digging_basement_under_house_17438_560_374Before we address the dead body in Adrienne’s basement, I’ve got to tell you about my current drama. Remember that doll I found in the kids’ Clubhouse? I threw it out. I mentioned that I’d found one exactly like it on the front steps too, right? Well, I threw that one out as well, but the third time the doll turned up I finally caught on to the game. It was the same damn doll. A girl superhero action figure, the size of a Barbie, painted all black.

Yes, I’ve called Biddy and yes she’s pissed that I didn’t call her when the thing turned up on my porch the first time. I honestly wasn’t too concerned about it. Okay, lie. There was serious panic tip-toeing around my mind but I was wrapped in the embrace of my old friend, Denial. I know people knock it, but Denial is a wonderful ally. It’s a handy little cheerleader when I know deep down that I am in deep shit. My friend Denial got me through all the time the girls spent in the NICU, it got me through running marathons, it even made that tapping demon situation soft and fuzzy around the edges. Denial can even handle more than one issue at a time. Take now for instance, it’s lulling my tenacious back problems into soft focus even as it’s whispering “Don’t worry about it,” whenever I think about that weird doll.

The thing about Denial is that she isn’t the strongest of buddies. Eventually she takes off and then that pain in the ass Anxiety turns up like a bad penny. Anxiety is like one of those North Face puffer vests; stifling, zipped too damn tight, tummy-tee short and swishing around maddeningly with every move. But as annoying as the vest of Anxiety is, at least it eventually prompts me to action. Luckily I have another old buddy waiting for me, impatiently holding out her hand to get tagged in. When Anxiety has overstayed her welcome, Rage comes to call. And Rage is the slow burn that gets shit done.

Denial is gone and Anxiety was driving me to distraction, but like the ballsy fiercely loyal friend in a children’s story about bullying, Rage showed up just in time to deal with the strange man in my front yard.

After I put the kids to bed last night I took the garbage out and there was a man sitting on one of the beach chairs the girls had dragged out of the garage earlier that that afternoon.

He was just sitting there, smoking a cigarette and staring at the woods behind our neighbor’s home across the street.

“Hey there,” I called, trying to hide my surprise and annoyance.

He flicked his lit cigarette into the road and then stood, put his hands in his pockets and began to stroll out of the yard. He glanced back slowly at me over his shoulder and replied, “Hey there.”

Fear, perhaps irrational perhaps not, shot through me. Rage showed up immediately, her braided pigtails bouncing with excitement. Unwilling to let the weirdo simply creep off down the road I called, “Nice night for a walk.” Which, in hindsight was not the best Rage has ever come up with, but she was called up so fast I’m sure she was just trying to assess the situation.

The man stopped and without turning to look at me said, “Nice night for a ghost story,” before continuing down the road towards Boulder Brook park.

I stood there frozen watching him walk away until he turned onto the path into the woods. I finally came to my senses, dropped the garbage bags in the driveway and ran back inside the house. Chris was out late at hockey which meant I was alone with the girls for another two hours. I set the alarm and turned on every light in the house. Then I texted Biddy and sat on the couch pretending to read an Agatha Christie, my great uncle Eddy’s old billy club at my side.

When Chris got home he asked if the garbage bags thrown in the driveway were a message that he needed to help out more at home. I told him I saw a weird bug in the driveway and panicked. I’m meeting Biddy for coffee tomorrow morning, I’m not expecting good news.

 

***

Ok, back to Adrienne, to recap she is passionate about the apocalypse and she just shared that she and her husband found a body in her basement. Alright? And scene:

“No you did not!” I breathed.

“We most certainly did,” Adrienne insisted.

“How did you miss that in the inspection?” I asked, only half-kidding.

Adrienne leaned forward, “Here’s the thing, we were in the process of digging out the basement in order to build a secure bunker. It had poured concrete flooring and after we broke that up and hauled it out we intended to go down another seven feet.”

“That’s a pretty major project,” I commented.

“Yeah, it took us about six months of weekends just to break up that concrete and drag it out of there.”

“You guys did it all on your own?”

“We were building a secret bunker, so, yeah,” Adrienne looked at me like I was a complete moron. I saw her point.

She continued, “So I was working in a far back corner, we’d finally begun making some progress. I was about two feet down in the dirt when the smell hit me. At first I thought maybe I’d uncovered a sewage line so I switched the shovel out for a rake. Of course we mapped out exactly where all the utilities and everything were on the property, but the house was old and I didn’t want to take a risk of puncturing something unexpected. I slowly raked aside some more dirt and uncovered the edge a blue tarp.”

“Oh, shit,” I breathed. “This is like an episode of Forensic Files.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Adrienne said.

“It’s a T.V. show, like Cold Case Files or Dateline.”

Adrienne shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t watch much television.”

Oh, whatever, I thought, suppressing another eye roll. I asked, “Well then what did you think when you saw the tarp? I mean, if I even see a blue tarp for sale over at Green’s Hardware I immediately think, dead body.”

“It gave me pause,” Adrienne admitted. “I figured maybe someone had buried a pet beneath the flooring.”

“Gross,” I interrupted.

“Uncovering a dead dog would have been problematic all on it’s own, but something about the tarp,” she paused, “Made me cautious. So I stopped and waited for Elliot to get back downstairs before digging any further. Though I did have to move over towards the bulkhead to wait for him. The smell became close to unbearable.”

“See he’d been carrying concrete and dirt out in buckets to the back yard-”

I interrupted again, “Sorry, to be stuck on the logistics, but there must have been a ton of dirt and concrete to get rid of if you’re digging out an entire basement. Where did you put it all? How do you keep the neighbors from noticing?”

“Excellent question,” Adrienne said, as though I was a student in an Apocalypse Prep For Beginners course. “This house was over in the Cliff Road area close to the edge of town. We had two acres set back from the road and surrounded by forest, there was even a sizeable stream that ran through the property,” she shook her head in dismay at what I suppose was disappointment in losing such a choice piece of end times acreage. “We created neat piles of debris approximately twenty feet back into the woods.”

“No wonder you’re in such good shape,” I replied.

“It’s better than CrossFit,” she conceded. “So anyway, Elliot was barely down the bulkhead stairs when he goes, ‘What in the hell is that smell? Did we hit a sewer line?’ I brought him back into the basement and pointed to the edge of the tarp.

“He grabbed the rake and pulled more dirt away uncovering the whole thing. It was about six feet long and it was obvious that it was wrapped around something body-shaped. ‘It’s gotta be someone’s dog,’ Elliot said hopefully. But then we saw hair mixed in with the dirt near one open end of the tarp, blond hair.”

“Are you serious?” I demanded.

“Yeah,” Adrienne said simply. “What a total punch in the face. All that work for nothing.”

“What did you do with the body?” I asked, almost afraid of the answer.

“We called the damn police, we had no choice,” she sighed disgustedly. “We had people swarming all throughout the house, forget the work we’d done on the basement, we’d made a ton of modifications to the upper floors as well. Wasted. We knew we had to move and start again from square one but we couldn’t do anything until the investigation was over and we were allowed to fix the basement. It was a fucking nightmare. Not to mention how hard it is to sell a house where a body’s been found. It’s impossible! People are so fucking superstitious. We’ve got a renter in there now.”

“Do they know about the body?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so. They haven’t ever brought it up anyhow.”

“And about that body,” I prompted.

“It was a woman. She was screwing around with a married man, the wife found out then killed her and they buried her body in the basement.”

“Well, that’s a bit of a twist,” I said. “Isn’t it usually the guy who murders his mistress?”

“I suppose,” Adrienne pouted. “People need to learn to manage their own shit.”

“What happened next?” I asked, eager to get to the ghost.

“So the house was processed as a crime scene for over a week. We had to clear out of there and stay in a hotel, which is probably the most vulnerable place to be in the event of a disaster by the way.”

My mind flittered to all the people caught in the path of a relentless hurricane season and I remained silent, not trusting myself to withhold snark.

“So the body, the woman, her name was Catherine Platt. She had an affair with this guy, Paul Whitfield. He sold the house to the people who we bought it from. The jackass was married and his wife Georgia found out about the affair so she invited Catherine to the house (apparently they were in the Juniors together or some shit) and poisoned her coffee. Then she calls the husband and tells him what she’d done. He gets home and the assholes decide to try and cover it all up.

“You’ve gotta give them credit. If we hadn’t dug that basement out no one would ever have found her.”

“People must have been looking for the poor woman,” I argued. “How did they get away with it?”

Adrienne shrugged, “Part dumb luck part evil genius I suppose. There were rumors in town that Catherine had run off with her therapist, or that she’d escaped back home to L.A. Multiple theories shifted attention away from the fact that a couple women in their spin class overheard Georgia invite Catherine over for coffee on the day she went missing. Georgia must have been a convincing actress because she never fell under suspicion.

“The police found Catherine’s Land Rover parked over at Morses Pond. The gossip mill filled in the blanks. Her husband actually became suspect number one. That dip shit was also cheating with some chick in his office. The perfect storm of messy lives and gossip protected the Whitfields and they almost got away with murder.”

“Until your doomsday prep plans came along,” I commented.

“Exactly. You know the police actually did search the house, but obviously they missed something. They think the couple stashed the body way back in the woods for a time before burying it in the basement.”

“When did all this happen?” I asked.

“The nineties.”

“And when did you find the body?”

“A little over four years ago.”

I was surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about it before, but it had probably gone down just before we’d moved to town. I made a mental note to ask some friends what they knew about the murder.

After a moment I said, “That poor woman.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Adrienne replied, shifting in her chair.

“Come on, drinking poisoned coffee then getting wrapped in a tarp and buried two feet below someone’s basement floor is pretty brutal,” I insisted.

“True,” Adrienne replied. “But what’s worse is having the ghost of that woman think you’re the one who killed her.”

“Oh no!” I said enthusiastically, failing to hide my excitement.

“I don’t care if you believe me or not, it happened,” Adrienne said defensively.

“Tell me what happened already and I’ll tell you if I believe you,” I said, impatiently.

“Alright, obviously the plans for the basement were off. We had to move, everyone and their sister had been in there and we couldn’t risk having our fallout shelter so public. It really sucked. That place would have been the perfect hold out,” she sighed.

I ate another Munchkin. Stuffing sass.

“So we had to get the house ready to put on the market.”

“How long had you been living there?” I asked.

“About two years. Once the police finally cleared out we began getting the house ready for a sale. That’s when the ghost came around.”

“So, wait. Nothing strange happen in the house beforehand?”
“Not that we noticed,” she replied, thoughtfully.

“Weird, I feel like it would make more sense if the ghost caused problems until you found her body.”

“Yeah, well if this woman was anything in life like she was in death? I don’t blame those people for getting rid of her.”

“Jesus,” I said, “Harsh.”

“I know, but I have wondered if there was more to the story about her death. Maybe it wasn’t just revenge on the wife’s part. Maybe they had to get rid of her. I’m telling you, the way she came after me I would have done anything to get rid of her.”

“What did she do?” I asked.

“Little things at first. A couple days after we moved back in I was in the basement making a list of the supplies we’d need to lay a new floor. I had my measuring tape with me and I know that I put it down for a minute on the stairs so I could make note of a measurement. I went to pick it back up but it was gone.

“I began looking all around the floor, thinking maybe it had fallen and I had kicked dirt over it by accident. Then all of a sudden I heard the swoosh noise. You know that noise a metal measuring tape makes when you let the ruler slide back in? That sound came from the back corner of the basement. Where we found the body.”

“Yikes,” I breathed.

“I went right over and there was my tape measurer. Sitting right in the center of the depression where the body’d been. Look, I’m not a jumpy person but that doesn’t mean I was cool with hanging out in that part of the basement. I hadn’t even been back there since the day we called the police. There was no logical reason for the tape measurer to be there. But it was.

“I chalked it up to a fluke. Maybe I’d been distracted with the construction plans and had dropped it.”

“But the noise of the measuring tape recoiling,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, that I couldn’t ignore, though I tried to. I think she was just testing the waters then, getting her sea legs. I can imagine there’s a bit of a learning curve for ghosts,” Adrienne said thoughtfully. “They probably have to practice moving small stuff first before they get the hang of it.

“So those first weeks back in the house minor things like that kept happening, minor but irritating nonetheless. Like, any time I used anything electrical, my spin toothbrush, the toaster oven, the computer, it blew a fuse. And it was only me, it never happened to Elliot. I began having to ask him turn things on for me just so I could get through my day. Then the lightbulbs started exploding. I could use lights during the day for the most part, in my office or bedroom, though never in the basement. But at night, if I flipped a switch or turned on a lamp the bulb would make this popping noise and blink out. It was ridiculous. I had two different electricians to the house – I even had one of them come at night so they could see exactly what was happening – neither one could explain it.

“Then she started moving things. Big things. I woke up one morning and our dresser, it’s just about waist high with three drawers, about this wide,” Adrienne held her arms out indicating an approximate width that appeared to be a little over a yard, “It was pushed up against my side of the bed. It took me a moment to get it when I opened my eyes. The dresser was right there in front of me, and everything on top, a lamp some books and a couple picture frames, were exactly as I’d left them.”

“Where does the dresser usually sit?” I asked.

“On the other side of the room, on the wall across from Elliot’s side of the bed.”

I just shook my head.

“We hadn’t talked about it before then, but Elliot was like, ‘We can’t ignore what’s happening any longer.’ We were a ways from being able to sell the house, there was still a lot of work that needed to be done before we could put it on the market. It had to be especially perfect seeing as a body had been found in the basement.”

“What did you decide to do?” I asked nervously.

“Elliot bought a Ouija board.”

I had no words, so I stuffed one of the last Munchkins into my mouth.

“We did some research online. It seemed like a lot of people with ghosts try to sage ‘em outta there or use salt to banish them. But I found a couple websites that warned against doing either of those things because it was possible to inadvertently trap the ghost rather than dispel it. And apparently that really pisses them off.

“We decided to contact the ghost directly and find out what the hell it wanted.”

“And?” I prompted.

“We put a lot of thought into it. We drew up a questioning strategy to dig out as much information as we could from the spirit. We believed that only then could make an informed plan of attack.”

“Know your enemy,” I commented, imagining Adrienne and her husband sitting in a police interrogation room, a Ouija board on a table between them.

Adrienne slurped the last of her Dunkachino obnoxiously, “Precisely,” she said pointing a finger at me. “We needed to know who the ghost was, what it wanted, and where it spent most of the time in the house. We developed a line of questioning regarding its past life too.  We planned to dig out facts, names and dates that we could verify and validate.”

Adrienne stared at me, I think hoping that I would praise her for the ridiculous plan. I said, “Had either of you ever used a Ouija board before?”

“Of course not,” she snapped. “Why would we? It’s spiritualist bullshit.”

“But it was the first thing you chose to contact the ghost in your house,” I pointed out.

“Well we needed the right tool for the job,” she replied.

“So how did that work out?”

Adrienne pushed her sleeves up and crossed her arms across her chest. “It made things a million times worse,” she admitted.

“How so?”

“The ghost ignored most of our questions, it was almost completely uncooperative. She told us her name, though. Catherine, the woman we found in the basement, which wasn’t a shock but it was,” Adrienne paused, searching for a word. She landed on “disconcerting.”

“What else did the board tell you?”

“We wanted proof that it was Catherine, so we asked how she died. She actually wrote out ‘bad coffee’ on the board.”

“Holy hell, that is incredible!” I exclaimed.

“It was pretty amazing. Elliot and I weren’t pushing the planchette. It was her. What I really wanted to know was why she was still there, I thought it might give us a clue as to how to get rid of her. I asked, ‘why are you stuck in the house?’ And she wrote ‘not house.’ It didn’t make any sense because she sure as shit had been spending time there. I pressed for specifics and she wouldn’t reply. Elliot finally got frustrated and demanded to know what she wanted.”

Adrienne began to pick at the cardboard of the empty munchkin box. “When he asked her what she wanted the planchette slid across the board towards me and it didn’t stop until it was in my lap.

“I grabbed it and threw the thing across the room. And then the lights went out and the security alarm sounded. We scrambled up the basement stairs-”

“Wait,” I demanded, “You were using the Ouija board in the basement?

“Well yeah, we set it up right over where we’d found her body,” Adrienne replied scrunching her eyebrows, “It made the most sense.”

I shook my head, frightened by her dumb bravery.

“So we got upstairs and the alarm was deafening, I swear she somehow made it louder than usual. I ran straight to the second floor to check on Duke but not before noticing that all the doors to the first floor were wide open.”

“Shit,” I said. “But who the hell is Duke?”

“Our son.”

“You have a child?” I said trying to hide the surprise and horror from my voice.

“Yeah. Why else would we be in the suburbs?,” she replied.

“How old is he?” I asked, afraid of her answer.

“Five, he just started kindergarten.”

“What elementary school does he go to?” I asked trying to sound nonchalant.

“I’d rather not say,” Adrienne replied.

“My daughter just started kindergarten at [school name omitted],” I said, prying subtly.

“It’s not that one,” she said waving the question away. I sighed with relief, I certainly don’t want to seem too judgy, but I also didn’t need Max hanging out with this woman’s child.

“Anyhow, that night, after Elliot went around and closed and re-locked all the doors we just called it a night.”

“You didn’t close the board?”

“What do you mean?”

“I thought you said you did research!” I replied, irritated.

“Most of that stuff just seemed like hocus pocus,” Adrienne said dismissively. I rolled my eyes but didn’t comment further. “Catherine was much harder to live with after that night. For one thing opening all the doors at once like that? That was one of her favorite tricks. She did it at least once a day and at completely random times, you never knew when it was coming. And it was as though she knew exactly how to drive us crazy.

“She put my wedding ring in the toilet. She managed to burst a pipe in the ceiling that was directly above our coat closet downstairs where I keep all of my shoes. My keys stopped working even after I had new ones cut, even after I had the locks changed on all the doors.”

“Why was she picking on you? You found her body, if it weren’t for you then her killers would never have been caught,” I said.

“It took me a while to figure it out too,” Adrienne admitted. “I began to see her, just glimpses at first. She loved standing in the corner of our bedroom. Elliot couldn’t see her, but I could. I didn’t sleep.”

“What did she look like?” I asked.

“She was wearing what I assumed she died in, workout clothes. Black yoga pants, obnoxious neon Nikes and a camouflage LuLu Lemon shirt.”

I glanced down at my own outfit, the only difference was that my shirt was pink.

“I suppose you could spend eternity in a worse outfit,” Adrienne laughed. “I honestly felt like I was being stalked. And it was me, it wasn’t Elliot, or Duke thank God. She haunted me. I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone what was happening. I couldn’t do any real research either, she glitched our computer up it up whenever I tried to use it. I tried using a library computer and ended up causing a power outage.”

“Did you try the salt and sage?” I asked dumbly.

“I went a step further. I called a priest,” Adrienne said darkly. “He said he’d be happy to come to the house and perform a blessing. So there he was on our front step and I couldn’t get the door open. I opened the window and told him to go around to the side door. He was good natured about it at first, but as he watched me through the glass struggling with the second door he began insisting that he’d come back at a better time.

“I was freaking out. Trapped. I motioned for him to go back to the other door so I could talk to him through the open window. I rushed back only to see him getting back in his car. I called to him, ‘Father! Wait!’

“He waved and called back, ‘I’ll do my best to find someone to help you.’”

“Oh shit,” I said, unconsciously feeling for my necklace.

Adrienne shook her head, “And then I had a full blown panic attack. I wanted to jump out the window into the yard but the screen wouldn’t budge. So I ran to the kitchen to get a hammer to smash the door handle off the side door and as I rushed around the corner to the mudroom I almost crashed right into her.”

“The ghost?”

Yes. She was standing in front of the door with a smirk on her face. And she, like said, but not out loud it was like she thought the words and I could hear her thinking. I know it sounds ridiculous. But she goes, ‘I’ll never quit paying you back for what you did to me.’ Then all the doors on the first floor flew open with a huge crash and she disappeared, leaving the alarm blaring.”

“So she did think you killed her.”

“Yeah,” Adrienne said quietly. “We tried the damn Ouija again. I spelled out ‘I am not Georgia’ on the board thinking maybe the message would get through to her that way. It didn’t work. So I sent Duke to stay with my parents in California for two weeks hoping I could somehow solve the problem by the time he got back.”

“Elliot suggested we hold an auction to unload the house but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t the house that mattered. The ghost was attached to me. The little jump scares she enjoyed torturing me with were one thing, but then she began influencing me.”

“Mm mm,” I murmured.

“I began to black out. I would find myself in my car and have absolutely no idea why I was there or where I had been.”

“Oh no,” I breathed.

“It was really scary. She started to jump me like that more and more, and when she did she caused all sorts of problems. One day she went and bought a shit-ton of dresses and old lady slacks and cardigans at Talbot’s. All final sale, mind you.”

“She must have wanted to live through you,” I commented.

“No, it wasn’t like that. She didn’t want to be alive again, she wanted to fuck up my life.”

“So how did it all end? How did you get rid of her?”

“That’s almost the craziest part of the whole story. I was in the library with Duke. We were in the children’s room and there was this woman there. She kept looking over at me. As we were leaving she followed us out to the parking lot. She was really sweet, had a two year old little girl with her. I figured she thought she recognized us, but then she goes, ‘Excuse me, I don’t want to be strange, but do you believe in ghosts?’”

“No freaking way! Was she psychic?”

“Yeah, she could see Catherine. She said she usually didn’t stop people to tell them about their ghosts unless she thought they might be in danger. When we were in the library she’d had a vision of what the ghost had been doing to me. She asked if I wanted help.

“Wow,” I said in disbelief. “Could she get rid of it? What did she do?”

“She was really persistent. She came to the house and spoke with Catherine a few times. She even brought print outs of newspaper articles and explained to her what had actually happened. Eventually Catherine accepted the fact that I really wasn’t Georgia and moved on.”

“That is truly incredible,” I said. “What a godsend.”

“Molly was amazing, you should meet her actually.”

“Wait, Molly? Not Molly Vail,” I asked, shocked.

“Yeah, that’s her. You know her?”

“Shut the front door!” I exclaimed. “Her story is on the blog.”

“Small world,” Adrienne replied obviously not as impressed as I was with the coincidence.

 

***

I texted Molly the second I got into my car.

Just met your friend Adrienne. Crazy story! How are you?

What synchronicity! Been meaning to get in touch, she texted back. Can you do coffee in the morning?

Sure, I replied suddenly overcome with anxiety.

OK good. Cafe Vanille 9am?

I texted the thumbs up emoji.

How much do you know about Voodoo? Molly texted seconds later.

d6391c0b-c847-477d-832a-f4f318fd3949_1.01af5aa40e57dd6ecd99110a88e53235The Boston Marathon is pure love. It is a 26.2 mile wall of strangers supporting and challenging runners to dig in until they take a left on Boylston Street. We lived in Boston for thirteen years and have been out in Wellesley (also a part of the marathon route) for three. Every time I’ve gone to cheer on the runners I’ve had to blink back tears as I join the line of spectators. The vibe is so incredibly strong, you can feel pure love and hope emanating off every single person along the course.

I simply love the marathon. Chris and I ran it together twice, once before the bombings and once after.

The year of the bombings I was pregnant with Joey and I had the marathon playing on the television as background noise like I do every Patriot’s Day. Though we lived in Beacon Hill at the time I didn’t hear the bombs go off. But I did notice the live marathon feed change to a strange view of the freeway and then within moments my phone rang, it was Chris calling to say he was alright and that he would he would walk home along Comm. Ave. I didn’t get the chance to ask him what had happened, he just hung up. Then the panicked Facebook messages began rolling in.

“Has anyone heard from so-and-so?”

“Was so-and-so at the finish line?”

“I can’t get in touch with anyone, they’re blocking cellphones!”

On that day Chris worked at 745 Boylston Street, the office building is about a block up from Marathon Sports where the first bomb went off and right next door to Forum where the second bomb detonated about 15 seconds later. When he heard the loud booms he thought one of the ever-present construction cranes had come down. But then he went to the window and looked down at Boylston Street.

At that very moment eight-year-old Martin Richard, 23-year-old Lingzi Lu, and 29-year-old Krystle Campbell were dying, seventeen other people were so horrifically injured that they lost limbs, and countless others suffered devastating burns and lacerations.

No one works Patriot’s Day in Boston. Except Chris. He was alone in the office but for one other woman and the building’s doorman. An angel of a man who stopped Chris and his co-worker from leaving the building through the front door and walking straight into a bloody, heart-wrenching nightmare. As it is Chris still can’t shake the image of a policeman running, a toddler in his arms, blood draining from her ears.

We didn’t know anyone who got hurt that day. We know people who had crossed the finish line half an hour or so before the bombs went off. We know people who had been cheering on loved ones and strangers from those two blocks but had left before the madness. We were a hairsbreadth from tragedy, but it didn’t touch us. But if Patriot’s Day in Boston emanates love every year, the four confusing days after the 2013 Boston Marathon radiated fear and rage.

Preppers often times have a trigger event. This was mine.

There are three (okay, five) Rubbermaid containers sitting in my basement, their contents patiently awaiting calamity. Could those plastic boxes have done a damn thing if Chris had walked down to watch the runners before he came home that day? No.

But I heard a new term in those four days of madness: Shelter in place.

Now that was something I could control.

Thus, my five plastic containers. Enclosed within are candles and waterproof matches, batteries and a solar powered radio-slash-cell-phone-charger-slash-flashlight contraption. There’s a Bear Grylls fire starter and a Swiss Army knife. A much bigger knife, crank walkie talkies, a massive first aid kit plus extra medical supplies, lots of kids tylenol and advil and plenty for the adults too, and even a stash of canned foods. Dinty Moore Stew, beans, peanut butter, jelly, candy and a lot of water. And since I was a little girl and read of sailors developing scurvy on long boat trips, I’ve had this thing about access to vitamin C. So little cans of tropical fruit are included as well.

Preppers exist on a paranoia continuum. To the left are those who stock extra batteries for flashlights in case of an overnight power outage, to the right are wackadoos who build bunkers in remote northern locations. I suspected that I might be crossing into serious paranoia territory, and then I met Adrienne Raczki.

She sent an email introducing herself as a  fellow Welleslian and asked if I might be interested in discussing something “truly terrifying.” She gave no further details but attached a giph of Dan Ackroyd in the Twilight Zone movie saying “You wanna see something really scary?”

How could I possibly say no to that?

Adrienne suggested that we meet at the Dunkin’ Donuts near Newton Lower Falls and informed me that she’d be wearing a pink Patagonia vest. I didn’t know what I would be wearing, but let’s be honest it would probably be workout clothes since my jeans had been a bit too tight lately.

I sat at the only free table in the corner of the shop, next to two men who were in the midst of a heated discussion about their business. One of the guys went on and on about everyone at the company being fed up with Kevin and his lack of focus. I reached into my bag and flipped on my voice recorder. I know it probably seems like, well maybe illegal but at the very least inappropriate, but I sort of like to study the way people talk to each other, it helps me write more realistic conversations and here I was alongside the perfect example of an argument. I would be turning the recorder on soon enough, I just turned it on a bit early.

“We’re all sick of your shit, Kevin,” the guy insisted loudly.

For his part, Kevin was agonizingly calm and even said a few things about constructive feedback. I wondered why they chose Dunks to have such a private talk.

A moment later I spotted Adrienne. Beneath the pink Patagonia vest she wore a white long sleeved t-shirt. A cute pair of distressed boyfriend jeans, a pair of well loved white Chuck Taylors and long highlighted hair completed the active lifestyle look. I guessed that she was in her very early thirties. She waved to me from the door and held up one finger, indicating she’d just be a minute while she placed her order.

I continued listening to the colleagues’ maddening back and forth and then groaned a little bit when I saw Adrienne approaching the table with a huge drink in one hand and a box of Munchkins in the other.

“Hieeeee!” She said cheerfully, placing an extra large iced Dunkachino and donuts on the table.

“Help yourself,” she said, indicating the box of Munchkins.

“Oh man, thank you. I don’t want to be that person but I’m trying really really hard to stay away from sweets.”

She smiled, “Oh, I totally get it. Sorry to provide temptation.”

“Well, I mean, I’ll have one,” I replied, sipping my black coffee.

We began to chat about the blog, Adrienne was pretty concerned about keeping her identity secret, but after a minute she sighed loudly and said, “Excuse me for a minute,” then she leaned towards the table next to us and with all the authority in the world said, “Hey, man. Settle the fuck down. There are people here trying to enjoy their coffee,” she paused for the briefest of moments then continued, “And Kevin, why are you letting this dickhead talk to you like that?”

The angry guy was about to say something when she cut him off, “We’ve heard enough from you today angry smurf. Don’t back chat me.”

The two stared each other down for a moment while Kevin and I stared at them staring at each other.

Angry smurf began a reply, “Mind your own business you nosey-”

“Finish that sentence,” Adrienne said calmly, slowly standing up.

The angry man looked like he was considering his options.

“Fuck this,” he finally said, shoving his chair back so hard that it fell over.

We all watched him storm out the door.

Kevin cleared his throat and said, “Thanks for your help. I was letting him blow off a little steam before I fired him.”

“Dumbshit,” Adrienne said without missing a beat. “Where’d you go to business school?”

With that Kevin actually laughed, “Enjoy your coffee, ladies,” he said before picking the chair up off the floor and leaving.

Then Adrienne turned to me, “Good riddance, huh?”

I was speechless, halfway between thanking her and getting up to leave myself.

“Sorry to be so aggro, but guys like that are the worst,” she said in a peppy voice.

A woman who had been watching the exchange as she waited for her order came over and high-fived Adrienne.

“Stuff like that happens to you all the time, doesn’t it?” I asked.

“I guess so, I’ve never been good at ignoring bullshit,” she said simply.

“That’s amazing.”

“Well, moving on,” she said, popping a Munchkin in her mouth, “As long as you’re sure that this story won’t be connected back to me in any way, then I have a ghost story for you, but I came to it by way of the apocalypse.”

Again, I was speechless.

“My husband and I are preppers.”

It took me a moment to understand what she was saying, at first I thought she was referring to being preppy. Then her meaning dawned on me.

“Oh!” I said, “You mean like stocking food for disaster?”

“Not just food,” she replied, stirring the massive Dunkachino with a straw. “All sorts of supplies. It’s about independence, really. The ability to take care of your own. You know, people in this country are asleep, we’ve allowed the government to run us all into a forever war so they can keep us in a state of perpetual state of fear and confusion. If we feel that there are bad guys swarming all the time then we won’t think clearly. They can’t have us thinking for ourselves,” she paused, sizing me up.

