“I’ll be done in a minute, Honey,” Sam’s mom called out to a nervous looking daughter. Sam was gawking at her mother, who teetered on a creaky stepstool as she reached up to screw in the chandelier they had brought from their old house--their real house. Her mother wobbled, threw her arms out, then regained her balance. Sam jumped up and started to scramble over, already too late. She tripped over the packed boxes strewn around, sending her and the book that was always glued to her hand flying across the room. Her mother giggled at the chaos, and Sam joined in, rustling out of the objects strewn around her.
“That was close,” Sam’s mother said, regaining control of her giggles and looking over at a bedraggled Sam. Sam struggled up from a clutter of framed photos. She grinned, gasping for air that couldn’t come through her laughs. She noticed a sparkle coming from one of the boxes, and picked up a picture of the once happy threesome. She looked at the smiling grey eyes of her father, his arms draped around her mother and Sam. The light of the new day drained out of her. A tear trickled down her cheek. She was so wrapped up in her memories that she didn’t register the scream or the crash for just a second. When she whipped around, she saw crushed boxes under a figure slumped on the floor. The wires coming out of the hole in the ceiling were sparking with a vengeance. Sam froze. It was her mother, frizzling and helpless on the floor. She stumbled over and hovered.
“Mom. Mom. Are you okay?” Sam wailed. Tears started pouring out of Sam like a river onto her mom’s chest–which wasn’t moving. Sam pulled her mom’s heavy body onto her lap, babbling and rocking. “You need to wake up, Mom. Wake up.”
Finally Sam heard a sharp intake of breath. At the same time, her hands stung with a sudden coldness and her mother’s head felt like a helium balloon–almost weightless. Sam noticed a glistening coming from her mother’s chest. It looked like her tears had somehow frozen into intricate crystals. Sam shivered. Something wasn’t right. Her concern didn’t last long, though. Joy overflowed when she heard her mother croak, “What was that?”
“Mom. You’re alive,” Sam sniffed, giving her mother a giant squeeze. “You really scared me.”
“What else would I be, you silly seahorse?” her mother said, squirming out of Sam’s tight grip. Just then, Sam felt a chill, as if something was watching her. She looked up and swore she saw a faint face hiding in the curtains. Its grey eyes startled, then disappeared into the pattern of the half drawn panels. She froze like she always did in unfamiliar situation--in front of teachers, store clerks, actually the world in general.
Her mother got up from the floor, examining her hands. She scowled, pacing around the table, mumbling words Sam couldn’t understand, her unblinking stare fixed on something across from her.
“Mom, you okay?”
She noticed Sam’s concerned puppy dog expression. “Yup. Dinner. Time for dinner,” her mom proclaimed, straightening her skirt.
The next morning, Sam woke up with her face squished on her desk. Her arm was pressing on all of the keys on the keyboard at once. She had been trying to get the internet working, again. Without her dad to set up the wifi, she was back in the Stone Age. She couldn’t even watch Ghost Hunters anymore. Maybe it was just a dream. Mom’s fine, she reassured herself. She looked at the clock. She realized that two whole months had passed since the accident. Exactly two.
Sam didn’t bother taking off the cupcake pajamas she got a few Christmases ago. She lumbered down the stairs, a heaviness in each of her steps. She heard dishes clanking.
“Mom. You’re up?”
“Ah, my sprouting teenager. You’ve grown a foot since yesterday,” her mother chirped. Sam paused at the bottom on the stairs. Her mom seemed to flicker as she strode over to the refrigerator. That’s what happens when you’re up ‘til three, Sam scolded herself.
The floorboards groaned under her bare feet as she walked to the table. For some reason, her mother’s steps didn’t make a sound on the wobbly boards. She must have figured out the technique already.
Sam plunked down at the table and waited for scrambled perfection. She looked over at her mom, who was struggling to pick up the pan. Her hand seemed to grab onto the handle, then slip out from under it. No, go through it, Sam corrected herself. She jumped up to help.
