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“Has Anyone Actually Had Any Success Saging Their Home?” © 2023 by Vito Castrillo


That’s what the post says, each word capitalized as if it’s the goddamn title of a novel or a screenplay, a farce, a fiction. But it’s not. It’s the Truth, capital tee, certain and real. Still—I know it won’t help, know it’ll only serve to flame up the fire inside me—an incessant need to consume. It’s a dangerous spot to be in, especially nowadays, with all of us on the brink.

I pause, letting my finger hover, scared, but curious. It’s too tempting, and—a moment later—the thread pops up and I begin to read.

A woman on the Eastern Seaboard has been experiencing odd sights and sounds in her home.

I exhale, flick up, reveal more.

It started about a month ago. The Original Poster—a happily married WASP retiree—can’t be certain when, exactly, but she is certain it’s not going away.

See, OP and her husband purchased their new (might I add envious) home—a Colonial beauty on the upper banks of the Chesapeake Bay—just over a year ago now. They moved blind, never having been to their new home before, only knowing it’s on prime land, ripe with forageables, replenishing game, and a crystalline creek.

Figured, OP writes, it’d be a good place to ride out the “ass-end of civilization,” as my son so politely puts it. Haha.

The house is situated on a sprawling plot of twenty acres. The plot is smack in wilderness, meaning, thick with trees, too dark at night, genuinely isolating.

OP and her husband take the master on the second floor and their son—who recently filed for divorce and can’t afford an apartment on his own—takes the entire basement. OP offers here—for clarity? for reassurance? for some strange reason I can’t quite parse—that she doesn’t know what she ever did wrong to have her thirty-six-year-old son living back at home, but she figures that, as his mom, the least she could do is not charge him rent.

“So fucking funny,” I snort. It’s awful. That mentality, that certainty we’re not in this together, that we’re not all we’ve got. Awful, sure, but expected. I sigh, read on.

It starts off small; a feeling here, a movement there, unplaceable sounds coming from empty spaces. OP’s husband thinks she’s lost it, but he isn’t there, during those quiet hours of the day when she’s alone in all that house, on all that land. Her son, though, he’s not been right for the past few weeks. OP asks him about it, asks him often, and he doesn’t admit to seeing anything, hearing anything, but—he’s scared. OP can tell. Terrified even. He’s taken to sleeping upstairs (which OP hates) or not coming home at all (which OP loves).

I sit up, intrigued. Maybe this—this slow unfolding of one family’s haunting—is it. What I’ve been looking for: a mirror, a way of scrying spots I’ve been willfully blind to. Maybe this is how I finally find the answers (and retribution) I’ve been seeking for so very long …

Now, OP isn’t too pleased at her husband’s indifference, so, naturally, she sets up a motion activated camera near a “paranormal hot-spot”: the foot of the grand stairs, facing out towards the foyer and front door. She wants to prove her husband wrong, show him, even if he can’t see.

OP checks the camera religiously. For the most part, the footage contains nothing. For the most part, it only serves to make her question herself, her sanity. But then, one awful day, OP sees something too strange to shrug off.

She offers a link and finishes:

>So, strangers on the internet, what the heck could this possibly be? A glitch? A shadow? A for real ghost? I just don’t understand what it could be. It’s too fast to be a person. The staircase goes up to the second floor and, at the time this was taken, I was locked in the master bathroom taking a shower. There was no one else home and we have no pets. Son was working and hubby was 3 hours away, golfing. All doors and windows were locked. I’m a hand-to-heart Christian, but I’m about to go get some sage. Will it work? Has anyone had any success?

I click the link and an image hosting site pops up. It’s a twelve-second gif of a chiaroscuro-lit stairwell. I turn the brightness all the way up on my phone, hunch closer, watch.

For eight whole seconds, nothing happens. I sit, antsy and annoyed, waiting, waiting.

Nine seconds in—so sudden I almost miss it—a shadow peeks around the bottom of the stairs then disappears almost as fast.

“Legit,” I say, flicking back to the original post then down to the comments.

