Kids are the f*cking worst

“How are the renovations coming?” Biddy asked grabbing her latte off the table.

“You know, they’re coming,” I answered vaguely.

“You look like you haven’t slept in weeks,” she commented.

“Don’t pull any punches,” I replied, laughing, “The house is great, it’s just a bigger project than we’d expected so it’s been a touch overwhelming.”

That was an understatement. I wasn’t sleeping well, Chris and I were either walking on eggshells around one another or bickering like PTO co-presidents trying to choose an autumn fundraiser theme. On top of that, I’d begun biting my nails again. A habit I hadn’t entertained since middle school.

I’d reached out to Biddy for Emily (who suspected she needed her home cleansed of an evil entity) and then Biddy had reached back out to me. She wanted to catch up and discuss what had happened in Emily’s house. I hoped Biddy might fill me in on the banishment ritual that her old paranormal contacts had performed on the Hayes’ house so I brought along my digital recorder.

I began to ask her a question about Emily’s home when Biddy interrupted, “How are the girls?”

“Good,” I said, nodding my head. “They’re really good.”

“Even with all the construction?” She prodded.

“Yeah, really it’s just Chris and I that are stressed about it. We just,” I hesitated, choosing my words carefully, “we’re just getting used to the house, I think.”

Biddy tilted her head up a bit, jutting out her chin, “What is it?”

“It’s the electricity,” I sighed. “We’ve had a guy out and he couldn’t find anything wrong. The lights, I mean, not just the lights, the power to the whole house will go off out of nowhere then not even a minute later it turns back on. Anything electrical freaks me out especially since the house so old.”

“Anything else?” She asked, her eyes attempting to maintain a contact that mine could not return.

“You mean besides fearing an electrical fire?” I said with a smirk. “No, I just haven’t had insomnia like this since after Joey was born. I’m having these super realistic dreams of mundane nonsense. Like, I’m in college and forgot that I had a final, or I’m at the grocery store, checking out three full carts of Pirate’s Booty when I realize I forgot my wallet. Just stupid dreams, but they get my mind going and then I wake up and worry my way through the rest of the night. I’m sure it’s just the stress from moving and construction and the kids. Life stuff, I -”

“Let me send my electrician over,” Biddy interrupted. “He’s used to me calling and having him double-check old houses. I’ll get him over next week.”

“We’re away next week,” I said.

“Where to?”

“Nantucket,” I replied.

“Even better. I’ll send him over while you’re away and he can fix whatever needs fixing. When you come home you can light that place up like a Christmas tree if you want.”

I accepted the offer gratefully.

“So that’s it, huh? Electricity on the fritz and some stress dreams?” She asked.

“Yup,” I said, picking at a cuticle, “That’s the gist of it.”

“Uh huh,” Biddy took another sip of her drink and seemed to consider for a moment before saying, “Eric, the tech guy from my old ghost hunting team, wants to talk to you about something that happened to him, but I don’t know if it’s such a good idea. You seem like you’re burning it at both ends.”

“No, not at all! I’m looking for a story for the blog,” I said quickly.

We chatted awhile about Emily’s successful house clearing, of which there wasn’t much to report. Biddy explained that Emily sensed a decrease in activity before the priest came to bless the house. Jane, Biddy’s psychic friend told her that though she could feel there had been something dark in the home at one point, it was no longer there. She reasoned that perhaps it had been too attached to their previous property to truly travel with Emily’s family. Whatever the case, Emily’s home was clear of negative energies.


“Now, who are these handsome gentlemen?” Eric demanded, handing me a rectangular white box before bending down to greet my dogs.

“That’s Walter and Artie,” I answered, holding the door for Eric to come in.

“Which is which?” he asked.

“Walter’s the pudgy one,” I explained.

“Well, they’re a perfect pair,” Eric enthused. “My grandmother had Westies, one of them used to actually dig moles right up out of the ground.”

“Yeah, they’re supposed to be critter catchers but these guys haven’t had much luck,” I said. “Thanks for coming over during the Kat’s nap, I was afraid I’d miss the chance to talk with you. What’s this?” I asked, indicating the box he’d given me.

“Russell Stovers,” he said, looking up at me with a big smile.

“Cut it out!” I exclaimed, ripping off the paper. “It’s the Nut, Chewy, Crisp assortment! These are the freaking best. Thank you!” I gushed, genuinely thrilled.

“You really know your stuff,” he observed with a laugh. “I love ‘em too and I didn’t want to come empty-handed,” he stood and looked around, “So you’re doing some work, huh?”

“It’s a work in progress,” I replied, motioning to the plastic sheeting taped over several doorways. “We can sit in the yard, it’ll be much more comfortable than this construction zone. What can I get you to drink? I have coffee, sparkling water, tea -”

“Sparkling water would be perfect,” he replied.

I poured him the water, grabbed my own coffee, the box of candy and the baby monitor and lead Eric outside. We arranged ourselves on two Adirondack chairs and the dogs happily sat near our feet. It was early August and rather warm but a big old maple tree shaded us from the sun and a light breeze kept us cool.

This was my first time meeting Eric. You know those guys who have an intensely loyal labrador retriever named Chief who follows them around without question? Eric was that kind of guy; a self-assured, quietly confident alpha.

He wore a striped polo shirt tucked into khaki shorts held up by an embroidered nautical flag belt. The worn in Sperry’s were a given. I could picture him on a dock, loading a Yeti cooler onto his Boston Whaler, or grilling ribs in the backyard, or patiently standing in a long line at Starbucks with a smile on his face.

All of this was a total shock to me. I’d pictured a totally different Eric. The only thing I knew about him beforehand was that he was the “tech guy” on Biddy’s old paranormal team. I had imagined a tall, dark-haired thin man with densely drawn arm tattoos. The Eric of my imagination wore black t-shirts, torn skinny jeans and Vans. As usual, reality was so much more interesting than my imagination.

After chatting a bit about my choice of audio recorder (a little SONY digital voice recorder that I could tell he found lacking) I asked him what he did for work. I wondered what sort of “tech guy” he actually was.

“I’m an information security analyst for a financial company in Boston,” he told me.

“So do you, like, make sure spies don’t hack people’s 401K’s or something?” I kidded.

“Something like that,” he said, reaching for a chocolate.

I followed suit and grabbed a caramel before admitting, “I use the same password for everything.”

“Me too,” Eric replied, “I use my dog’s name.”

“Really?” I asked.

“No, not really,” he laughed. “Change your passwords, you’re going to get hacked you dingbat.”

I rolled my eyes and laughed despite feeling like an idiot, “Anyway, tell me about hunting ghosts.”

“I don’t hunt ghosts anymore,” he said seriously.

“Oh, I thought you were in charge of all of the technology for Biddy’s old group,” I said, a bit confused.

“I was. I began working with Biddy years ago helping her to set up video and voice recorders so she could document her ghost hunts. I got into the whole technology side of it, we were one of the first groups to use the Ghost Box. I met Frank Sumption at a paranormal conference back in 2002 and he gave me one of his first ‘Frank’s boxes.’ It completely blew my mind and made me a believer.”

“Is that the thing that scans through radio stations and lets ghosts carry on conversations?” I asked. I’d seen these devices used on Ghost Adventures and while they made for exciting television, I highly doubted they were paranormal walkie talkies.

“Technically speaking, an AM FM portable radio is modified to scan through the AM frequencies,” he explained. “An investigator may ask any spirits present to answer questions and since it is believed that spirit responses travel in the same frequencies of AM stations we’re able to actually receive answers to our questions. In other words, we can hold real conversations with ghosts.”

“Mmm,” I said, impartially.

“I get it, it sounds like junk science until you witness it for yourself. I know Biddy’s told you about Poe, right?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” I replied, jarred at hearing the name of the shadow figure that had trailed Biddy for most of her life.

“I caught Poe’s voice multiple times on the Ghost Box, in multiple locations, on multiple dates. His voice is very, refined. It’s unique, unmistakable, really” Eric insisted.

“I know,” I said, quietly.

“Oh, did Biddy play some of my recordings for you?”

“No I, well I caught his voice, I mean his laughter on the recording of our interview,” I admitted.

“No fucking way,” Eric said, obviously impressed.

“Yeah, his voice was definitely distinct. I can imagine hearing it on the Ghost Box must have been terrifying,” I said.

“Oh, it was, I can play some of the recordings for you if you like,” he offered.

“No thank you,” I said firmly. “But, is that what you wanted to talk about? Digital voice recordings?” I asked.

“No. Sorry I got sidetracked. I didn’t always believe in the paranormal. I loved science fiction as a kid and I’ve always been into technology, so hooking up with Biddy’s team just began as a hobby. Once I realized there was more to it than creaking old houses and faulty electricity, I started to take it seriously.”

“From what Biddy told me you guys had a lot of success hunting ghosts,” I remarked.

“Looking back on it, I think they had success hunting us,” he said. “But it’s not the ghosts I wanted to tell you about,” he took a sip of water before continuing, “You know, I haven’t told many people about this. Biddy’s a good friend, and she told me about your blog so I asked her to put us in touch. I think people need to know about the kids.”

“Kids?” I asked, praying he wasn’t about to go off about the so-called Indigo Children that were all the rage a few years ago.

