Welcome back to Lilith, a tale I’ll share a few chapters at a time until her story is complete. If you’re new to the blog, Lilith is a great place to start (you don’t need any background information to enjoy this account of demonic possession) but do go back to January 7th’s blog entry and begin with chapters 1-3. If you like this story be sure to head on back to Ghosts in the Burbs Story number one. There you’ll learn how this whole kerfuffle began. Don’t forget, Ghosts in the Burbs isn’t just a blog, it’s a podcast too. If you prefer to listen your scary stories then you’ll find GITB wherever you listen to podcasts. Check out ghostsintheburbs.com for more GITB (social media, merchandise, and more).
Now, onto the story.
“Mom! I can’t find my cleats!” Jack called from the mudroom.
“Well, where did you leave them?” Laura replied in a normal voice, for she was just steps away in the kitchen. The children hadn’t acclimated to their smaller living situation. They bellowed as if they were in the old house, Where we weren’t always up each other’s asses, Michael often thought but did not say.
“I left them right there,” Jack said, stabbing a finger at his designated cubby hole.
“Girls, did you move your brother’s shoes?” Laura asked the twins who were entranced in front of their iPads. “Girls!”
“What?” They replied in unison, barely looking up.
“I asked you if you moved your brother’s shoes.”
“No,” Carrie said.
“Why would we even touch his gross shoes?” Rosemary added.
“I’m going to be late!” Jack said, a whine grating in his voice.
“Well, then you’d better start looking somewhere else,” Laura replied before retreating upstairs to the master bedroom.
“Thanks a lot,” Jack said under his breath. If they still lived in Houston his mom would have helped him look. If they still lived in Houston they’d have more room for their stuff and they wouldn’t be so crammed together.
He stomped around the first floor, needlessly turning pillows, kicking his sister’s books aside, huffing and puffing to be sure his family knew how annoyed he was with them. In the kitchen he muttered, “Everybody better keep their hands off my shit.”
“I’m telling mom you said ‘shit,’” Rosemary sang.
“Then I’ll tell her you just said it too.”
“You guys, shut up,” Lilith said condescendingly. She was sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter painting her nails.
“You shut up,” Jack challenged.
Lilith looked up slowly with the wilting look that only a fifteen year old girl could give to her little brother. Jack began to say something else when the basement door clicked open. Jack and Lilith stared at it, the twins were oblivious. Jack looked back at Lilith, and saw fear in her eyes.
He jumped to the wrong conclusion. “You hid my cleats in the basement!”
“What? No I did not. Jack don’t be a fucking idiot.”
“I’m telling mom you-” Rosemary began.
“Shut the fuck up,” Lilith spat. All of the siblings stared at her, mouths hanging open. It was not like their sister to curse, and it was not like her to be cruel. The siblings paused a moment, listening to the rumble of a train as it passed by.
“I’m going down there and if I find my cleats you’re dead,” Jack said, attempting to reassert himself after the train had passed.
“Suit yourself.” Lilith looked down and continued painting her nails.
Jack stormed over to the basement door and pushed past his hesitation. He didn’t like the basement and couldn’t believe that his older sister actually slept down there. He tromped down the steps and paused at the base of the stairs. The ceiling lights were on to his left, in the little hallway that lead to Lilith’s room and in the laundry room too. But in the space to his right, the place his dad had declared perfect for an air hockey table, the overhead lights were out. The switches at the top and bottom of the stairs were supposed to control all those lights. At least they had every other time he’d been down there. Lilith must have turned those lights off on purpose, she must have pulled the strings so the switch wouldn’t work.
What a weirdo. He thought, nervously. He looked back towards Lilith’s bedroom then glanced back up the stairs. Did he dare go in there without her permission? No, he didn’t dare. At least not yet. He’d search the rest of the basement before he looked in her room. The look on her face told him she knew where those shoes were. He couldn’t go upstairs empty handed.
He stepped away from the stairs closer to the inky darkness. He knew there was a bare bulb in the center of the open room. All he had to do was walk to the middle of the floor, reach up and feel around for the little chain and pull. The light from the stairs ended abruptly, it was as though half the basement had been swallowed by darkness. Jack needed his cleats and he suspected Lilith was playing a mean joke. Something told him those shoes were in the basement. If he went back upstairs without them she’d win.
He took a step into the darkness. Then another. He was aware of his breathing, aware of how very quiet it was in the basement. He listened for his siblings on the floor above, but the silence was complete. He fought the urge to run upstairs and instead advanced further into the room. He put his hand up and began feeling for the string, it took too long. Just as he was about to give up, his nerves pushed well past his comfort zone, he brushed the chain with the side of his hand. He got a hold of it and the moment – the second – before he gave it a tug he heard someone clear their throat in front of him. The noise was close enough that he knew that if he reached out he would be able to touch them. Him. It had sounded like a guy.