>Holy shit @00:09 in—did you guys see that? Near the left side, down the hall, a shadow

>>fake news.

>>>no dumbass, it was a shadow person


>>>>>its pareidolia

>>>>>>it’s ‘it’s,’ idiot.

I cut my losses and move on.

>step one: leave the house. step two: burn the house down

>>^this. OP I wouldn’t fucc with tht shyt if I were you. Just move.

Nope. Next. Finally the jackpot.

>yea, saging—or smudging as I call it—works, but you have to put an intention behind it. you gotta *mean* it, you know? Also, don’t buy your sage from a big box store. There should be some wiccans out there who can help you out. Good luck.

I almost set my phone down, but, despite myself, I read on.

>>Sage is a native medicine, not wiccan. But that’s beside the point. What you’re dealing with seems too powerful for a simple smudging ritual. Intuitively, I get a *bad* vibe from this vid. I recommend seeing a priest and getting an exorcism done. Christianity repeals demons. I wouldn’t mess around with native rituals. It could attract something worse.

The response below has been downvoted into oblivion. I click to reveal it.

>>>How is sage being Native and not Wiccan “beside the point”? That’s EXACTLY THE FUCKING POINT. This whole fucking continent is cursed. This whole fucking *planet* is cursed. We’re FUUUUCKED

I blink, waking myself from the stupor endless scrolling induces, navigate to OP’s profile, click “Follow,” and look up.

It’s late. It’s dark. I can’t sleep—again.

Inside my camper, I’m huddled tight, thinking thousands of thoughts better left unsaid.

Outside, the constellations are nearly unrecognizable. Above the mountains that line the horizon, the moon hangs low, sickle thin and ominous.



The next day, there’s a shave and a haircut knock on the metal of my camper. I peek out my blackout curtain to see the well-built figure of what can only be a cowboy holding a paper bag.

I flick back the curtain and think. He’s not wearing boots or a hat or a turquoise-sterling bolo tie, but he is wearing a Big Ass Belt Buckle, and, for that, I feel like I can trust him.

I smooth my hair, straighten my clothes, sniff a pit, open the door.

The cowboy takes a step back and gives me a little two finger wave. “Hey.”


A smile passes over his face. “Sorry I didn’t come out here sooner. Been away.”


He gestures with his head behind him, towards the horizon where a thin wisp of blue smoke from a dying campfire rises near a brightly lit slide-in attached to a filthy white Ford F-150. I don’t really know if it’s a Ford F-150, but all full-blooded, unnecessarily enormous American pickups are Ford F-150s to me, so.

“Guess I’m your neighbor.”


“Made this to commemorate the occasion.” He holds out the paper bag and I take it tentatively. “Banana oatmeal cookies. Hope that’s okay.” I nod. He smiles, spreads his arms wide, gesturing to nothing, to everything. “Welcome to Bumfuck, Nowhere, home of the brave, land of the free.”


“When did you get here?”

“The nineteenth.”

“Ah. Yeah. Been gone since the tenth.”


He clears his throat, sticks the tip of one hand into his front pocket. “So, what brought you out here?”


“Really?” When I don’t continue, he asks, “For what?”

“That’s classified.”

He hesitates, unsure, finally lands on, “Gotcha.”

I hold up the bag. “Thanks for the, uh, well, these.” I try to add a bit of finality in my voice, make it sound like a door shutting gently.

“’Course,” he says, then, taking the hint, adds, “I’m about a thirty-five-minute walk eastward. Ten if you use somethin’ motorized. Come say hi if you want.”

“I sold my car. I’m stuck here. It is what it is.” It’s the most I’ve said in days, weeks maybe.

For a moment, the cowboy is silent, then he nods. “Birds of a feather. Enjoy the cookies. Or don’t—I’m not much of a baker.”

I force a smile and shut the door in his face.

The cowboy doesn’t walk away immediately. Instead, he stands there, just out of sight, thinking who the fuck knows what.

Finally, he leaves and I’m alone again. Well, one person and thirty-five minutes shy of alone.



