Disclaimer: I do not own, nor am I affiliated in any way with TAPS, Ghost Hunters or any of the people involved. The only things that are truly mine are my imagination and the ideas that come from it.
Back in my room, I mulled over the things we’d found during analysis, especially the voice in the bell tower that had said, “Die with me.” What could that mean? Well, it was obvious what it meant, but how did it fit in with the mystery surrounding the 1954 fire? Had Mary planned to die after all, and had she intended someone to die with her? If so, who? Her boyfriend? Or was she just looking for a victim—any victim—to suffer the same fate she had, so she wouldn’t be alone in the bell tower? I shuddered, thinking again how close Spook had come to being that victim. Then I had the sudden fearful thought that maybe somehow Mary had had something to do with last night’s fire. I stood up quickly, shaking my head. No, I don’t even want to entertain that thought.
I walked to the closet and pulled out the one dressy blouse and dress pants I had brought along just in case JoEllyn and I went out somewhere nice. I held it up, contemplating whether it was too dressy to wear to dinner with the team. The blouse was deep purple sleeveless button-down, with a row of small ruffles on both sides of the buttons. Aunt Julia said she loved this blouse on me; the color offset my auburn hair and brought out the blue in my eyes. It was cut a little lower than I was comfortable with, and the satin clung to my body. JoEllyn always said it was the most daring piece of clothing I owned, and she insisted I turned heads when I wore it. Not that I ever saw any heads turning towards me; they were more likely looking in her direction.
I decided to go for it and dress up a bit. I had just pulled on my dress pants and was buttoning up the blouse when someone tapped on the door. “Who is it?” I asked, hurriedly buttoning the last two buttons.
Jo’s voice called back, “It’s me, silly. Who do you think?”
I quickly opened the door and apologized. “I was getting dressed, and I really didn’t want Spook or one of the guys walking in on me.” I was relieved to see that JoEllyn had chosen to dress up too. She wore her dressy capris with a sparkly aqua blouse that had a very low-cut sweetheart neckline. A pair of high-heeled sandals showed off the pedicure she had just gotten.
“Mm-hmm,” JoEllyn answered, lowering her lashes at me. “It would serve Spook right to get an eyeful of you. Let him see what he missed out on last night.”
“Jo!” I exclaimed, blushing. “I doubt he’d even blink anyway; I’m not much to look at.” I glanced at JoEllyn again. She looked beautiful, and next to her I felt awkward and plain. I had always envied her natural beauty and her feminine curves. My figure was as tomboyish as my personality, and guys had never paid me much attention, especially when JoEllyn was around.
JoEllyn put her hands on her hips and replied, exasperated, “What do you mean you’re not much to look at? You don’t give yourself enough credit.” She looked me up and down. “Girl, I’d kill to be as slim as you!”
I pursed my lips and retorted, “And I’d kill for your curves.” I stood sideways and looked wistfully at my reflection. “I’d love to be able to actually fill out a blouse.”
She laughed and crossed her arms. “And I’d love for a guy to actually look me in the eye when he talks to me.”
I laughed along with her. “I guess the grass is always greener…” Jo Ellyn was staring at me intently. “What?”
“Are you going to wear your hair like that?” she asked abruptly, reaching over and flipping my ponytail.
“What?” I asked again, confused. “I always wear my hair up.”
JoEllyn cocked her head and gazed at me. “That’s the point. You have beautiful hair, Kyr, and an adorable figure. If you’d flaunt it a little, maybe you’d get more male attention. Maybe even from…”
“Oh, Jo,” I protested, as she quickly yanked the scrunchie out of my hair and grabbed my hairbrush from the desk. “Hey!”
“Sit!” she said, pushing me down into the chair. She quickly and deftly brushed my hair, parting it on one side instead of in the middle so that it cascaded down in waves over one side of my face. She dug in her purse for a small bottle of hairspray and sprayed my hair before she turned me so I could see myself in the mirror.
I looked at my reflection uncertainly. “I don’t know, Jo. It looks nice, but this isn’t me…”
“Oh, hush, you,” she interrupted, looking determined. “You’ve been wearing your hair the same way since college. It’s time for a change. You should be showing off those natural curls instead of hiding them in a ponytail. Now,” she said, reaching into her purse again, “for a touch of makeup.”
