Saturday morning was overcast as Michelle wriggled into her Spandex shorts and tied on neon green running shoes. She checked the weather out the kitchen window before making her final decision. Low clouds heavy with moisture were promising rain before the day’s end, but it looked like the morning would be dry.
During the week, she stuck to a run that started and ended at the back door. On the weekends, she allowed herself a little extra time to run through the nature preserve. It was the best way she knew to leave the work week behind and start the weekend with a clean slate. Today’s route was a ten-mile loop through Quabbin Reservoir, starting at Gate 40.
As she drove to the reservoir entrance, the cloud ceiling lowered itself and a light fog hovered just above the power lines. As long as it wasn’t full-on raining when she got to the entrance, she told herself, the run was a go.
She’d run all of the old roads of Quabbin over the past few years, but she liked this particular route the best. It had long gradual inclines and a water view. More than that, it gave her a sense of what had come before – before Boston flooded four towns to create one of the largest public water supplies on the planet. She tried not to think of it that way, but running past the old cellar holes and sidewalks-to-nowhere touched her heart. Her mind would wander, thinking about the nearly three thousand lives, family farms and businesses, that once thrived here. She tried to imagine what it must have looked like.
In the end, the resulting oversized watershed had become a wildlife refuge and a destination for hikers, bikers and boaters. It currently boasted nine pairs of nesting bald eagles. As beautiful as it was, its history held a shadow over her enjoyment of it, which felt like a guilty pleasure.
By the time she parked the car the cloud ceiling had settled to the ground, and fog moistened the moist roadways. She considered the limited visibility conditions, then decided she’d run this route often enough to navigate it without a problem. She locked the car, took a minute to stretch, and headed toward trail head.
The entrance was barred by a heavy steel pipe gate, hinged on one side and painted bright yellow. It was locked and inaccessible except for service vehicles. On the other side of the barrier, old Petersham Road cut a swath twenty feet wide through the forest towards the old town of Dana, Massachusetts. Dana’s common, rising one hundred seventy feet above the river valley, was the only town center that remained above the water line once the reserve was flooded. The old blacktop was crumbling but surprisingly intact after so many years.
It was two miles to the common. Then, a side road took her along the water’s edge for another three. A loop trail circled back to the common, then back to the gate for an even ten miles.
She was only a few hundred yards into the reserve, when the fog thickened and visibility shortened to a mere fifteen feet. She considered turning back, but the joy of the run got the best of her and she pressed on. If she followed the pavement, the road would get her at least to the common and back. She tracked the road’s edge as she ran. Then, something caught her eye. Off to the right she spotted the entrance to a small dirt road branching off into the woods. It made her pull up to a full stop. Had that road been there before? Maybe she lost her bearings in the fog and was further along than she thought. The misty air was even denser now, with visibility ten feet at best. Placing two large stones on the pavement to mark her place, she gingerly turned down the side road.
Walking now, she noticed that the quality of the road surface seemed to be improving from overgrown ruts to clean dirt and then to a comfortable packed gravel. It was definitely unusual for old roads within the park boundaries. The sound of her footsteps was eerily amplified by the fog. Stone walls started appearing at the road’s edge. Hints of buildings emerged just beyond them, no more than faint outlines. She started to wonder if she’d somehow strayed outside of the park limits and into one of the local neighborhoods that surrounded it, but something didn’t seem right.
The fog began to lift slightly, and what appeared before her was a small New England town from another era. She guessed 1930ish based on the pictures that outlined the area’s history at the Visitor’s Center. It looked like she often imagined it would have. An uneasy feeling crept over her and she was about to turn around when a small girl materialized on the road ahead. Michelle stopped mid-step.
“Miss?” a tiny voice called.
Michelle turned around to see if there was anyone else the girl might be referring to, but she was alone on the road. She turned back around. “Do you mean me, honey?”
As the girl stepped out of the mist, she was clearly wearing the short dress and ankle socks of a different era.
“Uuummm,” Michelle took a cautious step back. “How can I help you?”
The girl appeared to be about five years old. Michelle immediately looked around for people or things of which to be afraid. “Why are you scared, sweetie?” She was doing her best to not panic and not alarm the little girl – or whatever she was.
“Because they left me here.” She began to tear up.
“Don’t cry, honey. We’ll figure it out.” Michelle went into mommy mode. Again, she looked around. Maybe checking for safety, maybe looking for help. In any case, she saw no one.
“What’s your name?” She squatted down to get on the girl’s level.
