THE BROADCAST CIRCLE
By Aline Boucher Kaplan
This story was published in “Ghosts: An Anthology of Horror from the Beyond,”
edited by David Tyson, May 2015
I was driving fast down the twisty back road, trying to get home before midnight, when the woman ran out of the darkening woods and into my headlights. Abandoning the gridlocked highway, I’d taken an impulsive shortcut onto this narrow road and was driving much faster than its twists and turns would allow.
The high beams gave me only a flash impression—an instantaneous image. She was dark-skinned but washed out, like in a black and white photo. Under a mop of wet dreadlocks, her eyes were wide with shock, her mouth open in a scream—or a cry for help. Her white shirt clung to her arms and chest. Staring straight at me, the woman raised both hands to ward off the impact.
I hit her while standing on the brakes.
When my car finally shimmied to a halt a hundred feet down the road, I sat for a few seconds, trying to breathe. My hands shook on the wheel and my brain raced in panic, telling me to just keep on driving: no one would ever know. But I had hit someone—I may have killed her—and I had to know.
I had already unbuckled my seatbelt, flung the door open, and gotten of the car when I realized that it might be a stupid thing to do. I had read more than a few Internet warnings about scams that get women to stop on a lonely road where they became easy prey. Except for my car, though, the road was empty.
I listened for a cry of pain, a scream of anger, a groan, but heard nothing. A cold October wind blew as the sun sank behind rows of thick pines. It sighed amid the needles and rattled the branches. I ran back to where I had hit the woman as fast as the three-inch heels on my boots would allow.
It wasn’t hard to find. The road crossed over a small stream that ran out of a flat marshy area on the left side of the pavement and emerged, dark and cold, on the right to curve around a small hill. A wooden barrier made from heavy beams ran along both of the road’s shoulders like a rustic bridge. I had seen the barrier as I approached the stream right before the woman came at me out of nowhere. She wasn’t there now.
Taking deep breaths and trying to calm my hammering heart, I walked first up one side and down the other. I looked down into the drainage ditches and out into the thick woods as far as I could see—which wasn’t far. Nothing. I found no blood on the road, no huddled heap of clothing and broken limbs in the ditch, no body floating in the stream. I was the only person on the road, or anywhere near it, for as far as I could see in either direction. Something odd was going on here. The wind raised an autumn smell of dry acorns and rotting leaves. I closed my coat against its cold touch.
A small abandoned house stood on the right up ahead. I had sped past it in the car without a second look but now I scrutinized it carefully. A rickety porch slumped away from the front door and the windows were boarded up. A rusty mailbox sagged on a tilted post. In the darkness, I couldn’t see the name on its side.
I knew I should look at the ramshackle building more closely, maybe search around the back in case she had run—or crawled—there, but I was reluctant to go near it. The structure was dark and creepy and it gave me chills. Still, the nuns had taught me to be conscientious and to take responsibility for my actions, so I forced myself to walk toward the old place. When I was about twenty-five feet away, a voice reached into me. I didn’t hear it with my ears—that would have been less frightening. Instead, the woman’s voice came into my head, running through it like a tune that gets inside your skull and won’t stop.
“No, no, please,” she pleaded. “Please don’t. No more. It hurts. Noooooo!”
Startled, I stepped back. The voice stopped. I hesitated, frozen, and listened. The wind blew and an owl hooted somewhere off in the woods. I had left the car door open and the warning chime drifted softly down the road. It was so quiet I could even hear the stream trickling through its culvert under the road. It made light music, as if delicate fingers were playing the water like a harp. I took a breath and stepped forward again.
The voice returned. “No, no, please,” she pleaded. “Please don’t. No more. It hurts. Noooooo.”
I pulled my foot back. The voice stopped. I had heard voices like this before: I knew that I could draw a circle around the building just by moving in and out of a circle that marked the edge of what I called a broadcast range. Inside that circle, the voice from the past would beg and plead over and over again, an energy recording that played continuously but could only be picked up by someone with the right antenna.
I had that antenna: Something terrible had happened inside the abandoned house. It was not happening now and I had no idea how long ago the woman had been hurt, but I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to know about it and nothing could get me to go any nearer. I ran back to the car. Its high beams drilled two tunnels of light in the night. The dome light through the open door made the car’s cabin warm and welcoming.
