The woman from Wellesley College offered to arrange a tour of the haunted tunnels running beneath the campus. She intended to tell me the campus ghost stories as we toured the underground maze, accompanied by a campus security guard/groundskeeper “just in case we get lost.”
This had been exactly what I wanted when I started this quest for ghost stories. AN opportunity to vacation to the land of ghosties without having to put down roots. The problem was that I had begun to realize that there wasn’t any such thing as a safe scare. I was looking into the darkness, and I’ll be damned if there weren’t moments when I suspected that it was looking back.
That creeper Nick knew I was pregnant before I did. I had been obsessing a bit, reading about hauntings and demons, ghosts, and possession constantly. It was making my dreams strange. Chris wanted me to take a break from the ghost research to watch Shark Tank with him. Though tempting, I had to pass.
I didn’t need a break, I needed to reframe my quest. I realized that I couldn’t just be a looky-loo, stomping around in these people’s reality, oohing and ahhing like a tourist in Beacon Hill. I needed to treat this with a bit more awe, a touch more respect. I realized that I was avoiding people’s stories because I needed to get up the nerve to face them. To recognize them for what they really were.
These stories weren’t just there for entertainment. They were glimpses into the darkness. And I needed to decide if I wanted that darkness to catch a glimpse of me.
I volunteer at the Wellesley food pantry once a week. I spend a couple of hours on Monday mornings just unloading food donations and restocking shelves. And yes, Wellesley does need a food pantry. Not everyone in town summers on Martha’s Vineyard and drives a Land Rover. The pantry has two collection bins, one at Whole Foods the other at the Roche Brothers. Grab an extra can of tuna fish next time you’re grocery shopping and drop it into one of the bins. Believe it or not, you can’t always spot hunger. It might look like your elderly next door neighbor who you would never guess is quietly struggling to keep up with her medical bills and has to choose between losing her house and eating dinner.
Selfishly, mornings at the food pantry mean talking to adults about something other than children’s’ books or the children who read them. These mornings anchor my week. Gary, a fellow pantry volunteer was really enthusiastic about my “scary sWellesley stories.” He believed that the spirits were only acting out because they had a message that needed hearing. I wasn’t so sure.
“You aren’t going to believe this,” he said, one Monday morning as he unloaded a grocery bag full of pasta sauce.
“You’re getting remarried to a twenty-five year old who just ‘gets’ you.” I said to the seventy-five year old ex-marine.
“Bambi isn’t just a pretty face,” he replied, seriously.
“Where are you registered?” I asked, throwing away an open, half-used bag of potato chips.
“Costco,” he replied. “But really, my neighbor has a ghost story for you!”
“Oh?” I said, a bad feeling coming over me.
“Yes! I told her all about you. She has an old ghost story,” he replied.
“What kind of a ghost story?” I asked with a pit in my stomach.
“As charming as I am I couldn’t get her to elaborate, but she hinted that it was something that happened to her when she was young.”
“How old is she now?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, anyone under sixty seems like a child to me. Maybe she’s in her fifties. What’s the matter?” He asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know, I just started to feel funny. It’s nothing,” I said.
I didn’t know what had come over me, but my heart was racing and I was feeling shaky, almost feverish.
“You’d better go sit down,” Gary demanded. “That baby of yours needs a break.”
I waved off his concern, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. Gary kept talking about the paranormal and said that he had given this woman, Casey, my email address.
I changed the subject.
That night as I checked my email a message popped up from firstname.lastname@example.org. I opened it and realized it was from Gary’s neighbor, Casey. Casey Cotton. She introduced herself and said that she had a ghost story, a “cautionary tale,” that she wanted to share. Could she treat me to lunch at The Local?
My initial reaction was to her name. Casey Cotton sounded like the girl reporter in a superhero comic book. I glanced again at her email address and googled “Wellesley Cares.” A website for a non-profit community group came up. A photo of Casey sitting at a table surrounded by senior citizens in wheelchairs adorned the “About” page.
