Saturday morning we got a call from Beverly.
“How far are you boys from REDACTED TOWN?” she asked when Julian picked up.
Neal grumbled and rolled over, dragging a pillow over his head.
“Maybe nine hours?” Julian, in contrast, was fresh out of the shower, back from his run, scrubbing water out of his hair.
“We’ve got a haunting,” Beverly said. “Jessa called to see if we could do it on the way out to White Pyre, but we already left. It’s like 8 hours in the wrong direction for us. You think you can take care of it?”
“Oh yeah, we got it,” Julian said, tossing his wet towel at Neal, who grumbled again. “We’re not going to White Pyre, so we have lots of time.”
There was a moment of quiet on the line.
“You there Bev?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I just thought — I mean you sure you don’t want to come?”
“For fucks sake,” Neal groaned from under his pillows. “It’s a bit early for this don’t you think Bev?”
“Am I on speaker?” Beverly said, and when the answer was affirmative, she put on a silly sweet voice: “Wakey wakey baby Neal! Good morning good morning it’s time to start the day, first we’ll have breakfast and then we can —”
Neal threw his pillow towards the phone which Julian dodged, took Beverly off speaker and left the motel room.
Meanwhile I played Stardew Valley on my phone. I play a lot of Stardew Valley on my phone tbh. Still no idea what White Pyre is. Every time it comes up everyone gets real weird, so I just don’t ask.
We were on the road within an hour, and Julian started going through the research Beverly sent about this case.
The family moved in four months ago. They’re a big family with five young daughters. Dad’s in construction, mom’s a preschool teacher. All their money’s tied up in this house. I mean, it’s the classic haunting story.
“Yikes,” Julian said, totally unbothered as Neal wove between a semi and a minivan at like 100 mph. Seriously, how this rust bucket can even hit 100 mph is a mystery to me. “This poor family’s been through it, listen to this.” And he went on to play us the call the poor mother placed to the cops three nights ago:
MOTHER, VOICE AUDIBLY SHAKING: Hello? This is Maria Paretti, I think there’s someone in my house.
911 DISPATCHER: Can you tell us where you are?
MARIA: (Redacted address) Please, hurry. Please there’s (muffled screaming) — oh my god —
DISPATCHER: Ma’am can you
MARIA, SCREAMING: Put her down! Please leave us alone please — we’ll do anything you —
“Put her down?” Neal said.
“Apparently something grabbed the youngest,” Julian said, scrolling through the report. “It started with pretty average, run of the mill stuff. Flickering lights. Bad dreams. Scratching in the walls. But it started escalating pretty quickly.”
“Grabbing little kids sounds like at least a stage 3,” Neal said.
“My guess is a strong 3,” Julian replied. “That ‘let her go’ sounds like it could be a four though.”
“Good,” Neal grumbled. “We could use a damn distraction.”
We were expecting to have to lie our way into her house, but when we arrived Maria answered the door herself, black curls going haywire, and said, “Are you here already? Thank goodness, come in.”
“Do you know who —”
“You’re here to get rid of these ghosts, right?”
And we were, but we weren’t aware that she knew we were coming. We’d prepped a whole fake gas leak story to get the family out of the house and everything, and here she was, harried as hell, like we were babysitters and she was 15 minutes late to her event.
When we were just sort of blank and bewildered, she gave us a strange look and added, “Are you from the church?”
Neal snorted. “Yeah,” he said, clearly joking, and Julian gave him a look like he was insane.
“Shouldn’t you have the —” Maria gestured her fingers around her neck.
“We’re not priests,” Julian said, recovering. “We’re just here to do some preliminary investigation, ask you some questions, and make sure your family gets out of here safe. Before the rest of the team gets here.”
What hilariously obvious bullshit. Julian’s usually slicker than that, but Neal wasn’t doing him any favors.
Maria squinted at us, and then sighed and stood aside. “Well, alright, come on in. It’s not like there’s anything for you to steal. Girls! The church is here!”
The girls were sleepy, sad-eyed creatures, that huddled close to their mother, apparently terrified. The youngest, Isabella, was the one who was grabbed. She wasn’t bruised, and showed no physical signs of having been assaulted at all, but Maria showed us inexplicable pictures of her standing in a dark hallway, illuminated by the camera flash. Her face was screwed up in terror and something had her by the back of her night shirt. I couldn’t see anything back there, but her shirt was tugged back, as if snagged on something in midair.
