At first, my little flier didn’t get much attention, so I mentioned my project to a few friends. I was met with extremes. They either found the idea inspired or ridiculous. I finally got a lead one afternoon at the playground.
I mentioned my search to mom friend and she enthusiastically told me, “Oh fun. You should totally talk to Becca. I think she had a problem with that in their last house,” as though we were discussing a broken sump pump.
Did Becca live in Wellesley?
Yes, she did. She’d recently sold one house in town and purchased another. Interesting. Our mutual friend made the connection for us, texts were sent, a play date was set. Becca has a little girl the same age as my youngest daughter so we meet at Warren Park on an unseasonably warm November morning.
Becca was born and bred to live in Wellesley. Petite, with what writers like me refer to as an ‘athletic build,’ she is head-to-toe toned. My guess was that the girl pilates’ed religiously. With minimal makeup and highlighted medium length hair in a bouncy ponytail, she had that casual, I just threw this on (grey cashmere turtleneck, Barbour coat, perfectly bootcut jeans and worn in Chuck Taylors) look that I have always admired. Not that anyone’s asking, but I was wearing a faded black turtleneck, stained jeans, and an Old Navy vest. My not-so-bouncy ponytail was overdue for a cut and color.
We talked about the kids for a while. Becca just had the one, but she was in negotiations about a second with her husband. She asked if it really was a lot harder managing two, and I was vague. She appeared to have her mind made up to try for a second. She’d know soon enough. She also seemed like she’d nailed the whole mommy gig. Homemade baby food: check. Season appropriate morning craft: check. Have second baby and incorporate said baby into current routine: check, check.
Becca is one of those people who tend to pause for a moment before answering a question. I am one of those people who has a desperate need to fill gaps in conversation. We got off to a rocky start.
We had the kids on the swings and after talking a bit about where my oldest daughter went to preschool, I worked up the courage to ask about her ghost.
“So, I don’t know if Maggie told you, but I’m doing research about ghosts in Wellesley and she told me that you had one in your last house,” I said with a nervous giggle.
Becca snorted. It was a humorless, almost resentful snort. I returned it with a nervous titter and forced myself not to fill the resulting silence with useless chatter.
She gave her daughter a couple pushes on the swing then said, “It wasn’t a ghost,” I started to feel disappointed, then she went on, “I don’t know what it was, but I know it had never been human. It didn’t want us there, but it got power out of scaring us.” She glanced at me to check my expression, and I did my best to look neutral/interested/not completely freaked out.
I must have done a passing job, because she continued, “At first I thought it was just postpartum or exhaustion. I was so tired. The new baby, the house, Jake was working constantly and I was alone in this new town, missing the city and shuffling around a huge half empty house by myself.
“Then mom came and stayed with us for a week after the baby was born and she mentioned a couple times that scratching noises woke her up in the middle of the night. She insisted that I call an exterminator. She was sure that we had rats. Not mice – rats. She said they sounded big. The house backs up to part of the Cross-Town Trail, you know? So mom had this theory that the rats lived in the woods and came into the house at night to get warm.”
“Yikes,” I interrupt.
“I know, right?” Becca said “It was horrifying to think that there might be rats around the baby and all, so I called an exterminator and he didn’t find a thing. No sign of rodents at all. The guy was actually impressed with how secure the house was.
“I probably should have wondered a little bit more about what my mom had heard in our walls, but I was so relieved that it wasn’t rats that I didn’t give it another thought. I was, I don’t know, like, fuzzy during that time. Not working for the first time since graduation, I was focused on the baby and trying to convince myself that I’d get used to the new house. The new life.”
“A friend of mine refers to that special new mommy time as The Dark Days,” I said.
Becca laughed, “That about sums it up. Anyway, I think the first thing that I noticed was the dolls.”
“Dolls?!” I demanded.
“Yeah, I had these cute fabric dolls that I kept in Skylar’s crib. I know you’re not supposed to put anything in with infants, but she just looked so small and alone in that big crib.”
I should be a better mom, I thought, I just want the kids to sleep.
“I’d put them at one end of the crib before her nap,” Becca continued, “And they’d be at the other end when I went to wake her up. She was only a couple weeks old and we had her in one of those swaddle blankets, so she wasn’t bumping them. And it wasn’t even like they’d been pushed around. The dolls would be perfectly placed at the opposite end of the crib. Or sitting next to each other, or lying on either side of Skylar. One time they were half pulled through the bars of the crib.”