“No, JoEllyn, really…” I protested, trying to get up.
“Just sit,” she replied, pushing me back down. “Not a full makeup job, just some powder and a touch of lip gloss. Honestly, why bother dressing up if you’re not going to do your hair and makeup too?”
I relented and let her powder my face and dab some rose-colored lip gloss on my lips. She also touched my cheeks with some blush, but I drew the line at letting her do my eyes. When she finished, I hardly recognized myself as I gazed at my reflection. JoEllyn was pleased with her work; I agreed it looked nice, but I didn’t feel like myself.
There was another knock at the door. “Come in,” I called absentmindedly.
The door opened, and Spook’s voice joked, “Why, Kyr, you dared to leave the door unlocked? Aren’t you afraid…” His words trailed off as he caught sight of me and froze, mouth agape. His eyes swept over me appreciatively. He smiled softly and was about to say something when JoEllyn giggled, drawing attention to herself. Seeing that we weren’t alone, his expression immediately became unreadable. Then noticing that JoEllyn was dressed up too, he smiled and teased, “Oh, I get it. You girls are playing dress up.”
JoEllyn just smirked and tossed her hair at him, but I felt my heart drop all the way to the floor. I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter, but my hopes had soared when he looked at me as though he thought I were beautiful. Now I just felt like…a little girl playing dress up.
I felt JoEllyn’s hands on my shoulders as she glided over to stand next to me. Spook’s eyes drifted momentarily to JoEllyn’s low-cut neckline and ample cleavage, and he raised an eyebrow almost imperceptibly, making me feel even more like a little girl. “Doesn’t Kyr look nice?” she asked slyly, winking at him.
“Jo!” I protested, crossing my arms in front of me. I didn’t want him to think I had dressed up to try to impress him.
Spook’s eyes snapped up to meet hers before his gaze rested on me again. His expression changed, and the corners of his mouth twitched as he teased, “Wait, this is Kyr? I didn’t recognize her all dressed up with her hair done and wearing makeup.” I rolled my eyes and looked away, feeling my face turn crimson. Spook laughed out loud and ducked his head to get a better look. “Oh wait, I recognize that blush. It is Kyr.”
I looked hopelessly at JoEllyn, who was giggling too. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to grab my baggy sweatshirt and my scrunchie and go back to being plain old tomboy Kyr. JoEllyn read my intentions and laughed, “Oh no you don’t!” She grabbed our purses, took me by the arms and led me out the door, still protesting. Spook followed us, chuckling and shaking his head.
We all headed in to town for dinner. Ed and Phil told us they’d made reservations at a restaurant/pub called A Drop in the Bucket. JoEllyn and I had shrugged at each other, thinking it must be a new business since we’d never heard of it. We followed the others down the main street, turning onto Lenape Way and then down an alley into a parking lot. My jaw dropped as I glanced over at JoEllyn; her expression mirrored mine. “Didn’t this used to be…” I began.
“The Rusty Nail,” we both said together. The Rusty Nail had been a fairly small dive bar that was popular with Willow Lake students because they always had 50 cent drafts during the week and a selection of inexpensive food. The building was larger than I remembered it, but the weathered exterior and the entryway with its heavy double doors still looked the same. I had to fight a wave of sadness as I recalled how many times Trevor and I had come to the Rusty Nail to unwind after classes. “Are you going to be all right?” JoEllyn asked, noticing my wistful expression.
I took a deep breath and nodded. We got out of the car and headed over to where the others stood waiting. Looking at Ed, JoEllyn asked, “When did this become A Drop in the Bucket?”
“About three years ago, wasn’t it?” Ed replied, looking at Phil, who nodded. “The previous owners decided to sell out and move to Florida. The new owners completely renovated it, expanded the menu and put in new sound systems so they could have entertainment.”
Amber and Phil exchanged a glance and giggled before Amber said excitedly, “Tonight is karaoke night. It should be good for some laughs.”
