Content warnings: brief instance of animal cruelty.
I hated the woman who lived in my house.
She’d made it as slovenly as a pigeon coop. Unwashed dishes were always piled high in the sink, attracting a swarm of flies and other crawly things. Crumbs and crumpled paper bags covered the couch, and half-empty cups grew moldy on the end tables. Soiled clothes littered the floor in the master bedroom, and the less said about the washroom, the better.
I could forgive her untidiness if she were a pleasant person, but she wasn’t. When her husband cooked dinner, she’d spend the whole meal talking about how it tasted like garbage. If her kids spoke more loudly than a whisper, she shrieked at them to shut up and do their homework. Her favorite words were “stupid,” “worthless,” and “don’t know why I put up with you.”
The husband left long ago, and the children disappeared as soon as they were old enough to live on their own. The daughter came back once to care for her mother after she hurt her hip tripping over a box of old magazines. The old woman didn’t appreciate the kindness, bellowing commands from her sickbed and mocking her daughter for gaining weight.
I called her a shrew and a bully, but she never heard me, of course. Sometimes I think she felt me watching her, and she’d shiver and bark at one of her family members to turn up the heater—before remembering everyone had gone.
Her cat always saw me. It had hissed and yowled as a kitten, but as the years passed, it grew used to me. Sometimes when I went out to the back porch to wait for Nate, it would curl up beside me and purr contentedly. I found the presence comforting as I stared at the rotting wooden fence and strange houses beyond, remembering when the view had held naught but lush green trees.
There’d been a path through those woods once. Nate had known the way, and I used to sit on that same porch in a rocking chair and wait to catch a glimpse of him. I remembered the way my heart slammed into my chest when I saw him, how I fought to keep my voice light and steady as I called out to my parents, saying I was going for a stroll.
I’d meet him there, hidden among the trees, and though it was just a small patch of woods, it had felt like our own enchanted forest. And he, tall and strong, with russet hair and a smile warm enough to melt snow, was my prince. Or perhaps he was a wicked enchanter sent to tempt me. If that was the case, I’d utterly failed to resist…
Hm? Where was I? Oh, yes. The cat.
The cat was a beautiful creature with long, fluffy fur the color of smoke and brilliant golden eyes. It was mostly self-sufficient—and it had to be, given that the woman rarely remembered to put food and water out for it. She talked to it sometimes, not to give the loyal companion any affection but to complain about her colleagues and acquaintances.
I liked to imagine the cat preferred my company to hers, though the old woman had the advantage of a physical presence, the ability to pet that soft fur and provide bowls of meaty food. So I tried not to feel jealous when the cat left me as soon as the shrew came home, rubbing against her legs and mewling hungrily.
“Back off, you mangy piece of shit.”
And she kicked it.
I hadn’t taken a breath in untold years, had no lungs to fill nor chest to heave, but still, I nearly gasped. Then shock and horror gave way to white-hot rage.
“You beast!” I shoved her away from the animal. “You ignorant ogress! I ought to take a rolling pin to your barbaric head! How dare you! HOW DARE YOU!”
The woman stumbled back. All the color drained from her sour face, and her mouth dropped. The scream didn’t come for another few moments, but when it did, it tore from her throat with ear-rending terror. She scrambled back and slammed into the wall, the force knocking a nearby photograph off the nail it hung from. The picture crashed to the carpet, and she turned and fled out the front door.
The house fell quiet, the still-open door letting in the cool night air. I stared after her for several long moments, unable to follow. How odd. I had felt her—I had pushed her. And had she seen me? That had never happened before. What did it mean?
The cat mewed.
“Oh, you poor thing. Hush, now. It’s alright. That awful woman’s gone.”
She didn’t stay gone for long, though. Just one day. Perhaps two. Time didn’t move for me the way it used to, and I lost long chunks of it sometimes. In any case, when she returned, she brought a priest.
She raved about evil spirits and demons while the priest mostly tried not to trip over the clutter on the floor. He said a few prayers and sprinkled holy water around the house in a blessing. Watching, I felt even colder than usual. Would he cast me out of the house? Was that possible? I couldn’t leave. How would Nate know where to find me?
I needn’t have fretted, because when he finished, nothing happened. The woman tried to get a guarantee that the house was spirit-free, which he couldn’t give. She ranted about the uselessness of the church and called him a feeble old fossil. The priest bore her insults with the patience of—well, a priest—and wished her a good day, inviting her to mass on Sunday.
She slammed the door behind him, but when she turned around and surveyed the empty house, fear flickered in her eyes.
Good. Hopefully she’d be scared enough not to touch that poor cat again, at least for a while. I tried poking and prodding her experimentally, but she didn’t seem to notice. I suspected she’d be back to her old, odious self within a week, but I must have shaken her worse than I’d thought. She jumped at every creak the house made and peered at every shadow. In bed, she tossed and turned, staring into the darkness with wide eyes.
Some days later, she brought home another guest. He was a pale man with oily black hair, gaudy rings on each of his fingers and the top four buttons of his red silk shirt undone. He made his way slowly through the house, clutching his head and moaning. He claimed he felt the presence of three spirits within the building, one of which had been violently murdered and sought revenge.
Rubbish. I’d died peacefully in my sleep—so peacefully, in fact, that it had taken me some time to realize I was dead. And what was this nonsense about other spirits? I think I would know if there were other ghosts in my own home.
The man set up candles in a circle on the living room floor (once he’d convinced the woman to clear away the discarded shoes and empty drink bottles). He held a hefty book with a black leather cover and read something in Latin from its pages. A spell? If it was supposed to banish me, it performed abysmally, but the man pronounced the house free of evil influence when he finished.
“That’s all you had to do?” the woman snapped. “You’re a crook for charging so much.”
“I spent a lifetime training in the occult arts,” he replied. “No one understands the spirits like I do.”
Grumbling, she showed him the door.
“What a charlatan,” I tutted. “You wasted every penny you spent.”
She spun around, her eyes wide. She didn’t see me, but she must have sensed something because she shuddered.
I almost pitied her in the time that followed. The sleepless nights and constant nerves took their toll on her. She withered away, her clothes growing baggy on her bony frame, and dark circles became a constant under her eyes. She must have known that charlatan had done nothing, that I was still there, and though I never harmed her—could not harm her—she couldn’t bear the knowledge that she was living with the dead.
It was no surprise when she brought the third one home.
It was a woman this time, tall and rather tough-looking. Tattoos covered the light brown skin of her strong arms, and her dark hair was short and wavy. Hands in her pockets, she hopped over the pile of mail stacked in front of the door and—impossibly—looked straight at me.
“Yeah,” she said. “You’ve got a glowing orb floating over your China cabinet. I see it.”
“Then what are you waiting for?” the shrew shrieked. “Get rid of it!”
The tattooed woman gave her a look. “You sure? I was gonna give you a second to get out of the house in case it starts flinging around furniture and making the walls bleed, but if you want to stay—”
“No.” The shrew scampered for the door, stuffing her arms into the sleeves of her coat. “I’ll wait outside. You’d better not damage anything! I’ll hold you liable if there’s even a crack that wasn’t here before. And don’t think about sneaking off with any of my things, either. I know your type.”
