DP Fiction #105: “In the Shelter of Ghosts” by Risa Wolf

edited by David Steffen

Content note (click for details) Content note: parental loss, wounds, face scars

When the mediums arrive, I don’t notice their scars. It’s their machine that grabs my attention, all pointed glass bulbs, copper wires, and metal rods. Like a four-foot square vacuum tube radio. I rub the belt buckle hidden in my tunic pocket as the six women in gray robes lug the machine up my gravel driveway.

They approach the house frame I’ve erected, set up where Dad’s old house once stood. They place the machine on a slate slab I’ve set up by what I hope will be the front door. I uncap my electrical source as one of the mediums puts on ceramic-weave gloves to connect to the leads. I tamp down a flare of worry, reminding myself that I’d just recharged the lead-acid battery at the solar station and redid its plant latex cover a few days ago.

After the machine is humming, the women look directly at me, and my stomach drops. All of them have scars around their eyes. One has deep pink lines through her crow’s feet into her temples; one has swirls like the silt in a riverbed along her cheekbones.

A voice breaks into my reverie. “— even if the séance works, Rory, your father might not want to save your house,” the medium in front says. “The dead are in a restful place, and some don’t want to leave.”

I’ve blanked out again. I debate asking her to repeat herself, but I know the pros and cons. Entity houses are part of my job.

***

The Housing Authority was a thick stone building that squatted like a pale pig rooting in the rubble of less fortunate buildings. It was once a bank, but when everything fell apart, it was pressed into more important service.

The line on the ramp outside was always long. Folks would file in politely after I unlocked the door, reveling in the cool air while I climbed into the booth at the center of the marble atrium and raised the window grate.

“Welcome to the Unica Housing Authority. I’m Rory and I’ll be helping you today.” The crowd quieted as my voice echoed over their heads. “Please remember there are no perfect living situations anymore and we might not have a spot that suits you, but we’ll try our best. When you approach the window, please only share conditions for which you have a high tolerance. Our tallied conditions are listed on the wall to your right.”

I pointed at the metal plaque with its etched and braille contents. ‘Cold’, ‘hot’, ‘dust’, ‘mold’, and many others: too long to read aloud. I couldn’t help taking a second glance at an item partway down: “ancestors”. I tapped at the screen of my glass computer with a magnetic stylus.

“Okay, who’s first?”

The person who strode up to the counter wore a sky blue dress and a long black leather-looking jacket, both spattered with crusty yellow leopard-pattern splotches. I suppressed a wince. It’d been a decade since the bug killed anyone, but it still hurt to look at. I forced a smile.

“Hi there! Tolerances?”

“Dark, cold, and noisy,” the person replied.

I entered the tags and the computer returned two options. “Great. There’s a steel warehouse on Parker and a stone mill house at the end of Chancel. Neither slot includes bedding.”

The person nodded perfunctorily. “The mill house is good.”

I tapped the screen to mark the slot as ‘taken’, then grabbed a slate marker and scratched the address on it with a metal stylus. I slid the marker under the window. “There you go. Thank you and good luck.”

I watched as the person walked away, the crowd pulling away from them like oil from a soap drop. The leopard spot on the jacket’s left shoulder had already spread. A sign of plastic clothing. I wondered where they’d come from, what kind of privilege they had, to still own any wearable vinyl.

***

My memory has never been great. I forget my own age sometimes. But one thing I do remember is the first time I saw those creepy yellow splotches.

I had a dinner date with Dad, but his monthly doctor’s appointment was running late. I decided to hang out outside the house, swaying in the worn swing from my childhood. The rope was frayed against my palm and had worn grooves in the branch, but it was a comfortable seat. As I pushed myself in a lazy circle, the late afternoon sun speckled the leaves and I saw the spots: phlegm-yellow and tissue-thin inside, gray ring outside.

My phone rang as I was examining one of the mottled leaves.

“It’s your father.” The nurse’s voice didn’t even shake. “He collapsed during his checkup and now he’s unresponsive.”

‘Unresponsive’. What a horrible word.

***

I fell into my job at the Housing Authority because Dad’s house was one of the first hit in our town. We’d figured out how to detect and treat the first wave of the fungus we now call “the bug.” But it mutated fast, and the most resistant strain fed on our buildings instead of living beings. It ate away siding and air conditioning and window casings. Alcohol sprays, systemics, antimicrobials, and antifungals all failed, so I stopped at Town Hall to get the plans filed for Dad’s house. To see how bad it was going to get.

“We need to warn people to the south,” the woman at the desk blurted while I was making copies. “I think they’ll believe it more from people with personal experience. You have a nice voice. Want a job?”

I thought about Dad’s bay window falling out of its dissolving casing. How the siding looked like Swiss cheese a year after I’d buried him. My throat tightened and I nodded.

I’d only been working there for a month when I first heard about an entity house.

“Hi, I’m calling to tell you about the bug that is destroying homes,” I read from the script.

“Oh no, dear, I’ll be fine,” the person replied, with a breathless giggle.

“My apologies!” I looked at their house plans. “We have on record that your house has wood beams and studs.”

“That’s right?”

“If your house has any wood, plastic, vinyl, or acrylic, the bug will attack it,” I said. “I can describe–”

“It’s okay, dear,” they interrupted. “Gramma took care of it.”

My heart leapt. Maybe there’s a solution. “What did your grandmother do?”

“She came back.” They giggled again. “Oh, she’s asking for her show. Gotta go.”

My phone clicked. They’d hung up.

Last I checked, the house was still standing, no leopard-spot marks in sight. They’ve also been generous. Filed four sleep slots with us. Tenants report that Gramma is noisy at 2 AM and is particular about kitchen cleanliness, to the point where she’ll wake them up with a frigid touch if they leave a mess. Otherwise, she doesn’t act like a ghost at all.

We’ve confirmed twelve entity houses so far. We’ve also heard other stories – folks who summoned a family member to help, only to have their relative’s ghost refuse and go back where they came from. It sounded like it hurt, to lose them all over again.

***

The head medium bows at me. “Do you have the ashes?”

I slide the silver urn from behind the new door jamb. I hold my breath as I break the seal on the urn and grab a pinch of ashes.

