Spire in the Woods/2
A few days after Rob’s suicide, a handful of young reporters showed up at school trawling for quotes. Before the faculty could chase them out, they pushed hard for someone, anyone, to give support to the lone-wolf-school-shooter angle. Rob’s real friends flatly refused to speak to the reporters, but there’s a certain element among young people who only want attention, and the same kids who showed up for the grief counseling, despite never having been particularly close to Rob, were the first in line to provide quotes.
The next day, the local paper was filled with statements like, “‘No one really knew him,’ says student Melissa Bennett.” For Fletch it was a slap in the face.
“What? ‘Cause she didn’t know him, nobody could?” About a week or so after Rob died, Fletch resumed picking me up in the morning. “I don’t count? Murph doesn’t count? Fucking bullshit!”
Listening to him rant about the story in the paper made me think that maybe I should have spoken to the reporters. I wouldn’t have pretended to have had any special insight into Rob’s mental state, but it might have been nice for his friends and family to have seen something simple and honest, something that didn’t fit into the lone-wolf narrative. Even if it was nothing more than saying, “He had friends. They’re just not talking to you because they’re grieving, you heartless parasite.”
I wish I had done that, but I didn’t. I also wish I could tell you that I was the one who wrote an Op Ed the following week roasting the reporters for coming into a school and pushing students still reeling from the shock of losing a classmate into spouting a whole bunch of pop-psych, pseudo-scientific nonsense, but that wasn’t me either. That was some senior I didn’t know very well.
I had made a few tenuous attempts at getting Fletch to open up about Rob. The best I had managed was to get him ranting about the kids in the grief counseling sessions that didn’t belong. Talking about them got the normally placid Fletch so angry I thought he might have an aneurysm. After that, I quickly gave up.
Once I resolved not to pry into Fletch’s life, our morning rides settled into something almost comfortable. Our casual friendship was like a knee recovering from an injury: fine so long as we didn’t put any weight on it. And that was still the state of things the day we returned to school after Drew DeLuca’s birthday.
Today, tracking down the story that lead me to the Spire would have been a piece of cake (for me, anyways. For you, I’ve changed too many details). I could have typed that little rhyming snippet of Rob’s suicide note into Google and had my answer in seconds. But the Internet wasn’t as robust back then. Hell, I’m pretty sure in 1999 I was still using Hotbot.
Nonetheless, from the second I returned from Drew’s until school started on Monday, I spent every waking minute scouring every Haunted Places book and paranormal website I could find, looking for the phrase, “And every hour, I see her face, as she runs the endless race,” or some variation. By the end of the weekend, half the contents of my bookshelf had been redistributed throughout the house, and I had skimmed countless Geocities pages, scrolling past dancing ghost GIF after dancing ghost GIF until my eyes bled, but still had nothing to show for it.
I knew I couldn’t bring it up with Fletch. Not directly, at any rate. Rob’s death was still a raw nerve. So I went to the only person who knew even more about ghost stories than I did: Scary Kerry.
Growing up in the woods of New Hampshire at the foot of the White Mountains wasn’t all bad. My school had a hiking club that also taught us elementary wilderness survival skills. It was immensely popular, mainly because it culminated in a week-long hike, which meant you got to miss a week of school. As freshmen, my friends and I all signed up to go together that fall, but two weeks before the big event, I came down with a case of antibiotic-resistant strep throat and had to have my tonsils removed. Fun.
Since the program was extremely popular, each student could only partake once. Even though I was allowed to make up my hike the following winter, it was still a bit of a letdown, since none of my friends could come with me. I was intensely jealous when my friends returned from the hike closer than ever with a slew of in-jokes and stories from their week in the woods, but by the time I left for my hike a few months later, things in my circle of friends had already returned to normal, and I was mainly just concerned about being stuck in the woods with random classmates I had little in common with.
If you’ve never spent all day hiking with a large-frame pack, you may not appreciate how grueling it can be. There’s a high washout rate of kids who get sick or throw in the towel and have to be picked up and taken home. There’s an even higher rate of kids who never shut up about how much their feet hurt, and by the time we stopped for lunch on the first day, any concerns I had of loneliness were replaced by my seething hatred for that group of kids.
