Alicia was a specific type of Wellesley woman, one whom I haven’t spoken of often because they tend to be loners. To be concise, she was an NPR listening, reusable grocery bag carrying, train the kids to bring home their lunch scraps for compost, turn the engine off at stop lights, historical society defending socialist at heart who guiltily reaped the benefits of her husband’s very capitalist, very successful job. She spread her guilt under the guise of community involvement, championing causes that, though noble made most people suppress deep sighs.
In theory, I liked everything she stood for, but when she took the plastic lid off my half full cup of coffee and said she’d be happy to bring it home to recycle it for me I found myself feeling attacked. Alicia in theory was great, in reality she was a lot.
Her husband Doug was a fucking know-it-all. Doug was fifty-two, his bride, fifty-one. They told me that within the first five minutes of our meeting. I also learned a blessedly abbreviated history of their infertility battle (Doug had low count and low motility), Alicia a “hostile internal environment.” But even in this perfect storm they’d managed to produce a boy. Glen, nine years old, “smart and headstrong like his father, community minded like his mother.”
I met the couple at Peet’s Coffee because, as Doug pointed out in our group text, “Starbucks is about three months overdue for a new water filtration system and Cafe Nero burns their beans.” He seriously took the time to write that out over text. A mutual acquaintance had given Alicia my phone number. That mutual acquaintance was officially kicked out of my circle of trust.
Burned beans and coffee filtration aside, I was willing to meet the couple at Peet’s.
“You look so familiar,” Alicia said, maintaining a laser-focused eye contact as we shook hands.
I shrugged and nodded vaguely, she didn’t look at all familiar to me.
“Do you do yoga?”
“Sometimes,” I replied.
She named a yoga studio. I admitted that I used to frequent the studio but had gotten distracted by indoor cycling, I left out why I’d needed a distraction from that particular yoga studio [see story #28, Namaste].
After stating, “Those bikes are murder on the knees, you’ll be sorry,” Doug gingerly sipped his coffee and said, “Excuse me for a moment,” in an authoritative tone. I watched him walk to the counter and, ignoring the person who’d been waiting their turn, begin speaking sternly with the cashier. Alicia’s back was to the counter, and she was talking about the last school committee meeting so I was only half listening to her when I heard Doug raise his voice and say, “No! Dump out the coffee but use the same cup.”
As for me, I will literally take the wrong meal or drink if offered just to avoid making the person helping me feel uncomfortable. Doug had a different way of doing things. I tried to push aside embarrassment in being associated with the crank as he huffed and puffed back to our table.
He sat down and, though it had been attention he’d so obviously wanted, he didn’t appear to want to address the angry exchange.
I interrupted Alicia’s story of personal offense and the school committee and said, “All better?” To Doug.
He huffed some more. “Well you’d think they’d train these people. At least they poured me a fresh cup.”
Just as he was about to take a sip of this new cup I said, “I hope they didn’t spit in it.”
The couple forced out laughter as though I were joking.
To Alicia I said, “You mentioned that there’s something going on with your son?” I wasn’t here to listen to her spout off about the school committee. *Insert here their infertility tale, then –
“I found your blog and I thought that, you know, since you can hear dead people and everything then maybe you might have some insight into how we might deal with his…” Alicia trailed off.
“His new abilities,” Doug finished for her.
“Oh, man. Okay sure, poor kid,” I said. “I’ll tell you everything I can. When did he first start hearing them?” I suddenly felt guilty for being so annoyed and judgy about the couple. If they had a kid who was hearing dead people then they must be scared to death.
“Him,” Alicia said.
“He only hears one dead person. Moby.”
“Oh?” I said, a feeling of dread coming over me.
That’s not a dead person, Claire stated, matter-of-factly compounding my worry.
“What I think we have here is a chicken or the egg situation,” Doug said, confidently. “By that I mean, did his interest in video games simply coincide with the dawn this ability in him, or did they awaken it.”
“iPad games, honey. He’s too little for video games,” his wife corrected.
“iPad games, then,” Doug conceded. “I for one think he is too young for them, but-”
“The boys in his class play the games. It’s a way for him to connect socially,” Alicia said, an edge in her voice.
“He should be focused on learning at school, not socializing,” Doug muttered.
“His social-emotional development is just as important as his academic growth. How will he lead a team of people or develop products that people relate to if he doesn’t have strong interpersonal skills?” Alicia shot back.
