Moonlight filled our bedroom with windblown tree shadows and uncertain light that gathered in pools on the carpet. Gabe still slept peacefully next to me, one hand splayed on his chest and unaware anything was amiss.
I envied him that. Nocturnal visitors seldom summoned my husband from dreams.
A ghost, a tiny girl of no more than four or five, stood in one puddle of light. She clutched a well-loved china doll against her chest, the doll’s cotton lawn dress in tatters and painted face near worn away. Her lace-trimmed pinafore was too short to cover her knees, and mud-splattered stockings trailed from a pocket. She was firmly anchored in this world, appearing near as solid as she had in life. Auburn ringlets brushed the small ghost’s shoulders, held back from her face by a cornflower blue satin ribbon. Eyes just as blue regarded me solemnly.
I didn’t think she was my child. Our daughter had been born too soon, cold and ashen, the cord wrapped tightly around her neck, but I’d often dreamed about her growing older. This little girl looked much as I’d imagined my daughter, healthy and strong, with hair the same color as Gabe’s.
Yet I didn’t want to believe the child I’d carried under my heart, felt quicken and move inside, might return to haunt me. Uncertainty kept me from sending the ghost away. I needed to be sure.
The sound of weeping filled the room and gave me an answer. She wasn’t mine. Someone else had loved this child, mourned her and wept as I’d wept for our daughter.
The moon set, taking away the light, the sounds of grief, and the small ghost. Gabe muttered in his sleep, tossing restlessly. I touched his arm. “Shhh … Go back to sleep. Everything’s all right.”
He settled again and I stared at the dark ceiling, wishing I could comfort myself as easily. More than three years had passed since the morning I first woke to find myself haunted by a strong ghost I named Shadow. I’d seen haunts and phantoms since I was a child, but this ghost opened wide a door into the spirit realm that never closed again. Shadow sent me down a dark path searching for answers. Once I’d started, there was no turning back.
I’d learned too much since then and laid far too many wandering spirits to rest to feel at ease now. Some ghosts were unable to find their way to the other side or had things from life left undone, ties to the living they couldn’t sever or wrongs they sought to set right. Others needed help realizing they were dead. Not all of them left willingly.
Our house had been cleansed of lingering spirits before Gabe and I moved in. Now ghosts only came to me for a reason. Awakening painful memories was a cruel purpose, but ghosts were often cruel. If reopening partly healed wounds was the sole reason this lost little girl chose to haunt me, I’d send the ghost on her way with no regrets.
The sound of weeping filled the room again, causing me to wonder if there was more to her visit. A little girl, maybe the tiny ghost I’d seen, sobbed and called out for her mama. Her voice faded and others took its place, men and women, youthful voices and those heavy with years. I couldn’t understand all they said, but each voice carried a share of its own misery and terror. Each called on someone to find them.
My newest ghost shimmered into view again; blue eyes bright even in the absence of moonlight, bringing silence and the disquieting knowledge that she wanted more than just to torment me. I whispered, knowing she’d hear. “Tell me what you want, spirit, or leave my house. I can’t help you unless I know.”
She stared, silent and unreadable, before thinning into a silvery mist that swirled toward the ceiling and vanished. Strong ghosts didn’t just disappear never to return. So I listened, waiting to hear the voices crying out again or for her to give me some other sign of why she’d come. None came, but that brought little consolation.
A foghorn on the bay sounded, each note lingering, and our bedroom filled with cold shadows. I turned toward Gabe, breathing in his familiar shaving soap smell and drawn to his warmth.
Gabe kept me from wandering too deep into the world of spirits, lost in someone else’s past and unable to find my way back. He was my anchor to the living.
Even so, I lay awake a long time. And when I finally fell asleep, it was to dream of a barefoot little girl wading in a sun-warmed stream, minnows nibbling at her muddy toes.
* * *
I’d hoped to wake to a sunny day, not overcast skies that promised rain and chill winds. Winter stripped the sunbeams of warmth, but sunshine might help banish the restlessness I couldn’t shake. Strange spirits were common enough in my life, but this little girl’s ghost unsettled me. Not understanding why bothered me even more, distracting me from Isadora’s lessons on poltergeists. I’d spent far too much of Dora’s visit staring out the kitchen window, watching wind herd clouds toward the East Bay hills and brooding.
Madam Isadora Bobet was my teacher, my mentor, and my guide through the confusing world of ghosts and spirits. She was also a friend. Two years before, I hadn’t wanted to believe in spirits that haunted the living. I’d seen strange things since I was a child, but I’d always thought stories of ghostly hauntings a clever charlatan’s device to bilk money from the gullible. Finding myself haunted gave me no choice but to believe.
Now I swam in ghosts. Without Dora, I’d drown.
“Do you need me to go over the different types of poltergeists again, Delia?” I jumped, jarring the table and sloshing cream from the pitcher, ashamed at being so deep in thought, I’d lost track of the conversation. Dora stirred more sugar into her tea and frowned. “I know this is a lot to take in all at once, but they can be dangerous. Cleansing Mrs. Allen’s boardinghouse could prove difficult. It’s best if you know what we might face.”
