Emails sat in my inbox, awaiting reply. The woman from Wellesley College had offered to arrange a tour of the tunnels beneath the campus. She wanted to tell me the campus ghost stories as we toured the underground maze – accompanied by a campus security guard/groundskeeper “just in case we get lost.”

This sort of safe scare had been exactly what I wanted when I started this quest for ghost stories; I could vacation to the land of ghosties without having to put down roots. The problem was that I had begun to realize that there wasn’t any such thing as a safe scare. I was looking into the darkness, and I’ll be damned if there weren’t moments when I suspected that it was looking back.

That creeper Nick knew I was pregnant before I did. My dreams had been getting strange. I had been obsessing a bit. Reading up on hauntings and demons, ghosts, and possession. My husband, C, wanted me to take a break from the ghost research to watch Shark Tank with him. Though tempting, I had to pass.

I didn’t need a break, I needed to reframe my quest. I couldn’t be a looky-loo, stomping around in these people’s reality, oohing and ahhing like a tourist in Beacon Hill. I needed to treat this with a bit more awe, a touch more respect. I realized that I was avoiding people’s stories because I needed to get up the nerve to face them. To recognize them for what they really were.

These stories weren’t just there for entertainment. They were glimpses into the darkness. And I needed to decide if I wanted that darkness to catch a glimpse of me.

I volunteer at the Wellesley food pantry once a week. Nothing major, just a couple hours of unloading donations and restocking shelves. And yes – there is need of a food pantry in Wellesley. Not everyone in town summers on Martha’s Vineyard and drives a Land Rover. The pantry has two collection bins, one at Whole Foods the other at the Roche Brothers. Grab an extra can of tuna fish next time you’re grocery shopping and pop it into one of the bins. Believe it or not, you can’t always spot hunger. It might look like your next door neighbor who is quietly struggling to keep up with her medical bills and has to choose between bankruptcy and lunch.

Anyway, the pantry – knowing that I will chat with adults about something other than children’s’ books or the children who read them, even if only for two tiny hours, anchors my week. One of the volunteers at the pantry, Gary, a seventy-seven year old ex-marine, was really enthusiastic about my “scary Wellesley stories,” as he called them. It was his belief that the spirits were acting out because they had a message that needed hearing. I wasn’t so sure.

“You aren’t going to believe this,” he said, one Monday morning as he unloaded a grocery bag full of pasta sauce.

“You’re getting remarried to a twenty-five year old who just ‘gets’ you.” I said.

“Bambi isn’t just a pretty face,” he replied.

“Where are you registered?” I asked, throwing away an open, half-used bag of potato chips. Honestly, think before you donate.

“Costco,” he replied. “Really, though, my neighbor has a ghost story for you!”

“Oh?” I said, a bad feeling coming over me.

“Yes! I told her all about you. She has an old ghost story,” he replied.

“What kind of a ghost story?” I asked with a pit in my stomach.

“As charming as I am I couldn’t get her to elaborate, but she hinted that it was something that happened to her when she was young.”

“How old is she now?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, anyone under sixty seems like a child to me. Maybe she’s in her fifties. What’s the matter?” He asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know, I just started to feel funny. It’s nothing.” I don’t know what had come over me, but I was chilled to the core.

“You’d better go sit down,” Gary demanded. “That baby of yours needs a break.”

I waved off his concern, But I couldn’t shake the feeling. Gary kept talking about the paranormal and said that he had given this woman, Casey, my email address.

I changed the subject.

That night as I checked my email a message popped up from ccotton1966@wellesleycares.org. I opened it and realized it was from Gary’s neighbor, Casey. Casey Cotton. She said she had a ghost story. A “cautionary tale” that she wanted to share. Could she treat me to lunch at The Local?

My initial reaction was to her name. Casey Cotton sounded like the girl reporter in a superhero comic book. I looked over her email address and googled “Wellesley Cares.” A website for a non-profit community group came up. A photo of Casey sitting at a table surrounded by senior citizens in wheelchairs adorned the “About” page.

