I glance up at the ghost hovering over Grayson, hoping against hope that he’ll give me the answer I’m looking for. But the spirit remains silent, inching closer to the cowering man, relishing in the way Grayson flinches when its tail brushes up against his leg. The small blue stain on Grayson’s pant leg is prominent, and Grayson is curling up against himself to the point where he’s in the fetal position.
If I don’t do something soon, he won’t make it out of this plane of existence alive. For all I know, I might not either. There’s no telling what the spirits will do at this point.
“Hey,” I call out, extending my arm in a futile attempt to touch Grayson’s ankle. “Who’s Ben?”
The ghost turns its attention to me. Which… unnerving much?
You mean you don’t know?
Considering the sheer volume of things I didn’t know coming into this… note to self: do a better job of vetting your clients from now on. I shake my head and offer a shrug, not trusting my words when the pissed-off spirit is now glaring in my direction. At least, I think it’s a glare; kinda hard to tell when the spirit’s eye sockets are empty.
Grayson opens his mouth, but I can’t hear anything outside of panicked wheezing. His eyes are too wide for my liking, but at least he hasn’t gotten any paler. If I play this just right, he might make it out of here. Sure, he’s a prick and I can’t stand what he did, but he’s still a human being and I’m not comfortable with the idea of playing judge, jury, and executioner.
“Who’s Ben?” I try again.
The ghost lowers itself to my level, though it still towers over me by about three feet. But slowly, the figure begins to morph, its ethereal tendrils and wisps of… whatever it is changing form until I find myself staring at a boy. A child, perhaps no older than 11. Maybe 12. His eyes are sad, the left darker than the right, and his head lists to the left. The sadness shifts to anger when the child glances up at Grayson floating several feet above us.
I’m Ben… and Daddy must pay!
Oh, lovely. I’ve stumbled upon some supernatural Dr. Phil shit. I follow the boy’s gaze up to Grayson. The fear in his eyes has been replaced with a sadness that can only be explained away with guilt. Whatever Grayson did, it had to do with a son I didn’t even realize he had. Yep, definitely doing more homework before taking on a new client from now on.
“Grayson…” I get back to my feet. “What did you do?”
A tear rolls down Grayson’s cheek, gravity be damned. Another follows soon after, and within seconds, he’s this close to bawling his eyes out. He doesn’t even register the other spirits hovering around him anymore, which have appeared to given him some distance. But they’re still circling him, wisps of their ghostly frames coming close to contact with him.
He’s staring at the child, shaking his head and straightening himself. Gently, the spirits place Grayson back on his feet, but he immediately drops to his knees. Eyes red and puffy, tear streaks on both sides of his face, Grayson doesn’t notice when I approach and place a hand on his shoulder. He’s too busy staring at the translucent child in front of him.
“What happened to your son?”
He left me with those monsters! They did things to me… bad things…
I glance at the ghost boy, shuddering to imagine what he might be talking about. I turn my attention back to Grayson, who is now staring at his hands in his lap. I really need him to rejoin the land of the sane right now. I squeeze his shoulder and drop to my knees; maybe if I’m on his level, it will help him open up a bit.
“Before Ben was old enough for school,” he starts, “we started noticing things. He was… quieter than most kids. Wouldn’t respond to his name. Had trouble keeping eye contact. We thought maybe it was nothing, but…”
He shakes his head and I can see the emotion welling up inside him again. I need to keep him calm, keep him here.
“Ben was autistic,” I offer.
Grayson nods and sniffles before straightening his posture. “We tried everything we could to get him help. But… he was almost better off not being able to walk, you know? Doctors would’ve known what to do then. But since it was my Ben’s brain that was…” I watch as Grayson’s hands curl into fists. “It was like they didn’t even try.”
I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t make friends. So Mommy and Daddy shipped me to this hospital. It was a dirty place, full of bad people.
A smile creeps onto Grayson’s face, which I find odd until I realize that is probably the most he’s ever heard his son say at one time. “It wasn’t Merciful Souls, was it?”
Grayson shakes his head. “It was A New Day, on the other side of the state.”
I vaguely remember hearing about that place on the news a few years ago. A lot of disgusting shit apparently went on in that place. Doctors and nurses using their positions in the facility to take advantage of their patients, doing some truly despicable things for which they deserve to spend lifetimes behind bars. I can’t even repeat some of the allegations without my stomach turning inside out.
I turn my attention back to the boy. “What did they do to you?”
They wouldn’t give me my medicine. They told me I was there because my parents didn’t love me. One of the nurses… one of the nurses would spank me until I couldn’t even sit anymore…
My stomach churns and I have to cover my mouth. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people taking advantage of and abusing a child like that… especially in a place that’s supposed to help them when no one else can. I still don’t have all the pieces, but if I connect the dots correctly, I’m starting to view Grayson in a different light.
Why did you send me there, Daddy?
“Because your mother and I didn’t know what else to do.” Grayson shakes his head. “Nothing we were doing was working. Nothing the doctors told us was working.”
You left me with bad people… I died in there!
