I’m a children’s reference librarian at the Wellesley Free Library. It is an absolute dream. I help little ones find truck stories and Lego books and even get to fill in for story time if one of the full-time librarians is out sick. I typically work in the library’s main branch (across from Town Hall), though I occasionally have the good fortune to fill in for a storytime at the Stone Branch on Washington Street (the one across from the Congregational Church – you know, the church that sells pumpkins every October).
If you haven’t been (shame on you), the library is housed in a small, one room, stone building. Coffee is allowed! And there are some great antique tables and chairs for reading. Seriously, check it out if you haven’t had the chance. It is the best. And whenever I am there I feel like I am the heroine in a mystery about a librarian who solves a who-done-it. Go after dark and it feels like the ghost librarian from Ghostbusters might shush you at any moment.
Anyway, I was filling in for a toddler storytime last April. As I handed out the little egg shakers for our last song I noticed a woman at the back of the group. She seemed to be there by herself, no child in sight. I smiled and offered her a shaker, and she declined. I figured she was probably a librarian from another town just checking out the competition, as was often the case.
I wrapped up story time, helped the kids find more books about farms (and superheros and frogs and pirates and princesses) and then began gathering my belongings. My schedule had me due back at the main branch of the library in fifteen minutes.
I was bending over to pick up the container of egg shakers when a voice directly behind me quietly said, “Are you Liz?”
I popped up, startled, and turned around to see the child-free woman standing there. Standing right there. Like, a little too close. “Yes, hi,” I replied, attempting to back away and bumping into the library’s fireplace.
“I’m Laura Arnold, your story time was so sweet,” she said, holding out her hand.
I shifted the egg shaker box and held mine out in return. We shook. My hand engulfed hers. She was a teeny tiny little bit of a thing. Hair. Makeup. Skin. Outfit. Perfection.
What is with the women in this town? I thought.
She had the cutest haircut I’d ever seen outside of a television. Her jet black hair was cut into a Vidal Sassoon-like bob. Her olive skin was all flawlessness and glow. I think she was only wearing mascara and blush. Probably in her late twenties or early thirties at the latest, she was wearing a wrap dress covered by a jean jacket. And, if you must know, I hovered over her in ill-fitting navy blue capris, a wrinkled white button down shirt, old red flats and, actually, a pretty cool chunky necklace, if I may say so myself.
“Thanks, I replied to her comment about the story time. “Are you visiting from another library?”
“No, no, I used to be in finance, but I stay at home now, I -” she paused, leaning a little closer, backing me into the fireplace mantle. “They told me that you would be here at the main library. So I came over to find you. I saw your note on the community board and a friend knew that you worked at the library. We just don’t know who else will believe us.”
“Oh!” I said, realization dawning. “You have a ghost story, great!”
“Sort of, I mean, something is haunting us. Do you have time to talk?”
“Oh!” I said again. “Excellent! Well, I don’t have time right now, I’m due back to cover the children’s desk, and I can’t really talk when I am at work. But I am happy to arrange to meet you.”
“When do you get off work?” She asked.
“Um,” I began, feeling the woman’s anxiety rolling off her and really really wanting to regain a little bit of personal space. “Well, my shift ends at one o’clock and I don’t have to pick the girls up from the daycare until three, so I guess I could -”
“Perfect. Can you meet me back here?” She asked.
“Sure,” I said, side stepping away from her. “I’ll look forward to hearing your story.”
“I don’t know if you should,” she replied.
I had been planning on going to Whole Foods after work, but it could wait. The girls would have to be fine with cereal for dinner. I was tired and pregnant and not in the mood anyway. I met Laura back at the library after swinging over to Starbucks for a latte (just to reiterate: the library allows drinks – just like Barnes and Nobles, only the books are FREE).
I parked and walked into the library and saw at once that Laura was there with a very large man. She stood up immediately when she saw me. They were ensconced at a circular table in the New Fiction section (the coolest thing about this small library – and any library, really – is that if they don’t have something in at the branch, they can order it for you and it will just take a couple of days to get there. You can even order a book or movie online. Like Amazon, only, FREE).