Stumped, Doug swerved. “The boy has too much screen time as it is.”
“Those parameters are changing too, I just read an article-”
“Sorry, but if we could just stay on topic,” I interrupted. I considered trying to ballpark how many hours of screen time my children enjoyed on any given day just to watch them attempt to control their expressions, but thought better of it. “Do you think an iPad game was the source of the issue?”
Alicia and Doug exchanged a long look. Doug spoke, “Again, chicken and egg,” he moved his hands up and down alternately, like a scale. “In hindsight, we can pick out other instances which were, well strange. But it was the game that introduced us, at least, to Moby. We believe it was a sure way for the ghost to connect with Glen, that perhaps the ghost’s previous attempts at communication were unsuccessful.”
“Are you saying that it talks to him through the game?”
“Yeesh, you sure it’s not some, uh-” I hesitated, not wanting to freak them out even more.
“A pedophile masquerading as an animated character?” Alicia said.
“Well, yeah,” I said.
“No, it’s not that kind of game. It’s not multiplayer or interactive, it’s an app where he has to solve puzzles and complete little quests to gather points.”
“I still contacted the creator of the app,” Doug added, “To determine whether something like that might be possible. They assured me that though it could be possible for an extremely advanced hacker to do something like that, the alterations he’d have to make to the game would send up massive red flags that they would take note of immediately.”
“Okay, well what does this Moby have to say?”
“I know, your probably thinking ‘indulgent parents of an only child,’ but we really are quite structured with him,” Alicia assured me quite unnecessarily.
“I wasn’t thinking that at all,” I said honestly, “I was thinking of the pretend play iPad game my oldest daughters have been really into lately.” It was called, like Pica Pika or something and they moved these little characters around a town to different locations, like the hospital or a horse stable. It was cute and it really held their attention. I sent up a prayer that these people weren’t going to ruin that game for me. I mean, for my daughters.
Alicia continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “We were older when we had him, obviously. Of course, we think the world of our child, but we aren’t loosey goosey about screen time.”
“She doesn’t care about that,” Doug snapped. “The game was the first thing that we noticed, but it’s not the crux of the issue.”
He. Is. Miiiiiiiiinnnnne, a deep male voice growled. The voice had come from right in front of my face, I’d never experienced that before. When I heard the dead they were usually over my shoulder. Near my ears. I sucked in a breath.
“Are you all right?” Alicia asked.
“Yes, uh sorry. I just-”
“Did you hear a dead person? Do you think you could connect with Moby?”
“I don’t know, maybe, I can’t really control who I hear. But this is a busy place so it might be someone else’s attachment.”
“Attachment?” Doug demanded.
“Dead person,” I said quickly. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything that for sure pertains to your family, okay?”
They studied me, Alicia looking frightened, Doug skeptical. For my part, I was terrified.
“What exactly has Glen seen and heard?” I asked, wanting to get their attention off me so I could collect myself. I sent out a mental call for help to Claire, but she was silent.
“Well, he began talking a lot while he played his game. I thought at first that he was just pretending, you know, using his imagination. But one afternoon when he was sitting in the kitchen and I was next door in the dining room reading I began listening to what he was actually saying and I realized that he seemed to be answering questions. As though he was having an actual conversation, but with an adult if that makes any sense.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, he was saying things like, ‘I’m nine… no, third grade… I guess so… no my parents don’t let me…’ just like that. You know how adults will ask a child a string of questions but only get one word responses? It was that sort of interaction. After I heard him say ‘My parents won’t let me,’ I got up and looked in on him. ‘Five minute warning,’ I told him. He quickly hit the home button, closing down the app. I asked what he’d been playing, though I’d already gotten a glimpse of the game. He was honest with me, but he was acting pretty guilty like he was hiding something,” Alicia explained.
“I overheard a similar one-sided conversation,” Doug chimed in. “I heard him say, ‘But how would I get there?” And that’s when we deleted the game off the iPad and contacted its creator.”
“Did you ask your son who he’d been talking to?” I asked, wondering if perhaps they’d grossly overreacted.
“I’d been asking him all along. These were just two examples of conversations overheard, but they were the ones that pushed us to make the decision to get rid of the game.”
“What did he say about that?”
“He was very upset that he could no longer spend his thirty minute technology allotment with the game, he expressed concern that Moby would be angry with him for no longer interacting through the game. But after an in-depth discussion, he came to understand and respect our concerns,” Doug said as though he were referring to a recent discussion with a co-worker. “We realized that we had a bigger problem on our hands when Glen began speaking to this Moby via other means.”