The little hairs on my arms were standing up. I sort of wanted her to stop talking.
“Again, at first I thought I was just exhausted and wrote it off. It didn’t happen at every nap, but the second I stopped paying attention to the dolls it happened again. I told Jake, my husband, about it and he totally dismissed it, ‘We need to get you more rest,’ he said,” Becca does that mirthless snort again.
“Then one weekend I went out to get groceries so he had to put Skylar down for a nap and he saw it for himself. This time I guess he placed the dolls near her head and when she woke up they were lying at the other end of the bed with their feet touching each other.”
Mother of God, I thought. I said, “You’re not serious? What the hell did he do?”
“He was still trying to dismiss it, ‘There has to be a logical explanation,’” Becca says this in a low know-it-all sounding voice while she shook her head back and forth.
I thought this Jake sounded like a jerk. I asked “What did he think it was?”
“He thought it was the baby,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“What did you think it was?” I asked.
She paused, watching the swings for a moment before saying, “I thought maybe it was my grandmother. She passed away when I was sixteen and we were really close. I thought maybe she was playing a silly joke, letting me know that she was with us, watching over Skylar. It made me feel a little less lonely.” Becca gives me a sort of side glance.
I nodded my head knowingly and said, “I was so disoriented after we had our first. There was that huge build up for months, you have the baby and everyone is around making a fuss and then they are just gone. He goes back to work and it’s just the two of you. It’s almost more lonely than being alone.”
Becca stared at the swings. I didn’t know what she was thinking, but I had an overwhelming urge to say, Don’t have a second baby.
But that was none of my business, so instead I said, “When did you begin to suspect that it wasn’t your grandmother?”
“I think that I knew deep down that it wasn’t her before I actually let myself really believe it. We’d probably been in the house for a little over a month when the scratching started to wake me up at night. I chased it all over the house. I’d think it was coming from the third floor and I’d go to look for it and it would move to the living room or the study. I had a hard time sleeping anyway, but it was like it knew when I was just dozing off after feeding Skylar and it would start up. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.” She stopped, overwhelmed.
Feeling overwhelmed myself, I asked, “How did you find the house?”
“We were living in the South End and we’d been playing with the idea of moving for about a year. We’d drive out here and explore and maybe pop into a couple open houses on the weekend, but I was always so relieved when we were back in the city.
“Then I got pregnant. Our tiny third floor walk up wasn’t going to cut it with a stroller. We were tight on time and were feeling pretty panicked by the time we walked through the house with our real estate agent.
“I didn’t love it, but I felt pressure from Jake and from the fact that we simply had to find something. Jake saw all this ‘potential,’” Becca did air quotes with her fingers, “The woods gave me the creeps. Especially after having lived in the city for so long. I mean, I grew up in the suburbs, but this house felt isolated. It was just steps from the neighbors, but it felt like, I don’t know, away.”
“In hindsight, I knew that I didn’t want anything to do with that house,” She watched her daughter swing back and forth for a moment, then continued, “I think everything happens for a reason. Signing the P&S, selling our condo, I thought I was just filled with jitters, but I see now that those weren’t jitters, it was dread.”
The girls were getting antsy in the swings. We took them out and brought them over to the lawn and set out a blanket for them to play on. Both babies were that perfect age where they could sit happily for a good chunk of time chewing on toys. Becca and I sat watching them.
Once we were settled I asked, “What happened next?”
“So things really started to get bad after this time in the basement. I was doing laundry, and I was, you know,” she paused, smiling sadly, “It had just been one of those long days. Jake had texted that he wasn’t going to be home until late and I had been expecting him. I’d just gotten the baby down for a nap and I was so tired. I was moving laundry from the washer to the dryer and I was,” she paused again, watching the girls play, “I was crying. I was just so tired.”
I nodded and said, “That sounds like my morning.”
Becca smiled, watched some kids ride a toy dump truck down a hill next to the playground, then admitted, “I felt something pat me on the back.”
“Wait, what? No,” I said, dumbly.
“I know that it sounds ridiculous. I know that it is completely unbelievable. But something patted me on the back while I was crying. Three little pats.”
She reached over and gave me three soft pats in the middle of my back. Pat. Pat. Pat.
I had chills all over my body, and I knew that I would need a Unisom to sleep that night. I didn’t want to hear another word, but I asked, “Did you just run out of there screaming?”
“No, it sort of made me feel better. I felt like I wasn’t so alone. I thought it was my Nan and I said, ‘Thank you, I’m so glad you’re here with me.”
