Wait. We're getting ahead of ourselves.
This was many years before she began talking to the dead and to those who were never alive. Before she figured out who she was and what she was and accepted that she did not fit.
It was also before she took her wedding vows and brought five children into the world and then stepped off the cliff at the edge of her life, before she opened herself to the visions, before she confronted the entities with no names and then cast them back into eternal darkness. Before she took dictation from another corner of the galaxy, before she brought her son to visit his grave from another lifetime, before she had any idea what to think about the face at the window or the dream of the baby in the woods, before she devoted years to pondering the mysteries of the universe, only to discover that there was nothing more mysterious than her own heart.
For Laura Knight, it started long before any of these things. It started several decades ago, when she was a child growing up on the west coast of Florida. Even then, she lived on curiosity. That is where it really began: with Laura's monstrous, breathtaking, epic curiosity. From early on, she refused to believe in randomness. She was sure there were cosmic blueprints, an underlying grid of meaning, and she wanted in on it. She devoured libraries of books. She immersed herself in particle physics. She pored through Freud and Jung. She studied Greek to aid her reading of the New Testament. She longed to understand the matrix of the tides, the language of the periodic table, the seductive progression of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
But understanding these things was not enough. Laura hungered not just to comprehend, but to experience.
So one day she climbed into the storm.
It was 1966, and Hurricane Alma was spinning cartwheels in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, Laura was 14 years old and living with her family on a farm in northern Pasco County, outside Hudson, less than half a mile from the coast. She had heard on the radio that Alma was generating mountainous waves, and she wanted to behold their ferocity for herself. She asked her mother to take her to the beach, but the answer was no.
As Laura recalls it, she made her move late that afternoon. Her mother dozed off while working on a crossword puzzle -- all these years later, Laura is still astonished that the woman actually labored over something so mundane in the middle of such a spectacular day -- and Laura grabbed some binoculars and slipped outside. She was headed for her favorite tree, a towering camphor which she had often climbed to gaze out into the gulf; ideal for what she had in mind now. Slowly she fought her way toward the tree, leaning her body against the wind and the rain, walking drunkenly through a sea of mud and debris. Around her she could smell the unmistakable ozone perfume -- earthy, pungent, almost sulfurous -- of Alma, making her presence known.
Inside, Laura willed herself into stillness. When she had stepped out of the house, a part of her was afraid. But now she had ascended to a place above fear. As the hurricane rocked her in her cradle, engulfing her and the rest of the visible world, she was transported into a heightened state of both perfect calm and absolute exhilaration. She had become the eye of the storm, the consciousness inside the chaos. She was not afraid to die.
In that moment, the questions of Laura's life -- questions that would run through all the years stretching before her -- announced themselves once and for all. Was it brave of her to venture out into the hurricane? Or was it foolish? Was it proof of something wonderful inside her, or an early sign of something not quite right?
Laura had no time to contemplate such questions. She rode the storm in all its fury. She wiped the water from her eyes. She felt the ecstasy surging inside her. She turned her face to the dark skies, surrendering to the power and grace and glory of things beyond her control.
* * *
What happens to someone who is willing to ride the storm? Where does the wind take her? Does it tear her apart, or does it carry her someplace above the clouds? And what about the people who get close to her? Does the storm leave them untouched? Or are they swept away, too?
Laura has already found the answer. At least, she has found her answer. It is there in the details that make up the rest of her life. In the account I am about to share with you.
I had never heard of Laura. As it happened, she was there as a guest speaker. If I had gone to a different meeting, on a different afternoon, I would have never met her. I would call this a coincidence. Laura would not.
In front of the group, she laid out the basics of her story. She said she was a psychic, a channeler and a hypnotherapist who had worked with people who had possibly been abducted by aliens; in passing, almost as an afterthought, she mentioned that she was also an exorcist. As if that weren't enough, she said that she and her children had once seen two UFOs, gliding across the sky over their house in New Port Richey.
I sat in the audience, trying to fathom what I was hearing. To me, what stuck out the most was not her story but the woman herself. She was genuine, smart and funny, immensely likable. She did not claim to understand everything she was describing; she admitted, without a trace of defensiveness, that she was way, way out there. She told us she was not even sure what to believe and not believe.
"I have been, and will continue to be, a skeptic in these matters," she told the audience. "Still, I feel we are on the right track."
In the years since that day, I have interviewed Laura repeatedly, followed her to UFO conventions, attended some of the channeling sessions where she attempted to communicate with entities from another part of the galaxy. Yet I still do not know what to make of her. Much of what Laura claims has happened to her is jarring, strange, beyond disturbing. And while I myself have witnessed some of the scenes that follow, the bulk of this account relies by necessity on Laura's memory, her word, her perceptions. Virtually all of it, as you will see, is open to debate and interpretation.
