Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
Megan awoke in the library on her pile of blankets next to Jessie and across from Harry. For a moment, she was just thinking about what needed to be done today. Then, suddenly, the events of the past night demanded her attention. She rose, stiffly, and looked out the window. The grass was still a bit shaggy-looking, but it was definitely lower than it was the night before. So she hadn't imagined the headless lawnmower man, or at least she hadn't entirely imagined him. But what about the steps and whispering on the stairs? Megan wondered if there might be enough dust on the stairs and in the hall to see something. But the only footprints could have belonged to her, Jessie, and Harry. She wondered if that was good or bad. The fact that she had awakened back in her "bed" made her wonder if she had imagined the whole thing.
One thing she determined, however, was that she needed to find out how to keep the power on overnight. If she could help it, she would not be left staring at a darkened staircase if that sort of thing ever happened again. That brought back too many childhood nightmares of being afraid in the dark, throwing a light switch, and nothing happening.
After breakfast, Megan put the kids to work on the front parlor while she got a shower, reminding herself to add "shower curtain" on her next "grocery list."
Then she told the kids she was going to check at the station on the off chance that the train had come and they hadn't heard it. Harry asked if he could come along, and she agreed. For once Jessie didn't feel like she needed to tag along.
When they started out, Megan suggested going a block or two west so they could see more of the town. She thought that would take her nearer the courthouse-looking building. Maybe if someone was willing to show his or her face, they would know who handled the electric service.
The progression from colonial-era houses to early 20th century structures mirrored the street they had climbed only two days earlier. As they approached the lowest east-west street in the town, Megan could see a courthouse-type structure. It had limestone steps and big Greek columns, but was actually only one story tall. A pretentious edifice if she'd ever seen one. Over the doorway were chiseled the words "Forresterville Town Hall." Unfortunately, the door was locked and the building looked dark. Megan was turning away when she noticed a sign in a corner of a window that said, "Clerical help needed. Apply within." In spite of the neglected appearance of everything else on the building, the sign looked new.
Megan had never been a secretary, but she could type like anything, and her income stream had been disrupted, to say the least. The door was locked, however. She knocked on the door and looked for a doorbell to no avail. Megan stepped back from the door and looked around.
Beyond the town hall was what looked like an abandoned school building, probably dating back to the WPA era. Though it was still summer, Megan was wondering what the kids would be doing for an education this fall. Megan walked past rusting playground equipment to examine the entrance for notices or signs of any kind. There were none. The door was locked and padlocked, and everything looked dark inside. Darker than you might expect, as though the windows had been painted black from the inside.
"Is this going to be our school?" Harry asked.
"I don't know," Megan answered. They turned East toward the station. After passing a few abandoned-looking storefronts, some with signage obviously left over from the amusement-park era, they found themselves crossing in front of yet another row of those toothy-looking houses. Megan couldn't help noticing that several of them had the same kind of cut-but-shaggy-looking lawns she now had, even though their windows were dark. She was almost tempted to go up and pound on their doors and ask them what was going on.
Before long Megan and Harry had reached the station. The door was unlocked, and when they went inside, there was a box in the grocery section with "F" scrawled on one side. It was her previous "grocery" order with an itemized bill from a regional "superstore" chain. Megan realized now why the groceries on the station's shelves were half again what she was used to paying—whoever was doing the shopping was just picking the requested items off the shelves without paying attention to price or value. This box of groceries, light bulbs, vacuum cleaner bags, and cleaning supplies might have cost Megan $85 in her old town. Here it cost $132, and that was without any kind of surcharge for shopping and delivery. Maybe that wasn't an issue for the other residents of Fosterville, but it was for Megan. This made her even more determined to check into that "clerical" job, if there really was one.
Megan still had nothing smaller than a twenty. She rooted through the station desks until she found a paper clip, then paper-clipped seven twenties to the receipt before she dropped it into the money box. Then she pinned her new grocery list on the bulletin board next to the box. Though she realized she was being nosey, she couldn't help pausing to see what other folks had requested. To her surprise, several had listed perishables like milk and eggs. Megan looked around the station until she found a refrigerator in the back corner of the store-room. Sure enough, it contained milk, eggs, a few heads of broccoli and lettuce, and a package of bacon. Each item was labeled with one or two initials. Somehow knowing that at least some of the "ghosts" ate bacon was reassuring. In the very back of the refrigerator were three packages of some kind of medicine whose name Megan didn't recognize. And there was one prescription for a special skin cream that Bert used to order online for what he called a "family skin condition." So you could order prescriptions, too. That was helpful to know in case one of the family got sick.