“This happened when I was on the phone with the police,” Maria said as she showed us the image. “This was when we knew that I’d called the wrong place for help. I called you guys first thing this morning. Though, Father Raggert said he’d be here at noon, and you’re rather earlier than that.”
It was getting to be about noon, so we hurried the family out of the house, which wasn’t difficult. Turns out once you’ve got photographic evidence of invisible spooks in your house you’re not super eager to stay in it.
Father Raggert was comically useless. He clearly did not believe there was anything actually wrong in the house. He kept talking about superstitious housewives, as he walked around making crosses over things. Then finally he left, and the work could begin.
Work, in this case, meant clearing the space.
Remember the spooks we cleared out of my moms apartment last year? Apparently they were a cool level 2.
Back then, I distinctly remember Tilly and I asked if we knew who the spooks were, and Julian said they probably didn’t know who they were themselves. Just energy drawn to high energy spaces, like moths to a flame, I believe is what he said.
Well it turns out it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
“Yeah we gave you the easy version,” Julian admitted as we got set up with our rune stones and bells. “No one wants to be told that ghosts aren’t people. We try to leave people with their comforting lies intact as often as we can.”
“Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but there’s no evidence to suggest we have souls,” Neal told me cheerfully.
I could have argued with him. I could have pointed out that I’ve died and I can tell you with reasonable confidence that your consciousness goes somewhere when it evacuates your flesh prison. But listen, he was in a bad mood and the idea of having no immortal soul was making his sad, cold heart warmer and I couldn’t take that away from him.
As it turns out spooks are just scraps of people, echoes. Sometimes the echoes are of bad things. That’s what we always think of with hauntings, echoes of pain, or anger, or whatever. But ghosts are not whole human consciousnesses.
That leaves very little space for sentimental ghost stories. There’s no tearful reassurances of a peaceful afterlife from grandma or anything.
The way the boys talk, this whole job is more like spring cleaning than The Exorcist.
Nothing about this job is cool as it’s supposed to be.
Anyways, this is how a successful clearing is supposed to play out:
One person grounds the event, which as far as I can tell means you sit there, though Neal assures me it’s more difficult than it looks.
The grounder’s job is to be the quiet place the spooks go after they’ve been disturbed. Usually, you use a bowl of water, or a candle, to actually carry the spooks, but in really bad circumstances, the person grounding acts as a sort of vessel to carry that energy, and remove it.
Remember when Tilly and I attempted our ill-advised spell out in the woods last year and almost died? When Neal swallowed the spell we were doing and cancelled it, he was grounding us.
The other person goes into the different rooms, herbs smoking, bells ringing, making the space less attractive to whatever spooks have settled down in there. That’s the much easier job. You just have to piss off the disembodied bad energy of dead people until they get all riled up and go searching for somewhere more peaceful.
“This’ll take twenty minutes,” Neal said, swaggering, tossing rune stones around the room to Julian’s exasperation. “An hour tops, and then we can get out of here. We’ll call Maria from the road. Catch a show tonight in town maybe.”
That is not what happened. Julian and I rang bells and burned incense all day, but by the time the sun set the worst spirits in the house were Neals.
Trust me, by the end of the day nothing, dead or alive, wanted to be in there. And I could tell, too, because the house began to throw a tantrum.
First, there was just a draft where no draft should be, whispering the curtains and my hair.
Then, lights flickering on and off.
Then, I swear I heard footsteps running up the stairs.
Doors slammed. I watched the kitchen sink splutter and turn on. A crow flew headlong into the dining room window and died on the lawn.
When thirty frogs appeared on the back porch, Julian called it.
“This is only going to get worse over night,” he told Neal. “We’ll come back in the morning and give it another shot.”
Neal’s furious. We’re in the motel right now watching Discovery Channel.
Yikes — Julian just asked him what’s wrong. “Is the haunting worse than we thought?”
Neal literally just got up and stormed out lmao.
When I asked what his problem is, Julian just shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. I feel like he probably does know, but that doesn’t seem like a battle worth fighting right now.
I’m going to bed.