“Yeah, the first time I saw them I was on a run around the Rockridge Pond Trail right off Cliff Road, do you know it?”

Wellesley was crisscrossed with walking and hiking trails and I’d jogged or walked the dogs on many of them, but I hadn’t heard of Rockridge Pond and I told him so.

“Good,” he said firmly, “Keep it that way. I saw them there first. I’ve thought so many times about that morning. It was a Saturday and I have a usual weekend running route, but for some reason I changed it up that day, it was a last-minute decision to turn off the road. I’ve wondered if they did something to make me turn onto that path. Really, they must have, it felt like a set up.”

“Hold on, who are you talking about?” I asked.

“Right, I don’t want to jump too far ahead, but it was the kids. The Black Eyed Kids, that’s where I saw them for the first time, on that path. Have you heard of them?”

“Mm hmm,” I managed to mumble. I did know about the Black Eyed Children, though I wished that I’d never heard of them. Part of the lore of these Black Eyed Kids is that they will only appear to you if you know about them. So, let me just give you a warning, dear creeped out reader: if you do not want to know about them and test that part of the lore, stop reading now and come back for the next story. Earlier this summer I interviewed a nanny in Nantucket and she had an awesome haunted house story. If you don’t want to tempt fate, skip the rest of this tale.

But for those of you who plan to ride this out, the phenomena of the Black Eyed Children is well documented and pervasive. The first documented encounter appears to be from Brian Bethel in 1998. The journalist’s story spread across the internet after an email detailing his encounter went viral as it was forwarded by friends, friends of friends, and so forth.

As the story goes, Bethel was on his way to pay a bill when he pulled his car over in front of a movie theater to use the light from a street lamp to write a check. Two kids approached his car and knocked on his window. He was immediately filled with intense fear. Not the kind of fleeting fear that occurs when someone startles you, no, he said it was a dread like he’d never felt before.

One kid asked if Bethel would give them a ride to their mother’s house. The boy insisted that “it wouldn’t take long,” they just needed money to see a movie at the theater. “We’re just kids,” the kid insisted before raising his face and showing Bethel his black eyes. No pupils. No irises. Just blackness. Appropriately, Bethel freaked out. The boy continued, “We can’t come in unless you tell us it’s OK.” Like the smartest man in a horror movie, Bethel pealed out of there and looked in the rear view mirror only to see that the two kids had disappeared.

Google “Black Eyed Kids” or “BEK” and you’ll find countless stories of encounters with these beings. I would love to lump these creatures in with tales of the Slenderman or Dogmen. Sure, totally credible sources who have absolutely no reason whatsoever to tell these horrifying stories have reported seeing all of these creatures, but I prefer to believe that it is all fiction because if it isn’t, if there really are Black Eyed Children and packs of Dogmen in the woods, then we simply are not safe. Ever.

And here was Eric. Physically fit, technologically minded, preppy and apparently of sound mind telling me that he’d had an encounter with Black Eyed Kids. Safety is a facade.

“You really have heard of these things?” Eric asked, a bit shocked.

“I’ve read a few stories about them,” I replied. “I know enough about them to know that I never ever want to be anywhere near one.”

Eric looked at the old tree above us for a moment, then said, “Biddy told me you were interested in the paranormal, but, forgive me, you don’t really seem the type.”

“Right back ‘atcha,” I countered with a smile. “You look like you should be golfing.”

“And you look like you should be driving that Suburban parked out front to the local chapter of Oprah’s book club. I’d even bet that you’re the only one who actually read the book,” he shot back with a smirk.

“You got me,” I said laughing, then I grabbed another chocolate and asked, “So what happened?”

“It was last fall and I was out for my run this one Saturday morning. I usually run out to Natick Center then come back and finish with a loop around Lake Waban.”

“That’s far,” I commented. “Are you training for something?”

“Always,” he answered. “Do you run?”

“Not recently,” I replied. Between our recent move and a family trip to Nantucket I’d thrown my back out to an extent that I had never done before. I was literally sleeping on my kitchen floor. It was the hardest, smoothest surface in the house and it allowed me to sleep until about three a.m. each night. I was on serious nerve pills and muscle relaxers. Though I’d been a faithful (slow and awkward) jogger for the past fifteen years or so, I had two marathons under my belt. I used to think of myself as physically able to conquer discomfort. But I had been proven wrong, I hadn’t been able to jog in a couple of months. The pain had been too great.

“A break is good every once in a while,” he replied kindly, sensing there was more to the story.

“Sometimes,” I half-heartedly agreed.

“Well, that morning I decided to change up my route. I planned to run out and back on Cliff Road and then maybe stop at Starbucks before heading home.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“In a neighborhood off Central Street, over near E.A. Davis,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “It was one of those perfect running mornings, you know? A crisp, overcast fall morning with a slight breeze and my legs felt great. It was effortless.”

I just nodded my head, surprised to find myself holding back tears. I really missed running.

Eric continued, “So I’m running out on Cliff Road and I see this trail sign for Rock Ridge Pond. Have you been there?”

I shook my head no, I hadn’t ever even heard of it and told him so.

“Yeah, me neither,” he replied. “I figured I’d take a quick detour and check it out. The leaves had all begun to turn so it was a good day for a trail run.

“The path is rather wide at first, tree-lined and totally covered overhead and then it opens to a small clearing with this random granite table and benches. I remember wishing I had my phone with me. With the fall foliage and the pond in the background it would have made for a spooky photo.

“I stopped for a moment, getting my bearings. There were a few paths I could take. Two looked like they led back into neighborhoods, but a third appeared to skirt the pond so I chose that one. It was narrow, and I was watching my feet as I ran since the ground was covered with rocks and tree roots. The trail has a couple of little wooden walkways to keep you from stepping into muck. I’d just crossed the second walkway and was headed up a short incline when I looked up and saw this little boy sitting on the ground, hunched over next to a cluster of trees. One of his legs was pulled to his chest and the other was straight out.

“It gave me a real start. I actually stopped short and just stared for a minute, trying to catch my breath. I figured that he’d fallen and maybe hurt his leg or something, but there was something off about him. He must have heard me coming, but he didn’t move a muscle. It even crossed my mind for a moment that he might be deaf.

“‘You alright there, buddy?’ I called to him. I was probably about twenty, maybe twenty-five feet away from him. His head tilted to the side a bit and he said something, but he didn’t look up and I couldn’t hear him. Something made me not want to get anywhere near this kid. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was actually terrified. But, like an idiot, I shook the feeling off and convinced myself that it was just a kid and he might need help.”

“Here we go,” I said, wanting him to stop the story right there and talk to me about Ghost Boxes again.

“Yup, here we go,” he agreed, “I took a few steps forward and called to him again, ‘Hey, buddy, what’s up?’ The kid just shook his head back and forth. At this point that twinge of fear I had turned into annoyance. I’d been having an awesome run, why the hell had I turned down this path, you know? I kept walking towards him and the little fucker just sat there stock still.

“I considered turning around but, you know what? I honestly thought that maybe it was one of those television What Would You Do? set ups. Like a camera was going to pop out of the woods and some reporter would accuse me of being a spineless bastard.”

Eric and I laughed at this for a moment and I agreed, “I live in constant fear of undercover investigations. That’s why I always return my grocery cart to the holding pen.”

“Well, if that had been the case then it would have accounted for the way the whole scene just didn’t feelright,” said Eric. “As I got closer to him I noticed his clothes. They weren’t right either. He reminded me of a kid from the 1950s. He looked like he could have fit in on the set of Stand by Me with his white t-shirt, too-short jeans and Chucks.”

“Stop it,” I said, recognizing the outdated clothing as a signature mark of the Black Eyed Kids.

“I know, it was unsettling and confusing. He mumbled something again and I said, ‘Kid, I can’t hear you.Do you need any help?’ I was still walking towards him, and I got within about ten feet of him when another boy steps out from behind the trees.”

“Oh no,” I said quietly.

“Yeah, it startled the hell out of me. I think I said something like, ‘What the hell is this?’ The other kid, the one that came out from behind the tree, said to the ground, ‘Hello, sir. Can we use your phone to call our mom?’”

“No, no, no,” I said, groaning. “Are you for real with this, or are you pulling my leg?”

“No, I’m dead serious. I’ve been to the ParaCon events, I’ve read the stories on CreepyPasta (http://www.creepypasta.com/). The second that kid spoke, I knew exactly what was happening. And if the creepy kid on the ground was Will Wheaton in Stand By Me, then this out-of-the-woods bastard was Kiefer Sutherland.”

“What did you say to him?” I asked. “Or, I mean, did you just turn around and run away?”

“That’s what terrifies me the most about the entire experience. I didn’t react at first. Somehow, I couldn’t. It was as if I were watching it happen to me. The boy on the ground tilted his head up a bit, but I didn’t look at him. I had my eyes on the older one. He looked like he was maybe fourteen. He hadn’t looked up, he was still staring at the ground and said, ‘My brother’s had an accident, sir. I’d like to call our mother. May I please use your phone?’ He reached out one of his hands and then took a step towards me. That snapped me out of my daze. I didn’t want that kid anywhere near me.

