I don’t know how long I’ve been out, but by the time my eyes open again, I almost wish I could go right back to sleep. The fog clears from my vision and I see Grayson floating several feet in the air – or what would be several feet in the air, were we somewhere normal that had a ground and a horizon and an air. He’s upside down, mouth agape and eyes wide open. He’s having trouble breathing, and as I scramble to my feet, I can see his tie is tighter around his neck than normal.
But what really make my blood run cold are the streaks of blue surrounding Grayson. Translucent streaks of a whitish blue, vaguely human in form with thin arms and skeletal fingers. Their tails trail behind them, and it takes me a few moments to figure out that there are four of these spirits surrounding him. The ghost I recognize as the leader, for lack of a better term, is floating just a few feet away, admiring the handiwork of its underlings.
One of the spirits passes clean through Grayson’s chest, and the scream of agony he belts out has me recoiling. My stomach lurches at the sound, as well as the understanding of how it feels when a spirit passes through a corporeal form. The head ghost waves its arm, and Grayson’s scream cuts off in a harsh gag. Grayson tries to reach up to cup his neck with both hands, but one of the other spirits grabs his wrists and pins them behind his back.
Another spirit passes through Grayson’s chest again. I can’t stand the look of agony on his face. He might be a prick, but I don’t think he deserves this.
“Hey!” I call out, straightening my posture. Might as well go all out if I’m gonna fake this. “Stop!”
He must pay…
“With what, his life?”
If it comes to that.
I shake my head. “What if he turns into one of you? What if all you do tonight is create another pissed-off spirit?”
He won’t. We’ll make sure of that.
“And what about you?” My hands curl into fists, not that I can actually do anything with them. “You know what happens to spirits who meddle with the living.”
As if the ghost is taunting me, one of its minions passes through Grayson’s chest again. He bites back a scream, but the look of agony on his face and the vague memory of what that feels like makes me turn my head. I can’t stand to see this kind of suffering, even from someone I’m not terribly fond of. I mean… yeah, Grayson’s a first-class toolbox, but that doesn’t mean he deserves this. No one does.
The same goop that had stained my pants is now running down Grayson’s shirt. His head is listing to the side, eyes hooded and mouth hung open. He’s barely conscious at this point, and my compassionate side hopes he goes under. Sure, it means he might have an easier time slipping into death, but if it means he can’t feel anything… that’s a trade-off I’m willing to take.
The screeching and wailing grow louder, to the point where I have to cup my ears. Because of this, I can’t hear the device on my left hip beeping. Fortunately, the beeping is accompanied by a frequent, incessant vibration – one that makes me snatch the device with one hand and squint at the screen. It’s probably the most advanced piece of equipment I have, a remote sensor designed to alert me when there’s supernatural energy in the vicinity. It just now occurs to me that the thing never went off when I was in that hallway – or when I was here the first time – or at any point until the ghosts started getting violent.
The battery levels on the device are fine, so that can’t be it. I frown and place the machine back on my hip, because at this point it’s not alerting me to anything I don’t already know. The supernatural energy is fairly obvious at this point, in large part because of how violent the ghosts have become. One of them reaches out and tears off Grayson’s suit coat, tossing it aside before a slimy tentacle traces an outline over his jaw.
That brings Grayson fully back to the consciousness, and he gags as he recoils. I don’t blame him; that slippery stuff is nasty enough on walls or ceilings or clothes… but to actually have it touching your skin? I’d probably be struggling to keep my dinner down too.
“Let him go!” I order, as if I have any agency over these spirits.
This no longer concerns you.
A force pushes against my chest again, and the pain is searing as I skid along the invisible ground. I grit my teeth against the sensation, resisting the urge to grab the area that hurts. I don’t know why this matters to me so much, but I’m trying to make a point of not showing pain or fear in front of the spirits. I doubt it would actually do any good; maybe it’s just a point of pride with me. Still, the throbbing in my ribcage is impossible to ignore, and it’s a chore just to get back to my knees.
By the time I look up again, even more spirits have joined the fray. I don’t know where they’re coming from, but where that had been a handful of ghosts, there’s now… at least a dozen. Maybe more than that. It’s hard to keep count when they’re floating around in circles, overlapping with one another. One glowy white-blue spirit blends in with another and it’s impossible to tell them all apart.
This time, Grayson does scream, and it makes me recoil. I struggle to get back to my feet, still doubled over from the pain in my midsection. Like hell, this doesn’t concern me anymore. The ghosts I was supposed to set free – who I thought were on my side – are now trying to tear Grayson limb from limb, and for some reason, I can’t let that slide.
It’s not even like these are other people ganging up of Grayson. This isn’t living-on-living violence. And by all accounts, Grayson’s an ass, so… why does it matter to me that they stop? And why do I get the feeling I haven’t been told the whole story?
“Stop!” I bellow out, as loud as my vocal chords will allow.
To my surprise, the spirits do stop. They’re surrounding Grayson, who steals a sideways glance in my direction. His eyes are wide, and I can tell he hopes I know what I’m doing. Sad thing is, I really don’t. I’m playing this by ear. I haven’t been doing this for very long and there’s no handbook to tell me how to deal with hostile spirits. Vengeful ghosts aren’t exactly my wheelhouse.