I texted my friend Heidi and asked if she’d ever heard of Casey Cotton or Wellesley Cares.
You don’t need another project. She texted back.
She has a ghost story, have you heard of her?
Heard of her? That woman is a legend. She was President of the Juniors and I think she had something to do with starting luminary night. You can’t name a board she hasn’t been on. North 40, Save our Neighborhood Schools, Say No to Number 1 – that’s all her. She started the Wellesley Cares deal awhile back and runs the Boston Marathon every year to raise money for it. Heidi texted back immediately.
You just moved here, how do you know all of this? I asked.
How do you NOT know this? Heidi replied.
I replied to Casey and we set a lunch date for the following week. I declined her offer to pay. We’d go dutch. But this strange cloud of, I don’t know, dread? hovered over me the rest of the week. I had vivid dreams of dancing around a fire and walking through thick forests in darkness. People hidden just out of sight.
Casey Cotton was adorable. Wild, red hair streaked with gray framed a pale face that was sprinkled with freckles and lightly traced laugh lines. She was in head-to-toe Chico’s carrying a big Prada tote with grommet detail. She had a complete look, and she was killing it.
I was wearing maternity jeans and a blue and white striped shirt with navy flats and I’d wrapped a hot pink scarf around my neck in a complicated knot. I had been feeling so stylish when I left the house. When I saw Casey, I immediately regretted my horizontal stripes.
We exchanged hellos. She was a hugger, which had become awkward for me as of late, with my expansion and all. She smelled of overly flowery perfume with a cigarette smoke undertone. We sat at a high top table near the bar.
“What’s it like to be Gary’s neighbor?” I asked after we’d ordered drinks (seltzer water for me and a Chardonnay for Casey).
“It’s a dream!” She replied, sliding a napkin onto her lap. “He trims back my hydrangeas in the fall and I practically have to beat him off with a stick when the leaves come down. He has this leaf blower-”
“He brought it over last fall,” I interrupted with a laugh, “I couldn’t convince him otherwise.”
“He is so excited about your project,” she said.
“I know it, we talk it at the pantry.”
“He told you about my story, then?” She asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, no. He said you didn’t give him many details but that you had a ghost story from when you were young.”
“I do. But as I said in my email, it’s really more of a cautionary tale. It’s something that actually changed my life, ultimately for the better, but not without some difficulty.”
Get to it, then. I thought. Just tell the damn story.
Lately, I’d been a touch cranky when I was hungry. And I was hungry.
“I sort of view all ghost stories as cautionary tales,” I said, relieved to see our waitress approaching the table with our drinks. “Do you mind bringing some bread?” I asked. She glanced at my protruding stomach and nodded.
Casey got around to telling her story after a bit more chatter over the menu. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t been in such a rush to hear it.
“I was pretty wild as a teenager,” she began. “You name it, I did it. It was a classic ‘my parents are getting a divorce, I’m sad and I don’t know how to handle it,’ reaction. I see that now, but at the time I thought it was all just an escape. They were both distracted, my siblings were already out of the house and I was there alone. A lot of kids get themselves into trouble in high school one way or the other, but I took it to the extreme. Honestly, though, that’s my personality. Once I’m in, I’m all in.”
“What sorts of things were you into?” I asked, thinking this polished woman probably just did a couple kegs stands and got arrested for smoking pot in the woods.
The bread basket arrived and I dug in. Casey sipped her wine before responding.
“The usual teenage stuff, of course. Beer, pot, sneaking out at night. But things escalated as I traveled deeper into the darkness.”
I stopped pulling apart my second piece of bread and said, “Darkness?”
“Yes, darkness,” she confirmed. “I was drawn to it and the people it surrounded. What began as a few beers around a campfire turned into acid trips in the woods.”
She had my attention.
