As a children’s reference librarian at the Wellesley Free Library I helped little ones find truck stories and Lego books and I even got to fill in for story time when one of the full time librarians took a day off. I typically worked in the library’s main branch across from Town Hall, but I occasionally had the good fortune to fill in for a story time at the library’s tiny Stone Branch on Washington Street.
The small, one-room stone building was full of charming antique tables and chairs for reading and a little bench-lined nook in the back served as the children’s room. I was there filling in for a toddler storytime one afternoon and as I handed out the little egg shakers for the last song I noticed a woman at the back of the group. She appeared to be alone with no child near her. I smiled and offered her a shaker but she declined so I assumed she was a librarian from a nearby town checking out the competition, a common practice.
I wrapped up story time, helped the kids find books about farms (and superheros and frogs and pirates and princesses) and began gathering my belongings. My schedule had me due back at the main branch of the library in fifteen minutes.
I was bent over picking up egg shakers when a voice directly behind me quietly said, “Are you Liz?”
I popped up, startled, and turned around to see the child-free woman standing there. Standing right there.
“Yes, hi,” I replied, attempting to back away and bumping into the library’s fireplace.
“I’m Laura Arnold. You’re storytime was so sweet,” she said, holding out her hand.
I shifted the egg shaker container and held my hand out in return. We shook, my hand absolutely engulfing hers. She was a teeny tiny little bit of a thing. Everything about her was perfectly turned out; hair, makeup, skin, outfit. All perfection.
What is with the women in this town? I thought, not for the first time.
Laura’s jet black hair was cut into a Vidal Sassoon-like bob. Her olive skin was all flawlessness and glow though I think she was only wearing mascara. Probably in her late twenties or early thirties at the latest, she wore a wrap dress covered by a jean jacket.
If you must know, I hovered over her in ill-fitting navy blue capris, a wrinkled white button down shirt, old red flats and an uncomfortable chunky necklace.
“Thanks,” I replied to her comment about the storytime. “Are you visiting from another library?”
“No, no, I used to be in finance, but I stay at home now, I -” she paused, leaning a little closer, pinning me to the fireplace mantle. “I saw your note on the community board and a friend knew that you worked at the library. I had to find you, I don’t know who else will believe us.”
“Oh!” I said, realization dawning. “You have a ghost story.”
“Sort of, I mean, something is happening to our family. Do you have time to talk?”
“Shoot,” I replied, “I don’t have time right now, I’m due back to cover the children’s desk. But let’s exchange phone numbers and we can find a time to grab coffee.”
“When do you get off work?” She asked.
“Um,” I began, overwhelmed by the woman’s anxiety, and really wanting to regain some personal space, “My shift ends at one o’clock and I don’t have to pick the girls up from the daycare until three, so I guess I could -”
“Perfect. Can you meet me back here?” She asked.
“Sure,” I replied, side-stepping away from her. “I’ll look forward to hearing your story.”
“I don’t know if you should,” she replied.
I had been planning on going to Whole Foods after work but it could wait. The girls could survive another cereal night. I was tired and pregnant and in no mood to cook.
After swinging over to Starbucks for a latte I drove back to the Stone Branch. I walked into the small library and spotted Laura immediately. She and a very large man were ensconced at a circular table in the New Fiction section (the coolest thing about this small library – and any library, really – is that if they don’t have something in at the branch, they can order it for you and it will just take a couple days to get there. You can even order a book or movie online. Like Amazon, only, FREE).
“Hi,” I said holding out a hand out to to shake with the giant sitting next to Laura. “I’m Liz.”
“This is my husband, Michael,” Laura said. To her tiny, petite, flawless, he was all hulking, large and disheveled. He was overdue for a haircut and his shapeless suit was in need of dry cleaning. He looked exhausted.
“Hello,” he said in a soft voice as he shook my hand. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with us.”
“Sure,” I replied, “Do you mind if I record our conversation? My mind is like a sieve these days.”
“Not at all,” Laura said while Michael shook his head.
I turned on the recorder and asked, “What’s your ghost story?”
The tiny woman and the big man exchanged a look.Through the sort of telekinesis of couples they decided that she would be their spokesperson.
“Are you Christian?” Laura asked.
“Well, I was raised Catholic, but we go to the Congregational Church across the street because they have a daycare during Mass, I mean sorry they don’t call it that, it’s a service. And the minister was was so easy going about baptizing the girls, so – “ I fumbled.
“Good. Then you’ll understand,” she said with certainty. Her husband nodded his large head.
“Sure,” I agreed dumbly.
“We believe our daughter is possessed,” Laura stated.
“Good Lord,” I breathed.
“We know it started in the house and we know it had something to do with the previous owner’s son,” she continued.
“He was into drugs, but not pot and coke. Serious stuff,” Michael chimed in.
