ghost-caught-on-tape-ghost-caught-on-tape-4523420everybody’s got ’em, so here are my two cents:

These ghost stories run in chronological order and I often make reference to past ghostly tales in the new ghostly tales.

In other words, treat the blog posts like the chapters of a book and start at the beginning.

Perhaps take a peak at my About page and then head to my first interview (For Sale: Gorgeous Five Bedroom on Wooded Estate with Au Pair Suite [and Evil Housemate] – or – “I thought it was My Grandmother” – or – “I mean, honestly. A sleeping pill every night? With an infant? What an asshole.”), then work your way forward, it’ll help for things to make a bit more sense.

Boo. – Liz

unnamed-3There is a house on Linden Street that is no longer a home. Its fenced back yard is bordered by a large commuter parking lot, beyond which sits the Wellesley Square train station. Next door is a dated office building whose lawn boasts a large blow up snowman every winter. Across Linden Street live apartment buildings, and the usual suspects of suburban retail (the grocery store, gas station, Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen, CVS and Talbot’s) exist within walking distance. Though surrounded by the hustle and bustle of suburban living, the large house stands apart.

From the outside the duplex (white with black shutters) looks like someone’s well-cared for home. The landscaped yard is as beautiful and controlled as any in town. The siding is a little worse for wear and the brick steps at the front door could use repointing, but by all outward appearances the house is a home.

But it isn’t. It’s an office, a rental property in fact, and Sarah Ryan is both its landlord and its tenant.

My tour of the first floor proved that, much like the house’s exterior, its interior was well-kept, if lacking personality. Alone in the center of the living room sat a massive wooden desk faced by two wingback chairs. Behind the desk chair was a grand fireplace. Light hardwood floors, pale blue walls, a worn oriental carpet and bare curtain rods decorated the large room. It’s windows overlooked busy Linden Street and there was a large poster-sized print, a foggy and depressing view of dense forest at night, mounted above the mantlepiece.

“Couldn’t you just stare at it for hours?” Sarah commented.

Sarah had installed a treadmill in the dining room. A yoga mat, several kettlebells, and a Polar Spring water bubbler kept it company underneath a small crystal chandelier.

The kitchen hadn’t been updated in at least thirty years. A modern, four person table sat out of place beneath a stained glass window. The kitchen was neat as a pin and Sarah  admitted that she had a cleaning service visit every other week.

“It’s just me and the cat, but you’d be surprised how quickly the dust bunnies multiply,” she explained.

I’d glimpsed the cat, a fat calico with huge yellow eyes, “Bertha is shy with new people,” Sarah commented.

Our tour complete, I followed her back to the foyer. She walked briskly past the stairs leading to the second floor and we returned to the living room. I took my place in a wingback at the desk while Sarah sat across from me in her ergonomic chair. We each held an ice cold Diet Coke. The desk was suspiciously free of clutter.

I asked, “What do you do for work?”

“I’m a writer,” she said, simply.

When she didn’t elaborate I asked what she was working on.

“Right now I’m writing a novel.”

Again, she offered no further explanation.

“I don’t mean to be nosey, but I write too. May I ask what your book’s about?”

“Well,” she said, glancing over my shoulder to the foyer behind me, “I had been working on a historical mystery set in Salem-”

“Awesome,” I interrupted enthusiastically.

“But,” she went on, “I scrapped it after I started working in this house. I moved in a,” she paused, “Different direction. I’m working on armageddon now.”

“Ooo, like, post apocalyptic stuff?”

“Sort of,” she said.

It was obvious she didn’t want to discuss her writing so I said, “Well, I’d love to read it when you are done.”

Sarah asked, “Are you working on anything? I mean, besides interviewing people.”

“I am,” I admitted. “I wish I made more time for it, but I’m slowly working on a mystery series about the residents of a cul de sac. Each family represents one of the seven deadly sins, and their master sin sort of informs the crime in each book.

“Just cozy mystery stuff, really. Nothing serious,” I said, feeling embarrassed as I did every time I shared my writing with someone.

“Interesting,” she replied.

“It’s just a hobby really, but look at you. You’ve got an entire house devoted to your writing. I would kill for this kind of quiet, you can’t even hear the cars driving by.”

“I know it probably seems ridiculous, me alone in this big house, but I’ve been thinking about writing full-time for a long time and this felt like the year to do it. I got engaged last winter-”

“Congratulations,” I said automatically.

“Thank you,” she replied, holding up her ring finger and a sizable cushion cut diamond set in a platinum band.

“Gorgeous,” I replied.

“Thank you,” she said again. “Paxton picked it out himself. His proposal was a complete surprise. We’d only been dating for three months.

“It was Pax who found this space for me, you know. It was his idea for me to focus on writing full-time, really. He knew I wasn’t in love with my job, I was working in the human resources department at Boston College, and it’s not like I was going to keep it up once we have kids. Writing is something I can do from home.”

As she spoke, I tried to gauge Sarah’s age. She had to be somewhere between twenty-five and thirty, but it was hard to tell. Her face was young but her outfit, a grown-up belted A-line navy blue dress and pretty sable brown pumps, was throwing me.

“I admit I have gotten more writing done here than ever before, but the house is strange,” she continued, “It might be better if I could find a tenant to share it with me, but no one has responded to my ads.”

“Tell me about the house,” I said, eager to hear her story.

“Things happen here, strange things.”

I placed the disgusting drink on a John Derian coaster atop the desk and sat back in my seat. I’d recently turned thirty-eight and something had shifted within me. I had been practicing the art of listening, or, more accurately, shutting up. I’d even downloaded the Headspace app. I was trying really, really hard not to be such a nervous, chattery wreck.

I waited for Sarah to tell me her story. She’d asked me here, after all. She’d messaged me on Twitter after seeing my business card tacked to the community board in Cafe Nero.

Sarah glanced behind me again, and I fought the urge to turn around.

She looked down at my digital recorder and using both hands tucked her pin straight, long blond hair behind her ears.

Finally, she said, “When I first began working here I planned to use the upstairs as my office and gym space and to sublet the first floor to someone willing to share the kitchen with me. But after about a month and a half I realized that I couldn’t stay up there.”

She paused again, and I maintained an expectant expression.

Sighing, she went on, “I usually get here at eight o’clock on weekdays and leave around two or three in the afternoon. Pax is pretty crazy about watching the bills and he was,” she paused, “Really angry when he got the first electricity bill. I mean, I swear I turned off all the lights when I left every afternoon, but when I got to the house a lot of mornings – not every morning, but most of them – the place was lit up like a hospital.”

Odd example, I thought then asked, “Do you live closeby?” I was wondering how they chose the house. The quiet emptiness of the place was unnerving.

“We live over in Poet’s Corner in Pax’s house. I’d been living in the South End with a couple girlfriends, but I moved out here right after the engagement,” she shrugged, “It’s nice to have a car and yard everything. We’ll pick out a new place after the wedding.”

I nodded encouragingly, though the more I heard about her personal life, the less encouraged I felt.

I asked, “Ok, then how did you end up with this house?”

“Pax spotted the For Sale By Owner sign in front one afternoon when he was out picking up our dry cleaning. He came right home and begged me to come see the house. He was so excited about it as an investment opportunity and he told me about his idea for me to use it as my writing space.

“On the car ride over I was just humoring him really, thinking the whole thing sounded crazy. I couldn’t just quit my job!

“I knew the house, I’d driven by it a million times running errands, but when he pulled into the driveway and I got my first real look at it, this is going to sound so nuts, but it was like I had a vision. I knew I could write here. I had to have it.”

“Wild,” I commented.

“It was!” She enthused. “Pax put in an offer that afternoon and the seller accepted it almost immediately. I gave my two weeks notice the next morning. Pax surprised me with this desk,” she said, smoothing a hand across the antique wooden surface.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” I said, “and unique. Where did he find it?”

“It’s been in his family for years, his grandfather was a journalist.”

“How cool,” I said, then, “Quitting your job and everything must have been exciting.”

“It was a whirlwind,” she admitted. “I mean, I didn’t have a bad feeling about it, but once everything was set in motion I definitely had nerves.”

She shook her head and again pushed her hair behind her ears before continuing.

“Like I said, the original plan was for me to use the upper floor as my office space and to find a tenant for the first level.”

“Who did you have in mind?” I asked, wondering what sort of business could use such a space.

“I thought maybe a massage therapist or esthetician might be interested in the house. We have a reasonable budget to build out the space for the right tenant. The woman who owned the home before us said that she never had any trouble finding business people to rent the space.”

“Did she tell you anything else about the house, or the property?”

“Just that she lived here for a year with her family while they were building a new home over by the middle school. They’d always intended to keep this house as a rental property.”

“Hmm,” I said, “So why did she sell it?”

“Her last tenant was some sort of money manager. He ended up skipping out on the last four months rent, he had a huge drug problem or something. She told us that she just couldn’t manage the property any longer, it had become too much work now that her kids were older and needed more shuttling around.”

“Ok, got it, so you were telling me about the lights? Right?” I prompted.

“Yeah, so, the lights were on most mornings when I came to open up the house. It was bizarre, but it didn’t scare me. I thought maybe they were on some sort of a timer that I didn’t know about. I suggested that to Paxton, but he just,” she pushed her hair behind her ears again, “He didn’t think that was possible.

“It kept happening so I removed all the bulbs from the recessed lighting on both floors and unscrewed the light bulbs from my desk lamps before I left every afternoon.”

“Wow,” I commented, “Did you talk to an electrician.”

“No, Pax didn’t want to spend the money,” she replied. “But that fixed the problem, anyway. Then after I’d solved that issue, the shower in the upstairs bathroom started up. The first morning I walked in and heard it running it really scared me. I thought maybe someone had broken into the house.

“I stood listening in the entryway for a minute then grabbed a broom from the hallway closet and snuck upstairs. The bathroom door was open so I creeped in and-”

“Dumb!” I said, before thinking. So much for being mindful.

“What was I supposed to do?” She asked, raising her well sculpted eyebrows.

“Call the police!” I said.

No. Some naked person in the shower wasn’t going to hurt me, I figured I could chase them out of here.”

I shook my head at her judgmentally.

“It didn’t matter anyway, there was no one there. I shoved the old shower curtain aside with the broom handle and found the hot water blasting, but the tub was empty.

“I hoped ignoring it would make it go away, but after a week I decided to tell Paxton. l didn’t want him to freak out again when he saw the water bill so I told him what was happening. He followed me to work the next day in his car, he wouldn’t believe me until he saw it for himself.

“We called a plumber but the guy wasn’t able to find an explanation. Whenever this happened the shower handle was always turned all the way to hot and the little plunger thing was pulled up to divert the water from the faucet to the shower head. It wasn’t an accident, it was intentional. Our plumber insisted that it had to be a person turning the water on, but that was impossible.

“We ended up shutting off the water to that tub which was a mess, the plumber had to open up the wall to do it but at least it fixed the problem. Things were quiet for several days and then the humming started. Pax said it had to be the pipes adjusting to having the water diverted, which made absolutely no sense. Pipes knock, they don’t hum.

“Right when I was finally settled into writing, I’d hear it. It was low and pretty, not mechanical, like a tiny little song. Just three notes,  Hmmm, HMMM, Hmmm,” she demonstrated, giving me goosebumps, “It was incredibly distracting.

“Another reason I knew it didn’t have anything to do with pipes, or the heating system, or anything else mechanical was that it followed me, no matter where I was in the house. I’d forget about it, you know, and then I’d hear it after I washed my hands in the bathroom. Or when I was making a sandwich in the kitchen. Or getting my jacket out of the hall closet.”

“Whoa,” I said, “You were alone in this house and there was humming following you from room to room? If it isn’t anything mechanical, then what was it?”

“The presence,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I tried to convince myself that there had to be a reasonable explanation, I even had my hearing checked. But then one morning I was getting a snack in the kitchen when I heard the humming coming directly from inside one of the empty cabinets, and it was loud.

“I couldn’t make myself open that cabinet door, I was certain that if I did I’d find a woman crouched in there, humming that tune.”

“Eek,” I said, “What did Paxton say about that?”

“He blamed it on mice,” she replied evenly, “Thus the cat. Paxton just showed up with it one morning. I’ve never really been much of a cat person, but I suppose it’s nice to have the company.”

“Mice don’t hum,” I said, obviously.

“He thought I’d heard squeaking and panicked,” she replied, blinking hard as though she were forcing herself not to roll her eyes.  

“The lights and shower and even the humming I could rationalize away. But then there was this one day. I’d been writing all morning and I went downstairs to make lunch. When I went to walk back up I saw my desk chair sitting in the hallway at the top of the stairs.”

A chill overtook me. I reached out for the diet soda, not wanting it but needing to hold onto something.

“There wasn’t anyone in the house with me” Sarah continued, “I checked all the rooms and the front and back doors were locked. That’s when I accepted that there really was something happening in this house that I couldn’t explain.”

“Did you tell Paxton about that?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head firmly. “I thought about it that night and when I came back the next day-”

“How did you get up the nerve to come back here?” I asked.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she replied. “I came inside and shut the door behind me and I spoke to the presence. I told it that I owned this house now and that if it had something to tell me then I would be happy to listen but it wasn’t going to scare me out of here with its parlor tricks.”

“What did it do?” I asked, shocked by her bravery.

“It started leaving things for me, little things. Six pennies lined up perfectly on my desk in the morning. Actually, it leaves pennies everywhere, but sometimes it will line them up or push them into a pretty pattern. And I think it has something to do with the birds. Mostly little sparrows, really, they absolutely infest the trees next to the house.

“One day I was writing and I heard a bump on the floor right in front of my desk. I got up to look, figuring it was that cat, but it was a little brown sparrow. Dead. Just laying there in front of my desk. It just sort of appeared out of nowhere.”

“God, Sarah, everything else aside, how in the hell are you getting any writing done?”

“I don’t know, I mean, there’s something about this house. I can focus here like I can’t anywhere else. Believe me, I’ve tried writing in Starbucks, taking some days off from this house, but I am so fuzzy and distracted everywhere else. When I am here I can write for hours.”

“That might be the most terrifying thing you’ve told me,” I said as gently as I could. “Despite the woman humming in the cabinets, a chair moving all by itself, penny patterns and dead birds appearing out of thin air you are able to focus here better than anywhere else? Doesn’t that strike you as a little odd?”

“I know it’s scary, but it’s a little bit magical, too.”

“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

“It was magical for a little while anyway. But then I found my desk chair sitting perfectly in the foyer. It hadn’t fallen down the stairs, it had been placed there perfectly, facing the front door when I came in that morning.

“That’s when I decided to move everything down here to the first floor. I can’t explain it, but something shifted after that.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I don’t hear the humming anymore, it’s really quiet.”

“Almost too quiet,” I acknowledged, realizing just how strange it was that we couldn’t hear the traffic on the busy road in front of the house.

“And my writing,” she said, pausing for a moment to straighten a pencil on the desk. “It’s become, sort of consuming.”

I stared at her, frightened to hear what she would tell me next.

“There have been couple times lately that I’ve sort of zoned out while I’m writing. I mean I’ve gotten going and lost track of the time in the past when I write, but this is different.

“I’ll be in the middle of a sentence and then all of a sudden I look up and hours have passed. I have pages and pages of story, but I have no memory of writing them.”

“What are they about?” I asked.

“Armageddon,” she replied very quietly.

“So that’s why you scrapped the historical mystery,” I said.

She nodded, “It’s not that I didn’t want to write it anymore, I couldn’t. It wasn’t writer’s block, I’m just compelled to write this other story.”

“Honestly, Sarah, I’m afraid to ask about it,” I admitted.

“It’s set in 2032. When it begins everyone around the world is so happy because there is this politician who’s brought peace to the Middle East. He’s really charming and generous and it seems like he will be the answer, you know? He gives everyone hope.

“Then the perspective shifts to downtown Boston and there is a huge explosion in the Prudential Center, it takes down the entire building and it’s followed by several other bombings throughout the city. No one knows who is responsible for it, and then the entire grid goes down. There will be so many dead. So many hurt and hungry and panicked,” Sarah blinked rapidly, holding back tears.

“Things pivot again to Wellesley and a small group of survivors. I can tell by the way they talk that there were more attacks. The sky is dark and there is ash everywhere. These people decide to move West, as far from the coast as possible. There are some things they talk about that I don’t understand, like, things that don’t exist yet.  

“It is all so vivid in my mind but I don’t know where it is coming from. I don’t ever know what is going to happen next in the story, it just appears on the page after I’ve sat working for a day.”

“Sarah, you’re being possessed,” I said, frightened.

“Not exactly,” she replied.

“What do you mean?”

“I think that I am just being, influenced, you know? Shown things,” she said slowly.

“Shown things? Do you think what you’re seeing is real? That it’s really going to happen?”

“I don’t know, maybe,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders.

“I can put you in touch with an exorcist,” I said quickly, not wanting to believe her.

“What? Oh, God, no. That stuff is, no. That’s not what I need,” she insisted.

“Sarah, this is serious. I think something might have attached itself to you. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but it’s not a ghost. I think it could be demonic,” I said as calmly as I could.

“No, you’ve misunderstood,” she said, adamantly. “It’s not demonic. I think, well, I have this gut feeling that it is angelic.”

“You think you’re channeling an angel?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yes,” she said, again pushing her hair behind her ears. “I think it might be using me to warn everyone about what is going to happen.”

“That would make you a prophet,” I said, incredulous.

“I don’t know what it makes me, but this is really happening and I don’t know if I can stop.”

“At least talk to this priest,” I begged, terrified and trying to do the math to figure out how many years we had left until 2032.

“How could he even help-” she began, but was interrupted by a loud bang from inside the fireplace behind her.

We both screamed.

“What the hell was that?” I demanded, standing up.

Slowly, Sarah turned in her chair and looked down into the fireplace grate.

“It’s a bird,” she said, standing up and edging around the desk away from the fireplace.

I peered around her chair and saw a small tuft of dull brown feathers.

“Is it dead?” I asked.

“I think so,” she replied. I could tell she was close to tears.

“Has that ever happened before?” I asked, grabbing my bag and my recorder off the table.

The look on her face told me everything.

In silent agreement we walked out of the large living room and into the foyer.

“What am I going to do?” She asked.

“Have you ever considered leaving and not coming back?”

“Of course I have,” she said, “But, when I stay away for a few days, I just, I don’t know, I like need to be back here. I’m almost desperate for the quiet and anyway, it’s more complicated than just leaving,” she paused, holding back.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, Pax put the mortgage in my name, so really it is mine, it’s my problem. I have to write and sell something. I have to make money and get back to the city. This has to work,” she said, looking down at her hands.

“No it doesn’t,” I insisted. “You can sell this house, tomorrow, you don’t have to be here. This isn’t safe, Sarah.”

“Paxton would be so angry,” she said quietly.

“Then he doesn’t have your best interests in mind,” I replied, way overstepping my boundries.

She looked at me, her eyes bright. Her hands pushed her hair back, “Do you really think I could-” but she didn’t finish the sentence. The door behind her flew open.

She spun around and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“Paxton! Hi,” she said quickly.

“Hey, babe,” he said cooly. He was ridiculously good-looking, a total silver fox. CrossFit muscular and in his late forties if he was a day.

He glanced over at me then back at his fiance.

“I was driving by and saw a car in the driveway. Who’s this?” He asked eyeing me.

“This is Liz, the woman I told you about,” she replied in a sticky sweet voice, “The one who writes the ghost stories.”

I held my hand out for a shake but he ignored it, grabbed my arms and brought me in for a double cheek kiss.

Have I ever mentioned to you all how I feel about breaches of my personal space?

Well, I fucking hate them.

They make me anxious and angry and awkward. The trifecta of social torture.

I pulled back and resisted the urge to wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand. They had been actual kisses, not air kisses. I did my best to maintain a neutral expression.

“So you’re the little writing buddy Sarah’s told me about.”

Confused I glanced at Sarah and the look of panic on her face stopped me from answering. I just nodded my head.

“Well, I hope you girls were able to get some work accomplished, Sarah won’t let me even peek at her little story until it’s done,” he pulled her towards him in a sideways hug.

“We had a great talk,” I said. “But I’d better be on my way. Nice to meet you Paxton, and Sarah, let me know if you want to take me up on that offer.”

“Thanks, I’ll walk you out,” she replied.

“No, let me,” Paxton insisted.

“Don’t be silly,” I said, firmly. “My car is right in the driveway.”

“I’ll have to move my truck to let you go anyway,” Paxton replied.

Sarah watched our exchange with a smile plastered on her face.

I reached for the door handle but Paxton beat me to it.

“After you,” he said, then quietly to Sarah, “Be right back.”

Refusing to be rushed out of the house I held my hand out to Sarah, “It was great talking to you, let’s follow up about that idea for my blog. I’ll give you a call this afternoon once I’ve had more time to flesh it out.”

She shook my hand and gave me a small smile.

Then I walked through the door and down the steps to the sidewalk, Paxton right on my heels.

It felt like he was chasing me, about to pounce on my back any moment. The Boston girl within me took over. I spun around with my car keys fanned out between my fingers.

“Back off,” I said firmly.

He held up his hands, a huge smile on his face, “Whoa, sorry, I just want to get my car out of the way so you can leave.”

“Uh huh,” I said evenly.

We stared at each other for a minute and I said, “I’ll be sure to get in touch with Sarah this afternoon. If I can’t reach her I’ll stop by, or I can pop over at your house in Poet’s.”

His fake smile crinkled his eyes, “I’m sure that won’t be necessary. But Sarah needs to get back to her writing, we can’t have anyone distracting her. She has to focus.”

He turned abruptly and walked towards his car humming. It was that same tune, the one Sarah had hummed for me.

Hmmm, HMMM, hmmm.

unnamed-2“Let’s do this!” Biddy called, walking towards me at a fast clip.

“You know I don’t power walk,” I groaned.

“I’ll tone it down a notch,” she replied dismissively. “I’ve been dying to get over here since the weather turned.”

She paused, looking me over. “A Ghostbusters t-shirt, really?”

“I don’t have many short-sleeved shirts,” I replied with a shrug, pulling awkwardly at the top I usually wore as a nightshirt.

Biddy ignored my explanation and set off down the path.

“How’s everything at the house?” She asked.

“Besides living with three children, things are pretty calm,” I answered.

“You still doing a cleansing every month?” She asked seriously.

“Yes,” I replied, already out of breath.

“Good.”

We walked along for a while catching each other up on our lives and families. She told me about her new found obsession with needle point and I shared my rekindled enthusiasm for Supernatural reruns. She mentioned that she’d recently re-watched the pilot episode of X-Files and that it really held up over time.

We were about half-way around Lake Waban when she told me about Whitney Barkley’s haunting.

“You’re investigating again?” I asked in disbelief.

“Not exactly,” she replied, her arms pumping back and forth. “Father McGonagle asked me to conduct preliminary interviews for urgent cases.”

“So, investigating,” I said.

“Actually, it’s a lot like what you do,” she shot back. “How are your interviews coming, anyway?”

“Stranger and stranger,” I replied.

“I’m not surprised,” she said.

I told her about the last interview I’d conducted. While renovating his garage a man recovered an old black and white photo of a little boy. Since then the boy had been haunting him, not just in his home but everywhere he went. He’d asked me not to publish his story, that he just needed to talk to someone who would believe him. I put him in touch with Molly in hopes that the psychic could find out what it was the spirit wanted.

“Be careful with that psychic,” Biddy cautioned.

“She’s cool,” I replied.

“Just be careful,” Biddy replied knowingly.

We continued walking for a time, me trying to keep up, Biddy trying to hold back from her usual pace.

Out of the blue Biddy said, “Come on this next interview with me.”

“To the demon possessed Barkley house?” I laughed. “Nope.”

“Why not? You can record it and if they give permission then you’ll pop their story on the blog.”

I couldn’t come up with an excuse fast enough so she continued, “I’m going over there Tuesday morning at ten o’clock.”

I was about to argue that I didn’t want to be anywhere near anything that even might possibly be demonic when she said, “Good, I’ll see you then.”

Too out of breath to argue, I said, “Fine.”

***

“Them’s some pink arms,” Biddy commented. “You should really wear sunscreen.”

I didn’t respond.

“Alright, ready?” She asked, pushing sunglasses to the top of her head.

I nodded, and followed her up the Barkley’s front walkway.

The house was a small Tudor in a winding Wellesley Hills neighborhood. Though the day was sunny and warm, the home’s stucco and wood exterior looked dreary. The little house was set back from the road atop a small hill and I could see a dense treeline at the edge of the back yard.

Aside from those trees, the yard itself was devoid of landscaping. Instead of the rhododendron and evergreens present in the neighbor’s yards, the Barkley’s landscaping consisted of only dark mulch. I wondered if perhaps the homeowners were overhauling the gardens, which made me consider my own dog poop and toy strewn lawn. If not attractive, at least this yard was orderly.

Biddy took a deep breath and blew it out before climbing a set of stone steps to the front door. She rang the doorbell and looked back at me with a small smile. I waited awkwardly on the walkway, looking up at her.

We listened to a deep loud and steady barking from behind the doorway.

“Down, Tiny, shush!” We heard a woman scold.

The door opened and out barreled Tiny, a massive Bernese Mountain dog. He nearly knocked Biddy backwards off the steps then jumped up at me in what felt like an attempt to knock me to the ground so he could lick me to death.

“Tiny!” The woman shrieked, then, “Ed! The dog!”

A man’s voice entered the fray, yelling from inside the house, “Tiny! Cheese! Come get your cheese!”

The dog gave me one more kiss before bounding up the steps and back into the house.

“Oh, dear, I am so sorry. He has the worst manners. He’s still just a puppy even though he looks like a giant. We’ve only had small dogs in the past, so we are still learning how to train him, but he really is just a gentle giant,” the woman rambled. “Please, come in, come in!”

The bright day was immediately forgotten once I’d stepped inside the dimly-lit foyer. A stairway, far too grand for the home’s small dimensions, dominated the entryway.

“You must be Whitney,” Biddy said, extending her hand.

“Of course, yes, I’m sorry,” the woman replied apologetically. “I’m Whitney Barkley.”

“And I’m Edward,” a man said, walking towards us from the back of the house. “Edward Barkley.”

The dog sniffed at us and wagged it’s fluffy tail as Biddy introduced me to the couple. While Whitney’s was one of those off-putting finger tip handshakes, after Edward’s shake I had to suppress the urge to massage my knuckles.

We were invited into the kitchen at the back of the house where we sat around a circular shaped table set for tea and scones. Tiny sat panting on a small rug in front of the kitchen sink.

I sat between Biddy and Whitney, across from Edward. He was a trim little guy, probably in his mid-sixties. With wire framed glasses, a kind face and very little hair. He sat with his hands clasped atop the table.

To my left sat Whitney. It was as though she were in soft focus, not plump but soft around the edges. Her thick medium length brown hair waved prettily, without any frizz to speak of, and she had absolutely gorgeous skin. She wore red framed glasses that only a few years ago would have been considered lame, but now they were super hip. I pegged her somewhere in her early sixties.

It felt as though I were back in high school, sitting at the table with a set of a friend’s parents. It was hard to reconcile the reason for our visit with how positively ordinary these people seemed.

Whitney filled our cups and passed the plate of scones and quick count on my part proved we could each indulge in two. Score. Biddy retrieved a legal pad from her bag and placed it on the table in front of her. I saw that the top page was filled with notes.

I placed my recorder on the table and caught her eye, she nodded then said, “Alright, so as I explained on the phone, I’m here to document information for Father McGonagle. My colleague,” she said, motioning to me unessesarily, “Has been through a similar experience in her own home, and he helped clear the entity. Liz is gathering data about Wellesley and the uptick of paranormal activity in town.”

“We’ve read your blog,” Edward said to me.

Whitney shook her head in my direction and actually patted my hand, “Your stories are quite frightening, dear.”

Biddy cut in before I could respond, “Are you certain you’re alright with Liz publishing your story? Under assumed names, of course.”

“We are quite certain,” Whitney replied. “People need to know.”

“People need to know,” Edward echoed.

“Right, then let’s get started. Ultimately I am looking to document your experience, so tell me anything you think Father McGonagle should know,” Biddy said.

The wide-eyed Barkleys nodded their heads enthusiastically.

“What prompted you to seek Father McGonagle’s help?” Biddy asked.

“The haunting,” Whitney replied, aiming her response towards the voice recorder.

I took a bite of my pastry. My suspicion had been accurate. The scones were from Quebrada.

Meanwhile, Biddy remained silent, waiting for Whitney to offer more detail.

Edward looked at her and suggested, “Maybe we should start by explaining our move and how we ended up here?”

“Yes, that makes sense, honey,” Whitney agreed. “Our children are in college now. Brittany is a Senior at Middlebury and Ben, the baby, is a sophomore at Hobart and William Smith. I bet you girls have young children now, I know I’m probably not the first one to tell you but it goes fast.”

“Enjoy it,” Edward chimed in.

I smiled, falling in love with the sweet couple.

Whitney continued, “We used to live over in the baby belt. The kids went to Upham for elementary and we just loved our home, but it became too much upkeep once the kids were gone. We thought it would be good to pass it on to a young family and downsize.

“I’ve always been drawn to this side of town, we are near enough to the train station, so Ed takes the Commuter Line to work occasionally and I was excited to take up a new project.”

“And we’re closer to the church,” Edward added.

“That’s where I know you guys from!” I said, slapping my leg.

“You go Wellesley Hills?” Whitney asked, happily.

“Not as much as I should,” I confessed, “But yes, I knew that I recognized you all from somewhere.”

“We’re in the choir,” Edward said.

“That’s it!” I confirmed.

“How lovely,” Whitney said.

