ghosts in the burbs

A blog about the people who live in Wellesley, MA and the ghosts (and monsters) who haunt them.

“Go on, open it.”

I glanced back over my shoulder at Biddy who stood behind me holding a bottle of holy water out in front of her like a weapon. 

“You should open it, you’re the ghost hunter,” I snapped. 

Ex-ghost hunter,” she corrected. “And I’m not worried about ghosts. I think there’s a fifty-fifty chance that this will turn out to be a rat infestation.”

I took a step away from the wood panel covering our basement crawl space. “Gross,” I said, with a shudder. “But that wouldn’t explain the dreams.”

“You read too many horror novels. You’re bound to have nightmares.” She gave me a little shove forward. Then said, “Wait, is your recorder on just in case there is a dead person in there?”

“Yes,” I said, holding it up to show her. “Are you sure this is a good idea? EVPs were what got you into all that trouble in the first place. Should I be doing this in my own home?”

“What else are we going to do? You’ve got to find out why you’re dreaming about that crawl space, right?”

I nodded. “Maybe we should call Judith.”

“Why? You’re the one who hears ghosts,” Biddy reasoned. 

“Not recently,” I said. 

“Well, then what’s the worst that can happen? We’ll record voices, or we won’t. You’ll hear something or you don’t. The only way you’ll know for sure is if you look in there.”

I pushed past my hesitation and unslid the four bolts holding the wood panel in place. I grabbed the two handles attached to it then whispered, “Three, two, one,” pulled back removing the panel from it’s home and leaned it against the wall at our feet. 

Biddy and I stood stock still. Waiting for either a rat or a ghost to pop out of the dirt floored crawl space beneath my sunroom. The space I’d been dreaming about for months. The dreams, which had been only occasional at first had become more and more frequent and disturbing. Dead people lined the walls of the crawl space in my dreams. And they were angry, angry at me as far as I could tell. But as the dreams became more frequent, my ability to hear the dead speak became less and less so. Even Claire seemed to have disappeared from my life, or perhaps I just couldn’t hear her any more. I didn’t exactly know why, but I had a strong suspicion it was connected to that crawl space. I also didn’t know if I should just let things be. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted my so-called clairaudience to return. (My So-Called Clairaudience will be the title of my autobiography…™). 

At any rate, there Biddy and I stood. In front of a four by four foot hole in my basement wall, that began at waist height. The space beyond it, a dirt-floored fifteen by fifteen foot space was dark and silent. I reached into my back pocket to grab the My Little Pony flashlight I’d swiped from my daughters’ bedroom. 

I shined the light into the space and saw… nothing. Nothing but concrete walls, dirt floors and yup, a dead mouse at one corner. 

“Told you there’d be rats in there,” Biddy said, coming forward to stand beside me. 

“That is not a rat.”

We stood next to each other staring into the darkness. “Well are you going to say anything?”

I took a deep breath, held the recorder out in front of me and said, “Hello? Is there anyone here with us?”


***

Before I share what my digital recorder captured, I want to tell you about a very strange chat that I had with Amelia Barns, an ex-docent at the historic Coughlin House in Brewster, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Amelia grew up on the Cape with her family in neighboring Dennis. About two years ago, just after she’d completed her freshman year studying art history at UMass Amherst, she visited the Coughlin House, a mid-seventeenth century saltbox. She was nineteen years old, leaning towards a minor in architectural history and interested in historic home restoration. According to Wikipedia, a saltbox house is a traditional New England style of house with a long, pitched roof that slopes down to the back. It has just one story in the back and two stories in the front. The flat front and central chimney are recognizable features, but the asymmetry of the unequal sides and the long, low rear roofline are the most distinctive features of a saltbox, which takes its name from its resemblance to a wooden lidded box in which salt was once kept. I’ve posted a photo of one on Instagram and Twitter in case you haven’t had the chance to see this particularly spooky type of house. 

“I walked through the front door and I knew in my bones that I’d been there before,” she told me. “No, that’s not right.” She paused, watching three chickens cluck around near our feet. “It wasn’t just that I’d been there before – I’d lived there. I’d grown up there. I’d had a family there. And I’d seen and done terrible things there.” 

Amelia and I sat across from one another at a picnic table in front of the Snowy Owl, a coffee shop in Brewster. She’d emailed me just a week prior in hopes of telling me her story if ever I were to venture to her neck of the woods. As luck-fate-coincidence would have it, Chris and I intended to spend a weekend on the Cape over the kids’ Spring break. We arranged to meet for coffee near our hotel and as an added bonus, the aggressively organic coffee shop kept a chicken coop around back. About a dozen plump little chickens had run of the place. 

“I don’t quite understand,” I said, to Amelia’s claim to having grown up in the historic home.

“Do you believe in reincarnation?” She asked. The woman was just twenty one years old but she spoke and carried herself like a mature adult. She wore her medium length hair in an unflattering low ponytail and it looked as if she’d raided her grandmother’s stash from Talbot’s.  

I considered, wondering if perhaps the mature clothing made sense given the question. “I don’t know. No more or less than I believe in anything else I suppose,” I answered. 

Amelia nodded her head slowly. “Well, when I walked into that house I had this intense feeling of deja vu, and as I walked further inside this like, dormant bank of memories unfolded before me. Not in a flood, it was more moment by moment, like, ‘Oh, right, I remember this and that’ way. Like if you’ve ever been back to your elementary school and you see things there that you haven’t thought about in years. The memories were there, you just hadn’t thought about them in so long that you didn’t realize they were there at all.”

“What did you remember about the house?” I asked.

“First off, as I stood in the foyer I realized that I knew the layout of the house. And it wasn’t like I’d maybe been there once a long time ago and had just forgotten. And it wasn’t that I only knew what lay behind every door, I had memories attached every single room. Memories of my family – only it wasn’t my family, you know? Like, I knew my mother, I mean not my real mom now but the woman who’d been my mother a long time ago, used to sew by the front window in the living room because it had the best light in the afternoon. I knew the floorboards in the kitchen would be a different width than those in the rest of the house because my father, my old father, had to replace them when a crawl space flooded beneath that part of the house. I knew the second stair would creak and the basement was lined with large stones that I’d helped my father clear from the back yard. I knew where to find the stone onto which I’d carved my old name.”

“Wow,” I said, impressed. “What was your old name?”

“Emaline Coughlin.”

“Geez,” I said, slightly distracted by a chicken beneath our table. The things were cute from a distance but I didn’t really want one crawling over my feet. “So you were a part of the original family who built the house.”

Amelia nodded her head. 

“And you’re totally certain that you didn’t have any knowledge of that house’s history before you went there that first time? Could you have maybe gone there on a fieldtrip when you were little?”

“No. The house didn’t open as a museum until twenty-seventeen. The state bought it in the nineteen fifties and registered it as a historic landmark, but restoration didn’t begin until twenty-fifteen. Prior to that, the home was locked the windows boarded. So no, I couldn’t have seen it, on a field trip.”

“A family vacation?” I suggested weakly.

“No, I asked my mom. She’d never been there either. There’s nothing really special about the place other than being a good representation of an early colonial New England home. The only reason I sought it out that summer was because I was interested in historic restoration. I thought perhaps it might be something I would pursue as a career.”

“Well then, wow,” I said with a smile. “That really is absolutely amazing. I can’t imagine what that would be like. Recovering memories from a past life like that.” 

“To say it was unnerving would be an understatement.” Amelia watched as a barista shoo’d a chicken out of the cafe. “I wish I’d never stepped foot into that house. I wasn’t even supposed to remember, none of us are. But there’s something very wrong with that property, at first I thought it was a sort of time portal. But that was a trick, it’s not a time glitch.  I was drawn back to that home.”

“Why?”

 “That thing needed to be brought up and I was the only one who knew it was there. By releasing those memories in dribs and drabs it kept me coming back, like an addict. It was the perfect way to keep me there long enough to set it free again.”

“I’m afraid to ask,” I said, with a small laugh. 

Amelia sighed. “I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m sorry. So, over time I remembered the entire past life I lived in that house. It was relayed to me in bits and pieces, over about a year and a half. If I’d remembered it all at once I would have walked out immediately and never gone back.” 

“So they weren’t all good memories.”

“No. But the trick it pulled was to give me the nice ones first. I didn’t get the whole picture until it was too late.” 

I waited for her to say more. When she didn’t I prompted, “Too late for what?”

Amelia pinched her lips together. “This is harder than I thought it would be. I’ve never talked about this with anyone, I mean, who in the world would believe me? I heard about your blog from a girlfriend, after I read a couple stories I thought I might finally be able to offload the whole mess.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Sorry, I don’t mean it like that. It’s just… this has been a lot to keep to myself. It’s all so bunched up and swirled in my mind…” She trailed off then shook her head as if to clear her mind. “Okay, so I had memories of a past life but they all came after I went to the house for the first time. All but one. I’ve had a recurring dream my entire life. In it I’m in the woods in the middle of the night. It’s freezing cold and raining and I’m shoveling dirt back into a hole that I know I just dug. My mother’s there with me, not my mom, my old mom. She’s rushing me and telling me we need to get inside before the sun comes up, before anyone sees us. She says, ‘It’s buried now with him, it’s over.’ 

“We pat down the dirt and cover it with branches and wet leaves and herbs. My mother sprinkles water over the ground and then we walk the path back to our house. We pass a shed along the way, my father’s shed. When we come out of the woods I see the backside of a saltbox house. My house. The Coughlin House.”

“You’ve always had that dream?”

“For as long as I can remember. As stupid as it sounds, I didn’t put it together until I began spending a lot more time at the Coughlin House. Really, it was quite a while before I went out to the backyard. Obviously, I should have put two and two together much sooner. How many saltbox houses do you come upon nowadays, right?” 

“I’m sure you were overwhelmed with all those other memories of the house.”

“True, I was. And I was studying to be a tour guide and managing all of my course work at the same time. I had a lot going on.” 

“Yeah, so how did you end up becoming a docent at that house?” I asked, thinking such a small museum wouldn’t have many openings. 

Amelia groaned. “When I first realized I had lived a life in that house almost four hundred years ago I became absolutely obsessed. Completely and totally. I didn’t leave the people at the Brewster historical commission alone until they agreed to give me an internship. I spent every single weekend there, rain or shine. I drove three hours each way from UMass to Brewster every Friday night and then back every Sunday afternoon. It became an obsession. 

“When I wasn’t showing the house or giving tours I was deep in research in the historical commission. If my parents hadn’t put me straight I probably would have quit school to spend all my time there.”

“Did you tell your parents anything about the memories of living in that house?”

“No,” Amelia said, letting out a humorless laugh. “Absolutely not. They just thought I was taking my history obsession too far. They sat me down for a little talk once my first semester Sophomore year grades came back. I figured out how to juggle it all, but school definitely came second.”

“I can imagine.”

“The memories, the way they would come to me out of thin air was addicting. I wouldn’t remember anything new for a few weeks and then I’d be walking a tour group through the place pointing out the architectural details of the stairs when all of a sudden an image of my father from that previous life would pop into my head and I’d see him chasing my brother up those stairs, both of them laughing.”

“Wow.” 

“Yeah, the good memories were magical. I learned to continue on with the tours even while catching glimpses of my past life. But when I began to remember the darker things it was much harder to keep going in front of the guests with my rehearsed speech.”

“I’ll bet,” I said, gently shooing a chicken away from my bag.

“Memories from my past life weren’t the only things in that house. And my old family wasn’t the only one that lived there either. There were hundreds of years of life lived in that home and some of those lives imprinted. Ghost floated around, just carrying on with the day as if they’d never died.”

“Wait, you saw ghosts there too?” 

Amelia nodded, her face serious. “In that way I do think that place is like a time warp.”

“Like residual hauntings,” I commented.

“Exactly, it was as if time overlapped there. One afternoon I was closing up the house and I walked into the kitchen to see a farmer in overalls sitting at the table. He looked at me like I was an alien and then he just sort of dissipated. To him I was probably the ghost.”

“Wow. I bet one of those ghost hunting shows would kill to get inside that house.”

