I seldom check the Ghosts in the Burbs Facebook account because honestly, I just don’t like Facebook anymore. The election ruined it for me, so I avoid it and constantly toy with the idea of deleting my account. I dislike it for all the usual reasons, it’s addicting and a time suck, blah blah blah, but I also find it sort of guilt inducing. Messenger reminds me of when we all used to actually call each other and leave voicemail. My mailbox was forever full and it always felt like a ticking time bomb of things I was supposed to do and forgot about. Messenger makes me feel the same way; disorganized, lazy, and irresponsible.
However, I checked the Ghosts in the Burbs account last week and found that I’d received a message (sent about three weeks prior) from a woman named Erica.
Hi neighbor! My husband and I live in Wellesley and I really think that we need help with our house? I don’t know how people usually arrange to meet with you, but if you could message me back as soon as you get this I would appreciate it. It’s sort of urgent!!! Thanks!!! – Erica
I responded after a day’s hesitation (being contacted by a stranger on Facebook is simply creepy, you’d think the same would be true for Twitter, but it’s not). Erica’s reply was exclamation point laden and desperate. She explained that her house was “all-out haunted” and that the haunting was changing her husband’s personality. She asked me to come to her house “ASAP.” After a few messages back and forth, in which I tried to feel out whether or not she was a serial killer, I agreed to the visit. After setting the date and time Erica asked if there was any way that I could bring Biddy along with me. I told her that I’d try.
“Who are they?”
“They live over near the dump,” I replied.
“Great, but who are they?” Biddy pressed.
“Slow down,” I insisted, unable to keep up with Biddy’s pace. “Their names are Erica and Mattie Payne and they just bought a haunted house. She thinks the ghost is changing her husband’s personality. Erica asked if I could bring you to the interview, I’m sure she wants your expert opinion.”
“I guess I could come along. No, I shouldn’t. I don’t know,” Biddy stopped abruptly and looked at me.
I swatted gnats away from my face and took a second to catch my breath. “You’re doing pre-exorcism interviews for the Catholic Church,” I said, trying not to sound whiny or accusatory.
“I know, but once I pass that information off I’m done with it. It’s the Church’s problem after that.”
“It’s just an interview. Maybe you can give them some advice. You totally helped those poor lizard monster people.”
Biddy looked down at the muddy trail considering, “You shouldn’t be going to a stranger’s house alone.”
“You sound like Chris.”
Without a word Biddy resumed her power walk and I scurried to catch up. “I’ll go,” she called over her shoulder. “But only as moral support.”
I smiled to myself. “Deal.”
Our little town is home to three colleges; MassBay Community College, Wellesley College and Babson. The schools maintain beautiful campuses and provide us with a little culture, some youthful energy and a glut of babysitters.
Erica and Mattie Payne’s home lived on a long, winding dead-end street behind the Babson campus. It wasn’t my first time driving on the wooded street, I’ve delivered the lawn signs for the autumn food pantry drive a handful of times and one of the Payne’s neighbors was a faithful supporter.
“I don’t know how you get around in this boat,” Biddy commented as we turned onto the road.
“You get used to it,” I replied.
“Your side mirror disagrees.”
“Shush. That was the tree’s fault. There, that’s the house.”
We pulled into a long weathered driveway, cracked and bumpy from old tree roots. Number 44 Skyline Drive was an aged Victorian. It’s roof spotted with green mold, the front porch in need of a good scraping.
We stepped out of the car as a young man walked out of a detached garage set back from the house. He lifted a hand to wave and called hello.
“Now who is this hot tamale?” Biddy said in a low voice.
“Liz! Biddy!” The man called picking up his pace. “I’m Mattie. Mattie Payne. Thanks for coming. E’s been kinda freaked out and it sounds like you guys know what’s up. Come on in.”
He turned and followed a cracked walkway then bound up the steps to the front porch.
Biddy grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and tugged.
I looked over and she raised her eyebrows and mouthed, “Hubba hubba.”