I texted my friend Heidi and asked if she’d ever heard of Casey Cotton or Wellesley Cares.

You don’t need another project. She texted back.

She has a ghost story, have you heard of her?

Heard of her? That woman is a legend. She was President of the Juniors and I think she had something to do with starting luminary night. You can’t name a board she hasn’t been on. North 40, Save our Neighborhood Schools, Say No to Number 1 –  that’s all her. She started the Community Cares deal awhile back and runs the Boston Marathon every year to raise money for it. Heidi texted back immediately.

You just moved here, how do you know all of this? I asked.

How do you NOT know this? Heidi replied.

I emailed Casey Cotton and we set a lunch date for the following week. I declined her offer to pay. We’d go dutch. But this strange cloud of, I don’t know, dread, I guess, hovered over me the rest of the week. I had vivid dreams of dancing around a fire and walking through thick forests in darkness. People hidden just out of sight.

Casey Cotton was adorable. Wild, red hair streaked with gray framed a pale face, sprinkled with freckles and lightly traced laugh lines. She wore head-to-toe Chico’s and carried a big Prada tote with grommet detail. She had a complete look, and she was killing it.

I was wearing maternity jeans a blue and white striped shirt with navy flats and wrapped a hot pink scarf around my neck in a complicated knot.  I had been feeling so stylish when I left the house. When I saw Casey, I immediately regretted my horizontal stripes.

We exchanged hellos. She was a hugger, which had become awkward for me as of late, with my expansion and all. She smelled of overly flowery perfume with a cigarette smoke undertone. We sat at a high top table near the bar.

“What’s it like to be Gary’s neighbor?” I asked after we’d ordered drinks (seltzer water for me and a Chardonnay for Casey).

“It’s a dream!” she replied, sliding her napkin onto her lap. “He trims back my hydrangeas in the fall and I practically have to beat him off with a stick when the leaves come down. He has this leaf blower –“

“He brought it over last fall,” I said with a laugh. “I couldn’t convince him otherwise.”

“He is so excited about your project,” she said.

“I know it, we discuss it at the pantry.”

“He told you about my story, then?” She asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, no. He said you didn’t give him many details but that you had a ghost story from when you were young.”

“I do. But as I said in my email, it’s really more of a cautionary tale. It’s something that actually changed my life – ultimately for the better. But, not without some difficulty.”

Get to it, then. I felt like saying. Just tell the damn story.

Lately, I was a touch cranky when I was hungry. I was hungry.

“I sort of view all ghost stories as cautionary tales,” I said, relieved to see our waitress approaching the table with our drinks. “Do you mind bringing some bread?” I asked her. She glanced at my protruding stomach and nodded.

Casey got around to telling her story after a bit more chatter over the menu. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t been in such a rush to hear it.

I was pretty wild as a teenager,” she began. “You name it, I did it. It was a classic ‘my parents are getting a divorce, I’m sad and scared and don’t know how to handle it,” reaction. I see that now, but at the time. I thought it was all just an escape. They were both distracted, my siblings were already out of the house and I was there alone. A lot of kids get themselves into trouble in high school one way or the other. But I took it to the extreme. Honestly, though, that’s my personality. Once I’m in, I’m all in.”

“What sorts of things did you get into?” I asked, thinking this polished woman probably just did a couple kegs stands and got arrested for smoking pot in the woods.

The bread basket arrived and I dug in. Casey sipped her wine before responding.

“The usual teenage stuff, of course. Beer, pot, sneaking out at night. As I traveled deeper into the darkness I had to take things up a notch just to keep up.”

I stopped pulling apart my second piece of bread and said, “Darkness?”

“Yes, darkness,” she confirmed. “I was drawn to it and the people it surrounded. What began as a few beers around a campfire escalated to acid trips in the woods.”

