The doorbell sang out one of those five tone chimes you hear in much bigger homes, in mansions. It was cheery, uplifting, grandiose.
Time passed and I rang the bell again.
It was the right address, the right time… and the bastards asked me over so… what the hell?
I had my finger on the button for the last time when I heard a hearty slam from within the house. I dammed up the flow from all my senses; my sight, my smell, my touch, and put all my existence into my hearing. More specifically, I turned my species’ legendary sensitivity forward, into the siding and drywall of the building before me. The sound came immediately, a spliced and discordant jumble. To a mortal, it would be like looking at light being cast though cracked glass. The sounds were rebounding off several types of surfaces and angles before they came to me.
It was angry, and it was happening at the back of the house.
I sprinted around the corner, vaulted over the six foot fence… and nearly landed on top of a German Shepherd. The dog, already terrified, snarled and bounded out of the corner I landed, blocking me in. Scared and shocked, it stiff legged for an attack.
I didn’t have time for this. I called the Unhallowed forward, allowing it to show in my face. The dog gave a sound between a yelp and a scream and ran for the shadows of another corner, tail tucked.
The problem was coming from the living room, which looked out over the back yard through a bank of windows. Inside, it looked like an episode of “Storm Chasers”. All the furniture was tossed into piles of organized destruction, even the wraparound couch was splintered, its spine cracked over the remnants of a book case. Near the center of the room, a priest and monk huddled over a small family, protecting them with their bodies.
Nothing I could do from out here.
I kicked the window, shattering it easily, but an unseen force slapped me back with twice the power I used as the houses’ threshold asserted itself. I hobbled quickly back to the window and tried to get their attention, but everyone inside was squinting against the gale winds coming from… there! A form near a corner, vaguely human, with its head tilted back. It looked to be made entirely of clouds and foam. Instead of arms, the thing’s tentacles whipped around its body in the same direction the winds were tearing.
I did everything I could to get the people’s attention, I even tossed a lawn gnome inside, but halfway it was snatched up to be shattered against the wall by one of the creature’s whipping tentacles. I reached into the window too far, and the homes’ rejecting jolt made my arm go numb.
Finally, finally, a woman looked up from the group, and through some spark of fate, her eyes landed squarely on mine, as if she knew there was nowhere else I would be. She mouthed the words “help us”.
Sounded like an invitation to me.
One eye on the shards, I slunk down through the window, keeping my profile as low as possible. Hands and knees I crawl past the group. Undignified, I know, but I’m no gnome.
I made it to halfway across the room when a hardcover book came spinning out of my blind spot and pelted me on the temple hard enough to make me see stars. Then a freaking chair slammed straight down on me. I wear an armored bikers’ jacket for just such occasions, but crawling had scooched it up a bit, so, of course, the chair leg pounded an exposed portion. I snarled against the pain, a tide of nausea threatening from my gut.
If I were human, I would have worried about my kidney.
At least my head stopped hurting, by comparison.
I got tagged by a couple smaller things that I was able to shrug off before coming up to the bottom of the apparition.
Reaching to the small of my back, I seized my weapon, a battered meat cleaver with an ancient bronze cross imbedded in the face. It looked crude, but it was a bona fide holy relic and the only thing I could use against a poltergeist like this. In one movement, less chance of getting blown over, I drew my blade, rose up, and brought the steel through the apparition from its “hip” to its “shoulder”. I felt some resistance, but it was… off. Like the memory of resistance.
The result was instantaneous. The whipping tendrils stopped in place, the wind with them, and the thing’s eyes sprung open with a look of ultimate shock and fear. Its mouth, open but silent until now, worked delicately, as if the thing was trying to choose the proper word to use. Instead, a long, high wail came out. It sounded like someone was screaming through a storm drain.
It faded and was gone.
After making sure everyone else was all right, the Monk walked over to me, hand outstretched. He took my hand with both of his. Brother Paolo Romano has been a friend of mine since he was twelve and only had to shave twice a day. As one of the head honchos at St. Elpetha Abbey in Wisconsin, he supplied me with the cases of sustenance that allow me to survive.
