Oh Ghost of Mine
by Zach Bartlett
Issue 2: Game | 4,690 words
The second thing I’d learned as an adjunct was that I would need yet a third job to keep me afloat during the summer. The first thing I’d learned was that it never hurts to oversell your experience to a potential employer. So I decided to leverage the single experience that I’d had with banishing eldritch horrors by placing a classified ad for my services in the Valley Advocate, as well as the “therapeutic” section of Craigslist, for lack of a more appropriate category there.
Supernatural solutions from
(rose emoji) DECCA LYNE (rose emoji)
Unions Organized, Demons Exorcised!
Very Discrete. Very Online.
Not a sex thing.
A spectre haunting yer apt.?
Got the kind of spooks that even
selfish German philosophers can’t fix?
Admittedly, I’d been lucky since the one supernatural being I’d dealt with had all the same vulnerabilities as natural beings—most importantly, a weakness to being assaulted with sharp metal objects. But I assumed I had enough of a working knowledge of the paranormal from popular media to get the gist of how they worked, and I’d helped organize enough faculty unions around the Six Colleges that if any of them actually did have secret libraries for Ancient Forbidden Unspeakable Tomes, I’d be able to get snuck in to see them after hours. Solidarity has its side benefits.
Plus, the working conditions seemed like they’d be about on par with food service.
My first solicitation came in just a few hours later. The first one from someone who had read the “not a sex thing” caveat came in the following day from a man named Reid.
“I don’t know if I actually have a ghost or what,” he wrote, “but there’s weird stuff going on in my apartment that definitely seems like more than just the building settling. I’ve never done this before. Do I need to buy, like, a full exorcism service? Or do you offer some sort of opening consultation?”
I personally had no idea and was glad he brought it up in email instead of a phone call. I spent a few minutes Googling industry standard rates—of which there didn’t seem to be any—then just told him a thirty-minute consultation would be twenty bucks since that seemed like a convenient amount to pay in cash. Hell if I wanted to figure out how to process credit cards with my phone on short notice.
He got back to me within the hour and asked if I’d be available that evening. For twenty dollars more than I otherwise would have made spending that time cleaning my apartment or getting banned from Twitter for posting guillotine memes again, I told him I certainly was. He sent me his address.
I spent the rest of the morning trying to figure out just what I should do when consulting someone on a potential haunting. Reid didn’t sound like he had any personal interest in paranormal activity, and I could probably totally bluff my way through it without him catching on. But that was a grifty late capitalism thing to do, and besides, I knew that extradimensional space cephalopods and magic-with-a-k stuff existed, so if I was to just go around faking knowledge about it then I’d be no better than the folks behind the Amityville Horror. There was paraprofessional pride at stake, in addition to over twice my hourly adjunct pay rate.
I didn’t have a crystal ball, baggie of runes, or anything like that. But my cursory research did turn up something called pendulum scrying. A pendulum seemed simple enough to carry around to appointments, and spare lengths of chain just tend to accumulate in the wardrobe of someone with as many Leftöver Crack t-shirts as I have. I popped a wide-gauge cylindrical spike off of an old collar and affixed it to the end of a foot-ish long metal chain. It probably wasn’t perfectly balanced, if that mattered, but eh, good enough for temp work.
At 4:45, I pulled up to the Pilgrim Meadow apartment building, which still looked like an old paper mill from the outside. I don’t know if this is a phenomenon in other parts of the country, but when manufacturing started to flee Western Massachusetts around the middle of last century, it abandoned a lot of factories along the Connecticut River. The ones in cities like Chicopee and Holyoke mostly sat empty, available for urban exploration and the occasional massive fire that got blamed on teens doing the former rather than on the absentee property owners. Warehouses in more picturesque cities like Treebridge suffered a different fate: walls were repartitioned and floors were smoothed over with clear varnish so you could still see the deep gouges that decades of industry had left in the hardwood. The spaces were then rented out as upscale boutiques and luxury apartments for people who liked rustic old New England chic but didn’t like the rustic old working class people who created it.
I entered the lobby and got into the modern brushed-metal elevator that felt like a half-hearted anachronism among the rest of the exposed nonfunctional pipework and distressed plaster walls. There was even an old time card punch clock still mounted in the lobby, which I appreciated, being from hardy Lowell Mill Girl stock myself. I went up to the third floor and knocked on Reid’s door, Apartment 308.