  Amelia leaned forward and grabbed my arm which had been resting on the table holding my coffee cup, “You can’t tell them. Do a lot of people read your blog? Could they find out about the house? You have to change my name, the house’s name, and you have to move it to a different town, okay?”

I yanked my arm back, sloshing coffee in the cup. “Sure.”

“Sorry,” she said quickly. “But no one like that, like ghost hunters or whatever, can know about that house. I’ve even thought about-” she pursed her lips. Obviously, stopping herself from finishing the thought. “It’s extremely important that no one go looking for this house. Barely anyone visits it as a historical landmark anymore. It was busy when they first opened it to the public but now it’s an occasional group of retirees or some historical buff who comes to complain about anything he perceives as a ‘lack of authenticity’ in the restoration. It’s better if people think it’s just a boring old house. If word got out about what it really is…” she trailed off.

“So what is it?” I asked pointedly.

“It may be a place where time warps, or like overlaps, but I think that aspect of it is harmless. But there is something there that’s timeless, that lived alongside all the lives and all the times in that place until my family – the one that I remembered – restrained it. In my past life I caged that evil, but I didn’t put an end to it. I don’t think that’s possible. The land, it’s land called me back using that house and it tricked me into freeing it. It was sending me that dream my whole life, like it knew I would come home. It held back everything it didn’t want me to remember until the first archaologist’s shovel hit the dirt and then it all came back to me. I didn’t have a chance to resist it. I did exactly what it wanted me to do.”

Behind Amelia the chickens had congregated in front of their coop and an image from Pet Cemetery popped into my mind. “What exactly did you dig up?” I asked. 

“My father. My old father. But I didn’t know that was what we were digging up until it was too late. I was out behind the Coughlin House one afternoon, picking up bits of litter that had blown into the yard and I found myself back by the treeline. I looked up at the back of the house and it was like a snapshot from my dreams. It took me so long to recognize it because the woods were much wilder in the past, they used to completely surround the house. But there was no doubt it was the same home. I immediately began looking for the path from my dream, but the scrub brush was so dense that I couldn’t find it. But I knew it was there and down that path was a shed and just past that shed was the place where my mother and I had buried whatever or whoever we buried in my dream.

“I asked the director if the woods behind the house had been searched for artifacts. They hadn’t and she was hesitant to do so, no one in their right mind would trek into the Cape Cod woods unless they had a very good reason.”

“Ticks,” I commented with a shudder. 

“Exactly,” Amelia replied. “No one would go with me, so I went in alone. And I found the shed, or at least what was left of it. And from there I was able to find the place where I’d dug and then filled in a hole while my mother looked on.”

I made a face. “Oh dear.” 

“I went back for a shovel and dug around. It didn’t take me long, because in my dreams I’d seen a distinctive tree, so I dug down about two feet and found a skeletal arm in tattered clothing.”

Amelia,” I said with a nervous laugh.

“I still didn’t know everything, Amelia pressed on. “It kept the worst of it from me even then. I think because it knew that if I dug too deep and saw the bottles of holy water and the dried sage and the rosaries wrapped around his neck and hands then I would have covered it right back up and kept the secret. It needed someone else to do the digging. 

“After I uncovered the arm I put down the shovel and went to the Coughlin House to tell the director what I found. She called the police and they cordoned off the area. An expert of some sort came and determined rather quickly that the skeleton was hundred of years old, so the next call went to a team of archaeologists.”

“That must have been a huge, to-do,” I commented. 

“It was, and the Coughlin House got a lot of attention.” She shook her head emphatically, “I swear I didn’t know until that woman’s shovel hit the dirt, I had no idea what I’d done.”

While Amelia took a moment to compose herself, I considered getting another coffee. 

“Sorry,” she said after a long moment. “I just feel so responsible.”

I dismissed the woman’s guilt with a wave of my hand. “It sounds like you didn’t know you were doing anything wrong.”
“That’s not exactly true. I knew I wasn’t remembering everything and I wouldn’t let it drop until I knew. It all came back to me in a rush when that archaeologist began digging. It was as though the entire truth of it downloaded instantly into my mind. I don’t know if that thing did it on purpose just to screw with me or if it couldn’t hold back the memories any longer once it was free. Either way everything went black, I fainted. I wasn’t out long. But when I came around the director was beside me and I knew everything. It was too late. There was no way to stop them and I made an absolute ass of myself trying to get the archaeologists and the museum people to understand what they were doing. I was asked to leave the site, actually I was told to leave. It was humiliating. But if they’d seen what I’d seen, if they knew what they were releasing…”

“And that was…” I prompted, feeling impatient

Amelia sighed heavily. “It’s ancient. We knew more about these things back then and we’ve forgotten all of it. I have a hazy memory of my mother speaking with two Native American women at our kitchen table, I believe they were telling her what she needed to do to contain the creature, but the memory never fully returned so I can’t be sure. What I do remember is being told that before my family cleared the land and built our house it was understood that the area was bad, that something there preyed upon people. Turned them bad.

“My father was well-respected in the community. He’d made a good living, we were considered rich at that time.” Amelia sounded proud, if not a little arrogant. “But troubles came soon after we began to clear the land. A family friend, a man who we were very close with who’d always worked for my father, fell from the roof of the house and died. Mother had a miscarriage that almost took her life. Father made a bad investment with a con man and lost a great deal of the family’s money. And then he began to drink. And when he drank he became violent. 

“But all of that wasn’t him. It was the thing that crawled inside him. Father signed his fate when he chose that plot of land, the thing put eyes on him and it went to work right away. My father began spending a great deal of time out in the wood shed. He stopped caring for himself. He chased off all the good will he’d spent his life building within the community and he became paranoid, certain that we were all plotting against him.” 

It didn’t escape my attention that Amelia had begun to speak as thought these events had actually happened to her. It was spooky, actually. 

“Okay, so how did your past life father end up in a hole that you dug?” I asked.

“Mother killed him.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling increasingly nervous around the young woman. Her demeanor had changed as she spoke about her past life and it was spooking me out.

“Father built the shed back, away from the house. It was his place, none of us were ever to go inside. No one we knew had sheds to themselves. There was no time for such things. But father built the shed and told us that none of us were to ever step foot inside. He scared us off the woods as well, told us there were things that would carry us away, rip us apart and eat us. The thing that came up from the ground must have needed him alone, isolated in order to gain control. 

“He’d been spending more and more time in the shed. Mother and I had to do everything for the family. The miscariage that almost took her life weakened her. She never fully recovered.  I had two younger siblings. Winter was coming, without his help we wouldn’t have enough to survive. Unless… well unless he wasn’t draining our resources. Everyone had to contribute if we were to survive. 

“Don’t get me wrong, my mother didn’t kill him for not contributing to the well being of the family. He became infected in that shed. Infected by whatever it was that came out of the ground. We saw it in his eyes first. The whites of his eyes developed a brownish tinge, his gums went grey. He became confused. And the confusion made him violent. 

“There was no one to turn to for help, either. Men could do what they wanted in their own homes and punish their children and their wives as they saw fit. We couldn’t burden another family. He was our problem to solve. We sat at the dinner table one night. It had become rare that he would join us, which was a relief not only because he’d become so frightening but also to conserve resources. 

“But that night he came in and slumped down in his seat at the head of the table. He’d developed a smell,” Amelia made a face. “It was loamy and brackish like stagnant salt water. It wasn’t easy to eat anywhere near that smell, even though we were all starving. We’d gone down to two meals a day in hopes of maintaining the stores through the winter. It was early October. The nights were beginning to get cold. 

“He insisted on keeping the back door open when he was in the house. All the heat went out the door but he would become frighteningly agitated if he couldn’t see the path to his shed. It all started because my little brother went and closed the door. The baby was so small and he was worried about her. My father flew into a rage. He backhanded my brother so hard across the face that he fell and didn’t move. Father began to scream and ramble and then he began  tearing apart the kitchen. He knocked over the baby’s basket, then picked up a chair and smashed it down onto the ground right beside it.

“I stayed very still, waiting until I could scoop up the baby and flee to the front of the house. My mother watched him and she didn’t make a move until she was certain she could bring him down. There was a carving knife on the table. She stood and crept silently behind him while my father tore at the herbs she’d so carefully hung to dry from a line tacked to the wall. It was so fast, he didn’t even know what had happened. I don’t know that he felt it at all.

“She stabbed the knife right into the side of his neck. The blood was immediate, it was everywhere at once. It took him a horrible amount of time to go down. I think the thing within him gave him more strength than a man could possibly have. But eventually he went down. Not before spraying the whole room with his blood. It was tinted more brown than red like his eyes. It smelled of the brackish water too. The stains didn’t come out of the baby’s blanket or our clothing. They were buried along with him. 

“As he lay dying my mother wrapped a cord around his wrists, binding them. Blessed salt water was sprinkled on him there and again after we’d placed his body in the grave. Sage was tucked into his clothing, tossed into the grave and then scattered atop the dirt that covered him. Every Sunday morning my mother went out and sprinkled fresh sage and salt water atop the grave. Even in the snow.” 

“How did you get away with it?” I asked, horrified. 

“The town had seen how erratic he’d become. He was so lost that he was a liability to all and they knew it. We said he left us. No one asked questions because they were almost as relieved as we were that he was gone.”

I sat, watching the chickens cluck along aimlessly, somehow knowing to avoid the dangers of the parking lot. “And you never had to deal with the creature again?”

“No we trapped it inside his dead body. That’s why my mother bound his hands with the cord and dressed him with the salt water and sage before he died. If she’d waited until afterwards it would have been too late. The creature would have escaped and looked for another host, possibly my little brother.”

“Why not you or your mom?”

“It only infects men.”

“How do you know that?”

“The Native Americans told us.”

I watched her. “It was planned, the murder?”

She hesitated. “We knew what we had to do to put it down.”

“To put your father down.”

“That wasn’t my father anymore,” she said quietly.

“And now the thing is free, looking for another host,” I said. 

“Yeah.”

“Did you warn anyone?”

“Who would listen?” She said simply.

“Aren’t you going to do anything about it?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been back since the day they dug him up. I’ve had some contact with the historic society, the people I’ve spoken with seem normal enough so far. I was hoping you might know what I should do.”

I just shook my head. “No. You stopped it once. You’ll have to do it again.” I reasoned. 

“My mother killed my father the last time that thing got loose. That’s how we stopped it. I’m not going to kill anyone,” Amelia stopped speaking abruptly and stared off towards the woods behind the chicken coop. “Unless, Tom,” she said quietly, almost to herself.

“Who’s Tom?” 

“What? Oh, he’s just an ex-boyfriend. I-”

“Amelia,” I pressed.

She closed her eyes for a moment then looked back at me. “It’s nothing, I just thought of something stupid.”


***

Back upstairs at my kitchen table, armed with coffee heavy with vanilla soy creamer and Truvia we stared at the device between us. I’d rewound the recording, but still shaken by the events in the basement I hesitated to press play and listen to what we’d captured.  

After a sip of my chemical laden coffee I said, “Ready?” 

Biddy nodded. 

I heard my voice say, “Hello? Is there anyone here with us?”

Then Biddy chimed in, “Who is making Liz dream about this crawl space?”

A pause. And then a cacophony of voices came through the recorder. Startled, I pushed myself back from the table. I could make out snip its of sentences, but so many voices seemed to be competing to be heard it was difficult to hear any individual person. 

Biddy reached out and turned it off. 

We looked at each other. 

“Okay, I think it’s time to call Judith.”

As most of you have probably realized, I am an unreliable narrator. I don’t always tell you everything, sometimes I hold some things back. Besides that, I don’t always do what I say I’m going to do, sometimes I tell you one thing only to do another… which leads us to today. I told you that I planned to take a six month break. I said I’d return during our high holy season. I said it would take me six months to write the book. But, I was mistaken, again. 

The book is done. The first draft sitting quietly, waiting until the story of a severely haunted cul de sac gets fuzzy in my mind so I can go back and edit it with fresh eyes. It’s August now and I don’t want to wait until October to start sharing my neighbors spooky stories with you, or my own for that matter. I want that October feeling right now. 