Those of us capable of keeping our mouths shut (at least about our feet) quickly bonded. That’s how I became friends with Scary Kerry Peterson, the last person on Earth I ever imagined I’d become close to. Kerry was one of those unlucky people that seems scientifically designed to be picked on. She was nearly six feet tall, quite overweight, crap at school, poor (by the standards of my admittedly affluent town), and cursed with a head the size of a large pumpkin. I’d had classes with Kerry on and off for the last 9 years, and before the hike, I doubt I’d spoken more than two words to her. Although, in fairness to me, in middle school she had deepened her own isolation from most of the class by becoming intensely goth in the Baby Bat way of late ‘90s teens.
There was a blond girl on the hike, I think her name was Stephanie Foster, that two hours earlier I had found very cute, and, despite her whining, I was still thinking I might like to get to know her better before she let this gem slip: “God, I just wanted to miss school. Why do we have to walk soooo much?”
I rolled my eyes but didn’t say anything. Kerry, however, could not let it slide. “What the hell did you think a hike was?”
Stephanie looked at her like Kerry was something she’d scraped off the bottom of her boots. “Nobody’s talking to you.”
“And nobody wants to fucking listen to you!”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed. I still didn’t think of Scary Kerry as a friend yet, but it was suddenly a lot harder not to like her.
After lunch, our line of hikers silently, and seemingly unconsciously, rearranged our marching order with the whiners taking up the rear and those of us who could keep our aches and pains to ourselves leading the pack. By dinner time, Stephanie and three other kids from her clique, perhaps unimpressed by the franks and beans we’d be having, decided to throw in the towel.
It gets dark early in winter. Dark and cold. On the fall hike, after dinner, my friends were able to wander around the campsite quite a bit, but for us there was only one thing to do: stick close to the fire. And that’s where Kerry and I really bonded. Someone half-jokingly asked if anyone knew any good ghost stories. There was the usual student reluctance to step up and put yourself out there to be judged, and our chaperones weren’t terribly interested in anything but double-checking our work setting up the tents, but after a few false starts from the other kids, I decided to tell an old standby, the story of an old woman that lived in Maine who had been caught abducting pets and small children. It was said that she was a witch who ate the flesh of her victims and turned their bones into china.
The second I finished, Kerry started telling one of hers. We took turns telling stories the rest of the night and continued telling stories every night after dinner for the rest of the week. Between campsites, we walked next to each other, chatting about the kind of crap that seems important to teenagers and quizzing each other on local paranormal hot spots.
Back at school, after the hike, maintaining my friendship with Kerry proved to be tricky. My friends never really understood the bond. They weren’t mean to her, not exactly, but despite my efforts to bring her into the fold, they never embraced her. As for the few friends Kerry had, some couldn’t mask their disdain for my taste in music and clothing, while others were the sort of kids that were desperate and clingy— two things I always found it hard to stomach. But Kerry was one of the only people I could talk to about losing my faith, and she was always game to get together and go on one of my very fruitless ghost hunts, so we stayed in regular contact.
The Monday after my conversation with Alina, I tracked down Scary Kerry in the cafeteria sitting with a few other goth kids. We had talked a lot after Rob killed himself, in part because I knew that Kerry, from time to time, had suicidal thoughts of her own. It may have been the height of stupidity, but until Rob Kennan actually did it, actually ended his own life, I never thought that it could happen in my town. At least, not to anyone I knew. After Rob had done it, though, I knew I couldn’t let Kerry slip down that same path, and for a while, I doubled my efforts to spend time with her; but after one particularly awkward night ghost hunting in Greenfield, well, we had fallen back to the status quo.
“Kerry, you mind if I steal you for a second?” I asked, pointing back out into the hallway behind me.
As Kerry rose to leave, Kim Murray leaned over to one of their other friends and said, “Aww,” like she’d just seen something cute. Kerry’s face splotches of scarlet and shot Kim a look of pure hatred.
“Forget it, c’mon.” I said. I didn’t know what Kerry had told Kim about Greenfield, but sure didn’t want to deal with it.
Once we were in the hallway and out of anyone’s earshot, I recounted the events of Drew DeLuca’s party.
“She let you read the note he left her?” Even though, just a month ago, we’d spent several hours being lectured by our guidance counselors about the differences between depression—the true depression that was a psychological illness—and being sad, I think Kerry still had trouble believing anyone was more miserable than she was.