Reid was any average guy with a starter beard, plaid shirt, and glasses that may or may not have been prescribed. He looked a little surprised to see that his paranormal investigator was a woman with short cyan hair who stood a few inches taller than him and wore a Nerve Agents t-shirt. After a brief eye widen, he shook my hand and welcomed me in.
I’ll admit that part of me was expecting a dusty, cobwebbed attic where all the furniture was covered in sheets since that was the kind of territory movies and TV had led me to expect ghosts in, but I was relieved by how normie the place was. His apartment was a large loft room in similar style to the rest of the building: exposed ceiling beams, swatches of brick peeking out through cracked plaster that was probably fairly new and just designed to look that way. I didn’t feel an unnatural chill in the air, and there weren’t creepy portraits of deceased relatives whose eyes kept following you around. More than anything else, the space gave me the feeling that I was on a sitcom set; all the furniture—a couch, a couple loveseats, and a large coffee table in between them—were oriented towards the outside wall on which a large TV was mounted. There was a large kitchen off to one side of the main room and a couple doors on the opposite wall that were probably bedrooms or walk-in closets or humidors or something else that would just raise my class hackles if I knew about them. I was a little disappointed that I’d apparently lowballed the consultation fee, but regardless, I’d agreed to help the guy. I would make up the difference when charging for the actual ghost-booting services, if the situation called for them.
“So what sort of activity has been going on here that’s got you concerned?” I asked, subconsciously estimating the number of times my apartment could fit inside his. At least two.
“Well, I moved into this place three months ago. It was a completely bare loft; all the furniture and accoutrements were either brought in from my last place or bought new. Maybe two months ago, I woke up and all the furniture was pushed against the wall. Nothing was missing. It was all here, just moved. The doors and windows were all locked. I called the superintendent and he came up, checked that the floor was level and all that. About a week later, I found the same thing had happened again.” He grabbed the back of an easy chair and swayed it, to little effect. “These aren’t on casters or anything, they don’t just slide around.”
I leaned on a corner of the couch just to make sure, since Reid didn’t seem like an upper body strength kind of guy. The couch held firm.
“It always happens when you’re asleep? You’ve never seen them move with your own eyes?”
“No. I’ve tried staying up a few nights until about 1 a.m., but it either doesn’t happen those nights or happens after I fall asleep.”
“How often does this happen?”
“Maybe once a week or so.”
“Has there been any other unusual activity that you’ve noticed?”
“I mean, a handful of things that could just be human mistakes. Cabinets left open, keys misplaced.”
“Okay, well, that seems like it might be as close to a supernatural presence as anything else I’ve seen. Let’s do a little experiment to see if we can try to verify it.”
I took a seat on the couch and gestured for him to do the same. But not right next to me; I set my messenger bag between us with all the lefty slogan pins facing him, hoping he might catch on to something subliminally. I took out a legal pad and a permanent marker, put the former on his coffee table and drew a circle on it with the latter. I divided the circle into quadrants, with two opposing ones labeled YES and the other two labeled NO. I took my DIY pendant out of my coat pocket (I was a paranormal investigator—of course I was wearing a trench coat) and held it above the circle with one hand, elbow braced against the table with my other hand atop it for stability.
“What we’re going to do here is ask a couple questions, and if there’s a spiritual presence here, it will answer by swinging the pendant back and forth.” I flicked the spike with a finger for emphasis, then steadied it. “We need a couple control questions to make sure my little chart is aligned correctly, so ask it a yes-or-no question whose answer we can confirm.”
He thought for a moment. “Uh… is sugar sweet?”
After a short pause, and with no conscious motion on my part, the pendant began swinging back and forth through the YES quadrants. I halted the pendulum.
“Did Reid pay for all of the furniture here himself?” I asked.
The pendant swung through NO, and I looked inquiringly at Reid, who looked slightly embarrassed.
“My folks are investors back in New York.”
Okay, I’d twitched my hand for that question because I had a hunch. I steadied the pendant again and didn’t tell him. “Ask another.”
“Is the sun green?”
The pendant began swinging again, clearly through NO. I stopped it.
“Okay, so it seems like everything is working. Time to get down to business.” I deepened my voice a bit. Not because I thought it would help, but it just seemed like everybody did that in media depictions of séances I’d seen. “Am I speaking with the spirit who is inhabiting this building?”