“Sorry!” I said sheepishly to Biddy. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Not at all, dear,” Whitney replied. “It’s nice to know that you’re part of the congregation.

“Proximity to the church drew us to this side of town, and the house was a steal. Maybe that should have tipped us off. The home had been on the market for a little under three years. It wasn’t necessarily in terrible shape, but it had been empty all that time and needed some attention.

“The realtor assured us that there was nothing wrong with the property,” Whitney explained, “Buyers just weren’t interested in a renovation project and it was priced a bit too high for the developers to buy it as a tear down.”

“Damn developers,” Edward grumbled.

Whitney gave a sad smile and explained, “Our old home was demolished by the couple who bought it from us. They built a new house on the property and we’re still smarting a little bit from the loss.

“Anyhow,” Whitney continued with a sigh, “We were optimistic about a new start. The kids were supportive, of course. It was really more of a restoration than a renovation, and it went beautifully. We had absolutely no indication of any trouble with the house. Our first clue was the yard.”

“Mm hmm,” Edward agreed, reaching for his second scone.

“How so?” Biddy asked, flipping over a page in her notebook and making a note.

Here we go, I thought, taking a sip of tea.

“We spent a small fortune on landscaping. It had probably been fifteen years since anyone had even touched the yard.”

“Sorry to interrupt again,” I said, “But who lived in the house before you?”

“A widow,” Whitney answered, reaching out for her husband’s hand. “The poor woman had Alzheimer’s and lived here with assistance for several years before succumbing. We were told that her only son died in a boating accident as a teenager and there wasn’t any other family. A neighbor acted as executor of her will, and he managed the property.”

“He mowed the lawn while it was on the market,” Edward interjected.

Whitney agreed, “A good man, and kind. But,” she hesitated and glanced at her husband, “Besides the grass, the yard was a mess. The shrubbery was overgrown, and ivy had creeped to the point that it had begun to overtake the house. I was afraid there would be damage, but luckily it proved to be minimal.”

“The back of the lot was all brambles and brush under the trees. It was a hell of a job to clear it out,” Edward added.

“Once we’d finally had it cleared a landscaper drew up a plan. I wanted the yard to look like an English garden with lots of flowers in the spring and trimmed hedges and plush evergreens year-round. It just wasn’t meant to be.

“It all died. Twice over. The first time,” she paused, shaking her head sadly, “The gardeners had worked all day long and when they left everything was perfect; the pruned hedges and all the greenery around the exterior of the house and patio. We even put in a few trees. It was beautiful, but in the morning,” Whitney sighed.  

“Dead. All of it,” Edward said.

How?” I asked, then looked to Biddy, worried that I was overstepping, but she was staring at the couple, pen poised over her pad.

“The landscaper suspected that something had contaminated the tools her team used for the plantings. It was the only explanation. They came back and cleared everything out, let the ground rest for two weeks and then planted again.”

“But everything was dead the next morning,” guessed Biddy.

“All of it. Gone,” Whitney admitted.

“The landscaper’s opinion?” Biddy prompted.

“That there was something wrong with the land.”

I held back from asking another question as Biddy jotted something on her pad.

When she looked up she said, “Did you have the soil tested?”

“We did, twice,” Edward replied with a stiff nod.

“The results?” Biddy asked.

“The acidity was in the normal range, with acceptably low levels of lead and aluminum. Phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and a bunch of other mineral levels proved normal. Our sulfur levels were a touch high, but not enough to cause such widespread destruction. There was no evidence of a chemical leak or intentional contamination.”

“And you’re sure that the landscaper handled everything properly?” Biddy asked.

“Well, the second time, yes. She replaced all of their tools and even bought plantings from a different nursery. Of course, I can’t say for sure about the first time they worked on the yard, but it would be quite the coincidence if they repeated the same mistake, no? Also, I have a close friend who used the same company and her lawn is just beautiful. She has the lushest hydrangea bushes I’ve seen this side of Nantucket’s.”

“That must have been so disappointing,” I commented about the twice failed landscaping attempts.

“And expensive,” Biddy added.

Edward shook his head and Whitney popped a big piece of scone into her mouth.

“The landscaping is freaky, but I don’t know that I would have suspected anything paranormal if that had happened in our yard,” I noted, slightly confused and a touch suspicious if a bunch of dead plants prompted them to call an exorcist.

“No, no,” Whitney said quickly. “It’s only in hindsight that we recognize the problems in the yard as the first sign of evil. The have been many more clues.”

“Before we talk about what’s happened inside the house, I just want to wrap up with the property. You mentioned a sinkhole when we spoke on the phone,” Biddy said.

Edward leaned forward in his seat and said, “It was the damndest thing. I was out there playing catch with Tiny when two of the birch trees at the edge of the lawn came down. They damn near fell right on me. I had my back to the woods and had it not been for Tiny staring off behind me and then turning to run to the house I may have been killed.”

At mention of his name Tiny walked over and put his head in his Dad’s lap.

“It was a sinkhole,” Whitney explained. “Opened up right at the treeline.”

“Wait, we have sinkholes here? I thought they only happened in places like Florida,” I demanded.

“They happen all over the world,” Biddy replied without looking at me, then said to Whitney, “How big is the hole?”

“Oh, what do you think, Ed?” Whitney asked, then answered her own question, “It’s probably about nine feet across now.”

“You’ve had someone come to check it out?” Biddy asked.

The couple nodded in unison but offered no further explanation.

I had about fifty questions that I wanted to ask, the first being Why in the hell are you still living here? We could be swallowed up at any minute you lunatics! I even considered excusing myself to the bathroom then running as far away as I could.
Biddy must have sensed my unease because she said, “Don’t get worked up, we’re not falling down to hell quite yet.”

I forced a laugh and took a bite of pastry so I wouldn’t have to speak.

“Anything strange happen around the sink?” Biddy said.

The couple exchanged a look.

“What?” I demanded, unable to hold back.

“The newts, they must have been living underground and the sinkhole disturbed them. They just stream out of that hole. They’re all over the yard, I am surprised you didn’t see any on your way in here. They are disgusting little creatures and we can’t get rid of them.

“We were told that if we sprayed to kill off the insects in the yard then the newts would move on to greener pastures. But they must be getting their food nearby because they seem to like it here.

“They’re all over the place, especially at night, we don’t let the dog out back anymore. He was always swatting them around or rolling around on top of them. It was nasty. We haven’t been able use the grill either, they seem to love it in there.”

Biddy made a note on her pad, “Speaking of the grill, have you had any trouble with fire? I noticed you have quite a few fire extinguishers set out.”

I glanced around the kitchen and saw there was a small extinguisher near the stove and a larger one on the floor next to the back door.

“As a matter of fact, yes, we have had a few accidents,” Whitney said, vaguely.

“I’m as accident prone as they come,” I joked, “But even I keep our one extinguisher under the sink,” I said, remembering the large extinguisher I’d seen mounted to the wall in the hallway.

“It’s sort of a sore subject,” Whitney replied turning towards Edward.

“We’ve been cleared of all suspicion,” Edward said, “But we were the subject of an arson investigation at the end of last year. We’d had several unexplained fires and, naturally, the police became suspicious.

“We were right at this table being interviewed by the fire chief when one of those little fires set off in the study. He smelled the smoke and watched me rush in to put it out. He knew there was no way that we could have started it ourselves, we’d just finished giving him a tour of the house.”

“He’s a wonderful man,” Whitney said quickly. “He gave us a slew of fire extinguishers and even installed several extra smoke detectors for us.”

“Did he know what caused the fires?” I asked, incredulous.

“No,” Whitney replied. “But he did mention he’d encountered a home with a similar problem when he first started fighting fires down in Louisiana.”

Again, I had follow up questions, but before I could ask them Biddy said, “What else about the house concerns you?”

“It’s always cold in here,” Edward said.

“That’s true,” Whitney agreed, “Even on the sunniest day in the dead of summer the house is cold and dark.”

“Saves us on air conditioning,” Edward joked.

“The wooden plantation shutters in the family room are a problem too. They won’t stay closed. Sometimes I can get them to stay put during the day, but at night? Forget it. Neither of us want anywhere near that backyard as it is, and with the shutters open it feels as though we’re being watched, stalked really, from those trees.”

“Could we see them?” Biddy asked.

“Of course, where is my head? I should have offered you a tour right when you came in.”

The four of us got up from the table and followed Whitney out of the small kitchen, through a doorway down a short hallway which held doors to a small bath, a narrow closet and the basement. The latter had a board nailed across it, I touched Biddy’s shoulder and pointed to the door. She raised her eyebrows and continued on into the living room.

The room was a vision in beige. A wall of shuttered windows and the lofty ceiling did nothing to curb the darkness that seemed to emanate from the home. I fought the urge to flip on the table light next to me.

“You see?” Whitney said, motioning to the open plantation shutters.

“Had they been closed?” Biddy asked walking towards the windows.

“Yes, I closed them this morning,” Edward confirmed.

Biddy swung the shutters closed on the center window, “The hinges are pretty stiff,” she remarked then, “Anything else strange about this room?”

Edward gestured out the window but Whitney interrupted him before he could speak.

“The door to the study is over there,” she said quickly, motioning to the back interior corner of the room.

I followed Biddy over to the doorway to the room and peeked in over her shoulder. Floor to ceiling bookshelves and wood paneling dominated the small space. The only light came from a green library table lamp on a cluttered desk. A small, circular oddly positioned window sat gloomily between bookshelves and offered no illumination, only a sad view of scraggly trees.

“This is where the fire started?” Biddy asked.

“Yes, in the back corner, behind the desk,” Whitney answered.

I noticed that neither Whitney nor Edward came near the room. Biddy went right in to examine the floor and I had to fight the urge to grab her arm and drag her out of there.

When she came back out she asked, “Which one of you uses this as their office?”

“I used to,” Edward replied, “I work from home part-time, but I don’t use it much anymore.”

Biddy considered this for a moment but didn’t comment.

Whitney motioned to the doorway next to her and said, “This way to the dining room.”

We followed behind her, through a short hallway that lead to the front of the house and that cramped entranceway with the grand staircase. As we stood, bunched together like a family of newts, Whitney explained that nothing of note had happened in the dining room, and that the hallway leading to their master bedroom was through a door at the opposite side of the dining area.

The home’s layout was odd to say the least. Across from the dining room was a narrow sitting room, with wicker chairs that overlooked the street through a crescent shaped window. It was the last place I’d ever want to sit and relax and I noticed for the first time an underlying smell that I couldn’t put my finger on. It was sort of musty, but not in a damp New England way. More oppressive, like a hot attic in the deep south in August.

Though I was desperate to open the front door for fresh air, I smiled and nodded my head as Whitney described a leak that had happened in their master bathroom a few weeks before. She also spoke of two small fires that had happened in their bedroom.

I had a hard time paying attention. I was positioned closest to the living room and those damn windows. I had a horrible feeling that I shouldn’t turn my back to them, but I didn’t want to look either. Unable to suppress the urge, I snuck a quick peek and to my relief the shutters that Biddy had closed were still in place.

I zoned out a bit in my fear but Whitney grabbed my attention back when she said there were a few rooms she’d like to show us on the second floor.   

Inexplicably, the suggestion that we go upstairs made want to run from the house immediately.

Whitney started up the stairs, followed by Edward then Biddy who noticed my hesitation and said quietly, “I know, it’s bad up there. You don’t have to come.”

“I’m not going to stay down here all by myself,” I whispered.

Biddy shrugged and continued up the stairs. Despite my misgivings I followed her, resisting the urge to grasp onto the back of her shirt.

The dog who had accompanied us on the tour of the ground floor did not follow. He sat still at the foot of the stairs just watching us ascend.

The stairway, which looked so grand from the ground level split halfway up so that we had to turn and face the opposite direction to finish the climb. That second half was cramped and confined. When we arrived on the second floor I began to feel irritated by the Barkley’s style. Perhaps unfairly, but it was as if they had done nothing to combat the darkness that permeated the home.The cramped and windowless hallway was full of more doors than could possibly make sense. It was like a beige walled, dark-stained and shellacked choose your own nightmare game.

Whitney listed where each closed door lead. One to the attic space, one to a bed room, one to a bathroom and one to a loft area.

“Why do you keep all of the doors closed,” I asked, attempting and failing to sound nonchalant.

“We don’t, dear,” she said quietly.

“What-” I said, then realizing what she meant I shut my mouth and tried to quell the rising fear within me.  

She placed her hand on the doorknob of the fifth door and before turning the handle said, “This is where we found the markings.”

The size of the room surprised me after the cramped darkness of the hallway. A queen-size, four post bed dominated the space, and a large window, crescent shaped like the one in that off-putting sitting room, offered a dreary view of the back yard.

I flipped the light switch on the wall.

Biddy glanced at me and tried to hide a smile.

Whitney said, “Over there, on the other side of the bed, that’s where we found the demon traps.”

My mind went crazy with thoughts of silver-lined cages and demon extermination service vehicles. But before my imagination went too wild Whitney explained further.

“When we updated the heating system we pulled out all the old radiators and in this room and the bedroom nextdoor there were copper panels behind each unit with intricate markings. A friend of mine is a librarian at Wellesley College and she was able to identify the tracings.”

“Do you still have the panels?” Biddy asked.

“No, I took them to the dump to be recycled,” Edward said.

This left Biddy speechless for a moment which gave me the chance to ask, “What exactly are demon traps?”

Whitney explained, “The ‘trap’ is actually a drawing or painting, or in our case an etching of a series of interlocking V’s which are meant to call forth the protection of the Virgin Mary.”

“Do they work?” I asked, directing the question to Biddy.

“When used appropriately,” she answered vaguely, then asked, “Who uses this room?”

“The kids. Brittany sleeps in here and Ben sleeps next door when they are home from school,” Whitney replied.

“Have they experienced anything in the house?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Whitney. “Ben was organizing boxes in the attic for me and he said that he heard what sounded like a woman sobbing. He thought it was me, but when he couldn’t find me upstairs and then found me in the kitchen he refused to ever go in the attic again.”

Edward added, “Brittany won’t stay here anymore. She hates this house. She won’t tell either of us exactly what happened but when she was home over her Christmas break she was working at my computer in the study and something near scared her to death.”

Biddy said, “I’m so sorry.”

Whitney and Edward looked pained.

To break the silence I said, “What about the loft?”

“We don’t use the space,” Whitney replied, but did not offer further explanation.

“Then perhaps we should head back downstairs,” suggested Biddy.

I turned to walk out of the room but Whitney’s voice stopped me.

“There was something else, that I’ve never told anyone but Ed and that nice woman from animal control. I was in the livingroom reading around five o’clock one evening,” she said very quietly, gazing down at the yard from the window. “A noise outside startled me, it sounded like something heavy fell on the patio table. I thought maybe one of the lanterns had blown over.

“But when I got up to look out the window nothing was out of place. The lanterns were upright and the chairs were pushed in at the table as usual. I was looking around the yard trying to discover what made the noise when movement at the side of the house caught my attention.

“Something moved just out of my line of vision, right by the kitchen door,” she continued, “I got as close as I could to the window to try and see what was scuffling around.

“I saw it’s tail first, but I didn’t really believe what I saw. It was right next to the house, then it came into view. It was a crawling thing, low to the ground and it was, I know this sounds ridiculous, but it was at least five feet long from its snout to it’s tail. It crawled over to the patio table and pulled itself up the back of one chair with its short front legs. It’s front feet reminded me of sloth’s. It stood there at the table on it’s hind legs for a moment and let me really have a good look at it. Animal control went on the lookout for a crocodile, but that’s not what I saw. I told them to look for a huge blackish green lizard with big black eyes and a pointed tail,” she paused.  

“It had been staring at the woods but then it turned and looked right at me. It’s black forked tongue darted out and then it dropped to the ground and began slithering towards the window. I slammed the shutters closed, grabbed my phone off the couch and ran out the front door to the car. I called animal control from the CVS parking lot.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

“Did animal control find any evidence of the animal?” Biddy demanded.

“None,” Edward replied.

“Why did you ever come back here?” I demanded.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Whitney replied. “We slept at a friend’s house across town that night, but then in the light of day the next morning it seemed almost improbable.”

Then she said, “I’m sorry, we don’t have to stay up here, it’s freezing. Let’s go back down to the kitchen.”

I was nearest the door, but I sure as hell didn’t want to be the first one to walk back into the fun house hallway. Biddy brushed past me and I covered my hesitation by saying, “Please, after you,” to the Barkleys.

Tiny was thrilled to see us make it back from the second floor alive. He followed us happily and resumed his spot in front of the sink as we sat down at the kitchen table. Once seated I snuck a glance at the plate of scones. There was only one left.

“You can have it,” Biddy said, pushing the plate towards me.

“Are you sure?” I asked, half-heartedly.

Biddy blinked her eyes dramatically and asked, “What tipped things over the edge?”

“You mean besides the lizard the size of a crocodile that walked upright across the back patio?” I said sarcastically before taking a big bite of scone.

Edward smiled sadly and said, “It was the voices in the basement that finally convinced us to search out an exorcist.”

“Voices in the basement told you to call a priest?” Biddy asked, obviously surprised.

“No,” Whitney said, with a little laugh, “Edward began hearing people whispering in the basement.”

“And they weren’t telling me to call a priest, that’s for certain,” Edward said darkly.

“What were they saying?” I prompted.

“I couldn’t make it out at first,” he explained. “My workbench is down there with all my tools.”

“He builds the sweetest bird feeders, these perfect miniature versions of our friend’s homes,” Whitney said lovingly.

Edward gave a quick nod, “I work on ‘em whenever I get the chance and when I first heard those voices, I thought someone had left a radio plugged in down there. When I couldn’t find one I thought maybe one of the kids had left a walkie talkie or baby monitor to play a joke on me and they were just waiting for me to admit I was hearing voices so they could have a good laugh over it.

“But the kids denied doing any such thing. It got to the point that I was almost used to it. It became a sort of background noise.”

“How is that possible?” I said, in disbelief.

Biddy gave me a sharp look and began to say something but Edward spoke over her, “I’ve asked myself the same thing. It doesn’t make a lick of sense but the voices, at first anyhow, were calming. They stopped distracting me and became comforting.”

I held back from commenting again.

“That’s very common in cases like this. The entity wants something from you or wants you to do something for it so it creates a false sense of tranquility while it elicits influence over its chosen subject.” Biddy said reassuringly though it wasn’t at all reassuring to hear.

“That’s exactly what the damn thing did,” Edward replied.

“He wasn’t himself,” Whitney insisted.

“What did it want you to do?” I asked, afraid of the answer.

“I didn’t do what it wanted, in a blessed moment of clarity I realized what was happening and I boarded up the basement door to keep myself from going down there again. The whispers became faint and then almost disappeared all together

“But what was it asking you to-” I began but Biddy shook her head sharply and interrupted.

“You must be a strong person to have come to your senses like that,” she said.

“He never would have gone through with anything, really. He’s never had a violent bone in his body,” Whitney insisted.

We all stared at each other, her implication clear.

Whitney wrapped her arms around herself, Edward put an arm around her shoulders, Biddy sat stock still and I tried to chew my last bite of scone silently.

After a moment Biddy asked, “What do you think is haunting this house, Mrs. Barkley?”

“A demon,” she answered firmly. “The pit in the back yard, the fires, the demon traps. It must be demonic.”

Biddy nodded and blinked slowly then said, “Just one last question, has anyone stopped by the house? A stranger, someone you weren’t expecting?”

The Barkleys seemed to be about to say no when Whitney reconsidered, “Wait a minute, yes, that man from the gas company, what was his name?”

“Vulcan,” Edward replied.

“That’s it, Sam Vulcan. He came to the door right after we moved in, said he was from the gas company and wanted to check out the lines to be sure that everything was in working order.

“He’s returned several times since, always wanting to check something in the basement, he’s never been anything but polite, tends to overstay his welcome though.

“I mentioned it to one of the neighbors and they said they’d never seen him. Never had anyone from the gas company even come to the house, which struck me as odd.”

“What does he look like,” Biddy asked.

“Oh, quite tall and thin,” Whitney said, “I think he takes a lot of time on his appearance because he’s always tan as though he’s just come back from vacation. His hair’s too dark and too shiny, I can’t imagine it’s the color he was born with. Same thing for his eyes, come to think of it. They’re a touch too green.”

Biddy circled something on her notepad, she said, “Alright, I think that just about covers everything that I need to know, unless there is anything more you’d like to share.”

The couple exchanged a glance and Edward asked, “We were hoping there might be something you could give us, you know, to tide us over until the priest can come for the exorcism.”

Biddy paused, considering. I decided that whatever she offered them I would ask for too.

She said, “I have holy water in my car. You can sprinkle it around the windows and your bed. I also suggest you spritz some onto table salt then sprinkle that salt across the front, back and side doors.”

The couple looked grateful.

I followed Biddy to the foyer and quickly said my goodbyes to Tiny and the Barkleys then rushed out to Biddy’s car and locked the doors as she brought them the small container of holy water.

When she climbed into the car I said, “The shutters.”

“I know, I saw,” she replied.

“Please get us the hell out of here before some oversized lizard jumps onto this car.”

“Want to go grab something to eat?” She asked calmly.

“Always,” I replied.

“Let’s go to Lemon Thai,” she said.

“So what is it? A demon?” I asked.

“No, it’s more way complicated than that. I think it may be elemental, specifically salamander in nature.”

I stared at her.

“Elementals belong to one of the four elements,” she explained. “You know, earth, air, fire, and water. They are spirits that never had souls. Their mythology is old, very old. Typically they are harmless, but if humans invade their space or disrupt it in some way they can be really dangerous.”

“The landscaping,” I said.

“Yup. Salamander elementals are recognized as fire spirits. Poison and fire are their strongest marker, though I admit I am confused as to why there’s one this far north,” Biddy said, “We are more apt to see gnomes in this neck of the woods.”

“Cut it out,” I said, thinking she was making a joke.

When she didn’t elaborate I asked, “The gas company guy, what was that all about?”

“I suspect it’s the elemental, taking human form.”

“Alright, too much,” I said in disbelief.

“Some might say the same of demons and shadow people, right?” Biddy replied.

I reluctantly agreed.

“They are in danger. I don’t know how Ed was able to come out from under the influence of that thing, but I am guessing that it wants him to kill Whitney and then himself.”

“Why?” I asked, unnerved.

“Elementals can sort of collect souls, and I think that’s why that house is so fucking haunted on top of everything else that’s happening there. The thing probably wants to collect the Barkleys.”

“Can Father McGonagle help them?”

“No. Religion has no jurisdiction over elementals. I’ll have to get in touch with a shaman who can at least protect the house by make an offering to the creature. If the Barkleys want to stay in that house, which I personally think would be insane, then they will have to come to some sort of agreement with the thing.

“Even then, there is no telling whether they can trust it. I wouldn’t.”

“Why the hell didn’t you tell them they had to leave that house right away? They can’t stay there,” I insisted.

“It isn’t going to let them go willingly. If I’d tried to convince them to leave right then, it might have turned on us.”

“Well then, thanks for not saying anything,” I said, “I’d prefer not to be trapped by a lizard creature. Man, all that from just trying to fix up the place.”

“When I picked you up this morning it looked like you’ve been doing some work on the yard,” she said.

“Oh, shut up,” I replied.

unnamed-3“You want a glass of wine?” Chris asked, opening the refrigerator door.

“No thanks,” I replied.

“You sure?” He asked, glancing over at me.

“I’ve got a bubbly water,” I replied, holding up the can to show him. “It’s nice out, let’s sit on the porch for your interview.”        

Chris sighed.

“Come on,” I pleaded. “It’ll take ten minutes.”

“I’ll meet you out there,” he said, closing the fridge door.   

It was early March and we’d had a warm snap. A tease of nice weather before the next snow storm.

I sat on the deck and waited for Chris. One of our trees was surely dying, a huge old oak that offered a significant amount of shade in the summer. I’d wait and see how it fared come spring, but chances were good we’d have to take it down within a year.

Chris came outside with a roll of dog poop bags.

“Come sit for a minute,” I said.

“I’ve been meaning to do this,” he replied.

“But you said I could interview you,” I protested.

“You can, I’ll just do this at the same time.”        

When I didn’t reply he said, “Turn on your tape recorder, ask me your questions.”      

I watched him pull a blue bag off the roll and bend over to pick up dog poop. Walter and Artie sat near me on the deck watching the dying tree for squirrels.  

I grudgingly turned on the recorder and said, “Alright, but speak up.”

Chris gave me the thumbs up sign and continued pacing the yard.

“OK, how do you feel about me continuing to interview people even after our house was haunted because of my interviews?”

“It wasn’t your fault,” he called over his shoulder.

“Those entities wouldn’t have been anywhere near us if we hadn’t gone over to the Hayes house and they wouldn’t have attached to me if I had been wearing my medallion that night,” I countered.

“We don’t know that,” he replied quietly.

“Speak up!” I called, loudly. “Whether it was my fault or not, our house needed an exorcism. How do you feel about that?”

“I’m glad you knew Biddy,” he replied.

“But what if it happens again?” I countered.

“It won’t, the priest told us what to do and you wear your medallion when you interview people,” he said, knotting a dog bag and tossing it to the back corner of the garage.

“Chris,” I said, exasperated.

“What do you want me to say? That I don’t want you doing this anymore?” He asked.

“No, I just,” I paused, considering, “People have been emailing me asking how you could possibly be OK with me continuing to interview people after I managed to get our own house haunted. I guess I want to know too, we never really talked about it, you know, if you are OK with me still doing this.”

Chris stopped pacing the yard and looked at me, “I am proud of you. I’m happy that you have something besides me and the kids. I wish you’d spend more time working on your book,” he held up his hands in defence when I began to protest then continued, “but I know you can’t focus on that right now and that this project is important to you. But,” he paused.

“What?” I prodded.

“I don’t like it. I don’t like you going to stranger’s houses and meeting them in coffee shops. Even if those strangers are our neighbors. I guess I just wish you were into something less scary, you know?”

“I know,” I said.

“But if anyone else emails you wondering whether or not I’m OK with you doing this, tell them that I am psyched about it and tell them to, what is that thing you say about taking care of your lawn?”

“You mean ‘mind your own backyard?’” I said.

“Yeah, tell them to mind their own backyard,” he said leaning down to kiss me on the cheek.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” he replied. “Now get off your ass and help me pick up your dogs’ poop.”

 

***

 

It was Chris who introduced me to my next interviewee. One evening he was wearing a Ghosts in the Burbs t-shirt beneath his hockey jersey and a teammate asked him about it. Chris explained my blog and Mitchell asked if Chris would put us in touch. Even though they’d played in the same hockey league for over a year, it had never come up that Mitchell lived in Wellesley too and, better yet, he had a scary story to share.

We arranged to meet for lunch at Maugus on a Thursday afternoon. Chris sent nervous texts all morning repeating I didn’t have to meet his teammate if I didn’t want to but that the guy seemed cool. I told him to relax.

Mitchell S. Westcott the second looked like a 1960s astronaut. His freshly shorn brown hair swept adamantly to the right from a decisive side part. He was a trim, tight package of health, all glowing skin, rosy cheeks and smile-lined deep brown eyes. He wore a crisp tucked in button down (blue check) and light pink tie. I could picture him in a Boston high-rise office tower, cheerfully calling out good morning and shooting charming smiles to everyone he passed as young administrative assistants swooned and traded gossip about his wife.

There was something so old-fashioned about him. I couldn’t resist.

“So, Junior, what’s all this about witches?”

He laughed and said, “My brother is the only one who calls me that.”

“Do you prefer Mitchell or Mitch?” I asked.

“Mitchell,” he replied, then “What I’m about to tell you is going to sound completely ludicrous, but when Chris said you were collecting strange stories about Wellesley I felt compelled to speak with you.”

He was obviously nervous, looking down at his hands and peeling the wrapper off his root beer bottle. Seriously, he was drinking root beer. Adorable.

“I’m used to hearing ludicrous things about this town,” I said, smiling.

“We used to live next to a witch and a warlock who cursed us,” he spat before taking a chug of soda.

“Shush,” I said, leaning forward.

Mitchell shook his head, “They were really disturbed.”

“Start right at the beginning,” I urged. “How did you know they were witches?”

I imagined a coven of Wellesley women clad head-to-toe in black LuluLemon gear dancing around a Crate and Barrel fire pit on a meticulously landscaped lawn.

“At first we thought they were just odd. My wife, Maggie, even joked about them being swingers,” he said with a short laugh. “Overly friendly isn’t the right way to describe them, they were, too familiar from the start. Popping up at the back door unannounced, asking weird personal questions, especially about our kids.”

“What kind of questions did they ask you?”

Mitchell considered for a moment then said, “On move-in day I was in the garage shifting around boxes after the movers had left. I was bent over a box digging around for wine glasses when I felt a hand rest on my waist. I thought it was Maggie and said something like, ‘Hey honey,’ but it was Kate. The neighbor.”

“Uh uh,” I said, shaking my head.

“It was way too personal,” he said, “She basically had me backed into a corner. She introduced herself as Kate Dilvish and told me her husband’s name was Harry. She made this big deal about how excited he would be to meet me, which was just, awkward.

“Then she started drilling me with questions. Where had we moved from, how old were the kids, did they ever do odd jobs for money, what was my wife’s name and did she work, what did I do for a living, and on and on.”

“What do you do for work?” I asked, curiosity overtaking me.

“I’m an illustrator,” he replied.

“That’s awesome, what do you draw?”

“I work on movies,” he replied, vaguely.

I refrained from digging deeper, but again, adorable, right?

“Sorry I interrupted,” I said. “So she was digging for details, then what.”