“No need to repeat the list. Not now.” I flushed, certain her sharp look meant my guilt was plain. Dora was seldom fooled. Still, I felt honor bound to try. “What else do I need to know?”
I made a valiant attempt to focus on Dora’s explanation and stop brooding. My efforts met with limited success. I found myself watching our next-door neighbor instead.
Mr. Flynn sat on his back porch, slowly rocking back and forth in a redwood glider. He was dressed in his best dark suit, a starched white shirt and black bow tie, and with his heavy coat lying across his knees. Each time the glider stopped swinging, he nudged it into motion again. He stared out into the yard, still and quiet and much too pale. I wasn’t sure he truly saw anything.
His son’s ghost stood in the glider’s path, each traverse of the swing passing right through him. Aiden still wore his muddy uniform, the tan-canvas rucksack on his back soaked with blood that would never dry, never change from crimson to dull brown. He watched his father, fingers flexing around the rifle strap slung over one shoulder.
Waiting to be noticed. Wanting to be forgiven.
The unit insignia on his sleeve was partly caked with mud, but recognizable as British. He’d volunteered to fight in the Great War against his father’s wishes. Aiden was buried on a battlefield in France, an unmarked wooden cross at his head. I’d forgotten the memorial service was today.
Isadora rapped on the tabletop with long, lacquered nails, startling me. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Tell me if I’m boring you, Delia. I can call back another time.”
“I’m sorry.” I poured more tea in her cup and mine, added sugar and lemon, and offered her another cookie. We usually spent Dora’s visits sitting at the kitchen table. Even on overcast days, my kitchen was the most cheerful room in the house, a good enough reason to spend time there. But the kitchen had also become my workroom, swaddled in layers of protections to keep spirits at bay. Dora felt more at ease here. So did I. “I’m listening, truly I am.”
She smiled brightly and tucked a strand of bobbed blond hair behind her ear. “No, Delia. You’re not. I don’t think you’ve heard more than ten words since I arrived. Now, why don’t you tell me what’s captured your attention so completely. Then I can go back to explaining what we can do for Mrs. Allen. Assuming you’re still interested.”
“Oh I’m interested. I’m fairly certain all the disruption in Mrs. Allen’s kitchen must be a poltergeist. Gabe is very fond of her and I promised I’d see what could be done.” Very little slipped past Dora, but the way I babbled was a sure sign something was wrong. She raised one perfect eyebrow and continued to smile, waiting for me to sputter to a halt. I squirmed and decided an honest confession was best. “But I am a bit distracted. I seem to have picked up a new ghost, one I can’t easily send on her way.”
“Can’t or won’t?” Dora dug in her handbag, fishing out a tortoiseshell cigarette case and a box of matches. I slid a crumb-dusted saucer toward her for the ashes. She lit the cigarette, taking a long drag and exhaling clouds of blue smoke that wafted toward the kitchen ceiling. “You don’t have as much knowledge yet, but in terms of strength and power, you’re near my equal, Dee. I expect that one day you’ll surpass me. There are very few spirits that you can’t banish by yourself if you set your mind to it. Unwilling and unable are two very different things.”
“For the moment I’m unwilling to banish her. She wasn’t more than four or five when she died. A little girl.” I folded my hands on the table and told Dora about my nighttime visitor. “I haven’t tried to send this ghost on her way. If not for the voices weeping and calling out for help, I might have, but that didn’t feel right. I need to know what she wants before I banish her. I can’t take the chance.”
Dora reached across the table and took my hand. “Not every ghost wants you to right a wrong. I shouldn’t have to tell you that. And there is a possibility that she’s—”
“The baby we lost last summer?” I squeezed Dora’s fingers. “She’s not. I thought of that when I first saw her and I made very, very sure. You don’t have to warn me, it’s not my own grief haunting me. And I know how dangerous strong spirits are … how relentless. I’ve no illusions about how much trouble this ghost can bring me. But you’ve told me time and again to trust my instincts, and sending her away until I know what she wants feels wrong. Don’t worry, I’ll be very careful.”
She sighed and sat back again, letting her cigarette rest on the saucer. “Allow me to worry. Concern for your well-being saves me from a life of idleness. I’d feel better if I saw this haunt manifest myself, but that’s likely too much to hope for.”
“I haven’t sensed her presence anywhere in the house. Once the ghost left our bedroom, she was truly gone. But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking she won’t return.” I toyed with the edge of the old checkered tablecloth, worrying at a frayed spot and no doubt making the damage worse. Annie, the housekeeper who’d helped raise me after my parents died, had given it to me, as she’d given me so many things for our kitchen.
This tablecloth brought back memories of living in the Larkin household and whispering secrets to my best friend Sadie at breakfast. I smoothed the fabric with a fingertip, remembering conversations about our hopes for the future. We’d been closer than most sisters. We still were.