“Cut it out,” I whispered, trying not to laugh. I had to agree though, Mattie was quite the site. In his late twenties, he had that tousled naturally highlighted hair that young people in California always seem to have. He wore a casual three-day beard and a worn cotton t-shirt that, well sat really nicely on his frame.
“E!” Mattie boomed as we stepped onto the porch. “They’re here!”
The foyer was stereotypical for a Victorian with all the floral wallpaper and dark wood one might expect. I closed the door behind me and heard a loud high-pitched, “Yay!” Erica bound down the grand stairway beaming, a long blond ponytail bouncing along behind her.
“You’re really here!” She said excitedly embracing Biddy and I in a group hug. “Thank you so much for coming, really this has been like, well it’s just a hot mess. Come in. Mattie, where should we go?”
“The sunroom, babe,” Mattie declared.
“Oh, yeah! Totally. Ok, you guys go sit. You’re always drinking something hot during your interviews,” she said to me, her smile bright, “I made a pot of tea and I even went and got scones at Quebrada. Good, right?”
“Thank you,” I said, returning the smile. Erica couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or twenty-six. Mattie maybe a couple of years older. They were gorgeous and young and completely out-of-place in the run down house. I couldn’t wait to hear how they’d ended up there.
Mattie lead us to a large screened in sun porch. The structure was surrounded by a tight overgrown lawn beyond which brooded dense mature forest. From this viewpoint I noted that the detached garage was much larger than it appeared to be from the front of the house. The long building could fit two cars easily and it extended twice that length right to the edge of the woods.
The porch housed two old white wicker love seats who faced one another with a glass-topped wicker coffee table in-between. Biddy and I sat next to one another as Mattie plopped down across from us. The faded floral fabric of the seat’s pillow was soft and comfortable and several fans moved the Febreze and mildew tinted air pleasantly. It should have been cozy, but the encroaching forest blocked out the sunny day, leaving us in gloom.
“How long have you lived here, Mattie?” I asked, placing my voice recorder on the table between us.
“Eight and a half weeks,” he replied, without missing a beat.
“That’s specific,” Biddy commented.
“This place is intense,” he replied darkly.
“Tea!” Erica announced loudly as she entered the room. She placed a tray onto the coffee table then bounced onto the love seat next to Mattie, folding her long legs beneath her.
“It feels dark in here. Is it too dark in here?” She demanded nervously.
Biddy and I assured her the light was fine then helped ourselves to cups of tea. I snagged a small heavenly currant scone too.
Mattie and Erica watched us intently. I noticed for the first time that the glowing couple wore faint dark circles beneath their eyes. I saw too that Erica’s ponytail, though bouncy and long, was a little bit stringy, maybe even greasy.
Biddy sat back and sipped her tea. I held my tea cup in both hands and balanced the scone on a napkin on my knee. Already my back was protesting the cramped seat but I was determined to ignore it.
“So,” I said, “What’s going on in your house?”
The couple exchanged a look and Erica placed a hand on one of Mattie’s incredibly toned arms. “There’s a ghost in our house,” she whispered dramatically.
When she didn’t elaborate I asked, “What’s the ghost up to?”
Erica took a quick glance over at Mattie, who was startlingly expressionless, then said, “I think that the ghost is like, attached to Mattie? He’s not himself. He doesn’t drink but ever since we moved in he drinks, you know? And then there are the noises at night and, babe, you’re always in that garage and sometimes when I am talking to you you aren’t you. I think the ghost wants to take him over. I think it can, like step into him sometimes.”
Her words came out in a rush, like a breath that had been held for too long.
Biddy placed her tea cup onto the table. She was staring at Mattie.
I said, “Well that sounds pretty scary. Mattie, do you agree? Do you think there is a ghost influencing you.”
Mattie used both hands to push perfectly disheveled hair back from his forehead. It was a dramatic gesture, almost forced. He said, “Something’s happening here, for sure. Yeah, I mean, sometimes I don’t feel like I’m alone, man, but I don’t know.”