When I reached it, I forced myself to pause and check out the back seat to make sure no one had crawled in while I was out searching. The back seat was empty but the idea suddenly possessed me that someone was lurking under the car, ready to grab my ankles. “Oh, God!” I said. I stepped into the car, swung onto the driver’s seat, pulled the door shut and hit the lock button. Four reassuring chunks told me that all the doors were locked. “I don’t see things,” I told myself. “I never see things.”
I put the car in gear and took off without even checking the side mirror for oncoming traffic. I knew there wouldn’t be any. I drove fast through the darkness, past the sign that said
“YOU ARE NOW ENTERING EXBURY TOWNSHIP
HOME OF THE EXBURY PANTHERS”
There would be people in Exbury, lights, hot food, and safety. I realized that, technically, I had left the scene of an accident and I needed to report the whole thing as soon as possible. I could find the police station in Exbury but didn’t want to wait that long. I pulled over onto the shoulder and fumbled with my smartphone, ready to call 911. No Service. Of course, what did I expect in the middle of nowhere? I pulled back onto the road and kept going. Dark woods flowed by on either side of my high beams, uninterrupted by any sign of civilization.
I reached the intersection where Prescott Road crossed Route 62 and a small convenience store called the Speedy Gas lit up the road. It was made of concrete blocks painted white and a sandwich-board sign on the side of the road advertised Beer, Dunkin Donuts, and Lottery Tickets. A late-model SUV parked in front reassured me that I wouldn’t be alone if I stopped here. The Speedy Gas seemed like a place where ordinary folks dropped by to pick up a gallon of milk and a Megabucks ticket on the way home. I checked my phone again but still had no service. I unlocked the door and stepped out of the car.
Seeing nothing to spook me any further, I took my purse off the passenger seat, got out, and locked the car behind me. Crossing the parking lot, I pushed open the door and light washed over me along with the familiar smells of beer, coffee and magazines. A young man of medium height was talking across the counter to the attendant. He wasn’t a customer; he were just—as the sign promised—gassing. He and the attendant behind the cluttered counter looked up as I came in.
I pasted something like a smile on my face and walked up to the counter.
The attendant, his name tag said Paul, was a tall thin man with greasy black hair, high forehead and a prominent nose. A straggle of beard edged his chin over the collar of a plaid flannel shirt. He searched my face as I approached. “You all right, lady?” he said.
This startled me. I wanted to shout, No, I’m not all right! But I had to get a grip. “Not really,” I said, surprised to hear a quaver in my voice. “I think I just hit someone in the road.”
The two men looked at one another and back at me. They said nothing.
“I mean, I know I hit her but when I looked, I couldn’t find her anywhere.” I brushed hair back away from my face. “I have to call the police and I thought you might have a pay phone.”
“Why?” the attendant—Paul—asked.
I held up my phone. “No service,” I said.
“We got two payphones outside,” he said. “911 calls are free—but it don’t matter.”
“Out of order. “Have been for five years.”
He looked at the blonde man. “Sounds like we got another one, Dave,” he said.
The man nodded. He had a blonde buzz cut, gray eyes and a Michael Douglas cleft in his chin. “Could be,” he said. Then he turned to me. “Whereabouts did this accident happen, ma’am?”
“Where?” I thought how best to describe it. “Back down the road a little bit, near an old ramshackle house.”
The attendant rasped a hand over the dark five o’clock shadow on his broad jaw and asked, “Ya mean Renny Doane’s place?”
I shrugged “I guess. Not far from there. Why?”
The edges of his mouth twitched. “Lemme me guess,” he said. “Was she short and blond with a big, umm, chest, and wearing a red dress?”
‘No,” I said, confused. “Not at all.”
Dave chimed in. “Was she more average size and brunette with a pony tail? Wearing jeans and a gray sweater?” His voice was calm and he spoke with the courtesy of an ex-military man. I knew it well.
“No!” I protested. “She didn’t look anything like that.”
“Musta been the black woman, then,” said Paul. “She have one a them screwy hairdos, all wet, and a white shirt?”
I stared at him in shock. “Yes,” I said slowly. “That’s exactly what she looked like.”
“No need to call the police, then, ma’am,” said Dave. “You didn’t really hit her and she wasn’t really there, if you catch my drift.”
