The house at 32 Willow St. was haunted. Tam didn’t need to walk in the door, or cast any spells to figure that out. Just looking inside its empty rooms and feeling the shiver that ran down to the base of her spine was enough to tell her that.
“This is the place that Derrick gave us, right?” Val asked. She was holding a lit flashlight despite the fact that the power was still on to the building and the lights inside were functional.
“It seems to be in better shape than he described,” Anna said. She ran her hand along the trim on the living room’s doorway. Only a thin layer of dust came away on her fingers.
“Yeah, I asked JB to look into that,” Tam said as she stepped inside the building which had once been a home and looked ready to serve that function again with only minimal changes.
“I’m surprised you can’t hack into the town archives and find the info we need?” Val asked.
“Housing deeds are public records,” Tam said. “In theory there’s no need to break into a system that we’re supposed to have access to already. In practice, it would be faster, but there’s the problem that ‘publicly accessible’ doesn’t mean that anyone’s bothered to scan the documents into a central system. A lot of cities are pretty low-tech in how they manage their property records.”
“JB may also be able to find more than is listed in the official forms,” Anna said. “Granted it is well after hours, and the town hall is officially closed, but that’s never slowed them down before.”
“They are pretty talented,” Tam agreed.
“Yeah, I’ll put fifty bucks on JB winding up with the information we need and a date for the weekend in less than an hour,” Val said.
“No bet,” Anna said.
“If their date can help us get to the bottom of this, I’ll pay for dinner for the two of them,” Tam said. “I mean our ghost was polite enough to wait until after my show was done to pull that poltergeist act but I’d rather not chance it for a second night if I didn’t have to.”
“I thought ticket sales went up after the news got out though?” Val asked.
“Sure, because people like the idea of seeing the uncanny and otherworldly,” Tam said. “Actually seeing dead people, or being slashed to ribbons by a glassnado, on the other hand? That tends to drive attendance down just a little bit.”
“I guess I could see that,” Val said. “So, just how bad of a dead person are we talking about here? I take it most ghosts can’t pull off what this one did? Is there a limit to how often they can manage a stunt like that?”
“There is, but it’s wildly different for each spirit,” Tam said.
“Do most people leave ghosts, or is it only the strong ones who do?” Anna asked.
“It’s not about strength entirely,” Tam said. “It more about purpose, if that makes sense?”
“I think I could use more of an explanation,” Val said.
“Ok, well, take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt the size of bus because I’m not an expert on the afterlife,” Tam said. “From what I’ve read and been taught though, a ghost isn’t a person. Think of it like an after-impression that a person leaves behind when they die.”
“So a picture of who they were when they passed?” Val asked.
“Sort of, or more precisely a picture of part of who they were,” Tam said. “In the case of a Haunt, it’s the part of the person which was called to perform some specific task. Or, not even called, that’s not strong enough, maybe ‘consumed’ would be a better description. If there’s something that you’re supposed to do, and expected to do by people who matter to you, and that you deeply want to do, but death interrupts you before you can finish, a Haunt can be the result.”
“But not all the time?” Anna said.
“No, definitely not all the time,” Tam said. “There are people who leave behind tasks and people they were incredibly passionate about and there’s no Haunt that remains.”
“Because they lack the ability to cross back over to the mortal world?” Anna asked, leading them away from the front door and deeper into the house.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Tam said. “If it was then mystics would leave ghosts of different sorts all the time. I think there’s more happening on the other side of death than any living person is aware of. People with deep family heritages, for example, rarely leave ghosts of any sort behind, except for the families who collect ghosts like other families collect fine china or paintings.”
“So the ghosts are rare,” Val said, shining her flashlight into every corner and shadowed area of the rooms they entered. “That’s good to know, but what can they do?”
The house wasn’t a large one. At least not from the outside. It’s inner dimensions felt somehow distorted, like the rooms were burgeoning outwards, straining to hold in a presence that threatened to shatter barriers far more solid than mere plywood and sheetrock.
“Basically anything,” Tam said. “But it has to be something in the service of the purpose they’ve remained behind to complete. There’s other rules too, I think, because it doesn’t seem like they have completely free reign in the sort of powers they can manifest, or even when or where they can choose to manifest themselves. A ghost bent on revenge, for example, can’t turn their killer into corn chowder, or ground sirloin. Except in the cases where they can. It’s pretty confusing really.”
“So when Sun Tzu said ‘Know Your Enemy’, he obviously hadn’t ever thought about fighting ghosts then I guess,” Val said.
“It’s good advice with ghosts too,” Tam said. “What any particular ghost can do is going to be much more limited than the full range of powers that ghosts in general can manifest. Knowing exactly who they were can help a lot in terms of figuring out what they’re actually likely to do, which is a lot more important than what they could possibly do.”
“Our ghost can cause words to appear, briefly, and can move significant amounts of material around with deadly force,” Anna said.
