There is a house on Linden Street that is no longer a home. Its fenced back yard is bordered by a large commuter parking lot, beyond which sits the Wellesley Square train station. Next door is a dated office building whose lawn boasts a large blow up snowman every winter. Across Linden Street live apartment buildings, and the usual suspects of suburban retail (the grocery store, gas station, Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen, CVS and Talbot’s) exist within walking distance. Though surrounded by the hustle and bustle of suburban living, the large house stands apart.
From the outside the duplex (white with black shutters) looks like someone’s well-cared for home. The landscaped yard is as beautiful and controlled as any in town. The siding is a little worse for wear and the brick steps at the front door could use repointing, but by all outward appearances the house is a home.
But it isn’t. It’s an office, a rental property in fact, and Sarah Ryan is both its landlord and its tenant.
My tour of the first floor proved that, much like the house’s exterior, its interior was well-kept, if lacking personality. Alone in the center of the living room sat a massive wooden desk faced by two wingback chairs. Behind the desk chair was a grand fireplace. Light hardwood floors, pale blue walls, a worn oriental carpet and bare curtain rods decorated the large room. It’s windows overlooked busy Linden Street and there was a large poster-sized print, a foggy and depressing view of dense forest at night, mounted above the mantlepiece.
“Couldn’t you just stare at it for hours?” Sarah commented.
Sarah had installed a treadmill in the dining room. A yoga mat, several kettlebells, and a Polar Spring water bubbler kept it company underneath a small crystal chandelier.
The kitchen hadn’t been updated in at least thirty years. A modern, four person table sat out of place beneath a stained glass window. The kitchen was neat as a pin and Sarah admitted that she had a cleaning service visit every other week.
“It’s just me and the cat, but you’d be surprised how quickly the dust bunnies multiply,” she explained.
I’d glimpsed the cat, a fat calico with huge yellow eyes, “Bertha is shy with new people,” Sarah commented.
Our tour complete, I followed her back to the foyer. She walked briskly past the stairs leading to the second floor and we returned to the living room. I took my place in a wingback at the desk while Sarah sat across from me in her ergonomic chair. We each held an ice cold Diet Coke. The desk was suspiciously free of clutter.
I asked, “What do you do for work?”
“I’m a writer,” she said, simply.
When she didn’t elaborate I asked what she was working on.
“Right now I’m writing a novel.”
Again, she offered no further explanation.
“I don’t mean to be nosey, but I write too. May I ask what your book’s about?”
“Well,” she said, glancing over my shoulder to the foyer behind me, “I had been working on a historical mystery set in Salem-”
“Awesome,” I interrupted enthusiastically.
“But,” she went on, “I scrapped it after I started working in this house. I moved in a,” she paused, “Different direction. I’m working on armageddon now.”
“Ooo, like, post apocalyptic stuff?”
“Sort of,” she said.
It was obvious she didn’t want to discuss her writing so I said, “Well, I’d love to read it when you are done.”
Sarah asked, “Are you working on anything? I mean, besides interviewing people.”
“I am,” I admitted. “I wish I made more time for it, but I’m slowly working on a mystery series about the residents of a cul de sac. Each family represents one of the seven deadly sins, and their master sin sort of informs the crime in each book.
“Just cozy mystery stuff, really. Nothing serious,” I said, feeling embarrassed as I did every time I shared my writing with someone.
“Interesting,” she replied.
“It’s just a hobby really, but look at you. You’ve got an entire house devoted to your writing. I would kill for this kind of quiet, you can’t even hear the cars driving by.”
“I know it probably seems ridiculous, me alone in this big house, but I’ve been thinking about writing full-time for a long time and this felt like the year to do it. I got engaged last winter-”
“Congratulations,” I said automatically.
“Thank you,” she replied, holding up her ring finger and a sizable cushion cut diamond set in a platinum band.
“Gorgeous,” I replied.
“Thank you,” she said again. “Paxton picked it out himself. His proposal was a complete surprise. We’d only been dating for three months.
“It was Pax who found this space for me, you know. It was his idea for me to focus on writing full-time, really. He knew I wasn’t in love with my job, I was working in the human resources department at Boston College, and it’s not like I was going to keep it up once we have kids. Writing is something I can do from home.”
As she spoke, I tried to gauge Sarah’s age. She had to be somewhere between twenty-five and thirty, but it was hard to tell. Her face was young but her outfit, a grown-up belted A-line navy blue dress and pretty sable brown pumps, was throwing me.