“I backed away a couple of steps and held my hands out in front of me. I said that I hadn’t brought my phone on the run but that I’d be happy to jog back to the road and knock on a door so someone could call for help. I don’t know why I was holding up a facade like this was all normal, but something inside told me to play it cool.

“The older kid started shaking his head back and forth slowly then goes, ‘Sir, we won’t be allowed in. Please, let us use your phone.’ All of a sudden it occurred to me that there might be more of them there in the woods. I wanted to turn and look behind me, but I was terrified to take my eyes off those two freak shows.”

“Oh God, I hadn’t even thought of the possibility of more of them,” I said, horrified.

“I’ve spent so much time thinking about that day, about those few moments. Sure, the kids were weird and dressed oddly, but, I mean, the terror I felt is almost indescribable. The evil emanating off those kids, or whatever the hell they were, it was real. My reaction was primal.”

“How did you get out of there?” I demanded, peeling the wrapper off of a chocolate.

“I was backing up slowly and the older boy kept walking towards me, still staring at the ground. I kept my eye on the little one, but he was sitting still. ‘Look guys, it’ll take me ten minutes tops to get back to that neighborhood. I’ll grab some help and be right back,’ I said. Then I was about to turn and sprint the hell out of there when the little one looked up.”

“The eyes,” I said, shaking my head back and forth.

“Those eyes,” he agreed, leaning down to scratch Artie’s back.

“All black?” I asked.

“Yeah, completely. When you read about it, or see those drawings or Photoshopped pictures of the Black Eyed Kids they really look creepy. But, I still haven’t been able to find one that shows what they actually look like. The kid’s entire eyeball was black. He looked like a totally normal teenager, but his eyeballswere black.

“They weren’t shiny, they didn’t have a glow or anything, they were just completely and totally black, like they’d been replaced by dull marbles. I for sure screamed. The older one started walking forward quickly and he looked up too. Same thing, black marble eyes.

“Then he goes, ‘Sir, my brother has had an accident. May we use your phone?’ I just turned and ran. I don’t even remember getting out of the woods, I was back out on Cliff Road sprinting for my life. I ran over the bridge, crossed over Washington Street and ran straight into Maugus. It was the first place I came to that was filled with people and I just ran in the door then bent over with my hands on my knees sucking wind. I’m sure everyone there thought that I was a lunatic.

“A waitress came over and asked if I was alright. I just nodded and took a seat at the counter. I drank two cups of coffee and sat there for maybe, I don’t know, forty-five minutes before I was able to muster the courage to go back outside and run home. Thank God Noah was still there, he usually plays tennis Saturday mornings with a friend of ours, but the woman had cancelled on him.”

“Who’s Noah?” I asked.

“My husband,” Eric replied.

“And what did he think about all of this, I mean, you told him, right?”

“I think he was pretty skeptical of it all, but he could see how freaked out I was. He suggested that I take a shower and then the two of us head back out on Cliff Road to see what we could find,” Eric said and then picked Artie up to sit on his lap.

“Which you certainly refused to do,” I said, firmly.

“Of course! There was no way I was going back out there!” He insisted.

“Have you gone back since?” I asked.

“Hell no,” he said, scratching under Artie’s chin.

“Just to play devil’s advocate, here. Do you think there is any chance that you maybe – “ I began.

“Got punked?” He finished for me.

“Well, yes. I mean, considering your experience in the paranormal and the fact that you knew about these Black Eyed Children, maybe your mind was ready for it and these kids, were like, just playing a sick joke.”

“Yup, by that evening I’d convinced myself of exactly that. I know that was what Noah thought too, and by the next morning we were actually joking about it. He leaves for work early and that morning he left me a little post-it note with a smiley face drawn on it with huge black eyes.”

“Funny,” I commented, smiling.

“He’s a wise-ass,” Eric chuckled. “Over the next week I just convinced myself that it had all been some post-Halloween prank by a couple of asshole kids. I went from feeling embarrassed, to amused, to impressed by how they had managed to pull off the whole creepy scene.”

“So is that what you think it all was? A couple of terrifyingly brilliant pranksters?” I asked.

“No. That’s not what it was, at all. It was two Black Eyed Kids and they locked in on me for some reason and this past year has been a fucking nightmare.”

“Oh no, please don’t tell me these things are real,” I begged.

“Liz, they’re real. It’s all real. I mean, I don’t know about bigfoot or the whole cryptozoology thing, but all the paranormal stuff  you’ve heard of? It’s real and I have seen very few examples of it being positive.”

“Did you see them again” I asked, referring to the kids and ignoring his statement about all things paranormal. I was freaked out enough as it was.

“I saw them two more times,” he replied. “Almost exactly a week after my run, on that following Saturday, Noah and I were headed back from dinner. We pulled onto our street and the headlights flashed on the two kids, just standing in the neighbor’s yard across the street from our house.”

“What in the fuck?” I demanded.

“They were just standing there, staring at the ground. ‘Look at these two kids, what are they doing out so late?’ Noah said, sounding worried. I fucking flipped out. ‘Noah, it’s them!’ I literally screamed, ‘Drive, just drive!’ He didn’t, he pulled into our driveway and cut the engine. I was about to have a fucking panic attack and I told him so. I begged him not to open his door, and he looked at me like I was having some sort of mental breakdown. I suppose I was, but it was for good reason.

“He told me to calm down and just stay in the car. He was going to ‘go have a ‘chat with the youngsters and tell them to scram,’ and yes, he really talks like that. He’s a ninety-year-old trapped in a forty-seven-year-old’s body. At any rate, he opened the door and I clamped down on his arm and pleaded with him to close it and drive away. He wrenched his arm out of my hand and told me to pull myself together.

“He got out of the car and turned to walk across the street to the neighbor’s yard, but he stopped short. I yelled to him, ‘What? What the fuck is it? Are they there? Where are they?’ He just stood there looking up and down the street for a minute then turned to me and said, ‘They’re gone.’”

“Oh, God,” I said. “That is almost worse than if they had just, like, bum-rushed him.”

Eric nodded his head in agreement and said, “It took him a while to convince me that they were actually gone. He kept saying that they must have run back through the neighbor’s yard, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I felt like a paranoid fool, but I knew I hadn’t seen the last of them. The next morning I woke up with my first headache.”

“Oh no, so that part of the lore is true?” I demanded.

“Well, in my case it was, anyways. Not everyone gets sick after they’ve encountered these kids, believe me, I’ve done the research. But I was one of the unlucky ones. The headaches came first. The one that happened after we saw them in our neighbor’s yard lasted for three days. It wasn’t bad enough to stop me from going about my day, but it was ever-present and nothing touched it. I couldn’t get rid of it.

“Noah finally convinced me to go to the doctor that Tuesday afternoon, and she suggested that the migraine was stress induced and gave me a prescription for 800mg Advil. I didn’t bother filling it. I knew it wouldn’t help. And, at any rate, that first headache was gone by the next afternoon.

“Then Noah had a business trip. He had to go to Austin for two nights. He’s an engineer and they have an office down there and – well, nevermind that has nothing to do with anything. Anyhow, he went away for two nights, the Wednesday and Thursday night after we had seen the kids in the neighbor’s yard. He was worried about leaving me alone. He did believe that I’d seen something that frightened me, but I suspect he also believed that I was having some sort of mid-life crisis. He suggested that I reach out to Biddy and tell her what I’d seen, but honestly I was too embarrassed at that point to tell anyone else.

“You know what I thought, really? I wondered if maybe I was losing it a little. I’d been ghost hunting for years and nothing had ever really scared me. Sure, EVPs always gave me the creeps and there were a couple experiences in those abandoned lunatic asylums we’d traveled to for investigations that scared me. But other than that, I was a total bystander. I was the documenter. The recorder of everything. It kept me at arm’s length, know what I mean?”

I knew exactly what he meant, I just nodded my head and sipped my cooling coffee.

“Yeah, well, I bet you do,” he said with small laugh. “Your interviews let you just dip a toe in, huh? I guess I thought that maybe it had all caught up to me and that, after having witnessed so much and filled my head with that darkness, I was sort of, I don’t know, I guess I thought it was some sort of late onset paranoia.”

“Who could blame you for that?” I asked. “The very little that I know about the things that Biddy was able to document terrifies me and you were right there alongside her. I would think something might be wrong with you if you didn’t eventually become a little paranoid.”

“That’s true, I suppose. I wish that had been what was happening to me, that I’d just stuffed all the scares down for years only to have them burst out in a mess of paranoia. But no. The kids were real. The first night Noah was away I was an absolute basket case, I had two extra couple of beers and slept in our guest room because it had only one window and is located at the back of the house. It somehow gave me a sense of safety.

“When I woke up the next morning and nothing had happened, I again thought that I’d indeed had a stress response and some sort of paranoid delusion. That day was normal and so was the evening. Then, I was walking up to bed that night and I was about halfway up the stairs  when behind me I heard someone knocking at the front door.

“I froze. I just stood there, completely still, hoping that I hadn’t heard what I’d heard and if I did that whoever had knocked would just go away. It was about ten o’clock at night. Who the hell would be knocking at our front door?”

“Oh my God, my heart is literally racing right now just hearing this,” I blurted, crinkling another candy wrapper.