“You mean, you -”
She cut me off, “Yeah, I gave it permission to be there.”
“And it wasn’t your Nan.” I guessed.
“No, it definitely wasn’t Nan,” she said with a snort. “I didn’t tell my husband about that. I knew he wouldn’t believe me, and at the time, it felt like a little message just for me.”
Then she reached into the Louis Vuitton tote she used as a diaper bag and brought out a container of Cheerios for the girls.
I ask her, “When did you realize it wasn’t your grandmother?”
“The scratching became intolerable. I had the pest company back out to the house and they insisted that we didn’t have a rat or mouse problem. The guy even said that with a house as old as ours we should have some sort of a bug or spider factor, but he didn’t even find that.’You’re lucky,’ he told me, ‘The critters don’t like your house.’
“There I was, chasing this noise all over the house every night, while Jake slept like a baby,” Becca shivered then said, “Then I saw a shadow on the stairs one night while I was trying to solve the whole scratching thing. I reasoned it away, but I didn’t follow the noise around after that. I stayed in bed.
“Then there was this time, when I was cleaning up Skylar’s toys. She was napping in her little cradle in the living room and I was picking up her play mat. She’d just finished tummy time and she had this little mirror that stood up so she could look at herself.”
“Did it have leaves on it?” I interrupted.
“Yes, with the little,” she searches for the word.
“Ladybug.” I finish for her, “We have the same one.”
“It totally works, doesn’t it? Skylar hated tummy time, and I was so paranoid that she was going to get a flat spot on her head and need a helmet.”
“I was the same way with Maxine,” I admit, “But with Joey,” I motioned to my youngest, “She had to sleep in a special mattress for three months to reshape her head. The poor thing. Second child.”
We both laughed and I said, “Sorry to interrupt, you were cleaning up after tummy time.”
“Yeah, I was putting away Skylar’s toys and as I picked up that mirror I looked into it and in the reflection I-” Becca stopped, staring at some kids climbing the park’s hill. Then she took a deep breath and said quietly, “I saw a dark shadow figure of a man. He was standing over Skylar’s cradle and even though I had my back to him it was like he knew that I saw him. He turned his head towards me, brought his finger to his lips, and then sort of darted away into our kitchen.”
“Holy shit.” I said.
“I screamed and I ran over to Skylar and just reached into her cradle and grabbed her. She was still sound asleep but she stirred a little, enough for me to know that she was alright, so I ran out the front door of the house and went to my neighbors.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I said there was a man in my house. I was terrified. But I was actually hoping that it was a man that had broken into the house. The police could come and arrest a man. If it really was some dark thing shaped as a man, then what the hell was I going to do?”
“You called the police?” I ask like an idiot.
“Yes. I called them from the neighbor’s. They came and searched our house and part of the trail behind it, and they found nothing.”
“The Cross Town Trail?” I asked, making a note to never jog along that trail again.
“Yeah, it ran right behind our yard. The police thought that some guy had broken into the house and then escaped using the trail. I wanted to believe them. How messed up is that? But it would have been better to have some crazed man standing over my sleeping daughter than that thing.
“The police ‘assured me,’” Becca did air quotes with her fingers again, “that they would watch the neighborhood for a few days. I saw them drive by past the house several times and an officer stopped by two afternoons in a row. He offered to walk through the house and even checked the our back yard and the trail. We both knew that he wasn’t going to find anyone, he was just being kind. He told me he had a six month old at home.”
“Did you ever see the figure again?” I asked.
“Are you kidding me? After that, it was always there. I saw him out of the corner of my eye when I was pouring a coffee for that nice policeman in my kitchen. It watched me all the time. He stopped moving dolls around and really started fucking with me. It got so bad that I would leave the house right after Jake in the morning and I wouldn’t come back until he was home from work. I’d wait in the car in the driveway with the baby.
“I tried explaining it to him but he didn’t believe me. He takes a sleeping pill every night, has as long as I’ve known him, so he never heard the scratching in the middle of the night. I knew that I sounded like a crazy person ranting about a shadow man. I think that was part of what it wanted, though. It wanted me to look crazy. It wanted to drive a wedge between us. Not that we needed any help. I mean, honestly. A sleeping pill every night? With an infant? What an asshole,” Becca had been on a roll but stopped abruptly, realizing that she’d forgotten to use her conversation filter.
“My husband did the same thing when we had our first, he sort of checked out for a couple of months,” I said, wanting to reassure her, ”He went for a jog on my first mother’s day. You best believe that I pull that little card out of my back pocket whenever I need it.”
