So here’s how it finally happened. I was in Bruegger’s Bagels (of all places). I’d just polished off a nice bagel sandwich and was breaking off pieces of a pumpkin bagel and dipping them in a pumpkin spice coffee because when I get close to bagels I can’t and won’t stop devouring them until I have a proper stomach ache. And when it is fall I can’t stop won’t stop with pumpkin everything. I was feeling good for the first time in several days. I’d been battling the worst headache for longer than I ever had, but when I woke up that morning it was gone. After dropping the girls off at school I went straight to Bruegger’s intending to work on the first draft of my book for a few hours, editing and rewriting a few scenes.
So when a woman came over and stood beside the small corner table where I’d set up my little office I did my very best to hide the irritation I felt when I looked up to greet her. She was in her twenties, dressed rather nicely in a forest green belted dress and heels. Her hair swept into a flawless bun. From the expression on her face I could tell she thought recognized me from somewhere. Now, I don’t think I’ve mentioned my slight facial blindness issue before, have I? It is the most annoying thing ever because it makes me seem like a self involved jackass – as if I need any help with that. But the maddening thing about this is that I have no control over it.
Facial blindness is this weird thing where your brain doesn’t recognize faces. Even ones that should be familiar. In severe cases, people don’t even recognize their own reflections. Now, have I ever gotten an official diagnosis? No. But do I completely and totally not recognize people who I’ve spoken with several times? Yes. And it’s not like the whole “I’m so bad at remembering people’s names,” thing. It’s not that. I’m pretty good at doing one of those little memory tricks with people’s names. But if I don’t recognize someone then trying to pull up their name with a trick is impossible. Here’s an example of how embarrassing this can be. Chris and I met a really cool couple on the playground a while back, it was a weekend afternoon and our kids played together nicely and they lived in the neighborhood. We chatted for at least an hour and a half and I did the name trick for them – in this case linking one with a Friend’s character, the other with a famous comedian and their kids names got the same treatment. Great, right? Look at me being so social and proactive.
Well, then about a week later I’m out in the front yard with the girls and a car slows down in front of our house. A blond woman rolls down the window and says, “Hey! So this is where you guys live! How are you?”
I literally had absolutely no idea who she was, and when this happens I’ve learned to stamp down the social panic and try my best to draw clues out of the person who moments before I would have considered a complete stranger. The woman finally mentioned one of her kids by name (luckily it was a rather uncommon name) and just like that my mind connected her name and her husband’s name and I was able to determine who she was – but I still didn’t recognize her.
Super weird, right? Even weirder is that it doesn’t last forever. Depending upon the person and if it’s in the same location it’ll take me a few times talking with them before my brain sort of, like, imprints on them and then I’ll recognize them forever. If they have some great defining feature like red curly hair or pretty, straight white teeth the imprint may happen sooner. But if they are like most people then it’ll take me several conversations and some real attention on my part. IN the case of the playground woman, because I have no home base for her, like school or the library, I don’t know that I will ever recognize her.
You guys, I swear it’s a real thing. Brad Pitt has it.
Anyhow, back to this nicely dressed, eager looking young woman interrupting my editing time in Bruegger’s. I could see by the look in her eyes that she knew me. I scanned through the possibilities. Did I know her from my time at the library? The food pantry? One of the kids’ schools?
“Hi!” I said in what I hoped was a friendly tone.
“Oh my God, I’ve been looking for you,” she whispered.
“Oh?” I said, now feeling panic rise that I should definitely know this woman.
“Yes. I’ve been trying to get someone’s attention. I just, I don’t know why I knew you would be different, but you are and, oh my Lord. You have no idea how long it’s been.” At that she began sobbing.
I glanced around us to see if anyone else saw what was happening. A couple business men sat at a table with coffee, talking at each other with genial aggression. Three young mothers and their tiny children created a flurry of movement and noise at the long table in front of the windows. The employees continued fulfilling orders. No one noticed the drama playing out at my little table.
“Uh, I’m so sorry, that I don’t…” I trailed off not wanting to offend the poor woman by saying I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. I began to stand up but the second I did I became overwhelmingly dizzy and had to sit back down.
“I have to tell you something,” the woman insisted, “I might not have another chance.”
I’d closed my eyes to wait for the dizziness to pass and when I opened them and looked back up at her she sort of, like, wavered. Like when you see heat rising from hot blacktop in the summer, only her entire body did that while everything around her remained steady.
“Oh, shit,” I breathed. “You’re a-”
“You can hear me? You can still hear me?” She asked.
I nodded and looked around again to see if anyone was watching us. I began to gather my things off the table. “Let’s go outside and-”
“No!” She exclaimed stepping closer to me.
I pushed my chair back against the wall and a look of utter sadness passed across her face.
“I’m sorry,” I said in a low voice, feeling badly for hurting her feelings. “I am just not used to this yet.”
“Please don’t go anywhere, I have to tell you and then you have to tell them. I didn’t do it. I didn’t. It was an accident.”