Megan added two gallons of 2% milk and two dozen large eggs to her grocery list, wincing when she realized that the undiscerning shopper picking these items up would probably pay twice what she would. She tried to comfort herself with the fact that at the moment, she seemed to be getting her electricity—and consequently her water—for "free," which should nearly make up the difference. And thinking about that reminded her that she still needed to figure out the electricity issue, or she would have no business buying milk or eggs.
As Megan and Harry had trudged up the hill with the groceries, Megan could see that Jessie was sitting on the front porch. At first Megan was a bit angry—there was work Jessie could be doing. But as she got closer, Megan realized that Jessie looked a tad shaken. What had happened now?
When she reached the house, Megan told Harry to get the groceries into the kitchen. "Mom, you've got to see this," was all Jessie could say. And she led Megan into the house and up the stairs to the fourth floor. "I ran out of clean washcloths and went looking for more."
When Jessie opened the door to the room on the left, and flipped on the light switch, Megan was startled by the sudden impression of a dozen women of all shapes and sizes watching them. Tall women, short women, fat women, skinny women, women with physical disfigurements. All wearing blue jeans and T-shirts like Megan and Jessie. In fact, they were Megan and Jessie.
"I know it's just mirrors," Jessie said, "But they scared the beejeebers out of me."
"I bet," said Megan. She called downstairs and said, "Harry, you've got to see this." Harry came bounding up. He thought the mirrors were hilarious and started making faces in front of his favorites. Megan let him play for a minute, then said, "Harry, I need you to pay attention when you're exploring. Who knows what else is in here? So if you run into anything that looks out of place, let me know before you mess with it, okay?"
"Sure, Mom," Harry said, while bouncing up and down in front of a mirror that made it look like his head was four times larger than life.
"Are you listening to me?" Megan said, and Harry actually turned away from the mirror to look at her.
"I shouldn't mess with strange-looking stuff without letting you know first."
"Like that big hole at the end of the hall on the second floor."
"You know, that big hole at the end of the hall."
Harry led them to what looked like a dead end in the west hallway. Here the walls were paneled. "Look in there," Harry said, pointing to a crack between two panels. Megan peered into the crack but could see nothing. Harry said, "There's some give. Pull on it, and you can see more." Megan pulled back on one of the panels, but could still only see darkness.
"Maybe it was a broom closet they closed in for some reason," she said.
Harry said, "But then why is there one on every floor?"
By now, Megan was intrigued. "Do you suppose this house had an elevator once? Whatever it is, leave it alone. Elevator shafts are very dangerous. And we have more important things to do."
"Starting with laundry," said Jessie, "We're out of clean towels again."
Megan said, "The good news is that we have new vacuum cleaner bags. And paper towels. And light bulbs."
Megan threw yet another load of towels and washcloths into the washing machine then wondered if she should bother hanging them out. Then thinking about the clerical job, she pulled out her old laptop and hooked up the little printer she had brought along. When her computer had warmed up, a message asked her if she wanted to connect to a wireless network. Though she figured there would be nothing in reach of their house, Megan clicked on "Yes." To her surprise two strong and four weak wireless networks were in range. All but one were password-protected. Megan wondered if there would be any repercussions from attempting to connect to the one that wasn't "secure." She tried, and got in, then panicked and logged out again.
Megan found a file containing her most recent resume, then added the last job she had held. Then, her "What Would Jason Do?" mindset kicked in again. She re-edited the file to take out any specifics that could tie her back to her previous life. By the time she was done, the new version contained list of skills, training, and of jobs she had done, but no company names, school names, no locations or contact information.
Then Megan wondered whether she should include a cover letter. Finally, she added a page that only listed "Forrester House" as her address, then said that she was interested in the clerical job, and could type seventy words a minute, file, and do spreadsheets. She signed the "cover letter" with an F, and hoped that would get the idea across in a community that seemed to be obsessed with secrecy.
By then, the towels were clean, and Megan put them in a laundry basket and took them out to the back porch. She left them in the basket there, then added a note that said, "Dear Neighbor. Thanks for your help with the laundry. And please thank Gene for mowing the grass. Two questions: How do I keep electricity going at night? And how do I get this resume to the city hall person who needs help? Thanks, F." She put the note, her resume and cover letter under a rock and left a pen with it. Then she got out the paper towels and started on the remains of the raccoon poop. While she was doing that, Harry and Jessie beat out the rugs and removable furniture cushions from the first floor rooms. Then they vacuumed the rest as thoroughly as they could. It took three of Megan's vacuum-cleaner bags. But with any luck the whole first floor would be livable by nightfall. And maybe they could sleep on the couches instead of the floor.
