“That child is long gone.”
“I just talked to Jamie, she got a quote from Reliable Fence and they’re just waiting for the materials to come in. She’s doing everything she can.”
“It’s too late,” Judith countered. “She said herself that the kid wasn’t the same after spending so much time in the woods. That’s not her child anymore.”
“It’s a changeling.”
My hand stopped halfway to my face. I’d been about to shove the rest of a homemade peanut butter cookie into my mouth.
“That’s really a thing?”
“Mm. That’s really a thing. Now please, to the best of your ability Miss Liz, tell me exactly how that thing presented the promise to you and exactly what you said back.”
“Um, well, she said I had to make a promise to listen to this Sheeshee even when things got really loud. That I was supposed to only listen to her even when it was really noisy. And I think I said, ‘I can do that.’”
“Huh,” Judith looked both relieved and maybe even a little impressed. “You may have managed to sidestep a serious issue.”
“You thanked her too,” Claire chimed in, “Don’t forget that.”
“Oh, right, I said thank you when I was leaving and I, like gave a little bow while I said it.”
Judith’s head dropped. “Jesus Christ, how I consistently underestimate your ability to step right into a huge pile of shit is beyond me.”
“Wait, how is thanking the thing a problem?”
“If you were to ask anyone, and I mean anyone who knew an infinitesimal amount of information about the fae, the first thing, the very first thing they would tell you is ‘never thank the fae.’ Just the act of thanking that banshee opened up an energetic agreement between the two of you.”
“Well, all I have to do is listen to her, right? It’s not like I agreed to do anything.”
“To them a thank you is a promise, an energetic bond. So yeah, you have to listen to her, and now you’re going to do her a favor in return for her restoring your abilities.”
“Oops,” Claire muttered.
“Shit,” I muttered.
“You’re indebted,” Judith said matter-of-factly.
“Well, then she can take a goddamn number. I can’t fucking open my eyes in the morning without someone wanting something from me. The kids, the dogs, the PTO, the neighbors, strangers on the internet. Fuck.”
Judith and Claire remained silent after my little outburst.
“Sorry,” I apologized. “How much trouble am I in?”
“Only time will tell what that thing wants from you, but I’d be willing to bet it’s more than just listening. No use worrying about it now,” Judith suggested sensibly. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about? Something with tunnels?”
“Yeah. Actually, not just tunnels. Something’s brewing.”
I’d known Hannah Brinson from working at the library, she was a volunteer for a time, reshelving books. We hadn’t kept in touch too well, but would see each other occasionally around town and always fell back into easy conversation. We met at Starbucks to discuss what she’d described as “an issue on her property.”
“It took me two months to get up the nerve to reach out,” she admitted.
“That’s silly,” I replied, breaking a tiny glazed vanilla scone apart to make it last longer.
“I know, it’s just, if I tell you about this and if you come to my house and if you notice the same thing or you say it’s worse than I think it is then we’ll have to move or something and there are only like seven houses on the market right now and I swear to God they’re all either crap or over three million dollars. It’ll be a nightmare.”
“I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing because you sound like my own inner monologue of doom. Let’s not jump the gun. I’m sure there’s a quick fix to whatever’s spooking you. What’s going on at the house?”
“We have a monster.”
I made the mistake of laughing again.
Hannah stared at me.
“Sorry. What kind of monster do you think you have?”
“How the hell should I know what it is?” She snapped, then rubbed at her eyes roughly. “Sorry. I guess it’s an outdoor monster, not like a werewolf, or a dragon, but sometimes it does seem like an animal. Sometimes it’s a dark mass, like a shadow, but solid-ish. But then when it takes form it is very solid. But then, it doesn’t stay outside, we know it’s been in the house. And it’s big. It’s head just about touches the doorframe.”
“Liz. Yes. I’m serious.”
“Sorry. I thought you were here to talk about the ghost.”
“No, we don’t have a- wait,” she leaned forward. “What ghost?”
My eyes slid involuntarily over her shoulder and she spun around.
“Who’s there?” she demanded, causing the barista to glance at us suspiciously.
