A few days ago, I was in line at an excellent deli, The Linden Store, to pick up lunch. It’s a classic deli set up where, in what feels like utter chaos, you wait and wonder whether or not it’s your turn to order, then when you finally get up the courage to raise your hand after someone calls “who’s next?” you end up offending three people who believe they were there before you. Then you place your order and stand and worry that they might not really use the gluten free bread for your oldest daughter’s sandwich, your social anxiety screaming at you the entire time “You’ve already pissed off three people you dumb ass. Just leave it be. Smile, take whatever they give you and make a PBJ at home if it’s the wrong bread.” You fret during the five to ten minute wait, pay for the sandwiches as if you haven’t a care in the world and then wonder and worry your way out to the car where you check the bag and, just as they do every single time, you find that the did indeed use gluten free bread. So you roll your eyes at yourself and your mind goes, “Okay cool, hang on and let me find something just as ridiculous for you to agonize over.” Of course, in this whole scenario, by “you” I mean “me.”
Anyhow, it was during that five to ten minute wait while I was in the throes of the will they or won’t they use the right effing bread drama, when I noticed the man. He caught my attention the first time because he was facing away from the deli counter, out at the throngs of people ordering sandwiches. It struck me as odd, but I quickly returned to fretting over the bread. And then after I’d accepted the third of the four sandwiches I’d ordered, the guy caught my attention again because I almost backed right into him. He stood his ground, never moving his gaze away from the front windows. I said a quick, “Oops, excuse me,” but he didn’t respond or even acknowledge me. So I stood there, my attention pulled between the fourth sandwich and the guy.
The crowd moved, bringing us closer together. Now he was right beside me and he definitely didn’t look like he was waiting for a sandwich. He seemed absolutely oblivious to everyone around him. And then I got really scared. “Oh, my God. He’s a ghost.” I thought. I clutched the sandwiches to my chest and tried to shrink away from him, but there were too many people. I considered putting the sandwiches on the potato chip stand and leaving, but I’d come that far, I couldn’t just jump ship. I didn’t want to have to make four PBJs so I tried to ignore him but kept sneaking glances.
And then I had this overwhelming urge to find out if he was real. If my hand would feel super cold if I touched him or if it would go straight through him like in the movies. I thought, “Maybe he has a message for me. Maybe Judith is right.” I looked around to see if anyone was watching. I shifted the sandwiches in my arms and then quick as a flash I stuck my finger out and poked him really hard in the shoulder.
… And it hurt because he was solid.
“Oh!” The man exclaimed, lifting his hand to rub the spot I’d poked.
“Oh my God,” I replied. “I’m so sorry.”
He looked at me with concern for a brief moment before looking back up at the window and waving to a man walking through the door. He gave me another glance before moving towards his friend.
And then I died. I dropped dead of embarrassment right there on the floor of The Linden Store and I am writing this to you from beyond the veil doomed to an eternity of shame. Seriously, though. On a scale of the most embarrassing things I’ve done, this one really ranks up there. Lower than having to explain to the ride operators why I forcefully shoved the guy dressed up as Jason from Friday the 13th off a carnival ride when he jumped out to scare my sisters and I (in my defence, it was really startling and I am a fighter not a flighter)… and a little higher on the scale than the time I got caught lying about having seen The English Patient. But that was years ago and in my defense, no one would shut up about that fucking movie.
Since seeing Kyrie’s ghost in Starbucks reality and I have been on shaky ground. Judith says I need to meditate more often. Imagining a golden light descending from the heavens and creating a sort of bubble of good, protective energy around me. I’ve tried, I really have, but my imagination goes wild when I try to visualize things. When I close my eyes I see an army of little ghost emojis attacking the bubble, testing it’s boundaries and finally breaking through. Biddy gave me a little metal spritzer bottle filled with holy water. But I don’t trust myself to carry it around. Poking that poor man in the chest was bad enough. I can’t run the risk of spraying some poor unsuspecting person in the face with Holy Water.
It’s back to school season and I’ve got a lot on my mind. Once things settle down into a routine, I’m sure I’ll get it sorted out. But for now, most of the time I’m just waiting and wondering for the next ghost to show up. And, you know, it’s September and I’m on the hunt for spook – but the safe kind, someone else’s. Well, I found spook but it wasn’t safe.