“Go on,” I said.

“Well, I mean have you thought about it at all?”

“What?” I asked, confused.

“The state of everything,” she insisted, her peppy demeanor gone. “This slow march towards disaster that we’ve all signed on for. You’re educated, you have access to resources, you recognize that there is darkness here. But what are you doing to prepare for the end days?”

“Good question,” I said, afraid she was about to whip out a Bible. “What are you doing to prepare for it?”

“Everything I can,” she replied excitedly pulling her chair in closer to the table. “I grew up in California where it felt like disaster was hiding around every corner. The mudslides and rolling blackouts, wildfires, riots. Not to mention the threat of the big one, the earthquake that would kill us all.

“Then this one Sunday in church our preacher referred to armageddon in his sermon. I’d never heard the term before. I read a lot so I went to the library and checked out a Time Life book on the subject.

“I read it once then flipped back to the front page and read it again, only that time I took notes. It made so much sense, I realized that all the disaster around me was a part of a bigger picture. We were being given a glimpse, a warning of what was to come. Little frightening messages of the inevitable.

“So I began reading the newspaper every day, then two or three a day. There were signs from all over the world, right there in black and white. Proof of our imminent advance towards the apocalypse but no one was talking about it.”

I didn’t know what to say so I sipped my coffee.

“So I decided to be prepared,” Adrienne concluded.

“But isn’t the whole point of the apocalypse that no one makes it out alive?” I asked.

“No, no, no, no,” Adrienne said rapidly. “I’m not a religious nut. I’m not talking Jesus coming down on a flaming horse and branding us all, I’m talking about the clearing of the planet. The book of Revelation is allegory. A warning, an incredibly forward thinking one.”

“You really think something like that is going to happen?”

“Yes,” she replied simply. “And I’ve been preparing for it since I graduated from college.”

“How in the world did you end up in Wellesley?” I asked, thinking this wasn’t exactly the ideal place to prepare for the end of the world.

“My husband grew up here but we met in college. We both got our Bachelor’s in Horticulture at Oregon State. I met Elliot in the program while we were worked a farm about half an hour from campus. We got to talking and it turned out we were both interested in the end times.”

“What are the chances of that?” I mused.

“I know, right?” She agreed with a big smile.

“But still,” I pressed, “Why did you guys move back here? I would think you’d be better off riding out the apocalypse in the mountains or something.”

“Uh uh,” she replied firmly. “The government’s entrenched in the mountains. Trust me, you don’t want to be anywhere near them when it all falls apart. It’s going to be hard enough to keep from getting drafted no matter where you are.

“Ultimately, we chose Wellesley to be close to Boston, we’re foodies.”

I tried really hard to maintain a neutral expression, that word tended to give me the eye rolls.

“We couldn’t move to New York, you’d have to be an idiot to live there,” Adrienne declared. “Sure it’s the ideal place to experience food but the place is a death trap. I shudder to imagine what will become of those people. Boston’s fine,” she waved a hand dismissively, “We blend in here and it’s easy to escape.”

“Hmm,” I said considering. The traffic around here on a Tuesday was maddening enough, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like during a world-wide emergency. But I thought better of pointing it out and asked, “What exactly do you think is going to happen?”

“A large scale trigger event, I’d say it’s a toss up between climate change initiating a technology fueled financial meltdown and plain old fashioned nuclear war.”

“What about an outbreak?” I asked.

Adrienne shook her head knowingly, “Illness in itself won’t elicit enough panic to cause full scale disaster. Of course, disease will come after the initial event. The outbreaks we’ve seen around the world are a PG-rated preview of what we’ll encounter when the system collapses. The main event hasn’t happened yet so the government will continue to allow certain structures to remain in place to contain disease.

“But, when an outbreak occurs when half of our medical professionals are already dead, when we have no electricity and people are already weak from lack of proper nutrition, that’s the outbreak that will imprison the sick in hospitals in order to protect the healthy.”

As I tried to digest the image of the possibility Adrienne whispered, “You know to stay away from hospitals, right?”

“I love hospitals,” I replied shaking my head.

“Oh man,” Adrienne sighed. “Look, that’s fine for now, I guess, but you do realize that you’re completely giving up all freedom the second you walk through those automatic doors.”

I looked at her skeptically, I’m perfectly happy to give up my so-called freedom to medical professionals. Afterall, what good is freedom if you’re hurt or dead?

“Think about it,” Adrienne insisted pointing a finger at the table. “Imagine how it will all play out. Let’s say the war is on and the enemy decides to weaken our systems by releasing biological warfare on the civilian population.

“In wartime, the kind of future war that we will be facing anyway, even the flu will be used as a biological weapon. So let’s say the agent is released and someone in your family comes down with symptoms. You don’t want to contaminate everyone else in the house so you all decide it’s best for the infected family member to go over to Newton Wellesley Hospital, just to get some fluids and medicine. Let’s imagine it’s your husband. He’ll get the rest and treatment he needs and be back with the family within a week, right?”

“Right,” I agreed.

“Wrong!” Adrienne said loudly. “He’s not coming back home. The hospital goes into lockdown mode with military personnel guarding all entrances. They’ve successfully contained a portion of the diseased population and those people will not be allowed back out if there is even the slightest chance they might infect healthy citizens.

“Chris ain’t leavin’ that hospital, it’ll be just you and the kids.”

“They won’t be allowed to do that,” I said, weakly, the idea of being separated from Chris driving a spike of fear in my heart.

“It’s martial law, Liz, they can do whatever they want.”

Adrienne took a big sip of her coffee drink.

I suddenly realized that I had a Munchkin in my hand. My God, I thought, How many of these have I eaten?”

“What’s your antibiotic situation like?” Adrienne asked.

“I don’t have one,” I admitted.

“What if you or one of the kids gets an ear infection in that first winter? Or you slice your hand collecting firewood?”

“My doctor’s not going to just right me and open-ended prescription just in case of natural disaster or nuclear war,” I argued, thinking of Joey’s frequent ear infections and feeling panic rise within me.

“There are other ways of getting meds,” Adrienne said, her eyebrows raised, “Comprende?”

“You mean order then from Mexico?” I said, laughing nervously.

Adrienne’s eyebrows stayed up. She finally said, “Have you done anything to prepare? For even the smallest of emergencies?”

“Oh sure,” I replied giving her a quick overview of the contents in my basement Rubbermaid bins.

“Okay, first of all, you should never tell anyone exactly what you have stockpiled and where.”

“So that was a trick question?” I said, irritated with the know-it-all sitting across from me.

“No, it’s fine to tell me. I have my shit together, but don’t go telling other people you have water and supplies in your basement.”

“Trust me, it’s not something that I’d bring up at the block party,” I replied.

“Good,” she said, ignoring my sarcasm. “What about cash? It will matter, in the early days at least. Though when it sinks in that things are never going back to normal we’ll have to rely on trade. Water will obviously be incredibly valuable, especially if we are in a fallout situation and are unable to safely collect rainwater or anything from streams or lakes.

“The thing about water, though, is that it will basically be priceless. So it shouldn’t be used for trade unless you are desperate for medication. But even then, you might be bringing hell down on your own head if you let the wrong people know that you have safe drinking water. And let’s be honest, at that point the people who are willing and able to trade valuable medications are going to be the type of people who will rain down hell.”

Adrienne laughed conspiratorially and I forced a smile then said, “I’ve stocked up on packs of Starbucks Via instant coffee. I can’t imagine being without coffee and I actually thought they might be a good thing to trade with people.”

“Huh,” Adrienne said, “Yeah, that’s brilliant. I may have to steal that idea from you!”

“Steal away,” I replied, feeling proud for getting an answer right.

“I didn’t hear you mention any weapons though, do you have a gun?”

I shook my head. Then Adrienne shook her head back at me and asked, “Then how are you going to deal with the zombies?”

I began giggling nervously. This woman was serious and I am fucking serious when I tell you that I hate zombies. Not that I think they could actually exist, it’s the idea of them that gets me. People losing all semblance of humanity, irrational, violent, unwavering in their hunger for destruction. It frightens me deeply. There are glimpses of it within normally rational people. Like when the news films a group of crazed sports fans rocking a car until it flips over as the larger group watches on and cheers. What in the fuck is that, right? It’s terrifying. I did not like where this conversation was headed.

Adrienne must have noticed my obvious discomfort because she quickly explained, “When I say zombies, I don’t mean the ones we see on television. I’m referring to the real walking dead. The carriers, the people who didn’t prepare, the injured or sick. They’re as good as dead, so I call them zombies. When the world is falling apart you’ll have to be able to recognize who those people are and cut them off.”

“That’s pretty cold,” I chided. “So you’ll shoot anyone you think might be too weak to survive?”

“No, not exactly. But if someone comes in between me and my family and survival then I’ll do whatever it takes.”

“I’ll be sure to stay clear of you in the event of an emergency then,” I said seriously. “I wouldn’t want there to be any confusion about my intentions.”

“Look, I’m not saying I’m going to go out and just pick people off that might be a threat. But people will be desperate and irrational. I’m simply ready to protect my family if I need too.”

“Sounds a little paranoid,” I commented.

“I’d call it prepared. Look, everyone has different priorities. I take responsibility for my family and their future in the event of an emergency. To survive armageddon one will need to make hard decisions. Otherwise, you’ll end up becoming a zombie swept up in the initial harvest,” she replied, matter-of-factly.

“Dark,” I said.

“It sure will be,” she agreed. “Do a quick Google search for “refugee camp conditions,” and see how long you can read first hand accounts before you have to turn away. Part of surviving is taking control of your own survival.”

“But those people didn’t have a choice, they were fleeing war or some other disaster. It’s not a matter of taking control, those people were caught in the crossfire and it’s not their fault.”

“I know that, I’m just giving you an example of what it will be like if you allow the government to round you up with the promise of food, water and shelter. If you fall for it you might as well sign the death certificates for yourself and your whole family.

“Self-sufficiency is the only way to survive what’s coming.”

“I don’t know if I want to survive in that kind of world,” I said honestly.

“Yes you do,” she replied.

We sat in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. I couldn’t help but imagine my girls, dusty and too-thin playing in a tent, amongst a never-ending sea of duplicate structures.  I felt sick that I had never truly allowed myself to imagine what it must be like to be chased from home. Fuck worrying about armageddon. There was enough hell on earth already.

I finally said, “Well, you’ve managed to completely freak me out, do I dare even ask about your ghost story?”

“Yes!” Adrienne exclaimed, “I’m sorry, I could talk about prepping for hours. But what I really wanted to talk to you about was what happened in my old house. I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard scarier stories, but this was the craziest thing.

Crazier than what we’ve already discussed? I thought. “So what happened?” I asked with a sigh.

“It all started when Elliott and I found a body in our basement.”

unnamed

My world is rather small and I don’t travel very far from the Swells, so here we are, headed to Nantucket again. Let’s brave the Cape traffic and shoot for Hyannis where our ferry boat awaits.

August in Nantucket is humid, if you brought your hair dryer you’re a rookie. When it isn’t engulfed by dewy fog, the sun beats down relentlessly on the island and the surrounding ocean sparkles a deep dark navy, hiding great whites stalking seals its depths. Lines are long and service is slow and you can’t move very far without running into someone else’s child in mid tantrum. This is the stuff of forced family fun. The stuff you do “for the kids.” The stuff that pushes cocktail hour back to four p.m.

Each August Chris and I schlep the kids to the island for a week of beaching and eating and biking and whining and crying and laughing. We made a new discovery this trip, a “kid’s camp” run through one of the large hotels. From nine A.M. through noon the girls did crafts, went turtling in Madaket, hopped aboard the old fashioned fire truck for a ride to the Aquarium, and sifted through the sand all under the watchful eyes of a group of college kids. It was brilliant.

One morning after I’d returned from my walk to Jetties Chris and I were enjoying a coffee in a cozy little nook in the hotel lobby when I heard someone call, “Sower!”

I looked up from my computer and Chris from his iPhone to see Blue Seven beaming at us. We jumped up to greet our old friend.

“How long has it been?” Blue demanded.

“The wedding!” I replied, in disbelief.

We invited Blue to sit with us for a cup of coffee and caught up on kids and jobs. Blue looked exactly like I remembered him. Salty and scruffy and slightly sunburned. A lifetime of laughter and squinting at the horizon had carved deep smile lines around his eyes. At twenty-nine, he’d looked his current age of thirty-nine. In another ten years of chartering fishing trips I imagined he would appear a genial sixty years old.

After catching each other up on our current lives, and listening to Chris and Blue retell the same silly stories I’d heard dozens of times Blue asked, “What’s this I hear about your ghost stories? Jess won’t start talking about them, she’s pushing them on all our friends.”

I shook my head, embarrassed, “It’s just a little writing project, really.”

“Not true,” Chris insisted, “Liz is onto something. Wellesley is almost as haunted as Nantucket.”

“Did I ever tell you about my family’s place?” Blue asked with a twinkle in his eye.

“Wait!” I insisted excitedly. I dug through my bag to find my voice recorder, then uncovering it I held it up, “Tell us the story! Can I record it? Is that weird?”

Blue cleared his throat and smiled, “Will you change my name?”

“Of course,” I assured him, pressing the record button.

“Alright, but don’t tell Jess. She’ll flip when she hears this on the podcast.”

“Deal,” I said.

“You all came to the house after the wedding, right?”

We did. We’d continued the party on his parent’s lawn late into the night. The house was a grand three-story Federal style home of white clapboard, black shutters and shingles, greyed by the sea air. Built by a whaling captain in 1774, the property had a sprawling front yard and an ominous widow’s walk reminding passersby on Centre Street of the island’s grim past.

Blue’s grandfather bought the place in 1920 and it’s been a beacon, calling the family together every summer since. The house was magnificent, for sure, but it was also worn down and drafty, creaky and a touch moldy. The first floor was a hodge podge of well-loved furniture, old rugs and built-in bookcases jammed with James Pattersons, Harry Potters, yellowing Readers’ Digests and a legion of dog eared paperbacks. The home’s upkeep was a labor of love and necessity, to truly fix it up would cost a small fortune, so fresh band-aids were applied each season to the home’s most egregious issues.

Blue’s an excellent storyteller. So I’m going to let the salty old dog’s words speak for themselves. Besides, if I’d transcribed our entire conversation, with all Chris’s ‘Cut it out, man’s’ and my ‘Uh uh’s’ we’d be here forever. Not to mention the fact that we drifted off into tangents a lot, like all conversations with good old friends tend to do.

Blue began, “When we were kids we’d drag our sleeping bags up to that old death trap of an attic. If you opened the portholes at night it brought in an awesome cross breeze, made it the coolest place in the house. We cleared out a corner near one of the windows and made a little bedroom there.

“You know the widow’s walk, yeah? That’s where I saw my first ghost. It was a wicked humid night, probably July. You know what actually? It must have been fourth of July week because my cousins, Chris, you remember Janie and Adam, they were there. So I’m about ten and it’s the middle of the night and I wake up to pee. We’d pee out the window on the far side of the attic so we wouldn’t have to climb back down the ladder in the middle of the night. Mom threw an absolute fit when she realized we were doing that,” Blue guffawed at the memory.

“Yeah, so I’m doing my business out the window when I hear footsteps above my head. I figured that one of my cousins had climbed up onto the widow’s walk. You’d think we’d have been up there all the time but the thing was a wreck. The spiral staircase shook as you climbed up, felt like the damn thing would come tumbling down around you and it wasn’t worth it anyway, the deck itself was a splinter-filled mess. Gramps made a big deal of having a carpenter check it at the beginning of each summer, but I didn’t see the guy do a damn thing. He’d just climb up there for ten minutes then come back down and declare the broken deck ‘sound.’

“We weren’t supposed to be up there and when I heard the footsteps that night I was kinda surprised. I figured Adam might have filched some cigs from his parents so I stood at the base of the spiral trying to decide if I should go up or not when I realized that the footsteps I was hearing were pacing back and forth along the walk.

No one in their right mind would do that. You go up there and you take a look and you stand still and count the minutes ‘til you can get back to safety. Hearing someone clomping around up there scared me. But it totally scared me in a little kid way, yeah? I was afraid all Adam’s stomping around would break the walk apart and then we’d all get in trouble for sneaking out there at night. It didn’t even register that Adam was in danger, I was more concerned with my dad taking away attic privileges and that’s what pushed me up those stairs.

“I had it in my head to tell Adam off and maybe even take a puff or two of his cigarette. I tried to climb those stairs as quietly as I could, which was damn near impossible. I’m lucky the bolts didn’t come right out of the ceiling. The eye hook on the trap door was latched which gave my ten-year-old mind a little pause, but then I thought maybe Adam had managed to lock himself out and that’s why he was making such a ruckus. For a minute I was psyched to be the one to save the day.

“I unhooked the latch and pushed the heavy door up and out above my head until the hinge caught and held it in place. The pacing had stopped and I figured Adam was out of sight behind the trap door where I couldn’t see him. I whispered his name a couple times and he didn’t answer.
“I had the creeps real bad. I could sense someone standing just out of sight on the other side of that door, yeah? But something in me did not want to see who it was. I knew Adam would never let me live it down if I just turned and scooted back down those stairs. So I made myself crawl out onto the porch.

“When I stood and turned and saw who was there I freaking froze, man. I have never in my entire life been so terrified. I couldn’t move. I don’t even think I was breathing.

“It was a man, I swear on my daughter’s life, he was as real as you and me. He looked like Abraham Lincoln without the hat. No, seriously. He was really tall and skinny and he had a beard and his hair was too long and sort of flattened down around his head. We stared at each other for what felt like forever and then he goes, and I’ll never forget this, ‘They’re dead. Every one of ‘em. They’re all gone down to sea.’”

“Then he starts pacing again. He walked straight towards me so I broke for that trap door, man. I crawled in there so fast I don’t know how I didn’t kill myself on those stairs and when I yanked that trap door closed I got a mean handful of splinters. Actually had to go to the doctor to dig some of ‘em out. Yeah, I slid down the rest of those stairs screaming and crying. I didn’t even realize I was doing it.

“Adam and my sister met me at the bottom of the stairs and dragged me over to our sleeping bags telling me to shut up so I wouldn’t wake up our parents. I told them what I’d seen and they believed me. If they hadn’t I think I would have lost my little mind. Janie had the idea to go to the library and try to find out how to get rid of ghosts. We stole table salt from the kitchen and sprinkled it across the last step up to the widow’s walk and since we couldn’t get our hands on any sage we burned a couple of dried leaves up there and shared a cigarette in the attic, blowing the smoke up to that hatch hoping it would clear the ghost away.

“You know what? I told mom about it years later and she some research. You’re not going to believe this, so, not the guy who built the place but the second captain to own the house, right? He’d lost his entire crew on a whaling trip and then lost his mind. He was supposed to go but sent his brother in law instead or something tragic like that. Man, can you imagine? Stuck out on that walk, having to relive that forever?”

 

***

 

Blue was chock full of stories. His next involves another sea captain’s mansion. Today a hotel, the Jared Coffin House is the oldest mansion built on island. A three-story brick Greek-Revival style estate that sits atop Broad Street. The original structure boasts thirty guest rooms, one can only imagine how grand it must have been when sea captain Jared Coffin built it for his family in 1845.  

“When I was fourteen I landed a job as a bellhop at the Jared Coffin.” Blue began, “It was the summer before I snagged the job as striker on the Emily Marie.”

“But that’s your boat’s name,” I interrupted.

“Mm hmm,” Blue said with a smile. “I’ll tell you that story next, it’s not a ghost story but it’s pretty fucked.”

“It’s scarier than a ghost story,” Chris commented.

“Yeah, true. But so I got this bellhop job at the hotel. It was mostly dragging luggage up and down three flights for summer people, but I had to help the cleaning staff a lot too. There was this Irish girl, she was real cute, a tall freckled brunette. Mary. I think she was eighteen, totally out of my league, but I hopped to anytime she needed help carrying towels or lugging the vacuum to the third floor.

“This one day I’m coming out of a room after dropping bags and she runs right into me and knocks me clean over. She stumbled a bit but just kept on running down the hallway to the stairs. I went after her and when I got down to the first floor I saw she’d run right out the front doors onto the sidewalk.

“My first thought was that one of the guests had made a move on her, or worse. I’m telling you, she was shaking and insisting that she wouldn’t go back inside. When she wouldn’t tell me what happened I went into get another one of the cleaning girls. I didn’t want to get her in trouble by telling their manager, but I knew that if she didn’t go back in and finish her shift she’d be out a job.

“The girl, ah, Shelby it was, was mad at me at first, she thought I was the one to get her worked up. Mary finally calmed down a bit and told us what she’d seen. She had been making one of the twin beds in room three-oh-one. Said she was trying to rush since she’d had the creeps the second she walked in there. Near the small bathroom there was a closet door and as she was shaking a pillow into a new case that closet door creaked open. She tried to ignore it by thinking the old building was just making itself more comfortable but then as she threw the pillow onto the bed the closet door creaked back closed. She was on the other side of the room and had to pass that closet to get back out to the hallway.

“She said she had this awful feeling someone was hiding in there even though she knew that wasn’t possible. The manager had told her to open the room and she was afraid of having her hours cut if she made a fuss and it turned out to be nothing, so she decided to crawl across the beds to the hall door and then prop it open. That way at least someone would hear her scream if she was attacked.

“As she crawled across the first bed she heard something shuffling and scratching across the floor beneath it. She said it sounded big. Too big to be a mouse. She freaked out and jumped onto the other bed and just as she did she felt something grab at her ankle. She said it felt like it had claws. Then, get this, the closet door slammed open and as she bolted for the door she caught a glimpse of a small woman crouched in the corner of that closet. The woman had on a dirty white dress and two long skinny braids and, listen here, she had black teeth.

“I didn’t know if she was freaking out or what but that girl was scared to death. We finally got her to go back inside and luckily it was a slow time of day you know afternoon in the middle of the week. Everyone was at the beach, so I told her I’d go up and help her finish the room. Shelby sort of bullied her into it, lecturing on about how Mary couldn’t afford to get fired.

“I don’t know why I agreed to go back up there with her. I guess I thought it was all probably too good to be true, yeah? But I went up. Mary was shaking, man, literally almost unable to walk down the hallway when we got up to the third floor. I went ahead of her, and I tried to hide it but I was spooked. As I turned the knob on that door all the hair on my arms stood straight up.

“I was scared and excited, man, I thought that maybe I was about to see a ghost again. But when I opened the door all there was was a seriously trashed hotel room. The sheets had been torn off the beds and thrown on the ground all crazy-like and the beds themselves had been sort of pushed around away from the wall. One of the pillows had been ripped open so there were down feathers still floating in the air.

“It was like walking into an after party if the guests just disappeared into thin air. I could only stand there and stare. Mary was behind me peeking in over my shoulder and I was about to say, ‘Are you pulling my leg?’ half hoping the whole thing was a prank, when the closet door started to open with this slow creeeeaak that I will never in my life forget. I slammed the door so hard and took off down the hall. Mary chased after me screaming, ‘I told you!’ I didn’t even think about it, I just went straight to my boss and told him there was a crazy lady in room three-oh-one and that she’d scared Mary and then trashed the place.

“He started to go up there but I stopped him. I glossed over what had happened to Mary (I left out the part about the claws on the floor) but I told him we had to call the police. There was no way I was going back up there with a crazy lady in the closet.

“Yeah, what did the police say? At first they thought it was a prank. When my boss finally convinced them that he was being serious they said they’d send someone over to check it out. You know who showed up? The sheriff. He listened to the story then brought my boss up so they could have a look for themselves. When they got back downstairs my boss looked like he was about to pass out and the sheriff left us with a word of warning to stay away from that room, then he asked to talk to Mary’s manager. We were all in the back office and he calls her in and gave her a really hard time about trying to open that room up again. She had no idea what he was talking about, it was her first summer at the hotel. So the sheriff goes ‘Under no circumstances is that room to be used.’ He said he’d be sure to call the hotel owner and the past manager to let them know how irresponsible it had been for them not to pass on the rules about three-oh-one. Then he left. Leaving the four of us there staring at eachother.

“On the Bible. On the Bible that’s exactly how it went down. I didn’t go near that room again and I hated to even be on that floor. But a couple weeks later I was manning the reception desk. Sometimes the overnight guy needed time off so I would snag the shift if I could since it paid time and half. So around two-thirty in the morning this guy comes downstairs complaining about a loud party or something in the room above his. He said there must be a big dog in the room above theirs too because they kept hearing it scratching on the floor.

“He was in room two-oh-one. Directly below that devil of a room. No! Of course I didn’t go check it out! I moved him to another room. I made up some story about a high ranking government official staying in the hotel and gave them vouchers for free breakfast for the rest of their vacation. I thought for sure I’d get canned the next morning but when I told the story to the day receptionist she just goes, ‘Quick thinking.’”

 

***

 

Blue’s ghost stories kept me up reading late into the night for distraction for the rest of our vacation, but his last story frightened me for a different reason.

“Oh yeah, the Emily Marie. She’s a beaut, a Crosby Hawk with a twelve foot beam. We can have 4 rods fishing at once, you know, you’ve been out with me Chris. Couple stripers, right? Some blues too. Yeah, I started on the Emily Marie as a striker. Oh, it’s like a helper, I guess. You know for the captain but also the guests. I did all the lugging and managed the gear and cleaned fish. All that shit. I started on the boat in ‘96 the summer after my freshman year at BU. I spent the next three summers doing the same thing then after I graduated I had no job and no idea how I was going to find one so I worked for Dave again. Dave Nevers, the captain.

“He was as salty as they came, man. Good guy, knew his stuff on the water, but his home life was a mess. Big drinker, he’d put away six/eight beers on a three hour charter and the guests were none the wiser. I think that’s why he hired me, you know, just in case. There were a couple close calls, but nothing too bad. For the most part he managed the drink well enough, his problem was women. The boat was named after his wife. I met her when I was twenty and she was the hottest forty year old woman I’d ever seen. I could barely even make eye contact with her.. She really was something, looked like a pin up girl. Thing was, Dave slept around, he couldn’t help himself. You know guys like that, yeah? Dead set on pressing the self destruct button just to see what it’s like to watch their lives burn to the ground. That was Dave.

“She eventually found out, the island’s so damn small you can’t keep anything a secret. And that’s what got her, the humiliation of it. He hadn’t even tried to save her the embarrassment. He just carried on as though no one would talk and he got away with it for a long time but then he made the mistake of hooking up with one of her little sister’s friends and that was the end of it.

“The thing about Emily was that she was patient. She didn’t even tell him that she knew what he’d done. She just hopped a Cape Air to Boston then jumped on a flight back home to NOLA. She went and bought herself a curse from a genuine Voodoo queen.

“Yup, she didn’t want to kill him but she wanted him to feel just as humiliated as she did and she wanted him to suffer. It started out slowly, he rolled his ankle and then got a mean case of poison ivy when he was weed whacking the yard, even breathed the stuff in. It was nasty. What else, I mean it was ridiculous. HE was walking around with a nasty rash all over is face and arms and legs, he had to wear a boot for the ankle, and then that’s right! His hair started to fall out and I mean fast. It was patchy. He was one of those guys who always wore a hat, but the poison ivy drove him so made that he couldn’t tolerate wearing it anymore.

“We joked about his stroke of bad luck and all the while Emily never let on until things started happening with the boat. Weird things. Crazy asshole charter guests, the anchor line broke like every time we put it down, gas leaks, stuff like that. She eventually told him what she’d done and he was completely freaked out. He tried to convince himself the curse wasn’t real but then we hit a totally unexpected storm one morning, it came out of nowhere and we damn near capsized. It was a charter trip and we had three guys with us. That’s what convinced him he had to get off the water. He sold me the boat for a thousand bucks and made me promise I wouldn’t change the name. Said it was bad luck. I swear. I tried to argue with him that it wasn’t enough money but he was desperate to get off the island and away from that woman.

“I didn’t know if I believed in the curse or if his karma just came back around good and strong, but the creepiest thing was about a week after I’d started taking out charters on my own I was cleaning out one of the cabinets in the center console and I found this little action figure wedged back behind the first aid kit. It was like a little G.I. Joe Someone had painted it black and wrapped it in red twine.

“I just threw it right over the side, you know I hate when people litter in the ocean, man, but I didn’t want that thing in the boat. Curse or no curse I didn’t want anything to do with that nonsense.”

“Wait,” I interrupted, “An action figure? Painted black?”

“Yeah, it’s old black magic voodoo shit. Even though I didn’t completely believe in it I asked around and this girl I was friends with new all about it.”

Instead of sharing the nervous laughter with Blue and Chris I was silent.

“What’s up?” Blue asked. “Did one of your haunted neighbors find a doll or something?”

I shook my head.

Chris and Blue stared at me.

“It’s nothing. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence,” I said, feeling panic rise.

 

***

 

You see, a week or so before we left for vacation something weird happened. We’ve been doing more work on the house. We pushed a wall back and took over half of our tiny garage space to make more space in the kitchen for storage and such. When our contractor, Eric, took down the original wall and ceiling in the process of these renovations he created an opening that allowed us to glimpse the previously enclosed and unused attic space above the garage.

The house is rather small for the five of us (and two dogs and a fish) so I hated the idea of closing off this little attic again. Eric put up walls and flooring and built a wooden ladder off our mudroom so the girls could climb up to play in this attic space that we’ve nicknamed the Clubhouse. It is a hard place to describe, so I’ll take a video of the space and post it to my Ghosts In The Burbs instagram so you all can see what I’m talking about.

I need you to understand the layout because I found something up there the other night.  Something that shouldn’t have been there. My girls can barely climb up and down the ladder into the space, Joey basically has an all-out panic attack every time she attempts it. The girls aren’t capable of carrying anything up there. I have to hand their toys up to them.

The other night Chris was out at a late client dinner, the kids were all in bed and the dogs and I were sitting on the couch watching This is Us (just kidding, I was watching the episode of Hollywood Medium with Corey Feldman – gets me every time). I thought I heard the big girls banging around upstairs a couple times but when I peeked/stormed into their bedroom they were sound asleep. I kept the volume on the television low so that I would hear the girls if they were messing around but after a few moments I realized that the noise I was hearing wasn’t coming from upstairs, it was coming from that attic space above the garage.

I muted the television and listened. I heard a soft sort of banging noise that wasn’t familiar. It wasn’t exactly consistent, but it was persistent. I kept hearing the sound but it wasn’t in any sort of a pattern. And no, it wasn’t at all like the tapping that happened in the house back when we had our little demon kerfuffle. It sounded like someone or something was making the noise.

