“There are two kinds of ghosts,” Ray’s Aunt Edith had told us. “You must never harm the first kind. The lost souls, even the angry ones who try to frighten you—they can’t hurt anyone, though they may want you to think otherwise. You would be doing them a catastrophic disservice.”
Catastrophic. I shivered as Ray and I entered the small house that sat a quarter-mile into the woods, its roof cupped by trees and ragged shade. Again I wondered if I’d lived a life before this one and died a catastrophic death, beset as I was since childhood by images of fatal crashes, drowning, lethal blows to the head—flashes of personal destruction too violent to be mere imagination. The images rarely repeated themselves, instead mutated into variations on numerous themes, all of them leading to the same thought: One moment, one catastrophic moment is all it takes to decide your life.
I’d never mentioned this to anyone. Not even to Ray, my closest friend of twenty years who knew things about me that no one had any business knowing.
The living room smelled of earth and soot. I dropped my duffle bag on the floor and tried the nearest light switch. The bulb that turned on overhead did nothing but create new shadows and move the old ones.
“Let’s get a fire going.” Ray blew on her hands, her eyes wandering the bleak walls before settling on the hearth. “There’s wood in that bin.”
I made her pick out the logs and kindling because I didn’t want to touch anything that was living among the cobwebs. Then, as I watched her down on her knees reaching inside the chimney for the flue, I thought of what might be up there that could dive down and eat her hand.
“How can you harm a ghost?” she’d asked Edith. “They’re immaterial. They’re dead. You can’t kill them again.”
Edith had stopped stirring the coffee in front of her and stared at Ray under the bright kitchen fluorescents. “It depends on what kind they are. You can disbelieve in them. Disbelieving is different from not acknowledging. If you see one and convince yourself it isn’t real, you kill a small piece that can never regenerate, and when enough people have done that, a sufficient portion of the spirit is gone so that it no longer has a chance to move on. Disbelief robs the ghost of an afterlife it’s having trouble getting to.” She’d resumed stirring, then said, “Please pass the milk,” which I’d forgotten I was holding several inches above my cup, unpoured. “This applies only to the first kind, of course.”
Now I tilted my watch to the light and brushed invisible dirt from it with the edge of my shirt. Whatever misgivings I had, and whatever Ray did or did not believe, we were here for Edith, though I wished we hadn’t arrived before her and Mrs. Montoya. We’d come specifically to help rid the house of ghosts. Not the first kind. The second kind.
We were checking out the dining room when Edith poked her head in. She wore an Irish fisherman’s sweater under a barn coat, and her hair was full of twigs as though she’d walked through brambles. She leaned through the doorway just as I caught sight of the girl sitting at the table. The girl’s sunken eyes and stringy hair struck me like a slap. I gasped, but neither Edith nor Ray noticed as they greeted each other. In seconds the girl was gone, and I knew I had seen my first ghost.
“Beth, dear.” Edith kissed me on the cheek, smelling of cold fresh air and Shalimar. “Thank you so much for coming. But I’m afraid we have to leave and return tomorrow morning. Mrs. Montoya had a family emergency and can’t get here until then. We shouldn’t stay the night without her.”
Ray pulled a chair out from the table and sat. “We’re not safe without Mrs. Montoya?”
Edith regarded her niece a moment as if she were looking at a slow-witted puppy. “You need to start taking all of this seriously, or you’ll put yourself and the rest of us in danger.” Her head snapped up and she eyed the mirror hanging above the empty fireplace across the room. The face of the girl I’d just seen stared out from the mottled glass, changing quickly two, three, five, ten times into other faces before disappearing. Edith removed her wire-rim glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“I saw her at the table just as you came in,” I said.
Edith nodded. “It’s all right. Let her be. Let them all be. She’s not our concern today.”
“Who are you talking about?” Ray spun her gaze around the room.
Edith placed a hand on her arm and said nothing.
“Why don’t you just tear the place down?” Ray got up and followed Edith to the living room, hands jingling change in the pockets of her jacket. “Reduce it to splinters. Whoever buys it is going to have to do that anyway. There’s no way to refurbish it without spending a fortune.”
“First of all, that’s not true.” Edith’s tone was unequivocal. I imagined she sounded much as she did when addressing students who were recalcitrant. “And even if it were, this house is of value to me. I’m not going to be the one to raze it.”
“It was in your husband’s family a long time, wasn’t it?” I offered.
She gave me a grateful look. “Yes. And demolishing it would be like stirring up a hornet’s nest. Not because of those who’ve done no wrong by staying, who are just waiting to find their way. They would simply be forced to roam. The real danger is from the others.”
