“I didn’t know if it would be weird to ask you to meet up with me, I suppose we could have just zoomed-”
“No! I’m so happy you did. I’ve been going stir crazy.”
“Same. You just never know how people feel about being out now.”
“Totally. But I would have told you if I was uncomfortable. Besides, we need to take advantage while we can. Seems inevitable the numbers will climb.”
Erica nodded, her face shield reflecting both me and the forest around us. “Did you hear they had a scare in Dover?”
I expressed that I had by wincing.
“Thank God. I mean, not thank God, the poor man, but at least it wasn’t…”
“I know, right?”
She shifted, causing her beach chair to creak. We were sitting an appropriate distance apart in the shade at Morses Pond on a cool fall afternoon. A crisp wind blew in over the water chilling the air and causing the last leaves on the trees to whisper around us.
“Let’s try not to talk about it. Let’s pretend to be normal, shall we.”
My mask hid my smile but I agreed to try.
Erica named a street and pointed vaguely across the pond, asking if I’d spent any time there. As it turned out, I had. It was a part of a tiny neighborhood that grew out of the steep western banks of Morses Pond (MOPO to those of us in the know). The neighborhood’s windy roads, along which only about fifteen or so homes squatted, were cracked and narrow. The enclave’s four intertwined streets were an utter hodgepodge of run down lake shacks, gleaming modern waterfront architecture, and the predictable New England waterside cottage found round these parts.
From the sounds of it, Erica’s was one of the latter.
“I’d had my eye on that neighborhood for years, but it just didn’t make sense for our family until the kids were out of the house for good. It felt like kismet, the house came on the market the same exact week our youngest daughter signed a lease on an apartment in the South End.
“There were the holidays to consider, the house was far too tight to comfortably accommodate all three kids, plus us, plus the inevitable significant others – but the holidays only come twice a year, right? And Bill and I had outgrown our neighborhood. We had no desire to be those empty nesters keeping up a massive house and yard we no longer needed. Let me tell you, full on suburban living is a young woman’s game.
“We didn’t want to leave town, but we wanted a more tranquil, less neighbor dense living situation. The pond felt like the right setting, and the house. Oh, it was just adorable.
“You never know what you’re going to get over there, but the previous owners had done all the heavy lifting. Winterizing what had once been a summer cabin and turning into this perfectly outfitted little cottage – total Coastal Farmhouse vibe. So different from my style and I loved it! The kitchen, living and office area all faced the lake, then there were two bedrooms and a huge bathroom up front. But the biggest draw was the deck. It wasn’t anything crazy, it just extended out over the water and it was up so high it felt like you were in a tree house.”
Erica went on to say she’d been thrilled to rid them of a lifetime of family acquired clutter. Gone went the old field hockey sticks and soccer balls, the detritus of their children’s adolescence and the good intentioned though useless exercise equipment bought on hope and impulse. Bunk beds gathering cobwebs in the basement were gifted to a young family two doors down from their old house. Basically anything that didn’t fit her perfect vision for their new home, their new lifestyle was sold, given away or sent to the dump swap.
“It felt like a new beginning and with the money I made selling all of our old crap I bought the furniture I really wanted. The perfect rugs. I even bought all new dishes and tableware. Nothing extravagant, it was just nice to have matching sets instead of cracked crap mugs the kids dragged home over the years.
“I knew I was padding the nest in an attempt to distract myself from what was happening. We moved in just a few months before the news broke on the second outbreak. When they were just finishing the final rounds of the vaccine. When all that election mess was finally sorted out and we were hopeful for all of five minutes that things just might get back to some semblance of normal.
“Jesus, I thought there’d be more fires and bigger storms. Drought. All of it, but I didn’t think of disease, did you?”
“Not really,” I said, absently adjusting my silicone gloves. “I’d read something like a sort of ‘what if’ article some time ago, but I never thought it would actually happen.”
Erica nodded. “Lord, the way we all panicked over the virus. Can you even imagine if we’d known then what was coming next?”
“Every time my toes itch I’m certain I’m a goner.”
Erica nodded knowingly. “Have you seen those photos out of Ireland?”
“And Japan,” I added. “It’s so weird that it hits islands so hard, right?”
“I just read that Nantucket is an absolute ghost town. It’s only a matter of time. Something about the sea air.” She paused, staring out at the water. “All conversations lead back to it lately, don’t they?”
I held up my hands. “Hard not to when we’re decked out in all this gear.”
“So true. Hard to concentrate on anything else lately. Sorry. Back to my perfect little cabin by the lake. Well, it was perfectly perfect for about a month. The little creaks and groans didn’t bother me. Regardless of the renovations, we were in an old house. An old house on the water for that matter. There was bound to be an adjustment period.