Quite quickly after I’d recovered my clairaudience thanks to the banshee, my ability to see the dead had returned. And though it was subtle, the fact that both abilities had been strengthened, was unmistakable. The experience of hearing and seeing ghosts was the same, but it was like, their ability to hear and see me had improved. They were quick to ask for help, thank me and leave. Claire said the fae had left a sort of shine on me, alerting the dead and everything else creeping around that I was the real deal.
I did not like the sound of that. It sounded a lot as if I’d been marked. It sounded a lot like it would call unnecessary attention to me.
Claire waved off my concerns. “You’re calling their attention anyway. But now the dead know you’ve been accepted by the fae.”
It made me feel like I was in a Sookie Stackhouse novel and I remember quite well what happened to her when the wrong magical creatures got a hold of her.
All this to say, there was someone with Hannah and me in Starbucks.
“It’s a gray haired man, he’s a little stooped over, with light brown eyes, dark skin,” I told her. “He actually looks just like you… do you want to talk to him?”
Hannah scrubbed at her eyes again. “Jesus Christ Almighty.”
“You don’t have to, I can ask her to leave you alone-”
“No, it’s fine. Is it my father?”
The ghost moved to stand beside us, chattering the whole way.
“Yup, it’s your dad,” I relayed. “He’s worried about you. The pain in your back is only a tight muscle. You need to stretch when you get off the treadmill. He wants you to go to a yoga class but not one of those preposterous competitive classes. Go to a session that will calm you. Tim should have his blood pressure checked. Charlotte needs glasses, Jack is having a problem with a boy in his class but he feels like it would be tattling to speak up about it and Poppy ate a bunch of Q-tips this morning. She’ll be fine but it’s going to be a rough couple of nights.”
Hannah wiped at the tears rolling down her cheeks. “Ask him if Tim is okay.”
“He can hear you,” I said distractedly, trying to listen to her chatty father, “He will be fine but they are going to want to put him on medication. He should do yoga too. Or walk outside. Something to calm himself. You should walk together, as a family. You spend too much time cooped up. It’s not good for you, it’s no wonder why you’re all so stressed.”
Hannah held up a hand. “Okay, I get it. We’ll walk. But what about our monster, what does he say about that?”
Her dad put his hands up in protest. “Not my department,” he insisted. “I’ve got my hands full with the family.”
“Looks like the monster is a me-problem,” I sighed, scrounging for scone crumbs.
“Is my dad with us all the time?”
“Um, no. He tries to split his time between you and your siblings. And,” I listened and did my best to keep up, “your little sister never should have married Jason but what’s done is done. Cary is bored again, he’s probably going to quit his job, and um… William is, oh! Are you sure you want me to say? Okay. Yeah, William is having an affair with his business partner. Your dad is trying to intervene, but there’s only so much he can do.”
“William’s business partner is like, twenty five years older than him,” Hannah said doubtfully.
Her father let out a deep sigh. “He shouldn’t have gotten married either, I blame myself.”
As I relayed all of this Harper began giggling as she wiped away tears. “I’m the easy one.”
“You always were,” her dad said lovingly. “But you’re in quite the mess now, aren’t you? And I can’t get you out of it.”
Before I could repeat it, Hannah whispered, “You should let us figure things out for ourselves for once, dad. Get some rest.”
“And what then?” The ghost demanded. “Float away into that blazing light? Boring. I need to check on Cary, make sure he doesn’t get himself kicked out of another apartment. Tell her to the moon and back, and you,” he pointed a finger at me, “You figure out how to get rid of that thing. They’re not safe for much longer. It’s figuring them out. There’s nothing I can do. You have to help them.”
And with that, he was gone.
It took some time for Hannah to pull herself together. But eventually we got back on the topic of her home.
“So… your monster,” I prompted. “It’s outside but it can get inside. Not an animal, not a human, not vapor, but solid and almost as tall as your doorframe.”
“Weird,” I said, sipping my pumpkin spice latte.
“That’s all you have to say? What is it?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, um, it could be a shadow figure, maybe?”