“Tell us about moving into the house,” Biddy suggested.
“Oh! That was so exciting. So, I’m a yoga instructor and Mattie is a creator. He sold an amazing app that helps people, well no you explain it, babe,” Erica said squeezing his leg.
“The app assists users in tracking productivity in all areas of life. Financial, emotional, recreational, spiritual. It allows the client to set goals and then creates an individualized program to support them in reaching those goals in a specified timeframe.”
“Emotional?” I said, curious.
“Yes. For instance, a user may track progress made in therapy appointments. A goal may be identified to resolve an emotional issue within a set period of time and the app tracks progress toward the desired outcome. Say, for example, you have a childhood trauma that you need to resolve. The app helps you to stay on task and focused so you can set a timeframe in which to heal. The same can be done with family building, relationship creation, financial goals, etc.”
“Wow, that sounds really, futuristic,” I said, avoiding looking over at Biddy.
“We just hit number forty-five on the iTunes App Store charts,” he said.
“Impressive! And where do you teach yoga, Erica?”
“I guide in person on the lawn at Babson. We both went to Babson, did I tell you that? So, that’s where we met! After graduation we moved into the city, but the campus sort of called us back, didn’t it babe? I’ve been vlogging my yoga practice for years and then an opportunity arose at the college. I guide practitioners every weekday morning on the south campus lawn.” As she said this, Erica pointed towards the forest.
“What’s through the woods?” I asked.
“Babson,” Biddy and Erica said in unison.
“Jinx!” Erica said laughing. “Seriously though, that’s really why we bought the house, to be close to the college. Mattie and I carved a path through the woods that leads directly to the spot where I teach. It’s amazing. I mean, it was amazing. I don’t like walking back there alone anymore.”
“Why not?” I asked.
Erica glanced at Mattie who was staring at his lap.
“I sort of feel like someone’s watching me or like, following me or something. One time, I-”
“I’ve followed her before,” Mattie said, almost defiantly.
Biddy and I were silent.
“You were just making sure I was safe,” Erica said soothingly.
“No,” Mattie said leaning forward to rest his elbows on his lap.
We all stared at him and I suddenly felt a little bit afraid. I chattered, “You must have wanted to see if you could catch someone creeping around back there.”
“No,” Mattie repeated. “It was me.”
“‘You had one of your episodes, you just wondered out there and didn’t-”
“Stop!” He said in a firm, low voice causing us all to jump as though he’d yelled. “Last week, Tuesday morning, when you were on your way back from your session? Yeah, I watched you. I was there. I didn’t mean to be, I mean, I didn’t intend to be there off the trail, but I was. When I came to myself I was crouched behind a tree watching you walk along the path.”
“Oh, Mattie,” Erica said quietly.
“How often does this happen?” Biddy asked. “You coming to yourself and being somewhere you didn’t intend to be, I mean?”
Mattie didn’t respond.
“That often huh?” Biddy said calmly.
No one spoke. The only noise was the whirring of the fans and the drone of a lawnmower somewhere in the neighborhood.
“You guys think something in the house is influencing you?” I asked.
“No, the ghost is making him do those things,” Erica insisted.
“Before we all jump to conclusions why don’t you guys tell us why you chose this house. I mean, I know it’s close to the college but how in the hell did you end up here?” I asked. Mattie was wound tighter than me watching my kids at the public pool on a Saturday morning. I needed to slow things down if we were going to get the full story out of them.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Biddy nodding her head.
“There wasn’t much on the market last winter and the commute from the city was killing my vibe every morning, right? So this house came up as a rental and it was so much bigger than any of the other houses we’d looked at, and it had so much charm and we just fell in love with the idea of it, so we asked the owners to sell it to us. They agreed to sell to us, but we had to push our move in date back to June so they could clean the place out.
“We were so excited. I know it’s a total fixer upper but we figured we would live here forever. There’s plenty of room for a family,” Erica stopped herself and glanced nervously at Mattie.