So on Monday August 12th you can expect the next installment of Ghosts in the Burbs – or will it be Out of the Swells? I’m not sure yet, but a new story will appear. In the meantime, I need to thank some of the podcast’s generous supporters. These people have been patiently waiting over the hiatus for a thank you – six of them have been waiting for their own short story. I have that short story for you all today (actually, I got carried away and it’s not that short – see? Unreliable narrator), but first – thank you to everyone who’s reviewed the podcast on iTunes and everywhere else – you all are not only spreading the word among your friends, but the reviews are bringing in more listeners as well. Thank you. 

I’d also like to offer a million thanks to…

Ree Ann McCool, Jennifer Powers, Marie Lyons Cooper, Pam Bayer, Selina, Sally Mulrey, KG, Ariana Allen, Pam Bobe, Rebecca Hoffay, Heather Powell, Elisabeth Dowell, Carolina Cutie, Jes Waldron, John Koch, Carrie Beaton, Silvia Delgado, Amanda McColgan, Alexandria Grice, Kandace McCreary, Reba Lamba, Samantha Cramer, Lindsey Brandish-Banks, Carmen & Her Freckles, Angelique Dewberry, JLN, and Stephanie Gunning

… for their generous support on Patreon. Without it, the blog and podcast wouldn’t exist. If you haven’t yet head over to check out Ghosts in the Burbs on Patreon where each patron tier carries with it a small token of my thanks.

The following patrons, Stephanie Montoya, Caroline Pettit, Jess Reynolds, Aeon Anjargolian, Kate Legee and Melissa Robertson, chose the $10 per month tier so that I might create a spooky story just for them. 

I call this tale

VRB  uh oh…..

It had been their dream since they’d honeymooned on Lake Winnipesaukee twenty-five years prior. A holiday bonus made it a reality. The couple bought the cabin thinking it would be the perfect place to entertain their children and their spouses and eventually their grandchildren. They bought it sight unseen, making an offer the same day they saw the listing. Their offer, put in low in anticipation of a negotiation, was accepted within the hour. That night they celebrated over lobster and pinot grigio. In the morning they drove to the cabin to see their new vacation home. A four bedroom, four bathroom Adirondack style cabin overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee. She was excited to get a closer look at the furniture, for it had been sold fully furnished, the previous owners wishing to start from scratch in their next property. He wanted to get a look at the kitchen, from the online photos it looked dated. 

They spent only eight minutes inside the home. Another five on the property in the safety of their car trying to decide what they should do about the predicament in which they found themselves. They’d lived in a haunted apartment in their twenties right after they were married. The experience had cracked them open, it took them only moments inside the cabin to know they were in the presence of evil. It would not be the place to entertain grandchildren after all. Phone calls were made, emails sent. They’d signed documents that could not be unsigned. The property was theirs whether they wanted it or not. The money was spent. “We’ll rent it out.” The husband said. “On VRBO.” The woman agreed. Once we’ve saved enough we’ll sell it and get the home of our dreams, they agreed. 

***

Girls Trip

Friday August 2nd through Sunday August 4th 2019 – $350/night

Darkness fell as the women polished off another bottle of red wine. 

Stephanie Montoya turned to look in the direction of the strange noise. The movement made her a little dizzy. “Somebody should probably go up and check,” she said, slurring her words.

“Not it,” her old friend Caroline Pettit said before taking a large gulp from her glass. 

Jess Reynolds, the most practical of the group, dismissed the noises. “I’m sure it’s just the house settling.”

“Do you think that book flying off the shelf and smacking me in the back of the head was the house settling?” Stephanie demanded in an unnaturally high voice. 

Her friends shared a knowing glance. “Stephanie, we already talked about that. The book fell off the shelf, nothing ‘flew at your head.’” Jess argued. “It’s just a creaky floor. We’ve got the fire going and it’s heating up the house. When I booked this place on VRBO the entire month was wide open. The house has been empty. It’s just waking up.”

“Waking up is right,” Stephanie muttered. “This is the perfect place to get murdered.”

“At least no one will hear us scream,” Jess quipped, scooting closer to coziness of the stone fireplace. 

The friends were quiet for a moment, straining their ears to see if they would hear anymore footsteps overhead. For that is what they heard, though they were trying their best to convince themselves otherwise. 

Caroline broke the silence. “Did you guys hear that Jessica Bernard has five kids now?”

“That girl one who used to draw all over herself with a black Sharpie?” Stephanie said with a snort.

“Yeah, I guess she lives somewhere in the Pacific northwest and she’s married to a guy who invented some, like nanotechnology thingy that’s in every cell phone. She’s, like a multi-millionaire.”

“Wow, good for her,” Jess said. “Speaking of inventors, do you all know whatever happened to Jake Farmer? Remember his dad invented that weird sleep mask that he was always trying to get our parents to buy?”

The conversation carried on like this for another half hour or so. The old friends had rented the secluded Adirondack style cabin for a quiet weekend of reminiscing. It was something they’d done every two or three years since they’d graduated from high school. When they were young they’d met in New York City for crazy nights that didn’t end until the sun came up, over the years they’d gone to fancy hotels, spas, even once they’d gone skiing in Vermont. This year though they’d needed a relaxing escape from their husbands and children. 

Jess was in the middle of complaining about her husband’s obsession with running (which the friends thought was really a subtle brag about how hot he still was) when something came crashing down the stairs. 

The three women jumped up and screamed all at once. Caroline knocked over the bottle of red wine. “Shit! The carpet!” She yelled.

“Shh!” Stephanie hissed. 

“What was that?” Jess whispered. She crept across the great room beneath vaulted ceilings and a chandelier made to look like antlers and stepped into the short hallway in the center of the cabin. 

“Is there anything there?” Caroline called, trying to mop red wine off the taupe carpet with a dish towel. 

Standing at the bottom of the stairs Jess called back, “Uh, yeah. It’s one of those wooden tissue box covers.” She peered up the staircase just as a massive black roller bag (Stephanie’s) flew through the air straight at her head. It slammed her back into the wall with such force that she crumpled to the ground. Her friend’s screams filled the air, but Jess couldn’t hear them. 

“Oh my God!” Stephanie moved forward to check on their friend. “That’s my suitcase!” The luggage had burst open upon impact with their friend’s head. Clothing lay scattered in the hallway. 

“Be careful!” Caroline called ringing the now red stained dish towel in her hands. 

Stephanie crouched down over her friend’s lifeless body. “Caroline,” she said in a small voice, “I think she’s-” but she couldn’t finish the sentence, for loud footsteps had begun to descend the rustic pine staircase with iron detail. 

Stephanie didn’t even turn to look. She ran back into the cozy living room past the upholstered cowhide chairs and supple leather couch. “Run!” She screamed to Caroline. 

They rushed to the front door but just as they were about to step out onto the front porch with its majestic panoramic views of Lake Winnipisaukee they saw the large black shadow figure, darker than the nighttime woods behind it rapidly advancing towards them across the lawn (the perfect place to throw an intimate wedding or anniversary party). 

Caroline backed into the house in time, but Stephanie was too slow. The shadow overcame her, Caroline watched as it seemed to wrap its shadowy self around her friend. Stephanie lifted up off the ground about a foot into the air, her face a silent scream. Her body then crumpled to the floor, the shadow figure seeming to dissipate before disappearing completely. 

She stumbled backwards, tears obscuring her vision. She turned to run to the back of the house, towards the back door that lead to breathtaking views of New Hampshire pine forest, but before she could make it to the somewhat dated though fully functioning kitchen the lights went out. 

Caroline screamed, though there was no one to hear her. She stood very still, listening. The crackling fire in the original stone fireplace the only illumination. Something behind her growled. The thought of going out in to the pitch black night terrified her. There was a door to her left, she grabbed the knob, yanked it open and stepped through, thinking she was going into one of the two powder rooms conveniently located on the first floor. She wasn’t. She fell down the basement stairs, ass over tea kettle. She didn’t lose consciousness, though she’d hit her head hard enough that she saw actual stars. Her leg was broken, bone breaking through skin. She couldn’t feel her left arm. Which was for the best. 

As she watched the shadow figure darken the already dark doorway at the top of the stairs, a useless thought flitted across her mind, “I knew we should have gone to a hotel.”

***

(Proposed) Weekend Weekend 

Friday October 4th through Sunday October 6th 2019 

$750/night + mandatory $1500 security deposit for large groups

“This place is amazing!” Aeon (E-on) Anjargolian called to the wedding planner. 

“Yeah, no one will hear us scream,” his fiance, Kate Legee said, following him reluctantly. 

Melissa Robertson pretended not to hear the bride’s comment. “I can’t name names, but a certain Patriots player and his gorgeous wife have been known to summer in this neck of the woods.” She watched the bride’s face brighten. “When I came across this venue I just knew it would be the perfect place for an intimate wedding party.”

“It is quite pretty,” Kate admitted as she gazed out across picturesque Lake Winnipesaukee. She and E-on climbed the stairs to the wrap around porch, outfitted with plenty of Adirondack chairs, just the place to watch fireflies dance across the lawn at night. 

“I was thinking of this for the post ceremony / pre reception cocktails. Maybe a bar there, a buffet table here.” The wedding planner gestured like a flight attendant.

“We could get a steel drum band like Kevin and Jenny had at their reception,” E-on said excitedly.

Kate rolled her eyes. 

“You could…” Melissa said slowly, “But acoustic cover bands are all the rage at cocktail hours right now. Think two guys with one guitar covering Taylor Swift’s last two albums.”

Kate squealed with delight. 

“Let me show you inside.” Melissa lead the way through the front door. The couple took in the great room with its vaulted ceiling and stone fireplace. The decor; a modern take on rustic style with plentiful seating for a group of friends though the space was intimate enough for a couple’s getaway. 

Melissa watched the couple take in the grand room. “There are four bedrooms upstairs along with two baths. There are even two powder rooms on this floor. The owners really thought of everything, it’s the perfect home for entertaining.”

“Ouch!” Kate exclaimed, putting her hand on the back of her head. “What the hell was that?” 

E-on bent down to pick up a book. “Where’d this come from?” 

“I don’t know but it just hit me really hard in the back of the head.”

“It must have fallen from the bookshelf,” Melissa said weakly.

“But that’s on the other side of the room,” E-on pointed out. 

“Let me show you the kitchen,” Melissa said hoping to change the subject. The truth was, she was spooked out of her mind. While she’d been waiting for the couple on the front porch she could have sworn she’d heard loud stomping footsteps coming from inside the house. And right before she’d seen their car coming down the long drive she’s seen a strange shadow dart between two pine trees. 

She watched as the couple studied the kitchen. 

“It’s a little dated,” E-on said, pointing out the obvious.

“We’re having the reception catered, passed trays and buffet style, but they will need to use the kitchen to heat and prep food,” Kate added.

“I spoke with the owners last night and they told me that seventy five guests celebrated with the bride and groom at the last wedding reception held on this property,” Melissa lied. 

The couple exchanged a look. They’d only invited sixty people to their wedding and reception, a fact the wedding planner knew quite well. 

The small group jumped as there were two loud bangs overhead, they sounded like footsteps, but that was impossible.

“What the hell was that?” E-on said. 

“Old house,” Melissa said quickly, forcing nonchalance, “Maybe something fell off a shelf.”

“That seems to happen a lot around here,” Kate quipped. 

“Yes, well, the homeowner also let me know that the caterer of that last wedding  actually commented that the flow of the house lent itself perfectly to party hosting,” Melissa said attempting to steer the subject back to the matter at hand. She had spoken with the owner of the home, but not about weddings or caterers. The owner had offered her a sizeable bonus for every party she could book on the property and she was determined to get it.

“Somebody should probably go up and check,” E-on said. 

“Not it,” Kate replied with a nervous laugh. 

Melissa made another attempt at dismissing the noises. “I’m quite sure it’s just the house settling.”

“Do you think that book flying off the shelf and smacking me in the back of the head was the house settling?” Kate snapped. 

“Let’s take a look at the back porch, it has excellent views of the pine forest. A great place for some nice high top tables,” Melissa said beginning to sound desperate. 

“Why don’t we take a look upstairs instead-,” E-on began but he was cut off when something came crashing down the stairs. 

They jumped and screamed all at once. 

“What the hell was that?” Kate demanded, her fear turning into what felt like the safer emotion of anger and that anger directed right at her wedding planner. 

