Suddenly I was back in the parlor, standing next to my own head. My sister knelt beside my body, her fists knotted in her hair as she opened her mouth in a silent wail. I tried to reach for her, but of course, I couldn’t touch her. This was beyond horrible. “Oh, sweetie. I’m right here. I am so, so sorry.” I braced for her reaction, fully expecting her to unleash her grief on me. What was I thinking? Why didn’t I listen to her? What were we going to do now?
But it didn’t come. She just went right on crying over my body, as if I’d never spoken. “Chris? Hello?”
“She can’t hear you.”
I spun to see the guy from the kitchen standing behind me. “Yes, she can. It’s what she does.” I dismissed him and turned back to my sister. “Come on, Chris, don’t do this. I need you right now. You’ve gotta help me figure this out.”
“I’m telling you,” said Kitchen Guy, “she can’t hear you. Nobody can.”
“Because I’m dead. Right. Thanks, but I’ve got this.” I crouched down and snapped my fingers in front of her face. “Hey! Sweetie! Talk to me!”
Still sobbing, Chris reached for my messed-up head. Gus, who had been hanging back by the front door this whole time, ran over to her. He leaned down and reached right through me to grab her hands. “Don’t!”
“But I can’t leave her like this,” she cried.
Softly, Gus moved her hands away. “We have to. We shouldn’t disturb the body. Not until after the police get here.”
I backed up a few steps, trying not to freak out. For one thing, having Gus’s arms going through my torso was the most disturbing thing I’d seen all day, and that was really saying something. For another, something was wrong. Why couldn’t she hear me?
“Looks like she fell,” said Gus, looking up at the staircase. I rolled my eyes. Glad to see Encyclopedia Brown was on the case.
His stating the obvious seemed to snap Chris out of her crying fit, though, because she choked it back and followed his gaze. Wiping her nose on her sleeve, she shook her head. “I don’t see how a simple fall could have done that to her neck.”
Oh. Well that…that probably wasn’t good news. My hand went protectively to my throat as I cast a suspicious glance over at Kitchen Guy. He didn’t look like my idea of a murderer. Didn’t people say that about Ted Bundy?
With Gus’s help, Chris struggled to her feet and started up the stairs. “Just like Mom,” she whimpered. I winced. I supposed there was some poetic justice in that. Except Mom had at least survived long enough to make it to the hospital and into surgery.
“Honey,” I called, but she still showed no sign of hearing my voice.
Halfway up the stairs, she stopped. “Someone’s here.”
“Finally!” I went to meet her on the stairs. “You don’t really think I’d leave without telling you goodbye, do you?” I stopped short as she backed up and almost stepped right through me.
“Something angry,” she said, and ran back to my body. “Help me,” she told Gus as she grabbed hold of my ankles.
“What are you doing? I told you, the police said not to move her!”
“We have to get out of here, now.” There was a note of panic in her voice. “I’m not leaving her, though, and we can’t let the police come in here. It’s too dangerous.”
No sooner did she say that than the lights—the ones without any power—began to flicker on and off. Again, I looked over at the stranger. “What are you doing?”
“It’s not me,” he said.
“Well, someone’s scaring her and it’s sure not me!” I watched helplessly as she and Gus picked up my body at each end and carried me toward the door. “Wait! Don’t leave me here!” The house began to shake. Windows rattled. The chandelier above us swung dangerously on its chain. A couple of panes on the already damaged French doors shattered, raining glass all over the floor. “Hey! Kitchen Guy! Knock it off!”
“It’s not me!” Wow, voice inflection. That was the first sign of emotion I’d seen from that guy.
Light bulbs exploded on the chandelier. I let out a sharp scream, then swore at my own fright as Chris and Gus picked up the pace. I stayed close, following my only ticket out of this nightmare house. Ghosts are tied to their former bodies as much as they are to their places of death. We saw a lot of cases where spirits haunted their graves. As long as they had my corpse, I could go with them. Then maybe, I could get through to Chris after she’d had a chance to calm down. I stood back as they carried me out, then followed right behind…until I reached the threshold and slammed into nothing.
I stumbled back a few steps and stared out the door. I couldn’t see my sister. I couldn’t see anything. It was like the entire world outside the house had been erased. I glanced at the front window, and its view looked the same. Gus’s arm and torso reappeared briefly as he reached back in to close the door. Then they were gone.
“What the . . .?” I grabbed for the door, but of course, my hand slipped right through the knob. Trying to walk through the closed door netted about the same result as it would have if I was still living. “Oh, come on!”
“Can’t go with them.”
I spun around to face Kitchen Guy. “Why not? What did you do that for? That was my sister! She could have helped me. She could’ve helped us both!”
“No, she couldn’t have,” he said, his voice infuriatingly calm. “Not in this house.”
“What are you talking about? I know how these things work. I should be able to go with my body. I should be able to haunt my own body!” I was growing frantic, and I couldn’t rein it in. I didn’t want to. I wanted to bust some heads. “Why did you scare them away?”
“I already told you, it wasn’t me!”
“Oh, God. Why…why is this happening?”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t stop her.”
“Stop who? Why can’t I leave?”
“She won’t let you.” He looked at the stairs. As he did, a little red ball bounced down the steps. I heard that giggle again, floating down from the second floor. Any other time, all of this would have given me a thorough wiggins, but I was too furious to even think about being scared. I charged toward the stairs, kicking the ball out of my way as I went.