She points at the urn. “That should come as well.”

“Really?” I debate whether to return the ashes.

“He will be the fourth for the séance.”

“Oh.” I cradle the urn in my left arm. “Where should I put…”

I can’t bring myself to say ‘him’ or ‘it’.

The head medium gestures. “There, towards the west. The departed sit at the setting sun. You sit at the north, our guiding star.”

I place the urn where she indicated. Up close the machine purrs like a satisfied feline.

“Kasira, you sit at the east, the rising, and…” She cocks her head, as if listening. “Yes, Erius, you take the south, the brightening.”

The mediums, both young-looking and oddly aged, seat themselves. Kasira’s scars are jagged scores like broken toffee in the hollows of her eyes. Erius bears four white-silver furrows, two down each cheek.

“We do not control those we call,” the medium says. “Ancestors speak to us only if they wish to. We take these ashes to communicate that we are your approved emissary to the dead.”

I sprinkle the pinch of ashes into Kasira’s cupped hand. She presses a thumb into them and strokes her thumb across her forehead. She passes the ashes to Erius, who repeats the gesture, then shakes the remaining ashes into a metal cup at the center of the machine. They both grasp one of the metal dowels on the lachrymatorium with their left hand. The rest of the women back down the driveway.

“Where are they going?” I whisper to Kasira.

“This is no longer their place.” She winks, her broken-toffee scars bunching. “Now it’s up to us.”

***

“Okay, who’s next?”

The person wore an algae tunic and mycelium-leather clogs, their black hair short-cropped, small brown eyes glaring at me.

“Thank you for waiting. Tolerances?”

“Pollen,” they replied.

“Nothing else?”

“Why?” They sneered. “Where do you live?”

I hid a sigh. “My tolerances are dark, stuffy, and hard, so I’m in a shipping container park. I share my crate with three others.” Their brow furrowed, so I modulated my voice towards the perky. “My bedding is a myco mat. If you’re interested, there are slots left in my park.”

They deflated, the sneer replaced by a disappointed twist of lips. “I see. I’d be okay with bugs, steps, and height.”

“Fantastic!” I tapped it in. “Two treehouses have slots available. They have woven live-branch floors, leaf beds, and mycelium tarps in case of rain. One has a sunset view and one has a living vine wall to block wind from the south. It includes morning glories.”

Their eyes widened and I caught a glimpse of a grin. “Ooh, a vine wall! I’ll take that one.”

I smiled as I passed over the slate marker. It was rare to please someone in this job. I rubbed the belt buckle in my pocket and reminded myself to mark this moment down later.

***

Kate usually let me stay past closing to use the glass computer in the back office. I’d jot down things we’ve lost. Sometimes simple pleasures, like books and stuffed animals. Sometimes things I’ve never used, like Kevlar and mosquito netting. Sometimes I’d even mark down people who I’d briefly forgotten. 

Memory has always been a problem for me. Doctors had differing theories why. Maybe the trauma of losing my mom so early;. Possibly an attention disorder. All I knew was that I’d never been good with names or dates. But it wasn’t until Dad was gone that I realized how much I was forgetting.

When I arrived at the hospital, he was already dead. They gave me a bag of his things. Plaid shirt, canvas pants, steel watch, leather belt. A few weeks after he died, the leather belt grew a tiny leopard spot. I’d given the belt to Dad for Father’s Day. I realized I didn’t remember buying it, I didn’t remember him opening it, but I remembered him putting it on. I couldn’t remember the sound of his voice, but I remembered what he said: “It fits! How did you know my belt size, Roribell?”

“I didn’t, Dad.” I held out my arms in an ellipse. “This is how big you are when I hug you. So that’s how big the belt needed to be.”

I remembered his eyes filling with tears. He’d kissed the top of my head as I hugged him again, feeling his stomach hitching in quiet sobs. 

“I keep forgetting how short you are,” he’d whispered, making me laugh.

“And how long your legs are,” I’d teased.

We stayed in the hug for ten minutes.

I thought. I didn’t know for sure.

I did remember screaming over the leather as the bug ate it, that memory turning to shreds, then dust. I also remembered crying with relief when the gold-toned brass buckle remained intact, and how well it fit in my pocket.

***

Kasira leans towards me. “Remind us how to say your father’s name?” 

“Niven, like given, and Seinn like sine wave.”

The ash-prints on the mediums’ foreheads glow with a blue-gray iridescence as the machine sparks and Erius speaks.

“I call upon the spirit of Niven Seinn to grace us with your voice!”

A breeze kicks up.

Kasira repeats it. “I call upon Niven Seinn to grace us with your voice!”

Nothing happens. Kasira glances at Erius.

“You feel anything?”

“Not enough juice,” Erius replies.

I shrink under their gaze.

***

“Thank you for waiting. Tolerances?”

“Ancestors,” the frail person at the window replied. Their watery eyes were swollen and the ridges of their nostrils were chapped. The bones of old leaves peeked out from under their lank brown hair.

I raised my eyebrows. “Ancestors? Nothing else?”

Their gaze didn’t waver.

“Look.” I lowered my voice. “There aren’t many real entity houses right now. It takes a family loss and a very generous ancestor to make one. People claim they have a haunting, but the bug always gets them. You should choose something else.”

The person shook their head. “I’m allergic to a thousand things. It’s too cold for me in here and too hot out there. Anything hard, bright, or noisy hurts. Right now I’m in a sleep ditch off the freeway because it’s better than anything else.” They shrugged. “So unless you have a tolerance I haven’t heard of yet, ‘ancestors’ is it.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. I can add you to the waiting list but it’s fairly long.”

They pulled a square aluminum pager from their pocket. I scanned it and added the ID to the list, and they turned away from the booth, shoulders slumped.

I thought about the thing I was building, and I crossed my fingers and bumped their ID to the top before calling the next person up.

***

After Mom died, Dad took me along to his construction sites, first showing me how to sort tools, then how to lay bricks, then on to more complicated things. Everything he’d taught me was clear in my mind, even after everything else I’d forgotten.

