It was the summer of 1992 and my father, an investigator with the Grimsby Police Department, got called in to what would later be known as the most gruesome crime in the town’s history. Dad had me while mom vacationed in Jamaica with her new boyfriend. The rest of the year I lived with Mom, an oncologist in Brooklyn. She and Dad had separated three years prior, so Dad moved back to his hometown, where I was now legally required to spend my summers with him. Although he tried is best to shield me from the work he does, emergency is the name of the game and his emergency babysitter wasn’t available that night. Dad had no choice but to bring me with him.
Dad pulled up his old Camry in front of a grand colonial style home situated three miles up Baron’s Row, named so because the isolated mansions found there all once belonged to the sugar barons of the south. Grimsby was a small town, but it became ground zero for a bloody slave uprising just before the Civil War broke out. Many lives were lost, slave and slave owner alike. The barons who survived the rebellion fled their homes, afraid that the violence wasn’t over yet, and they were right to. Not long after, the Confederacy tried to reclaim Grimsby, but the newly freed slaves fought back with support from the Union Army. Grimsby became the site of three more devastating battles before the end of the Civil War. It’s a piece of Americana that only locals know and many have attested that Grimsby is one of the most haunted places in the American south as a result. I know this to be true.
Most of the mansions on Baron’s Row were later bought up and restored by the barons of the 20th century, a few were being used as summer homes, a handful were turned into museums and historical libraries, the rest lay desolate and abandoned still today. The one Dad was called to that summer was one of the renovated ones. I was in the passenger seat and as the mansion pulled into view I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The midsummer sun was low in the sky but the day was still warm and humid; the flashing lights of the police cars and ambulances made the shadows cast by the surrounding willow trees dance ominously on the mansion’s bone-white facade.
“Alright, biscuit,” Dad said, undoing his seatbelt, “I’m sorry I had to drag you out here. Think you can stay in the car by yourself for a few minutes?”
I hadn’t turned away from the window. “Did someone get hurt here, Daddy?”
“Well, that’s what I came here to find out,” came his Dadliest reply.
I couldn’t explain it then, but I didn’t want to be left alone in the car. I wanted to join Dad inside the mansion. I wanted to know what was going on inside. “Why can’t I come with you?”
“Because, biscuit, this is grown-up stuff. You’ll be safe in the car, okay? And I won’t be long. Do you have your book?” I nodded, showing him my copy of The Clue in the Diary. Dad kissed the top of my head and left the car. I watched him as he crossed the dirt road and approached a uniformed officer that was standing guard by the front door. They spoke briefly, then Dad disappeared inside. I glanced at the side view mirror and saw that another officer was closing off the road with yellow police tape. Ahead, a few paramedics were hanging out in the back of one of the ambulances.
After a few minutes of unsuccessful attempts to read, I heard the sound of tires approaching. I looked into the side view mirror again and saw several vans drive up and stop outside the yellow tape. Several people piled out of the vans, men with large cameras and pretty women in skirts holding microphones. I watched as they lined up in front of the mansion; the men pointed their cameras and the women started speaking into their mics. I set my book down and left the car to watch them, curious by all the commotion. I caught a little bit of what they were saying.
“...in front of the historic Shaw Mansion where Sugar Baron and Lord Archibald Shaw and his family lived before…”
“...police got a call from the maid of the current residents, tech tycoon Jalen Johansen and his…”
“...details are still incoming but we hope to interview all those involved tonight…”
I was straining to hear as much as I could when something caught my eye. Near the willow trees that the lined the property was a set of swings and on one of them sat a little girl. She seemed blurry from that distance and I wondered how long she had been sitting there. I looked around; the news people certainly wouldn’t notice and the officers and paramedics seemed otherwise preoccupied. I watched the girl for a moment; she seemed perfectly still, even as the wind blew the willow branches around her.
No one noticed me walk past the police cars or cross the grass, just as they didn’t seem to notice the little girl. Did she live in the mansion, I wondered? Was she in some kind of trouble? As I got closer, the blurriness seemed to disappear. She looked about my age, but she was a little smaller. Her brown hair was very straight and very long. A ribbon bow rested on the crown of her head and she seemed to be wearing a plaid skirt and loafers.
“Hello,” I said. “Why are you out here?”
I pointed at the other swing. “Can I sit on your swing?”
She nodded. I guess she did live here.
I took my seat and held the chains like she did.
“My name is Imogen,” I said, “but my friends call me Jen. What’s your name?”
It took a moment, but the girl finally spoke.
“Lisa,” she said in what was barely a whisper.
I watched her. I could feel immense sadness from her.
“Why are you out here? Are you in trouble?”
Like before, she took a moment to respond.