The cowboy lied. He’s a helluva baker and I spend the day gorging myself on his handiwork while rabbithole-ing into Range Fouler Debriefs: heavily redacted documents from the US Navy concerning Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena. They’re full of sentences that read something like:

“Lt. Comm. █████████ unknown object ██████████████████ ██████████████████ observes ███████████████ didn’t seem possible █████████████████████. During the observation, ███████████████████████████ “never seen anything like it before”. As for being Venus, ███████████████████████████. ███████████████ the unusual nature █████████ enacted ███ defense ███.”

That night, wind blows low and easy over the desert. Outside my camper, in the dead-dark, I sit and watch the sprite-bright glow of the cowboy’s fire flicker against blackness. The faint twang of some Tracy Chapman song finds its way across the land and into me. The cowboy himself cuts a lonely figure against the light. Bug-sized—he’s standing, gazing up at the stars. His shadow—a Behemoth—smears from his feet backwards, over the land and into sprawling, sweeping night.

I swing my arms behind my head, lean back, and think.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to do anything to stop what’s going on—stay those grasping, tearing shadows—that ever-present, deepening dread—from engulfing me, engulfing my heart. I have. I am. It’s just … none of it has worked. None of it has mattered. Or made a difference. And, honestly, I’m growing increasingly concerned it never will.

Still … I search. High and low, inside and out, sober and not. Mostly on the internet. Almost always alone. There has to be an answer out there, somewhere, in all that vastness.



I google how to counteract curses. I google if we all actually died in 2012. I google simulation theory and superconductor and mass coronal ejection. Gentrification and time dilation and von Neumann probes. Post-traumatic stress. Lead poisoning, generational trauma, delayed grief. Credit scores. Dimethyltryptamine. No contact. Low contact. Disassociation. Climate collapse. Collective insanity. Panspermia. Nuclear war. Antinatalism.

Five hours later, I’m outside the cowboy’s slide-in. It’s dark, it’s cold, but, somehow, I make it the entire way without panic groping its way from my gut and into my resolve.

From here, with the slide-in, the F-150 looks like a pale saddled steed sleeping. I knock, making “two bits” louder than intended. There’s a rustling, then, slowly, the door cracks. The cowboy’s shirtless, still wearing jeans and the belt buckle.

“Oh.” He opens the door fully. I can smell campfire and leather and crisp, sour apple. “Uh. Hey, what’s up?”

“Can you get me sage?”


“Yeah. Dried. For smudging. There should be a place around here that sells it.” I hold out my hand and he looks down at a ragged ten then back up at me. When he says nothing, I continue, “I know. It’s late. I’m sorry.”

He smiles. “Keep your money. I’ll bring it by tomorrow or the day after.”



“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“I really appreciate it.”

He nods. “Want me to walk you back?”

I turn, look at all that deep desert darkness. “No,” I hear myself say. “It’s fine.”

He nods again, says goodnight, then steps down into dirt and closes the slide-in behind him. “Can’t sleep,” he says, shrugging at the look I throw him. “I’ll keep an eye out. Just in case.”

“Oh. Kay.” I take one step backwards, then another, then turn and scuttle away. I don’t look back until I’m nearly all the way across the expanse between us, but I feel his eyes the whole way.

When I do chance a glance, though, he’s not looking at me and I’m unsure he ever was. True, he’s still standing outside, arms crossed over his lithe chest, barefooted, but his head is craned back and he’s looking up and out into the void of space.

Then who—I think—who was watching me all that time?



I’ve taken to calling the cowboy Buck.

It’s not his real name, of course, but I don’t know if I’ll ever really know his real name or, even, if I want to. Besides, it’s not the name that matters. Not really. It’s the familiarity of it. The promise of a friendship I wasn’t expecting.

“My name’s not Buck, you know,” Buck says one day, slightly amused.

“I know. It’s a nickname. Buck. The cowboy.”

“Cowboy?” He’s smiling now, a real big one. “I’m not a fuckin’ cowboy.”

“Well, you look like one.”

He laughs, shrugs in a way that suggests he doesn’t really care, all things considered. “All right. Fine. Cowboy Buck.”

“Mister Buck, the cowboy,” I correct.