I got a call from a man named Joe Murphy – yup he called my cell phone. I let it go to voicemail, I’m not a lunatic. But the message was quite friendly and his business like tone held an edge of desperation. I was intrigued. I returned the call, praying to be sent to his voicemail so that I could leave message instructing him to text me, but alas, he answered.
Now, I know that I’ve gotten myself into a bit of hot water going to people’s haunted houses in the past, but this guy lived right in my neighborhood and after we connected some dots I realized that our kids knew each other. They’d spent some time together playing on a nearby elementary school playground. I knew his wife, just from those playground sessions and he sounded incredibly relieved to know that I was somewhat in their social circle.
“Carrie insisted you were a normal Wellesley person,” he told me on the phone, “But I was worried you might be…” he trailed off, perhaps catching himself before saying what he really thought. “Anyhow, Carrie is, uh, out of town with the kids right now. They’re at my in-laws in Andover. We actually had them start school there last week. We didn’t know how long this whole thing would take to sort out and we agreed they shouldn’t be in the house any longer. So she’s not around but would you feel comfortable meeting me at the house?”
Ugh. I know. Sounds like the perfect start to a true crime story and I can hear a bunch of you screaming “Stay out of the forest!” at me right now. For all I knew Carrie and the kids were dead in the basement of Joe’s house. Their bodies arranged around a card table at an endless game of Monopoly. Or shoved in the extra freezer everyone around here seems to have. Or chopped up, their body parts distributed carefully into three black garbage bags, Joe waiting for a quiet moment to dump them into MOPO.
So, yeah, the thought that meeting him at the house might be dangerous crossed my mind. But I did research before I agreed to meet him and everyone I asked knew him and his wife. It was confirmed that Carrie and the kids were alive and well in Andover, Massachusetts. One of my friends said, “Oh my God, wait until you see the house.” Was it a stunner? I asked. “Yeah, no, it’s freaking enormous.”
I made plans to meet him at his home at eight forty-five on a Tuesday morning in early September. He was adamant that he only had an hour to “Go over everything.” He had an important meeting in Newton and simply could not be late. Fine by me.
So I met Joe Murphy at his ginormous house on a crisp, sunny September morning. I hadn’t seen a ghost since the last interview. I hadn’t heard a ghost in I don’t even know how long and I was hoping he’d have a really good spooky story for me, because in my mind it was basically Halloween and I was in the mood to get creeped out.
And I was curious about something. That last name, Murphy… does it sound familiar to you? It did to me. Even though Murphys are a dime a dozen around these parts, I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be a connection.
Joe greeted me at a front door fit for a castle and ushered me inside to a grand and bare front hall. An incredibly elaborate chandelier hung overhead, proud and lonely looking. Joe informed me that the light had been shipped from Spain after he and Carrie had “fallen in love with it” on an anniversary trip.
I slipped off my sneakers and padded along behind him, past a massive formal dining room with beautiful bowed picture windows overlooking the front yard. Elegant upholstered chairs sat primly around a long gleaming mahogany table and a massive matching armoire stood solemnly against the far wall, empty save for one golden serving dish. I followed Joe to the back of the house and into an enormous kitchen. It’s marble topped island roughly the size of my own kitchen. There were more drawers and cabinets than I could ever imagine filling and I fought the urge to start pulling them open just to prove that they were all empty.
Joe went to a floor-to-ceiling built in refrigerator asking, “Can I get you a Perrier?”
“Sure, thank you,” I said, standing next to the island and taking in the room. It extended to one side into a wide open family room, where a big sectional couch sat bare. The far wall was a long line of french doors leading out onto a brick patio. Aside from a very large flatscreen television above the fireplace there was nothing on the walls. No evidence whatsoever that a family lived there. Let alone a family with children.
“Do you mind if we sit outside?” Joe asked, handing me a fancy bubbly water. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to talk in here. I would like the opportunity to point out the locations we’ve seen him in the house, it seems as though that’s what the professionals do on the ghost hunting shows, right?”
“Totally,” I said, smiling, wondering if I’d finally found someone who loved ghost hunting reality television as much as I did.