“I was in an immediate state of panic hearing that knock at the door. It was overblown and irrational. I knew those fucking kids were out there, I just fucking knew it. I just didn’t know what the hell to do about it. I’d read all the stories, I knew you weren’t supposed to let them in, and of course I wasn’t going to let them in. I needed to get them to stop coming around. I needed to get rid of them. I almost wished for a gun.”

“Oh, shit!” I whispered.

“No, obviously, I would never, I was just cornered and fucking overcome with irrational fear. I waited there for a few moments, who knows how long, it felt like forever, and then the knocking, well more like banging on the front door came again. I almost jumped out of my skin, but at least it startled me out being frozen in fear. I stomped back down the steps and looked out through the peephole.

“There they were. The little one was at the door, the older one was standing about ten feet behind him on our walkway. Both were, of course, staring down at the ground.

“‘Get the fuck off my property!’ I screamed at them through the door. ‘I’ve already called the cops!’ I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s what came out.”

“I would have been rocking in the corner terrified,” I replied.

“Believe me, I wanted to, but once I confirmed that it was actually them out there I didn’t want to take my eyes off of them. What if they tried to break in? What if one of them came around to the back porch? I couldn’t remember if I’d deadbolted the back door.

“Our house is old, we have these two long, thin windows on either side of the front door. After I yelled at the kid I heard him say, ‘Sir, can we come in please? My brother and I must call our mother. She will be very concerned.’

“I know I sound like a complete and total lunatic, but I screamed, ‘Get the fuck out of here, I know what you are.’ At this, he leaned over, looked in one of the side windows and tapped on the glass. I was filled with a terror I have never felt before. I jumped back, but immediately looked out the peephole again. The younger one had stepped back from the window and was still looking at the ground. But the older one, I could just make him out in the front porch light. He was looking up at the door and I could see the light reflected off of his black eyes.

“All of a sudden I was calm, it was like I’d pushed the panic away and knew what I had to do. Loudly, but calmly I said something like, ‘I’m not opening the door for you. I will never let you in. You must leave my property now, you are not welcome here.’ This made the younger one look up at the peephole. He stared at me even though I know he couldn’t see me, but he did, he stared at me for an agonizingly long time and then he turned back to his ‘brother’ or whatever the thing was. The older one nodded his head and the younger one walked towards him, once he’d reached him the older one turned away from the house too and they walked back down the front walkway, took a right at the street and I watched them from our side windows until they were out of sight.”

“But then what?” I demanded. “I mean, it is real then, it’s all real? They found you and came to your house and you saw their eyes again. How did you sleep? What the fuck did you do?”

If I’m being honest here, I was almost outraged at him. I mean, how could he come to my house and tell me that these things were actually real? I’d heard and accepted a lot, trust me. Aliens, ghosts, even those fucking things that Peyton claimed to have in her basement. But Black Eyed Kids? Jesus Christ Almighty. I mean for the love of all that is holy, how could this be?

“I grabbed my car keys and cell phone, sprinted for my car and got the fuck out of there,” he explained, almost defensively. “I called Biddy immediately and told her what was happening and she told me to check into a hotel and she’d come see me first thing in the morning.

“She calmed me down, told me to get some sleep and advised me not to call the police, which I had been considering. They certainly couldn’t help and anyhow, and she pointed out that I wouldn’t want to endanger anyone else by exposing them to those things.”

“Oh no, I hadn’t even thought of that,” I admitted.

“Yeah, me either,” Eric agreed before taking a deep breath. “Biddy showed up the next morning with her psychic friend, Jane, who gave me a reading, which was pretty disheartening. But ultimately it was good to know what I was dealing with and that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. The three of us put together a plan, which included having a priest to the house to perform an exorcism as well as having a medium come to place protections all over the property. Biddy also reached out to a Voodoo practitioner that she knew from New Orleans. The woman came up straight away and performed a ceremony over me and Noah.”

“Whoa, wait a minute, Voodoo?” I said surprised.

“Yes, well, no one is sure what these kids are really, so Biddy thought it best to pull out all the stops. If they are demons, then the priest would get rid of them. Some sort of entity? Then that’s what the medium was for, and the voodoo? Well that was a ‘cover your ass’ move. Once Biddy mentioned to the Voodoo practitioner what we were up against, the woman’s response let her know that we needed all the help we could get.”

“Thank God for Biddy,” I said.

“Amen,” Eric replied.

“But how did it get worse?” I asked. “If all these people worked to protect you, then what got worse?”

“See this scar?” He asked, leaning down so that I could see the top of his head. He looked back up at me and said, “The headaches didn’t go away. The migraines got so bad that I couldn’t leave my bed for days. My doctor ordered an MRI since I’d never had an issue with headaches before, and it showed two bright spots on my brain. Two good-sized dots, like eyes.”

My own eyes instantly filled with tears and I felt sick to my stomach, “Oh, Eric, no,” I managed to say.

“Oh, don’t worry. It was nothing good old-fashioned brain surgery couldn’t take care of. And it wasn’t cancerous, thank God. But if we hadn’t caught it those two bright spots would have eventually done me in.”

“Thank God,” I said, dumbly because I didn’t know what else to say.

“As far as I’m concerned I got off pretty lightly. You’ve read some of the other accounts from people who’ve been chosen by these so-called ‘children,’ right? If I hadn’t known Biddy, if she hadn’t leveraged her network so quickly, then I could have been in for years of health issues. That seems to be their calling card.”

“So, you think you were chosen, that they sought you out specifically?” I asked.

“Definitely,” he said firmly.

“The people that read your blog, they know this stuff is real, right? You’re clear on that?” He asked, looking hard at me.

“I don’t know, really. I think people read it for entertainment. But yeah, I mean, I get emails all the time from people asking if I’m just making these stories up or if I’m actually interviewing people,” I explained.

He nodded his head and put Artie back down on the ground before saying, “I think you need to make itvery clear that not only is this story true, there are stories like it all over the country. There’s a reason the paranormal has become so popular. It’s not just because of all the ghost hunting shows or the internet. Things have been ramping up since the seventies. The only thing that we know for sure is that we have absolutely no idea what the things we call ‘paranormal’ really are.”

“You sound like Biddy,” I commented.

“That’s because we spent years working together trying to figure out what the hell is going on out there and all we have is evidence that there really is something happening and it can be dangerous. You know what happened with her and Poe. These, so-called, Black Eyed Kids found me. Nick Sayre is fucking obsessed with his Ouija board and that shit is going to get him or his family killed, or worse.

“Over the years, the people who we’ve hunted ghosts with have committed suicide, had horrible accidents, suffered from deep depressions, alienated their loved ones, become obsessed with chasing bumps in the night. And yet, can any of them say they’ve ever really accomplished anything or moved the field forward? No. We have EVPs, blobs of light caught on film, the occasional apparition, scratches in sets of three on our backs, personal stories, and a fuck ton of people scurrying around in the dark, every single one of them certain that they will be the one to piece it all together.”

“I guess that about sums it up,” I said. “So we’re just a bunch of assholes chasing this distraction and we’ll never get anywhere.”

“No. We might be a bunch of assholes, sure, but there is something out there that wants us to keep looking and it gives us tiny little breadcrumbs that lead to nowhere. Whatever it’s plan is, whatever it wants, it’s working. There are more people looking into the darkness than ever before.”


I waved to Eric from the doorway and ushered Walter and Artie back inside. I checked my phone and saw that I’d missed a call. Jenn, my old home invasion poltergeist acquaintance had left a message. She’d heard I’d moved to the neighborhood and wanted to drop off an housewarming present. In her message she invited herself over for a coffee and tour of our new home.

I found myself smiling at the idea. It would be nice to do something so normal and neighborly. With everything that had been going on at the house I’d sort of dropped out of my little social scene. I began to call her back when I heard Kat babbling from upstairs, awake from her nap. I’d have to reach out to Jenn later and invite her over, but not until we got back from Nantucket.

We were headed back to the island for a week’s vacation. I was thrilled to get away from real life and onto island time. The house we rented had a washer and dryer, which was good, because I hadn’t done laundry in, I don’t know, two weeks maybe. I just couldn’t make myself go back into the basement. Not after I’d seen that shadow behind the boiler.

Curse of Mesopotamia: Movie Review

curse of - poster

Synopsis:
What do a porn star, ex-soldier, Islamic extremist, quasi-mute and handsome bi-sexual have in common?  Shared demon dreams, of course.
Five strangers – all visiting the same therapist – have the same dream every night: they find themselves in an old castle, being stalked by a pale-faced demon.  Their therapist does some research and finds that the castle exists in Iraq, and she convinces the ragtag group to make the journey.  They do.  At first, the nightmares subside.  And then, eventually, terrible things begin to happen, and they all realize that it was never just a dream.

This story was inspired by the Kurdish legend of Kawa.

Thoughts:
I’m not one for telling people to support a movie just because it’s something new and different.  I don’t care if a movie is being remade for the 4th time: if I liked it, I’ll tell people about it.  I won’t tell people to see a movie solely because it is different: it also has to be good.