Jason and Grant smirked at each other, making Amy laugh and warn, “Someone better keep Jay and G. reined in.”
JoEllyn winked at me, and I grinned back at her, feeling my mood improve for the first time that day. Although I wasn’t very outgoing, I loved karaoke, and I could usually get everyone on their feet and cheering. The only one who looked less than thrilled at the prospect of amateur entertainment was Spook, who shook his head in distaste as soon as Amber mentioned karaoke. I hoped he wouldn’t be a stick in the mud. I really needed—I think we all really needed—a bit of fun after this case.
Once inside, we were shown to a table near the back, where we had a good view of the karaoke stage. As we were seated, I thwarted JoEllyn’s attempt to seat Spook and me next to each other again. Grant looked at Spook, and they both shook their heads, laughing at JoEllyn’s determination. She smirked at me as Spook ended up directly across from me.
JoEllyn and I looked around, marveling at how much the place had changed. The bar still looked much the same, and the lighting was still dim, but gone were the dark wood walls decorated only with neon beer-logo signs. The walls were now papered with a tasteful marine blue, and staggered throughout the room were black and white photos of Willow Lake in its earlier days. Near our table was a photo of the riverfront from the 1950s, long before the levee was built. I smiled, fondly recalling the time before “that monstrosity,” as we had called the levee at first, was built. I had spent many afternoons sitting beneath a tree on the riverbank, either studying or watching people boating or fishing.
JoEllyn nudged me out of my reverie to hand me a menu. I chuckled and said, “Nice!” as I noticed the menu was called “The Bucket List.” I nodded approvingly as I looked over their offerings. The Bucket List was definitely more sophisticated than the Rusty Nail’s basic fare. I noticed that one of the soups du jour was Tongue-torching Chili. Grinning mischievously across at Spook, I teased, “Mmm, chili. I wonder if they spice it up with ashes.” JoEllyn giggled; Spook said nothing, but returned my grin and nudged my leg under the table.
After we’d all gotten our orders, we chatted in quiet tones about the investigation. While the Bucket wasn’t at all crowded yet, we still didn’t want the people who were there to overhear our conversation. Ed began by joking, “I wonder how Professor McClure will take the news that the only thing haunting her classroom is her own forgetfulness.”
We all laughed, but Jason cautioned, “Well, keep in mind that just because we didn’t capture any evidence in our couple days investigating doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing there.
Ed acknowledged the point, but still held to his absentminded professor suspicion. Phil leaned against him and laughed before saying, “Yeah, well, how about the haunted plumbing in McKenzie? They didn’t need Ghost Busters, just Pipe Busters,” referring to Willow Lake’s most well-known plumbing company.
“When there’s something strange in your kitchen drain,” I sang in a deep voice, imitating their TV ad. “Who ya gonna call?”
“Pipe Busters,” JoEllyn, Ed, Phil and Amber chimed in.
As we all laughed, Spook shook his head, looking as though he questioned our sanity. Grant leaned forward to look at Jason and joked, “I may be biased, but I don’t think I’d trust my plumbing to a company called Pipe Busters.”
“Better not let Ollie and Elwood hear you say that,” Phil warned facetiously, referring to the company’s owners.
After a moment, Amy said to me, “Kyr, I still can’t get over your experience in Borland after the rest of us came up with nothing. That was just crazy.”
Before I could respond, Amber let out a poorly-concealed snort. Ed and Phil looked at her questioningly, and Spook gave her a momentary glare. I caught her eye and held her gaze; when she noticed the others looking at her, her smirk faded and she sat back. “It was pretty intense,” I replied to Amy, not wanting to say much more with Amber present. “Not something I want to experience again any time soon.” Spook caught my eye and smiled slightly, and I felt him nudge my leg under the table again.
JoEllyn quickly changed the subject. “My favorite part of the whole investigation was the Fine Arts Building.”
