My world is rather small and I don’t travel very far from the Swells, so here we are, headed to Nantucket again. Let’s brave the Cape traffic and shoot for Hyannis where our ferry boat awaits.
August in Nantucket is humid, if you brought your hair dryer you’re a rookie. When it isn’t engulfed by dewy fog, the sun beats down relentlessly on the island and the surrounding ocean sparkles a deep dark navy, hiding great whites stalking seals its depths. Lines are long and service is slow and you can’t move very far without running into someone else’s child in mid tantrum. This is the stuff of forced family fun. The stuff you do “for the kids.” The stuff that pushes cocktail hour back to four p.m.
Each August Chris and I schlep the kids to the island for a week of beaching and eating and biking and whining and crying and laughing. We made a new discovery this trip, a “kid’s camp” run through one of the large hotels. From nine A.M. through noon the girls did crafts, went turtling in Madaket, hopped aboard the old fashioned fire truck for a ride to the Aquarium, and sifted through the sand all under the watchful eyes of a group of college kids. It was brilliant.
One morning after I’d returned from my walk to Jetties Chris and I were enjoying a coffee in a cozy little nook in the hotel lobby when I heard someone call, “Sower!”
I looked up from my computer and Chris from his iPhone to see Blue Seven beaming at us. We jumped up to greet our old friend.
“How long has it been?” Blue demanded.
“The wedding!” I replied, in disbelief.
We invited Blue to sit with us for a cup of coffee and caught up on kids and jobs. Blue looked exactly like I remembered him. Salty and scruffy and slightly sunburned. A lifetime of laughter and squinting at the horizon had carved deep smile lines around his eyes. At twenty-nine, he’d looked his current age of thirty-nine. In another ten years of chartering fishing trips I imagined he would appear a genial sixty years old.
After catching each other up on our current lives, and listening to Chris and Blue retell the same silly stories I’d heard dozens of times Blue asked, “What’s this I hear about your ghost stories? Jess won’t start talking about them, she’s pushing them on all our friends.”
I shook my head, embarrassed, “It’s just a little writing project, really.”
“Not true,” Chris insisted, “Liz is onto something. Wellesley is almost as haunted as Nantucket.”
“Did I ever tell you about my family’s place?” Blue asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“Wait!” I insisted excitedly. I dug through my bag to find my voice recorder, then uncovering it I held it up, “Tell us the story! Can I record it? Is that weird?”
Blue cleared his throat and smiled, “Will you change my name?”
“Of course,” I assured him, pressing the record button.
“Alright, but don’t tell Jess. She’ll flip when she hears this on the podcast.”
“Deal,” I said.
“You all came to the house after the wedding, right?”
We did. We’d continued the party on his parent’s lawn late into the night. The house was a grand three-story Federal style home of white clapboard, black shutters and shingles, greyed by the sea air. Built by a whaling captain in 1774, the property had a sprawling front yard and an ominous widow’s walk reminding passersby on Centre Street of the island’s grim past.
Blue’s grandfather bought the place in 1920 and it’s been a beacon, calling the family together every summer since. The house was magnificent, for sure, but it was also worn down and drafty, creaky and a touch moldy. The first floor was a hodge podge of well-loved furniture, old rugs and built-in bookcases jammed with James Pattersons, Harry Potters, yellowing Readers’ Digests and a legion of dog eared paperbacks. The home’s upkeep was a labor of love and necessity, to truly fix it up would cost a small fortune, so fresh band-aids were applied each season to the home’s most egregious issues.
Blue’s an excellent storyteller. So I’m going to let the salty old dog’s words speak for themselves. Besides, if I’d transcribed our entire conversation, with all Chris’s ‘Cut it out, man’s’ and my ‘Uh uh’s’ we’d be here forever. Not to mention the fact that we drifted off into tangents a lot, like all conversations with good old friends tend to do.
Blue began, “When we were kids we’d drag our sleeping bags up to that old death trap of an attic. If you opened the portholes at night it brought in an awesome cross breeze, made it the coolest place in the house. We cleared out a corner near one of the windows and made a little bedroom there.
“You know the widow’s walk, yeah? That’s where I saw my first ghost. It was a wicked humid night, probably July. You know what actually? It must have been fourth of July week because my cousins, Chris, you remember Janie and Adam, they were there. So I’m about ten and it’s the middle of the night and I wake up to pee. We’d pee out the window on the far side of the attic so we wouldn’t have to climb back down the ladder in the middle of the night. Mom threw an absolute fit when she realized we were doing that,” Blue guffawed at the memory.
