The only place to start was at the beginning, where Mom had.
Once I’d gotten the box containing her research back to my hotel, I thumbed back through years of her work, to the very first pages. They were copies of news articles from the late 60s and early 70s, each one containing sensationalist headlines pertaining to the disappearance of seven year old Delilah Greer. Her disappearance had shocked the small, quiet community where she’d lived and the manhunt that followed spanned almost a year before it took authorities, and more than a few angry townspeople, up the mountain to The Gathered.
Highlighter marked names and places that Mom must have thought were important, but only one was circled, underlined, and had what appeared to be a telephone number beside it.
Josie Greer, the older sister of the unfortunate Delilah.
Flipping ahead, it became clear that Mom had attempted to contact Josie at least a few times during her investigation but, every time, she’d come away with next to nothing. Even still, she kept meticulous notes, each dated and labeled with “J. Greer” at the top of the page, and all of them included words like “belligerent” and “rude”. In one case, after what I could only guess had been a very frustrating phone call, she’d simply drawn an angry face in thick, scribbly black lines.
The last time she’d tried to call, Josie had outright refused to speak to her. That must have been enough to deter Mom and turn her down another path because she never even mentioned Josie again as far as I could tell. I could understand Josie’s reluctance to talk about what had happened, especially with a stranger; I knew what it was to lose a loved one and understood well how even hearing their name was enough to rip open old wounds.
But my sympathy ended where my need for answers began.
If there was even the tiniest chance that she knew something, that she could tell me something, I had to take it.
After a few moments of deep breathing to calm the growing flutter in my stomach, I dialed Josie’s number.
Almost immediately, I received an automated message that it was no longer in service. It wasn’t surprisingly, really, given how old the note it came from was, and after a brief stab of disappointment, I turned to my laptop. A quick search online turned up a couple of Greers still living in the town at the base of the mountain, but the only phone number I could find was linked to a Janice, not Josie.
As I sat there, debating whether I wanted to reach out to someone who could be entirely unrelated to Josie, an anxious energy began to creep up my spine until I was flipping my cell restlessly between my hands. What would I say to her if I were to get ahold of her? What could I say that Mom hadn’t already? If she had been so unwilling to talk about her sister nineteen years ago, why would it be any different now? Familiar, whispered doubts began to slip in between the questions, telling me I was crazy, that I made Mom crazy, that we were looking for answers that weren’t there.
Two decades of having it drilled into me that I hadn’t seen what I thought I had and all the coping mechanisms to deal with my “unhealthy fixation on false memories” that had been forced on me in therapy almost made me shut the web browser and shove all of Mom’s research back into the box. I even started to reach for the laptop lid.
But my dad’s screams, as clear and real then as they’d been that day in the woods, stopped me.
I clenched my jaw and punched Janice’s number into my phone and put it against my ear. The sound of it ringing helped to quiet my tumultuous thoughts and I focused instead on what I was going to say if someone picked up.
“Hello?” A woman, Janice, I assumed, answered on the third ring and, for a moment, I found myself tongue-tied, too nervous to respond.
“Hello?” She said again.
“Uh, hi,” I finally managed, “I’m calling for Josie?”
“Can I ask who’s calling?” Her tone, while still polite enough, had become guarded.
“She doesn’t know me, but she’d spoken to my mom before. My name’s Faith. I wanted to…I wanted to talk to her about what happened to her sister.”
There was a long pause before I heard the woman sigh. “Are you a reporter or something? Because we’ve told all of you several times that she’s not going to talk to yo-”
“No, I’m not,” I said quickly, unintentionally cutting her off. “I need to talk to her because I think what happened to Delilah could be related to my dad’s death.”
Janice warmed up a bit after that. She confirmed that she was Josie’s daughter and that she had vague recollections of her mom mentioning mine a few times when she was growing up. She also said that there was no way she’d speak to me. After almost fifty years of harassment from media and “occult experts” and people who were simply fascinated by all the gory details of Delilah’s case, Josie had shut herself off from much of the world and refused to talk about what had happened to her sister in 1968.
She must have felt sorry for me, though, or perhaps she sensed my desperation, because Janice agreed to meet me at a diner for dinner that night and said she would tell me what she knew.
It was a long drive to the mountain town where Janice lived, one I never thought I’d make again. It felt almost dreamlike, seeing all the old landmarks and signs leading me back. I remembered the last time I’d taken it, how Dad and I had stopped at the tiny gas station in the middle of nowhere for sodas and snacks, how excited I’d been to point out all the cows along the way, the amount of times I’d asked him, “How much longer?”. I had thought it was going to be the first trip of many.
Now, my fingers tightened around the steering wheel and I pressed down on my rental car’s accelerator, trying to outrun the memories.
Janice was already waiting for me in a booth when I arrived. I knew her by the bright pink shirt she’d said she’d be wearing. When I introduced myself, she smiled a bit shyly and we shook hands and made small talk for a while, the kind that happens when you’re avoiding a more serious topic. She was a little younger than me, newly engaged with a small son. He was with Josie, who thought Janice had gone out for a girl’s night with some friends. If she knew the truth, she’d have been furious.
Once the pleasantries had dried up into somewhat awkward fidgeting, I decided it was time to cut the bullshit and get down to business. I pulled my phone out and put it between us.