After a couple hours of cleaning, Megan went outside to cool off. The laundry was gone, and so were her resume and cover letter. Under Megan's note was written: "1. Black curtains. 2. I'll get it to the Mayor. 3. That was Gene's wireless network you piggy-backed on for a second this morning. Go ahead and use it; you're quite safe as long as you stay off the social networks and don't say or do anything to indicate who or where you are. 4. You're welcome, L."
Black curtains? Megan thought for a minute, then realized that the secretive Fosterville residents must enforce nighttime blackout conditions like the British cities did during World War II. How could the Forresters accomplish that sort of thing? Short of closing all of the shutters every night? Come to think of it, that was worth doing, if it meant having cold milk in the morning. Megan added the line "OK with the blackout" on her note and went back indoors. Later that afternoon, Megan found her laundry folded and dried. On the bottom of the note page was the line, "You may receive visitors tonight about 9:30."
What kind of visitors, Megan wondered. On one hand, she had been hoping to meet someone face to face who could answer her questions. On the other hand, based on the residents' proclivity for bizarre costumes and even stranger behavior, what were they in for? But after she had worried over both of those questions long enough, she realized that the house, which was beginning to be borderline livable, was by no means presentable for visitors.
As Megan reentered the kitchen, laundry basket under one arm, she shouted, "Kids, we're getting company tonight." Then she explained the blackout restrictions and passed out light bulbs. "We can replace as many light bulbs as we want through the house, but at night, there can't be one glimmer of light."
The family spent about an hour replacing burnt-out light bulbs throughout the first three floors of the house. Megan noticed how much worse the ankle-deep dust and occasional mouse poop looked in decent lighting and promised herself that they would get the second floor cleared out in a few weeks. For one thing, she would really be glad to be in a bed again. But of course, that begged the problem of whether any of the mattresses were usable, or whether she could stand the thought of sleeping on them if they were.
Megan realized she had stopped being productive and went back downstairs, now with a more critical eye. Harry could probably get the kitchen clean enough if he worked hard. The library was the next cleanest room, but it wasn't a good room for entertaining visitors. The rooms that they had taken to calling the "living room" and the "parlor" were both cluttered with Forrester family junk that had migrated to those rooms after they became non-repulsive. But those would be the rooms to entertain in. Megan directed the kids to vacuum one of the second-floor rooms and move all of the family's unsorted stuff there.
Then Megan looked in the refrigerator and pantry for something to serve their unknown guests. She couldn't think of anything. She told Jessie to go to the station and look for cake, cookie, or brownie mixes that just needed water. Or if there weren't any, "store-bought" cookies or crackers. "You can go up to eight dollars," she told her. Jessie came back without incident and with three brownie mixes that didn't require eggs or milk. When her Mom asked why she got three, she answered, "You said to go up to eight dollars."
That evening, after the Forresters had eaten, washed up, and put away their dishes, they made the rounds, closing every shutter on the house. They didn't use the hurricane boards to "bar" them, though—that would be very dangerous in case of a fire. Then they closed the doors and waited.
Megan used the time to plug in her computer again and check on the medicines she had seen in the station's refrigerator. Okay, that was being really nosy, but she had never heard of those prescriptions before, and her neighbors were revealing nothing about themselves, period. They were blood supplements, used to treat a range of diseases, mostly genetic. Some involved allergy to sunlight. One medicine was only prescribed for a very rare disease that exhibited what the medical site called "hirsute" symptoms – excess hair all over the face and body.
To her surprise and growing uneasiness, Megan learned that all of the medicines were actually extracted from human blood. Had she stumbled into a community of vampires? But as a mother, she couldn't help wondering how much such medicines must cost and what kind of burden that must place on the family who needed it. What if Harry had one of those illnesses? She wouldn't care where the medicine came from or how much it cost, if it would keep him healthy.
Twilight passed and they still had electricity. Dusk came, and they still had electricity. Harry was just saying, "Great, we did it," and Megan was moving a floor lamp over a big stain in a rug, when then the massive doorknocker on their front door sounded, resounding through the house like a cannon.
Megan opened the door to welcome in two women, who seemed just a few years older than she, as far as she could tell through the heavy make-up. One reminded Megan of a modestly-dressed Elvira, and the other reminded her of the Bride of Frankenstein. "Welcome to the Forrester home," she said as graciously as she could. "Please come in."
"Thank you," said the Bride of Frankenstein. "I'm Geneva, and this is Rebecca." When the company was seated, Rebecca said, "I know you haven't had much welcome here, and we apologize, but this has been Spook Hill for a long time, and folks here have certain ways of doing things."
That was the understatement of the century, Megan thought. But aloud, she only introduced Harry and Jessie, then asked the kids to bring in the snacks. Then she asked, "So, what can I do for you this evening?"
"Well, it's really what we can do for you," Geneva said. "We're on the school board, and we wanted to help you get your kids registered for school this fall."