“My mommy wants to hurt me.”
I frowned. That didn’t make any sense. “Why?” I asked.
“Where’s your mommy?”
Without turning her head, she lifted her arm to point behind her. I looked back up at the house. Standing at one of the windows on the second floor was a woman. Like the little girl, the woman’s features seemed blurry. Suddenly, a door on the far corner of the mansion creaked open. I waited to see who was exiting, hoping it wasn’t my dad because I would get in trouble for leaving the car, but nobody emerged. I turned to look at Lisa but, to my surprise, she was gone. I looked around; where could she have gone without my noticing? I looked back up at the window; the woman was still there but she slid out of view.
I entered the mansion through the open back door, which led into the kitchen. The inside was as lavish and antique as it appeared on the outside, but I didn’t pay much attention to the decor. The place was crawling with officers, photographers, and people in full body suits measuring and inspecting seemingly every inch of the mansion. I again managed to slip past them without being noticed.
I made it to the second floor landing but I didn’t know where to go from there. This part of the mansion seemed to have fewer people, but I could still hear voices. I was trying to figure out which room Lisa’s mother was in when a door to my right slowly creaked open. Just like before, I waited to see who had opened the door to no avail. I entered the room; it looked like a child’s room with it’s small furniture, night light, and butterfly wallpaper. I tried the light switch but nothing happened. There was a single window just past the bed and it was open; the warm breeze billowed the sheer white curtain. I looked out the window and I saw the swing; this was the window where Lisa’s mom had stood, but where was she? Was she in some other part of the house?
I explored the room; there was a bookshelf next to the window that immediately caught my attention. All of the books were fairy tales and fables. On the wall across from the bed was a toy vanity with plastic jewelry and fake bottles of perfume. The room was spotless, as though it was used daily. In the silence, I could hear the officers below my feet and across my hall. I wondered where my father was and if he was with Lisa and her mother. I hoped Dad wasn’t looking for me.
In the far corner of the room was a child sized standing mirror, but it was tilted downward. I tilted it upwards to look at my reflection and as soon as I did I heard the loud thump of the window closing behind me. I gasped and turned to look at it.
“Who’s there?” I said, the hairs on my arms and neck standing up again. No response. “Lisa? Are you in here?”
I hugged my arms around my torso and shivered suddenly. The window was closed and even though there only remained a sliver of sunlight outside it should not have been that cold. I turned away from the window and looked back at the mirror. I immediately wished I hadn’t.
There, in the reflection, I saw someone standing behind the sheer white window curtain. Someone who wasn’t there before. Her head was bowed and I couldn’t see her face. My breathing became heavy. The cold in the room penetrated my very bones.
“Are you Lisa’s mom?” I asked, shakily. I was frightened, but I still wanted to help Lisa. Perhaps more than that, I wanted to know about the people who lived here.
“Lisa” I heard her whisper. “Yes.”
“Where is she?”
Like Lisa, her mother took a while to respond.
“What is she looking for?
I frowned. “From who? From the police?”
There was a pause before the woman spoke again.
“He tried to take her from me…” the voice said.
“He?” I said. “You mean Lisa’s dad?”
“Jalen,” the voice named him, a familiar name. “He can’t… do that.”
“Why did he try to take her?” I asked. No response. I swallowed, watching the figure in the curtain. “Did you try to hurt Lisa?”
The room got deathly still and I got the dreadful feeling that I may have said the wrong thing. I watched as the figure started to lift its head, as if it wanted in that moment to look at me. With every inch of movement, my breathing got heavier and my heart started to beat loudly in my chest. Before she could show me her eyes, I turned away from the mirror to face her.
But she was gone. She had vanished the same way Lisa had vanished earlier. There was no figure behind the curtain. In that moment, it occured to my young mind for the first time that Lisa and her mom were… not quite right. That they were very different from me.
The sun was gone and the room was engulfed in darkness. More terrified than I have ever been in my life at that point, I decided I needed to leave that room. I wanted to be back outside, in the warm evening air, in my Dad’s Camry. I made a beeline for the door, as fast as my feet would take me, only to have it slam shut in my face. I let out a small scream of frightened shock. I tried the door knob but it wouldn’t budge. I started to shake the door, hoping it would somehow fall off its hinges and release me.
I stopped when I heard a knock from the other side of the door. “Hello?” I said in between gasps. “Is somebody out there?” Another knock, a little louder this time. I pounded on the door with my palm in response. “Please let me out!” Another knock, even louder. I paused, sensing that something was off. I pressed my ear against the door to hear better. “Hello?”
