Chris and I recently joined LifeTime fitness. It’s a massive Costco of a gym with a “Kids Academy.” The thirty minute sales pitch and tour was a waste, they’d closed the deal at the mention of “three hours of childcare.”
I like to go into the steam room until I can’t stand it anymore, and then chug a water and go sit in the sauna until I can’t stand that any longer. I’m prone to magical thinking and I like to believe that overheating myself drains all the toxins out of my body and atones for that extra glass of Chardonnay (or three).
On Wednesdays the kids have a half day of school so I bring them to play in the kid’s space while I take a half-assed walk on the treadmill and then attempt to bake the alcohol and Bantam bites out of my system. I was in the sauna nearing my boiling point when Hillary Stone and Vanessa Fairchild walked in and sat opposite me.
So there we were alone in the sauna. Me overheating and them glaring at me like the smug, skinny witches they were. I didn’t even attempt to make small talk. I just waited until they told me what they wanted. I knew they wanted something.
“Noticed any new toys at the house lately?” Vanessa asked with a fake little laugh.
And then I knew.
It was them. They were the ones leaving those fake voodoo dolls at my home.
I couldn’t have been more surprised if you told me they were there to ask me to join the National League of Women Voters. In the regrettable absence of my digital recorder, here’s the gist of our conversation:
Me: You broke into my house!
Hillary: Don’t be dramatic. The door was open and you were in the yard. We just wanted to scare you into deleting your blog.
Me: So you left a bunch of fake voodoo dolls around my house? How exactly was I supposed to connect those dots?
Vanessa: You did a really shitty job of concealing our identities in the story.
Me: I changed your names just like you asked me to. Jill told me everything. You all are lucky you’re not in jail.
Hillary: For what? An accident? Stop. Claire’s death was unfortunate, but here’s the thing, you’re going to need to stop posting your interviews on the blog.
Vanessa: It’s not funny. Claire is really pissed that we told you about the conjuring. We weren’t supposed to tell anyone.
Me: Shaking my head no.
Vanessa: Then just take down the stories about Claire. It’s the least you could do for us.
Me: noticing the dark circles under Vanessa’s eyes
Is she watching you at night again?
Vanessa: Not just her. Chris is with her now.
Me: glancing nervously around the small room
Her boyfriend? The one who drowned himself in the pond?
Hillary: Yeah. She managed to drag him through. Look, you should thank us for trying to get you to take down that ridiculous blog. Claire isn’t the only one on the other side who’s unhappy with you broadcasting their business.
Me: Whatever you guys. Just stay away from my house and quit moving my lawn chairs around for fuck’s sake.
Hillary: What are you talking about? We didn’t touch your lawn furniture.
Me: If I even see either of your cars on my street I’m calling the police. If you guys are that worried about my tiny little blog then I know you don’t want to end up in the Townsman’s police blotter.
And with that I walked out of the sauna. And I had half a mind to drop my towel and moon them. I struggled back into my workout gear and immediately went to get the girls out of the Kids Academy. Hillary and Vanessa really rattled me, and I couldn’t get over how stupid their plan to scare me had been.
But if I’m being honest, I seriously considered taking down the blog. Not because of their doll nonsense, but because I believed Hillary when she said they weren’t the ones messing with my lawn furniture.
That guy, the one I’d seen that night a couple months ago when I took the garbage out, the one who’d been sitting on my front lawn smoking a cigarette? The man who appeared (without a shadow I might add) in a photo I’d taken of snow falling at night in front of my home? That’s who had me worried.
While I attempt to sort out that mess, I have another story to share but it doesn’t contain the kind of scare we’re used to ‘round these parts. There’s more crippling regret than terror in this neighbor’s tale, though her abridged autobiography does involve a monster. A good natured one, but a monster all the same.
Let’s begin with a question; if someone offered to make your every wish and deep desire come true, what would you do? No strings attached, only that you accept the dream granter into your life indefinitely as your closest confidant. She’d help navigate every twist and turn in your life, removing obstacles and shoving aside anyone who dared interfere. And in return she would require only companionship. But remember, it’s for forever. She’ll make your wildest dreams come true, and no matter how contrived it all becomes, you have to remember that you’ll only get exactly what you asked for.
Natalie Hoskins was presented with this very offer when she was fourteen years old. She said yes.
Now in her late fifties, Natalie is the Soul Cycle lifestyle brought to maturity. She is tight (borderline gaunt, really) after years of carefully counting calories and vodka sodas. Her hair is enviable; long and flowing and highlighted to the hilt. To our meeting she wore an adorable high-low cashmere sweater in the perfect heather grey, with black skinny jeans and Frye boots. Instead of expensive jewelry, her suspiciously unlined face betrayed her tax bracket.