“You know, I’m not sure what your experience has been, but the people who are drawn to these things, drugs, drinking, etc… are broken, especially the young ones. I don’t care what anyone says, what begins as a numbing agent ends as a slow painful burn.”
I nodded my head in agreement.
The waitress returned and took our lunch orders. A salad for Casey with dressing on the side, and a cheeseburger with bacon and fries on the side for me.
“So the drugs were an escape for you,” I prompted.
“Yes, at least that’s what drew me in at first. I was, oh I don’t know, a sophomore in high school and what, fifteen probably? I was stealing money from my mom so I could smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, cutting school, riding around with older guys. I thought I was the coolest thing. Really I was just young and so stupid.”
I smiled, “Well you can’t fault yourself for that. We were all there once.”
“Right, but again, like I said. Once I’m in, I’m all in. I started hanging out with a group of guys who were into the occult. They dressed in black and painted their fingernails black, and drove black cars and had black hair, black bedroom walls, even black eyeliner.
“When I was with them, I felt like I was in on some kind of inside joke. They made me feel like I belonged for once. I spent more and more time with them. A couple other girls hung out with them too and we dressed like the guys. I even dyed my hair.”
“No!” I exclaimed, motioning to her beautiful red locks.
“I know,” she laughs, “My mother just about died when I came home with dull, jet black hair.”
I shook my head, “So what did you do when you all hung out? What kind of occult stuff were they into?”
“At the time I thought it was all harmless, just wishful thinking at most. We’d sneak out at night into the woods around Morses Pond. The guys would build a campfire in the middle of a pentagram and chant some words that I didn’t understand. Or we’d sit around with a Ouija board and try to contact our ‘spirit guides.’ One of the girls was into tarot cards and she would ‘read’ us and tell us our fate.”
“Spooky,” I said, smiling as the waitress placed a huge cheeseburger in front of me.
“It was, but it was all pretty tame,” Casey said, slicing up her salad. “But then one night I snuck out to go to this guy’s place. The house was just two streets over from mine, he’d graduated the year before and was living in his parents basement.”
“You are making me so nervous,” I said. “I’m imagining my daughters doing the same thing, and it scares the hell out of me.”
Casey smiled, “Don’t worry, just pay attention to them. Know who their friends are, they’ll be fine.”
“That seems to be the party line,” I replied with a laugh. “So, what did you do that night?”
“It was like a lot of other nights. We smoked pot and listened to horrible music. Then my friend, Ben, had the idea to play around with the Ouija board.
“There were five of us who played, four guys and me. Things started out pretty normal, we were joking around, asking about the prom. Making fun of the whole thing, when secretly, I’m sure we all would have liked to be a part of that world.
“Then someone asked if there were any spirit guides with us and the board answered ‘yes.’ When we asked it whose guide was there, it spelled out my name. Feeling cocky I challenged the board to tell us something no one else knew about me. It spelled out Avalon,” she paused and sipped her wine. “My dad had moved out the weekend before to the Avalon apartments in Newton. I hadn’t told anyone.”
Unable to speak because I had just taken a huge bite of burger, I shook my head and made an “Uh, uh,” noise.
“I tried to laugh it off, but I think the guys knew that the board had hit on something. ‘Tell us more about Casey,’ one of them said. The board spelled out ‘Hutchins here.’ It was the name of my childhood cat. It had died when I was ten. None of them could have known that. Then the board spelled, ‘meow.’
“Nope,” I said, putting my burger down.
“I took my hands off the planchette. I didn’t want to play any more, but they gave me a hard time about it. They insisted that I couldn’t stop until I closed the board with them or the portal would be left open.”
“I thought that was just something from movies,” I said, recalling my conversation with that creeper Nick.
“No, you have to close the board and end communication. Everyone knows that,” Casey said. “You haven’t left a board open, have you?” She asked in a forced whisper.
“God no! I’ve never even played with an Ouija board,” I replied.
