The Ghost and the Graveyard

Chapter 4


Body and Soul
Between terror and oblivion, I lost track of time. I came to somewhere soft and warm with the sun turning the inside of my eyelids red and the stench of dirty feet curling my nose. I tentatively opened one eye and noticed a new ugly bouquet on what was undeniably the nightstand in my new house. A good sign. I opened the other eye and surveyed my surroundings.
The quilt under my chin was the one from my master bedroom. I was back in my house, in my own room. Had Rick carried me home and put me to bed?
I peeked under the covers. I was still wearing my scrubs. The good news? Rick had not taken advantage of me in my fragile state. The bad news? Rick had returned me to a haunted house and, by the looks of it, was some kind of hoodoo witchdoctor.
If I didn't get my head around what happened last night, I was at serious risk of a mental breakdown. I sat bolt upright. Maybe this was it? Were hallucinations a symptom of a nervous breakdown? I was a nurse. Why couldn't I remember the symptoms of a nervous breakdown? I needed to call Michelle.
My phone vibrated against my cheek, not because of an incoming call but because of my shaking hands. I listened to the ringing on the other end of the line. Pick up, pick up, pick up. Brutal disappointment plowed into me when Michelle's voicemail answered. I left a hasty, probably incomprehensible message and hung up.
Worse, I didn't even have work to distract me. I had the whole day off. A full twenty-four hours in a house where I'd seen (or hallucinated) two ghosts.
A full-blown panic attack rocked my body. My heart started to pound. I rubbed my aching chest as my breath came in ineffective pants. I was hyperventilating. Tangled thoughts jumbled through my mind, truth and dream, reality and fantasy. I cupped my hands over my mouth and nose and tried to slow my breathing. Eventually, the panic seemed to find its way out of me in a parade of fat tears, and I bawled into my hands.
"Shhh... Please don't cry," a man's voice said low and soft, like to calm a skittish animal.
I leaped to my feet, eyes darting around the room. "Who's there?"
No answer.
I moved from the bed and backed toward the hallway. No one by the window or on either side of the walnut highboy. I turned sideways and shuffled toward the cracked-open closet, ready to Tae Bo the crap out of anything that moved. I delivered a roundhouse, using the top of my foot to kick the door the rest of the way open. It slammed against the opposite wall and bounced partially back. Ow. I rubbed the point of contact, hopping backward as I peered inside.
Empty, aside from my underwhelming wardrobe.
Only one place left to look. The door to the room was left open, potentially hiding an assailant between it and the wall. I approached cautiously, knowing I could be in grave danger, slowly, silently, reaching... I yanked the knob and stuck my head behind the door.
That was it. I'd imagined a comforting male voice in my bedroom. I was losing my mind.
"Coffee," I said to myself. "I need coffee now."
I walked to the end of the hall to the stair landing, but instead of continuing down the stairs to the kitchen, an uncontrollable impulse tipped my face in the opposite direction. I hadn't noticed before, but the stairs continued to what I presumed was the attic. That's where she had come from, the legless freak of nature who'd chased me out of my house. I remembered the shrill creak of the door before she'd appeared at the top of my stairs. A sudden chill goose-pimpled my flesh, and tingles radiated through my scalp.
Compulsively, I climbed the staircase. I had to know. I had to face this fear. My legs shook and moved like dead weight step by step toward the painted white door with the cast-iron handle. With shaking hand, I gripped and turned. Locked. I tugged a little harder, jostling the knob, but it wouldn't budge. The keyhole was the old-fashioned kind, crafted to house one of those long, roundish keys. I'd have to ask my dad if other keys came with the house. I needed to know what was in there.
One thing was for certain; no ghostly old ladies were attacking me. This was just an ordinary door to an ordinary attic. I still wasn't sure what had happened last night. Exhaustion? Stress? Radon poisoning? (I'd have to ask my dad about that one.) But it wasn't ghosts. It couldn't be, or how could I come to terms with staying here? No, this was mental. Mind over matter.
I bounded down the stairs, feeling silly I'd ever entertained the idea that there were actually ghosts in the house. Yet, as I approached the foyer, a noise from the kitchen snapped me back into jumpy mode. I crouched down, slinking around the banister, and used the island counter as cover. Who the hell was in my house?
When I realized the sound was the coffeemaker, I stood, confused, and eyeballed my kitchen. The machine percolated away, sending wafts of hazelnut in my direction. My laptop glowed from the counter, plugged in and powered on. The screen was cracked. Ouch. At least it looked usable. All of my work forms were carefully stacked on the counter. What had happened last night? An icy chill ran the length of my body. I wasn't mental. My screen was cracked for a reason. Either my house was haunted, or someone was fucking with me.
But why the coffee? I needed to decide between three possibilities. One, I had lost my mind and actually made the coffee and cleaned up myself. Two, the same ghosts who scared the bejeezus out of me made coffee and cleaned up the mess. Or three, there was another living person in my house.
I went with three. "Rick?" I called. Maybe he'd stayed the night. That would explain the voice, as well. "Hello? Is someone here?"
Tears of frustration burst the dam of my lower lids, and I grabbed the sides of my hair. "Who is in my house?"
"I am. But I don't want to scare you," the man said, definitely not Rick. This time I recognized his voice as the man from last night. My stomach clenched.