I pulled my seat forward and looked back down into my bag on the floor.
“Oh, no! Please! Listen!” She was crying now.
“I am going to put in my headphones, okay and take out my phone. I can hear you and I will listen and have a conversation, but I don’t want these people to think I am talking to myself, okay?” I pushed the chair across from me out with my foot. “Can you sit down? Or is that, like not possible for you?”
She sat down in the chair. It was absolutely, positively surreal.
I slid the airpods into my ears. “Okay,” I said, my voice shaking, “I’m listening.”
“My name is Chelsea Coltz. Will you write that down?” She watched as I reached for my planner. “It’s C-h-e-l-s-e-a, C-o-l-t-z-as-in-zebra. That’s correct,” she said, watching me write. “I’ve thought about what I would tell someone if I could just get them to listen. I’ve practiced it for so long,” she began. She went on to tell me that she lived in the house next door with her husband. That they were blissfully happy save for the fact that they could not get pregnant. They’d tried for nineteen months – she was very specific about this – and they’d made an appointment with a reputable specialist in Boston. Her cousin had consulted with the man and was pregnant within two months of following his instructions.
“Why would I do it when we had that appointment in three weeks? It’s absurd!” She insisted.
“What do they think you did?” I asked, then quickly looked down at my phone screen remembering that no one else could see this woman but me.
Chelsea told me that she’d been tidying the kitchen. She’d baked a roast for her husband and his parents the night before and the carving knife had been left to dry in the counter. As she carried it across the kitchen to the knife drawer her foot caught on the edge of the crochet rug that lay in front of the kitchen sink. She tripped and slammed her hand down on the counter to catch herself. In doing so she managed to slice her right wrist open. She panicked. Blood was everywhere, she wasn’t thinking straight. She didn’t want to bleed all over the rug, which had been a Christmas gift from her mother-in-law. She gathered her skirt around her injured wrist and ran outside, planning to go to the nextdoor neighbors for help, but she’d lost too much blood by the time she made it across the yard. She had to sit down to wait for the dizziness to pass. She told me that she must have closed her eyes and lost consciousness.
And when she came to her husband could neither see nor her. Her mother walked right through her. Her sister sat crying in her sewing chair while Chelsea uselessly screamed “I’m right here!” Over and over. But the baby, her cousin’s baby saw Chelsea at her wake in their front parlor. She got the little girl to giggle by making silly faces and that’s how she knew that eventually she would find someone who could see and hear her, and that person could carry her message.
“So you see, I didn’t kill myself,” she sat back in the chair – though how that was possible I honestly haven’t a clue – and folded her hands in her lap. Her demeanor changed considerably. Her face softened and she smiled at me shyly.
“I apologize,” she said, “I didn’t ask your name.”
“Liz,” I told her, but she was looking past my shoulder out the windows at the front of the bagel shop.
“Oh my word,” she breathed. “Philip, oh my word!”
I turned to look behind me to see who she saw, but the only person on the sidewalk in front of the shop was a middle aged woman with an elderly Golden Retriever. I turned to look back at Chelsea, but she was gone.
I sat there for quite some time wondering if it had all really happened.
“You’re lucky in one regard,” Judith said during a very long phone call about the incident.
“How so?” I asked.
“When I see ‘em I usually feel how they did when they died. Drowning victims are the worse. Lord above, save me from drowning. I’ll take a broken neck any day, at least it’s fast.”
I shuddered at the thought of having to feel what it must have been like for Chelsea to grow weak from loss of blood. Judith was positively joyful over the fact that I could not only hear ghosts now but could see them too. She claimed to have known all along this was where my whole debacle was leading.
“You’re too damn open. You’re too damn stubborn to listen to reason. And you are too damn interested in the dark. You got exactly what you wanted.”
Not true, I argued. True, she insisted. And I began to doubt myself, not that that’s anything new, but was this what I wanted? I went back and scanned through the blog. I read through over three and a half years of stories and I don’t know if I can say with full sincerity that I didn’t go into my search for local ghost stories without any intention of getting in on the action. I wanted to listen to other people’s terror, sure. Safely. Over coffee and pastries. In looking back at those stories I found myself cringing at how relentlessly snarky I’ve been in my descriptions of people. Yikes.
I barely recognize the woman who blogged those early stories. So much has happened over the past three and a half years. Thankfully, life knocked me down a peg or two since the beginning and I hope it’s made me kinder and more able to point that judgy ass finger at myself. Rereading some of those posts was a great reminder to not be an uppity snob for sure. But it also forced me to be honest with myself. I was a bored mom with very small children when I began writing. Of course I wanted something magical and spooky to happen in my life. That’s why I didn’t stop interviewing people when the tapping started in our last house or when I began to actually hear ghosts or when I started having those awful dreams.
And here I am right smack dab in the middle of the story.