“Uh-huh.” The tattooed woman kept her hands in her pockets until the shrew slammed the door. Then the woman exhaled, tension draining from her shoulders. She shook her head and looked back at me.
“Right. Sorry about this, buddy.” She cracked her knuckles. “But I can’t have you scaring nice old ladies, so—”
“Nice?” I sputtered. “What nice old lady?”
“Heh. Fair point.”
She could hear me too? Incredible.
“But even mean old ladies don’t deserve to be haunted, so you’ve gotta go,” she said.
My voice was scarcely a whisper—or as much a whisper as the words of the dead could be. I felt frozen with fear, which was foolish. I suspected I should be trying to get as far away from this woman as possible.
“Where you belong,” she replied. “It’ll be better than here, trust me—unless you were a real asshole when you were alive.”
Heaven? Purgatory? What did it matter? My answer was the same.
“No?” The woman widened her stance like a boxer who’d just entered the ring, and she— I couldn’t explain it. She seemed to burn. My world had been dark and cold for so long, the house, the cat—everything like a smudged photograph in shades of gray. But this woman smoldered like a fire. I swore I could feel the heat.
“Oh, calm down,” I snapped. “I’m not going to attack you. But I’m not leaving without my Nate.”
She relaxed a bit, fading back into the grayness of everything else. “Nate?”
“Nathaniel Breen. My husband. He died when we were young, and I thought— I thought I’d see him again…”
“He might’ve already gone on—”
“Then wouldn’t I have, too? No, I’m here for a reason. I’ve been waiting for him to find me, but I’ve waited so long…” The realization hit me like a sudden gust of wind, and I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before. My thoughts felt clearer now that I had someone to share them with.
“It’s high time I went out and found him.”
The woman crossed her tattooed arms. “Okay…”
“Can you help me?”
She squeezed shut her eyes, wincing like she’d just stepped on a nail. “Don’t ask me that.”
“But you can, can’t you?”
“Look, I was paid to exorcise you. I’m not your friend.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll happily leave this house if you’ll help me find Nate.”
“Like I said, he’s probably moved on.” She waved her hands. “Passed through the veil. Ascended to heaven. That kind of thing.”
“No.” I didn’t know how I was so certain, but I was. “He hasn’t.”
She gave me a speculative look. “Did he die violently?”
“I… I think so? I don’t remember.”
Panic seized me. How could I not remember how Nate had died? I recalled the heartache and pain, the long nights crying alone in the darkness. But the circumstances? My mind was in a fog.
The woman sighed. “I should just send you on. That’s the best thing I can do for you.”
“Don’t even think about it, young lady!” I snapped. “I won’t go and risk leaving Nate behind. Could you abandon someone you loved like that?”
She stepped back like I’d slapped her.
“Please.” I softened my voice. “I beg you.”
She rubbed her forehead. If I still had breath, I would’ve held it as she stared at the floor, debating with herself. It gave me time for my own contemplation. Was this truly such a good idea? I knew nothing about this woman; it wasn’t as if I could trust her. But in all the years I’d dwelled in this house, no one had been able to speak with me as she did. She was my only chance.
“Fine,” she groaned. “I’ll do it. You’re lucky I’m a sucker for a sob story.”
The hope and happiness that swelled within me almost made me feel alive again. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, sure. So tell me, is there anything in this dump that used to belong to you?”
I bristled at her calling my home a dump but couldn’t argue given the current owner. Then I had to think harder than I ever had during my hazy, dreamlike afterlife. Finally I led her up to the dusty attic.
She crawled past spiders both living and dead, grumbling under her breath in what sounded like Spanish, and I directed her to an old chest buried behind boxes in the corner. Under the yellowing envelopes inside rested a silver necklace with a heart-shaped moonstone adorned by a crown.
“Because you’re the ruler of my heart,” Nate had said to me when he’d given it.
It shattered me to see it now, the silver tarnished and the gemstone dull.
“Come a little closer,” the woman said, holding it in her hand.
I approached reluctantly, as if keeping away from the necklace would distance me from the visceral emotions it provoked. The woman muttered a few words in a language I didn’t recognize in the slightest, and I felt a sudden pull on my core—as if I sat aboard a train that had suddenly and forcefully stopped.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Anchored you to the necklace instead of the house.” She was already shuffling back toward the ladder, the necklace stuffed into her pants pocket. “You can come with me now. You’re welcome.”
I felt dizzy as I trailed after her, which wasn’t a sensation I could remember feeling since my death. As she closed the attic and headed for the front door, I heard a meow.
I stopped. The cat sat next to an empty water bowl, watching me.
“We can’t leave the cat,” I said.
The woman threw up her arms. “You can’t leave the cat. You can’t leave Nate. Anybody ever tell you that you’re pretty damn needy?”
“It’s the cat who needs me. Who’s going to stop that awful woman from kicking the poor thing again if I’m gone?”
Her gaze sharpened, and she gave the cat a second look. “Fine,” she huffed. “Let’s do this.”
Ten minutes later, we left the house, the cat sitting snugly in a carrier. The shrew pounced on the woman immediately with demands and accusations, and the woman spun a ludicrous tale of a vengeful ghost whose cat had been drowned, and whom would probably return if the cat remained. The shrew was happy to see the “dirty thing” gone after that.
The tattooed woman put the cat into the back of a bulky van and climbed into the front seat. I followed her inside uncertainly.
“So,” she said, “I’m Bea, by the way. Beatriz Romo Reyes.”
“I’m…” I turned to ice. “I…don’t remember.”
“But you remember Nate’s name?”
“And what’s wrong with that?” I asked defensively. “He’s the one I need you to find, not me.”
She shrugged. “I guess so.” Then she peered at me closely, drumming her fingers against the steering wheel. “Well, you’re just a glowing orb, but I’m getting grumpy old lady vibes from you… Mildred?”
Oh, for goodness sake.
“No,” I said firmly.
I snorted. “Certainly not.”
“Please stop this nonsense.”
She grinned: a cheeky expression that made her seem infinitely more friendly. “All right. I’ll get it eventually.”
Then she started the vehicle, and for the first time in over a hundred years, I ventured out of the place I called home.
“Here we go. Nathaniel Breen, 1847 to 1902. Banker from California. Died of tuberculosis.”
Bea was lying in a bunk in the back of her van, staring at a small device with a rectangular face that lit up and showed pictures and text. (I remembered the old woman in my house using something similar.) We’d spent the night at a campground, and the new scenery had both mesmerized and invigorated me. The only one more excited was the cat, who darted among the trees all night in exploration.
“Nate wasn’t a banker,” I said. “And he certainly wasn’t from California.”
“What was he, then?”
“A factory worker. And I don’t think he ever left Ohio.”
“Hm.” She stretched. “Well, I don’t see any other Nathaniel Breens on here.”
“You should try a library.” I sniffed. “There are still libraries around these days, aren’t there?”
“Yeah, let me look up the closest one.”
