Chapter no 8

Hidden Pictures

That night the whole family goes out for dinner. Caroline invites me to join in, but I tell her I need to run, and then I putter around the cottage until I hear her car backing out of the driveway.

Then I walk across the lawn to the house next door.

Mitzi has one of the smallest houses on the block, a redbrick ranch with a metal roof and roller shades drawn tight over every window. Her place would look right at home in my old neighborhood of South Philly, but here in well-to-do Spring Brook it’s a bit of an eyesore. The rusty rain gutters are sagging, weeds have sprouted in the sidewalk cracks, and the mottled yard could use some help from Lawn King. Caroline has commented more than once that she can’t wait for Mitzi to move away, so a developer will bulldoze the house and start over.

There’s a small handwritten note taped to the front door:


times before Mitzi finally answers. She keeps the chain latched and peers out through the one-inch gap. “Yes?”

“It’s Mallory. From next door?”

She unlatches the chain and opens the door. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you scared the heck out of me!” She’s wearing a purple kimono and clutching a canister of pepper spray. “What are you thinking, banging on the door so late?” It’s just a few minutes past seven and the little girls down the street are still out on the sidewalk playing hopscotch. I

present a small plate of cookies covered in Saran Wrap. “Teddy and I made gingersnaps.”

Her eyes go wide. “I’ll put on coffee.”

She grabs my wrist and pulls me into a darkened living room, and I blink my eyes to adjust to the gloom. The house is dirty. The air has a musty, skunky smell that’s part cannabis and part high school locker room. The sofa and armchairs are shrouded in clear plastic slipcovers, but I can see a layer of grime on the surfaces, as if they haven’t been wiped down in months.

Mitzi leads me into the kitchen and I find the back of her house a little more pleasant. Her shades are open and the windows overlook the forest. Spider plants hang from the ceiling in baskets with long leafy tendrils spilling over the sides. The cabinets and appliances are straight out of the 1980s and everything feels familiar, cozy, like my neighbors’ kitchens in South Philly. Spread across the Formica kitchen table are sheets of newspaper and several oiled pieces of black metal, including a spring and a barrel and a trigger. I realize that if a person assembled these pieces in the right order, the result would be a handgun.

“You caught me cleaning it,” Mitzi explains, and with a sweep of her arm she pushes everything to one side of the table, jumbling all the parts. “Now how do you take your coffee?”

“Do you have decaf?”

“Yuck, no, never. That’s just chemicals in a cup. Tonight we’re drinking good old-fashioned Folgers.”

I don’t want to tell her I’m in recovery so I just say I’m very sensitive to caffeine. Mitzi promises one little cup won’t hurt me and I figure she’s probably right.

“I’ll take some milk, if you have it.”

“We’ll use half-and-half. It has a fuller flavor.”

An old Kit-Cat Klock hangs on the wall, grinning mischievously, its tail swishing back and forth. Mitzi plugs an ancient Mr. Coffee machine into the wall and fills its

reservoir with water. “How’s everything next door? You like the job?”

“It’s good.”

“Those parents must drive you crazy.” “They’re fine.”

“I don’t know why that woman works, if we’re being honest. I’m sure the husband makes plenty. And you know the VA hospital doesn’t pay squat. So why not stay home? Who is she trying to impress?”


“Some women don’t want to be mothers, in my opinion. They want children, they want cute pictures to put on Facebook. But do they want the actual experience of mothering?”


“I’ll tell you one thing: The boy is adorable. I could gobble him up. I would babysit him for nothing, if they’d asked me nicely, if they just showed me a little common courtesy. But that’s the problem with Millenniums! They don’t have any values!”

She keeps talking while we wait for the coffee, sharing her frustrations about Whole Foods Market (overpriced), #metoo victims (whiny and entitled), and daylight saving time (never mentioned anywhere in the Constitution). I start to wonder if coming here was a mistake. I need to talk to someone, and I’m not sure if Mitzi is much of a listener. I’m developing a theory about Teddy’s drawings but I don’t want to worry Russell and I definitely can’t tell the Maxwells; they’re such devout atheists, I know they’ll never consider my ideas. Mitzi is my last best hope.