“I streamed a few episodes when I was trying to determine where to look for help. Absolute trash television, but it did validate the fact that other people have problems like ours.”
With some difficulty, I held back my TedTalk about the validity, importance, and superiority of those so-called trash television shows and listened as he went on.
“I don’t want to talk about him in the house though. When we do it seems to call him out. Why don’t I show you where we’ve seen him and then we’ll sit on the patio to gameplan.”
“Um, okay sure,” I said, not at all sure. The house just felt like a big, brand new empty house to me. I didn’t get any spooky vibes save for the fact that there was zero sign of the fact that a family of five lived there.
Joe walked swiftly back the way we’d entered the kitchen. I began to follow him then almost plowed right into his back when he stopped abruptly and turned to say, “Again I’ll just point out the hotspots. Let’s save the questions until we get outside, alright?”
Hackles beginning to rise, I nodded my head in agreement. I followed Joe around the sparse home. Every once in a while he would stop and say something like, “Over here, he poked his head out around the corner at [child’s name omitted] and beckoned her to follow him,” or “In that corner there, Carrie saw him crouched, his head resting on his knees,” “I saw his leg move under that bed, like he was trying to pull it under before I saw him,” or “[Child’s name omitted] said he was sitting at their playtable over there by the window. She described his shirt, down to the muddy work boot. It was exactly the man Carrie and I had seen. There’s no way she could have known that.”
Spooky, right? The second floor held a totally different vibe from the first. Up there I saw evidence of family life, but just. I didn’t see a thing on the walls, not a taped crayon drawing, not a scenic watercolor over the guest room bed. Just pristine white walls everywhere. But if the second floor was unnerving, it was the basement that really got me.
We descended in silence due to the plush cream wall to wall carpeting. The space was gorgeous, built in bookshelves and drawers would have been ideal for kids toys and books, had there been any to store. We walked past rather formal sitting area arranged in front of a fireplace and turned a corner. The room opened, to the left sat a colorful playmat, train table, and small art easel beside one of those plastic log cabins for toddlers you usually see in backyards. But to the right? Guys there was a legit glassed in, fully loaded home gym. It even had a sauna and one of those stair stepper machines you see at real gyms.
Gesturing to the two mirrored walls of the gym area Joe said, “I was working out last night and you see that play house thing?” We both looked at the small log cabin. “He was in there, watching me.”
I sucked air through my teeth and stepped back.
Joe shoved his hands in his pockets. “I gotta hire someone to drag it out of here for me.”
I was about to suggest that we just drag the damn thing out of there right then and there when he continued, “I came down this morning, intending to break it down and haul it out of here, but he was sitting in one of those chairs when I turned the corner.”
“Can we go back upstairs now,” I asked.
“I’d hoped to show you the storage room too…”
“I have a really good imagination,” I said, forcing a nervous laugh.
He looked at what must have been the storage room door set beside the gym. “Alright then, let’s go up.”
We sat outside at a ridiculously nice outdoor table. Joe retrieved his phone from his back pocket and began scrolling through text messages. He began to type a response while saying, “So, uh, what else do you need to know?”
I remained silent for a minute. Waiting for him to turn his attention back to the conversation. When he finally looked up from his phone he wore an expression that clearly said, “Well, what are you waiting for?”
“Hey, before you tell me about the haunting, by any chance do you have any relation to Tom Murphy?”
“Ha, yeah, you got me. He’s my cousin. That’s who told me about you.”
“Oh, wow. You should have said something. Why didn’t you?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.
“I didn’t know about everything that went down with Tom until I let on about what had been happening in our house. It sounds like it was a real mess and I didn’t know if you’d be put off by my connection to him.”
I shook my head adamantly. “Not at all, Chris and I absolutely love Tom. We were just so relieved that everything worked out. How is he, I haven’t talked to him or Jenny in ages. Oh, and how are the girls? Meg sat for us a couple times, she must be away at school now.”
“They’re all great,” Joe said, his face softening. “I had no idea any of that had gone down. You know, that night – after your husband helped them get rid of that thing? It was my wife’s surprise thirty-fifth birthday party. Tom just told me that, but that night I never would have known they’d had any trouble that day. Then again, I didn’t know much at that party. Worst blackout I’d had since college,” he laughed. “Anyway, our family owes you a great deal of thanks for speaking up when you did. You and your husband really showed up when Tom needed it.”