He nods. “And you are?”

“Detective Shikibu.”

“All right, Missus Shiki—”


Buck blinks, takes it in stride. “All right, Detective, do you have a weapon?”

I, unfortunately, do not take this in stride and stand there, stock-still and uncertain. “Should I?”

“Out here? Hell yeah.”

“Like … a gun?”

“Gun, knife, bear spray, mace, brass knuckles.” Buck chuckles.

“They’re different?”


“Bear spray and mace are different?”

“One’s stronger than the other. I’m sure you can figure out which.”

“Oh.” I swallow. “You have a gun?”

“One or two, yeah.” Buck shoves his hands into his pockets, looks off into the distance, smoldering.

“I’ve been thinking about getting a gun.”

“Really?” There’s a hint of disbelief. “You ever fired one before?”

“Yeah.” Buck doesn’t even try to hide his surprise. I continue: “Once. When I was nine. My grandpa let me fire his rifle at a saguaro.”


“I fractured my clavicle.”



“Well. Think about it. For protection.”

“Protection? From what?”

When Buck doesn’t respond, I turn to look at him. He’s standing there, gazing out, his face rusted by sunset.

“From what, Buck? There’s no one around.”

Buck glances at me. “You are.”



I check the bookmarked thread the next day.

There’s a new comment, pinned by a moderator. In it, OP has posted a link to the same image hosting site as before and a link to a site I’ve never heard of. OP states she caught a sound the other night, that it happened after she walked burning sage from room to room, and—most importantly—that she’s never heard anything like it before, ever.

The top link takes me to an album curated by OP. The first image is of OP herself. She’s standing on a wraparound porch outside an ancient white house, hugging one of the columns that hold up the eaves, her face covered by an angel emoji.

The second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth images are of the house proper. I scroll through slowly; there’s the front of her house, its door a fresh blood red with a long, translucent window; there’s the back of it, nondescript, a gas grill near one end of the porch and a woven hammock at the other; there’s the surrounding forest, brightly lit by what can only be early morning sun, looking magical, fantastical, fake; there’s the staircase to the basement, carpeted and creaky (I’m sure); there’s the area OP heard the noise coming from, a well-furnished garret, something a writer might like.

It all looks normal—so normal—and, for a second, I think I’m off-track and contemplate clicking away.

The second link takes me to the site I’ve never heard of. It’s a short audio clip of the noise OP mentioned. I get up, untangle my corded headphones from my futon’s blanket, plug them into my phone, into my ears. For three seconds—nothing—then, so loud I yank out the buds—a scream.

I flick to the comments, heart throbbing hard enough to blur and blur and blur my vision.

>those sounds your hearing is a female fox. Look it up*. they make that sound when their in heat or something. *edit: itu] to it up.

>>Lifelong hunter here. Never in my life have I heard a fox make that sound.

>>>Maybe it is a cougar. I don’t know much about American wildlife, but where I live in Peru, we commonly hear sounds like that after the night falls. When I first heard it’s screamings, I grew scared. I thought it was a woman trapped by the wilderness, but my father told me a cougar was warning others off her territory. Apologies for my English my friends. I tried my best.

>>>>your English is very good

>>>>OP ^this. You’ve probably got some kind of wild cat on your hands. I dunno if Maryland has cougars or what, but it’s possible it’s escaped from somewhere. Set up some trail cams.

>Question for @spooky_momma_1960: if I’m reading your original post correctly, all this started happening when your son moved in, right? Think it has something to do with him? Maybe he’s haunted?

Beneath it—a rarity—is a reply from OP.

>>Now that I think on it, yeah, strange stuff started happening after my son moved in. What does that mean? What do I do? Should I kick him out?

There are no other responses.

I sit back and breathe.

Thing is, that didn’t sound like an animal to me. Well, it did, but not a wild one. It’s clearly a person—a woman, sure—wailing and pleading in a way that suggests something bad must’ve happened.

Or will.



Near midnight, Buck leaves. I hear the engine of his truck roar up then diminish with distance. I can’t remember where, exactly, he said he was going or for how long, only that he’ll be back—eventually.