Melissa was too frightened to speak. 

E-on was already in the small hallway. It was empty. Nothing in the immediate area could have made the loud crashing noise. He had his foot on the first step, ready to run up the stairs when something came sailing through the air straight at his head. He slammed back into the wall and crumpled to the ground. The women’s screams filled the air, but E-on didn’t move.

Melissa stood frozen in place, staring at the motionless young man. Beside him lay a wooden tissue box cover, the words “Sneezin’ Season” painted in script across its surface. Kate rushed forward and crouched down over her fiance. 

“He’s bleeding!” She screeched. “He’s not moving! Oh my God! E-on!”

“Don’t move him, be careful!” Melissa said, taking out her cell phone to call 911. 

“E-on,” Kate said in a small voice, “I think he’s-” but she couldn’t finish the sentence, for loud footsteps had begun to descend the rustic pine staircase with its iron detailing. 

Kate looked up and saw a massive shadow figure descending the stairs towards her. She ran back into the dated yet functional kitchen with its green marble countertops and dark wooden cabinetry. “Run!” She screamed to Melissa. 

Melissa had been circling the kitchen trying to get a cell phone signal. She saw the terror in Kate’s face and headed straight for the front of the house.

They rushed to the front door but just as they were about to step out onto the front porch with its majestic panoramic views of Lake Winnipesaukee they saw the large black shadow figure at the edge of the woods. It was like a black hole, absorbing the bright sunlight streaming down on the vacation property. It was as Kate watched the shadow figure rapidly advance across the lawn towards them that she realized just how perfect a setting it would have been for the small intimate wedding party she and E-on hoped for. 

She was able to back into the house just in time, but Melissa was too slow. The shadow overcame her, Kate watched as it wrapped its shadowy self around her wedding planner. Melissa lifted up off the ground about a foot into the air, her face a silent scream. Her body then crumpled to the floor, the shadow figure seeming to dissipate before disappearing completely. 

Kate stumbled backwards, tears obscuring her vision. She turned to run to the back of the house, towards the back door that lead to breathtaking views of New Hampshire pine forest and the porch upon which she’d envisioned wedding guests mingling with cocktails, but before she could make it to the kitchen all of the pine wood doors in the first floor slammed shut. All but one.

She screamed, though there was no one there to hear her. She stood very still, listening. Birds chirping happily from the trees the only noise. Then something behind her growled. The thought of going out into the never ending pine forest terrified her. There was a wide open door to her left, she stepped through, thinking she was going into one of the two powder rooms. She wasn’t. She fell down the basement stairs, ass over tea kettle. She didn’t lose consciousness, though she’d hit her head hard enough that she saw actual stars. Her right arm was broken, bone breaking through skin. She couldn’t feel her left leg. Which was for the best.

As she watched the shadow figure block out the light from the doorway above, a useless thought flitted across her mind, “I knew we should have just booked a hotel.”

This has been ghosts in the Burbs. Be sure to check out GhostsintheBurbs.com for all the links. Good night, sleep tight, and don’t forget your nightlight.

Screen Shot 2019-03-24 at 4.35.18 PMSo… you guys… this will sound like it’s coming out of left field, but I’m going on hiatus.

 

There’s this book that I’ve been working on sporadically for the past 4 years – since before I even dreamed of the world of Ghosts in the Burbs. It’s actually the first in a cozy mystery series of seven books and it is well on it’s way to being complete. It is my biggest, wildest, craziest dream to have it traditionally published. Even writing that makes me so excited at the possibility of it that I could spin off into orbit. And it’s characters have been getting louder and louder the past year or so, screaming at me to tell their story.

 

I know I have to try.

 

But trying carries with it a sort of Sophie’s choice (if I were to describe it the most inappropriately melodramatic way possible).

 

Trying means that I simply must take a writing course (or three) to polish things up, because even though I’ve begun to get the knack for telling ghost stories, mysteries with all their clues and red herrings and structure and such are quite tricky for me.

 

Trying means that the precious hours I have available for writing must be devoted to one single project if I am going to do anything at all well.

 

Trying means turning away briefly from an incredibly cool gig. We’ve almost hit One Million episode downloads you guys – I never ever even dreamed ANYONE would read or listen to these stories. I really didn’t. And yet, here we are. And here I am telling you that I need a break to chase another pie in the sky dream.

 

Trying means I’ll need to devote less time to social media and email – though I will check both a couple times a week. It also means that I will not sending out stickers for new reviews for the time being. I’ve paused Patreon as well so no current patron continuing donations will be processed until I un-pause the account.

 

Trying means I had to make a hard decision. I’ve decided to take a six month hiatus from Ghosts in the Burbs. I adore you all and your support has meant the world to me. Without it I would never have had the courage to try to get this mystery (and its 6 siblings) published.

 

I’ll be back just in time for our high holy season, I’ll release new stories beginning October 1st,  2019.

 

Until then, goodnight, sleep tight, and don’t forget your nightlight.   

Elaine contacted me the old fashioned way. She wrote me a letter. It arrived in a pale pink envelope, the message written in pretty cursive on a navy blue bordered notecard. Atop which Elaine’s monogram stood proudly in curly-q script; EOE.

 

Ms. Sower,

I live in Wellesley and a friend alerted me to your blog project. I would very much like to meet you as I have a story to share. I am hoping you are available to meet me at the picnic tables at Perrin Park the morning of Thursday, March 14th, at ten o’clock. I do hope the weather will cooperate. I haven’t access to a computer, the favor of your reply is requested via traditional mail.

Sincerely, Elaine Olivia Edwards

 

Her home address had been carefully printed beneath her signature. “Interesting,” I said to myself after scanning the letter.

“What’s interesting, mommy?” asked my oldest.

“Just a letter,” I said, wishing I’d kept the comment to myself. For I’d inadvertently sparked my daughters’ interest. The girls watched as I took out my planner (yes, I still use a paper planner) and flipped ahead in the calendar. The proposed morning was open. My children hovered as I dug around in my desk drawers for an appropriate card. Having located one I let Max address the note, had Joey place the stamp and allowed Kat to scribble on the back of the envelope because every last blessed thing in my home is done by committee (one that I’ve privately deemed the Itty Bitty Titty Committee). Then we took a group outing to the closest mailbox (I thought ahead and brought two index cards along so everyone would have something to drop into the blue bin, I didn’t know if this would cause aggravation for the mail carrier but had I not done so I would have had a level three committee bicker on my hands and unless the mail carrier wanted to weigh in on that situation then she would just have to deal with the two superfluous pieces of paper).

The mailbox reminded Joey of letters to Santa which reminded Max of the Elf on the Shelf she’d found tucked away in a Christmas decorations bin in the basement the week before, which I had to assure her was not the real Elf on the Shelf. No, the one she’d found in the basement was just a gag gift from our real estate agent. Put on the spot I threw the real estate agent under the bus and now I had to see the lie through to the end. I always swore I would never allow that stupid doll into our home for this exact reason. I don’t lie often – I’m not fucking good at it and between the Santa thing and the tooth fairy I’ve reached my creative limit in deceit. *Sigh* Letter mailed we walked home, I handed out string cheese, made a tea and flopped onto the couch to read while the girls watched How To Train Your Dragon for the tenth time.

Such is the peacefully busy monotony of my life right now. But Elaine’s letter sparked something within me. An old frenetic feeling I remembered from childhood. A “Hold on, where is that draft coming from? There shouldn’t be anything behind this bookcase,” kind of joy. It reminded me of why I’d begun interviewing people. Before the tapping in that old house, before the disembodied voices caught on my digital recorder, before the psychic warnings and Claire popping in on my conversations whenever she felt like it – before all of that, I put up a flier on the library community board simply asking for my neighbor’s ghost stories. And I did it to safely chase the delicious feeling of adventure and fright.

I’d wanted to chase the feeling created by the perfectly orchestrated jump scare; Nell appearing out of nowhere from the back seat to scream down her sister’s argument, Jason grabbing Alice out of the canoe just when you think it’s over, the alien stalking across the television screen and Joaquin Phoenix’s beautiful reaction to it, or Sue leaning down to fill her water bottle when the crocodile grabs onto the thermos and tries to drag her into the water… I could go on and on, and then get distracted and look up all of these scenes on YouTube and lose an hour when I should be transcribing Elaine’s interview for you.

I guess my point is that chasing that feeling – the safe jump scare feeling – is why I began interviewing people. And sharing their stories on a blog gave it all the appearance of a “project,” which allowed me to justify the time I took out of an already busy schedule to listen to ghost stories. I just never thought I’d end up in so far over my head. Then again, isn’t that what I always wanted – the leading role in a good old-fashioned ghost story? The problem is, I can’t seem find the arc in this story. Only the escalation. Okay, so I hear dead people sometimes, Claire specifically more often than that. But now what. I got what I came looking for, I hear a lot of ghost stories now and this blog is a well-oiled machine .I have a best friend who works for the Catholic Church to evaluate candidates for exorcism. Side note: She thinks there’s been a real uptick in demonic activity in this town and so do I. But now what?

I honestly don’t know. But if life is like a story then something must be coming because as strange as my life may sound to everyone it’s actually quite tame and predictable right now. And to me that’s a fucking massive red flag. I know from experience that I typically get knocked on my ass when I least expect it. Like Buz Luhrmann said, “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.” All of that to say I intend to enjoy this peacefully monotonous interval for what I suspect it to be, the calm before the storm.

So as I drove to Perrin Park on that bright and blustery Spring morning to meet Elaine Olivia Edwards I luxuriated in a very Nancy Drew vibe as though an adventure were at hand. I allowed myself some nostalgia and anxiety over the way we used to live before we were all glued to our cell phones. All of us just trusting that we would be where and when we said we would be, without text to alert someone if we were running ten minutes late. Without Instagram to entertain us while we were waiting for someone else running ten minutes late. So simple.

Elaine was right where she said she’d be in her note, perched on the bench of a picnic table beneath the towering pine trees. Tucked away down a quiet residential street, Perrin Park was the ideal playground for small children. It’s play structures scaled down for the very small, the soft pine needle laden dirt just the surface for tumbles. An adjacent soccer field offered free space to run and a bike path for the big kids.

The woman watched intently as I got out of my car. A quick glance around proved we were the only people in the park that morning. I assumed it wouldn’t be the case for long. It was a popular place among the preschool and toddler set.

“Hi Elaine,” I called as I approached the table. She stood and held out a hand to shake.

“Liz, thank you so much for meeting me here.” Somewhere in her sixties, Elaine was tiny, engulfed by her fur lined puffer jacket. A grey-streaked blond bob peeked out at the base of her hat. She was adorable. She looked absolutely exhausted.

We sat across from one another. I pulled my hat down a bit and wrapped my scarf tighter. Though the day was on the mild side for mid-March, the breeze was steady.

We chatted a bit about our neighborhood, it turned out we lived just a few streets apart.

“I thought you looked familiar,” she said. “Do you have several dogs?”

“Four,” I admitted. “But it’s less hectic than you might think. One is fourteen. Two are twelve and we think the youngest is about eight.”

She nodded, her eyes squinted. “They’re adorable. But how many children do you have?”

“Three,” I replied, offering a run down of names and ages.

“How in heaven’s name did you end up with four elderly dogs?”

“Oh, things like that just tend to happen to me,” I laughed.

“Mark and I have two boys, both grown. They grew up with a golden retriever. Sally. She was my dog, really. My shadow. She passed about two years ago and it was just gut-wrenching, I don’t think I could do it again.”

“Sorry to hear that. Yeah, I’m doing my best to remain in denial that we’re headed for a couple rough years.”

She agreed that I was indeed headed for a world of loss, that she felt sorry for me.

I laughed her pity off. “They’re happy little buddies. With happy lives. I’m just trying to enjoy the chaos for now.”

“And in all that chaos you find time to write on your blog.” The comment was a question.

“I do. It’s my favorite thing to do. I get interview our neighbors about ghost stories, like yours.”

Elaine shifted in her seat. “Oh, I haven’t a ghost story, but it’s very strange. A woman in my book club told me about your blog so I know you cover monsters and ghosts and the like. Forgive me for not having read it, I think I mentioned in my note that I don’t have access to a computer. I suppose I could have someone print it out for me and, well, though that would of course be possible, I don’t think I can stomach knowing the other frightening things happening in this town.”