I gave her hand a grateful squeeze as the others jumped in to share their experiences in that building. Every one of us had at least one personal experience there, and we had captured quite a bit of evidence, despite the encounter Grant and I had with Officer Daly. JoEllyn and I compared notes with Ed, Phil and Amber about what we had heard from professors past and present about who might be haunting the building. The stories ranged from a music professor from Willow Lake’s teacher college days to a student who had succumbed to scarlet fever just a week before finals in the 1930s to Native American spirits who were unhappy about their burial grounds being disturbed. Of course, we knew we’d likely never know the true stories, but it was fun to discuss the various theories.
Everyone fell silent for a moment as the waitress took our dinner dishes and brought our checks. After she left, we all looked uncertainly at each other before Jason put into words what we all were thinking. “So,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “Appleton Hall bell tower.”
“Yeah,” Spook replied grimly, taking a large swig of his beer. “Appleton bell tower, the hottest place on campus.”
The others laughed uncomfortably at his joke. I shook my head in disbelief, still unable to find any humor in the situation. JoEllyn caught my eye and laid her hand over mine. I remembered what she had said about suspecting that Spook didn’t want to admit that the experience had really frightened him. Glancing over at him again, I saw the tension in his eyes that his smile couldn’t cover. Feeling a sudden wave of tenderness, I reached over with my foot and nudged his leg under the table. His eyes met mine, and his expression relaxed as he nudged me in return.
Amy asked suddenly, “Spook and Kyr, did you say the articles about the fire in 1954 were missing from the library?”
I cleared my throat and jerked my foot back to my side of the table before responding, “Well, they weren’t exactly missing. The rolls of microfilm were there, but where the article should have been, there was nothing but a big black rectangle.”
“And that was in more than one newspaper,” Spook added, glancing over at me.
Amy gave us a suspicious look. “It seems like someone made sure their bases were covered.” She swirled her wine around in the glass, thinking, and then had another thought. “Kyr, the article said something about the investigation continuing. Do you think any of the papers printed follow-up articles?”
My eyes snapped up to meet hers. “I never even thought about that,” I responded, suddenly intrigued. “Maybe we need to check into that to see if there’s anything to shed light on what we already know.”
Ed, Phil and Amber exchanged looks. Amber said to Phil, “We should look into that before summer classes start up in a couple weeks.” Turning to Spook, she asked, “Would you say Mrs. Rutter would be willing to cooperate if we asked her for help?”
Spook shrugged and replied, his eyes on me, “I don’t see why not. She seemed to be behind our efforts when we spoke to her, wouldn’t you say so, Kyr?”
I nodded, glancing quickly at Amber and wondering why she had only addressed Spook. “She said herself it was time someone uncovered the truth about Appleton Hall.”
Ed seemed to be thinking hard about something. “What do you guys think about Mary Bollinger?” He looked at each of us before continuing, “Do you think it was just an accident? Or was it suicide?”
“Or a murder,” Spook added. “You know, her boyfriend was there too.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment before turning to me. “The article doesn’t say much about him except that he was also there and was injured in the fire.”
Jason jumped in, “It may just be circumstantial evidence, but that alone suggests that he either was involved or at least knows the real story.” He glanced over at Grant, who was tapping his beer bottle uneasily. Looking back at Ed, and then at Phil and Amber, he said, “Like you said, Phil, you guys will have your work cut out for you if you decide to pursue this further.”
“We’re going to have to do some digging, that’s for sure,” Ed replied. “Obviously the university won’t be much help in finding the answers.” His eyes were hard as he stared into his beer.
Amber leaned forward and asked Jason and Grant, “What are you going to tell Dr. Anderson at the reveal tomorrow?” She laughed, “I know he called you in on this investigation specifically to ‘debunk all the nonsense’ the students talk about.”
Jason and Grant looked at each other seriously before Jason responded straightforwardly, “We’re going to tell him exactly what we found, and we’re going to show him the evidence that supports what we found.” His eyes were hard and determined as he continued, “We will never say there’s a haunting where there’s no evidence to support there being one, and neither will we say there’s not a haunting when the evidence suggests there is.”
Grant chuckled and added, “Well, we did debunk some of the claims, so hopefully that will be some consolation.”
“I can’t wait to hear what excuse they use to try to explain away the evidence we caught in the bell tower,” Amber said sardonically, glancing at Spook. “Especially the EVP you caught during the fire.”