Cocaine has always registered on my scale as a “serious drug,” but to each his own, I figured. I asked, “Why don’t you start somewhere towards the beginning for me. How long have you lived in your house? And how old is your daughter”
“Lilith is fifteen, we’ve only lived in our home for a little over a year. Michael was transfered from Chicago last winter,” Laura replied.
“You have a fifteen year old daughter? Did you guys get married when you were, like, thirteen?” I said before I could stop myself.
The couple exchanged a glance and actually smiled, “She’s our oldest. We have four children, Lilith, Jack who is twelve, and then twins, Carrie and Rosemary. The little girls will be ten next month,” Laura replied.
This tiny, postage stamp of a perfectly pulled together woman, had four children. Four. And she was wearing makeup and an outfit that matched. I bet she had even showered that morning. Good for her, I thought. I mean, she had just told me that her daughter was demon possessed, but still.
“You’ve got a full house,” I commented, then, “You haven’t been in your home long, why do you think you’re daughter’s, um, issue, has to do with the house?”
“I knew before I even stepped foot in that house that there was something seriously wrong with it,” Laura said.
Michael, quite the accomplished head nodder and shaker, shook his head at his wife and said, “Don’t start with that, you didn’t know there was anything wrong until -”
Laura cut him off, “I did know. I knew when the realtor emailed us the photos but you still wanted to go see it. You thought it was such a ‘deal.’ It’s on a busy road and I’ve never liked having the railroad tracks in the back yard.”
“You were thrilled that the kids could walk to the middle school.”
“But I didn’t want them drowning in the brook behind the house,” she countered.
“The only time that you can even call it a stream is after there’s a rain storm,” he shot back.
“I’m telling you I knew there was something off about that house,” Laura insisted. She looked at me pointedly, as though I would back her up.
Their poor real estate agent, I thought.
“So you chose the house and transferred from Chicago,” I reiterated, “What happened after you moved in?”
“Well, the house needed updating. Some of it we could do on our own, painting and taking down wallpaper, ripping up old rugs. But we needed a professional to update the kitchen and baths. So we hired a contractor and he started work before we moved in. He called one day, we were still living in Chicago at the time, to tell us that the project would be delayed. There had been a fire,” Laura said.
“In the mudroom,” Michael interjected.
“Weird place for a fire,” I mused.
“We thought so too, and so did our contractor. He didn’t have an explanation. They’d left the site the evening before and when they came back, a fire had destroyed the mudroom. It burned a hole clean through the floor down to the basement and blackened the walls. We went back and forth about it, but eventually agreed to have our insurance cover it. He swore no one on his crew would dare smoke inside a home and they all denied leaving any power tools plugged in,” Laura explained.
“Weird,” I said. “None of the neighbors noticed the fire? No one called the fire department?”
“No, it just burned in that room and somehow put itself out,” she replied. “That wasn’t the only strange thing that happened when they were there. One of the workers fell off a ladder and broke his arm, another one managed to get into a car accident right in front of the house. But the strangest thing, which we didn’t really get all the details on, was that one of the guys got locked in that little space between the bulkhead and the storm door that closes those stairs off from the basement.”
“Apparently he was stuck in there for something like two hours before the other guys found him. Said he’d been yelling for them and banging on the bulkhead but no one heard him,” Michael explained.
“Yikes,” I said, shuddering.
“Things were alright when we first moved into the house,” Laura went on. “It’s much smaller than our place in Chicago, and we were all getting used to having less space. The twins share a room on the second floor, Jack has his own room up there and we are in the master. There’s a little suite in the basement and we let Lilith have it. The move was hardest on her and we thought she’d be happy to have a space of her own.
“I wanted to fix up her room and one morning I intended to take down the flowery wallpaper to surprise her before she got home from school. I was beginning to use the scouring tool on the walls when I heard a loud knock at the front door. I put the tool down on the floor, next to a spray bottle of solution and ran up the basement steps. It took me, I don’t know, thirty seconds to get up there.
“I looked through the side window then opened the door and no one was there. I even walked to the back door, thinking maybe a neighbor was in the backyard. No one. It was a little unnerving, but I made sure both doors were locked and then went back down to the basement. When I walked into Lilith’s room, my scourer and spray bottle were gone. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I checked under her bed, retraced my steps, everything. It was maddening, I ended up having to go back to the hardware store to buy new ones.”
“Weird,” I said. “Just so I can imagine the space, how is your basement set up?”
“Sure,” Michael replied, “About three quarters of the space is finished. The stairs are in the center, to one side of the basement is an open, carpeted area where we have a couple chairs, a couch and a television, to the other side, Lilith’s bedroom is set next to a storage and utility room with the laundry.”
“Got it,” I said. “Ok, so you had some things go missing, then what?”
