SHORT STORY: Ghost of a Life, Chapter 1

I realize I have a buttload of manuscripts in various forms of production right now, but apparently, I’ve also got this short story that’s just begging to be told. So, as a treat to you loyal readers, I’m offering Ghost of a Life for free, right here on my website, broken up into chapters. There’ll probably be about five or six chapters total. Please feel free to share and give feedback as you see fir. Enjoy!

 

They say once you lose one of your senses, the others make up for it.

I don’t know if that’s true, but as I peer down the pitch-black hallway, my heartbeat pounding in my chest, I swear I can sense the walls closing in on me. Every creak in the overhead pipes fills my ears, and it’s all I can do not to turn around and go back. My eyes eventually adjust to the dark, a dull speck of red on the far end of the hall signaling an exit. That’s my destination, but who knows what lies between me and that light.

A week ago, I got a phone call from the president of Mountain Oak College informing me of a potential haunting in one of their dorm rooms. What President Grayson had failed to mention at the time was that the dorm in question had at one point been an insane asylum. Just hearing that made me glad I decided on attending Somerset University instead.

Sure enough, here I am on the third floor of the freshman dorm with as serious a case of the heebie-jeebies as I’ve felt in my six years as a paranormal investigator. I just sorta stumbled upon this career. I once longed to be Samantha Blanchard, detective… or Samantha Blanchard, federal agent. I never expected to be Samantha Blanchard, wannabe Ghostbuster.

I don’t even have a photon pack. Or a zapper. Or a trap. Or any of those kickass gadgets you used to see in those paranormal mystery stories back in the day. I barely have the budget for office space, telephone access, and what scientific gear I do own looks like something I picked up at a RadioShack clearance sale.

One step and my shoes find something cold and sticky. I grimace in disgust, knowing exactly what I stepped in before turning on my flashlight. Sure enough, a pile of blue gunk sits on the floor, looking like some spine-chilling combination of snot and tree sap. In my experience, if this slop is lying around, then supernatural beasties can’t be too far behind. It’s their trail, for lack of a better term, almost like if I had left a line of footprints on a sheet of snow.

But snow is pretty. This stuff is anything but. It’s a lot like sand. If it gets on you, it’ll wind up in places you didn’t realize you had. Don’t ask me how I know; that’s one story that will never get told.

Fortunately, this pile of goop decided not to latch onto my foot. Peering down the hallway, flashlight illuminating my narrow path, I see more of the stuff on the walls. It oozes down a silent trail that makes me shudder, and my eyes travel to the ceiling. Just then, a large drop of the stuff falls from an off-kilter ceiling tile and onto the floor, not six inches in front of me. One more step and that stuff would’ve been in my hair.

Remember when you were a kid, and you wound up with bubblegum in your hair? Yeah, it would have been a lot like that.

I’m about midway down the hall when I hear this screech. I flinch and cover my ears, gritting my teeth and hoping desperately for the shudder in my bones to go away. No sooner do I uncover my ears, the ungodly sound returns. It echoes along the hall and I find myself cowering into a fetal position, even though I’m still on my feet. I can’t tell if it’s a cry of rage or agony – oftentimes, in this line of work, the two are interchangeable.

I look up just in time to see a ball of that gunk heading straight for me. I duck just in time, whirling around to see it splatter against the white walls.

Get out…

Oh, good, they spotted me. Whoever they are.

Wherever they are.

Get out!

Well, that’s just rude. I’m here to help, and these things are basically throwing supernatural monkey poo at me. It’s a good thing the school’s offering me five figures for this job; otherwise, I’d just turn around and tell them to deal with the haunting themselves. Then again, this isn’t a case of cockroaches run amok. If left unchecked, hauntings can lead to mass hysteria, psychological problems, and even suicides or murder. Naturally, the school would like to avoid that; the word of mouth alone would be damning.

Hey, did you hear about Mountain Oak? That dorm the freshmen stay in used to be an insane asylum, and now the ghosts of the deranged haunt the place and drive the students batty.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

This is no place for you, little girl

My mouth hangs open. Can ghosts be sexist?

