My job is simple. Everything in life has a sensible explanation attached to it. Paranormal studies is more about disproving spirits and ghouls rather than proving the existence of them.
Everyday, my inbox is inundated with letters, grainy photographs, overexposed video footage and countless ‘firsthand witness accounts’ of the supernatural.
Everything that I have ever had the pleasure of investigating I have been able to explain. Every story accounted for. Every shadow, every creek, every haunting. Everything, except one.
It had been an unusually warm November morning. Work had started to pick up once more, summer is always slow for the ghost hunters. It’s quite amazing how many haunting only ever take place on cold, dark, stormy nights.
I had come into the office earlier than usual. Sophia, my secretary, had not yet arrived which, in itself, was unusual, so I was quite surprised to find that I already had post waiting for me. Just one single letter on my desk.
The envelope was an aged looking thing, already browning around the edges, addressed to me. The handwriting was neat, written in blue fountain pen as I recall. I opened it to find a letter and two black and white photographs. The first photograph had something written on the back: “Netter’s 21st birthday – 19…” The date was hard to make out as the ink had run and smudged. 1981, was it? It was a group picture, two young men and two women in evening dress. They were laughing, arms around one another. The second was clearly older, it had no date but it was very worn and faded. It was of two boys aged around 12 or 13. One was small and skinny, the other quite tall and strong. The taller one was jokingly resting his elbow on the smaller one’s shoulder, both smiling happily into the camera. I put them to one side and moved on to the letter. The handwriting was small and neat, written in the same blue fountain pen. The paper was thin, like the airmail sheets one used to buy. I had to read it through a couple of times.
“If You have received this letter, then the worst that I predicted has happened. My name is Dr. J Barton, and this is my story. My life has been a good one, though there is much that I regret. I became a doctor of psychology to help people, that’s what I told myself. Perhaps the real truth is that I did it to atone. I send you this letter now not to beg for your help, but as a confession. I kept the secret for so many years, it is time that someone learned the truth.
My school years were more or less happy ones. I had a few close friends, although I was never what one would consider popular. I would often tried to get in with the ‘it’ crowd, although never to very much success.
My cousin, Marcus, was in the same year as me. He was my mother’s sister’s only child. He was small and sickly, with a slight learning disability. Although he was a bit older than me, he looked like he could be my junior by quite some years due to his appearance and behaviour. He was a good boy. Not just because he worked hard, always joined in and was polite to people. He was truly good. Pure.
I was always made responsible for Marcus, which I often resented. He was slow and needy. We would always spend the holidays together and everyone knew that I was his only friend. I blamed him for my luckless attempts at popularity, he was the undesired chain around my neck. Sometimes he would apologise to me, completely out of context, just a burst of ‘I’m sorry Jem’. I always discounted it as his pathetic simplicity, but now I see how much he felt it, the burden he created, how unwelcome he felt all of the time. It was never kept a secret from him, we took his stupidity for unfeeling. But of course he had feelings. Of course he had a soul. He understood everything. Saw everything. Felt everything.
We had been at her birthday party when it happened, Adriana. She was beautiful. Perfect. She was turning 13 and by sheer luck I had managed to acquire an invitation. I had loved her from the moment I had laid eyes on her.
On the day of the party my Aunty had popped over with Marcus. It instantly became apparent that I was going out and my mother suggested I take Marcus with me. At first, I tried to put it off politely. There would be lots of people he didn’t know and lots of noise, Marcus wouldn’t like it. But that didn’t work. I kept coming out with excuses, growing more and more desperate. There was no denying my tone, I didn’t want him. Aunty looked hurt, but agreed diplomatically saying that I should have time to myself with my other friends. Marcus said he didn’t mind, that it was fine but could he stay in my room and wait for me to come back. My mother on the other hand, was apoplectic. If she hadn’t made her mind up before, she was adamant now. I would go and Marcus would go with me. That was that.
I could not have been more angry, more ungracious towards him. How would I ever make a good impression on Adriana whilst having to look after my half-witted cousin? But it was too late. Too late to cancel and too late not to take him. I was stuck.
The party was already busy when we arrived. Marcus was giddy with excitement, I just felt wretched and hard done by. Why me? Why must I be stuck with him all night?
We had not been there five minutes when we were approached by some of our class mates – Stephen and Netter. “Come on,” she said. “We’re going down to the river. Apparently there’s a haunted cave down there.”