Kerry stepped closer to me and dropped her voice to a whisper, “Why’d he do it? Was it…was it her fault?”
I trusted Kerry, but I was reluctant to share too much with her. I hate to admit it, but in spite of having counted Kerry amongst my friends for the past year, Alina’s pretty face had flipped my loyalties completely to her in one conversation. I cut to the chase.
“Rob wrote something, in Alina’s note. I swear it’s from a ghost story, but I can’t remember which one.”
“What’d it say?”
“And every hour, I see her face, as she runs the endless race.”
Scary Kerry shivered. “The Widower’s Clock. I hate that one.”
While my story begins with Rob Kennan killing himself, the story of the Spire in the Woods begins almost a century earlier in the former town of Enfield, Massachusetts, a few years before it was destroyed.
In the late 1920s, an elderly clockmaker from Boston married a beautiful young woman and the two of them settled in Enfield. He was a master craftsman, the finest in the world, able to create machines of such complexity and precision that he was often called the Da Vinci of clockworks (no small feat, considering Da Vinci himself had designed clockwork automatons). She was a great beauty. Refined and cultivated, before meeting the clockmaker she had been celebrated by the Boston Brahmin for her wit and for throwing the very best dinner parties.
The clockmaker had amassed a great fortune, but he, like all great artists, was unsatisfied by all of the products of his lifetime of labor. He wanted to build one more clock, a clock that would surpass even Munich’s Rathaus-Glockenspiel in its artistry and complexity. He completed his plans in the spring of 1931 and they were beautiful. His designs were classic, yet modern. Complex, yet clean. Each hour, when the bells called out the time, the automatons would dance forth from their hidden chambers and symbolically reenact different battles of the Civil War, each day telling the story of how the North came to vanquish the South.
Lowell and Boston both desperately wanted the clock tower, as did a few of the larger manufacturing and shipping companies, but before construction could begin on any town hall, court house or corporate headquarters, the Depression hit. All the suitors disappeared in short order, one after the other, leaving the clockmaker alone with his plans.
Miserable and depressed, the clockmaker feared he would die before he’d ever have the chance to see his vision complete. He resolved that he wouldn’t let that happen, and began spending his considerable fortune building the tower on his own, as an addition to his own house in Enfield.
One day, the clock tower nearly complete, the clockmaker returned home from picking up a custom-made part. He arrived much earlier than anticipated, to discover his wife in bed with another man, one of his laborers. The clockmaker burst into the room and screamed at his wife and her lover. He had never been so angry or humiliated in all his life, but he didn’t yet know what humiliation was.
Rather than beg his forgiveness, or cower before him, or even flee the room in shame, the clockmaker’s wife and her lover laughed at him. They told the clockmaker that he was an impotent old man and they were unafraid of him.
“Run along back to your little gears and springs,” his wife said. “Maybe if you’re nice and quiet I’ll still fix you your dinner tonight.”
The clockmaker, in a state of shock, slunk back to his gears and springs, but rather than going to work on the clock, he went to work on a plan. He removed the automatons from their posts and set all of his meager strength to coiling the huge spring that ran beneath their tracks. He laid out his tools, so they would be near at hand, and then he waited, listening to the rhythms of his marriage bed slamming again and again against the wall.
Eventually, the rhythmic thuds reached their crescendo and then fell quiet. Soon after he heard his wife call out to him, but he said nothing. Her calls grew in urgency and repentance crept into her voice— could she really be concerned for him? After what she did, after what she said? Still, the clockmaker stayed silent.
When the laborer entered the room, which was little more than a giant gearbox, the clockmaker stared at him but did not move.
The laborer leaned back out of the room and called to his lover, “He’s in here!”
“He hasn’t done anything stupid, has he?”
“No. He’s fine.” The clockmaker was not fine.
The laborer approached the clockmaker as cautiously as a man approaches an unfamiliar dog. “ ’S your fault, you know?” The clockmaker, his watery eyes unblinking, only responded by staring as the younger man approached him. “Fine lady like that, fancy, you can’t keep her in a cage, ‘specially round here in this dreadful place, and expect she won’t get bored.”
It was at that exact moment that the laborer stepped across the path of the automatons’ track and the clockmaker yanked out the pin holding the spring coiled. The post, unburdened of a man-sized figure brimming with heavy metal gears, raced along the track and collided with the soft flesh of the laborer’s leg. The crack of the bone splintering was even louder than the man’s screams.