Go back from whence you came, or else you’ll not see the coming day

Oh, good, we’ve reached the cryptic riddle portion of the festivities.

“Well, come on out and it won’t get that far,” I say, reaching for logic even though it has not worked for me once when dealing with these things.

This is our home! I can almost hear the anguish in the spirits’ collective voice. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for them. They have no right being here!

More often than not, hauntings are the result of a spirit that can’t quite move on to the next life. They’re stuck, either because of some external force holding them back or because something related to their previous life was left unresolved and they can’t break free until there’s closure. Sadly, mental institutions are some of the most vulnerable places for hauntings for just that reason. Decades, if not centuries, of mental anguish and emotional torment create an environment thick with hate and fear – and the living are often the targets.

Given that Mountain Oak is itself 150 years old, there’s no telling how long these ghosts have been here. Hauntings that last centuries tend to end violently for everyone involved – living or not – and I’m not sure I have the delicacy or the patience to see this through to a non-violent conclusion. Then again, these spirits aren’t corporeal, so really, how much pain can I inflict?

The spirits, on the other hand… one of the arms appears from the wall and swipes across my chest. It goes straight through without touching a thing. Even as cold air compresses and rises around me, all I feel is a nasty chill take over my entire body. I am nearly frozen me in place, except my knees buckle and I drop to the floor, mouth agape. All color has left my face and it’s a wonder I still have a hold on my flashlight.

The arm swipes again, passing through the top of my head this time. The shock and cold overwhelm me to the point that I gag, hunched over myself in anticipation of my lunch’s return. Yet I regain my composure and eventually scuffle back to my feet.

Every instinct is telling me to turn around, go downstairs, and get back in the car. To say screw the outlandish payment and let Mountain Oak deal with this on its own. But student safety is paramount; if I bail, and these spirits keep haunting to the point where students start hanging themselves in the showers or slitting their wrists in their beds… wouldn’t that make me worse than the ghosts hidden in the walls? Wouldn’t I, theoretically, be making more ghosts?

“I feel like we got off on the wrong foot,” I offer, even as I wonder if these things actually have feet. “I’m Samantha.”

Slowly, the beam of my flashlight dances along the wall. If I can find the source of the spirits, where that gunk is at its highest concentration, I might have a chance of drawing a few of them out. I just hope there aren’t too many. I work alone, and there aren’t many others like me around. I’m pretty much it, and I am not about to take on an entire dorm full of spookies. Not without a significant rate hike.

The source is across from me, just underneath the red exit sign. The flow of that substance is constant, a large puddle on the floor that keeps growing. I keep my distance; just because I’m wearing old, beat-up sneakers, that doesn’t mean I want them submerged in light blue slime. There’s no telling what’s actually in that stuff, so the less of it that actually finds its way onto my person, the better.

The spirits haven’t answered, and I can’t tell whether that’s a good thing. They haven’t flung any more of that stuff, so I have that going for me. Still, it’s not a fun feeling dealing with a bunch of supernatural beings when armed with little more than a flashlight, night-vision goggles, and a temperature gauge. No crossing the streams here.

“Please,” I try again, “please, whatever is causing you pain, I need you to let it go. Okay?”

If I sound like a shrink, it’s because that was I originally went to school for. Got an undergrad degree in psychology and was all set to start working on a Master’s in counseling. Only the idea was always to counsel the living; something tells me there aren’t many programs in this country for dealing with the emotionally disturbed once they’re dead.

So how did I wind up a ghost hunter instead?

Funny you should ask, and I promise it’s a riveting tale, but… can I save this dorm from being haunted first?

There’s a wooden door to my right. I reach for the golden, rusted knob, but the shock it gives me causes me to recoil. The goop-covered wall in front of me hisses, like a snake pit one might find in those old Indiana Jones movies. Snakes never have bothered me the way they did ol’ Indy, but I gotta tell you… that hissing sound is not helping my nerves right now.

No!