As she tapped that small, seemingly essential device, I thought of a grand old room, tall bookshelves nearly reaching the ceiling. The smell of pages and leather bindings floated through the air, and nothing louder than a whisper disturbed the calmness. I knew those shelves, knew every hidden alcove and cranny, yet the books never failed to provide a new surprise.
The library. Of course. That’s where I used to work. A strenuous, perilous job for a woman, they’d said when I’d started, though by the time I’d retired, there had been nearly as many women librarians as men. My father had been against it, ashamed by the thought of his daughter taking up a profession. But our family finances had been struggling, so he’d relented in the end, consoled that it was at least suitable work for a well-educated lady.
I’d met Nate in the library.
He hadn’t been welcomed there. My coworkers had muttered to themselves about how he was a loiterer who’d come to look up betting notices in the newspaper and prowl after unsuspecting women. They saw only his dirtied, threadbare work clothes and lack of proper schooling, never noticing his keen eyes and kind smile. If Nate noticed their cruel words—and he must have—he didn’t let it stop him from coming by at least three times a week after his shift.
“Can I help you find something?” I’d asked one day, encountering him as he strolled among the shelves.
“Oh, I’m not looking for anything in particular,” he’d said. “What are you reading?”
I’d been rereading Little Women for the third time, which I’d expected him to dismiss as a book for young girls. To my surprise, he’d asked for a copy to borrow, and that was when I’d discovered the first of Nate’s many virtues: he’d read anything. Dime novels or cookbooks, scientific journals or poetry collections—it made no difference to him, so eager he was to learn anything and everything he could.
Whenever I saw him after that, we always stopped to chat about what we were reading. Our romance blossomed amid book recommendations and poetry quotes, him hiding pressed wildflowers for me between the pages of his returns, and we stole our first kiss in a corner behind a bookshelf.
I’d loved the library even before I’d met him, but he made the building magical.
I wondered what had happened to that old building, because the one Bea walked into was different—newer, I supposed. She paused to take off her jacket and then stared around, looking lost.
“The reference desk,” I told her. “Ask the librarian for help.”
She obeyed, spinning the librarian a tall tale about how Nate was her ancestor and she was doing a family history project. The librarian smiled brightly and chattered about her own family tree as she led us to another room. Bea took a seat in front of another of those machines, which the librarian briskly showed her how to use. To my surprise, she brought up the image of a faded newspaper.
“I don’t suppose you can remember an exact date for me?” Bea asked me once the librarian was gone.
I truly tried, but it was like grasping at smoke. “No. I… I’m sorry.”
“S’alright.” She began typing. “I’ll start from the mid-1800s and go from there.”
I looked over her shoulder, searching for Nate’s name or any events that I recognized. As we searched, life went on around us. Parents brought small children to a story-time session in an adjoining room, and a group of older women met to discuss a mystery novel they’d all read. Being alive, Bea needed to take occasional respites, and she left to get lunch at a dingy establishment across the street that sold sandwiches. But she returned afterward, and we continued our search until the sun sank and a librarian announced they’d be closing the building in fifteen minutes.
Bea stretched her arms, yawning. “Well, that sucked.”
“We can try again tomorrow,” I said, though I was trying to reassure myself more than her with the words.
“Uh, yeah, about that…” Bea rubbed the back of her neck. “I need to be in Kentucky tomorrow. I’ve got a guy who says a creepy black-eyed spirit is haunting his barn, and that’s kind of my thing.”
“But you said you’d help me.” The words came out more harshly than I’d intended.
“And I will. But I need to earn a living, and he’s a paying client—who needs my help too, you know.” Her voice rose, and she glanced around to make sure no heard her talking to air before continuing in a whisper. “Look, my work’s pretty unsteady. I’ll have a slow week sooner or later and can come back here again. And I’ll look more online in the meantime.”
“I…” I took a moment to master my emotions. “That’s reasonable.”
“Thanks, Gertrude. I knew you’d understand.”
“For pity’s sake, don’t start that again.”
She grinned and made her way to the door, and thus my travels with her began.
Talking with her kept me more aware than I’d been in my house, but I still had trouble staying alert all the time. I didn’t realize when she put the cat up for adoption and found it a happy home. I missed the creature but couldn’t disagree with Bea’s decision, not after we’d been delayed two hours searching for it after it had wandered off at one of the campsites.
She didn’t take me with her when she worked, leaving my necklace in her vehicle. Despite her statement that her work was unsteady, she stayed quite busy. We drove from place to place, usually staying at campsites but sometimes spending the night in a sprawling cement parking lot by a massive building Bea had said was a store. I preferred the campgrounds with the soft rustle of wind through the trees and the cries of birds. Everything was always honking, rumbling, or booming in cities, and modern buildings and machinery were strange and disconcerting.
Bea, too, was strange. I didn’t think the world had changed so much after my death that “freelance exorcist” was a common profession, but that was the title she gave herself. She guzzled beer like a man twice her size but ate healthily and spent every morning in exercise. No friends ever dropped by to meet her, and while she sometimes spoke to her mother on the telephone, she didn’t visit. She wore metal bands around her wrists and neck like jewelry that she never took off, not even to bathe. The one time I’d asked her about them, she’d quickly changed the subject.
I’d never held any stock in the notion that women shouldn’t travel alone (which was usually espoused by judgmental blowhards with more opinions than sense), but Bea’s nomadic life seemed lonely—and dangerous.
“Dear Lord!” I cried when she climbed back into the van one night. “What happened?”
Her clothes were torn and dirty, her right pants leg positively soaked with blood. Twigs and leaves were tangled in her hair, and she had a bloody gash on her side—smaller in comparison to the one on her leg but still frightening.
“Eh,” she said. “Not everything that’s dead is as nice as you.”
She stumbled toward the cubbies under her bed and pulled out a box of medical supplies. As she cleaned and dressed her wounds, she swayed woozily.
“Don’t faint,” I snapped. “Stay alert, Bea. Tell me what happened. Did a ghost do this to you?”
“Look, I just got back. It’s a little soon to relive the whole thing again, all right?”
Once she was bandaged, she leaned back in her bed and fell asleep almost instantly. I hovered over her, listening to the sound of her breathing with the dreadful fear that it would cease. What would I do if that happened? I couldn’t call for help, and I certainly couldn’t give her aid of my own. I attempted to touch her shoulder, trying to recall the feeling of pushing the old shrew away from the cat, but I couldn’t feel Bea, and she made no sign that she’d felt me.
Fortunately, she survived the night and woke in the morning.
“How do you feel?” I asked as she yawned and groaned. “You should drink something—and eat. Your bandages look as if they need changing, as well. Are you feverish?”
“I’m fine.” She waved me away and went about her morning in a leisurely manner, acting as if her injuries were nothing out of the ordinary—which concerned me.
“Anyway, good news,” she said through a mouthful of cereal. “I need to take it easy for a while, and we’re only about two hours out from your hometown. Who’s up for a trip to the library?”
“You’re attempting to divert the conversation from your injuries. Don’t think for a moment that you fool me.” I paused. “But yes, that would be most agreeable.”
“Then let’s hit the road.”