“Can you tell me more about Annie Barrett?” This stops her short.

“Why are you asking?” “I’m just curious.”

“No, Princess, that’s a very specific question. And forgive me for saying this but you don’t look so hot.”

I make Mitzi promise not to say anything—especially to the Maxwells—then I place Teddy’s latest artwork on the table.

“Teddy’s drawing some unusual pictures. He says he’s getting these ideas from his imaginary friend. Her name is Anya, and she visits him in his bedroom, when no one else is around.”

Mitzi examines the drawings and a shadow falls over her face. “So why are you asking about Annie Barrett?”

“Well, it’s just that the names are so similar. Anya and Annie. I know it’s normal for children to have imaginary friends. Lots of kids do. But Teddy says Anya told him to draw these pictures. A man dragging a woman through a forest. A man burying a woman’s body. And then Anya told Teddy to give these pictures to me.”

A silence settles over the kitchen—the longest silence I’ve yet experienced in Mitzi’s presence. All I can hear is Mr. Coffee gurgling and the steady swish-swish-swish of the Kit-Cat’s tail. Mitzi studies the illustrations carefully—almost like she’s trying to see through the illustrations, past the pencil marks and into the fibers of the paper. I’m not sure she fully understands what I’m driving at, so I spell it out for her:

“I know this sounds crazy, but I guess I’m wondering if Anya’s spirit is somehow bound to the property. If she’s trying to communicate using Teddy.”

Mitzi stands up, goes over to the coffeepot, and fills two mugs. With trembling hands, she carries the mugs back to the table. I pour in some cream and take a sip and it is the strongest, most bitter coffee I’ve ever tasted. But I drink it, anyway. I don’t want to insult her. I’m desperate for someone to listen to my theory and tell me I’m not crazy.

“I’ve done some reading about this,” Mitzi finally says. “Historically, children have always been more receptive to the spirit community. A child’s mind doesn’t have all the barriers we adults put up.”

“So—it’s possible?”

“Depends. Have you mentioned anything to his parents?” “They’re atheists. They think—”

“Oh, I know, they think they’re smarter than everyone else.”

“I want to do more research before I sit down with them. Try to connect the dots. Maybe something in these pictures overlaps with Annie Barrett’s story.” I lean across the table, talking faster. Already I can feel the caffeine waking up my central nervous system. My thoughts are sharper, my pulse is quickening. I’m no longer bothered by the bitter taste and I take another sip. “According to Teddy, the man in these drawings stole Anya’s little girl. Do you know if Annie had any children?”

“That’s a really interesting question,” Mitzi says. “But the answer will be clearer if I start at the beginning.” She settles back in her chair, getting comfortable, and pops a cookie into her mouth. “Just remember, Annie Barrett died before I was born. So these are stories I heard growing up, but I can’t guarantee they’re actually true.”

“That’s fine.” I take another sip of coffee. “Tell me everything.”

“The original owner of your house was a man named George Barrett. He was an engineer for DuPont, the chemical company, up in Gibbstown. He had a wife and three daughters, and his cousin Annie came to live here in 1946, right after World War II. She moved into your guest cottage and she used it as a kind of studio-slash-guest-house. She was about your age and very pretty, long black hair and just knockout gorgeous. All the GIs are coming home from Europe and they go nuts for her, they forget all about their high school sweethearts. They start coming around George’s house day and night, asking if his cousin is free to talk.

“But Annie’s shy, she’s quiet, she keeps to herself. She doesn’t dance or go to the movies, she turns down all their invitations. And she doesn’t even go to church, which was a

big no-no back then. She just stays in her cottage and paints. Or she walks around Hayden’s Glen, looking for subjects to sketch. And so gradually the whole town kind of turns on her. Word gets around that she’s an unwed mother, that she put her child up for adoption and moved to Spring Brook in disgrace. Then the rumors get even worse. People say she’s a witch, and she’s luring all the husbands into the woods to have sex with them.” Mitzi laughs at the absurdity of the idea. “Because that’s just how women talk, you know? I’m sure all the moms on this block say the same things about me!”