The second kind. I swallowed, and found my throat dry. Now that I had seen the girl in the dining room, I had no doubt the other variety was real too.
“Unlike the first kind,” Edith had told us, “these are corporeal. They are as solid to the touch as you and I are. It’s what makes them hard to recognize. That, and the fact that sometimes they have difficulty speaking, though that in itself is not, of course, an infallible indicator.”
“What makes them so dangerous?” I had asked that night in her apartment, cutting off the questions I saw brewing in Ray’s eyes.
“They are not at all lost,” she’d replied in her soft voice. It occurred to me she would make a good minister’s wife if she ever remarried. “They have a purpose, and that is their continued existence, which can be obtained only by their removing the souls of the living and subsuming them into themselves. Once absorbed, your soul dies. It’s not even imprisoned, with a slim chance of release should this ghost be destroyed. It is simply gone, burned off like coal in a furnace to power the being that stole it.”
Ray had kicked me under the table then. I kicked her back. “How do you know all this?” she asked. “And how can they be destroyed?”
Edith took a sip of coffee and put the cup down carefully in its saucer. “They have a dark spot at the back of their tongue, by the throat. It’s the Devil’s thumbprint, the ultimate sign of their identity.”
Ray’s fingers drummed on my thigh. She leaned forward. “But how do you know all this?”
“What do you think?”
“Mrs. Montoya? She’s the only medium I’ve heard you talk about.”
Edith’s lips pursed. “She’s more than a medium. And no, Mrs. Montoya has nothing to do with how I know.”
“Okay.” Ray sat back, folding her arms across her chest. “Have you ever seen one?”
Edith’s face was suddenly weary. “Ray, if I had anyone else to ask, I would. But I need to clean the place out and sell it as soon as possible. You cannot go in there without taking me seriously. It’s dangerous for you and for all of us. Yes, I’ve seen one. Two, actually. And I’ve seen what they can do. They’re unable to leave the property unless they’re properly exorcised—or destroyed. I have a responsibility to innocent, unsuspecting buyers. And to the realtors.”
“And if you don’t succeed?”
Edith’s eyes fixed on the wall behind me, as if she hadn’t heard her.
I touched Edith’s hand across the table. “Would you abandon it?”
“Set it on fire?” Ray said. I frowned at her.
Edith squeezed my hand gently. “If I abandon the house, I’ll be responsible for every death that occurs in it. Every vagrant. Every hiker seeking shelter. Every child who wanders in.” She turned to Ray. “If I burn it down I’ll simply be releasing them into the world.”
I heard myself breathing. Ray was very still.
Barely above a whisper I asked, “How do they take your soul?”
Edith pressed her fingers to her lips as if to stifle a cry. “They garner your immediate sympathy, like a stray dog or cat. The moment you offer compassion, in any form, spoken or not, physical or not, they will extend a hand to your heart and pull the life out of you. Just like that. They leave a shell, a dead husk.” Her gaze drifted across the room as if viewing some long-buried scene.
Ray sat back, eyes narrowed. “So how do you kill them? Something to do with that black spot on their tongue?”
“No. You crack their skulls open.”
“Beth! Help me put out the fire.” Ray pulled at my arm and I came back to the present. “Come on. We need water.”
I followed her to the kitchen, a dingy galley with cracked linoleum. “Where will we go?”
“That motel we passed. We just talked about it with Edith.” She gave me a funny look and grabbed the empty teakettle that was on the stove. “Look for a big pot or a bucket, will you?”
“Where’s your aunt?”
“Someone’s in the living room.”
Ray swiveled. “Where?” She crept to the doorway and looked around, then straightened up. “Let’s hurry. I hate this place.”
She filled the teakettle while I opened the cupboards. I found a heavy saucepan with a handle, and a box of salt that I almost dropped when a centipede crawled out from behind it. I tucked the salt under my arm and with both hands carried the pot full of water out of the kitchen. Ray had emptied the kettle into the fire and was returning for more water.
“Here, let me get that.” She reached for the sauce pot.
“No, take the salt, it’s about to fall.”
She slipped it out from under my elbow. “We’ll use this last.” She put the box on the mantle and went back to the kitchen.
As I poured water over the diminished fire, a feeling of being watched bristled over me. I turned and saw a boy standing in the farthest corner, eight or nine years old, his beauty evident, even in the meager light. The shock of wavy hair and the striped tee shirt over jeans made me nostalgic for something indefinable. He receded into the shadows, luminous face and large dark eyes the last things visible. The questions jostled each other. What kind of ghost was he? Who had he been when alive? Was he a ghost? Could anyone dead be so exquisite?