“Hi, hi,” I said, smiling at them. I pulled out a chair, reached for the digital recorder in my bag and placed it on the table. Then I held a hand out to shake with the giant sitting next to Laura. “I’m Liz,” I said.
“This is my husband, Michael,” Laura said. To her tiny, petite, flawless, he was all hulking, large and disheveled. His navy blue suit was sort of shapeless. His shoes (yes, I glanced under the table) were dull. His dirty blond hair, cut too close, and thinning on top.
“Hello,” he said in a soft voice, and shook my hand. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with us.”
“Sure,” I said, “Do you mind if I record our conversation? My mind is like a sieve these days.”
“No problem at all,” Laura replied. Michael just shook his head.
I turned the recorder on and said, “So, what’s your story?”
The tiny woman and the big man exchanged a look.Through the sort of telekinesis of couples they decided that she would be the spokeswoman.
“Are you Christian?” Laura asked.
“Well, I was raised Catholic, but we go to the Congregational Church across the street because they have a daycare during Mass, I mean, what do they call it? The service! And they were so easy-going about baptizing the girls, so – “ I fumbled.
“Good. Then you’ll understand,” she said. Her husband nodded his large head.
“Sure,” I agreed dumbly.
“We believe our daughter is possessed,” Laura stated.
“We know it started in the house and we know it had something to do with the previous owner’s son.” She continued.
“He was into drugs – not like pot and coke. Serious stuff,” Michael chimed in.
Cocaine has always registered on my scale as a “serious drug,” but, to each his own. I asked, “Why don’t you start somewhere towards the beginning, how long have you lived in your house? And how old is your daughter”
“Lilith is fifteen, we’ve only lived in our home for a little over a year. We transferred from Chicago.” Laura replied.
“You have a fifteen year old daughter? Did you guys get married when you were, like, thirteen?” I said before I could stop myself.
The couple exchanged a glance and actually smiled, “She’s our oldest. We have four children, Lilith, Jake who is twelve, and then twins, Carrie and Rosemary. The little girls will be ten next month,” Laura replied.
This tiny, postage stamp of a perfectly pulled together woman, had four children. Four. And she was wearing makeup and an outfit that matched. I bet she had even showered that morning. Good for her. I mean, she had just told me that her daughter was demon possessed, but still.
“Well, you look like spring chickens,” I said. “You haven’t been in your home long, why do you think you’re daughter’s, um, issue, has to do with the house?”
“I knew before I even stepped foot in that house that something was wrong with it,” Laura said.
Michael, quite the accomplished head nodder and shaker, shook his head and said, “Don’t start with that, you didn’t know there was anything wrong until -”
Laura cut him off, “I did. I knew when the realtor emailed us the photos. But you wanted to see it. You thought it was such a ‘deal.’ I never liked having the railroad tracks behind it. And it’s on such a busy road.”
“It’s close to the middle school, you were thrilled that the kids could walk there.”
“But I didn’t want them drowning in the brook behind the house,” she countered.
“The only time that you can tell it is a stream is after we have a storm.”
“I’m just saying that I knew that house had a problem,” Laura said. She looked at me pointedly, as though I could back her up.
Their poor real estate agent, I thought.
“So you ended up transferring from Chicago and moving into this house. After you moved in, what concerned you?” I asked.
“The house needed updating. Some of it we could do on our own, painting and taking down wallpaper, ripping up old rugs. But updating the kitchen and baths and taking out a couple of walls needed a professional. So we hired a contractor and he started work before we moved in. He called one day, we were still living in Chicago at the time, to say that the project would be delayed. There had been a fire,” Laura said.
“In the mudroom,” Michael interjected.
“Weird place for a fire,” I said.
“We thought so too, and so did the contractor. He didn’t have an explanation. Just that they had left the site the evening before and when they came back, a fire had destroyed the mudroom. Burned a hole clean through the floor down through to the basement and blackened the walls. We went back and forth about it, but eventually agreed to have our insurance cover it. He swore no one on his crew would dare smoke inside one of their sites. Denied having left any power tools plugged in,” Laura explained.