“Thankfully, Maggie came out into the garage, though that didn’t make Kate back off at all. We talked about the neighborhood, our kids and the move. She was really, I guess the best way to describe her was animated. She actually reminded me of some of my daughter’s friends. She wanted to know all about them. Her reactions were a bit, forced, no, maybe just a bit-”

“Juvenile?” I said interrupting again.  

“Yes,” he said, nodding, “That was it, she struck me as immature. Maggie didn’t think much of her, she even poked fun at me for getting uncomfortable with Kate’s personal space issue. She got a kick out of the way she said I was almost crawling the garage wall trying to get some distance from Kate.

“The next morning, bright and early Sunday there was a knock at the door. I went down, still in my pajamas [Pajamas. Adorable], and opened the front door to Kate and her husband, Harry.”

Mitchell paused, seeming to choose his next words carefully, “Harry was much older than Kate. I don’t mean to sound judgemental, to each his own, but the difference in their age was significant. He was sixty-seven and she was twenty-six. They told us. They had this thing about birth dates, sharing theirs and asking for everyone else’s.

“Again we were peppered with questions though they were vague if we inquired of them. When I asked Harry what he did for work he told me he was in ‘conflict management.’”

“Like a mediator?” I asked.

“That’s what I assumed, and Kate told Maggie that she supported Harry in his appointment.”

I made a noise, indicating how creepy that sounded.  

“Yeah, we figured she felt funny about not having a job or something. At first glance they appeared relatively normal, but there was just something off about them. For example, except for when she was exercising on their side deck, Kate only wore one outfit, a denim knee-length skirt with a black tank top and green Hunter boots. Maggie pointed that out to me. No matter the weather, she was out there in that outfit. She always had this key ring hooked to her belt loop so you would hear the keys pinging together as she worked in their yard.”

Mitchell paused then said, “You probably think I’m as lurky as a peeping Tom.”

“No,” I said, smiling, “you don’t sound that lurky.”

“Geez,” he replied cringing, “I know it. I just want you to be able to picture how odd they were. I mean, there they are in a million and a half dollar home and she’s wearing the same exact clothing every single day? It was so odd,” he paused, hesitant to continue, then said, “Man, if that sounded lurky this is going to sound really creepy,” he began picking at the bottle wrapper again.

“I was just kidding with you,” I said, “You don’t seem lurky at all. You actually might be a little too upstanding.”

Mitchell smiled, “The thing is these people were impossible to ignore, I couldn’t help but pay attention to them. The first really strange thing, though, was Kate’s exercise routine. They had this room built above their garage with floor to ceiling windows on both the side facing our house and the side overlooking the woods and cemetery.”

“Whoa, back up,” I said, “Cemetery?”

“Our property backed up to Woodlawn Cemetery,” he replied.

Mitchell.”

“We’d never been superstitious,” he explained. “It didn’t phase us to have the cemetery behind the home. It’s actually quite a beautiful place.”

“Yeah, ok,” I said sarcastically.

“Point taken,” he replied. “We bought the house in May and didn’t realize just how close the gravestones were until late autumn when all the leaves had fallen. It was actually a pretty dreary view from the back of the house.

“Anyhow, I was in my office working one morning when I heard a piercing scream. It sounded like someone was being stabbed to death. I jumped up and ran over to the window and that’s when I saw her.

“Kate was in that glassed in room doing these wild movements. I don’t know how to describe it other than combat yoga. First she did aggressive fighting moves, punching and kicking and screaming, jumping around and rolling on the floor. Then she stopped and stood stock still for about five minutes. I timed it. Then it was stretching that looked like yoga, but it was extreme, it looked almost painful. Finally, she fell down on her knees and began rocking back and forth sobbing. When that was over she lit a stick of incense and walked around the room backwards, waving the thing over her head.”

“SoulCycle ain’t got nothin’ on her,” I said with a nervous laugh.

“Man, I know some people get into extreme exercise, but this was almost scary. Not almost, it was frightening. She worked herself up into a frenzy like that every single morning from eight until nine a.m. After the second day I started working at the kitchen table in the mornings.

“I told Maggie about it and she laughed it off saying that nothing about the women in the Swells surprised her anymore.”

I smiled thinking this Maggie sounded cool.

He went on, “They had people coming and going all day long. All different kinds of people, young and old, driving everything from old beat up cars to brand new Mercedes. I thought they might be therapists. Maggie still thought they were swingers.

“One afternoon Harry brought over a plate of brownies welcoming us to the neighborhood. He invited us over for drinks the following evening in their backyard. I accepted, though I had absolutely no desire to spend any time with them.

“Maggie and I ate the brownies that night while we watched a movie. The kids were both out and I don’t know why I did it, but I threw out the rest of those brownies away before they came home. They tasted totally fine, but I just didn’t want the kids eating them.

“I had the strangest, most vivid dreams that night and so did Maggie. We both dreamt of the Dilvish’s. Specifically about doors in their backyard. Then when we went to their house for drinks we saw the doors in their fence. It had three doors evenly spaced along the side facing the cemetery.”

“Oh dear,” I said, feeling the first tingle of fear.

“In typical Maggie fashion she asked, ‘What’s up with the doors?’ when we walked outside. Harry and Kate looked at one another dramatically and held their hands out for one another and touched finger tips.

“Kate explained that it balanced the property and allowed them access to forces beyond the understanding of most humans. Harry changed the subject quickly and asked if we intended to put a fence in around our yard. He mentioned our dog Snuffy.

“The thing is, I hadn’t told him our dog’s name, and I was pretty certain that Maggie hadn’t either. I told him we were in the process of getting quotes from a couple fence companies and asked him who installed their fence, just to be polite, you know? He said they’d built it themselves. Maggie made a joke about how un-handy I am around the house but I wanted to know how he knew our dog’s name. I said something like, ‘I didn’t know you’d met our Golden.’

“The creep told me that Melanie, my daughter, had introduced them,” Mitchell gave a little growl then, “The way he said it, too, ‘Melanie made the introduction, what a pleasant young woman.’ Then he asks me again if either of the kids ever did ‘odd jobs’ for money. Something about the way he asked made me want to punch him in the face.  When we got home that night I told both the kids to stay away from the Dilvish’s and their house.

“I asked Mel about her conversation with Harry and she told me she’d never even met him.”

“Oh, shit,” I said.

“I had a bad feeling about them but Maggie still wasn’t convinced. She had to agree that both of us dreaming about doors in their backyard and then there actually being doors in their backyard was weird, but she reasoned that we must have seen them at some point and forgotten. Her opinion was that the Dilvish’s were socially awkward hippies. She told me to ‘stop being so square’ then reached out dramatically to touch finger tips with me.”

I snorted and almost spit out my seltzer water, “I have to meet your wife.”

“She’s pretty great,” he acknowledged. “For a time things were quiet, but when we installed the fence all hell broke loose. We chose a plastic fence that matched theirs pretty closely in style, the only difference was that theirs was made of wood. It was painted white so side by side it looked fine, you couldn’t tell much of a difference looking at it. But they completely lost their minds over it.”

Just then our food arrived. A turkey club for Mitchell and a B.L.T. and fries for me.

I asked, “So, what was the big deal about the fence?” then took a huge bite of my sandwich.

“The day it was being installed I was working in my office when I heard yelling coming from our backyard. It was Kate berating the guys installing the fence. She was screaming at them about earth energy, demanding they acknowledge the plastic fence would be around longer than the human race and that it’s toxins would leech into the earth.

“I went right outside and as I approached them she was demanding to know how they could look at themselves in the mirror each morning knowing they were agents of destruction. Her back was to me and when I called out to ask if there was a problem she spun around and, Liz, I’m telling you she looked like a completely different person. She looked older and her eyes, they were blue, usually they were blue, but I swear to God on my life, when she turned around and looked at me her irises were jet black, like her pupil had taken over.

“I tried to talk to her but she wouldn’t calm down. She actually picked up a piece of the fence, a big section of it, and threw it at me. The fence guys just stepped back and watched us, I think they were as frightened as I was.

“Just as I was about to go inside and call the police Harry ran out and wrapped his arms around her, pinning her arms to her side. He didn’t acknowledge anyone but Kate. ‘Shhh, my darling,’ he kept saying over and over, ‘You mustn’t expend, you must conceal,’ and other weird shit like that. Oh, I know what else he said, ‘Power shared is power lost, my darling.

“She finally stopped struggling against him and began sobbing. He scooped her up and carried her into their house like she was a child. I just stood there dumbfounded. One of the guys from the fence company finally broke the silence by saying, ‘Alright, Boss, you want us to take ten or should we keep moving here?’

“I told them to keep working.”

“That is freaking crazy town,” I said. “Part of me kind of loves her, or at least wants her to have her own reality show.”

Mitchell laughed but continued seriously, “I’m not embarrassed to say that it scared the hell out of me. I was already pretty wigged out by her exercise routine, but after the whole fence thing I thought she might need to be in some sort of treatment center.”

“What did Maggie say about it?”

“She was really pissed. She wanted to go right over and demand that they stay the hell off our property and away from us.”

“Did she?”

“No, thank God. I talked her out of it. We agreed to finish the fence and keep our distance. But it was too late. There was no going back.”

Man, what did they do?”

“It was subtle at first. The things they did weren’t so obvious. Like the door to our fence would be left open and Snuffy would get out and wander the neighborhood for a while before we even knew he was gone.”

“Wait,” I said, nervous about another mention of the dog, “I have to skip to the last page here, did they do something to him?” I demanded.

“No,” he replied, adamantly. “No way would I let that happen. The third time that fence was left open and the kids swore they hadn’t done it, I started walking Snuffy in the neighborhood instead of letting him out in the yard. Even when I was back there with him I was afraid they were going to throw poisoned meat over the fence or something.

“I was beginning to feel unsafe. Nothing in particular was happening that I could point to, but at night it felt like someone was watching us from the windows. I found things around our yard. A family of dead birds in the driveway. A bunch of black balloons stuck in one of our trees in the front yard. It was as though they’d escaped from a party, but who the hell gets black balloons? Then there were big paw prints right beneath my office window. Weird stuff like that.

“One morning I saw something that I thought was a downed branch hanging on the back of our fence at the back of the yard, bordering the trees.”

“And the cemetery,” I interrupted.

“And the cemetery,” he acknowledged. “I walked around the outside of the fence and found a plain wooden ladder leaning against it. There were symbols painted all over it and on that section of the fence.”

“Oh no,” I said, quietly, popping a fry in my mouth.

“I grabbed the ladder and brought it around to the front of the house, I considered throwing it in the trash, but then, I was so damn pissed. I knew it was them. I figured they were trying to intimidate me with their hippy bullshit, so I threw it into the middle of their driveway.”

I made a noise of concern.

“I didn’t see them pick it up out of the driveway and I didn’t see them walk around the fence, believe me I was watching. But that damn ladder came back, again and again.”

“What do you mean?”

“I broke that fucking ladder at least four times. The second time it showed up I smashed it against the driveway and broke it apart pretty well. But there it was, the next morning. Good as new.”

“No way,” I said, reaching for another fry and realizing that I’d already eaten all of them.

“They must have had several of those ladders as back ups, but I’m telling you they looked exactly the same. I’d peek around the fence for a couple days and see nothing and then, boom. There was the ladder and the paint. By about the third time I decided to set up a camera to catch them on my property, you know?

“There were a few nights with nothing. I’d fast forward through the video recording every morning even if the ladder hadn’t shown up the previous night just to see if they were lurking around out there. I had that feeling of being watched at night and I wanted proof that they were out there.

“One morning I’m fast-forwarding through the recording when the ladder appeared. I slowed down the tape and was able to see that it had been carried quickly out of the trees and leaned up against the fence. The thing was, it wasn’t the Dilvish’s who put it there.”

Mitchell looked down and pushed the plate of untouched food to the side.

“Then who was it?” I asked, resisting the urge to grab a fry off his plate.

“They were small. Really small,” he said, still looking down. “I watched that tape so many times, it may have been children, but if it was they couldn’t have been much more than four years old. Who the hell would send a four year old into the woods with a ladder in the middle of the night? I don’t know. I just, well after that I didn’t check the back fence any longer. I left the camera up, but I didn’t look at the recording.”

“What are you saying?” I asked, confused.

“I don’t think people were the ones replacing the ladder.”

“I didn’t tell Maggie what I’d seen. My plan had been to capture the Dilvish’s on camera and call the police with evidence that they were the ones defacing our fence and creeping around our property at night. I couldn’t show the police that tape.

“I was scared, I just wanted to let the whole thing drop. I wanted to ignore the stupid ladder and hoped they would eventually get over the whole fence issue.”

“But that didn’t work,” I guessed.

“No. They were just getting started. Around that time Kate put up crudely drawn images of my family facing out the window in her exercise room. I could see them clearly from my office. I talked to a police officer in town and he said it was strange but there was no way to get her to take them down. A week later little dolls appeared leaning against the window underneath each of our drawings.”

“All of that over a plastic fence?” I said, incredulous.

“I think they had us pegged from the beginning. Our house was built on spec. A builder had come in and torn down the small ranch that had been there and built our home on the property. I think they never approved of our home so they were never going to approve of us.”

“Geez,” I said. “When did you realize they were witches though? I mean the ladder and everything is weird and the dolls are absolutely terrifying, but witches?”

“It took some time to figure it all out. At first it just felt like we were living under a dark cloud. Anything and everything went wrong with the house, the brand new house.

“The basement flooded and the flood cause a leak in the foundation that let a swarm of these disgusting centipede-like bugs into the house. It was infested. The exterminator came and then about a week later there were these huge black beetles crawling all over the place. Maggie wanted to sue the builder and move immediately. I wanted out of there too, but we couldn’t move. We didn’t have the money to just buy another house, float our existing mortgage and sue the guy. And who were we going to find to buy an infested house with a foundation issue?

“Then the health issues started. Maggie twisted her knee really badly one morning after we’d had a bad wind storm. She was walking out to get the mail and tripped on a huge branch that had fallen overnight. It was so bad that she had to basically drag her way back to the house and bang on the door until I came to help her.

“Then I came down with a case of shingles. The kids were sick all the time. Nothing particularly serious but a string of cold after cold after stomach bug after flu breaks you down. We were constantly at the doctor for one thing or another.

“It was hard enough on our family and our relationships with one another but then all of a sudden no one wanted to hang out with us anymore. Friends we’d had since the kids were babies started outright avoiding us. The kids were getting picked on at school, they were becoming isolated from their friends too. A girl Melanie had known since preschool started bullying her on Facebook.

“All of it took a toll, for Maggie and I it hit our careers especially hard. The turmoil had an obvious effect on our ability to work effectively. I couldn’t draw at my usual pace for the nerve pain in my arm and poor Maggie couldn’t hobble around the hospital with her leg brace and crutches.

“All of that was tangible, though. It could have been chalked up to a rash of very bad luck. But then the haunting began.”

“Come on,” I breathed.

“Maggie started seeing things. Things that weren’t possible. She was cleaning the mirror in our bathroom and saw me standing behind her in the reflection. We had a conversation about dinner and when I suggested that we invite the neighbors over she turned around to look at me I wasn’t there. She ran downstairs and found me at my drawing table. I’d been there all afternoon.”

“Oh no,” I breathed.

“Then one night Mags was cooking and, I know this sounds straight out of a horror movie, but she was cooking chicken breasts and they, well, they crawled across the cutting board and flopped onto the floor.”

I took in Mitchell’s furrowed brow and worried eyes. Even though this was the creepiest and grossest thing I’d ever heard, I believed him.

I said, “How?”

“Magic,” he said quietly. “She wasn’t the only one seeing things, I did too, and so did the kids. Melanie opened her closet one morning and all of her clothes were red. She ran to get her mom and when she tried to show her there was nothing out of the ordinary about her clothing. It had gone back to normal.

“Then Tres-”

“Your son?” I interrupted.

“Yeah, he’s Mitchell the third,” Mitchell said with a smile, “Maggie nicknamed him Tres when he was a baby and it stuck.”

“Adorable,” I commented.

“He’s a really great kid,” Mitchell replied. “He was mowing the lawn and just as he was about to go over a section he said a rabbit popped out of the ground in front of the mower. He told me he heard the mower hit it. Heard it grinding over the poor thing. But when he stopped there was nothing there. No bunny.”

“Jesus,” I said, “That is sick. I don’t even want to ask you what you saw.”

“I had to nail the basement door shut after I saw gremlin down there when I was putting away my hockey gear.”

“What?” I asked with a laugh.

Mitchell stayed silent.

“You couldn’t have,” I breathed.

“But I did. It was there. I know it was all probably some sort of conjuring or illusion. But it was real enough for me,” he paused for a moment, then said, “I was terrified of that movie when I was little. I hated those things. There is no way they could have known that, but they did.”

“How?”

“They were magic,” he said, exasperated. “My dreams got so disturbing and violent that I couldn’t sleep more than an hour or two at a time. I was up around three o’clock one night when I heard a noise outside. It sounded like it came from the back of the house so I went into my office and looked out the window.

“I had a full view of the Dilvish’s backyard from there and what I saw scared me more than anything I’ve ever experienced. They were there. Standing naked, surrounded by six other people dressed in black. There were tiki torches placed around them as well. The worst part about it was that they were all perfectly still and silent, staring at the back of the fence, towards the doors.

“I watched them watching those doors on the fence for maybe, four or five minutes. Then the wind picked up. The trees began swaying and the doors blew open, all three of them at the same time. I wanted to look away then, but I couldn’t.”

“Three figures walked through those doors. The same ones I’d seen placing the ladder at my fence. The people surrounding the Dilvish’s backed up a few steps to let the creatures into the group. I watched the things circle our neighbors a few times and then the group closed back in around them. I stopped watching then.”

“Good Lord, Mitchell, I’m not going to sleep for a week,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” he replied. “It was a Black Mass, that’s how I realized they were witches. The old-fashioned kind, not the modern ones who just want to burn sage and wear eyeliner. They followed Satan.”

“How do you know that?” I asked, skeptical at the idea of devil worshippers in Wellesley. Which I admit was odd because I’d been quick to believe the story about the crawling chicken breasts. But the satanic panic of the 1980s always comes to mind whenever the specter of devil worshippers was touted.

Mitchell explained, “I took a picture of the drawings they’d painted on the fence and brought it to the library, one of your old coworkers helped me to find one of the symbols in a book of black magic.”

“Brilliant,” I said, proud of my profession. “What did the symbol mean?”

“Downfall,” he said darkly.

I shivered, “What did you do?”

“I snuck into their house.”

“No you did not.”

“I had to, we were under attack and I had to find a way to stop them. It’s not like I could call the police.”

“Couldn’t you just move?” I asked.

“They put a curse on our property,” he said quietly.

I considered then said, “But what in the world were you hoping to find in their house? What if they’d caught you?”

“I had to take that chance. I found a witch who could help us. She explained everything and it all started when they first met us. They tagged us with those damn brownies,” he said angrily.

“What do you mean?”  I asked, thinking of the cinnamon buns I’d accepted from our next door neighbors as a welcoming gift months ago. I hadn’t shared them. Chris can’t have gluten and what the girls didn’t know couldn’t hurt them so I ate the pastries that morning with coffee while I watched a Supernatural re-run. There were only four of them and they were relatively small. It had been a small treat yo self moment, but what if those cinnamon buns had been tainted?

I pushed aside the idea, my neighbors were kind Buddhists after all, and forced myself to pay attention to Mitchell.

He said, “When we were in the middle of the storm with those damn people I drove up to Salem to try and find someone to help us.”

“How did you know where to go?”

“I didn’t. I googled ‘Salem witch shop’ and chose the first one that came up. It was called Crow Haven Corner. It was late September so the place was busy with a bunch of tourists. I was looking around trying to find something, anything that said ‘protection’ or ‘curse breaker’ on it when the shop owner tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come back for a reading in her Egyptian room.”

“Oh boy,” I said.

“That was my reaction, I started to say ‘no thank you’ but she cut me off and said she was deeply concerned about my aura so the reading would be complimentary.

“Even though I was about ninety-five percent certain that this woman was a charlatan, I was desperate. I followed her to the reading room and let her give me a tarot card reading and-”

“Wait, what color was your aura?” I interrupted, curious.

“Oh, supposedly it was a ‘muddy silver’ whatever that means, mixed with shades of grey. She told me I had a buildup of fear and anger and that I’d been around serious discord and injury. The witch, Ravine-“

Ravine?” I interrupted again.

“Yeah, I don’t think it was her given name,” he said, with a laugh, “She said my aura was a dark blob of negativity swirling angrily around me. She had to get me away from her other customers as soon as possible.

“Before this whole mess with our neighbors I’d never believed in any of this stuff. Never seen a ghost, never seen anything that I couldn’t explain, you know? But this woman, Ravine, her tarot card reading hit on everything we’d been going through.

“She turned over the first card, sat back in her chair and said, ‘It’s your neighbors, isn’t it?’”

“Get out of town,” I said.

“Yup. The cards told her that our neighbors were powerful dark witches accomplished in black magic. To top it off, she said they were devil worshipers. Devil worshipers,” he reiterated. “That’s what made them so powerful.”

“Crazy,” I said.

“That’s exactly what it was,” Mitchell agreed, “crazy. I told her I would pay any amount, do anything if she could help me. But Ravine wouldn’t accept any payment, she said that she couldn’t, that it was her duty as a witch to banish darkness whether she wanted to or not. She believed it was fate that brought me into her shop, that the ‘Goddess’ sent me and it was her duty to protect me.”

“What the hell did she do?”

“She mixed a bunch of herbs together and said a bunch of words over them. She waved her hands around and burned three sticks of sage over me. Then she hypnotized me and said that while I was under she pulled out the ‘hooks’ the Dilvish’s had planted in me with those brownies. Maggie had to go up the next day to have the same thing done. While she was there, in Salem, I broke into the neighbor’s house.

“Ravine told me exactly what to look for. She said to start in the exercise room and grab those dolls and pictures that Kate had put up against the glass. Next I had to head to the lowest part of the house. She explained that’s where the shrine would be. She suggested the basement but said it may be hidden under a trap door anywhere off the first floor.

“How did you know how long they would be gone for?” I demanded. “What if you were caught?”

‘They taught a class on herbal remedies at MassBay every Thursday morning from ten until noon. I had two hours to find what I needed and get out of there.”

“Just hearing you talk about it is giving me heart palpitations,” I said.

“Imagine how I felt,” he said with a laugh. “When I was searching for the door to the basement one of their cats sprinted past me and nearly gave me a heart attack.

“Their basement was the spookiest place I have ever stepped foot. The walls were painted midnight blue and the ceiling and floor were black. The door to their sanctuary stood out like a sore thumb, thank God. It was bright red and covered in symbols. Instead of a door handle there was a hoof.”

“A hoof?”

“Yeah, from a goat or a deer maybe,” he replied, shaking his head in disgust.

“Gruesome,” I commented.

“Mm,” he agreed. “I had to absolutely force myself grab onto the thing to yank open the door. It led to a small circular shaped room that was painted bright white, floor, ceiling, everything. It was dazzling after the darkness in the rest of the basement. I hesitated for a moment before walking in, I didn’t want my shoes to scuff the floor and leave any evidence that I’d been there so I took them off and walked in with just my socks. The floor was warm.”

“Ick, no,” I said, chilled.

“At the center of the room was a big stone bowl on a bed of pebbles. There were shelves along one wall, they were filled with white boxes. Each box was labeled and one had ‘Westcott Family’ written on it in fancy cursive lettering.”

“Get right out of here,” I demanded.

“Nope,” he replied. “It was that easy. I grabbed the box, got the hell out of that evil room, put my shoes on and headed straight for the back door.”

“Oh, thank God,” I breathed, unable to stand the idea of him alone in that house.

“That wasn’t it,” he said.

“Oh, come on!” I sighed.

“I got out of the house just fine but as I was sneaking back into my yard I saw something in the little strip of woods between our property and the cemetery. It was big, over eight feet tall. I couldn’t see it’s head but it’s legs were bent backwards, like, well like deer legs. I ran to my house, lit a fire and threw everything in there, chanting the words that Ravine told me to say.”

“Whoa,” I said, holding out my hands, “An eight foot tall deer legged monster in the backyard? In the middle of the day? What in the hell?”

“It was the only time I saw it. It may have been another illusion, but I don’t think so. I think it watched over them, an agent of the devil.”

I stared at him for a moment then said, “Please tell me you moved. Immediately.”

“We did. I put the house on the market that afternoon, Ravine had given me a potion for a quick home sale. We lived in a hotel until the house sold and we closed on our new place over in Wellesley Hills.”

I shook my head in disbelief wondering who’d bought the cursed property.

I asked, “So what was in the box?”

“One of my colored pencils, Maggie’s hospital i.d. that she thought she’d misplaced, a lacrosse ball that had belonged to Tres, and one of Melanie’s guitar picks.”

“You must have seen them again,” I said, meaning the Dilvish’s.

“No. We do all of our shopping online and have our groceries delivered by Roche Brothers. I can’t run the risk of running into them in town.”

“And that’s it, they never came after you even though they must have known you had broken into their house?”

“That was it. Ravine said that once I’d burned everything and chanted her reversal then they would be plagued with the curse and we would never have to deal with them again.”

“Well, Mitchell, you’ve managed to scared the hell out of me,” I said with a nervous laugh.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No, it’s fantastic. Just do me a favor and don’t tell Chris your story. It would be too much for him.”

“Doesn’t he read your blog?” Mitchell asked.  

“No, he doesn’t like ghost stories,” I said

“You’re kidding me,” he replied pulling his jacket off the back of his seat.

“This stuff isn’t for everyone,” I said with a shrug.

unnamed-2And then, I was back to myself.

Instead of easing my way into things I decided to jump in with abandon. I threw a house party for thirty people. Right before I sent the Paperless Post I added bring friends! in the “note to guests” box.

I immediately felt overwhelmed and tired before anyone had even replied. But what was done was done. I needed to clean the house, buy booze and order Anna’s.

The party was epic.

***

I woke up the morning after with the familiar anxious feeling of doom that a hangover delivers. While waiting for the coffee to brew I felt stabs of embarrassment as hazy memories peeked through the dehydration and amnesia. Clips of conversations, too loud laughter, cringe-worthy over-sharing and images of what must have been absurd dancing filled my mind.

I found my phone on the floor in the living room.

I opened the camera both hoping photos might jog my foggy mind and praying there was no documentation of the night’s hijinks. There were several selfie shots of me with friends. A cute photo of Chris with his cousin and some dark blurry shots from the back porch, though I had absolutely no recollection of being outside.

I checked my text messages, a couple had come through around two ‘o clock sending thanks for a fun party. One message was from a number I didn’t recognize. It had been sent at six-twenty a.m.

Hey Liz, it read, thx for an awesome party. So gr8 2 meet u and chat. Looking forward 2 talking more about the stuff I’ve seen in the swells. Does tmrw morning still work? I can meet up after 9. Talk soon – Molly.

Molly?

I sipped my coffee and texted Leigh.

Morning! She replied immediately. SO fun last night! Molly’s that cute girl who lives on Woodland. Wavy red hair… she had on that button back sweater. 18 mo old little girl. U guys were talking 4 a while! Ha ha!

Shit. Maybe I did remember her.

I did. We talked about moving out of the city, she’d lived in the North End before coming to Wellesley. But what else had we talked about?

Ghosts. We’d talked about ghosts and Wellesley and something about her childhood. It was fuzzy, but I had the feeling it had been really interesting.

Ugh. How humiliating. I couldn’t even really remember what she looked like and I’d apparently made a date to meet up with this woman. Another round of embarrassment washed over me.

I couldn’t bail, that would be rude and weird and apparently she lived just around the corner. Something nagged at me too, something we’d discussed, I remember wanting to know more, but for some reason we were interrupted or she had to leave or – that was it! She had to go home to relieve the babysitter!  

That’s why we decided to meet for coffee Monday morning. Got it.

I texted Molly back, Tomorrow morning works for me! Cafe Nero?

Done! Be there at 9. Came the quick reply.

 

*******

 

I walked into the cafe and scanned the packed dining area. I had a rough idea of the person I was looking for, Leigh had filled in the blanks in my memory. Shoulder length, wavy red hair, tall and thin, freckled nose and dark eyes. As stand out as that sounded, I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize Molly Vail (Leigh had reminded me of her last name too).

Luckily, she spotted me first.

“Liz! Over here!” She called from a cozy corner at the front of the cafe.

“Hey,” I called with a little wave.

“Grab your coffee,” she said with a smile. “I’ll hold our seats.”

I dropped my jacket onto the cushy arm chair across from Molly and ordered a soy latte and a big blueberry muffin. I needed the carbs. I was still shaky from the weekend.

When I returned to the table Molly and I shared a laugh over the party and sitting the kids in front of the television in order to nurse our hangovers Sunday morning. Though my embarrassment over being blackout drunk at the party lingered, I felt somewhat relieved that she’d had a booze-soaked night as well.

“You have an eighteen month old, right?” I asked, breaking off a piece of muffin.

“Yes, Eliza,” she replied. “How old are your girls again? I can’t even fathom managing three kids.”

“Me either,” I said with a laugh. We chatted a bit more about the neighborhood and kid-related stuff, then Molly sighed and placed her coffee cup on the table.

“I was super nervous about talking with you this morning. But I have to tell someone and I don’t know anyone else who will understand.”

“Shoot,” I replied with a smile.

Molly pushed her gorgeous hair behind her ears and asked, “How does this work? Like, are the interviews really anonymous?”

I looked into her worried eyes and said, “They are, I mean other than the fact that this is a small town so people might put the pieces together if the story is familiar to them. But I’ve never had anyone tell me they’ve run into that problem.”