There was a moment of inactivity, but then the pendant began swaying slightly, building momentum until it was definitely swinging through YES.
“What do you want?” Reid demanded.
“Dude, no.” I stopped the pendant with my free hand. “First, I need to re-center it between questions so the spirit… “I searched a bit because I didn’t have a solid idea of why, myself, “… so it starts fresh with new thought-energy each time we ask. Second, you aren’t paying for more than a binary answer at this point.”
I let the pendant dangle again.
“Am I speaking with the same spirit who has been moving the furniture in here?”
The pendant swung YES again. I re-centered it.
“Do you intend to harm Reid?”
The pendant swung NO, and Reid was visibly relieved. I steadied it once more.
“Will you stop rearranging furniture if we ask you to?”
“I want it to stop. I want it gone.”
I’d steadied the pendant and was about to tell him that step was definitely going to cost him when my phone rang. I had set “That Young Crazed Peeling” by The Distillers as my ringtone, so that meant that just then Brody Dalle shouted “ARE YOU REEEADY TO BE LIBERATEEED” from inside my bag. And I felt a swift tug from the pendant as it hovered over YES for a couple seconds, with the chain pulled taut before it suddenly released and swung freely.
Not something I could have done by flicking my wrist.
Reid and I both looked at each other quizzically, then I reached into my bag, silenced my phone, and put the pendant down on the table.
“Okay. I genuinely wasn’t trying to upsell you, but if you’re believing this, then it sounds like you have a spirit who’s totally on board with me getting it out of here.”
He’d been enthusiastically nodding since my ‘okay.’ “That was creepy; this place is possessed and I want it completely gone. What do we need to do?”
Ask my witchier friends how I’m actually supposed to do one of these for the first time. “I’m going to have to do a little bit of prep work and get a more expressive method of communication. I’ll also need to look into this building’s history. Is there a superintendent on site?”
“Yeah, he’s here during normal work hours. His office is on the first floor.”
“Great. I think that wraps up our business for the evening, so I’ll get in touch with you when I’ve done the necessary research and let you know when I can relieve you of your possession.”
“Am I going to be safe in here until then?”
“It said it wasn’t going to harm you, and I don’t see how it has any reason to be evasive about what it wants in its current position. Probably couldn’t hurt to burn some sage if you wanted to be extra safe.”
“Uh, all right, I guess I can try that later tonight.” He took a minimalist wallet out of his pocket and slid a card free. “You take credit, right?”
There was no shortage of people to consult with on occult matters in the Six Colleges. Mount Holyoke and UMass’s student populations were rife with normies, but the girls at Smith skewed more towards fun subcultures.
I knew a teaching assistant there who’d done her undergraduate at Misky U, and the first thing I did after getting into my car was text her.
Decca: Do store bought Ouija boards work for talking to actually-existing ghosts or do I need something carved from a coffin lid and blessed by a skeleton?
Sarah: How badly do you need to contact the spirit in question?
Decca: I don’t know anything about it but it’s actively messing with a dude’s floorplan and he’s paying me to get rid of it.
Sarah: If you’re already in an area where it’s active then anything should work, really.
Decca: Ok, cool.
Decca: Do you maybe have one of those old wooden ones I could use, just for effect?
Sarah: Nah, girl, I’ve heard what you do to peoples’ art that you set your hands on.
Decca: c_c WHO TOLD U
Sarah: You made that Facebook post about it then took it down Sarah: when that guy said you’d signed an NDA.
Decca: Ohhh yeah.
Sarah: Took a nice screenshot, I did.
Decca: delet plz
Decca: Do I currently owe you anything?
Sarah: Tag me in if you need a legit medium for whatever’s haunting this guy? Necromantrices got bills too.
Decca: ^_^ ,v,,
With that settled, I turned off the car and went back inside to try and talk to the superintendent who I’d totally blanked on in my haste to escape the bougieness of that place. I found his office next to a handmade soap store, down a hallway that subtly transitioned from cultivated old-building chic to regular old-building decay down its length. I knocked on the door at the end, which had MAINTENANCE stenciled on it. It was answered by a man who looked like Charles Bukowski’s understudy. Brief questioning revealed that he’d only worked there about a year and didn’t know anything about the building’s history other than what point in the season residents start complaining about the air conditioning. For a job like that, I can’t say I really blamed him for not taking a personal interest.