“Yeah, so I’m doing my business out the window when I hear footsteps above my head. I figured that one of my cousins had climbed up onto the widow’s walk. You’d think we’d have been up there all the time but the thing was a wreck. The spiral staircase shook as you climbed up, felt like the damn thing would come tumbling down around you and it wasn’t worth it anyway, the deck itself was a splinter-filled mess. Gramps made a big deal of having a carpenter check it at the beginning of each summer, but I didn’t see the guy do a damn thing. He’d just climb up there for ten minutes then come back down and declare the broken deck ‘sound.’
“We weren’t supposed to be up there and when I heard the footsteps that night I was kinda surprised. I figured Adam might have filched some cigs from his parents so I stood at the base of the spiral trying to decide if I should go up or not when I realized that the footsteps I was hearing were pacing back and forth along the walk.
“No one in their right mind would do that. You go up there and you take a look and you stand still and count the minutes ‘til you can get back to safety. Hearing someone clomping around up there scared me. But it totally scared me in a little kid way, yeah? I was afraid all Adam’s stomping around would break the walk apart and then we’d all get in trouble for sneaking out there at night. It didn’t even register that Adam was in danger, I was more concerned with my dad taking away attic privileges and that’s what pushed me up those stairs.
“I had it in my head to tell Adam off and maybe even take a puff or two of his cigarette. I tried to climb those stairs as quietly as I could, which was damn near impossible. I’m lucky the bolts didn’t come right out of the ceiling. The eye hook on the trap door was latched which gave my ten-year-old mind a little pause, but then I thought maybe Adam had managed to lock himself out and that’s why he was making such a ruckus. For a minute I was psyched to be the one to save the day.
“I unhooked the latch and pushed the heavy door up and out above my head until the hinge caught and held it in place. The pacing had stopped and I figured Adam was out of sight behind the trap door where I couldn’t see him. I whispered his name a couple times and he didn’t answer.
“I had the creeps real bad. I could sense someone standing just out of sight on the other side of that door, yeah? But something in me did not want to see who it was. I knew Adam would never let me live it down if I just turned and scooted back down those stairs. So I made myself crawl out onto the porch.
“When I stood and turned and saw who was there I freaking froze, man. I have never in my entire life been so terrified. I couldn’t move. I don’t even think I was breathing.
“It was a man, I swear on my daughter’s life, he was as real as you and me. He looked like Abraham Lincoln without the hat. No, seriously. He was really tall and skinny and he had a beard and his hair was too long and sort of flattened down around his head. We stared at each other for what felt like forever and then he goes, and I’ll never forget this, ‘They’re dead. Every one of ‘em. They’re all gone down to sea.’”
“Then he starts pacing again. He walked straight towards me so I broke for that trap door, man. I crawled in there so fast I don’t know how I didn’t kill myself on those stairs and when I yanked that trap door closed I got a mean handful of splinters. Actually had to go to the doctor to dig some of ‘em out. Yeah, I slid down the rest of those stairs screaming and crying. I didn’t even realize I was doing it.
“Adam and my sister met me at the bottom of the stairs and dragged me over to our sleeping bags telling me to shut up so I wouldn’t wake up our parents. I told them what I’d seen and they believed me. If they hadn’t I think I would have lost my little mind. Janie had the idea to go to the library and try to find out how to get rid of ghosts. We stole table salt from the kitchen and sprinkled it across the last step up to the widow’s walk and since we couldn’t get our hands on any sage we burned a couple of dried leaves up there and shared a cigarette in the attic, blowing the smoke up to that hatch hoping it would clear the ghost away.
“You know what? I told mom about it years later and she some research. You’re not going to believe this, so, not the guy who built the place but the second captain to own the house, right? He’d lost his entire crew on a whaling trip and then lost his mind. He was supposed to go but sent his brother in law instead or something tragic like that. Man, can you imagine? Stuck out on that walk, having to relive that forever?”
Blue was chock full of stories. His next involves another sea captain’s mansion. Today a hotel, the Jared Coffin House is the oldest mansion built on island. A three-story brick Greek-Revival style estate that sits atop Broad Street. The original structure boasts thirty guest rooms, one can only imagine how grand it must have been when sea captain Jared Coffin built it for his family in 1845.
“When I was fourteen I landed a job as a bellhop at the Jared Coffin.” Blue began, “It was the summer before I snagged the job as striker on the Emily Marie.”
“But that’s your boat’s name,” I interrupted.
“Mm hmm,” Blue said with a smile. “I’ll tell you that story next, it’s not a ghost story but it’s pretty fucked.”
“It’s scarier than a ghost story,” Chris commented.