Yesterday, he politely asked me to do him a favor and – I came as soon as I could. He gripped my hand still and said more with his eyes than a politician can do within a campaign season.
Sorry. Bad example.
The priest, very tall, very thin, very Irish, came over as well but stopped five feet away. He stared at me, but talked to Brother Romano. “Is this the… the…”
“Pimp?” I offered.
“This is Marcus Victor Amfortas. My friend.”
The priest glanced toward the broken window, but speared his eyes back at me so as to not let me out of his sight. “I thought you things couldn’t come in a home.”
Brother Romano turned to the priest. Though his voice remained melodic and resonant, his words were as effective as a baseball bat. A padded aluminum baseball bat. “Marcus is quite a resourceful man, Father Benner. He would not have remained as Keeper Of The Sins for so long if he wasn’t.”
I smiled and held out my hands. “How about a cuddle, pops?”
Benner gave me a look with equal portions of fear, loathing, and humor before busying himself with helping the little family with each other.
Brother Romano turned serious. “How did you know where it was, where to strike?”
“I’m closer to being on the other side of ‘dead’. I can see them more readily than you.”
He nodded. He had the uncanny ability to know when anyone was telling him the truth. “Should I even hope you banished it?”
“Oh, yeah, he’s long gone.”
Brother Romano rolled his eyes and started gathering up wreckage. See? He can tell when I lie.
She peeked out at me from around the corner. I had gone through the last shoebox of pictures and had resorted to looking through newspaper archives on the internet. The little girl came out a little further, emboldened by her perceived success in not getting me to notice her. She was Miriam Martin, four years old. Her mother, Kathy, was supposed to be keeping an eye on her upstairs. Her father, Ramsen, was supposed to be keeping an eye on me. He and Father Benner were sleeping on the broken, yet comfortable, couch. Apparently, all three of them were drawn together through a penchant for sleeping on the job.
It had been five hours since the apparition dusted the family’s living room, and, according to the family, this one had been the worst by far. The Martin family had noticed the haunting three years ago, but they had been merely an annoyance – doors locking themselves, lights turning themselves on – but when the family started trying to oust the spirit in earnest… Well, the spirit started pushing back.
“If you would like, I could make you some cocoa.” I darted a glance at little Miriam coupled with a smile. She jumped, but smiled back.
I closed the computer and folded my hands over it. “Couldn’t sleep?”
She shook her head gravely.
“I get that way, too, sometimes.”
She came out around the corner a little more. The Martin’s kitchen was spacious and bright. I had made the table my command central, promptly covering it with their boxes of pictures, stack of scratch papers and my laptop.
She shook her head again.
She thought about that for a moment, then nodded. I held a finger to my lips, pointing to her father and the priest. I heard her pad closer as I picked together the fixins in the unfamiliar kitchen. I even chanced warming it a little in the microwave. It was quiet enough that the two men in the adjoining room never stirred. When I was done, I held the mug out to her. She stared at it, but didn’t move, keeping the kitchen’s island between us.
I reached across the island, placing it on her side. “Good girl. Always be wary of strangers.” I went back to the table and resumed my search. According to the family, the apparition becomes active with the setting and the rising sun. I was there for the late show, and I wanted to be ready for the early one. If I could find some reference to a burial ground in this area, or perhaps an unsolved murder, I could have a reason why a ghost was terrorizing this home. I could have a jumping off point in convincing the spirit to move the hell along already.
Chocolate moustache in place, mug in hand, Miriam started pawing through the piles of pictures I had placed off to one side. I had them in a specific order of possibilities, but the sweet little thing was so intent, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her ‘no’.
“Do you know who those people are?”
Small for her age, she shrugged a diminutive shoulder. “Some”. Apparently, we were buds now.
A lot of research suggests that poltergeists have a concentrated focus around children, but it was adolescents that caught their attention, not little ones like this. It wasn’t likely she was the focus of what was happening to the Martins. Still… “Do you ever feel uncomfortable when you’re alone here? Like there’s someone in the room near you?” The little girl met my gaze with an unwavering intensity. “Maybe sometimes?”
