“Go on, open it.”
I glanced back over my shoulder at Biddy who stood behind me holding a bottle of holy water out in front of her like a weapon.
“You should open it, you’re the ghost hunter,” I snapped.
“Ex-ghost hunter,” she corrected. “And I’m not worried about ghosts. I think there’s a fifty-fifty chance that this will turn out to be a rat infestation.”
I took a step away from the wood panel covering our basement crawl space. “Gross,” I said, with a shudder. “But that wouldn’t explain the dreams.”
“You read too many horror novels. You’re bound to have nightmares.” She gave me a little shove forward. Then said, “Wait, is your recorder on just in case there is a dead person in there?”
“Yes,” I said, holding it up to show her. “Are you sure this is a good idea? EVPs were what got you into all that trouble in the first place. Should I be doing this in my own home?”
“What else are we going to do? You’ve got to find out why you’re dreaming about that crawl space, right?”
I nodded. “Maybe we should call Judith.”
“Why? You’re the one who hears ghosts,” Biddy reasoned.
“Not recently,” I said.
“Well, then what’s the worst that can happen? We’ll record voices, or we won’t. You’ll hear something or you don’t. The only way you’ll know for sure is if you look in there.”
I pushed past my hesitation and unslid the four bolts holding the wood panel in place. I grabbed the two handles attached to it then whispered, “Three, two, one,” pulled back removing the panel from it’s home and leaned it against the wall at our feet.
Biddy and I stood stock still. Waiting for either a rat or a ghost to pop out of the dirt floored crawl space beneath my sunroom. The space I’d been dreaming about for months. The dreams, which had been only occasional at first had become more and more frequent and disturbing. Dead people lined the walls of the crawl space in my dreams. And they were angry, angry at me as far as I could tell. But as the dreams became more frequent, my ability to hear the dead speak became less and less so. Even Claire seemed to have disappeared from my life, or perhaps I just couldn’t hear her any more. I didn’t exactly know why, but I had a strong suspicion it was connected to that crawl space. I also didn’t know if I should just let things be. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted my so-called clairaudience to return. (My So-Called Clairaudience will be the title of my autobiography…™).
At any rate, there Biddy and I stood. In front of a four by four foot hole in my basement wall, that began at waist height. The space beyond it, a dirt-floored fifteen by fifteen foot space was dark and silent. I reached into my back pocket to grab the My Little Pony flashlight I’d swiped from my daughters’ bedroom.
I shined the light into the space and saw… nothing. Nothing but concrete walls, dirt floors and yup, a dead mouse at one corner.
“Told you there’d be rats in there,” Biddy said, coming forward to stand beside me.
“That is not a rat.”
We stood next to each other staring into the darkness. “Well are you going to say anything?”
I took a deep breath, held the recorder out in front of me and said, “Hello? Is there anyone here with us?”
Before I share what my digital recorder captured, I want to tell you about a very strange chat that I had with Amelia Barns, an ex-docent at the historic Coughlin House in Brewster, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Amelia grew up on the Cape with her family in neighboring Dennis. About two years ago, just after she’d completed her freshman year studying art history at UMass Amherst, she visited the Coughlin House, a mid-seventeenth century saltbox. She was nineteen years old, leaning towards a minor in architectural history and interested in historic home restoration. According to Wikipedia, a saltbox house is a traditional New England style of house with a long, pitched roof that slopes down to the back. It has just one story in the back and two stories in the front. The flat front and central chimney are recognizable features, but the asymmetry of the unequal sides and the long, low rear roofline are the most distinctive features of a saltbox, which takes its name from its resemblance to a wooden lidded box in which salt was once kept. I’ve posted a photo of one on Instagram and Twitter in case you haven’t had the chance to see this particularly spooky type of house.
“I walked through the front door and I knew in my bones that I’d been there before,” she told me. “No, that’s not right.” She paused, watching three chickens cluck around near our feet. “It wasn’t just that I’d been there before – I’d lived there. I’d grown up there. I’d had a family there. And I’d seen and done terrible things there.”