I peek out the curtain, wait an hour. When I’m certain he’s not coming back anytime soon, I creep outside and look around.

Out here, in the middle of nowhere, I can see from horizon to horizon. There’s no one else around. I circle behind my camper—where the ground is pockmarked with minuscule, handmade mounds—and squat.

Buck’s not just gotten me a baggie of white sage, but an abalone shell bowl, and a long, muted turkey tail feather. I don’t burn the sage. I can’t. I won’t. Instead, I bury it, along with the shell, as far as I can dig into the hard, parched ground. Then, resolutely, I stick the turkey tail into the mound and think about the other things I’ve buried out here, in my graveyard of absolution: A seashell from Hawaii’s most well-known harbor. My old, broken Tamagotchi. Three cranes of the thousand my obaachan folded while locked away in a camp that no one has ever given a shit about. A printed picture of a cat I wanted to adopt but couldn’t afford. Turquoise purchased from a roadside stand just outside the Mormon Church in Monument Valley. A toy polar bear I found by books about the Arctic in the library. My grandfather’s dog tags. A miniature globe.

Hand pressed onto, into, Earth, I close my eyes and whisper, “ごめん, ごめん, ごめん, ごめん.”



A new day and I’m exhausted. I wonder if I’m a ghost. I message my friend to make sure.

>im lonely. its lonely here. and it feels weird. i feel like a ghost. am I a ghost? 👻 👻 👻


Five minutes later he messages back.

>aw 😢 do you wanna talk?

I reply that, yes, I do.

>kay 🥴 ill call in a sec.

He never does.

I spend the day cleaning, not because I have to, but because it keeps my mind and body occupied. This I have control of. This is real. This I can fall into, give my thinking mind a break, feel my body move and breathe and pump and live.

Later, I scroll.

There have been no further updates on OP’s thread, no new comments, no other posts. So, instead, I watch videos of people drawing tarot and hold onto them like lifelines. They’re bullshit, I know, but it’s nice to hear that my future holds promises of wealth and health and hope sometimes.

Later still, I sit outside my camper, waiting, watching.

Night comes on catlike, assuredly, dropping deep space over the thin glow of lightsaber red lining the horizon. Finally, the saber vanishes and darkness consumes.

For hours, nothing happens. For hours, I’m alone and a frail rising thrum that feels like hope blooms inside me. Maybe it worked—finally. Maybe it’s over.

But then—a shadow appears, slinky and skittish. At first, I rationalize—it’s just Buck’s dog, a Red Heeler named Dolly (or was it Dusty?) and he must’ve accidentally left her behind—before remembering Buck doesn’t have a dog and I’d spent the past, oh, several days imagining the bitch up because Buck looks like he’d have a Heeler named after a singer of the Motown variety.

I stand, squint as if it’d make any difference at all, think, Fuuuuck.

The shadow stops, lifts itself up on two legs, humanoid but hunched, a person pretending to be a T. rex stalking its prey, lording over the jungle.

It hunches closer.

And closer.

And closer.

I’m ready to run when a thought pops into the forefront of my mind: Maybe it’s Buck. Maybe he’s fucking with me. I mean, I did tell him about the sage. Anyone could put two and two together.

“Hello?” My voice sounds faraway, faded. “Buck?”

The shadow pauses, turns to face me, and, for the first time, I stare back—directly at it—and see.

“No,” I say.

The shadow is me, except it’s not. It’s my obaachan. My grandfather. The friends who didn’t think I was Japanese enough, American enough. The folks online I have parasocial relationships with. Authors—alive and dead—I admire. The woman standing on the corner of 17th and Arapahoe, crying so hard I almost stopped to help, almost. My coworkers asking if I was really quitting with nothing lined up, and where I was going, and why. My niece, her young face full of stoic acceptance, telling me, no cap, that we’re all just gonna keep ignoring the steady, spiraling death of the only place we can ever—will ever—call Home.

“Shit,” I whisper.

Three minutes later, I’m inside my camper peeking out.

The shadow is still there, still hunched, still creeping, getting closer and closer and closer.



