I’m posting this tonight in the hope that it will clear up the misunderstandings surrounding the disappearance of Debra Lindsay Caine, at the risk of my personal ridicule. Sticks and stones and all that. None of it will matter after tonight. Consider this my one pathetic attempt at an apology, if nothing else. It’s sort of my fault what happened. Even in her heyday, internet blogger Sugarcaine was just another web comedian. She was funnier than average and certainly skilled with a pen, but otherwise no more remarkable than the rest. For years the circumstances surrounding her disappearance were only occasionally mentioned, and only in the most obscure threads on a couple of forums. She would’ve been forgotten forever if those city workers hadn’t found the tape recorder last Monday. Sugarcaine’s true identity was a boyishly cute redhead named Debra Lindsay Caine. Her sister Payton described her as, “…a bag fulla fists, nails, and opinions just looking for an excuse to burst open on somebody, nourished by beer and spite since our Papa died in ’91.” Debra unintentionally began her career as a humor blogger when she let her friends talk her into setting up a MySpace account. She thought blogs were self-absorbed, whiny, and without substance, and thus used her MySpace page to parody the asinine ramblings of her peers. After a while she graduated to belittling popular culture and occasionally reviewing books, comics, movies, and whatever hate mail she received from her growing reader base. She quickly realized people enjoyed her writing, and by mid-2005 she’d ditched her MySpace account and set up her own humor site, Sugarcaine Junction. Despite Debra’s more-than-decent writing the site was mediocre at best. Most ‘net junkies likely never knew she existed, much less that she’d vanished and possibly been murdered. Until the city workers found the tape. Sugarcaine Junction never failed to celebrate whatever holidays and festivals came its way, and its seasonal articles were usually the most eagerly anticipated. Debra composed surprisingly witty drinking songs for her Oktoberfest review, and a touching poem for Father’s Day that she refused to talk about afterward. For her 2005 Christmas rant she wrote a series of parodied Bible passages that broke her weekly hate mail record overnight. Back then I was known as DeadAtFifty and counted among Sugarcaine’s regular readers. During the first week of October 2006 I suggested that she spend the night in the Daley family’s haunted house and write about the experience for her Halloween article. She announced to her readers that I was a child and a moron. I added a one-thousand-dollar prize to the mix. She eagerly accepted. On the last week of October Debra announced she would make the hour-long drive to the Daley house for a “spooky sleepover”. She embarked on the evening of the 29th, encouraging her readers to “Stay tuned for the details of my thousand-dollar journey through the haunted Daley house!” I had every intention of awarding her the money, and I never would’ve mentioned the Daleys if I had known what would happen. Debra always researched her subject before or after her “journeys” (as she called any experience she blogged about — “Stay tuned for the dirt on my journey through the latest Scorsese flick”), if only to make her praise/mockery of it all the more complete. In her apartment the police found stacks of newspaper clippings about the Daley family as far back as 1960: praise for Kevin Daley and the lives he saved as a firefighter; his marriage to sweetheart Naomi Welch in 1970; the birth of their son, Jeff in 1971; Jeff’s growing fame as an abstract artist at only twelve months of age; the rumors that Naomi deliberately dropped her son down the stairs and caused his borderline autism; and of course, the fruitless search for the bodies when the family vanished in 1982. The bulk of the articles were testimonies from neighbors and friends about the last they saw of the Daleys. Jeff’s performance at school dwindled, but the work he produced in art class was as detailed as ever, depicting macabre realms of twisted abstract shapes and looming shadows — imagery he hadn’t produced since he was a toddler. He claimed that the “whisperers” made him draw these things. His only explanation for a “whisperer” was, “they follow me around my house — I can’t see them, but I know they’re there.” I don’t think Jeff Daley was dreaming: I think his subconscious was a doorway to other worlds, and maybe his mother knew it and tried to kill him. If that’s the case, I wish she’d been just a little more persistent. Kevin’s coworkers described him as “nervous, constantly on edge, like he was being followed by a lunatic and couldn’t shake him.” Naomi, normally known to greet her tavern’s patrons with bright smiles and warm hellos, seemed to have crawled into a shell and refused to come out. She took frequent bathroom breaks, only to curl up inside a toilet cubicle and cry with her hands over her ears. And then one day Jeff never showed at school, and his parents never showed at work. They’d vanished into thin air; and according to their neighbors, they didn’t go quietly. Other articles described strange but seemingly unremarkable sights and sounds on the abandoned Daley property from 1989 to 2004. A few of those articles were so strange they were considered hoaxes or gross exaggerations. A neighbor’s dog ran barking under the Daley porch. When it returned it spent the next two days whining and cowering and howling miserably for no reason. One morning the owners woke up and found the dog missing. It was never seen again. A young couple claimed a silhouette in the shadows of the front yard whispered something at them as they walked past the house late one night. They couldn’t tell if there was someone there or not, and when they continued their walk the shape stalked them for several blocks before vanishing altogether. Several mailmen gave identical accounts of hearing movement and gibbering voices inside the house while on their routes. One assumed it was the local pranksters and alerted the police. They never found anyone inside. Earlier this week the city workers were preparing the house for demolition when they discovered the recorder under an old desk. Remembering the house’s history of missing persons, they turned it over to the police. The officer who received it — a friend of mine whose name will go unmentioned — had at one time been a Sugarcaine fan. I spent an entire evening listening to the tape at his place. To help spread this story around the web I’ve prepared a transcript of the recording for my own site, which you can read below.