All Sadie’s heartfelt dreams, a loving husband and children, came true when she married Jack Fitzgerald. Her happiness brought me a great deal of joy. She was just as thrilled when I married Gabe, and for a time, it looked as if we’d both gotten everything we wanted.
But not all wishes came true, no matter how often you implored the brightest star. Having children was another piece of the life I’d wanted stolen by my connection with the spirit realm. Dora spent a great deal of time explaining why interacting with the restless dead and laying ghosts to rest made it unlikely Gabe and I would ever be parents.
Gabe refused to believe. But in my heart of hearts, I knew everything Dora said was true.
I tucked my hand into my lap, forcing it to lie still. “I’ve dreamed of this little girl before, Dora. I knew the face I’d see and the color of her hair before I opened my eyes. That must mean something.”
Dora rummaged in her handbag again. She pulled out a silver flask and poured a generous dash of whiskey into her teacup. Engraved with swirls of vines and morning glories, the liquor flask had been a going-away gift from Daniel, her paramour of the last six years. He’d gone home to Portugal, hoping to convince his family to flee the war and come live in San Francisco. Daniel had planned to be gone a month after sailing from New York, but that had stretched into six, then ten. Getting his family out of Europe had proven difficult.
I hadn’t seen Dora without the flask since the night he handed her the slim package wrapped in burnished gold paper and tied with a pale yellow ribbon. Having a ready supply of whiskey at hand wasn’t the sole reason she carried the flask.
She took a long swallow of whisky-laced tea. “I’m impressed, Delia. You have quite the talent for attracting difficult ghosts. How long have you dreamed about this little girl?”
The kitchen was chilly and quickly growing colder. Speaking of ghosts sometimes summoned them, accompanied by all the theatrics strong spirits were capable of displaying. I wrapped both hands around the china teacup, seeking to warm stiff fingers and disguise how they trembled. “The thing is … I’m not sure. I didn’t remember the dreams until I saw her, but now I remember them clearly. She looked just the same each time, a happy little girl carrying her doll and playing in a stream. It might even be the same dream again and again.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the same dream, Delia.” Dora set aside the whiskey and watched me, blue eyes narrowed and her expression intent. “I’ve no doubt that you’re dreaming about the day she died. A healthy little girl playing in a stream is unlikely to have died a lingering death. My guess is an accident killed her, or perhaps something more sinister.”
“A murder?” I stared at Dora, not wanting to believe and praying I’d misinterpreted her meaning. “Who would kill a child?”
She drummed her fingers on the tabletop and crinkled her nose in distaste. “I didn’t say she’d been murdered, but it’s not unheard of, Dee. Not all the monsters of the world confine their hunting to adults. In any case, the more details you can gather from that dream, the more likely we are to find out who she was. Once we know her name, discovering what the ghost wants from you will be miles easier.”
Spirits who suddenly found themselves torn from a world they weren’t prepared to leave were the hardest to deal with. Whether they were old or young when they’d died made little difference. These spirits often haunted those they wanted to stay with, unable to break the tie. Others sought out people such as Dora and me. We could see these lost, woeful souls wandering in search of a way back to life.
Giving them back the life they’d lost was impossible. When luck was on our side, we found a way to stop their wandering.
“And if I can’t find clues as to who this small ghost was in life?” I stood and gathered soiled chintz napkins, the sandwich tray and plates, and stacked them on the drain board next to the sink. “What do I do then? I’m sure you must have a thing or two you can teach me.”
Dora looked up from brushing crumbs off the tablecloth and into her palm, her expression earnest and not a scrap of amusement in her eyes. “I’ve not exhausted my bag of witch’s tricks yet. Just promise me you won’t become attached to this haunt. Remember that no matter what her appearance, she’s still a ghost and may have spent a hundred years harboring malice. Manifesting in the body of a child is no guarantee of innocence or that she lacks ill intent. The fact you’re still grieving for your baby makes me even more suspicious of her motives.”
“I’ll remember.” I leaned back against the edge of the cast-iron sink. “But I heard her mother weep for her, Dora. I find it hard to think badly of a child mourned that deeply.”
“You heard someone weep, Dee. Whether the person crying had any relationship to this ghost or not remains to be seen.” She dumped the crumbs in the ash-strewn saucer and brushed her hands briskly. “I know I sound harsh, but you must take this seriously. I’d rather not watch Gabe mourning you. Now, let’s get back to poltergeists. I promised I’d visit Sadie tomorrow, but we’ll pay a visit to Mrs. Allen’s boardinghouse the day after. We should be able to keep the rest of her crockery intact.”
I poured more tea and sat down to listen. The wind picked up, rocking the tall cedar tree at the side of the house and lashing the windows with small twigs and cedar cones torn loose. Strong gusts keened around corners and under the eaves. Voices rode the wind, mournful and sad, bringing memories of forgotten conversations to my kitchen.
One heartsick voice wept for a lost child—or so I imagined.
Copyright © 2014 by Jaime Lee Moyer