The Ghost and the Graveyard

Chapter 3


Yeah, About My New House
The stench of dirty feet brought me to my senses. Where was I? I sat up and cracked my back. Memories of the night lingered like a bad case of food poisoning. What the hell happened last night? I'd sworn to stay off men until I had time to heal. After the Gary incident, I'd had to go to therapy, months of soul-wrenching therapy where I promised myself I wouldn't hand my future over to the next guy who came along. I'd given Gary control of all of my financial resources because I thought I loved him. Who does that? I'll tell you who. Push-overs. Women who need boundaries. I needed boundaries. I needed control. I needed to not straddle every cemetery caretaker who walked through my door.
I'd crossed a line into mildly slutty last night. I slapped my forehead, which was beginning to throb in protest of yesterday's alcohol ingestion. With a deep breath, I decided there was no need to berate myself. So, I'd slipped. I chalked it up to the wine and the stress of moving into the new house. Nothing too serious had happened. Last night was a test, one I'd barely passed. Obviously, Rick was my catnip. Now that I understood his effect on me, I would be more careful around him.
I cracked my back again. The family room couch did not make a good bed. Light streamed between the wood blinds. Crap. I glanced at my watch and then leaped to my feet. I'd have to hustle if I was going to make my shift at the hospital and, unfortunately, I hadn't unpacked my moving box. I'd have to dig out my scrubs and bathroom sundries.
Hauling my awkward cargo up to the bedroom, I retrieved all of my stuff and took the world's fastest shower. The mirror was covered in a thick layer of steam, and I struggled to get ready with a throbbing headache on top of impaired vision.
"Ow!" I yanked the mascara wand out of my eye. I was going to look like a raccoon if I wasn't careful. A raccoon with a migraine.
I dug in my purse for some ibuprofen and gulped them down with water from the sink. That's when my hangover became the least of my worries. I had the distinct impression that someone was watching me.
"Hello?" I called, sticking my head out the bathroom door.
There was no one there.
Weird. This creaky old house was messing with my head. I sighed and dressed in my scrub top, an ice-blue one with tiny penguins. As the cloth slipped over my head, I thought I saw a man's face in the foggy mirror, for a fraction of a second. Once my vision was unobstructed, nothing.
I made a second mental note to cut back on the liquor. On my way out the door, I grabbed the ugly bouquet with its dirty-foot odor and tossed it into the garbage can. The smell was definitely not helping my hangover.
As I backed out of the garage, I retrieved a frosted strawberry Pop Tart from my glove compartment and a bottle of Frappuccino from the case behind my seat. "Breakfast of champions," I mumbled to the windshield, hoping I'd make it to work on time.
* * * * *
One of the perks of being a nurse is the twelve-hour shifts. Sure they're long, but you only have to work three days a week. Plus, because of Michelle, I got in good with the staff during clinicals and was hired on day shift, 7 a.m to 7 p.m. Cool gig for someone like me with no spouse or kids. Off early enough to enjoy a night out, plus four days of freedom a week to spend as you choose, or in my case, as I can afford. My new digs added a thirty-minute commute in each direction, twenty if you drive like I do. By the time I got home, I was mentally and physically exhausted, ready and willing to do my best impression of a slug on the couch for the rest of the night. Unfortunately, my workday wasn't over.
As part of my financial rescue strategy, I'd taken on a second job as a phone nurse. The idea was that I would do it on my days off, but that hadn't worked out this week. My coworker had some kind of personal conflict, so I was left covering the rest of her shift, eight to midnight. It wasn't exactly how I wanted to spend my night. Visions of the caretaker danced through my head, but I brushed them away with a sweep of my hand. I had work to do.
I tossed some cheese and crackers into my mouth, booted my laptop, and donned the headset that made me look like Uhura from Star Trek. Like a good little call center rep, I logged in at exactly eight o'clock and the calls started rolling in.
"No, Mrs. Sakston, brown urine is never normal, even if you did have asparagus for dinner. Please see your doctor."
And more calls.
"Even though the PMS is really bad, it isn't a reason to take your wife to the emergency room, Mr. Johnston. Please call her doctor in the morning for an office visit. No, I don't think she'll kill you, but maybe you should stay out of her way."
And more calls.
"How far apart are the contractions? Five minutes? Yes, you should go to the hospital now."
Until finally, around 11:30 p.m., the calls seemed to stop and I watched the clock inch toward midnight. I was more than ready to be done with the day. The scrubs I'd thrown on that morning clung to me like a straitjacket. I longed to spend the night in a real bed after my backbreaking stint on the couch the night before.
Static in my ear at 11:59 was an unwelcome warning that a call was coming in-the sound of the switchboard routing to me. It was all that I could do not to log out and make the patient call back. But I'm not the type of person to leave my work for someone else, so I waited for the familiar beep that would signify the call's connection.
"Hello, you've reached the St. John's medi-line. How can I help you today?"
"Are you the sorter?" a grandmotherly voice asked.
"Excuse me? Ma'am? Can I help you?"
"Do you seek the book and blade?"