Casey sat back in her seat, “Lucky you,” she said. “Well, they convinced me to keep playing and the board told us that my spirit guide’s name was Zila. She said that she watched over me and influenced my drawings.
“I hadn’t told anyone about the pencil drawings that filled my notebooks. I had been drawing dark forests for weeks. Sometimes, when I was in class, I would look down at my notebook and see an entire page covered in dark, gnarled trees.”
“Trees?” I asked, my dreams returning to me. Goosebumps prickled my arms.
“Yeah, dead deformed rees,” she confirmed, her fork stabbing at her salad. “After the board mentioned the drawings I just refused to play anymore. I wouldn’t help them close the board even though they insisted it was dangerous to just break communication like that. I made a friend walk me back home and believe me I didn’t sleep that night.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight,” I said.
“Yeah, well, that was just the beginning. Long story short, things went from bad to worse in high school. I got into trouble for skipping classes and I got arrested once for smoking pot in the woods near Morses Pond.”
Called it, I thought to myself.
“Did you ever play with the Ouija board again?” I asked.
“No. I wanted nothing to do with that thing, and after that night I began to pull away from those people. I was friends with a couple girls in my grade and we were sort of outsiders together. Actually, you know, there was this one time when they wanted to play with the Ouija board, I refused to play but I watched them. They asked if there were any spirits present and the board spelled out ‘Zila.’”
“Ok,” I said, “Now I won’t sleep for a week.”
Casey laughed, “I know. It was freaky, and honestly it seemed impossible. That time in my life was a mess, bad luck just clung to me, repelling people. I barely managed to graduate from high school. My parents didn’t know what to do with me, but then I didn’t know what to do with me either. I was terrible to them and I knew it, but I couldn’t get out of my own way.”
I smiled sympathetically, “I think we spend the rest of our lives making up for the way we acted from age thirteen to twenty-one. I know I have several people that deserve an apology.”
Casey nodded in agreement.
“At least you made it through high school,” I said, overcome with sadness for this poor woman who had obviously been left to fend for herself during her parents’ divorce.
“There was no chance I could get into college, not that I had bothered applying anywhere. By fate, our church had a missionary program in Brazil that summer. A neighbor’s son had gone the year before and he’d supposedly returned from the trip a ‘different boy, all straightened out.’ My parents were sold and I was destined for Sao Paulo, Brazil.”
“I was to volunteer in a youth center at an after school program intended to keep teenagers off the streets. The brochure the church gave my parents said that I would ‘be immersed in the local culture and experience what life is like as a local Brazilian.’ If they had known the local culture that I would be immersed in, I think they probably would have kept me home and gotten me a job at the McDonald’s.”
“How long were you there?” I asked, finishing off the last of my fries.
“Two horrible months,” she replied, sliding her half finished salad out of the way. I had to stop myself from sliding it in front of me.
“What was it like?” I asked, remembering my summers as a teen. Painting our house with my dad, waitressing, tubing on Cazenovia Lake.
“Well, the work we were doing wasn’t bad. I was there with about twenty other volunteers all around my age. Most of them had elected to go, treating it as missionary work. Though, through their proselytizing, they alienated most of the kids we were supposed to help. These Brazilians were solid in their belief in God, but their beliefs were a mix of Catholicism, African traditions, and Spiritism. We were a bunch of upper class, American, Born Agains. The two belief systems were night and day. I mean, what would you expect someone who practices voodoo to think of the Rapture?”
“I didn’t know New England had any Born Again, Christians,” I said.
“My parents were from Tennessee,” she replied.
“I was making a bad joke,” I said, with an awkward laugh. “Sorry, go on.”
“Well, anyway, we had the mornings to ourselves, I would usually go on a walk or read or draw. I was still drawing the trees. Pages and pages of dead trees. Then in the afternoons we were to report to the community center and help high school kids with their homework. Afterwards we’d play cards or make bracelets, just pass the time. We were basically entertaining them so they wouldn’t fall into drugs and drinking or any of the other dark things that I had done at home. Talk about the blind leading the blind.
