You can’t describe a city. It’s not like anything else. If I see a flower growing outside my window, I can tell you what it looks like; I would start by describing the colour and shape of its petals, whether it faces the sun or not. I might even guess whether it looks like an annual or perennial based on my limited understanding of such things. Maybe I’d venture to guess that it looks like the kind of flower you might give your partner or your mother or your grandmother, if you have such people in your life. Even that, however, ventures toward the abstract.
A city operates much the same way. I can tell you what the streets of Kingston look like; I can tell you how the city itself is shaped as if roads burst out from some concrete womb by the water, stretching north and west from their origin until they fall away at the city limits. I can say that, in many respects, it’s a town like any other town you might find in this part of Ontario. Over-priced matchbox houses are dotted in rows along gently curving pre-planned streets, owned by a population dedicated to twice-daily cross-town pilgrimages.
But there’s another part to the city. Come with me to the east, past the ancient grey walls of the lakeside penitentiary. Watch as the roads grow tighter and less organized. Most of the old houses here belong to students, rented out by slumlords who care little for the history they own. You can see them lining the streets on the weekends, dull drunk eyes listlessly tracking you as you sail past, just as transient as they are. They disappear. Beyond them you see the core. Buildings of cold grey limestone begin to rise around you; the tallest only a few storeys, but striking enough still that you have a sense of what the city used to be. Closing your eyes allows you to see the streets as they were; streets of dirt churned up by cart-wheels and horseshoes, where people stumbled and spat as they watched you pass. You open your eyes. Windows above you are lined with ads for stretchy denim and strapless bras. You blink and the ads disappear, replaced instead with rows of faces behind the glass: people who lived lives, who loved, and who died in this place before anyone ever considered you.
Kingston is old. Kingston is old unlike almost any other place in the Americas. And though it is the opinion of my committee that ghosts–at least as we understand them–are creations of the mind, it is my conclusion that the sheer age of this city lends itself to a greater amount of hauntings per capita than almost anywhere else on this continent.
When you trace Kingston’s history, the stories of hauntings begin almost simultaneously. French colonists, who called this place Cataraqui, write fitfully of les fantômes du forêt, though it cannot be said for certain whether these refer to neighbouring indigenous peoples or to something less physical.
While records are spotty during the transition between French and British occupation, the construction of the Kingston Penitentiary in 1835 led almost immediately to a spike in reports. The prison itself, now closed, is a monument to the worst of the North American penal system; its implacable grey walls are carved from the same limestone as much of the city and slope laconically down to the water. To be inside them is to be subjected to a kind of pervasive claustrophobia; a sense that one has been swallowed by some great stone beast. A cylindrical concourse thrusts out of the middle of the yard, its wings stretching out toward the exterior walls. Inside these wings are the cell-blocks, almost cartoonishly bleak; literal bars separated these men from the world beyond.
It’s quiet in the prison now. It was decommissioned in 2013 and the prisoners moved elsewhere. I’ve been there; the city runs tours every summer, charging for a glimpse inside the walls. Indeed, there is a vaguely voyeuristic quality to the experience; walking across those yards, it was hard not to imagine haggard and sallow men staring with dead eyes out of their cells, colourless light filtering in from windows too high to make a difference. Former prison guards spin stories of riots, of violence, and of death. Vague allusions are made to training opportunities the prisoners had, but the lasting feeling is one of unease. One begins to wonder what that place is like at night, once the last fox has skulked its way across the yard. What kind of sounds do empty and drafty prisons make? Are they as dark as we imagine? What about the shops, the yards, the solitary cells? Do they remember what the city’s forgotten?
If the stories are true, they do.
Kingston has many places like this; the prison is only the most obvious example. East of the river stands Fort Henry, where a British garrison was stationed for many years in the nineteenth century; some speak of old training drills still heard after dark. The city itself is dotted with graveyards, many of which have since been swallowed up by suburbia. Inns and pubs from bygone days line the streets and hold secrets of their own. Faint lights in distant windows and voices in empty rooms are commonplace in Kingston. It’s hard to filter the signal from the noise, of course; the stories vary wildly. While most Kingstonians have heard of the Streetlight Man; fewer still know about the ghostlights of Skeleton Park or have heard the whispers in the cemeteries.