When I started the house frame, I decided to take as many shortcuts as I could. No walls, no planing. The bug took months to hit new-cut wood, so I had some time, but not much. If the séance worked, the house would stand. If the séance didn’t work, it would fall anyway.

The doorway was last. Dad was always good with doors. I sawed the branch off the maple where my swing had once hung. The living branch still had grooves in it from the rope so I was extra cautious cutting it, preserving those grooves.

I sobbed while taking the bark off the branch. Wept like I was sacrificing one of the few memories I still had.

I was still working on it, sanding the jamb and hammering in the nail where the bell would go, when the mediums arrived.

***

Kasira reaches out to me. I hesitate, glancing at the machine.

“It doesn’t hurt,” she promises.

I slide my fingers into her hand, surprised at its warmth. Kasira squeezes my palm.

“Why have you asked us here today?”

“I want a better place to live,” I murmur. “I’m tired of my container.”

Erius shakes her head. “You could have built a steel structure.”

Kasira clasps my hand more tightly. “Why wood? Why here?”

A muscle in the side of my throat tightens, sending a sharp ache down into my collarbone. “I miss my dad. He was a woodworker. He built the house that used to be here, but the bug ate it.”

Erius scoots towards me. “But why did you choose something so fragile?”

“For… for memory.”

“Memory?” Kasira tilts her head. “Can you tell us more about that?”

I try not to sniffle. “The bug took all the furniture he built. It took everything he built. Those were supposed to be heirlooms. Now it’s all gone, so it’s like he’s all gone.”

“Why would he be gone? Doesn’t he live in your memories?” Kasira rubs her thumb over my knuckle. “Doesn’t everyone you’ve loved?”

I struggle to breathe. They’re watching me expectantly. Waiting for me to agree. I glance back at the doorway. Something clenches painfully inside my chest, and I can’t hold it anymore.

“No, that’s the problem!” Tears scald my cheeks like steam. “I should remember more, but I don’t. I don’t remember him on my sixteenth birthday. I don’t remember him at my college graduation. I don’t remember our last Christmas.” My throat spasms. “Oh god, and it’s too late! It’s too late to make any more memories with him! If I was smart, I would have written everything down. I would have made sure I’d never forget. But I’m not smart, I’m a selfish jerk, I’m a terrible daughter. I thought I had more time. I thought I had more time.”

I try to pull free from Kasira to cover my face as I cry, but she holds fast, a deathly stillness in her fingers. “There it is,” she whispers. “There’s the juice. That’s the grief he needs.”

The machine’s hum intensifies, vibrating in my skin. Electricity spits as the bulbs turn on. I squint, my tears cracking the world into rainbows, as Kasira and Erius chant together.

“We call upon the spirit of Niven Seinn to grace us with your voice!”

A white mist coagulates above the machine. The mediums continue. “Your daughter Rorius awaits you, Niven. If you consent, make yourself known!”

Something sizzles. I smell peanut butter and pepper – right, Dad’s lunches, on that wheat bread he loved. I’d forgotten them.

Then I hear a voice.

Roribell…

My stomach jumps. It’s been years, but I recognize it. Even though I couldn’t recall the sound of his voice, I recognize the sound.

I recognize it.

The smell. The sound. The memories were always there, deep in my gut. Exactly like the belt. Knowing his size not because it was in my brain, but because I’d hugged him so often my body knew it by heart.

Whatever my brain did or didn’t keep, the rest of my body recorded it all.

My shoulders wrench with sobs of relief as Kasira squeezes my hand. “Niven Seinn, will you share your afterlife on this plane, within the house your child has built, until such time as she departs?”

Do you need me, Roribell?

“I…” I stop. Am I being a terrible daughter again? Is it cruel to want him to stay with me? To leave the peaceful rest he deserves?

I flash on the person with the watery eyes. Their desperation. And how many other people might be in the same place.

I might not need him, but other people do.

“We all do. Please,” I manage, vocal cords tight with choked-back grief.

Then I’ll stay…

Kasira and Erius shriek as lightning crackles around the machine, then leaps into the lintel of the door with a sound like fireworks. Kasira clenches my hand hard enough to crack my knuckles before she lets go.

“Bless you, Niven, for your sacrifice. When Rory departs, one of us shall return to release you,” Erius gasps.

The machine’s hum fades. A wisp of smoke rises from Kasira’s face, a trickle of bloody pus seeping from a broken spot under her left eye.

“Shit!” I reach towards her. “Are you okay?”

She pats my hand, then blots the pus on her cheek with a graceful lift of her shoulder. “It hurts, but scars are remembrance.” She smiles. “Most people hide their scars, but for us, it’s an honor to bear this memory.”

As she and Erius undo the leads, Kasira winks at me and pantomimes crying. I rub my eyes by instinct, then jump at a sting under my right eye. A smear of blood pinkens the side of my index finger.

A wound, to turn into a scar. For remembrance.

I grin despite myself. Of course. Scars are the ghosts of past injuries, haunting our skin. It would keep my memory close to the surface, so that I’ll never forget.

I don’t know what my scar will look like, but I don’t care. It’ll remind me, every day, whether from other people’s reactions or from seeing my face in a reflection, that my memories live within me.

That my dad was never gone.

I lean on the maple door jamb and watch them gather up the machine and leave, their robes fading into the air as twilight deepens.

I like your house, Roribell.

I sigh. “Thank you, Daddy.”

I hug the jamb for at least ten minutes, then pluck the belt buckle from my pocket. I hang it on the nail that marks where the bell will go, and step under the lightning-struck lintel to start the walls.


© 2023 by Risa Wolf

3538 words

Author’s Note: This story came to me when I was processing several different kinds of loss at once. I’d gone to a memorial during the second year of the pandemic and as people recounted stories about the deceased, I realized that not only had I lost the person’s presence, I’d lost memories of them too. That memorial, plus the loss of access to the world around me, led me to an internal quest that I externalized to create Rory’s. (Many thanks to Cat Rambo for the title.)

Risa Wolf is a multi-gendered water elemental disguised as an ink-stained lycanthrope. (Don’t tell their spouse or their dogs; the disguise is working.) They come from the Burned-Over District in New York State, and they imagine houses for book-ghosts for a living. Their writing can be found in places like Apex, Clarkesworld, and Cast of Wonders. Visit them at killerpuppytails.com, on Mastodon at @killerpuppytails, or BlueSky at @risawolf.bsky.social.