“Those are both fairly typical abilities,” Tam said. “It’s likely this ghost can do more than that, especially if we make any efforts to contain or disrupt it.”
“Do the powers manifested so far tell us anything special about who we’re dealing with?” Anna asked.
“Manifesting written words, suggests they were a devout reader in life. Likely someone with a lot of formal education, to where they could interact with the written word without conscious awareness,” Tam said. “The telekinesis suggests they were involved in physical work a lot too though. The ghost of an accountant wouldn’t usually manifest poltergeist type abilities unless they were also a devout marathon runner or something similarly physical and all consuming.”
“So they’re someone who used both their mind and body, and they have powers they’re still keeping hidden from us?” Val asked. “Why are we here after midnight again?”
“Because waiting till morning would make it less likely that we would encounter the ghost of this place,” Anna said, leading them to the stairs up to the second floor.
“And this is a bad thing?” Val asked, her flashlight held resolutely in her grip. “You did say they would probably manifest even more powers if we backed them into a corner, right?”
Despite the lights they had turned on, the stairs seemed to darken as they walked up to the next landing.
“Yep,” Tam said. “Which is why we’re not here in the day. In the day the spirit would be more distant, and weaker. If we could find their hiding spot at all, they would be much more likely to lash out at us.”
“They seemed pretty happy to lash out at us while we were in the theater,” Val said.
“I think that’s because they were so far from their primary tether,” Tam said. “This house feels like it’s spent a long time being haunted. It’s probably the spot where the ghost lived when they were alive, and maybe the spot where they died too. If that’s true, the ghost should be strong and secure here. If there’s anywhere that we can talk to it, this should be the place. Anywhere else and they’ll be weak and more likely to flee.”
They reached the top of the landing and where the first floor had seemed like a normal, if empty home, the second was something else entirely.
The stairs rose into the middle of a long hallway. To the left, the hallway ran down past nine doors and to the right there were another nine, with all of the doors closed slabs of dark brown wood in matching wooden frames.
Across the floor, and up the walls, almost reaching the ceiling, there was chipped and cracking paint, and it was covered in words.
Black lines of varying sizes from thick marker tip strokes, to fine ballpoint pen marks spread out like a tattoo run amuck. The phrase “Come Back to Me!” was repeated over and over but there were other words too. “Olanzapine” and “Risperidone” showed up in many places, each one crossed out and each one followed by “2mg” and “4mg” and “16mg”.
The mural of words wasn’t what bothered Val though.
“What the hell are those,” she said, pointing her flashlight’s beam at the runner that ran horizontally down the middle of the wall at waist height.
All along the runner, there were handprints. Small handprints.
“A warning,” Anna said. The house was quiet as her words faded, even the noise of the city outside its walls dropping away to an unbroken stillness.
“And a message,” Tam said, approaching the wall. She reached out for it and the wall seemed to flex outwards trying to meet her touch.
“How do you tell the harmful ghosts from the benign ones?” Anna asked, putting a hand on Tam’s shoulder to hold her back.
“Look for the same things as you do with harmful people and benign ones,” Tam said.
She reached out to touch the wall and the laughter of a child ran past them down the hall to until it reached the sound of a door slamming shut.
The door that it reached was the only door open on the whole floor. It was at the distant end of the hallway.
“That was closed just a second ago,” Val said, taking an involuntary step back down the stairs.
“Maybe the wind blew it open,” Anna said. Her tone left no doubt as to how unlikely she thought that was.
From outside the house, a low moaning picked up. It could have been the wind, or could have been mistaken for the wind, except for the faint echoes of little voices that it carried with it.
“I think we’re being invited somewhere,” Tam said, and took a step towards the room.
As she trailed her fingers along the handprints, more laughter came from other areas of the house. It was distant and distorted though, and not all of it sounded like it came from human throats.
Another few steps and not all of it sounded like laughter anymore either.
“Is this wise?” Val asked, her voice tight and controlled.
The stairs below them creaked, one after the other.
Val turned the flashlight on the steps to reveal the person climbing them.
The creaking stopped the moment the light touched the stairs. Of course no one was there. They were the only living bodies in the house.
“Wisdom comes from experience,” Anna said. “I don’t believe any of us have experienced anything like this before, so come, let us grow wiser.”
Her words carried the icy fatalism of the Russian steppes but they served their purpose of moving everyone forward.
As they walked past the doors to the other rooms, each one in turn cracked open a tiny bit.
“Don’t go into any of those,” Tam said. “Getting sidetracked could be bad.”
“They’re supposed to be empty aren’t they?” Val asked.
“Things aren’t always what they are supposed to be,” Tam replied, her voice sounding like it had traveled a hundred miles as it crossed the half dozen feet between them.
Tam reached inside the room at the end of the hall and flicked on the light within.
Where Val’s flashlight illuminated an empty room though, the lights overhead shown on a fully appointed child’s playroom. It had blocks, and story books, and stuffed animals.
And in the back, a man hung from an overhead pipe, his feet dangling well off the floor.