“Well, a couple nights later, Lilith woke me up around two o’clock,” Laura said. “She insisted that I had called her name from the top of the basement stairs. I hadn’t. I had been sound asleep. I checked on the little kids and everyone was out cold. Michael didn’t even wake up. I convinced her that it must have been a dream and walked her back down to her room.
“The next night, the same thing happened. This time when she came upstairs she was angry. ‘Mom, you were sleepwalking again! You woke me up!’ Only this time she said she heard me in the utility room ‘monkeying around’ with the washer and dryer. Again, I had been sound asleep, in bed. I wondered if she was having something like night terrors, like a sort of stress response to the move.”
“This is just me playing devil’s advocate – sorry, bad choice of words,” I apologized, embarrassed. “But you said your daughter’s bedroom is right next to the utility room in the basement, with the electrical box and everything, did you ever have the house tested -”
“For high levels of electromagnetic fields?” Michael cut in. “A friend of ours in Chicago thought of the same thing, he is a home inspector so he told us that high levels could lead to feelings of paranoia, or feeling like you’re being watched – even hallucinations. So I was all game for that. I mean, quick answer, right? But no luck, we had an electrician come in to test and the entire house fell into the normal range.”
“Shit,” I said, sitting back in my seat. “I was hoping that might solve everything.”
“Me too,” Michael affirmed.
“More strange things began to happen, quickly,” Laura rushed in, proving her point. “I hung a few photos on the wall in the living room. When I walked by them that night they had been turned upside down. Perfectly. Of course, I figured it was the twins, or their brother, but they all denied it. And along with all of this, Lilith became really grumpy, snapping at us and her siblings. I chalked it up to our move, but she just wasn’t herself.
“Then one day, I came into the living room and Lilith was standing over her brother who was crouched on the floor beneath her. She had her back to me, but Jack looked terrified, like he was about to start crying. ‘What is going on here?’ I demanded. Lilith quickly turned to look at me and I mean it when I tell you that her irises had gone black. Black. It was just for a moment, a split second, but I know what I saw,” Laura crossed her arms and sat back in her chair.
“Geez,” I said. I’d been on board for the missing items and noises in the night, but a fifteen-year-old little girl’s eyes changing colors was hard to accept. I wondered if perhaps Laura had worked herself up with guilt over the move and was looking to pin her daughter’s bad behavior on something other than herself.
“Did you see anything odd happen in the house?” I asked Michael.
“Not at first,” he replied, “I sleep like the dead, so when Lilith came upstairs in the middle of the night I slept right through. Laura told me about the things that were happening during the day and of course I believed her, but I also felt that we were all under a lot of stress from the move. I hoped that, given some time, everything would settle down.
“But, then there was this one day. It was a Saturday and Laura took the younger kids to the movies. Lilith refused to go so I agreed to stay home with her. She holed up in the basement, as usual, and I sat on the couch to watch the Bulls.
“I got up to go to the bathroom and I heard whispering, a whispered conversation actually. The door to the basement had been left open a crack so I walked over and stood at the top of the stairs to listened. I thought maybe Lilith had a friend over. It’s crazy but I was actually relieved that maybe she had snuck someone into the basement, even a boy for Christ’s sake. For a moment, I was grateful that she might have connected with someone here.
“I gave it a minute then quietly walked down the steps. I mean, sure I would be glad if she were making connections, but not connections with a horny fifteen-year-old boy. I was even thinking that we might need to move her room upstairs so she couldn’t sneak friends in at night.
“As I approached her door I heard someone whisper ‘shhh, he’s coming.’ I knocked on the door and pushed it open.
“Lilith was sitting at her desk with her back to the door. There was no one else in the room. No one. I searched. I asked her, ‘who were you speaking to?’ She kept saying, ‘There’s one else here. I swear there’s one else here.’
“I didn’t know what to think, but it made me lend a little more credence to what Laura had been telling me.”
“When I got home, they were both upstairs watching the game,” Laura said, putting a hand on her husband’s back.
“I made her come upstairs. I was frightened. For her, for everyone. I mean, who the hell had she been talking to?” Michael demanded.
Laura rubbed his back. “It was about a month later that I finally had the time to tackle the wallpaper in her room again. I was sorry that I did. Beneath it I found a pentagram and several inverted crosses painted on the walls. Not what you might picture, like all dripping paint, sloppily done. No, someone had taken time to artfully paint these symbols on the wall. They were intricate. Almost pretty in a terrible way.”
“Oh no,” I said, chilled.
“I took pictures of them and texted them to Michael. We decided that the first thing to do would be to talk to the neighbors.”
“Wait, who did you buy the house from?” I asked.
“An older couple who were retiring to Florida, we never had any interaction with them. Our realtor and the lawyers handled everything,” Michael replied.
“Do you know anything else about them?” I asked.