We met at the Starbucks on Central Street and sat at a small table tucked in the back corner. It was days before Christmas and I had no business taking the time to do an interview. I admit that it’s indulgent to spend time listening to my neighbor’s ghost stories when I have so many other responsibilities, and these interviews may very well be getting me into a sticky spot again, but story has always been my escape. And right then I needed an escape from the holly jolly hustle.
Natalie ordered a green tea and I got a grey one. Next to us sat a group of elderly women exchanging Christmas gifts. A mug. A set of flameless candles. A stack of festive coasters. Natalie and I spoke briefly about our holiday obligations and then she pulled her gorgeous hair into a high pony tale and sighed. “I don’t even know if my story is appropriate for your blog.”
“Is it weird?” I asked.
Natalie considered. “It’s rather fantastical, to put it lightly.”
“Then it’s appropriate for the blog,” I assured her.
And so Natalie told me her story. “My parents ran an antique shop out of our home on Abbott Street. Though, the business was really just a way to justify an expensive habit, I rarely saw them part with anything. They were collectors. My father was one of the first professors at MassBay, that’s why we moved to Wellesley in the mid-seventies. He taught undergraduate Psychology. I am an only child and mom stayed home with me. She was a brilliant artist, watercolor mostly, but her creativity was boundless. I’d wake up in the morning to find her in the kitchen having stayed up all night teaching herself to knit, or I’d come home from school to find my bedroom walls transformed into a magical woodland scene.
“It was a perfectly pleasant, if lonely childhood. My parents were fascinating people more interested in each other than in their unremarkable daughter. I’d been gifted neither an ounce of my mother’s creativity nor even a hint of my father’s brilliance. I was a mediocre student and aside from possessing a deep love of soap operas, Guiding Light was my one true passion, there was nothing about me to capture my parents attention.
“So, when Tabitha came I didn’t stand a chance,” Natalie smiled sadly. “She was plain, a plain Jane like me. I was thirteen years old and just about as devastatingly ordinary as a girl could be. If Tabitha had been fabulous in any way it would have scared me off. But that was all a part of her charm. She read me in an instant and know exactly what I needed her to be.
“I think it was my mother who’d purchased the vase at an estate sale in Quechee, Vermont. It was a tiny little porcelain bud vase and I begged her for it. It was so delicate and pretty, everything I wasn’t. Mom allowed me to keep it on my windowsill. I loved glancing over at it’s dainty beauty as I did my homework. It felt grown up, glamourous, like something one of the characters on my soap opera would own.
“I was in the midst of a distinctly lonely moment when Tabitha first appeared to me. My parents had left me home alone for the night, that particular weekend I believe they were off exploring somewhere in the Adirondacks. They preferred to travel alone and needed someone to watch the cats so I was often left by myself. That night I was in my room listening to music, most likely Carly Simon, wallowing in the loneliness, when suddenly that little bud vase hopped off the windowsill and fell to the floor.
“I quickly snatched it up, afraid it had been cracked in the fall. Relieved to see it still intact I held onto it and continued my crying session. Wishing for a different life, a soap opera life. Filled with handsome men and passion and catty girlfriends, beautiful clothing, and a home filled with fresh flowers and several well-behaved children.
“And then, all of a sudden Tabitha was there. Sitting right next to me on the bed. I should have been frightened but I wasn’t, just startled, and she quickly put me at ease.
“‘Hi, I’m Tabitha,’ she said simply. And then she asked me why I was sad and every thought I’d ever had just spilled out of me. She listened for hours as I rattled on about my life and the life that I wanted to have. She was sympathetic and kind and she didn’t dismiss one of my complaints.
“By the time I was done airing my grievances it was dawn. Tabitha and I went downstairs and she made me breakfast; egg sandwiches and fresh cut fruit, neither of which I’d even known were in the house. As I ate she told me all of the things she could do for me. She told me that the life I wanted was possible, that she could help me create it. That together we could make all of my wildest dreams come true.
“Then she asked me a question, ‘Do you desire my assistance?’ I nodded my head. ‘You must tell me, you must say it out loud,’ she instructed quietly. ‘I want your help,’ I replied simply. And with that we were off to the races.”
Natalie went on to tell me that her life changed overnight. When she returned to school on Monday the most popular girl in her Freshman class took an interest in her, which lead to the rest of her grade seeing her in a different light. A boy, the one whom she’d sat behind in math class, turned around one day and asked her to the winter dance. There she received her first kiss. She was invited to sleepover parties where she took shots of whiskey straight from the bottle and giggled along as her new friends took turns throwing up in basement toilets and sinks. Her previously stringy blond hair grew thick and shiny and her soft and shapeless body formed curves.
