Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Looking back, I remember how all of my family’s summer barbecues went the same way. There’d be the initial bustle of uncles and aunts arriving with kids, clinking paper bags full of liquor, and lopsided foil trays of macaroni and lasagna. First drinks were poured, meat was thrown on the grill, and cackles followed light gossip in the crowded kitchen. We ate. Parents drank. And as the afternoon progressed, all of the cousins overcame their shyness and darted around the open back yard. The older crowd took up residence in plastic woven chairs with cups in hand. As they ventured deeper down into their drinks, so too did the light chatter from earlier in the afternoon descend into more serious subjects. It wasn’t until I had reached 11 or 12 years old that I began to recognize the recurrence of the name “Carrie Mae” uttered from the semicircle of elders across the lawn. I asked my mom about who she was while driving home from a barbecue one afternoon. She just said, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
I am 15 now and the “grown-ups” still fall into whispers when I pass by their drinking circle if Carrie Mae is the topic of conversation. Little do they know that I have done a bit of sleuthing on my own. Through equal parts hearsay (courtesy of older cousins) and eavesdropping, I have since managed to piece together a general account of what happened to my distant cousin, Carrie Mae and her family. After the fact, I can understand why my mother and all of the other grown-ups chose to keep her story from us kids. It’s to this day the scariest thing I have ever (or never) heard:
It happened in a little town on the North Shore of Massachusetts called Middleton where Carrie Mae and her parents (my aunt and uncle) lived. Middleton was still pretty undeveloped in the mid-eighties. Young couples looking to start a family often opted for the paved and well-lit streets of neighboring Danvers or Salem over the pocked dirt roads of Middleton. But my Uncle Steven and Aunt Lena (Carrie Mae’s parents) were known for being somewhat bohemian. They were both painters who relished the unfettered wilderness that the small wooded town had to offer. The family fit in well there. Carrie Mae grew up surrounded by the likes of artists, painters, and eccentrics who called that small stretch of forest home.
On the evening that Carrie Mae went missing, her family was visiting a public patch of garden rented by one of her father’s friends. This particular field was divided into dozens of small plots where the town’s citizens could grow anything from cucumbers to black-eyed Susans. Their friend’s plot bordered the forest surrounding the field. While the parents sat in rickety chairs among the watermelons, the kids darted in and out of the trees and played hide-and-seek. At one point in the evening, the other kids in the group came back to their parents saying that they couldn’t find Carrie Mae. They had been playing a game of hide-and-seek. And even though the game had been over for 20 minutes, Carrie Mae was still nowhere in sight.
At first, my aunt and uncle weren’t that alarmed. They yelled her name from where they sat, expecting her to come running from the woods once she heard their voices. Carrie Mae was a playful and imaginative girl, but she was always well-behaved. That’s why my Uncle Steven and Aunt Lena started to get worried after only a few minutes of getting no answer from their calls into the woods. As the sun began to set, flashlights were retrieved from cars and the grown-ups in the group fanned out into the surrounding woods to search for Carrie Mae. They called her name until nine o’clock or so. After that, they called the cops. Days went by. Weeks. All the while police officers and volunteers from Middleton and neighboring towns combed the woods, going miles into the New England forests. Yet, despite the fervor of the search, not so much as a shoelace was recovered. After one month of fliers, false tips, the whir of helicopter blades, and television appearances, my aunt and uncle first began to consider the possibility that they would never see Carrie Mae again.
But then something extraordinary happened. Contrary to all statistics for missing children, kidnappings, and the rule of the first 48 hours, Carrie Mae was found…or, more accurately, she just showed up. One day, roughly five weeks after her disappearance, she emerged naked, bruised, and scratched from the woods at the exact spot that she had entered from. No one was at the gardening plot at the time as it was five o’clock in the morning. So she walked barefoot across the misty field and down the country road into town. Angus McLeod, a fry-cook at N&J Doughnuts, was the first one to spot her. He called the police who picked her up and brought her to the station. By 7:30, there had been a tearful reunion between Carrie Mae, Uncle Steven, and Aunt Lena; by 9:00, the news of Carrie Mae’s return had trickled through the neighborhood and was spilling over into neighboring towns; 12 o’clock saw the long driveway to their home jammed with vans from every newspaper and television station on the North Shore; and by dinnertime, all of Essex County was in celebration for the darling 13-year-old who had finally come home. “It was like a bad dream,” Aunt Lena whimpered into a Channel 5 microphone. “A bad dream that I couldn’t wake up from. But today, I woke up.” And so it seemed to that small pocket of Massachusetts in the dog days of 1985, like some great nightmare had hovered for a spell over their town only to move on, saving its worst for another time and another place.