“Well, I don’t think I do,” I said. “I saw this woman plain as day. She ran right into my headlights. I was looking straight at her face when I hit her. I could even see the locket around her neck.” This detail surprised me. In the shock of the accident, it hadn’t registered until I heard the words come out of my mouth.
“Oval,” said Paul. “On a gold chain.”
I swung and stared at him. “Yes. Yes it was. Why? What’s going on here?”
He continued, “You saw her right around sunset, right? Just down from the old house?”
“Yes, I already told you that.”
“Well, ma’am,” said Dave, “you aren’t exactly the only driver to run into that lady, so to speak.”
“What he’s trying to say,” said Paul, “is that she’s one of those-whaddyacallem—appritions that haunt a stretch of road.”
“She’s a ghost,” said Dave bluntly. “Plain and simple. Just like the other two.”
“The other two?” I said, aware of how stupid I sounded repeating their words. “You mean there are more?”
“Two that we know of,” he said. “Those are the ones we described. There may be others but we’ve only heard about the three. Right, Paul?”
Paul nodded. “Never seen them,” he said. “If they’re real—and I ain’t saying they are, they don’t show themselves to men.”
“Oh,” I said, confused. “You mean only women see them?”
“Only women driving alone on Prescott Road.”
“At sunset,” added Paul grimly. “When it’s gettin’ dark.”
“Around here they’re called the Prescott Road Women,” said Dave. “Everybody in the Exbury area knows about them.”
I looked at each of them in disbelief, waiting for one of them to crack and start laughing, bracing myself for their guffaws at successfully stringing along a woman who was already upset. Thank you very much. I didn’t know whether to be relieved, embarrassed, or angry as I anticipated their scorn. How did they even know about me? Their faces didn’t change, though, and no one laughed.
“You’re serious,” I said.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Dave.
“So, who were they?”
He shrugged. “No one knows. They aren’t local women or somebody would’ve recognized them.”
“Right,” I said dully. “Do the police know?”
“Well sure,” said Paul, straightening up packets of chewing gum. “At least, they’ve heard all the stories.”
“If you had called 911,” said Dave, “they would have asked the same questions—and done nothing. But if you really need to report this, here’s your chance.” He pointed to the plate glass window at the front of the store that showed an Exbury police car swinging into the parking lot.
Paul turned to the burners behind him and started pouring a cup of coffee. “Mikey stops by every night to git a cup of my coffee. Says it keeps him awake for the rest of his shift.”
“It’s probably the pain of it eating his stomach lining,” Dave said. “Stuff tastes like battery acid.”
Paul smiled. “Does the trick.” He put a lid on the coffee just as the door opened and a uniformed officer came in. His name tag said, “Donahue.” He nodded at Paul and Dave, tipped his fingers to the brim of his hat in my direction and turned toward the counter. Paul handed him his coffee and said, “Lady here has somethin’ to tell you.”
Officer Donahue turned and looked at me, sizing me up.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “What would that be?”
“I, umm, I think I hit someone back down the road.”
He straightened up into an official stance and sharpened his look. He clearly knew that even a professional woman, well dressed and well spoken, could commit vehicular homicide. “Where?” he asked.
I told him.
I described the whole thing exactly as it had happened, starting with my reason for getting off the highway and onto Prescott Road in the first place. The only thing I omitted was why I had not gone near the old house. I didn’t want to mention that experience at all. He listened carefully and with respect, not interrupting me once. When my narrative slowed to a weary halt, he asked me just one question.
“When you hit this woman, did you hear a thump or feel the impact?”
It startled me. I thought hard, recalling that shocked face and the raised hands. “No,” I said finally. “I didn’t. I was focused on stopping the car but I didn’t feel or hear anything when I hit her.”
Officer Donahue pushed the brim of his hat back and scratched the shock of reddish hair that popped out. “What’s your name, ma’am?”
“Well, this is what we’re going to do, Miz Atterly. “You’re going to show me your license and registration and I’m going to look at the front of your car. Then I’m going to drive on down Prescott Road and check around the old house with my big light. Are you staying in Exbury tonight?”
I had been planning to get home before ten but the thought of two more hours behind the wheel was unbearable. My budget didn’t need the extra expense but I just wanted to eat some dinner and go to sleep. “I can,” I said. “What do you recommend?”
“There’s a Holiday Inn down Route 65; Paul and Dave can tell you how to get there. Stay there tonight and come by the station first thing tomorrow morning. We’re right on the town common. Ask for me. We should have things cleared up by then.”