“I know.” Grayson’s crying again. “I know, and I’m so sorry…”
I’m fighting back tears of my own at this point, though it’s more out of anger than anything. The rage is so strong that I can feel my hands trembling. I have to ball them into fists to keep them steady. “But what does this have to do with Merciful Souls?”
“The same group that ran A New Day ran Merciful Souls,” Grayson explains.
I nod. “So you assumed the same things were happening there, too.”
“Before our divorce, Frances sued the management group responsible for A New Day. Bled them as dry as she could. It was a victory, but without Ben, it rang hollow.”
“So… what?” I shake my head. “You decided more needed to be done, so you pulled the strings to bankrupt Merciful Souls and left a bunch of mentally ill people with nowhere else to turn?”
“No! I –“ Grayson turns his gaze to the young boy in front of me, swiping under his eyes to catch any more tears. He’s pretty much cried out at this point, but the emotion of the moment is so thick and raw that his body can’t help it. I’m even a little choked up at this point, even if I still think what he did was fucked up.
“It wasn’t supposed to go down the way it did,” he admits.
The boy stretches his arm skyward, pulling Grayson back into the air and twisting him until he’s rightside up again. But when one of the spirits passes through his back – without coming out the other side – I have to turn away. His scream is enough to turn my stomach, and the thought of a spirit shacked up inside the body of someone who’s still alive… I can’t think of anything worse at the moment. The physical pain is one thing; I can only imagine what’s going on in Grayson’s head.
Sure enough, when I look up, Grayson’s clutching his temples with both hands. His eyes are scrunched closed in agony, and he’s gritting his teeth. When the boy clenches his fist, Grayson’s eyes fly open and he clutches his chest. His mouth hangs open, as if there’s a scream begging to be set free, but no sound comes. Desperate to not watch Grayson die – why, I’m not entirely sure – I lunge for the spirit, swiping my arms as if to scoop him up into my arms.
And much to my surprise, that’s exactly what happens. I shudder and gag at the rush of ice cold against my body as I hold onto the child. But the surprise that I’m actually able to affect the noncorporeal has registered for both of us. The child glances down at my arms with wide eyes… before his face morphs into something sinister, bearing three rows of sharp teeth and snarling at me as if I were an uncooperative meal.
I stumble backward and lose my grip. The boy, having now shifted into full-on monster mode, with talons and everything, swoops into the air and grabs Grayson by his chin. The snarl is louder this time, and Grayson is trembling. His eyes meet mine, and all I can do is give him a sad smile to let him know I wish there was more I could do. I’m not equipped to handle spirits that get violent… mostly because this is the first time I’ve had that happen.
One of the translucent tendrils swipes across Grayson’s midsection, and he doubles over with a scream. I cup my hands over my mouth, watching his dress shirt stain with blood. It’s a shallow cut, meant more for instant pain than lasting damage, but if his son’s spirit has gotten to the point of physical assault… then I don’t see how this ends without one of us in a body bag.
Do they have body bags out here?
“Hey!” My voice echoes in the abyss.
Another invisible force hits me in my stomach and sends me teetering backward. I double over and wrap both arms around my midsection, desperate not to vomit again. And you know what? I don’t care if this ghost is actually some child who died because of neglect or maleficence at the hands of those who were supposed to care for him. He’s starting to get on my last nerve, and I can’t let him kill Grayson.
He swipes at Grayson again, and this time, I see the blood trickling from the side of his neck. Adrenaline takes over at this point, pushing me back to my feet and running full-speed until I tackle the spirit to the ground. Which, considering we can’t see the ground, it comes up quick and hurts like hell when we land. I wrap my hand around the ghost’s neck to pin it down, using my body weight in the process.
The ghost reverts back to its child form, as if to elicit sympathy from me. But I only tighten my grip, my jaw clenching. “Look,” I practically growl. “I’m sorry for what happened to you. I really am. But it’s not your dad’s fault. Whatever he did, whatever made him take Merciful Souls, he did it out of love and grief. For you.”
The spirit shakes its head and its lip curls into a sneer. “No… if Daddy loved me, he never would’ve put me in that hospital in the first place!”
A thud to my left tells me Grayson’s no longer hovering in the air. Instead, he’s on all fours, looking as if he’s about to wretch at any moment. And he does – but instead of food, the spirit that had shoved its way into his chest spills out of his mouth. Drops of blood also follow suit, and I shudder in disgust at the whole display. I can only imagine how terrible that felt. He collapses face-first, sweaty and out of breath. His eyes are barely open, and he turns to look at us. Swallowing thickly, he opens his mouth to speak… but no words come.
“Grayson?” I quirk a brow.
“I-I’m sorry,” he whispers. “We didn’t know what else to do, Ben. Nothing we tried worked.”
So you just abandoned me?
“No! We-we thought we were helping!”
Do you have… any idea what they did to me in there?
“No, he doesn’t.” I tighten my grip even more on the ghost, and its face begins to shift again. “But that doesn’t give you the right to torment him like this. What happened to you was out of his hands.”
And what about the others?
“Those are on me.” Grayson’s voice is just barely above a whisper now. He cringes with every other word, cradling within himself and cupping his right hand over the wound in his gut. The bleeding has subsided, but I doubt the pain has. “I was wrong. I should’ve found another way to secure a building for McGuinnis.”
