In this month’s New Voices Revisited, we look back on a ghost story from 2015: “Clean Hunters” by Lena Valencia! In this tale, Emily and her husband Gabe are brought together by their sightings of the supernatural—they search for ghosts not with fancy detection equipment, but with their Sense. They travel to a famously haunted inn to celebrate their anniversary. As the tension in their relationship mounts, what Emily fears most is that she will not find any ghosts, at all.
Most quaint New England inns claimed to be haunted as a way to make themselves stand out from the rest, but the Derrick Inn was purported by CleanSpirit to be an astral goldmine. There were rattling doorknobs, disembodied footsteps, windows that slammed shut without warning. There were sightings, of course: a tall, slim woman in a tailcoat and riding boots; a decrepit old man who seemed to favor the second-floor hallway (Decrepit old men! thought Emily. Why did they stubbornly hang on to the physical realm?); a mangy orange cat that appeared on the tops of dressers throughout the inn, though whether or not the cat was actually a spirit was disputed.
Emily saw her first ghost when she was ten years old. She was at a sleepover at Michelle Beach’s house in Englewood, rooting through Tupperware and yogurt containers in the fridge, searching for the saran-wrapped plate of leftover pizza that she’d watched Mrs. Beach put away earlier in the evening. The house was silent with the exception of the humming refrigerator and the faint crinkles of the plastic tarp that hung over an unfinished wall—the Beaches were remodeling their kitchen.
She found the pizza plate behind a Pyrex casserole container and stealthily lifted it out from behind bottles and jars, like a Jenga block. If any of the girls woke up they would tattle in two seconds, she knew it. She set the plate down on the kitchen table and gingerly lifted the plastic wrap, her heart pounding with anticipation, though at the time she wasn’t sure why she was having such a dramatic reaction to stealing a slice of pepperoni pizza. She held the cool slice in her hand and was about to bite into the congealed cheese when something caught her eye. Across the table, a middle-aged woman with her hair pulled back in a scarf stared back at her and frowned. Her skin was gray, and seemed to reflect moonlight, though the room was almost completely dark. The woman’s pupils were the silvery phosphorescent sheen of a picture Emily had taken of her cat at night.
The slice of pizza she’d been holding hit the floor with a gentle thud as she ran back to her sleeping bag in the living room, leaving faint footprints of drywall plaster on the parquet floors behind her.
Two years later she would share this experience, along with a handful of other sightings, in a chatroom devoted to paranormal encounters. She would click on a link that someone posted in response to her story, which would take her to the CleanSpirit listserv, where she’d repost and get feedback and learn that she was not alone in her visions, that there were people like her all over the world. The screen would become a glowing beacon of inclusion as she fought through the isolation of high school and college. It would be the place where she learned how to do what she did best, and where she’d eventually meet Gabe, who she’d eventually marry, who was in the passenger seat of their rented Prius now, scrolling through his phone and reading the National Weather Service’s report about the storm that was projected to dump a foot of snow on the little town they were currently driving toward, where they’d be spending their sixth wedding anniversary.