The purpose of sharing the above stories is to lend credence to the possibility that a place like this has power. Though I have yet to be afforded the funding required to explore this theory, I believe in a theory of paranormal (or parapsychological, as the committee prefers) activity that suggests that majority of events concern hotspots, not dissimilar from how volcanic and tectonic activities primarily take place along fault lines. What draws these lines? As yet, I’m not certain. Certainly, as I’ve established above, the older a place is, the more likely it is to be haunted. I don’t yet know why, but what I can say is that I’m not finished. I’ve been pushing and prodding for the last two years. The disappearance of Jeff King was big news in town when it happened, but residents eventually rallied to quash the story once it hit the national news, fearing the damage it might cause to the city’s tourist industry. With no leads in the case and with his mother locked away in a mental institution, there was little for the media to grasp on to, so they got bored and drifted away.
To be clear, I publish the below out of a duty to my field. While I could have gone to the media and secured some level of fame and notoriety for my work, both a sense of journalistic integrity and moral authority required me to place it here, before my committee. I understand the committee is loath to accept the possibility of things beyond our ken; while I’m appreciative of that perspective, I am required to follow the truth – no matter how unbelievable it may seem.
Here follows an interview with Althea King, the last surviving sane member of the King family. She agreed to the interview on the condition that her words be represented fully as recorded. Any editing I’ve done is solely for clarification where the quality of the recording dips; note that the third party near the end is a direct transcription of events as they happened, and that I will be submitting the .mp3 files to corroborate this fact.
STEPHANIE NORWOOD: Mrs. King, I would like to let you know that I’ve begun recording our conversation. If you’d like me to stop at any point, please just ask.
ALTHEA KING: Of course, dear. Before we begin, would you like some tea?
SN: That would be lovely, thank you.
AK: What do you like? Earl Grey? English Breakfast? I think I might even have some Irish Breakfast kicking around. Alvin had a fondness for it, but it always tasted too, well, bready for me.
SN: I’d be happy to try the Irish Breakfast, if you think you can find it. Sometimes I just like something a little more hearty in the morning.
AK: I understand, I understand. [Here follow the sounds of Mrs. King busying herself in the kitchen.] Is your little cassette recorder powerful enough to pick up our conversation if I speak to you from the kitchen?
SN: It should be, yes. Please, go ahead. I have some questions I wanted to ask you, but it sounds like you’re eager to get started.
AK: Yes, I suppose you could call it that. [The chattering of teacups drowns out a few words] –pleased as punch that you reached out. I don’t know how Alvin feels about it, since he took great pains to remove us from that whole media circus when Jeffy disappeared, but I was always eager to speak. It seemed to me like volunteering information was the best thing we could do for Jeffy. [The quality of her voice improves as she returns to the living area and sits across from me on the couch] Here’s your tea, dear.
SN: Thank you. Just a question – you said “I don’t know how Alvin feels about it” – didn’t Mr. King pass away in 2019?
AK: Of course. But I don’t believe the dead are ever truly gone. Do you?
SN: I’d like to think they aren’t. A big part of my work is trying to prove that.
AK: And that’s why you want to ask me about Jeffy.
SN: Yes and no. I want to ask you about your grandson’s disappearance because I’m trying to find the person who did it.
AK: Do you know about the photo?
SN: Yes, I do.
AK: Alvin was very close to her. When she went into that state of shock . . . I think it took a part of him away. He was never quite right after that. He visited her, you know.
SN: He did? I didn’t even know she was allowed visitors. [Note: I looked into this, and it appears that Leanne King experienced brief periods of lucidity in 2018. While her medical records are sealed, it seems strange to me that she would seemingly improve before declining to the state she’s in now. I wonder if this is coincidence, or if there’s something more to it.]
AK: Not any more. But he used to go up every Sunday. He would wheel her out to the little courtyard they have at the hospital. There’s a pond there, and sometimes ducks would fly down and bob on the surface of the water. Alvin would sneak in bread in his pocket and throw it to the ducks to try to get a reaction out of her as they fought over it. Or he would read to her. She never said a word, but sometimes her eyes followed him. I think he lived for those moments, and once she declined, so did he.
SN: Have you spoken to her since his passing? Forgive me if that’s an inappropriate question.
AK: Not at all. I understand the desire to ask. No, I haven’t been up there. She was Alvin’s daughter from his first marriage, and I didn’t meet her until after she’d moved out and had Jeffy. I always liked her, but I can’t truly say it was a mother-daughter relationship. Does that make me sound like an awful person? Please don’t think I haven’t thought of it. Sometimes I just think I’d do more harm than good, and that me going would remind her of that awful Christmas.