I didn’t know what either “things” or “cleared up” meant but energy was draining out of me every second as the adrenalin dissipated. I wanted to return to my job search in the morning but no one was actually waiting for me there; Buffy was safely boarded with the vet. My sister was still back at the lake house and would be there for another week. I didn’t have to keep driving. So I just followed Officer Donahue’s instructions. He drove off down Prescott Road while I turned down Route 65.
The Holiday Inn wasn’t far. By the time I got there, I was too tired to consider a restaurant so I grabbed a sandwich and an apple in the lobby’s mini-store and went up to my room. I called the vet and left a message that Buffy would be staying with him one more day. I bit into my sandwich and thought about calling my sister but didn’t have the energy to go through the whole story again tonight. As soon as I finished my frugal dinner, I crawled into bed and let the darkness pull me into sleep.
The next morning, I checked out and followed the registration woman’s directions to the Exbury Police Station. I found a red brick building of no particular style, but the blue October sky made it seem warmer by contrast. I went in and asked the duty officer for Mike Donahue.
“He’s off duty now,” the desk officer said with a curious look, “but he came in this morning anyway.” He opened the flap in the counter and pointed toward a desk in the back where Officer Donahue was sitting. He was out of uniform and looked a great deal less official in his pressed shirt and jeans. He held a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in one hand. When he saw me he raised the other hand and waved me over. A Red Sox cap lay on the desk with a second cup of coffee next to it.
I greeted him and sat in the chair by his desk. He smiled and pushed the second coffee over to me. “It’s black but we have powdered creamer if you like,” he said.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied, sipping the coffee. The heat went straight to my empty stomach. Without breakfast to buffer it, the caffeine began singing in my veins.
“Well, ma’am,” Mike Donahue said, “I went back there last night and shone my light all over that area. There was nothing. No body, no woman, not even a road-kill coyote or raccoon. Even an animal that small would have done a lot of damage to your car but there’s no sign that you hit anything: no scratches, dents or blood. So I think you’re clear.”
I stared at him. “So you believe that story, too?” I asked. “You think she was just a ghost.”
He drank some coffee. “The Prescott Road Women,” he said like it was sad fact. “That story has been going around for years. We don’t have any proof or anything. It’s just a ghost story.”
“Officer Donahue, did any authorities ever check, you know, run a full search for those women?
He shook his head. “Call me Mike. We don’t spend any time looking for ghosts, Ms. Atterly. The local paper got a sketch artist in once and had him draw a couple of them from what people told him but nothing came of it. Nobody’s reported any missing women around here in years.”
“Call me Marion. Do you have the sketches? Can I see them?”
He shrugged. “Sure. We have copies. No harm in that.” He got up and strolled across the station to a bank of filing cabinets on the far wall. Opening a drawer, he flipped through the tabs, pulled out a manila folder and carried it over. He removed three sheets of paper and spread them out in front of me like playing cards. The drawings were well done, drafted in pencil with a startling amount of detail. The first two were of average-looking women whose faces held the same look of shock and horror as the one I had seen in my headlights. I turned to the third picture and froze. It was her: dreadlocks, wet shirt, locket, all of it. My mind went blank.
I looked up at Mike and he saw the answer in my eyes.
“What I thought. You didn’t hit anyone, Ms. Atterly, Marion. There was no one on Prescott Road last night for you to hit.”
I took another drink of coffee and thought while it burned down my throat. “Last night you said ‘they’re not from around here’ like that meant something.”
“Who else would be driving down Prescott Road? Exbury is a pretty quiet little town.”
I looked him straight in the eye. “I’m not from around here and I was on Prescott Road last night, wasn’t I?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, yes you were.”
“Did anyone check with the FBI? How about going through those data bases I see on TV shows?”
He drank some coffee. “Not as far as I know.”
“Ghosts,” I said firmly, “don’t just happen. Someone has to die before they make a ghost. They were real people once.” I stabbed my finger onto the paper. “It looks to me like these three women died on Prescott Road. It’s like they’re trapped out there and no one has done a thing about it.”
He put down his coffee cup. “Now don’t get all upset. We have investigated. When the reports first started coming in, we checked out Renny Doane’s house but didn’t find much. Some furniture too banged up to move and a couple of old rags, that’s all.”
“Did you take fingerprints, run DNA, any of that?”