“Anyhow, Bill used to travel for work, Connecticut and New York. He was gone most of the week then home Friday through Monday morning. It worked for us. It’s nice to miss each other, right?
“He drove back and forth and during the first pandemic it was fine because all three states allowed for travel between them. But once the state borders shut down his job went online like everything else. At least, about half of it did. Who knows if the rest of it will ever come back.” She paused again, lost in thought.
I shifted in my chair again, despite the cool air I felt sweaty and confined in my protective gear. The movement pulled Erica out of her thoughts.
“Sorry. The point I was trying to make before I rambled off again is that I was alone a lot. I was used to that, but there were other things to get used to at the new house, weird noises mostly. Wind coming off the pond does funny things.
“We had this next door neighbor. Awkward guy. Would walk out to his car and really make an effort not to look over at me. I wasn’t having it. It’s close quarters over there. I don’t want to be all bestie-bestie with every neighbor but I’m not going to ignore the fact that they’re there, either. I made a point to call out ‘hello!’ to him and once in a while he’d begrudgingly return the greeting. He had no interest in us whatsoever until I started cleaning up the yard along our shared property line.
“I had our landscapers pull out all these scraggly evergreens and put in more attractive plantings. I don’t know shit about gardening, but I’ve always liked those bushes that are a cross between a hydrangea shrub and a tree? Know what I mean?
“He got so peeved about those bushes. Came over and berated the landscapers, ranting about mature plantings and keeping things in line with the neighborhood aesthetic. If overgrown, dead leaf strewn neglect was the look he was going for in his yard, that’s fine. But I let him know in no uncertain terms that I was well within the bounds of my own property and I wasn’t interested in his design input.
“He stood in his driveway and stared daggers at my landscapers everyday as they did the work. I just stood in my own driveway and sipped coffee and waved at him. ‘Lovely day for yard work!’ I called out. He just grumbled and stomped inside.
“Then I know he started throwing his dog’s poop bags in our yard after that. I just ignored him. Now that drove him crazy. Jerk. So when things started happening around the house I totally suspected him.”
“What happened at the house?”
“The very first thing that got my hackles up was this one night I was out on the back deck drinking my SleepyTime tea and reading before bed when I heard a knock at the front door. Three knocks, actually.”
“What time was it?”
“It was late, after midnight.”
“Eek. Were you home alone?”
“Oh yeah,” Erica raised her eyebrows. “I was spooked, but at the same time I wondered if maybe one of the neighbors needed help or something.”
She chuckled. “Naive, I know. I went to see who was there, but when I looked out the peephole there was no one there. Side window too. No one. I even opened the door and-”
“Ha! You’re right. I just didn’t feel like I had any cause to be too concerned at that point.”
“Your next door neighbor was harassing you.”
She tilted her head side to side. “Yeah, but that all seemed in good fun. He needed an enemy and I was up for the role. All things considered though, you’re absolutely right. I could have ended up on a Dateline episode. But I convinced myself I must have imagined the knocking. It was breezy that night. It could have been anything, but something about it felt off enough that I double-checked the doors and windows before I turned in for the night.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have dug up the yard. I didn’t connect the two things because the plantings had been done earlier in the week, and that satchel they found just seemed like someone’s old junk.”
“It was a burlap sack about the size of a shoe bag cinched with twine. They found it buried in the dirt under one of those scraggly bushes they were taking out.”
“Did you open it?”
“Some dried flowers, a rusty old set of Rosary beads, a little vile of something or other, um… a couple pennies and what else… oh! There was a folded-up piece of paper but it pretty much crumbled apart when I tried to unfold it.”
“Sounds like it might have been a part of some sort of ritual, like an offering or something.”
“Well now it does, after everything that happened, but at the time I thought it was like a break up thing. You know? Like, some lovesick teenager buried it after a bad break up.”
“What happened after the phantom knocking at your door?”
“All hell broke loose. I remember vividly that it was a Tuesday late afternoon in the fall. Bill was off on business. I’d just finished a review – I’m a book reviewer, I told you that, right?”
I acknowledged that she had.
“Thank God for eReaders. No one wants hardcover now, too much risk of infection. Genre sales are soaring. I bet your blog readership is way up.”
I shrugged. “I haven’t been able to put any new content out since May. Just too much…”
“Jesus, that’s when everything went to shit, huh? I just don’t understand, I thought we knew how to kill bacteria, right? How can it resist everything they try? Have you seen the photos?”