Okay… apparently, that room is off-limits. What, are they afraid I’m gonna find ghost porn or something? Is ghost porn even a thing? How would that work, exactly? And why am I standing here, in the dark, pondering the logistics of ghost smut when the wall in front of me is practically a waterfall of supernatural mucus?

I’m pretty good at this job. I swear.

I’d be better with a partner, but… oddly enough, no one wants to work for no pay. Not even slapping the word “internship” onto the job description got any hits. Because let’s be real: where would this internship be of use? It’s not like the Ghostbusters are just down the block, a big NOW HIRING sign on the door.

“Sorry,” I say with my hands out, hoping the international signal for I mean no harm crosses over to the other side. The hissing dies down to the point where it’s no longer fraying my nerves, but the sound is still there. “I just – kids live here, and it’s hard for them to learn when you’re all scaring the piss out of them and –“

This is OUR house! THEY are the intruders!

Oh, boy… pissed off, territorial ghosts. This isn’t just a case of lost souls on their way to the ether. We’re talking poltergeists who feel some type of way about being dead, and feel even worse about the fact that they have to watch the world around them evolve over time. It’s a terrible way to not-live, and the sympathy pangs tug at my heart again. These ghosts are potentially bad news, but that’s just because of the craptactular situation in which they find themselves.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see another arm reaching out from the wall to swipe at me. I jump back with a start, holding my breath as those ethereal, skeletal fingers barely miss. Again, I have to remind myself these things can’t actually touch me. But they don’t feel that great passing through me, and I’m loathe to experience that again.

Remembering the bag hoisted over my right shoulder, and the notepad within, I roll my eyes and fish for it. I really should’ve consulted this thing before entering the dorm, but hey… it’s not like there’s a manual for how to do this sort of thing. Flashlight clenched between my teeth, I grab the notepad and flip it open and suddenly wish I’d taken more care of my penmanship when I was in elementary school.

Before I get to the page in question, a mind-numbing chill reaches my left leg. My brain tells the leg to move, but a weight comes down over it and the rest of my body shivers in response. Closing the notepad, I glance down with a furrowed brow, only to curse under my breath when I see one of those boney, sinewy arms latched onto my calf. This… this is not supposed to happen. Ghosts are not supposed to be able to affect our realm like this. They are not supposed to be corporeal!

“Hey!” I whack at the arm with my notepad. Bits of bone fall to the floor, but the grip on my leg remains tight. “Let go!”

Instead, the hand around my leg tightens even more. The numb sensation has now spread over both legs, and I can feel it crawling up past my hips and into my midsection. My stomach almost lurches at the sensation, but because my brain can’t stop sending signals to my legs to move, I fall forward before anything else can happen. My chin hits the hard floor, and my teeth come within less than half an inch of biting off the tip of my tongue.

I lose my grip on the notepad, and the bag on my shoulder has slumped all the way down to my wrist. Black spots form in front of my eyes and I have to shake them out. Now my arms are numb, as is my chest. I can barely gasp for air to fill my lungs, let alone fling a series of expletives at the ghosts who have managed to break the laws of physics.

Now I’m moving. Toward the wall. This ghastly thing is dragging me toward a brick wall that’s covered in blue slime. Great, so I’m going to have a concussion and the unshakeable need to shower for the next week and a half. I flash back to my Harry Potter-loving friends, the ones who fantasized about taking the train at Gate 9 ¾… only to have me burst their bubble by telling them they would smash face-first into the wall and lose enough teeth to be drafted by an NHL team.

Now here I am, with a one-way ticket to How many teeth do I have left? And it’s not like I can lift my arms to protect my face, because hello? I’m numb. Not comfortably numb, just… numb.

But then a strange thing happens. Okay, another strange thing happens. I pass through the wall. I legit pass right through the wall, slime and all. None of it’s on me, unless you count the stain on my favorite pair of cargo pants from where the Cryptkeeper wannabe tried to cop a feel. If I get out of this, I’m sending that bastard a bill.

Ghosts get snail mail, right?