She looked out the window and said, “Well, I really want to tell you but maybe I-”

“I’ve interviewed a bunch people who didn’t want me to publish their story,” I said quickly.  “Actually, I feel like I get cornered everywhere I go now. Everyone has a ghost story, even if they say they don’t believe in ghosts. Then there are people that just wanted to talk and unload what happened to them. Some of those stories I’ve even recorded, but I won’t publish them.”

“Oh, really?”

“I don’t even know why I hold onto them,” I replied.

“That makes me feel better. But,” she said, nodding her head emphatically, “I think you should record my story and publish it. People here should know what’s happening and anyone else should know before they make the mistake of moving to this town.”

“Ruh roh,” I said with a smile.

Molly laughed, “Sorry, I don’t mean to be dramatic, I just, well, I regret moving here. There’s no chance of getting out now though. We overstretched for the house, we were so in love with it, and I thought for sure it would be our forever home.”

“Is there something in your house?”

“No, I mean, yes, sometimes. But it’s the town that’s saturated,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry, this is hard to explain. Look, I told you the other night that I’ve seen things in Wellesley, but I didn’t tell you why I see them.”

I shoved a huge bite of muffin in my mouth trying not to look too excited.

Molly sipped her coffee then said, “I grew up in Weston. When I was seven we had this huge summer storm that left about ten inches of water in our basement and I wanted to go down there to splash around even though my mother told me not to. I stepped of the basement steps into the water and immediately my entire body began to buzz. The last thing I remember was trying to let go of the stairway banister but my hand had such a death grip on it that I couldn’t. Next thing I knew I was in ambulance, a paramedic over me yelling ‘Come on, Molly. You got this girl. Come on back to us.’”

“Jesus,” I whispered.

“I know. It was a miracle,” Molly said, almost sarcastically. “I’d managed to fall backwards onto the steps. If I had gone forwards into the water that would have been the end of it. Luckily my older brother heard something that made him look down into the basement. He was smart enough to use a broom handle to lift my leg out of the water before dragging me up the steps.”

“How did he even think to do that?” I asked, imagining that I would have just grabbed someone immediately if I’d encountered the same scene.

“My pant leg was smoking,” Molly replied, raising an eyebrow. “My poor mother called the police while my brother did CPR on me on the kitchen floor. The physical recovery wasn’t that bad. I had a few broken ribs from the chest compressions and dealt with the worst headaches for a while. The doctors said that things could have been a lot worse since I’d been dead for over five minutes. They insisted that I didn’t have any brain damage, but I did, they just couldn’t see it.

“Hell, I mean, I didn’t realize it for a while. There were some, like, weird things that happened in the hospital, though I didn’t realize they were strange until later. A really kind nurse brought me a blanket when I was cold and some crayons and paper during the day. Then a sweet old woman read me a fairy tale book one night when I couldn’t sleep. I’m sure you can guess the ending to this one.”

“There was no kind nurse or sweet old lady,” I said, chilled.

“Bingo,” Molly said with a little laugh, “Over my life I’ve learned that spirits are totally harmless. They hang around and watch, they’re usually here because they are waiting for a loved one to pass so they can move on together. They keep an eye on people and help when they can, kind of like junior angels’”

“Are any of these well-meaning dead people with us now?” I asked forcing myself not to walk out of the cafe and away from this dead person magnet.

Molly smiled and looked at the long farmhouse table next to us. It could seat about ten people, but only two of the chairs were taken. She gave a small nod towards the elderly woman reading the newspaper at the far end of the table.  

“Her husband, Joe, is sitting next to her. He died about three and a half years ago of, um, eesh,” she drew in a sharp breath and grabbed her left shoulder then said, “heart failure.”

Her attention turned to the bar and she said, “There’s a guy in a black suit over there, I don’t know who he’s here with. Um,” she scrunched her forehead, then said, “Oh. He’s passed within maybe the last year, he just wants to stay.”

“And when I was in the bathroom-”

“Stop, please,” I said, laughing nervously. “I know I’ll have to go in soon and I don’t want to know if a dead person is lurking in there.”

Molly smiled and said, “Sorry, I just don’t usually get to tell anyone about the things I see. You know, you have a few spaces around you.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, completely freaked out.

“That you have some dead people around you a lot, when that happens they sort of leave this little area that I can see, I don’t know how to describe it, I call it spaces. None of them are with you right now though.”

“Thank God,” I said.

Molly scrunched her forehead again, “It’s weird though, usually if they know a medium will be around dead friends of friends of friends show up trying to get a message through. It’s odd that they aren’t with us.”

What I wanted to say was, Oh my God, am I going to die? But what I asked was, “Is that really bad that they aren’t here?”

Molly shook her head, “No, it’s just new to me. I’m used to the dead trying to get my attention when I am open like this, that’s all.

“This town is so strange,” she said, shaking her head, “I swear I see something new every day.”

I didn’t feel reassured at all, but I asked, “So you’ve seen ghosts ever since you were electrocuted in your basement?”

“Yup,” Molly replied, scrunching up her nose as though she were confessing an embarrassing habit. “Either the electricity or the fact that I was dead for a good amount of time, or the combination of the two, threw the door in my mind way open. It took me forever to learn how to close it when I needed to.

“I sort of got lucky and flew under the radar for a time. I don’t know why, but only a few of the spirits sensed that I could see them, you know? Those two women in the hospital were fine, comforting, even, but then I went home and saw a little girl in the crawl space under our basement stairs.”

“Oh, Lord,” I sighed.

“Yeah, we had a storage space under there where we kept winter gear, you know, like, hats and gloves and stuff. The space was only about four feet high at it’s highest point and it slanted downwards.

“I was rifling through a bin of hats and mismatched mittens when I heard someone quietly humming Santa Claus is Coming to Town. A jolt went through my body. It was much less painful, but it felt a lot like the jolt that electrocuted me. It started at my feet then travelled up and out through my hands. When I’d recovered I turned my head to the side and there she was, crouched in the corner, looking just as scared as I was.

“I screamed and ran upstairs. I scared the hell out of my mom which totally pissed her off. She insisted that I go back down and get my hat and mittens. I couldn’t, so she dragged me down there by the arm and made a big fuss of pushing things around in the little closet to prove there wasn’t anyone in there.

“She said something like, ‘See, I told you, go ahead, look for yourself.’ I didn’t want to but I did.

“The girl was still there, crouched in the corner. Only now she was crying.”

“I’m never opening our coat closet again,” I said.

“Yeah, I had the same plan,” Molly replied with a sad smile. “Denial didn’t work, though. Once that little girl saw that I could see her she began shadowing me all over the house. By the third time I woke up to her sitting at the foot of my bed humming a lullaby I begged my mother to bring me back to the doctor.”

“What did you tell her?” I asked.

“I told her I was having trouble with my vision, that I was seeing things that weren’t there – I said it was spots, not ghosts. I was convinced that I had major brain damage and that I was losing my mind.

“But all the scans and the tests came back normal. While I was having my blood pressure taken I did confess to this one nurse what I was actually seeing and that got me diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress, which landed me with a very kind and very ineffective therapist. I figured out how to deal with him, but I had no idea what to do about the ghost in my house.

“It was killing me, I was a nervous wreck, I’d see her scurry across the hallway from one room to the next or I’d get that electrical jolt and be too terrified to open the shower curtain.

“In a way it was lucky, really. I could have seen something really bad as my first experience, but, at the time, she was enough to drive me to the edge of sanity. Finally, out of desperation I opened up to her. I went into my basement one afternoon when my parents and brother were out and called to her.”

“How?” I asked. “Like, in your mind?”

Molly laughed, “No, no. I just stood in front of that crawlspace and said, ‘Come out and tell me what you want.’ I nearly wet my pants when I heard her answer directly behind me. She said, ‘I’ll help you if you help me.’”

“Hell no,” I said, shaking my head.

Molly laughed again, “It wasn’t like the horror movies, not that time anyway. She used to live in my house and she wanted me to find this Swiss Army knife she’d hidden in a corner of the basement and mail it to her brother. Apparently, it was her father’s and she’d snuck it out of his tool box and her brother had taken the blame. The girl, Ainsley, had died suddenly of a fever before she could confess.”

“That is so sad,” I said.

“Totally,” Molly agreed. “I did what she asked and then she helped me by explaining how ghosts work. She also told me to never go in our attic. I didn’t ask why, I just listened to her advice. A few days after I had mailed the knife to her brother she was gone.”

“So it really was just a dead little girl. I thought that was always a red flag that something sinister was trying to get your sympathy to trick you.”

“Oh yeah, I mean, that can totally happen too. It’s one of their favorite disguises. But they can’t do that with me, they can’t trick me. I see them for what they are. If I see a dead person, then it’s a dead person. If it’s something else, then I’ll see it’s true form.”

“I’m afraid to even ask,” I said, groaning.

“Yeah,” she said, slowly, “I’ve seen weird things over the years, but it was, like, once in a blue moon. Not here, Wellesley’s different.”

“How so?” I asked, tales of lay lines, demon nests, exorcisms and black eyed kids flitting through my mind.

“Well, that’s really why I wanted to talk to you. This town is a supernatural mess, something blocked me from seeing it when we were looking at houses, but once we bought the house, I just knew.

“I’m not telling you anything new, you’ve interviewed plenty of haunted people. The thing is,” Molly paused, looking uneasy, “There’s something following me. I mean, I’ve been followed by things before, ghosts and otherwise, but I can usually help them or at least shut them out completely. This thing is different. It’s tricky. It’s evil.

“The reason I had such a hard time recognizing it was because it looks human. At first I figured he was a neighbor and we were just on the same grocery shopping and school drop off schedule, you know?

“The first time I saw him was this past fall on the playground at Sprague. I was pushing Eliza on the swings and I noticed him sitting at one of the picnic tables under that little, like, permanent tent thing, you know?”

I nodded my head, picturing the structure.

“He was watching a group of boys climbing the old jungle gym, I figured he was one of their dads. It was early on a Saturday morning, like seven-thirty, and he was wearing a light grey suit with a black dress shirt and tie. He had on this straw boater hat and it was tipped down over his eyes. Not a look you see very often, you know?

“I kept an eye on him and eventually he got up and walked past the boys to the trail around the side of the school. It was odd enough that I decided to stick around until either another adult showed up or the kids left. I even considered following the boys home if they did head out just to be sure they made it safely, you know?”

“Good instincts,” I said.

“Yeah, well, they’re hard won. I lived in Baltimore for a while and I learned quickly that if you feel like something is off, then it is. The boys parents showed up about twenty minutes later so Eliza and I headed to Starbucks and I didn’t really give the guy another thought.

“That’s not true,” she said quickly, interrupting herself, “I did mention the guy to Patrick after I got home. He brushed it off and said it was probably some guy just out for a walk. I didn’t agree, but I dropped it. A couple weeks later I saw him when I parked the car at the Dunkin Donuts across from Roche Bros. It was a Wednesday around noon and the middle school kids were swarming.

“As I parked I saw him standing towards the back of the lot, staring at a group of kids messing around outside of Dunks. He had on that same damn suit and hat. No expression on his face, he was just observing them, you know? So I sat there and watched him. There was something off but I couldn’t figure out what, honestly I thought he was probably a pedafile. I actually picked up my phone to call the police when he turned and walked back behind the building.

“I know it’s stupid, but I got out of the car and followed him. I thought maybe there were kids back there and I wanted to intervene immediately knowing the cops wouldn’t be there fast enough if he was after them.

“But when I walked back there he was gone. Completely gone. I even went and looked both ways on the railroad tracks thinking maybe he’d scooted down the bank quickly, but there was just no sign of him.

“The third time I saw him I really saw him, and unfortunately he saw me too. Eliza and I were with some neighbors at the Bates playground one Saturday morning in early December. It was cold, not too cold to run the kids a bit, but we were still the only ones there, or so I thought.

“You know the fenced in part of the playground that backs up to Boulder Brook Reservation?” She asked.

I nodded my head and immediately thought of Gwen’s cryptid.

“Well, the other mom and I got talking and her kids had been on the jungle gym, but then we sort of realized at the same time that they had wandered back to that little fenced in cove in the woods. Eliza was sitting in the stroller then, thank God, having a snack.

“Karen and I – do you know Karen Howell? She’s over on Elmwood, she has girls, um, three and a half and six I think,”

I shook my head, I hadn’t met her yet.

“Oh, well, I’ll have to introduce you, she’s really funny. Anyway, Karen and I followed the little path back into the cove watching her daughters climb on the big rocks. I’d rolled Eliza over with us and was bending down to grab her a juice box when I stood and happened to look back into the woods.

He was there.”

“Oh shit,” I said.

“Yeah. He was standing, motionless next to a tree, about, maybe, I don’t know, I am terrible at gauging distances, but like fifteen or twenty feet back in the woods and he was staring at Karen’s kids playing on the rocks. Just observing again. Expressionless, that is until he saw me watching him,” Molly gave an involuntary shiver.

“When he saw me, when he made eye contact I got that old electrical jolt and then he-” she sighed then said quietly, “He smiled. It was unnatural. This sounds absolutely impossible, but his smile stretched from ear to ear, literally. His lips just kept stretching wider and wider until he had this huge thin smile, but, not a smile really, it was more like a leer. And his teeth,” Molly shivered again, “Even though he was pretty far away I could see how dirty they were. All yellow and grey.”

“What the hell did you do?”

“I froze for a moment and we just stared at each other. I wasn’t getting anything off him, like, information, you know? Usually when I see something weird I can pick up a little bit about the thing, like a sense of their intentions.

“I couldn’t sense anything from this guy psychically, but the look on his face told me everything. He was excited in a really bad way. I realized that Karen was standing right next to me looking into the trees. ‘Whatcha looking at?’ she asked.

“I glanced over at her then back at the guy and he gave this tiny little head shake and began walking, or really, like gliding backwards into the woods until he disappeared out of sight.

“I told Karen we had to get out of there immediately, that there was a man lurking in the woods. We grabbed her girls and walked right to the front of the school. Karen called 9-1-1 and I pretended like reporting the guy would matter. I knew they wouldn’t find him and I really didn’t think it was a good idea for anyone to be traipsing around in the reservation. I had no idea what that thing was capable of.”

“How can you stand seeing something like that when no one else can see it? How do you close your eyes at night?” I demanded.

“It’s taken a lifetime of practice,” she replied, picking at some of the blueberry muffin crumbs on my plate.

“So this creepy grinning man is just lurking around town spying on kids?” I said.

“He was, I mean he might still be watching them sometimes, but he has a new obsession,” Molly sat back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest, “Me.”

“Oh, no,” I said.

“I don’t think he’d ever been seen before, which makes me think that he’s new-ish, you know?”

I shook my head not understanding what she meant.

“Sorry, yeah,” she sighed, “I didn’t really get the concept until we moved to this God-forsaken town either. So, like, dead people, ghosts, whatever, the longer they stay here on this plane the more they learn to interact in a way that the living can understand or at least sense.

“At first they just sort of hang out near us and lose the time a lot and kind of pop in and out of consciousness. But then they get the hang of things and if they want to get someone’s attention they can usually figure out a way to do it. If they are experiencing a really strong emotion, like grief or anger they might even do something by accident that gets noticed.

“Like those things that ghost hunters call ‘residual hauntings?’ They are trapped souls reliving their lives over and over until a medium can get through to them to tell them that they are dead and that they don’t have to experience trauma over and over again. Otherwise, they could continue going through it indefinitely.”

“Have you done that for dead people?”

“Yeah, a few times,” she said simply.

“How the hell did they react?” I asked.

Molly laughed, “Oh, just about as you would imagine. Completely freaked out, one dead woman thought that I was the ghost. It can take some time to get through to them, the reality they’ve created for themselves has been so traumatic and so, well, real to them that it takes time for them to accept that it was all in their minds.”

“But they don’t have minds anymore,” I reasoned.

“Well, yeah, but you sort of do after you die. That’s all that you take with you, your thoughts and your memories and your grudges and grief. That’s why things like Civil War reenactments on battlefields make me sick. There are spirits trapped there, reliving the worst moments in their lives and then these yahoos come in trying to romanticize war and death and it is pure torture for the dead people there.

“If nothing else it further entrenches their false reality. If those so called ‘reenactors’ could feel for even five minutes the pure hell in those battles, they would be so ashamed.”

“Have you seen what war was really like?” I asked, fascinated.

“Senior year my dad loaded us into the car and drove to Gettysburg. We were supposed to stay for a week but I lasted only two nights. I couldn’t take it. I moved on as many as I could, but it was like an endless sea of misery.”

“Oh my God, Molly,” I said.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was really hard at the time, but it is fine now. I’ve learned to close myself off and open up if someone needs my help. It had become second nature, until we moved here. This place is saturated. Dead coming and going and the things, I mean, every monster you’ve ever heard of and then some, I’ve seen them here. The energy here, it’s calling it all in.”

“The ley lines,” I said quietly.

“Oh my God, really? Oh geez, no wonder! OK, that makes perfect sense then, I thought maybe it was the people, you know how everyone here is such a do-er? I thought maybe their energy was combining and, like, taking on a life of it’s own. Opening portals by itself.”

“Portals?”

“Yeah,” she said, scrunching her nose, “I know of three but there have to be more. The weird thing is that they are usually a way for the dead to remain, like stuck in their own reality. Like they deliver them back to the places they fixate on. In New York City I saw one in the subway. There were dead people streaming through and I glimpsed a shadow figure which is super rare, but that was New York. The energy there is extreme.

“So sure, in a big city enough energy could be generated to power a being from another dimension through a portal but it would take a lot. I mean, monsters can’t just come through willy nilly without a big push. So I guess the ley lines make sense combined with fact that the people here overflow with energy. The portals here are wide open. Anything can go in or come out.”

“Like the grinning man,” I said.

“Yeah, that freak. I don’t even know what he is, I mean his vibe reminds me a little bit of the shadow men but he’s more actualized or something. He’s hard to read but he has let some stuff slip through. Flashes of intention and I think some images of the future. I think I’ve even picked up a little bit about their plan.”

“Whose plan?”

“The demon’s,” she said simply.

I groaned.

“Sorry, but all that heaven and hell, devil and demon stuff, it’s real. Not exactly the way religions describe it, like, you’re never doomed unless you want to be or, I mean, let yourself become so deceived that you believe you are, but, yeah. It’s real.”

“Well shit,” I said. “Then how does it all work?”

“Well, the creatures we fear, all the little monsters and the things that go bump, they are the agents of the devil. Demons are there to put bad thoughts in your mind and to command the lesser beings, the monsters. The demon’s intention is to distract and deceive, they work for the devil and support him in his ultimate goal. The monsters are farther down on the totem pole. They are nuisance creatures, sort of gathering the scraps of negativity, feeding off of it.

“Some even believe that they are dead people that have become so warped in their own deception that the devil convinces them that they are monsters capable of only existing on the scraps of evil. Like an alcoholic that is so far into their addiction they can’t imagine a life without drinking, you know? They are so turned around in their dependence that they give up on the idea that they could have any other life, or death really.

“But those things have no real power, only the power we give them. So, it’s hard to explain, but they have no business being on our plane. Unless something powerful pushes them through, which the demons do when they find it beneficial for tipping a living person over the edge. But here, in this town, these monsters are sneaking in by themselves.”

“Cut it out,” I said.

“No, really, it’s not like a totally steady wave. I think they are so used to not being able to cross over unless they are pushed through that most of them don’t know they can do it on their own. But word is spreading and that is how this creeper got through.”

“So what the hell does he want?” I asked, truly frightened.

“Really bad things,” she replied, leaning forward in her seat.

“The next time I saw him, after Bates, I was in Whole Foods-”

“Stop it,” I said, loudly.

“Yeah,” she replied, wide-eyed. “I was picking out avocados and I looked up and he was right across from me, on the other side of the bin. We stared at one another for a moment and then he,” she closed her eyes tight and shook her head as if to shake off the memory, “He smiled at me. Up close it was appalling. His teeth aren’t just discolored, they are too long and perfectly straight across the tips. Cartoonish.”

“Gross,” I said.

“He followed me through the entire store. Actually, that’s not right, he walked in front of me, backwards so that he could watch me the whole time. I tried to communicate with him, tried to tell him to either tell me what he wanted or get the hell away from me. He was blocking me, a blank slate for the most part, but I cracked through a little bit. I got some images. Of creatures congregating around a portal. Things that I’ve never seen before, tiny ones and huge insects with wings and, like a million legs, and other creatures that were so tall I couldn’t see their faces. It was like a perverted Dr. Seuss book.

“He eventually disappeared, he went around the corner to the dairy aisle and when I turned to follow he was gone. It left me, sort of raw. Before that I’d noticed a much higher number of dead people in this town but this encounter made it sink in that something bigger was happening.

“I caught glimpses of him randomly a few times after that, lurking off in the distance, watching. But the next time I saw him I was in the community garden over by the golf course and that’s when he attached to me.”

“What community garden?” I asked.

“Brookside,” she said. “It’s a little plot of land for people who need gardening space. Our yard is tiny and I love growing my own vegetables in the summer so I signed up for a plot.”

“Cool,” I said, meaning it.

“The plots are set in rows and they’re each surrounded by wire fences. It’s not the most attractive set up, but once I get going tending the garden I sort of lose myself in it. Anyway, in that warm spell we had a couple weeks ago I went over there thinking that I might be able to get a jump on raking or at least straighten up a bit.

“My plot is just about dead center in the garden. It’s fussy to get in there, you know? The rows between the plots are narrow and muddy and lined on each side by the tall wire fences that surround each individual garden. Since it was so nice out I thought I’d might see some other people there, but it was just me.

“So I was pulling up some old weeds when I got the feeling I was being watched. I looked over at the storage shed at the corner of the garden and there he was.

“I felt trapped. He began gliding towards me so I scrambled out of my plot and ran down my row away from him. I felt, I mean I knew he was coming for me.

“I ended up running onto the golf course there, I had no plan for where the hell I was going, I just wanted to be out in the open. I should have run out onto Oakland Street, but I was terrified.

“Once I was in the middle of the green I spun around to confront him but he wasn’t there. At least, he wasn’t where I could see him. I screamed for him to come out, to just do whatever the fuck he was going to do already.”

Molly sighed and stared off towards the bar, her eyes sad and unfocused. She continued, “That’s when it happened.”

“What?” I said after waiting a too long moment for Molly to explain.

“Honestly, I don’t know, I passed out and woke up two hours later next to the garden shed. He was standing over me, grinning. He hasn’t left me since.”

I shook my head, speechless.

“The worst part is that I know things now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I don’t know things he does and he puts people’s skeletons in my head.”

“What the fuck are you saying?” I asked, picturing a horror show.

“Their secrets,” she said, looking down.

My mind raced. Oh shit, I thought, realizing what she meant. What freaking skeletons did I have? What the hell did she know about me.

“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “I know things that I shouldn’t. I’ll run into a neighbor at the grocery store and as I’m talking to them I all of a sudden know that they snuck money out of the offering plate on Sunday. The little boy that lives across the street from us watched his parents have sex last Tuesday night. My OBGYN wants to get a divorce and she’s spreading rumors that her husband had an affair so it doesn’t look like it’s her fault. One of the baristas at Starbucks keeps a knife in her apron and is just waiting for someone to give her an excuse to use it.”

Molly stopped, catching her breath. I just stared at her, in shock.

“Don’t worry, I don’t know anything about you,” she said with a forced laugh.

I gave my own little nervous laugh and said, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s like, this information he puts in my head, it’s not to embarrass the person I’m talking to, it’s meant to embarrass me, you know? He’s trying to make me feel uncomfortable around people.

“He gets me when my guard is down. I don’t always have my shield up when I’m just running errands.”

“Is he’s here now?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she replied.

I waited for her to explain and when she didn’t I demanded, “Well where the hell is he?”

“At the back door,” she said, nodding towards the coffee bar. “Something about the train tracks intrigues him.”

I peeked over my shoulder towards the back corner of the cafe but I didn’t see anything unusual.

“He’s with you all the time?”

“Yeah. I suppose it’s better that he’s attached to me and not lurking around playgrounds and kids, for now anyway. I just have to figure out how to get rid of him.

“He’s a pest, but from what I can tell, he doesn’t really have the power to do anything too terrible. But he’s just one of the monsters in this town.

“How many people read you blog?” She asked abruptly.

“I don’t know, a few hundred give or take,” I replied.

“It’s not enough,” she whispered, then looked at her watch. “Shit. I have to go meet with our contractor in ten minutes, but, there’s something else I wanted to tell you.

“I don’t want to freak you out,” she said, wrapping a chunky scarf around her neck.

“Too late,” I said with a laugh.

“Listen, I’m sorry, but I have to tell you something, about you. It’s important.”

“Like a reading?” I asked nervously.

“More like a message, I don’t get them often but when I have I’ve regretted not passing them on.”

“Ok, shoot,” I said with a sigh.

Molly looked down at her hands, “That thing that’s been bothering you lately, the thing you think might be a problem? It is. I mean, not yet, but it will be if you don’t stop. You’re at, like, a crossroads. You can still choose, but you don’t have many more chances to take the right path. The bad path appears relatively harmless, but it’s not, it’s a trap, a really bad one.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but I couldn’t.

“You don’t have to tell me, really, but I just had to warn you. I had a vision of you at a fork in the road. One path was really narrow but it was bright and calm, the other course was like a wide alleyway, overhead was a storm. A dark, windy storm.”

I nodded my head and began to explain when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Liz! I’ve been meaning to text you! Hi!” the woman said, reaching out a hand to Molly.

Molly stood and took her hand but didn’t say anything.

I stood to hug Jenn, “Hey Jenn, this is my neighbor, Molly,” I said by way of introduction.  

“Good to meet you! We have to get together soon,” Jenn said to me. “I’ve been reading the blog, but I want to hear everything from the horse’s mouth. I’ve got to grab a coffee quick, but let’s get together soon, OK? Nice to meet you Molly!”

Molly and I sat back down and stared at one another.

I was about to ask her a question about her message for me when she said, “Who was that?”

“Jenn McAuley,” I answered.

Molly was pale.

“What is it?” I demanded. “Did you get a vision about her or something?”

“No,” she said quietly. “Not a vision. She, well, she has something with her. Damn it, I shouldn’t have opened up this morning. I just thought it would help me to be more upfront with you. Fuck.”

“Is she alright?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never seen anything like that before. It’s huge, and it’s dark. It’s right over her shoulder. She has to get rid of it.”

“Have you read all the stories on the blog?” I asked, panicked.

Molly nodded her head.

I leaned forward and whispered, “That’s Jenn, poltergeist Jenn.”

Molly shook her head, “That thing isn’t a poltergeist.”

unnamed“Walter! Artie! Shush!” I yelled, hobbling to my front door. Another ring of the doorbell set the dogs off into a fresh round of barking. I shushed them again, unlocked the front door and peeked outside.

“Hieeeee!” Called a petite brunette woman through the crack. “Liz! Hi!” She exclaimed, stepping forward, arms outstretched. She shoved a wine bottle shaped gift bag into my right hand and a bag of Double Stuffed Oreo cookies into my left and stepped inside.

“I’m so glad I caught you at home, I hope this isn’t a bad time,” she said cheerily.

It actually was a bad time for a pop up visit, but I said, “No, no, not at all. Come in, um-”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Gwen! Gwen Tegtmeier! I live behind you guys, just a couple houses down,” she explained as she shrugged out of her jacket and hung it on the stairway banister. “I’ve been meaning to stop by for months!”

“Oh, great,” I said, “Come on in, can I get you some coffee or water?”

“No, no, no,” she replied. “I’ve just got a couple minutes,” her eyes scanned the entryway and she craned her neck into the dining room. “Oh, you’ve done a beautiful job in here! It’s so bright! I walked through during the open house it was so bland before. Now it has personality!

“So cute that you let the kids put up their art. Will this tape affect the paint, though?” She demanded with furrowed brow.

“No, I don’t think so,” I replied, suddenly unsure.

“Good, good, it’s cute,” she said.

I followed her into my family room, “OK, stop it, this rug is to die for! Oh, I could just sit in here are read for hours! Do you use the fireplace a lot?” She asked flopping down onto the couch.

“Yes, I mean just with those single burning logs though, we’re too lazy for the real thing,” I replied. I placed her gifts on a side table and gingerly took a seat across from her in an armchair.

Huh,” she said, turning her scrutiny on me, “Is your back really bothering you?”

“No,” I replied, “It’s fine, I had surgery last week so I’m still moving a bit slowly.”

“Oh, hell!” she shrieked. “What was I thinking, stopping by unannounced while you’re convalescing?” She jumped up from the couch and I slowly followed suit.

Listen, enjoy the treats, but I simply must have you over to the house. Are you up for venturing out?”

“Well, I suppose in a couple weeks or-”

“No, no sooner than that. We have something in common! I am literally a hop skip and a jump from your home and you’ve got to get some fresh air. Just go two doors down then cut through the Patterson’s back yard, they won’t mind at all. Don’t use the wooded pathway, connecting our streets, OK? Go through the Patterson’s.

“My house is the white Colonial with green shutters, number seventy-three, the last house before Boulder Brook. Are the kids at school and daycare tomorrow?”

I nodded my head and followed as she walked to the front door and slipped back into her ski coat.

“Perfect! I’ll see you at, let’s say ten thirty?”

“Ah, sure, great,” I replied, opening the door for her.

“Bring your recorder!” She called over her shoulder as she bound across the front lawn.

And with that she was gone as quickly as she’d appeared. I locked the door and shuffled back into the family room to open the canvas wine bag. Inside was a chilled bottle of Rombauer chardonnay.