“Weird,” I said. “None of the neighbors noticed the fire? No one called the fire department?”
“No, it just burned in that room and somehow put itself out,” she replied. “That wasn’t the only strange thing that happened when they were there. One of the workers fell off a ladder and broke his arm, another one managed to get into a car accident right in front of the house. But the strangest thing, which we didn’t really get all the details on, was that one of the guys got locked in that little space between the bulkhead and the storm door that closes those stairs off from the basement,” said Laura.
“Yeah, apparently he was there for something like two hours before the other guys found him. Said he’d been yelling for them and banging on the bulkhead but no one on the crew had heard him,” Michael explained.
“Yikes,” I said, shuddering.
“Things were ok when we first moved into the house,” Laura went on. “It’s much smaller than our place in Chicago, so everyone was getting used to less space. There is a bedroom in the basement, and we let Lilith take it. The move was hardest on her.
“We started to settle in, I had most of our things unpacked in the first week. The twins share a room on the second floor, Jack has his own room up there and we are in the master. I wanted to fix Lilith’s room up first. This one day I intended to take down the flowery wallpaper in her room before she got home from school. I was beginning to use the scouring tool on the walls so the remover solution could work when I heard a loud knock, a banging, really, at the door upstairs. I put down the tool on the floor, next to the spray bottle of solution and ran up the basement steps. It took me, I don’t know, thirty seconds to get up there. I looked through the window then opened the door and no one was there. I even walked to the back door, thinking maybe a neighbor was in the backyard. No one. It was unnerving, but I made sure both doors were locked and then went back down to the basement. When I walked into Lilith’s room, my scourer and spray bottle were gone. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I checked under her bed, retraced my steps, everything. It was maddening. I ended up having to go back to the hardware store.”
“Weird,” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking, how is your basement set up?”
“Sure,” Michael replied, “About three quarters of the space is finished. The stairs are in the center, to one side of the basement is an open, carpeted area where we have a few chairs, a couch and a television, to the other side, Lilith’s bedroom is set next to a storage and utility room. The laundry is in there as well.”
“Thanks, I get it,” I said. “Ok, so you had some things go missing, then what?”
“Well, a couple of nights later, Lilith woke me up around two o’clock. She insisted that I had called her name from the top of the basement stairs. I hadn’t. I had been sound asleep. I checked on the little kids and everyone was out cold. Michael didn’t even wake up. I convinced her that it must have been a dream and walked her back down to her room.
“The next night, the same thing happened. This time when she came upstairs she was angry. ‘Mom, you were sleepwalking again! You woke me up!’ Only this time she said she heard me in the utility room ‘monkeying around’ with the washer and dryer. Again, I had been sound asleep, in bed. I wondered if she was having stressful dreams, a sort of response to the move. I asked her if she would feel better sleeping in our room, so I got her set up with a sleeping bag on the floor. I assumed she was just hearing the house settling or pipes banging.”
“This is just me playing devil’s advocate – sorry, bad choice of words – but you said your daughter’s bedroom is right next to the utility room in the basement, with the electrical box and everything, did you ever have the house tested -”
“For high levels of electromagnetic fields?” Michael cut in. “A friend of ours in Chicago thought of the same thing, he is a home inspector so he told us that high levels could lead to feelings of paranoia, or feeling like you’re being watched – even hallucinations. So I was all game for that. I mean, quick answer, right? We had an electrician come in to test. No luck, the entire house fell into the normal range.”
“Shit,” I said, sitting back in my seat. “I was hoping that might solve everything.”
“Me too,” Michael affirmed.
“More strange things began to happen, quickly,” Laura rushed in, proving her point. “I hung a few photos on the wall in the living room. When I walked by them that night they had been turned upside down. Perfectly. Of course, I figured it was the twins, or their brother, but they all denied it. And along with all of this, Lilith became really negative, grumpy, snapping at her siblings. I chalked it up to our move, but she just wasn’t herself.
