I’ve been sitting on this story for a while now. Jill called me in late July to unloaded it and I’d decided to bury it out of fear and spite, but in the process of clearing out my own demons, I came to realize that secrets are really dangerous.
We had to do some soul cleansing in preparation for the exorcism of our home. Demons thrive on shame and worry – the nasty byproducts of secrets, among other things – and our priest advised us to come clean.
I have your pretty run-of-the-mill secrets. Occasionally, I don’t return the grocery cart to the holding pen, I just leave it in the parking lot. I pick my nose in the car. Sometimes I fantasize about running away to begin a new life, alone, waitressing in Colorado. I wet my pants quite frequently while walking the dogs or getting the kids out of the car, and it’s not the uh oh! I was laughing too hard and a little pee came out kind of wetting my pants. No, I’ve ruined two pairs of Uggs. The flat tire on Chris’s car didn’t just happen out of nowhere, I hit that curb pretty damn hard. I’ve had Botox three times and I’ll keep getting it until the relentless aging process calls for bigger guns. Sometimes I nap while the kids are at school instead of doing housework. I’m a gossip. I’m an angry mom. You can all attest to the fact that I use the Lord’s name in vain and I swear relentlessly. Oh, and I’ve never seen Top Gun, though I lie and tell people that I have if the subject comes up. It’s just too annoying to listen to people’s incredulousness and insistence that I simply must see it.
There is my list of relatively harmless little deceptions and white lies, but, as the preacher says, “lies aren’t color coded in the bible.”
Our exorcist insisted that bringing hidden things, no matter how insignificant they may seem, into the light would snatch them back from demons and drain their negative power. The technical term for all you Catholics out there is confession, and it was supes fun to tell the priest all my little offenses. But I had this one nagging secret that I’d kept for a while.
I didn’t think it was my sin to confess. It was a secret that I’d been holding for someone else and as I aired my own dirty laundry, I realized that that someone had put me in the role as confessor. A role that I had absolutely no right to and one that had put my soul in grave danger.
When Jill called me in late July and asked me to meet her for coffee about thirty minutes away in Newton, I tried as politely as I could to make excuses. After I’d listened to her and her besties tell me their ghost story I’d never wanted to see any of them again, let alone catch up over coffee. Of course, I’d seen the three women around town a few times, from afar in Whole Foods or driving by in their souped-up SUVs on Washington Street. That was as close I ever wanted to get to those witches again.
And I use that word respectfully. Those women conjured their dead friend and used her spirit like she was a genie. I didn’t believe that was the only dabbling they’d done in the dark arts. I simply couldn’t believe they could be that successful with such a powerful spell out of the gate and then just give up magic for good.
Hillary, Jill and Vanessa frightened me, and after I’d had some time to process their tale, I began to fear they would regret telling me their ghost story. To begin with, the story itself didn’t add up. What if they noted my obvious suspicion and realized what a mistake it had been to share it with me?
Hillary, Jill and Vanessa’s story of the drowning of their friend Claire on Morses Pond is Ghosts in the Burbs story number eight, If You Go Out In The Woods Today on the blog and podcast. Go back and listen if you haven’t heard it yet and ask yourself if their story sounds genuine.
I did just that before I met with Jill. I wanted to refresh my memory. It made the truth, or at least what Jill claims to be the truth, all the more chilling.
When she reached out to me this summer it was right around the time that I’d hit rock bottom with my back. It was the days of only sleeping until about one o’clock in the morning before I had to get up and pace downstairs until morning. I was highly medicated and beginning to notice strange tapping noises in our home. I was in no shape to take on Jill’s stress.
She left me three messages and texted several times before I got back to her. I tried to beg off, but she was insistent. She said it was a matter of “life and death.”
I didn’t have one ounce of patience for melodrama, but she sounded so desperate that I agreed to meet her.
Jill thanked me over and over in a text and insisted that we meet in Newton. She didn’t want to risk being seen together.
“Whatever,” I texted back, to exhausted to argue.
“You look great,” Jill said as we sat down at the sticky, crumb-covered high top table. “Are you doing Paleo?”
I laughed, “No, it’s just nerves.”
“Well, they look good on you,” she replied pushing Tory Burch sunglasses to the top of her head. “I’m a nervous eater, I just stuff my face with carbs. It’s why I’m up seven pounds.”
“Oh, shush,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Well, I mean, I really can’t gain weight unless I try super hard. It was one of the things we asked for in the conjure. But, that’s sort of why I asked to meet you here.”