“I admit I have gotten more writing done here than ever before, but the house is strange,” she continued, “It might be better if I could find a tenant to share it with me, but no one has responded to my ads.”
“Tell me about the house,” I said, eager to hear her story.
“Things happen here, strange things.”
I placed the disgusting drink on a John Derian coaster atop the desk and sat back in my seat. I’d recently turned thirty-eight and something had shifted within me. I had been practicing the art of listening, or, more accurately, shutting up. I’d even downloaded the Headspace app. I was trying really, really hard not to be such a nervous, chattery wreck.
I waited for Sarah to tell me her story. She’d asked me here, after all. She’d messaged me on Twitter after seeing my business card tacked to the community board in Cafe Nero.
Sarah glanced behind me again, and I fought the urge to turn around.
She looked down at my digital recorder and using both hands tucked her pin straight, long blond hair behind her ears.
Finally, she said, “When I first began working here I planned to use the upstairs as my office and gym space and to sublet the first floor to someone willing to share the kitchen with me. But after about a month and a half I realized that I couldn’t stay up there.”
She paused again, and I maintained an expectant expression.
Sighing, she went on, “I usually get here at eight o’clock on weekdays and leave around two or three in the afternoon. Pax is pretty crazy about watching the bills and he was,” she paused, “Really angry when he got the first electricity bill. I mean, I swear I turned off all the lights when I left every afternoon, but when I got to the house a lot of mornings – not every morning, but most of them – the place was lit up like a hospital.”
Odd example, I thought then asked, “Do you live closeby?” I was wondering how they chose the house. The quiet emptiness of the place was unnerving.
“We live over in Poet’s Corner in Pax’s house. I’d been living in the South End with a couple girlfriends, but I moved out here right after the engagement,” she shrugged, “It’s nice to have a car and yard everything. We’ll pick out a new place after the wedding.”
I nodded encouragingly, though the more I heard about her personal life, the less encouraged I felt.
I asked, “Ok, then how did you end up with this house?”
“Pax spotted the For Sale By Owner sign in front one afternoon when he was out picking up our dry cleaning. He came right home and begged me to come see the house. He was so excited about it as an investment opportunity and he told me about his idea for me to use it as my writing space.
“On the car ride over I was just humoring him really, thinking the whole thing sounded crazy. I couldn’t just quit my job!
“I knew the house, I’d driven by it a million times running errands, but when he pulled into the driveway and I got my first real look at it, this is going to sound so nuts, but it was like I had a vision. I knew I could write here. I had to have it.”
“Wild,” I commented.
“It was!” She enthused. “Pax put in an offer that afternoon and the seller accepted it almost immediately. I gave my two weeks notice the next morning. Pax surprised me with this desk,” she said, smoothing a hand across the antique wooden surface.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” I said, “and unique. Where did he find it?”
“It’s been in his family for years, his grandfather was a journalist.”
“How cool,” I said, then, “Quitting your job and everything must have been exciting.”
“It was a whirlwind,” she admitted. “I mean, I didn’t have a bad feeling about it, but once everything was set in motion I definitely had nerves.”
She shook her head and again pushed her hair behind her ears before continuing.
“Like I said, the original plan was for me to use the upper floor as my office space and to find a tenant for the first level.”
“Who did you have in mind?” I asked, wondering what sort of business could use such a space.
“I thought maybe a massage therapist or esthetician might be interested in the house. We have a reasonable budget to build out the space for the right tenant. The woman who owned the home before us said that she never had any trouble finding business people to rent the space.”
“Did she tell you anything else about the house, or the property?”
“Just that she lived here for a year with her family while they were building a new home over by the middle school. They’d always intended to keep this house as a rental property.”
“Hmm,” I said, “So why did she sell it?”
“Her last tenant was some sort of money manager. He ended up skipping out on the last four months rent, he had a huge drug problem or something. She told us that she just couldn’t manage the property any longer, it had become too much work now that her kids were older and needed more shuttling around.”
“Ok, got it, so you were telling me about the lights? Right?” I prompted.
“Yeah, so, the lights were on most mornings when I came to open up the house. It was bizarre, but it didn’t scare me. I thought maybe they were on some sort of a timer that I didn’t know about. I suggested that to Paxton, but he just,” she pushed her hair behind her ears again, “He didn’t think that was possible.