The drive took a little over two hours, and the library looked much the same as before, though the walls were decorated with colored paper cut in the shapes of bats, ghosts, and pumpkins, and a banner read “Happy Halloween!” I wondered if people still held balls and dinners for the festival and if Bea would join in the merrymaking. Someone who dealt with ghosts and ghouls everyday might not see any reason to celebrate.
Bea went straight to the same machine she’d used last time. She gave a casual wave to the librarian who’d helped her before, but the woman frowned in response. Perhaps she didn’t remember her? In any case, it took a few minutes for Bea to bring up the newspapers and find where she’d left off, and she resumed the search.
Sometime later, a headline caught my attention.
“That storm,” I said. “When lightning struck the roof of St. Matthew’s Church. I remember it.”
“Good. I was starting to think we were completely off track.”
I’d gotten caught in that storm, just for a minute. I remembered…
On the outskirts of town, there had been a short path through the woods that led to a secluded meadow. Wildflowers had dotted it in spring, and one might see rabbits or deer if they were lucky. It had been a beautiful morning, nary a cloud in the sky. By the time I’d arrived, Nate had already spread a blanket across the grass and was waiting with a picnic basket.
I greeted him with a kiss, and it was several minutes before we broke apart.
“What have you brought?” I asked, settling myself upon the blanket.
He opened the basket, removing an almond cake and a bottle of sweet white wine.
“Oh, that smells divine!” I leaned over the cake and breathed deeply. “Is it from the Quinns’ bakery?”
“No.” He smiled and said no more.
“The bakery on Second Avenue, then?” I tried. “You shouldn’t have. They’re delectable but terribly expensive.”
His smile grew wider. “Not from there, either.”
I stared down at the cake, studying it, before glancing back up. “You didn’t bake it yourself?”
“I did. Got the recipe from Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipts. It’s due back at the library next Tuesday.”
“Nathaniel Breen, you are full of surprises.”
He leaned back on his elbows, a picture of casual handsomeness. “I’m a man of many talents.”
“Oh, not so fast,” I teased. “The cake could taste wretched. Cut a slice for me, and I’ll be the judge of your culinary skills.”
It had been truly delicious, and I’d shown him my appreciation. We’d set boundaries for ourselves, since he couldn’t bear the thought of ruining my reputation by getting me with child, but he knew other ways to bring me please. We were so enthralled by each other’s bodies that we didn’t notice the storm clouds until they were almost overhead.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” he said after a rumble of thunder. “Let’s get you home.”
Since he insisted on escorting me back, he got caught in the rain for longer than I had. The first drops had hit me only a minute away from home, and I’d been able to quickly change into dry clothes and warm up with a cup of tea inside.
Bea stood, bringing me back to the present, and excused herself to use the building’s facilities. I gazed idly at the page currently displayed on the machine, reading the dreary obituaries, when a man approached. Of a rather bland appearance, he could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty years of age, and he wore a rather itchy-looking scarf.
He scanned the machine Bea had been using and then looked at the librarian. She nodded. The man gave the newspaper one the screen one more look and then moved to the other side of the table, sitting at one of the three machines across from me.
What in the world…? Culture may have marched on in the time I’d been dead, but that wasn’t normal behavior in any century.
When Bea returned, I immediately reported what had happened.
“Hm,” was her response. She must not want to speak to me with the man so close, which I agreed was wise.
She continued to search, glancing at the man every so often. I moved over to where he sat and looked at what he was reading. It was the weekly weather forecast, though he didn’t seem to be focused on it. It certainly wouldn’t take ten minutes to read.
“Man, these computers are slow.” He leaned back in his chair, looking over at Bea. “I feel like I could read an entire encyclopedia in the time it takes to load a page.”
“Mm,” she responded, not looking away from the machine.
He took that as an invitation to continue. “Is yours any better? What are you working on?”
She brought up the next newspaper page on the display. “Mine’s fast enough.”
The man waited for her to answer his second question, but she didn’t. His smile grew a bit forced, and he leaned forward. “I’m doing some research on my family tree,” he lied. “I like to think of myself as an amateur historian, you know?”
Bea ignored him completely now. Normally, I’d condemn such rudeness, but the man should have accepted that she was busy and respected her wishes not to talk. And what was this drivel about researching his family tree? Had the librarian told him what Bea had said she was doing last time she’d come?
“You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t researching something,” he said. “Come on, from one history-geek to another. What is it?”
“It’s porn.” Bea’s tone was flat, and her gaze never left the computer. “And I’m at a really good part now, so if you don’t mind…”
His face reddened, and he looked away, muttering something I couldn’t hear. He remained awkwardly at his machine for another minute before shuffling out of the library.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” I said. “What do you think that was all about? He knew about your research—I’m sure the librarian told him. Do you think he knows something about Nate?”
“Dunno.” She looked darkly over her shoulder in the direction he’d gone. “It could be related to one of my other cases, or…”
“Or?” I prompted.
“Or he could’ve just been hitting on me. I’m pretty damn sexy.”
“And ever so humble,” I retorted.
She grinned unabashedly. “Yeah, well, do me a favor and keep an eye out in case he comes back. He gives me the creeps—and I don’t get those easily.”
I would have done so even if she hadn’t asked. Keeping watch as Bea continued to research, I noticed the librarian paid far too much attention to her. I felt certain she’d been that man’s informant, though I didn’t know to what ends. She made no attempt to approach and chat with Bea as the man had done, staying busy with her work. What did they want with Bea? I didn’t relish the feelings of paranoia gripping me. If there was one place that I should feel safe inside, it was the library.
“Look,” Bea hissed.
Had the man returned? No, Bea was pointing at an obituary in the newspaper.
I couldn’t turn my gaze from those small words wedged between two other obituaries. We’d found him. The pride of accomplishment should have surged through me, but I felt vaguely sick. Was this all that remained of Nate? He deserved so much more than a snippet of text in an old newspaper.
He’d been merely twenty-eight years old according to this. Grief scraped my soul like gravel against skin, an old and familiar pain. I’d wanted to grow old with him, to raise a family. Our life together had been just beginning. It wasn’t fair. We should’ve had more time.
And had his death truly been an accident? It didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t remember…
Bea’s gaze was gentle and full of concern. I couldn’t bear it.
“I… I suppose so.”
She brought up another page on the screen, covering the view of the newspaper. She typed the words “St. Matthew’s Cemetery,” and an address appeared along with a small map. I would have marveled at such technology if I hadn’t been aching with sorrow.
“It’s about a twenty-minute drive,” she said. “You might find him at his gravesite. They can be a conduit to the afterlife, especially this time of year.”
“This time of year?”
“All Hallows’ Eve is tomorrow.”
“You mean it’s true about the dead coming back on that night?” I didn’t know why I was surprised. I was dead, after all, but I hadn’t been superstitious during my life. Halloween had just been an excuse for mischief-making and merriment.
“The veil’s definitely thinner—in some Western countries anyway.” Bea leaned back in her chair, her gaze distant. “Depends on the culture. In Mexico, it’s Día de los Muertos. In Japan, it’s Obon.” She leaned suddenly forward, bringing the newspaper back into view on the machine. “Hmm.”
“What?” I asked.
“Look at his date of death.”
