This new world was friendlier to the dead than the living.
After trying all the usual things they talked about on the news and in the papers and on the fliers in the post office, I finally broke down and called one of the so-called professional exorcists. The stingy Scottish side of me hated spending the money. And the cynical German side of me figured I was about to be taken for everything I was worth.
If it was just about the broken glasses and the furniture getting tossed about, I wouldn’t have bothered. Stuff’s just stuff, after all. But with Penny in the house, something had to be done.
Apparently I had called Punk Exorcists Inc., because my $98/hour savior arrived in a pimped out black Honda Civic with a custom license plate that read DED2ME. From the second story window, I could see that he was wearing jeans tight enough to cut off circulation to his manly bits and a leather jacket studded with enough rivets and shiny things to attract dragons.
I looked over my shoulder at Penny. “Pen, our fates are in the hands of Ozzy Osbourne. We’re doomed.” She didn’t answer, and I looked back out the window. Ozzy was heading toward the front door after getting a back pack out of the passenger seat of the Honda.
I thumped down the dark stairs of the house and got the front door just as he knocked. I just caught his bored expression before it transformed into a cocky smirk; apparently most of his clients weren’t twenty-something chicks.
“You planning on exorcising a ghost or on a sleepover?” I asked.
His face went blank, and then I pointed at the black backpack on his shoulder. “Oh,” he said. “It’s my stuff. Never know what I’ll need. It’s harder than they make it look in the post office pamphlets.”
“I know, slick, that’s why you’re here.”
He stepped past me into the house, handing me a business card without looking at me. “No,” he corrected me. “I’m here because you called me.” He turned in a circle in the dim entryway, his face turned blue by the stained glass panes over the front door, looking at the doorways leading off into the rest of the house, and then he stared for a long time at the bottom of the stairs.
I looked at his card, just a white bit of cardstock with his number printed below his name: N. Briton. The punk exorcist turned back around to face me. To his credit, he didn’t look intimidated, and my parents’ old Victorian was creepy even before the doors and windows were blood-streaked.
He looked down to his feet at the gray footprints he’d left; the ghost always brought ash as well. “So where does it frequent?”
“She ‘frequents’ all over the house. What’s the ‘N’ stand for?”
“ ‘None of your business’,” he replied, his thumbs stuck in his pockets. . “I go by Brit. So this entity — it’s everywhere? I assume it’s hostile, or you wouldn’t be calling me.” He looked at his reflection in a spider-webbed mirror. One thousand images of an egotist looked back at him.
I crossed my arms and followed him into the living room; he walked over to the big fireplace with its dark carved mantle. I waited until he’d pulled his head out of it to reply. “Yeah. She throws stuff, breaks mirrors. Oh yeah, and she puts out candles and the stove and the hot water heater.”
“Interesting,” Brit said, but he didn’t sound like he meant it. He looked at a knocked over end table and picked at some dried blood on the mantle. “Is this from the ghost?”
I shrugged. “No, I decided an old house like this needs a little color and decided to splash some blood around.” He raised an eyebrow and I added, “A lot of the house bleeds after dark. Especially around the places of entry.” I didn’t know why I said that — ‘places of entry’ — like I was trying to sound smart. So far, the only thing about him that impressed me was that his tight pants didn’t make him cry like a little girl when he knelt to look at the salt I’d sprinkled on the hearth.
Brit linked his thumbs in his back pockets and turned from the mantle to look at me. “So does it ever manifest?”
“Like, look like a person?” I swung my arms to indicate humanity, or ambulating, or something. “No.”
“Then why do you call it a girl?”
“Because of her voice,” I said. “She speaks sometimes. Not to me.”
Brit frowned at me as if it was taking a lot of effort to be interested in what I was saying, and his eyes drifted past me, over my shoulder. I glanced behind me, but there was nothing but the staircase. “You can just wait until dusk,” I said. “That’s when it all starts. And the party lasts all night.”
Brit checked his watch while I checked out the window. Twilight was quickly descending, lengthening and dimming the slants of light on the floor. dWe had about fifteen minutes. He unzipped his backpack. “I’ll take the payment now. One hundred dollar deposit.”
“Now? You haven’t done anything.”
He took a stick out out of his backpack and said, “Being an exorcist is dangerous these days. My policy’s payment upfront. In case something happens.”
“If something happens?” I repeated. The stick was pointy enough to put someone’s eye out. “If you die, you won’t need the money anyway.” But I gave him the one hundred dollars, feeling my ancestors laughing at me for my gullibility. The knowledge that he would probably only spend it on more hair gel burned in my stomach.