“After what happened with Cecily, I’ll never allow another kid in this place,” he said firmly.
“Who’s Cicely?” I asked.
“My niece,” Erica replied quietly. “We had this housewarming party right after we moved in. Our parents came and so did my sister and my brother-in-law. My niece, she’s seven, she was so excited, she called this place ‘the dollhouse.’ I decorated the backyard with all these balloons and we cooked out and had a cake and everything. The house was fine before the party. I never would have invited them all over if I thought something was wrong.”
“What happened?” Biddy prompted.
“So we were hanging in the back yard, Mattie and my brother and the dads were tossing around a football and I was sitting with the moms and my sister. None of us realized that Cicely was gone for a little bit, but then I think my mom noticed. We just figured she was exploring the house so my sister and I went inside to find her.
“We called her name a few times but when she didn’t answer us I got a little worried. I mean, the house was empty but we didn’t really know it top to bottom, right? So my sister went back outside to see if maybe Cecily was out in the yard somewhere. And then, I don’t know, it seemed like we all felt the panic come up at the same time and we split up. The guys searched outside, I went down to the basement, and my mom and sister checked upstairs.”
“They found her on the third floor,” Mattie said. “We should have heard her screaming, but we didn’t.”
“A big old wooden bookcase fell on her leg,” Erica explained. “She couldn’t move. It like, trapped her there. My sister carried her downstairs and the poor thing was hysterical. We were positive she had broken her leg, but the doctor in the E.R.? She said it would only end up being a nasty bruise.”
“Tell them what your sister told you,” Mattie said, looking over at Erica.
She gave a small shake of her head and closed her eyes for a moment. “Cicely told my sister that a little girl brought her upstairs and told her to sit on the floor so they could play a game. She said the girl disappeared into the wall and before Cicely could get up to look for her the bookcase fell over.”
“Uh uh,” I said, getting up from the love seat.
“Where are you going?” Erica asked in a panicked voice.
“No where, sorry. My back just isn’t great today, I just need to stand up for a minute.”
“You OK?” Biddy asked me.
“Yeah, totally, I’m just being elderly. But what in the hell? A little girl disappeared into the wall then shoved a bookcase over on top of her. That sounds dem-”
“Let’s just hear the rest of the story,” Biddy interrupted shaking her head at me.
“We felt so, I mean I felt so guilty. Like, we had no business having anyone over to the house, let alone my niece, until we were settled in here…” Erica chattered on awhile longer until Mattie finally cut her off.
“We were really lucky. Cicely was fine, but I know that having her in this house triggered its need,” Mattie looked back and forth between Biddy and I, as though we knew what he was talking about.
“How so?” I asked nervously.
“The place was fucking lit after Cicely got hurt. The knocking began, the shadows started coming around, we couldn’t sleep because of the dreams-”
“You started spending more time in the garage,” Erica added softly.
Mattie nodded his head.
“Tell us about the knocking,” Biddy said.
“It’s weird, I’m surprised we haven’t heard it yet. It usually gets more excited when people are here. But we totally blamed it on old pipes at first and then we had an exterminator come out to check if the place had mice or something. We do totally have mice, but the exterminator heard the knocking while he was here and said it wasn’t coming from any animal.
“The weirdest thing is that it comes from different parts of the house. Like I’ll be in the kitchen making dinner and I’ll hear knock knock over my head and once I stand still for a moment there will be another knock knock that sounds like it’s coming from under the sink, or the other room,” Erica explained.
“She held a séance,” Mattie tattled.
“Uh oh,” I said, glancing over at Biddy.
“There it is,” Biddy said, stone faced.
“It was just for fun, nothing serious,” Erica said quickly. “I had some of the girls I do yoga with come over for margaritas and we sat at the kitchen table and asked for the ghost to answer us with the knocks. We totally made sure to set a positive intention first and I commanded the spirits to interact in a positive way.”