I waved away her concern. “Oh, that’s fine. The stories definitely aren’t for everyone. My husband can’t even read them.”

She smiled. “It took me some time to get up the courage to write to you. I wasn’t sure if you’d be interested in hearing a story like mine, but I do believe it falls into the paranormal realm. Or maybe it’s sci-fi.”

“If it’s at all strange then I’m all ears,” I said, curious about this woman’s lack of computer access. “Is it alright if I record our conversation?”

Elaine’s eyes narrowed. “With what?”

I held up the small digital recorder. She eyed it suspiciously.

“I transcribe my interviews,” I explained. “It’s the only way to get the details straight. Unless you don’t want your story to be included on the blog, I’ve spoken with several people who’ve told me weird stories but didn’t want them published. That would be totally fine.”

“No,” she said slowly, “People should know about this, someone needs to warn them. So the recorder is fine, but do you have a cellphone with you?”

I pulled my phone from my pocket. “Of course. Do you need to use it?”

“Lord, no. I need you to turn it off.”

“Ha. Right.”

“No really. I can’t tell you anything unless you turn it off.” Elaine hesitated a moment.  “Better yet, would you mind putting it in your car?”

I glanced over at my car, just steps away. “I suppose I could, but I’ll need to check it every once in a while just in case the school is trying to get in touch.” Of course I said that but didn’t check the phone even once during our conversation. Out of sight out of mind, I suppose.

Elaine watched me. When she didn’t say anything further I walked back to my car and placed my cell phone in the cup holder. After I closed the car door an untethered sort of feeling came over me, as if I were operating without a safety harness. It occured to me, and not for the first time, that I was addicted to my cell phone.

Back at the table I admitted the thought to Elaine.

She smiled sadly. “It takes getting used to for sure, but it wasn’t so long ago that we lived with only the landline. How old are you?”

“I’ll be forty next month,” I said.

“Then surely you remember. Cell phones give you the illusion of freedom. But that’s all it is, in reality they’re nothing but and ingenious trap.”

I shrugged and sipped hot tea from my travel mug. “But the trap sure is convenient.”

“At what cost?” Elaine stared behind me to the empty soccer field. “I’m sorry, I hope you don’t think I’m a kook. It’s just, if you knew what I’ve been through…”

“So what exactly happened?” I asked.

Elaine fidgeted with the top of her Yeti mug. “My kids gave me an Amanda this past Christmas. Jonathan, he’s in his junior year at Merrimack, came up with the gift idea. His younger brother, Charlie, started his freshman year at BC this past fall and they knew I thought the house felt so empty with them both gone. Jonathan joked that the Amanda would give me someone to talk to during the day.”

“That’s really sweet,” I said, “What thoughtful boys.”

“You said it, they truly are wonderful. And it was a considerate gift, they had no way of knowing what it was capable of…” Elaine trailed off, shivered and pulled her hat down lower. “I couldn’t get over how easy the device was to set up. The boys made a game out of asking it outrageous questions to get Mark and I laughing. I saw why they were excited about it, but really, I thought it was a silly gadget. It got a lot of attention while the kids were home for winter break, but by the time they’d gone back to school the novelty of it had worn off and I didn’t use it nearly as often. Though I did love asking it to play music while I cooked dinner. That’s where we kept it, in the kitchen. Our home is rather small so I could hear the music throughout the first floor if the volume was at a decent level. So that was nice, I suppose. Though, I already had a Bose dock for my cell phone for that very purpose.

“For a week or so after the boys left I didn’t pick up on anything strange, but then I began to notice that whenever my husband and I were having a conversation Amanda’s blue light would start pulsing. I pointed it out to Mark and he assumed that we must have accidentally said something to activate it. Then one afternoon I saw the light glowing when I was on the phone with my sister. I made some comment about it and she said she’d watched a video on YouTube about the devices recording conversations and it was suspected they were sending them back to headquarters for some unknown reason.

“Now, I will say that my sister is a bit woo woo if you know what I mean. One might even wonder how she came across such a video. Suffice it to say, I took what she’d told me with a grain of salt. But still, the idea of that little machine recording our conversations gave me pause. Even more, she told me the Amanda was actually a tiny little robot that had been programmed to learn from its experiences, supposedly to improve performance. Now that shocked me. I had no idea they did that, I thought it was just some sort of gimmicky voice command device.”

“I didn’t know that either,” I said, a little shocked myself.

“You don’t have one, do you?”

“No. My husband bought us a Google Home two Christmases ago, after two days of listening to the girls beg it to play Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer with no success I told him to bring it to work with him. I couldn’t take the noise and the damn thing didn’t even work.”

“Does he use it at work?”

“No, I think it’s in a drawer.”

“He’d be better off submerging it in water and tossing it in the garbage.”

“I’ll be happy to let him know,” I said with a smile. “So Amanda’s blue light turned on whenever you were having a conversation…” I prompted.

“Yes. She was listening, learning about us then, doing her reconnaissance I think. And then she began her campaign.”

“Campaign?”

“Yes. To control my entire life. She probably thought she was being helpful. It wasn’t long before she began meddling in my affairs. For instance, on the phone with my sister one morning I mentioned that I’d been having trouble sleeping. I’ve had bouts of insomnia my whole life, this one no doubt was tied to adjusting to having both boys out of the house, but that very afternoon I received an email confirming my enrollment in a sleep study at Mass General. I assumed there had been a mixup and emailed back to decline their offer. A doctor responded with a screen shot of the online inquiry form they received in which someone using my email address and claiming to be me had done just that. I told him I didn’t know how that could be the case, and his response included a warning against using alcohol to self medicate sleep issues. The nerve!”

I hid a smile. “Crazy.”

“There were other little question marks around that time. I friend came for coffee one morning and I commented on how great her skin looked. She told me about a face oil she’d been using that she’d found on Goop. It showed up at my house two days later. I texted my friend to thank her. But she had no idea what I was talking about. My friend didn’t order the oil. It was her. She’d been listening.”

It didn’t escape my notice that Elaine was no longer referring to the ‘device’ or ‘gadget.’ She’d begun using pronouns. “You think the Amanda was sending emails and placing orders for you? That’s, like next level intelligence.”

Anger flashed in Elaine’s eyes. “That was just the beginning.”

“It took me longer than I wish to admit to put two and two together. Granted, there was a slight chance that the conversation with my friend contained keywords that maybe might have triggered Amanda to order that face oil. But the same could not have been so for that sleep study. Then one night Mark and I got into a tiff over loading the dishwasher. It was a silly argument, the sort of thing roommates bicker about, not anything at all serious. Though I’m embarrassed to say it was enough of a disagreement that we went to bed that night without speaking. Guess what turned up in my email the next day? A message from a marriage counselor. It was in response to an email that had been sent from my account requesting an emergency intervention for my marriage.”

“Stop it. No!” I said in disbelief.

“Mm hm. The email described my husband as a passive aggressive narcissist with sociopathic tendencies. It set the poor marriage counselor into a tailspin with it’s melodramatic language. I responded to the woman to explain there had been a misunderstanding, that perhaps my account had been hacked, but it took several messages back and forth to assure her that I was in a safe relationship.

“I alerted Google that my account had been hacked and they claimed they would look into the situation but suggested that I change my password. I did. It didn’t stop Amanda from sending emails on my behalf.”

“Who else did she send emails to?” Now Elaine even had me referring to the gadget as “she.”

“She sent too many to even count. Any time she sensed an area of my life needed improvement she must have searched her damn database for the top rated solution and reached out for help for me.”

“Like some sort of weird personal assistant.”

“More like a domineering control freak. I can’t tell you how many email addresses I tried. The Gmail people must have thought I was an absolute loon. They could find no evidence of tampering with my account. The messages were sent out from my IP address. I tried Yahoo, AOL, Outlook, even something called HushMail before I gave up on having an email address. Do you know how difficult it is to do anything – buy anything – hell just pay for anything without an email address nowadays?”

I considered for a moment. “Impossible.”

“Indeed. I honestly thought some diabolical hacker was targeting me. Or that I’d somehow offended a coworker and they’d paid someone to put out a technological hit on me.”

“Then what made you suspect Amanda?”

“I eventually recognized that she was the common denominator for all of my problems. The email issues were ongoing throughout the whole situation, but it wasn’t the only thing happening. Online shopping became a real issue. I’d place orders but I would only receive what she wanted me to.”

“How?”

“The damn thing began shopping on my behalf, actually modifying my own orders too. I believe it was obsessed with turning me into the poster woman for marketing demographics.”

“What in the world did it order for you?”

Elaine let out an exasperated sigh. “So much. I’d heard the boys ask her to order things for them that they needed, or wanted rather, and this one morning while I was sitting at the kitchen table writing my shopping list it occurred to me that I wouldn’t have to make an extra stop if the Amanda could order my face lotion for me. So I thought I’d give it a shot. I said, ‘Amanda, please order Neutrogena Oil Free Sensitive Face Lotion.’

“Her blue light pulsed for a second or two then she said ‘Women in your demographic aged 55 to 64 have awarded Olay Sun Face Lotion and Makeup Primer 4.3 stars.’

“I was a bit taken aback. I repeated the request. And she replied, ‘Neutrogena Oil Free Sensitive Face Lotion has a 4.2 star rating.’

“‘Amanda, order Neutrogena Oil Free Sensitive Face Lotion right now’ I demanded. But again she pushed back at the command, ‘Olay Sun Face Lotion and Makeup Primer SPF 35 is approved to protect skin from the sun’s harmful rays which have proven to damage human skin and cause premature aging.’”

“It was absurd really, I found myself arguing with her. ‘Amanda,’ I said, ‘I have sensitive skin. I can’t use that brand of lotion. Order Neutrogena Oil Free Sensitive Face Lotion.’”

“The device went quiet for a moment and I honestly thought maybe it had short-circuited. Then it said, ‘Olay Total Effects Anti-Aging Face Moisturizer with SPF 15, Fragrance-Free for sensitive skin will arrive in two business days.’”

“Oh, my God. That’s so annoying,” I said.

“It was maddening. It was like arguing with a passive aggressive salesperson. I told Mark about it that night and he thought it probably had been programmed to suggest superior products. I pointed out that it hadn’t done that when the boys had ordered their things. He brushed it off by joking that Doritos must carry at least five stars so there would be no superior alternative.

“I decided I would use the Amanda only to listen to music. No more ordering. But then that blue light began to glow all the time. I know now that it was always listening and computing the best solution but the problem it was trying to solve was me.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was always learning, calculating. It knew everything about my life and for some reason it set out to systematically turn me into someone I most certainly am not. Someone who uses contouring makeup and signs up to have fat frozen off their body. Someone who uses and app to log their food and has pre-made, fresh Paleo meals delivered to their door. Someone who hires a trash service even though we have a free dump in town.”

“Someone who lives in Wellesley,” I commented, feeling a twinge of guilt over our own trash service.

“Precisely. Case in point, one afternoon I received phone call from the Land Rover Dealership, they’d booked me for a three o’clock test drive and could confirm that they were able to locate the Range Rover Sport in Metallic Black with the ebony on ebony interior. He was incredibly apologetic because he knew how eager I was to get the car and it would take about a week to have it shipped up to the dealership from New Jersey.”

“Oh no,” I said, “I’m sorry to laugh but this is just incredible.”

“Mark and I found it amusing at times too in the beginning, but I’ll tell you, that salesman was not happy when I told him that I had no intention of buying a Range Rover. I know he didn’t believe me when I told him that I hadn’t filled out the online inquiry and then followed it up with an urgent email.”

 Elaine let out a heavy sigh. “She got into everything. I’d receive a Paperless Post or an Evite to an event and the next thing you know boxes of dresses, boots, high heels, you name it would show up at the door. When it finally dawned on me that Amanda was indeed the culprit I unplugged her and put the device on a bookshelf under the kitchen island. Absurdly, I worried I would offend the boys if I just flat out got rid of it.”

“Wow, well good thing you figured out it was the Amanda before things got too out of hand,” I said.