Brit pocketed it without saying thank you. “Is it just you here?”
“Is that a ghost-hunting related question?” I asked.
I didn’t really want to get into the events of the previous summer, so I just said, “Me, my sister, and an angry dead person.”
I didn’t think my voice changed when I said ‘sister’, but maybe it had, because Brit turned to look over his shoulder at me and said, “Where is she?”
“Upstairs. In her room.” He’d see her soon enough. I pointed towards the stick. “What’s that for?”
“Finding the center. Where it haunts the most.”
“She,” I corrected. “And she haunts all over the most.”
“Look,” Brit said, pointing the stick in front of himself. The deepening shadows cast a sharp shadow of his nose on his face and under his frowning eyebrows as he gazed at his hands. He pointed the stick towards the hall, and followed it back into the entryway. “Whatever is letting the dead back into the world so easily now changes them, too. It may have been a she to start, but it sure as hell isn’t one now.”
There’d been reports, on the news, of people dying in haunted houses. Everyone knew the dead weren’t the same, even if no one said it out loud.
“And ghosts have an anchor, even if they seem to be all over,” Brit said, stepping onto the first step of the steep circular staircase. It popped like a gunshot, but neither of us jumped. Out of principle. “Something that’s their base of operations. A thing – an object. Something that was there where they died. Have you bought any antiques lately? Old dolls, furniture, stuff?”
I hadn’t even bought ramen noodles lately, much less any old crap. I shook my head. “Do you mean have I noticed any teddy bears weeping blood?”
“Pretty much,” he said.
“That would be a no,” I replied. The next stair popped, creaking in the cold. If Brit noticed or was worried about the sudden drop in temperature, he didn’t say anything. Together we edged up the stairs, him with his stick in front of him and me with my hands fisted. As we passed the window on the landing, a fat drop of thick red trailed slowly down one of the panes.
Downstairs, something thumped as we made it to the second floor hallway. In the hall, it was lightless and frigid, the only sound a faint, rhythmic beeping from inside one of the rooms.
“Brit!” I said, as shreds of wallpaper ripped off next to him. He stepped quickly away, looking at the curls on the floor, then back up to the wall where five long drag marks marred the paper.
“That’s never happened before,” I remarked, and rested my fingers on the drag marks; they fit almost perfectly under my hand, one for each fingertip.
“I feel special,” Brit said. His voice didn’t shake, but the stick in his hand did. It was pointing at one of the doors in the hallway. “What’s behind that door?”
Brit pushed open the door and sneezed; a layer of ash rose into the air from every surface. Beyond him, my sister lay silently as always, wires and tubes laying across her body and the monitor’s steady beep announcing her continued existence. Brit’s face was completely blank.
“Your sister’s on life support?” he said in a soft voice, as if she were sleeping.
“Car accident,” I said. “Killed my parents. She’s in a coma.” For some reason, his whispering bothered me, so I said, “She’ll never wake up. It’s been six months. But I convinced them to let me keep her here.”
Brit lowered the stick to his side. “My girlfriend died. Like this.” His voice was flat. “In the hospital. She never woke up.” He didn’t say anything else, but I could see guilt dripping from him as clearly as I saw the blood dripping down the panes of the second story window.
I heard furniture crashing downstairs, exploding into walls, crashing up the stairs towards us.
Just behind me, the door slammed shut, and this time, I did jump. A voice between us whispered clearly, “Nash.”
I saw a muscle in Brit’s jaw tense. “It’s her.”
“What? Your girlfriend?” I demanded.
He said, “That’s her voice. She’s the only one who called me Nash. She died after our apartment building burned.”
“That explains the ash,” I said. “But why is she here?”
Brit just stood there, staring at nothing, the monitor beeping to pass the time.
“The equipment,” I said suddenly. “You said it was something there when they died, right? Could it be the same monitor or something?”
“Nash,” the voice said again, and I felt breath on my face.
He closed his eyes. A stack of books I’d left on the table by my sister’s bed tumbled the floor, and cables began to whip loose from the monitor and respirator.
“Hey!” I shouted, and Brit jerked to attention. Another tube snaked through the air. “No!” I lunged towards the bed and then stopped cold.
My sister sat bolt upright, her fingers clutching the side of the bed. Blinking slowly, she looked right at me, then at Nash. Chunks of hair fell across her face, across her narrowing brown eyes.
“I thought you said. . .” Brit’s voice was low. We both watched my sister, and she watched us.
“Her eyes are gray,” I whispered. “Penny’s eyes are gray.”
image courtesy Marloes*