“Frankly, I’d Rather Have the Bed Bugs” (Dump Swamp)

I met Pam at a cocktail party for Wellesley newcomers. A lovely what the hell am I supposed to wear? party that felt like a sorority rush. Where every conversation boils down to, “Isn’t this great? It’s so great to meet new people. Where did you move from again? The South End? That’s great, we were in the Beacon Hill. Sure we miss it, but having a driveway is so great. Have you done any renovations? Isn’t it great to have a yard, aren’t the kids so much happier? I love it. This is so fucking great. Where the fuck is the wine?”

I was actually catching up with Becca (of the haunted dolls), when she introduced me to Pam. Pam was the events coordinator for this Wellesley mother’s group, or as my husband referred to it, Delta Swellesley Delta. Becca explained to Pam how we’d met and that I was writing a collection of short stories about Wellesley.

What kind of stories? Pam wanted to know. I hesitated. By all appearances, Pam was a Queen Bee. Of indeterminate age (early forties, late fifties?), with gorgeous sable brown hair that beach-waved itself halfway down her back, she had perfect skin and eye makeup that was so exquisitely subtle she could have been in a Bobbi Brown ad. She wore a navy blue Tory Burch cardigan over a white silk cami with yellow (yellow!) cropped jeans. Yes, it was January, but frankly, she nailed it.

I wasn’t sure how to admit to collecting ghost stories. This woman looked like she would be more interested in talking about the new slipcovers she ordered for the house in Palm Beach. Besides that, I didn’t want to out Becca and her absolutely horrifying story about her first house, but I didn’t want to be rude and vague.

So, the graceful conversationalist that I am, I said, “I like ghost stories.”

Both women looked at me for a moment. I opened my mouth to chatter away an explanation, but Pam rescued me by saying, “Well if you like ghost stories, I have a doozy.” Then she tilted her head back and took down the remainder of her Chardonnay like a tequila shot.


sailor's valentine

Pam invited me to coffee at her home the following week. She lived on the swankiest side of town, where it’s rumored that seven year olds wear Hudson jeans to first grade. As I drove my mom mobile up the brick lined drive to the quintessential New England estate, I had some serious hesitation.

I admit it, I am completely sidetracked by other’s looks, mannerisms, clothing, etc. It’s just that I’ve never known how to pull it all together – the hair, the makeup, the clothing, the interior decorating. I am fascinated by people who just seem to get it. It is hard for me to squeeze in a shower everyday, let alone coordinate.

That morning had been particularly rough. I’d gotten the girls dressed, fed and out the door to preschool, but just barely. I had on a super ratty looking Detroit Tigers hat (inherited from my husband), jeans and a ski jacket over a flannel shirt. Flannel shirts looked so cute on J Crew models, but whenever I put one on it shot me straight back to my sixth grade wanna-be grunge phase. But there had been no time to change. So, I was heading into Pam’s house feeling a little grubby, a touch harried, and a lot intimidated.

I followed Pam through her entranceway, I won’t go into it, but it was a-mazing. She led me into the kitchen. Marble countertops, cabinets the most perfectly perfect shade of robin’s egg blue, farmhouse sink, and copper hardware. Copper. Hardware. I think I short-circuited for a moment. It was beautiful. It was brilliant. It was spotless.

Pam motioned for me to sit in a grey wooden stool at the oversized kitchen island. She poured me a cup of coffee, and I helped myself to milk and sugar. I was psyched she had real sugar. I had been afraid I would have to drink the coffee black. The organic whole milk creamer was no French Vanilla International Coffee Delight, but who am I to judge?

I commented on her kitchen and took note of a sailor’s valentine perched on the countertop behind her. Inside a hexagonal wooden shadow box were gorgeously arranged shells, stones, and sea glass. The valentines were created by sailors in the eighteen hundreds and brought home to their sweethearts after traveling at sea for years at a time.

This valentine held blue shells, green sea glass and stark white stones in a perfect wave-like pattern. One word, until, stenciled into what I assumed was whalebone sat in the design’s center. My family travelled to Nantucket every summer and I’d pined over the sailor’s valentines in the Whaling Museum. Such romantic gestures so filled with longing and homesickness. This one was the most intricate, the most beautiful I’d ever seen.

“That is stunning,” I said, motioning to the valentine.

“Isn’t it?” Pam replied, “It’s the reason I asked you to come.”

“Oh?” I prompted.

“Everything began when I brought the valentine home,” Pam gestured towards the huge picture window to her left, “I know she is tied to it somehow.”

I looked out the window, then back to Pam. “Who?” I asked, wondering if perhaps she had indulged in a hot toddy before I’d arrived.

“Elizabeth, the ghost.”

“Oh, right,” I said, thoroughly spooked and well aware that no one knew where I was and with the house set this far back from the road, no one would hear me screaming for help.

“I should start from the beginning, I suppose,” Pam sighed. “I wish I could reach into my head and pull my memories out so I could just drive them into your mind.”

“Ha ha,” I laughed, meaning ahh! ahhhhh!

“Have you been to the dump swap?” She asked.