I got up and stood in the doorway between the living room and kitchen to see if I could explain away the noise, hoping that maybe it was the ice maker or the air vents. I took a step into the kitchen but froze when I realized that the noise was definitely coming from the Clubhouse. I looked back at the dogs asleep on the couch and felt it best to leave them be. They’re so used to strangers coming in and out with all the work we’ve been doing that they would likely want to befriend an intruder at this point.

I grabbed my phone off the coffee table and punched 9-1-1 into the call screen but held off on pressing send. I held the phone in one hand and grabbed our fire poker from the fireplace with the other, then I tiptoed into the kitchen towards the noise. Once at the bottom of the ladder I flipped the switch to fill the attic with light and called “Hello?!” There was no answer but the noise stopped for a moment which scared the ever living hell out of me.

When it started back up again I forced myself climb up the ladder, phone in my back pocket, fire poker in my right hand. Deep down I knew that it couldn’t be a person, but something was making that noise and I was in that irrational state of being furious that I was frightened. In all honesty, I was also pissed that Chris wasn’t home to deal with it and I was even more pissed that I wasn’t able to sit quietly in front of the damn television for even ten minutes.

I crawled awkwardly to the first level of the attic, it opens to a space about nine feet by five feet (this is the part above the garage) and then there is another area about nine by nine that sits raised up a foot or two (that’s the part above the kitchen). You’ll have to see the video for this to make any sense, but the noise was coming from the far back corner of the raised section.

There was something moving, swinging in that back corner. I climbed onto the upper level space and crawled back to see what it was. There was a doll, an action figure about the size of a barbie, it was one of those new Super Hero Girl dolls and it was hanging from the ceiling by a string. Someone had painted it black. It was was getting blown about by the air vent and banging against the vaulted ceiling and back wall awkwardly.  The red string holding it was stuck to the ceiling with duct tape. I gave it a hard yank and pulled it down.

I sat there staring at the painted figure in my hand. The red string around its waist was tied in a perfect bow.

The next morning I asked Eric if he’d noticed it up there the day before, he hadn’t. I could tell by their reaction that the big girls hadn’t left it up there either because they asked if they could paint their dolls too when I showed it to them. Chris insisted that it must have been the girls since they were into action figures and were always “taping shit onto other shit.” Even though I knew it wasn’t one of the girls’ dolls I didn’t argue because I didn’t want him to feel as scared as I was. Because the thing is, I’d found another doll exactly like it on our front steps just a few days before.

3-wptrail_zps80ad07ddI seldom check the Ghosts in the Burbs Facebook account because honestly, I just don’t like Facebook anymore. The election ruined it for me, so I avoid it and constantly toy with the idea of deleting my account. I dislike it for all the usual reasons, it’s addicting and a time suck, blah blah blah, but I also find it sort of guilt inducing. Messenger reminds me of when we all used to actually call each other and leave voicemail. My mailbox was forever full and it always felt like a ticking time bomb of things I was supposed to do and forgot about. Messenger makes me feel the same way; disorganized, lazy, and irresponsible.

However, I checked the Ghosts in the Burbs account last week and found that I’d received a message (sent about three weeks prior) from a woman named Erica.

 

Hi neighbor! My husband and I live in Wellesley and I really think that we need help with our house? I don’t know how people usually arrange to meet with you, but if you could message me back as soon as you get this I would appreciate it. It’s sort of urgent!!! Thanks!!! – Erica

 

I responded after a day’s hesitation (being contacted by a stranger on Facebook is simply creepy, you’d think the same would be true for Twitter, but it’s not). Erica’s reply was exclamation point laden and desperate. She explained that her house was “all-out haunted” and that the haunting was changing her husband’s personality. She asked me to come to her house “ASAP.” After a few messages back and forth, in which I tried to feel out whether or not she was a serial killer, I agreed to the visit. After setting the date and time Erica asked if there was any way that I could bring Biddy along with me. I told her that I’d try.

 

***

 

“Who are they?”

“They live over near the dump,” I replied.

“Great, but who are they?” Biddy pressed.

“Slow down,” I insisted, unable to keep up with Biddy’s pace. “Their names are Erica and Mattie Payne and they just bought a haunted house. She thinks the ghost is changing her husband’s personality. Erica asked if I could bring you to the interview, I’m sure she wants your expert opinion.”

“I guess I could come along. No, I shouldn’t. I don’t know,” Biddy stopped abruptly and looked at me.

I swatted gnats away from my face and took a second to catch my breath. “You’re doing pre-exorcism interviews for the Catholic Church,” I said, trying not to sound whiny or accusatory.

“I know, but once I pass that information off I’m done with it. It’s the Church’s problem after that.”

“It’s just an interview. Maybe you can give them some advice. You totally helped those poor lizard monster people.”

Biddy looked down at the muddy trail considering, “You shouldn’t be going to a stranger’s house alone.”

“You sound like Chris.”

Without a word Biddy resumed her power walk and I scurried to catch up. “I’ll go,” she called over her shoulder. “But only as moral support.”

I smiled to myself. “Deal.”

 

***

 

Our little town is home to three colleges; MassBay Community College, Wellesley College and Babson. The schools maintain beautiful campuses and provide us with a little culture, some youthful energy and a glut of babysitters.

Erica and Mattie Payne’s home lived on a long, winding dead-end street behind the Babson campus. It wasn’t my first time driving on the wooded street, I’ve delivered the lawn signs for the autumn food pantry drive a handful of times and one of the Payne’s neighbors was a faithful supporter.

“I don’t know how you get around in this boat,” Biddy commented as we turned onto the road.

“You get used to it,” I replied.

“Your side mirror disagrees.”

“Shush. That was the tree’s fault. There, that’s the house.”

We pulled into a long weathered driveway, cracked and bumpy from old tree roots. Number 44 Skyline Drive was an aged Victorian. It’s roof spotted with green mold, the front porch in need of a good scraping.

We stepped out of the car as a young man walked out of a detached garage set back from the house. He lifted a hand to wave and called hello.

“Now who is this hot tamale?” Biddy said in a low voice.

“Liz! Biddy!” The man called picking up his pace. “I’m Mattie. Mattie Payne. Thanks for coming. E’s been kinda freaked out and it sounds like you guys know what’s up. Come on in.”

He turned and followed a cracked walkway then bound up the steps to the front porch.

Biddy grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and tugged.

I looked over and she raised her eyebrows and mouthed, “Hubba hubba.”

“Cut it out,” I whispered, trying not to laugh. I had to agree though, Mattie was quite the site. In his late twenties, he had that tousled naturally highlighted hair that young people in California always seem to have. He wore a casual three-day beard and a worn cotton t-shirt that, well sat really nicely on his frame.

“E!” Mattie boomed as we stepped onto the porch. “They’re here!”

The foyer was stereotypical for a Victorian with all the floral wallpaper and dark wood one might expect. I closed the door behind me and heard a loud high-pitched, “Yay!” Erica bound down the grand stairway beaming, a long blond ponytail bouncing along behind her.

“You’re really here!” She said excitedly embracing Biddy and I in a group hug. “Thank you so much for coming, really this has been like, well it’s just a hot mess. Come in. Mattie, where should we go?”

“The sunroom, babe,” Mattie declared.

“Oh, yeah! Totally. Ok, you guys go sit. You’re always drinking something hot during your interviews,” she said to me, her smile bright, “I made a pot of tea and I even went and got scones at Quebrada. Good, right?”

“Thank you,” I said, returning the smile. Erica couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or twenty-six. Mattie maybe a couple of years older. They were gorgeous and young and completely out-of-place in the run down house. I couldn’t wait to hear how they’d ended up there.

Mattie lead us to a large screened in sun porch. The structure was surrounded by a tight overgrown lawn beyond which brooded dense mature forest. From this viewpoint I noted that the detached garage was much larger than it appeared to be from the front of the house. The long building could fit two cars easily and it extended twice that length right to the edge of the woods.

The porch housed two old white wicker love seats who faced one another with a glass-topped wicker coffee table in-between. Biddy and I sat next to one another as Mattie plopped down across from us. The faded floral fabric of the seat’s pillow was soft and comfortable and several fans moved the Febreze and mildew tinted air pleasantly. It should have been cozy, but the encroaching forest blocked out the sunny day, leaving us in gloom.

“How long have you lived here, Mattie?” I asked, placing my voice recorder on the table between us.

“Eight and a half weeks,” he replied, without missing a beat.

“That’s specific,” Biddy commented.

“This place is intense,” he replied darkly.

“Tea!” Erica announced loudly as she entered the room. She placed a tray onto the coffee table then bounced onto the love seat next to Mattie, folding her long legs beneath her.

“It feels dark in here. Is it too dark in here?” She demanded nervously.

Biddy and I assured her the light was fine then helped ourselves to cups of tea. I snagged a small heavenly currant scone too.

Mattie and Erica watched us intently. I noticed for the first time that the glowing couple wore faint dark circles beneath their eyes. I saw too that Erica’s ponytail, though bouncy and long, was a little bit stringy, maybe even greasy.

Biddy sat back and sipped her tea. I held my tea cup in both hands and balanced the scone on a napkin on my knee. Already my back was protesting the cramped seat but I was determined to ignore it.

“So,” I said, “What’s going on in your house?”

The couple exchanged a look and Erica placed a hand on one of Mattie’s incredibly toned arms. “There’s a ghost in our house,” she whispered dramatically.

When she didn’t elaborate I asked, “What’s the ghost up to?”

Erica took a quick glance over at Mattie, who was startlingly expressionless, then said, “I think that the ghost is like, attached to Mattie? He’s not himself. He doesn’t drink but ever since we moved in he drinks, you know? And then there are the noises at night and, babe, you’re always in that garage and sometimes when I am talking to you you aren’t you. I think the ghost wants to take him over. I think it can, like step into him sometimes.”

Her words came out in a rush, like a breath that had been held for too long.

Biddy placed her tea cup onto the table. She was staring at Mattie.

I said, “Well that sounds pretty scary. Mattie, do you agree? Do you think there is a ghost influencing you.”

Mattie used both hands to push perfectly disheveled hair back from his forehead. It was a dramatic gesture, almost forced. He said, “Something’s happening here, for sure. Yeah, I mean, sometimes I don’t feel like I’m alone, man, but I don’t know.”

“Tell us about moving into the house,” Biddy suggested.

“Oh! That was so exciting. So, I’m a yoga instructor and Mattie is a creator. He sold an amazing app that helps people, well no you explain it, babe,” Erica said squeezing his leg.

“The app assists users in tracking productivity in all areas of life. Financial, emotional, recreational, spiritual. It allows the client to set goals and then creates an individualized program to support them in reaching those goals in a specified timeframe.”

“Emotional?” I said, curious.

“Yes. For instance, a user may track progress made in therapy appointments. A goal may be identified to resolve an emotional issue within a set period of time and the app tracks progress toward the desired outcome. Say, for example, you have a childhood trauma that you need to resolve. The app helps you to stay on task and focused so you can set a timeframe in which to heal. The same can be done with family building, relationship creation, financial goals, etc.”

“Wow, that sounds really, futuristic,” I said, avoiding looking over at Biddy.

“We just hit number forty-five on the iTunes App Store charts,” he said.

“Impressive! And where do you teach yoga, Erica?”

“I guide in person on the lawn at Babson. We both went to Babson, did I tell you that? So, that’s where we met! After graduation we moved into the city, but the campus sort of called us back, didn’t it babe? I’ve been vlogging my yoga practice for years and then an opportunity arose at the college. I guide practitioners every weekday morning on the south campus lawn.” As she said this, Erica pointed towards the forest.

“What’s through the woods?” I asked.

“Babson,” Biddy and Erica said in unison.

“Jinx!” Erica said laughing. “Seriously though, that’s really why we bought the house, to be close to the college. Mattie and I carved a path through the woods that leads directly to the spot where I teach. It’s amazing. I mean, it was amazing. I don’t like walking back there alone anymore.”

“Why not?” I asked.

Erica glanced at Mattie who was staring at his lap.

“I sort of feel like someone’s watching me or like, following me or something. One time, I-”

“I’ve followed her before,” Mattie said, almost defiantly.

Biddy and I were silent.

“You were just making sure I was safe,” Erica said soothingly.

“No,” Mattie said leaning forward to rest his elbows on his lap.

We all stared at him and I suddenly felt a little bit afraid. I chattered, “You must have wanted to see if you could catch someone creeping around back there.”

“No,” Mattie repeated. “It was me.”

“‘You had one of your episodes, you just wondered out there and didn’t-”

“Stop!” He said in a firm, low voice causing us all to jump as though he’d yelled. “Last week, Tuesday morning, when you were on your way back from your session? Yeah, I watched you. I was there. I didn’t mean to be, I mean, I didn’t intend to be there off the trail, but I was. When I came to myself I was crouched behind a tree watching you walk along the path.”

“Oh, Mattie,” Erica said quietly.

“How often does this happen?” Biddy asked. “You coming to yourself and being somewhere you didn’t intend to be, I mean?”

Mattie didn’t respond.

“That often huh?” Biddy said calmly.

No one spoke. The only noise was the whirring of the fans and the drone of a lawnmower somewhere in the neighborhood.

“You guys think something in the house is influencing you?” I asked.

“No, the ghost is making him do those things,” Erica insisted.

“Before we all jump to conclusions why don’t you guys tell us why you chose this house. I mean, I know it’s close to the college but how in the hell did you end up here?” I asked. Mattie was wound tighter than me watching my kids at the public pool on a Saturday morning. I needed to slow things down if we were going to get the full story out of them.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Biddy nodding her head.

“There wasn’t much on the market last winter and the commute from the city was killing my vibe every morning, right? So this house came up as a rental and it was so much bigger than any of the other houses we’d looked at, and it had so much charm and we just fell in love with the idea of it, so we asked the owners to sell it to us. They agreed to sell to us, but we had to push our move in date back to June so they could clean the place out.

“We were so excited. I know it’s a total fixer upper but we figured we would live here forever. There’s plenty of room for a family,” Erica stopped herself and glanced nervously at Mattie.

“After what happened with Cecily, I’ll never allow another kid in this place,” he said firmly.

“Who’s Cicely?” I asked.

“My niece,” Erica replied quietly. “We had this housewarming party right after we moved in. Our parents came and so did my sister and my brother-in-law. My niece, she’s seven, she was so excited, she called this place ‘the dollhouse.’ I decorated the backyard with all these balloons and we cooked out and had a cake and everything. The house was fine before the party. I never would have invited them all over if I thought something was wrong.”

“What happened?” Biddy prompted.

“So we were hanging in the back yard, Mattie and my brother and the dads were tossing around a football and I was sitting with the moms and my sister. None of us realized that Cicely was gone for a little bit, but then I think my mom noticed. We just figured she was exploring the house so my sister and I went inside to find her.

“We called her name a few times but when she didn’t answer us I got a little worried. I mean, the house was empty but we didn’t really know it top to bottom, right? So my sister went back outside to see if maybe Cecily was out in the yard somewhere. And then, I don’t know, it seemed like we all felt the panic come up at the same time and we split up. The guys searched outside, I went down to the basement, and my mom and sister checked upstairs.”

“They found her on the third floor,” Mattie said. “We should have heard her screaming, but we didn’t.”

“A big old wooden bookcase fell on her leg,” Erica explained. “She couldn’t move. It like, trapped her there. My sister carried her downstairs and the poor thing was hysterical. We were positive she had broken her leg, but the doctor in the E.R.? She said it would only end up being a nasty bruise.”

“Tell them what your sister told you,” Mattie said, looking over at Erica.

She gave a small shake of her head and closed her eyes for a moment. “Cicely told my sister that a little girl brought her upstairs and told her to sit on the floor so they could play a game. She said the girl disappeared into the wall and before Cicely could get up to look for her the bookcase fell over.”

“Uh uh,” I said, getting up from the love seat.

“Where are you going?” Erica asked in a panicked voice.

“No where, sorry. My back just isn’t great today, I just need to stand up for a minute.”

“You OK?” Biddy asked me.

“Yeah, totally, I’m just being elderly. But what in the hell? A little girl disappeared into the wall then shoved a bookcase over on top of her. That sounds dem-”

“Let’s just hear the rest of the story,” Biddy interrupted shaking her head at me.

“We felt so, I mean I felt so guilty. Like, we had no business having anyone over to the house, let alone my niece, until we were settled in here…” Erica chattered on awhile longer until Mattie finally cut her off.

“We were really lucky. Cicely was fine, but I know that having her in this house triggered its need,” Mattie looked back and forth between Biddy and I, as though we knew what he was talking about.

“How so?” I asked nervously.

“The place was fucking lit after Cicely got hurt. The knocking began, the shadows started coming around, we couldn’t sleep because of the dreams-”

“You started spending more time in the garage,” Erica added softly.

Mattie nodded his head.

“Tell us about the knocking,” Biddy said.

“It’s weird, I’m surprised we haven’t heard it yet. It usually gets more excited when people are here. But we totally blamed it on old pipes at first and then we had an exterminator come out to check if the place had mice or something. We do totally have mice, but the exterminator heard the knocking while he was here and said it wasn’t coming from any animal.

“The weirdest thing is that it comes from different parts of the house. Like I’ll be in the kitchen making dinner and I’ll hear knock knock over my head and once I stand still for a moment there will be another knock knock that sounds like it’s coming from under the sink, or the other room,” Erica explained.

“She held a séance,” Mattie tattled.

“Uh oh,” I said, glancing over at Biddy.

“There it is,” Biddy said, stone faced.

“It was just for fun, nothing serious,” Erica said quickly. “I had some of the girls I do yoga with come over for margaritas and we sat at the kitchen table and asked for the ghost to answer us with the knocks. We totally made sure to set a positive intention first and I commanded the spirits to interact in a positive way.”

“You commanded them?” Biddy was leaning forward now. I was pacing a little bit. Erica had her arms crossed over her chest and Mattie sat with an arm hanging on the back of the love seat behind his wife, his legs spread wide.

“Yeah,” Erica explained, “I think I said something like ‘I command you to come forward in communication.’ It was wild, it took a few tries but we got answers!”

“How?” I asked.

“The knocking. It answered us with knocking! Once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no.’”

“What did the knocking tell you?”

“The spirit was male and had lived and died in this house. Oh and he communicated that he was pleased that we choose to live here.”

“That’s it?” I asked skeptically.

“Well, sort of. I mean, that’s all that it communicated to us. But I took the opportunity to welcome it and share the space with us.” At this admission Mattie gave a sort of snort.

“I’m guessing things got a little crazier after that,” Biddy commented.

“That’s when the shadows came and Mattie started drinking and we stopped going in the basement and I found all those damn balloons in the room on the third floor even though there was no way they could have gotten up there on their own and something pushed me when I was walking down the stairs,” Erica began crying. “It’s totally my fault, I am so sorry, I brought it all out and I don’t know how to put it back and now Mattie is, just, babe you’re not yourself and the house is a nightmare. I can’t sleep because the dreams are so sad and violent and you guys have to make it stop or I just don’t know what is going to happen.”

Mattie put a hand on Erica’s back to stop the flow of panicked words. I looked to Biddy, hoping she would offer some advice, but instead of addressing the paranormal events in the house she asked, “What’s up with the drinking, Mattie?”

“I don’t know,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I’m no straight edge, but I’ve never felt the need to have more than a beer or two and that was only if I was out with the guys or at a game. I got drunk once in high school and hated the way it made me feel all clumsy and out of control.”

“So what’s changed?” I asked.

“He’s drinking gin,” Erica said.

I saw Biddy raise an eyebrow.

“I start drinking around one or two in the afternoon,” Mattie began.

“What?” Erica squeaked. “I didn’t know that, babe!”

“And I don’t stop until I pass out at night,” Mattie continued. “I pretty much can’t remember what happens from dinnertime onward.”        

“What else is different?” Biddy asked quickly, stopping Erica from descending into another nervous tirade.

“I don’t just forget stuff when I’m drunk. Like, the other morning, I wasn’t drunk when I followed E to her yoga class. I was hung over, but sober and I don’t remember leaving the house. But when I, like, came back to myself I was watching E. I was watching her walk away from me on the path and I was literally crouched behind a tree hiding.”

Fuck, I thought then went to sit back down next to Biddy so I could eat another scone.

“When you say, ‘came back’ what do you mean? Are you not there?” Biddy prompted.

“I don’t know, man, I just am like, aware of what I’m doing and then I’m not.”

“What is he like in the evenings?” I asked Erica.

The girl looked at her husband and grimaced, “I’m really sorry babe, but you’ve turned into a total dick. I mean, you’re OK in the mornings, but you just sit there in that living room all night and stare at the television. Unless you’re out in that garage. I mean, you are out there all the time. Babe, what are you even doing out there? I’ve heard the banging and it sounds like you’re slamming things against the walls.”

We all stared at Mattie. He rested his elbows on his knees and began cracking his knuckles.

Erica pointed at his hands accusingly, “And that too! He never used to crack his knuckles. It’s disgusting! I can’t stand it.”

Biddy and I watched the couple. Mattie was inscrutable, Erica was sidling up to hysteria.

“How are you feeling right now?” Biddy asked.

“Really fucking angry,” Mattie answered in a low voice.

“Why?” I asked without thinking.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he insisted.

“I think I do,” Biddy said.

“Demons,” I breathed, knowingly.

Erica gasped and Mattie looked like he was about to flip over the coffee table.

“Settle down,” Biddy said to me, annoyed. “It’s not demons. Everything isn’t always demons. Mattie you’ve got a nasty spirit attachment.”

“How do you know it’s not a demon? I mean that little girl in the attic, right?” I reasoned.

“Well yeah that thing in the attic might be a demon, but that’s a secondary problem.”

“So there is a demon!” I said.

Biddy gave me a look then continued, “Maybe, but if a demon was causing this personality change then we wouldn’t be here talking about it. If a demon had that great a hold on him then Erica would be dead by now.”

“Biddy!” I exclaimed, horrified.

“Sorry to be so blunt, but you’re lucky Matt. This spirit was obviously a raging alcoholic in life. He didn’t cross over and he still needs what he was addicted to, so he’s latched onto you and he’s not going to let go without a fight.”

“Oh my God. How is this possible?” Erica asked.

“Look, we all need energy to survive,” Biddy explained. “We eat food and recharge by sleeping, right? And then we can get spiritual energy from God or the world or people around us. Since we’re alive we can access energy many ways, but ghosts can’t do that. If a spirit doesn’t cross over into the light or becomes deceived and falls into the darkness, then it remains on our plane and it has to get energy from somewhere in order to survive. One way for it to get that energy is to latch onto a living person.”

“Who is it?” Erica asked her eyes wild. “Can you see him right now?”

I bit my lip to keep from smiling. Biddy took a breath and said, “I’m not a medium, I’ve just spent my entire life around haunted people trying to figure out what the hell was happening to them. I have absolutely no idea how or why stuff like this happens but I’ve been around long enough to connect some dots.”

“What do I need to do to get rid of this fucker?” Mattie asked.

“I know a guy,” Biddy assured him. “You need a medium and you need to sage the shit out of this place. And then he’ll go. He’ll have to.”

“What about the demon girl in the attic?” Erica pressed, looking terrified and small. “Is she going to kill us?”

“I’m sure she wants to,” Biddy said plainly.

“But she won’t,” I added quickly. “Biddy knows a priest who can come and help you. He helped my family with our haunting.”

“Everything can be fixed here, but I don’t like that whole lurking in the woods storyline, Mattie,” Biddy cautioned. “It’s not going to end well. Until the priest comes I don’t think you guys should sleep in the house. I’ll sage the place for you today while you pack and that should weaken the ghost.”

“We can stay at my sister’s,” Erica said.

“If there’s a drunk angry ghost latched on to me then I’m not going anywhere near your family,” Mattie snapped.

“Stay at a hotel then, Mattie. Erica can stay with her family, it’s not a bad idea for you two to separate temporarily. You’re relationship might actually be feeding the spirit,” Biddy suggested.

Everyone was silent, absorbing Biddy’s diagnosis.

“So that’s that then,” I said after a moment. Mattie and Erica were looking at us with a mixture of fear, skepticism and hope.

“I left my bag in the car, let me go grab the sage. I’ll do a quick walk through while you guys pack up,” Biddy said, standing.

“I have to pee,” I declared then smiled at the couple. “Shall I use the powder room we passed in the hallway?”

They both nodded. “Ok, be right back!”

“Don’t you dare leave me in this house alone with them,” I hissed once we were out of earshot. “That guy gives me the creeps.”

“He should. That’s the worst case of demonic possession I’ve ever seen.”

“Ha! I knew it!” I said loudly.

“Shhh!” Biddy said. “Shut up! I’m buying time doing this sage bullshit so we can get that girl out of this house. He’s going to kill her.”

“Oh shit, what are we going to do?”

“We are going to pretend to sage the house while she packs up her things and then we are going to make sure that she leaves here without him. Twenty bucks says he doesn’t leave this place.”

“I really do have to pee. Will you wait outside the door for me and then I’ll come to the car with you?”

“Oh, for the love of Pete,” Biddy said, rolling her eyes. “Hurry up.”

When I was done peeing I opened the bathroom door to talk to Biddy as I washed my hands. I said, “That was super smart of you to come up with that drunk ghost guy story.”

I dried my hands and flipped the light switch then stepped out into the hallway. There stood Biddy staring at me along with Erica and Mattie.

“Oh shit.”

slide-image3Today is Friday and every Friday, before the kids wake up, I sage the house. I’ve done this every week since that-which-we-pretend-didn’t-happen happened. Biddy told me the practice clears emotional energy left from the events of the previous week and that it was in our best interest to keep the home clear. Supposedly, negative beings are attracted to energy build up and when they can sense that a family or home has already been infiltrated, like we were, they’re more likely to see if they can do the same.

So, this morning as I wafted smoke through my window-lined office I glanced up and saw a coyote sitting in the yard. It was just staring at my house and the windows around me suddenly felt very thin.

We live near a large reservation and I’ve seen plenty of deer and bunnies and there was even a cute opossum in the garage last Spring. There are rumors of coyote all over town. I’d even glimpsed one running behind a home in our old neighborhood. But this one, my God, it was just feet from my home. Staring.

After a few frozen moments, the sage stick burning silently in my hand, I banged on one of the windows and quietly said, “Shoo.”

The wild dog looked at me. I banged again, more forcefully and then it stood and slowly trotted towards the front yard. I ran into the living room and watched it walk across the street and disappear into the woods behind the neighbor’s house.

Weird, right?

Chris didn’t want to believe me. Honestly, the second the coyote walked out of sight into those woods, I didn’t even really believe what I’d seen. I’m going to sage the outside of the house tomorrow morning. It feels like there’s a storm brewing.

***

Enough about that, let’s move onto Michelle’s story.

Close to the top of Wellesley Avenue sits a small cul-de-sac that so far has managed to escape the developers’ attention. The charming street is lined with a hodgepodge of small, well-kept homes in a rainbow of colors. Nestled at the top of the circle is a small brick cottage, it’s front lawn a joy of wildflowers, it’s backyard a wall of dense forest. The home is straight out of a British cozy mystery. It’s owner is Michelle Penna, an interesting forty-something, fresh-faced woman with a terrifying story.

I met Michelle at a friend’s fortieth birthday party. She had shoulder-length highlighted blond hair and pretty smile lines around her dark brown eyes. She wore a simple black shift dress and very high, hot pink heels.

Our mutual friend introduced us by saying, “Michelle you have to tell Liz what happened to you last fall, Liz loves that kind of stuff.”

Michelle looked embarrassed so I quickly explained, “I have a blog, people in Wellesley tell me their scary stories.”

“Oh!” She said, her relief obvious, “Yeah, I had a,” she cleared her throat and tucked hair behind her ears, “Well, a stranger stalked me for a while.”

I attempted to contain ghoulish excitement. “Holy hell that is terrifying!”

Right at that moment we were interrupted by another party goer and then the passed hors d’oeuvres walked over (Philly cheesesteak egg rolls) and the conversation turned to more appropriate cocktail party topics. Eventually Michelle and I drifted apart to different circles.

Later that night she tapped me on the shoulder. “Ali just told me all about your blog,” she said pointing towards a mutual friend. “I’ve got to get home to relieve my babysitter, but I would love to tell you what happened to me, I mean, if you want to hear it. I haven’t been able to share it with many people, they’d think I’m nuts.”

We exchanged phone numbers and I enthusiastically agreed to meet Michelle at her house the following Tuesday morning. Chris came over as I slid my cell phone back into my clutch.

“Now what are you up to?” He asked.

“Nothing,” I said, innocently.

 

***

Two light pink Adirondack chairs sat in a circular patch of lush grass among the happy wildflowers dominating Michelle’s front lawn. It was the ideal place to read an Agatha Christie novel. Michelle’s front steps were impeccably crowded with overflowing pots of cheerful flowers whose names I didn’t know.

I could see into the house through the screen door. Michelle sat at her kitchen island, her back to me. I called out, “Hello!” and softly tapped at the door frame. Michelle spun around and called, “Come on in!”

I stepped into the entryway and onto a hot pink leopard print rug. The walls around me were covered in a small print wallpaper. At first glance it looked like a black and white exotic animal print, but upon closer examination I realized that small black dogs created the design.

“This wallpaper is so cool! Do you have a dog?” I asked.

“I do,” Michelle replied reluctantly. “I put him out back so he won’t be a bother. Are you allergic?”

“Thank God, no!” I replied. “Bring him in here immediately!”

Michelle laughed, “Ok, follow me.”

“I love every last thing in your house!” I gushed, peeking over at the living room as I followed Michelle past the stairs and into the kitchen. An emerald green couch, flanked by two pink buffalo-checked chairs faced a brick fireplace. The bricks were painted turquoise. Above the mantle hovered a large Gray Malin photograph; an overhead beach shot filled with sunbathers and hot pink beach umbrellas.

“Thank you,” she said over her shoulder. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s all too much.”

“No way,” I assured her.

“Grab a seat at the island,” Michelle offered walking towards a sliding glass door overlooking the backyard. She slid it open and called, “Moose! Come on, buddy!”

I was about to take a seat as she had suggested, but the second I heard the name Moose I changed my mind. I walked towards the sliding door and saw the biggest, pudgiest chocolate Labrador Retriever I’d ever seen. He walked along slowly, his tail lazily wagging until he caught sight of me. Then his pace picked up a little and his tail went crazy.