“Don’t!” Kitchen Guy shouted. “Come with me back to the kitchen. We’ll be safe there.”
“Not till I get some answers,” I said, and kept going.
The stairs took a left turn at the top and let out into a long, empty hallway. I paused to calm myself down. I didn’t know who this kid was, but if it was me, I wouldn’t be too eager to show myself to a righteously angry ghost determined to get some answers.
“Hey, kiddo,” I called, forcing as much sweetness as I could muster into my tone, “why don’t you come on out? Aunt Veronica just wants to ask you some questions.” I pushed my head through the first door into an empty bedroom, the hardwood floor of which was covered in undisturbed dust. Just like the rest of the house, save the foyer and living room. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I said, continuing down the hall. “Maybe we can play a game!”
As I spoke, I peeked through another door and found a bathroom, also vacant. I stood there a moment, admiring the tile—okay, fine, I’m shallow, but the period tile was gorgeous, and I have a notorious habit of being distracted by shiny things—before moving to the last door in the hall. I braced myself, ready for a confrontation with some kind of bad seed who could pop me out to the middle of a cornfield.
I pushed my head through the door and relaxed. Another empty room. She could be hiding in a closet, or maybe the attic, if I could figure out how to get up there. Now that I had calmed down, I decided it best to go back to the kitchen and ask my sandy-haired friend where else she could be hiding.
I made my way back down the dark hallway. As I reached the stairs, a giggle came from behind me. I turned around.
I fully expected her to be dressed all in white, with long, dark hair cascading over her evil, evil little face. Clearly, I’ve watched too many Asian horror movies. What I saw instead was a cherub in copper pigtails and overalls. She was holding her red ball.
I thought of the Waverly Sanatorium in Kentucky, one of the most haunted places in the world, where Chris had dragged me for an expedition after I signed on to the ghost-hunting biz. A rite of passage, she’d called it. One of the stories she’d told me about the place had been of a child’s ball that appears at random all over the old hospital. Hearing the story had given me the willies, but not as much as almost tripping over the ball in a dark hallway. At the time, I’d believed Chris was just messing with me. But the sight of this little girl with her little red ball made me uneasy.
I shook it off and smiled. “Well, hi there, cutie,” I said, relaxing. “I’m Ron. What’s your name?”
“Ron’s a boy’s name,” she said, in full-on brat mode. Hey, at least we were engaging.
“My dad had issues,” I told her, “but I like Ron anyway. It’s short for Veronica.”
She shrugged and held up her ball. “Want to play catch?”
“Sure, we can play catch. But first let’s talk a li—” Before I could finish, she threw her ball. To say she threw it hard would be like saying a tornado is a bit breezy. It hit the side of my face hard enough to snap it clean around. I fell down the stairs, bouncing off the corner as I went. My head flopped around sickeningly as I tumbled, not stopping until I hit the bottom.
I lay there for a long while, in the same position I’d died in. Then I turned my head around the right way, straightened my limbs, and sat up. The ball came bouncing down the stairs again. This time, I was scared. I scuttled out of its way before it could touch me again, then got to my feet and hauled myself to the kitchen.
“I warned you,” said Kitchen Guy. He was sitting at a table across from an older lady who hummed softly to herself.
“Yeah, well, you can get in line behind my sister at the ‘I told you so’ window.”
“I—uh, what window?” He looked confused.
“Never mind.” An empty chair sat next to Kitchen Guy’s, already pulled out from the table. I swore a blue streak under my breath as I sank into it.
The woman’s head snapped up. “Language! I am not running a brothel here, young lady.”
“Uh…sorry.” I took a moment to study the woman. She looked to be in her fifties, her red hair threaded with silver and pulled into a severe bun. Her buttoned-up blouse and long, straight skirt were old-fashioned, even for the 1930s, which was when she’d died. I recognized her from old newspaper clippings. I was getting chastised by none other than Ruth Baird herself. “Sorry,” I said again for good measure, not wanting to be on the ax murderer’s bad side. She nodded, apparently mollified, and went back to humming an old hymn.
“Are you in pain?” asked Kitchen Guy.
“No,” I realized. “While I was falling, it hurt like a son of a bi—uh, a biscuit—” I glanced over at Mrs. Baird as I censored myself. “But now, I feel fine. Actually, I kinda don’t feel anything.”
“That’s because you’re dead, dear,” said Mrs. Baird, then tsked as she shook her head. “Such a shame. So young, and so pretty.” She cast a knowing glance across the table at Kitchen Guy, but he shifted in his chair and made a show of ignoring her.
“Um, thanks,” I said, then turned back to Kitchen Guy. “So that’s how I died?”
“Like I said.” He locked eyes on his own two hands, seemingly to keep from looking at me. “I couldn’t stop it.”
I sat still for a long time, letting it all sink in. She was the one keeping us here, he’d said. How? Why? What did I ever do to her, except be nice? “That little…” I muttered, then stood up.
So did he. “Where are you going now?”
“No little brat is going to get away with killing me like that,” I said as I headed back out to the parlor. “Somebody needs to get spanked.”
“She’s too strong!” he called.
“We’ll see about that.” I marched back up the stairs. Kids were like dogs, at least in my experience. If you showed them any signs of fear, they’d dominate you. “Listen, kid,” I called as I rounded the corner and took the last few steps. The ball hit me as I reached the landing.