In The Pines chapter two

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The Welch brothers lived in a small town about an hour from Asheville. I made my way there in a rental car, wondering what I would say to Bo. I knew he would have questions, but I didn’t know if I had the answers he needed. I had some questions of my own, too, and I wasn’t sure if I could handle the answers.

We had agreed to meet at a McDonald’s. I got a coffee and waited in an out of the way area that still afforded me a view of everyone entering the place. I picked him out as soon as he swung a door open and hustled in out of the rain. He wore jeans, a gray t-shirt with his business logo on the front, the shoulders wet from rain, and heavy work boots. His short dark hair was wet. He looked like sleep was nothing but a memory, his face closed and hard. He stood in line, disappeared from view for a bit, then came around the corner and looked over the diners seated in the area. When his intense gaze reached me, I raised my coffee cup in greeting. He stared for a moment, his expression unreadable, then he came to sit across from me.

“Hi, I’m Nikki.”

Bo Welch had no use for small talk. “Can you help my brother?”

“I don’t know. At this point, I’m not even sure exactly what happened.”

“But he contacted you for help, right? He said he got in touch with some expert on stuff like this.”

Shit. With my few paranormal experiences, I hardly qualified as an expert. I reached into my bag and pulled out hard copies of the few messages Justin and I had exchanged. “This was the extent of our contact.” I handed Bo the papers. He sipped his soda while he read them. Once he pushed the papers back to me, I said, “Do you believe the banjo is haunted?”

“I thought he was just jerking me around at first. Talking about how the thing kept whispering to him. Singing to him. It was crazy.” He looked away. “Me and Justin, we’re a lot different. He’s real…sensitive, or whatever. He’s a salad guy, I’m a steak guy. He likes books, I watch football. Just a different sensibility, you know?”

I nodded. He needed to talk about his brother. Listening was the least I could do.

“We’re still close, though. Being different never kept us from being close. I didn’t know if this was some kind of weird prank or what.”

“When did you suspect something was wrong?”

“He started being mean to Jenna.”

“That’s his girlfriend?”

“Yeah. Justin’s not a mean guy at all, especially not with women and kids. But he started being mean to her. He accused her of cheating. That’s not who she is, either, and he knows that. Or at least, I thought he did.”

“Did he get violent?”

Bo hid behind drinking his soda before answering. “They had a fight. He threw some stuff. Smashed her phone when she tried to call for help. He shoved her against a wall pretty hard. She told me later that something changed in him then. Like, he saw that she was scared and hurting, and it sort of…woke him up. He was himself again.” He picked up the papers, glanced at the printed emails. “A few days after that was when he brought the banjo over to my house. I got the fire pit going and he put the thing in there. We watched it burn and drank a few beers.” He tapped the table. “There was nothing left of that thing but ash.”

“I’m the one who told him to try burning it.”

Bo leaned over the table and though he lowered his voice, his words were still a blow. “Yeah, and it didn’t fucking work. The banjo came back. A little after midnight, I went to the backyard to make sure the fire was out. The fire was gone, all right, and the God damn banjo was sitting there like nothing had happened to it. Not so much as a scorch mark on it.”

“What happened then?”

“He went after Jenna. She was at work. He showed up and literally dragged her out of the store by her hair. Chased her down the street, screaming at her about how he’d never let her go. She’d be his or she’d be no one’s. It took three cops and a couple of bystanders to keep him away from her. That is not my brother. He would never be like this. He’s not violent. He damn sure would never hurt Jenna. He loves her.”

So not only had burning the banjo not worked, but it sounded to me like it sent whatever spirit inhabited it into a rage. My suggestion got this girl Jenna hurt and terrified.

“The cops arrested him,” Bo said. “When they took him to jail, he, I don’t know, came back to himself or whatever. They said he was freaking out about Jenna, demanding to know if she was okay. He told them the voice in the banjo made him do bad things. That went over real well.”

“Yeah, I bet.” The coffee had soured in my stomach as guilt spread through me. I got a girl hurt with my offhand advice, that I hadn’t even bothered to research.

“He freaked out. Total meltdown. By the time I knew anything had happened, they had him in an ambulance on the way to a psychiatric hospital.”

“Have you been able to visit him?”

“Just once. They’ve got him on some heavy medication. He was really out of it. He told me the voice in the banjo was quieter now. I figure that’s the drugs.”

“Where’s the banjo?”