“Moose!” I called out, kneeling down.

The dog lumbered over and leaned against me throwing me off balance so that I somehow ended up with him laying across my legs on the floor.

“Moose! Off!” Michelle demanded.

“Leave him be,” I insisted, “How old is he?”

“He just turned ten,” Michelle replied, “Really, you don’t have to pet him. He’ll never leave you alone.”

“I love him,” I said, honestly.

She rolled her eyes lovingly at the dog and asked, “Can I get you some coffee?”

“Sure! Thank you.”

I sat happily on the floor snuggling Moose who appeared to be dozing off, and spotted the corner of a chicken coop in the back yard close to the woods.

“You have chickens too?” I asked/yelled.

“Yeah, I only have eight now but we used to have twelve.”

“Can I see them?” I asked.

“Of course! Come on out back, we’ll sit on the patio. Moose, off!

I poured sugar and an interesting coconut milk creamer into my hot pink mug of coffee then followed Moose and Michelle outside to a pretty brick patio. Chickens dotted the cedar-fenced yard, clucking quietly.

“I can’t even!” I exclaimed.

“They really are a riot,” Michelle said. “They’re so funny. I open the coop for them each morning and they shuffle out and poke around the yard all day. Then they walk themselves back in every evening to roost. One of them even sleeps on Moose’s back when he’s napping in the yard sometimes.”

“I’m literally dying,” I said stupidly.

“Here, sit,” Michelle motioned to a pair of pink Adirondack chairs similar to the ones in the front yard. We sat and a white garden stool stood between us acting as a little side table. The chairs faced the yard and dark forest beyond.

“I would spend my life out here,” I commented, sipping my coffee.

“I do love it,” Michelle admitted.

“I’m sorry, I’m going on and on about your house and your animals. You invited me here for a story. Is it alright if I record our conversation so I can transcribe it for the blog?”

“Sure,” she replied.

I took my recorder out of a pocket in my rain jacket, turned it on and placed it atop the garden stool. “I don’t usually write about stories like yours, but even if it doesn’t have a ghost it sounds really creepy.”

Michelle watched the chickens for a moment then glanced over at me, “It’s a really weird story,” she cautioned.

“My favorite kind,” I assured her.

Michelle took a deep breath then whispered, “Oh, what the hell.”

I sipped my coffee, excited to hear what this remarkable woman had to say. It was summer and my two oldest daughters were at camp until three o’clock. I’d recently arranged for Kat to hang in Joey’s old daycare and match her sisters’ schedules three days a week. I was feeling relaxed for the first time in I don’t know how long.  

“My story has two distinct parts,” Michelle began, “I know they’re connected even if I don’t completely understand why. But I’m certain that the stalking fueled the infestation somehow.”

“Infestation?”  

A slight breeze swayed through the trees and Michelle took a orange elastic off her wrist then pulled her hair into a ponytail. She said, “It’s really complicated. My husband and I divorced six years ago. It was nothing dramatic, we just let ourselves grow in different directions. He got caught up with work and I got caught up managing our social lives; getting into the ‘right’ crowd, going on the ‘right’ vacations, making everything look perfect,” Michelle was an air quotes person, I smiled to myself. I love people who do air quotes. She continued, “We just stopped paying attention to each other unless it was to put on a show when we went out with our ‘friends.’ Predictably, he cheated with a young woman at his office and then it was over.

“It was hard, especially on the kids, but we untangled everything and sold the big house so we could each buy something smaller here in town. He’s a good dad. I like him, but we weren’t good for each other, you know what I mean? Anyway, that’s how I ended up in this house.”  

“It’s a beautiful place,” I said awkwardly. The story of the end of her marriage was more terrifying than any ghost story I’d ever heard. It was so simple, so dangerous. I wanted to cross myself and knock on wood and throw salt over my shoulder to protect myself from the possibility of it.

“I love this house,” Michelle said, quietly, “But it’s taken awhile to get there. About two years ago I began to notice that things were a bit off every once in awhile. It was small things. My keys wouldn’t be where I left them, or dishes that I swore I’d left in the sink would all be clean sitting in the drying rack when I got home.”

“Uh oh,” I breathed.

“And it wasn’t the kids,” she continued quickly. “Greg, my ex, and I split time with them every week and these things would only happen when I had the house to myself.

“One day just as I opened the front door I heard that sliding glass door off the kitchen shut. I rushed right out here, thinking someone had broken in, but no one was there. It freaked me out, but I wasn’t sure if maybe I’d imagined hearing it. I hadn’t lived alone since I was- well, actually, I’d never lived alone before. I had roommates in the city after college and then I moved in with Greg. So I wondered if maybe I was just being paranoid, or forgetful.

“There were other little things, the bathroom door slammed shut once when I was in the shower. I heard footsteps in the guest bedroom above the living room. Doors that I swore I had locked would be unlocked. Eventually, I accepted that I was either losing my mind or there was a ghost in my house.”

“Wait,” I interrupted, “a ghost?”

“Yes, at the time I thought it was the only explanation. I tentatively mentioned what was happening to a couple of my girlfriends and one of them, she’s kind of a New Age type, suggested that we hold a seance. I didn’t believe in anything supernatural back then, really I was just afraid that I was getting early onset Alzheimer’s or dementia, so I was actually hoping I had a ghost. So when my friend brought over a Ouija board-”

Michelle,” I groaned. “Tell me you didn’t.”

“I thought it would just be something amusing to do while we drank a couple bottles of wine. I even bought a bunch of candles and this pretty glitter table cloth to set the mood.”

“What happened?” I asked.

Michelle stared at the woods, she said, “We got one message, the board spelled out man and cellar, neither of which meant anything to me at the time. Oh, and it also spelled out invited.”

“Oh geez, did you look go look in the basement?”

“Yes, my friend insisted that we go down to investigate that very night, though we didn’t find a thing. After that evening things continued to happen in the house, but it all took a turn. It got, really weird. My belongings wouldn’t simply be misplaced, they’d go missing completely. The gas fireplace, which I never use, was turned on several times when I woke up in the morning and then one night I came home from having dinner with a friend and all of the doors to the house were wide open. I went directly to my neighbor’s house and asked him to walk in with me to make sure no one was in there. I was still thinking it was a ghost doing these things, and I didn’t want to go in there alone, but he insisted we call the police. I did. They didn’t find anyone and nothing was missing. But,” Michelle looked over at me, considering.

“What?” I asked impatiently.

“I keep all of my grandmother’s china on a high shelf in the kitchen and that night it was all spread out around the kitchen floor.”

“Someone smashed it all? That’s terrible!”

“No, no,” Michelle said, shaking her head. “The pieces weren’t broken, they were arranged all around the kitchen floor. It was really weird.”

I groaned, “Ok, that is much worse.”

“It was,” she agreed. “After that happened I accepted that I had a ghost in my house. I tried talking to it. I sat in my kitchen and told it that it was welcome to stay but that it had to stop messing around with my things.”

I scrunched up my nose and shook my head.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said, her voice raising. “My daughter told me that when she woke up in the morning she’d find the books from her book shelf situated across the floor in little stacks. She thought maybe she was doing it in her sleep and I didn’t want to scare her and tell her what else had been happening in the house. Then my son said he’d woken up and heard footsteps outside his door in the middle of the night.”

“Ugh,” I breathed.

“He told me it sounded like a small dog pacing around. He peeked his head out into the hallway and didn’t see anything so he convinced himself that he’d been dreaming. I didn’t tell him that heard the same thing several nights before.”

“Could it have been Moose?” I asked, hopefully.

“No, he sleeps next to me and I close my bedroom door at night. The fact was, things were escalating. My coffee table would be moved just enough so that I would bang my knee on it when I walked past. The shower head would be turned out towards the bathroom so when I turned on the faucet I’d got soaked. If I grabbed a Diet Coke from the fridge it would explode when I opened it like it had been shaken. It was constant.”

“What an annoying ghost,” I commented, hiding a smile.

“It wasn’t a ghost,” Michelle said, staring straight ahead.

“Oh no, don’t tell me it was your stalker,” I said, feeling the first twinge of fear.

“I was sitting at my kitchen island eating dinner one night. It was a Friday and I’d gotten home from work about an hour earlier, I was trying to relax because the kids were with Greg for the weekend.  

“So, I get this text from my nextdoor neighbor, Tiff, asking if I was home. I texted back that I was there, I figured she wanted me to let her dog out or something, but she immediately replied, ‘I’m calling you. Answer the phone and agree with what I am saying, OK?’ So then I figured she was at some event that she needed to get out of and wanted me to pretend to be an urgent phone call.”

Michelle took a deep breath, “My cell phone rang and I answered it saying something like, ‘What are you stuck at a PTO mixer or something?’ But Tiff said, ‘Shut up and listen to me. There is a man in the crawl space at the side of your house. Don’t panic, just say something else about the PTO so I know you’re alright.’”

“Oh my God,” I breathed, I’d prefer ghost china plate floor checkers over this any day.  

“I was so terrified that I couldn’t speak. Tiff insisted that I say something so she knew I was alright, so I whispered, “I don’t like the PTO.”

Despite how terrifying her story was, I laughed at Michelle’s response.

“Thank God for her,” Michelle said, sharing the laugh. “She’d seen the guy come out of the woods behind my house, crouch near the sliding glass door for a while then open the old root cellar on the side of my home closest to hers and walk in. She’d called the police before she called me.

“Tiff told me, ‘I’m going to ring your doorbell right now, open the door and come outside.’ So, I did. I called for Moose to follow me and the doorbell rang. I rushed out and the two of us sprinted to her house together.”

I realized that I had been holding my breath. “Who was it?” I demanded.

Michelle shook her head and took a sip of coffee. “Edward Koch, a man from my moving company.”

What?” I said, shocked.

“He was one of the guys who’d helped move my stuff from my old house into this house. The night he was arrested he confessed to ‘watching out for me’ ever since he’d helped me move in. He told them that he was worried about me being alone so close to the woods so he checked on me whenever he could.”

Shut up,” I breathed.

“The guy was psychotic. I told the police about all the strange things that had been happening in my home and Edward confessed to ‘letting himself in once in awhile.’” Since she’d begun to tell me about Edward Koch, the air quotes had been flying and Michelle began to show a rage that must have been simmering just beneath the surface all along. She continued, “He admitted that he may have ‘tidied up for me’ for me a few times but he absolutely denied doing anything with my china or moving any of the furniture. The detectives I spoke with told me that he’d become enraged when they accused him of turning on my gas fireplace. I guess he ranted on and on about how that was exactly why I ‘needed’ him there watching over me.”

“Oh, Michelle,” I said sadly, unable to imagine how terrifying it would be to realize that not only had someone been stalking you for months, they’d been in your home while you were there without knowing it. I thought of Chris and my girls and the dumb luck that had kept us safe all these years. I wanted to insist that Michelle come live with us in our tiny home. I wanted to scream about the state of our mental health care and legal systems. I wanted to have the super power that I’ve always wanted: the ability to touch someone’s hand and make them forget their most painful memory but hold onto any good that it brought them.

Michelle and I sat silently, each lost in our own thoughts for several minutes.  

Moose walked over and sat at Michelle’s feet, his lawn patrol over. “It was awful and surreal and scary but here’s the really bad part. They swabbed him and a D.N.A. match came up. It was connected with the murder of a woman in Holliston in 2015. She was found raped and strangled in her kitchen.”

No,” I said, quietly.

“Her name was Emily. She ran a catering company out of her home and she had two children, two girls. She was recently divorced and had used the same moving company.”

“Michelle,” I stammered, trying to process her story.

“I looked up her photo online, I look just like her.”

“My God, I am so sorry. Oh, thank God your neighbor saw him that night.”

“I know, I got lucky. As awful as it all was it woke me up. I look back at the me I was before all of that happened and I don’t even recognize myself. I drank too much and ate too much and cared too much about what everyone else thought of me and my life. I nearly had a nervous breakdown over what everyone would think about my divorce.

“Even my friends, they weren’t really friends. They were people that I partied and gossiped with. I had no idea who I was so I just relied on everyone else to tell me who they wanted me to be and as you can imagine, once my marriage fell apart, I wasn’t what those people wanted me to be any longer.

“And I was hurting, you know? My soul hurt. The circle of ‘friends’ I’d built around myself certainly didn’t want to deal with that,” Michelle picked at a cuticle absently as she spoke.  

“So I had been muddling my way through that and meanwhile, Edward Koch was stalking me and I didn’t even know it. Once I’d found out about poor Emily things just snapped. It’s strange to say but it was a clean before and after. It took some time to untangle my life and it’s a total work in progress, but I don’t think I’m a total asshole anymore.”

I gave a short laugh despite fighting back tears, “You don’t come across as an asshole,” I said.

Michelle looked at me for a long minute. Longer than felt comfortable.

Finally she said, “I’m going to tell you something absolutely insane, so just remember your first impression of me ok?”

“Ok,” I agreed, crossing my fingers out of habit. Though Michelle seemed grounded, she was almost too grounded for having gone through such trauma. I was getting a vibe, but I couldn’t place it.

“Edward Koch wasn’t the only thing in my house,” Michelle whispered, as though she didn’t want Moose or the chickens to hear her.

“What do you mean?”  

“He opened the path for a gremlin,” she said so quietly that I almost couldn’t hear her.

I laughed nervously, unable to think of a response.

“A real gremlin,” she insisted, leaning towards me. “It came in from the woods. His energy called the thing forward.”

I stared out at the woods and considered leaving. Immediately. When I looked back Michelle was smiling and staring at me, which made me even more uncomfortable. She said, “You are going to think I am off my rocker. I knew it. This is why I never talk about what happened.”

“Well, what did happen?” I asked cautiously. I placed my coffee mug on the garden stool next to me. I wanted to be able to jump up if I had to. Should I take Moose with me? I wondered, panicked. What about all the chickens? They’re better off here, my dogs would kill them. But they’ll absolutely love Moose…

Michelle interrupted my frantic plans saying, “Things were nuts after that man was arrested. My husband was afraid to let the kids stay with me. I suppose I was worried about it too, but I couldn’t stand being home alone. Every noise, every creak or crack was an intruder. Greg insisted that I install a security system, which I did but it didn’t make me feel any safer.

“I had the door to the root cellar sealed off so no one could get in there again. But I began having these horrible dreams that I got sealed in there by Edward. I dreamt of the sliver of light disappearing as he spackled over the door.

“I began to obsess about the space. I had these irrational circular thoughts that maybe my handyman had trapped someone in the root cellar when he sealed it off. I would wake up in the middle of the night consumed with the idea that I had to go right then to unseal the door and check. But I never went because I was terrified of being outside by myself, especially at night.

“The police found a tree set back a bit, over there,” Michelle pointed to a spot in the woods past the chicken coop, “There’s an oak tree in there and apparently Edward would climb it and watch my windows at night. They found a waterproof bag nailed to it. It held binoculars, a black facemask and a few Power Bars.”

“He was out there long enough to snack while he watched you?” I interrupted.

“Mm hmm. In court I listened to him brag about spending every moment he could making sure that I was safe. The weirdest thing was that I saw an evidence photo of the bag and its contents during the trial. The Power Bars were my favorite flavor. I never asked whether it was just a coincidence, you know? That we just happened to have the same taste for energy bars or if he actually knew that about me.”

Michelle stopped talking and stared at the trees, lost in thought again.

“What kind of Power Bar was it?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Protein Plus chocolate mint cookie,” she said, looking over at me.

“Uck. Well, that couldn’t have been a coincidence. I can’t imagine many people eat those for enjoyment.”

Michelle began giggling and then started to full on laugh.

I smiled awkwardly.

“Oh it was all so ridiculous!” She said finally, catching her breath. “It was the most ridiculous thing that ever could have happened! A man sitting in a tree eating protein bars watching me through binoculars! And for months!” She tossed the dregs of her coffee onto the grass with a flick of her wrist. “I still get caught up in it sometimes, though. Wondering what he saw in me that made me his target.”

“The guy sounds like a budding serial killer and you were unlucky enough to match his victim type,” I reasoned.

“I know that, but it’s hard not to feel like I somehow did something to catch his attention and bring it on myself. And there he was, right there,” she pointed again to the woods, “and I had absolutely no idea.”

“What was the deal with the root cellar, though?” I asked wondering if she was ever going to tell me about the gremlin. And wondering if I even wanted to know.

“Oh, the police found black plastic garbage bags, zip ties and duct tape in there. They believe he planned to kill me and then bury my body in the root cellar.” Michelle gave an exaggerated shiver, then said, “But I was going to tell you about the little monster. The one he let into my house.”

“The gremlin,” I said, slowly.

“Yes. You know, they aren’t like the ones from the movie. They act like them though, they’re mean-spirited and they have an extremely dark sense of humor.”

“How did you know it was in your house?” I asked cautiously, wondering if the monsters were only a manifestation of post-traumatic stress.

“At first I suspected that it was just a post-traumatic stress,” she admitted.

Well, at least she considered it, I thought.

“But the problem was that some of the things that had been happening in my house when that man was stalking me continued to happen. For a time I really thought that I was losing my mind. Edward was in jail. He couldn’t be doing it. I wondered if it was me. I thought maybe I was somehow blacking out and doing these things in a sort of PTSD episode.”

“What sorts of things were happening? The furniture moving and stuff?”

“Yes, especially the couch. I came down one morning and it was facing the opposite direction. Nothing else was disturbed in the room.”

“Get out of here.”

“No, really,” she insisted, “It was as though someone had just picked it up and spun it around. There weren’t any drag marks on the carpet.”

“Oh my God, what did you do? I would have thought some other crazy person had broken in.”

“That’s exactly what I thought. I ran out and went straight to the neighbors to call the police.”

“Good girl,” I said, nodding my head.

“It was so embarrassing, really. They didn’t find anything and I know they suspected that I had moved the couch for attention or something. Even my neighbor was looking at me funny.

“So after that, when things happened I didn’t call the police anymore. I needed proof first, so I set up the cameras.”

“Uh oh,” I said quietly.

“The first thing I did was have that root cellar unsealed. I couldn’t get the damn thing out of my mind. It may have been me just fixating on it as some sort of after effect from the stalking. Whatever it was, I had to open it back up. The alarm company arranged cameras all over the exterior of the house. One was trained right on that root cellar door, two more on the back yard and one over the front door.

“I asked them to install cameras in every single room of the house too. I know the technician thought I was paranoid, but what was I supposed to do? Any time I mentioned to my ex-husband or to one of my friends that things were still happening in the house they tip-toed around mentioning medication and psychiatrists. I had to prove that something was happening in this house.

“I thought I would just capture things moving on their own or best case scenario an actual ghost fumbling around with my stuff-”

“Best case scenario?” I interrupted. “That sounds like the worst case to me.”

“No, that’s not the worst case. It can get much worse than that.”

I stared at her.

“You know what? Let’s go inside,” she said suddenly. “I’m still not comfortable being near these woods for too long.”

I was torn. Which was worse? Being inside with a couch moving gremlin, or outside where a PowerBar eating creeper once lurked? I had no choice really, so I followed her back inside, somewhat relieved when I realized Moose would tag along.

“Let’s sit in the living room,” she suggested.

“Are you sure?” I blurted.

“Yes,” she replied with a smile. “The gremlin is gone now. I promise.”

She refilled my coffee cup and grabbed a tin foil covered tray and two plates. I followed her to the front of the house and into the living room. The emerald green couch sat there, almost daring me to sit down upon it. I chose one of the happy pink arm chairs self-consciously. Michelle chose its twin.

She placed the plates on the table and unwrapped the tray and I gasped.

Michelle said, “Oh no, do you like pastries? I made these yesterday, they are cheese and raspberry danishes.”

“They’re beautiful,” I said sincerely.

“Here, have one, or two, really, I don’t want to eat them all myself.”

“Thank you,” I replied, accepting a plate. Michelle watched me take a bite and I closed my eyes and nodded. The things were delicious.

“Alright, where did I leave off? Oh, the cameras. Right, so one night I was walking up the stairs to bed and something bit me on the back of my leg.”

“What?”

“It hurt so much that it almost felt like I’d been burned. I spun around and didn’t see anything but the basket on the hallway table,” she gestured towards the stairway, visible from where we were sitting. A long table ran along the wall beneath the stairs, a wicker basket filled with magazines and envelopes sat at its center. “That basket fell and spilled mail all over the floor just seconds after I was bitten.

“My initial thought was that a raccoon had gotten into the house. I was afraid it might be rabid so I called 911. They sent animal control and an ambulance which was totally unnecessary. The animal control officer was great. She looked at the bite on my leg to get an idea for the size of the animal. She took some time studying it and I could tell that she didn’t recognize the bite mark. She insisted that I show her Moose’s rabies vaccination certificate just in case the thing came out and bit him,” Michelle grimaced at the thought. “After that she searched the house, top to bottom. She didn’t find anything.

“I assured her and the paramedics that I would contact my doctor for my own rabies vaccinations and then they left.”

“How did you stay here?” I asked.

“I holed up with Moose in my bedroom. I brought a broom with me thinking that I could swat an animal away if it tried to attack me.”

“Good Lord,” I said, shaking my head.

“It was only then that I remembered the cameras. There wasn’t one facing the stairway, exactly, but one was positioned to capture the entire entryway. The alarm company arranged it so that I could log into their system and watch the feed from all of the cameras and I paid extra, a lot extra, so that none of the camera recordings in my home would ever be deleted. I wanted the ability to review any date or time any time I wanted.

“All that was well and good but that night, locked securely in the bedroom, I realized that I’d left the laptop in the kitchen and I had to go downstairs to get it. I held that damn broom out in front of me like a sword.” Michelle laughed a little. “When I got back to my room I logged in and found the footage from the foyer.

“I was able to watch the scene as I walked through the foyer though I didn’t have a view of me climbing the stairs. But I heard myself cry out when I was bitten and then there was this blur right before the mail basket fell over. I rewatched the moment several times and then tinkered around with the settings until I was able to brighten the picture slightly.

“That was the first time I actually saw it.”

“The gremlin.”

“Yes. He was small. Only about a foot tall, if that. He’d knocked over the basket as he swung himself through the stair poles. Then I saw a flash of him dropping to the ground and running towards the kitchen.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said in disbelief. “You really caught one of them on tape?”

“I did. I rewound the footage further, and I actually saw him creeping along behind me in the hallway. He had followed me up the stairs.”

Here I was stuck in-between complete disbelief and sheer terror. Either this woman had completely lost touch with reality after her stalking nightmare or I was now living in a fresh new hell where gremlins existed.

“Can I see the video?” I asked.

“Oh sure. Let me grab my laptop,” Michelle said brightly.

Shit, I thought.  

Michelle placed the laptop in front of me and clicked around to get to the correct file. I noticed that there were three other files alongside it in the folder named “Gremlin.” Each was titled with a date and time. I felt frightened.

I leaned forward as a black and white video began to play on the screen. The picture was quite clear, Michelle must have invested a fortune on her surveillance system. She sat on the arm of my chair and watched me watching the video. For a moment all I saw was a still view of the entryway. The perspective was set to watch over the front door and it captured most of the hallway and the very edge of the staircase and the long hall table with it’s mail basket.

I glanced up at the very table I was watching on the screen. It was chilling. Looking back down at the computer screen I watched as Michelle’s back came into view. She was walking towards the front door wearing a pair of boxer shorts and a t-shirt. She stopped to check that the deadbolt was in place then turned to walk up the steps. A few beats later I heard her say, “Ouch! Damn it all!” And a blink of an eye later the basket on the table flew off onto the ground. The entire scene took less than fifteen seconds.

“Did you see it?” Michelle asked.

I shook my head. I hadn’t seen anyone but Michelle.
“He’s fast and light, look again. Focus your attention behind me, at my feet,” she instructed. She replayed the clip. We watched and I focused on the area around Michelle’s ankles.

Then I saw it.

I gasped and pointed, but could not speak.

“You saw him,” Michelle said quietly.

“Play it again,” I demanded, then, “Please.”

She played it again and I saw the damn thing again.

He (She? It?) was small, just as Michelle had described. It, let’s just go with “it”, was right at Michelle’s ankles. I don’t know how it didn’t bump into her it was moving so close. It didn’t look like the gremlins from, well, Gremlins, it was like a small misshapen person. I couldn’t see the details of it, but it made me think of a funny-looking Ken doll with thick arms and legs and a head of bushy hair. The head was disproportionately large for its body and the thing could move. When it sort of threw itself through the stairway poles and kicked over the basket it was more of a flash than anything else.

I played the clip again. Trying really hard to explain away the little creature.

Finally I asked, “Who else have you shown this to?”

“No one!” Michelle exclaimed, standing up and walking back to her chair.

“Why not? You have proof that creatures are real! Oh my God, creatures are real. I mean I know that. I know that little man I saw in my own home and I’ve talked to people about Black Eyed Kids and lizard monsters and other stuff. But oh my God. It’s all real,” I insisted as though she didn’t know, “What are we going to do? We have to tell someone.”

I was having a moment, and I admit that it wasn’t one of my best.

“We can’t tell anyone,” Michelle replied calmly.

I stared at her for a moment and then I felt somewhat comforted by a feeling of suspicion rising within me. “You swear this is real?”

Michelle smiled, “It’s real. But what do you think people would do if I showed this around? They’d want to ‘debunk’ it or whatever those paranormal groups always say. I would be accused of trying to get attention, or being a fake.

“It’s not like people haven’t had proof of the supernatural before. There are photos and videos floating all over the internet. Believe me, I’ve spent hours on Reddit and Google, and every weirdo chatroom about cryptids. No one will believe me and I will end up looking like a total freak.”

I didn’t know what to say, but I knew she was right. I looked back down at the computer screen. “Are the other files I saw more videos of the gremlin?”

She nodded. “I recorded three other instances. The gremlin did that thing with my grandmother’s china in the kitchen again. It locked poor Moose in the root cellar and there was a situation with the chickens.”

“Did it hurt them?” I asked, worried.

“No, I don’t think so, but it ‘messed’ with them,” she replied waving a hand as if to wave away the idea.  

“Oh.” I tried not to look completely disgusted.

“It was awful, it was-”

I held up my hand, “I get the idea,” I said, cutting her off. There was only so much I could handle. “But how did you get rid of it? I mean, you really got rid of it, right?”

Michelle nodded. “There’s a medium in town, I’d heard about her through my New Age-y friend.”

“The one who brought over the Ouija board?”

“Yes, same friend. I emailed Shannon, the medium, and told her about the situation in my house and I asked if she could help me. She emailed back immediately and suggested that she visit my home that very afternoon. So she came right over and eventually got rid of the thing.”

“Wait, back up. How?”

“Um, well I guess the first thing that she did was determine what kind of gremlin I had. Turns out mine was of the Sugna breed. Some gremlins are attracted to interfering with electronics or mechanical things. They ruin cell phones and televisions or create expensive problems with one’s car. My gremlin was drawn to household mischief. My feelings of confusion and frustration fueled it, but Edward Koch’s horrible intentions towards me attracted it to my property in the first place.

“He wanted to cause the worst disruption in my household, to control and watch and ultimately kill me. He spent so much time in those woods thinking about what he was going to do to me that he drew the gremlin out.”

“How in the hell did the woman know all of this?”

“She grew up in Ireland, she made it sound like all of this just common knowledge there.”

“Alright, then how did she get rid of the thing?”

“She had me get rid of all of the mirrors in my home and cover the reflective surfaces with an orange cloth. I guess the color ‘vibrates positivity’ and the little buggers hate that. Somehow, when they are out of nature they are able to live in the mirrors or other reflective surfaces, so removing the mirrors or covering them up takes away their ability to inhabit them.”

“Reflective surfaces? I mean, that could be a million things. Like silverware and the toaster and-”

“Even the silver handle on my toilet,” Michelle confirmed. “It all had to either go or get wrapped up in orange.”

“For how long?”

“Thirty-three days. Throughout that time, on every third day, Shannon came to my house and together we smudged the property line with thyme, sage and myrrh. First we walked around three times counterclockwise, then three times clockwise.

“On day twenty-seven we knew that we’d finally chased the thing out because as it was running back into the woods it flipped that patio table over and smashed it’s glass top. We were doing the smudging and we were at the front of the house, so we didn’t see the thing, just heard the crash. It was like its last act of mischief. Its last hurrah before going back into the forest.

“Shannon completed the day’s smudging and then grabbed three bottles of mead from her car. She poured it along the entire property line, setting up a barrier so that the gremlin could never come back.”

I absorbed the details of the gremlin purging ritual for a moment then said, “Man alive, Michelle, you’ve been through the ringer. You’re incredible. I would be rocking in the corner if half of what you just said had happened to me.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not all girl power rainbows here. I still have a really hard time trusting people that I don’t know. In fact, I Googled the hell out of you,” she admitted, smiling.

“Did anything good come up?” I asked, embarrassed.

“There was a really cute public access video of you and your husband talking about running the Boston marathon for Beth Israel.”

I covered my face with my hands and groaned, “The one where it looks like I am sucking on a lemon the entire time?”

“Ha, yeah I guess so, but it was sweet,” she reassured me.

We talked a bit longer then said our goodbyes. I walked out the front door and through the garden. Whereas it had felt so peaceful and beautiful when I’d first seen Michelle’s front yard, after hearing Michelle’s story I now watched my step as though the garden were full of rattlesnakes.

I got into the car and gently placed an egg carton on the passenger seat. Michelle had given me a dozen eggs from her hens. I threw them out in a garbage can in front of Roche Brothers before I got home. A gremlin/chicken hybrid running around the house would probably be the straw that broke me.

panasonic

Nocturnal Druid contacted me through the blog. I met her in Starbuck’s and her bouncy brown ponytail,  farmer’s tan, adorable freckles and tiny figure eight tattoo on the inside of her left wrist were a surprise. Though she appeared to be in her mid-to-late thirties, our initial phone conversation lead me to believe I would be meeting a middle-aged heavy smoker. It was during that phone call that Noc explained that though she wasn’t a Welleslian herself, she had a story about a Wellesley family that I had to hear.

“I found you through an article in Wellesley Weston Magazine,” Noc explained.

“Oh, that,” I replied, a little embarrassed. “Yeah, they published part of the Dump Swap story last October.”

“Did you really see that little ghost girl?”

“I did,” I admitted.

“Cool, not many people have seen a full-on ghost.”

I considered. Noc was a ghost hunter so she’d probably seen many strange things in her time, but despite that little ghost girl and the creatures we’d seen in our home, I still didn’t know what I thought about the paranormal. I said, “I’ve spent so many years wanting to see something that really scared me, but now that I have it’s more confusing than thrilling, you know?”