“Yeah, true. But so I got this bellhop job at the hotel. It was mostly dragging luggage up and down three flights for summer people, but I had to help the cleaning staff a lot too. There was this Irish girl, she was real cute, a tall freckled brunette. Mary. I think she was eighteen, totally out of my league, but I hopped to anytime she needed help carrying towels or lugging the vacuum to the third floor.
“This one day I’m coming out of a room after dropping bags and she runs right into me and knocks me clean over. She stumbled a bit but just kept on running down the hallway to the stairs. I went after her and when I got down to the first floor I saw she’d run right out the front doors onto the sidewalk.
“My first thought was that one of the guests had made a move on her, or worse. I’m telling you, she was shaking and insisting that she wouldn’t go back inside. When she wouldn’t tell me what happened I went into get another one of the cleaning girls. I didn’t want to get her in trouble by telling their manager, but I knew that if she didn’t go back in and finish her shift she’d be out a job.
“The girl, ah, Shelby it was, was mad at me at first, she thought I was the one to get her worked up. Mary finally calmed down a bit and told us what she’d seen. She had been making one of the twin beds in room three-oh-one. Said she was trying to rush since she’d had the creeps the second she walked in there. Near the small bathroom there was a closet door and as she was shaking a pillow into a new case that closet door creaked open. She tried to ignore it by thinking the old building was just making itself more comfortable but then as she threw the pillow onto the bed the closet door creaked back closed. She was on the other side of the room and had to pass that closet to get back out to the hallway.
“She said she had this awful feeling someone was hiding in there even though she knew that wasn’t possible. The manager had told her to open the room and she was afraid of having her hours cut if she made a fuss and it turned out to be nothing, so she decided to crawl across the beds to the hall door and then prop it open. That way at least someone would hear her scream if she was attacked.
“As she crawled across the first bed she heard something shuffling and scratching across the floor beneath it. She said it sounded big. Too big to be a mouse. She freaked out and jumped onto the other bed and just as she did she felt something grab at her ankle. She said it felt like it had claws. Then, get this, the closet door slammed open and as she bolted for the door she caught a glimpse of a small woman crouched in the corner of that closet. The woman had on a dirty white dress and two long skinny braids and, listen here, she had black teeth.
“I didn’t know if she was freaking out or what but that girl was scared to death. We finally got her to go back inside and luckily it was a slow time of day you know afternoon in the middle of the week. Everyone was at the beach, so I told her I’d go up and help her finish the room. Shelby sort of bullied her into it, lecturing on about how Mary couldn’t afford to get fired.
“I don’t know why I agreed to go back up there with her. I guess I thought it was all probably too good to be true, yeah? But I went up. Mary was shaking, man, literally almost unable to walk down the hallway when we got up to the third floor. I went ahead of her, and I tried to hide it but I was spooked. As I turned the knob on that door all the hair on my arms stood straight up.
“I was scared and excited, man, I thought that maybe I was about to see a ghost again. But when I opened the door all there was was a seriously trashed hotel room. The sheets had been torn off the beds and thrown on the ground all crazy-like and the beds themselves had been sort of pushed around away from the wall. One of the pillows had been ripped open so there were down feathers still floating in the air.
“It was like walking into an after party if the guests just disappeared into thin air. I could only stand there and stare. Mary was behind me peeking in over my shoulder and I was about to say, ‘Are you pulling my leg?’ half hoping the whole thing was a prank, when the closet door started to open with this slow creeeeaak that I will never in my life forget. I slammed the door so hard and took off down the hall. Mary chased after me screaming, ‘I told you!’ I didn’t even think about it, I just went straight to my boss and told him there was a crazy lady in room three-oh-one and that she’d scared Mary and then trashed the place.
“He started to go up there but I stopped him. I glossed over what had happened to Mary (I left out the part about the claws on the floor) but I told him we had to call the police. There was no way I was going back up there with a crazy lady in the closet.
“Yeah, what did the police say? At first they thought it was a prank. When my boss finally convinced them that he was being serious they said they’d send someone over to check it out. You know who showed up? The sheriff. He listened to the story then brought my boss up so they could have a look for themselves. When they got back downstairs my boss looked like he was about to pass out and the sheriff left us with a word of warning to stay away from that room, then he asked to talk to Mary’s manager. We were all in the back office and he calls her in and gave her a really hard time about trying to open that room up again. She had no idea what he was talking about, it was her first summer at the hotel. So the sheriff goes ‘Under no circumstances is that room to be used.’ He said he’d be sure to call the hotel owner and the past manager to let them know how irresponsible it had been for them not to pass on the rules about three-oh-one. Then he left. Leaving the four of us there staring at eachother.