“That’s where the neighbors come in,” Laura said. “We hadn’t really met anyone yet. We live on a busy road, but still, I would have thought someone might stop by to welcome us. One afternoon I made brownies and kept a lookout for a car to pull into the driveway next door. I went over and introduced myself to our neighbor and she was sort of standoffish. I assumed she was just a typical yankee and that I could break through with my oblivious midwesterner act.”
I laughed and said, “Brutal, I’ve seen my husband use that on people before.”
“Works every time,” Laura replied with a smile. “I got the woman to invite me in for tea and I eventually began asking her about the previous owners of our house. She got a little shifty when I brought up the subject, so I just said, ‘you know, we’ve had a couple issues with the home and I just wonder if they ever mentioned having any trouble with the house.’”
“‘I probably shouldn’t be gossiping about this,’ the woman told me, ‘But, you do know that they had a son who died as a teenager, right?
“I told her that I didn’t know anything about the family. She looked absolutely shocked and goes, “The boy hung himself in your basement. I wondered who in their right mind would move a young family into that home.’”
“Uh uh,” I said, shaking my head.
“Yes. And the kid had a reputation for wearing all black and being a loner and apparently there had been some kerfuffle over a neighborhood cat,” Laura said angrily. “No one said a word about it when we were buying the house. His parents were able to list the house without disclosing the death because it happened seven years earlier. I looked it up. In Massachusetts you only have to disclose any deaths that have occurred on the property within the previous three years.
“And, please,” she ranted in a low voice, “Black clothes, a neighborhood cat, the Goddamn pentagram? I mean, I don’t believe sellers have to disclose previous satanic worship on a property, but a head’s up would have been nice.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked, really wanting to ask how she found out when the boy had died in the house, because I wanted to go home and immediately google our address to be sure there hadn’t been some fucking satanist doodling on our basement walls.
“What haven’t we done?” Michael said, running his gargantuan hand through thinning hair. “The past six months have been a revolving door of paranormal investigators, home inspectors, ministers. We have an application in at St. Paul’s for an exorcism, but we have to wait to formally submit our request until they can document Lilith’s behavior.”
I didn’t know what to say. I could feel their desperation, and exhaustion. I believed them, but I really didn’t want to.
“Did you have the house blessed?” I asked, dumbly.
“Of course we did, but that fucking hippie minister -” Michael spat.
“Michael,” Laura demanded, “He did the best he could. Lilith was really upset that we had him to the house and she gave him a hard time.”
“A doctor? Or psychiatrist?” I asked, feeling like a total jerk, but it was a child we were talking about.
“Two pediatricians. Three psychiatrists, and a Reiki healer,” Laura replied.
“I am so sorry,” I began, then noticed through the windows behind the couple that the day had darkened and a downpour was pummeling the windows behind them. I had been so wrapped up in their story that I had completely forgotten to watch the time.
I looked at the clock on the recorder, “Oh no!” I said. I was due to pick the girls up from daycare in two minutes. “I am so so sorry, but I have to go get my girls. I wasn’t watching the time.” The couple stared at me. “I am really sorry for being so abrupt, I should have been paying closer attention. Thank you for telling me your story, it was -” I paused, trying to think of the right word and went with, “Chilling.”
“It’s not just a story, we need help,” Laura pleaded. “Since you’re a ghost hunter we thought that you might have connections. I saw on television that some of the ghost hunting teams have their own demonologists they call in for certain investigations.”
“No, I am just -” I began.
“We had an investigation team come in, but they only made things worse. I think they were inexperienced, and I think they may have invited more activity in by interacting with whatever is in our home. None of us are sleeping. I -”
“Laura, wait, I am a writer. I’m not -”
“I convinced Michael to meet with you. After the ghost hunting group, Lilith says the voices at night are so much worse. But I convinced him to come with me because your post in the library was so, local. So, simple.”
“There’s been a misunderstanding. I am not a ghost hunter, I am just looking to document area ghost stories,” I said, firmly.
“She’s not going to fucking help us,” Michael said. “No one can.” He pushed his chair away from the table and stood. I wondered how the antique chair had supported his immense body.
“Laura, I’m going back to work, I’ll see you tonight.” Then he stomped over to the door and disappeared out into the storm.
“Laura, I -”
“No,” she held up her hand to stop me, then gathered her bag from the floor onto her lap, white knuckling it’s straps. “It’s not your fault. I just thought you were someone else.”
“I’m a writer, I like ghost stories,” I began, then stopped myself and apologized again. “Laura, I am sorry. I have daughters and I can’t even imagine.”
“No, you can’t,” she said. “And I hope you never have to. Thank you, Liz.”
We shook hands and I watched her walk out of the library.
As I rushed into the girls daycare center, soaked to the bone and trying to avoid puddles, I wondered how many more of these stories existed in this town.