“You commanded them?” Biddy was leaning forward now. I was pacing a little bit. Erica had her arms crossed over her chest and Mattie sat with an arm hanging on the back of the love seat behind his wife, his legs spread wide.
“Yeah,” Erica explained, “I think I said something like ‘I command you to come forward in communication.’ It was wild, it took a few tries but we got answers!”
“How?” I asked.
“The knocking. It answered us with knocking! Once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no.’”
“What did the knocking tell you?”
“The spirit was male and had lived and died in this house. Oh and he communicated that he was pleased that we choose to live here.”
“That’s it?” I asked skeptically.
“Well, sort of. I mean, that’s all that it communicated to us. But I took the opportunity to welcome it and share the space with us.” At this admission Mattie gave a sort of snort.
“I’m guessing things got a little crazier after that,” Biddy commented.
“That’s when the shadows came and Mattie started drinking and we stopped going in the basement and I found all those damn balloons in the room on the third floor even though there was no way they could have gotten up there on their own and something pushed me when I was walking down the stairs,” Erica began crying. “It’s totally my fault, I am so sorry, I brought it all out and I don’t know how to put it back and now Mattie is, just, babe you’re not yourself and the house is a nightmare. I can’t sleep because the dreams are so sad and violent and you guys have to make it stop or I just don’t know what is going to happen.”
Mattie put a hand on Erica’s back to stop the flow of panicked words. I looked to Biddy, hoping she would offer some advice, but instead of addressing the paranormal events in the house she asked, “What’s up with the drinking, Mattie?”
“I don’t know,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I’m no straight edge, but I’ve never felt the need to have more than a beer or two and that was only if I was out with the guys or at a game. I got drunk once in high school and hated the way it made me feel all clumsy and out of control.”
“So what’s changed?” I asked.
“He’s drinking gin,” Erica said.
I saw Biddy raise an eyebrow.
“I start drinking around one or two in the afternoon,” Mattie began.
“What?” Erica squeaked. “I didn’t know that, babe!”
“And I don’t stop until I pass out at night,” Mattie continued. “I pretty much can’t remember what happens from dinnertime onward.”
“What else is different?” Biddy asked quickly, stopping Erica from descending into another nervous tirade.
“I don’t just forget stuff when I’m drunk. Like, the other morning, I wasn’t drunk when I followed E to her yoga class. I was hung over, but sober and I don’t remember leaving the house. But when I, like, came back to myself I was watching E. I was watching her walk away from me on the path and I was literally crouched behind a tree hiding.”
Fuck, I thought then went to sit back down next to Biddy so I could eat another scone.
“When you say, ‘came back’ what do you mean? Are you not there?” Biddy prompted.
“I don’t know, man, I just am like, aware of what I’m doing and then I’m not.”
“What is he like in the evenings?” I asked Erica.
The girl looked at her husband and grimaced, “I’m really sorry babe, but you’ve turned into a total dick. I mean, you’re OK in the mornings, but you just sit there in that living room all night and stare at the television. Unless you’re out in that garage. I mean, you are out there all the time. Babe, what are you even doing out there? I’ve heard the banging and it sounds like you’re slamming things against the walls.”
We all stared at Mattie. He rested his elbows on his knees and began cracking his knuckles.
Erica pointed at his hands accusingly, “And that too! He never used to crack his knuckles. It’s disgusting! I can’t stand it.”
Biddy and I watched the couple. Mattie was inscrutable, Erica was sidling up to hysteria.
“How are you feeling right now?” Biddy asked.
“Really fucking angry,” Mattie answered in a low voice.
“Why?” I asked without thinking.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he insisted.
“I think I do,” Biddy said.
“Demons,” I breathed, knowingly.
Erica gasped and Mattie looked like he was about to flip over the coffee table.
“Settle down,” Biddy said to me, annoyed. “It’s not demons. Everything isn’t always demons. Mattie you’ve got a nasty spirit attachment.”
“How do you know it’s not a demon? I mean that little girl in the attic, right?” I reasoned.