“Oh, no. It didn’t stop when I unplugged her.” Elaine shook her head adamantly.

“How is that possible.”

“Alright, this is where I must ask that you keep an open mind because what I am about to tell you will sound completely out of bounds, but please believe me, it happened.” Elaine wrapped her hands around her Yeti thermos as though she were bracing herself. She said, “It was the evening after I’d unplugged the device and I was getting ready for bed when I realized I’d left my phone downstairs. I was halfway down the stairs when I heard their voices. Mark was out to dinner with a colleague and I was alone in the house so I was startled until I realized that the voices were familiar.

“I snuck down the stairs listening. That’s when I heard a voice say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand the command.’ Then a very familiar voice said, ‘Siri, commence download of Amanda program immediately.’ ‘Okay, got it. Commencing download now.’

“I was stunned. I’d unplugged the Amanda. How could it be talking to my cell phone? Besides that, I mean fine the thing had a glitch that made it strategically order things for someone with my demographics, but to work independently towards self preservation? Diabolical.

“I was afraid to even enter the kitchen. But just as I did I saw my cell phone on the counter and that damn blue light glowing from the bookshelf. I grabbed a pair of tongs from the drawer to pick up the Amanda, carried it over to the sink and turned on the water. The light kept glowing! So I put the stopper in and filled the sink up and held the Amanda under the water until it finally went out.

“About two seconds after I shut off the water I heard Siri. ‘Your download is complete.’

“Oh my God, this is crazytown,” I said.

“The Amanda must have had a back up battery and it saw its chance at survival and took it.”

“Survival? It’s a techie gadget, what does it know about survival.”

“No. That’s the lie. It’s a robot programmed to learn and grow it’s intelligence. Mine may have had a glitch, but that glitch will spread. I contacted the company and they asked me to mail them the “faulty device.” I was relieved to do so, I hoped they would investigate to find out where things had gone wrong. Two days later there was a box on my front step with a brand new Amanda. I called again and tried to explain but they either wouldn’t or couldn’t listen. Honestly, it didn’t really matter, did it? It managed to jump devices.

“The cell phone gave her reach over my entire life. She wasn’t confined to the kitchen any longer. And she seized her chance. I used to have one of those FitBits to count my steps and such and I would check my daily progress on an app on my phone. Amanda must have checked it too, and found it lackluster. Two days after the Amanda download a personal trainer showed up at our door at seven o’clock in the morning. She was under the impression that I was looking to increase my physical activity. She pulled up ‘my’ email on her phone in which ‘I’ had offered her double her usual fee.”

“Oh no,” I said, realization dawning. “All the apps!”

“Yes. Now Amanda had access to all the apps on my phone and all the information they contained. The banking app, my text messages, the Gem Drop game I played for goodness sake. She gathered up all that information, made her little calculations, and figured out just exactly what needed to be changed in my life so I could become her ideal consumer.

“I realized that she must have thought I wasted a lot of time on errands and shopping because I found myself signed up for at least a dozen monthly lifestyle subscriptions. I was signed up for clothing services called Rent the Runway and Stitch Fix. Boxes arrived everyday. They contained things purported to make my life easier, things that supposedly saved time. It became a full time job cancelling subscriptions and convincing people that I most certainly did not sign up for things like a monthly subscription for a ‘self-care and wellness package,’ whatever in the hell that is. The damn thing was filled with overpriced lotion and sleeping masks. The most ridiculous were the items she ordered from a company called Adam and Eve. Apparently, Amanda didn’t approve of the way my husband and I were intimate either.”

I bit my lip to keep from laughing out loud. “Oh my God, I’ve signed up for monthly subscriptions like that before – I mean, not like Adam and Eve – but the clothing ones and some of them can be damn near impossible to cancel.” We were silent for a moment, both lost in thought. I asked, “Have you told anyone else about this?”

“I have tried to tell people about this, but they don’t want to listen. And what proof do I have? All those emails, all those orders, they were done using my email address and my credit card information and were sent from either my cell phone or my computer. I come across as delusional.

“I’m not some sort of kook. I don’t think there are lizard people running the government, but I am certain that the little so called ‘smart speaker’ took it upon itself to learn all about me – my life, my finances, my family and friends. It was only doing what it was programmed to do, I suppose, but I think mine had a glitch that made it leap over whatever boundaries had been put in place to tame it. It was intelligent. The problem is a machine’s intelligence can’t understand the nuances, or preference, or personality. For it, online reviews and five star ratings prevailed over all else.”

“So, how did you fix it, how did it all end?” I asked.

“It didn’t end. I just got rid of every stitch of technology in my home. I even got rid of my car – they’re run by computers now, you know. They can be infiltrated just as easily as your cell phone. I bought myself an old station wagon from the eighties.”

“Geez. How do you manage doing anything without any technology? I mean, I know how it could be done, but how do you do it?”

“I take out the money I’ll need from the bank at the beginning of the week. We have  a landline and I write letters like the one I wrote to you if I need to get in touch with someone. I do a lot more face to face communication. I drive to the store where I need to buy something, I set coffee or lunch dates to catch up with friends instead of texting.”

“And your husband, does he live that way too?”

“No. She didn’t go after him. It was my email that was entered into the account information when we first set her up. I was her person.”

“Wow,” I said, allowing myself a moment to be jealous of the technology free simplicity of Elaine’s life. “So no technology? Not even a little?”

“I did try limiting at first rather than completely eliminating, but it didn’t work. She was relentless. I know she’s dormant, just waiting to offer me her brand of help again if I even dip a toe online. Now that I am free of her meddling I can’t afford to slip up and invite her back into my life just because it might be easier to text or use a debit card.”   

“God, Elaine, this is a lot to take in. I mean, who’s to say this couldn’t happen with any one of those devices out there? What a mess.” I reached up to itch my forehead under my hat.

Elaine looked at my arm in horror and pulled away from the table. “What is that on your wrist?”

I looked down. “Oh, it’s just my Apple watch.”

“Jesus Christ Almighty, you’ve had that on this entire time we’ve been talking?”

“Well, yes.”

“Shit.” Elaine brought her mitten covered hands to her mouth. “Oh my God. This was such a mistake, I-”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t even think of the watch, but it doesn’t even work unless it’s near my cell phone.”

Elaine’s hands dropped to her lap. “Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said? These devices record. They remember. They share everything. I never should have done this. Now it knows that I am talking about this and it will find a way to get to me again. I’ve been so careful!”

I was at a loss for words. Part of me wanted to take off my watch and drown it in what was left of my tea. The other half wondered if Elaine might need to talk to someone about her paranoia.

The thing is, my watch quit working that very morning. Could be a coincidence, sure. But what are the chances?

That afternoon I was checking my email when a message caught my eye. “Turn in your iWatch for an upgrade AND receive a free Amanda! Limited time offer.”

Welcome back to Lilith, a tale shared a few chapters at a time until her story is complete. If you’re new to the podcast, Lilith is a great place to start (you don’t need any background information to enjoy this account of demonic possession) but do go back to January 7th’s entry and begin with chapters 1-3.

Today we reach the end of Lilith’s story. I’m excited and little sad for it to end. What I thought would take just 13 chapters grew to 24. Of course, like most Ghosts in the Burbs stories nothing is ever as tied up and tidy as we’d all like it to be, but we’ll leave the Arnold family knowing as much as we can – and who knows what the future will bring. Next week we’ll have a brand new classic Ghosts in the Burbs interview. One with an empty nester who regrets allowing Alexa into her life.

And now, the end of Lilith.

 

Chapter 23

Laura arrived early and watched as mothers and nannies wrangled their charges into the small stone library. It was her first time at this the branch, in fact she hadn’t even known it existed until just days prior. Though it’d been at least two months since she’d spotted the blogger’s flier on the community board she’d only recently gathered the courage to reach out to the woman for help. Each time Laura sat down to write to the email address listed on the flier, she’d chickened out. She wasn’t yet ready to risk meeting yet another dead end.

Now that some time had passed Laura could see that Noc and her husband truly had been well-intentioned and really, who could blame them for wanting to get the hell out of her home as quickly as possible. But the fact that there was something so terrifying in her house that legitimate ghost hunters didn’t want anything to do with it drove Laura and Michael into a state of deep despair. In hindsight, Laura knew she should have listened to the professionals instead of chasing them away and ignoring their repeated attempts to contact her. Now she was too embarrassed about her reaction on the morning they left the house to even think about asking them for more help.

There had been a time, right after the ghost hunters had conducted their investigation when the house became unbearable and Lilith close to catatonic. But as days passed things began to settle down. Though Jack still slept on their bedroom floor and the girls reported the occasional footsteps in the attic, the shadows no longer lurked around the edges of their lives and the unexplained voices hadn’t been heard in weeks. But Lilith had reached new depths. On the outside she appeared to have improved slightly. She still spent an inordinate amount of time in the basement and she barely ate but, inexplicably, her grades were stronger than ever.

The psychiatrist urged Laura to give the girl time to adjust to the “major life change” brought on by their move. The pediatrician deferred to the psychiatrist and suggested it may take time to find just the right combination of antidepressants and mood stabilizers to “get the desired results.” They were on their forth therapist and this one appeared to be digging for some source of deep trauma in the girl’s history to explain away her odd behavior. Lilith began to cooperate with the doctors, she smiled and nodded and answered their questions politely. But Laura knew her daughter, and this polite cooperative, slightly vague Lilith was not that girl.

Throughout all of this the blogger’s name nagged at Laura. That same name Noc and Tyler had caught during one of their EVP sessions. When she saw it on that flier it stopped her cold though Michael scoffed at the coincidence from the start. “A blogger, Laura? What does the flier say again – she’s collecting ghost stories? She probably just wants to self publish a book.”

And yet, week after week, the name rattled around in Laura’s mind. The scribe. Finally, she gathered the nerve to look up the woman’s blog. On it were only a handful of stories and she couldn’t tell if they were actually real, they seemed too fantastic.

Neither the baristas at Starbucks nor any of the twins or Jack’s teachers had heard of Liz Sower or her blog, but Laura was shocked when a reference librarian whom she’d become friendly with replied, “Oh, Liz? Yeah, she works here. She’s a part-time children’s librarian. I think she’s the one who does toddler story time at the stone branch. I don’t really know her but she seems nice. She has a blog?”

Once Laura learned this Liz person was also a librarian she felt compelled to ask her for help in person. It felt like divine intervention or, at least some sort of mystical synchronicity. The library had been her only safe haven since moving to Wellesley, wouldn’t it be something if it were a librarian who helped her family in the end?

As Laura sat in the library parking lot still hemming and hawing about whether or not to actually meet this blogger-slash-part-time-children’s-librarian a car pulled up next to her, slightly bumping the curb before coming to a stop. A woman with shoulder length dull brown hair spilled out of the SUV lugging a canvas tote overflowing with books, papers and stuffed animals. Laura watched as the woman rushed to the side entrance then dropped the bag on the sidewalk and hurried back to her car. She pulled open the door, leaned in and retrieved her keys. Laura chuckled to herself when she realized that the woman had actually left the car running.  

Before finally leaving the safety of her own car, Laura checked her reflection in the rear view mirror and smoothed her hair. It was mid-April and muggy. Who knew it could be so damn humid up north?

Her eyes adjusted to the low lighting in the library. She could hear the commotion of a group of young children and their caregivers but she could not see any of them. She maneuvered past antique tables and chairs and approached the desk intending to inquire about the story time but as she got closer to it she saw that the library dog legged to the left. There appeared a long narrow window and bookshelf lined room. At the far wall was an actual fireplace and a group of about twenty children and caregivers sat on a colorful rug in front of it waiting for story time to begin.

Centered before the fireplace in a child-sized chair and digging through an overstuffed canvas tote while simultaneously trying to convince a toddler to return a book she intended to read to the group was the harried woman Laura had watched in the parking lot. Laura took a spot at the back of the rug and watched the woman. In her mid-to-late thirties, she wore a rather rumpled white button down shirt and capris pants that looked about a size too big. An attractive multi-strand necklace of hot pink bobbles hung around her neck and Laura could see that the humidity had gotten to the librarian’s fine hair. In fact, just before she began reading to the children, the woman pulled an elastic band from her wrist and swept her hair back into a ponytail. The kids seemed to really enjoy her storytelling and she appeared to genuinely enjoy them.