I did. It was October 31st, All Hallows’ Eve.
“What does it mean?” I whispered.
“Could just be a coincidence,” she said, though she didn’t sound convinced. She stood up, grabbing her jacket from where she’d hung it on the back of her chair. “Come on. Let’s go see his grave.”
She strode out the door, and I noticed the librarian staring after her from the reference desk. I hoped this was the last time we’d have to come to this library. There was something sinister afoot here.
I trailed after Bea to the parking lot, which was empty of other people and held only a few vehicles. Dead leaves tumbled across the pavement, pushed by the wind, and the sky was overcast and grim.
“Do you really think we might find Nate at his grave?” I asked.
Standing in front of the door to her van, she fumbled for her keys. “I think it’s possible, but try not to get your hopes up. There’s no—”
The crunch of a boot atop leaves was our only warning. Bea turned—too late. The man who’d tried to spy on her inside the library lunged forward, swinging a bat.
It struck Bea in the head.
Her body spun, hitting the side of the van before collapsing. The man kicked her, his boot immediately followed by that of a second man—and they didn’t stop.
It all happened so quickly. Bea was on the ground, their boots colliding with her brutally, and I—
Fear didn’t fuel my voice. No, it was raw, primal fury. The sound was ghastly, and it merged with howling wind, blasting away leaves and sending the men stumbling. They turned, and their mouths dropped.
The first man shrieked and scampered off like a startled swine. His companion remained frozen for another moment, his body shaking. Eyes locked onto me, he took one step back, and then a second. Finally, he spun around and raced away.
I went to Bea, kneeling beside her and reaching out. When I saw my hand, gray and transparent, wearing my favorite gloves with black lacings, I started. I looked down, seeing the rest of my body in a dress I’d once owned, the layers of skirts and petticoats spread out around me. I remembered the dress being brown, flowers embroidered on it in shades of yellow and pink, but now it was ashen, my whole body smoky and see-through.
Bea groaned, and her eyes fluttered open, focusing on my face. She gasped. Could she see me, too?
It was too much. My ghostly body dissolved like smoke in the wind, and I felt the same hazy disconnect with myself as I had for countless years.
“Are you alright?” I asked Bea.
“I… Uhnn.” She rubbed her head, wincing, and then spat a string of profanity that I shan’t repeat but nevertheless agreed with. Pulling herself up, she was shaking so much that it took her three tries to unlock the door of her van. She climbed inside, collapsed in the front seat, and locked the door firmly behind her.
She sat there for several minutes before starting the engine. Then she didn’t drive far, just to the nearest store, where she bought a bag of ice that she promptly pressed to her head. An ugly bump was forming on the left side of her forehead. She took two pills from a bottle in the cubby under her bed and then lay upon the mattress, eyes closed.
“You should see a physician,” I said. “You should go to the police.”
“Can’t afford a doctor, and I try to avoid the cops.” She kept her eyes closed. “But when I find those bastards, they’re in for a world of pain.”
“Who were they? What did they want?”
“No idea.” She opened her eyes, rolling slightly to face me. “I don’t know why anyone would want to stop me from looking into a guy who died a hundred and fifty years ago. Maybe it’s related to one of my other jobs. I piss off a lot of people.”
Would we be able to defend against those men without knowing what they wanted? I wished she’d go to the police for help. I didn’t know how to protect her. Yes, I’d frightened off the men once, but what if they returned? They’d eventually realize that I couldn’t lay a finger on them.
Or could I? I’d managed to shove the old shrew back at the house…
“So,” Bea said. “You didn’t tell me you were smoking hot.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Hot. Sexy. Attractive. I saw you when you went corporeal. You looked fierce as hell.”
“I wish I knew how I did that,” I admitted. “It would be useful if I could do it again…”
“It’s all about emotion.” Bea rolled over, closing her eyes. “Ghosts are always about emotion. Unless there’s a curse. Then they’re about curses.”
Her voice faded to a murmur, and I watched her in concern.
“Bea, I’m not sure if you should sleep. You could be concussed.”
She pulled the blanket over her head as if to block the sound of my voice.
She groaned, but then she sat up. “Shit, you’re probably right.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’m exhausted. Do me a favor and talk to me about something.”
“What do you wish to hear?”
“I dunno. Anything. Just keep me awake.” She walked gingerly to the device on the counter that made coffee. “Tell me about that mysterious Nate of yours. How’d you two lovebirds tie the knot?”
“In a church, of course.”
She poured a cup of water into the device. “Big ceremony? Fancy white dress? You should try to wear it next time you go corporeal. It’d be hella spooky.”
“Just a regular day dress and a few friends acting as witnesses,” I replied. “It was a small affair. My family didn’t approve of the match.”
“No kidding?” Bea pressed a button, and the device began to hum. “I’m sorry. That must have been rough.”
“Yes. We kept our courtship secret for as long as we could, but my father caught us…”
As I spoke, it came back to me. I’d kissed Nate goodbye in the woods behind my house one evening and made my way toward the back porch as usual. But when I’d approached the steps, my father had burst out from the door as if he’d been waiting for me.
“Where have you been?” he barked.
“Strolling,” I replied, trying to keep my voice steady. “As I told you earlier.”
He knew, I realized then, though I prayed I was mistaken. Feeling faint, I strove to keep my shock from showing on my face.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He strode down the steps, grabbing me roughly by the arm. “Don’t play games with me, girl. Perry said he saw you keeping company with Nathaniel Breen.”
I opened my mouth to make an excuse, but my father’s gaze latched onto something behind me. I turned my head, seeing Nathan storming out of the woods, an expression of thunderous anger on his handsome face. Of course he wouldn’t stand idly by at my father’s treatment of me.
My father released my arm. “Ah, there’s the wastrel now.”
Nate tore his gaze from my father and quickly checked if I was alright.
“Don’t even look at her,” my father snarled. “You brazen smear of dirt. You have a ludicrously high opinion of yourself if you think you’re good enough for my daughter. Turn yourself around right now and march back to whatever hovel you call a home.”
“Father!” I gasped. “There’s no call for—”
“And you.” He rounded on me. “You wretched, ungrateful girl. Is this why you turned up your nose at all your suitors, why you barely had two words for Westbrook and Collingwood’s sons?”
My chest constricted at the fury in his eyes, and I had trouble taking a breath. “Yes,” I said finally. “I saw no reason to lead them on when I intend to marry Nate.”
“What a pack of nonsense. No, this foolish delusion of yours is over. You’re not seeing this worthless excuse of man ever again.”
“Enough!” he roared. “Go inside! And you!” He stomped aggressively towards Nate, who held his ground and raised his chin. The two men faced one another, their anger almost a palpable force, and I feared they would come to blows.
“Get out of my sight.” My father’s voice turned to a hiss. “If I catch you prowling around my daughter again, I’ll send for the police.”
I swallowed, and movement inside the house caught my eye. My mother stood in the doorway, motioning frantically for me to come inside. Part of me wanted to go to her, to hide from my father’s rage and the confrontation I’d created. I clenched my fists, my body feverishly hot beneath my dress. If I went inside, there was no telling when my father would let me out again.