“Then one day, I came into the living room and Lilith was standing over her brother who was crouched on the floor beneath her. She had her back to me, but Jack looked terrified, like he was about to start crying. ‘What is going on here,’ I demanded. Lilith quickly turned to look at me and I mean it when I tell you that her irises had gone black. Black. It was just for a moment, a split second that I saw it. But I know what I saw.” Laura crossed her arms in front of her and sat back in her chair. I had the sense that perhaps Michael hadn’t completely supported her in her complaints about the house.
“Wow. Did you see anything odd happen in the house?” I asked him, wondering if perhaps his wife had worked herself up with guilt over moving their daughter during high school and then had looked for something to blame for her daughter’s behavior other than herself.
“Not at first, Michael replied, “I sleep like the dead, so whenever Lilith came upstairs in the middle of the night I never heard any of it. Laura told me about the things that happened during the day and I believed her. But we were all under a lot of stress from the move. But, then there was this Saturday. Laura took the younger kids to the movies. It was a gray out, rain expected, so we couldn’t have them ride bikes or anything. Lilith refused to go, so I just agreed to stay home with her. She holed up in the basement, as usual, and I sat on the couch to watch the Notre Dame game.
“I started to hear whispering, a whispered conversation. I turned the volume down on the television. The door to the basement had been left open a crack, and I walked over, stood at the top of the stairs and listened. I thought maybe Lilith had a friend over. I was relieved, actually, that maybe she had snuck someone, even a boy for Christ’s sake, into the basement. I thought for a moment, at least she’s connected with someone here.
“Look, I heard two distinct voices whispering. I gave it a minute then quietly walked down the steps, sure I would be glad that she’s making connections, but not connections with a horny fifteen year old boy. I was even thinking that we would probably need to move her room upstairs so she couldn’t sneak friends in at night.
“As I approached her door I heard someone whisper ‘shh, he’s coming.’ Here we go, I thought, then knocked on the door and pushed it open.
“Liz, my daughter was sitting at her desk with her back to the door. There was no one else in the room. No one. I searched. I asked her, ‘who were you speaking to?’ She kept saying, ‘No one, daddy. No one is here.’ I didn’t know what to think, but it made me lend a little more credence to what Laura had been telling me.”
“When I got home, they were both upstairs watching the game,” Laura said, putting her hand on her husband’s back.
“I made her come upstairs. I was, I don’t know, frightened. For her, for everyone. I mean, who the hell had she been talking to?” Michael demanded.
Laura rubbed his back. “It was about a month later that I finally had the time to tackle the wallpaper in her room again. I was sorry that I did. Beneath it I found a pentagram and several inverted crosses painted on the walls. Not what you might picture, like all dripping paint, sloppily done. No, someone had taken time to artfully paint these symbols on the wall. They were intricate. Almost pretty in a terrible way.”
“No,” I said, chilled.
“I took pictures of them and texted them to Michael. We decided that the first thing to do would be to talk to the neighbors.”
“Wait, who did you buy the house from?” I asked.
“An older couple who were retiring to Florida, we never had any interaction with them. Our realtor and the lawyers handled everything.” Michael replied.
“Do you know anything else about them?” I asked.
“That’s where the neighbors come in,” Laura said. “We hadn’t really met anyone yet. We live on a busy road, but still, I would have thought someone might stop by to welcome us. I made brownies and watched for a car to pull into the driveway next door, then went over and introduced myself to the neighbor. She was sort of standoffish, you know? But I assumed she was just a typical Yankee and that I could kill her with kindness. I got her to invite me in for tea and eventually started asking her about the previous owners of our house. She got a little shifty when I brought up the subject, so I just said, ‘you know, we’ve had some issues and I just wonder if they ever mentioned any trouble with the house.’”
“‘I probably shouldn’t be gossiping about this,’ the woman told me, ‘But, you know that they had a son who died as a teenager. He hung himself. In your basement.’”