“It kept happening so I removed all the bulbs from the recessed lighting on both floors and unscrewed the light bulbs from my desk lamps before I left every afternoon.”
“Wow,” I commented, “Did you talk to an electrician.”
“No, Pax didn’t want to spend the money,” she replied. “But that fixed the problem, anyway. Then after I’d solved that issue, the shower in the upstairs bathroom started up. The first morning I walked in and heard it running it really scared me. I thought maybe someone had broken into the house.
“I stood listening in the entryway for a minute then grabbed a broom from the hallway closet and snuck upstairs. The bathroom door was open so I creeped in and-”
“Dumb!” I said, before thinking. So much for being mindful.
“What was I supposed to do?” She asked, raising her well sculpted eyebrows.
“Call the police!” I said.
“No. Some naked person in the shower wasn’t going to hurt me, I figured I could chase them out of here.”
I shook my head at her judgmentally.
“It didn’t matter anyway, there was no one there. I shoved the old shower curtain aside with the broom handle and found the hot water blasting, but the tub was empty.
“I hoped ignoring it would make it go away, but after a week I decided to tell Paxton. l didn’t want him to freak out again when he saw the water bill so I told him what was happening. He followed me to work the next day in his car, he wouldn’t believe me until he saw it for himself.
“We called a plumber but the guy wasn’t able to find an explanation. Whenever this happened the shower handle was always turned all the way to hot and the little plunger thing was pulled up to divert the water from the faucet to the shower head. It wasn’t an accident, it was intentional. Our plumber insisted that it had to be a person turning the water on, but that was impossible.
“We ended up shutting off the water to that tub which was a mess, the plumber had to open up the wall to do it but at least it fixed the problem. Things were quiet for several days and then the humming started. Pax said it had to be the pipes adjusting to having the water diverted, which made absolutely no sense. Pipes knock, they don’t hum.
“Right when I was finally settled into writing, I’d hear it. It was low and pretty, not mechanical, like a tiny little song. Just three notes, Hmmm, HMMM, Hmmm,” she demonstrated, giving me goosebumps, “It was incredibly distracting.
“Another reason I knew it didn’t have anything to do with pipes, or the heating system, or anything else mechanical was that it followed me, no matter where I was in the house. I’d forget about it, you know, and then I’d hear it after I washed my hands in the bathroom. Or when I was making a sandwich in the kitchen. Or getting my jacket out of the hall closet.”
“Whoa,” I said, “You were alone in this house and there was humming following you from room to room? If it isn’t anything mechanical, then what was it?”
“The presence,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I tried to convince myself that there had to be a reasonable explanation, I even had my hearing checked. But then one morning I was getting a snack in the kitchen when I heard the humming coming directly from inside one of the empty cabinets, and it was loud.
“I couldn’t make myself open that cabinet door, I was certain that if I did I’d find a woman crouched in there, humming that tune.”
“Eek,” I said, “What did Paxton say about that?”
“He blamed it on mice,” she replied evenly, “Thus the cat. Paxton just showed up with it one morning. I’ve never really been much of a cat person, but I suppose it’s nice to have the company.”
“Mice don’t hum,” I said, obviously.
“He thought I’d heard squeaking and panicked,” she replied, blinking hard as though she were forcing herself not to roll her eyes.
“The lights and shower and even the humming I could rationalize away. But then there was this one day. I’d been writing all morning and I went downstairs to make lunch. When I went to walk back up I saw my desk chair sitting in the hallway at the top of the stairs.”
A chill overtook me. I reached out for the diet soda, not wanting it but needing to hold onto something.
“There wasn’t anyone in the house with me” Sarah continued, “I checked all the rooms and the front and back doors were locked. That’s when I accepted that there really was something happening in this house that I couldn’t explain.”
“Did you tell Paxton about that?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, shaking her head firmly. “I thought about it that night and when I came back the next day-”
“How did you get up the nerve to come back here?” I asked.
“I didn’t have a choice,” she replied. “I came inside and shut the door behind me and I spoke to the presence. I told it that I owned this house now and that if it had something to tell me then I would be happy to listen but it wasn’t going to scare me out of here with its parlor tricks.”
“What did it do?” I asked, shocked by her bravery.