She had my attention.

“You know, I’m not sure what your experience has been, but the people that are drawn to these things. Drugs, drinking, etc… are broken, especially the young ones. I don’t care what they say. What begins as a numbing agent ends as a slow painful burn.”

I just nodded my head. Processing.

The waitress returned and took our lunch orders. A salad for Casey with dressing on the side, and a cheeseburger with bacon and fries on the side for me. I said I was hungry.

“So you were drawn in by the numb feeling that the drugs offered?” I prompted.

“Yes, at least that is what drew me in at first. I was, oh I don’t know, a sophomore in high school and what, fifteen probably. I was stealing money from my mom so I could smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, cutting school, riding around with older guys. I thought I was the coolest thing. So young and so stupid.”

I smiled, “Well you can’t fault yourself for that. We were all there once.”

“Right, but again, like I said. Once I’m in, I’m all in. I started hanging out with a group of guys that were into the occult. They dressed in black and painted their fingernails black, and drove black cars and had black hair, black bedroom walls, even black eyeliner.

“When I was with them, I felt like I was in on some kind of inside joke. They made me feel like I belonged, for once. I spent more and more time with them. A couple of other girls hung out with them too, we dressed like the guys. I even dyed my hair -”

“No!” I exclaimed, motioning to her beautiful auburn locks.

“I know,” she laughs, “My mother just about died when I came home with dull, jet black hair.”

I shook my head, “So what did you do when you all hung out? What kind of occult stuff were they into?”

“At the time I thought it was just harmless stuff. We’d go out at night into the woods around Morses Pond. They would make a campfire in the middle of a pentagram and chant some words that I didn’t understand. Or we’d sit around with a ouija board and try to contact our ‘spirit guides.’ One of the girls was into tarot cards and she would ‘read’ us and tell us our fate.”

“Spooky,” I said, smiling as the waitress placed a huge cheeseburger in front of me.

“It was, but it was all pretty tame,” Casey said, slicing up her salad. “But then one night I snuck out to go to this guy’s place. The house was just two streets over from mine, he had graduated the year before and was living in his parents basement.”

“You are making me so nervous,” I said. “I am picturing my daughters doing the same thing, and it scares the hell out of me.”

Casey smiled, “Don’t worry, just pay attention to them. Know who their friends are, they’ll be fine.”

“That seems to be the party line,” I said with a laugh. “So, what did you do that night?”

“It was like a lot of other nights. We smoked pot and listened to horrible music. Then my friend, Ben, had the idea to play around with the ouija board.

“There were five of us who played, four guys and me. Things started out pretty normal, we were joking around, asking about prom dates. Making fun of the whole thing, when secretly, I’m sure we all would have liked to be a part of that world.

“Then someone asked if there were any spirit guides with us and the board answered ‘yes.’ When we asked it whose guide was there, it spelled out my name. Feeling cocky I challenged the board to tell us something no one else knew about me. It spelled out Avalon,” she pauses and sips her wine. “My dad had moved out the weekend before to the Avalon apartments in Newton. I hadn’t told anyone.”

Unable to speak because I had just taken a huge bite of burger, I shook my head and made an “Uh, uh,” noise.

“I tried to laugh it off, but I think the guys knew that the board had hit on something. ‘Tell us more about Casey,’ one of them said. The board spelled out ‘Hutchins here.’ It was the name of my childhood cat. It had died when I was ten. None of them could have known that. Then the board spelled, ‘meow.’

“Nope,” I said, putting my burger down.

“I took my hands off the planchette. I didn’t want to play any more, but they gave me a hard time. Said I couldn’t stop until I closed the board with them or the portal would be left open.”

“I thought that was just something from movies,” I said, parroting something that creeper Nick had said.

“No, you have to close the board and end communication. Everyone knows that,” Casey said. “You haven’t left a board open, have you?” She asked, in a forced whisper.