Mike Donahue laughed outright. “Small town, small budget. This isn’t a TV show. I can just imagine how the Selectmen would chew out Chief Soames if he spent a month’s worth of budget analyzing a crime scene when no crime had been committed—or even reported.”
I stared at him. No crime.
“We did spray it with Luminol,” Mike added. You know what that is?”
I nodded. Anyone who watches CSI knows what Luminol is. “What did you see?”
His cheeks reddened. “No blood but a lot of semen. It looked like kids had been using the place to hook up. That’s not a crime.”
I looked down at the faces of three dead women. “How do you explain them?”
He shrugged. “Who can explain a ghost? Most people don’t believe they exist. They sure don’t leave fingerprints or DNA.”
I took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds, forcing my fingers to relax before I crushed the foam cup. Experience had taught me that no human reaction is stronger than denial. Faced with something difficult, unpleasant, outrageous, or otherwise unwelcome, people run for denial like a rabbit runs for its hole when a fox shows up. I thought about my walk down Prescott Road and the anguished voice broadcast from the old house. I had a reason to believe that the Prescott Road Women had come to a bad end there—a reason that no one else could have. It might not constitute proof in a court of law, or even evidence, but it meant I couldn’t just hide in denial either. Not any more. This was too important.
Mother Superior used to say that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar so I put on a smile and softened my voice. “Mike, would you do something for me?”
He nodded. “If I can, sure.”
“Would you drive back out to Prescott Road with me right now?”
His eyebrows rose. “I guess. But why?”
“I have an idea. I’ll tell you more on the way.”
“Couldn’t hurt. I have things to do but this shouldn’t take long.” He dropped his cup into the wastebasket, put on the Red Sox cap, and grabbed his coat from the back of his chair. We got into his battered and mud-splattered SUV and headed around the common and down Route 65. I wasn’t eager to return to the old store but the morning was so bright and beautiful it pushed back my fears.
When we had passed the Holiday Inn, I said, “I have to tell you something. It’s . . . difficult for me.”
He glanced over and returned his eyes to the road. “Yes?”
“I sometimes, well, I hear things. Things that most people would say aren’t really there.”
“Like ghosts. Usually I just hear them, though. People who haven’t could say they don’t exist. But they do. And the voice I heard exists, too.” I waited for his snicker.
He didn’t laugh. “Tell me about it.”
The cab of the truck was like a confessional in which I could speak freely and he kept his eyes on the road, which made it easier. It was still hard and there were too many bad memories but I kept going.
When I was done, he said, “Have seen anything—anyone—before?” He might as well have been asking where I went to school.
“No. This was the first time.”
“But you heard voices in, you know, other places?”
I nodded. “The first time I discovered the broadcast circle—that’s what I call these experiences—was in London—at the Tower of London, actually. What a perfect place, huh?”
Mike Donohue smiled but didn’t reply. He turned the wheel to the left and swung onto Prescott Road. We passed the Speedy Gas and kept going.
“So here’s the story—the first time it happened I was 19 years old. I was standing with the tour group outside one of the towers when I looked up and saw a power cable running down the stone wall. For just a second I had this flash image of it as a crucifix, even though it looked nothing like a cross.”
Mike kept driving with his eyes straight ahead and I continued. “The group moved forward and a voice—a man’s voice—started up in my head. He was reciting the Hail Mary. I heard ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, amen.’ I was surprised and I stepped back and the voice stopped. I moved forward again and the voice started up, repeating the same prayer.”
“You’re Catholic?” he asked.
“Was,” I replied. “Once you learn those prayers you never forget them. Anyway, this time I paid attention and felt the person behind the voice. He was terrified, in despair. He knew he was going to die.”
“That must have been a shock.”
“It was just. . . awful. I felt like I had stumbled into someone’s personal hell. It had happened a long time ago but knowing that didn’t help any. I was relieved when the tour guide moved on and we left the broadcast circle behind. Sounds crazy doesn’t it.?”
“Some people might think so,” he said with a shrug. “Me, I’ve been a cop for a few years and I was an MP before that. I’ve seen a lot of things people wouldn’t believe and heard more. I’m pretty open minded.”
I didn’t know if he was telling the truth but it didn’t matter. I had done it—actually told someone about it—and he hadn’t laughed.
“Did you tell anybody?”