****

I regret that I slowly dropped out of my little social scene after I injured my back a little over half a year ago. I tried to hang in there for a while but ultimately I had to admit that I simply couldn’t handle my life like I used to. Managing the house and every detail of three small children’s lives while maintaining my marriage and trying to ignore the chronic pain took all my energy and then some. In addition to allowing little things to fall by the wayside (like staying on top of the laundry and dishes) my mind slipped a little too. I had the brain capacity of a goldfish, forgetting appointments, double booking dates, and completely forgetting long conversations. Pain medication played a significant role and I see that now, but at the time I thought I was truly losing it.

My sanity depends largely on friendships and regular exercise, without those two things I stumble. Though it had been out of necessity, I’d let my world become small. Thankfully, the surgery took away that chronic pain, and I’d be cleared for exercise in several weeks and the pain pills were a distant memory, so things were looking up on that front. But I knew I needed to do some real work when it came to reconnecting with my friends. I’d been out of the loop for so long that I felt lazy and antisocial. If I didn’t push myself to connect again I feared that I might lose the friends I had. I was in such a weird, hermit-like headspace that I had a hard time mustering up the energy to text, let alone see anyone.

And then Gwen had breezed into my life. Even in tip top performance I don’t think that I would have accepted an invitation like the one she’d extended, but I was vulnerable and bored so I went ahead and walked two doors down then cut through the Patterson’s back yard, hoping that it was true they wouldn’t mind the trespassing.

Gwen’s house was right there, as described. A white Colonial with green shutters, number seventy-three, the last house before the Boulder Brook path.

Before I’d even pulled my hand back from the doorbell Gwen threw open the door and demanded, “Come in! Come in!”

I stepped inside and allowed her to help me out of my coat.

“Follow me, we’ll fix our coffee then sit in the sunroom.”

I did as I was told and followed Gwen into her beautiful chef’s kitchen, complete with a faucet over the gas stove for filling pots.

“Beautiful,” I said, simply.

“Oh, gosh, thank you,” she said, waving away the compliment with a hand. “This was all done before we bought the house. I am not a cook, so it is totally lost on me, but it is quite pretty.”

“How long have you lived here?” I asked.

“Oh,” she considered, yanking open the refrigerator door, “I guess it’s been about five years. Ever since my oldest, Cara, was in preschool. She’s in fourth grade now, and her younger sister Sara is in second, over at Bates, of course.”

“I have all girls too,” I commented.

“I know!” She enthused. “It’s crazy how much we have in common.”

There was that comment again, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I quickly put it out of my mind though when I saw the large bottle of International Coffee Delight Hazelnut Creamer.

“Awesome,” I said, pointing to the bottle.

Gwen smiled and put it on the counter next to two large white coffee cups. “Here you go,” she said.

I fixed my coffee and we made small talk about the neighborhood. Gwen was a real kick. She was excitable, quick talking, wordy and prone to tangents. Her voice rose and fell depending upon the topic at hand. So much so that at times I would have to watch her mouth and basically lip-read to understand what she was saying. At other moments my hands lifted involuntarily to cover my ears and I’d have to force them back down so as not to be rude.

She was like an energy drink. All fizz and pop and I’m gonna sweep out this garage right after I schedule dentist appointments for the whole family and organize that basement motherfucker! I liked her, but it was hard to keep up.

Once we’d doctored our coffees I followed my hostess into a bright sunroom. Bare trees and brambles filled the view from a huge picture window, which overlooked the entrance to the Boulder Brook Reservation. White overstuffed chairs sat facing the window and a creamy soft-knotted wool carpet lay underfoot.

“This is beautiful,” I commented, “I’m terrified I’ll spill my coffee.”

Gwen waved the comment away with a hand, and pointed to the glass coffee table which held a plate filled with cinnamon buns, “Please, have some! They’re from Quebrada!”

“I will, thank you,” I said enthusiastically.

We sat across from one another in comfy chairs. I commented on the huge black and white beach photo on the wall behind Gwen. She explained that she’d taken it out at Siasconset on their first trip to Nantucket; the photo on the wall behind me was Dionis.

Gwen tucked her legs underneath herself and asked, “Is that chair comfortable enough? Does your coffee taste all right? Did you bring your recorder?” In rapid succession.

“Yes, everything is perfect,” I replied, smiling. “It’s so nice to be out of the house. And I did, I have my recorder in my jacket pocket. Should I grab it?”

“No, no, no, you sit,” she insisted, “I’ll go grab it for you!”

I smiled and sipped my coffee and enjoyed the room. Something felt off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I chased the thought away rationalizing that I was just off my game and feeling awkward having been a shut-in for weeks. This neighbor must have a ghost story to share, and that was fun, I reasoned.

The window had pretty antique-looking tables at each side and on one of those tables sat a teddy bear. It’s body turned towards the window. A small camera on a tripod was trained on the bear’s face, another camera on a taller tripod faced out the window, sharing the bear’s perspective. I imagined it might be some sort of school project for one of Gwen’s daughters.

Gwen popped back into the room.

“Here you go!” She said excitedly, “Want me to turn it on for you?”

“Sure,” I replied, again feeling a bit off.       

“I have the exact same one!” Gwen said smiling and shaking her head. “OK, we have so much to discuss!”

“What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

“Boulder Brook,” she replied.

I looked out the window at the entrance to the trail through the reservation. The hike began in a field then looped along a rocky trek through thick woods. The path was set in what had once been Boulder Brook Farm and crumbling stonewalls were still scattered through the woods. The mile and a half long loop was surrounded on all sides by packed neighborhoods, though once inside the dense forest you wouldn’t know it. I used to include the path in my running route and I couldn’t wait to get back to doing just that.

“What’s up with the trail?” I asked.

“There’s something in there, it’s dangerous,” Gwen’s sunny demeanor was gone.

“Do you mean the coyotes?” I asked, placing my coffee on a coaster and grabbing a pink cocktail napkin and a cinnamon bun. I had a feeling things were about to get weird so I figured I might as well just tuck in.

“No, not the coyotes, though, they are a part of it I suppose. You’ve been in the neighborhood for around a year, right?”

I nodded my head in confirmation, my mouth full of cinnamon bun.

“Have you ever noticed anything strange in the area?” Before I could answer she said, “I mean outside, not in your house.”

“Well, I mean, the ice cream truck is super aggressive in the summer and there are a massive number of rabbits around here. Though I suppose they’re all over town, so that’s everywhere. We haven’t many mosquitos, everyone seems to keep up with their yards, it all seems pretty suburban,” I rambled.

Gwen shook her head; I realized I had failed the question.

“How about at night?” She prodded.

“I’m not out much at night, I can’t think of anything particularly odd,” I replied, feeling pressure to give the correct answer this time. “Wait, a couple weeks ago Chris and I were watching TV after the girls were in bed and I heard someone outside playing Mary Had a Little Lamb on a recorder. It was, like nine o’clock at night. That was really scary.”

Gwen laughed, “They give those to all the third graders, they have to learn to play them.”

“Oh, thank God,” I said, laughing along with her and feeling truly relieved. The nasal sound of the recorder floating through the night really had been chilling.

“Do you guys sleep with noise machines?” Gwen asked.

I nodded.

“Turn it off tonight, and listen,” she insisted.

I noticed for the first time that Gwen had a facial tic, her eyes occasionally blinked three times in rapid succession.

“What am I listening for?” I asked, nervousness beginning to creep up within me.

“You mentioned the coyotes, but there are less and less sightings. The night is quiet now; it wasn’t like that when we first moved to the neighborhood. Something hunted those dogs out of existence in the area,” she replied.

“Like what? Wolves? Shit, do we have wolves?” I asked, alarmed.

“No, it’s not wolves, I honestly don’t know what it is, but there is something living in the Boulder Brook reservation and it’s incredibly dangerous.” Eye blinks.

Just then the teddy bear near the window, the one being video recorded, giggled and said “Ha ha! That tickles!”

“What in the fuck is happening?” I demanded.

Gwen looked over at the bear and began laughing so hard that she couldn’t speak.

My fear grew into terror. I said so, “Gwen, you’re scaring me.”

“Oh! No, no, no, I am sorry. I am not laughing at you! Oh,” she breathed, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “I’m sorry but your reaction was just priceless.”

“What is that thing?” I demanded.

“That’s a BooBuddy, it’s one of the devices I use to detect changes in the environment. As a trigger object it’s been quite effective. I had been using a traditional EMF detector in here, with relatively good results, but the teddy bear exterior definitely entices the creatures to interact more often.”

I took a deep breath, “That bear is a ghost detector?”

“Kind of,” she said excitedly, “It is amazing, it can even ask questions and record EVPs, it measures changes in the electromagnetic field, and it alerts if those changes occur or if there’s any movement or temperature changes.”

“Are you a paranormal investigator then,” I asked, genuinely surprised.

Amateur investigator, I mean I am no where close to Biddy or Eric. I’ve really only done investigations at home in Pennsylvania, and here in our neighborhood.”

“You know Biddy?” I asked.

“Only by reputation,” she said quickly. “But I don’t hunt ghosts. I’m into cryptids; it’s been my passion for a long time. And,” she leaned forward and whispered, “I think there are at least two but possibly three creatures in Boulder Brook.”

“Animals can’t trigger an EMF detector,” I said, confused.

“They’re not animals,” she replied excitedly. “At least not the way we think of animals. The best way to describe them is interdimensional. They affect the environment in a unique way, EMF is just one way to detect their presence!”

“Hold on, are you saying that one of those creatures was here, just now, and made that bear go off?” I asked, goose bumps running up and down my arms.

“I asked you to be here around ten o’clock because they are usually here sometime between ten fifteen and eleven every morning. Except Mondays. I haven’t figured that out yet. It is the only time during the day that they show up. I figured it out after I set up the video recorder and trained it on the BooBear, then created a log of the disturbances.”

“So something was in this house with us just now? How do you know it wasn’t a ghost? If it was a creature or monster it would have to be invisible,” I reasoned, trying to reassure myself.

“There are so many things invisible to us, though, right? So it’s not far fetched to think that a living being could be just as hidden from our sight as a dead being or entity. It’s all connected, right? I mean you agree. Everything paranormal, demons, aliens, cryptids, ghosts. If we are on a certain plane of existence and those things are on another, or I don’t know how it works, but maybe those planes overlap sometimes.”

“I’m doing my best to follow, but I’m kind of hung up on the idea that there are invisible creatures living in Boulder Brook Reservation. I walk there all the time. High school kids party back there. I would think word would get around.”

“They’re new,” Gwen replied.

I shook my head, “What-”

“These creatures, the cryptids in the reservation,” she explained, “I only recognized the signs about a year and a half ago. Something let them in and I think I know what happened, I just don’t know who did it.”

I grabbed another cinnamon bun, decided to jump into the abyss with her and said, “Alright, start at the beginning.”

Gwen’s face brightened and she said excitedly, “Do you need more coffee?”

I shook my head.

“OK, you let me know if you do,” Gwen said before scaring the hell out of me with her story. She began, “I grew up in Bradford, Pennsylvania. I spent hours hiking and hunting in the woods with my dad. I know wildlife and I know what’s normal. What is happening here is not normal.

“OK, what I am about to tell you sounds far-fetched, but please hear me out,” she paused, her eyes blinking rapidly, then continued quickly, “When I was sixteen years old I saw a Sasquatch in the woods on a trail near my home.”

She paused again, then whispered, “Do you think I’m nuts?

I couldn’t reply my mouth was full of pastry so I just shook my head.

“Whew! Oh, it is such a relief to say it out loud!’ Gwen said, loudly. “I haven’t had anyone to talk about this with in years,’” she took a deep breath and went on, “I was on a trail near my house headed back home after a day of hiking. I came around a bend in the trail, and boom! There it was about twenty feet ahead of me. The trail rose in elevation a bit, so I was sort of below the thing looking up at it. It was standing stock-still and staring down the path back at me, I must have startled it.

“It. Was. Huge. Like a big long-armed, broad gorilla man, maybe eight feet tall; at least that’s what I estimated by how high it was compared to the tree it was standing near.

“And man, it stunk. It smelled like wet dog and skunk and poop. We stared at each other for at least thirty seconds. Long enough for me to blink my eyes hard and try and shake myself back to reality.”

Gwen grabbed a pastry and took a huge bite. She stared at me, chewing, wide-eyed.

I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I said, “No way.”

“Yes!” Gwen said with an exaggerated shiver, “It moved towards me, kind of aggressive. That made me stumble back about three or four steps, I didn’t want to turn my back to it, but I didn’t want the thing any closer to me than it already was. I was trying to decide if I should wave my arms and yell, like you’re supposed to do with bears when the creature just stopped, turned and walked off the path back into the woods.

“I froze. I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t turn back, it was getting late and I still had about half an hour’s hike to get to the road. Do you need more coffee?”  

“What? No!” I said, startled out of the woods by her question. “No, no thank you.”

“OK, let me know. So, thankfully the creature was gone for good. I just put one foot in front of the other the rest of the way home and didn’t see another sign of it, though the entire hike back I felt like I was in danger. I refused to look off to either side of the trail. I kept my head down or stared straight ahead. It felt like I was being hunted.”

“Oh my God, what if that thing had attacked you? Is there any way that it could have been a big bear or something, though?”

“It wasn’t a bear!” Gwen yelled.

I sat back in my seat and sipped my coffee, goose bumps again covering my arms. I apologized and said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to second-guess you.”

“Ugh,” Gwen said, “I don’t mean to be sensitive, but it is just so fucking dismissive of my experience.”

“I didn’t mean it to sound-”

“I know, but it does sound like that. What if I suggested that little man you saw in your basement was a raccoon or some other animal that had just gotten into your house? No. You know what you saw and I know what I saw.”

You also know an awful lot about me, I thought.

I said, “Good point, sorry. I believe you.”

“Thank you,” she said, eyes blinking furiously. “He, or she, or, I don’t know, it? It was dark brown and covered with fur, nice shiny fur, not dirty or matted or anything. It walked like a person, a bit lumbering, but I think that was just due to the length of its legs. It had very long legs a bit out of proportion to its torso and it’s arms were too long to.”

As she said this an image came to mind of the man-like entity Chris had seen in our basement months ago. Tall with arms too-long for it’s body.

Gwen was staring out the window, I looked towards the place in the woods she was staring at, half expecting to see a Sasquatch out there waving at us.

But there was no cryptid, just bare trees and scrub.

I said, “It sounds like an animal to me, some big huge animal that we just haven’t discovered yet, right?”

Gwen leaned forward and pointed at me excitedly, “That’s what they want you to think, right? That’s the most reasonable explanation, isn’t it? ‘It’s a freak ape or some form of humanoid missing link,’ they say,” she shook her head, “The truth isn’t so simple.”

“Then what is the truth?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said quietly. “After I saw that thing I became absolutely obsessed. I mean, I had never even thought about Bigfoot before! I’d seen Unsolved Mysteries like everybody else, but that stuff didn’t interest me at all, and I’d spent so much time in the woods that I found it ridiculous.

“But that day on the trail blew my mind up. I spent as much time in the woods as I could after that, looking for signs, hunting for footprints. I made casts of a couple prints and that’s where I found my first big clue. Not in the existence of the footprints, I found so many in those woods that there was no question the creatures existed. The interesting thing about the prints was that oftentimes after following them along for a time on a trail they would completely disappear. I’d follow thirty or forty footprints along the forest floor and then the trail would just end. In some cases I could explain it away by the terrain, but in others it made no sense.

“That’s when I began to suspect that these creatures aren’t anything like the animals we know, these things could disappear. I’d been hunting the creature like it was a bear or a deer. It occurred to me that maybe this huge animal was so elusive because it can go where human beings can’t. Maybe we can’t find any proof because these things can leave, like completely.

“And then there’s the scat, or lack of it really. I mean, where’s the poop?” Gwen demanded seriously.             

I nodded my head trying not to laugh.

“Alright,” Gwen continued. “So I’d been scurrying around the woods after this thing for a couple of months when I saw a flier for a discussion group at my library. A man named Stan Gordon lead the talk. He was head of a group called the Westmoreland County UFO Study Group. They were building the case that Bigfoot was tied to extraterrestrials.”

Gwen was leaning far forward in her chair with her elbows on her knees. Her face was lit with earnest excitement. I’d been happily riding along in her passion and belief, but the alien Bigfoot revelation was quite the bump in the road.

“Do you mean that Bigfoot is an alien or that he knows aliens? Like they’re in cahoots?” I asked, smiling.

“It is bat shit crazy,” she said. “I know! I thought so too! Look, I don’t totally agree with Mr. Gordon. He’s done his best to present the evidence and convince me, but no. There are too many loose ends in his theory. But, hearing that theory shook my mind up enough so that I could develop my own hypothesis.”

“Which is?” I said, feeling confused and wishing that I could close the wooded cottage style shutters on the picture window. It may have only been that Gwen’s absolute assurance in otherworldly creatures was rubbing off on me, but I had the distinct feeling that we were being watched.

Gwen sat back in her seat and whispered, “It’s all connected. I read this one flat earth theory that sort of pulled it all together, but-”

Gwen,” I interrupted with a nervous laugh.

“Oh, I know,” she said quickly, eyes blinking rapidly. “Flat earth theory isn’t a reality, but it does tie up some loose ends nicely.”

“But what is living in the Boulder Brook Reservation?” I asked. “Let’s just come back home for a moment.”

“Sorry, I tend to wander when I’m thinking about them. But I have to stress that it is all connected, only no one has all the pieces of the puzzle to prove it yet. These creatures in the reservation, of course they aren’t Bigfoot, but they are connected to them somehow. The parallels, the evidence they leave is so similar that it cannot just be coincidence.”        

I sipped the dregs of my cold coffee, waiting for some sort of straight line of thinking from Gwen.

“Do you want more coffee?” She asked.

I smiled; her inability to stay on track was more amusing than irritating. I liked Gwen. I would never in a million years have pegged her for a Bigfoot enthusiast. I realized I was actually enjoying myself for the first time in a long time.

“No more coffee, thank you. Tell me what you’ve found in the reservation that reminded you of Bigfoot.”

“OK,” she said scooching forward in her seat and smiling broadly, “First of all, have you seen the little structures in the woods? The branches built up against trees, like teepees?”

I nodded my head; I had seen these little structures set back from the trail in the reservation and in several of the other wooded trails I walked in town.  

“That is a freaking signature calling card for cryptids. I don’t know if they are, like, some sort of portal, or maybe they are like a sign to the aliens. I mean, they can’t be shelters, way too drafty, right? But those structures show up in the woods all over the Americas and have been documented in Europe as well.”

“I just assumed it was kids building pretend shelters,” I said.

“Next time you see one, take a good look. They are always tied at the top with intricately knotted grass. Very thin, like a braid, but not a braid. Those things are tall, right? And they are built with long, heavy branches. If you really take a look you will see that some of those branches are fresh. They haven’t recently fallen, they were ripped – not cut – off trees.”

“OK, that’s freaky,” I acknowledged.

“Mm hmm!” Gwen said her face absolutely glowing with enthusiasm. “Another thing to look for is the scratches. Three deep scratches along those branches and most times traced along the living tree that the structure surrounds. I’ve measured and these structures are between ten to thirteen feet tall, too tall for the Boy and Girl Scouts of America to create without the Boston Globe being called to document their brilliance. Also, the scratch marks are rather consistent. They appear to be made by an animal, not a tool or machine.”

I imagined this little woman in the woods, EMF detector in her back pocket, measuring tape in hand. I suppressed another smile.

She noticed. “What?” She asked. “I know I must sound like an absolute nut.”

“No!” I said quickly, then, “I mean, a little bit considering the topic. It’s just that listening to you talk about this, I guess it just reminds me of how much I love hearing these stories. It makes me happy that there is someone out there who gets just as excited about this stuff.”

Gwen smiled, “I told you we had a lot in common!”

I reached forward to break off another bite of cinnamon bun (yes, it was my third) and asked, “What else have you found?” I asked.

“There are the consistent EMF readings, both around the structures and also around the bear.”

I glanced over at the stuffed animal and shivered a bit. I sincerely hoped it wouldn’t speak again. I asked, “Do you think the creatures are getting into your house?”

“No, no, but I think they both unintentionally give off EMF and they are able to intentionally affect their environment. It’s sort of a way they communicate.”

“What do you think they’re trying to tell you?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel aggressive, and it doesn’t seem coincidental. Every day, again, except Mondays, around the same time, that bear triggers. I can’t help but think it is intentional.

Then there are the lights. The lights were the very first things I noticed when we moved here and they triggered a memory from one of Stan’s books.

“Not every time, but many times witnesses report seeing greenish floating lights or an actual U.F.O. at the same time they see a Sasquatch. Sometimes people see all three at once. Anyhow, the first week we were here I was out in the backyard around dusk, dumping out the kiddie pool after the kids went to bed and that’s when I saw them for the first time. Three greenish lights hovering above the reservation. I estimated they were hovering about half way across the field.

“I watched them for a while, wondering what people were doing back there. The woods had been a huge part of our choosing the home, but I hadn’t considered anyone lurking in the reservation at night. It freaked me out. I was about to go in and tell my husband when the lights slowly started to climb and then shot up and out of sight. Fast.”

“Uh uh,” I said.

“Yeah, and I’ve seen them three times since. Twice I watched them hover and then blink out but one other time they shot up into the sky again.”

“Did you manage to get any video?” I asked.

“No,” she said, sighing. “I tried, I had my phone on me two of the times, but the first time I was too slow and the second time I did record the lights hovering but when I tried to look back at the video on my phone there was nothing there.

“It was like the opposite of the stuff people find with ghosts, you know? Like technology can record EVPs and some cameras can capture images that our eyes can’t see. But in this case I could see the lights clearly but the camera couldn’t record them.”

“Strange,” I commented.

Very,” Gwen agreed. “Then there are the whoops. It’s a lot like the ones I heard in Pennsylvania and the recordings I’ve listened to online. When these things communicate they call out with a ‘Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!’ noise.”

“But the ones you investigated back home were Bigfoot and we know there aren’t any of those here,” I reasoned, wondering if perhaps this was all just wishful thinking on Gwen’s part.

“No, unfortunately, they aren’t Bigfoot. They look nothing like them,” Gwen said, seriously.

“So you’ve seen one of these things?”

Gwen stood up and walked over to the window. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared out at the tree line.

I stared at her back; unsure of whether I even wanted to know what she’d seen. I had to live here, only about five houses up from the reservation. I didn’t want to know what monsters were lurking in there. But it was too late.

“It was last October. The girls and I were raking leaves in the early evening. I saw something move in the trees. See that small stone wall?” She asked motioning and turning briefly to look at me. I nodded my head and she turned back to the window.  

“I saw something duck down behind it. It was dusk and there were still a lot of leaves on the trees, the brush is pretty thick back there so I wasn’t sure exactly what I saw but it wasn’t a squirrel or anything like that. The thing was big, it had bulk.

“My first thought was that it was a dog running around off leash, but dogs don’t hide, they bound over to you or bark at you or whatever.

“I glanced at the girls, they were in the middle of the yard fooling around in the leaves, so I took a few steps towards the edge of the yard and stood still, watching. Just as I was about to shrug it off the thing peeked over the wall at me.”

“Oh no,” I said, chills running through my body.  

Gwen shook her head slightly, then explained, “It had a head like a really big fox, but without the ears. You know how fox have light eyes? It had those and they were huge. Its fur was short and really thick, it stood up a bit around it’s shoulders. It was like a dirty grey color.

“I jumped back and it stood up completely. It was only about, maybe four feet high, hunched over on two legs, short arms sort of situated closer to the front of the chest than the side. Something about it reminded me of a kangaroo.

“It was just watching me. Then one of the girls gave a shriek behind me; I could tell immediately that it was one of laughter, not fear. The thing turned it’s head toward the girls then kind of tilted it to the side and put one of it’s claws on the wall.

That snapped me out of my daze. I started towards it, waving my rake, screaming like a total nut. I think I was saying ‘Ya! Ya! Get outta here! Go on! Get!’ Meanwhile I was also calling to the girls to get inside the house immediately. I turned away from the creature once and saw they were staring at me and I screamed, ‘Inside! Now!’ and you bet that got them moving.

“I’m not much of a yeller,” she said, turning away from the window and sitting back in the comfy chair.

“What did the thing do when you screamed at it?”

“It didn’t even flinch. It just turned its head away from the girls and towards me again. I backed away from it, I told it to stay, ‘Just stay!’ I yelled at it, like it was a dog for God’s sake,” Gwen said, embarrassed.

“I backed all the way to the front door and scrambled inside. The girls were in the front hall and they were scared to death, of me, they hadn’t seen the thing, thank God. I ordered them to go up to their room and close the door behind them. I came in here and looked out the window but the thing was gone. At least it wasn’t where I’d left it. I panicked that it had come near the house so I slammed these shutters closed checked all the doors then went into the kitchen and called animal control.

“A woman came out and looked around the house, she even went back into the woods. But she didn’t turn up anything. She reasoned that it could have been a fox or perhaps even a kid dressed up in their Halloween costume, just having some fun with me.

“That thing wasn’t a child in a costume,” Gwen said darkly. “I don’t let the girls in the yard anymore. I’ve signed them up for every after school activity I can find and I take them to the library or out for a play date otherwise. I’m always sure to get home before it’s dark out and I pull into the garage and let the door close behind us before we get out of the car.”

An image appeared in my mind of the little fox-like creature slipping in as the garage door was closing. Trapping it in along with Gwen and her kids. I did my best to push the chilling thought away.

“The next day there were three little piles of rocks set at the tree line,” Gwen continued. “I noticed the piles through this window, I didn’t go outside to look, but I grabbed my binoculars so I could get a better look at them. I don’t know how, but I just knew that there was one for each of us, me and the girls

“Jesus,” I breathed.

Gwen considered. She said, “Look, you’ve been interviewing people long enough to know that there is something strange about this town, right? And you know that it wasn’t just a coincidence that you out of the blue decided to put up a flier in the library asking for people’s ghost stories. And it wasn’t a coincidence that you chose this town, that you met Nick who introduced you to Biddy who was there to keep you out of danger. You’re protected now, but you have to continue documenting what’s happening in this town.

“Do you know why this town is special?”

I shook my head, startled by how well she knew my life.

“Ley lines,” she said quietly.

“I don’t know what those-”

Yes, you do,” she interrupted loudly. “Think, on Ghost Adventures, The Ancient Ram Inn, season two, episode sixteen.”

Now I was truly frightened. This woman knew where I lived, knew way too much about my life and had the Ghost Adventures episodes memorized. I shifted forward in my seat, ready to get up and leave.

“Wait!” Gwen insisted. “Please, I’m not crazy and I’m not dangerous. I’m trying to tell you something important. You’ve been only half in and half out of this lately. I read the blog and I listen to the podcast, OK? You’re shifting your focus away from Wellesley. That is fine, but there is a reason for that too. Something doesn’t want you to keep digging.

“This town attracts a certain kind of person, right?”

“Well, yes, but isn’t it sort of like that everywhere? Like attracts like?”

“No,” she replied firmly. “The people in this town, their energy, it’s,” she paused, searching for the word.

“Strong?” I suggested.

“Well, that, yes, but it’s really intense. It is powerful enough to not only accomplish amazing things; it has the collective power to call horrible things in. Certain types of people are drawn to this town, this land. Wellesley was built along a very powerful ley line.”

Gwen paused and looked at me expectantly.

“I’m sorry, I do remember that episode of Ghost Adventures, but all I can recall is the old man who said he was attacked by a succubus every night.”

“Do you remember when he showed Zac that big book with the maps in it?”

“Vaguely,” I conceded.

“Well it was a map of British ley lines. It was first believed that their significance was only in Great Britain, but it has since been proven that they reach across the globe. They are really mystical lines I suppose that can be drawn to connect ancient monuments and megaliths. Some people believe they carry psychic or spiritual power through them. There is no coincidence that things are built where they are built, that events happen where they happen. Major events can be traced along these ley lines.

“When you draw lines connecting the locations of significant negative events and structures in North America it forms a freaking pentagram. Though the symbol itself isn’t necessarily evil or negative, the events that happened to form it are.”

“I’m not quite following,” I admitted.

“Picture a map with all of the major cities and the major tragedies in the Americas. Things that shocked the world. JFK’s assassination, then Robert Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s. The Oklahoma City Bombing and 911. Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew. Columbine, VA Tech Massacre and WACO can all be connected by drawing what has been called the Blood Pentagram over the maps of North and South America. It extends up into Canada and the two bottom points hit The Pyramid of Sun near Mexico city, a place that was infamous for ritual killings and the other point hits Haiti, where that devastating earthquake happened.”

“You are in this all super deep,” I said, impressed. “I mean you’ve done your homework.”

Gwen waved the comment away with a hand and continued, “Those demon nests that Gaye described in your blog post from January, I would bet money that the so-called cult leader chose followers whose families lived on ley lines. It makes too much sense, it would provide a steady flow of energy to power and connect them. Dark energy.”

“You’re making sense,” I said, begrudgingly.

“Read back through your stories from the beginning. Think about the path you’ve taken and the people you’ve met. Something is powering the paranormal activity in this town and you’re a part of that. We both are.”

“Oh Lord, Gwen,” I sighed. “I’m tired.”

“I know you are, but I also know you love this, even your own haunting.”

I smiled and agreed. It was true. This feeling, this shaky, exciting paranoia was what I’d been chasing my entire life. And now it was around me, everywhere I turned.

“I wanted to ask you,” Gwen said, “I mean, I know you don’t have any interest in actually hunting this stuff, but if you hear of anything in your interviews, anything that you think might fit into or even out of my theory, will you please tell me?”

“Of course,” I replied. “But I’m not sure I’ll know what that is, I mean other than, God forbid, someone else seeing one of these creatures.”

“No, I know you’ll know when you hear something that’s a piece of the bigger picture,” she replied assuredly. “And vice versa obviously, if something comes up on my end I will totally let you know. If we share information like that we might be able to connect some dots.