“Well yeah that thing in the attic might be a demon, but that’s a secondary problem.”
“So there is a demon!” I said.
Biddy gave me a look then continued, “Maybe, but if a demon was causing this personality change then we wouldn’t be here talking about it. If a demon had that great a hold on him then Erica would be dead by now.”
“Biddy!” I exclaimed, horrified.
“Sorry to be so blunt, but you’re lucky Matt. This spirit was obviously a raging alcoholic in life. He didn’t cross over and he still needs what he was addicted to, so he’s latched onto you and he’s not going to let go without a fight.”
“Oh my God. How is this possible?” Erica asked.
“Look, we all need energy to survive,” Biddy explained. “We eat food and recharge by sleeping, right? And then we can get spiritual energy from God or the world or people around us. Since we’re alive we can access energy many ways, but ghosts can’t do that. If a spirit doesn’t cross over into the light or becomes deceived and falls into the darkness, then it remains on our plane and it has to get energy from somewhere in order to survive. One way for it to get that energy is to latch onto a living person.”
“Who is it?” Erica asked her eyes wild. “Can you see him right now?”
I bit my lip to keep from smiling. Biddy took a breath and said, “I’m not a medium, I’ve just spent my entire life around haunted people trying to figure out what the hell was happening to them. I have absolutely no idea how or why stuff like this happens but I’ve been around long enough to connect some dots.”
“What do I need to do to get rid of this fucker?” Mattie asked.
“I know a guy,” Biddy assured him. “You need a medium and you need to sage the shit out of this place. And then he’ll go. He’ll have to.”
“What about the demon girl in the attic?” Erica pressed, looking terrified and small. “Is she going to kill us?”
“I’m sure she wants to,” Biddy said plainly.
“But she won’t,” I added quickly. “Biddy knows a priest who can come and help you. He helped my family with our haunting.”
“Everything can be fixed here, but I don’t like that whole lurking in the woods storyline, Mattie,” Biddy cautioned. “It’s not going to end well. Until the priest comes I don’t think you guys should sleep in the house. I’ll sage the place for you today while you pack and that should weaken the ghost.”
“We can stay at my sister’s,” Erica said.
“If there’s a drunk angry ghost latched on to me then I’m not going anywhere near your family,” Mattie snapped.
“Stay at a hotel then, Mattie. Erica can stay with her family, it’s not a bad idea for you two to separate temporarily. You’re relationship might actually be feeding the spirit,” Biddy suggested.
Everyone was silent, absorbing Biddy’s diagnosis.
“So that’s that then,” I said after a moment. Mattie and Erica were looking at us with a mixture of fear, skepticism and hope.
“I left my bag in the car, let me go grab the sage. I’ll do a quick walk through while you guys pack up,” Biddy said, standing.
“I have to pee,” I declared then smiled at the couple. “Shall I use the powder room we passed in the hallway?”
They both nodded. “Ok, be right back!”
“Don’t you dare leave me in this house alone with them,” I hissed once we were out of earshot. “That guy gives me the creeps.”
“He should. That’s the worst case of demonic possession I’ve ever seen.”
“Ha! I knew it!” I said loudly.
“Shhh!” Biddy said. “Shut up! I’m buying time doing this sage bullshit so we can get that girl out of this house. He’s going to kill her.”
“Oh shit, what are we going to do?”
“We are going to pretend to sage the house while she packs up her things and then we are going to make sure that she leaves here without him. Twenty bucks says he doesn’t leave this place.”
“I really do have to pee. Will you wait outside the door for me and then I’ll come to the car with you?”
“Oh, for the love of Pete,” Biddy said, rolling her eyes. “Hurry up.”
When I was done peeing I opened the bathroom door to talk to Biddy as I washed my hands. I said, “That was super smart of you to come up with that drunk ghost guy story.”
I dried my hands and flipped the light switch then stepped out into the hallway. There stood Biddy staring at me along with Erica and Mattie.