Jason sat back and cupped his hands behind his head before turning to Spook and then to me. “Speaking of the fire, I think you two had better make yourselves available during the reveal just in case there are any questions about what happened in the bell tower.”
I glanced uneasily at Spook. His expression was predictably unreadable as he nodded at Jason. I was sure he was questioning in his mind once more, as I was, why the university officials hadn’t called us in right away. A sudden feeling in my gut told me that the details of last night’s fire would likely be kept as quiet as the details of the fire from 1954, and I once again wondered why. As I looked around at the others, I could see the wheels turning in everyone else’s heads as well.
While the others continued discussing our findings from Appleton, I took advantage of their preoccupation to sneak away to the bar, as much to be alone with my thoughts for a few minutes as to get another wine cooler. As I thought about everything we knew so far about what had happened in Appleton, in addition to what had happened last night, I had a sudden realization that made me stop in my tracks, my breath catching in my throat. There was a common thread in all the bell tower experiences; Mrs. Rutter had hinted at it when she handed us the article about the 1954 fire, and I hadn’t seen it till now. Spook wasn’t the only one who had fallen through the floor of the bell tower. The construction worker had also fallen through the floor, all the way through to the third floor, and been injured. And Mary had also fallen the whole way through the floor and died of her injuries. Was Mary responsible, even in part, for the other two “accidents” in the bell tower? I thought once more about the EVP Spook had caught—“Die with me.” I had the sickening feeling that Mary wasn’t going to be happy until someone did die with her. The question was, what could we do about it?
As I reached the bar, I shook my head trying to forget about Mary and the bell tower, just for a moment. I didn’t want to spend this whole night ruminating over this investigation. As I waited to catch the bartender’s attention, I looked around at the pictures hanging nearby. There was one showing the original movie theater on the corner of Market Street. It had burned down and been rebuilt by the time JoEllyn and I attended college at Willow Lake, but the new building resembled the old one almost to a T. Another photo caught my attention, this one showing a children’s Halloween parade. I moved closer to read the small plate at the bottom of the photo that said, “Willow Lake Elementary School Halloween Parade, circa 1975.” I smiled, recalling the Halloween parades and parties I had participated in at school. Most of my costumes had been homemade like the ones in the photo; I remembered many tearful arguments I’d had with my mother over why I couldn’t have a store-bought Strawberry Shortcake or Wonder Woman costume like so many of my classmates. It wasn’t till years later that I found out that my father had forbidden my mother to spend money to celebrate that occult devil’s holiday. As I contemplated the picture, the sudden realization hit me that my brothers had never taken part in the school parades or parties, nor had they ever gone trick or treating. I recalled telling Spook how my brothers thought I got special treatment from my parents. With a guilty sigh, I thought for the first time that maybe they had a point.
I glanced quickly back at our table where the others were still talking animatedly about the investigation. Sighing sadly, I thought to myself, what would you think of me now, Daddy, getting so involved in not one, but now two crazy paranormal investigations? I could almost see him shaking his head in disapproval. He’d had a hard enough time allowing me to wear a ghost costume; I didn’t even want to think about how upset he’d be if he knew I was actually hunting ghosts.
A voice next to me startled me out of my reverie. “Can I get you something, miss?”
Turning quickly, and blinking a few times to remind myself where I was, I replied absently, “A wild berry wine cooler, please.”
The bartender retrieved a bottle from a refrigerator below the bar. He handed me the wine cooler with a glass of ice, then smiled curiously at me. “You look familiar,” he said, leaning on the bar and gazing steadily at me. “Are you from around here?”
“No,” I responded, twisting the cap off the bottle and pouring the contents into the glass. “I’m just back visiting for a few days. I went to college here.”
The bartender cocked his head and looked at me more closely. “When did you graduate?” he asked with a crooked smile.
Suddenly intrigued, I looked at him more closely myself, making note of his square jaw, brown hair and blue eyes and trying to remember if he’d been in any classes with me. With a crooked grin of my own, I said, “Class of 2004.”
His grin widened, and he stood up straight and tossed a dish towel onto his shoulder, laughing, “Class of 2002, chemistry major.”