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DP FICTION #85B: “The Assembly of Graves” by Rob E. Boley

Content note (click for details) Content note: brief images of suicide

Naomi’s wife uncorks the wine bottle, and Naomi can’t shake the feeling that an ominous ceremony has begun. The moment has gravity. Importance. Naomi suspects she’s underdressed with her jeans and concert t-shirt. Jeanne is wearing Naomi’s favorite date night outfit—the pink surplice dress with the floral pattern. It shows off her figure above the waist but turns flouncy below. While Jeanne fills two glasses with the red blend, Naomi lets her gaze trail around the hotel suite.

It’s a nice enough place, though a bit stuffy—less romantic getaway and more therapy session. Jeanne, master of ambiance, bringer of light, has done her best with it—she’s placed lit candles on almost every flat surface, even in the bathroom. The flames dance wearily, as if dead on their fiery little feet. The sitting area has a wooden bistro table at which Naomi sits in one of two ladderback chairs. Nearby, a vintage sofa that looks comfortable but probably isn’t crouches over a glass-top coffee table. An ornate writing table with perilously thin legs stands in a darkened  corner. Jeanne’s satchel sits on the writing table next to a wide pencil cup. Floor-to-ceiling gold curtains stand guard over the window. Faded green ivy wallpaper adorns the walls. 

In the next room, the bedroom, a candle flickers on the nightstand. Jeanne’s heeled sandals wait patiently on the floor partially beneath the bed. Her phone charges on the nightstand. Naomi will have to remember to plug in her own phone later.

Across the bistro table, Jeanne sits down and raises her glass. She looks so beautiful, this singularly caring soul who in a hundred small ways always makes Naomi’s days brighter. But she herself seems under a shadow. Naomi remembers when she was radiant.

They can fix this, Naomi knows they can. It’s not too late.

The candles’ flames flicker in Jeanne’s glistening eyes. As is often the case lately, she doesn’t even look directly at Naomi. She offers her usual toast—“Slàinte Mhath” —before taking a drink.

From the bathroom, a dripping noise. It doesn’t sound like a leaky faucet though. No, it’s heavier somehow. More ominous. Naomi stares a moment into the flickering, throbbing darkness.

She returns her attention to her wife. “Come on. This is supposed to be fun. We’re here to rekindle, right? To reconnect? So how about this . . . Here’s to us. May we never sweat the petty things, but always pet the sweaty things.”

Jeanne laughs at that, though it almost sounds like a sob. How long has it been since Naomi made Jeanne laugh–or even smile? 

“Oh god,” Jeanne says. “I just remembered that toast your dad made at our wedding.”

“We were lucky that was the worst thing he said. At my grandmother’s funeral—”

“I want you to know,” Jeanne cuts in, “that our wedding was one of the best nights of my life.”

Naomi despises being talked over, but she lets it slide. How can she be mad over such a lovely sentiment? Jeanne appears lost in thought. Her mouth’s open as if she wants to smile but can’t. That one crooked tooth peeks out from her upper lip. She runs a hand through her red hair. The curls are twisted into a messy bun the way Naomi likes.

Jeanne continues, “You did everything in your power to make our wedding perfect for me. The strings of lights. The rose petals. That whole debacle about the keepsake flower pots.” She chuckles and finishes her first glass. “Decorating the portajohn.”

“I wanted everything to be perfect.” Naomi sits back and looks away long enough to glance at the writing table. Now she sees that the pencil cup is actually a pseudo-rustic flower pot decorated with a mauve satin ribbon. It’s one of their wedding favors.

She scoots back her chair and Jeanne jumps, gasps with surprise.

“Calm down. It’s okay.”

When she tries to touch Jeanne’s hand, she jerks it away. Naomi nods and walks over to the writing table, stares down into the pot. It’s empty. Why would Jeanne bring one of them here? She presses her finger inside the cavity. The hole. “We stayed up all night painting these things and tying on all those ribbons.”

From the hallway, a childish voice says, “Would you like to come out to play?”

Jeanne rolls her eyes. “Come on, parents. It’s late. Wrangle your kids.”

Naomi crosses to the door and stares through the peephole. The hallway’s empty. When she looks back at Jeanne, she has refilled her glass. She must’ve refilled Naomi’s too, though she can’t even remember what the wine tastes like.

Jeanne stares down into her drink. “At the end of the day, though, you know what made our wedding perfect? It wasn’t the stupid flower pots. It wasn’t the butternut squash risotto. It wasn’t even the vows that I wrote and rewrote a dozen times and finally just stole a bunch of sappy greeting card nonsense from the internet.”

Naomi chuckles. This wasn’t what she’d expected to hear. “For reals? You plagiarized our wedding vows?”

“No, what made our wedding perfect was you. It was you holding my hand. It was you staring at me with so much love in your eyes. It was your smile. Your support. Even when you weren’t actually beside me, I could always feel your love. The way a flower must feel sunshine.” She raises her glass. “Here’s to you.”

Naomi wants to pick up her own glass but she can’t. She’s frozen. The raw sincerity of her wife’s words has struck her to the core. She’s trapped in time, gazing at Jeanne. How can one person be so beautiful inside and out?

From the bathroom, a whimper.

Naomi jumps. “Did you hear that?”

Another whimper. It sounds primal, like a wounded animal.

Jeanne shakes her head. “You know, for the past few months I’ve spent so much time yearning, no, aching to feel that love from you again. But I’ve only been wilting.”

Familiar sadness sets in, coupled with resentment. How can Jeanne not see how much Naomi gives her? “You do still have my love. You always will.”

“The thing is, in those rare moments when I actually do feel it, it only scares me.”

Naomi walks over and stares down at her. “That isn’t fair.”

Jeanne shivers. She hugs herself, clutching her own shoulders.

Even by the candlelight, she can see Jeanne is wearing her wedding ring. At least there’s that. Naomi holds out her hand, so Jeanne can see that she’s still wearing hers, as well. A braid of yellow gold fitted inside a sterling silver base. Jeanne’s is the reverse, silver inside of gold.