She takes another sip of coffee and continues: “Anyway, so one day George Barrett walks over to the cottage, knocks on the door, no answer. He goes inside and there’s blood everywhere. All over the bed, all over the walls. ‘Up to the rafters,’ he told my father. But there’s no body. No sign of Annie anywhere. George calls the police and the whole town searches the forest, combing all the trails, dragging nets through the creek, search dogs, the whole nine yards. And you know what they found? Nothing. She vanished. End of story.”

“Has anyone lived in the cottage since the ’40s?”

Mitzi shakes her head no. “My parents said George nearly knocked it down. To erase the memory of the tragedy. Instead he turned it into a toolshed. And like I told you, when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, we all called it the Devil House. We were all afraid of it. But it was just a tall tale, a local legend in our own backyard. I never saw anything that truly frightened me.”

“What about the next owners? After George died?”

“Well, after George passed, his wife sold the house to Butch and Bobbie Hercik. They were my neighbors forty years. They built the pool that you and Teddy go swimming in. We were real close, terrific friends.”

“Did they have children?”

“Three girls, two boys, and zero problems. And I was close with Bobbie. If her kids were drawing dead people, she’d have told me.” Mitzi takes another sip of her coffee. “Of course they had the good sense to leave the guest cottage alone. Maybe when the Maxwells fixed it up, they disturbed something. Unlocked some kind of hostile energy.” I imagine myself approaching Ted and Caroline and warning that they’d released a malevolent spirit. I’m pretty sure they would start searching Craigslist for a new babysitter. And then what would I do, where would I go? My heartbeat surges, like a revving engine stuck in neutral, and

I rest a hand on my chest.

I need to relax.

I need to calm down.

I need to stop drinking coffee.

“Would you mind if I used your bathroom?”

Mitzi points me back toward the living room. “First door on your left. The light’s on a string, you’ll see it.”

The bathroom is small and cramped, with an old-fashioned clawfoot tub that’s cocooned in vinyl shower curtains. The instant I turn on the light, a silverfish skitters across the tiled floor and disappears through a crack in the grout. I lean over the sink, turn on the faucet, and splash my face with cold water. My heart palpitations level off and I reach for a guest towel, only to find they’re all covered with a fine layer of dust, like they haven’t been touched in years. There’s a pink terry cloth robe hanging on the back of the door and I use its sleeve to blot my face dry.

Then I open Mitzi’s medicine cabinet and take a quick look around. Back in high school I used to snoop in bathrooms all the time, because you’d be amazed at the prescription pharmaceuticals that people left unsupervised; I could skim pills and sometimes entire bottles without anyone getting suspicious. And I guess with my heart racing and my legs shaking I feel like I’m back in high school again. Mitzi’s medicine chest is stocked like a freaking Walgreens,

four crowded shelves of Q-tips and cotton balls, medicated pads and petroleum jelly, tweezers, antacids, and half-flattened tubes of Monistat and hydrocortisone. Plus a dozen orange prescription bottles, everything from Lipitor and Synthroid to amoxicillin and erythromycin. And way, way, way in the back, hidden behind all the others, is my old friend oxycodone. I had a hunch I’d find some. These days, almost everyone has Oxy in their house, a half-finished bottle of pills left over from a minor surgical procedure. And few people ever notice when these pills go missing.…

I twist off the cap and peer inside the bottle: empty. Then Mitzi taps on the door and I nearly drop everything in the sink. “Make sure you hold the handle when you flush, okay? I’ve got a problem with my flapper.”

“Sure,” I tell her. “No problem.”

And suddenly I’m furious with myself for snooping, for backsliding. I feel like Mitzi’s caught me red-handed. I blame the coffee—I never should have had the coffee. I put back the bottle and turn on the tap and take long slurps of cold water, hoping to dilute the toxins in my system. I’m ashamed of myself, nineteen months sober and snooping around an old lady’s medicine cabinet. What the hell is happening to me? I flush the toilet and hold the lever until all the water goes down.