“I made friends with a couple of the girls. It was nice at first. I didn’t feel like such a horrible outsider when I was with them. Then one afternoon one of the girl’s mothers came to the center to walk her daughter home. I was sitting at a table with the girl, Maria, and a couple of her friends and her mother came over to us. Her mom took one look at me and yelled ‘Kiumba! Kiumba!’ in a loud, scary voice.
“Everyone in the room turned to stare. Maria tried to calm her mom down, but the woman kept crossing herself and pointing. She yelled that word, ‘kiumba,’ over and over again. I said I was sorry and that I didn’t know what it meant. The girl dragged her mom out of the community center, but not before I heard her say, ‘Zila.’”
“Stop it,” I said. “No way.”
“Yeah, I tried to follow them out but one of the center organizers stopped me. I was reeling. I felt like I was losing my mind.”
“I can’t even imagine,” I said. “What did you do?”
“Well, the girl didn’t return to the center for two days. I asked a couple of the kids what the word ‘kiumba’ meant. A few of them just crossed themselves and walked away when I asked.
“Finally, a boy told me that it’s an evil spirit who attaches itself to a person. It causes mental problems like depression and paranoia. It’s whole purpose is to sort of possess a person and make them miserable and then influence them to hurt other people. The boy called them the ‘fathers of addiction.’
“When he said that it hit home. I had been smoking cigarettes like a fiend. I had worked my way up to two packs a day, though I could have smoked more. It was as if I was driven to smoke, I didn’t have a choice.”
“Sweet Jesus,” I said at the thought of a two pack a day habit.
“Eventually, Maria came back to the center. She tried to avoid me, but I wouldn’t let her. I begged her to tell me what had upset her mother. Finally, she agreed.”
Casey motioned to the waitress and asked for another glass of Chardonnay. I requested the dessert menu.
“So what did she tell you?” I asked, after ordering the flourless chocolate cake.
“She said that her mother saw a dark spirit, what she called a ‘master kiumba’ standing behind me. Her mom told her that it’s claws were in my back and that she had never seen one so big, so dark.”
“Geez,” I said.
“I asked her what I was supposed to do about it, how it got there, why it was with me. She told me that I had let it in somehow and now that it had a hold of me it wasn’t going to let go.
Casey stopped and said, “Look, I know this all sounds absolutely ridiculous.”
“No,” I said. “It’s just really, really scary.”
“Well, it felt crazy,” Casey replied, sipping her wine. “But somehow, I just knew that it was right. I knew that something had been with me since that night in that guy’s basement with the Ouija board. It felt as though, if I could turn just around fast enough, I would see something behind me. Hidden just out of sight.”
I put my fork down, again reminded of the feeling in my dreams.
Casey continued, “It only got worse. That night I called and begged my parents to let me come home. My mom said that I needed to learn to ‘honor my commitments’ and my father told me it would be way too expensive to change my plane ticket.
“I was stuck. I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t stop smoking cigarettes. None of the kids at the community center would even look at me, let alone speak to me. The other volunteers steered clear too. I was a basket case.
“Then this one evening, as we were about to close the center Maria stayed behind and told me that her mother wanted me to meet someone, a priest who practiced Macumba. It’s what they call voodoo in Brazil. He was a Quimbanda practitioner, black magic. The story of my kiumba had gotten back to him and he wanted to see it for himself. Maria asked me to go to her home to meet him.”
“This sounds bad,” I said.
“It was. She was insistent. I guess you can’t just say no to a Quimbanda priest. Not unless you want trouble to rain down on your family. I didn’t feel like I had a choice, and I was so isolated and panicked that I probably would have done anything.
“So, I went with her to meet the guy. He looked,” she took a sip of wine, considering. “Well, he looked totally normal. I had been expecting someone in black hooded robes, but he was wearing a polo shirt and khakis. I even drank tea with him and Maria translated our conversation.
