About five years ago, I stopped telling people I was psychic. It was too much of a hassle. Once you told someone you were psychic, they either wanted you to come up with some wild ass shit about their future, or they wanted you to give them a reading.
I don’t do readings, whatever those are, I just get strong feelings about people that end up being true. It was all pretty mild stuff until I met Mrs. Claire Griffin.
Somehow, and I don’t know how, Mrs. Griffin got my number and called to ask me to meet with her. The thing about that phone call, the thing I never did tell Mrs. Griffin, was that while we spoke, I kept hearing a constant whisper over the receiver. It was definitely a man's voice and even though he whispered, he sounded pissed, spitting out his words with verve and distaste. When I asked if there was someone with her she said no, when I asked if there was anyone else on the line, her answer was again no.
Stranger still, one of the things the man whispered was, ‘You leave her, leave her be...Claire’s nearing her time.’
So you could say, the thing that led me to Mrs. Griffin’s house was my hungry curiosity to figure out the source of the mystery voice. The explanation could be as simple as a prank, a prank played on both Mrs. Griffin and me or, the weird voice could be real.
Now you know what got me to meet with Mrs. Griffin, and now you’ll hear what happened after I found myself at her door one very cold and overcast day in Pasadena.
When I knocked, I expected an old lady to answer. But, to be fair to old Mrs. Griffin, the last thing she expected to see on her doorstep, was me: a much too thin, awkward, squeaky voiced, bifocal-wearing black dude. She looked rightfully shocked, but she quickly got over it.
As she greeted me and led me into the huge entry hall, I noticed a guy, maybe in his late-twenties, standing about ten feet behind her. He stood in the doorway of an adjoining room and I was about to say something to him, when he raised a hand in a dismissive greeting and walked away.
On the way to her massive living room, where I figured three of my apartments and my car could fit, Claire turned to me and said, “Before we go any further, I need to show you my arm. I almost washed it off ten times today. I kept forgetting you were on your way over.”
She sat down on a long couch and I sat next to her. With a thin shaking right hand, she rolled back the sleeve of her sweater to reveal a soft, white inner arm. Written in all capitols, in thick black ink was the word HELLOW.
“For the last month, but not every night, I wake up with these black letters written on my arm…and I have no idea who is doing it….I live alone, there is no one here but me.” Now that I sat next to her, I could feel just how frightened Claire was.
Okay, here’s when a non-psychic would jump in and say, “What about the dude in the hall?” But, by now I was feeling stranger than I’ve ever felt; a cold tingle was running up the back of my neck and I knew better than to say anything too soon.
If the young guy was doing this, he was no friend. But, and here is where being gifted with what other people are feeling really sucks, I felt that she was holding something back or outright lying. Either way, Claire wasn’t telling me everything.
I nodded in encouragement while she explained. “I’ve been keeping a record of all the words, writing down each one…until I made a strange discovery.” Just then, the young guy walked in, looked right at me as he headed toward the fireplace. Claire, though, didn’t look up or even glance in his direction, not even when he began to pace the floor.
Stranger still, he made no sound. I knew for sure now that Claire could not see him.
“What’s your discovery, Mrs. Griffin?” I asked, ignoring the young dude who stopped his frenetic pacing to glare at me. The message from him was clear: he didn’t want me here and he was pissed I could see him.
There’s something I have to explain before I go on. I know most people would call this guy a ghost, a term that doesn’t do apparitions like his justice. His force was strong; not only could I see it, but I could feel it like the heat from a bright light or the vibrations from a pounding speaker. You have to figure he’d managed to create enough energy to maintain an image long after his death. I wondered who he was and why he had so much anger for Mrs. Griffin, and now me.
“Call me Claire, please. The words, even the misspellings, match my late husband’s suicide note, word for word…. At least until now.”
Now I was getting somewhere. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss. How long has it been?”
“It’ll be 50 years in May. He was 28 when he died.” Claire looked down at her hands- she seemed sad, but not devastated.
“Can I ask you to describe him for me?” I asked for one reason alone, specters tend to relish the sound of their own names and love favorable descriptions of themselves. Now that he was defiantly slumped in an armchair next to the fireplace, I figured he’d show some interest if Claire began to describe him.
“Well, Walter was a…he was a complex sort of man.” Claire stopped to gather her thoughts before going on, the guy in the armchair, who I was now convinced was Walter raised his head in anticipation.
As soon as Claire began to describe him, Walter slowly stood up and began to approach her. I kept my eyes on Claire, but peripherally I was watching his every move.