Megan said, "You have a school here? I've been to the building and it looked pretty shut down."
"I know," said Geneva. "But it's really very nice inside. We just don't want to attract attention."
This time Megan said, "That's the understatement of the year," and Rebecca stifled a cough that sure sounded like a laugh when it started out.
Megan said, "Listen, we only moved here because . . . ."
Geneva interrupted her and said, "Here in Spook Hill, we don't talk about why we're here. Folks have all kinds of reasons for living here, and it's better if you don't ask or tell anyone why."
Megan said, "It sounds like everything here is on a 'need to know' basis. But you have to see how frustrating it is for a newcomer."
Geneva smiled nicely, "Yes, we know it must be. But I can share this. Many of the people are here because their trust was shattered somehow in the outside world, and they take a long time to trust new people."
"So, I'm a single mother with two kids trying to find someplace to stay in a crisis, and a bunch of folks dressed up—no offense—like horror movie rejects are having trouble trusting us?"
Geneva said, "Yes, it does sound pretty silly when you put it like that. But you have no idea of how much danger some of these folks would be in if their whereabouts got out, or how much some of us have been hurt by the pinks, er that's what we call people outside town."
Megan wasn't convinced, and her face must have shown it, because Rebecca rushed to explain. "I can't say anything about any particular family. But think about whether this is possible. Imagine an isolated community, where almost everyone is descended from a few early families. Then imagine that just one of those families carries a recessive gene that triggers a blood disorder. Within a few generations, all the families in town carry that gene, and suddenly a whole generation of children turns out to be allergic to sunlight."
Megan nodded. Suddenly the medicines in the station refrigerator made more sense.
Rebecca continued. "In those days, there wasn't any such thing as sun-block. And the families had to keep the kids indoors during daylight or slather them with zinc oxide."
Megan remembered zinc oxide from her kids' diaper days. It was as white as clown makeup. She nodded, then Geneva took over the explanation.
"Such a town could get a reputation for being haunted by 'ghost children' who were whiter than sheets and only came out at night. How long would it take for strangers to start sneaking into town to get a look at the freaks, maybe even trying to catch one? Or for ignorant preachers across the bog to claim that spirits of evil had taken over the town and that the neighboring communities should band together and burn them out."
Megan had grown up in a backwater herself. As a child, she had witnessed enough ignorance and bigotry for these ladies' story to sound uncomfortably plausible.
"So imagine that the town leaders decided to destroy all the ways into town except one. And started figuring out ways to scare the dickens out of anyone who did get in."
Megan looked over at Jessie and Harry, who were both wide-eyed, but seemed to be following everything well enough. "But then your groundwater was poisoned . . . "
"No, that was a hoax so developers could have the town condemned."
"You're talking about the amusement park people now," Megan said.
Geneva nodded. "The town already had a reputation for being haunted. Why not make some money off of it?"
Megan nodded. "But you didn't leave."
Rebecca interrupted, "Well, our folks, really - we were just kids then - let's just say that the construction crew kept encountering ghosts they hadn't brought in themselves. And eventually the developers' money ran out."
Megan said, "I get the idea. So your folks figured that if outsiders expected to find spooks here, they'd oblige them."
Rebecca said, "Oh, I never said any of this happened. I'm just saying this is something that could have happened. If you need more details, you'll probably have to wait a while. And even what I told you wouldn't be the only thing that keeps folks here."
Megan nodded. "I see. Need to know. So you're saying there are other children here, but they only come out at night?"
Geneva nodded. "And teenagers, too. We have soccer leagues and Bible Quiz teams and high school musicals. We just do it all at night or underground."
Harry said, "Cool," while Jessie shot her mother a look that said, "This is not cool."
Geneva opened a bag she had carried into the house. "At any rate, here are your children's registration forms for school. Have them bring them down on September fourth, at 8:30PM. Make sure they get a good day's sleep before school starts. Don't worry about getting their records from the other schools, we already have them. Don't ask how. Now we should probably leave you folks alone."
As the two stood, Rebecca caught Geneva's eye. Geneva stopped for a moment and added, "Oh, by the way, I just remembered. I saw the mayor on my way here and he said he liked the looks of your resume. He said you could drop by Town Hall tonight for an interview if you want."
Megan said, "Oh, that's awful sudden. I don't have anything clean to wear to an interview." Geneva laughed and made a hand motion that indicated her and Rebecca's garb. Megan laughed, too. "I guess I could always cut eyeholes in a sheet," she said.
Geneva said, "Now that sounds like a step in the right direction."
Jessie added, "Sure, if you can find a clean sheet in this place." Megan gave her a subtle kick in the ankle.