For the second time I told her I had. I didn’t want to talk about the photos. I wish I’d never seen the images of those black veins, the flaking skin. The finger nails peeled back on a woman’s hand, her voice over reassuring people that it didn’t hurt. “You lose feeling quickly,” she’d assured her YouTube Channel subscribers. That was in May. Now the comments were filled with condolences for her family members. As if they could possibly be around to read them.
“Where was I?” Erica said, pulling me back into the present. “That ill-fated Tuesday. Late afternoon. I’d been working all morning and needed to get away from my desk. So, I was in the kitchen waiting for the water to boil staring out at the lake trying to decide whether to do laundry or go for a walk when I heard someone call my name. It was a woman. She goes, “YooHoo! Erica!” It sounded like it came from the back deck, but I was staring right out at the deck and there was no one there.
“I went outside, thinking maybe someone was at the shore or beneath the deck on our little patch of lawn. I tried to shrug it off when I didn’t find anybody, you know sound travels funny over the water. Maybe I’d heard someone across the lake, and just thought it was close by.
“But I wasn’t back inside two minutes when there was a crash underneath my feet. It sounded like something massive had fallen in the basement. I ran down there and one half of the sliding glass door that faces out beneath the deck had been smashed.
“That basement was the only part of the house that hadn’t been touched. We planned to renovate it eventually, but as it stood it was a dank little nightmare room. As I stared down at all the glass trying to figure out what had caused the break, a shadow crossed over the floor as if someone had walked past the door outside.”
Erica shivered. “When I looked up there was no one there. I sprinted up those old stairs and closed the basement door and dragged one of the armchairs in front of it. I had a window replacement company over within an hour. They couldn’t find any evidence of what had smashed that window. The whole thing scared me enough that I had the sliders replaced with two heavy steel doors later that week.
“At that point I thought the neighbor was fucking with us. I called ADT and had them install the whole shebang. We even put cameras on the front and back doors. wanted to catch that jerk red handed. Part of me was just hoping it was that guy, but you know what? I knew. I knew it wasn’t him. The house had begin to feel, really close. If that makes any sense.
“And yet again, there was no one there. I stuck my head out to see if I could see anyone, but then slammed and locked that door pretty quick. I checked the camera footage. It caught the noise of the handle juggling and me opening up the door, but that was it. No one else. That spooked me. I told Bill as soon as he got home and showed him the recording and he brushed it aside saying it must have been a critter. Maybe a chipmunk, too small to make it on screen. I had to admit that it was possible, the camera didn’t show the actual door, and we were overrun with those little creatures. Still… I had a bad feeling.
“The next morning Bill woke up before me. I was pouring my coffee when I caught what I thought was his reflection behind me in the microwave door. I saw him walk by the window out on the deck. I went out to join him but he wasn’t out there. I was about to go down the stairs to see if he was by the water when I heard him say, ‘It’s freezing out there, whatcha doing?’ He was standing in the doorway.
“That’s when I really started to think we were probably, maybe pretty definitely being haunted. It scared the daylights out of me, yes. But in a funny way, I was kinda excited about it too. I believe in all that stuff, always have, I’d just never experienced any of it. So I called an old friend of mine who I knew would be into it too. She came right over that Monday afternoon with her Tarot cards and some sage.” I could tell by her eyes that Erica was smiling at the memory.
“It was all in good fun. Honestly, we were bored to death. There hadn’t been anything exciting to do in months so we made a nice little fuss over it. I got one of those fancy little cheese boards from Wasik’s, cracked open a bottle of wine and lit some candles. Well, she got her hot little hands on a set of Tarot cards and wanted to try and communicate with whoever was haunting the house.
“I don’t know much about Tarot cards. I’ve had my fortune read a couple times but I’ve never played around with them, so I can’t tell you exactly what cards she pulled, but they weren’t the good ones. That I know for sure. They were all like, watch out! And loss ahead! Devil, hell, uh oh!”
I snorted at her interpretation. “That’s not good.”
“Not at all, but you know what? It was fun, and fuck all if I could remember the last time I’d actually had fun. It felt exciting and silly.
“Turned out those damn cards were probably trying to warn us off. But we didn’t stop there. Cindy, my friend, suggested that we try to reach out to the spirits. She said that if they had a message then all we had to do was acknowledge it and then they’d settle down and quit creeping around.”
“What did you do to try and communicate?”
“Honestly? Not much. We just closed our eyes and tried to open our minds. That was what Cindy said we should do. I sorta sat there with my eyes closed thinking nothing would come of it and wishing we could just pour another glass of wine already, but after we ‘meditated on our intention of opening up to all messages’ Cindy said something like, ‘You are welcome to come to us and communicate any way possible.’