“It was hard for him to marry into money you understand, he’d come from a long line of West Virginia coal miners…. he had no real formal education…” Walter slowly made his way to stand in front of Claire on the couch; she of course, saw nothing. My heart began to pound in my chest for fear that he might hurt her.
“He didn’t make friends easily…. but Walter could be charming when he felt like it, or needed to be.” I couldn’t help but see that he was reaching for her arm; I tried to remain calm, but I had to be ready to…fuck, what could I do? This guy was a fucking spirit…a phantom, a thing that wasn’t physically here.
“When you read his letter, you’ll see how badly he wrote, but you’ll also see how deep his insecurities…” Walter quickly grabbed her arm and began to twist it slowly backward in its socket, and Claire stopped talking, her mouth open in mid-sentence, her eyes teared up with pain, her arm out in front of her as if she were stretching.
An involuntary sound struggled out of her, “Ahhhhh!” And all I could do was watch. I felt useless against Walter.
Just then, Claire shook her hand wildly, which caused Walter to let go of her arm. He however, continued to loom over her, a sick smile on his face, as if to take in the result of his efforts.
“Ahhhh! Oh…. my arth…. I have terrible arthritis…. it feels like… ” Claire stopped talking, looked at me apologetically, while Walter swaggered back toward the fireplace and plopped into the armchair.
I gathered my nerve and asked, “Do you mind if I read his suicide letter?” Now that Walter was slumped in the chair, I relaxed a bit, making a mental note to read the letter silently to myself.
She picked up an old, soiled and once pink envelope from the coffee table and handed it to me. “There’s a Valentine’s …the letter is folded up inside it. You’ll see it’s the same handwriting. I recognized it the first time I saw it….that and his terrible spelling.”
I read the beginning, ‘My Sweet Darling Claire….’ And then I skipped to the third sentence where he’d written: ‘I cant live with myself. Youl have to on your own. At least youl not have me arond to remind you.’
Shit, his spelling and grammar did suck, and the handwriting was identical to the one on Claire’s arm, but what did he mean by ‘youl have to on your own’?
Claire anticipated my question and began an explanation. “There were three missing boys, back in the 1952, about six years after Walter and I were married. Each boy lived about four miles from here and later, they found all three bodies mutilated…. terribly mutilated, lying right out on the lawn of a local private club. Because we lived nearby, and because were we prominent members of the club…”
I finished for her, “Walter became a key suspect? It doesn’t seem like enough, did they have evidence?”
Claire nodded instead of speaking. Walter raised his head and sat up in the chair in anticipation. He seemed to know that Claire was holding something back.
I tried again. “Claire, even in the fifties they didn’t accuse men of murder with…”
Claire interrupted me in a loud voice and said, “They had nothing! Just two sets of fingerprints on some pliers! One set matched Walter’s the other, they never found…” Claire began to cry and Walter watched on without concern or emotion for her anguish.
“What were the pliers for Claire?” I tried to sound as gentle as possible.
“Someone, some monster had pulled out the boys teeth, with the pliers.” Claire pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and blew her nose. “The person who did this, did it while the boys were still alive….” Claire turned to me and put a hand on my shoulder and suddenly, I felt, no, I knew she was lying about something and was afraid.
“You must believe me when I tell you that Walter didn’t do it.” She looked me squarely in the eyes and lied again.
“Claire, how do you expect me to believe you, when you’re keeping something from me?”
Claire’s face changed when she suddenly leaned into me, got really close to my face and whispered, “You’re right….I found a bag of bloody teeth….and I hid it.”
I felt and smelled her breath on me and suddenly I wanted to get out of there. Walter had gotten up and walked back to be nearer to Claire. He’d not been able to hear Claire and he wanted to be sure not to miss anything more.
“Why would you protect him if, if you suspected he’d been involved?” I asked trying my best to whisper.
Claire looked around the room now. I suspected that although she could not see Walter, she sensed him and was pretending to be his ally in all this.
I was feeling really uncomfortable by now, so when Claire scooted even closer to me I shivered. She leaned in and whispered into my ear, “I think it’s Walter who is writing on my arm….”
I leaned back and nodded to her indicating that I agreed. Then she leaned right back into my ear and said, “He’s changed his suicide letter, its different this time.”
Claire stood up and I wanted to stop her, I wanted to know how the letter was different, I was sure it was the key to all this, to why Walter had stuck around and was back now with a vengeance. The feeling I got from Walter was that he was back to take Claire with him.
As much as I wanted answers, I was grateful to have some distance from her. I asked her for directions to the restroom, not because I needed to go, but to get up on my feet and away from her and Walter, at least for a few minutes.