“No. It was just a tour, you know, and the other people were strangers”
“Have you heard voices since then?”
I nodded, then remembered that he was looking straight ahead. “Yes, now and again. It’s unpredictable. When pain, fear, or anger are really intense, they seep into the walls, the floor, the ceiling and then radiate out again. When I get inside the broadcast circle, I can hear them.”
“And you never told anybody about this.”
I swallowed. “When I was a kid I tried to tell my family about other things that I heard and felt. They just laughed at me. Somehow kids in school heard about it and started calling me a weirdo. After that I just kept it to myself.”
“So you haven’t told them about last night?”
“My parents are dead. My sister is going through a really nasty divorce. So, no.”
“Not since Afghanistan.” I paused for a moment then blurted, “You can’t tell anyone about this. I’ll never get another high-tech job if they know I can hear dead people.”
Mike smiled. “I thought technology companies were used to weird behavior.”
“With the developers, sure. But marketing is more buttoned up.”
“They won’t hear it from me.”
We rode in silence the rest of the way, crossing the little stream and approaching the house. In the bright sunlight I could read the faded name Doane on the mailbox. The old building sagged in the sunlight, just as rickety as before but not as creepy. I could see the foundation of a smaller structure, probably a garage, to the right of the house. It was overgrown with weeds and saplings but a few charred boards told me what had happened. Behind it rose the small hill, sprinkled with more saplings and an old lilac that had run wild.
Mike Donohue parked on the overgrown grass in front of the house and we got out. A car came along in the other direction and passed us, its driver casting a curious look in our direction.
It was quiet but not the way it had been last night. Birds sang and a woodpecker hammered on a nearby pine. The little brook trickled under the road, playing its watery harp but sounding louder in the daylight. The autumn smells of decay were stronger, too, as the old dead leaves warmed in the sun.
“We can go in if you want,” Mike said. “It’s unlocked.”
I didn’t want, but I walked forward anyway. Everything was fine until I crossed into the broadcast circle and the voice cried out in my head. I winced. It’s just a recording, I told myself. It can’t hurt me. Still, I stopped.
“Is this where it starts?” Mike asked.
“Can you get closer?”
I nodded. Gritting my teeth I kept walking through the broadcast circle. The voice grew stronger with every step. It was like slogging through a mudflat, getting deeper as I went, with the negative energy sucking at my feet. By the time I reached the porch, I felt as though my boots were made of iron instead of leather. I hauled myself up onto the splintery boards and caught my breath. Mike walked around me and opened the door. “See?” he said. “There’s nothing much left in here.”
Several other voices streamed out of the dark interior and joined to create a horrific chorus, screaming crying, protesting and pleading. They begged someone to stop. One cried out, “Car. Heart. Brown, brown. Car. Heart. Brown.” I took a step toward the door and the voices wrapped themselves around me with an almost physical strength.
“See? It’s empty,” Mike said, standing back so I could walk in. It was dark inside the house and I could smell damp wood and mildew.
Mike held his hand out to help me across the threshold. But the voices had risen to a shriek in my head. They turned me around to face the road and hurled me off the porch. I staggered on the weedy dirt, caught my balance and ran down Prescott Road as far as I could, escaping the broadcast circle before dropping to my knees and vomiting the coffee into the drainage ditch. The heaving went on past the point where my stomach was empty and I was glad I had not eaten any of the Holiday Inn’s free breakfast.
When it was over, I sat back and Mike, who was now standing next to me, said, “What happened?”
I wiped tears from my cheeks and shook my head. “It was bad,” I rasped. “Real bad.”
Mike hunkered down so he was on my level. He took off his baseball cap and scratched his hair. “What did they say?”
“They screamed and begged for mercy: ‘No, not again. It hurts.’ One kept saying ‘car’ and ‘heart.’ Also, ‘brown.’ But that’s all.”
“Car. Heart. Brown,” he repeated, looking at the cap in his hand. But his voice was like background noise, like the wind and birds, like the water trickling under the road. I thought of my image from last night, of the delicate fingers picking a liquid harp string. I had not, I realized with a little shock, seen the woman near the house. That was where all the bad things had happened, where pain and fear had soaked into the old wood and made a broadcast circle. I had seen the woman here, near the brook . . . where the water went under the road. Before I could hesitate, I scrambled down the bank, crushing dried weeds and rolling on gravel, until I reached the bottom.