Noc nodded her head in agreement. She said, “I was on this investigation once, in an abandoned mental hospital. Those places are freakin’ terrifying at night and they’re drenched in every single bad feeling you’ve ever had. So, I’m walking down this long hallway with doors on both sides, right?  And I keep thinking that I see something out of the corner of my eye in every room I pass. But when I look in? Nothing.

“Then I’m almost to the end of the hallway and again I see something in my periphery. So I look over thinking that it’ll just be a trick of the light, you know, shadows from my flashlight or something, but it wasn’t. There was a nurse in scrubs standing right there in the middle of that room. She was as real as you are now. I made eye contact with her for like, five seconds, and then she just turned and walked to the corner of the room, out of sight.”

“And that’s when I would have wet my pants,” I blurted out.

“Ha!” Noc laughed, “I just about did and I totally didn’t sleep for weeks, I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing her. But really it left me with more questions. It didn’t add up. What the hell was that woman doing there? Was it really a woman or only, like, a memory of a woman? Or just a figment of my imagination? If that’s all it was then how did she follow me along that night, through all those rooms? I get being terrified and hallucinating, but this was complicated. ‘The ghost,’” Noc does finger quotations, “Sort of lulled me into thinking there was nothing there and then showed itself at just the right moment.”

“Like it was messing with you,” I observed.

“Exactly. What motivation would a ghost nurse have for screwing with me like that?” “Maybe she was mad you were in her space,” I guessed.

“Do you really think so?” Noc pressed.

“No,” I admitted.

Noc was silent for a moment, staring at the buzzing baristas at the coffee counter. Then she asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“Ghosts?” I echoed. “Yes, I mean I don’t know anymore. The more I talk to people and now that I have some head space to really think about what happened in my house, I think ghosts might be a red herring.”

“Then what is it? What are people experiencing?”

I picked at the cardboard sleeve around my latte, considering. I had formed the beginning of an opinion about the paranormal, but I knew it wasn’t a popular one among the ghost hunting set.

Finally I said, “Sure there are ghosts, you know dead people with unfinished business or loved ones they want to watch over or whatever. But I think for the most part,  it’s all some sort of deception.”

“Mm hmm,” she prodded, “But by whom?”

“Demons,” I admitted, quietly.

“Bingo,” she declared loudly, causing a businessman sitting at the table next to ours to jump.

“Wait, you think so too?” I said quietly, surprised.

“Yes!” Noc insisted, nodding her head enthusiastically. “Granted I think there are lesser gods like the earth spirits, but we know there is a hierarchy to the demonic and they can probably make themselves, you know-”

“Look like anything they want us to see,” I interjected.

“Exactly!”

“I never talk to anyone about this,” I admitted. “I’m afraid they’ll think I’m an alarmist or a Bible thumper or something.”

“Even Biddy?”

“She keeps her cards pretty close to the chest. Honestly, I don’t really know what she thinks, other than that it is dangerous to go looking into the darkness,” I said. “What made you start to suspect the paranormal was more diabolical than ghostly?”

“How old are you?” Noc asked.

“Um, thirty-” I paused, racking my brain. “Eight. I’m thirty-eight.”

“OK, well, I’m thirty-six so we were probably on the same track in terms of popular ghost theories, you know? We’ve been fed the same story over and over. Ghosts are trapped spirits who retain the personalities they had in life.”

“That old ‘if he was a jerk in life then he’ll probably be a jerk in death’ line,” I commented.

“Totally. Except, what do we know about people who’ve had near death experiences? They typically come back saying that everything we’ve ever worried about in life simply disappears and we become peaceful and even repentant for the wrongs we’ve done. So how does an angry ‘ghost,’” more finger quotes, “stomping around in an attic jive with that?”

“I’d never really thought about it that way,” I admitted.

“Yeah, well, it’s more than just that. I’ve been an investigator for almost nine years. When I started I bought the whole dead people theory but after years of investigating I can’t make my experiences fit into that narrative any longer.

“I’m not talking about the truly residual stuff,” she said quickly, waving a hand in dismissal. “Those may really be time slips or strong emotions or energy, left behind. We’ve all walked into a room after an argument, and the vibe is just different, you know? And then all those stories about dead loved ones visiting in dreams or just as they pass over – those anecdotes are always positive and loving even if that person was a jerk in life, so that I can buy.

“But dead people intentionally interacting with the living in a negative way? That I don’t buy. Why would dead people be so petty?

“Part of it is selfish, I suppose,” she went on. “I don’t even want to entertain the possibility that I might get stuck here messing with people in the middle of the night in my old house. I mean, aren’t we supposed to transcend a bit?

“You’re biting your nails,” Noc said abruptly.

“Sorry,” I apologized quickly, “I’ve had the same suspicions and you’re making me nervous. What do you think is really happening?”

“I think we are part of a game,” she replied, lowering her voice. “The devil fell to earth with thousands of other disobedient angels, right? So if the earth belongs to the devil and it appears that he can’t reach us once we are off this field, then he’s got to do his best to catch as many of us as he can while we’re here, right? And deception, like you said, is his greatest tool.”

“Yeah, and you know what else I keep coming back to?” I asked. “Distraction. It is our way of life now, we just live distracted. So there are some people who obsess about shopping or their looks, money, work, their phones, their kids, and then there are other people, like us who are distracted by this whole other world. And no matter what we are most distracted by I think the demons are right there, able to insert their, like, influence where we are most vulnerable.”

“I’ve only read a couple of your interviews, but I just knew we were on the same wavelength!” Noc declared. “I think we are getting suspicious at this particular point in time because they’re getting lazy.”

“What do you mean? It feels like things are crazier than ever,” I said.

“Oh, I totally agree that they have been ramping up their efforts, but their techniques for scaring us are stale. They’re wearing out their gimmicks, right? I mean, how many apparitions in Civil War garb or long white nightgowned ghosts can there be? How about the haunting smell of rosewater perfume or cigar smoke, or-”

“Ghost kids rolling balls across the floor,” I added.

“You got it,” she said pointing at me.

“But wait, if you really think it is all demons then why are still ghost hunting?”

“Think about it. They can’t touch us, that’s their biggest deception; convincing everyone that they actually have any power over any of us. We don’t belong to them. Never have. I like a good scare, that’s all.”

“You best be careful,” I cautioned. “Just because they can’t get you after you die doesn’t mean they can’t make your life hell.”

“Alright, true. But, and maybe this is the distraction you were talking about, but sometimes they do something truly terrifying, and I want to be there to see it. Sometimes they actually get creative. There was one haunting in Wellesley that I investigated a while back and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. When I came across your blog I knew you’d want to hear about it.”

“I can’t wait,” I said, though honestly I was a bit hesitant. If a ghost nurse simply confused her, I thought, what did she consider truly terrifying?

“So, I’m the case manager for a team of four paranormal investigators,” Noc began. “My husband Tyler is our lead tech specialist. I mean, we all have a working knowledge of the equipment but he’s the expert. We have two investigators, Patricia our team psychologist, and Maurice the demonologist. Oh and actually, this kid does most of the evidence analysis, you know after the investigation he reviews the hours of audio and video footage, marking events for us. He doesn’t come along on investigations though.”

“Ok,” I said, “But, a psychologist and a demonologist? That’s impressive.”

“Well, our clients usually need one or the other,” she replied, “Or both.”

“Lord help us,” I sighed, then asked, “What’s the name of your team?”

“Para Investigations.”

“Nice,” I commented, “How do you get cases?”

“Ty runs the website and we field inquiries from there. People contact us through the site, they are required to leave a phone number so that I can call them after an initial email response.  I don’t trust email to get an accurate read on a situation. Some people are just looking for drama and I can only really tell if they’re seriously in trouble when I have an actual conversation with them.

“After that preliminary phone interview I set a time for an in person meeting and a walk through of the haunted property. I bring Patricia along so she can make a quick evaluation of the client’s mental state. Once we get a read on the situation we either refer the client out to more appropriate resources, like mental health professionals or other medical help and then follow up with them over the next month or so to be sure they are getting the help they need. But if I believe our team is the appropriate group to help the family we take the case.

“If we accept a case I do some background research on the property’s history to prepare and we set a date for our team to go in and investigate. And we don’t just investigate a home for only one night like most teams, we spend seventy-two hours at the place. The whole team spends all three nights together and at least two of us are present in the home during the daytime as well.”

“Like that television show,” I interrupted.

“Yeah, sort of,” Noc said with a smile. “Anyway, once the investigation is done we review the evidence and I arrange for a client meeting, typically about a week later. We go over our findings and conclusions with the family and line up all of the resources they will need to resolve the haunting, if that is what they wish to do. I stay in touch with the people over the next few months, then taper off contact throughout the following year unless they need us again.”

“Man,” I said, impressed. “Do you charge for this?”

“Never!” Noc barked causing the businessman to look over at us.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply-”

“Of course you didn’t,” she affirmed, “It’s just that charging for a paranormal investigation is such outlandish bullshit. Our service points people to other people who maybe might possibly be able to help them. We’re just grateful that our clients allow us into their homes. Honestly, we should pay them. How else would we find the so-called ghosts?”

“That’s true,” I agreed.

“I know it sounds pretty involved, and it is. Even though I walk through around thirty or forty properties a year we only take on between seven and ten of those cases. A case has to be pretty extreme for us to commit. I’m not spending three days and nights in a house that only has occasional wall taps or slamming doors. The amount of time and effort we put into our investigations has to be worth it.”

“But what about the houses with the banging and slamming doors?” I asked, feeling protective and worried for those people.

“We have their homes blessed or refer them out to a different team. I mean, we help them, we just don’t camp out and give them the full court press.”

I took a sip of my latte, considering then said, “Wow, three full nights in a legitimately haunted house. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever seen?”

“I’m about to tell you,” Noc replied with a smile.

“Oh man,” I breathed.

Noc leaned forward, “So about a year and a half ago, Ty forwarded me this email inquiry from our website. It was from a woman in Wellesley who was convinced that her house was haunted and that her oldest child was being targeted by the spirit. I responded with my usual list of questions and she emailed back immediately so I picked up the phone to call her.

“She told me about the house. They’d only lived there for a couple months and they’d done a small amount of renovations before they’d moved in. She mentioned some strange things had happened during renovations but the family had been out of state at that time and only heard about them second hand from the contractor.

“So, there were four kids in the family but the mother told me that only one of them, the oldest daughter, was being sort of ‘pursued’ by the spirit. The girl had begun fighting with her siblings and wasn’t sleeping well. She was even sleep walking and hearing voices.

“This woman was convincing enough that I agreed to check the place out, but really I thought we’d just be referring them out to a pediatric psychologist.

“But I knew we might have a real case on our hands the second Patricia and I pulled into the driveway. The home was on a busy road and it had a little stream running through the back yard. As we were walking up the front door a train blew past the back of the property. The house was right on the commuter line. There was a hell of a lot of energy swirling around and, I’m telling you, it wasn’t positive.

“The house was really small, too small for a family with four kids. Laura, the client, opened the door before I even had a chance to knock and she kind of shooed us into the living room off the foyer-”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, holding my hand out. “This wasn’t the Arnold family, was it?”

“Yeah,” Noc said, her brow furrowed, “Michael and Laura Arnold and their daughter-”

“Lilith,” I said.

“How the hell do you know that?”

“They were like my third or fourth interview!” I exclaimed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Noc said, laughing.

“No, really,” I insisted. “I remember they told me they’d had a ghost hunting team in at one point. You didn’t read their interview on my blog?”

“No,” Noc said, laughing, “I’ve got to read it! Did she tell you anything about my team?”

“Um,” I hedged, pretty sure that I remembered Laura telling me the ghost hunting team had made things worse. “I can’t really remember,” I fibbed, “They told me they’d consulted a ton of people though.”

“Man, she totally cut us off. I suppose I can’t blame her, we only lasted two nights in that house. I insisted on getting a priest in there to bless the place before we went any further.”

“Let me go to the bathroom before you scare the hell out of me,” I muttered, getting up from the table.

Noc nodded and picked her phone up off the table to scroll through texts.

When I came back I said, “Alright, what happened?”

“Did you meet the dad, Michael?” Noc asked.

“Yup,” I replied.

“Huge guy,” Noc commented. “Total gentle giant. The middle boy, Jack, was the only kid home that first day when Patricia and I checked out the house. He was home sick from school and he sat in an armchair with an iPad while we interviewed the parents. A couple times I wanted to suggest that he go up to his room or the kitchen or something, I mean the stuff his parents were telling us was pretty fucked up, but they didn’t seem to think it was a problem.”

“What exactly did they tell you?” I asked, wondering if she got the same story from them that I did.

“They said they’d done some improvements to the home before moving in. There’d been a small fire and a few accidents during the renovations, but nothing that triggered any alarm bells at the time. After they moved in some strange stuff began happening; unexplained knocks at the front door, some of the furniture and photographs moved around, voices.

“But it was Lilith who had them the most concerned.  Everyone but Lilith slept on the second floor, while she’d set up shop in the basement. Shortly after they moved in Lilith began hearing voices calling to her in the middle of the night and though it scared her enough to sleep in her parents room for a few nights, she’d returned to the basement and wasn’t frightened any longer.

“The dad heard her speaking to someone down there too, he distinctly heard two voices whispering back and forth and he thought she’d snuck a boy in. But when he opened her bedroom door Lilith was alone and denied speaking with anyone.

“As we listened to their story I was seriously holding onto the hope that we would only need to refer these people out to one of our pediatric psychiatrists, you know? I was scared. I had this, like, really nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“It didn’t help that that place was freaking tiny, but it was more than the lack of space that made it claustrophobic. The air was heavy, like the feeling on a really humid day only it wasn’t humid – it was cold. And those people were terrified. It actually felt like they were terrified to have us in the house. Like they shouldn’t be telling us what was happening. Patricia’s read on the family was that the parents were genuinely afraid in their living situation and that they had a true fear for – and perhaps of – their eldest daughter.”

“God,” I said, “Imagine being afraid of your own daughter.”

“Terrifying, right?” Noc agreed. “Anyway, they gave us a tour of the place. The house was a modified Cape and with three tiny bedrooms and a bath upstairs. It was all freshly painted and clean, I couldn’t honestly point to anything that screamed ‘haunted house’ but the place was saturated with something that I had never experienced before. And that was just the upper floors. When they opened the door to the basement I literally had to force myself to follow them down the stairs.

“Look,” Noc said, resting her elbows on the table, “I don’t scare easily and sure, their story was creepy, but I really don’t think that’s what had me spooked. You know what it was? It felt like the house was watching us.

“I know that probably sounds wicked dramatic,” Noc said quickly.

“Not at all, well, a little bit, but I believe you,” I reassured her. “I’ve had this image in my mind of that basement since I spoke with the Arnolds. Like it was a totally normal basement with a creepy dark bedroom shoved in one corner.”

“No, it was just the opposite,” Noc said. “The basement itself was straight from a 1980s summer camp horror movie, all wood paneling and red leather furniture and ugly afghans. The Arnold’s style upstairs was a little ‘country kitchen tchotchke,’ you know, lots of pineapple art and figurines, but this was like stepping back in time. It took up half the basement to one side of the stairway. The stairway sort of bisected the space with the wood panelled hang out area to one side and a creepy unfinished room with the boiler and laundry on the other side next to the girl’s bedroom.”

“And what was that like?” I asked.

“The bedroom? Any other house, any other family and I would have described it as totally normal. A typical teenage girl’s room, you know? Lavender walls with lots of posters and magazine pages taped to them. There was even a cork board with photos of friends. They must have been people she knew back in Chicago because Michael told us that Lilith hadn’t been able to connect with any kids in Wellesley.

“When you interviewed her did Laura tell you about the symbols she found underneath the wallpaper?” Noc asked.

“She did,” I affirmed. “She told me they were painted on the walls.”

“Right, pentagrams and inverted crosses,” Noc said, shaking her head. “The thing that struck me as odd was why would someone just paper over them, you know? She told me the story about the devil-worshipper kid who’d lived in the house before them-”

“Who’d killed himself,” I added.

“Right. But think about it, if you found that stuff painted on the wall in your basement would you just throw wallpaper over it? No. You’d either try to clean it off or at least paint over it before you did anything else.”

“Totally,” I acknowledged. “And didn’t she say the wallpaper was floral patterned?”

“Yup,” Noc said, before taking a sip of her hot chocolate. “Not really the kind of thing a loner kid suspected of Satanism would typically choose to decorate his room, huh? We assumed his parents must have put it up after he passed.”

“You’re sure that was the boy’s room?” I asked.

“Mm hm. We got confirmation from the neighbors across the street. They had a girl who was a couple years younger than the boy and they had been friendly in elementary school.”

“So sad,” I murmured.

“Unimaginable,” Noc agreed.

I sighed, “So what do you think the deal with the wallpaper was?
“I don’t know, the boys parents never returned my calls or emails so I have no idea. It’s a stupid thing to be stuck on, I mean, maybe they hired someone to wallpaper over the symbols, but something didn’t sit right.”

“Do you think the parents had something to do with the boy’s death?” I asked shocked.

“No, no,” Noc said quickly, “It’s more that I wonder if they might have been satan worshippers too.”

“Get out of here,” I said, skeptically. “Did the neighbors tell you anything else about the family?”

“They confirmed what the next door neighbor had told Laura, the kid wore black all the time and that there was heavy suspicion he had killed at least two of the neighborhood cats.”

“Ugh, is that even really a thing?”

“What do you think?” Noc replied, raising her eyebrows. “Who knows, he could have just been a troubled boy and people created rumors about him because of the way he dressed and acted.”

“But the inverted crosses,” I pointed out.

Noc nodded her head causing her ponytail to bounce, “And here’s the thing, Laura told me that the symbols weren’t just scrawled willy-nilly on the wall, they formed a pattern. Four inverted crosses created a sort of box around a pentagram.

“Laura insisted that there was no way Lilith could have seen the pattern on the wall. She immediately painted over it once she found it. And yet, she found the exact same image drawn over and over again in Laura’s school notebooks.”

“Shush,” I said, chilled.

“Laura showed me one of the notebooks. Apparently Lilith insisted they were just mindless doodles.”

“Uh uh.”

“Yeah, and really that was the detail that pushed me into taking the case. As much as I wanted nothing to do with that home, I knew we had to start our investigation immediately. So I rallied the troops and we decided to go that very weekend. We planned to stay from Friday morning around eight o’clock through the same time Monday morning.”

“Was the family home while you investigated?” I asked, surprised.

“Typically we ask the family to stay in the house the first night and request that they stay elsewhere for nights two and three,” Noc explained. “I like to compare what it’s like with the family there to the vibe when they are gone.”

“But you all didn’t make it to the third night,” I recalled.

“Nope,” Noc confessed. “That second night was,” she paused, considering, “It was the scariest night of my life.”

I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the rest of the story. I was already completely freaked out at the thought of that dark cramped basement and a daughter who wasn’t acting like herself.

“We got there a little early,” Noc continued, “Just as the kids were on their way out the door for school. That was the first glimpse I’d gotten of Lilith. She was a cute kid, tiny like her mom, you know? She had on black workout pants and a black hooded sweatshirt and she had the standard long wavy hair that all young girls seem to have now. Jet black like her mother’s. At first glimpse she just seemed like a typical surly teenager. But the way she treated her mother was a step below. It was really harsh. Dismissive almost, like Laura just didn’t matter.

“The other kids were perfectly normal, you know respectful of their parents and their interactions with one another seemed fine. But Laura and Lilith had this super tense exchange over a medication that Lilith was supposed to be taking. Everyone was in the kitchen and Laura held a pill out to her with a glass of water and Lilith stared right at her mother for a moment before saying, ‘You and I both know that pill isn’t the answer, Laura.’

“My mother would’ve raised holy hell if I had spoken to her like that,” Noc said seriously. “And in front of house guests?” She shook her head. “Anyway, the kids left for school and Laura and Michael went to work. Once they were all gone the team toured the house. We needed to set up a home base for the computer and multiple screens we use to watch live feed during the investigation.

“We decided to set up shop in the finished half of the basement.”

“Come on,” I said.

“It wasn’t ideal,” she admitted, “I try to be aware of how the environment can influence our read on a situation. The place was dark and creepy, all low ceilings and wood panelling. And damp,” she added. “But the house was so small that it was the only place we could have  some space to ourselves while monitoring the family and the house.

“Once we’d brought in all our equipment and set up home base and established the feed from the cameras placed in each room, Ty and I did the first walk through. We like to record baseline readings during the daytime and it helps to work out any kinks in the command center or cameras.”

“What exactly do you do on that initial walk through?” I asked.

“We typically work top down in a house. If there’s an attic we start there. We conduct short EVP sessions in every room and take temperature and EMF readings when the house is quiet during the daytime. There was no attic space so we began in the master bedroom.

“We started that first session by introducing ourselves to the house. I made it clear that we were there to help the family and we wanted to interact with whoever or whatever was in the house causing the disturbance. Then I invited the entity to speak into the recorder. Right off the bat, I played back the recording and we heard a deep growly laugh.

“I’ve heard creepy shit before, but this laugh was fucking terrifying. It made me almost drop the recorder. Ty took it out of my hand and listened to the laugh again. Then he turned on the recorder and asked, ‘Who is here with us?’

“The bedroom was freezing and I had this overwhelming feeling that there was something in the closet. It was totally irrational, but I couldn’t shake it. Ty wound back the recorder and we listened.

“There was a low grumbling that we couldn’t make out at first but we listened again and I heard it. It said my name. My real name. I changed my name when I was nineteen, it’s a long story but I dated this psycho guy and, well, it’s a long story. But listen, no one has called me by that name in over fifteen years.”

“Holy shit,” I said, wondering about the terrible relationship that had prompted such a unique name change and knowing that I dare not ask.

“Look, I’m not just trying to act tough when I say this, but I don’t scare easily. I’ve been through too much crap in real life not to mention the fact that I’ve been in some incredibly haunted places. But that – hearing my real name growled into a digital recorder? That scared me. I seriously considered packing up right then and there. But Ty and I talked through it and I realized that the demon was trying to get rid of me by hitting right where he knew it would hurt. That name isn’t me anymore and hearing it brought back a wave of awful memories.”

“I don’t know how you didn’t just run out of that house,” I said, recalling Biddy’s recording of the shadow figure using her real name, Bridget, in their very first meeting. This wasn’t a good sign.

“Well, I didn’t need anymore proof that we were dealing with the demonic, that’s for sure,” Noc continued. “I wanted to call in a priest right away but Ty disagreed. He argued that we needed to document as much as we possibly could. It made sense, I mean that’s what we were there for, but I had a really bad feeling about that house.

“I convinced him to hold a team meeting and let everyone vote on whether to stay or go. I lost, three to one.

“So we pressed on, methodically moving through each room on the second and first floors. We didn’t record any more EVPs so my anxiety lowered a little that is, until we went down into the basement. Maurice and Patricia were monitoring base camp so Ty and I went to the laundry room first. Aside from that oppressive feeling of being watched we didn’t find anything strange in there. Then we went into Lilith’s room.”

Noc took a deep breath before continuing, “We closed the door behind us and Ty began taking temperature and EMF readings. The room proved to be cooler than the rest of the basement and the EMF detector spiked. Of course, both of those readings could have been explained away by some naturally occurring phenomena, but when we get readings like that in an area of known activity we pay attention.

“I began the EVP session by asking if the entity who had been speaking to Lilith would like to speak with us. Things happened quickly after that. First, this big stuffed dog fell off the shelf above Lilith’s bed, making us both jump. Then Ty pointed behind me, my back was to the small half window with a ground level view of the back yard. I spun around and basically yelled, ‘What did you see?’ He began to tell me when I heard Patricia scream from the other side of the basement.

“So, we rushed out of the room and while I went right to command center, Ty blew past me up the basement stairs. I called to him but he didn’t answer me so I just focused on Patricia.  

“She was standing up at the desk with her headphones in her hands and Maurice looked stunned.”

“‘What the hell happened?’ I demanded.

“‘Did you hear it?’ Patricia asked, ‘Did you hear it say my name?’”

“Oh no,” I said quietly.

“Patricia had been listening to the audio from Lilith’s bedroom camera through her headphones so we wouldn’t pick up the recording during our EVP session. She told us that just as I asked who was talking to Lilith she heard a child’s voice say, ‘Patricia remembers me.’”

“Oh fuck,” I breathed.

“Yeah,” Noc said, “The reason Patricia began investigating hauntings was because growing up she played with an imaginary friend at their Cape house every summer. Her friend always wanted to play far out in the woods behind their house. There was an accident with an old tree house and whatever it was, it made Patricia suspicious of the girl. She began to suspect the girl was trying to kill her.”

“What in the what?” I said. “Ok, there is a lot to unpack with that whole nightmare, but you’re telling me that Patricia heard that little girl’s voice over the recording in the Arnold’s house?”

“Yup,” Noc confirmed. “It sounds impossible, but she was so rattled I knew that it was true.”

Noc looked down at the table. FInally she said, “We should have left right then. I should have insisted that leave we immediately and call the church.”

“Wait, what did Tyler see out the window in Lilith’s room? Why did he run right upstairs?”

Noc sighed, “Oh right. He saw a little gray goat walk through the yard, right past the window.”

“No way!” I exclaimed.

“He went right outside to see if maybe it was, you know, like-”

“A neighborhood goat just wondering around?” I interrupted.

She laughed, “Yeah. When he came back inside we rewound the video recording on the off chance that we may have caught the animal on tape, but the camera only caught a shadow pass by the window. Ty insisted that it wasn’t a dog. He saw it’s hooves.”

I just shook my head.

“Anyhow, Patricia was so shaken that we decided to skip the final EVP session we’d planned for the command center area. Instead, we sat in the kitchen and made our game plan for the coming night. We decided that Ty and I would camp out down in the basement while Patricia took the second floor and Maurice monitored the first.

“Typically the first night of an investigation we just get a lay of the land, you know? A feel for the house and it’s little quirks and noises. We sit and listen and might do some short EVP work but really what we want is for the the house to settle around us.

“The rest of day was quiet, but the home was oppressive. Maurice worked around the house double checking his equipment. Ty and I hung out in the basement and Patricia stayed at the kitchen table. She likes to do what she calls ‘free association writing’ during daytime investigations. She says it helps her to get in touch with the feelings the house brings out in her.

“Anyway, Laura got home from work around two thirty that afternoon and the kids rolled in a little after three.”

“Did you tell Laura about the recordings?” I asked.

“No. No way. We don’t share anything with the family until we’ve had time to prepare a full report of our findings after the investigation. That afternoon Patricia and I interviewed the little kids together. They were adorable and pretty normal, if a bit shell shocked. The twins, Carrie and Rosemary, told us that they’d heard the voices while playing video games in the basement.”

“What did the voices say?” I asked, not wanting to know.

“The girls told us the voices sang songs and told jokes,” Noc said, her eyebrows raised.

Shivers,” I said.

“Yeah, I mean, they seemed genuine. They told us they didn’t go into the basement anymore, and get this – they said they stopped ‘after Lil told us the voices were dead people.’”

“Ugh,” I groaned. “What about the little boy? I remember Laura saying Lilith attacked him or something.”

“He wouldn’t tell us a thing, but I could see that he was legitimately frightened of his older sister. He actually shushed his little sisters when they told us about Lilith and the voices. He goes, ‘You know she can hear us. Shut up!’

“Where was Lilith?”

“In her room.”

“Did you interview her?”

“Yeah, her dad made her come upstairs to speak with us but she didn’t say much. I asked her about the voices and Patricia tried to press her about how she was ‘feeling.’ She pretty much only gave one word answers, but she did ask one thing.”

Noc paused and I demanded, “What? What did she ask you?”

“She asked me if I’d spoken to the ‘scribe’ yet.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’ll get there,” Noc replied after a moment.

I sat back in my seat and said, “Alright, the build up is killing me. What happened to you in that house?”

“Sorry, I just want to give you a lay of the land. We waited for the family to go to bed that first night and we sat and listened and watched. Nothing happened. Well, we did catch Lilith standing in the middle of her bedroom for about and hour and a half in the middle of the night. She was turned away from the camera, so we couldn’t tell what she was doing. She just sort of stood there, shifting back and forth from foot to foot, her hands just hanging at her sides. So, you know, take that for whatever it’s worth I guess. I suppose she could have just been putting on a show for us, but that kid was creepy.

“When she came out of her bedroom in the morning it was Patricia and Ty manning the command center. She peeked around the basement stairs at them and said, ‘You’ve upset them.’ They asked her who she was talking about and she just stood there staring.”

“I have no idea how you all stayed in that house,” I said.

“It was stupid, we shouldn’t have,” Noc replied honestly. “The family cleared out after breakfast, Patricia and I took naps on the couch and Ty and Maurice took the first daytime shift. They reported steady knocking coming from the ceiling in the master bedroom, but other than that, nothing. When it was their turn to nap Patricia and I conducted EVP sessions in the upstairs bedrooms, but things up there had gone quiet. No more knocking, no EVP responses. So we headed to the basement.”

“Uh uh,” I said.

“We started in the command center area because we’d skipped it the night before. We got two responses. Patricia asked if her imaginary friend was with us and a woman’s voice replied ‘yes.’ Then I asked if she had a message for Patricia. The voice that we recorded, it changed, it was the same woman but she was angry. She said, ‘We almost had you.’”

“Demonic,” I said quietly.

“Yup,” Noc agreed. “The day was creepy, but as nighttime came we all started to feel, I don’t know, I guess the only way to describe it is this, like, impending doom. It felt like we were trapped in a web.

“So, darkness fell,” Noc said dramatically, “and we split up. Maurice and I at the command center, Ty on the first floor, Patricia on the second. Maurice and I watched as Ty and Patricia walked through the rooms, attempting to capture EVPs or any other indication of paranormal activity. Around nine-thirty Ty got the first hit. He held the voice recorder up to the camera in the kitchen so that Maurice and I could hear it. We,” Noc paused again, seeming uncertain of how to continue.

“What?” I prompted, “What did it say?”

She looked down at her hands on the table for a moment then said, “You know what? Let me get through the rest of the night and then I can play the recording for you. I brought the actual recording. We saved it.”

“Ok, sure,” I said, thinking, Come on, man, get to the punchline.

