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.
She wondered aloud if they should turn back.
“Em, are you joking?” he said, looking up from his phone.
“I just don’t want to get stuck up here.”
“We won’t get stuck. These projections are usually wrong anyway.” He placed his hand at the nape of her neck and she flinched. He pulled his hand away.
Gabe went back to his phone. Emily pushed her foot down on the accelerator and watched the LCD numbers tick up to 70, 80. The brown trees on either side of the highway became a muddy blur. She shoved another handful of the overpriced kettle corn they’d gotten at a rest-stop fruit stand into her mouth, and wiped her sticky hands on her jeans.
“Save some for me!” said Gabe, snatching the bag away.
“Don’t do that shit while I’m driving!” Emily said. “You’ll get us both killed!”
Gabe let out a sigh.
“What?” said Emily, glancing at him. He wouldn’t meet her eye.
“Nothing,” he said. “I just don’t understand why you’re so uptight. We’re on vacation.”
“I’m not uptight,” said Emily. “Sorry, I just want to get there is all.”
He gingerly patted her leg. “It’s ok,” he said stiffly. “We’ll be there soon.”
* * *
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.
Then there was the teenage girl in ripped jeans and a plaid shirt—this was said to be Beth Kentridge, the daughter of a former bartender who had gone missing and whose body had turned up in the woods behind the inn. The bartender had something to do with it, allegedly, but he was never convicted. Customers of the restaurant claimed to have seen her in the dim, dingy bathrooms, putting on makeup in a reflectionless mirror.
The brown trees turned into houses, and the houses into boutiques and novelty shops.
“This must be the main drag,” said Gabe. “Derrick’s up there, it looks like.” The three-story, colonial-style house with a wraparound porch, stood at the end of the shops. Emily parked the car on the street and the two of them got out and stared at the building.
“Charming,” said Gabe.
“Yep, pretty cute,” said Emily, pulling her coat tighter around her.
She squeezed Gabe’s warm hand with her cold one and the two of them proceeded up the steps that way. Inside the bar on the first floor, the bartender and several rosy-faced patrons were staring at the television, watching a basketball game. Gabe walked to the bar and Emily followed.
“Hi there. We’re the Montezes. Checking in.”
“Hang on,” said the bartender, and turned back to the television. “Oh HOOOOO!” he shouted with the patrons at a play taking place on the TV.
Gabe nudged Emily. “Authentic.”
“Seriously,” she said.
While they waited, Emily assessed the bartender, wondering if he knew Beth Kentridge’s father. He wore a ragged polo shirt tucked into his jeans, and a hat with a team logo on it that she couldn’t place. He took a sip from his beer.
At the commercial break he disappeared through a door behind the bar and returned holding a key.
“Room 11, on the third floor. Two hundred bucks for both nights,” he said. Gabe held out a credit card. “And wifi’s out for the weekend, so don’t bother.”
“I hate how they always assume we need wifi,” Emily said, as the two of them walked up the narrow, creaky staircase.
“I’m sure they get loads of city-slicker asshole tourists here asking about it,” said Gabe.
“Isn’t that us?”
“No,” said Gabe. “We have a reason to be here.” He unlocked the door.
The room was small and square and painted an institutional beige, with a queen-sized bed taking up the majority of the space. A single window overlooked the town’s main road, where a truck clattered by. There was a closet, a dresser, a desk. It was identical to most of the rooms in the rural roadside inns that ghosts seemed to favor. Emily plopped down on the overly springy mattress while Gabe opened and closed dresser drawers. She watched the way he moved: practiced but jerky. He’d done this a thousand times but was still eager and excited. He smoothed his hands over the top of the dresser and ran them over the wall, turned the faucets on and off in the bathroom.
He stepped back into her line of vision and stood.
“Come here,” she said, sitting up and wriggling out of her coat. He held up a finger, indicating for her to be quiet. His eyes fluttered shut and his breathing quickened.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Em. They’re everywhere.” He opened his eyes.
“Can we do this later?” said Emily.
“You can’t feel it?” he said, putting his hand to the wall.
Emily closed her eyes and let her thoughts fall away, one at a time. All she felt was a rumble from a passing truck. “Maybe?” she said. “This room is just really loud. Do you think they’d let us switch?”
“No way,” he said. “This place is the hub. I’m not taking my chances.”
All of the CleanSpirit boards had insisted that the Derrick was the most haunted of all the inns, and that Room 11 was the most haunted room. She envied the hunters who could stay for nights at a time and try out different rooms. This two-night stay was all she and Gabe could manage.
