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The Memory of Ghosts: A Halloween Urban Fantasy Serial (Part 2)

First time reading? Start with Part 1 here.

Recap: Last time, our ghostly protagonist’s monotonous afterlife was interrupted when the old woman she’s haunting calls an exorcist. But instead of moving on, the ghost talks the exorcist into helping her track down the soul of her lost husband.

Chapter 2

“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 calm quiet. 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, giving it to 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 which 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 towards 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, alright?”

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 a spot on the newspaper.

Old newspaper obituary with the text "Mr. Nathaniel Breen, aged twenty-eight years, passed away on Oct. 31 in an accident, leaving a wife and a large circle of friends to mourn his loss. The funeral will be held tomorrow morning at St. Matthew’s church, with interment to follow in St. Matthew’s Cemetery."

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Kristen’s Corner

Thanks again for reading! My house is all decorated for Halloween, and I’ve got my Wonder Woman costume ready. The only thing left to prepare is the candy. Last year was our first Halloween in the new house, and my husband and I thought two big bags of candy would be enough, but we ran out in like an hour. This year we’re getting at least four bags to be better prepared for the hordes of ravenous zombies children.

What Halloween prep do you have left to do? Any theories on the creepy dude in the library? Let me know in the comments, and tune in next Thursday for Part 3!

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Kristen Brand

If Kristen Brand could have any superpower, she'd want telekinesis so she wouldn't have to move from her computer to pour a new cup of tea. She spends far too much time on the internet, and when she's not writing, she's usually reading novels or comic books. Icon by @heckosart.

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