Thankfully, this movie is both original and good.

curse of - john and demon

This is the first English-language horror movie shot in Iraq, which gives it a unique style and look, which really helped me to be able to dive into the movie immediately.  There were times when the meager budget shone through, but that never applied to the look of the film.  I absolutely loved the setting.

curse of - group

I was a huge fan of the story as well.  I couldn’t help but think of Nightmare on Elm Street during the dream sequences – die in the dream world, die in the real world – but it was all through a wholly unique lens.  Instead of walking on melted stairs, our characters walk through the very real halls of an ancient castle, stalked by the pale-faced demon advisor in service of a mad king and his brain-eating queen.
If that last sentence didn’t convince you that you need to watch this as soon as possible, I don’t know what will.

curse of - amira eating brains

As we’re slowly drawn into the madness of the dream, we realize that not only can they die in the dream, but the events of the dream can have an effect on present day.  It becomes clear: stop the demon in the past or wake up to find the world changed forever.

curse of - john & veronique

Like I said, this is something a little different from what I’m used to seeing.  It’s probably something different from what the vast majority of people are used to seeing.  Aside from the occasional bout of wooden acting, I can assure you that it is well worth your time.  The story takes a number of twists and turns that all worked extremely well.  I was a HUGE fan of the ending.  I’ll be thinking about some of the scenes in this movie for a very long time.

If you’re looking for something a little different in your horror films, give this a watch.

Rating: 4/5

Curse of Mesopotamia is now available on VOD.  Be sure to check it out.

The Conjuring 2: Movie Review

conjuring 2 - poster

Synopsis:
Based on the Enfield Poltergeist case, one of the more famous hauntings in British history.  An adorable little British family is being haunted by a demon, and one of them is possessed.  Whatever are they to do?  Good thing the Warrens are on the case!

WARREN POWER!
“The power of ED WARREN compels you!”

Thoughts:
I’ll admit to being hesitant about this movie.  I enjoyed the first one a decent amount, but the trailers for this movie looked terrible.  I actually laughed out loud at a couple of points, although maybe that says more about me than the trailer.  “A room full of upside crosses?  HILARIOUS!”  I am not well.

"The little girl is terrified!  Stop! Stop! My sides!"
“The little girl is terrified! Stop! Stop! My sides!”

To my surprise, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit.  Well…I enjoyed about 60% of it.  The story with the Hodgson family was terrific.  The characters were well-drawn and easy to love – the little British boy offering his mom biscuits to help her through a stressful time melted my cold, dead heart – and the haunting/possession stuff was scary.  I cared about that family.  I didn’t like that Janet – sweet Janet – was being possessed by an old man.  You leave Janet alone, Mr. Wilkins.

conjuring 2 - janet possessed
That stuff was great.  The other 40% was filled with the Warrens.  You want me to say it?  Fine, I’ll say it.  It was too much of the Warrens.  And it wasn’t just about the Warrens in general: it was about how great they are.  How true their intentions are.  That Ed, isn’t he great?  He’s the best.  Look at him sing an entire Elvis song to these fatherless children.  Look how handsome and caring he is.  Look at him fix up that house.  “Lemme roll up my sleeves and fix everything in your house while getting rid of a demon.  Save your money: my payment is in a job well done and a demon-free house.”
At one point he says, “There have been cases we’ve turned down; there has never been a family we have refused to help.”  What a guy!  I’m surprised the movie didn’t end with him adopting all of the homeless children in the city.  “Come live with me!  I’ll cook breakfast for you every day in a suit!”

"I see the problem. Your husband left you. Ha! Seriously though, your pipes are all messed up."
“I see the problem. Your husband left you. Ha! Seriously though, your pipes are all messed up.”

I know why they did this: they’re working on a franchise here, and the thing that links all the movies together is the Warrens.  It’s not a bad concept, as every movie gets a totally different case with a totally different family.  So they need us to like and root for the Warrens.  But we don’t need them to be this much in the foreground.

"Ohhhh.  Myyyyyy looooove..."
“Ohhhh. Myyyyyy looooove…”

There were two plots in this movie: we had the Enfield case, but we also had Lorraine seeing a vision of Ed’s death and being scared by it.  So we get a creepy scene of Janet talking to a shadow, then we get Lorraine saying, “I don’t think we should go, Ed.  It’s too dangerous.”  For, like, 20 minutes.  They basically took two movies and smashed them together.  Whenever they showed the family, I loved it.  Whenever they focused on the Warrens, my interest began to wane.

The sweater didn't help anything.
The sweater didn’t help anything.

This movie was two hours and 14 minutes long.  Even then, they had to rush through the third act just to bring the story to its conclusion.  The leaps in logic that took place over the last 15 minutes were astounding.  Lorraine was spouting exposition like a crazy person.  “The demon is this and this and this is how we know this and that and this and DEMONS AND VISIONS.”  They could have cut out 45 minutes of the Warrens and built in some of that exposition naturally, instead of having it shouted at us from the back of a station wagon (I think the license plate on the station wagon was INFODMP).  Or keep it, cut out 45 minutes of the Warrens and have the movie clock in at 90 minutes.  Either one of those options would have been fine.

conjuring 2 - familyWhen I liked this movie, I really liked it.  But there was too much “look how great the Warrens are, I certainly hope Ed doesn’t die,” that really killed the momentum for my liking.  I still recommend watching it, but be prepared to be tossed between two completely different stories for large portions of the movie.

Rating: 3.5/5

conjuring 2 - nunSPOILER ALERT
For most of the movie, Lorraine is terrified of Ed dying.  It’s the drama driving their story.  Meanwhile, if you know anything about the Warrens you know that Ed lived to be 79 years old and died surrounded by his family.  He certainly wasn’t impaled on a tree in Enfield.
END SPOILER

Zila

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.’

Attractive Nuisance

The worn brickwork and exposed pipes adorning Legendary Comics and Coffee’s interior miraculously succeeded in making the long, narrow café feel homey instead of dank and dingy. The atmosphere was equal parts historical renovation and intentional steampunk design. This atmosphere was welcoming to the faithful customers who saw the shop more as a clubhouse than a lair for outsiders; just one of the many triumphs of planning and execution by the owners.

On nights such as this, when the monthly Awesomely Open Mic Nite event was in full swing, the room was stuffed with relaxed patrons sipping coffee. There were some who chose to stand towards the back. Their cluster spilled through the narrow ramped portal that led into the comic shop. Line of sight wasn’t of big importance to this crowd; most of those in attendance would eventually take the stage and very few came to play the role of spectator alone.

The stage was actually a cleared corner near the counter, underneath a framed image of a rampaging Hulk and situated next to a stack of mismatched PA equipment. Hovering above the solitary mic stand and utilitarian bar stool were two small directional lights. These cellophane filtered lamps were clamped to the exposed pipes overhead. The stage lights succeeded in effectively blinding the participant from the crowd’s visual reactions, as well as slow roasting them while they delivered their performance.

Behind the stage was the coffee bar, from which co-owner Wendy directed traffic and concocted java drinks of local renown. Assisted by a gaggle of hardworking baristas, Wendy rolled up her sleeves and made sure every customer left the café with only the highest impression. Seated at her counter was David, another of the shop’s three co-owners and emcee of the various event nights. From his seat of honor, David would play maestro by orchestrating the best order and variety of acts.

As the bodies arrived fashionably late to fill in any people sized holes in the room, the early shift was finishing up their ironic acoustic covers of eighties pop songs and slam poetry. The night was now in full swing, and David couldn’t have been happier. He had lobbied hard for this particular event. His partners were used to indulging his flights of fancy, but after Saturday Morning Cereal Bar and Ye Olde Tyme Pub Trivia Night failed to generate a satisfactory crowd they were hesitant to comply.

To David’s credit, the event was a smash hit from the first night. Open mic nights were nothing new to the city’s coffee shops, bars, and hookah dens but Legendary was the only successful one. One of the contributing factors to the monthly event’s success was a pair of reoccurring shticks that the crowd just adored. That is to say, that the crowd adored almost as much as hearing their own voices through the battered Peavey PA system.

These audience participation routines developed organically, evolving from the same tired routine of troubadours and stand-up comedians that littered the usual open mic. The first bit was a sing-a-long, where co-owner Jason, himself a talented guitarist, would lead a group karaoke session. Originating from a night where Jason’s laryngitis threatened to ruin the three song set he had prepared. Refusing to postpone the debut of his new Les Paul, he roused the crowd to sing for him.

The beauty of this wasn’t in the shared joy of alcohol-free chorus of strangers reading projected lyrics off the brick wall. No, what made these group karaoke sessions so fun was the fact Jason would hand pick sing-able songs from the hallowed halls of college radio, and teach the songs to the crowd. An army of hip strangers would at first stumble together then swell to stadium strength renditions of Celebrated Summer, California Uber Alles, Kiss Me on the Bus, Kiss Off, and Academy Fight Song. Those were undeniable moments of brilliance and brotherhood.

The other act, however, was wholly unique to Legendary. It was so beloved that there were nights where the entire three hours were spent only playing the game, much to the dismay of tortured poets and would-be idols. David had named the game “BS or Boss.” It involved an audience member telling some form of self-centered story, attempting to tell fantastic elements with straight faces or expose an unexpected deep secret.