Amelia and I sat across from one another at a picnic table in front of the Snowy Owl, a coffee shop in Brewster. She’d emailed me just a week prior in hopes of telling me her story if ever I were to venture to her neck of the woods. As luck-fate-coincidence would have it, Chris and I intended to spend a weekend on the Cape over the kids’ Spring break. We arranged to meet for coffee near our hotel and as an added bonus, the aggressively organic coffee shop kept a chicken coop around back. About a dozen plump little chickens had run of the place.
“I don’t quite understand,” I said, to Amelia’s claim to having grown up in the historic home.
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” She asked. The woman was just twenty one years old but she spoke and carried herself like a mature adult. She wore her medium length hair in an unflattering low ponytail and it looked as if she’d raided her grandmother’s stash from Talbot’s.
I considered, wondering if perhaps the mature clothing made sense given the question. “I don’t know. No more or less than I believe in anything else I suppose,” I answered.
Amelia nodded her head slowly. “Well, when I walked into that house I had this intense feeling of deja vu, and as I walked further inside this like, dormant bank of memories unfolded before me. Not in a flood, it was more moment by moment, like, ‘Oh, right, I remember this and that’ way. Like if you’ve ever been back to your elementary school and you see things there that you haven’t thought about in years. The memories were there, you just hadn’t thought about them in so long that you didn’t realize they were there at all.”
“What did you remember about the house?” I asked.
“First off, as I stood in the foyer I realized that I knew the layout of the house. And it wasn’t like I’d maybe been there once a long time ago and had just forgotten. And it wasn’t that I only knew what lay behind every door, I had memories attached every single room. Memories of my family – only it wasn’t my family, you know? Like, I knew my mother, I mean not my real mom now but the woman who’d been my mother a long time ago, used to sew by the front window in the living room because it had the best light in the afternoon. I knew the floorboards in the kitchen would be a different width than those in the rest of the house because my father, my old father, had to replace them when a crawl space flooded beneath that part of the house. I knew the second stair would creak and the basement was lined with large stones that I’d helped my father clear from the back yard. I knew where to find the stone onto which I’d carved my old name.”
“Wow,” I said, impressed. “What was your old name?”
“Geez,” I said, slightly distracted by a chicken beneath our table. The things were cute from a distance but I didn’t really want one crawling over my feet. “So you were a part of the original family who built the house.”
Amelia nodded her head.
“And you’re totally certain that you didn’t have any knowledge of that house’s history before you went there that first time? Could you have maybe gone there on a fieldtrip when you were little?”
“No. The house didn’t open as a museum until twenty-seventeen. The state bought it in the nineteen fifties and registered it as a historic landmark, but restoration didn’t begin until twenty-fifteen. Prior to that, the home was locked the windows boarded. So no, I couldn’t have seen it, on a field trip.”
“A family vacation?” I suggested weakly.
“No, I asked my mom. She’d never been there either. There’s nothing really special about the place other than being a good representation of an early colonial New England home. The only reason I sought it out that summer was because I was interested in historic restoration. I thought perhaps it might be something I would pursue as a career.”
“Well then, wow,” I said with a smile. “That really is absolutely amazing. I can’t imagine what that would be like. Recovering memories from a past life like that.”
“To say it was unnerving would be an understatement.” Amelia watched as a barista shoo’d a chicken out of the cafe. “I wish I’d never stepped foot into that house. I wasn’t even supposed to remember, none of us are. But there’s something very wrong with that property, at first I thought it was a sort of time portal. But that was a trick, it’s not a time glitch. I was drawn back to that home.”
“That thing needed to be brought up and I was the only one who knew it was there. By releasing those memories in dribs and drabs it kept me coming back, like an addict. It was the perfect way to keep me there long enough to set it free again.”
“I’m afraid to ask,” I said, with a small laugh.