The story of Carrie Mae was not so simple and joyous as all of the headlines and news anchors lead the county’s residents to believe, however. While vast coverage was devoted to Carrie Mae’s initial reappearance, virtually no attention was given to the events which ensued weeks later, after all of the fanfare had died down. By that time, Carrie Mae had had countless interviews with investigators and child psychiatrists regarding her disappearance. Each of these efforts to discover what actually happened was discouraged, however, by Carrie Mae’s persistent reply: “I don’t remember anything.” Making no headway, the professionals backed off but encouraged my Aunt Lena and Uncle Steven to monitor Carrie Mae carefully for any unusual behavior. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” was their typically bohemian reply. They were just happy to have their daughter back. Carrie Mae was home! What was there to worry about?
And indeed, for the first few weeks after Carrie Mae’s return, there did seem to be little need for concern. Back at home in her own room, Carrie Mae quickly slid back into the old grooves of life-as-usual. She strung and beaded another dream catcher, feverishly chopped up fashion magazines for a new collage, played Carole King’s “Tapestry” until the needle was shot, and ate tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches by the stack (with a side of cherry coke, of course). My Uncle Steven hired a few extra hands at his house-painting company so that he could take some time off. The three off them made a trip up to Canobie Lake Park where Carrie Mae rode the Cannonball roller coaster a total of eight times in two hours, breaking her own record; within a two-week period, they ate lobster rolls and french fries at the Clam Box three times; and they caught so many fireflies in the evenings that Aunt Lena guessed they could light Fenway Park with them. It truly seemed that life had returned to normal for the small family.
Unfortunately for Carrie Mae, Uncle Steven, and Aunt Lena, those two happy weeks would prove to be no more than the eye of the storm. Something truly sinister lay on the horizon, and it came for a visit about three weeks after Carrie Mae’s return. On the night it happened, Carrie Mae woke her parents up, saying that she couldn’t sleep because of a noise in her bedroom. When asked what it sounded like, she said it was a sort of rubbing or grinding. My aunt and uncle went to her room, switched on the light, checked the corners and closet. They listened too. But after a minute of hearing and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, they told Carrie Mae that she could sleep with them that night. They’d take a closer look at things in the morning. So all three of them went to bed and were soon asleep.
In the very early morning, my Aunt Lena woke up to go to the bathroom. It was down the hall on the left just past Carrie Mae’s room. After using the toilet, she was passing Carrie Mae’s room when something caught her eye at the window. From the door, she could see Carrie Mae’s window which was open as it had been earlier that night. Nothing unusual there. What was unusual, what made my aunt’s blood suddenly run cold was the flap of torn screen hanging down into the room. Slowly, she padded past the threshold, across the floorboards, over to the window. Reaching down and picking up the flap of screen, she noticed that the edges were gnarled and frayed as if it had been sawed through with a blunt instrument. With a chill, she realized that this was likely the sound that Carrie Mae had heard, the cutting of the screen. As she examined it, she suddenly noticed something long and dark lying on the floor beneath the window. Picking it up, she noted its lightness, how it was smooth on one side but curled and grimy on the other. One end of it was jagged, as if it had broken off of something. The other was a fine point with a sharp edge running down one side. A bone? she thought, looking back and forth from the object to the window screen. She had felt the material before, felt it every day of her life. No, not bone. It’s a…it’s a….
It was then, just as she came to the sickening realization of what had been used to open the screen that she heard it, a wet guttural growl: “GRRRRRRLLLLLL..” She turned quickly to her left expecting to find an animal. What she saw instead made the room spin. There in the corner, lit partially by moonlight, stood a woman…but not just any woman. It was the most horrifying creature, animal or man she had ever seen. The mere sight of it made her sick with revulsion and terror. It was completely emaciated. A filthy floral dress hung loosely from its shoulders. Its neck barely looked able to support the large head covered by a great wild and greasy nest of dark hair. Strands shot out in rays all around its skeletal face. It’s wide pale eyes, hid back in two caves within the skull, looked drugged, frantic, desperate, and even a bit mirthful. They hung above a thin carved sliver of mouth which seemed both to smirk and scowl, revealing flashes of black rotten teeth. Bloody scratches and splotches of mud, dirt, and filth speckled its twig-like limbs. It had no shoes on. Both feet were black with earth and brown claw-like toenails dug into the floor where it stood. The nails on its hands were easily the length of the fingers from which they grew. In a flitting observation, they reminded Aunt Lena of the sloths she had once seen at the zoo. Nine great black curls hung from ten grimy fingers. The tenth, of course, Aunt Lena held in her own hand. It had belonged to the left index. Upon seeing the cracked stump where it had once been, she dropped it to the floor.