“At my house.”

“Did you tell the cops about burning it and it coming back?”

He gave me a harsh look that I totally deserved. “I can’t exactly help him if I’m locked up in the looney bin with him, can I?”

“What about Jenna? Does she know about the banjo?”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t know what to think. She went to stay with her sister for a while, and she made it clear she doesn’t want to hear from Justin or me until she’s ready.” He studied me, his gaze unnerving in its intensity. “You have to help me help my brother.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“That’s not acceptable.”

“Look-”

“No, you look. He thought you knew what you were talking about with this shit, so he asked you for help. You told him to burn the damn thing, so he did. And it made it worse! He’s in a psychiatric hospital and when he gets out of that, he’s probably going to jail. Because of your shitty advice.” I flinched, but I couldn’t argue. Hell, I agreed with him. “You’re gonna help me make sure he’s okay. Whatever the hell is going on with this banjo, you’re going to help me fix it. We’re gonna figure out how to get its hooks out of my brother, and make sure the damn thing doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

I wanted to tell him hell yes, let’s get to work, but I had to be honest. “You need to understand something. I write for a music magazine. That blog is just something I do for fun because I’ve had some weird experiences. I’m still learning about all this, this…paranormal stuff. I don’t know how to help your brother.”

Bo Welch looked mad enough to chew glass, and like he would brook no refusal from me or the world. I would have admired his determination, except for the fact that I was currently getting the rough end of it. “Then you better fucking figure it out, because as far as I’m concerned, this is your fault.”

An arrow of guilt pierced me, sudden and sharp. Hell, I’d flown out here on my own dime because I felt some responsibility. And yes, some curiosity. Okay, a lot of curiosity. The least I could do was make some calls to my few supernatural sources.

“May I see the banjo?” I figured a request rather than a demand was the way to go.

Bo’s flinty blue eyes showed no regard for niceties, but he did acquiesce. “Follow me to my house. Make sure you keep up. I’m not gonna sit by the side of the road and wait for you.”

“Got it.” The guy’s sparkling personality was really starting to grow on me. Like mold.

Bo lived in a small, tidy house set off by itself on a county road. The landscaping, as expected, looked worthy of a magazine but not overdone. We entered through a mudroom by the garage instead of the front door, and I was immediately ordered to remove my shoes. There was no other welcome or offer of a beverage. Not that I really expected any such, but still. He made me wait in the kitchen while he retrieved the banjo, with an unspoken don’t touch anything in his glare.

It was perhaps the cleanest kitchen I’d ever seen, with everything perfectly organized and labeled. Probably disinfected on a regular basis, too. Standing in the midst of such sterile perfection made me twitchy. Bo returned carrying a towel and an instrument case. He spread the towel on the dining table, getting it just so, then opened the case and carefully placed the banjo on the towel.

It was a vintage five string in good condition. I didn’t know enough about banjos to identify it further. “Mind if I take some pictures?”

He nodded as he crossed his heavily muscled arms over his chest.

I took out my phone and snapped some pics. Since he seemed so particular about it, I asked him to turn the instrument over for more photos. There was no label that I could find, but the top of the peghead had a lovely star inlay that looked like it might help with identification if Bo couldn’t.

“Does your brother have any paperwork on the instrument? A bill of sale? Any notes on what make and year, previous owners, anything like that?”

“Is it important?”

I had to work to keep my tone even. “It could be.”

“I can look, the next time I go to his place.”

So helpful. “Do you play, too?”

His cellphone buzzed. Without a word, he glanced at the screen and left the room to take the call. Leaving me alone with the haunted banjo. I pulled out a chair and sat, studying the instrument. The instinct that sometimes warned me of the presence of something paranormal, that I jokingly referred to as my spook meter, remained dormant. I touched the star inlaid in the peghead then ran my fingers down the strings on the neck. The calfskin on the head was still taut, and a little scratchy to the touch. I tapped the calfskin lightly then touched the strings. They didn’t feel like nylon, so possibly the original gut string. I plucked at the D string, then the middle G. The notes rang out true and pure, and I knew that no matter what else had happened, Justin Welch had taken care of this instrument. Cleaned it and tuned it and poured love into it, before it betrayed that love.

I strummed all five strings from the bottom up with the nails of two fingers. A spot on the inside of my left wrist exploded with pain, burning hot as a brand. The small blue play button tattooed there by an elf at a faery rave lit up, its color flickering in time with my pulse below it. I jerked my right hand away from the banjo. An unseen force grabbed me and held on, forcing my hand to cover the instrument.