“Okay, Grace. Have you asked anyone else for help?” She was trying desperately to figure out what was happening.
“I’ve never seen anyone before. You have funny clothes.”
Michelle looked down at her running clothes, Spandex and nylon, and smiled. “Yes, I do.”
“You’re not from around here. Are you one of those people from Boston who is making us move?”
“Not exactly, but maybe I can help. What seems to be the problem?”
“I’m stuck in the old well. That’s why they left without me. They couldn’t find me and I couldn’t get out.”
Michelle’s heart sank. “Where’s the old well, Grace, honey?”
“Way out behind the blacksmith’s shop. I was playing and fell in.”
Michelle resisted the instinct to run immediately to the old well, wherever that was. “How can I help?”
“Please get me out of the well.” Her lower lip puffed out. “And tell my sister I’m all right. It’s not her fault.”
Michelle had no idea what to say. Looking around for some kind of guidance, she found none. Even if she wanted to, how could she possibly help? The town of Dana had been abandoned eighty years ago. She turned back to see Grace’s angelic eyes framed by delicate yellow curls looking pleadingly at her and she simply couldn’t say no.
“It’s okay, Grace. I can help. But in order to help you, I need to get other people to help me. Do you understand?”
“You’re going to leave me.”
“Yes. I’m afraid so.”
“Will you promise to come back?”
Michelle hesitated. A promise to a child, alive or not, was serious business.
“Yes. I promise.”
Standing up, she began backing away from Grace. The further she got, the thicker the fog, until Grace and the buildings were swallowed up again. She turned and ran back down the road until her feet landed on the familiar crumbling blacktop where her small pile of stones lay undisturbed. She turned to look back down the lane but it was gone. She swiveled around to get her bearings. She recognized the old road that lead down to the common – and back to the car.
“Okay. Done with my run for today,” she said, and ran straight for the parking lot.
She sat in her car for a few minutes replaying the encounter. Did she just have a conversation with a ghost child? It sure seemed that way. What was she supposed to do now? Call the police? Report a dead body in a well from eighty years ago? Go home and tell her husband and teenage daughter? The last one seemed easiest and with the highest likelihood of not being locked up as crazy, although she couldn’t be entirely sure.
“Hello honey. I’m home,” she called out as she entered the kitchen and dropped her keys in the bowl on the counter.
“You’re back early. Everything okay?” Her husband, Jack, had a tone of concern in his voice.
“Well, not really, I think. I’m not sure. I met someone on the trail this morning and…”
Jack went straight to panic. “What? A guy? A crazy guy? Did he hurt you? Are you okay?” He grabbed her by the shoulders and was frantically looking her over, checking for injuries.
She shook him off irritably. “Yes, Jack! I’m fine. Calm down.”
“Okay. Sorry.” He took a step back and raised his hands in apology. “Occupational hazard.” Jack was a crime and court reporter for several of the local papers. “What happened?”
At that moment her daughter, Marla, came around the corner into the kitchen looking for breakfast. On seeing Michelle, she asked, “Hey, Mom. Are you okay?”
Michelle snapped at her. “Yes! Why are you all asking me?”
Marla gave her the adolescent eye roll and huff. “Just looking a little stressed. That’s all.”
“Your mother encountered someone on the trail at Quabbin this morning.”
“Really? A creep? A runner? A creepy runner?”
Jack and Marla froze, speechless. Jack was the first to break the silence. “Okay, honey. You know that’s impossible, right?”
Completely ignoring her father, Marla quickly jumped in. “Cool. What did it look like? Was it all see-through? Did it float? Oh My God! Did it talk to you!”
“Marla, there is no such thing as ghosts,” her dad admonished.
“Dad. DUH. Obviously, something happened.” Marla gestured toward her mother who was looking pale and unsettled.
“Oh, yeah, of course, come sit down.” Jack led her to a kitchen chair. He and Marla took chairs on either side. “What happened?”
After hearing her tale, Marla was all about it. Jack was skeptical at best and kept insisting that they call the police and report a runaway girl. When his attempt to override the two women in his household got him nowhere, as usual, he agreed to accompany Marla on a little fact-finding excursion to the library to search old newspaper microfilm. Michelle would head to the Quabbin Reservoir Visitor’s Center to see what kind of information they had about the old blacksmith shop or a missing girl. If they had any of the old maps, maybe one of them located the well in question. She wasn’t sure what she would do then, but one step at a time.
At the Visitor’s Center, she was greeted by the ranger at information counter. “Good afternoon. My name is Dan. Can I help you with anything?”