Of course, she’d had friends before Tabitha came, old friends whom she’d grown up with playing Barbies and pretending silly nonsense games but those friends weren’t as bright and shiny as the new ones who for some reason seemed to think she was interesting and funny. Natalie watched and learned the subtle rules of the new group she’d been invited into. Tabitha helped her get a part-time job at a local coffee shop so she could earn money to buy the right clothing and chip in for beer and pot on the weekends. By her Junior year Natalie was a star volleyball player, a straight-A student and the quarterback’s girlfriend.
And Tabitha? She was there for every single spark of good fortune. She’d moved into Natalie’s home. When her parents returned from their overnight trip Natalie informed them that Tabitha was a transfer student who needed a place to stay, could she stay with them? Natalie’s parents readily agreed, brought up an antique twin bed and rearranged Natalie’s bedroom so that the girls could share it. They seemed relieved to have someone in the house for Natalie to spend time with. Not once did they inquire of the girl’s origins or family.
“Tabitha had that kind of influence over people,” Natalie explained. “She made any detail that didn’t serve her purpose fuzzy so that only the things she needed people to accept were obvious. How else could you explain my straight A’s? I’d always been a mediocre student, earning only Bs and Cs. But once Tabitha came I quickly achieved a 4.0 average. Teachers liked me, they let me get away with anything. Forgotten homework, tardiness, wrong answers didn’t make a difference. They saw the image of me that Tabitha projected. I was smart, beautiful, charming. And eventually I caught up and sort of morphed into the image she projected.
“‘It’s your potential self,’ she explained to me once when I hadn’t studied at all for a Spanish final and still managed to receive full credit. ‘I’m simply letting them see the person you are capable of being. You’ll be that person, but in the meantime I’m allowing everyone else to see who you’d like to be.’
“It was strange. I was still me, my loneliness and the feeling that I didn’t belong were still within me, but I learned to play my part. The longer I was with the cool kids the more I became their idea of the perfect girl. Sometimes I missed my old friends and their low expectations of me. I’d never had to try and be anything other than who I was when I was with them, but the excitement of being a part of that fun crowd dulled my misgivings. Being with them made me feel like I’d been accepted into an elite group. But deep down I knew they would never have accepted me, the real me. They accepted a projection of me, they were seeing what I wanted them to see, what Tabitha made them see.”
“What about your parents?” I asked. “Didn’t they notice this major change in you?”
“Oh, I’m sure they did. But they benefited from Tabitha’s magic too. With me busy and suddenly surrounded by friends they could go ahead and completely focus on each other and their work. On top of that my father got promoted and a woman who wandered into my parent’s shop turned out to be an art dealer from some fancy gallerie in New York. She ‘fell in love’ with my mother’s watercolors and became her agent. When I asked her if their good fortune was her doing Tabitha explained, ‘We’re going to need some more money to make this work.’
“My parents were good people, but my life just confused them. Eventually, I built a glittering suburban fluff of a life, but they didn’t get it and I couldn’t make them understand. When they both passed, dad died before Ainsley was born, mom right after John Jr, it was as if a burden had been lifted. Is that too awful of me? It was just such a relief to be out from under their benign confusion and judgement. We didn’t see each other very often, I was too busy living in the glow of Tabitha’s creation, but my parents got a taste for my life at the holiday parties I threw. That used to be my favorite thing, throwing parties with all the catering and beautiful people and forced laughter. Anyhow, I know they didn’t approve of my life. But then, they’d never truly welcomed me into their own world so what did they expect?
“Tabitha was all I needed. She listened to all of my fears and she did everything she could to ease them. My parents offered no guidance when it was time to apply for college. I heard from a friend that Tulane was a fun party school and Nola sounded exotic so Tabitha got me accepted. There I met John, we graduated and moved to New York until I got sick of the city and then Tabitha arranged to have his job transferred to Boston.”
“Wait,” I interrupted, “Did John know Tabitha too?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Natalie’s frozen forehead made the ghost of a scrunch, “It’s hard to explain. We always had a cover story for why we were together all the time. She was an exchange student, then my roomate at college and in New York and then in Boston I think we told everyone she was my full-time assistant. And then she was our nanny and housekeeper until the end of our relationship. She was able to do this thing where people just dismissed her, you know? No one ever remembered her, I was constantly re-introducing her to people.”
“Crazy,” I said.
