You know, you just don’t expect to wake up one day and find that you’ve died.
Well, maybe the elderly do. And terminal patients, maybe. But when you’re healthy and in the prime of your life, it definitely comes as a shock. I know because it just happened to me, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.
I’m not even sure when it happened, or how. All I know is that the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was myself, lying at the foot of the staircase in the old Baird house, face down in a pool of blood. The rest of me was lying on my back. That had to hurt, and it made me grateful that I didn’t remember.
It took a while for my mind to catch up with what I saw. My first thought was that I’d never get all of that blood out of my clothes, and there goes my favorite pair of capris. My second thought was that my sister would be so full of herself at having been right that I’d never hear the end of it.
The third thought was where it caught up to me—it would be a neat trick to hear anything, from her or anyone else, ever again. I was dead.
What are the stages of grief again? There’s denial, anger, bargaining… I wasn’t sure about the last two, but I seemed to have the first three stuck on a loop. I mean, dead? Seriously? But I was only twenty-nine! Really twenty-nine, too, not thirty-something claiming to be twenty-nine, which was a privilege I was actually kind of looking forward to once I hit the big three-oh. I had a fully-loaded DVR at home and a novel to finish, and a business with my sister that was just getting into the black. How would this hurt the business? How would this hurt Chris?
From my vantage point on the second landing, I could see a plastic rock upended on the porch railing outside with its hidey-hole exposed, so it wasn’t that hard to piece together how I’d gotten in here. Apparently, I’d had time to set up my laptop before things went south, because I could see it sitting open on a dusty table in the parlor. At least it hadn’t gotten smashed when I fell.
I half-laughed, half-moaned at the absurdity of my relief. Fat lot of good it did me, not having my laptop damaged.
Or did it?
It had a built-in web cam. Did I turn it on before I went to explore? It would have been a dumb not to. At the angle I’d set it at, it might have recorded the whole sordid tragedy. Without thinking, I went to it. I mean, really without thinking. I didn’t even remember walking over there. I just suddenly stood in front of the computer, its black screen in power-save mode. I swallowed—or at least went through the motions of swallowing—and reached my hand out toward the infrared mouse.
And watched my hand pass right through it.
I stared for a long moment at my hand sticking through the mouse and the table beneath it. “Oh, come on!” I finally bellowed in frustrated disbelief. “Seriously?”
I was answered by oppressive, depressing, lonely silence. That felt pretty serious.
Then I heard someone laugh.
“Hello?” I called, praying I hadn’t imagined the laughter. At that moment, I felt so lonely I couldn’t feel anything but hope at the prospect of having some company. Maybe even a guide, some kind of guru who could help me navigate this here afterlife. Or, heck, even just a ghostly witness who could tell me what had happened.
“Hello!” I called again, moving in the direction I thought the laugh had come from. I heard it again, distinctly this time. It sounded like a small child, maybe a little girl. I racked my brain, remembering what I knew about the house, and couldn’t recall any child deaths occurring here. I moved into the dining room through a set of French doors with cracked panes. Nothing filled the shelves of the built-in China cabinet but dust and shadows. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I promised. “It’s okay. I just want to ask you some questions.”
More childish laughter came from the room I’d just left. I swore and turned around. As I approached the threshold separating the dining room from the parlor, the French doors slammed shut, hard enough for the cracks in the glass to grow.
With a startled scream, I reached for the handle, only to see my hand pass right through it. I bit back another scream, muttering instead, “Okay! Getting a little creeped out, here.” Then I remembered I could walk right through the doors. Rolling my eyes at myself, I stepped through them.
“Look,” I said, “little girl—kid—whatever, Aunt Ronnie needs some help here, okay? We can play hide and seek later.”
More laughter drifted down the stairs. “Kids,” I muttered, heading that way.
“Don’t go,” a voice whispered.
It might surprise you to learn that dead people can feel fear. I could, at least. Suddenly, I was petrified. “Ooookay…ghosts,” I said, realizing that not being the only ghost in the house might not be such a great thing after all. “I’m one of you guys. I mean, apparently. So can’t we all be pals?”
Behind me, the French doors swung open in a silent invitation. I stood there a moment, torn between following the laughter—which I had to admit was beginning to feel a little creepy—and taking up Whisper’s invitation. I didn’t feel that easy about either prospect, really, but either way, what did I have to lose? I was already dead. The only other alternative—doing nothing, and staying alone—was depressing enough to overpower my fear.
