It’s October! Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year, so to celebrate, I want to share a free urban fantasy short story. I’ll be serializing The Memory of Ghosts all through October, so expect updates every Thursday this month. Check it out if you like:
- Ghost librarians
- Haunted Graveyards
- Grumpy paranormal investigators
I hope it helps you get into the Halloween spirit. Happy reading!
*To be on the safe side, I’m adding a content warning for a brief instance of animal cruelty in this chapter.
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, surveying 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 see and 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, these 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, charming expression that made her seem infinitely more friendly. “Alright. 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.
Thanks for reading! If you don’t already follow my blog, make sure you enter your email (or click the button) at the bottom of this page so you don’t miss next week’s update.
I’m off to put up my Halloween decorations! Some of my neighbors decked out their houses in mid-September, so I’ve been resisting the pull of fake spiderwebs and cloth ghosts for a while now.
What’s your favorite Halloween decoration? Any thoughts on The Memory of Ghosts so far? Let me know in the comments!