I have no idea if Laura is truly psychic. I cannot begin to prove one way or the other if she ever really confronted a demon or talked with extraterrestrial beings. In fact, I recognize that she could have made up many things she has told me about her life. Still, I don't believe that to be the case. I have spent enough time with Laura to trust her sincerity. I do not know that she really saw two UFOs flying over her house. I am convinced she thinks she did.
To me, though, this story was never about the spirits of the dead or demons or UFOs. From the start, I saw it as an account of one woman, trying to come to terms with the unknowable, searching for something out of reach.
In our own way, many of us are on a similar quest. Physicists, for instance, labor to understand the origins of the cosmos. So far, the best they've come up with is that originally there was only a void, and then, in an instant, all the matter of the universe -- all the matter that today makes up our bodies, our planet, our sun, every solar system and every galaxy in existence -- suddenly sprang into being in a massive explosion. That's their theory: One moment nothing, the next everything.
Personally, I find it to be far-fetched and deeply unsatisfying. That does not necessarily mean it isn't true.
Millions of Americans go to church every Sunday and contemplate a story about a man who was born 2,000 years ago, the son of a divine father and a human mother. This man, according to the story, grew up to raise the dead and perform other miracles until, at age 33, he was tortured and killed and then rose from the tomb to rejoin his father in heaven. Ever since then, one of the most sacred rituals of this story's adherents is to symbolically drink the blood and consume the body of this son of God.
I intend no disrespect to those who have faith in this particular story. I grew up inside that faith myself; during the catechism classes of my Catholic childhood, I was taught that Communion is not symbolic at all, that every Sunday at Mass we truly do eat the body of Christ.
By any measure, that is a wild story.
How much wilder are the possibilities that Laura has embraced? If you believe in the soul, how much more difficult is it to accept that spirits may roam among us? Knowing what we have learned about the evolution of life on Earth, how much of a leap is required to consider the notion of life springing up on other planets that revolve around other stars and that some of these life forms might actually wander into our neighborhoods?
All of us are drawn to the unknowable. Mysteries sustain us, just like food and water. They get us out of bed, give us something to do, provide our lives with depth, texture, meaning.
Obviously, Laura has taken this pursuit to a whole different level. Many people are willing to accept the possible existence of aliens; few would try, as Laura has, to chat with them during a makeshift seance in the living room.
Once I started spending time with her, I found myself wondering what her quest for answers meant for her and her family. Whatever was happening to her, whatever she was experiencing or thought she was experiencing, where would it lead?
Doubt the things Laura believes she has seen, if you want. Doubt her conclusions, her logic, her state of mind. But know that Laura herself is real. She has a driver's license and pays taxes. She has a family. And like many of us, she is simply trying to make sense of herself, her life, her place in the world.
This is her story.
The story of what happened after the exorcist came down from the tree.
Just before dawn, and a mockingbird already calling from the woods beyond the house. The smell of coffee, very strong, tons of cream, drifting upward from the cup in her hand. No sign yet, thank God, of the demented billy goat from next door.
Laura, seven months pregnant and feeling it, walked slowly through her garden. She was soaking up the early morning stillness, waiting for the sun, talking to her roses.
"Hello," she was saying to them now, speaking in her most gentle and soothing voice. "Did you miss me?"
Laura treasured these moments in her garden. Her husband, Lewis Martin, was busy getting ready for his job at the sawmill. Her four older children were still asleep in the house; her fifth was swimming quietly inside her womb. As for the neighbor's goat, a four-legged terrorist with huge horns and bloodshot eyes and a fondness for butting anything in his path, he usually waited until well after sunrise before launching one of his sneak attacks.
All of which meant that daybreak was Laura's best chance for grabbing a few moments to herself. So every morning, she would rouse herself at 5:30 or so and slip outside to tend the flowers, sip her coffee and think.
It was the summer of 1989. Laura was living with her family outside Hudson, in a rural area not far from the house where she'd climbed into the tree as a little girl. She was 37 now, with penetrating green eyes, thick brown hair that almost fell to her waist and an open face that seemed to be perpetually searching for something more. She did not know what she was searching for exactly. All she knew was that she felt a desperate need inside her to understand, the same curiosity that had driven her as a little girl. Only now it was accompanied by an emptiness she could not name, a vague sense that something was not right in her life.