Once the tale was told, the participant would walk back to their seat, basking in the glorious attention cast upon them and enjoying the tittering whispers. While they sat, David would approach the mic, throw his arms out to the side and yell “who thinks that was BS?” Depending on the audible feedback he would raise one arm like a needle on an analog meter. Satisfied the crowd had said its peace, he would then yell “now who thinks that was boss?”

The appeal of the game was that the participant was never expected to confirm or deny the result. For some it was a chance to practice creative communication. For others it was a cathartic release; bleeding a pressure valve without fear of judgment. For all who played, it resulted in three minutes of sweet notoriety.

On this particular night no one had invoked the “BS or Boss” game yet. The crowd was patiently listening as a young man finished a clumsy rap over a tired Dr. Dre instrumental. They had seen three amateur rappers; remarkable considering it had been a year since the last self-styled fire-spitter had bothered to take the mic. While rarely loved, most in attendance would admit rappers were preferable to the inevitable visits from soggy marijuana legalization proponents, opinionated armchair politicians, and cracked conspiracy theorists.

Eager hands flew into the air as soon as the last thump ended, and David motioned to a spectacled man in a black duster. He was not unknown to the crowd; he was a generally well-liked comic book fan who was a little perturbed that his Fortress of Solitude was hijacked once a month by nonbelievers. He would prepare short sermonettes praising one comic or another, attempting to make converts among the hoi polloi. This week he was selling the virtue of a particularly literary run of She-Hulk comics.

Next up was the first off-kilter appearance of the night. It was no secret that David was a big fan of kitsch, so whenever the crowd offered up an audience member that was more Let’s Make a Deal contestant than artsy hipster, he was quick to whisk them onstage. Tonight’s fruitcake was an enormous man, nearly seven feet tall and built like a nose guard. Unlike most nose guards, he carried a set of bagpipes.

The audience groaned and chuckled in equal measures as he franticly belted out Smoke on the Water, his face as red as a tomato as he struggled to stay oxygenated. The performance was filled with frantic squeaks and squawks, assaulting the audience with the volume. It was indeed a spectacle, but it was far from the most bizarre thing to ever take the stage. In fact, the access to a captive audience and the unspoken acceptance they offered attract strange pilgrims from the fringes of normalcy.

Once there was the kid who modified his Gameboy DS to belt out Kraftwerk-like tunes through a mini Marshall amp. His energetic robotic dancing was an odd contrast to what was effectively a boy standing in front of a crowd playing a handheld video game. On another night there was a woman who put on a one act play about menstruating. It was the closest David had ever come to pulling the plug on a participant for reasons other than violating the 3 minute courtesy limit.

Perhaps none of the outliers could compare to the man who was assumed to be a prop comedian, but in all actuality was having a series of laxative-fueled bowel movements into an enormous costume diaper, which matched his bib, bonnet, and oversized pacifier. It turned out he just liked to have an audience.

David was a showman at heart, and knew when he needed to cleanse the crowd’s palate. Once the bagpipe playing giant had finished, David pointed to a woman with a model’s figure and a metal guitarist’s tattoos. As she made her self-aware catwalk towards the mic, the throng’s respectful millennial males fought the urge to cat-call her, but still managed to grow a little hot under their fedoras.

She grabbed the microphone and the stand like a young Tina Turner; gingerly one finger at a time and with both hands. Not overly tall, she still bent forward seductively to speak into the mic, “BS or Boss.” The crowd exploded in hoots, allowing blessed release for polite men and women interested in more than her coming soliloquy.

“So last summer I decided I would make a conscious effort to cop to adult life,” her intro was met with a few playful boos, “Now, now, boys. I set a deadline for myself, a ‘quit date’ if you will. I decided on my 28th birthday, next May, I would turn over a new leaf.”

She stood upright slowly in a controlled display of sensual yoga. She knew all eyes were on her as she casually smoothed out every wrinkle from the front of her skin-tight Rat Queens shirt with her right hand. She exhaled then momentarily biting the left corner of her lower lip before continuing.

“So I decided to use the coming year to visit every desire and taboo my little heart desires. Here is one particularly unbelievable experience I’ve already had this summer…”

She continued with her steamy tale, and it was moments after she exited the staging area before anyone thought to clap. It wasn’t an impolite delay as much as one born from self-preservation. Around the room, girls and guys shot dagger glances at their significant others for enjoying her tale too much. Thankfully, for those poor souls, David stepped to the microphone.

“Okay everyone! Who thinks that was BS?!”

The seal had been broken and the majority of the next hour treated the crowd to three-minute fantasies. Stories swirled about stolen kisses, experimentation with chemicals of ill repute, and pranks that bordered on first degree vandalism. Over the PA system hearts were opened, relationships were skewered, regrets exposed, and lost opportunities mourned. There was an element of one-upsmanship that existed during BS or Boss, and the recitations’ moods could burden the room with the weight of their tone.

The stories had not followed a particularly dark path but there was a sameness which needed David to moderate. During these times he would call Jason up front to lead a couple songs. Afterwards there would be a short intermission during which patrons would order more of Wendy’s amazing drinks, stand in line for powder room visits, and mingle with the night’s celebrities. Fifteen minutes later, it would all begin anew.

On this particular night the crowd seemed eager in its self-indulgence. One by one they continued to file to the microphone and spill their (potentially fictitious) guts, propelled forward by a palpable sense of permissive encouragement. As ten o’clock arrived there was no sign of crowd dispersal.

Across the partition the lights flicked off as Joe, the manager and resident expert in fictional lore, proceed to close the comic shop for the evening. Someone handed Joe a frosty plastic cup, no doubt a fresh banana crème soda with blue food coloring; a drink Wendy created for his particular taste and known as “the Gleek.”

Joe and a few of the store regulars exchanged fist bumps and friendly words before he pulled the accordion-style gate shut. Those standing on the ramp between were forced back into the coffee shop proper, which filled in gaps by the few bodies that had left, creating once again a shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy. Now that passage between the two entities was blocked, the room felt cozier, even a little claustrophobic in its overpopulation.

David, with no impetus to chase everyone home, allowed the night to continue. The crowd was determined to take turns until each soul present had shared. This continued for well an hour past the scheduled end, it seemed like the raw materials of tale-telling were finally exhausted. David cleared his throat to chase off hoarseness for one last benediction before ending.

“Excuse me, David? Do you have patience for one more?”

From the back of the room, the timbre of a man’s voice halted everyone mid thought. Perfectly plain and otherwise unremarkable compared to the sea of vintage dresses and impressive beards, a man stood at the rear of the crowd patiently awaiting David’s reply.

The man was personally unknown to David but something about him made the emcee hesitate. As he searched his memory, he realized the man looked quite familiar. He had never spoken to him and he had never taken the mic, but he had been present in the past. The more he thought about it, the more he recalled seeing the average-looking man. Something within him nagged caution, but the inner showman saw a potential opportunity for spectacle.

“Well, loyal Legendary Legionnaires, you are in for a treat! History is about to be made! Come on up, mysterious stranger!” The crowd politely ceased preparing to leave as David waved the man to the stage.

Buffeted by a playful of deltoid punches and back slaps, the man slithered through the crowd. As he stepped beneath the lights, he exuded a dark charisma that vexed the audience from front to back. As the slow wave of hushed curiosity rolled over the gathering, the man surveyed the crowd. There was a quiet moment spent meeting glances with a smile and mischievous glimmer in his eyes.

The room was pregnant with expectation. He soaked in their anticipation, relishing the power of holding a group’s undivided attention. Goosebumps were raised among the excited crowd as the temperature slowly dropped, and the lights dimmed. The man began to speak.

“Good evening, fellow narcissists. BS or Boss?”

The audience exploded, the uproar shaking the framed original comic art that hung along the walls. Impressed with their own spectacle, the applause lasted several beats longer than reasonable. The man motioned with his hands to bring it down.

“My name is Bezaliel, Bez for short. And… well, I am the devil.”

The group’s giggles were punctuated by a singular outburst of “Bullshit!” which brought with it outright laughter. David scrambled to a low bookcase holding used trade paperbacks and discounted Elementals shot glasses to produce a long, pump-action water gun. The crowd cheered with approval as David doused the disruptive patron. It was David’s night; there are rules to follow and there will be order.

Over Bez’s head soared a white towel, knotted at one end to help it fly; a peace offering from Wendy to the moistened customer. David rolled his cupped right hand as he bowed, signaling apology and permission to continue.

“That is to say, I am a devil. One of many, wandering among you daily; helping to nudge and bait you into all sorts of fun. Or, as the guy who lives on the floor above me calls it,” he said as he pointed to the ceiling for exaggerated comedic effect, ‘sin.’

“You see, that’s just it. There’s no shortage of sin, err, I mean fun being had. To the contrary, fun is enjoying an epochal peak in popularity!” he paused to receive a round of celebratory whoops and whistles.

“The problem is this; you people are doing it all wrong. Fun works best when its complicated; when there are questions, delusions, shame, betrayals… oh to Hell with it, I’ll just say it. Sin is supposed to have variety. Spice of life and all that, no?

“All of you have mastered vanity. I mean, you’ve really made an art of it. You have found ways to innovate and codify it into something so pure that it diminishes all other fun occurring in its vicinity. No matter what monkey business arises, it somehow circles around until it unmistakably points right back to you.