And in that moment between when his hand got a firm hold of the chain and he actually pulled it to illuminate the place he knew deep in his lizard brain that there was a guy standing just a step or two in front of him.
When the light came on and he found himself alone in the basement he cried out, a sort of, “Yaaaahhh,” of disbelief. He spun around and looked everywhere, maybe the guy was behind him.
No. He was alone.
He looked again, and there were his cleats. On the built in shelves on the far wall. He hesitated, suddenly the shoes felt like a trap.
“Jack!” His mother yelled down the stairs causing him to jump, almost making him cry out again. “We’ve got to go, did you find your shoes?”
“Uh, yeah. I got ‘em,” he said, finding his voice. Then he rushed over, grabbed the cleats and sprinted up the stairs as if his life depended upon it.
He slammed the door closed behind him and looked over at his older sister. She was blowing on her nails, a small smile on her face. He looked away quickly, too terrified to confront her and followed his mother out to the car.
I’d taken to walking to the Starbucks after I’d seen the kids off to school. One of the few benefits of living in the small home was that it required much less upkeep than our place in Houston. The downside, of course, was that there wasn’t enough housework to keep me busy while the kids were at school and so there wasn’t enough to keep my head distracted from replaying the memory of that boy jumping in front of the train. Though the boy had obviously jumped safely to the other side of the tracks, my mind had created it’s own images of gore and horror. Of his body broken and bloody, in pieces scattered along the tracks. I couldn’t erase these self generated images no matter how much time I spent scrolling on instagram. I hadn’t slept through the night since. The only thing that helped keep my imagination at bay was staying busy. So I tried to do just that.
On that particular morning I’d arranged to meet Michael’s boss’s wife for coffee. When I’d suggested Starbucks she’d countered with a place called Cafe Nero. I readily agreed. I tried not to get too excited for the meeting, but I was missing my girlfriends desperately and hadn’t had more than a passing conversation with an adult other than Michael since we’d moved to town about a month and a half before.
Over the course of those lonely six weeks I realized how ill-prepared I’d been to go out into the world and build a new network of friends. Michael and I had grown up in Houston, we’d begun dating in high school before going off to college together, to where else but the University of Houston along with at least a dozen of our high school friends. We’d lived in the city for a couple years post college, gotten married and had Lilith by the time we were twenty-six. We’d always been surrounded by people who’d known and loved us completely, without question. I’d never needed to branch out. I’d never needed to build a network. It had simply grown effortlessly around me.
Not that I hadn’t gone through hard times. I’d had a pretty good tussle with depression when the kids were young, and with it came debilitating anxiety. In hindsight I see that I should have sought help. Instead I exercised and journaled, read self-help books and beat myself up for not being a better mother. When the kids were all finally in school and I was able to consistently get a full night’s sleep things slowly evened out and the depression ebbed away. I began to actually enjoy my children rather than vacillating between being completely agitated and wishing I’d never had kids to being consumed with terror that something terrible might happen to them. I found that if I slept well, exercised consistently and was careful about how much I drank I could keep a lid on the depression and anxiety demons.
But now I could feel them testing the perimeter. When I opened my eyes in the morning I had a blessed moment of forgetting before a depressive heaviness settled back in, a weight pressing down on me. As for the anxiety, it woke me up in the middle of the night listing all the reasons why this move was doomed, why we were all doomed. My self help books taught me that depression thrived in isolation. I knew I needed to put myself out there, but the anxiety warned me I shouldn’t. That I should hole up, hunker down, stay safe. That people were scary. I was better off on my own.
All of this was pinging around my mind when I went to meet Gen Hensley. Michael had encouraged me to reach out to the woman when I’d expressed how difficult it had been to meet people in town.
“Start with Paul’s wife,” he’d suggested, referring to his boss. “She sounds like she’s pretty plugged in to the town.”
It took a week, but I finally got up the courage to email her and suggest a coffee date. It took her five days to respond to my invitation. When she did she set the time and place and she stressed just how very busy she was; she’d just gotten back from Cabo and she was “literally burning it at both ends.” I thanked her for taking the time to have coffee with me though what I really wanted to do was retract my invitation.
I arrived early at the charming coffee shop. It was located at the train stop that Michael had hoped to walk to before he realized how much extra time was involved in a train commute. I think he would have liked that time to himself and I knew he hated the drive into the city, but I also knew that he sensed how lonely I was. Yes, he’s a good husband and a great father and he makes choices accordingly, but I also suspected he saw just how brittle I’d become. That I was as close to my tipping point as I’d ever been and he’d do what he could to keep me from tumbling over the edge.