I was afraid, but I was more afraid of losing my mind. "Please," I said in barely a whisper, "I need to see you."
An orb of light in the middle of the living room floated toward me, the kind of thing you see every day, dust reflecting the morning glow that seeps through the slats in the blinds. This one, however, grew as it approached in a way that made the room feel like a dark tunnel, and the orb, the light at the end. The brightness made me blink, and by the time I opened my eyes again, the transparent form of the smoking man from the night before leaned against my counter.
Several questions raced through my mind at once. Things like, why was he in my house? Was his body somewhere nearby? Did he mean me any harm? But the only thing that came out of my shocked mouth was, "I can see through you."
"Ah, I'm stronger at night. It's taking an enormous degree of effort for me to hold this form right now. I should be sleeping, but I wanted to make sure you were all right. What Prudence did last night was unforgivable."
My pulse pounded in my temples. Instinct told me to run. But where would I go? I swallowed hard and rolled with the conversation. "You're a g-ghost?"
He lowered his eyes. "Yes. But don't be afraid. I'm not going to hurt you."
Well, that was a relief-said no one after seeing a ghost, ever! I took a few steps back until my ass hit one of the kitchen stools. I sat, less by will and more because my knees gave out. "How many of you are there? "
"Just the two of us."
"You and the old woman from last night. Prudence."
"Yes. I'm sorry we scared you."
Was this real? Was a ghost really apologizing to me? He seemed friendly. I tried to think of friendly ghosts, like Casper, to keep from peeing my pants-which, incidentally, were yesterday's scrubs. I seriously needed a shower.
"And you switched the wine and made me coffee?"
"You said you needed the coffee, and that wine choice was a travesty. I had to do something."
I wrinkled my brow. "Are you some kind of phantom food critic?"
"No. To be honest, I don't know what I was before I died. There are lots of things I don't remember. But Pinot gris is definitely the better choice with salmon." The corner of his mouth curled up in an uneven smile I found oddly endearing.
Swallowing hard, I tried to calm my racing heart and focus. "What do you want? Why are you in my house?"
"Technically, you moved into our house. Prudence and I are waiting for someone. We thought you might be her."
"Waiting for someone to do what?" I asked. "Wait, Prudence asked if I was the sorter last night. What does that mean?"
"If you were the sorter, you would know."
I squirmed, uncomfortable with his non-answer. No further explanation was offered. "Are you going to hurt me?"
"No. And neither will Prudence. But for your own safety, I'm here to deliver a warning: stay away from the attic... and the caretaker."
I took a step back. "The caretaker, as in Rick?" I narrowed my eyes. The request seemed strange. To clarify, everything about this moment seemed strange, but this was especially odd. Rick had suspected the house was haunted, and now the haunter was warning me about Rick. What was the relationship? My curiosity temporarily trumped the pressing horror of the moment.
"The caretaker is dangerous for you, Grateful, as is the attic. I'm not sure why you were allowed to come here, but if you are going to stay, these are the rules."
Hmm. I tapped my fingers on my upper arm. Allowed to come here? Who was this guy to tell me what to do? I hadn't lived through abandonment by my last boyfriend, losing everything I owned, and swallowing my pride to move into my father's house to let a guy without a body boss me around. Still, I had no idea the kind of damage he and Prudence could do. I changed the subject.
"If you are going to be haunting me and choosing my drinks, the least you can do is tell me your name."
He frowned and looked at the floor. "I can't."
"You can't."
"I don't remember."
"You mean, you don't remember who you are-were-at all?"
"No." His green eyes hovered like two drops of rain under his lashes. "One day, I was just here. Before that..."
"But Prudence has a name."
"Yes, well, she lived here, so I think she's more attached somehow to this reality."
The story my father told me about the house came back to me all at once. "Holy crow! That's right. She's Prudence Meriwether. She's why I'm here. She left this house to my dad, Robert Knight, when she died. He hasn't been able to sell it since her death."
He blinked, not his eyes but his entire body. Gone and then back again, like what I'd said had blown through him. "You are Robert Knight's daughter?"
"Yes. Grateful, Grateful Knight. You know my dad?"
He floated closer, his eyes brightening. His presence overwhelmed me, made my skin prickle. He stared at me like he was seeing inside, sifting through my cells with his otherworldly gaze. I blinked up at him, speechless.
After a long silence, his shoulders hunched forward. "I'm tired, Grateful. Can we continue this another time?"
"Sure," I said, wondering how ghosts rested when they were tired.
"I'll come to you again tonight, midnight."
"O-okay," I said. A thought cut through my whirling mind. "What do I call you if you don't have a name?"
"Why don't you come up with something? Just for practicality, until I remember my own." He faded to the viscosity of a watermark, nothing more than an outline.
I nodded.
"One more thing."
"Can you get rid of the bouquet next to your bed? That thing stinks. It's repulsive."
"No problem. I'm not a big fan. So, I guess I'll see you tonight."
For a moment, his green eyes glowed brighter. "It's a date." He winked, and then he dissolved into thin air. Nothing remained but a wisp of mist that smelled faintly of cinnamon.
Blowing out a nervous breath, I placed both hands firmly on the counter. Did I just make a date with a ghost?