“I guess I just need a little more time to settle,” she said.
He sat down next to her and took her hand as the mattress groaned beneath their weight.
“Of course, babe,” he said, and kissed her lightly on the lips. “This place is the real deal, I can tell. Trust me, you’ll feel it soon if you don’t feel it now.”
* * *
Gabe and Emily were Clean Hunters. The majority of Paranormal Enthusiasts used top of the line EMF and EVP readers, but Clean Hunters just used their Sense. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on equipment, Clean Hunters spent an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening meditating, keeping their Sense sharp. Emily and Gabe would abstain from drinking alcohol in the month before their hunt, just to keep their minds honed and ready for contact. Clean Hunters also had a rule about audio and video recording. It wasn’t allowed because it distracted from the immediate experience of communicating with spirits. Instead, Clean Hunters kept detailed Hunt journals and posted their findings on the CleanSpirit listserv. Part of being a Clean Hunter was trusting the CH community—Hunters who embellished unnecessarily were warned and then immediately expelled.
* * *
“Why don’t we go walk around town before the snow starts?” said Emily.
She looked over at Gabe. His eyes were closed, and he had a complacent smile on his face. “You go,” he said. “We’ll meet back here for dinner.”
Emily tried to stifle the frustration she felt welling up inside her. It was their damn anniversary. Couldn’t he lay off the ghosts for two seconds? But she knew that if she’d felt anything, she would have gladly sat with him with closed eyes and let their presence wash over her with icy tingles.
She walked down the narrow staircase and looked through the window that faced the woods where the Kentridge girl’s body was found. A shudder went through her, but she couldn’t tell if it was astral or just her own reaction to the idea of slowly bleeding to death in the woods. She pulled a piece of chocolate from her pocket, removed it from its wrapper, and popped it into her mouth.
* * *
The sky was white and the air had the heavy, damp feeling that came before snowfall. She crossed over to Main Street and passed a discount liquor store, a nail salon called Cutie Calls, and an antique shop that had a jumble of furniture and knickknacks hastily stacked up against its dusty windows. She stopped in front of a used bookstore. Wind chimes tinkled as she pushed the door open, and an older woman with wild white curls poked her head up from behind a pile of books that surrounded the register. She gave Emily a brief smile before plunging back down into whatever it was she was doing on her computer.
The store, unlike most used bookstores that Emily had been to, was carefully organized—the yellowing paperbacks and faded hardcovers sorted alphabetically by genre. Some of the covers were wrapped in plastic archival library casing. Emily ran her fingers along the spines absentmindedly. Maybe there was some spirit here, among these old books. She’d heard of it happening before, on the listserv. It was more common with diaries, but occasionally an inscribed copy of a novel or collection of poetry was revealed to have a spirit clinging to it. Emily felt nothing but the soft, decaying spines beneath her fingertips.
She let her mind drift back to the party at her co-worker Mara’s, the last time she’d made contact. A Valentine’s Day party, she remembered, nearly a year ago. In the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, it had hit her. That unmistakable hum, that faint vibration. No water came out of the sink’s faucet when she turned it on to wash her hands. Pulling aside the shower curtain to try the one on the tub, she saw an old man sitting there, bony gray knees to his chest. He stared at her with those empty, silver eyes. She stared back, holding his gaze, feeling the tingling that came with being in the presence of his kind. A knock startled her and she broke eye contact for a brief instant. When she looked back at the tub, he was gone. The water began running from both the sink and the bathtub.
In the cab back home she told Gabe what she’d seen, and he’d told her, holding her hand, that he’d sensed something, too.
“But I didn’t see him,” he said. “You always see them.”
She’d felt a glow of pride, then. She hadn’t even meditated that month, and she’d had a glass of wine. But still, she’d seen the ghost.
“It just takes practice,” she told him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think you’re a natural. You really have a gift. I’m jealous.”
“Stop it,” she said, nestling closer to him. He began playing with her hair.
“It’s true. I just hope it rubs off on me.”
* * *
Had she known it would have been her last sighting she would have stayed in that bathroom longer. Even in places where people with the tiniest bit of Sense could feel it—the pipe organ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (if you listened closely you could hear hymns), the hangman’s tree in Washington Square Park—she drew a blank. They became backdrops that she whisked by on her way to wherever. She hated the injured way Gabe looked at her when she said no, she didn’t feel it. She knew it made him lonely. So Emily did what she thought was the right thing to do as a wife, as a partner.