“I looked those up, they look like people, this thing… doesn’t.”
“What does it look like?”
“When it’s not slithering around in the shadows or looking like a hooded figure down by the lake, it has a short body, long thin legs, thin short arms, tiny wings and, uh, long curved horns.”
“Jesus Christ,” I muttered just as Claire chimed in, “Uh oh.”
“What oh?” I asked.
“What?” Hannah asked, as I listened to my guide.
“What does it sound like to you?” Claire said matter of factly.
“Well, sure, but it’s hanging out outside…”
“What is she saying?” Hannah demanded.
“Where do you live now?” I asked, ignoring her question.
“We’re right on Sabrina Lake, close to the Needham line.”
“Shit,” Claire muttered.
“I live over on [name of street omitted].”
“Oh sure, that’s kind of in the area right? Across the lake. Is something wrong?”
“There’s just been a lot of strange in the neighborhood lately,” I explained, vaguely.
I hesitated. “Lost time, sinkholes filled with, uh, creatures, weird stones in the woods, time warps…”
“What in the world?”
I shrugged. “I know it sounds crazy.”
Hannah considered. “It does, but it makes me feel better knowing I’m not the only one. I mean I’ve read your blog over the years but until things started happening at our own house, I never really thought, you know-”
“I get it. But I thought you guys were in Poet’s Corners, I must have mixed you up with someone else.”
“Oh, no we were. But we snagged this place just before the market went absolutely insane with Covid. We’d never be able to afford it now. We weren’t even looking, that’s what’s so ridiculous about the whole thing.”
“Then how’d you end up there?”
“We went to the open house…” she trailed off.
“And one thing led to another,” I guessed.
“You know how it goes better than anyone.”
“Yeah. We’ve been in our place for two years and it is the first time we’ve been in a house this long without putting it back on the market.”
“Do you think you’ll stay put?”
“Yes,” I said, knocking on the wooden table. “The space is a little tight but we’ll make it work.”
“For sure. Actually, the size of this house is one of the things that made it attractive,” Hannah confided. “It was smaller than our last place. We had too much damn room and I was sick of keeping it up. I was sick of our neighbors too.
“The lake house is a little Cape with an extension, and a good sized yard that goes down to the lake. It’s got tons of privacy which is what gave us the idea to try and put in the pool. I think that’s what caught the thing’s attention. The digging.”
“That’s bad, huh?”
“In our neighborhood? Yes.”
“Well, we didn’t finish the pool. The pool company made it seem like it would be no problem to get through the bedrock, but it was a nightmare. They tried drilling down then realized that it was more involved and when they started talking about blasting I just put the brakes on the whole thing and told them to stop and refill what they’d dug out. It would have been about twice the cost we’d anticipated, yada yada yada.
“At any rate, the spa was already done, not that we ever use the damn thing.”
“Oh really?” I giggled.
Hannah managed a smile. “It sounds absurd! I know! I just-”
“Sorry, I don’t mean to minimize. Just the thought of a demon splashing around in your hot tub made me laugh.”
Hannah’s face fell. “So you do think it’s a demon.”
I nodded and apologized again.
Hannah sighed. “I was just hoping maybe it was one of those weird elemental things you’re always writing about on the blog.”
“It doesn’t sound like it. Tell me what it does.”
“I first noticed it at night. I was sitting in our living room and through the window I saw something moving down by the lake. It was a little after dusk so I didn’t have a great view, but it looked like there was a tall hooded figure pacing back and forth at the edge of the water.
“I went to the back porch and called out to what I thought was a person. It just stopped pacing and then, like sort of melted down into the ground.”
“I’d been home alone, the kids were at their sports and Tim wasn’t home from work yet, it freaked me out, but it was dark-ish. I convinced myself it was a trick of the water. But then Charlotte, my oldest, saw the guy, or whatever it was the following afternoon when I sent her out to the mail before dinner.
“She came running inside all worked up. She said some guy in a costume was watching her from the trees beside the driveway.”