Um, yes. I practically used it as a toy store (garden center, furniture outlet, and lawn care shop). Open from April through December, Wellesley’s dump swap was a thing of legends. Now, I’m sure when you hear ‘dump swap’ you think something like, “here, take my old garden hose, I’ll trade for your extra snow shovel.” No. Not in Wellesley. People dumped treasures there – a friend of mine scored a like-new $350 jogging stroller. The toy section alone is like taking a walk down the Toys “R” Us aisle. If you wanted to, you could bring home a new play kitchen for your toddler every single week.

Had I heard of it? Yes. Was I obsessed with it? More than a little bit.

“I love that place!” I declared.

“I used to enjoy it too,” Pam replied. “I’d grab a latte and meet a girlfriend there every Monday morning. It was such a rush finding little trinkets.”

“I know!” I said excitedly, “Last summer I nabbed a white wrought iron bed frame for my oldest daughter. I sanitized the hell out of it, you know, bed bugs and all, and then re-sprayed it white. Like new!”

“Yes, well, I got the valentine there, and frankly, I’d rather have the bed bugs,” Pam said, glancing at the shelled masterpiece.

“No! Who would leave something like that at the dump? It must be worth a fortune.”

‘It is,” Pam agreed, taking a sip of her coffee. “I had it appraised, it’s worth around $11,000.”

“Holy hell,” I said. “Whomever left it mustn’t have had any idea of it’s worth.”

“Oh, I think they knew,” Pam said. “I knew the first day I brought it home what I had on my hands. That day the dog ran out of the house and got hit by a car, which was totally out of character for him. Then that night we heard footsteps above our heads, in the attic.”

Well, shit, I thought, that white wrought iron bed frame was as good as gone. My daughter could sleep on an IKEA toddler bed like every other four-year-old. I’d be damned if some ghost was going to follow me home from the dump.

“Your poor dog,” I said, reminding myself to be empathetic. “But who is Elizabeth?”

“My son was home this past summer for the weekend with his wife and my five year old granddaughter, Milly. We were cooking out in the grill and having drinks on the porch with Milly playing in the yard. I came inside to fill another pitcher of sangria when I saw my granddaughter, or who I thought was my granddaughter, skip down the front hallway and run up the stairs. I assumed she was grabbing a toy from her room. So I filled the pitcher and went back outside. But there was Milly, sitting on her father’s lap.”

Hell no. I thought. Homemade sangria on the porch, I thought.

Pam went on, “”Well aren’t you quick as a bunny,’ I said to Milly, then asked her what she’d gone upstairs for. My son said she’d been sitting there for the past ten minutes.”

“No,” I said, goosebumps prickling my arms.

“Yes. I looked at Milly and realized that she had on a pale blue gingham dress, the girl I had seen at the stairs was wearing pink. I rushed back inside thinking that there was another child in the house.”

“And you didn’t find anyone,” I said.

“Not a soul. My husband brushed it off, but I could tell my son and daughter-in-law were unnerved.”

“Then what happened?” I asked, my coffee going cold in it’s delicate glass mug.

“Well, nothing for a night and the morning the kids were leaving, Morgan, my daughter-in-law, told me over coffee that Milly had mentioned playing outside with a little girl named Elizabeth. Was she a neighbor? she wondered. But we really haven’t any neighbors close by, as you can see. And the neighbors we do know are around our age, their children are grown.”

“Maybe a neighbor’s grandchild?” I suggested.

“I thought the same thing,” Pam replied, nodding her head. She put both hands on the counter in front of her and leaned forward, “So I called around, no one had visitors that weekend.”

“Did Milly say anything else about the little girl?” I asked. Sitting in the stool, looking up at Pam, and basically running a tally in my head of everything that I’d ever brought home from the dump so that I could get rid of it that afternoon.

“Just that she was excited to come back to Nana and Pop Pop’s house to play with the little girl again.”

“Yeesh,” I said.

“I did a real search of the house and the estate that afternoon, just to be sure that nothing was out of place, or that, I don’t know,” she paused.

“That a creepy little girl was lurking around.” I said.

“Exactly, yes,” Pam replied. “My husband went on a business trip that following week and that’s when I started to get frightened. At night I would wake up to giggling, or a pitter patter of footsteps in the hallway. More than once I started to get out of bed, like some sort of old programming. It put me right back in time to when my boys were little and I would have to get up and put them back into their beds.”

“How did you stay here alone? I would have been petrified.” I said. The house was enormous. Seriously, an entire family of five could probably live in the west wing and no one would notice.

“I didn’t really. I made it through three nights and then I went and stayed with a girlfriend in Boston,” she turned to grab the coffee pot and topped off both of our mugs. “I told my friend that I was worried about burglars. Peter, my husband, was due back in town that Friday evening, so I came back to the house that afternoon to straighten up. After a couple days away I’d convinced myself that I was being silly. But I had a pit in my stomach as I walked up to the front door.” She glanced back at the valentine.

“I don’t think I would have been that brave,” I said, stirring more sugar into my coffee.