“Sorry I’m scattered, that night, well it had a real fallout. None of us left that house alone. Every single one of us brought something home with us that night. Things attached. Patricia still hears that woman’s voice in her house every once in awhile. She’s afraid the thing is going to go after her four-year-old daughter. Poor Maurice has a shadow figure lurking in his backyard now, he lives in Concord in a very wooded area and he won’t let his kids play out there anylonger.

“And Ty and I,” Noc took a deep breath and sighed, “We’ve had some stuff happen in our home. Our basement is basically overrun.”

I waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t.

Finally she said, “So, Maurice and I are in the basement, Ty and Patricia are upstairs. At about eleven-thirty I’m watching Ty on the computer screen sitting on the couch in the living room. But then Maurice and I hear Ty call my name from the other side of the basement, near Lilith’s bedroom.”

“How?” I said, confused.

“We assumed there must have been a delay in the feed that we hadn’t recognized before. So I got up and walked around the stairs towards Lilith’s bedroom. Mind you, the basement was pitch black. We had an electric lantern and the light from the computer screens at command center, but all of the lights in the house were out.

“I had a small flashlight and I made my way towards the bedroom slowly, I called out to Ty with no answer back, but I thought maybe he was concentrating on something or needed help. Something made me stop right in the doorway, it was, well, sheer terror.

“I froze, I wanted to call out to Maurice but I couldn’t. I was able to whisper Ty’s name again and just as I did something growled in my left ear. It said, ‘He’s dead.’”

“What?” I demanded, horrified.

“I knew, I knew right then, I mean I knew that Ty was in danger. I screamed and jumped into Lilith’s bedroom, away from that voice. I spun around so that my back wasn’t to the door and just as I heard Maurice call out to me from the other side of the basement there was this low growl from the doorway. I backed up and tripped over the bed and fell down. I screamed again and saw Maurice’s flashlight beam in the hallway. I called to him to be careful and ran out to meet him. I dragged him up the basement steps, calling out to Ty the whole time.

“He was fine, of course, but I just knew we were in trouble there. Just as we were explaining what happened, Patricia rushes down the stairs from the second floor and goes, ‘There is a fucking goat standing in the middle of the backyard. It’s staring up at the house. I just saw it out the window.’”

“Oh my God,” I said with a nervous laugh. “What a nightmare.”

“It was. I refused to let Ty out of my sight after that. We left the cameras rolling and stayed together in the family room. By the time morning came we’d decided to tell the family we were packing up to go and I intended to contact a priest to have him come and do a complete exorcism of the property immediately.  

“We had everything packed up by the time Laura came to check on us that morning at ten o’clock. She was pissed. She called us amateurs and phonies who couldn’t even stay in her home long enough to give her a straight answer. I tried to explain, but she wouldn’t listen. I tried a million times to contact her that following week, I had a priest on call to come whenever she would allow it, but she only took my call once. She told me that the activity in the house had been much worse since we left and that she was disgusted with herself for allowing us into her home. Then she hung up on me.”

“Honestly,” I said, “That is so bizarre, because when the Arnolds contacted me they wanted me to put them in touch with an exorcist. At the time I felt awful that I couldn’t help them. They had misunderstood that I was only recording hauntings in Wellesley. But why wouldn’t they just call you and ask you guys to do that?”

“I don’t know. I think that poor woman felt like we abandoned her and her family by leaving early. I know she could tell how terrified we all were that morning and it probably scared the hell out of her. Which was the last thing she needed. Maybe I could have handled it better but I was so freaked out that all I wanted to do was get out of that house.

“We did review the evidence though, and in addition to all of our personal experiences in that house our cameras recorded those tapping noises Ty and Maurice reported, a kitchen chair slid out by itself on the first night, then the closet door in the master bedroom opened – also by itself – the second night of investigation, and the camera in the kitchen caught a crystal clear EVP. It didn’t mean anything to me until I read that story you wrote in Wellesley Weston magazine and I happened to see your name.”

Noc took out a small square digital recorder with headphones and slid them across the table to me. She said, “This was recorded on that second night in the house. Ty was pursuing a line of questions with the entity. He’d recorded what we assume was a demon ask, ‘Where is the scribe?’ And then,” she paused, “Well, here, listen. You’ll hear Ty’s question, there will be a few moments of silence and then tell me what you think the voice says back to him.”

I put the earbuds in, picked up the recorder and pressed ‘play.’ I heard a man’s voice, presumably Ty, ask ‘Who is the scribe?’ then there was silence for about five seconds and a low growly voice answered, ‘Elizabeth….. Sower.’

I yanked the earbuds out. My ears and fingertips tingling like they do before I have a panic attack.

“What in the hell?” I demanded. “No way. You made that,” I insisted, hopefully, “I’ll give it to you, it’s creepy. But there is absolutely no way that you could have recorded that.”

“It’s real,” she insisted quietly, “I’m sorry.”

My mind racing I picked up the earbuds and said, “Play it for me again.”

She did. It was scarier the second time.

We stared at each other for a moment.

“Alright, let’s say I’m willing to entertain the idea that this recording is real,” I said, “What in the hell does it mean? The scribe?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Noc said, excitedly.

“But I wasn’t even interviewing people when you all were investigating that house, really, the Arnolds were one of my first interviews and it happened months after you were there.”

“They’re diabolical. Time is different to them,” she said, referring to the demons in the Arnold’s home.

I slumped in my chair and said, “I don’t know what to think.”

“Well, I think you’d better watch your back,” Noc advised.

“Great,” I said, sarcastically.

Noc turned her head to watch a group of women walk by. A blur of Chloe bags, white skinny jeans and flawless skin.

“This town,” she said, under her breath.

“What about this town?” I asked.

“It’s just a weird place, full up with type A pretty ponies,” she replied with a laugh.

“I happen to know two of those pretty ponies,” I said. “I volunteer at the food pantry every week with one of them. Every week, in her own free time, she bakes cookies or pastries for the clients to snack on while they wait in line for their turn to fill their baskets with free groceries. And the other one, with the amazing eyelashes? She started a diaper bank out of her home. I just read that she fully supplied 245 Massachusetts families with diapers last year. And, I mean, I don’t know the other girl with them, but if she’s running with that crowd, she came to play.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be a jerk,” Noc began.

“I know, and I don’t mean to be defensive. You’re right. This is a weird town and there are a lot of, what did you call them? ‘Type A pretty ponies?’” I laughed, “But most of them use their privilege for good. Maybe that’s why they’re drawn here, to balance out all this darkness. Maybe they’ll end up saving us all.”

I smiled to myself imagining a bunch of highlighted, Bar Theory’d Wellesley women chasing demons down Central Street in their LuluLemon workout gear and Lily dresses.

“Point taken,” Noc Conceded. “Do you want to keep this?” She asked, holding out the recorder.

“Absolutely not,” I said immediately.

“But it’s hard proof that this shit is real,” she argued.

“That’s the last fucking thing I need,” I replied.

ghost-caught-on-tape-ghost-caught-on-tape-4523420everybody’s got ’em, so here are my two cents:

These ghost stories run in chronological order and I often make reference to past ghostly tales in the new ghostly tales.

In other words, treat the blog posts like the chapters of a book and start at the beginning.

Perhaps take a peak at my About page and then head to my first interview (For Sale: Gorgeous Five Bedroom on Wooded Estate with Au Pair Suite [and Evil Housemate] – or – “I thought it was My Grandmother” – or – “I mean, honestly. A sleeping pill every night? With an infant? What an asshole.”), then work your way forward, it’ll help for things to make a bit more sense.

Boo. – Liz

unnamed-3There is a house on Linden Street that is no longer a home. Its fenced back yard is bordered by a large commuter parking lot, beyond which sits the Wellesley Square train station. Next door is a dated office building whose lawn boasts a large blow up snowman every winter. Across Linden Street live apartment buildings, and the usual suspects of suburban retail (the grocery store, gas station, Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen, CVS and Talbot’s) exist within walking distance. Though surrounded by the hustle and bustle of suburban living, the large house stands apart.

From the outside the duplex (white with black shutters) looks like someone’s well-cared for home. The landscaped yard is as beautiful and controlled as any in town. The siding is a little worse for wear and the brick steps at the front door could use repointing, but by all outward appearances the house is a home.

But it isn’t. It’s an office, a rental property in fact, and Sarah Ryan is both its landlord and its tenant.

My tour of the first floor proved that, much like the house’s exterior, its interior was well-kept, if lacking personality. Alone in the center of the living room sat a massive wooden desk faced by two wingback chairs. Behind the desk chair was a grand fireplace. Light hardwood floors, pale blue walls, a worn oriental carpet and bare curtain rods decorated the large room. It’s windows overlooked busy Linden Street and there was a large poster-sized print, a foggy and depressing view of dense forest at night, mounted above the mantlepiece.

“Couldn’t you just stare at it for hours?” Sarah commented.

Sarah had installed a treadmill in the dining room. A yoga mat, several kettlebells, and a Polar Spring water bubbler kept it company underneath a small crystal chandelier.

The kitchen hadn’t been updated in at least thirty years. A modern, four person table sat out of place beneath a stained glass window. The kitchen was neat as a pin and Sarah  admitted that she had a cleaning service visit every other week.

“It’s just me and the cat, but you’d be surprised how quickly the dust bunnies multiply,” she explained.

I’d glimpsed the cat, a fat calico with huge yellow eyes, “Bertha is shy with new people,” Sarah commented.

Our tour complete, I followed her back to the foyer. She walked briskly past the stairs leading to the second floor and we returned to the living room. I took my place in a wingback at the desk while Sarah sat across from me in her ergonomic chair. We each held an ice cold Diet Coke. The desk was suspiciously free of clutter.

I asked, “What do you do for work?”

“I’m a writer,” she said, simply.

When she didn’t elaborate I asked what she was working on.

“Right now I’m writing a novel.”

Again, she offered no further explanation.

“I don’t mean to be nosey, but I write too. May I ask what your book’s about?”

“Well,” she said, glancing over my shoulder to the foyer behind me, “I had been working on a historical mystery set in Salem-”

“Awesome,” I interrupted enthusiastically.

“But,” she went on, “I scrapped it after I started working in this house. I moved in a,” she paused, “Different direction. I’m working on armageddon now.”

“Ooo, like, post apocalyptic stuff?”

“Sort of,” she said.

It was obvious she didn’t want to discuss her writing so I said, “Well, I’d love to read it when you are done.”

Sarah asked, “Are you working on anything? I mean, besides interviewing people.”

“I am,” I admitted. “I wish I made more time for it, but I’m slowly working on a mystery series about the residents of a cul de sac. Each family represents one of the seven deadly sins, and their master sin sort of informs the crime in each book.

“Just cozy mystery stuff, really. Nothing serious,” I said, feeling embarrassed as I did every time I shared my writing with someone.

“Interesting,” she replied.

“It’s just a hobby really, but look at you. You’ve got an entire house devoted to your writing. I would kill for this kind of quiet, you can’t even hear the cars driving by.”

“I know it probably seems ridiculous, me alone in this big house, but I’ve been thinking about writing full-time for a long time and this felt like the year to do it. I got engaged last winter-”

“Congratulations,” I said automatically.

“Thank you,” she replied, holding up her ring finger and a sizable cushion cut diamond set in a platinum band.

“Gorgeous,” I replied.

“Thank you,” she said again. “Paxton picked it out himself. His proposal was a complete surprise. We’d only been dating for three months.

“It was Pax who found this space for me, you know. It was his idea for me to focus on writing full-time, really. He knew I wasn’t in love with my job, I was working in the human resources department at Boston College, and it’s not like I was going to keep it up once we have kids. Writing is something I can do from home.”

As she spoke, I tried to gauge Sarah’s age. She had to be somewhere between twenty-five and thirty, but it was hard to tell. Her face was young but her outfit, a grown-up belted A-line navy blue dress and pretty sable brown pumps, was throwing me.

“I admit I have gotten more writing done here than ever before, but the house is strange,” she continued, “It might be better if I could find a tenant to share it with me, but no one has responded to my ads.”

“Tell me about the house,” I said, eager to hear her story.

“Things happen here, strange things.”

I placed the disgusting drink on a John Derian coaster atop the desk and sat back in my seat. I’d recently turned thirty-eight and something had shifted within me. I had been practicing the art of listening, or, more accurately, shutting up. I’d even downloaded the Headspace app. I was trying really, really hard not to be such a nervous, chattery wreck.

I waited for Sarah to tell me her story. She’d asked me here, after all. She’d messaged me on Twitter after seeing my business card tacked to the community board in Cafe Nero.

Sarah glanced behind me again, and I fought the urge to turn around.

She looked down at my digital recorder and using both hands tucked her pin straight, long blond hair behind her ears.

Finally, she said, “When I first began working here I planned to use the upstairs as my office and gym space and to sublet the first floor to someone willing to share the kitchen with me. But after about a month and a half I realized that I couldn’t stay up there.”

She paused again, and I maintained an expectant expression.

Sighing, she went on, “I usually get here at eight o’clock on weekdays and leave around two or three in the afternoon. Pax is pretty crazy about watching the bills and he was,” she paused, “Really angry when he got the first electricity bill. I mean, I swear I turned off all the lights when I left every afternoon, but when I got to the house a lot of mornings – not every morning, but most of them – the place was lit up like a hospital.”

Odd example, I thought then asked, “Do you live closeby?” I was wondering how they chose the house. The quiet emptiness of the place was unnerving.

“We live over in Poet’s Corner in Pax’s house. I’d been living in the South End with a couple girlfriends, but I moved out here right after the engagement,” she shrugged, “It’s nice to have a car and yard everything. We’ll pick out a new place after the wedding.”

I nodded encouragingly, though the more I heard about her personal life, the less encouraged I felt.

I asked, “Ok, then how did you end up with this house?”

“Pax spotted the For Sale By Owner sign in front one afternoon when he was out picking up our dry cleaning. He came right home and begged me to come see the house. He was so excited about it as an investment opportunity and he told me about his idea for me to use it as my writing space.

“On the car ride over I was just humoring him really, thinking the whole thing sounded crazy. I couldn’t just quit my job!

“I knew the house, I’d driven by it a million times running errands, but when he pulled into the driveway and I got my first real look at it, this is going to sound so nuts, but it was like I had a vision. I knew I could write here. I had to have it.”

“Wild,” I commented.

“It was!” She enthused. “Pax put in an offer that afternoon and the seller accepted it almost immediately. I gave my two weeks notice the next morning. Pax surprised me with this desk,” she said, smoothing a hand across the antique wooden surface.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” I said, “and unique. Where did he find it?”

“It’s been in his family for years, his grandfather was a journalist.”

“How cool,” I said, then, “Quitting your job and everything must have been exciting.”

“It was a whirlwind,” she admitted. “I mean, I didn’t have a bad feeling about it, but once everything was set in motion I definitely had nerves.”

She shook her head and again pushed her hair behind her ears before continuing.

“Like I said, the original plan was for me to use the upper floor as my office space and to find a tenant for the first level.”

“Who did you have in mind?” I asked, wondering what sort of business could use such a space.

“I thought maybe a massage therapist or esthetician might be interested in the house. We have a reasonable budget to build out the space for the right tenant. The woman who owned the home before us said that she never had any trouble finding business people to rent the space.”

“Did she tell you anything else about the house, or the property?”

“Just that she lived here for a year with her family while they were building a new home over by the middle school. They’d always intended to keep this house as a rental property.”

“Hmm,” I said, “So why did she sell it?”

“Her last tenant was some sort of money manager. He ended up skipping out on the last four months rent, he had a huge drug problem or something. She told us that she just couldn’t manage the property any longer, it had become too much work now that her kids were older and needed more shuttling around.”

“Ok, got it, so you were telling me about the lights? Right?” I prompted.

“Yeah, so, the lights were on most mornings when I came to open up the house. It was bizarre, but it didn’t scare me. I thought maybe they were on some sort of a timer that I didn’t know about. I suggested that to Paxton, but he just,” she pushed her hair behind her ears again, “He didn’t think that was possible.

“It kept happening so I removed all the bulbs from the recessed lighting on both floors and unscrewed the light bulbs from my desk lamps before I left every afternoon.”

“Wow,” I commented, “Did you talk to an electrician.”

“No, Pax didn’t want to spend the money,” she replied. “But that fixed the problem, anyway. Then after I’d solved that issue, the shower in the upstairs bathroom started up. The first morning I walked in and heard it running it really scared me. I thought maybe someone had broken into the house.

“I stood listening in the entryway for a minute then grabbed a broom from the hallway closet and snuck upstairs. The bathroom door was open so I creeped in and-”

“Dumb!” I said, before thinking. So much for being mindful.

“What was I supposed to do?” She asked, raising her well sculpted eyebrows.

“Call the police!” I said.

No. Some naked person in the shower wasn’t going to hurt me, I figured I could chase them out of here.”

I shook my head at her judgmentally.

“It didn’t matter anyway, there was no one there. I shoved the old shower curtain aside with the broom handle and found the hot water blasting, but the tub was empty.

“I hoped ignoring it would make it go away, but after a week I decided to tell Paxton. l didn’t want him to freak out again when he saw the water bill so I told him what was happening. He followed me to work the next day in his car, he wouldn’t believe me until he saw it for himself.

“We called a plumber but the guy wasn’t able to find an explanation. Whenever this happened the shower handle was always turned all the way to hot and the little plunger thing was pulled up to divert the water from the faucet to the shower head. It wasn’t an accident, it was intentional. Our plumber insisted that it had to be a person turning the water on, but that was impossible.

“We ended up shutting off the water to that tub which was a mess, the plumber had to open up the wall to do it but at least it fixed the problem. Things were quiet for several days and then the humming started. Pax said it had to be the pipes adjusting to having the water diverted, which made absolutely no sense. Pipes knock, they don’t hum.

“Right when I was finally settled into writing, I’d hear it. It was low and pretty, not mechanical, like a tiny little song. Just three notes,  Hmmm, HMMM, Hmmm,” she demonstrated, giving me goosebumps, “It was incredibly distracting.

“Another reason I knew it didn’t have anything to do with pipes, or the heating system, or anything else mechanical was that it followed me, no matter where I was in the house. I’d forget about it, you know, and then I’d hear it after I washed my hands in the bathroom. Or when I was making a sandwich in the kitchen. Or getting my jacket out of the hall closet.”

“Whoa,” I said, “You were alone in this house and there was humming following you from room to room? If it isn’t anything mechanical, then what was it?”

“The presence,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I tried to convince myself that there had to be a reasonable explanation, I even had my hearing checked. But then one morning I was getting a snack in the kitchen when I heard the humming coming directly from inside one of the empty cabinets, and it was loud.

“I couldn’t make myself open that cabinet door, I was certain that if I did I’d find a woman crouched in there, humming that tune.”

“Eek,” I said, “What did Paxton say about that?”

“He blamed it on mice,” she replied evenly, “Thus the cat. Paxton just showed up with it one morning. I’ve never really been much of a cat person, but I suppose it’s nice to have the company.”

“Mice don’t hum,” I said, obviously.

“He thought I’d heard squeaking and panicked,” she replied, blinking hard as though she were forcing herself not to roll her eyes.  

“The lights and shower and even the humming I could rationalize away. But then there was this one day. I’d been writing all morning and I went downstairs to make lunch. When I went to walk back up I saw my desk chair sitting in the hallway at the top of the stairs.”

A chill overtook me. I reached out for the diet soda, not wanting it but needing to hold onto something.

“There wasn’t anyone in the house with me” Sarah continued, “I checked all the rooms and the front and back doors were locked. That’s when I accepted that there really was something happening in this house that I couldn’t explain.”

“Did you tell Paxton about that?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head firmly. “I thought about it that night and when I came back the next day-”

“How did you get up the nerve to come back here?” I asked.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she replied. “I came inside and shut the door behind me and I spoke to the presence. I told it that I owned this house now and that if it had something to tell me then I would be happy to listen but it wasn’t going to scare me out of here with its parlor tricks.”

“What did it do?” I asked, shocked by her bravery.

“It started leaving things for me, little things. Six pennies lined up perfectly on my desk in the morning. Actually, it leaves pennies everywhere, but sometimes it will line them up or push them into a pretty pattern. And I think it has something to do with the birds. Mostly little sparrows, really, they absolutely infest the trees next to the house.

“One day I was writing and I heard a bump on the floor right in front of my desk. I got up to look, figuring it was that cat, but it was a little brown sparrow. Dead. Just laying there in front of my desk. It just sort of appeared out of nowhere.”

“God, Sarah, everything else aside, how in the hell are you getting any writing done?”

“I don’t know, I mean, there’s something about this house. I can focus here like I can’t anywhere else. Believe me, I’ve tried writing in Starbucks, taking some days off from this house, but I am so fuzzy and distracted everywhere else. When I am here I can write for hours.”

“That might be the most terrifying thing you’ve told me,” I said as gently as I could. “Despite the woman humming in the cabinets, a chair moving all by itself, penny patterns and dead birds appearing out of thin air you are able to focus here better than anywhere else? Doesn’t that strike you as a little odd?”

“I know it’s scary, but it’s a little bit magical, too.”

“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

“It was magical for a little while anyway. But then I found my desk chair sitting perfectly in the foyer. It hadn’t fallen down the stairs, it had been placed there perfectly, facing the front door when I came in that morning.

“That’s when I decided to move everything down here to the first floor. I can’t explain it, but something shifted after that.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I don’t hear the humming anymore, it’s really quiet.”

“Almost too quiet,” I acknowledged, realizing just how strange it was that we couldn’t hear the traffic on the busy road in front of the house.

“And my writing,” she said, pausing for a moment to straighten a pencil on the desk. “It’s become, sort of consuming.”

I stared at her, frightened to hear what she would tell me next.

“There have been couple times lately that I’ve sort of zoned out while I’m writing. I mean I’ve gotten going and lost track of the time in the past when I write, but this is different.

“I’ll be in the middle of a sentence and then all of a sudden I look up and hours have passed. I have pages and pages of story, but I have no memory of writing them.”

“What are they about?” I asked.

“Armageddon,” she replied very quietly.

“So that’s why you scrapped the historical mystery,” I said.

She nodded, “It’s not that I didn’t want to write it anymore, I couldn’t. It wasn’t writer’s block, I’m just compelled to write this other story.”

“Honestly, Sarah, I’m afraid to ask about it,” I admitted.

“It’s set in 2032. When it begins everyone around the world is so happy because there is this politician who’s brought peace to the Middle East. He’s really charming and generous and it seems like he will be the answer, you know? He gives everyone hope.

“Then the perspective shifts to downtown Boston and there is a huge explosion in the Prudential Center, it takes down the entire building and it’s followed by several other bombings throughout the city. No one knows who is responsible for it, and then the entire grid goes down. There will be so many dead. So many hurt and hungry and panicked,” Sarah blinked rapidly, holding back tears.

“Things pivot again to Wellesley and a small group of survivors. I can tell by the way they talk that there were more attacks. The sky is dark and there is ash everywhere. These people decide to move West, as far from the coast as possible. There are some things they talk about that I don’t understand, like, things that don’t exist yet.  

“It is all so vivid in my mind but I don’t know where it is coming from. I don’t ever know what is going to happen next in the story, it just appears on the page after I’ve sat working for a day.”

“Sarah, you’re being possessed,” I said, frightened.

“Not exactly,” she replied.

“What do you mean?”

“I think that I am just being, influenced, you know? Shown things,” she said slowly.

“Shown things? Do you think what you’re seeing is real? That it’s really going to happen?”

“I don’t know, maybe,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders.

“I can put you in touch with an exorcist,” I said quickly, not wanting to believe her.

“What? Oh, God, no. That stuff is, no. That’s not what I need,” she insisted.

“Sarah, this is serious. I think something might have attached itself to you. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but it’s not a ghost. I think it could be demonic,” I said as calmly as I could.

“No, you’ve misunderstood,” she said, adamantly. “It’s not demonic. I think, well, I have this gut feeling that it is angelic.”

“You think you’re channeling an angel?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yes,” she said, again pushing her hair behind her ears. “I think it might be using me to warn everyone about what is going to happen.”

“That would make you a prophet,” I said, incredulous.

“I don’t know what it makes me, but this is really happening and I don’t know if I can stop.”

“At least talk to this priest,” I begged, terrified and trying to do the math to figure out how many years we had left until 2032.

“How could he even help-” she began, but was interrupted by a loud bang from inside the fireplace behind her.

We both screamed.

“What the hell was that?” I demanded, standing up.

Slowly, Sarah turned in her chair and looked down into the fireplace grate.

“It’s a bird,” she said, standing up and edging around the desk away from the fireplace.

I peered around her chair and saw a small tuft of dull brown feathers.

“Is it dead?” I asked.

“I think so,” she replied. I could tell she was close to tears.

“Has that ever happened before?” I asked, grabbing my bag and my recorder off the table.

The look on her face told me everything.

In silent agreement we walked out of the large living room and into the foyer.

“What am I going to do?” She asked.

“Have you ever considered leaving and not coming back?”

“Of course I have,” she said, “But, when I stay away for a few days, I just, I don’t know, I like need to be back here. I’m almost desperate for the quiet and anyway, it’s more complicated than just leaving,” she paused, holding back.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, Pax put the mortgage in my name, so really it is mine, it’s my problem. I have to write and sell something. I have to make money and get back to the city. This has to work,” she said, looking down at her hands.

“No it doesn’t,” I insisted. “You can sell this house, tomorrow, you don’t have to be here. This isn’t safe, Sarah.”

“Paxton would be so angry,” she said quietly.

“Then he doesn’t have your best interests in mind,” I replied, way overstepping my boundries.

She looked at me, her eyes bright. Her hands pushed her hair back, “Do you really think I could-” but she didn’t finish the sentence. The door behind her flew open.

She spun around and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“Paxton! Hi,” she said quickly.

“Hey, babe,” he said cooly. He was ridiculously good-looking, a total silver fox. CrossFit muscular and in his late forties if he was a day.

He glanced over at me then back at his fiance.

“I was driving by and saw a car in the driveway. Who’s this?” He asked eyeing me.

“This is Liz, the woman I told you about,” she replied in a sticky sweet voice, “The one who writes the ghost stories.”

I held my hand out for a shake but he ignored it, grabbed my arms and brought me in for a double cheek kiss.

Have I ever mentioned to you all how I feel about breaches of my personal space?

Well, I fucking hate them.

They make me anxious and angry and awkward. The trifecta of social torture.

I pulled back and resisted the urge to wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand. They had been actual kisses, not air kisses. I did my best to maintain a neutral expression.

“So you’re the little writing buddy Sarah’s told me about.”

Confused I glanced at Sarah and the look of panic on her face stopped me from answering. I just nodded my head.

“Well, I hope you girls were able to get some work accomplished, Sarah won’t let me even peek at her little story until it’s done,” he pulled her towards him in a sideways hug.

“We had a great talk,” I said. “But I’d better be on my way. Nice to meet you Paxton, and Sarah, let me know if you want to take me up on that offer.”

“Thanks, I’ll walk you out,” she replied.

“No, let me,” Paxton insisted.

“Don’t be silly,” I said, firmly. “My car is right in the driveway.”

“I’ll have to move my truck to let you go anyway,” Paxton replied.

Sarah watched our exchange with a smile plastered on her face.

I reached for the door handle but Paxton beat me to it.

“After you,” he said, then quietly to Sarah, “Be right back.”

Refusing to be rushed out of the house I held my hand out to Sarah, “It was great talking to you, let’s follow up about that idea for my blog. I’ll give you a call this afternoon once I’ve had more time to flesh it out.”

She shook my hand and gave me a small smile.

Then I walked through the door and down the steps to the sidewalk, Paxton right on my heels.

It felt like he was chasing me, about to pounce on my back any moment. The Boston girl within me took over. I spun around with my car keys fanned out between my fingers.

“Back off,” I said firmly.

He held up his hands, a huge smile on his face, “Whoa, sorry, I just want to get my car out of the way so you can leave.”

“Uh huh,” I said evenly.

We stared at each other for a minute and I said, “I’ll be sure to get in touch with Sarah this afternoon. If I can’t reach her I’ll stop by, or I can pop over at your house in Poet’s.”

His fake smile crinkled his eyes, “I’m sure that won’t be necessary. But Sarah needs to get back to her writing, we can’t have anyone distracting her. She has to focus.”

He turned abruptly and walked towards his car humming. It was that same tune, the one Sarah had hummed for me.

Hmmm, HMMM, hmmm.

unnamed-2“Let’s do this!” Biddy called, walking towards me at a fast clip.

“You know I don’t power walk,” I groaned.

“I’ll tone it down a notch,” she replied dismissively. “I’ve been dying to get over here since the weather turned.”

She paused, looking me over. “A Ghostbusters t-shirt, really?”

“I don’t have many short-sleeved shirts,” I replied with a shrug, pulling awkwardly at the top I usually wore as a nightshirt.

Biddy ignored my explanation and set off down the path.

“How’s everything at the house?” She asked.

“Besides living with three children, things are pretty calm,” I answered.

“You still doing a cleansing every month?” She asked seriously.

“Yes,” I replied, already out of breath.

“Good.”

We walked along for a while catching each other up on our lives and families. She told me about her new found obsession with needle point and I shared my rekindled enthusiasm for Supernatural reruns. She mentioned that she’d recently re-watched the pilot episode of X-Files and that it really held up over time.

We were about half-way around Lake Waban when she told me about Whitney Barkley’s haunting.

“You’re investigating again?” I asked in disbelief.

“Not exactly,” she replied, her arms pumping back and forth. “Father McGonagle asked me to conduct preliminary interviews for urgent cases.”

“So, investigating,” I said.

“Actually, it’s a lot like what you do,” she shot back. “How are your interviews coming, anyway?”

“Stranger and stranger,” I replied.

“I’m not surprised,” she said.

I told her about the last interview I’d conducted. While renovating his garage a man recovered an old black and white photo of a little boy. Since then the boy had been haunting him, not just in his home but everywhere he went. He’d asked me not to publish his story, that he just needed to talk to someone who would believe him. I put him in touch with Molly in hopes that the psychic could find out what it was the spirit wanted.

“Be careful with that psychic,” Biddy cautioned.

“She’s cool,” I replied.

“Just be careful,” Biddy replied knowingly.

We continued walking for a time, me trying to keep up, Biddy trying to hold back from her usual pace.

Out of the blue Biddy said, “Come on this next interview with me.”

“To the demon possessed Barkley house?” I laughed. “Nope.”

“Why not? You can record it and if they give permission then you’ll pop their story on the blog.”

I couldn’t come up with an excuse fast enough so she continued, “I’m going over there Tuesday morning at ten o’clock.”

