Just in time for Halloween, a little witch and ghost story…
I place a hand on the stone, and I see snow on the roof while a girl with a bow in her hair runs on the hardwood floor. In the dining room, a family is gathered at a set table with candles, and there’s the scent of oregano, roast beef, potatoes, and fresh bread everywhere.
Imagination is a beautiful thing, filling up a cold house with warm memories that may never have been.
Turning the handle, the door creaks, and I peer inside. A fireplace from a nearby room sheds some light into the hallway. Yellow-stained curtains are hung, and there are light switches, a coat hook, and nothing else. There’s warmth, but it escapes through the open door. So, I close the door.
“Elizabeth,” Helen says in a red dress with a two-foot train—the same one she wore last time I was here. The fire in the hearth hisses as she passes, and dampness drips from somewhere. Helen leans in, touches my elbows, and kisses me on the cheek. “Are you ready to start?”
“Yes,” I say, hanging my coat and purse on the coat hook. Before I leave, I remember I need my hard hat and dig into my handbag to find it. Helen places a hand on my elbow as we walk through the hallway. I look up the stairs and into several rooms and ask, “Where’s Paul?”
“I’m here,” he says, leaning against a doorway. Paul wears brown trousers and a white shirt. His thumbs are hooked under his suspenders.
“I will wait here,” Helen says.
I nod. “Are you still coming with me?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, straightening.
I turn the knob on the door to the basement. There’s no railing, so I place my hand along the brick to guide me and carefully take a step down the stairs. Paul’s cool breath is in the back of my neck and stays there until I reach the bottom step.
Tucking my hair under my hat, I flip the switch on. Light spreads out, and a rat runs across my boots and squeezes into a hole.
I stare at the beams with webs where spiders cling to them and touch one spider called Eve, who apologizes that she wasn’t here the last time I visited. Eve tells me about dishes that were thrown, a child who couldn’t sleep without a light on, and how a waiter ran out of the house one night and never returned. Eve’s eight legs tap the beam, and she says, “The man who built this house, he drank gin nearly every night. Poor thing, he was in love. But he never told anyone. Not even his best friend . . .”
Paul slouches nearby and looks around, bored. Ghosts can’t speak Spider, thank goodness.
I nod to Eve, and she returns to her artwork. “Where are you?” I say. My fingers fumble over the switch on my hat, and it clicks.
“You still can’t see them?”
“Like I told you the last time—I’m a witch exorcist, not a clairvoyant.” Paul shakes his head. “Hey, you’re a ghost that can’t get rid of a ghost.” Paul doesn’t say anything.
Annoyed, I take the cap off and move the knob to another setting. Sure, it’s great that I can see in the dark. But I need to see everything.
I flick the switch with my finger and shake my head. Witches aren’t allowed to use their magic to pay for their day-to-day living expenses. It’s part of the rules. So, I’ve got a nine-to-five job to pay for rent and such, but I have to work these jobs to pay for Mom and Dad’s costs in Trolls Thumping Residence.
“What?” Paul asks.
“Nothing,” I whisper. The knob clicks. “Ha! Now we’re in business!” I cheer. I place the hat on my head and tighten the chin strap. And now I see everything.
Stepping forward, five large snake-lizards are wrapped around the beams.
Paul leans forward, bumping into me. His hand slips through my back and comes out of my stomach.
“Gross,” I say. Some ghosts are good at making themselves flesh-like. Paul is not.
Weaving through the room, the snake-lizards hiss as we pass by them. I’ve seen these creatures before—they belong to light and shadow and can kill the flesh and devour souls. I suspect Paul might know this, too, based on his raspy breathing.
There’s a flash. I scan the room, looking around the snakes-lizards and the—
“Oh no,” I hiss. Air rushes around as I fly up, hit the wall, slide down, and fall to the dirt floor. “Ow,” I mutter.
Paul shakes and looks around. Then running toward me, he stumbles. Paul hits the ground, and a snake-lizard unravels itself from a beam like lightning strikes and hisses. It snaps when it’s within reach of Paul. “No,” Paul says. The snake-lizard’s head rises, and Paul and the creature stare at each other.
I’m eye to eye with a snake-lizard, too. “Did you get the memo? I’m a witch exorcist. I can destroy you.”