“No! I’ve never played with a ouija board,” I replied.

Casey sat back in the chair, “Lucky you,” she said. “Well, they convinced me to keep playing and found out that my spirit guide’s name was Zila. She said that she watched over me and influenced my drawings.

“I hadn’t told anyone about the pencil drawings that filled my notebooks. I had been drawing dark forests for weeks. Sometimes, when I was in class, I would look down at my notebook and see an entire page covered in dark, gnarled trees.”

“Trees?” I asked, my dreams returning to me. Goosebumps prickled my arms.

“Trees,” she confirmed, her fork stabbing at her salad. “After it mentioned the drawings I just refused to play anymore. I refused to help them close the board, they all gave me a hard time about it. I made a friend walk me back home, but believe me, I didn’t sleep that night.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight,” I said.

“Yeah, well, that is just the beginning. Long story short, things went from bad to worse in high school. I got into trouble for skipping classes and I got arrested once for smoking pot in the woods near Morses Pond.”

Called it! I thought to myself. “Did you ever play with the ouija board again?” I asked.

“No. I wanted nothing to do with it, and after that night I began to pull away from those people. I was friends with a couple girls in my grade and we were outsiders, together. Actually, you know, there was this one time that they wanted to play the ouija board, I refused, but they did it while I watched. They asked if there were any spirits present and the board spelled out ‘Zila.’”

“Ok,” I said, “Now I won’t sleep for a week.”

Casey laughed, “I know. It was freaky, and honestly, it seemed impossible. That time in my life was a mess, bad luck just clung to me, repelling people. I barely managed to graduate from high school. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. But then, I didn’t know what to do with me either. I was terrible to them and I knew it, but I couldn’t get out of my own way.”

I smiled sympathetically, “I think we spend the rest of our lives making up for the way we acted from age thirteen to twenty-one. I know I have several people that deserve an apology.”

Casey nodded in agreement.

“At least you made it through high school,” I said, overcome with sadness for this poor woman who had obviously been left to fend for herself during her parents’ divorce.

“There was no chance I could get into college, not that I had bothered applying anywhere. By fate, our church had a missionary program in Brazil that summer. A neighbor’s son had gone the year before. Supposedly, he came back a ‘different boy, all straightened out.’ My parents were sold and I was destined for Sao Paulo, Brazil.”

“I was to volunteer in a youth center. It was an after school program to keep teenagers off the streets. The brochure the church gave my parents said that I would ‘experience what life is like as a local Brazilian.’ And I would ‘immerse’ myself in the local culture. If they had known the local culture that I would be immersed in, I think they probably would have kept me home and gotten me a job at the McDonald’s.”

“How long were you there?” I asked, finishing off the last of my fries.

“Two horrible months,” she replied, sliding her half finished salad out of the way. I had to stop myself from sliding it in front of me.

“What was it like?” I asked, remembering my summers as a teen. Painting our house with my dad, waitressing, tubing on Cazenovia lake.

“Well, the work we were doing wasn’t bad. I was there with about twenty other volunteers all around my age. Most of them had elected to go, treating it as missionary work. Though, through their proselytizing, they alienated most of the kids we were supposed to help. These Brazilians were solid in their belief in God, but their beliefs were a mix of Catholicism, African traditions, and Spiritism. We were a bunch of upper class, American, Born Agains. The two belief systems were night and day. I mean, what would you expect someone who practices voodoo to think of the Rapture?”

“I didn’t know New England had any Born Again Christians,” I said.

“My parents were from Tennessee,” she replied.

“I was making a bad joke,” I said, with an awkward laugh. “Sorry, go on.”