Naomi shakes her head. She’s here for a fresh start but she can’t shake the feeling that Jeanne is here to say goodbye. “What are we even doing here?”

The whimpering from the bathroom continues—a strained noise like a rusty nail scraped across a window.

“I’ll be right back,” Naomi says.

She follows the sound through the bedroom to the bathroom doorway, grateful at first for the break from the tension by candlelight. The candles on the toilet tank and sink flicker violently. The shadows bob up and down. The whimpering dissolves into something ragged. Desperate. She has to force herself to step inside the room. As soon as her foot crosses the threshold, the whimpering ceases.

The bathroom’s empty. Jeanne’s toiletry bag sits on the sink. Also her toothbrush and toothpaste. Naomi hasn’t unpacked hers yet.

She’s about to leave when she notices the tub is full.

“This is some hotel,” she calls out. “They didn’t even empty the tub.” As she watches, the water darkens. Shadowy clouds infuse the water. “Or clean it.”

In the tub, something stirs. Bubbles break the surface, followed by tangled tendrils of hair. A chill runs through her. She backs out of the room, shaking her head.

On the way back through the bedroom, she can’t help but notice only one overnight bag.

Back in the living room, Jeanne stands at the writing table staring down into the pot. “I think these damn keepsake wedding pots were our first real fight,” she says, as if Naomi never left the room. Hell, maybe she never stopped talking. “They arrived late, and they weren’t what I ordered at all.”

“You wanted rustic but these were all—”

“We had a big fight over it but in the end you stayed up with me all night painting them to make them look aged and tying on the ribbons, even though I know you thought it was all so stupid. It probably was. All that effort. All that animosity.”

“I think there’s something wrong with the tub.”

Jeanne shakes her head. “Most people didn’t even bother to take one after the reception. I was ready to throw them out, but you wouldn’t let me. We took every damn one of them home. You put them all over the house, a few in each room. The thing was, we didn’t have enough direct sunlight. Half the plants started to wilt.”

She takes her drink to the sofa, where she sits and curls up her feet. Naomi joins her on the sofa, but Jeanne looks away.

“You wouldn’t let me get rid of them,” Jeanne says. “No, you . . . you color-coded them and worked out a schedule to shift them around three times a week, so that each one got some light. You . . . you juggled sunshine. That was so you. You always had so much to give to everyone else. To the world. If I had a nickel for every time I heard you say, ‘How can I make your day shine?’. I only wish you’d given more . . .” She takes a breath.

Anger churns in Naomi’s stomach. “So help me, if you say you wish I’d give more to you…”

“I wish you’d given more to yourself. You deserved some shiny days, too.” She sniffles and raises her glass. “Here’s to juggling sunshine.”

A weight lifts from Naomi’s chest. She watches her wife finish the glass and put it on the table. Jeanne rests her head on the arm of the sofa and wipes her eyes.

From the hallway, a child’s voice says, “I can’t seem to find my dolly.”

Jeanne’s breath hitches. She’s crying. Naomi scoots over. Jeanne trembles.

“It’s okay,” Naomi says. “Can’t you feel my love? Your sunshine’s right here.”

Her wife sobs in her arms, and Naomi clutches her tight.

In the bathroom, something drips. In the hallway, footsteps patter past. Naomi ignores all of it, satisfied to be holding her wife.

They stay that way for the longest time.

Jeanne sobs. Naomi comforts.

Later, Jeanne slides off the couch. Naomi watches her blow out the candles in the living room one by one. She follows her to the bedroom, where she blows out the candles. The ones in the bathroom continue to burn while Jeanne yanks back the comforter and falls into bed. She doesn’t even bother taking off her dress.

Naomi stands over her slumbering wife. She’s about to climb into bed when a man’s voice chuckles outside. Shaking her head, she hurries to the door and looks again through the peephole.

At first, nothing.

A shape glides past.

She jumps back and gasps. Placing her ear to the door, she listens. Footsteps thump down the hall. That’s when she notices Jeanne’s satchel on the writing desk. She looks at the bedroom then back at the satchel.

Next thing she knows, she’s pulling a folder out of the bag. In it, she finds listings for homes. Ranch houses. Townhomes. Cottages. All of them clearly suitable for one person. She shakes her head, sobs.

As she collapses on the couch, she barely registers what’s on the bistro table. An empty wine bottle. Jeanne’s glass, empty. Her own glass, full.

She cries until all the tears are gone.

The dripping noise stabs into the silence.

Naomi wipes her eyes and sits up. She makes her way to the bathroom, ignoring the murmurs from the hallway. Like a moth to flame, she follows the candle’s glowing light. In the bathroom, she’s not at all surprised to find that the tub is now empty.

She stands over it, lost.

Behind her, footsteps. The candle winks out.

“Jeanne, it’s not too late for us,” she says.

Hands settle on her shoulders. She closes her eyes. It’s been so long. She swallows hard, tilts her head. The hands slide down her sides. She turns in the dark, hands tangled in long hair. Dim blue light adds shape to darkness. Her lips find her lover’s mouth, and they kiss. Urgently as if to consume each other. Now slowly as if to savor every nuance. She pulls away and kisses her wife’s neck.

“I’ve missed this,” she murmurs into Jeanne’s ear.

Their hands explore each other, familiar yet foreign. Her lover edges her toward the sink, but she grasps Jeanne’s wrist and pulls her toward the bedroom. “No, let’s do this right,” she says, but she freezes at the bathroom’s threshold.

In the bed, Jeanne still slumbers.

Naomi’s breath hitches.

The wrist twists out of her grasp, and hands tug her back into the darkness. The bathroom door closes. She spins around and shoves the intruder backward toward the tub.

A splash follows.

Pale watery blue light illuminates the bathroom, casting murky ripples upon the ceiling and walls. Somehow the light seems to come from the tub, which once again is full of water. Dark swirls permeate the bath. Naomi pivots and clutches the doorknob. It won’t turn. She pounds on the door.

“Jeanne! Help! Get me out of here! There’s someone in here with me!”

No response.