The clockmaker’s wife called out at the sound of her lover’s cries. “I’m coming! I’m coming!”
The clockmaker picked up a large wrench and moved beside the door. As his wife rushed in, her eyes searching for her lover, the clockmaker crept up behind her and brought the wrench down on her skull.
She awoke, hours later, with shooting pains running through her legs. She tried to look down, but her head was agony to move. The clockmaker stood over her, his mallet hammering the metal support rods into her thighs. Her lover was already mounted to the post, ready to fill in for the automaton and dance when the hour struck.
Just as with the Rathaus-Glockenspiel in Munich, the clockmaker’s creation was hailed as a great artistic achievement. Crowds gathered on the formerly quiet street to watch the myriad Union and Rebel automatons zip along their tracks, round and round, in an endless race.
It was weeks before anyone noticed something wrong with two of the automatons. Their lacquered veneer bulged in weird places and looked slick, as if it were wet. Then, one day, the finish gave way, and the crowd, which was mostly children at this point, watched in horror as two corpses zipped about the track, chasing and stabbing each other with bayonets.
They say even after the clock was stopped and the lovers were laid to rest, all those who saw the wife’s face were haunted by visions of her endlessly running along her track.
I didn’t have to ask why Scary Kerry hated the story of the Widower’s Clock. She was the one who pointed out to me how ghost stories were frequently used as a form of social control. Here was another story where an unfaithful woman was put to death by an angry husband and, crueler still, children were also punished. Children whose only crime was having seen the corpse of the unfaithful woman, a corpse that the enraged husband put on display.
I couldn’t wait to tell Alina. I didn’t have any classes with her, but we had lunch the same period. Alina was sitting at a table with her friends. Ordinarily, it would have been intimidating to walk up to a table of girls, most of whom were pretty and toned from years of soccer, field hockey, and track, but I could tell by the way Alina was sitting with her tray in her lap, her chair pushed back from the table, that she would like nothing more than an excuse to leave.
We were allowed to eat our lunches outside, but no one ever did during the winter. We got some funny looks pushing open the doors and slipping out onto the yellowing grass.
I’d been looking forward to telling Alina the story of the Widower’s Clock for hours, but now that I was alone with her, I hesitated to jump straight into it. “Are you OK?”
Alina shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah. But I…well, I haven’t done so great with crowds lately. Especially when I’m eating.”
We were huddled in the corner of the doorway, trying to use the building to block the wind. I was nervous as I reached out to rub her arm in what I hoped was an understanding and reassuring gesture. She didn’t flinch or pull away, she just stared at my hand for a long second before she whispered, “Thanks.”
I started telling her the story exactly as Kerry told it to me, but had barely begun when the switch flipped in Alina’s head and she remembered where she’d heard it before.
East Boston Camps. Pretty much everyone in our town went to summer camp there when we were kids, because it was only 15 minutes outside of Nashua. One of the counselors there had been like Kerry and me, and he used to delight in telling ghost stories to the younger campers. He loved it when the kids were too scared to sleep and kept their cabin chaperones up all night.
For a second I forgot why we were trying to track down this story and got lost in old memories of camp. But Alina didn’t.
“Do you think it has anything to do with why he killed himself?” Her voice was steady, but she fixed me with her eyes and I could see how desperate she was for me to say yes. Desperate to believe that it wasn’t her fault.
“I think he suffered from depression.”
Alina’s lip quivered, and her eyes filled with tears.
I hugged her. “Hey. Listen to me. You didn’t kill him.”
Alina gripped the collar of my flannel shirt and buried her head against my chest. I stood there, holding her, as she cried. The two of us were late to fifth period.
At the end of the day, Fletch was waiting for me in the parking lot. He’d already turned his car on and cranked the heater up to full blast. Even still, we were halfway home before it was warm enough for me to open up my jacket.
He stared out the window. “Dude, what’s going on with you and Alina?”
I turned to look at him. His jaw was set and for the first time in our lives Fletch reminded me of his hardass father. I really didn’t want to answer him.
“She asked me about a ghost story.”
Fletch’s only answer was to let his eyes drift from the road. He studied my face for a long moment before he finally said, “Which one?”