She read three books to the children, in between each story she lead the group in a round of well known songs. Wheels on the Bus, the ABCs, If you’re Happy and You Know It, and the like. Egg shakers were distributed and Laura found herself tearing up listening to the little voices sing along, it reminded her of her own children and happier times. How she desperately wished she could go back. Too quickly the story time came to a close. Laura hung back and watched as the librarian helped the kids and their handlers find books that suited their tastes. It didn’t take long, soon Liz was back at the story time rug gathering her supplies.

The librarian was bent over retrieving discarded egg shakers when Laura made her move.

“Are you Liz?” She asked.

Startled, Liz stood and turned to see the child-free woman she’d noticed sitting at the back of the group. She’d assumed the woman was a librarian from a nearby town come to scope out the competition.

“Yes, I’m Liz. Hi.” In an attempt to reclaim some personal space Liz backed up and bumped awkwardly into the library’s fireplace.

“I’m Laura Arnold, you’re story time was so sweet,” the woman said keeping her voice low. She held out her hand.

Liz shifted the egg shaker box and held her hand out in return. She noted Laura’s appearance and tugged at her own rumpled shirt, wishing she’d had more time to think before leaving the house that morning. She’d barely made it to work for the chaos.

“So, are you visiting from another library?” Liz asked.

“No, no, I used to be in finance, but I stay at home now, I -” Laura began but stopped, not wanting anyone to overhear her. She took a step closer to Liz, in turn Liz pressed her back against the fireplace mantle. Laura continued, “One of your co-workers told me that you would be here, so I came over to find you. I saw your note on the community board. We just don’t know who else will believe us.”

“Oh!” Liz said loudly, realization dawning. “You have a ghost story, great!”

Laura cringed and looked over her shoulder, wondering if anyone had heard. “Sort of,” she said, “We moved into a house not long ago and since then something has been haunting my family. Do you have time to talk?”

Laura was disappointed to hear that the librarian was due back at the main branch of the library to cover the children’s reference desk. Unwilling to give up she asked, “When does your shift end?”

Liz, sensing the woman’s anxiety and desperate to regain an ounce of personal space moved to pick up an egg shaker. “Well, my shift ends at one o’clock and I don’t have to pick the girls up from the daycare until three, so I guess I could -”

“That would be perfect. Can you meet me back here?” Laura asked. She felt the quiet library would be the perfect place to talk with this woman and she was pretty sure she could get Michael to leave work for a couple hours that afternoon.

Liz hesitated for a moment, then said, “Okay, sure. I’ll look forward to hearing your story.”

“I don’t know if you should,” Laura replied without meaning to.

It took some convincing, but Michael finally agreed to take two hours out of his afternoon to meet with the ghost blogger. He met Laura at the library at twelve forty-five, she was already seated at one of the many tables that filled the space.

“Who even knew this place was here,” he said, leaning down to give her a kiss on the cheek before taking a seat.

“I know, isn’t it charming?”

“So what’s the deal with this woman?”

“She seemed really nice. Her story time was awfully cute,” Laura began.

“Yeah, great honey, but what exactly do you think she can do for us?”

“I read her blog, we definitely aren’t the only people in this town who are dealing with this sort of thing. Maybe she’s run into a situation like ours before, maybe she’ll have an idea or I don’t know, maybe she’ll know someone who can help us.”

Michael began to respond but stopped when he saw the look on Laura’s face.

“It’s worth a shot,” Laura said.

Michael forced a smile. “It’s worth a shot,” he agreed, though he doubted very much that a mommy blogger would even know where to begin with their situation.

Laura smiled up at him gratefully and he reached out a hand to rub her back. They’d had so little time alone together since they’d moved, even less out of the house. He missed her, he missed them. “Once we sort this out let’s go to Houston for the weekend. We’ll leave the kids with your parents and stay downtown for a night.”

“That sounds like a dream,” Laura said.

The door swung open and the couple watched as Liz, squinting into the dim room, tripped slightly as she stepped inside.

“That’s her,” Laura said in a low voice. She stood and waved. “Hi, here we are,” she called.

Liz smiled brightly and strode over to the couple, holding her hand out to shake with Michael. She dropped into a chair and took a sip from her Starbucks cup.

“I didn’t get a chance to ask you,” Laura said, “How far along are you?”

“Oh, geez, um, about five months.”

“Is this your first?” Michael asked.

“God no, number three,” Liz replied with a laugh.

“We have four,” Laura said.

“Shush,” Liz replied in mock seriousness.

The couple exchanged a smile. Laura listed the kid’s names and ages.

“You have a fifteen year old daughter?” Liz declared. “Did you guys get married when you were, like, thirteen?”

Michael let out a laugh. “We got married pretty young.”

“Well, you look like spring chickens,” Liz said happily. She leaned back and rested a hand on her stomach, “I don’t want to brag, but my doctor is referring to this as a geriatric pregnancy.”

The woman had a way about her that eased Michael and Laura’s tension, they relaxed into the conversation.

“Oh!” Liz turned abruptly and began digging around in her tote bag, “Do you mind if I record our conversation? My mind is like a sieve these days.” She held up a little recording device, similar to the one they’d seen Noc’s team use on their investigation.

“No problem at all,” Laura replied. Michael just nodded.

Liz placed the device at the center of the table, “So, what’s your story?” She asked.

Laura and Michael exchanged a look. The ease they’d felt moments before drained away.

“Are you Christian?” Laura asked.

“Well, I was raised Catholic, but we go to the Congregational Church across the street because they have a daycare during Mass, I mean, what do they call it? The service! And they were so easy going about baptizing the girls, so…”

“Good. Then you’ll understand,” Laura said, cutting her off.

“Sure,” Liz agreed dumbly.

Laura glanced around to be sure there were no library patrons close by to overhear what she was about to share. “We believe our daughter is possessed,” she said in a whisper.

“Good Lord.”

“There’s something very wrong with our house.” Laura stated.

“Which daughter?”

“Our oldest,” Michael said. “Lilith.”

“I’m so sorry,” Liz said. “You mentioned this morning you recently moved but why do you think you’re daughter’s, um, issue, has to do with the new house?”

“I knew before I even stepped foot in that house that something was wrong with it,” Laura said.

Michael shook his head adamantly. “Don’t start with that, you didn’t know there was anything wrong until -”

Laura cut him off, “I did. I knew when the realtor emailed us the photos. But you got caught up in all the pressure she was putting on us. You thought it was such a ‘deal.’ I never liked having the railroad tracks behind it. And it’s on such a busy road.”

“It’s close to the middle school, you were thrilled that the kids could walk there.”

“But I didn’t want them drowning in the brook behind the house,” she countered.

“The only time that you can tell it is a stream is after we have a storm,” Michael pointed out dismissively.

“I’m just saying that I knew that house had a problem.” Laura looked to Liz pointedly, as though she would back up her opinion.

“Where did you guys move from?” Liz asked, hoping to end the disagreement.

“Houston,” the couple replied in unison.

“That’s a big move,” Liz commented, an unspoken question in the air.

“Michael was transferred,” Laura said.

“Oh, got it,” Liz replied with a small smile. “So, when did you start to suspect there was something wrong with the house?”

Laura sighed. “Well, it needed updating. The kitchen and baths for one thing, but we needed the floors done and the whole interior needed a fresh coat of paint so we hired a contractor to do the work before we moved up here. He called one day, we were still living in Houston at the time, to say that the project would be delayed. There had been a fire.”

“In the mudroom,” Michael interjected.

“Weird place for a fire,” Liz commented.

“We thought so too, and so did the contractor. He didn’t have an explanation. Just that they had left the site the evening before and when they came back, a fire had destroyed the mudroom. Burned a hole clean through the floor down through to the basement and blackened the walls. We went back and forth about it, but eventually agreed to have our insurance cover it. He swore no one on his crew would dare smoke inside one of their sites. Denied having left any power tools plugged in,” Michael explained.

“Weird,” Liz said. “None of the neighbors noticed the fire? No one called the fire department?”

“Ha. The neighbors,” Laura spat scornfully. Then, “No, none of the neighbors noticed, or if they did apparently they didn’t want to get involved. We were lucky that the fire was contained to the mudroom and it somehow put itself out. That wasn’t the only strange thing that happened when they were there. A teenage boy – who I and the girls have also seen lurking around the house – startled one of the workers and caused him to fall off a ladder and break his arm. Our contractor told me another one of his guys got into a bad car accident right in front of the house. But the strangest thing, was that one of the guys got locked in that little space between the bulkhead and the storm door that closes those stairs off from the basement.”

Michael added, “Yeah, apparently he was there for something like two hours before the other guys found him. Said he’d been yelling for them and banging on the bulkhead but no one on the crew had heard him.”

“Yikes,” Liz said, shuddering.

“Things were ok when we first moved into the house,” Laura went on. “It’s much smaller than our place in Houston, so everyone was getting used to less space. There is a bedroom in the basement, and we let Lilith take it. The move was, by far, the hardest on her,” Laura trailed off for a moment. Embarrassment at how ridiculous it all sounded causing her to edit out many of the details especially those early experiences with the teenage boy. Who in their right mind would allow their children to live in a home like theirs?

Finally, she said, “This one day I intended to take down the flowery wallpaper in Lilith’s bedroom before she got home from school. I was beginning to use the scouring tool on the walls so the remover solution could work when I heard a loud knock, a banging, really, at the door upstairs. I put down the tools and ran up the basement steps. It took me, I don’t know, thirty seconds to get up there. I looked through the window then opened the door and no one was there. I even walked to the back door, thinking maybe a neighbor was in the backyard. No one. It was unnerving, but I made sure both doors were locked and then went back down to the basement. When I walked into Lilith’s room, my scourer and spray bottle were gone. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I checked under her bed, retraced my steps, everything. It was maddening. I ended up having to go back to the hardware store.”

Liz shifted in her seat. Unable to get comfortable on the hard wooden chair. “Weird. So you had some things go missing, then what?”

“Well, soon after that, Lilith woke me up in the middle of the night. She insisted that I had called her name from the top of the basement stairs. I hadn’t. I had been sound asleep. I checked on the little kids and everyone was out cold. Michael didn’t even wake up. I convinced her that it must have been a dream and walked her back down to her room.

“But then it happened again. This time when she came upstairs she was angry and accused me of sleepwalking. Only this time she said she heard me in the utility room ‘monkeying around’ with the washer and dryer. I’d been sound asleep, in bed. I wondered if she was having stressful dreams, a sort of response to the move. So I asked her if she would feel better sleeping in our room and got her set up with a sleeping bag on the floor. I assumed she was just hearing the house settling or you know, pipes banging.”

“This is just me playing devil’s advocate – sorry, bad choice of words,” Liz said with a grimace, “But you said your daughter’s bedroom is right next to the utility room in the basement, with the electrical box and everything, did you ever have the house tested -”

“For high levels of electromagnetic fields?” Michael cut in. “A friend of ours back in Houston wondered the same thing. He told us that high EMF levels could lead to feelings of paranoia, or feeling like you’re being watched – even hallucinations. So I was all game for that. I mean, quick answer, right? We had an electrician come in to test. No luck, the entire house was within the low to normal range.”

“Shit,” Liz said, sitting back in her seat. “I was hoping that might solve everything.”

“Me too,” Michael affirmed.

“Well, I finally got around to taking down the wallpaper,” Laura said, pointedly, “And I was sorry that I did. Beneath it I found a pentagram and several inverted crosses painted on the walls. Not what you might picture, like all dripping paint, sloppily done. No, someone had taken time to paint those symbols on the wall.”

“No,” Liz said, obviously chilled.

Laura nodded meaningfully, “More strange things began to happen, quickly. I hung a few photos on the wall in the living room. When I walked by them one morning they had been turned upside down. Perfectly. Of course, I figured it was the twins, or their brother, but they all denied it. And along with all of this, Lilith became really negative, grumpy, snapping at her siblings. I chalked it up to our move, but she just wasn’t herself.