I’d always known this would happen someday. Though I’d dreamed of my parents accepting Nate, of a cheery future full of understanding and respect between them, I’d understood it was just that: an idle dream. My father would never approve. He wanted me to marry upward, to consolidate his relationship with one of his wealthier business associates. I hadn’t liked to dwell on it, but neither had I lived in complete denial. I’d often thought about the choice I would make…
“I’m sorry, Father,” I said.
“Good,” he grunted, not taking his eyes from Nate. “We’ll speak more of this later.”
“No.” I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry because I won’t abandon Nate. I intend to marry him.”
My father turned, and for a short moment, his aged face seemed vulnerable and shaken. But anger soon clouded over any softer emotions. “If you want to remain my daughter, to live in my house, eat the food I provide, and buy all those pretty dresses and dainty little trinkets, then you’ll abide by my will.”
“I can’t accept those terms,” I said.
A muffled sob came from my mother, but she didn’t move from her place at the door. I gave her one long, last look. Then I went to Nate’s side, taking his hand.
Nate studied me closely, his eyes seeming to gleam like the stars just emerging in the dusky sky overhead. “Are you sure?” he whispered.
“I’ve never been surer.”
He beamed at me. Then he tipped his hat to my father, offered me his arm, and together, we marched to the street.
Shock silenced my father for perhaps half a minute. Then he shouted threats and curses at our backs.
My mother did nothing.
As Nate and I went arm-in-arm toward his apartment, no longer having to hide, I felt liberated, though I couldn’t stop shaking.
“It’ll be alright,” he promised softly.
“I know,” I said. “The worst part is over.”
But I’d been completely, terribly wrong.
When Bea parked her van in front of the graveyard, I felt colder than ever. I had no body to produce heat, no clothing to shield me. My soul was naked and exposed to the chill, and I dreaded going any closer.
Bea climbed slowly down from vehicle, wincing from her injuries. She raised her keys to lock the door but paused when she realized I wasn’t following.
“Hey,” she said. “It’s gonna be okay.”
“What if we don’t find him?” I whispered.
“Then we’ll try something else. I’m not giving up anytime soon.”
Hesitantly, I followed her.
A wrought-iron fence surrounded the graveyard. I vaguely recognized it, though St. Matthew’s Church was no longer standing. The gate was locked, a weathered gray plaque beside it marking the area as a historical site. Bea leaned over the lock, pulled a pin from her pocket, and picked it like an expert thief. She tossed the lock and chain to the grass, and the rusty gate groaned as she pushed it open.
The headstones were cracked and discolored, the names upon them faded. There were trees interspaced among them, but only a few yellow-brown leaves clung to their branches this late in autumn, making them look as dead and withered as the graveyard’s occupants—some of whom stared balefully as we passed.
Most of the ghosts looked like I assumed I did: just glowing balls of misty light hovering in the air. But others kept something of a human form, though many were grotesque and desiccated, some showing the grisly wounds that had sent them to their graves. One, with a skeletal face and bony, too-long limbs, crawled crab-like toward us with a low growl.
“Back off,” Bea snapped.
Her eyes smoldered, and flames flickered to life around her, a painfully bright orange piercing the dull grayness of the dead world. The ghost hissed and scuttled back from her, and all around the graveyard, the other spirits shrank away.
I surged back from her too, alarmed by the heat and something more. There was a sense of wrongness—of danger—in those awful flames and the figure they surrounded. But they vanished as suddenly as they’d come, and it was just Bea again, the exasperating, incorrigible friend who didn’t own a pair of pants that weren’t torn and couldn’t be persuaded to see a doctor if a lion bit off her entire arm.
We moved methodically through the gravesites, searching the names on the headstones. I scanned the other ghosts as well, both hoping and fearing to see Nate. Would I recognize him if he was merely a ball of spiritual energy? Would he recognize me? The sun sank closer toward the horizon as we continued our work, and if I still possessed a body, I would have shivered. It was so terribly cold.
“There,” I whispered.
It was a small, simple marker. We hadn’t been able to afford anything more elaborate. The stone was greenish now, the edges worn, and a dark stain marred the bottom near the earth. I remembered when it had been new and gray, a fresh hole dug before it. I’d stood right over there as the priest spoke his words, my friend gripping my arm to keep me from collapsing as I’d cried. It had been a sunny day, warm and clear, when all I’d wanted was for the sky to storm and weep with me.
“He’s not here,” I said, staring at his name carved in the old stone.
Bea glanced over at the orange horizon. “Let’s wait until after sundown. Spirits get more active after dark.”
So we waited, and as the last traces of the sun vanished, more spirits appeared around us like candles being lit. They watched us as they moved among the headstones, but none of them approached Bea again. Nate’s grave, though, remained dark and empty. Nothing stirred above it, not even the briefest flicker of light. We remained there for over an hour before Bea finally gave in.
“Come on.” She gestured at the van. “We can come back tomorrow night. We might have better luck on All Hallows’ Eve.”
I followed her despondently, and it wasn’t until she’d driven all the way to the campsite and was eating dinner that I finally spoke.
“What else can we do?”
She put down her spoon. She’d been eating a bowl of soup, the broth filled with chicken, beans, and peppers. It must have filled the van with its spicy scent, but I couldn’t smell it.
“We could try a séance,” she said. “If his spirit is wandering, that might reach him.”
“And if he’s trapped somewhere?”
Her gaze turned sharp. “What makes you say that?”
“I…” I searched myself. “I’m not sure.”
She picked up her spoon again, but instead of eating, she tapped it against the table as she thought. “A clairvoyant might be able to find what happened to him, but…”
The tapping stopped. “But the only one I know charges a ridiculous amount of money, and I’ve already used up the favor they owe me.”
Nate, where are you? I wondered. Was he suffering? Did he feel as lost and lonely as I did? With no clues to his whereabouts, no reason to hope, my mind imagined the most awful fates for him. Was he like the ghosts in the graveyard, his face gaunt, his body still bearing the agonizing wounds that had killed him?
“Hey, now,” Bea said. “Don’t get all dim and depressed on me. We’ll figure this out. I’m not going to quit until I’ve brought Nathaniel and Wilhelmina Breen back together.”
“Wilhelmina?” I moaned. “That’s your best guess?”
“You’re right. It doesn’t really fit.” She snapped her fingers. “Hey. Maybe you’re a Beatrice.”
“Perish the thought.”
Her smile brought me a little cheer, but when she turned in for the night, leaving me alone with my thoughts, I fell back into despair. I could picture us hunting for Nate for years, Bea growing old and gray. She’d spend less and less time helping me between her jobs, giving up even if she wouldn’t admit it aloud. And when she died, I’d be alone again, no one to speak to, no idea what had happened to my Nate.
Another wave of coldness washed over me. I felt hollowed out, perfectly aware of the wrongness of my existence, that I was a soul with no body, that I shouldn’t be on this earthly plane. If I had skin, it would have filled with goosebumps, and the feeling would have sent a shudder through me. But I was denied even that small comfort. I wanted to crawl under the blankets with Bea and hide from the brutal chill.