When she looks back at the tub, the water is completely dark. Tangled lengths of hair float on the surface, where a ripple forms. In its center, something round rises. At first, she mistakes the shape for some kind of ball, but it soon reveals itself to be a face shrouded in blond, soaked hair, and beneath it shoulders draped with a stained nightshirt. Two arms hang from their sleeves, baring torn wrists.

Drip. Drop. Drip.

Naomi pounds on the door. Again and again.

“Please, Jeanne. Let me out!” She grasps the doorknob. It won’t budge. She twists it with all her might. Behind her, feet squelch upon the tile floor. “Help me!”

At last, the doorknob gives. She flings open the door and spills onto the bedroom floor. Driven by terror, she bellycrawls under the bed. Her flailing hands knock aside one of Jeanne’s sandals.

“Jeanne!” she whispers as loud as she dares.

Naomi lies there in the dark. Her eyes grope at the shadows. She moans and whimpers. Surely at any moment a pair of pale feet will tread out of the bathroom. Instead, the bed shifts above her. Pale light shines from above. The bedsprings groan.

A light shines in her face. Hair drops down. She gasps.

Only it’s red hair. Jeanne’s red hair. The light comes from the flashlight on her cellphone. Naomi sighs with relief at the sight of her face. Her wife’s eyes are wide with fright, but also raw with desperation.

“There’s something in the bathroom,” Naomi whispers.

Jeanne ignores her warning. “I can’t do this anymore. The whispers. The furniture, moving. My things going missing. And now, monsters under the bed. Please. No more. Let me be at peace.”

Her lover’s face ascends, followed by her hair and then the light.

Naomi is left there, huddled beneath the bed. She stares into the shadows, through the darkness. When she closes her eyes, the view is much the same. She listens for her own heartbeat. Of course, she can’t feel it. She holds her breath and counts to a hundred. Two hundred. Three hundred. She has no breath to hold.

And then she cries. At least she can still do that.

The room remains dark when Jeanne gets up the next morning. Naomi watches Jeanne’s foot slide into one of her sandals. She sighs and drops on hands and knees. Her hand gropes under the bed until it grasps the sandal that Naomi knocked aside. Jeanne rises, slips her foot into the other sandal, and walks toward the bathroom. Naomi calls out a warning but Jeanne enters and shuts the door. Her wife, rather her widow, doesn’t bother showering. From behind the door, the toilet flushes. After a long pause, foam is spat into the sink, followed by a gurgle of water.

Naomi has crawled out from under the bed by the time Jeanne exits the bathroom. The cellphone light swings with the motion of her hand. Naomi’s looking upward from the floor. Jeanne stands at the dresser where she places her phone with the flashlight shining upward. It casts on the ceiling a distorted silhouette of Jeanne’s head, then her hands held almost together. The fingers stretch long and spidery across the ceiling.

“What’s happening?” Naomi asks.

Jeanne clears her throat. “I tried to keep all those plants alive. I really did. I shuffled them around, but without you there, they started dying one by one. I wasn’t much of a sunshine juggler. Not like you. I couldn’t bring myself to throw the pots out. As each plant died, I tossed out the dirt. Each empty pot became a hole, a tiny dollhouse replica of the one your body went into. But I couldn’t throw the pots away. I was amassing this grotesque assembly of graves . . . this horrid monument to your memory.

“But then something occurred to me. I’d spent these last months certain that you were haunting me. The shivers. The objects moving. Your distant voice. Now I wondered, perhaps I was haunting you instead. Isn’t that a notion?

“I filled the empty pots with new soil and new plants, and I donated the entire assembly of graves to a hospice facility. It seemed . . . it seemed so you. I couldn’t juggle sunshine the way you did, but I could maybe spread it around. I gave away all of our wedding pots except one.”

Naomi stares upward at the distorted head and hands upon the ceiling. “What is this?”

Those long dark hands remove Jeanne’s wedding band from her finger. Jeanne picks up the cellphone and her overnight bag. Naomi crawls after her into the living room in time to hear the plink of the ring dropping into the flower pot.

Jeanne walks to the door, rests her palm on the knob. “This hotel, I read about it online. It’s supposed to be the most haunted in the state. I even requested this room specifically because it’s supposed to have a lady ghost. She’s supposedly been haunting this room for decades. I didn’t see anything, but . . . there are other ghosts that walk the halls, too. I thought . . . I don’t know what I thought.”

“Please, Jeanne,” Naomi begs. “What is this?”

This time her wife looks directly at her. “This is goodbye.” She opens the door and steps outside. “I’ll always love you. Don’t ever stop juggling sunshine.”

Jeanne closes the door behind her, leaving Naomi alone. She sits there, sprawled on the floor, listening to Jeanne walk down the hall. In the bathroom something drips. From the hallway, more footsteps. Laughter. Murmurs.

Later that morning, the door opens again.

In walks a housekeeper carrying a set of sheets. He murmurs something under his breath before striding to the living room window. He flings open the curtains, flooding the room with daylight.

So much light. Perhaps more than Naomi could ever juggle.

While the housekeeper makes the bed, she pulls herself up using the sofa back for support. She walks over to the writing table and stares down into the flower pot. Her wife’s wedding band lies inside, but it’s not alone. Naomi’s ring is with it. Startled, she raises her own hands. Of course her ring finger is bare. She nods to herself.

The housekeeper hums a pleasant melody as he smooths out the sheets. Naomi walks past, unseen and unheard. She stands in the bathroom and offers her hand.

“Come on. You’ve been in here long enough, haven’t you?”

A pale hand grasps her own. Naomi shivers but smiles.

The slumped, dripping figure strides behind her, letting herself be pulled through the bedroom and past the housekeeper. He shivers, pausing in his duties to stare through them.

“This damn place creeps me out,” he whispers.

Naomi escorts the stranger to the open door. The housekeeper’s cart is parked outside. Footsteps thump past. The dripping woman hesitates.

“It’s okay.” Naomi pulls the dripping woman into the hall. “Let’s go for a walk and maybe you can tell me how I can make your day shine.”