About an hour after I’d gotten home, I got a series of frantic texts from Reid. His attempt at burning sage had angered the ghost, and he’d fled to a hotel for the night after his entire living room had mobilized against him. I told him I’d research and meet him back there in the morning with what I had so far and DIY it.
I met Reid outside his apartment at 10 a.m. the following morning. He was leaning on his door with an ear against it, his clothes looked slept-in.
“It doesn’t sound like anything is still moving,” he said. “Are you ready to handle this?”
I held up the paper shopping bag I was carrying, rustling its contents for emphasis. “I think I’ve got everything we should need if it’s calmed down.”
He unlocked the door and opened it a crack, peered in, then opened it the rest of the way. All the furniture had been shoved up against the outside wall, as he’d described. There was also an overturned cereal bowl atop some scattered ashes on the carpet. I walked over to it and flipped it over. It smelled somewhat like burned Italian food.
“Is this, uh—”
“Yeah, I got a jar of sage and tried burning it like you’d said. It had absolutely no effect.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose, realizing my own unclear instructions, and decided I didn’t need to chide him over the empty herb jar that was probably in his recycling bin.
“Well, if this works,” I’ll admit, it felt like a pretty substantial if, “then we won’t need to try that again. Gimme a hand here.”
We each took an end of his coffee table and set it back onto the carpet in the middle of the room. I took out my Ouija board—it was the usual toy store kind, but I’d scratched out the manufacturer’s logo and tried making it look more authentic by spilling tea and scraping dark crayons over it. There wasn’t anything I could do to rough up the accompanying cheap plastic planchette, so I’d tossed it and now instructed Reid to get a clear glass from the kitchen to use. He came back with one as I was setting out candles for even more fauxthenticity.
Eyeing the candles, he crinkled his nose. “They aren’t all the same scent.”
“Traditionally we’re supposed to represent the four elements at the four cardinal directions.” That explanation omitted the fact that my choices were dictated by the candle shop’s discount shelf.
I lit each of the candles in turn and Reid drew the curtains. I set the glass—I don’t know why he got a fancy-looking martini glass—upside down on an area of the board where there weren’t any markings. The air filled with the mingling aromas of Nantucket Tides, Orchard Sunset, Gingerbread, and Fresh Linen. Reid sat on the floor, across the table from me, his hands palm up on the table like he was expecting us to form a circle. I was wise to his game; I held my hands out to my sides and improvised some words for a quick “hear us oh spirits” sort of introduction.
When I finished, the glass shifted back and forth a little, and the candles guttered. At least I assume that’s what they did—I’ve never looked up the definition, but that’s the only verb anybody uses to describe candle activity.
“Are you the spirit who has been rearranging the furniture in this room?” I inquired in séance voice.
The glass moved in starts and stops, eventually settling over the YES in the corner of the board.
“What do you want from me?” Reid implored.
The glass kind of shuffled around a bit, then rested inconclusively off-center over the ruined manufacturer logo.
“Why did it creep around here long enough to know who bought my furniture if it doesn’t want anything from me?”
“I won’t claim to know how spirits know what they know.” It felt like I should’ve lit a cigarette at that point if I smoked, to buy myself a little thinking time. “But it seems like the haunting isn’t specifically tied to you. Which is probably for the best.” I addressed the board again. “Why do you keep moving the furniture in this room?”
The glass began dragging around the board, coming to rest over letters in sequence before starting again. I took my notepad and began writing them down.
I showed the pad to Reid, then asked, “What kind of work area are you trying to keep safe?”
A look of realization crossed Reid’s face. “I made a fire hazard last night,” he said, seemingly to himself, though the glass swept to YES afterward.
Being a little too amateur of an amateur detective, I hadn’t figured the fact that the Pilgrim Meadow building used to be the Pilgrim Pulp paper factory up until the 70s would be important to the case. But apparently it still was the factory to someone.
“So you’re an employee at this paper mill?” I asked.
The glass circled around the board to come back to YES.
I figured, if the ghost was a person, speaking to it like one would help. Customer service 101. “What’s your name?”
The name fit with the area’s history of blue collar Polish immigration.
“Why are you still here, Kenneth?”