“Yes. I’m interested in what things looked like before they flooded the reservoir, like maps of the towns, things like that.”
“Well, we have some of those here in our archives. There’s more information at the town hall in Belchertown. That’s where all the records went when the towns were officially dissolved.”
“Can I see Dana? I understand a lot of the town is still above the water line.”
“That’s right. We have them right here.” He led her to a table with large plats, one for each town. He pulled out Dana. “Are you looking for something in particular?”
“I’m looking for the blacksmith shop. It was near the town common.”
“That’s right. There’s a marker where the cellar hole is. You can walk down to it if you like. The trail starts at Gate 40.”
“Yes. I know. I’ve been down there before. Say, have you ever heard a story about a small girl who went missing just before they closed the roads?”
“Can’t say I have. But you can ask Betty Goodall. She was one of the last families to leave back in 1938. She just wrote a book about it called Dana’s Last Days.”
“Really? There are people still alive?”
“Sure. There’s a whole community that keeps in touch and meets here once a year. They’re getting pretty old, though. I think Betty is close to ninety. She’ll be here in a few minutes. She’s promoting her book today.” The ranger looked up as the door opened. “And here she is.” An elderly woman came through the door. She was pulling a small wheeled cart.
“Hello Ms. Betty. Let me help you with that.” Dan hurried over to be of assistance.
“That’s so kind of you, Daniel. I can manage this. Can you help Jenny bring in the books? She’s parked right out front.”
“I’m on it. And this woman here has a few questions for you about Dana. Why don’t you have a seat over there, and Jenny and I will set up your table.”
“Hello.” Michelle ushered Ms. Betty over to a table out of the line of traffic. “My name is Michelle. I’d love to talk to you about the last days of Dana if you have a few minutes.”
“Certainly, dear. What can I tell you?”
Michelle had concocted a slight variation on the truth. “I heard a story about the last few days of Dana when a five-year-old girl went missing. Do you recall anything about that?”
“That’s just how old I was when my family left town. My memory might not be so good for other things but I remember that time like it was yesterday. Everyone was so sad to leave. And angry too. My family got to stay to the very end because we were above the projected water line. Most people were long gone by then.”
“Yes. I imagine so.” Michelle tried to be patient. “Was there a missing girl back then?”
Betty thought for a minute. “Not that I recall,” she shook her head. “Oh, no, wait. There was a girl. I haven’t thought about her in years. She was a classmate of mine. Grace Parker was her name. It was quite the stir-up. Her family spent the day packing up the last of their possessions into the car. When they went looking for her, she was nowhere to be found. There was so much activity at the time, working men everywhere, big equipment destroying everything in sight. I was just a child myself then. I don’t remember much else. We left that day ourselves. What makes you ask?”
Michelle hesitated for a long moment, deciding what to say next. “Do you believe in ghosts, Ms. Betty?”
Betty answered thoughtfully. “Let’s just say that I believe there are things out there that I wouldn’t believe,” she paused, “Do you, Michelle?” Betty’s eyes were sharp, almost piercing, as she waited for Michelle’s reply.
Slowly, Michelle nodded. “I do now.”
She went on to tell the story of the little girl in the fog while Dan and Jenny were busy arranging the book display. Realizing that no one would take the ghost story seriously, they quickly came up with an alternative. By the time the book table was arranged, the two conspirators had a better tale to tell.
“Daniel.” Betty’s voice was soft but commanding.
“Yes, Ms. Betty. What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?” He stood back so she could see the display table.
“It’s fine, Daniel. Never mind that. Come over here and sit down.”
Dan was happy to comply. “Sure thing. What’s up?”
“Well, Michelle has just poked at an old memory of mine and I’m quite upset about it.”
Daniel looked at Michelle with one eyebrow raised.
“No, no.” Betty fussed at him. “I’m not upset with her. I’m upset with myself for not ever remembering, but it was so long ago and I was just a child. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten for all these years.”
“Mom, what’s wrong?” Jenny had joined the group and was unhappy to see her mother upset.
“Just before we left Dana, there was a girl that went missing and I think I know where she is.”
“What do you mean, mom? You never said anything about it to me.”
“I know. I just this minute remembered. I think she fell down the well behind the blacksmith shop. In fact, I know it. I remember that people were looking for her. I told my mother that I saw her playing out in the big field behind the forge, but everyone was so busy. She told me not to worry and finish packing my things. Then we left.”
“I’m sure they found her, Mom.”
“I don’t think they did. I remember a few days later, my mother asking me where I had seen her last. Michelle here, was just telling me that they never found her.”