She nodded gently, like a field mouse looking over a single kernel of food in an open area under a hawks’ shadow.
“This is important, Miriam. Where do you usually feel like you’re being watched?”
Miriam looked up at the ceiling.
“MIRIAM! Miriam, honey, back away!” Ramsen leapt out of the shambles of the living room. Even though the kitchen table was between us, he wedged himself in front of his little girl. Once there, he stared at me, unsure of what to do.
“BACK! GET BACK!” Father Benner came forth, his Crucifix held before him like a police riot shield. Taking the initiative, Ramsen picked up his daughter and rushed her out of the room.
The priest and I stared at each other. The Priest’s faith was strong, I felt my Unhallowed cry out in pain, but it was a moot point. I was well fed and I had a firm grasp on my humanity. The Unhallowed’s discomfort was not fully my own.
Father Benner blinked several times, squeezing out the sleep.
The good Father tapped his Crucifix, struck his sleeve with it.
Did he just do that? Smack it like a flickering flashlight? I burst out laughing. A crippling, warming, gut wrenching sound.
“What’s the matter, pops? Forget to wind it?” the priest stared stupidly at me, and his look fed the fire. I had just slipped from my chair, my laughter curling me up like a pill bug when Brother Romano rushed into the room, followed by Ramsen several seconds later.
Brother Romano, Father Benner and I shared a pot of coffee. Father Benner took cream and sugar, Brother Romano liked it black, but passed me an hourglass shaped bottle filled with a red liquid.
“Fresh?” When he smiled, I uncorked the bottle and breathed in a whole lungful. “You may just convert me, Padre.” I filled my mug halfway from the pot, half from the bottle.
Father Benner looked a little green. I had to turn aside before my laughter bubbled up again.
“Any progress?” Brother Romano scratched the eight hour stubble that qualified as a beard. Spending time with Brother
Romano and his incredible chin growth was like watching time-lapse photography of a field left wild.
“A little. I’ve ruled out connections from the Martin lineage coming back to make misery on them. I need to look through the background of this house. Could be someone got killed here when the house was built.”
“No one died here.” Father Benner looked a little better.
“Had to. Nothing else makes sense. Miriam started to tell me she felt watched – before you, um, ‘saved her’ – that is.”
“Couldn’t it have been one of the previous owners?” Brother Romano took my attention.
I waved around the room. “Crappy pressboard moldings, strong smell of paint and new furniture. Bet anything the Martins are the first owners.”
Benner shrugged “He’s right. The Martins came to my parish when they moved in two years ago.” My opinion of him went up a notch. I may have laughed at him, but he put the family’s welfare above his own pride. And to work this hard for new parishoners - you don't see that kind of dedication to the Faith very often.
I nodded. “And, since this area was forest before that, the lowest hanging fruit is someone who…” I blinked, then looked at my scratchpad. “You mean ‘three’, don’t you?”
“Three what? Years?” The priest stuck his tongue in his cheek and got a far away look in his eyes. “No. I’m positive. They started having problems in their apartment, before they came here.”
“The spirit followed them?”
Romano was talking, but I was in my own world. “Is there a family portrait around here?”
Father Benner pointed to the dining room where a two by three foot photograph commanded the room under scrutiny of ambient light. A pleasing sight: three pretty people in their Sunday best.
I had my answer.
It started with creaking and clicking that came from the direction of the kitchen hallway, like footsteps, but much lighter and random. I guess the best way to explain it would be like a small animal, like a cat, was working its way toward us, rubbing and pushing against odd pieces of furniture as it went. It took its time, but it was steady.
I glanced at the others; the Martins, the priest and the monk stood against the far wall, on the other side of the couch. If I couldn’t stop this thing, they could duck down, using the broken couch to block any flying debris as they made their way out of the room, through the kitchen, and on until they were out of the house. They were all wearing heavy clothing and perspiring slightly. Inconvenient, but necessary to protect from flying debris. Little Miriam was draped in my armored bikers jacket.
They all looked from the kitchen to me.
I winked at Miriam.