I waved away his comment. “Everything would have worked out whether I’d been there or not,” I said, but that was probably untrue. I think Tom was well on his way to being completely possessed and my have hurt someone had he not opened up and told me the story of those haunted bunk beds. “I’m embarrassed and a little guilty we’ve lost touch.”
“No need for that, Tom only has great things to say about you and your husband. Trust me, I got an earful when we talked about our situation.”
I smiled. “Well, please say hello from me next time you see him.”
Memories flooded my mind. That day, a little over three years ago, when I’d called Chris in a panic worried that Tom was about to use the red handled paint scraper in his back pocket to do something unthinkable, Chris, as is so often the case, was the one to calm the situation down. “Do not call the police. Liz, just don’t. I’ll call Tom right now, I’m leaving work.”
He asked Tom to meet him at the Whole Foods of all places, Chris said the more crowded the better just in case I was right and Tom was under the influence of something out of his control. Kat and I waited in the car out in the parking lot. Me panicking. Kat sleeping.
Tom handed over the paint scraper, not even realizing he’d had it in his back pocket, if you can believe it. He had no memory of putting it there. Hadn’t felt it poking into his bum as he rode in the car or sat with me in Starbucks. Chris told me later that Tom seemed genuinely frightened. They called his brother, Pete and the three of them went out on Pete’s boat that very afternoon – despite my angry protests that Chris had no business going anywhere with a man who didn’t realize he had a weapon in his back pocket. What else was he carrying around that he didn’t know about? They dumped the bunk bed in a never to be named body of water right here in Wellesley. Crisis averted.
And years later, there I sat in front of Tom’s cousin wondering if perhaps a bent towards the paranormal ran in their family.
“Tom reassured me that you would keep my family anonymous if I agreed to be a part of your little research project.”
“I’ll make up a name for you or a reader will offer their name as an alias,” I replied, evenly.
Joe, who’d been peeking at his phone, looked up. “People do that?”
“Yes,” I said simply.
I let out a genuine laugh at his confusion. “I don’t know. I guess it’s a way for people to be a part of the story of this strange little town.”
He stared at me and I could see his mind working overtime, calculations tallying behind his eyes. “How many people read your blog?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, vaguely. “A few. Not everyone likes spooky stuff, right?”
“Sure, sure, but you could monetize. People do that don’t they? My wife spends God knows how much time on fashion blogs or whatever, they’ve got ads.”
“I mean, I’m just a private equity guy. I’m not an expert, but you must spend a lot of time on this, a few hours to interview people, time to transcribe the recording,” he pointed to the recorder on the table. “If you need to talk to someone who knows about that stuff, I’m sure I could find someone knowledgeable. Maybe you could dig up a little fun money if nothing else. You should look into it.”
I watched him as he again looked at his phone and began scrolling.
“Go ahead and tell me about your ghost,” I said, finally. “And we’ll see if I can dig up one of my contacts to help you.”
He looked at me, perhaps confused that I’d ignored his opinion of my blog. I got the sense he wasn’t used to people ignoring his opinions. “Yeah, so, I just wanted to move. Leave the house and that guy to someone else to deal with. I only got half my wish. Carrie agreed to sell the house, but not until we make sure its safe for another family to move to. So, here we are.”
Oh, I thought, So that’s why this place is so barren.
“We’ve got an offer accepted on new construction over on Bristol. We close October fifteenth, so I’m under the gun. I gotta put this one on the market, but Carrie won’t come home, not to this house and not to the new one unless I can guarantee that guy is gone.”
In the bright daylight I could see just how worn out the guy looked. Dark circles under his eyes along with a sort of puffiness hinted at a hangover.
“It must be really spooky staying here alone. How do you sleep at night?”
“Like a log. Too soundly, actually,” he forced a laugh. “I’ve been sleepwalking.”
“Oh, man. A lot?”
His eyes darted to the trees at the edge of the yard. “Uh, yeah. Most nights.”
“That’s not good. Especially with a man lurking around your home.”
“The Flannel Man.”
