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.”
“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.