So… I’ve traded one pitch-black hallway for another. At least… I think this is a hallway. I can feel a floor beneath my feet, but damned if I can see it. I check my pockets, belatedly realizing I must have lost my flashlight sometime before crossing over. But what, exactly, did I cross over? Am I still alive? Did I just… slip through a portal I didn’t realize was there?

I check my phone. No service. Because of course.

“Hello?” My voice echoes, but that’s the only response I get. Still, it’s a cool effect. If I ever get out of here, I might try to learn how to get back, just so I can talk to myself and listen to the echoes.

I amuse easily, alright?

But this isn’t so funny. I don’t like my question being greeted by nothing more than a fading memory of my own voice. So, naturally, I try again. “Hello?”

Ugh, what’s the definition of insanity again?

Having my bag with me would be nice, not to mention that notepad. I suppose I could keep all my notes and everything on my phone for instances like this, but why suck up all that storage space and drain my battery even more? If I’m gonna be stuck somewhere unfamiliar with no way out, I need my phone to last.

A small flicker in the distance catches my eye. For a moment, I think I’ve imagined it, but it returns. Almost like a lightning strike miles away signaling an incoming storm, each flicker is accompanied by a low rumble. Each rumble is louder than the last, until I begin to feel them in my ribcage. The light is almost blinding now, and I tell myself it’s because I’ve spent the past however many minutes in near-pitch black conditions.

Naturally, I shield my eyes – as if my arm is going to do any good.

But just like that, the light is gone… replaced by a floating apparition with a tail almost as long as I am tall. Its limbs are gangly and over-stretched, and more of the blue gunk that surrounded the walls of the dorm coat its ethereal frame. Its face is empty save a hole where a normal person would have a mouth, but something tells me this thing isn’t much of a talker.

Greetings…

Or I could be wrong. Again.

“Um… hi?”

Forgive Merle, he’s not used to having guests.

I arch a brow, because… Merle? I’m standing at the precipice of the biggest supernatural discovery of my young career, and I got snatched into a different plane of existence by a spook named Merle? What is this, Supernatural meets My Name is Earl?

“Where am I?” I ask, because it’s really the most obvious question at the moment.

This place has many names. I believe your kind call it Purgatory.

Oh, that’s splendid. I mean, I guess I should be glad this isn’t Hell, but… Purgatory’s not exactly a winding field of roses. I glance at my surroundings, frowning at the fact that I’m still surrounded by pitch black. If I make it back home after all this, I’m sleeping with a damn nightlight. I don’t care if I’m 28 years old.

“What am I doing here?”

You have stumbled upon one of the many gates between our realms.

My nose crinkles and I shake my head. This is so much more complicated than I was originally led to believe. I might have to charge double if I get out of this alive. “There’s a dimensional rift in a college dorm.” Sure, because that was the most normal thing ever.

The rift has weakened over the decades… we cannot come and go as we once did. Many of other brethren are stuck on the other side.

“So they’re not haunting the place,” I theorize, “they’re just… stuck?”

Precisely. We wish the students of Mountain Oak University no harm. We merely wish to return to our realm as we please.

Okay, this complicates things, especially since some of the voices on the other side shouted about the students being the ones who didn’t belong. I came into the job thinking the poltergeists were my adversaries, for lack of a better term. To this point, I had been operating under the assumption that the students of Mountain Oak needed my help. How… alive-ist of me? Like, racist but against ghosts?

However… we are glad you are here, young Samantha.

I frown. I generally don’t like dead things knowing my name without me telling them first. Another one of those icy chills runs down my body, this one almost powerful enough to make me topple over, and I dread the answer even before asking the question.

“Why?”

Because you are the one who will set us free.

Read Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5

BOOK REVIEWS: Part V

An abbreviated version, in which I review another stroke of genius from R.R. Virdi and a solid debut effort from Sabaa Tahir.

GrGrave Measuresave Measures by R.R. Virdi

One of the reasons I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show, not the movie) so much was the seamless way in which the tone constantly shifted. From tense to humorous to heartbreaking and back again, Buffy managed to weave all of life’s great and terrible emotions into a fantastic tale that still felt personal.