I bought myself a coffee and waited for a table to open up. One became available by the front windows and I sat so I could watch the door. I didn’t know what Gen looked like but I hoped I’d be able to spot her looking for me. I’d been uncharacteristically concerned with my clothing that morning. I’d finally chosen a tank top and Lily Pulitzer shorts. It was the end of September, but it was still rather warm out. I wanted to look nice, but I didn’t want to appear as though I were trying too hard. I didn’t know the ins and outs here socially. Had I been meeting a friend back home I’d have thrown on a sundress, but I had noticed that women here dressed down. If I could manage to make some friends maybe I could figure out all the unspoken rules here.
Gen was fifteen minutes late. I was fighting back tears of embarrassment and anger when she breezed through the door, pushing up expensive looking sunglasses and peering around. I stood and waved at her.
“Gen?” I said.
“Laura!” She yelled across the room, causing several people to look between us. “Let me grab a coffee.”
I nodded and sat back down, inexplicably close to tears again. Out of gratitude or dismay I couldn’t tell, but I did my best to calm myself by scrolling aimlessly through my phone. On her way to the table Gen ran into two friends, pretty women who looked expensive and well kept. They all screeched at each other and laughed too loudly at one another’s comments. I wondered if Gen might invite me over and introduce me to the women, but she did not.
Gen finally came and sat across from me. She was pretty in a severe way and very thin and she wore a white t-shirt and distressed jeans despite the heat. She launched into a long description of her morning as if I’d known her and her family for some time. I did my best to keep up and provide the proper responses. Eventually she turned her attention to me.
“How’s the house?” She asked after a rather long tirade about her landscaper.
“It’s great, thank you,” I lied. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but it’s coming together.”
“You bought that little Cape on Linden Street, right?”
I nodded, unsure.
“So you’re in the Sprague neighborhood then. We live over by Bates.”
“Oh, yes, well the younger kids are at the middle school now and my oldest, Lilith is at the high school.”
“Four kids, right?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling as though I was being interrogated. “How about you?”
“I have two, a boy and a girl. Both at Bates.”
“That’s nice, do they do any sports?” I asked, struggling to find firm footing in the conversation.
“Yeah, they do a bunch of extras, I can hardly keep up with it all. Between their schedules and mine I can barely catch my breath.”
I thought of my old social life, my friends.
“So does Michael like the job?”
“Oh, yes. He’s enjoying it very much. He loves Boston too.”
Gen nodded. Abruptly she said, “Your skin is amazing, how old are you anyway?” She said it with a small laugh, but there was somewhat of an accusation in her tone.
Reluctantly I told her my age. I could tell my answer annoyed her.
“What do you do to work out?” She asked, her eyes squinting slightly as if appraising my body.
I said I’d been looking for a gym, did she have any suggestions? She listed several places and I asked where she liked to work out.
“Oh, I have a trainer come to the house,” she replied dismissively.
The conversation wasn’t going anywhere and I didn’t like her. I knew she’d agreed to the coffee out of obligation to her husband and it made me feel sick to my stomach. I looked at my phone.
“Oh, shoot,” I said, “I’ve got to get going. It was so nice to meet you.”
She seemed surprised. “Yeah, great to meet you too. We should get dinner with the guys soon.”
“That would be nice,” I said, unconsciously crossing my fingers. I gathered my things and said goodbye. It was awkward and abrupt but I couldn’t stand another minute of the woman. I walked back to my house, my sunglasses on, tears streaming down my cheeks, certain I would never make a friend in this God-awful town.
The contractor pressed the doorbell and stood back on the crumbling steps so he could take in the home’s appearance. He wondered to himself when the Arnold’s would have him back to begin work on the exterior. There were several projects that really shouldn’t be left undone through another winter, but he sensed funds were an issue for the couple.
Laura opened the door, “Hi, Jim! Thanks so much for coming.”
Jim followed the woman into her kitchen and accepted a cup of coffee. “How is everything holding up?” He asked.
“Just great, we’re settling in nicely,” she replied as the commuter rail blew past. Beyond the strip of trees in the backyard, the grey train could be seen out the kitchen window, the house shook a little as it passed by. A slightly embarrassed look on her face, Laura said, “We’re happy with all of the work you’ve done here, but we do have a handful of small projects we were hoping you could help us with.”
“Sure, what were you thinking?”
“Well, for one thing, we’d like to have the yard fenced,” she said.
“Oh? Well, sure I could coordinate that for you. But it might be cheaper if you contacted a fence company directly. I’ll give you a couple names so you can compare quotes if you like.”
