“Unhaunted,” a short story by Madeleine Sardina

 

The ghosts had always been loud. Like rats or squirrels, they scampered in and out of our homes, tampering with the wiring and knocking on bedposts. We had our ways of softening their effects so we could keep our homes and schools and workplaces functional, but it was an art to keep them at bay for more than a couple weeks at a time. “My ghost turned my oven up to a broil when I was out yesterday,” Edina told me as she handed me a chai latte for the customer at the drive-thru window. “The apartment was all full of smoke when I got home. I had some sage left over from last time, so that should keep her quiet until I can get some more, but it pissed me off. Like, if she burns the place down again, where is she going to go?”

“Thankyouhaveaniceday,” I droned out the window. “She doesn’t have to go anywhere, dude. Maybe she just likes you and wants a buddy.”

She looked at me solemnly. “Rasha, I would die before haunting that shit-hole.”

The ghost that haunted the coffeeshop was relatively docile, but it was still the Friday closing manager’s job to smudge the store to make sure none of the openers came in to garbage and coffee beans spelling out some ominous message. It happened once, when one of the managers just straight up didn’t show for his shift and the baristas didn’t even think about adding smudging to the rest of their closing duties. The ghost was smart, waited a few days to build up momentum, and then Monday morning, “The fires of Hell burn for you!” was scrawled across the doors in something thick and red.

I stood outside the defaced glass with Kyle, the opening manager, shivering in the very-pre-dawn chill. “Shit,” he sighed. He pulled out his keys.

“Is it … blood?”

He unlocked the door silently and once inside, looked around for the source. “Oh my God.” He picked up the discarded, and empty, raspberry syrup bottle from beneath one of the tables. “That dramatic asshole.”

The steam wand on the espresso machine started violently then, spitting hot air onto the countertop. “Shut up!” Kyle yelled, storming over to shut off the machine. “Rasha—”

“I got it,” I said, already searching for sage in the back.

Aside from the sweetened graffiti, the ghost had also emptied a couple bags of coffee beans all over the floor in the store room and written some rude words in whipped cream on the bathroom mirrors. It took us an hour to clean up the mess before we could start actual opening duties, and we had to keep the sage burning until noon. The musty smoke smothered the whole cafe in a haze and my eyes streamed so badly I could barely read the orders scrawled on the cups. Tips dropped to fifty-cents per hour. Upper management was pissed. If the ghost had a little creativity, it would’ve written, “The fires of Hell are nothing compared to Store Manager Leslie.”

The ghost that haunted my family’s home was a little less on the nose. It made the timing for smudging more difficult to discern, since he favored quieter activity by nature, until he wanted to be loud. “Do we really have to worry about it?” my sister Amari whined when I told her it was her turn to smudge. “He hasn’t done anything lately but make the lights flicker.”

“He turned the water off yesterday.”

“Yeah, but it’s so much easier to turn it back on than it is to smudge the whole house.”

Too tired and bogged down in midterms to bother arguing with her any longer, I let it go. A week later, on a blessed day off, I was yanked out of sleep at seven a.m. by a short shriek from the bathroom I shared with Amari. She burst into my room, hair twisted up in a towel and only one wing of eyeliner drawn on. “He shattered the mirror!” she yelled, as if he was my arrant pet.

I flopped back onto my pillow, rubbing my face. “Use one of your compacts.”

“I don’t want to use a compact, I want the mirror to not be shattered.”

“Then smudge the house, A, because I’m going back to sleep.”

Ghosts have always been loud, which is why everyone freaked out when they began to vanish.

It happened slowly and the only news came in clickbait articles. “This Forest is COMPLETELY SILENT and You’ll Never Guess Why!” People spread them on social media, but the reporting was so amateur that no one took it seriously. Ghosts didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t go anywhere—when you died, you became a ghost and got stuck wherever the universe put you.

No one knew how ghosts were placed at a haunt—if they chose a place themselves or if it was assigned by some afterlife bureaucracy. It seemed random to us living. There were a few records of ancient ghosts haunting places or tombs or citadels that could be related to bygone royalty, but the vast majority of ghosts haunted places with no history, or at least no relevant history. My family guessed the ghost haunting our house used to be a librarian or a bookshop keeper based on the way he liked to put books back on the shelves or lost his temper when one of us put one back out of order. I tried to read in the bath one time and he made all the doors and windows in the house rattle nearly off their frames. He seemed like a prime spirit for an old library, but instead the ghost haunting our public library was an old priest.