[Tape begins with fifteen seconds of silence. Broken by husky female voice.] “Don’t think I’ve ever been to this side of town before. Had to stop at a diner and get directions ‘cos I managed to get my stupid ass lost. Supposed to be an hour long drive, but it’ll be close to midnight by the time I find this dump. “Oh, I told the lady I was coming to visit an old friend who lived in the Daleys’ neighborhood and she was happy to help me find my way. Imagine I won’t be well received if I go around telling everybody I’m spending my weekend breaking into other people’s houses. Even if the Daleys are too dead to give a shit.” [Silence for eight seconds. A sigh.] “I feel silly going through with this. On the plus side I’ll get to pay my rent for the next month.”
“It is now…eleven p.m. on the dot. Took me forever to find the stupid house. Kept turning down the wrong streets. Hard to miss it once you find the right one. The front yard is a jungle of wiry vines and three-foot grass infested with species of insects never before seen by man. You can’t even see the front door from the street this late at night ‘cos the shadows gulped it up. “Parked two blocks away and walked. Gonna find a window to climb through. Hopefully won’t need to pick the back door ‘cos that’ll take forever. More as it develops.”
[Hollow footsteps on old wooden boards. A series of distorted thuds as the recorder rattles violently. Silence for sixteen seconds.] “Tripped. Ow…It’s pitch black in here. Where’s my damn—?” [Quiet shuffling for the next minute, and more footsteps. Debra releases an exhausted breath. Tape rattles slightly.] “Okay, I’m in. My camp is set up in the…I guess this was the office. There’s a dusty old desk next to the window I just climbed through and a bookcase to the right of the door. Both are bare. I’m about to take my tour of the house. Camera ready, although this place isn’t much to look at. Keeping the flash off, so the pics might need to be tweaked when I get back. I ought to keep the flashlight off and just let my eyes adjust, but…yeah, I’m not gonna do that.” [Two minutes of silence apart from footsteps and the occasional electronic shutter sound of a digital camera taking pictures. A cough.] “The house is a really roomy two-story deal. Oh, there you are, you elusive stairs…The carpet’s been all torn up except for one corner of the living room, so the floor’s all crusty wooden boards.” [Footsteps. Loud, human-like shriek of pain from the rusty hinges of a door. Debra lets out a startled gasp, curses.] “…a moldy bathroom untouched since nineteen eighty-two…” [Several coughs as the camera clicks. More squeaking hinges, significantly quieter. More camera clicks.] “Ugh, goddamn wolf spiders everywhere!” [Seven minutes pass with footsteps, camera clicks, and Debra’s coughs the only sounds; halfway through, hollow thunks of boots on wooden stairs, and footsteps change to loud, unhealthy creaks. Now and then Debra makes various comments on the house’s layout.] “[unintelligible muttering] —dust in this place is murdering me. Second floor is rickety as hell. Here’s hoping the building doesn’t collapse on me in the night.” [Hollow thunks again as she returns to the first floor. At the ten minute mark, dead silence for approximately twenty seconds. Debra exhales.] “I think that’s it for the tour. I’m off to sleep with the spiders.” [Silence for two minutes. Debra whispers to herself inquisitively. Wooden clunking.] “Found a loose board in the office floor. ‘Previously-pried-up’ loose. I’ll have to check that out tomorrow morning.” [Clomp of steel-toe boots carelessly tossed onto wooden floor. Rustling of thick cloth. Coughing.] “Ah, god, I can’t breathe in this place…Awright, time for bed. We’ll finish up our notes tomorrow. G’night!”
[Recorder rattles. Debra begins to say something, only gets the first syllable before going quiet again. Silence for another minute.] “There’s something in here…” [Pit-pat of bare feet. Silence. Door creaks shut. Rustling.] “Fuckin’ rats. I knew it. I hear ‘em scuttling in the living room walls. I shoulda brought a cot.”