“There’s no secretive desperation, no fear of being caught. It’s just out there, displayed for all to see on a new technological platform every year. You use it as a beacon then dare others to judge you. You know that old trope of a kid finding out that his mother used to be a real hell-raiser when her overly-chatty filterless college roommate visits? Dead. Lost to the ages. Because impressionable little Suzie has wi-fi access and as you all know, the internet is forever. At any time she can piece together ‘the descent of Mom.’”

His tone was both sweet and salty; a mix of observational comedy and outright judgmental mockery. The laughter offered up by the audience was real, but a good portion of it was nervous. Bez continued to smile, shyly blinking if caught in someone’s stare to let them off the hook. Inside he was savoring their unease; using it as a barometer to pace his act.

Bez continued, “And it doesn’t stop there, because as my nosey neighbor,” again pointing upwards, “would agree, I love pride and ego as much as anyone. The problem is that you find a way to carry this vanity into every aspect of life.

“Everything for you is personal. As in ‘regarding only to one’s self.’ You have coffee in tiny selfish cups that brew just enough for you. We have miraculous technological devices that you demand be shrunk and customizable. You can’t even be troubled to hear the same music as other people; you make personal playlists that you carry with you, forever available in the cloud, and shot directly into your precious eardrums for only you to smugly enjoy. Radio stations are dead and DJ’s are no longer beloved public personalities and tastemakers, but fashion conscious attention whores.

“Communication advancements have become more and more one-sided; technological bullhorns for you to tell the world what you think at all times about anything. You even take pictures of your goddamned food! Oops, sorry,” he covered his mouth in mock embarrassment as he motioned to the ceiling with a dismissive thumb.

“Even your hobbies are vain. You curate and collect artifacts of some art form or another, and pile them in a manicured museum that no one will ever see. You jealously correct people who misspeak or show ignorance to your pursuit; not because your heart is serves that flavor of mammon but because you want to show how damn smart you are.

“Your sin is DULL, people, and it is bumming me out. I mean like, whoa.”

The last line was just enough to let the squirming crowd off the hook, drawing some chuckles. Many were starting to feel lectured, and many were already several Tweets in to complaining about the “judgmental loudmouth comedian at the coffee shop.” It was dangerous comedy to some, verging on spoiling what was previously a fantastic night.

“Can we talk about your tattoos? I love tattoos. Nothing upsets my upstairs neighbor more than people who can’t leave their bodies well enough alone. I, however, delight in it. Body modifications are so much fun! They are like a spitball shot into the eye of creation. You’re wresting the steering wheel away from the driver, veering the bus from the pre-planned route, and enjoying your own trip. Glorious rebellion!

“Ah yes, tattoos. The middle finger to community standards, open disdain for those that look only at book covers, and a statement that the stock model of human is inferior and generic. They are anarchic on a metaphysical level, really. Tattoos used to break harmony, encourage others to judge, and often were in and of themselves offensive and rude. Oh, tattoos… now there was something that paid sin forward!

“But look at what’s on you. Most of you might as well tattoo the words “look at me” or “I dare you to” across your foreheads. Or better yet, tattoo a chip on your shoulder. Hey, no one could knock it off! But guess what, no one would bother to try. It’s not there for them, it’s for you. You, you, you, you!”

Bez mimicked wiping sweat from his forehead although none was present. He seemed undeterred by the lights above. The room was silent this time, hanging on his every word; reserving the right to decide if they were offended based upon what he said next. No one wanted to cry foul, least of all Jason who seemed to be truly enjoying Bez’s rant.

“You’ve taken the joy from sin, that’s all I am saying. Instead of a nation of sinners living fast and loose, we’ve filtered our insubordination. Everything is out in the open, and we nod at one another’s admissions. Thousands of individuals living without the threat of chaos or surprise. That needs to change. It needs to change because, like you, I care greatly about me. And I refuse to be bored at my job until a generation arises that once again appreciates true fun.

“So here’s what I’ve been doing; I decided to be the change I wanted to see, and I chose this particular city. Because, as you know, it’s better to keep business local and small. I’ve been attending in relative anonymity from the very beginning of this little braggers’ support group. And, I have kept close notes. I have cracked the code and without a doubt,  I can say that I have truly discerned the BS from the Boss.”

Awesomely Open Mic Nite regulars turned to look at one another. They wondered questioned each other silently if this man had indeed been present at past recitations, secretly taking notes. Emotions swelled within the room as many wished the act would stop. A few grew preemptively angry or embarrassed.

“Now I’m feeling it! There’s that shame; that desire to hide our pleasures behind a facade! Good job! See? You are all still redeemable. But not today. It’s too little too late. We are so doing this.”

David slyly reached over and pulled the microphone’s XLR plug from the amp. Many in the crowd saw David’s ruse, and sighed in relief, which he answered with a finger pressed to his lips. Seemingly oblivious to the cloak and dagger operations happening behind him, Bez scanned the crowd with an accusatory finger.

Not a soul in the room expected his voice to come through loud and clear without the PA’s assistance, “You people make attractive nuisances of yourselves. Your lives are stuck in attract mode. Well, I’m stepping up to play. Let’s have some fun, shall we?”

He gave the crowd a sneer that chilled them to the bone. A few indignant patrons stood to leave. Bez waved towards the door with a sharp flick of his wrist. Those trying to retire early found that the door would not budge. After a few tried to muscle the door free from its latch, it became obvious that no one was going anywhere. This was amplified when Bez motioned his pointed finger downward, buckling the knees of all who were standing. It was then that panic visited the hearts of all present at Legendary Comics and Coffee. Bez pointed again into the audience, this time singling out a beautiful redheaded girl near the front.

“Miss Megan,” he hissed, “No, not you in the back, this other girl named Megan. You said that you had eight one-hundred dollar bills hidden under your mattress, saved away for an emergency plane ticket. To jump the moment your beloved ex Patrick called and wanted you back. You said that your fiancé James might have a problem with this, so it’s just a secret among all of us here. Is all of right?

The “other girl named Megan” blanched and weakly nodded her quivering chin as Bez continued, “Well I am happy to report that her story was indeed Boss.”

Bez held his arms out motioning for applause. Only a few reports of half-hearted claps sounded, which Bez dismissed them with a gesture, “Don’t tell me that all of you figured this out already? Well, I can confirm that there is a Patrick. There is a James. And there is indeed eight-hundred dollars under her queen-sized Serta mattress at 1805 Vine Street! And, right now there is an anonymous text to James with directions to the money and Patrick’s phone number.”

This declaration was received only by a few involuntary laughs which were immediately shamed silent by those who rightly assumed that Bez was not joking. Then the harsh rumble of Megan’s phone thrashing about in vibrate mode drew audible gasps. In Megan’s case it drew tears. She politely pressed to silence the notification that “Bae James” was calling, and flipped the phone face down. She shot a wet look of betrayal at Bez, who shrugged.

“Where was I? Let’s keep the theme of love. Here we are. You. Pete,” Bez’s attention was unwelcome to the man shaking his head.

“Be a sport, will you? It’s all a game! Remember Nora? That sweet, red-headed girl that is never far from your mind? Nora, who you work with every day? The one you have the most detailed and well-recollected dreams about? I believe that you admitted here, publically, it’s only lust, but that it is a lust so pure and intense that you fear that if you ever befriended her that you’d be overcome by it?

“You stood here in February of last year and told us that any relationship that you’d pursue with her would be passionate and tantric, but in the end only serve as an opportunity to experience your twisted erotic fantasies. After which, you’d surely leave her, breaking her heart and stealing her trust in all mankind, right? Actually, for a while there I was really pulling for you!

“Well, it was nice that you restrained. Not so much because it’s noble of you to rather live in desperate self-denial than break her heart, but because… You see, audience, it’s complicated. In a way Pete fed you BS, and was totally Boss. There is a Nora, but she doesn’t work with him. She’s his supervisor’s daughter. Here name is really Chelsea, and she’s sixteen years old.

“A little lie with a lot of truth; I love your style, brother! So much so that I wrote your act down word-for-word and emailed it to Chelsea, but accidentally sent it to her dad’s account. Oops! I bet your face is red! If it isn’t, it may be when you realize I attached a few choice snapshots to the email. While not really your penis, it is indiscernible enough that you’d never be able to convince an angry father differently! Or a jury of your peers…”

Bez was laughing now, but no one else joined him. Jason tried to rise from his chair, intending to physically remove Bez. Without even turning to look, Bez made a flicking motion with his fingers in Jason’s direction, causing some unknown force to cement him where he sat and silence his angry protest. David too was frozen, stuck in a perpetual casual lean.

As Jason continued to struggle against being contained, Wendy had stepped into the kitchen to call the police. The phone did not yield the expected dial tone, but instead carried the voice of Bez directly into her ears. She dropped the receiver and retrieved the billy club she kept for emergencies. As she started her stormy return to the bar, meeting a solid invisible wall in the doorway. In frustration she lashed out with the club; each of the flurry of blows was stopped cold. Sharp spikes of concussive pain shot up her forearm, illustrating the futility of her attempt.