Dan turned to Michelle. “And how do you know about this?”
Michelle continued with the lie. “I had an old neighbor a few years ago who claimed to be from one of the other towns that got flooded. She remembered a story about a girl who went missing. There was a suspicion at the time that one of the men from out of town had something to do with it.”
Betty jumped in before anyone could ask another question. “But I don’t think so. I know there was an old well out in that field. We were always warned to stay away from there. And that’s where I saw her. She’s probably still there.”
“Ms. Betty, I’m sure they looked everywhere for her,” Dan explained, “There were plenty of police and rangers all over this place.”
“I remember there being a terrible storm right after we moved. It might have covered up any evidence. No. I’m sure she’s still there. Well, her body anyway. Poor little thing. We have to look, Daniel. We simply have to.” Betty was wringing her hands now.
“Okay, Ms. Betty. Calm down. Let me think about what to do next.”
At that moment, Jack and Marla arrived brandishing newspaper articles about the event, which noted that a body was never discovered. When she was presumed dead a few years later, a marker went up in Quabbin Park Cemetery where the human remains from the towns had been re-interred.
Daniel got on the phone to the Belchertown police who came over to hear Betty’s story. They identified the location of the well on one of the maps in the Visitor’s Center collection.
“I’ll have to look into it, Ms. Betty. That’s all I can say for sure.” Officer Mahoney was shaking his head. “You know digging up around the reservoir is going to require permits from God right on down.”
“I know you’ll get it done, Bobby. Otherwise I’ll have to call your mother.” She shook her finger at him.
He stood with his hands on his weapons belt and with the stern face of authority said, “I know you will, Ms. Betty. That’s what really has me worried.” He flashed her a grin and a wink.
“Seriously, though. I’ll see what can be done and let you know. I’ll keep Jen in the loop.” He gave Jen a nod then headed out the door.
When Officer Mahoney determined that it was still an active unsolved case, he began working the phones. It took a week and a half to get the permits. Record time considering all the red tape. Not surprisingly, when you’re talking about the remains of a child, no matter how long ago, people make things happen. The reservoir authority didn’t have any complaints as long as it was more than a hundred feet from the water’s edge and they didn’t have to pay for it. Belchertown agreed to absorb the cost but wanted the police to oversee the excavation. The state police would send a representative but their backlog of cold case files meant they wouldn’t put any time into it for several months. In the event that a body turned up, the Springfield coroner was their best bet.
Two weeks later, a large group arrived to excavate the well. Present were a state police captain, Officer Mahoney, a city councilman up for re-election, the state fish and game director, a representative from the water resource management office, a public works supervisor, a heavy equipment operator with a back hoe and two guys with shovels. Mostly, everyone stood around and watched the two guys with shovels do all the work. Eventually, the skeleton of a small girl was discovered and assumed to be that of Grace Parker. Dr. Ben Jefferson, from the Springfield coroner’s office, determined that the injuries were consistent with a fall and the cause of death was presumed to be accidental.
There was enough information to track the family to Schenectady, NY, where Grace’s sister, Pearl, now ninety-three, was living with her daughter. The family came down and Grace Parker’s remains were interred in the Quabbin Memorial Cemetery where her existing marker had been amended to reflect the actual date of death, June 3, 1938.
“Pearl?” Michelle tapped her on the shoulder as she sat at the grave side after the service. “Can I have a minute of your time?”
“Certainly dear. I understand you’re involved in this somehow and I thank you.”
She sat down beside her in a chair vacated by a family member. “Oh, I’m happy I could help. There is one more thing, though.”
Michelle had decided on another white lie to ease the conversation along.
“I had a dream last night and Grace was in it. She asked me to tell you that it wasn’t your fault.” Michelle waited for a response.
Pearl sat quietly for a moment as tears filled her eyes. “Thank you for that, dear. It’s been a burden to carry it all these years. I forgave myself a long time ago but not quite all the way. It’s a blessing to know Grace forgave me too. You see, I was supposed to be watching her that day. I turned my back for a minute and she was gone. That’s how she was, always running here and there.”
“It must have been a crazy time.”
“We spent two days looking for her but then we had to go. They were tearing our house down. We spent the next few years hoping she’d turn up somehow, somewhere. After that we started hoping that she died quickly, not at the hands of some criminal like a few were suggesting. Now, I’ll say she died playing.”
Michelle continued to run her favorite loop at Quabbin Reservoir. On those rainy, overcast days, she secretly hoped the town would appear again.