“Magic,” Natalie replied. “Anyhow, the night before John and I move to Boston he proposed, which was exactly what I wanted. Of course he became shockingly successful, so we bought a brownstone in Beacon Hill and planned a wedding at the Four Seasons. When I got sick of city living I got pregnant and we found the perfect house here in Wellesley. We had Ainsley and John Jr. in quick succession and once I was out of my baby fog I looked around and found the group I wanted to be a part of and Tabitha got me into it.
“Those days reminded me so much of the beginning of our relationship when Tabitha helped me to make friends in high school. I think those were our best days together. Our best times were when we were conspiring over some project, job changes or moves or infiltrating a new social scene. It was exciting and she seemed to like it as much as I did.
Natalie fell silent for a moment, lost in thought.
“Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn’t met her?” I asked.
“Certainly, but what I really wonder about is all the things I missed out on because I was so laser-focused on controlling my image, you know just to fit in to what I thought was the perfect life. I was outright obsessed with making everything perfect.
“It was a hard habit to break. Sometimes even now I forget that she’s gone. I’ll find myself making lists of things in my mind to report back to tell her about. Things I need to stay current, things I think I might like to own or do. Like, if I run into an old friend and she has a new bag or if someone I know goes on some fabulous vacation I automatically make a mental note to tell Tabitha about it. It’s crazy now thinking how incredibly distracted I was by keeping track of all the things I needed Tabitha to control for me.”
Natalie laughs softly, “Now instead I have to make lists of everyday tasks, little to-dos that seem to just come naturally for everyone else. Wash my face before bed, pay bills, check my email, buy groceries. She always took care of all of that for me.
“You know, I think a lot about what it’s like for her now. I asked her once what it was like to be seperated from one of her hosts. She told me that it was blisteringly hot. So hot that it turned everything black. When she was with a host, she said it coolled the world down, cleared her vision.”
“Did she tell you about any of the other people she helped?”
“Oh sure. She bragged once in a while about all the things she’d made happen for the people who used to be under her influence. She even claimed responsibility for a famous actresses career.”
“Who?” I asked.
Natalie just shook her head, “I can’t say, who even know if she was ever telling the truth. I think she knew just what my teenage mind needed to hear so that I would turn over total control.
“Long story short, I ultimately made the decision to restrain her because my life had become this shell of perfection around me but I realized that no matter what Tabitha made happen to me there was no perfecting me. I had a beautiful home and children, a loyal husband, everything in its place. Vacations, a crazy social life, every outward show of luxury and enough distraction to keep me from ever wondering what could be on the other side of that fragile shell. Tabitha gave me the life I’d dreamed of as a fourteen year old girl. It never occured to me to veer off from that course. How sad is that?
“I was at a holiday dinner party with my closest girlfriends, having cocktails before we sat down to eat and this woman, a woman I’d known for years, she turns to me out of the blue and tells me she’s getting a divorce.
“I couldn’t have been more shocked. I thought her life was perfect. She told me that her husband had gotten his mistress pregnant. Before that moment, if you had asked me I would have told you that this woman was one of my very best and closest friends. We’d spent years having drinks in similar settings for similar events. We’d stood alongside one another watching our kids at games and recitals. Dropped off food when illness struck and picked up eachothers children when schedules were tight.
“But in that moment, when she told me that her marriage was ending, the only thing that I felt was smug pride. I was proud that I wasn’t in her position and that I never would be. As it bubbled up within me I realized that we’d never shared friendship, what we’d shared was a friendly game of passive-aggressive competition. And I knew that she knew it too. This conversation, this devastating revelation about her life was her way of conceding victory. But I had cheated. I had an ace in the hole, Tabitha working behind the scenes to ensure my win. And right then I saw so very clearly that the group around me was in a race that none of us would win.
“In an instant it all became so clear. Tabitha had made me into a scheming automaton. I didn’t have a life, none of it was real. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t even know if my husband really loved me. I’d treated my children like accessories and only put in enough facetime to make it look good. I basically let nannies raise them when they were young, and by that time they were teenagers and I barely saw them at all. I ended up having a full-blown panic attack and had to leave the party. I was overcome by heat. I was so hot things began to turn black.
“I sat in my car trying to calm myself down and then there she was. Tabitha. Sitting right next to me. She didn’t say a word, we drove home together in silence. She might not have known exactly what I was thinking, but she’d felt my realization and she was frightened. And so was I.
“Over the next few months I watched everything and everyone around me. I watched how we interacted with one another. I watched how they reacted to me. I became guarded, obsessing over whether or not they even liked me or if I just fit a role that needed filling within the group. I mean, for all outward appearances I did fit in. For years I’d pushed aside anything about the life I was building with Tabitha that made me uncomfortable. But when I began to actually look at those unsettling details I couldn’t divert my attention back to the bright and shiny facade of my life.