“On the Bible. On the Bible that’s exactly how it went down. I didn’t go near that room again and I hated to even be on that floor. But a couple weeks later I was manning the reception desk. Sometimes the overnight guy needed time off so I would snag the shift if I could since it paid time and half. So around two-thirty in the morning this guy comes downstairs complaining about a loud party or something in the room above his. He said there must be a big dog in the room above theirs too because they kept hearing it scratching on the floor.
“He was in room two-oh-one. Directly below that devil of a room. No! Of course I didn’t go check it out! I moved him to another room. I made up some story about a high ranking government official staying in the hotel and gave them vouchers for free breakfast for the rest of their vacation. I thought for sure I’d get canned the next morning but when I told the story to the day receptionist she just goes, ‘Quick thinking.’”
Blue’s ghost stories kept me up reading late into the night for distraction for the rest of our vacation, but his last story frightened me for a different reason.
“Oh yeah, the Emily Marie. She’s a beaut, a Crosby Hawk with a twelve foot beam. We can have 4 rods fishing at once, you know, you’ve been out with me Chris. Couple stripers, right? Some blues too. Yeah, I started on the Emily Marie as a striker. Oh, it’s like a helper, I guess. You know for the captain but also the guests. I did all the lugging and managed the gear and cleaned fish. All that shit. I started on the boat in ‘96 the summer after my freshman year at BU. I spent the next three summers doing the same thing then after I graduated I had no job and no idea how I was going to find one so I worked for Dave again. Dave Nevers, the captain.
“He was as salty as they came, man. Good guy, knew his stuff on the water, but his home life was a mess. Big drinker, he’d put away six/eight beers on a three hour charter and the guests were none the wiser. I think that’s why he hired me, you know, just in case. There were a couple close calls, but nothing too bad. For the most part he managed the drink well enough, his problem was women. The boat was named after his wife. I met her when I was twenty and she was the hottest forty year old woman I’d ever seen. I could barely even make eye contact with her.. She really was something, looked like a pin up girl. Thing was, Dave slept around, he couldn’t help himself. You know guys like that, yeah? Dead set on pressing the self destruct button just to see what it’s like to watch their lives burn to the ground. That was Dave.
“She eventually found out, the island’s so damn small you can’t keep anything a secret. And that’s what got her, the humiliation of it. He hadn’t even tried to save her the embarrassment. He just carried on as though no one would talk and he got away with it for a long time but then he made the mistake of hooking up with one of her little sister’s friends and that was the end of it.
“The thing about Emily was that she was patient. She didn’t even tell him that she knew what he’d done. She just hopped a Cape Air to Boston then jumped on a flight back home to NOLA. She went and bought herself a curse from a genuine Voodoo queen.
“Yup, she didn’t want to kill him but she wanted him to feel just as humiliated as she did and she wanted him to suffer. It started out slowly, he rolled his ankle and then got a mean case of poison ivy when he was weed whacking the yard, even breathed the stuff in. It was nasty. What else, I mean it was ridiculous. HE was walking around with a nasty rash all over is face and arms and legs, he had to wear a boot for the ankle, and then that’s right! His hair started to fall out and I mean fast. It was patchy. He was one of those guys who always wore a hat, but the poison ivy drove him so made that he couldn’t tolerate wearing it anymore.
“We joked about his stroke of bad luck and all the while Emily never let on until things started happening with the boat. Weird things. Crazy asshole charter guests, the anchor line broke like every time we put it down, gas leaks, stuff like that. She eventually told him what she’d done and he was completely freaked out. He tried to convince himself the curse wasn’t real but then we hit a totally unexpected storm one morning, it came out of nowhere and we damn near capsized. It was a charter trip and we had three guys with us. That’s what convinced him he had to get off the water. He sold me the boat for a thousand bucks and made me promise I wouldn’t change the name. Said it was bad luck. I swear. I tried to argue with him that it wasn’t enough money but he was desperate to get off the island and away from that woman.
“I didn’t know if I believed in the curse or if his karma just came back around good and strong, but the creepiest thing was about a week after I’d started taking out charters on my own I was cleaning out one of the cabinets in the center console and I found this little action figure wedged back behind the first aid kit. It was like a little G.I. Joe Someone had painted it black and wrapped it in red twine.
“I just threw it right over the side, you know I hate when people litter in the ocean, man, but I didn’t want that thing in the boat. Curse or no curse I didn’t want anything to do with that nonsense.”
“Wait,” I interrupted, “An action figure? Painted black?”