On my way back, I stopped at a huge window to look out over the Arroyo Canyon on which her estate sat. The colors were unbelievable, the blue agaves, the tall cypress trees and the even taller eucalyptus somehow all lived together among the sage grasses. “It’s quite a lovely bridge isn’t it?” Claire was behind me and it scared the shit out of me.
“That’s Suicide Bridge.” Claire added.
I’d heard talk of it before, but I never thought it was here, in Pasadena. “That’s Suicide Bridge? It’s so…”
Claire interrupted me, “Decorative? Too pretty, too architecturally appealing? It was built in 1913, about ten years after our home, my grandfather was one of the financiers.”
It was gorgeous, it sat on the canyon and it’s tall arched supports looked to be at least 150 feet tall. “So I take it’s called Suicide Bridge because people jump off it?” I waited for her to answer when I noticed that she was crying. I saw a nearby chair, so I slid it over for her to sit on, but Claire shook her head vehemently and remained standing. She pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose before speaking. I stood next to her knowing that this time she was telling the truth.
“Walter could be very romantic, and he sure liked to surprise me.” She chuckled and I tried to imagine the brute Walter I’d just seen, as a romantic. “He knew how much I loved mums, they were my favorite flower… and since it was Valentine’s Day, I’d been waiting all day for his surprise. I was giddy with excitement, all day, I couldn’t sit still….”
“At sunset, he dashed in with a big bouquet and a lovely card, and made me sit right here.” Claire looked back at the chair I’d brought up, the one she’d refused.
“He told me to sit right here and to keep my eyes peeled on the sixth light. In those days, those lights shone like beacons, there wasn’t any other lighting around you see….” Claire finally walked over to the chair and sat. “He said, ‘you will see the most beautiful sight….’”
Fuck, I knew what was coming, I knew what she was leading to, and I couldn’t stop her. I wanted to hear it; half of me didn’t believe anyone could be so deranged the other half hoped she was going to finish up with a really cute story.
“He took a kerosene lamp with him since it was getting dark, and I watched as he walked down the road. See it right there?” She pointed to a small, dirt path that curled toward the start of the concrete bridge.
“I sat here as happy as can be, the smell of the flowers making me drunk with joy…” Claire’s smile disappeared now. “I saw him turn and wave the lantern- I remember waving back- then I counted the lights as his lantern passed each lamppost 1…2…. 3…. 4….5…. he stopped at the 6th like he’d promised, the lantern swung again, but then….” Claire stopped, she didn’t need to go on, I knew what was coming, but she went on anyway.
“At first, I though he’d thrown the lantern over the bridge, but I saw him in the lights, I saw his plaid shirt for a split second as he dropped….he dropped so fast.” Claire wasn’t crying anymore, she was in some type of shock or deep recall, but the sadness was gone.
I waited for a decent amount of time before asking: “You said you made a discovery, something about how the writing on your arm is different from Walter’s letter?”
By now I was standing behind Claire who sat on the chair looking out at the view, when someone placed a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t need to turn around to know it was Walter.
“Claire?” Claire didn’t turn away from the window. She simply remained in her chair and stared out at the canyon.
I tried again, “Listen, Walter’s hand is on my fucking shoulder, I think he’s pissed…” I shook my arm back and Walter removed his hand, leaving my shoulder feeling cold and damp. “And frankly, I don’t know what either of you want from me. ” I was losing my patience with both her and Walter.
Finally Claire spoke. “The writing on my arm suddenly changed.”
Claire turned to look at me with a strange desperation; she grabbed at my arm and I felt her bony fingers gripping me tightly, pulling me down. “Do you see anyone besides Walter?”
“No Claire, only Walter.”
“I told you the writing changed…..” Claire looked up at me beseechingly. I could feel her heart beating in her grip, a fast but weak pumping, no stronger than a bird’s. “One morning I woke up and there were drawings all over my arm….like children’s. You know how they draw….smiley faces, houses with big chimneys—“
Just then Claire pulled me toward her again, this time with an unbelievable strength and yelled into my face. Her breath, a sour, familiar and deeply unpleasant stench I couldn’t place. I stood back, startled as she yelled, “It must be Walter! Only my Walter.”
“Claire, you need to be honest with me….or I’m leaving.”
Claire’s expression changed. She didn’t look into my eyes like most people would, she was looking at my teeth when she finally said, “You have nice teeth, just like Walter and those poor, poor boys.”