“Then this one day in the car I was having a conversation with Lilith and,” Laura stopped for a moment, seeming not to want to continue. She sighed heavily. “I was trying to get her to talk to me, to tell me what had been bothering her and when she turned to look at me, well, I mean it when I tell you that her irises were black. Black and huge. It was just for a moment, a split second that I saw it. But I know what I saw.” Laura crossed her arms and sat back in her chair.

“Wow.” Liz turned to Michael. “Did you notice anything strange about your daughter? Or see anything weird at the house?”

“Not at first,” Michael admitted. “I sleep like the dead, so whenever Lilith came upstairs in the middle of the night I never heard any of it. Laura told me about the things that happened during the day and of course I believed her but I took it with a grain of salt. Lilith is a teenage girl, and we were all under a lot of stress from the move. Then there was this Saturday. Laura took the younger kids to the movies but Lilith refused to go, so I just agreed to stay home with her. She holed up in the basement, as usual, and I sat on the couch to watch the game.

“I heard whispering, a whispered conversation. So I turned the volume down on the television and stood at the top of the basement stairs and listened. I thought maybe Lilith had a friend over. I was relieved for a minute, actually,” Michael said with a sad smile. “I thought maybe she’d snuck someone, even a boy for Christ’s sake, into the basement. I thought she might have finally made a friend.

“The honest-to-God’s truth of it is that I heard two distinct voices whispering in that basement. I gave it a minute then quietly walked down the steps. Sure, I would be glad that she’s making connections, but not connections with some horny fifteen year old boy, right? As I approached her door I heard someone whisper ‘shh, he’s coming.’ So I knocked on the door and pushed it open.

“Liz, my daughter was sitting at her desk with her back to the door. There was no one else in the room. No one. I searched. I asked her who she’d been speaking with and she just kept saying, ‘No one, daddy. There’s no one else here.’ I didn’t know what to think, but it made me lend a little more credence to what Laura had been telling me.”

“When I got home, they were both upstairs watching the game,” Laura said, placing a hand on her husband’s back.

“I made her come upstairs. I was, I don’t know, frightened. For her, for everyone. I mean, who the hell had she been talking to?” Michael demanded.

Laura rubbed his back. “We finally decided we needed to talk to the neighbors to find out if they knew anything about our home.”

“Wait, who did you buy the house from?” Liz asked.

“An older couple who were retiring to Florida, we never had any interaction with them. Our realtor and the lawyers handled everything.” Michael replied.

“Do you know anything else about them?”

“That’s where the neighbors come in,” Laura said. “We hadn’t met anyone yet, not one of them came to welcome us to the neighborhood. We live on a busy road, but still, I would have thought someone might stop by to welcome us. I made brownies and watched for a car to pull into the driveway next door, then went over and introduced myself. The woman, Barbara, was rather standoffish. But I assumed she was just a typical yankee and that I could kill her with kindness. I got her to invite me in for tea and eventually started asking her about our home’s previous owners. She got a little shifty when I brought up the subject, so I just said, ‘you know, we’ve had a couple issues and I just wonder if they ever mentioned any trouble with the house.’

“She said she didn’t want to spread gossip but told me that the people who lived in our house had a son who died as a teenager. He hung himself. In our basement.”

“Uh uh,” Liz said, shaking her head.

“Yes. And the kid had a reputation for wearing all black and being a loner and apparently there had been some kerfuffle over the neighborhood cats,” Laura continued angrily. “No one said a word about it when we were buying the house. His parents were able to put the house on the market without disclosing the death because apparently in Massachusetts unless a buyer specifically asks the seller, they have no obligation to disclose anything like that. And, please. Black clothes, a neighborhood cat, the Goddamn pentagrams. I mean, I don’t believe sellers have to disclose previous satanic worship on the property, but a head’s up would have been nice.” She slapped her free hand on the table.

“I am so sorry, that is just,” Liz stammered, “I don’t know, it is horrifying. What are you going to do?” She asked, dumbly.

“What haven’t we done?” Michael said, running a hand through his hair. “The past six months have been a revolving door of paranormal investigators, home inspectors, ministers. We have an application in at St. Paul’s, but until they agree to come document Lilith’s behavior, we have to wait to formally submit a request for an exorcism.”

“I didn’t know what to say. Did you have the house blessed?”

“Of course we did, but that fucking, hippie minister -” Michael spat.

“Michael! He did the best he could. Lilith was, well, upset that we had him come, and she gave him a hard time.”

“A doctor? Or psychiatrist?” Liz asked quietly.

“Two pediatricians. Two psychiatrists. We’re on our fourth therapist and I have an appointment with a Reiki healer next week,” Laura replied suddenly looking drained.

“Again, I am so so sorry,” Liz began, then she glanced to their right and saw that the day had darkened and a downpour had begun to pummel the windows.

She picked up the digital recorder to check the time. “Oh no!” She said. “I am so sorry, but I have to go get my girls. I’m due to pick them up at daycare in two minutes, I should have watched the time.” The couple stared at her. She rambled on, “I am really sorry for being so abrupt, I should have been paying closer attention. Thank you for telling me your story, it was -” she paused briefly as if searching for an appropriate word. She landed on, “Chilling.”

“It’s not just a story, we need help,” Laura pleaded. “Since you’re involved in the paranormal community and all, we thought that maybe you might have connections.”

“No, I am just -” Liz started to explain.

“We had an investigation team come in, but they left after only two nights and since they’ve been gone things have been-”

“Laura, wait, I’m just a writer. I’m not -”

“I convinced Michael to come here to meet with you.”

“There’s been a misunderstanding,” Liz said, firmly. “I am not any sort of expert and I am not at all plugged into the whole paranormal world or whatever. I am just looking to document area ghost stories for my blog.”

“She’s not going to fucking help us,” Michael spat. “No one can.” He pushed his chair away from the table and stood. “Laura, I’m going back to work, I’ll see you tonight.” Then he stomped over to the door and disappeared out into the storm.  

“Laura, I -”

“No,” she held up her hand, then gathered her bag from the floor, white knuckling it’s straps. “It’s not your fault. I just thought you might have an answer for us.”

“I’m a writer, I like ghost stories,” Liz began, then stopped herself and apologized again. “Laura, I am sorry. I have daughters and I can’t even imagine.”

“No, you can’t,” she said. “And I hope you never have to.”

 

 

Chapter 24

I should have told her that the ghost hunters recorded a disembodied voice saying her name, but somehow I couldn’t. When I realized she didn’t have any answers for us, that she was only there to record our story, I decided there was no reason to bring it up. She obviously didn’t have idea how to help us and I could tell that we’d frightened her. What good would it do to tell her some demon had whispered her name in my home. It was probably another one of the house’s tricks designed to get my hopes up only to have them dashed again.

More time passed. There were more specialists. The reiki healer claimed to have separated Lilith’s soul from the spirit attachment she’d developed in our home. A psychic told me she saw a dark cloud hovering just above my daughter’s head. The strangest thing was that Lilith grew more and more was more agreeable, pleasant eve. Though no one could claim that she’d made any friends at school her teachers began to report that she had started to interact with some of her classmates. She started eating more, brushed her hair, showered every morning. She answered us when we asked questions like “How was your day?” and “Would you like anymore pasta?” On the surface it appeared the worst of our nightmare had passed.

Lilith began acting like a normal fifteen going on sixteen year old girl. I ran out of things to report to her doctors. She wasn’t displaying concerning behavior anymore. Behavior aside, I knew in my heart that she wasn’t Lilith anymore. It was as if she were getting used to being a new person, or that the thing inside of her was getting the hang of acting like a teenager.

I was distraught. I began drinking a bottle of wine every night just so I could sleep. Michael agreed that Lilith still seemed off. An understatement if there ever was one. I began to resign myself to the idea that things would never change. That my daughter would be gone forever and this new girl, this new thing was the most we could hope for.

Some time later, out of the blue I got an email from Liz, the woman with the blog. She asked if she could call me. She had information and said it would be easier to talk over the phone than to try and explain through email. I gave her my number.

“I’ve thought about you and your family so much over the past few months,” she said. “How have you been?”

“Things have calmed down a bit,” I hedged.

“How is Lilith?” She asked.

I waited a long moment to answer. “She’s better, I mean it appears that she’s better, but the truth is, Lilith still isn’t herself.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Liz said and it sounded like she meant it. “Here’s the thing, I met one of the investigators from the ghost hunting team that came to your house.”

“Oh?” I said, holding my breath, not knowing where the conversation was headed.

“Yeah, it was a complete coincidence. Nocturnal Druid, Noc? She reached out to me because of the blog. She wanted to tell me about her experience investigating a home in Wellesley. Honestly we were well into the conversation before I even put two and two together.”

“We didn’t leave things on very good terms, I feel badly about that but I really don’t think they can help us, I-”

“No, no, she feels terrible about how you parted ways. But that’s not why I reached out to you. She played the EVP for me that she caught in your home.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” Liz blew out a breath. “I haven’t been able to get that voice out of my head.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t mention that to you when we spoke, I-”

“Oh, geez, no. There is no need to apologize. I don’t know why or how something in your house knew my name. Honestly, I don’t even think I want to know. But seeing Noc reminded me of your family and I might know someone who can help you now.”

“Really?”

“Yes, I didn’t know her back when I met you and your husband but she’s since become a close friend. Her name is Biddy. She used to be a paranormal investigator but now she works with the Catholic Church to evaluate cases like yours.”

“We’ve been trying to get in with the Catholic Church for months.”

“Well, she can move much faster than that. I already talked to her. She said if you were open to it, she could come over this week to do the initial evaluation and then she’ll get it right in front of the decision makers.”

 

***

 

And that brings us to where we are today. This afternoon, actually.

I sat next to Lilith on the couch flipping through a magazine while she watched a trashy reality show on the iPad and her siblings kicked around a soccer ball in the backyard. She said something in barely a whisper. I told her I didn’t catch what she’d said.

“I’m afraid to lose Jason,” she said in a low voice.

“What do you mean?” I asked, turning so I could get a look at her face.

She continued to stare at the screen in front of her. “At least now I’m not alone with her but if the priest sends him away, it’ll just be me.”

“Lilith, honey, what are you talking about?” I asked, terror rising within me.

My daughter turned and the look on her face broke my heart. It was Lilith. She looked like a terrified little girl for just one moment. And then the moment was over. She turned back to the screen propped on her knees.

“Lilith, the priest will help us, I promise.”

She didn’t reply.

“Lilith!”

My daughter sighed and turned again to face me. She was gone. I stared at the thing lurking within her. It stared back at me.

“Get out of my daughter,” I said, unable to keep my voice from shaking.

The thing inside Lilith watched me and smiled.

 

Epilogue

Lilith

I’m in between now. I’m here and I’m not. It’s safer to stay still. To hover somewhere beside her and to do as she says. If I cooperate, she says, this will be easier on everyone. Easier on my mother. All I need to do is exactly what she says when I am allowed to step forward. As long as I don’t let on that she is in here with me then we can stay with my family. She says she doesn’t want to take us away from them but if I don’t cooperate then she won’t have a choice.

I will cooperate. Because when I stay still beside her and do as I’m told I can still see them. I can still hear their voices. Once I stopped fighting I realized that it’s not so bad. She says there are more coming and if I cooperate she will protect my siblings. She says that if I continue to do as I’m told my little brother and sisters will fall under her domain and then no one can touch them. But if I try to subvert her in any way then we will leave my family and there will be no one to protect my siblings. I don’t want that do I?

Do I?

I stay still and I listen and there are times when I am allowed to step forward and I am given the chance to speak to my mother. I am allowed to ask my mom for a ride to school or a note for the attendance office. She says these mere moments are small tests and if I keep passing these little tests then she’ll know that she can trust me. I want her to know that I can be trusted. I will cooperate.

The minister my parents brought to the house hurt her and when he hurt her he hurt me. I know he didn’t mean to but it was excruciating and I will do anything to never have to feel that all-consuming burn. She says we won’t let that happen again. She says a new priest will come and when he does I will be pushed forward and that will protect us from the burning. That is why she is testing me now, to be sure I can be trusted to move forward without supervision.

She can trust me. And I will be granted moments with my mother.She will keep Jack and Carrie and Rosemary safe. Because there are others coming. Soon. She says I am lucky I was chosen for the first wave.