It started a few days after I met Chelsea. Let me be clear, I’m not, like seeing dead people everywhere I go. No, it’s more like, they see me, the ones who are looking anyway. And when they do, they are incredibly eager to chat. Judith explained that the dead who still hang around either want to stay here in order to cause a little chaos, or because they are afraid of what might be waiting on the other side for them. But there are other dead who stick around because they have unfinished business and that business is usually in the form of an undelivered message. And for most of those dead people it doesn’t matter who they give the message to, it’s just the opportunity to have someone listen and validate their concerns that allows them to pass onto the other side. Whatever that is.
So that’s what I did for Chelsea. I listened to her and that was all she needed to move on.
But the other dead. The ones who stick around for chaos, they’re in no rush to go anywhere. And just like I appear differently to the dead who have something to get off their chests, apparently I’m a beacon for the troublemakers too.
My first experience with one of those creepers was at the kindergarten social. Each autumn there is a parent party for every grade level at our elementary school. The adults get together at someone’s house (in this case mine) to get to know one another, eat finger foods and drink a little too much. This party was actually the first one I’d attended, let alone hosted, in which I wasn’t drinking. So I was a little more, uh, attentive than I might have been in the past and the second that couple walked through my front door I knew something was off.
They were a pleasant couple, just moved to Wellesley the previous spring, their oldest in kindergarten their youngest at the same pre-school as Kat. We were all surprised we hadn’t crossed paths yet. Chris and I chatted with them briefly before getting pulled to different hosting duties. I had this sort of, I don’t know, ping about them though. Especially her. She was lovely and friendly and social, but I could feel the tension rolling off her in waves. Actually, not just tension. Fear. I could sense his anxiety too, but could tell it had to do with whatever she was worried about. It was not his own, it was more of a sympathetic anxiety if that makes any sense.
So I kept my eye on them throughout the evening and I didn’t see anything odd. The night wore on and the crowd thinned. I’d just grabbed a bottle of wine to top off some glasses in the living room when I came around the corner and saw him. He stood beside the woman, let’s call her Bonnie, and he stood out from the crowd in a navy blue hoodie. His very dark eyes and the most evil smile I’ve ever seen peeked out beneath the hood. When I locked in on those dark eyes he pulled that hood down, revealing dull, jet-black hair. The kind that comes from a box. Then his entire body wavered the same way Chelsea’s had. A wave of dizziness washed over me and I had to lean against our dining room table until it passed.
As luck would have it, Bonnie saw the whole thing. I looked at her and saw a flash of terror in her eyes.
“Now no one will believe I’m not drinking,” I said with a nervous laugh after she came over to see if I needed help. The ghost disappeared the second I looked away from it and that frightened me more deeply than seeing it in the first place. Where had it gone? And how in the hell did it get into my house? There are protections along my property line and at all of the doors into my home to keep just that from happening.
I excused myself to check on the girls and found them all sleeping peacefully. The rest of the night was a blur. Everyone seemed to decide at once that midnight was the collective curfew and our remaining guests filtered out. The kitchen was empty and I approached Bonnie as she placed an empty wine glass on the counter.
“Hey, I hope I’m not overstepping here,” I said awkwardly. “But I saw someone standing next to you in the dining room.”
She looked confused. “Oh, I’m still not sure of everyone’s name,” she replied. “What did he look like?”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t one of the other parents,” I said in an apologetic tone.
Her eyes went wide. “Fuck.” She breathed.
“Why don’t we grab coffee tomorrow,” I said quickly. “I might be able to help you.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said in a low voice. “I didn’t know he could follow me.”
I spent the next hour saging our own house and spraying salted holy water in every single corner. Even though I was bone tired I didn’t fall asleep until well after three o’clock. I was pretty certain the ghost had left with her, but I couldn’t be sure.
Over coffee at Cafe Nero the following morning I learned that Bonnie picked up her ghost when they first moved to Wellesley. Her family had lived in a short term rental for three months while the renovations were completed on their new home. She told me the place had been “classically haunted.” A lot like the home where she’d grown up, in fact. The rental had been all footsteps in the hallway at night and disembodied voices during the day. But the most alarming thing was that she could feel herself change the longer they stayed in the house. She became less patient and kind with her family, more angry and depressed. “And I’m drinking like a fish,” she added. She blamed it on the stress of the last move and the anticipation of the next one. She was sure that it would resolve once they had moved into their new home.
It hadn’t. Things got worse. She and her husband bickered constantly. The kids had nightmares and refused to sleep alone in their new bedrooms. She experienced sleep paralysis several times and then one night she woke up and saw a young man in a hoodie standing beside her bed. Just as he had when I saw him, he took off the hood to reveal jet black hair. He stood over her for far too long with an evil grin on his face.
“Is he here now? Can you see him?” Bonnie wanted to know when she was done giving me the rundown.
I shook my head, grateful that I couldn’t. “I am really new to this, but if you’re open to it I know a couple of people who can help you.”
“I am willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of this asshole.”
So I called Judith. She agreed to come do a walk through Bonnie’s home the following weekend to diagnose her ghost issue and put together a plan of action to resolve it. She would do it on one condition. I had to tag along.