In truth, I didn’t really want to go. Any sense of adventure had been knocked out of me following the angry words of my mother. Marcus looked fully apprehensive and a little bit scared. I was about to turn them down politely, when Adriana came swishing towards us in her silk party frock. “What are you old women gossiping about?” She asked. Netter told her about the river and the cave. “Apparently it’s haunted,” I added, trying to sound nonchalant about the whole thing.
We walked down together, Marcus trailing behind looking nervous. “Why don’t you wait for me back at the house?” I told him. He shook his head, my aunty had told him that we were not split up.
The caves turned out to be some old sewage pipes, nothing particularly special or scary. “I dare you to go inside,” Stephen said to me teasingly. He started picking up stones and throwing them at nothing in particular, it was all a bit of an anticlimax. “Let’s go.” Marcus said to me, his eyes were big and glassy. I looked over at Adriana. “In a minute.” I replied to him.
We suddenly heard a noise, a sort of rustling scuffle and then Stephen giving a nervous half laugh half cry. We turned in time to see a rabbit struggling and then trying to scurry off. “I think I hit him,” said Stephen. The injured creature dragged itself off into the old sewer pipe, Marcus grew distraught.
“We have to help it!” He cried. Typical Marcus, always being the goody two shoes. I was still reeling at him from earlier. “Well go after it, if you care so bloody much.”
Of course, being Marcus, he took my words literally and went into the dark tunnel.
“Shouldn’t somebody go after him?” Asked Adriana nervously. “Will he be alright on his own?”
“He’s fine,” I answered.
Netter and Stephen wandered off and I couldn’t believe my luck that I had been left alone with Adriana, the girl of my dreams.
We stood and spoke for a while, about school and the party and other bits of gossip. I was suddenly aware that it was getting rather dark and Marcus had not returned but I was too consumed with Adriana to care.
The sky grew black and I could hear the roll of thunder in the distance and then the splatter of heavy rain drops started to fall. Within moments it was torrential and the waters around us started to rise, flowing at a rapid into the sewage pipe. Adriana started calling out to Marcus but there was no response. Netter and Stephen on hearing the commotion came back and also started calling out to him.
“We should run and get my parents,” Adriana said breathlessly. “He could drown down there.”
I suddenly panicked. “No, don’t get them. He’ll be alright. Let’s get shelter and come back when the rain has stopped.”
Everyone looked at me nervously, but the rain was really coming down and everyone wanted to be out of it.
The rain didn’t ease up. We waited for hours. Eventually, my mother arrived to pick me up. “Where’s your cousin?” She asked.
I explained in my calmest voice that he had run off, he had been playing a game. “I had told him not to, but he wouldn’t listen. I knew it was a bad idea him coming here.” My mother looked at me doubtfully. “Run off where? Inside the house, hiding you mean?”
I hesitated for a moment. “I don’t know. I’m sure he’ll turn up.”
“Well, have you looked?”
I didn’t answer. But I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach.
My mother walked around, asking the children of anyone had seen Marcus. Everyone said that they hadn’t, they hadn’t even realised he had come to the party. Adriana went up to my mother cautiously. “I think,” she started. “I think that he might have gone outside, down to the woods.” She bit her lip and looked down at the fall, I could see she was ashamed.
My mothers eyes changed from concern to sheer panic.
Soon, the whole room was sent to help find him. More parents had arrived to help with the search. It was so dark and the rain was still pouring down. I can remember seeing my mother coming back to the house from the rain. Scared, crying, having not found him.
It was two days before they found him. An accident the police had said. He had obviously gone into the tunnels alone and when the waters had started to pour in, he had clearly tried to get out quickly and had slipped and fallen. But that was not the worst. The inside of the tunnels had not been even and smooth, the rocks were sharp and jagged. Marcus had broken his leg, badly. Not being able to walk he had tried to crawl, but the water was too fast, eventually, without being able to escape, he drowned.
I thought of him, cold and alone, most likely crying from his injury. I couldn’t get the image out of my head. Marcus, clutching the injured rabbit. Marcus, trying to do the right thing and paying for it with his life.
Adriana, Netter and Stephen never spoke of that event to the police or my mother. We never spoke of it to one another either. Eventually I moved schools after being caught too many times with alcohol and cigarettes, disrupting the class on a regular basis.