“The Widower’s Clock. It’s the one where—”
“I know the one.” It was barely a whisper. “Are you in a hurry to get home?”
Fletch pulled over to the side of the road, took a shuddering breath, punched the steering wheel twice and started bawling. He let it out. Everything that he’d been holding in at school, everything that he’d been holding in around his dad. Everything. Alina had been sad; Fletch was purging.
During the days following Rob’s suicide, seeing people break down like this was common, and it continued on longer in the morning counselling sessions, but at some point, people put their guard back up. What had been appropriate emotions one day was suddenly back to being taboo the next, and for people like Fletch, they weren’t ready to be in that emotional space again.
Once he’d gotten most of it out, we started talking. Really talking. “I know it’s unfair,” he said, “I know it’s not...I mean, she always tried to be nice, but I’m sorry, I just fucking hate her.”
I didn’t exactly blame Fletch for how he felt. Nate was a good guy. He knew that Alina wasn’t obligated to reciprocate Rob’s feelings simply because he was nice to her. But he had watched his friend, dead or alive, burn for four hours and a part of him wondered if it would still have happened if only Alina had given Rob a chance.
“That’s too much pressure to put on somebody,” I said.
I reminded Fletch of everything that the counsellors had told us, that feeling sad when you’ve been rejected is natural, normal behavior. Healthy behavior. You should feel sad whenever someone doesn’t reciprocate your feelings. It is sad. But while there’s always something that makes a person decide they want to kill themselves now and not tomorrow or last week, it’s not the final straw that breaks their back, it’s all the weight that came before it. The underlying mental illness.
Fletch looked down at his hands. “Yeah.” There was no conviction in his voice.
Fletch pulled his t-shirt up to his face and wiped the last of his tears away. He then started the car and we were moving, riding in silence. After a few minutes, Fletch spoke again,
“He thinks...he thought he found it.”
“The Widower’s Clock.”
It was my turn to stare at Nate. “That’s impossible.”
“Do you want to read it, the note he left me?”
In the period of time between the end of the Civil War and the start of the 1920s, the population of Boston, Massachusetts more than tripled. In fact, there were more people living in Boston in the 1920s than there are today. This put an amazing strain on the city’s resources, particularly on their drinking water.
To solve their water problem, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts undertook a number of public works projects redirecting rivers and creating reservoirs, the largest of which is the Quabbin Reservoir in the Swift River Valley of Western Massachusetts. The Quabbin covers nearly 40 square miles and sports an impressive 180 miles of shoreline.
Creating the Quabbin meant flooding much of the Swift River Valley, and the Swift River Valley was home to four towns; Dana in the northeast and Prescott in the northwest, with Greenwich wedged between them, and Enfield in the southwest. Enfield, where the Widower’s Clock was supposedly built, now sits mostly submerged by 412 billion gallons of water.
How in the hell would Robert Kennan have found anything there at all? What would there even be to find, 60-some-odd-years and a flood after the fact? And it’s not as though the Swift River Valley was flooded overnight. The people had had years to move their homes and relocate out of the flood zone. Why would they leave behind a whole building? And if it was there, wouldn’t a clock tower peeking up from the water tend to draw the eye?
I never felt comfortable in Fletch’s house. The first floor felt like a museum. Mr. Fletcher was strict, but it was Mrs. Fletcher who wanted her house to always resemble the cover of an interior decorating magazine. Call me crazy, but what’s the point of having a house you’re afraid to live in?
Fletch’s room, on the other hand, had the opposite problem. The first time I came over, at Mrs. Fletcher’s insistence, I had to take my shoes off to go upstairs and then put them back on in Nate’s room because while he was sure there was broken glass somewhere, Fletch wasn’t quite sure where. As you can imagine, Nathan Fletcher and his mother fought quite a bit.
Fletch gestured to his bed and I parked myself on the corner of it with the fewest dirty clothes. What few prized possessions he owned, Fletch kept in the bottom right-hand drawer of his desk, but that’s not where he pulled Rob’s letter out from. No, the letter he kept tucked in a book on top of his nightstand. It occurred to me that he must have been reading it often.
The invasion of privacy I felt when I read Alina’s letter was nothing compared to reading Fletch’s as he sat next to me. The letter was exponentially more personal. Rob was exposed on the page. Reading it made me feel like I had walked in on him naked. Whereas the letter Rob gave to Alina revealed a little about himself and next to nothing about her, this letter revealed a great deal about Rob as well as Fletch.