“He asked me how I’d procured the kiumba and I admitted that I thought that it came from the Ouija board. Several times he sort of spoke to the space above my left shoulder. Finally, he asked if he could ‘have’ the kiumba. He said he could pay. I told him that if he could get rid of the thing, then that was payment enough.
“But he insisted that he had to compensate me in order to truly to take control of the spirit and it’s power. As far as I was concerned he could have at it.
“Maria’s mother sat in the corner of the room, a rosary in her hands, repeating over and over what I assumed was the Hail Mary. It was all, just completely -”
“Fucked up.” I interjected.
“Yeah, exactly. So, about a week later, I went to the man’s house-”
“No, you did not!” I interrupted.
“I told you I was young and stupid,” she said.
“Right, but that is next level reckless! You could have been killed, or raped, or-”
“Involved in a black magic ritual that included killing seven chickens,” she concluded.
“Don’t even tell me,” I said, turned off to the chocolate cake.
“I won’t horrify you with the details, I’ve spent my entire life trying to forget that night. I hadn’t prayed since I was a little girl but I prayed and prayed to be saved that night. I promised God that I would devote the rest my life to doing good if He would get me out of there alive. He did. And I’ve kept my part of the bargain.
“The Voodoo priest gave me a jade necklace that night. He told me that it was my payment and a talisman that would ward off evil. It would keep the kiumba from coming back to me, but I would have to wear it for the rest of my life.”
“And?” I prompted
“It has worked, for the most part. But I can’t say that I don’t have permanent scars from that night. Something, some part of that spirit stayed with me, but I’ve managed to sort of stay a step ahead of it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just that sometimes, I know things about people. You might say that my eyes were open that night. There are some people who have darkness around them. It’s always standing right behind them, like mine was,” she explained before finishing off her second glass of wine.
“How often do you see it?” I asked her, wanting to know if she saw anything around me.
“Often enough,” she replied.
I just stared at her, completely freaked out.
“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “There’s nothing around you. I can’t say as much for our waitress,” she nodded towards the bar where our server was standing close to the bartender, laughing.
“I have to warn you, though, you need to be careful with these interviews that you’re doing. Some doors can’t be shut. That was one thing the priest told me. The door that I opened by using the Ouija board can’t ever be shut. This talisman might protect me, but I can never take back the decision to play that so-called game. I will always have to live with the consequences.
“But when you came back from Brazil everything was alright again, right?” I asked.
“No, things weren’t quite that easy. I knew Zila had gone, but she left behind a sort of blank space. Once in a while, something else tried to creep into it.”
“I’m afraid to ask,” I said.
She glanced at my scarf, not for the first time, and asked, “What’s that around your neck?”
“Oh,” I replied, lifting my hand, “This scarf, it’s just an old thing from JCrew.”
“No, your necklace,” she said.
It takes me a minute to even know what she’s talking about and then I feel my chest. Beneath the scarf, beneath the shirt, was the St. Benedict medal Nancy had given me. I had taken to wearing it on a chain.
“Oh!” I said, realization dawning. “It’s a St. Benedict medal that a friend gave me.”
“That’s quite a friend,” she replied. “You know, I really should get going.”
We’d already paid for our meal, the waitress had dropped off our bills to sign. But I stopped her, “Wait, you said your story was a cautionary one. Cautionary to whom?”
“Don’t you realize? To you. It knows you’re looking. Watch your back.”
With that she pushed her chair back and walked out of the restaurant without another word.
I sat for a moment then pulled the little folder with our bills towards me. I wrote out the tip and signed my name to the receipt. Nosey Nelly that I am, I peeked at Casey’s bill to see if she had tipped well (I’ve got a thing about always tipping well).
She’d only tipped ten percent. Jerk. More disturbing was the fact that she’d signed her check ‘Zila Cotton.’