The world lost color and sound and turned itself inside out. Bo’s sterile kitchen became a forest, untamed and wild with growth. Dark except for the white light of a full moon. Someone was running. It wasn’t me but she might as well have been. The taste of her fear filled my mouth. Brambles scratched at the bare skin of her arms revealed by a torn dress, and I felt the sharp prickle on my own flesh under my long sleeve tee. From far away the sound of a banjo came, playing a song I recognized but couldn’t name in the whirlwind of the vision or whatever it was that I was experiencing. I just knew that I – she – had to get away from that music, because whoever played it would kill her, us, oh God, my feet hurt from running and blood dripped down my arm from a deep slash, please God help me, don’t let him –

The vision shattered, the darkness suddenly filled with the lights of Bo’s kitchen. I blinked against the brightness.

“What the hell’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you answer me?” Bo knelt at my side and despite the harsh tone of his words, I could read the worry in his eyes.

I held my left wrist in my right hand. The pain had already subsided but the skin still tingled. “That banjo is definitely haunted.”

“We gotta figure out how to destroy it, and make it stay destroyed this time. My brother attacked an orderly at the hospital and had to be put under heavy sedation again.”

“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Bo said. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. I still don’t want to believe it.”

“It can be a shock, finding out stuff like this is real.”

“I don’t even care about that. I just care about my brother.” Bo stood and walked to the sink. When he spoke again, he kept his back to me, as if he couldn’t stand to make eye contact when he gave voice to his darkest fears. “Whatever’s got a hold of him, we have to stop it. When he’s himself, he hates himself for what he did to Jenna. If he winds up killing somebody, he’ll never forgive himself. I’ll lose him. I can’t let that happen.”

“I’ll do whatever I can to help you.” I studied the banjo as I rubbed my thumb over my tattoo made of elvish magic. Helping the Welch brothers was at the top of my to-do list, but I had some personal items on that list, too. Like figuring out what the hell just happened with this tattoo.

<- Chapter One

Chapter Three ->

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In The Pines chapter one

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Paramusicology is back after a week off for spring break! In The Pines is the longest story yet, a novella of twenty-five thousand words that I’ve broken down into twelve chapters for the blog. Here’s a brief description:

Murder ballads. Family secrets. A haunted banjo. A ghost who demands…Nikki’s not sure what. But she’s been asked for help, and she can’t walk away, no matter how dangerous it gets.

*rubs hands together with dark glee* Here we go…

I think my banjo is haunted. Can you help?

I stared at the screen and read the words again. A haunted banjo? And asking for my help? Not bad for my little blog’s very first comment that wasn’t spam. It had been left on a post about murder ballads, which seemed appropriate even though I had to laugh. A haunted banjo? Did it play Foggy Mountain Breakdown on its own in the middle of the night?

My quiet search for the paranormal shadows of the music world hadn’t given me much to write about lately. I’d met a couple of witches who played in a band struggling to break into the business, plus a genuine psychic who read palms and tarot cards for celebs. The psychic in particular had become a friend, not blog fodder, so sometimes I posted about other things. The spooky side of music history always made for a good topic that I could ramble on about. A thousand words about the song known variously as Little Sadie, Cocaine Blues, and a few other titles was the latest post, and the one to finally get a comment.

I had no idea how to respond. Was the comment meant to be a joke? Did somebody out there really believe they had a haunted banjo? And if they did possess such a thing, what could I do to help? I didn’t know anything about exorcising unruly spirits from musical instruments. After some thought, I typed a response.

I don’t know if I can help, but I’m very curious. Why do you think your banjo is haunted?

A week later, while Turntable Magazine had me in Chicago covering a band’s tour opening, I got an answer. Sort of.

It talks to me. Sings to me. It won’t stop. It whispers bad things. Sometimes I believe them. I don’t want to. Please, can you help me?

I didn’t know what to make of the vaguely ominous tone. A prank? Someone having a mental health crisis? Any number of mundane explanations were possible. But after fighting off vampires and partying with elves, I had to admit this might be legit, no matter how much it made me want to laugh. I wrote up the first draft of my concert review then went to work on my blog, adding a way for readers to email me.