I immediately felt my sympathies drawn more to Kenneth knowing that he was a union man. But unless he’d stashed some gold bullion in the boiler room before getting crushed in a giant paper roller or whatever, Reid was still the one paying me.
I felt something click together inside my head. I was here on the clock. So was he. “He died during a shift! This seems like a longshot but do you have a toolbox around here?”
“Grab it and meet me down in the lobby,” I yelled out as I sprang to my feet and dashed for the stairwell, coat trailing dramatically behind me (I can only assume).
By the time the elevator opened and deposited Reid in the lobby, I had gotten impatient and had a hand on either side of the old punch clock, one of my boots pushing against the wall, and the other braced against the floor. His toolbox still had all the stickers on it, everything inside pristine and pressed firmly into the molded plastic interior. I took the biggest screwdriver and, with a bit of forcing, managed to undo the heavy screws anchoring it into the brick. It was heavier than I’d thought it would be, but I managed to carry it to the elevator and back into Reid’s apartment.
I set the clock down on his coffee table, facing the Ouija board. After thinking for a second, I ripped a sheet of paper out of my notebook, folded it to approximately the width of the punch clock’s card slot, wrote Kenneth’s name at the top, then inserted it.
“What are you doing?” Reid asked, probably noticing the crumbling plaster that now coated much of his table and floor.
“He said he wanted to be liberated, so… we’re relieving him.”
I stood up and addressed the board.
“Kenneth Szemanski? I regret that I have to inform you that… you are dead. Your last shift, during which I assume you were killed in a workplace accident, has been over for more than thirty years.”
The glass on the Ouija board began vibrating back and forth, then started to zoom around the letters, almost too quick for me to make out.
“I’m not privy to the details of your union contract, but I think it’s safe to say that you being here for so long has been in violation of it. Reid, here, is not a named party in your agreement. You need to go on and find what remains of the manager who is.”
There was a moment’s pause, then the glass leaped straight up a few inches and slammed back down on the Ouija board, thankfully not breaking against the compressed cardboard surface. Then the lever of the punch clock descended with an authoritative clunk, it got immediately colder in the room and the candles all went out. I dove behind the couch at that, but nothing else happened—no misty apparitions howling in unearthly torment, the board didn’t catch fire, Reid hadn’t been reduced to an emaciated corpse. When I peered back over, Reid was just standing there looking mildly confused.
“Are you still in the apartment?” he queried the board, giving his best attempt at a séance voice but also including a Dracula accent for whatever reason.
The glass remained still.
“Oh my god, it worked,” he exclaimed, clasping his hands together.
I walked back around the couch and began re-capping the little candle jars, putting everything back in the bag. “Naturally, he died on his shift, probably in a sudden accident without any warning, and his spirit was just… carrying on, heedless of what was going on with his meat.” That was an entire after-the-fact justification on my part, but I delivered it confidently enough. I made a mental note to ask Sarah if that was actually a thing in case I ever had to say it again.
“Makes sense, I suppose.” He took a slim bank envelope out of his pocket. “Here’s the payment, in cash this time. Thank you so much for your services.”
That went right into the bag too. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
“Is there any kind of, like, aftercare I should do now? To keep him gone?”
I shrugged, or did the best approximation I could while carrying a paper bag in one arm and a heavy metal time clock under the other. “It seemed like he doesn’t have any reason to come back, unless he runs into the old factory owner in the afterlife or something. If you want an extra layer of security, though, I know a professional witch who’ll be glad to tell you exactly what you should buy.” I gave him the name of Sarah’s booth at the farmer’s market and took the elevator back down to the lobby. I deposited the clock facedown at the base of the wall I’d taken it from, hoping it would just look like it’d fallen on its own. Besides, I was taking a couple better things with me: a quiet confidence that maybe I was resourceful enough to make this weird side-hustle work, and the fancy martini glass of Reid’s that I’d slipped into the bag without him noticing. Petty? Maybe slightly. But I’m a woman of my word, and I said I was going to relieve him of his possessions.
Zach Bartlett is a librarian and former Masshole living in New Orleans, where nobody listens to the Dropkick Murphys. His fiction has appeared in Gallery of Curiosities and Mad Scientist Journal, and his first novel To Another Abyss! was recently published by Spaceboy Books. You can find him on Twitter as @zachbistall and on unsocial media at zachbartlett.net.