Something is happening in this town.”

I nodded my head and said awkwardly, “I should go, I have to get some stuff done before the kids get home.”

“Don’t forget your recorder,” she said picking up the device and handing it to me. “After you!” She said, motioning to the doorway into the kitchen.

I walked through then nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard a high-pitched voice giggle and say, “Oh! That tickles.”

Dread and fear flooded my body.

“Gwen,” I whispered, afraid to move, “is one of those things here?”

“No! Oh! I am so sorry,” she began breaking down into laughter again.

“What the hell, Gwen?” I demanded.

“I was checking the video recorder and I bumped the table by accident and it triggered the bear,” she explained.

“I feel like you are fucking with me,” I said, unsure and annoyed.

“No! Never! Please don’t think that!” She pleaded. “Really! I just bumped the table.”

I let out a breath and said, “That nearly scared me to death.”

“Sorry!” She said again, shrugging her shoulders. “I am such a spaz, ugh. Here, let me get your coat out of the hall closet.”

As she handed me my jacket I was again filled with terror. I honestly wanted her to walk me home. I didn’t want to step foot out of that house. The reservation was too damn close.

She must have sensed my fear because she said, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. You’re wearing your necklace,” she motioned to my neck.

“What could this thing possibly do to protect me against some sort of an earless, two footed fox monster?” I replied, forcing a laugh.

“Trust me,” Gwen replied, “It’s all connected. These creatures, they’ve been here for ages waiting for their chance to break through. I can’t prove it yet, but I will. The devil may be patient,” Gwen said before closing the door. “But so am I.”

*****

I walked home, continually looking over my shoulder. Though I was absolutely exhausted from the outing I spent an hour on Google attempting to find a detailed map of Massachusetts ley lines, to no avail. After Chris fell asleep that night I turned off our noise machine. I didn’t sleep, I listened. Both wanting to hear something in the night and wanting to forget what I’d heard from Gwen.

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[This story contains sensitive discussion of suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day everyday. They are there because many people have suicidal thoughts. Many people have lost a loved one to suicide. The first step is the hardest, but you are worth it. If you are in need, Call 1-800-273-8255 and speak with a compassionate person.]

 

We have a few items to discuss before we meet our next non-Wellesley resident.

Firstly, I’ve gone and changed my mind. Charging a dollar for these Out of the Swells stories began to feel soooo… tedious. So, I’m not going to do it. I’ll just post ‘em here once a month as promised, for FREE, like library books.

Let’s get set, shall we? Though, travel was at the height of tediousness recently, wasn’t it? With all the religious intolerance and xenophobia and such.

Head over to ghostsintheburbs.com where I’ve included links to the donation pages at The American Refugee Committee and the ACLU. Send your dollars their way. RESIST.

We need to recognize someone this week. Ms. Gaye Forren was the very first to donate $5 per month to the podcast, buying the golden, once in a lifetime, no it’s not a pyramid scheme opportunity to have her name used as an alias for one of my haunted friends. I’m saying it loud and proud and have repeated it every day since I transcribed this interview: THANK YOU GAYE! The friend your moniker represents is a complicated one. She’s a touch… conflicted, anxious and fancy, but aren’t we all these days?

Alright, we have a trip to make. Though I warn you, it won’t be a relaxing one.

*****

Now that I’m able to reflect on my haunting with some perspective, I see that all it added up to was tapping, a couple creatures and a few scratches. Some experts came, did their thing and it was over. At the time I was terrified, but looking back it all feels more exciting than dire. Compared to an unexpected phone call on a Tuesday morning from a friend bearing news of illness, or a letter bringing final warning before collections, or even an ingrown toenail, paranormal tapping is positively mundane. Really sometimes I scare myself more than any entity ever could.

Chris had the day off on Monday and I took advantage of the time to go grocery shopping by myself. Today (Wednesday) when I got in the car I happened to look in the back of the truck as I was buckling the girls into their seats.

There were the groceries.

It took me a moment to understand what I was looking at. I actually had to search my memory to figure out where they had come from.

I got straight A’s in grad school and now I can’t even remember to take the groceries out of my car when I get home from the grocery store.

I use an app to track my spending and I even dragged and dropped the Whole Foods expense into the “groceries” category.

But I left the groceries in the back of the car and that scares the hell out of me.

They’re still there. I dropped off the kids at school, left a message for my psychiatrist that we might need to tweak my prescription a pinch and then went to Cafe Nero to drink coffee and pretend to read a book.

I’m trying to shrug it off, but I’m rattled.    

Those groceries. They feel like the canary in the coal mine, it’s lifeless eyes staring at me from the back of my car. I can’t even fucking remember what I bought.

***

I listen to a weekly podcast called One Bad Mother. Without Biz and Theresa’s humor and honesty I wouldn’t have survived my first five years of motherhood. The hosts maintain a voicemail box where listeners may leave a parenting rant and Biz and Theresa listen to one of these rants at the end of each episode. A mother may call in with a detailed fail involving a holiday event, or a father will reveal his hapless trip to Target with infant twins and toddler in tow. These parents lament their inability to remain patient, calm and kind in the face of childrens’ outrageous irrationality.

These rants strike close to home for me, and the insightful hosts brought something interesting to my attention. Many of the anecdotes often end with something like, “My father’s funeral was last week, so I’m just trying to deal,” or “I had a medical procedure and it’s really slowed me down,” or “My friend was just diagnosed with cancer and it’s thrown me for a loop.”

Most often, these throw-away confessions come out just before the caller thanks the show hosts and tells them they’re “getting really good at this.” No one ever leads with their life shattering news. It’s treated as an afterthought, as though, if they lead with their heartache it would relay weakness or, even worse, the possibility that they are the only ones dealing (or not dealing so well) with their life circumstances. The rants are shared in an effort to unite, but only at an arm’s length. We are allowed to empathize and feel for them in their “failure” but we are not invited into their true pain.

We are supposed to buck up and deal with pain by ourselves, aren’t we? It’s to be private. I am the guiltiest of this practice.  You may see me tear up but I’d be more likely to wear a “Make America Great Again” hat before you’d ever see me lean into a full-on ugly cry.

My little grocery experience was an amusing “rant,” no? What I didn’t mention was the undercurrent of anxiety and agitation I’d been managing for months. I was two weeks away from back surgery when this grocery thing happened. Two weeks away from having to give up control over my life for another six weeks and have to *cringe* depend upon others for help. Two weeks away from make-it-or-break-it-will-it-or-won’t-it-this-had-better-fucking-work stakes. Two more weeks of pain to hide from friends and family with Oh, I’m totally fine’s and I’m just so excited to get it over with’s. And it was definitely throwing me off my game.

*****

t was during these two weeks that I visited my old neighborhood, Beacon Hill. Since moving I’ve had a really hard time visiting the city. Memories of my pre-kid life and the independent, no-strings-attached person whom I used to be slaps me across the face around every corner.

It has gotten easier but when I visit I can still see the old me in my mind. Jogging down Comm. Ave. before grabbing a latte and a pumpkin spice scone. Fighting back tears as I walk through the Common, headed home from a job I hate and am tied to because I’ve run up credit card debt buying expensive bags and shoes. Walking Walter in the Public Garden, adoring him and attempting to stop him from attacking other dogs. Strolling along the Esplanade when a phone call confirms that yes, I am indeed pregnant. A year later compulsively walking, Max tight in the Baby Bjorn, climbing Beacon Hill, winding through the alphabetical streets that intersect Commonwealth Avenue, afraid to be alone in the apartment. Two years after that shoving a double stroller through tight sidewalks and again fighting back tears wondering why I ever thought I could handle being a mother once, let alone twice.

These images stabbed too deeply when we first moved to the suburbs three years ago. I still dream that Chris and I will retire to our old neighborhood, but who am I kidding? By the time we are ready to retire Beacon Hill will be surrounded by marshland once again.  

Anyhow, I was in the neighborhood one Saturday afternoon in January to meet with an old friend. After Max was born, Gaye Forren and I had been in a Great Beginnings class for first time moms at the ill-fated ISIS Maternity. She was the only other mom in the fifteen person class feeding her child formula and I was drawn to and reassured by her apparent confidence in early motherhood. I cried every time it was my turn to talk during circle time and I remember feeling overheated, stuffed like a sausage into my clothing and desperate for someone to tell me for sure whether or not they thought I might have postpartum depression, which, looking back, I most certainly did.

To my hot mess, Gaye was cool as a cucumber. It wasn’t ever that she seemed like she had it all figured out, it was more like she was letting motherhood in whereas I was running from it as though it were hunting me.

When I first knew Gaye she had brown, shoulder length hair with some cute sweep to the side bangs. She was post pregnancy plump and rocked skinny jeans and flowy tops with ease. I saw her in makeup once, when the moms from the class all went out together for drinks, but I thought she was much cuter in a ponytail and no makeup.

The Gaye I met that Saturday at Tatte on Charles Street was a brand spanking new Gaye. I spotted her from the table I’d been holding for us, though I almost didn’t recognize her. Her chestnut colored hair was long, ombre and beach waved, she slipped out of her hunter green Canada Goose Kensington, before gracefully taking a seat. She was a tornado of wealth: Lululemon workout gear, Hermes saddlebag, Tom Ford sunglasses, and Valentino sneakers. I had to look that last one up when I got home. They were so fabulous – bright white and studded with a metallic band across their top.

I’m both embarrassed and proud to say that I felt like a proper dick head in my blue striped button down and black pullover sweater. All brought to you by a 40% off J Crew promo code. I did carry the old Louis Vuitton catch all that Chris got me when we were childless and care-free, but truthfully it made me feel like even more of an ass.

Anyhow, there we were. Stark examples of the roads we’d each taken, one that lead to suburban preppy comfort, the other to chic urban affluence. Though we’d once had an easy rapport, there now was an awkward “this wasn’t such a good idea” vibe that felt, well, super fucking awkward.

“How are the suburbs treating you?” Gaye asked. “Is it worth the yard and garage like everyone says it is?”

I laughed, though I definitely detected mean-girl sarcasm in her tone.

“Honestly?” I replied, “It didn’t feel worth it for a while, but we found our groove. We’ve got a fun group of friends, and the yard is awesome, especially for the dogs, but we don’t have a garage, I mean we do, but not one you can fit a car into. And, hey, once we hit kindergarten school is officially free, ha ha.”

Then I forced myself to take a sip of coffee to stop my oddly defensive rambling.

“I’ve just never minded street parking, and we pretty much walk everywhere anyhow,” she replied, scanning the cafe. “I can’t imagine having to drive everywhere.”

“So, what’s new with you?” I asked, having already had my fill of the superior urban mommy passive aggression.

“We’re waiting to hear from Beacon Hill Nursery School and Kingsley Montessori for Brooks, I’m hoping he can get into a three’s program for the fall. We’re giving Whitaker one more year at Park Street School, then I suppose we’ll go for BB&N,” she said casually.

“I’d love to give Max another year of preschool too, but the school system is pretty strict about holding kids back,” I replied, though I was doing some quick math in my mind.

The preschools she’d mentioned cost approximately $20,000 per school year, and the Kindergarten at BB&N? That one started at $32,000 – and these tuition costs were before all the “extras” children were expected to take. It was imperative that gifted (and not-so-gifted) offspring specialize in a language and an instrument, take supplemental STEM courses, and incorporate mindfulness lessons into their busy schedules. That last one was added to the roster once wealthy, well-meaning families became aware that this high-stakes education game had kids burned out by the time they were eighteen. Since it would be ridiculous to rethink their crowded schedules, the mindfulness skill set was added to the roster.

I’m not without fault here, Max attended an expensive private preschool for a year before we left the city. It may sound crazy from the outside but it’s hard to pass up the Kool Aid when you’re in the Jonestown of the competitive urban private school environment. Tier 1 colleges were a mere fifteen-to-seventeen years away and private schools invoke the college application specter early on.

Gaye had changed. Whereas I’d known her as someone who rolled her eyes at the mention of Baby Einstein videos, the fact that she’d mentioned these exclusive, price-tagged schools felt like a micro-aggression after I’d made the comment about “free kindergarten.” I mean, maybe I shouldn’t have made the comment. I remember the sticker shock when we were looking at preschools for Max and even if you could afford to pay you weren’t guaranteed a spot. So maybe I’d been making a little dig at the city, but I’d reacted defensively towards her, well her fabulousness.

 I decided to change the subject.

“Enough kid talk, it’s boring,” I said, only half-kidding. “When I read your message on Facebook it seemed like you were rattled, but maybe I read too much into it?”

“No, you’re right I was, I mean, I am rattled,” she said, lifting a hand to her face and nibbling on the edge of her thumbnail. “I’d seen a few posts about your ghost stories and you were the first person who came to mind when things started happening in the brownstone.”

“If you are about to tell me that you moved into a haunted Beacon Hill brownstone I will lose my mind,” I said loudly, unable to contain my excitement.

Gaye smiled and looked like the Gaye I remembered for a moment; open and amused at life. She said, “Yeah, our place is really haunted, like, too haunted.”

“Holy shit,” I said loudly, causing people in line to look over at our table. I scooched my chair closer to hers and exclaimed, “Do you even understand that this is, like, my Holy Grail? A haunted Beacon Hill brownstone? It’s the story I’ve been waiting to hear my whole life!”

“No,” she said shaking her head, “you wouldn’t want to live there. I actually think we’re in trouble. That’s why I messaged you, I need advice.”

“I’m sorry,” I apologized, feeling like a jerk. “It’s just that I have been obsessed with this idea since I first walked through the neighborhood. This place is crazy dense with history, who’s haunting you? Some Boston Brahmin pissed that you’ve let all the staff go?

“Wait!” I demanded, cutting Gaye off before she could reply. “Which slope are you on? Was your place part of the Underground Railroad? Holy shit. This is amazing.”

“Stop,” Gaye said, holding up her hand. “No, it’s nothing like that.  The ghosts, they just used to live in the house. I’m pretty sure that I know who they are, I just don’t know how to make them leave.”

        “Yeesh,” I said, then, “What does Andrew think about it?” I asked, referring to her husband, a man I’d met once in passing when Gaye and I’d run into eachother at Starbucks long ago. I’d disliked the man immediately. A moment after Gaye introduced us he’d taken out his phone to scroll through urgent Sunday morning business.   

“He thinks that I’m overreacting. Actually, I feel like I have to watch what I tell him or I could find myself one step away from the looney bin.”

“No,” I said, unsure.

Gaye laughed and looked up with eyes filled with tears, “Not really, but he won’t hear me when I tell him that we have a major problem. That house is proof that Andy’s a heavy hitter in the private equity world. In his mind there neither can nor will be anything wrong with the house. And he travels so much for work that he isn’t there enough for me to prove to him that something really is happening. Meanwhile, I am living in a nightmare.”

“Look,” I said quickly, “Chris has the kids this afternoon so I have plenty of time to talk. Why don’t we go grab a booth at 75 Chestnut and you can tell me over a glass of wine.”

“Excellent idea,” she said.

I called Chris to let him know I’d be home later than expected and he was his usual easy going self about the change in plans. He asked me where we kept the extra diapers, which brought out my usual impatient how in the hell do you not know that? self.

With Chardonnay in hand, Gaye opened up about her home.

“The brownstone is up Mount Vernon, just past Louisburg Square. It’s on the shady side of the street, so at first I assumed that’s why it felt so gloomy all the time. And the people that lived there before us,” Gaye shuddered, “they owned five long-haired cats and every single room was covered in the same exact floral wallpaper.”

Gaye went on to explain the extensive renovations undertook to modernize and reconfigure the space, “Actually, the kitchen was originally ground level so that obviously wouldn’t work. We ended up moving it to the first floor and created a great open concept for dining and entertaining and we put a playroom and exercise area on the ground level. The second floor has two bedrooms and a bathroom for the kids, and then our master, bath and office are on the third floor. There’s an old maid’s quarters in the fourth floor space and we’ll do something with it eventually, but for now it’s just storage.

“Oh! And there is this adorable patio in the back, but we’ll never use it for anything. I landscaped the hell out of it because, you know, rats.”

I nodded my head in acknowledgement. When Chris and I lived in the city we never took an apartment below the third floor. It wasn’t a guarantee, but at least you had a better chance of only being infested with mice if you lived on an upper floor, rather than both mice and rats.

“So, the planning and watching the transformation was all fine. When we did the renovations and then all the decorating the house was filled with people. I did notice some strange things the few times I was there alone but I shrugged them off as tricks of the light from all the construction gear or the house settling into it’s new dimensions.

“But shortly after we moved into the brownstone it was immediately apparent that recessed lighting and a ‘neutral design palette’ weren’t going to disperse the gloom.”

“Do you have any pictures of the renovation?” I asked, absolutely dying to see the transformation almost as much as I wanted to hear her ghost story. Just so we’re clear. We are talking about a 5,000 square foot home in the heart of Boston’s most expensive neighborhood.

“Oh, sure,” she said taking her phone out of her pocket. I watched her scroll for a moment and then accepted, well, snatched the phone from her hand.

I scrolled through several photos of the home in it’s pre-renovation existence and smiled, the wallpaper truly was bizarre. I quickly shot past images of the home in mid-renovation and then gasped when the post renovation first floor shot blazed onto the screen. I used pinchy fingers to enlarge the picture and study the perfection it captured. Gleaming glossy whites and bright greys, pops of navy and pink coming from art and a few key accent pieces. The rug! It was the most neutral and the most striking animal print ever.

I kept scrolling, each photo more beautiful than the last. The kids’ rooms were minimalistic, not a toy or lone shoe in sight, which was boring, but the master bedroom had a crystal chandelier, and the bathrooms are just what you would expect, five-star hotel quality marble and shiny white tile.

I scrolled past the final home photo to one of Gaye with four other women, who pretty much looked exactly like her. All thin-thinner-thinnest with long ombre hair, bright white smiles, perfect makeup, and pricy clothing.

I handed the phone to her and asked, “Who are these gorgeous women?”

She looked at the photo and a cloud of emotion (anger? sadness?) passed across her face, gone as quickly as it appeared.

“They’re a few friends from Park Street, their children are in the same class as Whitaker.”

“Cool,” I said, then, “you guys knocked it out of the park with your house!”

“Appearances can be deceiving,” she replied.

“Sure,” I agreed, feeling a sudden sadness overtake me. “Tell me what’s happened.”

“To understand what’s going on, I actually have to tell you about the house’s history. I contacted one of those ghost hunting groups in New Hampshire – anonymously, of course – and asked them what I should do if I suspected my house might be haunted. They suggested that I conduct some research on the previous homeowners to see if there had been any recorded deaths or crimes in the home.”

“That’s really good advice,” I said.

“Right? The property record search was easy enough, the home was built in 1855, and believe it or not, only six other families owned it before us.”

“Wow,” I commented, “that’s incredible.”

“It is,” she said, quietly. “I mean, those families inside our walls, Brahmins first and now, us. I went to the BPL (http://www.bpl.org/) hoping to find information about the families. I found some of it there, but they pointed me to several other sources and after just a few weeks I had a pretty complete and horrific picture of what has happened in our home.”

“What do you mean?”

“In shorthand? There have been two murders and two suicides there. The home has been broken into three times, the last break in was in 2011 in which the people we bought the home from were tied up and held at knife point while their fourteen year old son was taken around the house to show the robbers where all of the family’s valuables were kept.

“In 1979 The Globe reported that the homeowner committed suicide because he was being blackmailed. Three kids under six, anything and everything anyone could ever want and he cheats on his wife and gets blackmailed and then kills himself. Can you even imagine?” she said incredulously.

“Complicated,” I said, simply.

“Well, totally,” she acknowledged.

“That was the second suicide in the house, the first happened in the basement kitchen on October 30th, 1929. Can you guess what happened?” She asked, sipping her wine.

“The crash,” I answered.

“The crash,” she repeated. “Or, the day after the crash to be exact.”

“OK, this is all super dark, but what exactly happened to make you look into the house’s history?”

She took a gulp of wine then met my eyes, “The people you’ve interviewed, do you believe them? I mean, like, were they all just delusional weirdos?”

 I paused for a moment before replying, I didn’t want to snap at Gaye and shut her down, but the ease with which she’d simplified a person’s suicide had raised my hackles to begin with, now she was suggesting that paranoid nutcases had taken me for a ride.

I took a drink then said, “I believed them.”

She sighed, “Ok, good, because, I have actually tried really fucking hard to find another explanation for what is happening in my house, and I can’t. Unless the explanation is that I am crazy.”

I realized that she wasn’t being a bitch, she was just scared. I said, “I won’t think you’re crazy and I didn’t think the woman who told me she’d been visited by aliens her entire life was crazy either. I was judgy at first for sure, but then I had to have my home exorcized.”

 Gaye’s eyes filled with tears again and she motioned to our server for another round, “Did you drive here or Uber in?” She asked me. I told her I’d Uber’d (I was on way too much pain medication to be driving, though I didn’t mention that) and she said, “Good.”

“Out with it,” I said.

“The house is gloomy, I told you that, but it’s more than just a feeling, it settles into your bones. I can’t be there for long or I get, like, really depressed.

The idea that we would have cocktail and dinner parties at the home drove our entire plan for the first floor. It’s perfectly arranged for parties, but I’ve never invited anyone over to the house.

“It makes Andrew so angry. He keeps insisting that we host a cocktail party so he can have some of the guys from his office over with their wives, but I just keep making excuses that I would be embarrassed if they came before it was perfectly decorated. I actually lie and tell him that we host play dates and that my friends come over for coffee all the time. He’s barely ever home, so it’s not like he would ever know anyway.

“But I have a woman who comes to help with the kids after school. She just makes dinner and helps me with the baths and bedtime. I know she feels it too, she won’t let the boys go down into the basement playroom anymore for some reason, she’ll only let them play in their rooms. Actually, she even keeps them at her feet in the kitchen while she makes dinner, it’s like she won’t let them out of her sight,” Gaye’s heavily botoxed forehead twitched slightly in a ghost of emotion.

“Have you asked her why?”

“No, I mean, sort of, but there is a language barrier. That’s why we hired her, to teach the kids Spanish while she’s watching them.”

Got it, I thought, then said, “Gaye, out with it. What did you see?”

“The first thing I saw were the feet,” she replied.

I imagined a set of sovereign feet trotting across that animal print rug. I was at a complete loss for words.

“The door to the laundry room got locked somehow. It was the kids’ naptime and Maria needed to do laundry. As I was trying to jimmy the lock with a bobby pin I heard something from the other side of the door. Maria heard it too.

“We both panicked and thought that maybe one of the kids wasn’t sleeping, that they’d snuck into the laundry room and locked themselves in. I dove to the ground to look underneath the door and called the boys names.

“I saw someone, but it wasn’t either of the boys. As I was peering under the doorway a set of men’s dress shoes clapped across the floor right towards me. I scrambled backwards immediately. Maria was standing right there and she heard the footsteps too – it wasn’t just me.

“I yelled at her to get the kids. We took them outside and I called the police from the sidewalk. They came and got the door open but there wasn’t anyone in there. The only way out of that room is through the door.”

“Oh my God, that is absolutely terrifying,” I said.

“It was, and I’ve seen him again. He was the first man to commit suicide in the brownstone, the one from the 1920s,” she paused. “He has the bullet wound still, I mean his ghost has it.”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“He walks around like we’re not even there, but one time I think he actually saw me. I was in the attic putting Christmas ornaments away and there he was was. I heard footsteps and turned around to see him walking up the attic stairs. He stopped short when he got to the top,” Gaye gave a little laugh, “I had a Nutcracker in each hand and I put them out in front of me, as if they would protect me somehow.

“He looked right at me, he seemed confused for a moment then blinked hard. When he opened his eyes he just shook his head and then called out to someone. I could see that he was calling out but I couldn’t hear him. We’ve been in the house for almost two years now and I’ve seen him, I don’t know, maybe ten times.”

No,” I breathed.

“Yes, and he is the least scary one,” she said.

“Who are the others?” I demanded.

“Oh, we have a proper little plague of ghosts,” she said sadly. “The other man who killed himself in the Eighties, his name was John Appleton. I don’t actually see him in the house, I dream about him, it’s always the same dream. He’s sitting in our living room, only it doesn’t look like it does now. Somehow I just know that’s how it used to look. He’s in a high wingback chair in front of the fireplace with a newspaper in his hands. He shakes it at me and says something, he’s not angry but he seems insistent, but I can’t hear him over the shaking of the paper. I try to go closer and he sort of disintegrates.

“I hate going to sleep, but the ghosts I’m most afraid of are the woman and the boy who were murdered there in 1897. One of the family’s maids let some men into the house in the middle of the night. They intended to rob the home and they told her they would cut her in on the deal. She let them in through the patio door, but before they left they killed her. Didn’t want to leave any loose ends, which is sick enough, but the family’s little boy, he’d heard the maid wake up and came downstairs to ask for water.”

“No.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “He was eight years old.”

“What the fuck?” I breathed.

“I read the transcripts of their trial, it was chilling. The men explained that they simply didn’t want to leave any witnesses.”

“Do you see the little boy?” I asked.

“No, worse,” she replied.

“What could be worse than that?” I demanded.

“Whitaker sees him.”

“Uh uh,” I replied.

“Actually, he plays with the boy. He’d been pretend playing since we moved into the house and he was always talking about Henry. I figured he’d come up with an imaginary friend and I thought it was adorable. I didn’t give it another thought until my experiences in the house made me look into it’s history and I found out that the boy killed in 1897 was Henry Emerson.

“I asked Whitaker what he could tell me about his friend or if he could draw me a picture and he did. The picture was the normal circle head, shirt, pants and shoes that he draws to represent a person, but he scribbled red on the upper left hand side of the figure’s chest.”

“Don’t even tell me,” I said.

“You guessed it,” she replied. “The men shot Henry in the chest. In their testimony one of them explained that ‘It just didn’t seem right to shoot a kid in the head.’”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” I intoned.

“Yeah, I’ve tried asking those three to get rid of the ghosts, and either they don’t want to or they can’t,” Gaye said bitterly. “I don’t let either of the boys sleep alone in their rooms anymore. I ordered toddler beds for the master bedroom.

“Still, in the middle of the night I’ll wake up to Whitaker laughing or talking to someone. I know it’s that little dead boy.

“And that woman,” she spat. “She just fucking lurks around. At first I thought that maybe she was looking out for the boy, but I’ll be doing my hair and all of a sudden I’ll see her behind me in the doorway and she looks disgusting. They shot her in the face and she is just covered in blood. I don’t know if Whitaker has seen her, I think he would have said so. She might just creep around me.

“I don’t think that boy will do anything to Whitaker, I mean, I don’t think he can. But sometimes Whit talks in a funny way, and then there were a couple times when he almost looked, like, different. It’s just a flash, but his face changed.”

“You have to leave that house,” I insisted.

“We can’t. There’s no way,” she said sadly then downed the remainder of her wine.

“Then what is the plan? What does Andrew say about all of this? I asked.

“I haven’t actually told him everything,” she replied.

“Why not?” I asked, trying not to sound too judgy.

“He wouldn’t believe me, and he’s stressed enough as it is. This house was a stretch to begin with and then we did all the renovations on top of it. It’s just, you know, I mean everyone stretches for their mortgage, right? But, it’s just that everything else piles on, the tuition, the cars, you know how it is.”

I nodded sympathetically, “I get it, life is hard enough without piling on a ghost infested house.”

“Exactly,” she agreed. “But, Andrew, hasn’t been himself lately. Actually, hasn’t been since we moved into the house. He’s distracted. I mean, it could be about money, at least I think it is. Everyone knows we’re due for a correction in the market. We can’t just keep climbing like this forever.”

“History don’t repeat itself, it rhymes,” I said quietly.

“Who said that?” she asked.

“Jay-Z quoting Mark Twain,” I replied.

 “Right, that song from Great Gatsby,” she said, smiling.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t want to freak you out even more than you already are, but have you ever considered that you might be some sort of a medium? Maybe these ghosts are drawn to you because you can help them somehow.”

“That is ridiculous,” she said, picking at a hangnail.

“I know this woman, Biddy Quinn, she used to be a paranormal investigator. She’s sort of famous in the field and I would be happy to call her for you.”

“God, if anyone ever found out, I would absolutely die,” Gaye said in a forced whisper.

“You have to do something, you can’t just keep going on like this,” I argued.

Gaye looked at me with wide eyes and began nibbling on her thumb nail.

“Just let me call her and explain what’s happening and ask what she suggests. You don’t even have to talk to her if you don’t want to, but really, she’s wonderful. She helped me when I had a problem in my house.”

“What? You had something in your house?” Gaye demanded.

“Yes,” I said, shaking my head. “I thought that’s why you were telling me all of this.”

“No, I’ve never actually read your blog, I hate scary stuff. I just knew that you were into it so I thought I could ask for your advice.”

I rolled my eyes, “Well, that’s my advice. I think you should seek out an expert and I happen to know one.”

“OK, talk to her, but don’t use my actual name,” she agreed.

******

After we settled up with the server, Gaye told me she had to rush across the park to her son’s school. She needed to attend a lecture titled Opportunity, Instruction, and Discipline: A Study in Early Reading Achievement, Home Literacy and Your Toddler.

I gave an involuntary shiver.

“What?” she asked, slipping into her gorgeous jacket.

“I’m a librarian,” I said.

“Oh right, so you know how important this stuff is,” she said seriously. “Do you want to come?”

“No way,” I answered. “Just read to your kids, Gaye. Don’t ruin it for them with all that bullshit.”

“Ugh,” she said. “I know, you’re right. It’s just that if I don’t go the teachers will think I’m not involved and the other moms will think I don’t give a shit about my kids and then I’ll have to make twice the fucking effort just to prove them wrong.”