“Is it ok if I record this?” I asked.
I only had one question to start.
“What happened to Delilah?”
Janice began by making it clear that the only reason she knew much of anything about her aunt was because of her grandparents. While Josie was tight lipped, they had been very open with anyone who asked about their experience with The Gathered.
Delilah had been a bright, friendly girl who loved going outside and spending time with whatever neighbor happened to be around. Back then, her parents hadn’t thought anything of it. They knew everyone, everyone knew them, and they all felt safe. That didn’t change when Eleanor Pratt moved in in 1966. She was just shy of middle-aged, but already a widow. Everyone felt sorry for her and, at first, no one noticed anything odd about her; she simply seemed like a lovely, if lonely, woman.
It seemed only natural that the childless woman, who could often be found working out in her yard, would be drawn to adorable little Delilah and welcome her over whenever she got the chance. Eleanor became like an extension of the Greer family. She babysat the girls, frequently ate dinner at their home, and would join them for day trips to the city. For two years, they treated her like one of their own, even after the disappearances started. Whispers of a cult with secret members situated in the community began to circulate and a commune on the mountainside was drawing suspicion. People claimed that they were sending down members, that they were responsible, but the Greers weren’t concerned.
After all, no one had any reason to believe a sweet woman like Eleanor Pratt had anything to do with such nasty business.
Not until Delilah, by then seven years old, started having strange, horrible nightmares. She would wake, screaming, in the night and beg her parents not to let them have her. She didn’t want to go, she was afraid of him. When they asked what she meant, she said the word, “Gorrorum”, but was too frightened to say more.
It was ten year old Josie who finally broke down.
She revealed to their parents that Eleanor had been changing. She didn’t play with them anymore, she just wanted to tell them scary things about “the Lightless Place”, where great and terrible beings lived. She kept saying the time was finally right; she was going to give them as a gift to Gorrorum. Their flesh and blood would open the doorway and free the ungodly.
Horrified, the Greers barred their daughters from ever speaking to Eleanor again and Mr. Greer went so far as to threaten her. Mr. Greer said later that Eleanor had just smiled at him, polite and sweet as ever, and wished him a pleasant afternoon.
“Don’t you pay any mind to that woman anymore,” Mrs. Greer told her girls. “She spits venom from her neck; don’t you listen to any of it.”
But their precautions came too little, too late.
Delilah’s empty bed was discovered by her mother just two mornings later.
Every able bodied man in the town joined in on the search for that little girl, and it wasn’t long before all the cult rumors and suspicions built up into an explosive frenzy. They headed almost immediately up the mountain armed with hunting dogs and rifles, but they needn’t have bothered. By the time they arrived, every present member of the group who called themselves The Gathered was already dead. Throats and wrists had been slit, some had sliced open their bellies, others had driven knives deep into their own hearts.
In the middle of it all, Eleanor Pratt was sitting up against a post, her neck oozing deep red down her front, and in her arms, she’d lovingly cradled Delilah’s head.
“My mom never forgave herself,” Janice said. “She hid the night Eleanor came; she was too scared to say or do anything and blames herself for her sister’s death.”
“That’s awful,” I replied, and I meant it. Being frozen in fear was something I could relate well to.
“Yeah. Even worse is all the weird stuff people said happened after, with all the sightings and people going missing. She says she doesn’t believe any of it, but I have a feeling she thinks that’s her fault, too.”
She sounded dismissive when it came to the “weird stuff”, but I didn’t remind her that my dad was one of those who had gone missing because of just that. I didn’t need her to believe me; I just needed as much information as she could give me.
“What was even the point?” I asked. I had hoped she’d be able to offer some insight, but all I’d gotten was a strange name and a depressing tale. “I know they were trying to open some kind of door, but to what? What’s Gorrorum?”
Janice shrugged. “The cult leader guy left a note, but they’ve kept a lot of it under wraps to prevent copycats from popping up. I’ve heard it talked about opening a door, but I guess you’d need to talk to one of the crazy asshole who killed my aunt to really find out more.”
“Too bad they all offed themselves.” It felt callous to say it aloud, but I figured if ever a group was worthy of derision, it was The Gathered.
Janice opened her mouth, hesitated, and then closed it again. She was giving me a long side eye, as if trying to decide something, and finally, she leaned forward.
“Look, I’ve seen this shit eat up my family, I know that not knowing why bad things happen is sometimes worse than the alternative. Closure and all that, whatever. But my grandparents spent their life following leads and jumping down rabbit holes and let me tell you, it’s no way to live.” She held up a hand to stop me from refuting her. “But, I’m not going to stop you if that’s what you want to do.”
She hesitated again, but when I nodded encouragingly, she sighed and reluctantly continued.
“There’s a lady my grandma knew, she’s, like, obsessed with cults and stuff. I think she’s still around, but she’d be pretty old now. If you can find her, maybe she’d be able to tell you more. Her name’s Edna Boltson, but that’s all I’ve got. Just…don’t get stupid over this stuff, ok?”
We said our goodbyes over promises of not getting stupid and I left the diner, mumbling Edna Boltson’s name under my breath.
It wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for from Janice, but it was a start, and now I had my next step.