“What The Freak Is This?”

The title stands out bright against the rest of the page as if it’s highlighted. I recognize OP’s username right away.

>Okay, what the flip???? My son just showed me this. I thought he was messing with me at first, you know, one of those stupid internet “challenges.” But I *know* my son, and he was the most scared I’ve ever seen him. You’d think the world is ending or something. Tell me I’m not crazy. Tell me you can see something too.

The same image hosting site is linked to the bottom of the post. I click on the link, unsure, uncertain.

It’s an eleven-second video taken in the Mariana-depths of night. The house looks regal, a greying warden keeping the wild at bay. Behind it, the moon hangs low, sickle thin, ominous.

There’s a sudden movement in the window of the gut-red front door. A shadow emerges and gets clearer and clearer and clearer as—presumably—OP’s son walks towards it.

“What the fuck?” I hiss.

It’s a face. It’s my face. I’m inside OP’s house looking out. My palms pressed to glass, my mouth open in an unheard, soundless scream. I’m pounding and pounding and pounding. And then, just like that, like magic, like life snuffed out, I’m gone.

The comments ring out in my head as if they’re spoken by a real live person standing next to me.

>Call the police, OP. Not later, but *right now*, that’s a person. Not a ghost. Not a demon. Not some humanoid entity. A real fucking person.

>>honestly, this is the scariest outcome.

>Get out now. Get your kids, call the cops, and *leave*. Now.

>You have a squatter. Contact the authorities. Now now now!!!1

>>Gross. Homeless people make me sick. I don’t feel sorry for them at all. ‘round ‘em up and stick ‘em all into camps. They’re all criminals and drug addicts anyway.

>>>I hope that sicko gets locked up for the rest of their life.

I click to reveal a downvoted comment at the bottom of the thread.


Beneath, seventeen child comments say things like, Wtf? And, You lost buddy? And, Lmao who gives a shit? And, cry more. And, damn dood you cray. And, How can someone you don’t even know steal from you?



Later or before—I can’t remember at this point—I realize that I’ve done—did—nothing wrong. I’ve been here this whole time. Right? How could I have possibly gotten from the Sonoran Desert all the way to the Chesapeake Bay? I have no car. It makes no sense. But, then again, in this life, nothing ever does.

The bit-bright glow of my phone’s screen is blinding, but I can’t stop consuming, can’t stop searching, can’t stop the incessant need to know, to fix, to find any shred of fucking hope there is, minuscule as it might be.

Finally, the world around me collapses, or I collapse, or we both collapse, entwined.

I’m outside, it’s night again, and cold. Around me, tiny graves scar the earth—reminders of who I was, who I wanted to be, where I came from, where I thought—stupidly fucking thought—I, no, We—capital double you, meaning all of us, together—were going.

Someone—a woman, sure—is screaming and pleading and wailing.

“Shhh,” a voice says.

I don’t look up, just shove my face into Earth as if I can burrow all the way to Her molten core and hide within the heart of it all.

“I’m here, right here.” It’s Buck.

“Why?” I ask. Buck hushes me again. But I don’t stop. Can’t. “We’re outta time, Buck. No turning back now. It’s over. Gone. Poof. Like that.” I snap or try to. I’m weak and I don’t know when the last time I ate was. “We’re so stupid.” I swallow or try to. I’m weak and I don’t know when the last time I drank water was. “I’m sorry, Buck. I’m sorry.”

And Buck asks, “For what?”

And I say, “For calling you a cowboy. For burying all that shit. For everything.”

Buck snickers, a small exhale of breath, half-amused. He leans down and whispers, ASMR-soft, “It’s not just your fault.” He’s so close I can feel the gust against my cheek, the warmth of it. “Besides, it’ll go on, regardless.”

When I open my eyes, there’s no one there.

I sit up and survey.

A third quarter moon looms overhead. I’m surrounded by desert and high wind whistling and long, reaching shadows and I’m alone.

T. Takeda Wise enjoys gaming, reading, cooking, writing, and taking long, solemn hikes through disappearing nature.
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