© 2022 by Rob E. Boley

3300 words

Author’s Note:  I think all of our past relationships haunt us to some degree. They leave us scarred or damaged, enlightened or more self-aware, likely both. Then there’s the physical debris of the relationship, in this story – flower pots. Those artifacts can haunt us too. This story explores the haunting from the perspective of a quite literal ghost. What’s it like to be on the other end of the formula–the one doing the haunting? For the setting, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of haunted places, particularly hotels. 

Rob E. Boley likes to make blank pages darker. He lives with his wife and his daughter in Dayton, Ohio. By day, he manages and analyzes big data. Yet each morning before sunrise, he rises to strike terror into the hearts of the unfortunate characters dwelling in his novels, stories, and poems. His fiction has been seen lurking in places such as A cappella Zoo, Pseudopod, Clackamas Literary Review, and Best New Werewolf Tales. He co-founded Howling Unicorn Press with his wife, author Megan Hart, to conjure tales that thrill, chill, and fulfill. You can learn more about this weird figure of the dark by visiting his website at www.robboley.com.


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DP FICTION #42A: “Medium Matters” by R.K. Duncan

Medium Matters is an occasional series exclusively on TheQuill.com. You can support Marissa and all our creators by donating on our Patron page.

 

Dear Medium Matters, 

I think something supernatural, like a curse, or a hex, or an evil eye, is wrong with my house, or with me, or with my Scotty, Baxter. He’s been acting strange lately. He’s always been quiet, especially for a little dog, but these last few weeks he’s been barking all the time. He wakes me up two or three times every night, barking and growling. He snaps, not at guests or the mailman or anything, just at blank walls and empty rooms. He’s a good dog. Yesterday, he was staring at the wall and growling and then he jumped into it and tried to bite it so hard he left a dent in the drywall.

It’s not just Baxter though. I’ve been feeling anxious lately, and I swear it’s not just in my head. Little things are getting moved around, like my makeup. I always keep it very organized, but I’ve found everything thrown around like a teenager’s room three times in the last two weeks. Other little things in my bedroom get moved around too. 

I haven’t really noticed it, but all my friends complain about the cold when they come over, and last week, when my friend David visited, he started shivering so badly his teeth chattered, and his lips were turning blue. I’ve had the maintenance guy come out to look twice, and he swears the heater and the thermostat are fine.

I’m sure this is something supernatural, but what can I do about it? I don’t know what I’ve done wrong, who I’ve offended, or how to fix it. I’m worried. What if it gets worse? Are my friends in danger? Am I? Is Baxter?

Hoping you can help.

Cursed, in Kansas City.

 

Hi Cursed,

First: yes, this very well might be something supernatural, but no, I don’t think you’re in any kind of physical danger, nor is Baxter.

Before we get into the supernatural, please do some things for me: Take your dog to the vet and get him checked out. Put down traps or poison, or call an exterminator, in case mice are knocking your makeup over in the night (That could explain Baxter as well). Try setting up a space heater and making some coffee or tea the next time your guests complain of being cold. Talk to a professional about your anxiety and make sure it’s not just the sinking feeling of being 29 and single, staring down $120,000 in student loan debt while you support yourself on unreliable freelance writing gigs. Have you done all that? Things still feel wrong? Alright, let’s get into this.

I think you’re being stalked by a ghost. All the signs you’ve mentioned point to it. This means someone who died recently is harboring a deep obsession with you, enough to keep them tied to the living world. Maybe it’s an ex who thought they deserved one more chance, the one with the good hair and too much of Mommy’s money. Maybe it’s that friend you always suspected was hoping for more, the one who was always so happy to listen when your romances fell apart. Maybe it’s a stranger who formed a really creepy attraction from a half-second of elbow contact at the supermarket and got hit by a car trying to sneak into the bushes outside your window one night.

I keep saying they, but allow me to rant a little before we go on. This is almost certainly the ghost of a man. Men are the ones who think they’re entitled to a piece of you, whether you say yes or not. There are ex-boyfriends who think they still own you, that the little shifting floor of independence you’ve managed to claw together out of the flood of debt and expenses and zero-hour contracts is just a cry for help. Or maybe it’s a ‘friend’ who thinks he’s in the ‘friendzone’, that mystical sex waiting room that he’ll get out of if he just tears down all the men you’re actually looking for a romance with to show you how nice a guy he is. This creepy, awful, toxic shit can turn really dangerous for women. We all know it. We all hear stories, even if it never happens to us. And sometimes, these predators don’t even give up when they die. The only bright spot here is that a ghost stalker won’t graduate to assaulting you, because they can’t lift anything heavy enough to hit you with.

Alright. Rant over. Let’s talk about what you can do.

Start with the easy things. Ward your house. Salt or rowan branches across doorframes and windowsills are good generic wards, or you can use the symbols of any faith you hold sincerely. Make sure you ward everything, or the ghost can still slip in through that neglected attic window, or the hole above the back door that your landlord’s been promising to have patched for two months. The wards work by reinforcing the psychic significance of the house, dividing the world between inside and outside, which brings us to step two.

Get rid of anything connected to whoever’s haunting you. If this is just the spirit of some creeper who decided you were meant to be, you won’t have anything, but if it’s a bitter ex, you need to toss anything they might feel a deep connection to. Photos, clothes, gifts, the card he gave you, just in case, no obligations, just if things don’t work out, the one in black and silver that you were sure he’d see any activity on, the one wrapped in the note with a number you could call any time, if you needed help.

I’m assuming you know who’s haunting you. You probably do, but if not, peel an apple in one long strip and throw the peel over your left shoulder. It will twist to spell out the spirit’s name when it lands, or maybe the name of your true love, if you still believe in those.

If putting up wards and emptying your closets doesn’t get rid of your stalker, you’re going to need help, and it’s time to make a choice, because there are two different paths to pursue, and they both take money and time. You can try to reason with the ghost, or you can force it out. Reasoning is easier to do, but people who are so determined to harass you that they linger after death as a skeevy revenant aren’t usually inclined to be reasonable.