There it was again, that sense of impending doom, as if I were hurtling toward a violent end, toward a scream cut short by a burst of pain or an explosion into nothing. I heard Ray running the faucet in the sink full force and wondered why Edith hadn’t come back inside. The moment elongated. In slow motion I moved toward the kitchen.
Could ghosts conjure more ghosts, I wondered, or were they all loners?
I heard the gurgle before I understood what I was looking at: Ray pinned upright against the refrigerator, trembling, face hidden by something hunkered atop the freezer. Striped fabric rode up skinny ribs as the boy hunched over the edge in a pose no human could maintain, his upside-down face latched onto Ray’s like a hyena’s on a carcass, hands flat against her chest.
Ray gurgled, then began convulsing.
The moment broke. I swung the saucepan with both arms. It hit the boy’s head with a clap and he swayed but didn’t let go. I slammed it against his ribs, twice. A rush of wind flew out of his mouth, but no other sound as his grip loosened and he fell forward. He hit the floor seconds before Ray slumped to the linoleum.
I bent over her, unable to control my shaking. Her eyes were closed and her face was a mass of bleeding pinpricks, but she was breathing.
The boy stirred and I clutched the saucepan harder. I was both someone else and myself at my purest, my truest, my most focused as I struck his face with it. I dropped the pan and seized his head to smash it against the floor, once, twice, a third time until his eyes fluttered white and I felt the snap and splinter of an eggshell skull and the spittle running out of his mouth bloomed red. The hands I drew back did not look like mine.
“What’s going on?” Edith’s silhouette loomed above me in the doorway. The rusty shovel she held clattered to the floor as she knelt with a sound of distress. She cradled Ray’s head, her own face gray in the stink and horror of the kitchen. She checked Ray’s breathing, then reached into her pocket and threw me a small flashlight.
She indicated the boy. “Look in his mouth. Make sure.”
I was paralyzed.
I felt a million miles away. I could almost hear my muscles creak as I picked up the flashlight where it had rolled under the boy’s arm. My reluctance to touch him rose at the coldness of his skin, but I took his jaws and stretched them open, averting my face at the smell that rose from his mouth. “There’s blood.”
Edited swooped her hand up to the counter for a roll of paper towels I hadn’t noticed. I tore off a wad and bunched it into a thick cylinder.
“Don’t get it on you.” She helped Ray sit up.
I let the paper soak up what was in the boy’s mouth and directed the beam at his throat. I sensed myself falling into an abyss. Any second now I would be swallowed by a darkness so great it would eclipse all life. I had just done something terrible. Yet there it was, a small but distinct black spot on the base of his tongue.
I sat back on my heels as my gut began to roil.
“Now do you understand why you had to do that?” Edith’s voice still had a harsh edge. She glanced at the black liquid pooling on the floor. “He looks like a boy. He bleeds like a boy. He might have been one. But you need to remember always that you did not kill a boy.”
We left the body there. “We have to leave now,” Edith said as we helped Ray to the car. “It’ll attract others of his kind. Most likely it’ll be gone by the time we return tomorrow.”
Others of his kind. What would they do with the remains, I wondered, the thought a flicker without heat, a pulse that died before completion in a mind that couldn’t comprehend what had just happened.
“The fire,” I said.
“It’s out.” Edith buckled Ray into the passenger seat. Ray was awake but not alert. Edith asked me, “Are you sure you can drive?”
I nodded, the motion automatic and empty.
She said, kindly, “Just follow me, then. It’s a mile down the road.”
I drove with one hand and wiped tears and snot from my face with the other. I reached over to touch Ray and saw her cheeks glistening too.
I thought Ray would need medical attention. But she appeared to get back to normal gradually and insisted she felt fine after her facial wounds were disinfected. She remembered nothing of the incident itself, only that she had seen the boy at the kitchen door.
“He reminded me of someone.” She inspected the marks on her face in the bathroom mirror. “I don’t really want to go back.”
That evening Edith ordered food from the diner next door and we sat in her room chewing without taste or appetite. Ray’s only hunger was for information. She peppered her aunt with questions that carried none of the skepticism she’d showed when Edith first enlisted us. Who were the ghosts? Why two kinds? Were they all previous residents or could random ghosts appear? How long had the house been haunted?