Amelia sighed. “I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m sorry. So, over time I remembered the entire past life I lived in that house. It was relayed to me in bits and pieces, over about a year and a half. If I’d remembered it all at once I would have walked out immediately and never gone back.”
“So they weren’t all good memories.”
“No. But the trick it pulled was to give me the nice ones first. I didn’t get the whole picture until it was too late.”
I waited for her to say more. When she didn’t I prompted, “Too late for what?”
Amelia pinched her lips together. “This is harder than I thought it would be. I’ve never talked about this with anyone, I mean, who in the world would believe me? I heard about your blog from a girlfriend, after I read a couple stories I thought I might finally be able to offload the whole mess.”
“Sorry, I don’t mean it like that. It’s just… this has been a lot to keep to myself. It’s all so bunched up and swirled in my mind…” She trailed off then shook her head as if to clear her mind. “Okay, so I had memories of a past life but they all came after I went to the house for the first time. All but one. I’ve had a recurring dream my entire life. In it I’m in the woods in the middle of the night. It’s freezing cold and raining and I’m shoveling dirt back into a hole that I know I just dug. My mother’s there with me, not my mom, my old mom. She’s rushing me and telling me we need to get inside before the sun comes up, before anyone sees us. She says, ‘It’s buried now with him, it’s over.’
“We pat down the dirt and cover it with branches and wet leaves and herbs. My mother sprinkles water over the ground and then we walk the path back to our house. We pass a shed along the way, my father’s shed. When we come out of the woods I see the backside of a saltbox house. My house. The Coughlin House.”
“You’ve always had that dream?”
“For as long as I can remember. As stupid as it sounds, I didn’t put it together until I began spending a lot more time at the Coughlin House. Really, it was quite a while before I went out to the backyard. Obviously, I should have put two and two together much sooner. How many saltbox houses do you come upon nowadays, right?”
“I’m sure you were overwhelmed with all those other memories of the house.”
“True, I was. And I was studying to be a tour guide and managing all of my course work at the same time. I had a lot going on.”
“Yeah, so how did you end up becoming a docent at that house?” I asked, thinking such a small museum wouldn’t have many openings.
Amelia groaned. “When I first realized I had lived a life in that house almost four hundred years ago I became absolutely obsessed. Completely and totally. I didn’t leave the people at the Brewster historical commission alone until they agreed to give me an internship. I spent every single weekend there, rain or shine. I drove three hours each way from UMass to Brewster every Friday night and then back every Sunday afternoon. It became an obsession.
“When I wasn’t showing the house or giving tours I was deep in research in the historical commission. If my parents hadn’t put me straight I probably would have quit school to spend all my time there.”
“Did you tell your parents anything about the memories of living in that house?”
“No,” Amelia said, letting out a humorless laugh. “Absolutely not. They just thought I was taking my history obsession too far. They sat me down for a little talk once my first semester Sophomore year grades came back. I figured out how to juggle it all, but school definitely came second.”
“I can imagine.”
“The memories, the way they would come to me out of thin air was addicting. I wouldn’t remember anything new for a few weeks and then I’d be walking a tour group through the place pointing out the architectural details of the stairs when all of a sudden an image of my father from that previous life would pop into my head and I’d see him chasing my brother up those stairs, both of them laughing.”
“Yeah, the good memories were magical. I learned to continue on with the tours even while catching glimpses of my past life. But when I began to remember the darker things it was much harder to keep going in front of the guests with my rehearsed speech.”
“I’ll bet,” I said, gently shooing a chicken away from my bag.
“Memories from my past life weren’t the only things in that house. And my old family wasn’t the only one that lived there either. There were hundreds of years of life lived in that home and some of those lives imprinted. Ghost floated around, just carrying on with the day as if they’d never died.”
“Wait, you saw ghosts there too?”
Amelia nodded, her face serious. “In that way I do think that place is like a time warp.”
“Like residual hauntings,” I commented.