The others couldn’t see it, but when it came around the corner, it looked like a column of heat vapors rising off a cherry red stove. It sworled, drunkenly, into the room. I fingered the prop leaning against my leg, held my cleaver a little tighter.
It glided over the step, coming to rest just inside the room.
Move in a little further.
Come on, move in here.
Dammit. It was blocking the only way out. I caught Romano’s eye and nodded at the specters placing. His face became grim and angled his body to offer more protection for the family.
A breeze brushed past my cheek, then another. Paper started rustling on the far side, in and around the ruined bookcase.
“HEY!” I tried to get its attention, but it was still in between, not quite manifested. I waved the cleaver, flashed the reflection of the bronze cross across the shape. Nothing.
The Martin family hunkered a little lower as the breezes started tossing their hair around and picking up dust and splinters. I need to start packing safety glasses.
Three minutes into the incident, the family disappeared behind the sofa, and I started seeing the outline of the being that had shown itself before. I was crouching over my prop, laid out on the floor, kneeling on the back of it to keep it in place.
Squinting to see through the dust and scalding air currents, I watched the thing and hoped it manifested before it dragged the couch away from the people there.
Come on… The couch shuddered as the winds tugged at it.
Come on… A book, probably that same damnable one, thunked the back of my head.
Like smoke puffed into a plastic mold, the spirit became whole. Whipping arms moving anticlockwise, eyes closed, beard and hair wild and long and whipping as an agitated sea creature.
I timed it, then threw my cleaver between passes of those spinning arms. The second, the very instant, the holy relic passed through its body, the arms stopped and the gale force winds ceased like it was never there. The spirit opened its eyes in surprise, but I was ready this time. I leapt up, dragging my prop from under me, bringing it before the specter’s wide eyes.
“Here! Look here!”
The specter took in the picture of the Martin family, smiling honest smiles. The picture of love, and health, and togetherness. The specter stared.
“You don’t have to stay. They are safe here. They are protected here.”
The specter looked around, a traveler lost in an unfamiliar city. Its gaze settled on the cowering family peeking out behind the couch. It looked back to the family photograph. Then it looked to me.
“You meant well, but you don’t have to worry. You can go across now.”
It’s gaze turned hopeful.
“Go across and wait. Go wait somewhere appropriate.”
From one instant to the next it was here, then no more.
I heard her creep up the stairs. My phone glowed 10:14a. Dammit. I had just gotten to sleep, too. The spirit had been exorcised just before dawn, and for wont of a basement, they crammed me in the master bedroom’s closet. The bedroom had an Eastern view, so the earliest I could come out of the closet would be noon. Any earlier would be fatal for me.
“Mister Amfortas? Are you awake?”
The mother, Kathy. “I am now.”
“I wanted to thank you for what you did.”
“Actually, I did it as a favor to Brother Romano, so… don’t mention it.”
“Still, we – I – appreciate all you did.”
She didn’t leave.
“Was there something else?”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“Well, not like I’m going anywhere.”
“Did you know who it was the ghost of?”
I sighed. “Spirits are funny things. Most of the time, they get attached or imprinted on a place they hold a strong emotion to, like where they died.”
“But this one followed us.” She sounded crestfallen.
“…which means…?” She didn’t get the hint “…he was attached…? to…?”
“He was attached to us.”
“Well. You know. At least one of you. Right?”
She was silent.
“He was worried about her.”
“I was dating Ramsen and his cousin at the same time. I broke it off with him the night Ramsen proposed.”
“And no one else knows, do they.”
“I love my husband, Mister Amfortas.”
“Mrs. Martin. I don’t really care how you feel about him. The main thing is that the two of you are good to Miriam.”
“He is. We are.”
I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. “Just make sure she feels that.”
“I appreciate your discretion.”
How do I put this? I thought about all my adopted children, growing up. The smiles, the tears, the first steps, the first loves.
“Mrs. Martin? Its up to you, but you might want to reconsider keeping your secret. When Ramsen saw that little girl near me, he put himself in harm’s way, knowing I could have killed him. Only a daddy would do that.”
I waited in the dark while she considered in the light.
After ten minutes, she left.