lies, keeping secret agendas that only I noticed. I knew because I watched him. My bedroom was above the garage, and he had been taking my parents’ van and leaving a few nights every week after 1:00 a.m. It woke me. I heard the door creak, open and shut. I wondered where he went, what he did, who he saw.
* * *
That brought us back to the fall of 2003. My parents, hoping to “straighten Michael out,” enrolled my brother at the private school, Pope Julius Academy. Jimmy, Blake, Marx, and Michael received regular detentions for unbuttoning the collars on their Pope Julius button-down shirts, letting their hair grow past the chin cut-off length, painting their nails black, and wearing makeup to school.
My brother seemed to withdraw more and more while Jimmy, a senior at the time, grew louder. “It’s all a joke,” I overheard Jimmy say one time. Suburban life was laughable, and he was almost past the punchline. He’d leave this place as soon as he could and never come back.
After school when Michael was still in detention, I decided to go through his things. I guess I was looking for clues to who my brother really was. There was a distance growing between us, and I wanted to understand it and stop it.
In his room I found posters of heavy metal bands that my dad had ripped off the walls and Michael had uncrumpled and saved. I found scribbled drawings in his closet, including a “Hate-O-Meter” with various names scribbled next to it. I found a blue pencil pouch, which was not filled with pens and pencils but with months’ worth of depression medication he secretly had stopped taking. Under his bed, I found a DVD about America’s most notorious serial killers.
I reached for something else and pulled out a book: Weird NJ. The book was filled with stories about New Jersey’s monsters. It had grainy photographs and Halloween-styled font. Sitting Indian style, next to a burn hole my brother accidentally made when he threw a cigarette into his plastic trash can and it caught fire, I flipped through the pages and was introduced to the Matawan Man-Eater, Big Red-Eye, and the Jersey Devil for the first time.
The Devil once lived in a home in Essex County for months. The home’s inhabitants tried to ignore it, pretend it wasn’t there, but couldn’t help noticing strange shadows in the doorways and scratching noises in the attic. They felt its presence as they ate dinner as if an invisible body was perched in the corner on top of their buffet table, watching them eat.
The dad was the first one to interact with it. Months passed before a neighbor found the family massacred. Police blamed dear old dad, calling it a murder-suicide. The story was complete with black and white crime scene photos and a scanned polaroid of the house itself, to make it feel authentic.
I reached further back under his bed and found his notebooks, including a red notebook, filled with drawings. I recognized my brother’s precise linework, but that was it. As I scrolled through the pages, I was confused by what I saw. The heavy, inked scribbles — they looked frightening, desperate — didn’t make sense to me. They covered page after page.
As I ran a finger over them, I felt thumping inside of my chest that resonated into my fingertips. Black ink from the pages had smudged onto my hands. I wiped them on my pants. I felt like I shouldn’t have been reading this, like I was doing something wrong, but I didn’t want to look away.
The pulsation grew more and more unpleasant, and I thought I heard someone come home downstairs. The feeling of panic crept up on me like a figure hiding in the corner of the room suddenly making itself known. The pounding expanded and got so unpleasant right in my temples that I shoved the books back and got out of there.
My brother passed me on the stairs, brushing by me, distracted by something troubling him. Barely a glance or a word. He slammed his door.
Not long after that, my brother was accused of writing a school threat on a classroom desk. It read: EVERYONE’S DEAD, INSIDE, OUT. NO ONE WILL EVER BE SAFE.
My mom picked me up from school that day and we drove to Pope Julius. There was heaviness and helplessness in the air. The cops had been called. The entire student body had been ushered into the gymnasium, the current protocol for school violence-related emergencies.
My mom and I said little to each other. There was a wall between us when it came to my brother. Neither of us knew how to talk about depression, drugs, arrests, goth culture, and what it all meant mixed together. I think my mom became desensitized to deal with the stress.
During the car ride my face grew hot, and I started crying, emotionally drained, thinking about all of Michael’s scars. My mom glanced at me and said, “Oh, Beth, stop it. It was just for attention. He’s fine.” Later, my dad focused on my brother’s intelligence. “He’s such a smart guy. He just needs to apply himself.” They wanted to talk about anything but the darkness inside of us.
In that way, my brother and I only had each other to confide in, but now, it seemed we didn’t have that either.
Copyright © 2019 by Ellen Tremiti