“Jill,” I grumbled, “I told you on the phone that I can’t deal with anyone’s ghost story right now. I’ve got my own stuff, I -”
“You’re the only one who I can tell,” Jill pleaded. “Please, just listen.”
“Fine,” I said taking a sip of weak, lukewarm Dunkin Donuts coffee. “What’s the problem?”
Jill leaned forward, her flawless skin glowing under the harsh fluorescent lights, “The story we told you wasn’t one hundred percent true.”
“No shit,” I replied.
“So you did know,” she declared, slapping a hand lightly on the table top.
“Yes,” I said simply, shifting in my seat. My back alternated between a dull throbbing and sharp pains that travelled down my left leg. In no mood to drag the story out of her, I’d listen as she’d asked me to, but I wasn’t up for an interview.
“Vanessa said you didn’t buy it, but Hillary insisted we were fine. When we told you about Claire and, like, what we’d done, we thought maybe it would make things settle down.”
“Did it?” I asked.
“No,” she replied shaking her head. “But we hoped it might help.”
“Why did you think telling me your ghost story would help things?”
“Confession is supposed to help,” she explained.
“Only if you confess everything,” I said quietly.
“Right, and that’s why it didn’t work,” Jill said nodding her head.
Her doe-eyed, innocent look grated on me. Whereas Hillary was the quintessential Queen Bee and Vanessa an unapologetic bitch on wheels, Jill’s innocent front offended me the most. She was the girl in the power group in high school who would be kind to you in gym class but giggle and whisper along with the other mean girls as you passed their lunch table. Her sticky sweet act made her the most dangerous; you’d never see the knife coming.
“Ok, so we didn’t exactly tell you everything that happened the night Claire died,” she acknowledged.
“What were you all smoking pot in the woods that night or something?” I said getting increasingly uncomfortable.
“It wasn’t drugs,” Jill said quietly.
“Ok, well, I don’t understand why I’m the one that has to hear this,” I complained.
“She’s getting worse. Besides the three of us you know the most, our husbands don’t even know what we did after she died. I have to try and see if this will work.”
“Jill, I don’t want to know, if you need to confess go to a priest,” I said about to get up.
“Liz, please, she won’t let me,” Jill pleaded. “Besides, you already know too much. It will be safer for you if you know everything.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, Jill. What did you guys do to her?”
“It really was an accident, really! We didn’t kill her on purpose – “
“Stop,” I demanded, panicking. “Please, don’t tell me any more.”
“I have to, you already know too much and I think she might come to you for help or, maybe use you to get to us.”
“Fuck,” I said, both resigned to my fate and grossly curious as to what had actually happened that night in the woods.
Jill took a sip of coffee (two Splendas and skim milk) and began her story.
“At the beginning of that summer we’d set up a little bonfire spot in the woods. It was hidden away in this valley, near a stream. We had a couple of cases of beer with us that night and were drinking around the fire the way we had done a million times that summer.
“Vanessa started to head back into the woods with Philip to make out, but Claire stood up and said that we needed to get going or we were going to miss curfew. We were supposed to be home by eight-thirty.
“Vanessa was drunk, and she told Claire to relax and stop being such a goody two shoes. Claire snapped back at Vanessa and told her to stop being such a bitch,” Jill paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “So Vanessa stomped over to Claire saying something like ‘What did you call me you little priss’ and then she shoved her.
“It was like it happened in slow-motion. We all watched as Claire lost her balance and fell backwards, she landed hard and hit the back of her head on a rock. And then she had, like, a seizure or something. Her whole body was writhing around on the ground and her arms and legs were flopping around. It was awful.
“Chris jumped up and pulled Claire onto his lap, she flopped around for a bit more and then went still. He got hysterical. He screamed her name over and over and then he started screaming at Vanessa. ‘What did you do? You stupid bitch! Look what you did to her!’
“Hillary had knelt down beside him to feel Claire’s wrist and Frank stood over her watching. All the while Philip began screaming back at Chris and Vanessa was yelling right along with them. John, my husband, walked over to Philip and put his hand on his chest to stop him from attacking Chris.
“Finally Hillary screamed louder than everyone else. She told us all to shut up so she could concentrate. She bent down to check Claire’s pulse again and she told us she couldn’t feel anything. Claire was dead.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” I lamented.
Jill nodded her head and pressed on with the nightmare, “We all just stood there silent, watching Chris as he rocked back and forth holding Claire on his lap. They’d been together since we were in, like, sixth grade, you know? He was really her best friend.