The door started to shake without my help and the knocking became deafening and incessant. I shrieked and backed away from the door, my hands over my ears, my eyes clamped shut. When the silence resumed, I looked up at the door. Out of the corner of my eye, by the standing mirror, she had reappeared. The woman behind the curtain. I turned to look at her and I felt my blood turn to ice in my veins. Where the left side of the face should have been instead there was a bloody crater and I could see, even in the dark, what remained of her jaw. I gasped shakily at the horrid sight, and before I could react, she lunged at me. A blood curdling scream escaped from the inner depths of my being and I crashed into the night stand trying to escape the woman’s grasp.
My father would later tell me that my scream was heard throughout the entire mansion and people scrambled to find its source. When the officers on the second floor called him to the right room, it took two men to break the door down. Someone tried the light switch that I had tried before and the lights came on. I was curled up on the floor, fighting off an invisible assailant.
“Imogen?!” I heard Dad’s voice. I looked up at him, relief flooding all my senses and my heart struggled to come down from the sudden rush of adrenaline.
“Daddy!” I sobbed, reaching for him. Dad kneeled beside me and took me in his arms.
“Biscuit, you scared the hell out of us. How did you get in here?”
“Lisa told me to come here,” I said through my sobs.
“Lisa?” Dad looked at me incredulously, his brow deeply furrowed. “Where did you hear that name?”
“There was a little girl outside, on the swings,” I gasped. “She told me her mom was here and that her mom tried to hurt her. I found her, but then she tried to hurt me.”
Suddenly, the light bulb hanging from the ceiling burst, swallowing the room in darkness once more. The rest of the mansion went inexplicably dark, too. I shrieked and clung to my father, my face buried in his neck. The officers pulled out their flashlights.
“What the hell?” one of them muttered. Dad looked up them, many terrified, all of them confused.
“Sweetheart?” Dad said slowly, patting my back. “Did you say Lisa’s mom was in here?” I nodded, wiping my tears. “And you said you found her?” I nodded again. Dad was giving me strange look, as though he wanted to believe.
Dad looked up at one of the other officers. “Warren, could you take her for a sec? And give me your flashlight.”
The man, Warren, put a gentle hand around my shoulder and we all watched as Dad canvassed the room with the flashlight. He knocked on the walls and stomped the floorboards. We didn’t know what he was looking for until he pushed the standing mirror aside and checked the wall behind it. “Someone grab me an axe or a crowbar, ” Dad said suddenly.
A few minutes later, Dad had a crowbar in hand and three officers were shining their flashlights on him. He dug the edge of the crowbar into the panelling and started to tear a hole into the wall. We all watched him in complete silence. He hit a snag on one of the panels and struggled to rip it off. He re-adjusted his grip on the crowbar and put his whole weight into it. When the panel finally flew off, a heavy object suddenly fell through the hole. I screamed at the sight; it was Lisa’s mom, the hole in her face still fresh and bloodied.
Dad immediately dropped the crowbar and dragged me out of there. He had to wrestle his way past the reporters who were asking questions about the screaming they had heard and the sudden blackout and why was I allowed on the crime scene. When we got into the car, other officers held the reporters at bay, giving Dad and I a moment to breath. He was panting heavily and I could tell he wanted to lecture me, but decided against it. I was finally back in the safety of the passenger seat, shaken and a little worse for wear. Dad turned over the car engine and I took one last look at the mansion. I saw her again. She was by the swings but she was standing this time. The lights in the mansion had come on again and she was clear as day. She waved at me and even from my place in the car I could see that her face wasn’t the right color and that she had distinct handprints wrapped around her small neck. I pointed her out to Dad. “The girl by the swings,” I called her. But he couldn’t see her.
Dad and I wouldn’t speak of that night for many years to come. He would later tell me that the room I was found in had been locked from the inside when officers first arrived on the scene. Apparently, the owner of the house, Jalen Johansen, had given it to his ex-wife in the divorce so that he could see their daughter more often. Mrs. Johansen had won custody of the little girl in the divorce but Jalen didn’t trust his wife, who had shown signs of psychosis during their marriage. Finally, that summer day in 1992, Mrs. Johansen snapped for reasons unknown and she strangled eight-year-old Lisa to death. When Jalen discovered his dead little girl, he murdered his wife by shooting her point blank with a shotgun. Horrified by what he had done and sick with grief, he buried his daughter in the backyard, under the swings, hid his wife’s body in the walls of Lisa’s bedroom, which he then locked, and then turned the gun on himself in his study. No one heard the gunshots and there was no suicide note. His body was discovered by the maid the following morning. When the police couldn’t find either daughter or wife, my dad was called in. Dad said that I couldn’t have known Lisa’s name and he could never figure out how I got into Lisa’s locked bedroom.