I decided not to overstep my bounds and call out the bullshit of that logic too. I said, “Let’s share an uber, I’ll drop you off then head home. It’s too windy out to trudge across the Common.”

She agreed and as we headed outside to meet the car she asked, “What’s going on with you? I noticed earlier that you’re walking kind of funny.”

“Thanks,” I said with an embarrassed laugh.

“No, I don’t mean it in a critical way, you just seem like you’re in pain, what’s wrong?”

“I’m having surgery in two weeks for a couple slipped discs in my back,” I explained.

“Oh, God! I am so sorry! Are you OK? Here I’ve been rattling on and on and I haven’t even once asked about you,” Gaye exclaimed.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m totally fine. I’m just excited to get it over with,” I said.

“Well, you’ll let me know if you need anything?” She asked.

“Sure, but really, it’ll be fine.”

I changed the subject and before I knew it we were parked in front of the school.

“You know what?” Gaye said, looking out the window at a group of Kensington-clad women gathered around the school entrance. “I can’t fucking stand any one of those women. They’re a bunch of phony gossipy jerks. If I’d run into them ten years ago at a party I would have steered way clear. Now I dress the same, I talk the same, I have the same insane level of debt, and I drive the same car. I’m just as big of a jerk as any of them and I am fucking terrified of being pushed out of their group.”

“Gaye-” I began, sympathetically.

“It is what it is,” she said, placing a leather-gloved hand on the door handle.

“You can call me anytime, really, text me at three a.m. I mean it,” I said.

“Thanks, Liz, for listening,” she replied looking back at me.

Then she pulled her sunglasses down and shoved the door open. I watched her saunter towards the school, hands in her pockets. When the women saw her they waved enthusiastically. She casually raised one hand in return.

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There is a medium whose show I watch and re-watch obsessively. Her night vision testimony of haunted locations is convincing enough, but she works alongside an ex-homicide detective from Jersey. Just try telling this guy you floss your teeth every night and he’ll spot your bullshit from a mile away. No way would this guy fall for some charlatan psychic.

The thing about this show, as opposed to the dozens of other ghost hunting shows I watch, is the vast array of supernatural creatures this woman interacts with. Of course she encounters ghosts and shadow figures and demons, but she also confronts tiny floating light thingies that want you to die. Black blobs creep across floors and crawl along ceilings. Dog men lurk in the woods alongside dead people who’ve learned to project altered images of themselves in order to intimidate the living. Some entities who used to be human are so desperate to be alive again that they latch onto unsuspecting homeowners and slowly suck the life out of them. Which means that headache might not be a headache. That depression might not be a chemical imbalance. It could be a dead murder victim determined to feel alive again by any means necessary.

Most often, she suggests salt to rid these people of their tormentors. Plain old salt.

Only once have I seen her advise someone to get out of their home immediately to escape a horrible fate, but otherwise she pulls from a bag of tricks and gives the ethereally afflicted true hope. A couple of times she’s handed over a tiny bottle of brick salt with the claim that one drop of the stuff would remove any and all spirits, even the good ones, forever.

Hell truly may be unique to each individual. Some miserable spirits are condemned to relive the worst moments of their lives. Some simply confined to the location of their horrible, tortuous ends. If what this woman says is true then I could get stuck cleaning my house and be completely unaware that I am dead. I could end up loading and unloading my dishwasher forever and as time moves on and I stay stuck the new residents of my home might call on a powerful medium who could sprinkle brick dust and then I would be left to float around in the ether forever.

Like every other person claiming intimate knowledge of the afterlife, it’s all just theory and interpretation, but she’s pretty damn convincing. I’ve seen the veil go thin and when it did it wasn’t a ghost who peeked through. I’ve heard of hauntings both wonderful and terrible and for the most part these tales have had happy endings. A trick at the end to save the day. Some salt to beat the ghost. Everyone, the living and the dead and even the creeps followed the rules.

But our next ghost story has more evil than even our television medium could imagine and there is no happy ending. In fact, this story doesn’t have an ending at all, we meet our heroine somewhere in the depressing middle.

***

If you saw Margot Tatum getting her nails done at Mani Pedi or picking up an arrangement at Winston’s you might assume she lead a charmed life. You might take in her effortless Eileen Fisher jersey tunic, leggings and leather booties and pledge to KonMari your wardrobe. Her prematurely grey hair might throw you but when you noticed the smooth skin around her huge bright blue eyes you’d realize she was probably only around her mid-forties.   

Her oversized diamond studs would attest to wealth, while the small gold wedding band confirmed style. Her friendly nature would put you at ease and her intelligence would bring to mind an Ivy League education and a daily read-through of the New York Times. You would never guess the truth about Margot Tatum’s troubled life.

Her story begins, “On Christmas Eve in 1972 my grandfather killed my uncle. You see, Uncle James was involved in a cult whose members believed they were part of a Christian army. They thought that LSD allowed them to witness and even participate in the battle between angels and demons. James had been home for only a week and the family was hopeful that he’d escaped the cult for good. He was only seventeen, but apparently James’ brain had been, I suppose one might say fried, by the sheer amount of acid he’d ingested during his time in the Vermont-based cult.

“That Christmas Eve my dad and my grandmother were in the living room drinking hot chocolate and playing checkers. My grandfather had just gone outside to get more firewood and they believed Uncle James had gone to bed for the night. He hadn’t. He’d dropped acid and performed a ritual in his bedroom.

“After calling upon the angels in this misguided rite James went downstairs, entered the living room and made a series of strange hand gestures aimed towards my grandmother before walking into the kitchen. My dad said that when my uncle returned he had a knife in each hand and a dishtowel wrapped around his head, covering his mouth. He launched himself at my grandmother in silence. My dad did his best to stop him but James was too strong. Luckily, my grandfather saw them struggling through the picture window, he grabbed the ax he’d chopped wood with earlier in the day, ran inside and wacked James in the back of the head. Later, they all agreed that had grandpa not reacted so quickly both my dad and Nana would have been killed.”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” I whispered.

“I’m sorry, I know it is a dreadful story,” Margot apologized. “But, that’s not the worst of it. James died on the living room floor as they waited for an ambulance to arrive, but before he slipped away he cursed our family. He believed my grandmother, his own mother, was a demon named Beleth. He cursed us to remember her power. And we have, every single December since that terrible night.”

“Oh my God,” I breathed. “This happen here? In this house?” I asked, afraid of her answer.

She nodded and added another spoonful of sugar to her coffee cup.

I knew Margot from the handful of times she’d volunteered at the food pantry. The week prior she’d overheard my conversation with another volunteer and suggested that I come to her house for coffee and a “grim story of the occult.”

I’d always been intimidated by this impeccably dressed woman with the tortoise framed reading glasses and streamlined style. But, I eagerly accepted the invitation and went to Margot’s house in mid-December, happy for the distraction from the holiday blitz. The weather was mild but grey skies had persisted for days. I parked at the end of Margot’s cul de sac and approached her home, a small cottage bordered on one side by the Brook Path (http://www.wellesleyma.gov/Pages/WellesleyMA_Trails/gistrailmap.pdf). As I walked up the worn brick pathway to the front door I was startled by a little girl who appeared at the side of the house nearest the brook.

“Hey there,” I said, wondering if perhaps this was Margot’s daughter.

“Are you the one visiting Go?” The girl asked me.

“Yup, that’s me,” I replied.

“Will you please tell her that Peach goes next?” She requested.

“Sure thing,” I said. The girl turned and walked back the way she’d come.

What a little weirdo, I thought with a smile, but she was quickly put out of my mind as I rang the doorbell to be met with a chorus of barking.

The door opened and out bound three Brussels Griffons. Each one cuter than the next. I could have died right there from the sheer delight of seeing their small Ewok faces and regal beards.

“Dogs!” I exclaimed like and idiot.

“Boys!” Margot demanded. “Inside!” She stood back and I followed her in with the three handsome gents. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized, “I lost track of the time. I intended to put them in the sunroom before you arrived.”

“Don’t you dare!” I said. “They made my day!”

We spent the next fifteen minutes discussing the dogs. I sat on the floor of the kitchen, fussing over George, Clifford and Ben while Margot brewed a pot of coffee.

It was with slight disappointment that I stood and followed her into the small living room. She placed the tray carrying the pot and cups at the center of a small table between two wingback chairs. A fire burned in the fireplace and the softly lit room was classic and a touch formal, like it’s owner. A picture window overlooked the sloping lawn, the public Brook Path and it’s brook just visible beyond a row of mature trees.

After Margot poured us each a cup of coffee so strong it had grounds floating in it, she’d shared her family’s violent and bizarre history.

Despite wanting to flee the home immediately I forced myself to say, “Your poor father.”

Margot sipped her black four-sugar coffee thoughtfully before replying, “If it had ended there, with the death of a mentally ill and addicted boy, then it would have been only tragic. But it’s what came after that made it a true nightmare.

“The curse,” she said quietly, “It worked.”

I placed my coffee (having made due with one sugar and a little milk) on the table between us. “How?” I asked.

“Every December since that night a horrible tragedy has come upon one of my family members. Usually one of us dies, but there have been other things. Sometimes, she gets creative.”

“Who?”

“Beleth. I’ve done some research and the cult that my uncle was involved with, they didn’t really know what they were worshipping in their acid-fueled rituals. I believe most of them honestly strove to serve angels, but in truth, they did the bidding of demons. That night, when James attacked my grandmother, Beleth was there making him see what she wanted him to see.

“She needed a sacrifice. In the end it didn’t matter who it was, in fact, I think it worked out better that it ended up being my uncle. His curse unleashed her, it took off the restraints, at least it does once a year.”

“Every December?” I asked, finding it hard to accept but even harder to believe that this straight-laced woman could make up such a story.

“There has been so much death. We’ve never kept an animal alive for more than a year or two. I begged my daughters not to get these damn dogs,” she said, affectionately rubbing one of their heads as they sat at our feet, “But after my husband died, the girls didn’t want me to be alone.”

“I’m so sorry about your husband,” I said. “I had no idea.”

“I was lucky to have him for as long as I did. I knew I would lose him, but it was still a shock.”

“Oh, was he ill?” I asked, assuming cancer or some other drawn out nightmare.

“No, no, he was fanatical about his health. He was training for a triathalon last winter and was hit by a snow plow. It was early morning, the driver just didn’t see him.”

“I, I am so very sorry,” I said shocked.

“Thank you, it was a horrible loss. There have been so many losses, everyone goes. Everyone but the eldest child. They are left to carry the curse.”

“Again, I don’t know what to say, or, I mean, what to ask. But, how do you know this is the curse? How did you figure it out?” I didn’t want to offend her in her grief, but, what in the hell was she talking about?

“The truth is, it took a while, several years really to realize that the curse clung to our family. My dad told me that the first few winters after James’ death tragedy struck but everyone was still in such shock and mourning that no one put the pieces together.”

“What happened those first winters?” I asked.

“That first year my great grandmother died on Christmas Eve, not too much of a shock really, the woman was eighty-five, but the circumstances were strange. She fell down her basement stairs and broke her neck. I guess that happens to elderly people, but she fell backwards and she had been confined to a wheelchair for years. There was no explanation as to how she ended up on the stairs in the first place.

“The next year it was my father’s youngest sister, Jenny. There was a bad storm that Christmas and she’d taken a plate of cookies to our neighbors up the street. When she didn’t come back my grandparents called the neighbors but they hadn’t seen her. My father went to look for her in the storm, though she wasn’t found until morning. She had drowned in the brook, in only three feet of water. The official explanation was that she’d been turned around by the storm and confused by hypothermia and tripped into the water.”

“Jesus Christ Almighty, that stream? Out there?” I demanded shakily, pointing out the picture window.

“Yes, I moved back into the house after my father passed last year. He died right after my husband, within a week actually. I was surprised, really, I thought my dad would go first, but truly, there’s no telling who she’ll take in any given year or if she’ll just allow us to carry on under her dark cloud.

“Shortly after my father’s death it became apparent that a member of the family must occupy the house. If, for no other reason than to protect others from this curse. I attempted to put the house on the market and our real estate agent nearly lost an eye during the first, and only, open house. She tripped on this rug,” Margot gestured to the Oriental carpet and continued, “Hit her head on the corner of the table there.”

I winced at the glass coffee table’s sharp edges.

“There are no coincidences where this home and our family are concerned. I took the incident as a message that one of us must reside in the home order to contain the torment. It’s my turn now, I suppose.”

Before I could even respond she forged ahead with a continued account of family misfortune.

“Oh, let’s see, who else has been taken? Ah, my mother died of a massive heart attack when I was a teenager. It was totally unexpected, she was a vegetarian who meditated every morning and practiced yoga. My youngest brother, Michael, hit his head too hard while we were sledding. He was just three. I lost my sister Kim to heroin several years ago. She’d always been a little wild, drinking too much in high school and smoking pot, but heroin? I would never have guessed it in a million years. Our deacon found her on Christmas morning in the basement of our church.”

“Margot,” I said, desperate to stop her litany. “How can you have handled all of this tragedy? And, forgive me, but there are only so many Christmases. Simple math won’t allow for a family death every year. You’d have to have dozens of siblings and relatives.”

More chilling than this account of Tatum family deaths was the seeming casualness with which they’d been reported. I wondered if Margot were highly medicated, then realized that she must be. Without the help of an SSRI, no one could handle this level of personal loss without succumbing to simply rocking in a corner for the rest of their days.

“We haven’t had a death every year,” she said. “There’s always a cooling off period after she’s fed. But even the years that we don’t have a loss, Beleth is active and the curse takes different forms.”

“How so?” I asked, a sick thought popping into my mind that perhaps on the off years the living must go out and butcher non-Tatums. I braced myself for her answer.

“Unquestionably, I have the worst luck of anyone I’ve ever known. I’ve broken my jaw, both hands and my elbow, twice. My SAT scores were lost so I had to take the test over, causing me to miss the due date for college applications. I’m on the no fly list because a terrorist sympathizer from the United Kingdom shares my name. I have hit five dogs with my car, and I can’t even count the squirrels. I don’t cook, there is no point and frankly, it’s dangerous. I’m color blind. I’ve personally funded my dentist’s retirement. I just got diagnosed with Fibromyalgia whatever the hell that is. When I had the twins the doctor’s hand slipped and-””

I held up my hand, unwilling to hear the rest of the sentence. I asked, “Have you done anything to counteract this curse?”

Margot sat back in her chair, obviously irritated by my interruption, “The house is blessed monthly, an exorcism performed each year in November. Though these things anger the demon, my father did them and I feel an obligation to continue the traditions.

“The most disturbing element in this whole ordeal is not the curse. Yes, it is strong and it has wreaked outright havoc within my family, but it’s not the worst of the problem. The ritual that my Uncle James performed in his bedroom on that Christmas Eve, it took my father years to understand it. He traveled across the country to speak with James’ fellow cult members and some the families left behind.

“What my Uncle did was beyond a simple generational curse. The ritual he performed before attacking my grandmother breached the divide between this world and the afterlife. It ruptured something that cannot be resealed. It goes without saying that the cult he was involved in was not truly in the business of Christian warfare or battling demons. Cursing families was not the ultimate goal. The sacrifices of cursed family members feed the pit every year, not just when a life is claimed. The tear in the abyss is powered by all sorts of darkness and depravity.

“Illness and injury, car accidents, quick and deep burns on the stove, slips of the knife while cutting carrots, windows smashing on fingers. Political arguments that tear families apart, a dirty look given at just the right moment when a person is at their weakest, hate speech overheard and internalized by a child. They, Beleth and her comrades desire more, more disease, more torment, more hate, more fear.  Not to mention the entities.”

“Oh, shit,” I sighed, feeling my neck to be sure the trusty old blessed medallion was where it should be.

“I’m sorry, I thought you assumed this was of the paranormal vein,” she said quickly.

“Oh, I did,” I replied, nodding my head, “I just thought we were already well into that.”

“Well, we are, but there is one more piece of this puzzle. These entities entered our lives through the curse. If they are allowed to they have the ability to take us over completely.”

“As in possession?” I asked.

“Mmm, more like, acute influence. They can put thoughts into one’s mind and confuse up from down. Right from wrong. Take my sister. She was a brilliant social worker. She did more good in her life than anyone I’ve ever come across, and yet she died of a heroine overdose in the basement of our childhood church? She helped people with drug addiction, she wasn’t a drug addict herself.

“Our biggest fears, our greatest weaknesses, the good that we do, it is all fodder for these beings. There is a touch of dark humor or, maybe it’s irony to the destruction they influence.”

“How do you know that these entities exist? Couldn’t it just be the demons themselves?” I asked, reaching down to pick up one of the dogs, weak protection against this woman’s sickening autobiography.

“The demons seek blood and sacrifice but for that they need, oh, the word negativity doesn’t suit, really, but that’s what it is. I think that these other beings are from hell for sure, but they are not of the same rank and power. They are like minions, pests. And they look totally different.”

My mind said, Best of luck, catch ya on the flip side, Margot. But my mouth asked, “You’ve seen all of these things?

“I have, yes. The demons only in dreams and they look like you and me only not. They are beautiful and charming and wicked. I don’t how else to describe them, but I hate seeing Calvin Klein ads, the models are a close comparison.

“As for the other beings, they exist in the basement, I hear them. I have seen them, sometimes they are like lights flickering out of the corner of your eye. Other times they are shadows that dart across doorways or slink near the floorboards. I know they live here and I think it’s their home base.”

She paused and sipped her coffee then said, “I’ve read some of your stories, on your blog.”

“Oh?” I replied, thrown by the change of subject.

“Yes, several of them were quite disturbing, even familiar. Let me ask you, though, you understand that there is evil in this world, right?”

“I do,” I said simply.

“Well, as far as I’ve been able to tell, evil nests. It needs a home base to work from, a place of rest and recuperation so it may power the destruction it intends. This home, the basement in particular is one of those nests, and I am the keeper of the nest now. I am sort of its overseer. If I leave this house, if I sell it and let someone else move in here then there would be no gatekeeper. We are not the only family that this happened to. I carried on my father’s research and I’ve tracked down as many of the cult member’s families that I could. I believe that there was a pact within the cult because they all returned to their homes that Christmas in 1972. Before returning home the cult members meditated for a full seven days on a steady intake of LSD and they all received the same message and the same instructions. Go home and kill the demon in your house. But first, carry out a ritual to open the home to ‘angels.’”

“But there weren’t any angels,” I guessed.

“That’s right, there were no angels, but there were many demons. Our demon, the one assigned to my family, or to Uncle James was Beleth. There are homes like mine all over the country. The cult, it’s goal, were these nests. The curses unleashed power that provides the constant sacrifice necessary to feed the nests.

“I have visited some of these families and some homes that were quite active. The evil entities actually managed to take hold of family members and violence was carried out on strangers. In other words, sacrifices are made outside of the immediate family, saving the members of the cursed family, for a time anyway.

“I almost fell into the trap myself. When I was eighteen I vandalized my principal’s car, I actually spray painted the interior in pink and purple stripes. It was a small car, a sedan, I’ve never been good at recognizing car brands or, makes? Models?” Margot shrugged her shoulders. “I even slashed the tires, well, I suppose I popped them. Slashed sounds so dramatic. I just stuck knives into each wheel.

“I haven’t the faintest idea what came over me, I had no problem with the man, I’d hardly ever interacted with him. The destruction was utterly unlike anything I’d ever imagined, let alone done. But then nothing bad happened to anyone in my family that Christmas, and I put two and two together. For a short time I thought I’d found the key to breaking the curse. A little mean trick was all it would take. The thing I didn’t know was that my principal was gay and closeted, he thought someone who knew his secret had ruined his car. He must have thought they intended to out him as well, so he killed himself that New Year’s Eve.  

“I should really say that I did that. I killed him.”

“You didn’t know,” I breathed.

“I knew I was doing evil to someone else and I was thrilled that I caught a break for my family because of it. My actions lead to his death, but we were given a reprieve for a full year.”

I was speechless.

“What frightened me the most was that it felt good. The worst part of it all is that letting go and giving in to the pull to enter into the darkness felt like gently falling, floating even. When I was spray painting that car I was joyful. When I found out he had killed himself I had to leave the room because I got the giggles.”

Aside from the crackle of the fire, the room was silent The dog on my lap was warm and cozy, though I was chilled to my very core.

Margot shrugged her shoulders again, “Thankfully, something inside me knew it was wrong, and that it hadn’t completely been me who caused that damage. I’ve had the opportunity and urge many times since to be,” she paused, looking at the fire, “destructive, but I’ve held myself back. Good works can suppress those urges.”

I thought of the food pantry and wondered of her other acts of service, but what really intrigued me were the evil “urges” she’d had and managed to suppress. I was about to ask what those urges were when she leaned forward, urgent and insistent.

“Heaven help us, it’s looming on the horizon. I can feel things stirring up, they have been for months now. This past year has been particularly active, and I’ve seen things that I hadn’t come into contact with before. The energy is, I don’t know, you can’t call their energy high, because it simply isn’t. It is low, very low, but it has, I suppose magnified. Very negative. And there are different beings around now. The light flickers and the shadows are here but my dreams are filled with horrible creatures and insects. Huge insects that are imaginary but are as real as spiders or beetles.

“And,” she paused, looking at me with sad eyes.

“What?” I asked. “What is it?”

“They seem to be waiting at the gate, waiting just beyond the fold. They are coming. The darker ones, and the angrier and more contentious the world becomes it makes it possible for these more depraved beings to slip through.

“All I know about is this one cult. This one batallion of demons and their appointment. But there must be more. My time is short, I can feel it and I am doing everything I can to weaken the nest in this home. I try to do good, to spread love. But I am only one person and my life has been so dark. And now the world seems to be darkening more rapidly than ever before.”

I nodded my head and became aware of a hum beneath my feet. Like that of a large machine steady in its work.

“I can show you if you’d like,” Tatum offered quietly. “It’s not that you can really see anything down there, but you will be able to feel it. The energy.”

“Oh, fuck no,” I said. “I’m sorry, I mean, no thank you. I just got evil out of my own home, I am not messing with it any more.”

“That’s right, your tapping and those silly little creatures,” she said, almost dismissively. “Are you sure you want to keep doing these interviews? Let me tell you, once it has a hold of you, it doesn’t let go. That tapping may be gone and those beings are out of your house now, but once you look it looks back and never looks away. I have no choice, I can’t escape it.”

“There must be something that can be done to protect you,” I argued.

“I’m telling you that I’ve pursued the usual avenues. I’m doing the best that I can. But I am my father’s only living child. Now that Bruce is gone it’s just me and the girls. I don’t know if I told you that, I have twin girls, Olivia and Chloe. They are in their gap year now, abroad in Africa building a well in a small village. When I die they will be alone. I don’t know if both of them will make it, only one of them needs to survive to carry this on. Olivia is the oldest sibling, by seven minutes. My dad was the oldest sibling. I am the oldest. It would fit the pattern that she will be the last one standing.

“It was wrong of me to have children, I know that. I knew it at the time. But there was a pull there and I am certain it was Beleth. I don’t really have complete control over my life. I just don’t. But I can control the things they are exposed to. They’ve been in church school since before they could walk. They went to Catholic school all the way through. They were never allowed out of my sight. They’ve done more good in their eighteen years than most people have in a lifetime.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “You were dealt a terrible hand. I can’t imagine it.”

Margot gave a short laugh, “Yes, well, we are all fighting a terrible battle, aren’t we? I trust that you won’t share any of this with the women at the pantry?”

“Of course not, but the blog-”

“Oh yes, please do transcribe our talk onto your blog. People need to know the truth. ‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.’ Evil is here and it’s closing the gap. Lulling us into complacency. We mustn’t be deceived.”

I placed the dog on the ground and stood, “Thank you, Margot. Again, I am so sorry, for all of your loss and for this, burden.”

Margot smiled and placed a hand on my shoulder, I fought not to pull away, “You are a reporter, Liz. Be sure to pray. You will witness plenty that is far more frightening than my tale and I wish you the best.”

I followed my hostess to her front door, the dogs at our feet.

“Oh, I’m sorry I totally forgot to tell you, the little girl playing in the yard, before I came in. Um, I don’t know if she was playing some sort of a game or something but she said, ‘Peach goes next.’”

“What did you say?” Margot demanded.

“She asked me if I was going to visit Go and to tell her that Peach goes next,” I explained. “I just assumed she meant you and it was a nickname.”

“It is a nickname,” she replied.

“Sorry I didn’t tell you before, I got distracted by the dogs.”

Margot grabbed me by the arm so that I couldn’t walk out the door. “What did the girl look like?” She demanded.

I looked down at Margot’s hand on my arm and choose not to react angrily. The poor woman had been through enough.

After I quickly described the little girl Margot said simply, “You met my sister.”

“Wait, I thought you only had one sister and that she had passed?” I replied shaking my head.

“She has. She’s dead. But she’s the only person who’s ever called me Go.”

“Well then who is Peach?” I snapped, yanking my arm away.

“Chloe, my daughter, that’s her nickname.”

“Maybe I misheard her, I’m sure I did, “I rambled. “There’s no way-”

I was cut off by the sound of a phone ringing in the adjacent room.

White as a ghost, Margot took a deep breath and urged, “You should go. Now.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, wanting desperately to run from this nightmare.

“Just go,” she said slamming the door behind me.

 

 

** COVER IMAGE CREDIT: http://theresurgent.com/trumpism-is-a-cult-stop-pretending-its-not/

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Welcome to Out of the Swells! While Wellesley remains the most haunted place on earth, it isn’t the only spooky place around. So… let’s travel Out of the Swells, we’ll be reasonable and jet set just once a month. Premium Members will find future Out of the Swells ghost stories on Podbean for $1 per month. But this first episode is as free as a relative’s advice over the holiday break. I’ll be sure to let you all know when a new story is released – this first Out of the Swells tale will be the only one I post on the blog. If you like it and want to hear future tales, hop on over to Podbean.

Not to worry though, there will be plenty of Ghosts in the Burbs stories right here on the blog and podcast. I’ve set the schedule at two per month, and it’s a resolution I am determined to keep.

Now, throw on your cashmere wrap and put your kids in front of an educational app. Let’s hop aboard the Highline ferry.  

Here’s Out of the Swells Ghost Story #1 – There Once Was a Nanny From Nantucket

* * * * * * *

 

I am drawn to Nantucket like a toddler with a fork is drawn to a light socket. The island is picturesque and historic and all weathered grey shingles and cobblestone streets, a New England Yankee’s dream. It’s also touristy and a touch claustrophobic. Nantucket is what 1980s movies told us summer was supposed to be. It’s ice cream every night, sailor’s rope bracelets on sunburned arms, gold bangles, painted pink toenails and a place where my deep love of navy blue and white striped clothing is accepted, no, celebrated with love and approval. It’s hydrangea and white roses, crushed seashell driveways and weather vanes. It’s an ice-cold beer in a plastic cup. Giggling, sandy haired, sun kissed children with dirty feet and sticky lollipop hands. It’s a weeklong binge of French fries and burgers, oysters and fried fish, and finishing off the kid’s leftover chicken fingers as we try to manage the logistics of a week that is always far too short. It’s too many glasses of Chardonnay and late night ice cream cones, dehydration and recalling the previous night over coffee with embarrassed laughter.

On island, email goes unanswered and Chris puts down his cell phone and lets his beard grow. Though I always wish I’d lost those last ten pounds Nantucket makes me magically forget the extra weight as I watch my daughters awkwardly splash around on boogie boards and discover hermit crabs in delight.

Nantucket isn’t all happiness and light. It has a darker side. As you walk the streets countless widow’s walks hover above where wives watched and waited for loved ones who would never return from sea. Peek into the beach plum bushes, but don’t get too close, there you’ll find deer ticks that spur stories of friends who’ve suffered terrible bouts of Lymes disease. Over your morning coffee read the Inquirer and Mirror and learn about the opioid epidemic claiming the island’s young people the way the whaling boats stole it’s husbands years ago.

At one time the island was primarily home to Native Americans. The native Nantucketers were a part of the Wampanoag Nation, and you can probably guess their fate. English settlers came seeking land and an escape from Puritanism. They discovered whaling and then a trade ship with an infected crew docked on the island and quicker than you can say ‘louse-borne illness,’ the Native American population was decimated.

The victor’s have told Nantucket’s history. But even if the complete story isn’t so well-known the memory is there, the love and rage, the satisfaction and remorse. Stepping off the ferry boat you can feel it, the untold history whisping around you in the thick fog.

***    

We spend two weeks on island each summer. When Chris and I were childless and carefree we ferried to ACK as often as we could; staying in cheap bed and breakfasts, sharing bathrooms with other guests and creeping past inn keepers’ bedroom doors at two in the morning giggling and dizzy from too many shots of tequila.

An old family friend who we spent time with each summer messaged me on Facebook to inquire about our vacation timing. A friend of hers had a summer nanny whose “crazy-ass” Nantucket haunted house story I just had to hear.

A part of me wanted to wave off, I was desperate for time away from real life. Vacations were not really vacations anymore. On this particular trip, our two older girls had their blow up toddler beds set up alongside each other in the walk-in closet and the baby’s pack ’n play lived in the bathroom. We’d slept until about quarter to five each morning, which we considered a success. I was exhausted and frazzled but, in the end, the pull of a Nantucket haunted house story was too strong for me to dismiss.                

My friend, who had been enthusiastically following the blog, told me that she’d put the nanny and I in touch if I promised that she could come along on the interview. Her second condition: I couldn’t use her real name for the blog post; she insisted that I create a fabulous pseudonym. I agreed.