“I was like, are you sure that’s a good idea? But she insisted that we shouldn’t limit ‘them’ that we should remain open to all possibilities and by inviting them in we’d show them that I was cool with sharing the space. ‘But I’m not cool with sharing the space,’ I pointed out, and she just shushed me. ‘We’ll deal with it after,’ she said. ‘But let’s at least see if we can get anything to happen.’
“Well, we sure fished our wish. As I took the last sip of wine from my glass,” here Erica paused dramatically, “The fucking basement door swung open and hit the wall so hard that it knocked a picture frame right off. Once we’d calmed down Cindy was like, ‘That’s the message! We have to go down there.’
“I did not agree. ‘Have at it,’ I told her. But she insisted that we’d asked for communication and we got it, so how could we just ignore it.”
“What did you find down there?”
“Well, those heavy steel doors we’d had installed? So much for them keeping us safe. They were wide open. Those doors had been dead bolted and I’d dragged an old wooden deck chair in front of them too. The chair was turned over and looked like it had been tossed aside.
“’What exactly do you think the spirits were trying to tell us with this?’ I asked Cindy. She didn’t know. She was like, ‘I didn’t think anything would actually happen.’ Great, right? ‘We could sage?’ She suggested. ‘No. No more.’ I told her. We’d already bitten off way more than we could chew. We shut the doors, righted that chair, went upstairs and had another glass of wine.
“I think that’s what it had been trying to do the whole time. You know, knocking at the door, calling my name. It was trying to find a way in. And then by screwing around with Cindy’s halfcocked plan we went and did just that and invited it in.”
“What was it? A ghost?”
“I don’t know what the hell it was other than scary as hell. It could mimic our voices. I heard Bill calling for me from the basement more than once – when he was out of town. One morning I went out on the deck with my coffee and there were wet footprints leading up to the door, as if someone had gone for a swim, climbed up onto the deck – and not by the stairs, mind you, the railing was wet, the stairs bone dry – and then walked up to the back door.”
She shivered. “The tipping point was this one night I was tucked into bed trying to read myself to sleep when I heard Cindy talking in my kitchen. It was like listening to her talk on the phone, like I was hearing only half of a conversation. It was so strange, so disorienting that I called out, ‘Cindy?’ And she answered me.
“‘Yes, Erica?’ she called back. I was halfway to my bedroom door saying, ‘What are you doing in my kitchen?’ When she answered, ‘Come and see.’
“Frightened does not even begin to describe the way I felt in that moment. I pushed our dresser in front of the bedroom door,” Erica laughed, “Obviously pushing furniture in front of doors is my go to move. So as I shoved it against the door, ‘Cindy’ or whoever or whatever the hell was in my house said, ‘Aren’t you coming?’ And it’s voice changed as it said the words. It got deeper.
“As I was trying to decide what to do next it knocked on the bedroom door. Three fucking knocks. Just like that first time I heard it. I said something totally useless like, ‘Go away,’ and it made this noise. Not a growl exactly, more like a gravely belch. Gross, right?”
“I crawled out one of the windows and ran to this house down the street – a nice young family with kids. They didn’t seem at all surprised to see me. Said the last people who owned our house ran into trouble too. Can you fucking believe it? I had my cell with me and called Cindy to come and get me. I stayed at her house that night and arranged for a room at the Embassy Suites in Newton. Bill wasn’t thrilled, but he believed me and we put the house right on the market and stayed in that hotel until we got our new place.”
“Good for you,” I said, meaning it.
“So far there hasn’t been any strangeness in the new house. Whatever was there stayed there, thank heavens.”
“Where did you move, if you don’t mind me asking.”
She chuckled. “We’re right back where we started. In a big house in the old neighborhood. I supposed everything happens for a reason. All the kids are home with us now, one of the boyfriends too. We agreed that it’s better to be together when the bug arrives. They’re not playing around with the new quarantines, I don’t want to risk being separated.”
“You know,” she said, “I shouldn’t be on Twitter, but sometimes you do find out about things sooner there. There’s a doctor in Iceland that’s been tweeting out an S.O.S. She thinks they’ve encountered something new – another bug. Says the effects resemble mad cow disease. ‘Swiss cheese brain’ she tweeted. Only difference is with this new one people remain able bodied for far longer and their behavior gets erratic, violent.” She crossed her arms, crinkling the plastic protective covering over her jacket.
“You see ghosts, right?” She said pointedly. “Are they giving you any hints as to what’s coming?”
I reached up to make sure my head covering was still fastened tightly at my neck. “They’ve gone silent for the most part,” I replied honestly. “They seem as stunned as we are.”