“Exactly, it was as if time overlapped there. One afternoon I was closing up the house and I walked into the kitchen to see a farmer in overalls sitting at the table. He looked at me like I was an alien and then he just sort of dissipated. To him I was probably the ghost.”
“Wow. I bet one of those ghost hunting shows would kill to get inside that house.”
Amelia leaned forward and grabbed my arm which had been resting on the table holding my coffee cup, “You can’t tell them. Do a lot of people read your blog? Could they find out about the house? You have to change my name, the house’s name, and you have to move it to a different town, okay?”
I yanked my arm back, sloshing coffee in the cup. “Sure.”
“Sorry,” she said quickly. “But no one like that, like ghost hunters or whatever, can know about that house. I’ve even thought about-” she pursed her lips. Obviously, stopping herself from finishing the thought. “It’s extremely important that no one go looking for this house. Barely anyone visits it as a historical landmark anymore. It was busy when they first opened it to the public but now it’s an occasional group of retirees or some historical buff who comes to complain about anything he perceives as a ‘lack of authenticity’ in the restoration. It’s better if people think it’s just a boring old house. If word got out about what it really is…” she trailed off.
“So what is it?” I asked pointedly.
“It may be a place where time warps, or like overlaps, but I think that aspect of it is harmless. But there is something there that’s timeless, that lived alongside all the lives and all the times in that place until my family – the one that I remembered – restrained it. In my past life I caged that evil, but I didn’t put an end to it. I don’t think that’s possible. The land, it’s land called me back using that house and it tricked me into freeing it. It was sending me that dream my whole life, like it knew I would come home. It held back everything it didn’t want me to remember until the first archaologist’s shovel hit the dirt and then it all came back to me. I didn’t have a chance to resist it. I did exactly what it wanted me to do.”
Behind Amelia the chickens had congregated in front of their coop and an image from Pet Cemetery popped into my mind. “What exactly did you dig up?” I asked.
“My father. My old father. But I didn’t know that was what we were digging up until it was too late. I was out behind the Coughlin House one afternoon, picking up bits of litter that had blown into the yard and I found myself back by the treeline. I looked up at the back of the house and it was like a snapshot from my dreams. It took me so long to recognize it because the woods were much wilder in the past, they used to completely surround the house. But there was no doubt it was the same home. I immediately began looking for the path from my dream, but the scrub brush was so dense that I couldn’t find it. But I knew it was there and down that path was a shed and just past that shed was the place where my mother and I had buried whatever or whoever we buried in my dream.
“I asked the director if the woods behind the house had been searched for artifacts. They hadn’t and she was hesitant to do so, no one in their right mind would trek into the Cape Cod woods unless they had a very good reason.”
“Ticks,” I commented with a shudder.
“Exactly,” Amelia replied. “No one would go with me, so I went in alone. And I found the shed, or at least what was left of it. And from there I was able to find the place where I’d dug and then filled in a hole while my mother looked on.”
I made a face. “Oh dear.”
“I went back for a shovel and dug around. It didn’t take me long, because in my dreams I’d seen a distinctive tree, so I dug down about two feet and found a skeletal arm in tattered clothing.”
“Amelia,” I said with a nervous laugh.
“I still didn’t know everything, Amelia pressed on. “It kept the worst of it from me even then. I think because it knew that if I dug too deep and saw the bottles of holy water and the dried sage and the rosaries wrapped around his neck and hands then I would have covered it right back up and kept the secret. It needed someone else to do the digging.
“After I uncovered the arm I put down the shovel and went to the Coughlin House to tell the director what I found. She called the police and they cordoned off the area. An expert of some sort came and determined rather quickly that the skeleton was hundred of years old, so the next call went to a team of archaeologists.”
“That must have been a huge, to-do,” I commented.
“It was, and the Coughlin House got a lot of attention.” She shook her head emphatically, “I swear I didn’t know until that woman’s shovel hit the dirt, I had no idea what I’d done.”
While Amelia took a moment to compose herself, I considered getting another coffee.