If you’d like to talk more, feel free to use the contact form in the sidebar. Maybe if you tell me more about what’s happening, I can try to figure out how to help.

Once I got back to LA, I searched social media with the email attached to the comment. Justin Welch had several accounts, with Facebook the one he used most frequently. He was a blandly cute twenty-six-year-old, lived in North Carolina, and posted mostly about three things: his job as a vet tech, his girlfriend, and roots music. Sure enough, there were several photos of him with a vintage banjo. He could play the thing, too. I watched a video of him performing Knoxville Girl three times. That song always gave me goosebumps. Welch’s playing was good, really good, and his voice wasn’t bad, either. A little rough around the edges, but that worked for the old-timey roots stuff.

I scrolled through his timeline and soon found myself wanting to give him a talk about privacy settings. I scrolled back up and checked the dates. He hadn’t posted anything new since before his first comment on my blog. From what I could tell by stalking his socials, he wasn’t the type to pull a prank on a random stranger, or probably anyone else, for that matter. There was no mention or indication of mental health issues. He seemed happy, like he had a good life and he knew it.

Over the next couple of weeks I stayed busy with work, but Welch and his banjo that might or might not be haunted were never far from my thoughts. I fought the urge to check his socials again. Getting all up in the business of a rock star was one thing, but this guy was a private citizen. If he ever got back to me, I would try to help him, but he was going to have to take that step.

A month passed before I heard from him again. The email he sent through the blog contact form was…not great.

This banjo is haunted, and whatever, whoever is haunting it, they know things. They tell me things. He tells me that she lies. That she cheats and laughs at me behind my back. That she doesn’t think I’m good enough for her. Man enough for her. That I can’t provide for her the way she wants. She’ll find another man soon, a man with money and land, a man who can give her fine things. He says this stuff and I don’t want to believe it. That’s not who she is at all. I tell him he’s wrong but he just laughs. He laughs and laughs and it comes out of the banjo like this terrible noise, like it’s out of tune and playing the wrong notes. I can’t describe it.

I think I’m starting to see things.

Up until that last sentence, I was forming questions in my mind, about the instrument’s provenance and history. Planning a call to my friend the psychic, see what she had to say. But, you know, hallucinations? That was the kind of leveling up no one ever wants to do.

My reply was quick and to the point:

Have you tried salting and burning the haunted banjo?

For the next three days, I checked my email approximately every thirty seconds. Finally, a response.

I’ll try. Thanks.

Well, shit. Gonna need more than that, Justin Welch of Whereverthehell, North Carolina.

Let me know what happens. If that doesn’t help, I’ll see what else I can come up with.

Then more waiting. Waiting, as the song goes, is the hardest part. I wasn’t laughing anymore. In fact, I was genuinely worried about the guy, and based on the nature of most murder ballads and this haunted banjo’s message, his girlfriend, too. Girlfriends never fared well in murder ballads.

After too much anxious waiting, I went to see my psychic friend. Evanna Broder was several years older than me, tall and willowy with the look of a golden surfer girl entering middle age with confidence and a bemused smile. Back when she was young and her name was still Ethan, she’d been a competitive surfer, in fact, and she still carried herself with a graceful athleticism. She favored flowing skirts, layered tank tops, and bangles. Lots and lots of bangles that made a lovely music when she moved. Her hair, a flattering mix of blonde and gray, hung halfway down her back.

In addition to reading palms and tarot cards for celebs, she owned a New Age bookstore in Hollywood. I stood in a corner with my phone and scrolled through the latest issue of a magazine that Turntable competed with while Evanna helped a customer.

Once the customer left, Evanna raised her glasses and gave me a hard look. “Your aura needs cleansing.”

“What are you, my mother?”

She pulled a duster from underneath the counter and waved it at me. “Make yourself useful while you tell me what’s wrong.” She hustled me toward the bookshelves and she went to work on the candle and incense display.

I did as ordered without protest. “Do you think objects can be haunted?”

“You mean, like, by the spirits of previous owners?”

“Like a vintage banjo, for example.”

“I don’t see why not. Places can be haunted. We both know that for sure.”

I told her about the comments on my blog and subsequent emails. Also fessed up to the light internet stalking of the commenter. “If this is real and the banjo is whispering evil somethings to this guy about his girlfriend, I mean.”

“She could be in danger.” Evanna put down the handful of candles she’d been clutching then took the duster from me and tossed it aside. “Come on. Let’s check this guy’s Facebook.”