Because of this assortment of ghosts in places their spirit didn’t belong, it wasn’t terribly suspicious if one place was quieter than others. People assumed it was simply a meeker ghost or a recently-smudged haunt. It only became suspicious when more and more ghosts went mute.

“My neighbor’s ghost hasn’t done anything in two months,” Edina said when we were getting dinner after work. She whispered it like it was a secret or a scandal. “She used to have to smudge every three days to shut them up, but now she’s thinking about getting a ouija board to check up on them.”

“My ghost hasn’t done anything major since Christmas,” I said. “That’s, what, four months? Nothing but cold spots and occasionally moving a cup or something. Not even knocking it off the table, though, only pushing it a little.”

“What the hell is going on?” Edina hissed.

It spread like a virus, this silence. Anecdotes from neighbors, friend-of-a-friend stories, and then it was in our own home, pressing in on our ears like cotton, like snow-made quiet. Mainstream media finally caught on and experts were brought in to diagnose the haunts—priests and priestesses, psychologists, grief counselors, anyone with any understanding of the soul who could tell the rest of us why so many places that had once been lousy with ghosts were empty. There were plenty of plausible answers: the source from which they drew their ghostly energy was waning and they had to find a new one; they were resting, because even disembodied souls had to rest after centuries and millennia; they were biding their time for some great show of power. Only a few of these experts were willing to provide the most frightening answer: there was a third stage of life, or afterlife, that we knew nothing about.

In the middle of the Unhaunting, as it came to be called, a small group of us—Edina, Amari, Amari’s friend Corrine, and me—decided to visit one of the un-haunted haunts.

We chose the oldest house on the block, the one that used to be so loud with ghosts that it was rumored to have multiple, possibly even a demon, and because of this it had remained vacant for years. When I was in middle school and Amari was still in elementary school, we’d been walking home together and passed the house with a firetruck and two ambulances lit up and parked outside. A vast, black scorch mark spread out from the front-facing bedroom window, covering nearly the whole front of the house. Even from a distance, the strange markings were clear: stark against the blackened paneling, white faces shown like vaporized shadows. We stopped across the street to watch the activity, Amari holding my hand out of obligation but urging me to let her cross the street to find out what was going on. As it happened, one of the neighbors crossed the street to us. “You girls should head home,” she said, voice sweet but stern.

“What happened, ma’am?” Amari asked, already well aware of how a well-placed “ma’am” in her tiny voice could get her anything.

“The spirit got a little out of hand,” our neighbor explained. “It—well, there was a small electrical problem. Everyone is okay, or they will be.”

“Will they smudge the house?” Amari asked.

Our neighbor looked at me, saw I was the oldest, probably wondered if I was old enough to explain this for her. “No,” she said finally. “No, probably not. Sometimes it’s better to … leave these sorts of spirits alone.”

If she had asked, she would’ve known I was old enough to explain this to Amari. Everywhere had ghosts, just like everywhere had pests, but when the rats were also frogs and also locusts and also fire-rain, there’s not much an exterminator can do except condemn the place.

The four of us agreed to meet in the backyard at eight o’clock. Amari and I came together, our parents thinking we were going to Corrine and Edina’s houses respectively. “What do you think’s gonna happen?” Amari asked, her arm hooked through mine as we walked. Sweat stuck our skin together, the early summer air warm but not yet hot enough to be unpleasant.

“Probably tons of stuff,” I said. “Dust clouds shaped like people, doors slamming, ooze coming through the walls. Maybe we can count all the ghosts we meet.”

Amari was quiet a moment, and then: “Maybe.”

The shattered mirror was not an isolated incident. My sister had always been the most connected to the ghost in our house. He scattered her homework when she tried to study or tugged her hair when she was hanging out with a boy or put certain books on her bed as if recommending them for her to read. Sometimes she called him a creep for picking the youngest daughter to mess with the most, but other times she talked about him like he was our younger brother. As his quietness had gotten quieter, she’d tried to draw him out more by leaving lures—a mug of hot coffee perilously close to the edge of the table, her curling iron with the switch nudged halfway on—but he hardly every played along anymore. In the past week, he’d only managed a halfhearted flicker of her salt lamp.