“The Flannel Man, that’s what the kids call him. The Flannel Shirt Man.”
“Shivers,” I whispered.
“Yeah, so what are we going to do about it? What do you suggest?”
“Are you scared of this thing? I mean, does it bother you that there’s a Flannel Man haunting your home?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, we gotta sell the place and I can’t do that until we get rid of him.”
“Joe, from the little bit you’ve told me you couldn’t pay me to stay here alone. In fact, I don’t even want to go back inside your house. And you’re telling me that you are sleeping like a log at night.”
I watched his eyes stray to the cell phone screen. I knew he was itching to pick the thing up.
“Why do I get the feeling you’re holding something back, or that there’s something else that you’re not telling me?”
He huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. “This isn’t my area of expertise,” he said, frustrated. “I just want to wash my hands of this place. My luck has turned to shit since we moved here.”
“Yeah. Things at work have just gotten so,” he let out a growl of frustration. “I can’t make it two seconds without bumping into a fucking moron. And then, this house is one headache after another. Not just the haunting, the place makes me want to jump out of my skin.”
I considered what he’d said before asking, “How long have you lived here?”
“A little over three years. We actually moved in the weekend before Carrie’s surprise birthday party. She says this house was the shittiest birthday present she ever got.”
“It’s new construction, though right? And it’s still had problems?”
“Yeah, plenty. But more than that, we bought all new furniture when we moved in but I made Carrie return it all. I couldn’t stand it.”
“Couldn’t stand the furniture?”
“Yeah, it was too much. I couldn’t sleep with all that shit in there.”
“Yeah. The furniture.”
“What was your old house like? The one before you moved to this one?” I asked.
“Typical starter. Three bedroom, nineteen forties colonial over on Hundreds.”
“Did you mind furnishing that house?”
“No, that place was fine. Carrie did a good job sprucing up the place up. We sold it fifty over asking. Made about ninety-five on it after the broker fee.”
“Huh, so even though this house is bigger it made you feel… what?”
“Trapped,” Joe said, simply. “You gotta be a little jealous of the guy, whoever he is or was.”
“The Flannel Man? How so?”
“Well, the plaid shirt, axe, all that. He must have been an outdoorsman.”
“Axe? You didn’t say anything about an axe.”
“Yeah I did.”
I shook my head. “Who do you think sees the Flannel Man the most? You?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess you could say that.”
A terrible idea began to grow in my mind. “Do you ever hear anything outside? Back there?” I asked, gesturing to the band of trees separating their yard from the house behind it.
“You mean besides that jackass chopping trees down in his backyard at all hours of the night? I’ve complained to the damn neighborhood association, but the asshole denies it. Says I’m hearing things. I’ve tried to get it on video, but the trees are thick back there and I can’t get a bead on him.” He ran a hand through his thick salt and pepper hair. “We’ve just gotta sell this place and start fresh. I honestly don’t give a shit if it’s safe for the next family. I need a break, I feel like I’m this close to just snapping.”
Slowly I said, “Joe, I don’t think moving to a new house is going to help.”
“What are you saying? No. The new house will be great, we just need a fucking clean slate,” he said, his eyes flashing with anger.
“I don’t think it’s the house that’s the problem.”
Joe went very still and then in the blink of an eye he slammed his fist down on the metal table top causing me to jump back, pushing my chair away. I snatched my recorder and held it tight.
“The new house will be great,” he said in a low voice. “You’ll see.”
I stood up and began backing to the edge of the yard. “You’re right,” I said, “I think it’s the house. You know, you can get a minister in and have him give it a simple blessing. That should put Carrie’s mind at ease.”
Joe tilted his head down, absently rubbing his hand. “A minister,” he said, in a gravelly voice.
“Alright, then. I know you have a meeting to catch and my friend Biddy is expecting me at Cafe Nero. So…” I was at the edge of the house, I could make it to the front yard in no time if I had to run. It flashed through my mind that attack victims often scream their heads off and still no one comes to investigate or help.
I didn’t hesitate. I ran to the front yard, jumped into my car and peeled out of the driveway. I called Chris and then searched my phone for an old number. “Tom,” I said, when he answered the phone with a cheerful hello. “I’m so sorry, but it’s not over. I think it jumped.”