“And then Tim saw it when he left for work early one morning. We park the cars facing the woods and when he turned on his headlights he saw a man in a hooded robe standing about fifteen or so feet back just staring at him. Scared the hell out of him. He got out and went looking, but again the guy just disappeared.
“He didn’t want to leave us so he came in and we called the police. They didn’t find anything. Poor Jack saw it out his window at bedtime, he said it was standing right in the yard staring at his window.”
“Good grief,” I muttered.
“Soon after that strange things began happening in the house. We were lying in bed one night and Tim and I heard footsteps on the roof. Again, we called the police and again they found absolutely nothing. We have a security system, which gave us some comfort, but it was incredibly frightening.
“Our laundry is in the basement and that’s where I first noticed something moving in the shadows.” Hannah closed her eyes and shook her head. “Since then I’ve been washing our clothes at that laundromat on Route 135.
“There are strange noises at the house,” she went on, “Bangs and taps with no cause. Um…”
“What about that thing with wings?” I interrupted. “When did it show up?”
“I woke up in the middle of the night, I don’t know what woke me up. I looked over and that thing was standing over Tim. Just staring down at him.”
“Jesus, was he awake?”
“No, at least not until I screamed. The thing melted away like that hooded figure I saw by the lake.”
“I’m so sorry. THat is truly terrifying. Is anybody in your family acting weird?”
“Yeah, like do the kids and Tim seem like themselves?”
“Oh, well sure. I mean, we are all a little on edge, but no one’s heads are spinning around if that’s what you mean.”
I smiled. “Good. So, it sounds like you are in the infestation stage headed for oppression.”
“Not sure what that means.”
“Demonic possession doesn’t just happen,” I explained. “There are stages. First it’s an infestation, like all the haunted house stuff you’re describing. Then comes oppression. You might be physically attacked and you’ll definitely have nightmares. Then-”
“Wait, Tim is having bad nightmares. He won’t tell me what they’re about, but I know they are really bothering him.”
“Okay, well, let’s get someone in there to clear the house tout de suite and we’ll put some protections around your property. It should help, if it doesn’t we’ll keep trying things until it sticks.”
Hannah smiled. “Wow, okay, so easy as that?”
“Well, I mean, not that easy, but yeah, there are people who can help you.”
“Oh! I feel so relieved.”
“There’s something else,” said Claire.
“Oh, come on?” I said, without thinking.
“What is it?” Hannah demanded.
“There’s something hidden in her home, I don’t know where, but you’ve got to get it out of there,” Claire explained.
“There’s something in your house,” I relayed.
“Like what?” Hannah whispered.
“You should go there,” Claire insisted. “You’re supposed to go and look.”
“You’re coming though, right?”
Claire shook her head.
“Coming where?” asked Hannah.
“We need to go look,” I explained, trying to hide my skyrocketing anxiety. If Claire didn’t want to go it only meant one thing. The demon had made itself right at home.
“Now?” Hannah asked.
“Yes, we have to get it out of there.”
“It’s gorgeous,” I told her, as I shut my car door and approached the house.
The home sat at the top of a rolling lawn, lined by mostly pine trees. At the far edge lay the lake. We’d been in a pretty severe drought for months and you could see how far the water level had dropped on the wooden dock pilings.
Hannah invited me inside and offered me a bubbly water. She showed me around the small home and we ended up in the living room overlooking the water. To say I was tense would be an understatement. It felt like we were in for a jump scare at any moment. The house had adorable, cozy cottage vibes. It had a lot of personality. It should have been comfortable. On top of that, the views were perfect. But I found myself not wanting to look out any of the windows. Afraid of what might pop up.
“Well?” Hannah said anxiously.
“Yeah, it’s spooky here, sorry. But I haven’t pinpointed anything in particular.”
I understood why Claire didn’t want to tag along, but I felt like I was flying blind. There were no dead people around. None. So I couldn’t try and dig around for information.
I closed my eyes and tried to focus.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, just give me a minute,” I said as patiently as I could.
Silence and then a huge bang rang through the house like a door slamming shut. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“What the hell was that?” Hannah whispered.