“Even so,” I chime in, “what gives you the right to torment those students?” The ghost looks at me in confusion. “You’re pissed at your dad, I get it. You want him to suffer, I get that. But why haunt the students living in McGuinnis? What did they ever do to you?”
The students are just a means… a way for us to get to him.
“You’re causing undue suffering,” I argue. “In your thirst for vengeance, you’re hurting innocent people.”
For the first time, the child actually looks incredibly childlike. Almost as if it had never considered what I just said. I can see the reality of what the spirit was doing dawning on it. I’m trying to ignore the hissing of the spirits still hovering above us, monsters eager to strike when next commanded. They’re among the most gruesome creatures I’ve seen in my short time doing this, and after all this is over, I’m gonna start reading up on how to handle hostile ghosts.
Because this shit ain’t cool.
Then, with a wave of the boy’s hand, the other spirits disappear. I blink in surprise, reluctantly releasing my grip on the ghost’s neck. He blinks up at me and gives a sad smile. I then stand, hands still cocked into fists just in case. But the spirit only floats into the air and hangs its head.
I… I am?
I mean, of course I am.
The boy hovers over Grayson. Its tiny hands glow white for several seconds, and I can see the gash on Grayson’s neck closing. The same happens to the wound in his midsection, and slowly, Grayson scrambles back to his knees. He’s pale and sweaty, and he’s having a hard time catching his breath. His eyes are red and bloodshot, and he occasionally sniffles.
“I’m sorry, son.”
So am I, Dad.
Then, with a snap of the spirit’s fingers, we’re no longer surrounded by pitch black. It takes me a few moments to gather my bearings, but once I do, I realize we’re back in Grayson’s office. It’s a simple place, all things considered. The desk only houses a computer and two framed photographs. One depicts the day Grayson married his wife; the other is a Christmas photo of a younger Grayson and his wife with a baby on her lap. The baby is smiling, but it’s not a full-on grin and it doesn’t reach the child’s eyes. It’s a sad sight, particularly in light of what had just happened. Grayson is sitting on the floor, staring at his hands in his lap.
“It’s over,” I offer, because really, what else is there to say?
“Thank you, Ms. Blanchard.”
I shake my head and crouch down to Grayson’s level. “I have half a mind to report you to the authorities, but something tells me the statute of limitations has already passed. So I’m just gonna have to be comfortable in knowing you’re a miserable wreck over what you did.”
Grayson lifts his gaze. “You hate me.”
“Can you blame me? First of all, you hire me under false pretenses. Then all that mess… look, I’m sorry about what happened with Ben. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a parent to lose a child. But… making others in need suffer because of your pain is no way to go.”
All he can do is nod and go back to staring at his hands. With a sigh, I reach into my back pocket and pull out the check he had written for me when he first hired me. I place the check in his hands and give a soft smile when he looks up at me in confusion.
“Keep it,” I say.
“But… but you earned this.” He swallows. “And then some.”
“And believe me when I say I could really use it.” Because it’s a lot of money. Far more than I normally charge. I didn’t realize a college president could be so loaded, but the evidence is right there in front of us. “But there are others who need it more.”
Grayson frowns at me. “I don’t…”
“You wanna make it up to your son? To those you displaced when you bought McGuinnis?” I smile when he nods. “Use that money to honor them. Donate it to a mental hospital. Start up a charity of your own. Better yet, use that money to form the Ben Grayson School of Mental Health. What better way to memorialize your son than to turn your school into one of the nation’s best in mental health?”
It’s like a light bulb goes off in Grayson’s head, and for the first time since he uttered his son’s name, I see a smile on his face. It’s a sad smile, but it’s also full of purpose. He scrambles to his feet and approaches his desk, frantically scribbling all over the yellow legal pad sitting next to his mouse. He then grabs his checkbook and begins scribbling again, even as I approach the desk and shake my head.
“Oh, no, that’s not necessary.”
“Nonsense.” He rips the check off and hands it to me. My heart leaps into my throat when I look at it, because it’s the same amount as the other check. Just how loaded is this guy? And if he’s this loaded, what’s he doing in academia?
Ah well, you know what they say. Gift horse. Mouth. Yadda yadda.
“Consider that an apology,” he says. “And a thank you.”
I pocket the check with a nod, pursing my lips. “Well, no offense, sir, but I hope we never see each other again.”
I turn to walk out of the office before Grayson can say anything, because I’m beat and just wanna go home and crawl into bed. This might a nightlight situation, given I just spent much of the evening in a pitch-black plane of existence and would rather not be somewhere that dark again any time soon. I also remind myself that the next time I catch a case, it would behoove me to vet the person hiring me just as much as I vet anything else.
I don’t want any more surprises like tonight. Because surprises like this are emotionally draining, and it’s disheartening just how often the supernatural and the spectrum of human emotion collide like this. All of this madness and suffering because one father didn’t know what do about his son who needed help.
Still, I hope Grayson finds peace. Likewise for his son and those whose lives he ruined.