After years of marriage, Laura was sometimes plagued with a feeling that Lewis was not the one she was supposed to spend her life with, that there was someone else out there waiting for her. She told herself these feelings were ridiculous, the romantic fantasies of a schoolgirl. But the feelings persisted, nagging at her.
Laura was excited about the child growing inside her. It made her think that perhaps things would be all right after all. She told herself that she was not just pregnant with a baby. She was pregnant with a chance for a new life of her own.
So much had already happened to Laura. She grew up in Tampa and on her grandparents' farm, the one with the tree. Her father, who worked at a family drugstore, left before she was born, and her mother, a bookkeeper, did the best she could for Laura and her older brother. After the divorce the family moved around, sometimes staying with Laura's mother's parents or other members of the family; in the years that followed, her mother married and divorced four more times.
Laura struggled to find her place. She was precocious -- her mother says Laura could read and write at age 3 -- and did well in school. If anything, Laura thought school was too easy. With all her outside reading, she excelled academically without bothering to do a minute of homework. But as she grew up, she had trouble fitting in. Other kids her age were focused on football games and pep rallies; her idea of a stimulating afternoon was plowing through a history book. They wanted to find a date for Saturday night; she wanted to understand the fundamentals of biochemistry.
Alice Knight, Laura's mother, was worried about her. So she took Laura to a psychiatrist. He met with her several times, gave her some tests, then delivered his conclusion to Laura, her mother and a counselor from Laura's school.
"She's not the problem," Laura and her mother remember him saying. "The fact of the matter is that she's smarter than all of us in this room and smarter than all her teachers."
But there was more to it than that. From the time she was a little girl, Laura had felt that she was fundamentally different. She was sure she knew things she had no way of knowing. She could see inside people, feel the essence of them, read the patterns of energy playing out in their lives. She had strange dreams that seemed to come true; driving through neighborhoods, she sensed that she was seeing and hearing and smelling snippets of whatever was happening inside each house she passed.
Her mother, asked later about these things, would confirm that her daughter had a gift.
"She had what we called the premonitions," remembers Mrs. Knight. "She understood things about people."
This was overwhelming enough for Laura and her mother. Other episodes were far more frightening. Once, at age 3, Laura woke from a nap with a sensation that something was about to happen. She heard footsteps approaching on the gravel outside the house and wondered if she should run to the closet or crawl under the bed. Before she could move, a strange face appeared at the bedroom window, a face similar to that of a large lizard. In her mind, she heard the face talking to her.
"There's no point in thinking about hiding," it told her. "When the time comes, we will find you, no matter where you go or what you do."
Similar incidents followed during Laura's childhood. Once, she saw her bedroom window opening, as though something was trying to get her. Another time, she woke with a start and saw a vision in which frightening creatures -- lizard creatures, just like the face at the window -- took her into the woods and showed her a shallow grave holding the corpse of a baby, with its hands and feet severed. The creatures warned her that she could easily end up the same way.
When she talked with her mother about these things, her mother said she was being foolish.
"You're just imagining it," Mrs. Knight said.
Laura wanted to believe that herself. As she grew older, she told herself that these moments were all just waking dreams, fantastic products of her imagination. She learned to stop talking about the incidents to anyone else, especially adults. But the episodes did not stop. They continued as she took classes at Hillsborough Community College, then met Lewis, married him and began raising a family.
She was doing her best to be ordinary. She was having her babies, first two daughters, then a son, then another daughter, and working off and on at various jobs to help pay the bills. She was going to church -- although Laura had been raised Methodist, she and Lewis now attended a Pentecostal church -- and tending to her garden, and buying groceries, and worrying about the family finances, just like everyone else.
No matter how hard she tried, though, Laura simply could not fit in. She still saw the world as differently as she did when she was a child; still read reams and reams on every subject from mythology to astronomy, looking for answers; was still haunted by mysterious, inexplicable experiences.
There were nights when Laura would wake in her bed and sense something there in the room with her and Lewis. Often, she would get sick after these incidents, developing ear infections and other ailments. Sometimes part of the house would grow strangely cold. Glass objects would break around her. They would break when she was upset or startled, and always when she wasn't touching them. Drinking glasses, a lamp, a window over her bed, even the window of a friend's brand-new BMW.
Then came the night when she woke beside her husband to find the house bathed in white light. Still half asleep, she told herself it was nothing, just some people outside with pickup trucks, shining their headlights through the windows. She went back to sleep. But when she woke up, she was turned around, with her head at the foot of the bed and her feet up by the pillows. The bottom of her nightgown was soaking wet and soiled with weeds, as though she'd been walking outside.