“You told me you needed my help.” I focus best as I can on the leader, whose name I still don’t know. “When this all started, you pointed me to Grayson and you asked for my help. You never said a word about making him suffer.”
You played your part, little girl.
Little girl? Oh, no, this see-through motherfucker didn’t…
“Uh-uh.” I take a step forward, ignoring the pain. “I’m not letting you play me like that. And I’m damn sure not gonna let you hurt Grayson. Put him down.”
Never mind that I can’t actually do anything to these spirits. The corporeal cannot affect the uncorporeal without all sorts of magic know-how… of which I have exactly zero. It suddenly occurs to me that if this is going to become a long-term profession for me, it might behoove me to learn some occult. Being helpless like this isn’t much fun.
He must pay…
“So you’ve said.”
Grayson yelps as his body plummets several feet. But before he can hit the ground that’s not really there, one of the spirits grabs him by the ankle. He shivers at the sensation, glancing down to see one of those translucent tentacles wrapped around the bottom of his leg. He then looks at me in a panic, and I open my mouth to reassure him, only to find the words aren’t coming.
Cause really, how can I reassure him when I’m not sure how this is gonna turn out?
“Listen to me.” I decide to try talking to Grayson instead. The tie around his neck has loosened to where he can breathe again, and the color has returned to his face. A little too much color, since he’s still upside down, but hey, at least his skin isn’t the color of death anymore. “Whatever it was you did, you need to apologize for it.”
His face scrunches up in confusion. “What?”
Granted, it’s not the most logical plan in the world. It might not work. Hell, it might even backfire. But at this point, what other choice is there? These spirits seem pretty intent on killing Grayson and taking their sweet old time about it – and it’s not like I’ve got a proton pack strapped to my back with which to threaten them.
“You got a better idea?”
The look on Grayson’s face makes it obvious he doesn’t. Still, it doesn’t look like he’s keen on saying the words. Fortunately, I happen to have some incentive handy in the form of a taser I always keep on me. It’s usually just to keep the pervs and the creeps away, but if I can make Grayson think I’ll zap him if he doesn’t cooperate, I’ll take it.
“Alright, El Presidente,” I say, dropping to a knee and turning on the taser inches from his face. “Don’t say I never tried to help you. But if you don’t make with the apologies, I’m gonna zap you and then let them do whatever it is they’re gonna do to you. Then I’m gonna cash the check you wrote and go about my day.”
Not really, but he doesn’t need to know that.
His eyes dart back and forth, between my taser and the ghosts hovering just feet above. The glow of the taser bolt reflects in his eyes, and I can tell Grayson’s torn. He doesn’t know how to handle fear… probably because his life’s been so cushy that he’s never had to face such a dire scenario before. This is probably the kind of president who delegates to others whenever there’s a crisis on campus.
“Well?” I nudge the taser closer to Grayson’s face. “What do you say?”
He can tear his gaze from the taser. “I-I’m sorry.”
“What was that?” I glance up at the ghosts again. “I couldn’t really hear you.”
“I’m sorry, okay!” Grayson’s borderline panicking at this point, which is good. He glances up at the ghosts hovering together, shaking his head as a bead of sweat rolls down his temple. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry for what I did! I’m… I never should’ve just taken the hospital like that!”
The spirits slowly descend upon Grayson, who tries to wriggle his way backwards. Anything to put some space between himself and the ghosts. Many of the spirits screech and howl as they swirl and float around each other. The leader hovers back a few feet, its arms crossed over what passes for the being’s chest. I’m not sure how I can tell this sort of thing, but it looks as if it’s deep in thought.
“I’m sorry,” Grayson repeats. “What I did was wrong. Beyond wrong, just… terrible.”
The leader inches closer to us. I fight the urge to back away and curl within myself; instead, I turn off the taser and pocket it, thankful that I didn’t actually have to use it. I watch the spirit approach, swallowing thickly once its faint glow reflects off my skin. I can feel the chill now, wrapping my arms over my midsection and suppressing a shudder.
Your contrition cannot be trusted…
“Oh, but it can!” Grayson’s shaking and sweating up a storm now. “It can be! I’m so totally sorry, you have no idea…”
I do not mean that you are insincere… only that you are too late in expressing it.
I frown. It was worth a try.
With a yelp, Grayson is airborne again. By the time it registers where he is, and I reach out to grab his foot, he’s well out of range of my grasp. The spirits slither around him like snakes, and the first time one of them passes through his chest, I flinch and turn away. I’ve heard horror stories of pass-throughs gone wrong; ghosts who are able to affect the physical realm passing through a person and coming out the other side carrying one of their organs. I hope beyond hope that doesn’t happen here, but the spirits are so set against Grayson that I can’t discount the possibility.
All I can do now is hope. And maybe pray, even though I don’t do that much. Certainly not as often as my grandmother would’ve liked. Sorry, Gram…
Tell me, Grayson… The leader was floating several feet in the air again, its face inches from Grayson’s. Why did you do it? Why send those patients’ lives into upheaval? Why snatch a sorely-needed hospital out from the community’s grasp?
“Because…” Grayson’s teeth are gritted together and his hands are balled into fists. He’s shaking – not the shivering from the cold of the ghost’s presence, but a full-body shake from someone who’s certain this will be his last night on Earth.
Are we even still on Earth?
“Because,” Grayson tries again, “because of Ben…”
Okay… who the hell is Ben?