Chapter 19: Talking with ghosts and other difficult people
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
I called them all, this time. Miners, tourists, our local dead, I called them all. I even hoped Abigail Lane would show up, but she didn’t. And what did show up was not what I was expecting.
Mac and I were back in the motel, in a room Ciszek had arranged for us. We stood in another circle of flour. (It had worked before, and I wasn’t taking any chances.) And the ghosts were ranged around us when they appeared. I think we were both so struck with what we saw that we kept looking around to be sure.
It was Mac who spoke first. “They . . . I don’t know how else to put this, Sanderson, but they’ve all faded.”
Mac was right. The miners were little more than slight shadows now. And the recent ghosts had lost almost all of their color. What’s more, there were fewer ghosts. All the recent ones were still here, but the number of miners had shrunk from maybe twenty-five to somewhere around seventeen. And if they had appeared a bit lost before, now they seemed absolutely unaware of their surroundings. They didn’t move. The recent ones looked as if they were dead even as ghosts.
Well, they weren’t going to harm anyone. So I decided to take a chance. I stepped outside the circle. They didn’t react, none of them. I walked among them, through them even, and they did nothing. There wasn’t much weight to them, either. I mean, they were insubstantial to begin with, but I could barely feel them.
Mac had been watching me, and had noticed the ghosts’ lack of responsiveness. “What’s happened to them? Are they dying?” And then he realized how stupid that sounded, and added, “Or whatever the equivalent for ghosts is?”
I strode back into the circle, shook my head at Mac. “Ghosts go away eventually. I’ve heard some of them fade. But this doesn’t seem natural. You remember how Charlotte was when I sort of woke her up?”
“Yeah, like she’d been drugged or come out of a deep sleep.”
A thought was lurking in the back of my head. Mac started to say something, but I held up my finger to my mouth to shush him. People faded, people in a trance . . . and then it hit me. The miners and their families that Abigail encountered in 1896 had been under the control of the soul-eater, and had shown little awareness of what was happening around them. I recounted this to Mac as quickly as I could.
Mac drew a parallel. “So these ghosts may still be under the control of the soul-eater? It’s still alive?”
“No, I don’t think so. I doubt Valerie Thompson would be so mistaken. No, I think the soul-eater must have started to drain these ghosts of what was left of their souls. And it may have eaten several of them. There are definitely fewer miners’ ghosts remaining.”
Mac looked around again. “Come to think of it, you’re right, there do seem to be fewer. So why are they haunting the motel?”
I shrugged. I was puzzled as to how they could even haunt anyplace, they seemed so out of it. “Maybe they don’t know where else to go. I’m going to try to ask Charlotte, because at least she’ll know who I am.” I strode across the circle to where Charlotte was standing, and reached my bare right hand to grab her by the shoulder. It was harder to grasp her this time, but the longer I tried, the more solid she seemed to become, and a bit better defined, too. At the same time, though, it felt as if something was draining out of me. My feathers were partially erect and pulsing, a sensation neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but with each pulse I felt a bit weaker.
Finally, Charlotte seemed to wake up. Her eyes opened, she looked around, and turned to me, looking quite frightened. “What’s happened to me, Sanderson? Where is everything?” She tried to clutch at me, but her hands went right through me. But that didn’t seem to bother her at all. She was afraid of something else. “What’s happened to me?” she repeated.
I tried to calm her down. “You’re in the motel, Charlotte. There’s Mac right there. Remember I called you here . . .”
I didn’t get to finish. Charlotte turned and looked in Mac’s general direction, and turned back to me. In a panicky voice, she said, “I don’t see him. Where is he? What have you done to me?”
I couldn’t make head or tail out of this. “Charlotte, remember? I called you once before here in the motel. You’re dead. Mac and me, we tracked down your killer and eliminated him.” That it was really Valerie who had done so was a detail not worth mentioning right now. “Why are you still here in the motel?”
Somehow that got through to Charlotte. She looked around again, and then turned back to me. “I’m in the motel? Then why don’t I see it?”
“You don’t see this motel room?” I said, gesturing around me. I walked over to Mac. “You don’t see Mac standing to my right?”
“I don’t see anything,” she wailed. “What’s happened to me?”
“Not even the other ghosts?” I asked in desperation.
“Oh, those I see.”
I was tempted to smack my forehead with my hand, but figured sarcastic gestures were wasted on someone who was not only dead but in a panic. “Can you try to talk with any of them, Charlotte? Ask them what they know?”
Doubtfully, she replied, “I’ll try.” Naturally she went to one of the other recent ghosts first, Terry Bruno, the local who was the last one the soul-eater had killed just after it had tried to take me out. And then the others. She didn’t seem to have any luck with them.
I was watching what she was doing, when I noticed that one of the miners had started moving toward Charlotte. However faint he was, he seemed a bit better defined than the other miners. Charlotte was trying to talk to one of the two tourists when the miner reached out and touched her. She jumped back, but in a moment or two started talking to the miner’s ghost. And he seemed to be talking back. I say “seem” because I could not hear a word either of them was saying. Indeed, at one point they seemed to be arguing with each other. I walked over, and said, “I can’t hear what either of you is saying.”
Charlotte jumped, again, looked at me, and then started talking to the miner again. Finally she turned to me. “His name is Hank Jones. He’s a miner, says when he was alive it was 1896. He can’t see anything else either, except he can barely make you out. He thinks we’re in some sort of, oh, I don’t know, boarding house, I guess. He just wants to go home.” Charlotte stopped, and then started to cry.