I raised an eyebrow, wondering if I dared to make a comment about a chemistry major becoming a bartender. I decided against it and answered, “English and Library Science.”
He looked at me doubtfully, and I knew he was trying to think of what classes we might have had together with such different majors. I was doing the same and coming up with nothing. “Did you go to any of the frat parties?” he asked, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. I shook my head, and he tried again, “Football games? Chemistry Club? Campus Catholic Ministries?”
I shook my head at all his suggestions and tried some of my own. “English Honor Society? Theater groups? The library?” He laughed and shook his head as I had. Finally I threw up my hands and asked, “The Geology Club?”
He slapped his hands on the bar. “Geology Club? You?” He stared hard at me for a moment, and then a flash of recognition lit up his face. He laughed, “That’s it! How could I forget that? You were one of the lone girls in that club. I’m Jared Ellis; I hung out with Ryan and Bret.” My eyes lit up at the mention of Bret’s name. “I was on that trip to the caves out in Seven Pines.”
“Oh no,” I muttered, laughing and hiding my face at the memory of that trip. I had gotten kind of stuck in one of the trickier spots deep in the cave, and Bret had had to talk me out of a panic before they could get me out. “That would be what you remember,” I joked.
He smiled and winked, “Well, it would be pretty hard to forget that. That and Bret almost getting into a fist fight with one of the other guys on the way back to the van.”
“What?” I exclaimed, shocked. I had never heard about that.
“You didn’t know about that?” Jared asked incredulously. When I shook my head, he explained quickly that when Dr. Keane had walked me back to the van, one of the other guys in the club had made a snide comment about letting girls in the Geology Club, and Bret had gone after him. “I’ve never seen Bret react like that with anyone. Ryan and I both had to pull him off the guy.” Jared gave me a wink and said, “Ryan and I thought for sure you two would end up together; he seemed to have a thing for you. Whatever happened to him, anyway?”
I smiled ruefully at Jared and replied, “Oh, he went out West after graduation and met someone out there. As far as I know he’s still in New Mexico or Arizona or one of those states.”
“Hey, Jared,” a voice called, making him turn quickly. “We’ve got customers over here; quit flirting, huh?”
He called back, “Be right there, Lou.” To me he said quickly, “Hey, I’ll catch up to you later…” he pointed at me, and I realized I hadn’t told him my name.
“Kyr,” I said hurriedly. “Kyr Carter.”
“That’s it,” he responded. “Catch up to you later, Kyr. Good to see you again.”
I smiled as he went over to help the other customers. As I turned to make my way back to the table, I ran right into Spook, splashing both of us with wine cooler. “I’m sorry, Spook,” I said, grabbing some napkins and trying to dab the liquid off of both of us. “I’m such a klutz.”
He laughed, “Don’t sweat it, Kyr. I should’ve let you know I was behind you.” I glanced up at him, wondering how long he’d been behind me. I didn’t have to wonder for long as he teased, “So your mishaps aren’t limited to rock climbing, hm?”
I ducked my head, blushing and muttered, “I told you I was a klutz.”
Spook put his arm around me and pulled me close. “That’s okay; you’re still my buddy.” I looked up at him and saw the brotherly tenderness in his eyes again. I tried to stop the sinking feeling in my chest, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointment over knowing I was back to being his stand-in little sister. He sidled up to the bar and motioned for the bartender. When Jared’s coworker came over, Spook ordered a beer for himself and another wine cooler for me.
He couldn’t find any more wine coolers in the fridge below the bar, so he ran to the back to get more. As Spook and I waited, he noticed another photo right behind the bar. It showed a stern-looking, well-dressed man with a handlebar moustache. Something about the photo made me uneasy, and looking at Spook, I could see he felt the same way. I leaned closer to read the plate at the bottom of the photo; it said, “J. W. McKnight.”
“McKnight,” I said, standing up and glancing back at Spook. That name is familiar…”
Spook was quiet for a moment before he grasped my arm and said close to my ear, “Warren McKnight. Mary’s boyfriend.” I gasped in response, my eyes widening in shock.