SN: I think it makes you sound like a human being, and that you shouldn’t fault yourself for trying to do what you think is right.
AK: That’s very sweet of you to say.
SN: You mentioned that day. Are you able to tell me anything else?
AK: I don’t think I have anything to share that wasn’t already in the papers.
SN: Maybe just try running me through the day as you remember it. Sometimes that helps me when I’m trying to remember something.
AK: Alright. Hm. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of this. I suppose I’d start by saying that I remember arriving there a little bit later in the day, because Leanne had wanted her and Jeffy to be able to open his presents by himself. Chris [Note: Leanne’s late husband] had passed in the summer, so it was the first Christmas without him. I think she thought having me and Alvin there would make that more obvious. I don’t know if I entirely agreed with that line of thought, but it was her decision to make and so Alvin and I abided by it.
SN: What time would you say you arrived?
AK: Oh, maybe about four or so. It’s so hard to remember. I know we were there before dinner. As soon as we got in the door, Jeffy was waving this old-fashioned Polaroid camera in our faces. I didn’t even know they still made those, I was so surprised. I would have thought for certain that, with all of the newfangled technology these days, they wouldn’t still be making cameras with film.
SN: It’s hard to beat the classics.
AK: That it is. So anyway, we came in and visited for a short while. Jeffy was taking pictures and they were making little whrrr sounds as they printed, floating out and onto the carpet. I think it was starting to annoy his mother, so she suggested that he go and take some pictures around the house while she prepared dinner. He ran off to do just that, and that was the last time I saw him.
SN: I’m sorry.
AK: Thank you. In a way, I’m somewhat relieved. I never saw the photo that Leanne found. My last memory of my grandson is of him running off, happy to be alive. There’s worse final memories to have of somebody than that.
SN: I agree. Are you able to tell me what happened next?
AK: There’s not much left to tell. I offered to help Leanne with the meal, but she kind of brushed me off. I think it was another situation where she wanted to be in charge. I think she saw this whole Christmas as a chance for her to prove herself. I didn’t take offense, either. I wanted her to do what she needed to do.
SN: So what did you do instead?
AK: Alvin and I just watched a movie. I don’t even remember which one – maybe because we both fell asleep on the couch. A privilege of being old, I guess; nobody expects anything else. But I don’t remember anything more after that, until we heard Leanne scream that awful scream. Alvin leaped up and ran upstairs. I’d never seen him move so fast in all my life. I had this terrible feeling in my chest and some part of me knew something was wrong. I went to the phone and called 9-1-1 and told them to send whoever they could, because something horrible had happened. Then I went to wait outside for the authorities to arrive.
SN: Did they take long to get there?
AK: No, not long at all. But it felt long. It was just me out there, standing in the rain. Isn’t rain on Christmas awful? But I couldn’t go back inside.
SN: Why did it feel so long? Just because of the adrenaline?
AK: Possibly, but also because of the house.
SN: Leanne’s house? I don’t remember reading anything about it in the reports.
AK: Not hers. The one up the street.
SN: With all due respect, wasn’t this at a house in a suburban neighbourhood? What made this other house notable?
AK: I’d never seen it before.
SN: What do you mean? How often did you visit?
AK: Often enough, but you’re missing what I’m saying. This was the kind of house that you’d notice. It doesn’t look like the others. Do you know all of those old-fashioned buildings downtown? The ones made out of limestone. This was like that, except it was in one of the brand-new neighbourhoods where Leanne and Jeffy lived. It was two storeys tall, so it wasn’t exactly out of the way. I just remember looking up and down the street for the policemen or firemen or whoever they were sending, and then I saw the house and immediately felt terrible.
SN: In what way?
AK: In every way. I got chills all over my body, and there was a rush of nausea unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I thought I was going to faint.
SN: All that just from looking?
AK: I know it sounds unbelievable, and I wish I had an answer that made more sense. All I know is that on the day Jeffy disappeared, I saw a house that I’d never seen before and it made me feel deeply unwell.
SN: Do you know if it’s still there? Did you ever tell anyone about the house?
AK: I told Alvin. He was a kind man, but something in him changed when Jeffy disappeared and Leanne fell ill. He became incensed when I told him that I thought the house had something to do with it. I still remember – he was sitting right where you are now. He stood up without saying a word and walked to the closet. He put on this old beige jacket that he always wore. I heard a jangling sound as he checked to see if his keys were in his pocket. He took one last look at me, and then he was gone.