“It started leaving things for me, little things. Six pennies lined up perfectly on my desk in the morning. Actually, it leaves pennies everywhere, but sometimes it will line them up or push them into a pretty pattern. And I think it has something to do with the birds. Mostly little sparrows, really, they absolutely infest the trees next to the house.
“One day I was writing and I heard a bump on the floor right in front of my desk. I got up to look, figuring it was that cat, but it was a little brown sparrow. Dead. Just laying there in front of my desk. It just sort of appeared out of nowhere.”
“God, Sarah, everything else aside, how in the hell are you getting any writing done?”
“I don’t know, I mean, there’s something about this house. I can focus here like I can’t anywhere else. Believe me, I’ve tried writing in Starbucks, taking some days off from this house, but I am so fuzzy and distracted everywhere else. When I am here I can write for hours.”
“That might be the most terrifying thing you’ve told me,” I said as gently as I could. “Despite the woman humming in the cabinets, a chair moving all by itself, penny patterns and dead birds appearing out of thin air you are able to focus here better than anywhere else? Doesn’t that strike you as a little odd?”
“I know it’s scary, but it’s a little bit magical, too.”
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.
“It was magical for a little while anyway. But then I found my desk chair sitting perfectly in the foyer. It hadn’t fallen down the stairs, it had been placed there perfectly, facing the front door when I came in that morning.
“That’s when I decided to move everything down here to the first floor. I can’t explain it, but something shifted after that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t hear the humming anymore, it’s really quiet.”
“Almost too quiet,” I acknowledged, realizing just how strange it was that we couldn’t hear the traffic on the busy road in front of the house.
“And my writing,” she said, pausing for a moment to straighten a pencil on the desk. “It’s become, sort of consuming.”
I stared at her, frightened to hear what she would tell me next.
“There have been couple times lately that I’ve sort of zoned out while I’m writing. I mean I’ve gotten going and lost track of the time in the past when I write, but this is different.
“I’ll be in the middle of a sentence and then all of a sudden I look up and hours have passed. I have pages and pages of story, but I have no memory of writing them.”
“What are they about?” I asked.
“Armageddon,” she replied very quietly.
“So that’s why you scrapped the historical mystery,” I said.
She nodded, “It’s not that I didn’t want to write it anymore, I couldn’t. It wasn’t writer’s block, I’m just compelled to write this other story.”
“Honestly, Sarah, I’m afraid to ask about it,” I admitted.
“It’s set in 2032. When it begins everyone around the world is so happy because there is this politician who’s brought peace to the Middle East. He’s really charming and generous and it seems like he will be the answer, you know? He gives everyone hope.
“Then the perspective shifts to downtown Boston and there is a huge explosion in the Prudential Center, it takes down the entire building and it’s followed by several other bombings throughout the city. No one knows who is responsible for it, and then the entire grid goes down. There will be so many dead. So many hurt and hungry and panicked,” Sarah blinked rapidly, holding back tears.
“Things pivot again to Wellesley and a small group of survivors. I can tell by the way they talk that there were more attacks. The sky is dark and there is ash everywhere. These people decide to move West, as far from the coast as possible. There are some things they talk about that I don’t understand, like, things that don’t exist yet.
“It is all so vivid in my mind but I don’t know where it is coming from. I don’t ever know what is going to happen next in the story, it just appears on the page after I’ve sat working for a day.”
“Sarah, you’re being possessed,” I said, frightened.
“Not exactly,” she replied.
“What do you mean?”
“I think that I am just being, influenced, you know? Shown things,” she said slowly.
“Shown things? Do you think what you’re seeing is real? That it’s really going to happen?”
“I don’t know, maybe,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders.
“I can put you in touch with an exorcist,” I said quickly, not wanting to believe her.
“What? Oh, God, no. That stuff is, no. That’s not what I need,” she insisted.
“Sarah, this is serious. I think something might have attached itself to you. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but it’s not a ghost. I think it could be demonic,” I said as calmly as I could.
“No, you’ve misunderstood,” she said, adamantly. “It’s not demonic. I think, well, I have this gut feeling that it is angelic.”
“You think you’re channeling an angel?” I asked in disbelief.
“Yes,” she said, again pushing her hair behind her ears. “I think it might be using me to warn everyone about what is going to happen.”
“That would make you a prophet,” I said, incredulous.
“I don’t know what it makes me, but this is really happening and I don’t know if I can stop.”
“At least talk to this priest,” I begged, terrified and trying to do the math to figure out how many years we had left until 2032.