Fletch and Rob had bonded when Rob was new and Fletch was going through his awkward phase. Apparently, I had been wrong about Fletch not getting down whenever he said the wrong thing. Warm and funny and confident around his friends, Fletch had spent most of his early teens afraid to speak in public. Maybe I hadn’t noticed because he was older and I sort of looked up to him. Or maybe I was just too absorbed in my own insecurities to see that anyone else had their own. Either way, it was news to me.
Rob’s note to Alina had expressed a measure of guilt for leaving everyone behind to deal with the aftermath of his death, but in the letter he gave to Fletch, the guilt he articulated feeling was for having lived. He apologized profusely for having been a burden. He described himself alternatively as a baby and a leech, a drain on anyone foolish enough to move too close to him. And though he knew no one would see it like he did, Rob viewed his suicide as a charitable act. He was ridding his friends and family of himself.
Despite my discomfort reading such a personal letter, I devoured every word. I consumed the letter, hoping after each line that the next would finally illuminate for me what Robert Kennan had to do with the Widower’s Clock. And finally, tucked amidst a list of his reasons why he was going to go through with it, was what I’d been looking for.
“I will soon join them. Staring at her face as she runs the endless race.”
I looked up, disappointed and annoyed with how little Rob had written about the Widower’s Clock, to find Fletch rocking back and forth in his chair. It made me feel like a piece of shit.
“You said he thought he’d found it?”
Nathan Fletcher looked up at me with watery eyes and told me everything.
Rob’s medication had his depression mostly under control for the last three years. He still had bouts, but they were less frequent and less severe than they had been before. Along with his much improved disposition, Rob had also been sleeping better, eating more and his energy was way up. But he was never exactly happy.
See, that’s something most people don’t understand about depression: it’s not a mood. It’s a disorder. Having the symptoms of his disorder in check didn’t make Rob happy, it made him not depressed. Rob still struggled to fit in and enjoy life. He was still unpopular. He was still misunderstood.
One of the few things that Robert Kennan really enjoyed was running. He especially enjoyed cross-country. If I had to guess what appeal long-distance running held for Rob, I’d say that for someone who always felt their loneliest in a crowd, it must have been a relief to actually be alone. Just him, the woods, and the next mile.
And the Quabbin Reservoir offered a lot of ‘next’ miles. Rob had been exploring its trails since he was a child. When they lived in Amherst, his family used to visit the Quabbin on the weekends. They’d hike or picnic. Occasionally Mr. Kennan would take his two sons fishing. As a teenager Rob looked for any excuse he could find to get down there and just go, one foot in front of the other, until sundown when visitors had to leave.
That summer, the summer of 1999, Rob made a lot of excuses to visit the Quabbin. He had, for the third time, mustered up the courage to tell Alina Aminev how he felt about her. And, for the third time, he had been rebuked, this time a little less gently than before. It left Rob with a growing impression that the love of his life found him creepy. Running was the only thing that got his mind off it.
The Fletchers had three boys. The oldest, Samuel, had gone to UMass and, after graduation, found work in the university’s IT department. Fletch visited his brother often, and, whenever he did, Rob would hitch a ride down to the Quabbin. Usually, Fletch would drop him off in the morning, and Rob would either get picked up by family he still had in Amherst, or he’d call Fletch’s brother from the visitor’s center at the south end of the Winsor Dam and Fletch would come get him.
Once, Rob had lost track of time and found himself, after sundown, miles from the visitor’s center. That’s when he heard them for the first time. Bells tolling the hour. They were scarcely detectable, as if they’d traveled a great distance, and they had an odd, muffled quality that made them sound soft and deep.
Rob stopped running and listened. He forgot all about Alina. Forgot about contacting Fletch. Forgot that he was an hour’s drive away from the nearest person he knew. He stood in the woods and turned into the wind to listen to this beautiful sound. If he was anything like me when I first heard them, he was overcome by a physical sensation, a feeling like slipping under a warm blanket on a cold night.
And then they were gone. Rob found himself once more in the dark woods with no idea how he’d get home.
