The Ghosts in the Hills

“One person’s secluded paradise is another person’s isolated nightmare.”

Paulo Valdivieso/Flickr
Paulo Valdivieso/Flickr

Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town. In her forthcoming book of nonfiction, A Measurement of Loneliness, she explores one woman’s struggle for home and self. Her essay about a murder-suicide that took place on the author’s dirt road raises questions about the relationship between beauty and loneliness.

One person’s secluded paradise is another person’s isolated nightmare. So I learned each time friends would visit from the city. They would drive up the long driveway, unfold out of the car from the long three- or four-hour trip, look around in a daze. Isn’t it peaceful? I’d ask. Aren’t you afraid? some would whisper in response. The farmhouse is located on part of an old dairy farm with nothing but nature surrounding us for miles. No other house is visible from the property. Well, for a few weeks in the dead of winter, you could stand on our porch and see one small cabin on the opposite hill, but it was deserted, a tree growing through its porch, towering over the squat cabin itself, waving in the breeze when we looked at it through binoculars.

Shortly after buying the farmhouse, my husband and I decided we wanted an alarm system. The ADT truck arrived to install it when I was home alone. The technician and I stood in the sunshine outside while we discussed my needs. He wore a wrinkled, short-sleeve polo work shirt and baggy jeans cinched with a belt, and he held a clipboard in his hand.

“It’s really more for protection when we are away,” I explained. At that point, we still spent most weeks in Manhattan, where I was teaching and my husband had a painting studio. “I always have this feeling that the house won’t be standing when we come rolling up the driveway. This way we can keep an eye on it when we aren’t here.”

He nodded sagely. “So I guess you won’t be needing an external alarm,” he said.

“An external alarm?” I asked.

“Yeah, one that makes a noise outside the house if something is wrong.” He turned in a full circle, taking in the acres and acres of trees, pasture, emptiness. “No one to hear it anyway.”

He cupped his hands to his mouth and let out a little yelp. He sounded a bit like a hawk or the coyotes that screamed in the night from the swamp down the hill.

We looked at each other for a moment in the quiet after his call died down.

“No,” I agreed, taking a step away from him. “I guess that won’t be necessary.”

I suddenly wished him to be finished with his work, to watch his van rumbling away down the driveway, leaving only the dust and birdsong behind.

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Kelly McMasters is an essayist and former bookshop owner. She is the author of The Leaving Season: A Memoir in Essays. and co-editor of Wanting: Women Writing About Desire, both forthcoming. She teaches at Hofstra University and lives in New York.


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