You can try talking to the ghost without professional help. Get some friends, preferably ones who knew the stalker before he died. Sit round a table. Light some candles if you like, and have a séance. There’s a lot of mechanical aids you can use: Ouija boards, crystal balls, bells, bowls of ink, etc., but at the core, you’re just trying to open your mind and spirit and allow the ghost to make contact. Definitely don’t sacrifice anything. You’ll ruin your tablecloth. In an ideal scenario, you’ll make contact with the ghost, your friends will be supportive presences and a productive dialogue will get the stalker out of your life and on to their final reward. In the most likely scenario, nothing will happen and you’ll all get bored after twenty minutes and watch Paranormal Activity. In the next most likely, the ghost will possess someone who happens to be sensitive, say awful things that make you cringe, and try to grab your breasts, or maybe it will turn out that one of your so-called friends always thought your stalker deserved another chance, that he was a good guy at heart. Amateur séances only succeed 9% of the time, and more than half of those fail to make controlled contact. But, hey, they’re free, unless your friends are assholes.

If you’re not one of the lucky 9%, you’ll need professional help. That means a medium. Don’t rush. Don’t just pick name out of the phonebook. Get references if you can, and make time for a long initial interview. As regular readers here will know, picking a medium is like picking a therapist. If you work with one, they’ll see a lot of you that’s usually hidden. Channeling is a deep emotional connection, with you and with the spirit. The medium will put you in contact with the spirit who’s stalking you and try to help you talk with him. That’s really the biggest problem with friendly contact. Do you think you’ll be able to get through to the ghost of the creeper who’s stalking you and convince him to stop? Do you think he’ll have learned to take no for answer? If you knew him well and you think you can talk him down, get a medium and try, but otherwise, you’ll need to do things the harder way, which means exorcism or a court order.

Exorcism is hard to come by, unless you happen to be priest or an adept yourself. So if you want one, first ask: was there a religious symbol you thought of immediately back when we talked about first steps? That’s great. Thank whichever god you can that the world hasn’t knocked you around one too many times to believe there’s anything benevolent watching over you. If you and the ghost share a religious conviction, and that religion allows for exorcism, get a properly bonded priest/monk/nun/elder or what-have-you and go to town. The only problem is that, even in our increasingly secular age, this kind of exorcism depends on faith. If you and the ghost don’t both believe sincerely, no amount of witch doctors, wizened gurus, old priests, or young priests are going to help.

If you don’t have the benefit of faith and an indulgent religious official, exorcism requires an adept. This is different than a medium, and much harder to find. A true adept is constantly aware and present in the adjacent plane where things like ghosts linger. That makes them powerful. These people are hard to find. I don’t know how many live quietly, but there are seven ‘public’ adepts, known to a small community of enthusiasts and lesser practitioners, in the five boroughs of New York. There are five in greater Los Angeles. There are seventeen in Istanbul, the largest collection in the world. I don’t personally know of any in Kansas City. All I can say about looking for one of these people is: good luck, and all I can say about negotiating with them is: be polite. They won’t care how long it took you to find them, or what you had to do to get into the party, or that you haven’t really slept in weeks, and they could fix it with a snap of their fingers. Adepts have their own rules, and they usually don’t want money.

Since getting an adept for an exorcism is more-or-less a pipe dream, like graduating without debt, or buying a house before you’re thirty-five, if you don’t have faith, go to the same place you’d go for a marriage license: the courthouse. Let me begin by saying that, yes, getting a judge to issue a restraining order against a ghost is very, very difficult. Getting a judgment and an order against an ordinary stalker is hard enough. For a ghost, you might go through every judge in town and get absolutely nothing. You will get pushback and disbelief from judges, bailiffs, lawyers, and bystanders with no business in your life at all. Be patient. Do your research. Hope. A medium can offer expert testimony, or maybe even channel the spirit in court to convince the judge. If you see a therapist, they can speak to the harm the spirit does. Even then, they probably won’t help you. They didn’t before, when he was handsome and formal in his suit, when he smelled of cologne and leather and money. Why would they help now, when he’s just a shadow that never leaves the corner of your eye?

If you can get a judgment, though, it will bind the spirit. Laws govern the spirit realm that corresponds to a legal jurisdiction and spirits can’t ignore them. You do need to serve the papers for a restraining order, which can be tricky. You can get a medium to channel the spirit and have an ordinary lawyer serve the spirit while it’s manifest, or you can find and retain the ghost of a lawyer, burn or shred the restraining order, and have them serve the papers entirely in the spirit realm. Look for lawyerly ghosts at unused courthouses or defunct law offices, and lure them to your home with incense made from shredded trial transcripts.

But the truth is, none of this will work for you, probably. Your friends never kept this creepy fuck away from you when he was alive. Talking reasonably didn’t stop him from obsessing hard enough to bind himself to you across the veil. It won’t help now. God doesn’t have time for women alone, and adepts are farther out of reach than the perfect contours from the magazine are when you stand at the mirror trying not look like you’ve been crying. The only real choice is faith in something better, in the church of you. Believe that you can make it work, that you can hustle and scrape and scrounge your way past rent next month, past ramen and peanut butter and into something better. Believe in yourself until your faith is hard and bright as new knife, and then maybe you can throw the spirit out on your own terms, and maybe it won’t all come falling down around your ears because you’re twenty dollars short for this month.

That’s a lot to digest, I know, but you can handle it. Good luck and stay strong, Cursed.

Marissa Matters, Medium.

 


© 2018 by R.K. Duncan

 

Author’s Note: This story began as some cheap jokes with just enough narrative to string them together. I think I began it after a humorous peek at the Wikihow article on exorcism. The social commentary appeared before the final draft, but it took several more rounds of submission and revision before I realized the real story was the columnist and I gave her the space she needed to explain what drives someone to write an internet advice column on how to deal with ghosts.

 

R. K. Duncan lives in a ramshackle apartment in West Philadelphia with his supportive and long-suffering partner and a shocking absence of cats. When not writing, he is occassionaly paid to lambaste stupid robots. In his spare time he cooks and lavishes attention on his beloved German cooing knives. Before writing, he studied philosophy and linguistics at Haverford college, and glimpses of academia can sometimes be found in his work. His fiction has appeared most recently in Cast of Wonders and Body Parts magazine. His blog and links to other work can be found at rkduncan-author.com.

 

 

 

 


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