“Are you Liz?”
I looked up from undoing my velcro shoes and stood up straight. “I am, uh-”
“Emily, I’m Emily Crum.”
“Hi,” I said, scanning my brain and trying to figure out if I knew the woman and if so from where and when.
“I thought I recognized your picture from the blog. I love the stories. Are they all real?”
“As far as I know,” I said with a smile, relieved that I wasn’t supposed to know or remember her.
“I’ve seen you here a few times,” she said.
We were at bSpoke, an indoor cycling studio on Central Street. “I’ve become a little obsessed. The classes are hard but they’re just so much fun.”
“I like it too.”
The woman shifted anxiously from foot to foot. I wasn’t sure how to get out of the exchange. I said, “Anyway, we can check it off the list for today. Back to real life!”
She smiled. “Yeah, so uh, I had this really crazy thing happen to me. Sorry to bring this up here,” she waved her hands indicating the studio. “Should I email you instead?”
“No, I mean, sure but is it about a haunting?”
“Yeah, I mean it’s not exactly a haunting, but this strange thing happened when I was growing up. I would never have said anything about it, but it’s sort of reared up again and I was thinking you might be able to give me some advice.”
This is going to be interesting. Claire said, almost causing me to jump. I never thought she would follow me to a spin class.
“You know, I have some time now,” I said without really thinking. “Want to grab a coffee at Starbucks?”
Emily accepted the invitation. I told her I just needed to grab my purse out of my car and that I’d meet her there.
There’s something so familiar about her, Claire said as I slipped into Uggs.
“You’re following me to spin class now?” I whispered to my shoes.
Emily stood, venti coffee cup in hand, near the front door. She watched me with nervous eyes as I approached her indicating that I’d ordered my drink on the app. I snagged the soy latte and we moved to the back of the cafe and found a small table tucked at the back of the space.
“Will you record this interview?” She asked.
“I was just about to ask you if that would be all right,” I said reaching into my bag for the little recorder.
“Sure,” she said. “Oh, wait,” Emily turned to rifle through the bag she’d slung over the back of her chair. When she turned back there was a small plastic container in her hands. “You like sweets, right? I just made a batch of these. I was going to give this to my daughters tutor, but I have plenty more at home. Their gluten-free, nut free, vegan.”
And, they were also covered in powdered sugar. “Ooo, thank you,” I said happily, plucking one of the chocolates up and popping it in my mouth.
“I call them chocolate bombs,” Emily said, smiling, selecting one of the little chocolates for herself.
“Mmmm,” I replied, reaching for another.
“I’ll give you the recipe.”
I nodded in reply because it would have been rude to speak with my mouth full.
Emily smiled and watched me for a moment. “Um, you know, I knew Claire. I was a year below her in high school.”
“Oh, wow,” I said. The statement took time to sink in. I’d only imagined Claire as a part of the foursome that had led to her demise. I hadn’t even considered that she might have had a life outside of that little group.
And then I had to look down at the table. Too overstimulated from trying to maintain the conversation with the woman while listening to Claire chattering away in my ear.
That’s Emily Crum! She was a freshman. I knew she looked familiar!
“Okay,” I said quietly.
“Oh my God, is she here?”
Claire was excited. I didn’t recognize her at first. She’s stunning! She looks so different! She used to carry that cat backpack and wear her hair in a tight french braid – tell her I remember her!
I relayed Claire’s excitement.
“You can really hear her. That backpack! I was such a nerd,” Emily said with a sad smile. “I brought a lot of ridicule on myself.”
Tell her I remember what Vanessa did in the cafeteria. I’m so sorry. Claire insisted.
“Oh, that,” Emily said after I’d offered Claire’s apology. “What a cringer, huh? There is no need for Claire to apologize about that. Vanessa was and always has been a total bitch.”
Claire made an affirming noise.
“Have you seen any of them recently? Hillary, Vanessa, and Jill, I mean.”
“No, thank God,” I replied honestly.
“I ran into them at a cocktail party a few weeks ago. They’re looking a little worse for wear.”
As well they should, Claire hissed.
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “Their past definitely came back to bite them.”
“Well, Hillary looks like she’s been biting into about half a dozen donuts a day,” Emily quipped. “Sorry that was mean. I just, well they deserve whatever they get for what they did to Claire.”