Laura finally began to accept that she would never be anything remotely close to ordinary. Life would be so much simpler if she were like everyone else, but now she realized that such a wish was impossible. That was when she opened herself up to new directions, when she began performing the spirit detachments and the exorcisms. . . .
"Oh, is that a nasty bug on you?" Laura was saying now, peering at the leaves on another rose bush in her garden. "Let's get that off right away."
She liked being out here at dawn, when the glow of the new day was spreading through the trees and the dew was still on the grass and she could lose herself among the flowers. She would hear the bees zooming by and watch the hummingbirds poised in midair above the blossoms, and she would remember that there was balance in the world. She adored her lilies -- lilies of the valley, day lilies, cups and saucers -- and the marigolds that exploded in a stunning wall of yellow. But the roses were her favorites. They were so delicate, so demanding of her care and time, that she thought of them as her children. She grew them on the east side of the house, just outside her bedroom. At night, she would drift asleep to their scent.
Laura loved living in this house, surrounded by woods. Not long ago, though, she had received a surprising prediction. She had gotten out a Ouija board and was fooling around with it, asking questions about what to do with her grandparents' nearby farm, now that they had died. She would rest her fingers on the planchette, a small piece of plastic with felt slides under it, and then ask her questions and watch the planchette glide back and forth, moving through the letters of the alphabet laid out before her on the board. Letter by letter, the board would give her answers. Now it was telling her to sell her grandparents' property; also to prepare for another change in her life. She and her family were moving, the board said. They were going to Montana.
Laura didn't understand. She had lived virtually her whole life in Florida. But the board was insistent.
"M-O-N-T-A-N-A," it spelled.
Laura wasn't necessarily opposed to the idea. Maybe Montana would be good. But she couldn't think about making such a drastic move at this point in her life, especially with a fifth child on the way. She walked through the garden, and felt the baby inside her, and thought about all that had happened to her, and tried to understand what it meant. She thought about all the things that lay ahead of her. There were so many possibilities, probabilities, ghost realities fighting their way into being.
Repeatedly she was struck with a sense that there was something more she was supposed to be doing. Since childhood, she had felt there was a hidden meaning to everything that had happened to her, a plan that had been kept out of her view. Now she was sure of it. Inside, she felt a growing certainty that all her studies and all her experiences, even the frightening ones, had laid the groundwork for a role waiting to be fulfilled.
But what was that role? Not knowing was excruciating.
She tried to wheedle some answers out of God. Morning after morning, there among the roses, she asked God to please let her in on the plan. She promised not to let him down. If he would just give her some answers, she would make the most of it. She swore it. But she had to understand why she had been made the way she was made. Why was she so driven to learn? What exactly was she supposed to do with all of these things careening around inside of her? Why did she feel so empty? Was it her marriage? Or was there something wrong with her?
Tell me, she would say. If you exist, and if there's a reason I am here, tell me what it is. Show me the path. Tell me where to place my foot next. Please.
* * *
The house was alive with Mozart. From the tape deck and out through the speakers he came, soaring, diving, teasing with the glee of a man who had been dead for 200 years and did not care.
Laura listened to Wolfgang all the time now. She'd made a tape of her favorite pieces -- A Little Night Music, excerpts from The Magic Flute -- and she'd put it on the stereo in the afternoons while she worked, humming and singing as she made the beds, did the dishes, nursed her baby daughter.
Arielle, she was called.
Only a few months after the conversations with God in the garden, Laura was deliriously happy. The ghost realities were no longer ghosts. Now they were alive.
The first thing that happened was that Laura had reached an understanding with God. She had decided that there was no point in trying to pry answers out of him. Whatever God planned for her, he would show her when the time was right.
In the meantime, she had more than enough to keep her busy, caring for the new baby. Arielle had made a dramatic entrance into the world. Laura had gone into labor early one August evening and then struggled until just after midnight, when the doctor performed a C-section. But it had all been worth it. Her daughter was beautiful, and Laura was holding her at last.
There was other work to do as well. With the arrival of a fifth child, Laura and Lewis had decided they needed a bigger house. Laura had found one in New Port Richey, not far from downtown. It was a wreck inside -- "a handyman's special," the real estate ad had called it -- but it had a big yard and five bedrooms.
Laura was thrilled. She had an intuition about the new house.
This was where she was supposed to be, she told herself. This was where whatever was meant to happen to her would begin. She could feel it.
There was just one thing. Something that did not even register with Laura when she first found the house. Something she didn't even think about until after she and Lewis had bought it.
The house was on Montana Avenue.