But not only was I not alone, I also had my choice of company. And like I said, the little kid was beginning to freak me out. If somebody was trying to warn me not to follow her, it was probably a good idea to listen. At least the other voice was trying to be helpful. I headed back into the dining room but paused at the threshold.
There was also a chance that this was a single entity, getting its afterlife jollies by screwing with me.
But even that seemed better than hanging out with my own corpse.
“Okay! I didn’t go!” I said, crossing the threshold. “So…what now?”
A light came on in the kitchen. That got my attention, especially seeing as how the house had no electricity. I moved toward it, then stopped. What was I doing? I mean, moving toward the light? Wasn’t that the way to move on? I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Not before talking to Chris. Not without knowing what had caused my head to do half a Linda Blair.
Then again…a kitchen light? Nah. The entrance to the Great Beyond had to be more dramatic than that. I edged closer to the kitchen. Without stepping in, just in case, I peeked inside. A man with sandy brown hair sat slumped in a chair in the middle of the kitchen. He was dressed in old fashioned trousers held up by suspenders, the sleeves of his blue work shirt rolled up to his elbows. He looked haggard, like he’d just been through some kind of ordeal.
“Hello?” I said. He didn’t turn around. “Was that you back there with the door? Were those theatrics really necessary?” No response. I tried one more time. “So, you want to tell me what’s up with that kid? Is it yours?” Nothing. Maybe he couldn’t hear me. Maybe he was only an apparition, an environmental memory of the living, unable to interact with me. He could only go through the motions.
Or maybe he wasn’t a ghost at all. A sinking feeling came over me as I realized I might be looking at my murderer. I started to back away.
“Best stay here,” he said, and I stopped. He didn’t look up, but he said, softly, “You’re safer in here.”
I opened my mouth to ask him why, but I was cut off by the sound of screaming.
Chris was my baby sister. She was also my business partner and best friend. More than that, I was the closest thing she had to a mother, having practically raised her after our mom passed away. This would devastate her. But it could be worse. At least I’d still be able to talk to her. Tell her goodbye, leave her with instructions on getting my house in order, and some hopefully stellar sisterly wisdom that she could think back on and smile about after she helped me cross over.
Chris could see dead people. See them, hear them, talk to them, help them with their unfinished business, that sort of thing. It gave us a pretty great edge in our business.
We’re professional ghost hunters. Well, I supposed now I could scratch “hunter” from the title on my business cards. Veronica Wilson, Professional Ghost, that’s me. I still couldn’t believe it. The job was what had brought me here to the old Baird house. The stupid, creepy, super-haunted Baird house, a.k.a. Chris’s obsession.
The house had a long, disturbing history. Its reputation started back in the 1930s with Ruth Baird, a wealthy matron who killed her husband with an ax and then locked her daughter in the basement to starve before hanging herself from the banister. That had only been the first of a long series of grizzly murder-suicides and freak accidents that had happened in the house’s nearly eighty-year history. The handful of residents who had made it out alive told stories about voices coming from the drains, moving shadows, and feelings of being watched. Chris had been trying to gain access to investigate it for years, so of course, when we finally got it, we didn’t hesitate to haul ourselves over here.
I didn’t, anyway. Idiot.
But I mean, come on. How was I supposed to know I’d turn out to be the latest in a long string of tragic deaths to happen here?
I could remember arguing with Chris over the phone. She didn’t want me coming over here alone. But she was two hours away, working on one of her special missions. I was anxious to get a look inside the house and not about to be bossed around by my baby sister.
Well, Ron, here you are, inside the house. Like what you see?
For all of the paranormal activity rumored to happen here, the house sure felt awfully empty. I didn’t hear any voices or see any mysterious shadows, and I didn’t feel like I was being watched. I just felt alone. And scared. Would my memories ever come back? Or was my death just the beginning of what I would forget? If my memories were all that were left of me, what would happen if they all went away? Was this all there was? I never really had any solid beliefs about the afterlife when I was alive. But now that I was here, I couldn’t believe this was all there was to it.
Great. Now I wanted to cry, and I didn’t even know if that was physically possible.
I should have listened to Chris.