It was so easy. She’d been through enough hauntings and read enough. She was careful to let him sense the spirit first, and then embellish on his own sighting. What she was doing, she knew, was breaking the most revered rule of Clean Hunting, but her marriage was worth it. The community was worth it. She had seen how the ones who lost their sense were ostracized, were left off certain threads, eventually forgotten. Surely this was just a phase.
* * *
She stopped at a shelf of ancient looking tomes. They were 19th century medical books, she realized, and she lingered over a heavy volume full of anatomic drawings, some in color, featuring graceful braids of muscle inked in delicate reds and blues. Whose body was that? She wondered. How did they die? The medical profession was a haunted one. The listserv insisted that you never saw old ghosts in cemeteries—grave robbers had long ago pilfered their bodies and given them over to medical schools at universities and private practices in exchange for reward money. When she turned to a page with a diagram labeled “Genitalia of a fourteen-year-old girl,” she shut the book.
Snow was beginning to fall by the time she stepped out of the bookstore, and for a moment, she felt the way a regular vacationer must feel—a sense of aimlessness and calm, and a desire to wander and explore. Emily slid her hands into her dark green leather gloves, a Christmas present from Gabe, and continued on down the sidewalk, away from the inn. As she walked, the snow came down harder and harder, and the houses were spaced farther and farther apart. The sidewalk ended abruptly and there was only the shoulder of the road and the dead-looking forest, but she kept walking, her boots crunching in the thin layer of white that had accumulated on the ground.
She should be with Gabe, she knew, drinking hot cider, watching the snow fall, cuddling in the creaky bed. It was their anniversary, after all. But Gabe had chosen the room, the ghosts. She imagined him there now, scribbling in the leather bound notebook she’d given him as an anniversary present. Didn’t distance signify trust? And wasn’t trust the ultimate expression of love?
* * *
“You saved me,” he’d said one night, early on in their courtship, as they lay entwined on her mattress in her old Carroll Gardens apartment. She’d only been able to piece together fragments of his story, at that point, from the bottles of pills in his medicine cabinet and his bouts of insomnia. It wasn’t until several months into their relationship that she learned that, because of his Sense, Gabe had been seeing a psychiatrist for decades. Soon after they’d started dating and began hunting together, he’d gone off the meds—welcomed the visions rather than trying to hide from them. His parents were horrified. “I’m a free man,” he said to her.
Sometimes Emily wondered why the same hadn’t happened to her. They were both from the hyper-medicated generation. The only answer she could come up with was that she was better at keeping things to herself. She’d spent adolescence like most girls she knew: trying to stay off her parents’ radar. Gabe had been an only child, a golden boy who was the son of golden children. His parents, both second-generation Mexican-Americans with medical degrees, believed that the key to success was not just studying hard, but also fitting in. Visions of phosphorescent-eyed beings slinking through the dark were not going to help their golden boy fit in, hence the pills. Emily’s parents were just thankful that she wasn’t her sister, who was constantly getting nabbed for shoplifting by mall security.
* * *
Since that night, she’d felt love, but also an intense responsibility. The ghost hunting always happened together after that, a secret between them and thousands of anonymous internet listserv members. There was no more fooling around with Noah from HR. Guys like Gabe didn’t come around very often. Sometimes, before Gabe, she would wiggle her way into a pair of control top tights, put on a pushup bra and heavy black eyeliner, go out with her girlfriends, and pick up whoever would take her from the bar, but it was never her choice who, and it didn’t really matter that much. Her friends regarded Gabe with stunned politeness, as if they couldn’t believe Emily’s luck.
The daylight was fading fast, and she knew that soon she would have to make her way back to the inn in darkness. The trees were beginning to thin again, giving way to houses on either side. Checking her phone, she noted that a half hour had passed. She approached a diner, its blue and pink neon sign turning the snow sherbet colored, and felt an intense craving for a cup of coffee and some French fries. Why not? She was on vacation and it was cold. She pulled open the door and was greeted by a middle-aged woman with tightly gelled curls, and clear braces.
“Sit anywhere you’d like,” she said, smiling a pink-lipsticked smile. The place was empty except for a withered old man at the bar, picking at an omelet. She sat a few seats away from him and ordered fries and a coffee. The radio was on, and the DJ was taking requests, her husky voice casting a comforting calm over the whole restaurant. When the coffee came it tasted bitter and burnt, but the fries were hot and crispy and scalded her fingers and tongue. She momentarily forgot her melancholy as she dunked them, three at a time, into a blood red pool of ketchup.