“I’m sure Karma hasn’t been kind,” I agreed.
Fuck karma, Claire spat. They don’t have me to genie all their evil plans into existence anymore.
I must have winced because Emily said, “What did Claire say?”
“She’s happy she isn’t tied to them any longer,” I summed up.
“I’ll bet,” Emily said. “Is she with you all the time?”
I shook my head. “No, she just sort of pops up now and again.”
“And other spirits? Do you just hear them all the time?”
“No, same thing. They just sort of pop up unexpectedly. I mean, Claire is around a lot, but there’s no predicting when I’ll be able to actually make contact with her, or with any other spirit for that matter. It’s unsettling, startling most of the time because I’m not expecting to hear a voice and it comes out of nowhere.”
Emily looked at me, considering. She said, “Do you ever hear anything else? Like other than dead people.”
“I have in the past, but it’s been rare, thankfully.”
“Do you believe in monsters?” She asked abruptly.
“Um, well, I don’t know. I’ve interviewed a few people who’ve encountered them. And I do believe in ghosts, so yeah, I guess. I mean, why not?”
Emily chewed on the inside of her lip. “I’ve never told anyone this, but I’m frightened. It’s come back.”
“What has?” I asked, intrigued.
Oh no, Claire said beside me.
“The imp,” Emily said in a small voice. “I was certain that I’d contained the creature, but I wasn’t cautious enough.”
“That’s just what I called it when I was seven and the name stuck. I don’t really know what it is.”
Be careful, Claire said and that was the last time I heard from her for three days.
I grabbed another chocolate, it paired perfectly with the latte. “How in the world did you meet an imp?”
Emily began, “When I was seven I used to play in a creek behind our home. I grew up over on Woodland Road.” When I indicated that I wasn’t familiar with the street she explained, “It’s the dead-end road that runs right behind Elmwood Church. It’s a short street, only about eight houses and ours was at the very end, at the edge of Boulder Brook.
“I was, well, like I said, I was a complete nerd. I got into this phase where I would build dams across the creek. Creating different models and trying to figure out which design worked best.”
“That doesn’t sound nerdy that sounds fun,” I commented.
“It was, actually.” Emily reached back and undid her pony tail. She brushed her thick auburn hair with her hands and pushed it up into a messy bun on top of her head. Claire was right, she was absolutely stunning. Clear skin, free of makeup, soft brown eyes. She wasn’t skeletally thin, which seemed to have become the norm for many women in town. Instead her cheeks had a nice plumpness to them, she looked younger than she was, which I guessed at based on my knowledge of Claire’s age. Rather, what Claire’s age would have been had she not died tragically as a teenager.
Emily continued. “I got pretty good at it, the dam building. I scavenged old wooden boards and found that bracing them upright with sticks then gluing the structure in place with mud created the most sturdy dam design.”
“Oh, you really were a nerd,” I said, jokingly.
Emily let out a bark of laughter. “I truly was.”
“There was a stream that ran behind the house I grew up in,” I said. “I used to build dams too – certainly not as advanced as yours. I don’t know what made it so much fun, but it really was.”
Emily nodded her head in agreement. “Isn’t it funny how we change? The thought of being up to my ankles in muddy water, patting handfuls of mud into rotting boards absolutely skeeves me out now, but then…” She trailed off. “Anyhow. I was building one of those dams, digging up dirt about five or six feet from the creek and hauling it over to my beautiful structure. As I was digging in the dirt I found something. A cookie tin, you know those blue ones with the boring shortbread cookies that pop up around Christmas time? It just appeared, about four feet down in the dirt. It had rusted slightly, but only along its seams.”
“Four feet? You were really digging a good-sized hole,” I said with a smile.
“I suppose I was, it was pretty awesome. I just stared down at the tin for a bit, wondering if I’d unearthed someone’s dead hamster or rabbit or something, but curiosity got the better of me. I brought it up and set it on the ground. Stared at it some more. Imagining that it was something spectacular. Because that was always the dream, right? Discovering something magical and secret in the woods? I played around with the idea that I finally had.