My Aunty never quite looked at me in the same way. She eventually stopped visiting and a year after Marcus’ death, she passed away from symptoms quite unknown.
The years went by and I started to try and forgive myself for Marcus. I had counselling and my performance improved at school. Although I never told a single soul, I knew that I had to move on with my life.
Years later, I was reunited with my old friends at Netter’s 21st birthday. We had all moved on, we were all happy. Or so we thought. Adriana was still exceptionally beautiful, but it felt different this time.
We all decided to go for a walk in the moonlight, to clear our heads and to talk. We weren’t really paying attention to where we were going until we hit some water. And there it was. I had completely forgotten that Netter and Adriana had lived so near to one another when we were growing up.
The old sewage pipe.
Adriana started to shake, Netter looked at me with her hand over her mouth. “Oh god.” One of them said. “Let’s please leave.” But I couldn’t move. I was glued to my spot. Staring. Mesmerised. And that’s when we heard it.
“Jem! Jem! Help me. Please help me!”
Adriana had started to cry now. “It can’t be.”
Stephen kept looking over to me and laughing nervously. “Is this a joke?”
“Please help me!” The voice screamed. A shrill, desperate, horrible cry. The cry went straight through my head, straight to my chest, I couldn’t breathe. It wouldn’t cease, it kept going, crying and screaming, coughing and spluttering. I was shaking now, Stephen had grown white and the girls were crying.
And just like that. It stopped.
The four of us parted and never spoke again. I read in the paper a few years later that Stephen had hanged himself inside his closet. It was reportedly due to a bad business decision, but I was never convinced. Then, Netter. She was found in the bath. Wrists slashed. Finally, Adriana. She was the only one that left a note: “I just cannot live with myself anymore.” That was all it said. No one understood of course, no one, except me. Me. The one person who should have known better. The one person who should have followed him down into that damn place. The one person who told him that he should go. Me. Me. Me.
After so many years, I admit what I did. It’s too late for Marcus, for Stephen, for Netter and for Adriana. It’s too late for me. But someone needs to know the truth.
Do what you will with my letter.
I folded up the sheet of paper and sat motionless for some time. It was so different from the usual letters I received. I was familiar with the cries for help, the things that went bump in the night. But this? Was it a hoax? It felt to genuine, it had too much honesty, to much feeling.
I picked up the photos. So this was clearly Jeremy. Tall, strong, handsome. And little Marcus, so in awe of his cousin. Even from the single snap shot you could see that he was eager to please.
Then the picture from Netter’s party. You could spot Jeremy straight away, he had remained handsome and well built. It was easy to guess Adriana as well, the dark beauty with shiny long hair. I looked long and hard at the photo. They looked so happy, so free. And yet, there was a sadness to it. Perhaps it’s because they’re all…
But hang on, I still wasn’t sure whether Jeremy was dead or not. It only said that if I was reading the letter, the worst must have happened.
I called around and did some research. All the facts were corroborated. Marcus, died age 12 by drowning. Stephen, found hanging in the closet. Netter, found dead from exsanguination in the bath. And Adriana, she had overdosed and died in her sleep. All terrible, all suicides. I then tried to find Jeremy, that took the longest. There was no trace of him. He hadn’t practised in years and his whereabouts, according to an old colleague, had been unknown. His house and all his possessions had been sold. He didn’t even have a lawyer. I was almost about to give up when I received a call, it was from my friend who worked at the police department. A man named Jeremy Barton and he had been admitted to hospital some months ago. Nothing on him, just his driving license. He had been found in his car, it was parked in an old disused sewage pipe.
“So he’s still alive?” I asked hopefully.
“Sadly not,” my friend replied. “He had been in a coma all this time and just died last night.”
Cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning.
I couldn’t get my head around it. He had no family, no friends. Not even a lawyer. Who on earth sent me this letter then?
It was a pointless case to work on. There were no leads and nothing to follow up on anyway. The letter was written for confessions sake, and that had been it. The voices they had heard could be easily explained. A trick of the mind, the guilt had been playing on them for so long. Perhaps someone playing a sick joke. It was all possible.
I picked up the photos again. Not supernatural, I thought to myself, just sad. Tragic and sad.
It was then that I spotted it, I couldn’t believe that I had missed it before, for it was as plain as day. The small hand, the staring single eye, the foot. Peering from behind Jeremy’s later group photo, was a small, skinny, sickly looking boy. That wide, glassy stare. Marcus.