“Charlotte, listen to me, listen to me. He doesn’t want to stay here and you don’t want to stay here. And you shouldn’t stay here. So why can’t you just pass on?”
Charlotte wailed again. “We aren’t anywhere, don’t you understand? I want to go home.”
Mac had remained quiet throughout. Now he chimed in, “Is there anything you can do for them, Sanderson?”
“I haven’t a clue, Mac.” Charlotte looked up. I said to her, “Mac wants to know if I can help you, and while I want to, I don’t quite know how to do it yet, Charlotte.” Charlotte looked like she was going to break into tears again, so I lied, convincingly for once. “Mac also says you should trust him and me that we’ll come up with something, OK?”
Charlotte sniffled. (How does a ghost sniffle?) But she nodded. Rather than keep this up and probably trip over the lie I had just told, I dismissed the ghosts right then and there. And went over and threw myself down on the bed.
Mac strode over and sat down at the end of the bed. He gave me one of his smiles. “So I told you to tell Charlotte to trust us, did I?”
“Maa-aac, I had to tell her something.” I sat up, and almost felt as if I was going to pass out for a moment. “Near as I can figure it, the soul-eater must have damaged them somehow, and now they can’t move onto whatever the normal afterlife is. But I don’t know how, or how to conduct them to the afterlife.”
There was something about that turn of phrase that stuck in my mind. Which was amazing, because I was feeling wiped out. I got Mac to drive me home via one of our fine fast food joints, where I wolfed down an oversized burger and probably just should have mainlined the milk shake to save me the brain freeze it gave me. And then I just fell asleep.
Tuesday morning I woke up before dawn. I didn’t get up, though, not for a long while. I wasn’t looking forward to this day. I didn’t know what to do about the ghosts. I had a long shift at McNaughten’s. And yet the longer I waited, the more likely I would run into Doc Helen at breakfast.
As it turned out, I was going to run into Doc anyhow, no matter what time I went down. I got downstairs and heard a snoring coming from my sitting room. My first thought was that Charlotte had somehow followed me home, I was still a bit looped. But, no, it was Doc, lying on my couch, bottle close to hand. It was part of our informal agreement that neither of us came over to the other’s side except to actually find the other person; snooping and like activities were not allowed. So to find Doc on my couch was unprecedented.
I woke Doc up, which wasn’t all that hard. She looked at me, looked around, mumbled something I couldn’t make out, and headed back toward her side of the house. She left her bottle behind, though. I took it with me when I went to the kitchen to make breakfast. By the time it was ready, Doc had reappeared, and had made herself up a bourbon-and-coffee special.
We ate in silence. I figured I was in the doghouse, but maybe Doc was just hungry. We both put away the whole of breakfast, and then Doc got up and made some bacon and eggs. She put down our plates, sat down, and loudly asked, “Have you taken a vow of silence or something?”
I was tired and annoyed, and so my answer was a bit of both, tired for my tone, annoyed for the content. “No, I just spent an evening trying to talk to ghosts who wouldn’t speak to me, so I guess having an actual person act the same way doesn’t matter.”
Doc turned red with embarrassment. She looked down at her plate. Without looking up, in a strained voice she slowly said, “I do not know what to say to you anymore.”
That hurt. That hurt a lot. Because for all I just criticized her for acting as if she were my mother, I wanted her to act that way sometimes. And that was just what she was doing, in the wrong way. She was acting like my mother/aunt during the bad years, and probably like my original mother, for all I knew, when she gave me up. I wasn’t what they expected.
But it wasn’t just that. I managed to make myself so difficult that I wasn’t what they even wanted around, I guess. Though my mother/aunt kept asking me in her letters when I was coming home. So maybe that wasn’t it. That’s definitely what I didn’t want from Doc at this point, to give up on me and not want me around. So that’s what I barely managed to say, “I don’t know either, Helen. I just don’t want you to give up on me.”
Doc just broke down and started crying. Doc crying is a terrifying thing. She’s usually so controlled, even when she’s being emotional, but every so often something hits her vulnerable points, and she just falls apart. All I can do is just take her in my arms and let her literally cry on my shoulder. So that’s what I did. Helen clung to me tightly. She was so hurt and so needy when she was like this that I always start crying, too. I cried for Helen, I cried for myself, I cried because I was tired of ghosts and afraid I couldn’t solve their problems. I cried because I wanted to go home, too. And I didn’t know how, either.
Oh, man…she feels like the ghosts.
And has for a while.
Was that last line intended to echo the ghosts? V.G. if yes. Congratulations on a serendipitous accident, if not. But that scene with the ghosts; there are some wonderful lines there. And I could riff on that situation for ages. ‘As lost as an earthbound ghost.’ ‘No ghostly chance of reaching home.’ I await tomorrow’s.
Deliberate. I’d been aiming for that line since only a few days after I conceived this story, even before I decided that Valerie would eliminate the soul-eater. But if it comes off as if it could have been serendipitous, all the better! Thank you.
The first time I wrote a ghost-raising scene for Sanderson, it was a comedy, despite the fact that the deceased had just been murdered. I’ve toned the comic element down considerably for this story.
You have indeed. Though I can see the potential. 🙂
Really beautiful, Brian. Last week I was very busy and now, when I finally have the time, I’m reading chapters 12 on… usually I can’t wait to continue to the next chapter. Now I kind of want to stay a little while with this last scene.
That’s high praise, saying my characters have affected you that much, here and in your note on chapter 17. Thank you, Dana!