“Anyway, I don’t know who spoke first, but I think John said he’d walk through the trails to a neighborhood and call the police. That started a whole new round of yelling. Philip had stolen the beer from his parents house and they would have kill him if they found out. Vanessa started freaking out because she had pushed Claire and even though she hadn’t meant to, she had killed her.
“Finally, Hillary broke through all the yelling, ‘Shut the fuck up so I can think!’ She screamed at us. We all shut up, hoping that she would take control. She did. She told us exactly what to do, and we did it. Chris didn’t want to, but Hillary finally convinced him that it was the only way.
“We each chugged another beer because part of our alibi was being too drunk to notice that Claire wasn’t with us. Hillary insisted the beer was an extra precaution in case we were breathalyzed. She poured a beer on the rock where Claire’d hit her head, to wash away the blood. Then she had us wait about fifteen or so minutes until it was dark out then Philip, John and Frank carried Claire’s body to the boat and as we were pulling away they tossed her out of the back to make it look like she’d hit her head on the dock.”
“Oh my God, Hillary is a sociopath,” I said.
“You have no idea,” Jill replied.
“What about Chris, how did he go along with this?” I demanded in disbelief.
“Frank and Philip talked him through it. Along with Hillary they convinced him that it wasn’t worth the trouble we would all get into if we told the truth. Claire was dead, why should anyone else’s life be ruined?”
“Said every teenager in a made for T.V. movie,” I remarked sarcastically then stood up. Jill looked up nervously and asked if I was going to leave.
“No,” I said, leaning my elbows on the table. “It’s my back, I can’t stay in one position for too long. It’s nothing.”
“You should do yoga,” Jill said knowingly, “It’ll really loosen you up.”
“I’ll have to look into that,” I said. “Anyway, how the hell did you get the police and everyone to believe you? I mean, I could tell you were all hiding something when you all told me the story.”
“They believed what they wanted too,” Jill said sadly. “It was strange. It was almost like it was supposed to happen the way it did. Like we didn’t have any choice but to follow Hillary’s lead. And it worked. She saved all of us from a mountain of trouble.”
“It does seem too perfect, how could seven teenagers keep a secret like that?” I asked, “Especially if they were drunk.”
Jill just looked at me and shook her head. Something bubbled up in the back of my mind. A little detail that the women had told me that night back in the fall.
“Hillary said she got that book, the one with the spell in it, after Claire died, right? But if you’re telling me the truth, as you know it anyway, then there is no way anyone could have believed you. Maybe Hillary wasn’t surprised by the accident, maybe she expected it.”
“How could she have known Vanessa would push Claire?” Jill demanded. “No, there’s no way, I mean… No. There’s absolutely no way,” she trailed off.
I stared at her for a moment and said, “Hillary’s book had a spell in it strong enough to conjure a dead girl, what if she needed a sacrifice to make that spell work?”
“It’s not possible,” Jill said, though I could tell she wasn’t so sure.
“There are lies within your lies,” I replied. “You guys even lied to me about what you ‘wished’ for or whatever when you conjured her spirit.”
Jill looked down at her coffee cup smiling sadly, “We were so young,” she began, “We thought we knew what we would always want. We asked to marry our boyfriends, we asked to be rich and thin and pretty forever. We wished for the number of children we would have in the future. We wished for good grades and good colleges and nice cars and health. We knew that it was everything that Claire would have wanted too.”
“You told me that you all asked to live near each other too,” I said.
“No, we didn’t ask for that, it was part of the conjure. We have to stay close to each other whether we want to or not. We realized that when we went to college. Things get…bad when we are apart for too long. Vanessa and I ended up transferring so that we could be near Hillary at B.C.”
“And forgiveness?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Asked Jill, confused.
“You guys told me you conjured Claire so you could ask for her forgiveness,” I said.
“Oh that,” Jill looked down at the table, “No, we didn’t ask for forgiveness. That was a fib, we, well we thought that making Claire’s death count for something would sort of, like, atone for everything.”
“Atone?” I repeated.
“Yeah, like, make up for the fact that we’d covered up the way she really died.”
“Jill – “ I began.
“I know,” she said, cutting me off. “Listen, we were young and completely self involved. I know that now. But believe me, we’ve suffered for what we did, more than you can even imagine.”
“Am I supposed to feel badly for you and your ghoul friends?” I demanded.
“No, no not at all. I, just, I was hoping you could help. That you might know what to do,” she stumbled.