“Such as?” I asked. I was doing my best to focus on the couple’s story, but I found myself inexplicably on the edge of a panic attack. My chest was tight, I felt like the coffee shop was far too crowded, and the feeling of impending doom was so overwhelming I had to hold onto the edge of the table to keep from bolting. To make things worse, the breathing tricks I usually employed to calm that sort of panic storm weren’t doing jack.
“Glen was in the basement, playing before school,” Alicia said, oblivious to my inner battle. “I was packing his lunch and getting things ready for the day when I heard him talking to himself. I went and stood at the top of the stairs to listen, hoping that perhaps he was just pretending with his LEGO figures, but I suspected that again I was listening in on only half of the conversation. When I heard him say, ‘I thought you lived in the game,’ then, ‘Really? That’s awesome,’ I went down to put eyes on the situation.
“He was sitting on the couch with an old toy, it was one of those plastic pretend computers for toddlers, the ones that teach kids the alphabet. I asked him who he was talking to and he looked guilty. I told him to go upstairs and brush his teeth because the bus would be there any minute. I saw that he intended to bring the little computer with him so I took it and told him that I’d up in a minute to make sure he had everything he needed for school. I looked over the computer, to see if maybe it had been tampered with in some way, and when I was sure he was out of earshot I’m embarrassed to say that I even tried asking it questions.”
Alicia stopped talking and stared at me, seeming to want me to say something. Truth be told, I was only half listening to her. Along with the tingly numb feeling at the tips of my ears that accompanies my panic spells, I’d begin to hear a low humming. And I was pretty sure it was getting louder. I was about to excuse myself from the table when Doug shared another strange experience.
“Alicia told me about the incident with the toy computer and I began to form a hypothesis. That night I dug out some old walkie talkies that I had in my tool chest and I left them on the counter at dinner time. I figured Glen would be interested in them and I was correct. He grabbed them immediately and asked to be excused to his room right after dinner. I gave him a few moments then went up and stood outside his bedroom door. Sure enough, the boy was having a conversation with someone on those walkie talkies. Presumably, Moby. You see, I made the assumption that the ghost could use electronics as a means of communication and the walkie-talkie experiment proved my guess.”
The hum in my head was getting louder, stronger. At times I could almost make out a word or two. I was so locked in my mind at that point in the conversation that I wasn’t even listening to Doug. Playing back the recording of the interview was the first time I’d really heard about the walkie talkies. During the interview I was struggling too hard to hold it together and simply couldn’t listen to what he was saying.
“Doug came downstairs to get me and we went and stood outside Glen’s door together, listening to a complete conversation between our son and Moby, only we didn’t hear Moby’s end of things. We’d hear Glen speak and then pause to listen. In those pauses we only heard a low humming coming over the walkie talkies, a few times we could almost make out a voice but only just.”
At that moment on the recording you hear me say loudly, “Shhh, shhh!” The hum had grown suddenly to a roaring din. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my fingers over my ears, trying to make it stop. On the recording you hear me saying, “Stop, stop,” quietly. Then, I begin to recite a Hail Mary. I haven’t said a Hail Mary prayer since I don’t know when.
Abruptly, the noise turned down in my head like someone had quickly turned down the volume on a car radio. It was so fast in fact that my ears popped. I stared down at the table, my entire body vibrating with fear. Eventually I was able to look up at the worried couple before me.
“Are you all right?” Alicia asked dumbly.
I shook my head and wiped my eyes. After a moment I was able to calm myself down enough to speak. “I don’t know what just happened. Everything got really loud for a minute.”
Alicia looked at me with concern. “Loud in what way?”
“Like a roaring hum in my mind, I don’t know how to explain it. I’m sorry, that’s never happened to me before.”
“Do you think it might be the dead person, Moby, trying to talk to you?”
I blew out a slow breath, “Your son isn’t talking to a dead person,” I said in a shaky voice.
Doug was irritated. “It’s not all in his imagination, or ours for that matter. The boy has been communicating with something-”
“I know,” I nearly growled. “It just nearly made my head explode. It’s an elemental that’s after your son. That’s who he’s been talking to, that’s who’s trying to lure him out of your home.”
“Oh, God. What are you saying? The ghost wants to kidnap him?” Alicia stammered nonsensically.
“How in the hell could a ghost kidnap a child?” Doug demanded.