“That would be great, thank you,” Laura said, sounding disappointed. “The other thing I was hoping you could look at was the basement. Uh, I’d like the doors replaced and the banister tightened up. And I was hoping to get your ideas on renovation, though we wouldn’t be ready to do anything any time soon, it would be nice to get a ballpark idea for the cost.”
“Sure, why don’t we take a look,” Jim said.
Halfway down the basement stairs, Laura pointed out the banister, pushing it side to side.
“Easy fix,” Jim said, making a note on a small pad he’d pulled out of his back pocket.
“I’m having the carpeting replaced down here, it’s so musty,” Laura commented.
“I’ll take a look at the sump pump and see if we can’t update it for you, that might help get some of the damp out of the air.”
They stopped at the bottom of the stairs. “These doors, the laundry room and Lilith’s, I’d like to have them replaced. I think they are warped because we can’t seem to get them to do what we want. They either open when we close them or stay stuck tight when we need them open.”
Jim nodded. “Sure, that’s no problem, but I’ll need to replace the frames too if it’s warping that’s the issue. I’ll get you a quote. How about the door that leads out to the bulkhead?” He asked.
“Oh, I’ve never really thought about that one, but I suppose they should all be replaced at the same time, right?”
“Yeah, I do think it should be replaced. Uh, actually my guys ran into some trouble with that door while they were working on the house.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“Well, it was the damndest thing. One of my guys, Jay, he was down here patching up the ceiling in your daughter’s room-”
“From the fire damage,” Laura interjected.
“That’s right. Well, he’d been using the bulkhead to go in and out with the supplies. He was headed out to grab something from the truck when he got stuck in there.”
“Stuck in where?” Laura asked, confused.
“Trapped on the stairs, in that space between the door down here and the bulkhead, you know?”
“He couldn’t say, that’s what was so strange about the whole thing. He was reaching to lift the bulkhead when the door behind him slammed shut. He figured maybe it was a breeze from outside sucking it closed but whatever happened he couldn’t open that door again and the bulkhead wouldn’t budge either. He banged and banged trying to get one of the other guys attention but they didn’t hear him. Must’ve had the music on too loud in the kitchen.”
“Oh no, how long was he stuck in there?” Laura asked, horrified.
“Couple of hours,” Jim said, shaking his head. “It happened around ten o’clock and the guys didn’t come looking for him until lunchtime. He’d worked himself up into quite a state by that time.”
“My God, I don’t blame him,” Laura said. “Oh, I just feel so awful that happened to him.”
Jim shrugged. “Nothing anyone could’ve done about it, just a fluke you know? Some jobs are like that, flukey. This place,” Jim smiled and shook his head once more, “It sure gave us a run for our money.”
“How do you mean?” Laura asked.
“Well, the fire, for one. That was real strange, and then Jay gets trapped in the bulkhead. Another one of the guys got into an accident out front, actually totalled his car, which really could happen on any site I guess. But then poor Matt fell off the ladder out in the backyard while he was fixing that loose shutter on the second floor. The one outside the bathroom window.”
“Why didn’t you tell us all of this? Was he alright?”
“Well, sure. Broke his right arm pretty good. Said there was a kid back there, a teenager who gave him a start and made him lose his footing.”
A tingle of fear shot through Laura’s body. “A teenager?” She asked quietly.
“Yeah, just some kid. Matt said he was set to fixing the shutter, both hands busy with the hammer and such so he wasn’t holding onto the ladder. He heard a boy scream behind him and it startled him enough to throw him off balance. He turned to look and saw the kid hopping your fence back there. Matt lost his balance and fell but the kid was long gone.”
Laura was silent.
“Hey look, like I said, some jobs are just like that. Maybe we were due for a bout of bad luck. Nothing anyone could have done.”
“I’m sorry you ran into trouble here,” Laura said, after a beat.
“No need to apologize. Any other work you want done down here?” He asked, as the bulb in the center of the room flickered. “Maybe an electrician,” he joked. “ You know, I can run some numbers for demo and a basic renovation. Waterproof beadboard is all the rage right now in basements. It’s cheap and it’ll last. You want built ins like that too?” He asked referring to the drawers and bookshelves. Laura said she didn’t. “How about your girl’s bedroom? Should that in the demo quote?”
“Yes, absolutely,” Laura replied. “And the laundry room. It’s so dreary in there.”
Jim set to making quick measurements of the space. He wanted out of the basement, the place gave him the creeps. After Jay had gotten trapped in the bulkhead Jim told the guys he didn’t want anyone working down there alone. He’d worked on hundreds of houses in his career and he’d learned that some of them were just plain bad. This house was one of the worst he’d encountered.