She sounded old. Maybe she was confused. "This is the hospital phone service. Are you in trouble? Do you need help? What's your name?"
"My name is Prudence, dear."
"Prudence, are you ill?"
"Oh no, I'm not ill."
"Can I help you with something?"
"Are you the sorter?"
"I don't know what that is, ma'am."
Click. The line disconnected. My hand reflexively shot forward and hit the button on my computer to log out.
"Freaking weird," I said. I wondered what kind of situation the lady was in. Maybe she was an Alzheimer's patient or something. She certainly wasn't making any sense.
I was in the process of removing my headset and making plans for a long, hot bath when the sound of a door swinging open on squeaky hinges made me turn toward the stairs. The sound was coming from up, way up. I rose on shaky legs and took three big steps toward the foyer.
I'm not sure what I noticed first, the woman herself or the light that surrounded her. She had the curly gray hair of a grandmother, round cheeks, and a black button front sweater over a high lace collar. Her face was a scowl and below her waist ...nothing. Tendrils of mist-that was it. The glowing torso of an old lady leered at me from the top of my steps. I stopped breathing. I blinked once, then twice. She locked eyes with me.
"Are you the sorter?" she asked in a voice lined with static as if the air between us was causing a bad connection.
I stared, eyes wide and voice mute with shock.
"Do you seek the book and blade?"
Her tendrils wormed lower, onto the next stair. I still couldn't form words, so I shook my head.
"Are you the sorter?" she asked again.
Sorter? "N-no," I stuttered.
The parchment colored skin of her face began to glow above her high lace collar, then tightened like shrink-wrap to her skull. Her eyes became burning embers in their bony pits, and her teeth elongated.
"Get out of my house!" she bellowed.
What the fuck? A cold wind powered toward me, a whistling cyclone of fury that made the floor quake and the shutters bang against the walls from their place outside the windows. The pots and pans, hinged to the pot rack in the kitchen, crash-boom-banged in the mounting interior-tornado. My laptop crashed to the hardwood floor. Papers fluttered by, my notes and work forms, circling like misguided snowflakes. In the dining room, the chairs took turns pulling themselves out and then pushing themselves back in at the table.
Anyone in her right mind would have run, but I couldn't move. My muscles and vocal chords froze from fear, and my feet weighed two tons each. I couldn't even breathe.
The torso descended the stairs, weightless but menacing, piercing me with that monstrous gaze. "Get out!" she bellowed again.
This had to be a nightmare. I'd fallen asleep at the computer and was having a nightmare. Why weren't my muscles moving?
Closer, she drifted. I had to make a run for it. I had to move. My jaw sagged. I was still holding my breath.
A man stepped between the ghost and me. Where did he come from? He lifted two fingers over his shoulder, and the wind stopped, the pans clinked to a rest, the shutters halted their wicked cacophony.
"Oh thank God," I said and let the air rush out of my burning lungs.
He turned toward the ghost, held out his hand, and said, "Prudence, come on. Knock it off. You're scaring her."
"She doesn't belong here!" the old lady yelled.
The man turned a gentle smile and warm, green eyes toward me. His sandy brown hair was unkempt, and his chin was covered in stubble that somehow seemed to add to his character. He put his hands on the hips of his jeans, flipping the sides of his sport jacket back, arms akimbo like he didn't know what to make of me.
"She's not hurting anything, Prudence. Please. Go back to the attic." He waved his arm.
The spectral crone gave an exasperated sigh and dissolved into mist.
"Th-thank you," I stuttered.
"You're welcome."
I was about to ask who he was and where he had come from when I noticed smoke. After everything else, was the house on fire? I searched for the source.
Gray tendrils curled up from his feet.
"You're on fire!" I said.
It advanced up his limbs, to his knees, to his hips, until the man was nothing but a mist with two green orbs where his eyes had been.
It was the loudest scream of my life. "Aaaaaahhhhhhhh!"
I don't remember opening the door, and I didn't stop for my shoes. I ran into the cool night air, arms flailing, with an unyielding, high-pitched screech that was sure to wake any soul within a five-mile radius. Across the bridge and up the walkway, I raced to the stone cottage of the only other living person I knew in Red Grove-Rick Ordenes. I don't remember knocking, only that the door opened and there was Rick.
"It was awful," I whimpered. I grabbed his shoulders. My hands slapped bare flesh. My wild eyes roved down his body: bare shoulders, bare chest, bare stomach, and OH! He was ... naked.
But that wasn't the most disturbing thing. His once-gray eyes had turned black as onyx, and he didn't look happy to see me. Then I caught sight of what was behind him.
The entire inside of the stone cottage glowed like a shrine. Candles flickered. Crosses reflected the light. Skulls-human skulls circled the room. A painting of a skeleton woman dressed like the Virgin Mary loomed against the far wall. And that was all I saw because, at that point, my overwhelmed brain decided to turn off.
I'd never been prone to fainting, but the world tilted on its axis, threatening to toss me unfettered into the black universe. I collapsed backward, expecting to crack my head against the stone walkway.
The last thing I remember is Rick catching me in his arms as the darkness closed in around me.