There’s a trailer park, somewhat unusual in Massachusetts, a couple of miles southeast of the visitor’s center. Rob was lucky enough to get picked up on the road by one of its residents. She was probably barely forty but looked like she was pushing sixty, smoked continuously, and was the one who told Rob about, what she called, the Spire in the Woods.
To her, the Spire in the Woods wasn’t a ghost story. It was simply a fact of life, and like blind curves and sinkholes, one that was best to be avoided. She didn’t have a first-hand account of her own, but she’d heard plenty of stories. She knew that some of the boys from her trailer park enjoyed getting drunk, getting stoned, and pissing in the reservoir late at night. They got a little thrill out of the idea that somewhere in Boston, some Harvard grad was drinking their urine. Occasionally, one of these boys would come back to his trailer unsettled at having heard the eerie beauty of the bells.
The Quabbin Reservoir is peppered with islands. The woman said that the source of the bells was on one of them, an island just to the north of where the Old Ware Enfield Road turns into Quabbin Hill. Somewhere, hidden in the island’s wild-grown trees, the peak of an old spire, the sort you might see on top of a church, juts up out of the ground.
Now and again someone went looking for it and never came back. Rumor around the trailer park was that, back in 1996, John Wilkins and his cousin Anna found it, but only John came back. He killed himself about a month later. Since then, the park mothers have kept an extra close watch on their boys.
Rob didn’t really believe in any of it. He wasn’t like me. The Spire in the Woods wasn’t a spiritual quest. He wasn’t trying to cling to the last lingering shreds of his faith. He just wanted to hear that sound again. Hear the bells as they chimed the hour. Have that feeling of warmth and security wash over him.
In the weeks that followed, Rob thought of nothing except the sound of the bells. Fletch thought that Rob was embellishing the incident, letting his memory get the best of him, but Rob was adamant that they were the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard. He insisted that something in the aging bells, or the wind as it carried the tolling through the woods, or the acoustics of the rock and dirt surrounding the Spire, lent to them an ethereal quality.
He was determined to find the Spire. Rob began researching the Quabbin and it wasn’t long before he realized the connection between the Spire and the Widower’s Clock. He dismissed the ghost story, but he was thrilled that a master artisan had lived in Enfield and sunk his fortune into constructing a clock tower complete with bells and chimes.
Fletch was skeptical. If Rob had heard anything at all, it must have come from somewhere else. A neighboring town, a proper church. Tower bells weigh hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. What’d be ringing them? The wind? It’d take a hurricane.
But Rob was unfazed. He was going to find the Spire in the Woods. He was going to hear the bells again. And Fletch didn’t see the harm in letting him try.
A week before school started, Fletch set off for Amherst with Rob in tow. The pair of them spent the evening with Sam and his friends before cutting out around a quarter to ten and heading down Route 9 until they reached Old Ware Enfield Road. They parked the car near the trailer park and hoofed it the two miles or so up Old Ware to the shore of the reservoir nearest the islands, one of which, Rob was positive, housed the Spire in the Woods.
Each having worn swimsuits under their clothes, they simply stripped down, stashed their things and slipped into the water. The nearest island lay about 200 yards from the shore and Fletch, never a strong swimmer, quickly realized he didn’t have it in him to make it there. After a brief argument while treading water, Fletch turned back and Rob went on alone.
They’d agreed Fletch would meet Rob back by Route 9 at 4am. Fletch sat on the trunk of his car for hours, swatting mosquitoes and listening to the frogs and crickets. At first he was worried about Rob, then he was pissed that Rob had gone on by himself, then he was worried again. Fletch set the alarm on his watch around 1:30 or so, laid out on his back seat, and drifted off to sleep, wishing he was drinking at his brother’s.
Fletch awoke to the passenger-side door being thrown open. Rob jumped in and slammed the door closed. “Drive! Drive!”
Fletch scrambled into the front seat, assuming park officials or the police were in hot pursuit. He gunned the engine, and pulled out of the trailer park.
Fletch was already back on Route 9 before he hazarded a glance at his friend. Rob was panicked.
Rob said nothing. He just labored to catch his breath as he looked back towards the reservoir. Rob’s adrenaline slipped away as Fletch drove. By the time they reached Sam’s apartment, Rob was practically catatonic.
“It took me weeks to pry it out of him,” Fletch said. “But he saw something down there.”
“He found the Spire?” I asked.
“Did he go in?”