Bea jerked up with a gasp, suddenly wide awake. She stared around the dark van, breathing heavily, and then leapt off her bunk. The blankets tangled around her legs, making her stumble, but she righted herself and flung open the back door.
Staggering outside, she looked around. There was nothing to see. The other tents and vehicles were dark, their occupants asleep, and the night was quiet and still. Clouds hid the stars, and there wasn’t even a cold wind to stir the trees.
“What is it?” I asked, hovering behind her.
“Can’t you feel it?” she whispered.
I could feel it: the bitter cold that seemed to suffocate me, the faint vibration like the buzzing of an insect. I’d just thought it was a product of my own misery.
Bea raced back into the van. She fumbled around in the dark for a moment, and then the screen of her small device lit up with the time: a little after three in the morning.
She swore. Then she became a storm of movement. She slammed the door closed, shoved on her pants, and started the van.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, as she drove rapidly through the campground.
“It’s witching hour,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“The hour when black magic is the strongest.” She turned onto the main road and sped even faster. “And on All Hallows’ Eve, when the veil is the thinnest… Something really bad is about to happen, and I’ve got to stop it.”
I digested her words, the cold, uncanny feeling increasing as she drove into town.
“Nate,” she said suddenly. “The obituary said he died on the 31st.”
I couldn’t reply, anguish threatening to overwhelm me.
“It said it was an accident,” she pressed.
“It wasn’t.” I spoke the words without thinking, my very soul rejecting the idea.
And then I remembered.
“He didn’t come home from work one night,” I said. “I was frantic. I went to all his friends, and then I went to the police. They found him the next morning in the factory. They wouldn’t let me see him, but I heard— They said he was bloodied, his body mangled. They told me it was an accident with the machinery, but that didn’t make any sense. Nate had no reason to stay in the factory after his shift, and Jed—one of his friends—searched there earlier in the night when I went to him for help. He swore he saw nothing.”
“You think Nate was murdered.”
“Yes, but I couldn’t prove it.”
Bea’s hands were clenched tightly around the steering wheel, and she stared darkly ahead. “And they’ve been getting away with it for over a hundred years.”
“Who? And getting away with what?”
“I don’t know yet, but we’re gonna find out.”
As we raced toward town, I grew colder and colder, and the awful buzzing increased. Dread pressed against me until I wanted nothing more than to turn around and flee, but I stayed close to Bea. If this journey would reveal the fate of my husband, then I would simply have to summon my courage.
Bea slowed the car, turning onto a side street before reversing and going back the way she’d come. She drove this way and that, doubling back and trying road after road. From the campground, it had been easy to tell that the awful feeling emanated from the direction of the town. Now that we were here, it seemed to be everywhere.
Bea pulled over to the side of the road and hopped out of the car. She bent to the ground and traced symbols in the dirt with her finger, muttering under her breath.
“Bea…” I looked on. “Are you a witch?”
“No, but I’ve picked up a trick here and there.” She straightened up and pulled something out of her pocket. It was a small crystal hanging from a delicate silver chain. She held it out in front of her, the crystal dangling and motionless, and waited. But as the seconds ticked by, nothing happened.
“Damn it!” She kicked the dirt, smearing the symbols. “Come on. Let’s keep driving.”
She stomped toward the van, and I followed—but then stopped. It felt slightly less cold in that direction.
“You coming?” she asked.
I inched closer to the trees. “It’s…colder this way. Do you feel it?”
She came closer, frowning. “No, but I run hot. Do you feel close to the source?”
“I… I’m not sure.”
“Then let’s get back in the van. You navigate.”
I directed her toward the coldness, having her turn right and then left, until…
I looked out the window at the dark street. “This is…”
“Where I picked you up,” Bea finished. “Yeah.”
Most of the houses from my time still stood, grand old two and three-story structures with pointed roofs and cozy front porches. The one I’d lived in–and later haunted–lay ahead on the left, and it was one of the shabbier specimens. The paint was grimy and peeling, the roof discolored, and the lawn overgrown. Others had been kept in better repair, including the structure that was the source of that eerie chill.
“That one,” I said. “It’s the Westbrooks’ old house. They were friends of my father’s.”
Bea parked the car and got out, striding down the gravel path. She ignored the front door and headed around the side of the house to the back.
“What are you doing?” I hissed, trailing after her and hoping no one could see my ghostly glow. “What if someone sees you and calls the police?”
She looked over her shoulder with a grin. “Come on, Wilhelmina. You really think this is the first house I’ve broken into?”
She made for the back door but then paused. I heard it, too: low, muffled chanting. It was coming from our left somewhere, but—
Bea found the cellar doors lying at an angle under a window. She yanked them open, revealing wooden stairs leading downward. The chanting increased in volume, and flickering orange firelight came from the depths.
Bea paused, taking a deep breath.
“You don’t have to—” I began.
“Yeah, I do,” she replied, and started down.
What could I do but follow?
The cellar must have been put to normal use throughout most of the year. Shelves on one side held canned food and bottles, and the other had old gardening tools and stacked boxes. Everything in the center of the room had been cleared away, however, to make way for an altar covered in black cloth. A woman lay upon it bound by coarse rope, the light from dozens of candles reflecting off her tear-stained face.
Symbols on the cement floor looked ominously like they’d been painted in blood, and at the head of the altar on a small pedestal squatted a grotesque statue. It was a hideous, goat-like creature carved from gleaming black stone. A group of six men stood around the altar in a circle, all dressed in black robes like warlocks from an old story. They chanted in low tones until the one directly across from the stairs broke off with a shout, seeing Bea.
All the men turned.
“You!” one of them cried. His hood fell back, revealing the brute from the library.
“Who?” asked another.
“The one Karla warned us about! She was poking around the library.”
I barely heard their conversation, my gaze caught by a man on the far side of the altar. I recognized his face.
He’d shaved his mustache, and his hair was more closely cropped, but it was him. He looked no older than fifty, the same as when he’d suddenly passed away.
Had I ever seen his corpse? I couldn’t recall.
“Hey, fellas. What’s up?” Bea hopped casually down the last few steps. “No, wait. Let me guess. You made a deal with a D-list demon—old goat-face over there.” She gestured at the statue. “And he throws a bit of wealth and power your way in exchange for a few souls. You’ve had it going for a while now, daddy and granddaddy doing it before you.”
“No,” I interrupted. “It’s been them all these years. That’s my father.”
Bea blinked at me and then gave the men a second look. “Unless the deal was for immortality and you’re all crazy old.” She made a face. “Shit. You’re probably going to shrivel into mummies when I mess this up for you. Man, that’s gonna be gross.”
“You’re dead,” said the brute from the library. “You won’t get away from us this time.”
“Aren’t you listening?” Bea clenched her fists and squared her shoulders. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The closest one lunged for her. I cried out in warning, but she didn’t need it. She wasn’t taken off guard this time, attacked from behind in the parking lot. She swung her fist, and it collided with the man’s jaw. He lurched back, and her other fist plunged into his gut. He staggered, wheezing, and she walloped him one last time, dropping him to the floor.
“Oh, well done!” I cried, but no sooner had I spoken than the other four men rushed her at once.