I was about to argue that I didn’t want to be anywhere near anything that even might possibly be demonic when she said, “Good, I’ll see you then.”

Too out of breath to argue, I said, “Fine.”

***

“Them’s some pink arms,” Biddy commented. “You should really wear sunscreen.”

I didn’t respond.

“Alright, ready?” She asked, pushing sunglasses to the top of her head.

I nodded, and followed her up the Barkley’s front walkway.

The house was a small Tudor in a winding Wellesley Hills neighborhood. Though the day was sunny and warm, the home’s stucco and wood exterior looked dreary. The little house was set back from the road atop a small hill and I could see a dense treeline at the edge of the back yard.

Aside from those trees, the yard itself was devoid of landscaping. Instead of the rhododendron and evergreens present in the neighbor’s yards, the Barkley’s landscaping consisted of only dark mulch. I wondered if perhaps the homeowners were overhauling the gardens, which made me consider my own dog poop and toy strewn lawn. If not attractive, at least this yard was orderly.

Biddy took a deep breath and blew it out before climbing a set of stone steps to the front door. She rang the doorbell and looked back at me with a small smile. I waited awkwardly on the walkway, looking up at her.

We listened to a deep loud and steady barking from behind the doorway.

“Down, Tiny, shush!” We heard a woman scold.

The door opened and out barreled Tiny, a massive Bernese Mountain dog. He nearly knocked Biddy backwards off the steps then jumped up at me in what felt like an attempt to knock me to the ground so he could lick me to death.

“Tiny!” The woman shrieked, then, “Ed! The dog!”

A man’s voice entered the fray, yelling from inside the house, “Tiny! Cheese! Come get your cheese!”

The dog gave me one more kiss before bounding up the steps and back into the house.

“Oh, dear, I am so sorry. He has the worst manners. He’s still just a puppy even though he looks like a giant. We’ve only had small dogs in the past, so we are still learning how to train him, but he really is just a gentle giant,” the woman rambled. “Please, come in, come in!”

The bright day was immediately forgotten once I’d stepped inside the dimly-lit foyer. A stairway, far too grand for the home’s small dimensions, dominated the entryway.

“You must be Whitney,” Biddy said, extending her hand.

“Of course, yes, I’m sorry,” the woman replied apologetically. “I’m Whitney Barkley.”

“And I’m Edward,” a man said, walking towards us from the back of the house. “Edward Barkley.”

The dog sniffed at us and wagged it’s fluffy tail as Biddy introduced me to the couple. While Whitney’s was one of those off-putting finger tip handshakes, after Edward’s shake I had to suppress the urge to massage my knuckles.

We were invited into the kitchen at the back of the house where we sat around a circular shaped table set for tea and scones. Tiny sat panting on a small rug in front of the kitchen sink.

I sat between Biddy and Whitney, across from Edward. He was a trim little guy, probably in his mid-sixties. With wire framed glasses, a kind face and very little hair. He sat with his hands clasped atop the table.

To my left sat Whitney. It was as though she were in soft focus, not plump but soft around the edges. Her thick medium length brown hair waved prettily, without any frizz to speak of, and she had absolutely gorgeous skin. She wore red framed glasses that only a few years ago would have been considered lame, but now they were super hip. I pegged her somewhere in her early sixties.

It felt as though I were back in high school, sitting at the table with a set of a friend’s parents. It was hard to reconcile the reason for our visit with how positively ordinary these people seemed.

Whitney filled our cups and passed the plate of scones and quick count on my part proved we could each indulge in two. Score. Biddy retrieved a legal pad from her bag and placed it on the table in front of her. I saw that the top page was filled with notes.

I placed my recorder on the table and caught her eye, she nodded then said, “Alright, so as I explained on the phone, I’m here to document information for Father McGonagle. My colleague,” she said, motioning to me unessesarily, “Has been through a similar experience in her own home, and he helped clear the entity. Liz is gathering data about Wellesley and the uptick of paranormal activity in town.”

“We’ve read your blog,” Edward said to me.

Whitney shook her head in my direction and actually patted my hand, “Your stories are quite frightening, dear.”

Biddy cut in before I could respond, “Are you certain you’re alright with Liz publishing your story? Under assumed names, of course.”

“We are quite certain,” Whitney replied. “People need to know.”

“People need to know,” Edward echoed.

“Right, then let’s get started. Ultimately I am looking to document your experience, so tell me anything you think Father McGonagle should know,” Biddy said.

The wide-eyed Barkleys nodded their heads enthusiastically.

“What prompted you to seek Father McGonagle’s help?” Biddy asked.

“The haunting,” Whitney replied, aiming her response towards the voice recorder.

I took a bite of my pastry. My suspicion had been accurate. The scones were from Quebrada.

Meanwhile, Biddy remained silent, waiting for Whitney to offer more detail.

Edward looked at her and suggested, “Maybe we should start by explaining our move and how we ended up here?”

“Yes, that makes sense, honey,” Whitney agreed. “Our children are in college now. Brittany is a Senior at Middlebury and Ben, the baby, is a sophomore at Hobart and William Smith. I bet you girls have young children now, I know I’m probably not the first one to tell you but it goes fast.”

“Enjoy it,” Edward chimed in.

I smiled, falling in love with the sweet couple.

Whitney continued, “We used to live over in the baby belt. The kids went to Upham for elementary and we just loved our home, but it became too much upkeep once the kids were gone. We thought it would be good to pass it on to a young family and downsize.

“I’ve always been drawn to this side of town, we are near enough to the train station, so Ed takes the Commuter Line to work occasionally and I was excited to take up a new project.”

“And we’re closer to the church,” Edward added.

“That’s where I know you guys from!” I said, slapping my leg.

“You go Wellesley Hills?” Whitney asked, happily.

“Not as much as I should,” I confessed, “But yes, I knew that I recognized you all from somewhere.”

“We’re in the choir,” Edward said.

“That’s it!” I confirmed.

“How lovely,” Whitney said.

“Sorry!” I said sheepishly to Biddy. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Not at all, dear,” Whitney replied. “It’s nice to know that you’re part of the congregation.

“Proximity to the church drew us to this side of town, and the house was a steal. Maybe that should have tipped us off. The home had been on the market for a little under three years. It wasn’t necessarily in terrible shape, but it had been empty all that time and needed some attention.

“The realtor assured us that there was nothing wrong with the property,” Whitney explained, “Buyers just weren’t interested in a renovation project and it was priced a bit too high for the developers to buy it as a tear down.”

“Damn developers,” Edward grumbled.

Whitney gave a sad smile and explained, “Our old home was demolished by the couple who bought it from us. They built a new house on the property and we’re still smarting a little bit from the loss.

“Anyhow,” Whitney continued with a sigh, “We were optimistic about a new start. The kids were supportive, of course. It was really more of a restoration than a renovation, and it went beautifully. We had absolutely no indication of any trouble with the house. Our first clue was the yard.”

“Mm hmm,” Edward agreed, reaching for his second scone.

“How so?” Biddy asked, flipping over a page in her notebook and making a note.

Here we go, I thought, taking a sip of tea.

“We spent a small fortune on landscaping. It had probably been fifteen years since anyone had even touched the yard.”

“Sorry to interrupt again,” I said, “But who lived in the house before you?”

“A widow,” Whitney answered, reaching out for her husband’s hand. “The poor woman had Alzheimer’s and lived here with assistance for several years before succumbing. We were told that her only son died in a boating accident as a teenager and there wasn’t any other family. A neighbor acted as executor of her will, and he managed the property.”

“He mowed the lawn while it was on the market,” Edward interjected.

Whitney agreed, “A good man, and kind. But,” she hesitated and glanced at her husband, “Besides the grass, the yard was a mess. The shrubbery was overgrown, and ivy had creeped to the point that it had begun to overtake the house. I was afraid there would be damage, but luckily it proved to be minimal.”

“The back of the lot was all brambles and brush under the trees. It was a hell of a job to clear it out,” Edward added.

“Once we’d finally had it cleared a landscaper drew up a plan. I wanted the yard to look like an English garden with lots of flowers in the spring and trimmed hedges and plush evergreens year-round. It just wasn’t meant to be.

“It all died. Twice over. The first time,” she paused, shaking her head sadly, “The gardeners had worked all day long and when they left everything was perfect; the pruned hedges and all the greenery around the exterior of the house and patio. We even put in a few trees. It was beautiful, but in the morning,” Whitney sighed.  

“Dead. All of it,” Edward said.

How?” I asked, then looked to Biddy, worried that I was overstepping, but she was staring at the couple, pen poised over her pad.

“The landscaper suspected that something had contaminated the tools her team used for the plantings. It was the only explanation. They came back and cleared everything out, let the ground rest for two weeks and then planted again.”

“But everything was dead the next morning,” guessed Biddy.

“All of it. Gone,” Whitney admitted.

“The landscaper’s opinion?” Biddy prompted.

“That there was something wrong with the land.”

I held back from asking another question as Biddy jotted something on her pad.

When she looked up she said, “Did you have the soil tested?”

“We did, twice,” Edward replied with a stiff nod.

“The results?” Biddy asked.

“The acidity was in the normal range, with acceptably low levels of lead and aluminum. Phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and a bunch of other mineral levels proved normal. Our sulfur levels were a touch high, but not enough to cause such widespread destruction. There was no evidence of a chemical leak or intentional contamination.”

“And you’re sure that the landscaper handled everything properly?” Biddy asked.

“Well, the second time, yes. She replaced all of their tools and even bought plantings from a different nursery. Of course, I can’t say for sure about the first time they worked on the yard, but it would be quite the coincidence if they repeated the same mistake, no? Also, I have a close friend who used the same company and her lawn is just beautiful. She has the lushest hydrangea bushes I’ve seen this side of Nantucket’s.”

“That must have been so disappointing,” I commented about the twice failed landscaping attempts.

“And expensive,” Biddy added.

Edward shook his head and Whitney popped a big piece of scone into her mouth.

“The landscaping is freaky, but I don’t know that I would have suspected anything paranormal if that had happened in our yard,” I noted, slightly confused and a touch suspicious if a bunch of dead plants prompted them to call an exorcist.

“No, no,” Whitney said quickly. “It’s only in hindsight that we recognize the problems in the yard as the first sign of evil. The have been many more clues.”

“Before we talk about what’s happened inside the house, I just want to wrap up with the property. You mentioned a sinkhole when we spoke on the phone,” Biddy said.

Edward leaned forward in his seat and said, “It was the damndest thing. I was out there playing catch with Tiny when two of the birch trees at the edge of the lawn came down. They damn near fell right on me. I had my back to the woods and had it not been for Tiny staring off behind me and then turning to run to the house I may have been killed.”

At mention of his name Tiny walked over and put his head in his Dad’s lap.

“It was a sinkhole,” Whitney explained. “Opened up right at the treeline.”

“Wait, we have sinkholes here? I thought they only happened in places like Florida,” I demanded.

“They happen all over the world,” Biddy replied without looking at me, then said to Whitney, “How big is the hole?”

“Oh, what do you think, Ed?” Whitney asked, then answered her own question, “It’s probably about nine feet across now.”

“You’ve had someone come to check it out?” Biddy asked.

The couple nodded in unison but offered no further explanation.

I had about fifty questions that I wanted to ask, the first being Why in the hell are you still living here? We could be swallowed up at any minute you lunatics! I even considered excusing myself to the bathroom then running as far away as I could.
Biddy must have sensed my unease because she said, “Don’t get worked up, we’re not falling down to hell quite yet.”

I forced a laugh and took a bite of pastry so I wouldn’t have to speak.

“Anything strange happen around the sink?” Biddy said.

The couple exchanged a look.

“What?” I demanded, unable to hold back.

“The newts, they must have been living underground and the sinkhole disturbed them. They just stream out of that hole. They’re all over the yard, I am surprised you didn’t see any on your way in here. They are disgusting little creatures and we can’t get rid of them.

“We were told that if we sprayed to kill off the insects in the yard then the newts would move on to greener pastures. But they must be getting their food nearby because they seem to like it here.

“They’re all over the place, especially at night, we don’t let the dog out back anymore. He was always swatting them around or rolling around on top of them. It was nasty. We haven’t been able use the grill either, they seem to love it in there.”

Biddy made a note on her pad, “Speaking of the grill, have you had any trouble with fire? I noticed you have quite a few fire extinguishers set out.”

I glanced around the kitchen and saw there was a small extinguisher near the stove and a larger one on the floor next to the back door.

“As a matter of fact, yes, we have had a few accidents,” Whitney said, vaguely.

“I’m as accident prone as they come,” I joked, “But even I keep our one extinguisher under the sink,” I said, remembering the large extinguisher I’d seen mounted to the wall in the hallway.

“It’s sort of a sore subject,” Whitney replied turning towards Edward.

“We’ve been cleared of all suspicion,” Edward said, “But we were the subject of an arson investigation at the end of last year. We’d had several unexplained fires and, naturally, the police became suspicious.

“We were right at this table being interviewed by the fire chief when one of those little fires set off in the study. He smelled the smoke and watched me rush in to put it out. He knew there was no way that we could have started it ourselves, we’d just finished giving him a tour of the house.”

“He’s a wonderful man,” Whitney said quickly. “He gave us a slew of fire extinguishers and even installed several extra smoke detectors for us.”

“Did he know what caused the fires?” I asked, incredulous.

“No,” Whitney replied. “But he did mention he’d encountered a home with a similar problem when he first started fighting fires down in Louisiana.”

Again, I had follow up questions, but before I could ask them Biddy said, “What else about the house concerns you?”

“It’s always cold in here,” Edward said.

“That’s true,” Whitney agreed, “Even on the sunniest day in the dead of summer the house is cold and dark.”

“Saves us on air conditioning,” Edward joked.

“The wooden plantation shutters in the family room are a problem too. They won’t stay closed. Sometimes I can get them to stay put during the day, but at night? Forget it. Neither of us want anywhere near that backyard as it is, and with the shutters open it feels as though we’re being watched, stalked really, from those trees.”

“Could we see them?” Biddy asked.

“Of course, where is my head? I should have offered you a tour right when you came in.”

The four of us got up from the table and followed Whitney out of the small kitchen, through a doorway down a short hallway which held doors to a small bath, a narrow closet and the basement. The latter had a board nailed across it, I touched Biddy’s shoulder and pointed to the door. She raised her eyebrows and continued on into the living room.

The room was a vision in beige. A wall of shuttered windows and the lofty ceiling did nothing to curb the darkness that seemed to emanate from the home. I fought the urge to flip on the table light next to me.

“You see?” Whitney said, motioning to the open plantation shutters.

“Had they been closed?” Biddy asked walking towards the windows.

“Yes, I closed them this morning,” Edward confirmed.

Biddy swung the shutters closed on the center window, “The hinges are pretty stiff,” she remarked then, “Anything else strange about this room?”

Edward gestured out the window but Whitney interrupted him before he could speak.

“The door to the study is over there,” she said quickly, motioning to the back interior corner of the room.

I followed Biddy over to the doorway to the room and peeked in over her shoulder. Floor to ceiling bookshelves and wood paneling dominated the small space. The only light came from a green library table lamp on a cluttered desk. A small, circular oddly positioned window sat gloomily between bookshelves and offered no illumination, only a sad view of scraggly trees.

“This is where the fire started?” Biddy asked.

“Yes, in the back corner, behind the desk,” Whitney answered.

I noticed that neither Whitney nor Edward came near the room. Biddy went right in to examine the floor and I had to fight the urge to grab her arm and drag her out of there.

When she came back out she asked, “Which one of you uses this as their office?”

“I used to,” Edward replied, “I work from home part-time, but I don’t use it much anymore.”

Biddy considered this for a moment but didn’t comment.

Whitney motioned to the doorway next to her and said, “This way to the dining room.”

We followed behind her, through a short hallway that lead to the front of the house and that cramped entranceway with the grand staircase. As we stood, bunched together like a family of newts, Whitney explained that nothing of note had happened in the dining room, and that the hallway leading to their master bedroom was through a door at the opposite side of the dining area.

The home’s layout was odd to say the least. Across from the dining room was a narrow sitting room, with wicker chairs that overlooked the street through a crescent shaped window. It was the last place I’d ever want to sit and relax and I noticed for the first time an underlying smell that I couldn’t put my finger on. It was sort of musty, but not in a damp New England way. More oppressive, like a hot attic in the deep south in August.

Though I was desperate to open the front door for fresh air, I smiled and nodded my head as Whitney described a leak that had happened in their master bathroom a few weeks before. She also spoke of two small fires that had happened in their bedroom.

I had a hard time paying attention. I was positioned closest to the living room and those damn windows. I had a horrible feeling that I shouldn’t turn my back to them, but I didn’t want to look either. Unable to suppress the urge, I snuck a quick peek and to my relief the shutters that Biddy had closed were still in place.

I zoned out a bit in my fear but Whitney grabbed my attention back when she said there were a few rooms she’d like to show us on the second floor.   

Inexplicably, the suggestion that we go upstairs made want to run from the house immediately.

Whitney started up the stairs, followed by Edward then Biddy who noticed my hesitation and said quietly, “I know, it’s bad up there. You don’t have to come.”

“I’m not going to stay down here all by myself,” I whispered.

Biddy shrugged and continued up the stairs. Despite my misgivings I followed her, resisting the urge to grasp onto the back of her shirt.

The dog who had accompanied us on the tour of the ground floor did not follow. He sat still at the foot of the stairs just watching us ascend.

The stairway, which looked so grand from the ground level split halfway up so that we had to turn and face the opposite direction to finish the climb. That second half was cramped and confined. When we arrived on the second floor I began to feel irritated by the Barkley’s style. Perhaps unfairly, but it was as if they had done nothing to combat the darkness that permeated the home.The cramped and windowless hallway was full of more doors than could possibly make sense. It was like a beige walled, dark-stained and shellacked choose your own nightmare game.

Whitney listed where each closed door lead. One to the attic space, one to a bed room, one to a bathroom and one to a loft area.

“Why do you keep all of the doors closed,” I asked, attempting and failing to sound nonchalant.

“We don’t, dear,” she said quietly.

“What-” I said, then realizing what she meant I shut my mouth and tried to quell the rising fear within me.  

She placed her hand on the doorknob of the fifth door and before turning the handle said, “This is where we found the markings.”

The size of the room surprised me after the cramped darkness of the hallway. A queen-size, four post bed dominated the space, and a large window, crescent shaped like the one in that off-putting sitting room, offered a dreary view of the back yard.

I flipped the light switch on the wall.

Biddy glanced at me and tried to hide a smile.

Whitney said, “Over there, on the other side of the bed, that’s where we found the demon traps.”

My mind went crazy with thoughts of silver-lined cages and demon extermination service vehicles. But before my imagination went too wild Whitney explained further.

“When we updated the heating system we pulled out all the old radiators and in this room and the bedroom nextdoor there were copper panels behind each unit with intricate markings. A friend of mine is a librarian at Wellesley College and she was able to identify the tracings.”

“Do you still have the panels?” Biddy asked.

“No, I took them to the dump to be recycled,” Edward said.

This left Biddy speechless for a moment which gave me the chance to ask, “What exactly are demon traps?”

Whitney explained, “The ‘trap’ is actually a drawing or painting, or in our case an etching of a series of interlocking V’s which are meant to call forth the protection of the Virgin Mary.”

“Do they work?” I asked, directing the question to Biddy.

“When used appropriately,” she answered vaguely, then asked, “Who uses this room?”

“The kids. Brittany sleeps in here and Ben sleeps next door when they are home from school,” Whitney replied.

“Have they experienced anything in the house?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Whitney. “Ben was organizing boxes in the attic for me and he said that he heard what sounded like a woman sobbing. He thought it was me, but when he couldn’t find me upstairs and then found me in the kitchen he refused to ever go in the attic again.”

Edward added, “Brittany won’t stay here anymore. She hates this house. She won’t tell either of us exactly what happened but when she was home over her Christmas break she was working at my computer in the study and something near scared her to death.”

Biddy said, “I’m so sorry.”

Whitney and Edward looked pained.

To break the silence I said, “What about the loft?”

“We don’t use the space,” Whitney replied, but did not offer further explanation.

“Then perhaps we should head back downstairs,” suggested Biddy.

I turned to walk out of the room but Whitney’s voice stopped me.

“There was something else, that I’ve never told anyone but Ed and that nice woman from animal control. I was in the livingroom reading around five o’clock one evening,” she said very quietly, gazing down at the yard from the window. “A noise outside startled me, it sounded like something heavy fell on the patio table. I thought maybe one of the lanterns had blown over.

“But when I got up to look out the window nothing was out of place. The lanterns were upright and the chairs were pushed in at the table as usual. I was looking around the yard trying to discover what made the noise when movement at the side of the house caught my attention.

“Something moved just out of my line of vision, right by the kitchen door,” she continued, “I got as close as I could to the window to try and see what was scuffling around.

“I saw it’s tail first, but I didn’t really believe what I saw. It was right next to the house, then it came into view. It was a crawling thing, low to the ground and it was, I know this sounds ridiculous, but it was at least five feet long from its snout to it’s tail. It crawled over to the patio table and pulled itself up the back of one chair with its short front legs. It’s front feet reminded me of sloth’s. It stood there at the table on it’s hind legs for a moment and let me really have a good look at it. Animal control went on the lookout for a crocodile, but that’s not what I saw. I told them to look for a huge blackish green lizard with big black eyes and a pointed tail,” she paused.  

“It had been staring at the woods but then it turned and looked right at me. It’s black forked tongue darted out and then it dropped to the ground and began slithering towards the window. I slammed the shutters closed, grabbed my phone off the couch and ran out the front door to the car. I called animal control from the CVS parking lot.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

“Did animal control find any evidence of the animal?” Biddy demanded.

“None,” Edward replied.

“Why did you ever come back here?” I demanded.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Whitney replied. “We slept at a friend’s house across town that night, but then in the light of day the next morning it seemed almost improbable.”

Then she said, “I’m sorry, we don’t have to stay up here, it’s freezing. Let’s go back down to the kitchen.”

I was nearest the door, but I sure as hell didn’t want to be the first one to walk back into the fun house hallway. Biddy brushed past me and I covered my hesitation by saying, “Please, after you,” to the Barkleys.

Tiny was thrilled to see us make it back from the second floor alive. He followed us happily and resumed his spot in front of the sink as we sat down at the kitchen table. Once seated I snuck a glance at the plate of scones. There was only one left.

“You can have it,” Biddy said, pushing the plate towards me.

“Are you sure?” I asked, half-heartedly.

Biddy blinked her eyes dramatically and asked, “What tipped things over the edge?”

“You mean besides the lizard the size of a crocodile that walked upright across the back patio?” I said sarcastically before taking a big bite of scone.

Edward smiled sadly and said, “It was the voices in the basement that finally convinced us to search out an exorcist.”

“Voices in the basement told you to call a priest?” Biddy asked, obviously surprised.

“No,” Whitney said, with a little laugh, “Edward began hearing people whispering in the basement.”

“And they weren’t telling me to call a priest, that’s for certain,” Edward said darkly.

“What were they saying?” I prompted.

“I couldn’t make it out at first,” he explained. “My workbench is down there with all my tools.”

“He builds the sweetest bird feeders, these perfect miniature versions of our friend’s homes,” Whitney said lovingly.

Edward gave a quick nod, “I work on ‘em whenever I get the chance and when I first heard those voices, I thought someone had left a radio plugged in down there. When I couldn’t find one I thought maybe one of the kids had left a walkie talkie or baby monitor to play a joke on me and they were just waiting for me to admit I was hearing voices so they could have a good laugh over it.

“But the kids denied doing any such thing. It got to the point that I was almost used to it. It became a sort of background noise.”

“How is that possible?” I said, in disbelief.

Biddy gave me a sharp look and began to say something but Edward spoke over her, “I’ve asked myself the same thing. It doesn’t make a lick of sense but the voices, at first anyhow, were calming. They stopped distracting me and became comforting.”

I held back from commenting again.

“That’s very common in cases like this. The entity wants something from you or wants you to do something for it so it creates a false sense of tranquility while it elicits influence over its chosen subject.” Biddy said reassuringly though it wasn’t at all reassuring to hear.

“That’s exactly what the damn thing did,” Edward replied.

“He wasn’t himself,” Whitney insisted.

“What did it want you to do?” I asked, afraid of the answer.

“I didn’t do what it wanted, in a blessed moment of clarity I realized what was happening and I boarded up the basement door to keep myself from going down there again. The whispers became faint and then almost disappeared all together

“But what was it asking you to-” I began but Biddy shook her head sharply and interrupted.

“You must be a strong person to have come to your senses like that,” she said.

“He never would have gone through with anything, really. He’s never had a violent bone in his body,” Whitney insisted.

We all stared at each other, her implication clear.

Whitney wrapped her arms around herself, Edward put an arm around her shoulders, Biddy sat stock still and I tried to chew my last bite of scone silently.

After a moment Biddy asked, “What do you think is haunting this house, Mrs. Barkley?”

“A demon,” she answered firmly. “The pit in the back yard, the fires, the demon traps. It must be demonic.”

Biddy nodded and blinked slowly then said, “Just one last question, has anyone stopped by the house? A stranger, someone you weren’t expecting?”

The Barkleys seemed to be about to say no when Whitney reconsidered, “Wait a minute, yes, that man from the gas company, what was his name?”

“Vulcan,” Edward replied.

“That’s it, Sam Vulcan. He came to the door right after we moved in, said he was from the gas company and wanted to check out the lines to be sure that everything was in working order.

“He’s returned several times since, always wanting to check something in the basement, he’s never been anything but polite, tends to overstay his welcome though.

“I mentioned it to one of the neighbors and they said they’d never seen him. Never had anyone from the gas company even come to the house, which struck me as odd.”

“What does he look like,” Biddy asked.

“Oh, quite tall and thin,” Whitney said, “I think he takes a lot of time on his appearance because he’s always tan as though he’s just come back from vacation. His hair’s too dark and too shiny, I can’t imagine it’s the color he was born with. Same thing for his eyes, come to think of it. They’re a touch too green.”

Biddy circled something on her notepad, she said, “Alright, I think that just about covers everything that I need to know, unless there is anything more you’d like to share.”

The couple exchanged a glance and Edward asked, “We were hoping there might be something you could give us, you know, to tide us over until the priest can come for the exorcism.”

Biddy paused, considering. I decided that whatever she offered them I would ask for too.

She said, “I have holy water in my car. You can sprinkle it around the windows and your bed. I also suggest you spritz some onto table salt then sprinkle that salt across the front, back and side doors.”

The couple looked grateful.

I followed Biddy to the foyer and quickly said my goodbyes to Tiny and the Barkleys then rushed out to Biddy’s car and locked the doors as she brought them the small container of holy water.

When she climbed into the car I said, “The shutters.”

“I know, I saw,” she replied.

“Please get us the hell out of here before some oversized lizard jumps onto this car.”

“Want to go grab something to eat?” She asked calmly.

“Always,” I replied.

“Let’s go to Lemon Thai,” she said.

“So what is it? A demon?” I asked.

“No, it’s more way complicated than that. I think it may be elemental, specifically salamander in nature.”

I stared at her.

“Elementals belong to one of the four elements,” she explained. “You know, earth, air, fire, and water. They are spirits that never had souls. Their mythology is old, very old. Typically they are harmless, but if humans invade their space or disrupt it in some way they can be really dangerous.”

“The landscaping,” I said.

“Yup. Salamander elementals are recognized as fire spirits. Poison and fire are their strongest marker, though I admit I am confused as to why there’s one this far north,” Biddy said, “We are more apt to see gnomes in this neck of the woods.”

“Cut it out,” I said, thinking she was making a joke.

When she didn’t elaborate I asked, “The gas company guy, what was that all about?”

“I suspect it’s the elemental, taking human form.”

“Alright, too much,” I said in disbelief.

“Some might say the same of demons and shadow people, right?” Biddy replied.

I reluctantly agreed.

“They are in danger. I don’t know how Ed was able to come out from under the influence of that thing, but I am guessing that it wants him to kill Whitney and then himself.”

“Why?” I asked, unnerved.

“Elementals can sort of collect souls, and I think that’s why that house is so fucking haunted on top of everything else that’s happening there. The thing probably wants to collect the Barkleys.”

“Can Father McGonagle help them?”

“No. Religion has no jurisdiction over elementals. I’ll have to get in touch with a shaman who can at least protect the house by make an offering to the creature. If the Barkleys want to stay in that house, which I personally think would be insane, then they will have to come to some sort of agreement with the thing.

“Even then, there is no telling whether they can trust it. I wouldn’t.”

“Why the hell didn’t you tell them they had to leave that house right away? They can’t stay there,” I insisted.

“It isn’t going to let them go willingly. If I’d tried to convince them to leave right then, it might have turned on us.”

“Well then, thanks for not saying anything,” I said, “I’d prefer not to be trapped by a lizard creature. Man, all that from just trying to fix up the place.”

“When I picked you up this morning it looked like you’ve been doing some work on the yard,” she said.

“Oh, shut up,” I replied.

unnamed-3“You want a glass of wine?” Chris asked, opening the refrigerator door.

“No thanks,” I replied.

“You sure?” He asked, glancing over at me.

“I’ve got a bubbly water,” I replied, holding up the can to show him. “It’s nice out, let’s sit on the porch for your interview.”        

Chris sighed.

“Come on,” I pleaded. “It’ll take ten minutes.”

“I’ll meet you out there,” he said, closing the fridge door.   

It was early March and we’d had a warm snap. A tease of nice weather before the next snow storm.

I sat on the deck and waited for Chris. One of our trees was surely dying, a huge old oak that offered a significant amount of shade in the summer. I’d wait and see how it fared come spring, but chances were good we’d have to take it down within a year.

Chris came outside with a roll of dog poop bags.

“Come sit for a minute,” I said.

“I’ve been meaning to do this,” he replied.

“But you said I could interview you,” I protested.

“You can, I’ll just do this at the same time.”        

When I didn’t reply he said, “Turn on your tape recorder, ask me your questions.”      

I watched him pull a blue bag off the roll and bend over to pick up dog poop. Walter and Artie sat near me on the deck watching the dying tree for squirrels.  

I grudgingly turned on the recorder and said, “Alright, but speak up.”

Chris gave me the thumbs up sign and continued pacing the yard.

“OK, how do you feel about me continuing to interview people even after our house was haunted because of my interviews?”

“It wasn’t your fault,” he called over his shoulder.

“Those entities wouldn’t have been anywhere near us if we hadn’t gone over to the Hayes house and they wouldn’t have attached to me if I had been wearing my medallion that night,” I countered.