“Ok sure, I know exactly what to do. Go tell the police what you all did so Claire’s poor family knows the truth. There’s my advice. Either you can do it or I will,” I threatened.
“It’s not that simple,” Jill replied. “Claire doesn’t want that now. I think there was a window in time where if we had fessed up we could have been released from all of this and Claire could have moved on, but that window has passed. Believe me, I’ve tried to go to the police. I tried to confess, really.”
“What the hell do you mean, ‘tried to confess?’ That’s bullshit.”
“You don’t understand. She won’t let me tell the truth now, none of us can. I got into a car accident on the way to the police station and when I finally got there I got so dizzy I couldn’t even stand,” Jill explained.
“Please,” I said, rolling my eyes, “You were just scared to death of being found out.”
“No, it wasn’t that. I wanted to tell the truth, I tried and because of that I wasn’t allowed to sleep for a week. If it were all that simple I would have done it years ago. And don’t get any ideas, you can’t go to the police either. Trust me, she’ll retaliate. Her power has grown like crazy. We didn’t know that would happen, but somehow she is drawing power from us, or maybe she’s just gotten used to being dead.”
“Or maybe her power comes from blind rage at you for putting her in this position,” I countered.
“Maybe,” Jill replied.
I sat back down in the tall chair, my leg both numb and throbbing. The nerves in my back caused the pain to travel, making me antsy and exhausted.
“Jill, what is it then? What exactly is she doing, just tell me so I can go home and forget about you and your friends.”
“She’s always there now, everywhere I go. I can’t look in mirrors anymore, if she isn’t directly behind me in the bathroom then she’s peeking around a doorway in the background. That’s her favorite trick. Staying just out of sight so you have a moment of relief, thinking that she might not be there before you spot her.
“The worst though was last week I was out walking our dogs around the pond -”
“Morses Pond?? I asked in disbelief.
“Yeah,” she said, then seemed to realize, “Well it’s a good place to walk the dogs.”
“Ghoulish,” I spat.
“I suppose,” she acquiesced. “But that’s not the point. I was walking the dogs and ended up running into my daughter’s first grade teacher. As we were chatting Claire stepped out of the woods behind the woman and just stood there, right over her shoulder staring at me. She doesn’t usually come so close. Do you have any idea how hard it was to carry on a normal conversation with that woman? I couldn’t let her think I was a crazy person.”
“God help us,” I sighed. “Jill, I am sorry but you all made your bed -”
“Yeah, fine, but it’s not just Claire,” Jill leaned forward, whispering, “I think I am beginning to see other things. Things that aren’t from our, like, realm. I think she’s letting things in. It wasn’t part of the conjure, I mean, it’s not something that we counted on.”
“So it was all alright when you were getting everything you needed from her and she was just lurking around outside, but now that she’s pushing back a bit you can’t take it?” I said sarcastically.
“No!” Jill said, annoyance briefly showing through her botox. “She’s taken things too far. It was under control at first, we could manage her. Yes, we saw her once in awhile, at the edge of the field while I played field hockey, or a glimpse in the stands at Vanessa’s volleyball game. But then she, came closer. And she was so angry. I mean, it was all an accident. Even if we didn’t completely tell the truth to our parents and everyone, Vanessa didn’t mean to kill her, it just happened. What was the use in ruining everyone else’s life over an accident?”
I stared at the woman for a moment and asked quietly, “And how’s your life turned out now, Jill? You and your friends trapped her ghost so you could use her energy for a stupid wish list and when things got a little too real you gathered your little coven and bound her tighter.”
“We are not a coven,” Jill hissed shaking her perfectly highlighted hair.
“You are the definition of a coven,” I said sitting back in my seat, attempting to find a more comfortable position.
“Why are you so mad at me?” She demanded.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Jill. I’m not mad at you, I am afraid of you and your friends. I just want you to cut through the bullshit and tell me why you dragged me here.”
“There’s no reason for you to be afraid of us, we’d never hurt you,” she said reaching her hand out to touch mine.
I yanked my hand and my coffee back and said, “Oh really? Is that why we’re meeting in a Dunkin Donuts in Newton? Because you’re so sure of our safety? What would Hillary and Vanessa do if they knew you told me all of this?”
“I’m doing this for all of us, but they think we need to go back into the woods to bind her again. I don’t. I think we need to confess. We can’t live on the same street forever, we’ll drive each other crazy, we’re already beginning to.”
“So you really have to stay together? How bad was it when you all went away to college?” I asked.
Jill considered for a moment then said, “When we separate, she is able to, like, draw us down easier.”