“Eventually, I went for it and opened the tin. Inside was a silk scarf that had been knotted around something, creating a small little package. It took me some time to undo the knot, my fingernails were painfully short – I was a nail biter – so I really had to work at it. As I was doing so I heard something splash in the stream behind me.
“I spun around and saw something scurry up the bank and into the underbrush. It unsettled me, I tried to tell myself it was just a little critter. But if that had been the case it must have been sickly, it was grey like a squirrel or rabbit, but it didn’t have any fur.
“Slightly unnerved I went back to work on the scarf. When I finally opened it I wasn’t disappointed. Wrapped inside was a delicate gold chain bracelet with a charm. A glass ball, the size of a marble with a black spot right in its middle.”
“Weird, that’s all that was in there?”
“No, there were some dried leaves and flowers in the scarf with the bracelet. I suppose that if I found the tin now I would assume it was some sort of tribute or remembrance for a lost loved one. But then I thought I’d dug up buried treasure. I slid the bracelet on my arm and threw the scarf back in the tin. I’d carelessly scattered most of the dried foliage on the ground as I’d untied the scarf though. I threw the tin back in the hole and covered it back up with dirt.”
“Cue the ominous music,” I noted.
“You know it,” Emily replied grimly. “In fact, it began to rain on my way back home. The rain actually lasted for several days. An intense band of storms that turned the land near the creek into a muddy mess. I tried, but I never could find that tin again. It was as if it had disappeared.”
“You wanted to put the bracelet back?” I guessed.
“Desperately so,” Emily affirmed.
“It marked me, made me his,” she said, her voice low.
“I’m afraid to ask,” I said, matching her tone.
“It was little things at first. Hiding my dad’s car keys to make him late for work. Spilling milk on my brother’s baseball cards. But it got worse. I did much worse things.
“The bracelet made you do them?”
“No. No, the imp made me do those things, the bracelet simply marked me as his.”
“I don’t know how, exactly. Magic, I guess. Old magic. I would get ideas in my mind, bad ideas. But they weren’t my ideas, the thing put them there. Made the ideas too compelling to ignore.He snuck them right into my thoughts and made me think they were my own. I think it had something to do with the way that he watched over me at night as I slept.”
“Yeah. The rocking chair from when I was a baby it was still in my bedroom. I had it in the corner near my bookshelf, and I used to read there. Soon after I found the bracelet the rocking chair would move from the corner to the end of my bed. As though someone had been sitting there watching me sleep at night.”
I blew out a breath. “That is truly terrifying.”
“It was. I accused my older brother of moving the rocking chair, but of course he wasn’t the one doing it. I began to remember my dreams, though I suspected that some of them weren’t dreams at all. I dreamt of a small creature rocking in the chair at the end of my bed, quietly suggesting the bad ideas.”
“What it look like?”
“He was small and gray like the thing I’d seen in the forest after I dug up the bracelet. Pudgy around the middle with rolls encircling his neck, though his legs were so skinny they looked as though they couldn’t possibly hold him up. His hands were horrible, with long sharp fingers like grey toothpicks. He would do this thing where he rolled his wrists around and around while he spoke to me at night, it was oddly calming, even when the things he suggested were terrible.”
“What did he suggest?”
“At first it was just annoying tricks to play on my family, but they turned mean. I dropped the bowl my grandmother had given to my parents as a wedding gift. Slammed it on the ground on purpose and said it was an accident. I poured bleach into a load of dark laundry, that contained my brother’s baseball uniform. And then it wasn’t just my family anymore. I woke up one morning and looked out my window towards my next door neighbor’s house. A girl named Monica lived there. We’d been friendly, not exactly friends, though we would walk to school together sometimes. Out my window I saw that someone had written in large letters with black marker along the side of her house ‘Monica is a fat bitch face.’”
I laughed but then apologized. “Sorry, it’s not funny.”
“No, it’s silly now. But then, that was the height of name calling. There was no denying that I had done it. My handwriting was perfectly recognizable and I got into a lot of trouble. The thing was, I didn’t remember doing it and that’s when things shifted. I could remember and even enjoy the little tricks I’d played on my family. Enjoy isn’t the right word, maybe I was channelling his feelings, but part of me did get a kick out of the mischief.