She pulled her phone out of her pocket. One text from him and she would turn back, call a cab to take her through the weather to the inn. There was nothing. Her fingers left greasy smudges on the touchscreen as she scrolled through her work email, looking for a distraction. By now Gabe was probably holding court with Beth Kentridge’s spirit, asking her what it was like to die. He always asked them that question, which she found distressing and slightly disrespectful. They never answered him. You weren’t supposed to ask questions. You were supposed to listen to what they had to say.
To hear a spirit speak was the ultimate goal of Clean Hunting. You kept your mind sharp for their voices. It had never happened to Emily or Gabe, though she fantasized about it often. The boards said their voices created a physical sensation, like a fever, or sweating under a warm coat on a cold day. Some compared their voices to the clicking noises an old computer makes when it’s performing a task, others compared them to a cat’s purr.
She finished the fries and ordered a slice of apple pie á la mode, despite the growing ache in her stomach telling her she’d had too much. The waistband of her jeans was uncomfortably tight—she wished she’d put on leggings before going out. The waitress took the empty basket and greasy plate away and replaced it with a steaming slice of apple pie and vanilla ice cream, which she began to methodically devour one forkful at a time. The old man, she could sense, was staring at her, waiting for her to do something that could lead to a conversation. That was one sense she still had, at least—but she ignored him and continued shoving forkfuls of the dessert into her mouth. Between bites, she heard him mutter something. She stopped eating and looked at him.
“Can’t you see. Can’t you see?” he repeated.
His folded skin was mottled with brown spots, his blue eyes cartoonish through his thick glasses.
“Excuse me?” she said.
He broke her gaze and stared at the waitress, who was folding napkins around the silverware that had just come from the dishwasher.
“A hole in the wall,” he said, his voice quivering.
Dementia, she decided, and felt helpless.
“Excuse me,” she said to the waitress, who looked up. “Does this man have a ride home? He doesn’t seem well.”
The waitress furrowed her eyebrows. “He’s my father-in-law,” she said. “Can I get you anything else?”
The old man began shaking his head slowly back and forth.
Emily felt something in her gut, beyond her stomachache. The old feeling, the sense, for a moment, but it dissolved quickly when she heard the DJ’s gentle lilt break through the guitar licks on the radio.
“That was ‘Can’t You See’ by the Marshall Tucker Band for Jimmy in Carbondale…”
“No, just the check,” she said, tossing her napkin on her plate.
* * *
She’d lived in the city so long that she’d forgotten how dark the woods got, but here she was, in the snow, her hand in her pocket clutching her phone in case Gabe called. Cars honked as they drove by. Snow was getting in her boots and she leaned over to scoop it out.
If she were to fall into a snowdrift and never come out, would she haunt Gabe? Would Gabe even try to summon her? Or would he meet someone else on the listserv—a taller, blonder, thinner version of Emily who would take him in her arms and comfort him and not pretend to see ghosts. The two of them would sit together with faint smiles on their faces, as she and Gabe had so many times before, meditating and taking in the surroundings on their respective astral planes.
She could see the lights of Main Street in the distance. She’d make it after all.
* * *
Emily made her way past the Derrick Inn bar, which was roiling with noisy patrons, and up to their room on the third floor. She paused at the door. The lights were out, which meant that Gabe was mid-séance. She pushed it open and slid into the room, silent as a phantom.
In the dim glow of the streetlamp that shone through their window she could see Gabe’s shadow. He was in lotus position, perfect posture, measured breathing, so lost in concentration that he didn’t flinch when she came in. He looked like the Buddha statue in her mother’s garden.
She slipped out of her coat and boots and sat down next to him on the bed, its creaking springs disturbing the silence of the room. She closed her eyes and let her breathing slow, listening to the sounds of the bar through the floorboards, the hiss of the cars driving through snow on the street outside. Gabe squeezed her thigh.
“Do you see her?” he whispered. “She’s here. She’s looking straight at you.”
Emily opened her eyes. The glass of the TV screen glinted faintly in the darkness.
“Yes,” she said. “I see her. She’s beautiful.”
Lena Valencia is the managing editor of A Public Space and co-hosts the HiFi Reading Series in New York City. Her writing has appeared in BOMB Magazine, the LA Weekly, StoryChord, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in Fiction from The New School.