“Well, anyway, we had the mornings to ourselves, I would usually go on a walk or read or draw. I was still drawing the trees. Pages of dead trees. Then in the afternoons we were to report to the community center and help high school kids with their homework. Play cards with them, or make bracelets, just pass the time. We were basically entertaining them so they wouldn’t fall into drugs and drinking or any of the other dark things that I had done at home. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

“I made friends with a couple of the girls. It was nice at first. I didn’t feel like such a horrible outsider when I was with them. Then one afternoon one of the girl’s mothers came to the center to walk her daughter home. I was sitting at a table with the girl, Maria, and a couple of her friends and her mother came over to us. Her mom took one look at me and said ‘Kiumba! Kiumba!’ In a loud, scary voice.

“Everyone in the room turned to stare. Maria tried to calm her mom down. But the woman was crossing herself and pointing. She kept saying, ‘kiumba’ over and over again. I said I was sorry and that I didn’t know what it meant. The girl dragged her mom out of the community center, but not before I heard her say, ‘Zila.’”

“Stop it,” I said. “No way.”

“It was awful, I tried to follow them out but one of the center organizers stopped me. I was reeling. I felt like I was losing my mind.”

“I can’t even imagine,” I said. “What did you do?”

“Well, the girl didn’t return to the center for two days. I asked a couple of the kids what the word ‘kiumba’ meant. A few of them just crossed themselves and walked away when I asked.

“Finally, a boy told me that it’s an evil spirit who attaches itself to a person. It causes mental problems, like depression and paranoia. It’s whole purpose is to possess a person and cause them harm, and, well, cause them to harm others. The boy said that they are the ‘fathers of addiction.’

“When he said that, it hit home. I had been smoking cigarettes like a fiend. I had worked my way up to two packs a day, though I could have smoked more. It was as if I was driven to smoke. It wasn’t a choice.”

“Good Lord,” I said.

“Eventually, Maria came back to the center. She tried to avoid me, but I wouldn’t let her. I begged her to tell me what her mother had been so upset about. Finally, she agreed.” Casey motioned to the waitress and asked for another glass of Chardonnay. I requested the dessert menu.

“So what did she tell you?” I asked, after ordering the flourless chocolate cake. Don’t judge.

“She said that her mother saw a dark spirit, what she called a ‘master kiumba’ standing behind me. She said it’s claws were in my back, that she had never seen one so big, so dark.”

“Geez,” I said.

“I asked her what I was supposed to do about it, how it got there, why it was with me. She said that I had let it in somehow and now that it had a hold of me it wasn’t going to let go.

“I know this all sounds crazy,” Casey says.

“No,” I said. “It’s just, really scary.”

“Well, it felt crazy,” Casey said, sipping her wine. “But somehow, I just knew that it was right. I knew that something had been with me since that first night in my friend’s basement with the ouija board. It felt as though, if I could turn just around fast enough, I would see something behind me. Hidden just out of sight.”

I put my fork down, again, reminded of the feeling of my dreams.

Casey continued, “It only got worse. That night I called and begged my parents to let me come home. My mom said that I needed to learn to ‘honor my commitments’ and my dad said it would be way to expensive to change my plane ticket. I was stuck. I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t stop smoking cigarettes. None of the kids at the community center would even look at me, let alone speak to me. The other volunteers steered clear too. I was a basket case.

“Then this one evening, as we were about to close the center, the girl, Maria, stayed behind and told me that her mother wanted me to meet someone, a priest who practiced Macumba. It’s what they call voodoo in Brazil. He was a Quimbanda practitioner, black magic. The story of my kiumba had gotten back to him and he wanted to see for himself. Maria asked me to go to her home to meet him.”

“This sounds bad,” I said.

“It was. She was insistent. I guess you can’t just say no to a Quimbanda priest. Not unless you want trouble to rain down. I didn’t feel like I had a choice, and I was so isolated and panicked that I probably would have done anything.