Becca sighed, “Yeah, Jake came around too. If nothing else he’s present now, you know? He opened an office here in town and even comes home for lunch when he can. And he reads in the middle of the night if he can’t sleep. No more sleeping pills.”
“What changed his mind about the house?” I asked.
“Ugh. It was one of those nights. He got home from work and the baby and I were waiting for him in the driveway in my car. We walked inside together and the lights wouldn’t turn on. I started to panick and I begged him to just leave the house. He was mad, he’d ‘had enough of me being so paranoid,’” air quotes, “He told me to just wait in the foyer and he’d go downstairs, to the basement. ‘Relax, Becca, we’ve blown a Goddamn fuse,’ he said.
“At that moment, standing in our front doorway with the baby’s car seat in my arms, I could feel what a burden I’d become. I could feel him pulling away from me. From us. Only there was nothing I could do about it. What was happening to me was real. I was terrified. I’d brought Skylar’s crib into our room and put it right next to my side of the bed. I was hardly sleeping. I felt like I was losing my mind.
“Fine, maybe I was a sleep-deprived, postpartum, lonely mess, but I also had something really dark fucking with me in my own house,” Becca paused. I was shaking with anger and fear on her behalf, but she smoothed her ponytail and took a deep breath and continued.
“So he stomped down the basement stairs, all dramatic. He was using his cell phone as a flashlight. I wanted to wait outside, but I didn’t want to leave him alone. I was in this sort of fight or flight panic. The basement door is right off the foyer, so I could hear his dress shoes tapping across the basement floor. Skylar was stirring in the car seat, I knew she needed a bottle. Jake’s footsteps got softer as he walked towards the back of the basement. I heard him pull open the fuse box door. Then it was quiet.
“Everything was so still. I was half expecting the lights to go on, half thinking there’s no way it’s going to let him turn on the lights. There was a sort of shuffling, dragging noise. I thought, what the hell is he doing down there? and I stepped towards the basement door and yelled, ‘Jake?’
“Then there was this noise. God, I don’t even know how to explain it. It was like this scraping sort of a screech, like heavy metal dragging on the basement floor, but it was sort of animal at the same time. Then there was a loud, like really loud thud, like a wrecking ball had slammed into the house.
“And then I heard Jake. It took me a minute to even realize that it was him. I’d never heard him scream before. Yell, yes, but scream?” Becca shuddered.
“I froze, I couldn’t leave Skylar alone upstairs but I couldn’t bring her down into that basement. I had to help Jake, but I had to protect Skylar. I realized that I was yelling, screaming Jake’s name. Then, thank God, I heard him running back up the stairs and all of a sudden he was there, in front of me. He grabbed the car seat from me with one hand, grabbed my arm with the other and dragged me out the front door. He slammed it behind us with his foot and put us in my car.
“I was crying, the baby was crying. Jake floored it out of the driveway, ‘You are never to go into that house again,’ he yelled, ‘Do you understand me? You and the baby are never to go into that house again.’.
“I was shaking and terrified, but I was so relieved I started laughing hysterically,” she shook her head and picked up Skylar, “I’m sure I was just in shock.”
“What the hell happened in that basement?”
“He never told me. I asked him in the car that night and he just shook his head. Frankly, I don’t really care. Whatever it was got us out of that house. We drove into the city that night stayed in a suite at the Four Seasons through the weekend. The next morning he told our real estate agent to put the house on the market.”
“Did you ever go back to the house?” I asked.
“I’ve driven by since we moved.”
“What about all of your things? Your clothes, furniture?”
“Jake had a friend help him to pack up our clothing, and our photo albums and personal things, but he refused to take anything else out of the house. He hired a company to clean it out and sell anything that didn’t stage well for buyers.”
“Not really,” I said in disbelief.
“Yeah, really,” she said with a sad smile, “Half of our stuff was still in boxes anyway, we’d only been there for a little over two months. The house sold quickly, and we found a place across town, off Weston Road.”
“Who bought the house?” I asked.
“A family with three little girls. Eight, six and two,” Becca said as she opened a container of Cheerios for Skylar.
I wanted to ask if they told the family anything about the house, but I knew the answer, so I asked, “What about your new house, anything happened there or did everything end when you left?”
She looked at me, considering. Then looked at Skylar.
“Nothing has happened in our new house,” she replied. “But I dream about those three little girls every night. I dream about them playing in that basement.”