R.R. Virdi clearly has that same ability. Grave Measures, the follow-up to the fantastic Grave Beginnings, does the same thing. The stakes feel higher this time, even if Vincent Graves finds himself confined to an insane asylum, tracking down something that’s killing patients. Much like the first book, Grave Measures is whimsical, hard-hitting, intense, and emotional… and every bit the page-turning romp Beginnings was.

One need not to have read the first book to follow along with Measures, but those who have will be rewarded. The return of Camilla Ortiz was a pleasant surprise, and she has quickly made herself a personal favorite — even as great as Vincent Graves himself is.

There are no overly shocking revelations in this book, but a novel doesn’t need to be shocking to be a quality read. There are plenty of breadcrumbs sprinkled along the way, fodder for future novels in the series, and I’m looking forward to seeing how everything unravels going forward.

Virdi is a master at ensuring Graves has a voice all his own — easy enough to do in the first-person narrative with a protagonist with no true identity. Still, Graves has a depth all his own, even with the snark and the one-liners, and his personal code — which has evolved over the course of the first two books — makes him more of a hero than I think he’d admit to.

If you loved Grave Beginnings, you’ll love Grave Measures just as much. Even if you didn’t, Virdi has created a fantastic universe full of rich, interesting characters who are easy to root for. This is sort of Columbo meets Constantine, with a little bit of Buffy sprinkled in for effect… and the result is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Seriously, read this book.

Rating: *****
An EAn Ember in the Ashesmber in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel An Ember in the Ashes is a fantastic story that is at once a tremendous balancing act — between two protagonists, between quiet moments and violent encounters, between fate and freedom.

Elias and Laia are both protagonists of this tale, and they take turns sharing their story. This shared first-person narrative works out better than I expected — particularly in later chapters when their paths begin to occasionally cross. Tahir pulls off this balancing act with a grace many authors lack after multiple novels, made all the more impressive with this being her first outing.

Tahir also does a good job ensuring the quiet moments never drag on too long. All of the dramatic beats — the violent moments, the battles, the twists — keep the pages moving.Ember never drags on for too long, and when business picks up, the pages fly by.

Because of the violent nature of this tale — and sometimes, that violence is sexual — there are passages that are uncomfortable to read. Also, there are times where Laia’s personal desires are a bit hard to follow, and it was a subplot that left me scratching my head more than anything. Maybe it’s odd to me because I’ve never been a 17-year-old girl, but it was vexing.

Still, An Ember in the Ashes is a fantastic fantasy novel, and I’m impressed with Tahir’s adept storytelling ability; this was her first novel, but it read as if she had been writing books for decades. I enjoyed this book, and eagerly await the follow-up, A Torch Against the Night.

Rating: ****

BEHIND THE BADGE Launch Day Sales

Behind the Badge ebook coverWhen Behind the Badge, the third installment in the Jill Andersen mystery series, goes live in Kindle and paperback on Wednesday, June 1, readers will be able to celebrate by picking up the earlier installments at a reduced rate.

Bounty, the first novel in the series — which was released one year to the day before Behind the Badge, will be available for free on Kindle from Wednesday, June 1 through Monday, June 6.

Blood Ties, the second novel in the series, will be available on Kindle for just 99 cents from Wednesday, June 1 through Wednesday, June 8.

It is also my hope that Boundless, the Kindle short, will be free from June 1-6 as well.

You can pre-order Behind the Badge for Kindle here. Click here to read the first five chapters.

BEHIND THE BADGE Kindle Pre-Order Now Live

You can nowBehind the Badge ebook cover pre-order the Kindle edition of Behind the Badge, the third novel in the Jill Andersen mystery series, just weeks before its June 1 release.

Click here to secure your copy.

Behind the Badge will release in both paperback and Kindle on June 1, the one-year anniversary of the publication of Bounty.

Visit the book’s Goodreads page to read the first five chapters.