I turned to look into the culvert that carried the brook beneath the pavement but it was covered by a grate. Up on the road, Officer Mike was calling my name but I ignored him as I sloshed over to it, cold water soaking my boots. Weeds had grown up in front of the barrier and I tore them away by the handful, their rank smell rising around me, until the opening was clear. The rusty metal grate was unfastened and slightly ajar, so I grabbed the open end with both hands and pulled hard. With a screech, it opened.
The culvert was empty. Except for a few branches that had washed in and scraggly water weeds caught in them, the culvert held nothing; I could see all the way through to the other end. I stepped back, disappointed and yet relieved. I had been so sure the women were here, so sure, but I was glad to have been mistaken. Now I could leave Exbury with a clear conscience.
I turned around, ready to clamber back up the bank, when I looked toward the little hill. From here I could see beyond the burned-out garage and around the wild lilac. In the hill there was a door, a green metal bulkhead, lying snugly against a concrete frame ; it was the kind of thing people used it to cover a root cellar or springhead. I scrambled in the gravel on the stream bank until I could grab the saplings to pull myself up. Keeping my eyes on the door, as though it would vanish if I looked away, I shoved through the weeds and skirted the edge of the thick lilac clump. From the heavy steps nearby I could tell that Mike was on his way but I didn’t wait for him.
With my heart pounding, I reached down to the rusty handle and pulled. The door bulged outward with a clang but didn’t open.
“It’s latched shut,” Mike said behind me.
I looked closer and saw a latch handle in the middle of the door above the double handles. It was horizontal. I reached over and twisted it to vertical.
“Step away,” Mike said behind me in his authoritative cop voice. “I’ll open it.”
Surprised, I let go. He was right: this was his job. Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what was inside so up close and personal. I backed away and Mike grabbed the handle. He pulled the door on the right open and a gust of incredibly foul air billowed out. I smelled damp dirt and mold overridden by a revolting combination of sewage and sour milk that was somehow sweet. The reek was incredible and I turned quickly, vomiting up whatever was left in my stomach.
I heard Mike say, “Oh, shit.” I forced myself to turn and look.
And there they were.
I couldn’t tell how many women were stuffed in that awful crypt. In the bright sunlight, a skeleton with waxy gray skin clinging to the bones seemed to jump out at us. She was naked from the waist down but scraps of a white shirt covered the top of her body. A mop of dark braids made a corona around her skull and she smiled at me with toothy ferocity. She was leaning against a darker pile of bones and in my head she said, “Hey, girl! Good to see you. What took you so long?”
Mike pulled open the second door to reveal more bones tumbled and tangled behind her—a lot of them. Ribs curled in and arm bones stuck up. The white domes of skulls gleamed through the mess. I couldn’t speak but I must have made a noise because Mike turned and saw me as though he had forgotten I was there. Turning me away from the bodies, he marched me back to the road on unreliable legs. I was glad to go.
We walked to his truck where he picked up a cell phone to call in a crime scene—a body dump—for the Prescott Road Women.
There were seven women jammed in what had been Renny Doane’s root cellar. They had all been raped—that accounted for the semen—and strangled, which explained the lack of blood evidence.
It took the cops a week to arrest the local man who had murdered them. Officer Mike targeted him because he always wore a brown Carhartt cap. They matched his DNA to what they found under the victims’ fingernails as well as on other parts of the bodies and what was in the old house. It clinched the identification.
With me, things went sideways for a while. I sat through too many police interviews at state and local levels. I had to tell the truth—all of it—because it would have been too confusing not to. Some of the cops smiled and some suggested I was a few cans short of a six-pack. I felt really stupid for a while. Then I got used to their skepticism and then I got over it. TV stations pointed cameras at me and news anchors shoved microphones in my face: everyone wanted to know what I had seen and heard. The Prescott Road Women and the broadcast circle made news stories everywhere. I even got a couple of calls from the ghost hunting TV shows. The term “broadcast circle” became a hashtag on Twitter. I got offers of all kinds.
My first thought was to reject them all but the Prescott Road Women had cured me of denying what I can do or being afraid of what people will think of it. I’m still considering what direction to go in next—although I have been out of work for too long to overthink things. I might take one of the offers or decide to do something else entirely but I know that letting go of my fear opens up the future. The next part of my life will be different from anything I’ve done before.
And the Prescott Road Women are finally free.