“Sorry,” she said after a long moment. “I just feel so responsible.”
I dismissed the woman’s guilt with a wave of my hand. “It sounds like you didn’t know you were doing anything wrong.”
“That’s not exactly true. I knew I wasn’t remembering everything and I wouldn’t let it drop until I knew. It all came back to me in a rush when that archaeologist began digging. It was as though the entire truth of it downloaded instantly into my mind. I don’t know if that thing did it on purpose just to screw with me or if it couldn’t hold back the memories any longer once it was free. Either way everything went black, I fainted. I wasn’t out long. But when I came around the director was beside me and I knew everything. It was too late. There was no way to stop them and I made an absolute ass of myself trying to get the archaeologists and the museum people to understand what they were doing. I was asked to leave the site, actually I was told to leave. It was humiliating. But if they’d seen what I’d seen, if they knew what they were releasing…”
“And that was…” I prompted, feeling impatient
Amelia sighed heavily. “It’s ancient. We knew more about these things back then and we’ve forgotten all of it. I have a hazy memory of my mother speaking with two Native American women at our kitchen table, I believe they were telling her what she needed to do to contain the creature, but the memory never fully returned so I can’t be sure. What I do remember is being told that before my family cleared the land and built our house it was understood that the area was bad, that something there preyed upon people. Turned them bad.
“My father was well-respected in the community. He’d made a good living, we were considered rich at that time.” Amelia sounded proud, if not a little arrogant. “But troubles came soon after we began to clear the land. A family friend, a man who we were very close with who’d always worked for my father, fell from the roof of the house and died. Mother had a miscarriage that almost took her life. Father made a bad investment with a con man and lost a great deal of the family’s money. And then he began to drink. And when he drank he became violent.
“But all of that wasn’t him. It was the thing that crawled inside him. Father signed his fate when he chose that plot of land, the thing put eyes on him and it went to work right away. My father began spending a great deal of time out in the wood shed. He stopped caring for himself. He chased off all the good will he’d spent his life building within the community and he became paranoid, certain that we were all plotting against him.”
It didn’t escape my attention that Amelia had begun to speak as thought these events had actually happened to her. It was spooky, actually.
“Okay, so how did your past life father end up in a hole that you dug?” I asked.
“Mother killed him.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling increasingly nervous around the young woman. Her demeanor had changed as she spoke about her past life and it was spooking me out.
“Father built the shed back, away from the house. It was his place, none of us were ever to go inside. No one we knew had sheds to themselves. There was no time for such things. But father built the shed and told us that none of us were to ever step foot inside. He scared us off the woods as well, told us there were things that would carry us away, rip us apart and eat us. The thing that came up from the ground must have needed him alone, isolated in order to gain control.
“He’d been spending more and more time in the shed. Mother and I had to do everything for the family. The miscariage that almost took her life weakened her. She never fully recovered. I had two younger siblings. Winter was coming, without his help we wouldn’t have enough to survive. Unless… well unless he wasn’t draining our resources. Everyone had to contribute if we were to survive.
“Don’t get me wrong, my mother didn’t kill him for not contributing to the well being of the family. He became infected in that shed. Infected by whatever it was that came out of the ground. We saw it in his eyes first. The whites of his eyes developed a brownish tinge, his gums went grey. He became confused. And the confusion made him violent.
“There was no one to turn to for help, either. Men could do what they wanted in their own homes and punish their children and their wives as they saw fit. We couldn’t burden another family. He was our problem to solve. We sat at the dinner table one night. It had become rare that he would join us, which was a relief not only because he’d become so frightening but also to conserve resources.
“But that night he came in and slumped down in his seat at the head of the table. He’d developed a smell,” Amelia made a face. “It was loamy and brackish like stagnant salt water. It wasn’t easy to eat anywhere near that smell, even though we were all starving. We’d gone down to two meals a day in hopes of maintaining the stores through the winter. It was early October. The nights were beginning to get cold.