I was stunned, not sure what she was after. I waited for her to say more. “I kept the boy’s teeth as a way of honoring them, and so Walter had something to remember them by. It wasn’t just a macabre memento.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? You’re crazy….” As soon as I said this, I noticed Walter had walked over to stand near Claire’s chair, now he too looked out at the canyon, his hands clasped behind his back.
Claire turned back in her chair to look at the view. “The second set of prints on the pliers I told you about, were mine.”
No wonder I could feel her holding back all this time. Claire had been lying about the murders.
“You helped him torture little boys? You’re….you’re no better than he was.” My heart thumped hard and deep and I knew I had to get out.
Now that they both looked out at the view, I slowly stepped backwards, away from them and the view of the bridge, all the while hoping to get closer to the front door.
Claire’s voice sounded angry and different when she spoke this time. “I never said I was better. You sound like him now!” Claire raised her voice and I knew I’d struck an old nerve. She struggled out of the chair and turned to look at me with disgust.
“Walter took his life because he couldn’t stand being with me after the boys were found! He couldn’t live with himself….” Claire was spitting out her words and she would have raged at me more had Walter not been holding her back by the arm.
“We’d agreed to stay calm and keep a low profile, the police had little evidence, like I said, no one would figure out who the second prints belonged to…. my father was going to get him the best defense in the country….Walter would have been free, we would’ve been together.”
I watched Walter tightening his grip on her.
“Why did you kill those boys Claire, why torture little boys?” I needed to know what motivated her.
“I was barren, I couldn’t have kids… and I knew one of them was Walter’s but he wouldn’t tell me which one, so I took them all.”
“So fuck, Walter had an affair and you suspect one of these boys was his so you murdered all of them?” I couldn’t believe this shit. I stepped back some more, I was about eight feet away from Claire now.
Claire guffawed angrily, “An affair? Did you say an affair? That’s quaint, Walter fucked most of my friends, so many, I lost count. Why all of those boys could have been his. And yes, it was wrong, but those boys were wrong, their being alive was wrong…they needed to feel how I feel, they needed to feel my hurt.”
There was ten feet between us now. Walter had Claire by the arm and he was guiding her away from the window gently, and even though she couldn’t see him, I could tell that she could feel him.
Claire looked up to me when I got to the door, I was about fifteen feet away from her and Walter when she asked, “You see him, don’t you? It’s my Walter who’s here?”
I nodded from the doorway.
“That’s all I wanted from you dear boy, to be sure Walter was here, just like he promised. You’re the only one who could tell me for sure.”
I watched Walter guide a thoroughly pleased and grinning Claire into the living room, when I suddenly remembered what it was Claire’s breath had smelled like: decay. I’d smelled it on her the whole time; Claire was near death.
I had finally made it to the door and was about to open it when, from the corner of my eye I saw three little boys slowly walk out into the hallway. They held hands as they quietly followed behind Claire and Walter, like ducks following their mother. They must have seen me because all three stopped to get a better look at me. The smallest one, whose black hair shone in the hall light just like Walter’s, raised a hand in a friendly greeting. I smiled sadly at the three, before turning to leave. There was no good reason I could think of to go back in and warn Claire.
The next morning when I sat eating my cereal, I heard about what happened to Claire on the news. The reporter’s normally saccharine expression turned serious when the words ‘Valentine Murder or Suicide’ appeared behind him on the screen. His tone lowered as he reported, “A hiker made a grisly discovery today, just below Suicide Bridge in Pasadena.”
The picture jumped to a live helicopter feed showing Suicide Bridge from above with throngs of police and fire trucks gathered below it, the reporter went on: “The hiker discovered a trail of blood that led to freshly removed human teeth, which then led him to the body of an elderly woman who police believe to be that of 90 year-old Claire Griffin. So far, it appears the victim’s teeth were removed before she was allegedly pushed or she voluntarily jumped off the bridge. Police will be investigating.”
The reporter was back on now, grim as he faced his viewers. “Neighbors who helped identify the body of Mrs. Claire Griffin, offered police and investigators interesting information, it seems it was exactly fifty years to the day that Mrs. Griffin’s late husband Walter jumped off the bridge on Valentine’s Day 1963. Police believe Mrs. Griffin’s death may open what was a closed case involving the unsolved murder of three boys in the 1950’s. We will, of course bring you the story first as it unfolds.”
When I clicked off the television, I sat in silence allowing the story to sink in. A judicious, karma driven part of me knew right then I’d done the right thing. By not alerting Claire to the return of the three boys I’d picked sides, and I was pretty fucking sure I’d picked the right one.