And so, “Buffy Von Carmichael” and I arranged to meet the nanny, Ashley, for a drink at CRU oyster bar. On an island where the summer population carries a look-at-me, don’t-look-at-me, why-aren’t-you-looking-at-me vibe, CRU is a scene unto itself. Perched at the edge of docks where multi-multi-million dollar boats preen, the restaurant’s upscale, on-trend coastal preppiness makes diners feel as though they too are on-trend.

[Don’t bother calling for a reservation, they will claim they’re booked through Labor Day. But go ahead and show up with your friends and apologetically ask for a table. Allow the host to act shocked that you would even think a place so incredibly incredible could possibly have a table available last minute, then wait patiently as they pretend to look around and seek out a corner for you. Finally, act shocked and grateful when you’re party is seated within ten minutes.]

Buffy and I secured a spot on the patio. We sat next to each other on a navy blue sofa and Buffy placed her clutch on a wooden wingback chair to reserve it for our storyteller.

I took my recorder out of my own clutch (a monogrammed straw purse with multi-colored pompoms) and when a tanned and toned young man came to take our drink order I requested a glass of Chardonnay, just the house wine, nothing fancy.

Buffy requested a Triple Eight blueberry vodka on the rocks. A delicious drink that I’d made the mistake of loving too much our first night on island. I don’t drink hard alcohol, college ruined it for me, but this blueberry vodka tasted nothing like vodka and, caught up in island induced happiness and the novelty of drinking something other than Chardonnay, I drank too much of it, lost the time and threw up before going to bed with the spins.   

“Watch out for that stuff,” I commented.     

Buffy waved away the warning and scanned the crowd, “Nobody,” she sighed.  

I rolled my eyes. Buffy is an unapologetic snob, a quality that on her is somehow endearing. I asked her for a bit of backstory as we waited for Ashley to arrive.

“Ok, so you remember that woman at Orange Theory who always holds onto the handles during the sprints?” I made an annoyed sound to indicate that I knew just whom she was talking about. “Right, so she used Ashley as a babysitter during the school year, Ashley’s a junior at Wellesley.”

“Oh, so she’s in college,” I confirmed.

“Right, and she works during the summer for families in town. She specializes in vacations.”    

“Hold on a minute,” I said, putting my drink on the table. “Babysitters ‘specialize’ now?”

“Oh yeah,” Buffy said, nodding her head knowingly. “My neighbor has a girl working for her who only does carpools. You can hire her to drive your kids around from activity to activity but she doesn’t really babysit. One of my sitters, whom I pay twenty dollars an hour mind you, doesn’t ‘do’ bedtime. She will only ‘babysit’ when the kids are in bed. Says she has to focus on her academics.”

“The end is nigh,” I commented.

“Indeed,” Buffy agreed. “So our Ashley is a vacation nanny. She comes out for a month or more with a family, lives with them and basically does everything with the kids. I would kill for that kind of setup.”

“I painted my house and waitressed on the lunch shift in college, why wasn’t I smart enough to be a vacation nanny?” I complained.

“I know. I walked dogs for Christ’s sake. These girls are way savvier than we were. The Orange Theory woman told me that Ashley’s been doing this every summer since she graduated from high school and families pay over six thousand a month depending upon how many kids are in the family and how ‘hands on’ they need her to be.”

“Stop it,” I demanded.

As we discussed our ideal job description for a vacation nanny Buffy looked up and waved. I turned around to see an Abercrombie and Fitch model approach us. Her dark skin and incredibly long wavy brown hair swayed as her long legs carried her toward us. She wore adorable scallop edged hot pink shorts and a strappy silk cami. Her youthful body was so toned that this bare outfit didn’t even look sexy, just fresh. She had the darkest brown eyes I’ve ever seen and she smiled happily at us as she approached.

“Hi Mrs. Von Carmichael,” she said cheerily, “Thanks so much for reaching out. It’s so great to have a kid-free night!” Then she turned to me and held out a hand, “You must be Mrs. Sower, it’s nice to meet you.”

“Hi Ashley,” I said, shaking her hand, impressed by her maturity. Buffy motioned to our waiter and Ashley put in a drink order, a white wine spritzer – Chardonnay, not Pinot Grigio. I was, again, impressed.

The girl cut right to the chase, “You want to hear my ghost story,” she said to me. I nodded my head and began to answer but she held up a hand, “Sorry, but I only have until eight thirty. I have a really early morning with the kids.”

I glanced over at Buffy and held back from saying ‘hashtag job description’ and instead said, “Sure, thanks so much for taking time off to share your story.”

“Of course. I’m actually kind of relieved to tell someone who will believe me,” she replied.

“No one believes your story?” I asked.

“Oh, they do,” she said, tilting her head as though considering. “My friends are totally entertained by it, and they acknowledge that I believe that it happened, but I don’t think I’ve told anyone who really believes it, you know?”

“I get that,” Buffy said, leaning forward. “I once saw Cher walking down Newbury Street. She was wearing black jeans and a blond wig. I know it was her, but no one believed me.”

Ashley and I stared at my friend.

After a beat I nodded my head and said, “Right, I think this stuff is kind of hard for people to accept.”

“Yeah, well, there are a lot of things I find hard to accept lately,” Ashley replied, raising her eyebrows.

Buffy and I exchanged a look after the girl refused to elaborate.

“The election?” Ashley finally said.

Of course, I realized, she goes to Wellesley.

“Oh, that,” Buffy said, dismissively. “There’s no way he can win.”

“Stranger things have happened,” I said.

Buffy waved a hand and downed the rest of her drink. “Impossible things aside, what’s your ghost story, Ashley?”

“I nannied for a family last summer. They rented a house off Cliff Road, and the place was really haunted, like, horror movie haunted,” the girl replied.

“I heard voices and footsteps, I saw a, like, monster and something sat on the end of my bed,” she paused, pushing Pantene-quality hair behind an ear, then continued, “There were other strange things, but the worst part was the sense that I was always being watched.”

“How long did you stay in that house?” I demanded.

“A couple weeks in July. After the first week I wanted to go home, but I had committed to nannying for this family and they were paying me a lot of money. I was supposed to stay the whole month, but I couldn’t.”

“I wouldn’t have even lasted a day if even one of those things happened,” I commented.

“Well, right, but it took me awhile to understand what was going on. At first, I was so busy getting used to the family and learning their routines and stuff, but the more time I spent in the house, the more obvious it became.”

“Hold on, back it up,” Buffy demanded. “Start at the very beginning. Who were you nannying for, what happened first, and go from there.”

I looked at my friend and thought that I should bring her with me on every interview. Then I looked back to Ashley and nodded encouragingly.

“Ok, so the family had two kids, a nine-month-old little girl named Daisy and a little boy named Charlie who was three-and-a-half. Wait, you can change the names, right?” She asked me.

“Absolutely,” I confirmed.

“Ok, good, thank you. So, the Roberts were referred to me by the couple I’d nannied for the previous summer. The mom, Michelle, was probably in her, like, early thirties but the dad, Carter, was way older, probably in his late forties. They were both pretty cool. I’ve been sitting for families since middle school so I’ve seen it all. These guys actually spent some time with their kids.

“Some parents don’t, you know? They just want the kids dressed up and cute to show off when their friends are over, but otherwise, they want me to keep them out of the way. My first summer nannying out here the parents left me with their ten-week-old baby for two days without even checking in once. They needed a ‘romantic getaway,’ so they stayed at the White Elephant for the weekend. I sent them text updates the whole time but they never responded.”

Though there was so much to unpack in this opening monologue, I couldn’t help but to get caught up on the emphasis on how old forty seemed to her. A glance at Buffy gave me the impression that she was stuck on the same thing.

Ashley went on, “But this couple was pretty chill, but they went out every single night and they drank, and I mean a lot. No matter how late they were, though, Michelle woke up at seven every morning for a run and then yoga in the back yard.”

I sipped my drink, trying to look neutral. I didn’t want to let on how dreamy this sounded.

Ashley shook her head and shifted in her seat, “I was there as a safety measure more than anything else, you know? I took the kids to the beach in the morning to keep the house quiet and we’d be back a little before lunchtime. Michelle hung with us the rest of the day until about four o’clock when cocktail hour started. Mr. Roberts was in Boston most of the week for work, and he golfed mornings when he was on island, but when he was there he hung out with us in the afternoons.

“I was alone with the kids morning and night. Even when the Roberts finally got home at night they were so drunk they’d be totally passed out so I couldn’t rely on them at all.”

“Alright, so the parents partied hard. What about the ghosts?” Buffy said impatiently. I stifled a laugh and had to stop myself from spitting out my drink.

Ashley stared at Buffy for a moment but chose to direct her answer to me. “I’m trying to impress upon you that, for all intents and purposes, I was alone much of the time, especially at night and that made what happened all the more terrifying.”

I looked between the two alpha women with amusement and asked, “Where exactly is this house?” All intents and purposes and impressions aside, I wanted the exact home address so that we would never stumble upon the listing and rent it.

“It’s right off of Cliff Road just a bit out of town, near Steps Beach,” she said, before taking a sip of her cocktail.

“The house number?” I asked as casually as possible.

“I don’t know if I should say?” Ashley said.

To this, Buffy moaned, “Oh, come on.”

 “Well, I can’t exactly remember, but if you must have it I’ll look back at my emails,” she snapped back.

“We simply must,” Buffy replied.

“Anyhow,” I said, giving Buffy a look and willing her to be less aggressive. “You were left alone with the children a lot which sounds like a huge responsibility. What did you notice about the house that was strange?”

“The first thing I noticed were the voices,” Ashley replied quietly. “You know those noise machines that you put in kid’s rooms to help them sleep?”

“I swear by them,” I said.

“The Roberts had two of them in each of the kids’ rooms and they insisted on playing the white noise at full blast. It seemed like overkill to me at first, but the kids were both pretty good sleepers, even the baby.

“This one night, after we’d been there for about a week, I was up giving Daisy a bottle in the middle of the night when I first heard the whispering. Those noise machines were almost deafening, but as I was putting her back into the crib I thought I heard someone having a conversation. It sounded like a man and a woman. It was a weeknight so I knew that Mr. Roberts wasn’t home and anyway it was, like, three o’clock in the morning. Michelle had been out that night with friends and she was home but passed out.

“I stood by the door listening for a minute and then stepped out into the hallway. I closed the door behind me as quietly as I could and just stood still, but I didn’t hear anything else. I peeked in on Charlie, his room was just across the hall from Daisy’s and he was sound asleep, so I tiptoed down into my room and grabbed my cell phone and dialed in 911, but I didn’t press send. I had to check to make sure no one was in the house and I wanted to be able to call the police if someone was there.”

“Ashley!” I scolded, “You should have called the police immediately if you thought someone was in the house!”

“I know, but it was my first week with this family. What if the police woke everyone up in the house and it turned out to be nothing? I figured I could look downstairs and if I didn’t see anything then, there had to be another explanation.”

“I’m guessing there was another explanation,” Buffy said, leaning forward in her seat.

“Um, yeah. I checked the entire downstairs, even the closets. The house was gorgeous on the outside but it hadn’t been, like, updated in forever. Inside it was all dark wood and low ceilings.

“I checked the first floor, and luckily the basement door was padlocked. The Roberts’ real estate agent left a note for us with a list of the ‘property’s charming quirks.’ She warned us that the sea grass and beach plum bushes that surrounded the yard were infested with deer ticks and she also mentioned that we were not to go into the basement. It was the homeowner’s private storage area. I checked the basement door that night and the padlock was in place, so I didn’t give it another thought.

“I had a really strange feeling, like you know how when you walk into a room after someone’s had an argument and there’s, like, a vibe?”

Buffy and I nodded our heads. “You can’t be married with kids and not know about angry vibes,” Buffy quipped.  

“Yeah, so I went back upstairs and peeked in on the kids again. Charlie was still sound asleep and when I looked into Daisy’s room I couldn’t see her in the crib from the doorway so I walked over to the crib and saw that she had just snuggled her way into the corner. I was shifting her away from the crib bars when I heard that low conversation again. It was definitely two people arguing.

“Again, it sounded like it was coming from directly below Daisy’s room, which would have been the family room. I was trying to listen closely when the bedroom door click shut behind me.”

“911!” I exclaimed.

“Well, duh. I had my phone right out in front of me with my finger on the call button, but I walked over to the door to lock it before I called the police when the thought hit me that someone could be going into Charlie’s room.”

“Holy shit, that is awful,” I said, thinking of my girls.     

“It was,” Ashley said, taking a sip of her drink. “I grabbed the door handle, it was one of those old ones where you press a lever down and a bar lifts, you know?” I nodded in encouragement. “Right, so I pulled the door open as fast as I could and jumped into the hallway. I figured that I would startle whoever was out there. I was about to scream my head off and press the call button on the phone, but there was no one there.

“I threw open Charlie’s door and again, no one. I checked behind the door, under his bed, in the small closet. I even tried the window. I was certain that someone had been in that room, or in the hallway. The floors creaked so badly that they couldn’t have gotten down the stairs so fast.”

“Tell me you woke the mother up,” Buffy said.

“No, I didn’t,” Ashley replied. “Again I looked in on both kids, I even checked to make sure they were breathing. Then I sat down in the hallway in-between their rooms with my phone. I ended up falling asleep. Michelle woke me up as she was headed out for her jog.

“What did you tell her?” I asked, thinking how freaked out I would be if I ever found one of our babysitters asleep in our hallway in the morning.

“I tried not to, like, freak her out, but I mean, I had to explain and not seem like some sort of freak show.”

“What did she say?”

“She was weirdly chill about it.”

“That’s fucked up,” Buffy said.

“Totally. I would have called the police that morning to have the house checked out,” I agreed.

“Yeah, but you put your ADT on when you’re home during the day,” Buffy said to me dismissively. “I would have been freaked out by the fact that a babysitter was sleeping in the hallway.”

“That stupid alarm system is worthless, there’s this one window in our basement that keeps tripping it and, well, whatever, never mind. I would definitely have called the police and I would have been pissed at you for not calling them the night before,” I said to Ashley pointedly.

“Yeah, but, she wasn’t. She thanked me for watching after the kids and gave me the morning off so I could sleep. She said the voices I heard were probably just picked up by the sound machines from another house.”

“That’s not how those things work!” Buffy said in disbelief.

“I know, but I didn’t want to disagree with her,” Ashley explained.

“She was way too chill,” Buffy said.

“Right? It was weird,” Ashley replied. “It was almost, like -”

“Pathological,” I interrupted.

“Totally,” Ashley agreed. “It was like she wouldn’t allow anything in that would disrupt the story she’d created about their family. They were rich and relaxed and their children were to be the same way. She was way into appearances, but I could tell she didn’t want anyone to think that she was.”

Buffy and I nodded with both guilt and understanding.

“So the morning after hearing the voices I tried, but I couldn’t sleep. I would start to doze off and then get startled awake by someone calling my name. The first few times I thought Michelle had changed her mind and needed my help or that the kids had snuck upstairs. But every time I opened my eyes, I was alone. I was beginning to get super creeped out, but since I’d barely slept the night before I pinned it on exhaustion.”

“That afternoon Carter came back from the city, it must have been a Thursday. Michelle joked with him about my night and he poked fun at me, said something like, ‘At least there’s one responsible adult in the house.’”

“Gross,” I said.

“Right? That night Michelle and Carter were out as usual and I was falling asleep when my bedroom door latch clicked and the door creaked open. I had my back to the door and I heard heavy footsteps walk into the room. I stayed still for a minute, not sure if I should just pretend to be asleep.

“You know, I’ve had a couple lurky dads in my time. Once in high school a dad was driving me home and he put his hand on my knee and asked if I wanted to grab a ‘brewski’ with him sometime.”  

“No!” Buffy and I yelled at the same time.

“Yeah, it was disgusting. Carter didn’t seem the type, but you just never know, so when I felt someone sit down at the end of my bed I popped right up but,” Ashley paused.

“What?” I demanded. “What did he do?”

“That’s just it, it wasn’t Carter. There was no one there. I know I heard someone open my door, walk into the room and sit on the end of my bed, but there wasn’t anyone there.”

“Oh fuuuuuck,” Buffy said, keeping her eyes on Ashley while motioning to our server for another round of drinks.

“I got up went into Daisy’s room, picked her up out of her crib and rocked her in an old chair in Charlie’s room until I fell asleep. The Roberts woke me up at two o’clock when they peeked in on the kids after getting home from whatever party they’d been at.”

“What did you tell them?” I asked.

“I said that I’d heard weird noises and didn’t want to leave the kids alone,” she said.

“How did they react?”

“The same, they made a joke of it.”

“What the hell was wrong with them?” Buffy demanded, as though the girl could answer.

“They were drunk,” Ashley answered simply before ordering a club soda from our waiter.

Duly cautioned, Buffy switched to wine and I downgraded to a spritzer.

“Then what?” asked Buffy.

“So then I began to feel like I was being watched all the time. Like, constantly. The first week I was there I would sit out in the backyard and read or whatever, but after that night I didn’t go anywhere by myself. Even that back yard creeped me out. It was surrounded by tall sea grass and beach rose bushes -”

“Lymes disease,” Buffy interrupted.

“Totes,” Ashley agreed, sagely. “There was a house-wide porch on the back of the home, and past the beach grass the yard overlooked the ocean, like, between Jetties and Steps. It should have been beautiful but it just wasn’t. It was depressing.

“When the kids napped I tried to stay close to Michelle but, like, out of her way and when the kids were up I kept us out of the house as much as I could.

“This one weekend Carter was all pissed off because we’d forgotten one of the beach chairs at Jetties the day before. He stomped around the house looking for more chairs and then Charlie said, ‘Maybe they’re in the basement.’ Carter hooked into the idea and got a screwdriver to unscrew the metal latch that held the padlock to the doorframe.”

“Charlie followed him right down the stairs and I went after him, I was terrified to let him go down there alone.

“He wouldn’t have been alone,” I protested, “His dad was with him.”

“Same difference,” she countered.

“Yeesh,” Buffy said, making a face.

“That basement hadn’t been used for storage like the real estate agent had written in her note. It looked like no one had been down there in fifty years.

“It was positively dank. I tried to hold Charlie’s hand but he pulled free and ran to his dad, who’d crossed the dirt floor to the far side of the basement.

“‘Carter, don’t!’ I called before I could stop myself. He just looked back over his shoulder, amused in his stupid, arrogant way and said something about the ‘fucking beach chairs.’ Then he pulled a door open to this little storage area there was-”

“A ghost!” Buffy exclaimed.            

“Shut up!” I said, nudging her shoulder, causing her wine to spill.

Ashley snorted and said, “No ghost, just an empty, dark closet with a small wooden box sitting at the center of the floor.”

“Oh, shit,” I said.

“Charlie rushed right into the closet and scooped up the box. Carter had already turned away to continue his stupid search for the chairs and I went over to Charlie and reached out to take the box from him. He pulled it close to him and he goes, ‘No! It’s mine. She said it would be here.’”

“Nope,” I said, shaking my head.

“Who said it would be there?” Buffy demanded.

“Aunt Lydia,” Ashley replied.

“Who the fuck is Aunt Lydia?” Buffy demanded.

“Charlie said it was the sad lady who talked to him in his bedroom,” Ashley explained.

“Nope,” I said again, downing my useless wine spritzer.

“It was super fucking creepy,” Ashley said giving an exaggerated shiver. “I asked Charlie what was in the box and he said it was Aunt Lydia’s circle.”

At this, Buffy guffawed.

“Cut it out,” I said, trying not to laugh.

Aunt Lydia’s circle is the new name for my lady parts,” she said laughing.

Ashley looked at us like we were just as bad as the Roberts and pressed on with her story, “Anyway, I got Charlie to come back upstairs with me when I promised him I’d help open the box.”

“What was inside?” I asked.

“An Indian Head penny from 1860,” she replied.

“Spooky,” I said.

“Aren’t those things valuable?” Buffy asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” I said.

“Google it,” Buffy insisted.

Ashley sighed and I said, “Let’s stay on track, Ashley has an early morning with the kids.”

Buffy gave me a look just this side of an eye roll and I returned it with a headshake.

“Anyway, Charlie was obsessed with that thing. He never let it out of his sight. He said the sad woman told him it would ‘take him happy from the gloom.’ He talked about that a lot, the gloom.

“Michelle and I were in the backyard with the kids one afternoon. We’d set out a beach blanket for Daisy and Charlie ran around on the lawn with a beach ball. Michelle went inside to get a diaper and some wipes when I looked up at the house and saw a figure in one of the second floor windows. My window. It wasn’t human. It had a small baldhead and a long skinny body. It was so hunched forward that it almost had to look up to look down at us, you know?

“I stood up slowly and was about to start screaming for Michelle to get out of the house when Charlie looked up to see what I was looking at. When he saw the creature in the window he started screaming for his coin. I looked away from the window and scooped Charlie up but I could barely contain him.

“Just then Michelle walked out of the house and asked what the hell was going on. Charlie was struggling so hard against me that I was forced to put him down. He ran straight towards his mom – towards the house. I yelled for him to come back, to get the hell away from the house.

“Michelle snapped at me to calm down. ‘You’re getting Charlie all worked up,’ she complained as he went on and on about his coin. I picked up Daisy off the blanket and told her what I’d seen. She thought I was completely crazy. She thought I was having some sort of panic attack or something. She asked me if I was missing my family, if maybe I needed a night off, if I would like something to drink.”

“Oh, man,” I said.

“I did my best to calm down and agree that I had just seen some kind of trick of the light. I told her that what I really needed was ice cream cone, that it would make me feel much better. All I wanted was to get as far away from that house as I could.

“She was icy to me after that. I think she was annoyed that I was, like, losing my mind on her perfect vacation. She told Carter and he made angry jokes about it. He even jumped out of the bathroom to scare me as a prank when they had some of their friends over.”

“What an asshole,” Buffy said.

“You know what? He was an asshole, they both were. They were so concerned with partying and looking good and they didn’t even give a damn about their kids. Sure, they spent time with them, but as soon as one of the kids had a problem, or Michelle started to get bored. She was off with a magazine.”

Buffy and I were silent. Mom guilt overtook me. I felt bad about being so jealous of this flighty woman and her family. I wondered if Buffy was thinking the same thing. She wasn’t.

“They’ll be divorced by the time the boy is five,” she said with conviction. “They may be assholes, but that’s how adults act when they are deeply unhappy. They try to distract themselves so they don’t have to contemplate reality.”

“You’re so right,” I said, impressed by her insight.

“But they have kids,” Ashley insisted. “Don’t they care about their happiness?”

“Honey, I’m not saying it’s right, but being a grown up is complicated and shitty. You’ll see,” Buffy said firmly.

“Yeah, well, all of that aside, what the hell happened with that creature in the window?” I asked, wondering what was going on in Buffy’s personal life.

“There was definitely more than one thing going on in that house. I think Charlie was talking to a ghost, but that thing in the window wasn’t a ghost. It was, like, able to do stuff. It could mimic things.”

“What things?”

“Voices, for one thing. I can’t tell you how many times thought I heard Carter talking in the house in a room only to find that not only was he not in the house, he wasn’t even on the island.

“Then it began to mimic me. I didn’t realize it at first but there were a couple times when Michelle would start talking to me about something and I would have no idea what she was referring to. Like she’d ask if I’d had time to grab the dry cleaning or if I’d picked up the green tea we’d discussed.

“At first I thought she was just being absent minded, but there was this one time when I walked downstairs after having taken a nap and Michelle goes, ‘Back so soon? I thought the humidity might be too much for you.’

“I hadn’t any idea what she was talking about, but I didn’t want to be rude so I just gave a kind of noncommittal reply and she went on this bent about how ridiculous it is that people think running just consists of throwing on a pair of sneakers and heading out the door.  

“She pointed to my feet and said, ‘Do you even wear sneakers? I only see you in those flip flops.’ She was so, like, annoyed with me.”

“She probably felt challenged by the cute young babysitter taking up running all of a sudden when it was so obviously her thing,” Buffy reasoned.

“But that’s just it, I didn’t go running. I’ve never gone running for exercise. I hate it. I had no idea what she was talking about. But she’d had a full conversation with me, but it wasn’t me. The thing had pretended to be me just to make her mad. Oh, God, I almost forgot this, too: a couple days later I was in my room and I heard something fall down the stairs and whatever it was fell hard. Then I heard Daisy start shrieking.”

“Oh God, don’t even tell me,” I said.

“I ran out of the bedroom right over to the stairs screaming Daisy’s name and Michelle appeared at the bottom of the steps shushing me.

“She had Daisy in the Baby Bjorn, the baby was sound asleep. I made a stupid excuse saying that I must have heard a baby crying outside, but I know what I heard. I heard Daisy fall down those stairs.”

“Jesus,” Buffy breathed.

“A few days after that Mr. Roberts was supposed to be in Boston, it was a Tuesday, and I will never forget it. I was up really early with the kids and I decided to give them their breakfast on the porch because I knew Michelle hadn’t gotten home until after three the previous night.

“I got the kids all set up on the lawn chairs and went back inside to grab my coffee and when I came back out Charlie was saying, ‘Dada! Dada!’ and was pointing to the side of the house. I started to say, ‘Daddy’s at work,’ when the door to the outside shower opened and out stepped Carter, fully dressed in Nantucket reds and a polo.

“I almost dropped my coffee. I raised my hand to wave and began to say, ‘What are you doing back so soon?’ or something like that when he motioned for us to follow him. Charlie started to jump up to run to Carter, but something, I don’t even know what, made me grab his arm so he couldn’t go off the porch.

“Carter just smiled and kept walking towards the back of the lawn. I called to him again, but he didn’t look back at us. He walked right on through the hydrangea bushes into the sea grass and beach plums.        

“Charlie kept calling to him but I just stared. It was, surreal. He just kept going. I rushed the kids inside and Charlie went absolutely ape-shit that I wouldn’t let him go to his father. You know what I honestly thought? I thought that he was going to keep walking until he made it to the ocean, then just keep heading out. I thought he was going to commit suicide,” Ashley shivered.

I had goose bumps on my arms and Buffy whispered, “What the fuck was wrong with him?”

“Nothing,” Ashley replied. “There was nothing wrong with Carter. Once I got the kids inside I brought them upstairs and woke Michelle up, which was nearly impossible. Once I got her to listen to me she was so pissed. She wanted to know what time it was! She insisted that Carter was back in the city; she wouldn’t even go downstairs to look out the window.

Ashley screwed up her face in disgust. “Her breath reeked and she still had her makeup on from the night before, she was such a hot mess. Her husband was walking out to sea for all we knew and she was pissed that I’d woken her up!

“I made her call him. I found her cell phone in her purse and stood there while she called his cell phone and when there was no answer I insisted that she call his office. I had to know if he was in Boston.

“But,” Ashley paused, placing her drink on the small table between us before continuing, “he answered the phone. I could hear him saying, ‘Hey, Mish, what are you doing up so early you little drunk?’”

“No way,” I whispered.

“It was awful,” Ashley confessed. “I looked absurd. I know she thought there was something wrong with me, like I’d cracked under the pressure of nannying for them or being away from home or something.

“She stayed on the phone for a minute and laughed with Carter about my freak out. She said something like, ‘don’t stay away too long, it sounds like you’ve got a twin walking around the island and you know I get lonely.’”

“Ugh, gross,” I said.

“I know, right? When she hung up the phone I told her I wanted to leave. First of all I was fucking terrified, but I was just as humiliated.”

“Oh shit! You bailed on the nannying gig?” Buffy said in awe as though this were the wildest thing that Ashley had told us.

“What was I supposed to do? Things were totally fucking escalating. I’ve seen horror movies, I wasn’t about to be the fucking final girl.”

“Good point,” I said.

“What the hell is a final girl?” Buffy asked.

“I’ll explain later,” I said impatiently. “But, that’s it? You just left?”

“I did. I took a ferry off island that afternoon, I couldn’t stay there another second.”

Ashley said she hadn’t had any contact with the family since that day and had no idea what became of them or the rest of their vacation. She asked me if I knew what the thing was that had haunted the cottage and I gave a vague ‘maybe just ghosts,’ answer.

I asked her if she’d had any lingering effects after her brush with the paranormal.

“Besides the dreams, no,” she replied. When I asked her to elaborate she looked at her cell phone and said, “I really ought to get home. I need to go to bed.”

We watched her slip through the crowded patio, each processing the girl’s story in our own unique way.

“Carter, I mean, Mr. Roberts, has some secrets in his closet,” Buffy said knowingly.

No, you don’t think-” I began.

“Mm hmm,” she replied, raising her eyebrows as she sipped her drink.

“You’re too jaded,” I countered, more hopeful than certain.

“Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” she intoned.

“Just because she called an adult by his first name doesn’t mean anything chancy happened,” I snapped.

“Mm hmm,” Buffy replied.

That’s your take-away from her story?”

“Not my only take away,” she said. “I’m wondering why you pretended not to know what was haunting that house.

I looked at her for a moment and said, “I didn’t want to scare her.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about scaring me. What was it?”

“Something that can mimic, and I mean actually impersonate someone? It had to be really fucking powerful. I doubt there were any ghosts in that house. My guess is that Aunt Lydia’s Circle was cursed and a demon or whatever got that little boy to take it out of the place it had been hidden away.”

“Yeesh,” Buffy said.

“Yeah, well, either that or it was some sort of a Native American something or other.”

“Well if that’s the case, then good for them. They deserve a little revenge,” Buffy replied.

“True, but either way, I mean demon or not, those things don’t just haunt you and let you go.”

“Well, then maybe it will haunt the stick out of her ass,” Buffy replied.

Our server returned and asked if we would like our check.

“No,” I told him, “I’ll take a Triple 8 on the rocks.”

Buffy laughed and said, “I’ll have the same thing as Lydia,” then she asked, “So, what the hell is a ‘final girl’ anyway?”