“Yeah, it’s old black magic voodoo shit. Even though I didn’t completely believe in it I asked around and this girl I was friends with new all about it.”
Instead of sharing the nervous laughter with Blue and Chris I was silent.
“What’s up?” Blue asked. “Did one of your haunted neighbors find a doll or something?”
I shook my head.
Chris and Blue stared at me.
“It’s nothing. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence,” I said, feeling panic rise.
You see, a week or so before we left for vacation something weird happened. We’ve been doing more work on the house. We pushed a wall back and took over half of our tiny garage space to make more space in the kitchen for storage and such. When our contractor, Eric, took down the original wall and ceiling in the process of these renovations he created an opening that allowed us to glimpse the previously enclosed and unused attic space above the garage.
The house is rather small for the five of us (and two dogs and a fish) so I hated the idea of closing off this little attic again. Eric put up walls and flooring and built a wooden ladder off our mudroom so the girls could climb up to play in this attic space that we’ve nicknamed the Clubhouse. It is a hard place to describe, so I’ll take a video of the space and post it to my Ghosts In The Burbs instagram so you all can see what I’m talking about.
I need you to understand the layout because I found something up there the other night. Something that shouldn’t have been there. My girls can barely climb up and down the ladder into the space, Joey basically has an all-out panic attack every time she attempts it. The girls aren’t capable of carrying anything up there. I have to hand their toys up to them.
The other night Chris was out at a late client dinner, the kids were all in bed and the dogs and I were sitting on the couch watching This is Us (just kidding, I was watching the episode of Hollywood Medium with Corey Feldman – gets me every time). I thought I heard the big girls banging around upstairs a couple times but when I peeked/stormed into their bedroom they were sound asleep. I kept the volume on the television low so that I would hear the girls if they were messing around but after a few moments I realized that the noise I was hearing wasn’t coming from upstairs, it was coming from that attic space above the garage.
I muted the television and listened. I heard a soft sort of banging noise that wasn’t familiar. It wasn’t exactly consistent, but it was persistent. I kept hearing the sound but it wasn’t in any sort of a pattern. And no, it wasn’t at all like the tapping that happened in the house back when we had our little demon kerfuffle. It sounded like someone or something was making the noise.
I got up and stood in the doorway between the living room and kitchen to see if I could explain away the noise, hoping that maybe it was the ice maker or the air vents. I took a step into the kitchen but froze when I realized that the noise was definitely coming from the Clubhouse. I looked back at the dogs asleep on the couch and felt it best to leave them be. They’re so used to strangers coming in and out with all the work we’ve been doing that they would likely want to befriend an intruder at this point.
I grabbed my phone off the coffee table and punched 9-1-1 into the call screen but held off on pressing send. I held the phone in one hand and grabbed our fire poker from the fireplace with the other, then I tiptoed into the kitchen towards the noise. Once at the bottom of the ladder I flipped the switch to fill the attic with light and called “Hello?!” There was no answer but the noise stopped for a moment which scared the ever living hell out of me.
When it started back up again I forced myself climb up the ladder, phone in my back pocket, fire poker in my right hand. Deep down I knew that it couldn’t be a person, but something was making that noise and I was in that irrational state of being furious that I was frightened. In all honesty, I was also pissed that Chris wasn’t home to deal with it and I was even more pissed that I wasn’t able to sit quietly in front of the damn television for even ten minutes.
I crawled awkwardly to the first level of the attic, it opens to a space about nine feet by five feet (this is the part above the garage) and then there is another area about nine by nine that sits raised up a foot or two (that’s the part above the kitchen). You’ll have to see the video for this to make any sense, but the noise was coming from the far back corner of the raised section.
There was something moving, swinging in that back corner. I climbed onto the upper level space and crawled back to see what it was. There was a doll, an action figure about the size of a barbie, it was one of those new Super Hero Girl dolls and it was hanging from the ceiling by a string. Someone had painted it black. It was was getting blown about by the air vent and banging against the vaulted ceiling and back wall awkwardly. The red string holding it was stuck to the ceiling with duct tape. I gave it a hard yank and pulled it down.
I sat there staring at the painted figure in my hand. The red string around its waist was tied in a perfect bow.
The next morning I asked Eric if he’d noticed it up there the day before, he hadn’t. I could tell by their reaction that the big girls hadn’t left it up there either because they asked if they could paint their dolls too when I showed it to them. Chris insisted that it must have been the girls since they were into action figures and were always “taping shit onto other shit.” Even though I knew it wasn’t one of the girls’ dolls I didn’t argue because I didn’t want him to feel as scared as I was. Because the thing is, I’d found another doll exactly like it on our front steps just a few days before.