Fear shot through me. Four-against-one odds would bring down even the most skilled brawler. They would beat her as savagely as they had in the parking lot. She’d die in this dank cellar. This was all my doing. I’d dragged her into this, put her in danger, and now she—
She burned. Fire flared to life around her, and the men screamed. Two of them threw themselves to the floor, their ridiculous robes on fire. The others scrambled back. Bea strode towards the altar, her body enveloped in flames like some vengeful goddess. She raised her arms, and flames shot from her hands at the remaining men. I didn’t know how she did it. She’d said she wasn’t a witch, but if that was true, then just what was she? I’d traveled with her for weeks, and it suddenly struck me how little I really knew of her.
My father hadn’t joined the other men in their attack. He stood on the other side of the altar, looking as calm as when he’d sat at the breakfast table reading the newspaper. Closing his eyes, he bowed his head and muttered incomprehensible words that echoed uncannily through the room.
That awful cold grew ten times stronger. It snuffed out Bea’s flames like a bucket of water thrown on a campfire. She stumbled, gasping. The cold was painful now, the buzzing threatening to drown out all other sound. The shadows in the cellar lengthened, the walls themselves feeling malevolent. It was all coming from the statue. It seemed to grow bigger, dominating the room, its black eyes gleaming like a living thing’s.
Get out, clamored every fiber of my being. Get away from this place.
“Kill her quickly,” said my father. “We have to finish the ritual.”
Four of the five men pulled themselves off the ground. Bea shivered, her breaths rising in a fog, but when the first man came for her, she kicked him savagely in the stomach.
Then the coward from the library came at her from behind again. She spun—but didn’t quite avoid the blow. It glanced off her side, hitting the spot where, beneath her shirt, there was a still-healing gash under bandages. She cried out, dropping to one knee.
The men surrounded her. She surged up, punching and kicking, but there were too many of them. For every blow she landed, she took three or four of theirs. Their fists struck her back, her face. She stumbled into one of them, and he pushed her against another. She threw a punch, but it was sloppy and weak. Pain had addled her. How many times had she been hit?
I had to stop this. Could I frighten them again? Here in their domain, under the watchful eyes of that horrible demon statue, I didn’t think I could. But I had to do something. I couldn’t let them kill Bea. I—
The statue. It was the source of all this. If I could break it…
I rushed towards it, reaching out.
The statue might as well have been a hundred miles away. I couldn’t grasp it, couldn’t so much as feel it. My ghostly form didn’t even have hands. I hovered uselessly beside it, my father standing merely a foot away. He didn’t see me. I may as well not have existed. I couldn’t stop him, couldn’t save Bea or the woman sobbing wretchedly atop the altar. He was going to sacrifice them to extend his unnatural life, while Nate was…
He’d murdered Nate.
Deep in my heart, I’d always suspected it, but I’d wanted to believe that, for all his faults, my father wasn’t a killer. But there he stood, an expression of boredom on his face as his men pummeled Bea. He’d killed the man I loved, and now he was going to kill my only friend.
Bea had said ghosts were tied to emotion, and in that moment, I fully believed her. Rage coursed through me, bringing a power I could practically taste. I didn’t scream this time. No, my fury was cold and controlled and all the more dangerous for it.
My father jerked, and then his eyes bulged. I had no doubt he could see me. I could feel my hair billowing in the icy wind, and I took a deep breath, air filling my lungs.
“Edith?” he gasped.
So that was my name. I didn’t dwell on it. I seized the statue, lifted it over my head, and dashed it against the floor.
“No!” my father screamed, but it was too late. The statue shattered into a hundred pieces, and a crack like thunder shook the cellar. Lights burst from the shards of stone, darting around the room like fireflies freed from a broken jar. Spirits. The souls of the other people these men must have killed, they’d been trapped for decades. Some were corporeal, dressed in every fashion imaginable, while others were glowing balls of light. They filled the room with warmth, and that terrible cold diminished.
The wind picked up, howling, and Bea burst again into flame. She staggered up, bloodied and bruised, but raised her fists to keep fighting. She needn’t have bothered. Her earlier supposition was right. My father—along with the other men—screamed horribly. Writhing and wailing, they decayed before my eyes, over a hundred years of aging passing in moments. Their withered corpses fell to the floor with muffled thuds.
Then there was peaceful, perfect silence. Some of the spirits danced around the room, while others faded like they were falling asleep after a very long day. Bea limped forward, bending down to pick up a ceremonial knife one of the men had dropped.
“I’m going to cut the ropes,” she gently told the woman tied to the altar. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The woman nodded, her eyes wide. As soon as Bea cut her bonds, she jumped up and ran up the stairs and away.
“Well that…” Bea looked after her. “…was a pretty reasonable reaction, honestly.”
“You’re hurt,” I said, hardly able to count all her bruises.
“Eh, I’m pretty tough.” She shrugged. “You are, too. Nice work with the statue.” She gestured at something behind me. “I think someone else wants to thank you.”
My heart lurched upward, and my breath caught in my throat. Could it truly be…? Slowly, I turned around, afraid to hope, afraid that it would be just like the graveyard, my soul crushed under the disappointment of not finding him. But my fear was for naught.
There he stood, smokey and transparent like me but otherwise exactly as I remembered: his russet hair just a little mussed, his work clothes worn but fitting his strong frame perfectly. He met my eyes and smiled, and everything was right with the world.
“Edith,” he said.
I threw my arms around him, and a century of love and longing culminated in our kiss. I ran my fingers through his hair, savoring the feel of his lips. He smelled of fresh soap and a slight hint of oil, and his warmth chased away the last traces of chill from my soul.
When we finally pulled apart, my arms remained wrapped around his neck, and I rested my head on his chest.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” I murmured. I didn’t have to wait for him any longer, didn’t have to linger here, lost and alone. It was time to move on—together.
A loud sniff came from behind me, and I turned.
“Bea? Are you…weeping?”
“No!” She rubbed her eyes furiously.
I smiled at Nate and then went to her, clasping her hands in mine. Her skin was hot, her fingers calloused, and she clutched me tightly.
“Thank you,” I said. “You helped me when I’d lost all hope.”
She sniffed again, looking down. “It was nothing.”
“Will you do something else for me?”
She looked up, meeting my eyes. “Anything.”
“Find someone—for yourself.”
She smiled, but it was wry and humorless. “Oh, sure. Because that’s so easy. We’re not all lucky enough to get our own Nathaniel Breen, you know.”
“That’s true,” he agreed cheekily from behind me. “I’m one of a kind.”
“Braggart,” I teased. Then I turned back to Bea. “If not a lover, then a friend. Don’t go through life alone, Bea. It’s too short and sweet for that.”
She dropped her gaze for a moment but then pulled it back up to me. “I’ll try. You know I’m a weirdo.”
“You’re incredible, and anyone would be lucky to know you,” I said firmly. “Keep my necklace and remember me?”
I gave her hands one last squeeze. “Goodbye, my friend.”
I returned to Nate, giving him another short kiss. I felt solid, real again, and not sad in the slightest. We smiled at one another, and then, hand in hand, we walked into eternity.