“I don’t know but earlier, I heard something very scary say ‘He is mine.’ So obviously, the thing wants your son.”
“Oh my God, what does a ghost want with our boy?”
“She said ‘elemental,’” Doug snapped at his wife. “What is that some kind of bad ghost?”
“No. It’s not a ghost at all. It’s an ancient, extremely powerful earth spirit and it’s set its sights on your son.”
“What are we going to do?” Alicia asked, obviously terrified.
“You’re going to need to see, I don’t know, you might need to find a Native American healer, and your son should definitely see someone who practices Reike. There are cords between him and that thing that need to be cut.”
“We don’t know anyone like that,” Alicia whined.
“I do, or at least I know people who will know those people. I’ll put them in touch right away.” My mind was spinning and clear. It was as if it had opened somehow, expanded in a way that I couldn’t fathom. Whatever that monster had done to me had left behind a terrifying clarity. An unearthly knowing.
“How could something like this happen?” Glen demanded.
I shrugged. “Where do you live?”
“Oakland Road,” they said as one.
“Well, there are a lot of woods over there,” I said, guessing at the source of the elemental.
The couple exchanged a glance.
“We live across the street from the cemetery. St. Mary’s,” Alicia admitted.
I let out a shaky laugh, “Wow. You really buried the lede on this one didn’t you?”
The girls were all in bed for the night and we were relaxing in our family room half of our attention on a television show, the other half on our phones. I’d heard the knocking occasionally in that room and had always assumed it was tree branches or sound traveling from elsewhere in the house so I was used to ignoring it. But then, as I was halfway through watching a zoo keeper try to rake leaves in a baby panda bear enclosure, Chris grabbed the remote and muted the television.
“What the hell is that noise?” He asked.
I looked over at him, “What noise?”
“That knocking, it’s driving me crazy.”
We sat in silence.
“There it is again,” he said when the knocking rattle sounded again.
I suggested it might be the dishwasher.
“It sounds like it’s coming from beneath us,” he insisted.
I followed him to the basement door and down the steps. Chris unhooked the latches on the old wooden makeshift door that served as our only protection from the dark place beneath the family room and hoisted it down to lean it against the concrete wall. The crawl space had been added when the family room had been built onto the house so it was not as deep as the rest of the basement. Truthfully, I couldn’t fathom the point of it. It was dirt floored and a constant source of rodent infestation.
Chris flipped on his flashlight then leaned his head into the darkness and looked right to left. Exasperated, he said, “Well, shit, there’s the problem.” He shone the flashlight around the space top to bottom, side to side. “Come look at this, no wonder it’s so noisy.”
I hesitated. He turned and motioned me over, a smile on his face.
For a moment I wondered if he’d found a family of rabbits inhabiting the place. I walked to him and he handed me the flashlight. I shined it into the pitch black and it lighted on a face. The face of a young girl. She was sitting on the dirt floor with her back to the wall, her knees drawn up to her chest and she wasn’t alone. People lined the gloomy room. All were sitting, some with their legs stretched out in front of them and crossed at the ankles, others with knees pulled in like the girl’s. Some old, others middle-aged, I saw one more child. A teenage boy with black hair who was somehow familiar.
They all stared at me intently, as if they were relieved to see me.
“You’d better get started,” Chris said in a low voice. “You can’t keep them waiting like this forever.”
When I woke up I was already sitting up in bed, the blankets thrown off, one leg out and ready to leap to the floor. To run.
I was out of breath and for several moments I didn’t even realize that I was crying. I could make out Chris’s shape in the bed and I heard one of the dogs groan as he adjusted himself near our feet. I snatched my cell phone off the bedside table and turned on the flashlight app. I shone it around our room, certain there would be dead people lining the walls.
When I was certain we were alone I got out of bed and went down to the girls’ rooms. Kat was sound asleep, arms thrown over her head in her toddler bed. I decided then that I would move her bed into the big girls’ room in the morning. They’d been talking about it and looking down at her, all alone in this room made me realize how tiny and vulnerable she was. Max and Joey were safely nestled in their twin beds across the hall. I walked through the entire upstairs and then the first floor, checking doors, forcing myself to peer in corners.
I made sure the latch on the basement door was secure before retreating back to my bedroom where I reread an old Agatha Christie novel by booklight until dawn.
But I couldn’t distract myself from the truth. I’d gotten the message. The dead had only begun speaking to me.