Barbarella
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A good scare is worth more to a man than good advice.

-- Edgar Watson Howe

Changing my position from right to left was a snap decision, made in the half-second between the second and third beeps that marked the elevator's arrival on each floor. Better to get her from behind , I thought. A fifth beep, a sixth, and BING! I held my breath. I watched my sister Jenny as she exited the lobby and turned right to head down the hallway leading to my front door. With the stealthy silence of a ninja, I tiptoed close behind her, then poked her in the shoulder and shouted, "HEY!" Barely choking back a scream, Jenny jerked around to face me, her ponytail flipping around to the front of her face, her nostrils flaring, the whites of her eyes bulging -- like a spooked mare.

"HA! Gotcha!" I said, and burst out in laughter.

Jenny exhaled and drew a measured breath to calm her nerves and then smiled and said, "Man, it just doesn't get any better than that. I feel so awake right now!" She caught my contagious giggles and we walked to my door, arm-in-arm, chortling.

"What's so funny?" David asked, eyeing us as we cackled our way into the living room.

"I scared the shit out of Jenny," I said with pride. Jenny nodded confirmation.

"That's horrible," David said. "Why would you do such a sick thing?"

This took my sister and me by surprise. Horrible? Sick? More like hilarious , I thought -- we were still suffering hiccups, the aftershocks from our earlier ground-shaking guffaws. Despite our attempts to convince him that scaring people was fun, for both the scar er and the scar ee , an incredulous David announced his assessment: "You guys are deranged."

As we sat in my office considering David's words, Jenny told me she feels special when someone takes the time and energy to properly frighten her. Two people in my sister's life who go above and beyond when it comes to demonstrating their affection via terrorism are her boyfriend, Brad, and her roommate, Dad.

Earlier that week, Jenny was given a good fright while washing the dishes. Mounted to the wall above the sink at Dad's place is a framed print of Van Gogh's Starry Night . Because the picture itself is dark and the fluorescent lights of the kitchen are so bright, the glass that protects the print also function as a mirror. Jenny had been focusing on the task at hand for several long minutes when she lifted her head to check her hair in the reflection, and glimpsed among the swirls of midnight-blue sky and golden stars the image of a beast hovering over her shoulder with hands like claws above her head, poised to attack. Jenny dropped a plate from her hands and let out a shriek.

"There's something wrong with you," she said when she turned to face the apparition, whose excessive laughter had left him in a fit of coughing.

Dad has always delighted in executing the perfect ambush. My mother was his ideal victim -- she never suspected him, and her responses to his antics were worthy of Academy recognition. Some of his more famous coups featured the upstairs linen closet of our home in Chula Vista. "You coming up to bed?" he would ask. My mother would answer, "Yeah, in a minute." On occasion it could take up to two hours for my mother to finally make her way up the stairs. As she rounded the corner, Dad would hop out of the linen closet, where, with the patience of a serial killer, he'd been waiting all that time, wedged between two shelves.

When we lived in Alaska, Dad invested in a giant gorilla glove. When my mother left to run one errand or another, he would inter himself beneath piles of shoes and thick hanging articles in the closet by the front door. Mom would return, remove her outermost layer, and open the closet to put it away, after which Dad would slowly extend the gorilla mitt from between two coats and wait for the payoff, which he always got.

Sometimes Mom would scream, other times she'd curse, and once, though she still denies it ever happened, she peed a little. After gasping, screaming, or cursing, she would flail her arms and say, "You're trying to kill me, I know it!"

As most children do, my sisters and I learned by watching our parents. We knew instinctively that Mom and Dad would not be amused if we attempted to startle them, so we focused our attention on each other.

We each had our favorite scare location. Mine was the bathroom. Exiting the one, truly private room in the house, one is relieved and relaxed; one is also either distractingly confident or dejected, depending on how one has just interpreted the mirror's verdict -- never is a person more vulnerable to being caught off guard.

But even a good spot can grow old; my sisters and I soon became wary of doors, especially the one to the bathroom. Once, smelling a setup, I lingered in the loo for a while to wear down the patience of my suspected attacker. With the water still running, I swung open the door and shouted. Jenny, frustrated and surprised that her plan to pounce on me had backfired, screamed and reflexively hit me in the arm.

To throw my sisters off, I graduated to more cunning plans -- waiting down the hall instead of just beyond the door, crawling under a bed, or (the most thrilling, and well worth the wait) camping out in the backseat of a car. She who had the most patience received the greatest payoff.

In my family, setting out to terrorize someone for a laugh is akin to telling a joke, the goal for either of which is to extract an electric reaction. I am now beginning to see that, from the perspective of outsiders, my family's sense of humor might seem a tad on the demented side.

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