“Coven,” I spat before taking a sip of my coffee.
Jill ignored my comment, “She can latch onto us if we are alone.”
“Well, you’re alone now, is she here?” I asked.
Jill gave a small nod and her eyes darted to the windows behind me.
A chill consumed my body and I turned quickly to see a large Dunkaccino display.
“There’s no one there,” I said pretending to be annoyed so she wouldn’t see how terrified I actually was.
“I told you, no one else can see her.”
“Oh, Jill,” I said, sighing.
“Just wait, I know you’re skeptical, I get that but just look at this, please.”
She looked down at her phone. Punched the security code, swiped around a bit then handed the phone to me.
I hesitated but she forcefully shoved it towards me so I took it. I looked down at the photo on the screen then looked back up at her.
“It’s not photoshopped,” she said quietly.
I looked back down to a photo of three smiling little girls; their blond, brunette and auburn hair tousled by the wind. They looked to be about seven years old and wore big smiles and soccer uniforms.
Arms around one another they stood on a grassy field, a colorful fall forest behind them. At the end of the line, to the blond girl’s right hand side, stood an older girl, a young teenager. Her black hair remained untouched by the wind and cascaded down over a navy blue short-sleeved polo shirt. She wore khaki shorts and worn-in boat shoes, but no smile.
“No,” I said, moving my fingers to enlarge the image. As the image enlarged I realized that I could actually see the autumn leaves behind, or I should say through, the teen. I dropped the phone on the table as though it were one of the Angus Steak and Egg sandwiches marketed on a poster behind Jill.
“It’s her,” Jill said, sitting back in her chair and reaching for the phone. “That’s concerning enough, but look in the background, by the treeline.”
She moved her fingers over the screen to select and enlarge a portion of the photo and handed the phone back to me. Again I hesitated to take it and again she shoved it towards me.
I sighed huffily as I accepted it. I looked at the enlarged area and saw a teenage boy at the treeline. Though the image was a bit blurry, it was still clear that it was a young man with dark brown hair. He too wore shorts and a short sleeved polo.
“Lurky,” I said, looking up. “Who the hell is that?”
Jill paused, “It’s Chris.”
“Oh, come on,” I said, attempting to hand the phone back.
“Look at his feet,” Jill said.
“What about his feet?” I demanded looking back at the photo.
Then I saw it, “They’re not there,” I said quietly.
“They’re not there,” Jill repeated. “I don’t think she has enough power yet to bring him back completely, but once she does, I just don’t know what they’ll do to us.”
I sat in my car and watched Jill pull out of the parking lot in her Land Rover. She was talking, either to herself or to someone or something that only she could see. I didn’t trust her or her story but I fully believed that she and her friends had done something wonderful and terrible and had completely lost control of it.
Did I go to tell the police? No. What proof did I have? It was my word against theirs. I publish ghost stories on a blog and podcast; I’m not exactly the most credible source. I mean, really, who is to say that I haven’t made all of this up? Maybe I just have an overactive imagination. Who knows what they could tell the police about me.
At any rate, that’s the “true” story as it was told to me and this was my confession of Jill’s confession. I’m telling you this because our priest said that I have an obligation to share the truth because I shared the lies. So, do with the so-called “truth” what you will.
There was a time when I would have thought, what difference does it make. We all make up stories to support our version of events. We excuse ourselves from the worst offenses and justify wrongs.
We don’t have to invite everyone, we all just have to promise not to post any pictures to Facebook afterwards so they don’t find out. It’ll be fine.
Maybe my daughter threw a candy bar into my bag in the grocery and I didn’t realize until I got home. What am I supposed to do, drive back and pay for a one dollar chocolate bar? It’s fine.
I know I said I’d help out at the kids’ holiday fundraiser but I have so much wrapping to do. There’ll be plenty of volunteers there, they won’t miss me, they’ll be fine.
Sure he’s a bigot and a racist, but he’ll be good for the economy, right? It’ll be fine.
Slippery fucking slope, huh?
It all matters – every word, every deed, every opportunity to do the right thing – now more than ever. Look beyond the veil with me, be honest with yourself and tell me, who’s winning? Can’t you see the demons high fiving, the devil looking on and nodding his head with a knowing smile?
Even though my little spiritual warfare seems to be behind me for now, I can’t say the same for everyone else. So I can listen. I can be here.
I won’t turn away. I’m a little shaky and knocked down a peg or two for sure, but I’ll be here just the same. A tiny library flier took me this far, I can’t imagine where we’ll go from here.