“We don’t know that,” he replied quietly.

“Speak up!” I called, loudly. “Whether it was my fault or not, our house needed an exorcism. How do you feel about that?”

“I’m glad you knew Biddy,” he replied.

“But what if it happens again?” I countered.

“It won’t, the priest told us what to do and you wear your medallion when you interview people,” he said, knotting a dog bag and tossing it to the back corner of the garage.

“Chris,” I said, exasperated.

“What do you want me to say? That I don’t want you doing this anymore?” He asked.

“No, I just,” I paused, considering, “People have been emailing me asking how you could possibly be OK with me continuing to interview people after I managed to get our own house haunted. I guess I want to know too, we never really talked about it, you know, if you are OK with me still doing this.”

Chris stopped pacing the yard and looked at me, “I am proud of you. I’m happy that you have something besides me and the kids. I wish you’d spend more time working on your book,” he held up his hands in defence when I began to protest then continued, “but I know you can’t focus on that right now and that this project is important to you. But,” he paused.

“What?” I prodded.

“I don’t like it. I don’t like you going to stranger’s houses and meeting them in coffee shops. Even if those strangers are our neighbors. I guess I just wish you were into something less scary, you know?”

“I know,” I said.

“But if anyone else emails you wondering whether or not I’m OK with you doing this, tell them that I am psyched about it and tell them to, what is that thing you say about taking care of your lawn?”

“You mean ‘mind your own backyard?’” I said.

“Yeah, tell them to mind their own backyard,” he said leaning down to kiss me on the cheek.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” he replied. “Now get off your ass and help me pick up your dogs’ poop.”

 

***

 

It was Chris who introduced me to my next interviewee. One evening he was wearing a Ghosts in the Burbs t-shirt beneath his hockey jersey and a teammate asked him about it. Chris explained my blog and Mitchell asked if Chris would put us in touch. Even though they’d played in the same hockey league for over a year, it had never come up that Mitchell lived in Wellesley too and, better yet, he had a scary story to share.

We arranged to meet for lunch at Maugus on a Thursday afternoon. Chris sent nervous texts all morning repeating I didn’t have to meet his teammate if I didn’t want to but that the guy seemed cool. I told him to relax.

Mitchell S. Westcott the second looked like a 1960s astronaut. His freshly shorn brown hair swept adamantly to the right from a decisive side part. He was a trim, tight package of health, all glowing skin, rosy cheeks and smile-lined deep brown eyes. He wore a crisp tucked in button down (blue check) and light pink tie. I could picture him in a Boston high-rise office tower, cheerfully calling out good morning and shooting charming smiles to everyone he passed as young administrative assistants swooned and traded gossip about his wife.

There was something so old-fashioned about him. I couldn’t resist.

“So, Junior, what’s all this about witches?”

He laughed and said, “My brother is the only one who calls me that.”

“Do you prefer Mitchell or Mitch?” I asked.

“Mitchell,” he replied, then “What I’m about to tell you is going to sound completely ludicrous, but when Chris said you were collecting strange stories about Wellesley I felt compelled to speak with you.”

He was obviously nervous, looking down at his hands and peeling the wrapper off his root beer bottle. Seriously, he was drinking root beer. Adorable.

“I’m used to hearing ludicrous things about this town,” I said, smiling.

“We used to live next to a witch and a warlock who cursed us,” he spat before taking a chug of soda.

“Shush,” I said, leaning forward.

Mitchell shook his head, “They were really disturbed.”

“Start right at the beginning,” I urged. “How did you know they were witches?”

I imagined a coven of Wellesley women clad head-to-toe in black LuluLemon gear dancing around a Crate and Barrel fire pit on a meticulously landscaped lawn.

“At first we thought they were just odd. My wife, Maggie, even joked about them being swingers,” he said with a short laugh. “Overly friendly isn’t the right way to describe them, they were, too familiar from the start. Popping up at the back door unannounced, asking weird personal questions, especially about our kids.”

“What kind of questions did they ask you?”

Mitchell considered for a moment then said, “On move-in day I was in the garage shifting around boxes after the movers had left. I was bent over a box digging around for wine glasses when I felt a hand rest on my waist. I thought it was Maggie and said something like, ‘Hey honey,’ but it was Kate. The neighbor.”

“Uh uh,” I said, shaking my head.

“It was way too personal,” he said, “She basically had me backed into a corner. She introduced herself as Kate Dilvish and told me her husband’s name was Harry. She made this big deal about how excited he would be to meet me, which was just, awkward.

“Then she started drilling me with questions. Where had we moved from, how old were the kids, did they ever do odd jobs for money, what was my wife’s name and did she work, what did I do for a living, and on and on.”

“What do you do for work?” I asked, curiosity overtaking me.

“I’m an illustrator,” he replied.

“That’s awesome, what do you draw?”

“I work on movies,” he replied, vaguely.

I refrained from digging deeper, but again, adorable, right?

“Sorry I interrupted,” I said. “So she was digging for details, then what.”

“Thankfully, Maggie came out into the garage, though that didn’t make Kate back off at all. We talked about the neighborhood, our kids and the move. She was really, I guess the best way to describe her was animated. She actually reminded me of some of my daughter’s friends. She wanted to know all about them. Her reactions were a bit, forced, no, maybe just a bit-”

“Juvenile?” I said interrupting again.  

“Yes,” he said, nodding, “That was it, she struck me as immature. Maggie didn’t think much of her, she even poked fun at me for getting uncomfortable with Kate’s personal space issue. She got a kick out of the way she said I was almost crawling the garage wall trying to get some distance from Kate.

“The next morning, bright and early Sunday there was a knock at the door. I went down, still in my pajamas [Pajamas. Adorable], and opened the front door to Kate and her husband, Harry.”

Mitchell paused, seeming to choose his next words carefully, “Harry was much older than Kate. I don’t mean to sound judgemental, to each his own, but the difference in their age was significant. He was sixty-seven and she was twenty-six. They told us. They had this thing about birth dates, sharing theirs and asking for everyone else’s.

“Again we were peppered with questions though they were vague if we inquired of them. When I asked Harry what he did for work he told me he was in ‘conflict management.’”

“Like a mediator?” I asked.

“That’s what I assumed, and Kate told Maggie that she supported Harry in his appointment.”

I made a noise, indicating how creepy that sounded.  

“Yeah, we figured she felt funny about not having a job or something. At first glance they appeared relatively normal, but there was just something off about them. For example, except for when she was exercising on their side deck, Kate only wore one outfit, a denim knee-length skirt with a black tank top and green Hunter boots. Maggie pointed that out to me. No matter the weather, she was out there in that outfit. She always had this key ring hooked to her belt loop so you would hear the keys pinging together as she worked in their yard.”

Mitchell paused then said, “You probably think I’m as lurky as a peeping Tom.”

“No,” I said, smiling, “you don’t sound that lurky.”

“Geez,” he replied cringing, “I know it. I just want you to be able to picture how odd they were. I mean, there they are in a million and a half dollar home and she’s wearing the same exact clothing every single day? It was so odd,” he paused, hesitant to continue, then said, “Man, if that sounded lurky this is going to sound really creepy,” he began picking at the bottle wrapper again.

“I was just kidding with you,” I said, “You don’t seem lurky at all. You actually might be a little too upstanding.”

Mitchell smiled, “The thing is these people were impossible to ignore, I couldn’t help but pay attention to them. The first really strange thing, though, was Kate’s exercise routine. They had this room built above their garage with floor to ceiling windows on both the side facing our house and the side overlooking the woods and cemetery.”

“Whoa, back up,” I said, “Cemetery?”

“Our property backed up to Woodlawn Cemetery,” he replied.

Mitchell.”

“We’d never been superstitious,” he explained. “It didn’t phase us to have the cemetery behind the home. It’s actually quite a beautiful place.”

“Yeah, ok,” I said sarcastically.

“Point taken,” he replied. “We bought the house in May and didn’t realize just how close the gravestones were until late autumn when all the leaves had fallen. It was actually a pretty dreary view from the back of the house.

“Anyhow, I was in my office working one morning when I heard a piercing scream. It sounded like someone was being stabbed to death. I jumped up and ran over to the window and that’s when I saw her.

“Kate was in that glassed in room doing these wild movements. I don’t know how to describe it other than combat yoga. First she did aggressive fighting moves, punching and kicking and screaming, jumping around and rolling on the floor. Then she stopped and stood stock still for about five minutes. I timed it. Then it was stretching that looked like yoga, but it was extreme, it looked almost painful. Finally, she fell down on her knees and began rocking back and forth sobbing. When that was over she lit a stick of incense and walked around the room backwards, waving the thing over her head.”

“SoulCycle ain’t got nothin’ on her,” I said with a nervous laugh.

“Man, I know some people get into extreme exercise, but this was almost scary. Not almost, it was frightening. She worked herself up into a frenzy like that every single morning from eight until nine a.m. After the second day I started working at the kitchen table in the mornings.

“I told Maggie about it and she laughed it off saying that nothing about the women in the Swells surprised her anymore.”

I smiled thinking this Maggie sounded cool.

He went on, “They had people coming and going all day long. All different kinds of people, young and old, driving everything from old beat up cars to brand new Mercedes. I thought they might be therapists. Maggie still thought they were swingers.

“One afternoon Harry brought over a plate of brownies welcoming us to the neighborhood. He invited us over for drinks the following evening in their backyard. I accepted, though I had absolutely no desire to spend any time with them.

“Maggie and I ate the brownies that night while we watched a movie. The kids were both out and I don’t know why I did it, but I threw out the rest of those brownies away before they came home. They tasted totally fine, but I just didn’t want the kids eating them.

“I had the strangest, most vivid dreams that night and so did Maggie. We both dreamt of the Dilvish’s. Specifically about doors in their backyard. Then when we went to their house for drinks we saw the doors in their fence. It had three doors evenly spaced along the side facing the cemetery.”

“Oh dear,” I said, feeling the first tingle of fear.

“In typical Maggie fashion she asked, ‘What’s up with the doors?’ when we walked outside. Harry and Kate looked at one another dramatically and held their hands out for one another and touched finger tips.

“Kate explained that it balanced the property and allowed them access to forces beyond the understanding of most humans. Harry changed the subject quickly and asked if we intended to put a fence in around our yard. He mentioned our dog Snuffy.

“The thing is, I hadn’t told him our dog’s name, and I was pretty certain that Maggie hadn’t either. I told him we were in the process of getting quotes from a couple fence companies and asked him who installed their fence, just to be polite, you know? He said they’d built it themselves. Maggie made a joke about how un-handy I am around the house but I wanted to know how he knew our dog’s name. I said something like, ‘I didn’t know you’d met our Golden.’

“The creep told me that Melanie, my daughter, had introduced them,” Mitchell gave a little growl then, “The way he said it, too, ‘Melanie made the introduction, what a pleasant young woman.’ Then he asks me again if either of the kids ever did ‘odd jobs’ for money. Something about the way he asked made me want to punch him in the face.  When we got home that night I told both the kids to stay away from the Dilvish’s and their house.

“I asked Mel about her conversation with Harry and she told me she’d never even met him.”

“Oh, shit,” I said.

“I had a bad feeling about them but Maggie still wasn’t convinced. She had to agree that both of us dreaming about doors in their backyard and then there actually being doors in their backyard was weird, but she reasoned that we must have seen them at some point and forgotten. Her opinion was that the Dilvish’s were socially awkward hippies. She told me to ‘stop being so square’ then reached out dramatically to touch finger tips with me.”

I snorted and almost spit out my seltzer water, “I have to meet your wife.”

“She’s pretty great,” he acknowledged. “For a time things were quiet, but when we installed the fence all hell broke loose. We chose a plastic fence that matched theirs pretty closely in style, the only difference was that theirs was made of wood. It was painted white so side by side it looked fine, you couldn’t tell much of a difference looking at it. But they completely lost their minds over it.”

Just then our food arrived. A turkey club for Mitchell and a B.L.T. and fries for me.

I asked, “So, what was the big deal about the fence?” then took a huge bite of my sandwich.

“The day it was being installed I was working in my office when I heard yelling coming from our backyard. It was Kate berating the guys installing the fence. She was screaming at them about earth energy, demanding they acknowledge the plastic fence would be around longer than the human race and that it’s toxins would leech into the earth.

“I went right outside and as I approached them she was demanding to know how they could look at themselves in the mirror each morning knowing they were agents of destruction. Her back was to me and when I called out to ask if there was a problem she spun around and, Liz, I’m telling you she looked like a completely different person. She looked older and her eyes, they were blue, usually they were blue, but I swear to God on my life, when she turned around and looked at me her irises were jet black, like her pupil had taken over.

“I tried to talk to her but she wouldn’t calm down. She actually picked up a piece of the fence, a big section of it, and threw it at me. The fence guys just stepped back and watched us, I think they were as frightened as I was.

“Just as I was about to go inside and call the police Harry ran out and wrapped his arms around her, pinning her arms to her side. He didn’t acknowledge anyone but Kate. ‘Shhh, my darling,’ he kept saying over and over, ‘You mustn’t expend, you must conceal,’ and other weird shit like that. Oh, I know what else he said, ‘Power shared is power lost, my darling.

“She finally stopped struggling against him and began sobbing. He scooped her up and carried her into their house like she was a child. I just stood there dumbfounded. One of the guys from the fence company finally broke the silence by saying, ‘Alright, Boss, you want us to take ten or should we keep moving here?’

“I told them to keep working.”

“That is freaking crazy town,” I said. “Part of me kind of loves her, or at least wants her to have her own reality show.”

Mitchell laughed but continued seriously, “I’m not embarrassed to say that it scared the hell out of me. I was already pretty wigged out by her exercise routine, but after the whole fence thing I thought she might need to be in some sort of treatment center.”

“What did Maggie say about it?”

“She was really pissed. She wanted to go right over and demand that they stay the hell off our property and away from us.”

“Did she?”

“No, thank God. I talked her out of it. We agreed to finish the fence and keep our distance. But it was too late. There was no going back.”

Man, what did they do?”

“It was subtle at first. The things they did weren’t so obvious. Like the door to our fence would be left open and Snuffy would get out and wander the neighborhood for a while before we even knew he was gone.”

“Wait,” I said, nervous about another mention of the dog, “I have to skip to the last page here, did they do something to him?” I demanded.

“No,” he replied, adamantly. “No way would I let that happen. The third time that fence was left open and the kids swore they hadn’t done it, I started walking Snuffy in the neighborhood instead of letting him out in the yard. Even when I was back there with him I was afraid they were going to throw poisoned meat over the fence or something.

“I was beginning to feel unsafe. Nothing in particular was happening that I could point to, but at night it felt like someone was watching us from the windows. I found things around our yard. A family of dead birds in the driveway. A bunch of black balloons stuck in one of our trees in the front yard. It was as though they’d escaped from a party, but who the hell gets black balloons? Then there were big paw prints right beneath my office window. Weird stuff like that.

“One morning I saw something that I thought was a downed branch hanging on the back of our fence at the back of the yard, bordering the trees.”

“And the cemetery,” I interrupted.

“And the cemetery,” he acknowledged. “I walked around the outside of the fence and found a plain wooden ladder leaning against it. There were symbols painted all over it and on that section of the fence.”

“Oh no,” I said, quietly, popping a fry in my mouth.

“I grabbed the ladder and brought it around to the front of the house, I considered throwing it in the trash, but then, I was so damn pissed. I knew it was them. I figured they were trying to intimidate me with their hippy bullshit, so I threw it into the middle of their driveway.”

I made a noise of concern.

“I didn’t see them pick it up out of the driveway and I didn’t see them walk around the fence, believe me I was watching. But that damn ladder came back, again and again.”

“What do you mean?”

“I broke that fucking ladder at least four times. The second time it showed up I smashed it against the driveway and broke it apart pretty well. But there it was, the next morning. Good as new.”

“No way,” I said, reaching for another fry and realizing that I’d already eaten all of them.

“They must have had several of those ladders as back ups, but I’m telling you they looked exactly the same. I’d peek around the fence for a couple days and see nothing and then, boom. There was the ladder and the paint. By about the third time I decided to set up a camera to catch them on my property, you know?

“There were a few nights with nothing. I’d fast forward through the video recording every morning even if the ladder hadn’t shown up the previous night just to see if they were lurking around out there. I had that feeling of being watched at night and I wanted proof that they were out there.

“One morning I’m fast-forwarding through the recording when the ladder appeared. I slowed down the tape and was able to see that it had been carried quickly out of the trees and leaned up against the fence. The thing was, it wasn’t the Dilvish’s who put it there.”

Mitchell looked down and pushed the plate of untouched food to the side.

“Then who was it?” I asked, resisting the urge to grab a fry off his plate.

“They were small. Really small,” he said, still looking down. “I watched that tape so many times, it may have been children, but if it was they couldn’t have been much more than four years old. Who the hell would send a four year old into the woods with a ladder in the middle of the night? I don’t know. I just, well after that I didn’t check the back fence any longer. I left the camera up, but I didn’t look at the recording.”

“What are you saying?” I asked, confused.

“I don’t think people were the ones replacing the ladder.”

“I didn’t tell Maggie what I’d seen. My plan had been to capture the Dilvish’s on camera and call the police with evidence that they were the ones defacing our fence and creeping around our property at night. I couldn’t show the police that tape.

“I was scared, I just wanted to let the whole thing drop. I wanted to ignore the stupid ladder and hoped they would eventually get over the whole fence issue.”

“But that didn’t work,” I guessed.

“No. They were just getting started. Around that time Kate put up crudely drawn images of my family facing out the window in her exercise room. I could see them clearly from my office. I talked to a police officer in town and he said it was strange but there was no way to get her to take them down. A week later little dolls appeared leaning against the window underneath each of our drawings.”

“All of that over a plastic fence?” I said, incredulous.

“I think they had us pegged from the beginning. Our house was built on spec. A builder had come in and torn down the small ranch that had been there and built our home on the property. I think they never approved of our home so they were never going to approve of us.”

“Geez,” I said. “When did you realize they were witches though? I mean the ladder and everything is weird and the dolls are absolutely terrifying, but witches?”

“It took some time to figure it all out. At first it just felt like we were living under a dark cloud. Anything and everything went wrong with the house, the brand new house.

“The basement flooded and the flood cause a leak in the foundation that let a swarm of these disgusting centipede-like bugs into the house. It was infested. The exterminator came and then about a week later there were these huge black beetles crawling all over the place. Maggie wanted to sue the builder and move immediately. I wanted out of there too, but we couldn’t move. We didn’t have the money to just buy another house, float our existing mortgage and sue the guy. And who were we going to find to buy an infested house with a foundation issue?

“Then the health issues started. Maggie twisted her knee really badly one morning after we’d had a bad wind storm. She was walking out to get the mail and tripped on a huge branch that had fallen overnight. It was so bad that she had to basically drag her way back to the house and bang on the door until I came to help her.

“Then I came down with a case of shingles. The kids were sick all the time. Nothing particularly serious but a string of cold after cold after stomach bug after flu breaks you down. We were constantly at the doctor for one thing or another.

“It was hard enough on our family and our relationships with one another but then all of a sudden no one wanted to hang out with us anymore. Friends we’d had since the kids were babies started outright avoiding us. The kids were getting picked on at school, they were becoming isolated from their friends too. A girl Melanie had known since preschool started bullying her on Facebook.

“All of it took a toll, for Maggie and I it hit our careers especially hard. The turmoil had an obvious effect on our ability to work effectively. I couldn’t draw at my usual pace for the nerve pain in my arm and poor Maggie couldn’t hobble around the hospital with her leg brace and crutches.

“All of that was tangible, though. It could have been chalked up to a rash of very bad luck. But then the haunting began.”

“Come on,” I breathed.

“Maggie started seeing things. Things that weren’t possible. She was cleaning the mirror in our bathroom and saw me standing behind her in the reflection. We had a conversation about dinner and when I suggested that we invite the neighbors over she turned around to look at me I wasn’t there. She ran downstairs and found me at my drawing table. I’d been there all afternoon.”

“Oh no,” I breathed.

“Then one night Mags was cooking and, I know this sounds straight out of a horror movie, but she was cooking chicken breasts and they, well, they crawled across the cutting board and flopped onto the floor.”

I took in Mitchell’s furrowed brow and worried eyes. Even though this was the creepiest and grossest thing I’d ever heard, I believed him.

I said, “How?”

“Magic,” he said quietly. “She wasn’t the only one seeing things, I did too, and so did the kids. Melanie opened her closet one morning and all of her clothes were red. She ran to get her mom and when she tried to show her there was nothing out of the ordinary about her clothing. It had gone back to normal.

“Then Tres-”

“Your son?” I interrupted.

“Yeah, he’s Mitchell the third,” Mitchell said with a smile, “Maggie nicknamed him Tres when he was a baby and it stuck.”

“Adorable,” I commented.

“He’s a really great kid,” Mitchell replied. “He was mowing the lawn and just as he was about to go over a section he said a rabbit popped out of the ground in front of the mower. He told me he heard the mower hit it. Heard it grinding over the poor thing. But when he stopped there was nothing there. No bunny.”

“Jesus,” I said, “That is sick. I don’t even want to ask you what you saw.”

“I had to nail the basement door shut after I saw gremlin down there when I was putting away my hockey gear.”

“What?” I asked with a laugh.

Mitchell stayed silent.

“You couldn’t have,” I breathed.

“But I did. It was there. I know it was all probably some sort of conjuring or illusion. But it was real enough for me,” he paused for a moment, then said, “I was terrified of that movie when I was little. I hated those things. There is no way they could have known that, but they did.”

“How?”

“They were magic,” he said, exasperated. “My dreams got so disturbing and violent that I couldn’t sleep more than an hour or two at a time. I was up around three o’clock one night when I heard a noise outside. It sounded like it came from the back of the house so I went into my office and looked out the window.

“I had a full view of the Dilvish’s backyard from there and what I saw scared me more than anything I’ve ever experienced. They were there. Standing naked, surrounded by six other people dressed in black. There were tiki torches placed around them as well. The worst part about it was that they were all perfectly still and silent, staring at the back of the fence, towards the doors.

“I watched them watching those doors on the fence for maybe, four or five minutes. Then the wind picked up. The trees began swaying and the doors blew open, all three of them at the same time. I wanted to look away then, but I couldn’t.”

“Three figures walked through those doors. The same ones I’d seen placing the ladder at my fence. The people surrounding the Dilvish’s backed up a few steps to let the creatures into the group. I watched the things circle our neighbors a few times and then the group closed back in around them. I stopped watching then.”

“Good Lord, Mitchell, I’m not going to sleep for a week,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” he replied. “It was a Black Mass, that’s how I realized they were witches. The old-fashioned kind, not the modern ones who just want to burn sage and wear eyeliner. They followed Satan.”

“How do you know that?” I asked, skeptical at the idea of devil worshippers in Wellesley. Which I admit was odd because I’d been quick to believe the story about the crawling chicken breasts. But the satanic panic of the 1980s always comes to mind whenever the specter of devil worshippers was touted.

Mitchell explained, “I took a picture of the drawings they’d painted on the fence and brought it to the library, one of your old coworkers helped me to find one of the symbols in a book of black magic.”

“Brilliant,” I said, proud of my profession. “What did the symbol mean?”

“Downfall,” he said darkly.

I shivered, “What did you do?”

“I snuck into their house.”

“No you did not.”

“I had to, we were under attack and I had to find a way to stop them. It’s not like I could call the police.”

“Couldn’t you just move?” I asked.

“They put a curse on our property,” he said quietly.

I considered then said, “But what in the world were you hoping to find in their house? What if they’d caught you?”

“I had to take that chance. I found a witch who could help us. She explained everything and it all started when they first met us. They tagged us with those damn brownies,” he said angrily.

“What do you mean?”  I asked, thinking of the cinnamon buns I’d accepted from our next door neighbors as a welcoming gift months ago. I hadn’t shared them. Chris can’t have gluten and what the girls didn’t know couldn’t hurt them so I ate the pastries that morning with coffee while I watched a Supernatural re-run. There were only four of them and they were relatively small. It had been a small treat yo self moment, but what if those cinnamon buns had been tainted?

I pushed aside the idea, my neighbors were kind Buddhists after all, and forced myself to pay attention to Mitchell.

He said, “When we were in the middle of the storm with those damn people I drove up to Salem to try and find someone to help us.”

“How did you know where to go?”

“I didn’t. I googled ‘Salem witch shop’ and chose the first one that came up. It was called Crow Haven Corner. It was late September so the place was busy with a bunch of tourists. I was looking around trying to find something, anything that said ‘protection’ or ‘curse breaker’ on it when the shop owner tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come back for a reading in her Egyptian room.”

“Oh boy,” I said.

“That was my reaction, I started to say ‘no thank you’ but she cut me off and said she was deeply concerned about my aura so the reading would be complimentary.

“Even though I was about ninety-five percent certain that this woman was a charlatan, I was desperate. I followed her to the reading room and let her give me a tarot card reading and-”

“Wait, what color was your aura?” I interrupted, curious.

“Oh, supposedly it was a ‘muddy silver’ whatever that means, mixed with shades of grey. She told me I had a buildup of fear and anger and that I’d been around serious discord and injury. The witch, Ravine-“

Ravine?” I interrupted again.

“Yeah, I don’t think it was her given name,” he said, with a laugh, “She said my aura was a dark blob of negativity swirling angrily around me. She had to get me away from her other customers as soon as possible.

“Before this whole mess with our neighbors I’d never believed in any of this stuff. Never seen a ghost, never seen anything that I couldn’t explain, you know? But this woman, Ravine, her tarot card reading hit on everything we’d been going through.

“She turned over the first card, sat back in her chair and said, ‘It’s your neighbors, isn’t it?’”

“Get out of town,” I said.

“Yup. The cards told her that our neighbors were powerful dark witches accomplished in black magic. To top it off, she said they were devil worshipers. Devil worshipers,” he reiterated. “That’s what made them so powerful.”

“Crazy,” I said.

“That’s exactly what it was,” Mitchell agreed, “crazy. I told her I would pay any amount, do anything if she could help me. But Ravine wouldn’t accept any payment, she said that she couldn’t, that it was her duty as a witch to banish darkness whether she wanted to or not. She believed it was fate that brought me into her shop, that the ‘Goddess’ sent me and it was her duty to protect me.”

“What the hell did she do?”

“She mixed a bunch of herbs together and said a bunch of words over them. She waved her hands around and burned three sticks of sage over me. Then she hypnotized me and said that while I was under she pulled out the ‘hooks’ the Dilvish’s had planted in me with those brownies. Maggie had to go up the next day to have the same thing done. While she was there, in Salem, I broke into the neighbor’s house.

“Ravine told me exactly what to look for. She said to start in the exercise room and grab those dolls and pictures that Kate had put up against the glass. Next I had to head to the lowest part of the house. She explained that’s where the shrine would be. She suggested the basement but said it may be hidden under a trap door anywhere off the first floor.

“How did you know how long they would be gone for?” I demanded. “What if you were caught?”

‘They taught a class on herbal remedies at MassBay every Thursday morning from ten until noon. I had two hours to find what I needed and get out of there.”

“Just hearing you talk about it is giving me heart palpitations,” I said.

“Imagine how I felt,” he said with a laugh. “When I was searching for the door to the basement one of their cats sprinted past me and nearly gave me a heart attack.

“Their basement was the spookiest place I have ever stepped foot. The walls were painted midnight blue and the ceiling and floor were black. The door to their sanctuary stood out like a sore thumb, thank God. It was bright red and covered in symbols. Instead of a door handle there was a hoof.”

“A hoof?”

“Yeah, from a goat or a deer maybe,” he replied, shaking his head in disgust.

“Gruesome,” I commented.

“Mm,” he agreed. “I had to absolutely force myself grab onto the thing to yank open the door. It led to a small circular shaped room that was painted bright white, floor, ceiling, everything. It was dazzling after the darkness in the rest of the basement. I hesitated for a moment before walking in, I didn’t want my shoes to scuff the floor and leave any evidence that I’d been there so I took them off and walked in with just my socks. The floor was warm.”

“Ick, no,” I said, chilled.

“At the center of the room was a big stone bowl on a bed of pebbles. There were shelves along one wall, they were filled with white boxes. Each box was labeled and one had ‘Westcott Family’ written on it in fancy cursive lettering.”

“Get right out of here,” I demanded.

“Nope,” he replied. “It was that easy. I grabbed the box, got the hell out of that evil room, put my shoes on and headed straight for the back door.”

“Oh, thank God,” I breathed, unable to stand the idea of him alone in that house.

“That wasn’t it,” he said.

“Oh, come on!” I sighed.

“I got out of the house just fine but as I was sneaking back into my yard I saw something in the little strip of woods between our property and the cemetery. It was big, over eight feet tall. I couldn’t see it’s head but it’s legs were bent backwards, like, well like deer legs. I ran to my house, lit a fire and threw everything in there, chanting the words that Ravine told me to say.”

“Whoa,” I said, holding out my hands, “An eight foot tall deer legged monster in the backyard? In the middle of the day? What in the hell?”

“It was the only time I saw it. It may have been another illusion, but I don’t think so. I think it watched over them, an agent of the devil.”

I stared at him for a moment then said, “Please tell me you moved. Immediately.”

“We did. I put the house on the market that afternoon, Ravine had given me a potion for a quick home sale. We lived in a hotel until the house sold and we closed on our new place over in Wellesley Hills.”

I shook my head in disbelief wondering who’d bought the cursed property.

I asked, “So what was in the box?”

“One of my colored pencils, Maggie’s hospital i.d. that she thought she’d misplaced, a lacrosse ball that had belonged to Tres, and one of Melanie’s guitar picks.”

“You must have seen them again,” I said, meaning the Dilvish’s.

“No. We do all of our shopping online and have our groceries delivered by Roche Brothers. I can’t run the risk of running into them in town.”

“And that’s it, they never came after you even though they must have known you had broken into their house?”

“That was it. Ravine said that once I’d burned everything and chanted her reversal then they would be plagued with the curse and we would never have to deal with them again.”

“Well, Mitchell, you’ve managed to scared the hell out of me,” I said with a nervous laugh.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No, it’s fantastic. Just do me a favor and don’t tell Chris your story. It would be too much for him.”

“Doesn’t he read your blog?” Mitchell asked.  

“No, he doesn’t like ghost stories,” I said

“You’re kidding me,” he replied pulling his jacket off the back of his seat.

“This stuff isn’t for everyone,” I said with a shrug.