“It sounded like it came from the kitchen.”
We stared at each other for a long moment, then I reluctantly led the way out of the room.
“Does everything look okay in here? Anything out of place?”
Hannah studied the kitchen and didn’t find anything unexpected. “That’s the kind of thing that happens all the time, these loud noises with no explanation.”
“What about it?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, trying to keep the edge out of my voice. On a scale of one to ten I was at about a twelve in terms of terror. “I just had the thought ‘mudroom’ pop into my mind. Where is it?”
Hannah pointed to a French paneled door in the corner towards the front of the house. I opened it tentatively and peered into a cramped room. One wall held hooks, the other two sliding doors that I assumed belonged to a coat closet. I took a step inside.
“Well?” Hannah pressed.
“The rug,” I replied, pointing down.
“I know, it’s ridiculous to have a rug in a mudroom, it’ll only get ruined. I keep meaning to have it replaced with tile.”
“It looks like it’s in good shape, though.”
“Yeah, I think they probably replaced it right before we bought the house.”
“It needs to come up.”
“There’s something under there, we have to look.”
It didn’t take long to pull the rug up by an edge. We stared down at a two by two, hinged but handleless door in the floor, set squarely in the center of the room.
“You’re kidding me,” Hannah breathed.
I jammed the same knife we’d used to pry up the corner of the rug underneath the door, the whole while Hannah insisting that we wait until her husband got home.
Flinging the hatch up and open I gazed down into a dark space.
“This is how it’s getting inside.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense, it’s been sealed off.”
“None of this makes any sense, really,” I countered. “I mean we’re talking about demons and ghosts and extrasensory perception… It’s all completely and totally unbelievable. But here we are.”
I used the flashlight on my phone to peer into the darkness. On the cement floor of a cement lined room sat a bundle of what appeared to be sticks, dried flowers and something… gooey. I gazed around the subterranean space as best I could, there was a ladder.
“Don’t even think about it,” Hannah nearly yelled.
“We have to get that creepy little bundle out of here. Do you have a dustpan?”
She did. I took it and a real flashlight down the six foot ladder and realized that the space wasn’t a room. It was the end of a tunnel and the flashlight didn’t reach the end. I took a few steps forward.
“What are you doing?” Hannah hissed.
“It’s a long tunnel,” I said, “I’m just going to see where it leads, I think it might go down to the lake.”
“What in the hell has gotten into you? Grab that weird bundle of weeds and get back up here.”
I stopped. She was right. What was I thinking? It was completely out of character. I put that disgusting bundle into the dustpan and struggled back up the ladder with it.
“You’re shaking,” Hannah said once I’d made it back up into the mudroom.
“Do you have someplace else you can stay until we figure out what’s going on here?” I replied.
“So then we went outside and I was telling Hannah I’d touch base with you and Biddy and try to come up with a plan to protect the house when who happens to pass by on a walk?”
“Kate Dilvish.” guessed Judith.
I stared at her.
“Don’t look so shocked, you know she’s lurking around.”
“Right, well. She came over and introduced herself. She was like, ‘Your name sounds so familiar.’ So Hannah mentioned my blog, and she goes, ‘Oh, sure, that must be it.’ The woman absolutely gives me the willies. And get this – she’s Hannah’s next-door neighbor.”
“Oof, that sucks.”
“What should we tell her? I mean, what can she do to protect her family from that thing?”
“Move.” Judith replied simply.
“I don’t think she can.”
We both fell silent.
I was thinking about salt and sage and St. Benedict medals. Eventually I asked, “What are you thinking? Do you think Kate pulled that demon up?”
Judith shook her head. “Maybe, I don’t know. Sorry, my mind wandered. I was thinking about the fae.”
“Do you think it has something to do with Hannah’s house?”
“No, no. I just, well, the thing you made a deal with was a banshee, right?”
“That’s what Claire called it.”
“What do banshee’s typically do?”
“Scream?” I guessed.
That earned me a look. “They do scream,” said Judith, “And when they do, it’s because they’re warning of impending death.”