“But when the mischief turned mean I had no memory of it. A family friend raised prize Checkered Giants and kept them in a hutch in their yard. Someone opened the cage door and let them all out. I don’t have any memory of it, but I know it was me. Those poor rabbits, there were so many more coyote around back then, they didn’t stand a chance.
“There were other instances, but I try not to think of them. I took to the library and found plenty of fairytales about mischievous creatures and that’s where I learned out about imps. They were described as mischievous troublemakers but the only difference was that in the fairytales the imps were the ones carrying out the mischief, I didn’t find any examples of them holding influence over people.
“I’ve searched for years, trying to find someone with a situation like mine, but I can’t find anyone with quite the same story. I have found people online who say they had small monsters in their bedrooms as children. Monsters who watched them sleep. But none of them mentioned being controlled or influenced by the creature. It was more like their monsters were simply there to terrorize them.
“But, back to my childhood, when I realized I had no control over my actions any longer I begged my mother for a tin of those stupid Christmas cookies. She thought I’d be disappointed by them, but thankfully they were under the tree Christmas morning. I had tried just taking off the bracelet but that didn’t work. So I thought maybe it was the tin that could hold the magic. I stole some of my mom’s potpourri, sprinkled it in there and put the tin at the back of my closet and over time I felt the creature’s control less and less. I stopped forgetting what I was doing and could discern when I was being influenced by him to do something bad.”
“Why didn’t you bury it again?”
“I didn’t want anyone else to find it.”
“And that took care of it, huh? You never saw the thing again?” I asked in disbelief.
“Not exactly.” Emily pushed the sleeve of her puffy coat up on her left arm revealing a delicate gold chain bracelet. She turned her wrist side to side to show off the marble sized charm.
“Why the fuck are you wearing that?” I leaned back in my seat, repelled by the deceivingly pretty bracelet.
She pushed the sleeve back down, covering up the enchanted object. “The tin moved with me from home to home. First to college, then to several apartments and finally back out here to Wellesley. I’ve always been so careful to conceal it so no one could find it.”
“Who found it?”
“Oh no,” I breathed.
“We had a couple frustrating days. The jack o’ lanterns were all smashed on our porch and then my wedding band went missing. I began to get suspicious when I saw what looked like dried pumpkin innards on her sneakers. Then she began refusing to take a bath. She didn’t ever want to take off her long-sleeved shirt.
I insisted that she did and then I saw it.” Emily stared down at her wrist.
“How long,” I began.
“Have I been wearing it?” Emily finished. “Almost a week. That’s why it’s so crazy that I happened to run into you at spin class. It’s like I was supposed to tell you. That you might be able to help me.”
“Synchronicity,” I said reaching for the last chocolate bomb.
“Could you? I mean, do you think you might be able to help me.”
I chewed and considered. “I don’t know if this is something Biddy could help with, but I actually do know this psychic, her name’s Molly Vail, she dealt with her own monster. I could put you in touch with her. If nothing else maybe she could, like, read the thing and figure out where it came from.”
“I would truly appreciate it.”
“But why don’t you just put the bracelet back in the tin again?”
Emily shook her head, “My daughter would have to be the one to do it…”
“Okay,” I said.
“She won’t do it.”
“She’s, well she’s a lot like I was when I was her age, the poor thing. She marches to her own drummer, she’s never had many friends and she likes him, it. She thinks he’s her friend.”
Three days later Claire popped back up while I was re-reading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and hoping for inspiration.
You need to deal with that basement. She said out of nowhere.
“Why do you think I’m trying to read this book?” I said after the jolt of surprise had worn off.
That book isn’t going to help you with what’s going on down there.
I clapped the book shut. I’d just wanted one normal minute. One moment where I could lose myself in the rich literature of sweater folding.
“Well then just tell me what’s going on down there.”
I was met with silence.
Annoyed I said, “Where did you go anyway? You bailed on the interview with Emily, I thought you were excited to see her.”
Claire took long enough to answer that I thought maybe she’d gone again.
I saw one of those things, she said finally. When I was trapped in between.
“An imp?” I asked.
Yes. They’re awful. You’re safe from them unless it’s been assigned to you and then there is basically no hope.
“What do you mean no hope? There has to be a way to get rid of them, right?”
No one can get rid of them. They’re forever.