Edith’s answers hovered around me like wisps I couldn’t quite grasp. “. . . early 1900s . . . she was stoned to death, then burned . . . your uncle Jack’s great-great-grandfather . . . I don’t know why two kinds, but there have always been . . . always. . . ”
I felt ill and floated into sleep while she was still talking. That night I ran a fever and couldn’t stop trembling. My throat burned and the back of my tongue felt as if someone had dragged a rake over it. With Ray next to me on the thin mattress I dreamed—all night, it seemed—not of what I had done, not of fragile bone fracturing against metal or staining red, but of calamitous car crashes. I was always behind the wheel, colliding with concrete barriers, flying through the air in a twisting heap, crunching into bridge abutments, sliding down ravines into icy water, where I would feel the life drain from me even before my lungs filled. I had killed something that looked like a child. I’d been able to do it. I was capable of it. I hadn’t hesitated one iota. One catastrophic moment. I had changed in one catastrophic moment.
The fact that it wasn’t really a child didn’t matter.
Toward morning I woke, drenched in sweat, to find Ray curled tightly around me, twitching, her legs thrusting against the back of my knees. I tried to loosen her arms but she only yanked me closer and I couldn’t breathe. Her own breathing stopped, and for a good thirty seconds she was still, no inhaling, no exhaling, in a silence as frightening as her previous tumult. I pulled her arms off me and immediately she crushed me in her embrace again. The violence of her dream alarmed me, but I stayed in her arms until the jolting subsided.
In the morning my fever was gone and my throat better, but I felt disconnected from my surroundings. Ray recalled nothing of the nightmare that had assailed her during the night, but she too seemed remote. I had retreated deep inside and could do nothing to diminish her obvious distance. The three of us went to breakfast at the diner. Ray looked at the menu with distaste but ordered an English muffin. Her face looked as if she’d scraped a dull razor across it.
Edith asked for coffee and poached eggs and said to me, “You have to eat something.” She gave the waitress an exasperated look and said, “Bring her coffee, orange juice, and whole wheat toast, please.”
I nibbled the bread and gazed out the window at fog that seemed to thicken by the minute. Edith pulled out her phone and called Mrs. Montoya. I was dimly aware of Ray sitting next to me like someone with whom I was barely acquainted. She hadn’t spoken a word since ordering. I placed my hand on her arm and she turned to me with a blank look.
“You okay?” I asked.
Ray moved her stranger’s gaze from me and stared straight ahead past Edith as she got off the phone.
“She’ll meet us there,” Edith said. “At the street end of the drive.”
We paid and started out to the cars, the crunch of shoes on gravel far off in my ears, my legs like marionette limbs controlled by a deficient puppeteer. Ray went on ahead. Edith tapped my arm and stopped to face me. In the graying fog she took my hands. Her touch drew my focus so that she appeared the only real and solid thing in the deepening haze. I pulled back in a spasm of apprehension as I imagined the fog to be smoke and Edith a manifestation.
She held tight to my hands and the moment passed. She was Aunt Edith again, the delicate thread of her Shalimar reassuring.
“Beth.” She waited until I met her eyes. “I understand what you’re going through. I told you and Ray the things I know, but I didn’t tell you everything. Later I will, when you’re both stronger. But she didn’t ask again last night, and I wasn’t about to say. It has to do with my husband. Ray’s uncle.”
I gave her a curious look.
Edith pressed my hands together. “Don’t become the third kind of ghost.”
My eyes stayed on her face.
“A casualty of the fight against them. You did what you had to. You saved Ray’s life. Jack was already dead when I got to him.”
She dropped my hands and walked away, the barn coat loose and crooked on her small frame. I watched her and felt myself fighting not to dissolve into the fog.
It was the thought of Ray that hauled me through.
“Make sure you drive,” Edith called to me.
Ray was in the passenger seat of our car.
“Talk to me,” I said pulling out after Edith onto the road. “Try to remember your nightmare from last night.”
“I’d rather not,” she said quietly.
I put aside my disquiet and focused on tailing Edith’s sedan through the fog. For a few moments the world around me tunneled to encompass nothing but the murk blanketing the windshield. In my head I saw us on a sheet of snowy ice, me gunning the accelerator to catch up with Edith’s car, the engine roaring its approval of my exhilaration until the car ahead stopped and I slammed the brakes, spinning us right into its rear.
I lurched out of the vision and saw Edith’s taillights about ten feet ahead. We were near the house.
At the end of the driveway I turned off the engine and we sat in silence as Edith and Mrs. Montoya, a large woman wearing a leopard hat, greeted one another and conferred by Edith’s car.
One catastrophic moment. For all I knew, Edith was insane and I had killed a human child.
Except I didn’t believe that.
There would be other catastrophic moments. It was never just one.
I looked at Ray. She was already looking at me. “I heard what she said to you about the third kind of ghost.”
“You did? You were so far ahead.”
“Not really. I heard everything.” She opened the door. “I’m ready now.”
“Are you?” She stepped out without waiting for me to reply.
I took a deep breath and let it sit in my lungs a while. Then I pulled the keys out of the ignition and followed her.