It was a strange tableau to behold; an angry man struggling in futility to stand and next to him a worried man lounging in a carefree manner. Wendy was trapped in the kitchen, pacing like a caged tiger, wishing for a chance to rumble with this intruder. The three of them had worked unceasingly to create a community rather than a business, so it was cruel and unusual punishment for them to watch this stranger attack their customers.

Out in the café the room continued to grow colder, and the people within began to shiver. These involuntary quakes were aggravated by the adrenaline pumping through their bodies. Many had tried to lean their bodies or scoot their chairs out of Bez’s direct line of sight. Bez smiled as watched them squirm, now noticeably taller and broader than when he meekly approached the stage.

“How about you, Miss Phuong? Are you here tonight?” Bez held his hand over his brow and pretended to search the horizon, “I hope so, because I especially loved your moving confession. You said your grandmother’s dementia had become a tremendous burden on your family and that while you love and cherish her, she is ruining your social life. So much so, in fact, that there are times that you catch yourself wishing she was dead. Guess what? Boss! And as of 4 minutes ago, your wish came true!”

Even over Megan’s continued sobs you could hear the sound of a twenty-year-old Vietnamese woman hit the ground. No one moved to help her, lest they drew attention to themselves and became Bez’s next target.

“How about nasty ol’ Rhonda? Is that you back there in your Wizard of Gore shirt? I remember you for the nasty things you said you’d do to your ‘unnamed internet rival’ if you were ever in the same room. Would you really carry out all of those violent things to that woman? The one that used to work for your little publishing house, but left to find success and adoration while you became a glorified blogger?

“You are such a meaty stew of self-destructive personality disorders that it was hard for me to figure out if you were telling us the truth or not. You shocked us all for sure, and felt pretty good about it. However, unlike you, I have a pretty good handle of what is real and what isn’t. It’s all about vantage points, my dear, and from where I stand your story is pure BS.

“Instead of the unhinged dirtball you costume yourself in, you are really just an insanely jealous underachiever. Her success angered you, but mostly because you were more devastated about the loss of what may have been your first actual friend. You’d never had a girlfriend. Well, you’ve had girlfriends but not a Thelma and Louise kind of girlfriend. She was going to be your first dear friend, the one you let within your grody walls. The closeness you fantasized about never materialized, and never would have truthfully. Guess what? Goodbye mean-girl clout in the indie music scene and hello restraining order!

“Everyone be sure to surf to Rhonda’s site tonight. The latest post is tender and heartwarming. A real baring of her soul; and so brave of her to admit that all she has ever written was stolen from or inspired by her number one girl crush! And the self-depreciating humor and destructive behavior? All an attempt to get her true love’s attention. Awwwww, how precious.

“Look at her you guys. I know she looks hurt but it’s okay, not many people read her site. Well, until tonight. Anyone in the United States searching for music, porn, movies, weather, or directions are going to experience the same glitch that leads their browser to her page. Don’t worry, the browsers will only freeze long enough for the first two or three paragraphs to be read. I’m not some malicious hacker. Those guys are evil.”

The gloves were off. Bez continued his assault. Workplace embezzlements and diversions were exposed, even if they were false. A young Romeo worried about how his family would receive a Juliet of another race was assured that it would be best to not pursue love; primarily because racist epithets would be appearing in both current and retrospective feeds of his online accounts.

“So, as you see, it’s really for the best that you never let her know how much you love her.”

A self-avowed straight man had shared his lingering curiosity of what being with a man would be like. It was a common act on Awesomely Open Mic Nite, but Bez called out one man in particular for his revelation.

“Boss, Steve! And the homophobic college boys in the frat you are rushing have been notified to not let their guard down. See, honesty is the best policy; I’ve helped you maintain your heterosexuality. You’re welcome.”

“While we are on the topic, how about Greg? You feel weird around your homosexual brother because you are deathly afraid of AIDS? How ironic. Remember that girl from your macroeconomics class? All I am saying is get HIV tested soon. And it wouldn’t kill you to give her a call afterwards.”

On and on it went, Bez meticulously eviscerating anyone who had ever stepped behind the microphone and hoped to draw a moment’s attention to themselves through their staged admissions and flash fictions.

“Bradley. You secretly loathe your girlfriend for her immaturity? You’re regretful that you tried so hard to keep that high school flame lit well into your twenties? You’re so sweet that can’t bring yourself to break up with her because you know she has no ambition and no future without you. Wow, that’s awkward now that she’s pregnant!”

“Diane likes to fantasize that she has inoperable cancer. She likes to picture herself handling it publicly and nobly to the respect and love of all who hear her brave story. Those fantasies of admiration and inspiration may no longer just exist in your mind, Diane. Get that pancreas looked at. It’s rarer in women, you know. It’ll be all the more tragic and high profile. Congrats, you are finally a human interest celebrity!”

“LeRoy’s story was not only BS but was a desperate attempt at a cover story! He doesn’t wander graveyards because he can sometimes hear whispers of the dead. He hides behind tombstones and masturbates while watching mourners from afar!”

“Single mom Annie, crushed by the burden of raising twin boys she had too young. Forced to grow up and miss the experiences of the usual American college girl as she sacrificed and raised two kids alone. Shunned from her family and abandoned by the deadbeat dad, Annie hates that she resents the little tykes in her darker moments.

“In her heart she’s still a great mother though, you guys. On nights like tonight, when she lines up a sitter, she feels guilt for having fun. As she should! The sitter she hired tonight snuck a boy in, and let’s just say no one was minding the till. The boys went outside to play several hours ago and no one even knows where they are! Spoiler alert: a nice man in a van was tipped off to pick them up. Oh, you guys, don’t look so sickened. It was okay. Their mom told him to pick them up. Hahahahahahaha!”

Bez was lost in a maniacal guffaw as the entire room squirmed and cried out tearful requests for him to stop. He heard them all, each and every tortured request to end his terrorism. He fed off them, drew their raw terror to himself and fed upon it.

“It’s funny, April. It might finally be easier to move to Denver. You’ll be happy roaming the mountains now that your house here in town has burnt down!”

“It was BS that you secretly hate pharmacy school now that you are in your final year, Juan. What did you say you wish you had done? Acting? Well, act surprised when you show up tomorrow and face charges of academic misconduct and falsification spanning all the way back to your admission application!”

“Kirk, it was BS when you said that the only reason you are so obsessed with your skin, spending so much money on product and time on care, was because you are deathly afraid of getting old. But I have good news; you won’t live to see a single wrinkle or liver spot!”

“Don’t worry about that suicidal friend of yours, Mandy. The one who you are pretty sure has only stayed alive because of your 24-7 availability to her and the long nights of listening to her depressed ramblings? She is indirectly costing you friends and hurting your performance at work, no? What has it been now, four months since her breakup? Well, it’s time to call ‘Boss’ and let you in on a secret that is equally boss; tonight she has become aware that you have unfriended and blocked her, and changed your phone number!”

The air in the coffee shop was now so chilly that frost was forming on the inside of the picture windows that flanked the locked door. The helpless congregation huddled inside their folded arms and rubbed briskly at their skin. Small puffs of visible breath rose to the ceiling only to dissipate as if they never existed.

“Your secret desire has always been to see a horrific car wreck? Boss! And you will! Double boss! I’ll save the surprise for who will be in the car for you. I’m no monster after all!”

“That’s noble that you have been cheerfully loyal since your wife had her accident, and it really tugs at the heartstrings the way you have been such a noble martyr when it comes to forced celibacy; what with you rather live without sex than live a life without the woman you truly love. All women should be so lucky to find a man like you. And so lucky to find out how much you are spending on escorts and ‘massages.’”

“You really aren’t tired of the noisy girls that live in the apartment next door. BS bro. But they may want to move when they realize you’ve strung a spy camera through the adjoining wall, loading your hard drive with video of them in the bathroom. So weird, really. But who am I to judge? After all, it worked for Chuck Berry!”

In rapid fire succession Bez continued to detail the secret lives of all in the room, and added new twists endings to them all. Some among the crowd started to drop off; unconscious or dead, no one could tell. All eyes were trained forward and all minds saying silent prayers to whatever was listening to deliver them from this nightmare. The problem with these calls for rescue is that they were all rerouted to Bez, who grew in stature and power as each soul surrendered hope. Guilt, shame, fear, sadness, covetousness, murderous intent, lust… the colors of sin began to separate again and reveal themselves through the prism of Bez’s words.

The laughter continued as Bez enjoyed his handiwork, now nearly tall enough to strike his forehead on the stage lights. He spread his arms out in a sign of triumph; his hands started to look like movie-monster claws, and his face elongated and protruded into a bestial snout. His eyes turned ruby red and he roared until the walls shook violently. Comics fell from shelves, coffee cups tumbled and shattered, and chunks of ceiling fell from above.

One by one the lights exploded, plunging Legendary Comics and Coffee into a frozen darkness followed by complete and utter silence. No one moved, even though their faculties were now completely restored to them. They sat together; some of them crying, some praying, others murmuring, but none of them acknowledging one another.

When daylight broke, the sun’s rays intruded through the frosted windows. The door flew open under its own power, and one by one the moribund crowd stood and filed out alone into an uncertain world. Meeting them outside the café’s door was a message written across the sidewalk in what appeared to be blood. It read, “See you next month?”