Edina and Corrine were already there when we arrived, the hinge of the gate cawing like a crow in the sleepy evening silence. The yard was unkempt, but in a charming sort of way. The grass was just barely too long, blossoming weeds filled the flowerbeds, and the crabapple tree that spread across the western corner of the yard was just starting to fruit, tiny ugly bulbs surrounded by verdant foliage. Corrine stood in the tree’s shadow, her arms hugged tightly around herself as if she was cold. “Do you feel a chill?” Amari asked, a rising note of excitement in her voice already.

“No,” Corrine said, and Amari’s face fell. “I’m nervous. This is illegal.”

“It’s fine,” Edina said, waving both her hands in the air in a dismissive gesture, though a bit overdone. “We’re, like, the thousandth ones to have a sleepover here. People have been trying to fuck with whatever lives in this house forever.”

“Are we trying to fuck with it?” I asked. We hadn’t brought any ghostly supplies—Amari’s backpack had our pajamas and snacks and mine had two blankets crammed inside.

“Well, we’re trying to make sure it’s here and the best way to be sure is to make it … I don’t know, do stuff? Look.” She swung her own bag around to her front and rifled around inside, pulling out a ouija board. “I figure if we can get this thing to work, we can pretty much be sure there’s ghostly activity going on here still.”

The sight of the ouija board ran a chill up my spine and Amari withdrew her arm from where it was still linked with mine, as if I’d shaken her off. “We need to get inside before anyone catches us back here.”

The lock on the sliding door was busted, which confirmed that other people had indeed done this before us and the owners hadn’t been back recently enough to notice it. Corrine seemed to calm a little once she knew we wouldn’t have to actually break in. We set our stuff in the living room. It was a nice house, three stories including the basement, empty of furniture. The carpet was plush and still in good condition aside from the edges which had collected a fair amount of whatever ooze the house’s spirit had excreted from the walls. The ooze was crusty and translucent, like old glue, set into the carpet long ago. Still, we set our blankets and snacks in the middle of the room, just to be safe.

“Okay,” Edina said as she tore into a bag of pre-popped popcorn. “Hello house! Hello spirit!”

“Goodnight moon, goodnight stars,” Amari whispered under her breath, and Corrine let out a nervous twitter of laughter.

Edina glared at her and then began again: “We’re here to speak with you. We know some of your friends have been a little flaky lately, but you’re supposed to be pretty wicked, so go ahead and give us a shout to let us know you’re here.”

We waited. We heard nothing.

“Maybe it likes being dramatic,” Corrine suggested. “Like it only does stuff when it’s dark.”

“It’s almost dark,” Amari pointed out. Twilight was on its way out and we’d have to light some candles and turn on our flashlights soon.

“All the way dark,” Corrine amended. “Witching-hour dark.”

So we waited until it was witching-hour dark. We played the games Corrine brought—Cards Against Humanity, Bananagrams, charades we made by writing movies and book titles on torn up pieces of notebook paper. All the time we waited for the ghost to do something, to make a sound or turn the lights on in this long shut-off house, but it was as silent as when we’d arrived. When it was approaching two a.m., we passed around some chocolate-covered espresso beans Edina had brought while we lay on our backs staring up at the ceiling. “Maybe the house was never haunted,” she said. “Maybe this house is just super creepy on its own and even the ghosts thought it was already occupied.”

“You’re just saying that because we’ve been here for hours and you’re bored,” Amari said.

“Rasha,” Edina sighed, ignoring my sister and rolling over to face me. The candlelight played tricks on her eyes and made them look amber instead of their usual dark brown. “Tell the ghost to do something.”

“You do it,” I said.

“I’ve been doing it.”

I ground my teeth on an espresso bean. “Do you want to try the ouija board?”

No, I wanted her to say. I’d suggested it because it was on the tips of all our tongues, because at some point we would use the ouija board whether we wanted to or not, because we needed to know if the ghost was still here or if even it had been swallowed up with all our other ghosts.

“Yes,” she said instead, and sat up to get it.

The board was like any other—made to look ancient when Edina had probably just picked it up at a Walmart. Still, it seemed to buzz with a latent power, and when she set the planchette in the center and we gathered around, my hands were leaden with fear. “What if we bring something evil out?” Corrine asked, her voice hardly louder than the flames flickering on the candle wicks.

“Shut up,” Amari said, not unkindly, almost as if she was afraid Corrine would bring something evil out with just those words.