“If I had known what I was walking into, I would have turned around and went right back to the city,” she said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Everything seemed normal at first,” Pam replied. “I walked in here and put my overnight bag down on the floor. There was this smell, I couldn’t place it. I figured I had left garbage under the sink, or we had a plumbing issue. But as I searched, I just couldn’t find the culprit. And the smell was everywhere, it seemed to follow me around room to room. It took me a while but I finally placed it. My father had an old motor boat that we used to tool around in on the Cape. Lord knows how it stayed afloat, it was so old and rotten. I finally realized that my home smelled like a rotting old boat. Damp, cloying, sort of organic.”

“Geez,” I said.

“I went around, opening windows downstairs and then went up to the bedroom,” Pam shudders and looks over my shoulder.

Chilled to my core, I quickly glance behind me to see… nothing. Just a beautifully appointed great room.

“Did you just see something?” I ask, turning back to Pam.

“It was nothing,” Pam shakes her head.

“Right, so, you went up to your bedroom,” I prompted, wanting to leave the house immediately.

“Yes, I walked into the bedroom, I remember clearly that I stood in the doorway texting my son for a moment before I looked up and saw what she had done,” Pam took a deep breath. “She had pulled out all of my dresses and high heels. They were thrown around the room as though they had all been tried on. Like a child playing dress up. My wedding dress, which had been preserved in a box in the back of the closet, was crumpled on the floor in a ball. I went to pick it up and it was wet. And the sailor’s valentine – that I had hung on the wall above the fireplace downstairs – was leaning against my pillow on the bed.”

I exhaled, realizing that I had actually been holding my breath. “Then what?” I asked.

“I walked into the room, shocked really, and went to the closet, it is a walk in with this island of drawers in the middle, it was a mess. My jewelry was strewn all over the place. I bent down to pick up a bracelet off the floor when I felt a small hand rest on my back.”

“Uh uh,” I said, shaking my head.

“I think I screamed, or maybe yelled, at least, I don’t know, but I spun around and there was no one there. Then I heard a giggle coming from our bedroom. I rushed out, determined to catch the child. I was so angry.” Pam crossed her arms over her chest, “It was all such a violation. As I turned the corner out of our bedroom I saw a flash of blond hair. The girl was headed into our guest room. I started after her but I slipped on the wood and fell flat on my backside. The floor was wet. Little wet footprints down the hallway.”

“So you ran out of the house screaming,” I said.

“No, of course not! I marched right after it.”

“Pam, I’ve read enough scary stories and seen enough horror movies to know that the little blonde ghost girl is never really a little blonde ghost girl,” I reasoned.

“Well, I know that now. After everything that’s happened. I mean, I haven’t slept in weeks. My husband’s ulcer is worse than it’s ever been. We can’t stay here at night, she won’t leave us alone. The giggling. The stomping. The smell. Ugh, it is awful.”

All I could smell was coffee. “Do you smell it now?” I asked.

“No, it’s a nighttime thing. She stays outside, or on the porch during the day.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering again about this woman’s sanity, or at least her sobriety.

“But that’s why I asked you here. I truly appreciate it.” She turned and picked up the sailor’s valentine and placed it in front of me. I quickly pushed myself back away from the thing.

“Well, I am so glad that you told me your story,” I said, getting up from my seat.

“And I can’t tell you how happy I am that you know how to handle this,” Pam replied.

“Pam, I am happy to help you any way that I can, but I -” I started.

“Thank you, Liz. Really, my husband wanted to talk to our priest, but I would rather keep this quiet,” she said, smiling.

“Pam, I’m a writer, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to handle this,” I said, pushing the stool in and backing away.

Again, Pam looked over my shoulder.

I turned around, ready to bolt.

“She’s not happy here,” she said, the valentine held out before her. “I had a dream last night, it was – it was difficult. She had a rough life and -.”

“Pam, I am so sorry if there was some sort of confusion, but I am just collecting stories. It was so wonderful to come here, to your beautiful home. I can’t thank you enough for talking to me, and thank you so very much for the coffee. Really, but I can’t take that thing,” I said, motioning to the valentine.

“It was my understanding that you were able to handle this sort of thing,” Pam said, placing it on the counter forcefully.

I picked up my recorder  and held it out as though it could prove my point. “Look, I just wanted to – ” I began.

“You are to take this with you,” Pam said, pointing to the haunted item. “I’ve had enough of this and so has my husband.”

“We’ve had a misunderstanding,” I said. “I really do apologize, I think your husband is right. Call your priest, he will know what to do.”

“Goddammit!” Pam slammed her hands on the marble topped island.

I turned and started walking to the front door. I left the recorder on, half thinking that it would provide evidence to convict my murderer.

Pam followed behind me as I scurried “quick like a bunny” to the exit.

“What am I supposed to do?” She demanded.

I pulled the door open and almost jumped onto the front steps. “I am so sorry, Pam.” I called over my shoulder.

She stood on the steps and watched me get into the car. I rolled down the window and said, “I will call our minister, I am sure he would be happy to talk to you.”

She just stared.

I gave on last glance back as I pulled away. I swear to you – I swear – there was a girl there. Behind Pam. A smile on her face, her hand resting on her back.

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