“How could he even help-” she began, but was interrupted by a loud bang from inside the fireplace behind her.
We both screamed.
“What the hell was that?” I demanded, standing up.
Slowly, Sarah turned in her chair and looked down into the fireplace grate.
“It’s a bird,” she said, standing up and edging around the desk away from the fireplace.
I peered around her chair and saw a small tuft of dull brown feathers.
“Is it dead?” I asked.
“I think so,” she replied. I could tell she was close to tears.
“Has that ever happened before?” I asked, grabbing my bag and my recorder off the table.
The look on her face told me everything.
In silent agreement we walked out of the large living room and into the foyer.
“What am I going to do?” She asked.
“Have you ever considered leaving and not coming back?”
“Of course I have,” she said, “But, when I stay away for a few days, I just, I don’t know, I like need to be back here. I’m almost desperate for the quiet and anyway, it’s more complicated than just leaving,” she paused, holding back.
“What?” I asked.
“Well, Pax put the mortgage in my name, so really it is mine, it’s my problem. I have to write and sell something. I have to make money and get back to the city. This has to work,” she said, looking down at her hands.
“No it doesn’t,” I insisted. “You can sell this house, tomorrow, you don’t have to be here. This isn’t safe, Sarah.”
“Paxton would be so angry,” she said quietly.
“Then he doesn’t have your best interests in mind,” I replied, way overstepping my boundries.
She looked at me, her eyes bright. Her hands pushed her hair back, “Do you really think I could-” but she didn’t finish the sentence. The door behind her flew open.
She spun around and I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“Paxton! Hi,” she said quickly.
“Hey, babe,” he said cooly. He was ridiculously good-looking, a total silver fox. CrossFit muscular and in his late forties if he was a day.
He glanced over at me then back at his fiance.
“I was driving by and saw a car in the driveway. Who’s this?” He asked eyeing me.
“This is Liz, the woman I told you about,” she replied in a sticky sweet voice, “The one who writes the ghost stories.”
I held my hand out for a shake but he ignored it, grabbed my arms and brought me in for a double cheek kiss.
Have I ever mentioned to you all how I feel about breaches of my personal space?
Well, I fucking hate them.
They make me anxious and angry and awkward. The trifecta of social torture.
I pulled back and resisted the urge to wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand. They had been actual kisses, not air kisses. I did my best to maintain a neutral expression.
“So you’re the little writing buddy Sarah’s told me about.”
Confused I glanced at Sarah and the look of panic on her face stopped me from answering. I just nodded my head.
“Well, I hope you girls were able to get some work accomplished, Sarah won’t let me even peek at her little story until it’s done,” he pulled her towards him in a sideways hug.
“We had a great talk,” I said. “But I’d better be on my way. Nice to meet you Paxton, and Sarah, let me know if you want to take me up on that offer.”
“Thanks, I’ll walk you out,” she replied.
“No, let me,” Paxton insisted.
“Don’t be silly,” I said, firmly. “My car is right in the driveway.”
“I’ll have to move my truck to let you go anyway,” Paxton replied.
Sarah watched our exchange with a smile plastered on her face.
I reached for the door handle but Paxton beat me to it.
“After you,” he said, then quietly to Sarah, “Be right back.”
Refusing to be rushed out of the house I held my hand out to Sarah, “It was great talking to you, let’s follow up about that idea for my blog. I’ll give you a call this afternoon once I’ve had more time to flesh it out.”
She shook my hand and gave me a small smile.
Then I walked through the door and down the steps to the sidewalk, Paxton right on my heels.
It felt like he was chasing me, about to pounce on my back any moment. The Boston girl within me took over. I spun around with my car keys fanned out between my fingers.
“Back off,” I said firmly.
He held up his hands, a huge smile on his face, “Whoa, sorry, I just want to get my car out of the way so you can leave.”
“Uh huh,” I said evenly.
We stared at each other for a minute and I said, “I’ll be sure to get in touch with Sarah this afternoon. If I can’t reach her I’ll stop by, or I can pop over at your house in Poet’s.”
His fake smile crinkled his eyes, “I’m sure that won’t be necessary. But Sarah needs to get back to her writing, we can’t have anyone distracting her. She has to focus.”
He turned abruptly and walked towards his car humming. It was that same tune, the one Sarah had hummed for me.
Hmmm, HMMM, hmmm.