We each put the tips of our fingers on the planchette.

“Ask it a question,” Edina said.

It took a moment to realize she was talking to me. “Uh,” I said. “Is anyone here?”

There was no movement, no sound, no flicker of light. “Ask it to do something,” Edina said.

“Why do I have to do it?”

“I don’t know!”

“Amari has always been better at interacting with them.”

“Fine. Amari?”

My little sister swallowed and as she began to speak, I felt my cowardice solidify like a stone inside me. “If someone is here, show yourself. Do … something. Blow out a candle.”

We waited. I think we all held our breaths, like we were afraid of blowing a candle out ourselves. Still, nothing moved. Corrine pulled her hand from the planchette, rubbing her palms together as if to warm them. Edina perked up. “Did you—?”

“No, I didn’t feel a chill,” Corrine snapped. “I didn’t feel anything. There’s nothing here. This place nearly burnt to the ground once because it was so haunted and now there’s nothing here.

She didn’t yell, but the words echoed in the empty space, as if to truly prove how alone we were. One by one, we each took our fingers off the little wooden puzzle piece and sat back. “My cousin used one of these to try to figure out who her ghost was,” Edina said. “The thing picked up the board and threw it across the room.”

Amari nodded. “One of my friends bought one but didn’t get to use it because her ghost scratched out all the letters before she could.”

Corrine began to cry, quietly, just a sniffle. Amari scooted closer to her and let her friend drop her head onto her shoulder. “Where are they going?” Amari asked, her voice hoarse but not teary. “Why are they leaving us, huh? Where else do they have to go?”

Neither Edina nor I had an answer for her. Our whole lives, our parents’ lives, our grandparents’, all the ancient fables and historic accounts—all of it had been full of ghosts. “When I was a little girl,” my mother had once told me, “I used to play pranks on your grandpa and grandma with our family ghost. She had lived in our house for generations, just as we had. No one knows the history of their ghosts here in America, but we knew hers because it was the same as ours. We loved her, even if she was a nuisance sometimes. Grandma would set a place for her at the table for dinner on special occasions. I would read my books to her.”

We visited her family in Tehran a few years ago and she introduced Amari and me to their ghost the same way she’d introduce a cousin or an aunt. When we left, I had to pack my makeup three times because the ghost kept taking it out of my suitcase. On one of Mom’s weekly calls with her parents about a month ago, they’d told her they hadn’t heard from their ghost in far too long. They couldn’t feel her in the home anymore. Mom had cried like she’d lost a sister.

The ghosts were called foul and pests and danger, but they were still a constant in our lives we had never considered going without.

The four of us tried to sleep after the failed attempt at the ouija board, but I don’t think any of us did. I watched the moonlight filter through the windows, making shapes as it moved across the ceiling. I pretended those shapes could be ghosts. I thought: A world without ghosts might be okay.

I thought: We don’t really know them. They aren’t our family.

I thought: Who am I so afraid for?

In the morning, we packed our things quietly. Corrine tsk-ed at the wax that had clumped to the carpet beneath one of Edina’s candles, but said nothing else. Amari stuck close to me, closer than she had all night, and when Corrine went home, they hugged like they were saying goodbye forever instead of just a few days. Edina bumped her shoulder against mine.

“I’ll see you at work,” she said. “You open Monday?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe they forgot to smudge again.”

She walked out with Corrine and Amari hiked her backpack up on her shoulders. “Let’s go,” she said, but it sounded like, Please can we go?

I finished folding up one of the blankets so it would fit inside my backpack. “Dammit, there’s wax on this too,” I said. “How many candles did Edina have out last night?”

“Three,” Amari said. “But I didn’t think they were that close to ….”

She trailed off, smearing the toe of her shoe in another pile of wax. “Rasha, scoot over.”

“What?”

“Just come here.” Impatiently, she grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet and back a few paces. She pointed, slowly, but I already saw the words written with the red wax of Edina’s cinnamon-apple candles. We did not want to go.

 

 

Madeleine Sardina has been published in Psychopomp Magazine, Entropy, 45th Parallel, and is the author of the fiction collection Lonely Creatures. She can be found in grainy photographs taken in the forests of northern Oregon or online @mgsardina.

Image: sciencenordic.com

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3 Comments

  1. The story leaves questions of why a ghost will haunt a location; I believe that a ghost does not randomly pick a location to haunt there is some type of association…

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