The “thing” raised its right arm and pointed a dagger-nail at Carrie Mae’s empty bed. It growled again, only this time Aunt Lena realized that it wasn’t a growl at all; it was a word: “Giiiirrrrllll. Giiirrrllll. Weeeerrrrzzzz da giiiiirrrrllll?” As it spoke, drool dribbled from its cracked lips, from between jagged black teeth. Strings of it glistened in the moonlight and pooled onto the ends of its massive toenails. Some of it hung from the dark slender chin before stringing down onto the front of its dress. While watching the spittle roll down past the bumps of its tiny breasts, Aunt Lena came to another horrifying realization. She had seen that pattern before: purple flower yellow flower purple flower yellow flower. TJ Max. Back-to-school-sale. Dear God. I bought that dress. That’s CARRIE MAE’S dress!!! The thing lurched forward, now with something clutched in its left hand, something that had been hidden in the darkness: a sack, a giant coarse, ancient-looking burlap sack with it’s wide dark mouth gaping open. As the creature clicked forward on its gnarled toenails, the great sack hissed across the floorboards at its side. As it advanced, the mouth tightened from a bitter scowl into a wide black grin, a grin denoting an epiphany. “ YOOLLDOO YOU’LLDO YOU’LL DO,” it gargled and practically giggled as it motioned with its free hand towards the open sack. “GETTIN. GETIN. GET IN!!!” It’s eyes went wide, wider than any eyes Aunt Lena had seen before. Its wet black mouth opened and shut in a gnashing grin as it began to make clumsy swipes at my aunt with its right hand. “YOU’LL DO. GET IN!,” it barked all in one garbled word: “YOU’LLDOGETIN!”
At this point, Aunt Lena found her vocal chords which, up until that point, had been stifled with pure terror. Her survival instincts loosed the screams that had been mounting in her chest since seeing that flap of torn screen. She screamed with all of the delirium and abandon of a creature caught in the claws of death. Backed up against the wall behind her, she quickly scuttled sideways towards the doorway and dashed screeching down the hall towards her bedroom. My Uncle Steven was already out of bed. He followed my aunt’s shaking finger back towards Carrie Mae’s bedroom only now to find gauzy curtains fluttering in the wind and moonlight. At the window, he could just make out a thin dark form retreating to the forest’s edge.
Dawn saw many of the same officers who had calmed and questioned Carrie Mae three weeks before combing the property, kicking through tall grass and brush with flashlights. Not far from where Uncle Steven had seen it enter the woods, officers found what looked like a rudimentary campsite. The bones and viscera of squirrels sat in a pile by a leaf/pine needle “mattress”; a dug-out latrine sat ten paces from the bed; and under a log near the squirrel remains, officers recovered soggy moldering newspapers chronicling the return of Carrie Mae. The entire site had a direct view of Carrie Mae’s bedroom window. It was quickly surmised by everyone at the scene that the woman had camped out in the woods near the house for some time before attempting to abduct Carrie Mae. Maybe a week. Perhaps more.
Police obtained a sketch of the woman based off of my Aunt Lena’s account of that night. It was distributed throughout the county’s police departments. The sketch was also used in one final interview with Carrie Mae following “the incident” at the house. Carrie Mae, who had been surprisingly calm during the whole event, took one look at the sketch of the woman and began to shake uncontrollably. She had a fit bordering on epileptic there in the office of the Middleton police chief. While screaming, she attempted to rip off her own skin with her fingernails screeching “LIKE THIS! SHE DID IT LIKE THIS!” A team of psychiatrists later theorized that Carrie Mae’s previous abduction had been so traumatic that she had repressed it, leaving no conscious memory of her time in the woods. Upon seeing a portrait of her abductor, however, those memories all came rushing back, overloading her conscious mind, frying it with madness. She left the police department that day on a stretcher, her hands and feet bound by leather straps. Rumor has it that she began to laugh uncontrollably in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. She has lived at McLean’s Psychiatric Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts ever since.
“The North Shore Snatcher,” as she came to be called in local folklore was never found. It’s 2016 now and for all I know, she’s dead. Or perhaps she’s moved on to woods in some other county, some other state. Who knows? The truth is, she doesn’t even need to be alive or present to exist. Like something as traumatic as a shark attack or a plane crash, the memory of what happened to Carrie Mae and her family echoes down the years so that even decades later, the fear remains fresh. So odd and disturbing was the event that the older folks are still left glued to their chairs at summer barbecues, brooding over their drinks and trying to piece it all together. All the while, they keep a watchful eye on that border where the lawn ends and the woods begin. Occasionally, a younger cousin’ll dash in among the trees only to hear behind them “Hey! Get outta there!” from their parents. “You don’t know what’s in there!” The little culprit will emerge from the bushes stomping its feet in protest and whining: “why not?! There’s no poison ivy around here!” But by that point, the parent’s looking past the child into the gloom beyond the birches; more to themselves than to anyone else, they’ll mutter, “It ain’t poison ivy I’m worried about.”
CREDIT: Daniel DuBois
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