[Exasperated sigh.] “Okay, well, I won’t be sleeping tonight after all, so I’m pryin’ that board up to pass the time. More as it develops.” [Recorder rattles as it is set aside. For the next five minutes there’s nothing but fingernails and something metallic — possibly a Swiss army knife — scratching into wood, and occasionally a clunk. A gasp, and the clatter of a small object. Debra’s bare footsteps move out of range. Another minute of silence. Debra says something too far away to make out and seems to wait for a response. She repeats herself, louder.] “Who’s there?” [Nothing for a minute and a half. Creak of the office door closing. Pit-pat of bare feet returns. The tape rattles.] “I’m losing my mind. I could swear I heard—” [Silence. The scratching and clunking returns, and moments later there’s a wooden clatter like a board being tossed aside.] “Gotcha!” [Paper rustling.] “Um…” [More paper rustling. Silence.] “Um, there’s…drawings. Wadded drawings stuffed into this little space beneath the loose board. I think they’re Jeff Daley’s pictures. When he was five he used to draw his bad dreams to…No, these can’t be real. The detail is—?” [Crumpling: wadded paper being unraveled and then flattened out. Debra speaks quietly, almost inaudibly, as if reading something aloud to herself.] “Don’t listen. It’s not Daddy. It’s not Daddy. It’s not…” [Silence. A deep, trembling breath.] “Okay, um…Okay, this isn’t funny anymore.” [A distant sound, possibly out in the hall, and a shrill gasp. Two minutes and forty seconds of silence.] “[incoherent mumbling] –not funny.” [The sound again, within five feet of the recorder: a human voice speaking almost above a whisper. It says a single word difficult to make out, but sounds like Debra’s name. The recorder rattles violently as it hits the floor.] “It’s not funny! Stop it!” [Silence. Pit-pat of bare feet leaving the room. Three minutes pass with no sounds except a periodic thump deep within the house and Debra shouting angrily. The footsteps return. Heavy slam of the office door. Quiet sobbing within three feet of the recorder, and nothing else for another minute.] “[speaking too quietly to register on the recorder: her throat has tightened up]” [The sobbing stops abruptly as Debra holds her breath. The voice speaks again as quietly as before, from inside the room. Feet scrambling across the floor. The office window shrieks as it is torn open. The rest of the tape is silence.]
Debra posted an update the same night. There was no trace of her usual snide narrative, and she exchanged punchy one-liners for razor-edged curses. She wanted someone (me) to apologize to her for what she believed to be a perverse Halloween prank. She’d managed to keep one of the drawings she found under the loose floorboard and included a hi-res scan in her rant, condemning it as an obvious attempt by a barely capable adult artist to reproduce the work of an eight-year-old retard. Drawn entirely in black crayon, it resembled a caricature of someone’s living room as done by Salvador Dali. At the center stood a dark shape with a grayish head misshapen like in a funhouse mirror, making it impossible to tell if it was supposed to be human or not. The thing stared right at the viewer over its shoulder with two empty black holes for eyes. Three more of the things stood beyond it, also staring at the viewer — it was as if the act of drawing the scene had grabbed their attention. Although their faces were amorphous mushes of white and gray, the three in the background seemed to be smiling. And it really did suggest a level of artistic finesse beyond that of an eight-year-old boy, but the style matched Jeff Daley’s other drawings. Debra and I both got our share of hate mail after that blog. Half her readers thought I was an asshole for setting her up for such a nasty trick. The other half thought Debra was pulling a hammed-up Halloween prank of her own, and when her next two updates erratically described how the sounds in the Daley house had followed her home, everyone became all the more certain of this. They still believed it was a joke when she failed to make a single update for two weeks afterward. On November 4th in the middle of the afternoon, Debra had called her sister, Payton. She was blubbering so much Payton couldn’t understand a word she said at first. “She let loose with the heartbroke drunk routine. Said she was sorry for missing my wedding, sorry for always being a spiteful bitch when we were growing up, sorry for kicking our dog when she was twelve — apologizing for all kinds of silly stuff like a desperate sinner at confession. “She stopped to catch her breath, and I heard somebody else in the room with her talking quiet like they didn’t want me to hear. I asked if she wanted me to come over. She started sobbing again and said, ‘I hear Daddy, but it isn’t Daddy.’ Then she hung up and I called the police. They didn’t find anybody when they got there. I was talking to her only minutes before.” Most folks still think Debra’s abduction by the whispering stalkers of Jeff Daley’s nightmares is a hoax orchestrated by Debra or by some other sick individual. The tape has been “proven” a fake by one ignorant skeptic after another, and it won’t be long before Sugarcaine Junction fades into obscurity once again. I hope to prevent this, not because I feel pity for Debra Lindsay Caine, though I really do pity her; but because I hope to prevent others from vanishing like she vanished, and like the city workers who found the tape vanished, and like my friend vanished. They mark their territory — like they marked the Daley house and the tape — and they can smell anything that comes in contact with it. Once they smell you, they hunt you like bloodhounds until they’ve marked you, too. They call to you softly like they’re afraid to talk too loud — sometimes two rooms away, sometimes right next to you. They imitate people you’re closest to. Maybe they think it’s funny. But you can’t listen to them. You have to shut them out, otherwise you’ll be too scared to open your eyes or move a muscle. You won’t have the chance to kill yourself before they drag you to whatever unholy hell Debra Lindsay Caine was taken to. I have to go take a bath with my toaster now. Mother has been calling to me for the last hour, even though she’s been dead for five years.