When I return to the kitchen, Mitzi is waiting at the table with a wooden board that’s covered with letters and numbers. I realize it’s some kind of Ouija board—but it’s nothing like the flimsy cardboard sets I remember from childhood sleepovers. This one is a thick slab of maple engraved with arcane symbols. It looks less like a toy and more like a butcher’s block.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Mitzi says. “If this spirit wants to tell you something, let’s cut out the middleman. Bypass Teddy and contact her directly.”

“Like a séance?”

“I prefer the term ‘gathering.’ But not here. We’ll get better results in your cottage. How about tomorrow?”

“I have to watch Teddy.”

“Right, I know, we need Teddy involved. This spirit has attached herself to him. We have a much better chance of communicating if he joins us.”

“No way, Mitzi. I can’t.” “Why not?”

“His parents would kill me.” “I’ll talk to them.”

“No, no, no,” I tell her, and panic creeps into my voice. “You promised you wouldn’t say anything to them. Please, Mitzi, I cannot lose this job.”

“Why are you so worried?”

I tell her about the House Rules from my job interview— how I’ve been hired to teach science, not religion or superstition. “I can’t bring Teddy to a séance. If he sneezes, I can’t even say ‘God Bless You.’”

Mitzi taps the drawings with her finger. “These pictures aren’t normal, sweetie. Something weird is happening in that house.”

I take back the drawings, stuff them into my bag, and thank her for the coffee. My pulse is revving again—more heart palpitations. I thank Mitzi for the advice and open the back door to leave. “Just don’t say anything to them, okay? I’m trusting you to keep this secret.”

She covers her wooden board with a sheath made of black velvet. “My offer stands if you change your mind. And I pretty much guarantee you will.”



I’m back at my cottage by eight o’clock and still awake at four in the morning. Sleeping is impossible. The coffee was a huge mistake. I try all the usual tricks—deep breaths, a glass of warm milk, a long hot shower—but nothing helps.

The mosquitoes are relentless, and the only way to quiet them is to pull the sheets up over my head, exposing my bare feet. I’m just so disappointed in myself. I can’t believe I opened her goddamn medicine cabinet. I toss and turn and obsess over my two minutes in Mitzi’s bathroom, trying to pinpoint the exact moment my brain switched to autopilot. I thought I could manage my addiction, but apparently I’m still Anything-for-a-Bump Mallory, still raiding medicine cabinets for ways to get high.

I wake to my alarm at seven o’clock, feeling groggy and ashamed of myself—and determined not to backslide again.

No more coffee, ever.

No more obsessing over pictures. And no more talk of Annie Barrett.

Thankfully, when I get to the big house, there’s a brand-new crisis to distract me. Teddy’s favorite charcoal pencils have gone missing and he can’t find them anywhere. We walk to the art store to buy a new pack and as soon as we’re home, he hurries upstairs for Quiet Time. I’m still exhausted from my sleepless night so I move into the den and collapse on the sofa. I only mean to close my eyes for a few minutes, but once again Teddy has to shake me awake.

“You’re napping again!”

I leap to my feet. “Sorry, Teddy Bear.” “Are we going swimming?” “Definitely. Put your suit on.”

I feel a million times better. The nap was just enough sleep to recharge my batteries, to bring me back to baseline normal. Teddy runs to get his swimsuit and I see he’s left a new drawing facedown on the coffee table. And I know I ought to leave it there. Let his mother or father deal with it. But I can’t help myself. Curiosity gets the better of me. I turn the paper over, and this is pretty much the last straw.

Look, I know there are many different kinds of parents— liberal parents and conservative parents, atheist parents and religious parents, helicopter parents and workaholic

parents and totally toxic parents. And I know all these different parents have wildly different ideas about the best way to raise children. But when I study this picture and see Anya with her eyes squeezed shut and two hands wrapped tight around her neck—well, I think all parents would agree this is pretty fucked-up?


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