“Uh uh,” I said, shaking my head.
“Yes. And the kid had a reputation for wearing all black and being a loner and apparently there had been some kerfuffle over a neighborhood cat,” Laura said angrily. “No one said a word about it when we were buying the house. His parents were able to put the house on the market without disclosing the death because it happened seven years earlier. I looked it up. In Massachusetts you only have to disclose any deaths that have occurred on the property within the previous three years. And, please. Black clothes, a neighborhood cat, the Goddamn pentagram. I mean, I don’t believe sellers have to disclose previous satanic worship on the property, but a head’s up would have been nice.” She slapped her free hand on the table.
“I am so sorry, that is just,” I stammered, “I don’t know, it is horrifying. What are you going to do?” I asked, really wanting to ask how she found out when the boy had died in the house, because I wanted to go home and immediately google our address to be sure there hadn’t been some fucking Satanist doodling on our basement walls.
“What haven’t we done?” Michael said, running his gargantuan hand through his short, thinning hair. “The past six months have been a revolving door of paranormal investigators, home inspectors, ministers. We have an application in at St. Paul’s for an exorcism, but until they can document Lilith’s behavior, we have to wait to formally submit our request.”
I didn’t know what to say. I could feel their desperation, and exhaustion. I believed them, but I really didn’t want to.
“Did you have the house blessed?” I asked, dumbly.
“Of course we did, but that fucking, hippie minister -” Michael spat.
“Michael,” Laura demanded, “He did the best he could. Lilith was, well, upset that we had him come, and she gave him a hard time.”
“A doctor? Or psychiatrist?” I asked, feeling like a total jerk, but, you know, it was a child we were talking about.
“Two pediatricians. Three psychiatrists, and a reiki healer.” Laura replied.
“Again, I am so so sorry,” I began, then noticed through the windows behind the couple that the day had darkened and a downpour was pummeling the windows behind them. I had been so wrapped up in their story that I had completely forgotten to watch the time.
I looked at the clock on the recorder, “Oh no!” I said. I was due to pick the girls up from daycare in two minutes. “I am so so sorry, but I have to go get my girls. I wasn’t watching the time.” The couple stared at me. “I am really sorry for being so abrupt, I should have been paying closer attention. Thank you for telling me your story, it was -” I paused, trying to think of the right word, then went with, “Chilling.”
“It’s not just a story, we need help,” Laura said. “Since you are a ghost hunter we thought that maybe you might have connections. I saw on television that some of the ghost hunting teams have their own demonologists that they call in for certain investigations.”
“No, I am just -” I began.
“We had an investigation team come in, but they just made things worse. They were inexperienced, and I think they may have invited more activity in by interacting with whatever is in our home. None of us are sleeping. I -”
“Laura, wait, I am a writer. I’m not -”
“I convinced Michael to meet with you. After the last group, the voices are so much worse. But I convinced him because your post in the library was so, local. So, simple.”
“There’s been a misunderstanding. I am not a ghost hunter, I am just looking to document area ghost stories.” I said, firmly.
“She’s not going to fucking help us,” Michael said. “No one can.” He pushed his chair away from the table and stood. I wondered how the antique chair had supported his immense body. “Laura, I’m going back to work, I’ll see you tonight.” Then he walked slash stomped to the door and disappeared out into the storm.
“Laura, I -”
“No,” she held up her hand to stop me, then gathered her bag from the floor onto her lap, white knuckling it’s straps. “It’s not your fault. I just thought you were someone else.”
“I’m a writer, I like ghost stories,” I began, then stopped myself and apologized again. “Laura, I am sorry. I have daughters and I can’t even imagine.”
“No, you can’t,” she said. “And I hope you never have to. Thank you, Liz.”
We shook hands and I watched her walk out of the library.
I really needed to change the flier I had posted. First Pam thinking that I was going to take her haunted seashell tchotchke and now this?
As I rushed into the girls daycare center, soaked to the bone and trying to avoid puddles, I wondered how many more of these stories existed in this town.