“So, I went with her and met this man. He looked,” she sipped her wine, considering. “Well, he looked, totally normal. I had been expecting someone in black hooded robes, but he was wearing a polo shirt and khakis. I even drank tea with him and Maria translated our conversation. It wasn’t a normal conversation, of course. He asked me how I’d procured the kiumba. I told him I thought that it was the ouija board. Several times he sort of spoke to the space above my left shoulder. Finally, he asked if he could ‘have’ my kiumba. He said he could pay. I told him that if he could get rid of this thing, then that was payment enough.

“But he insisted that he had to pay. He wanted to take control of this spirit, to control it’s power. As far as I was concerned he could have at it.

“Maria’s mother sat in the corner of the room, a rosary in her hands, repeating over and over what I assumed was the Hail Mary prayer. It was all, just completely -”

“Fucked up.” I interjected.

“Yes. Well, about a week later, I went to this man’s house -” she began.

“No, you did not!” I said.

“I told you I was young and stupid,” she said.

“Right, but that is next level reckless! You could have been killed, or raped, or -”

“Involved in a black magic ritual that included killing seven chickens,” she concluded.

“Don’t even tell me,” I said, turned off to the chocolate cake.

“I won’t horrify you with the details. I’ve spent my life trying to forget that night. I hadn’t prayed since I was a little girl and I prayed and prayed to be saved that night. I promised God that I would devote my life to doing good if He would get me out of there alive. He did. And I’ve kept my part of the bargain.

“I was given a jade necklace that night, by the voodoo priest. He said it was my payment and a talisman that would ward off evil. It would keep the kiumba from coming back to me, but I had to wear it always.”

“And?” I prompted

“It has worked, for the most part. But I can’t say that I don’t have scars from that night. Something’s been with me my whole life. But I’ve managed to, sort of stay a step ahead of it.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well, it’s just that sometimes, I know things. About people. You might say that my eyes were open that night. There are some that have darkness around them. It’s always standing right behind them, like mine was,” she says. Finishing her second glass of wine.

“How often does this happen?” I ask her, wanting to know if she sees anything around me.

“Often enough,” she replies.

I just stare at her, completely freaked out.

“Don’t worry,” she assures me. “There’s nothing around you. I can’t say as much for our waitress,” she nods in the direction of the bar where our server is standing close to the bartender, laughing.

“I have to warn you, though, you need to be careful with these interviews that you’re doing. Some doors can’t be shut. That was one thing the priest told me. The door that had been opened, by the ouija board. It can’t be shut. He said the talisman would protect me, but he couldn’t do anything about the choice I had made to play the game.

“I came back home determined to never make such a stupid choice again.”

“So you came back from Brazil, and what, everything was alright again?” I asked, incredulous.

“No, things weren’t quite that easy. I could tell that Zila had left, but she left behind a sort of blank space. Once in awhile, something else tried to creep into that space. Still does.”

“I’m afraid to ask,” I say.

She glances at my neck, not for the first time, and asks, “What’s that around your neck?”

“Oh,” I say, lifting my hand, “This scarf, it’s just an old thing from JCrew.”

“No, your necklace,” she says.

It takes me a minute to even know what she’s talking about and then I feel my chest. Beneath the scarf, beneath the shirt, was the St. Benedict medal that Nancy had given me. I had taken to wearing it on a chain.  “Oh!” I say again, realization dawning, “It’s a St. Benedict medal that a friend gave me.”

“That’s quite a friend,” she says. “You know, I really should get going.”

We’d already paid for our meal, the waitress had dropped off our bills to sign. But I stopped her, “Wait, you said your story was a cautionary one. Cautionary to whom?”

“Don’t you realize? To you. It knows you’re looking. Watch your back.” With that she pushed her chair back and walked out of the restaurant without another word.

I sat for a moment then pulled the little folder with our bills towards me. I wrote out the tip and signed my name to the receipt. Nosey Nelly that I am, I peeked at Casey’s bill to see if she had tipped well (I’ve got a thing about always tipping well).

She’d only tipped ten percent. Jerk. More disturbing was the fact that she’d signed her check ‘Zila Cotton.’

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