Relief hit me as I followed her to the back office. Stalking strangers was wrong – that’s what I’d been telling myself as I fought the urge to get really nosy. But if Evanna thought it was necessary, then I wasn’t alone in my dubious behavior. “It’s probably nothing.”

“But it might be something.” She sat at her small desk, woke up her laptop and went directly to the social network. “What’s his email?”

I told her as I maneuvered to her side so I could see the screen too. Still nothing new on Justin Welch’s timeline. The doorbell rang, announcing a customer, and Evanna went back up front. I slid into the chair and checked Welch’s other socials. None had recent updates. I sat with my fingers hovering over the keyboard, contemplating a Google search. “Probably nothing,” I murmured. “Or it ended when he set the banjo on fire.” That was my hope, anyway. That, and that I’d get an email from the guy telling me everything was cool and normal again.

Evanna returned. “This is why you’re all out of sorts. What are you going to do about it?”

I sighed. “I don’t know what to do. He asked for my help, but I’m not sure how much license that gives me to dig into his life. Much less show up in his hometown looking for him. What would I say? Hey dude, I’m the anonymous blogger you asked for help. How’s that haunted banjo?” I closed the browser window and gave Evanna back her chair. “Not likely to go over well.”

“You’re worried,” she said.

“Yes. Damn it. Plus it’s just weird, being asked for help like this by a stranger.”

“What, did you think no one would ever read your blog?”

“Honestly, no. I damn sure didn’t think anyone would ever ask for my help.”

She leaned back in her chair and gave me a searching look. “Why does that bother you so much?”

I knew the answer but I didn’t want to say. “Can we go back to cleaning?”

“Have you checked his hometown paper yet? Make sure there are no scary stories in it about him.”

I got my phone out of my bag and pretended to check for messages. “No.” She said nothing, but I could feel the weight of her stare. I gave in and met her gaze. “Okay, look. I don’t feel qualified to handle this.”

“Handle what?”

“Helping this guy. I don’t know anything about haunted instruments, or how to un-haunt them. I’m a journalist. A writer. I observe, I don’t…”

“Participate,” she finished for me. “You and I both know that’s not true.”

Yeah, okay, she had me there. Still. “What if I try to help and I can’t? Or worse, I screw it up? This is not my wheelhouse.”

“Maybe not, but you wrote about these things. Published that writing online. Somebody was bound to notice eventually. Just so happens it was someone with a problem. I know you want to help, Nikki.”

“Of course I do, I just don’t know how. I never thought I’d be adding paranormal problem solver to my resume.”

“You should let me do a reading for you. It might give you some clarity.”

I thought about it for a moment. I hadn’t let her read my palm or do a tarot spread for me. I understood enough about tarot to know it was as much psychology as mystical, maybe more so, but I was still reluctant to open myself up to it. It might tell me things I wasn’t ready to know yet. “I think I’ll wait a while longer. See if the guy gets back to me.”

“If you change your mind, just say the word.” She stood and made her way to the front of the store, patting my arm as she passed. “Come on, help me clean.”

That night I finally succumbed to my stalking impulse. It didn’t take long to find a headline in Welch’s hometown paper that made my blood run cold.

Local man committed after violent attack on girlfriend

Damn it. The story was light on detail. The girlfriend, not identified, was treated and released, so that was a relief. The fact that Welch was in a psychiatric hospital rather than jail quashed the relief. I checked the date on the article. The day after I’d last heard from him, when I’d advised him to burn the instrument.

So that meant it wasn’t a haunting after all, right? A psychotic break instead. Definitely. Probably. Still, I was left with doubts, so I did more research. I couldn’t let this go until I knew for sure. I went back through Welch’s Facebook and found pictures of him with a brother, who was conveniently tagged so I could trace him, too. Bo Welch owned a landscaping business, which made up the bulk of his social media activity.

I thought about what to say to him for a long time. Here I was about to intrude on what was no doubt a really hard time for this man and his family, and despite being a journalist I wasn’t insensitive to that. But I had to make sure. So I sent the brother a private message and hoped I wasn’t overstepping too much.

A response was waiting for me in the morning.

Justin put that banjo in my fire pit and set it on fire. We watched it burn. Then a few hours later it was back, just like before we burned it. Can you help my brother?

I didn’t know the answer to that, but I booked a flight to North Carolina anyway.

 

Chapter Two ->