The snake’s head bobs back. His black eyes blink. I’m sure I see his head tilt, and then, he vanishes.
“Paul!” There are heels on the stairs, and a translucent red hem appears.
“Stay there!” I yell.
Helen crouches down and covers her mouth. “Oh, Paul!” she cries.
“I love you, Helen. I always will.” Paul’s voice is steady, and his eyes are misty. But he keeps both eyes on the snake-lizard.
I smack my hands together, and bits of scales and leathery skin fly up and explode in the air and onto the dirt floor.
I’m not sorry about killing the four remaining snake-lizards. They heard what I said to the other one and knew Paul and I were traveling together. Paul drops his head to the floor. I raise one finger, Paul rises from the ground, and I place him beside Helen.
“Is the ghost gone?” Paul asks.
“No,” I say. “But I don’t think he’ll come out with both of you here. So, go upstairs and stay there.”
“How do you know?” Paul asks.
“I got a message,” I say, pushing my hair back. “Besides, Paul, I don’t want you to get hurt. You and Helen couldn’t be together because of her hateful, controlling, abusive husband. Now, you can be. You’re only here because you think you should be. But those creatures could have taken your soul. And where would that leave Helen?” So there’s no doubt, I add, “I’ve got this.”
Helen and Paul glimpse down at me. Even though their ghosts, their eyes shine with some look of understanding. Nodding again, they turn and climb the stairs, and the door creaks closed.
“Perfect,” a man with dark eyes says, holding a watch. “It’s Elizabeth?” he asks, snapping the timepiece closed and hooking it onto the vest of his suit.
“Yes—and you are?”
“Jeffrey Sackston the III’rd,” he says, bowing.
“You can probably drop the III’rd now.”
He spins his cane, grins, and says, “Yes, I suppose I can.”
“I thought it was you.”
“Most people did.”
“I thought you didn’t want anyone to live in your house.”
“Well, you were wrong,” he says.
“You scared the flesh.”
“Yes, unfortunate side-effect.”
“I know what you are to do, Elizabeth,” he says. His smile dips. Then he throws his cane up, catches it, and smiles brightly again.
“You never wanted the house.”
Looking up the stairs, I ask, “How long have Helen and Paul been here?”
Jeffrey’s eyes watch the stairs behind me.
“You did it because of Paul and Helen?”
“Yes,” he says. “Paul’s insecurities about how he wished he had protected Helen better in life, plagued him in the afterlife, too. Certainly, their murders at the hands of Helen’s husband didn’t help,” he says, sighing. I had hoped it would be something Paul could overcome. I guess he did, somewhat. Still, Helen knows he’s not perfect, and she loves him just the same. Thanks to you, Paul knows that too, now.”
“You could have asked for help.”
“I did not have your number,” Jeffrey says, winking. “Besides, if anyone else knew, there was a risk it would be repeated to Paul, and my old friend would be embarrassed.”
“You’re the bachelor who wanted ghosts to have love in the afterlife?”
“Don’t tell too many people. I wouldn’t want them to think Jeffrey Sackeston the third was a softy!” He smiles and leans into his cane.
“How did you make yourself invisible to them?”
“I’m very good at hiding.”
I roll my eyes. “How did you get those creatures to cooperate without them taking your soul?”
“Ghost secrets,” Jeffrey says, arching an eyebrow. There’s something in his smile or his eyes, and it reminds me of a saying that I’d heard when I was young—
Ghosts who want something can ask the snake-lizards a favor. But they must trade their souls—and a willing soul is more delicious than one taken!
There’s a snap—a snap from fangs that bite into skin and a mouth that can inhale wisps of air that are phantoms.
It’s also the snap from my fingers. And the snake-lizard I allowed to leave is gone. Permanently. Well, except for the dust.
I stare down at the yellow-eyed orange furball. “Jeffrey . . .” I say, “you almost died a second time.” I shake my head and gather him up in my arms. “You’ll live this life as a cat as this form protects you from those scavengers. And also, that way, no one can say I never did my job. It will be our secret,” I whisper, stroking his fur. “And maybe in your next life, you’ll come back and can find love, too.” I climb the stairs, cradling Jeffrey, and add, “Now, I need to get paid.”