“He insisted on keeping the back door open when he was in the house. All the heat went out the door but he would become frighteningly agitated if he couldn’t see the path to his shed. It all started because my little brother went and closed the door. The baby was so small and he was worried about her. My father flew into a rage. He backhanded my brother so hard across the face that he fell and didn’t move. Father began to scream and ramble and then he began tearing apart the kitchen. He knocked over the baby’s basket, then picked up a chair and smashed it down onto the ground right beside it.
“I stayed very still, waiting until I could scoop up the baby and flee to the front of the house. My mother watched him and she didn’t make a move until she was certain she could bring him down. There was a carving knife on the table. She stood and crept silently behind him while my father tore at the herbs she’d so carefully hung to dry from a line tacked to the wall. It was so fast, he didn’t even know what had happened. I don’t know that he felt it at all.
“She stabbed the knife right into the side of his neck. The blood was immediate, it was everywhere at once. It took him a horrible amount of time to go down. I think the thing within him gave him more strength than a man could possibly have. But eventually he went down. Not before spraying the whole room with his blood. It was tinted more brown than red like his eyes. It smelled of the brackish water too. The stains didn’t come out of the baby’s blanket or our clothing. They were buried along with him.
“As he lay dying my mother wrapped a cord around his wrists, binding them. Blessed salt water was sprinkled on him there and again after we’d placed his body in the grave. Sage was tucked into his clothing, tossed into the grave and then scattered atop the dirt that covered him. Every Sunday morning my mother went out and sprinkled fresh sage and salt water atop the grave. Even in the snow.”
“How did you get away with it?” I asked, horrified.
“The town had seen how erratic he’d become. He was so lost that he was a liability to all and they knew it. We said he left us. No one asked questions because they were almost as relieved as we were that he was gone.”
I sat, watching the chickens cluck along aimlessly, somehow knowing to avoid the dangers of the parking lot. “And you never had to deal with the creature again?”
“No we trapped it inside his dead body. That’s why my mother bound his hands with the cord and dressed him with the salt water and sage before he died. If she’d waited until afterwards it would have been too late. The creature would have escaped and looked for another host, possibly my little brother.”
“Why not you or your mom?”
“It only infects men.”
“How do you know that?”
“The Native Americans told us.”
I watched her. “It was planned, the murder?”
She hesitated. “We knew what we had to do to put it down.”
“To put your father down.”
“That wasn’t my father anymore,” she said quietly.
“And now the thing is free, looking for another host,” I said.
“Did you warn anyone?”
“Who would listen?” She said simply.
“Aren’t you going to do anything about it?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been back since the day they dug him up. I’ve had some contact with the historic society, the people I’ve spoken with seem normal enough so far. I was hoping you might know what I should do.”
I just shook my head. “No. You stopped it once. You’ll have to do it again.” I reasoned.
“My mother killed my father the last time that thing got loose. That’s how we stopped it. I’m not going to kill anyone,” Amelia stopped speaking abruptly and stared off towards the woods behind the chicken coop. “Unless, Tom,” she said quietly, almost to herself.
“What? Oh, he’s just an ex-boyfriend. I-”
“Amelia,” I pressed.
She closed her eyes for a moment then looked back at me. “It’s nothing, I just thought of something stupid.”
Back upstairs at my kitchen table, armed with coffee heavy with vanilla soy creamer and Truvia we stared at the device between us. I’d rewound the recording, but still shaken by the events in the basement I hesitated to press play and listen to what we’d captured.
After a sip of my chemical laden coffee I said, “Ready?”
I heard my voice say, “Hello? Is there anyone here with us?”
Then Biddy chimed in, “Who is making Liz dream about this crawl space?”
A pause. And then a cacophony of voices came through the recorder. Startled, I pushed myself back from the table. I could make out snip its of sentences, but so many voices seemed to be competing to be heard it was difficult to hear any individual person.
Biddy reached out and turned it off.
We looked at each other.
“Okay, I think it’s time to call Judith.”