“Over that year I simply lost the will to do all that it took to fit into the life I’d always wanted. And when I did I realized just how many unspoken rules I’d been following in order to keep the relationships I’d built,” Natalie sighed deeply and shook her head as if shaking off an embarrassing memory. “Of course friends noticed me pulling away from them and I carry a great deal of guilt about that. It wasn’t their fault that Tabitha and I had built and entire phony persona and that I was about to burn it down. But none of those friends stuck around very long once I wasn’t playing my roll any longer. For my part I was almost cripplingly embarrassed by how much acting I’d been doing my entire life.
“In reality, I’m an introvert. But when I was with Tabitha I had to constantly surround myself with people just to stay distracted from the doubts always at the edge of my mind. I simply burned myself out and I let her down. If I’d been a little stronger we could have made it all the way. It frightens me to think about what we would have done together.
“So, after about a year of considering my options I decided to put an end to it. I didn’t know what was on the other side of the protective facade but it had to be better than feeling like a complete and utter phony.
“Tabitha kept a close eye on me. I made excuses for not putting in any new requests. I did my best to hide it and pretend that everything was perfect just as it was, but she knew I was unhappy. I hired an online shaman to research how to get rid of her, how to break the spell she’d put over my life. I explained the meetings away by telling Tabitha I was meeting with a new party planner. Together the shaman and I devised a ritual to separate Tabitha and me and then imprison her within a vessel. I agonized over that. I knew I wanted it to be a vase, but none seemed right. Eventually I chose a simple Simon Pearce bud vase of crystal clear glass. It was ridiculous but I hoped she’d be able to see out of it.
“I hid my plan until the very last minute. It was a Monday morning. John was off at work and when Tabitha’d returned from dropping the kids off at school I was waiting for her in the kitchen. ‘What’s that pretty little thing?’ she asked me, pointing at the vase I’d chosen for her imprisonment. I must have glanced abscently at the ceiling above her head and so she looked up and saw the symbols drawn on the ceiling above her. Trapping her in that very spot. ‘How could you?’ she screamed. ‘I gave you everything you wanted. Everything! I made you!’
“I began to explain, but there were no words and I knew that if she kept me talking I would lose my nerve. I started the chant the shaman taught me and then her attitude changed. She became frightened, that’s what really almost made me lose my nerve. She began to promise me the world. Told me we could remake my life, dial everything back, start from scratch. But I just closed my eyes and recited the chant over and over and as I did her voice began to fade away until it was gone completely.
“When I could no longer hear her I opened my eyes and she was gone. Only the vase stood on the floor. I missed her immediately. I felt regret. Panic. She was gone, I’d essentially killed her. I knew I could bring her back if I wanted to, and I almost did many times, but it was over. It had to be.”
“Did anyone notice that she’d disappeared?” I asked.
“No, it was as if she never even existed.”
“Not even your kids?” I said in disbelief.
“Nope, not even the kids.”
“What was she?” I asked.
“A demon. A mid-level demonic entity that most cultures refer to as a djinn. In attaching herself to me she escaped hellfire. As long as she could keep me distracted, burning my soul up in self absorption she kept her cushy place by my side.
“I sent her back there. I know she was never my friend, but she did love me in her own way. The same way I loved her. We used one another. We needed one another to build a safe life for ourselves. But what we’d built we built on sand. My husband left me, my children can barely stand to even speak to me on the phone. Maybe I sent her back to the fire but she left me in my own little hell.
“Separating from Tabitha was devastating and there are times when I think how easy it would be to unrestrain her and start over. I think about what I would request now, how different the life would be that we could create. But that’s absurd. My life may be painful now, but at least I know it’s real. And now that I’ve lost everything, I don’t have to be afraid anymore. And that is something that I realized had always been with me when I was under Tabitha’s influence. It was fear, floating around inside that shell with me. I called it anxiety, or me being controlling or a perfectionist. But it was pure fear. It kept me in that shell. It kept me following all the rules, forcing the square peg of me into the round hole I wanted to fit. Holding my breath when I should speak, or screaming obnoxiously when I should have held my breath.
“I can sit with fear now just observing it, feeling it. It doesn’t run me any longer. It’s not that I’m not scared. I have a very strong suspicion that I’ve doomed my soul to hell, but while I am alive they can’t control me.”
I asked Natalie what she planned to do with the vase.
“It’s on a windowsill in my bedroom,” she replied.
“But what about after that?” I pressed.
“Oh, you mean when I die?” She said with a laugh. “It’s in my will. The vase is to be buried with me.”