SN: Where did he go?
AK: To the house, of course. It was getting on to dark then, and I saw the flash of the headlights as he spun out of the driveway. He didn’t come back until almost midnight.
SN: But this house – it would only be what, ten minutes from here?
AK: I know. It didn’t make sense to me either. I thought about calling the police, but I’ve heard they make you wait twenty-four hours to report a missing person, so I didn’t. When he came back, his hair was matted to his forehead and he was cold with old sweat.
SN: What time of year was this?
AK: March, just a few months after the disappearance. It was cold out.
SN: Did he ever tell you what happened?
AK: Eventually. He didn’t want to tell me after dark. We went to bed that night, but he just stayed by the window and watched the street. It was strange. It made me feel scared and safe all at once.
SN: What did he say in the morning?
AK: Well, first he confirmed what I already knew – that he had gone to the house. He said that he went and that by the time he got there it was dark. He told me that the streetlights were on, except in front of the house. They didn’t even have streetlights there, so the entire yard was black. No lights were on in the windows either. He said he watched it for a long while, not sure what to do, but he had the same feeling about it that I did – an utter certainty that it was somehow involved in Jeffy’s disappearance. He said he thought about calling me – we both got cellphones around that time, it was a very big event for us – but that he didn’t want to risk me trying to stop him. So he got out of the car and went to the trunk. He kept a tire iron there for emergencies. He grabbed it and walked up the stone path to the door. He said the yard was overgrown and filled with strange ornaments: old bird baths, garden gnomes, and other things. He got to the front porch and then looked around. He said that he’d never felt quiet that thick in all his life.
SN: What did he do after that?
AK: He knocked on the door. He did it three times, using the tire iron as a knocker. Apparently it was so loud each rap on the door made him blink. But after that, nothing.
AK: He told me he tried the door, but that it was locked. So he came home.
SN: That doesn’t sound like it took that long. Why did he take so long to come back?
AK: [Note: Mrs. King maintained a stable composure throughout the duration of our conversation. It was only upon me asking this question that she became visibly upset] I don’t know. He told me that he drove around to clear his head, but I took the car to the store the next day and there wasn’t much of a difference in the fuel. I thought about asking him, but I never worked up the courage to do so. Almost fifty years of marriage, and he never kept anything from me except that. I decided that maybe he would be allowed that secret, because I knew he wouldn’t keep it from me unless he had a good reason.
[Suddenly, and without warning, a china teacup falls out of the curio cabinet behind Mrs. King. It shatters upon impact.]
AK: Oh, dear! I’m so sorry, please excuse me while I tidy it up.
SN: There’s no need! I can take care of that for you. Where do you keep your broom?
AK: Just inside the pantry door. Thank you, dear.
[The sound of my footsteps fade as I move to the kitchen. I left the recorder on the table, unaware of what happened next. Sections rendered as inaudible reflect a severe degradation in the quality of the recording, either by feedback or static.]
AK: You didn’t have to do that. You probably scared the [inaudible] off the poor girl.
AK: No, no. She won’t do that. I don’t wa–[inaudible] trouble
AK: There’s no need to take that tone [inaudible]. Okay, I’ll tell her. But you stay out of it!
[The sound of my footsteps returning. There is a silence, punctuated only by the sweeping of the broom. The recording is clear again. I take my seat.]
SN: I can just take that to the trash on my way out.
AK: Oh, there’s no need, dear. You’ve done enough.
SN: You’re welcome, Mrs. King. To be honest, I don’t have any further questions for you. I know these memories are painful, and so I really appreciate your time and honesty.
AK: I’m glad I could help. I actually do have something to ask you, though. Will you make me a promise?
SN: Anything I can.
AK: If you find who did this. . . if you find who took Jeffy. . . kill the bastard. Don’t let him get away with this. Will you do that for us–for me?
[The recording ends here.]
I apologize for the abrupt ending, but the remainder of the conversation was no longer relevant to the academic discussion here. I want to assure the academy that despite the words of a grieving grandmother, I myself have no intent of committing any type of violence. My work here is purely in the pursuit of a greater understanding of our world. In light of this, I will be pursuing the lead Mrs. King provided.
I’m going to go check out this house myself.
End of Part Four