“I can do that, Mom. After breakfast, can I go outside for a little bit?”
“No. You can’t go,” her mother snapped. “You need to stay here, stay where I can see you.” Sam’s hopeful smile quickly faded at her mother’s fierce tone. Sam was never the one to talk back, but she retorted with force.
“Mom, I’m just going to be right out in the field. No big deal. Right there,” Sam said, pointing to the field just beyond the grimy window. She started to walk towards the door but her mother blocked her path.
“You’re not going anywhere,” her mother said. She raised the kitchen knife and advanced towards Sam. Sam’s eyes widened.
“I just need some dill–the secret ingredient,” her mother said, her smile returning as she sent a playful wink at Sam. She leaned over the small box and cut off a few sprigs. “You can go. I’ll make the eggs in a bit.” Sam nodded and bolted out the door like a spooked horse. Her fear of being alone didn’t bother her that much now. She feared she was already alone.
Sam raced through the tall, dry grass, her long brown hair blowing in the breeze. She slowed and gazed around, her curious eyes darting around at the birds twittering and swooping in the fields. Birds. Her favorite animals. They could fly off to distant lands, escape all of their troubles in the sky. If only she could do that. Her only wish was to get away from this house, to fly off and move somewhere else. Maybe even back to the city.
She looked back at it, the home she had known for only the last two months. The wood on the ancient house was warped and bending--and her eyes went to the dark beams surrounding one lonely window. She could make out a man and a woman behind the foggy pane. A man in our house? Sam thought, squinting to see better. She felt a protective surge. Instead of hiding behind her mom when strangers passed by, she could be the one to help now. Sam sprinted back to the house, but stopped at the door. She could hear voices--and they were arguing about her.
“You can’t do this to Sam,” the man blazed.
“She needs me. We’re running out of time. You’re already fading, and if I don’t do it soon, she’ll be...” Before she could finish, Sam burst through the door.
“Who are you talking to?” she said, eyes narrowing, fear taking hold of her. She looked toward the almost translucent figure, whose back was to her. The way his hand flicked when he talked looked familiar somehow. She looked to her stricken mother, and when she turned back, the man had disappeared. Gone.
“What just happened? Who was that?” Sam panted.
“It was… no one,” her mother said.
“That man just vanished into thin air!”
“Enough, Samantha,” Her mother snapped and headed to the kitchen. “Enough” meant be quiet, but Sam wasn’t going to be overlooked. She stomped after her mother, blocking her way.
“Not enough. What’s going on?” Sam snarled.
“Nothing, you’re imagining things.” Her mother pushed through the door. Sam watched the screen bang shut. It felt like a slap in the face.
Sam crashed into the study, leaving a trail of fire behind her. She could count the times her mother had talked to her like that. She knelt down at a box of her father’s writing–mostly poetry. He was an expert at grading English papers, but poetry was his real calling.
She started reading to calm herself down. Sam craved her father’s words; they came together in beautiful strands and dripped down the pages. She wanted to float in her father’s writing forever, but her hand itched, and soon she was drawing. What flowed out of her was unlike anything she had drawn before. It wasn’t her usual round of birds and creatures, but two women sitting on a dock together, the forest around them glowing in the moonlight.
She broke out of her art trance, and stared down at what she had created. That dock looks familiar somehow, she thought. Just then, a book fell to the floor behind her. It must have slipped from a cluttered shelf of loose papers. Sam slid over to the thick book like a lizard and picked it up. Intricate gold swirls danced over the thick cover of the musty book. The title read The Odd Haunting of Timothy Vale. Sam felt someone near her, watching her, and shivered. She looked up from the book, expecting a man with an axe, but didn’t see a thing. Confused, she scooched around in a full circle, like a dog before it lays down. She didn’t see anything, but Sam heard a faint whisper, a breeze maybe, tingling against her ear.
“You got this, Bunny,” the wind said. She looked around, confused. Dad always called me that, she thought, tears welling. She peered down at the book. A haunting, it said.
“Dad?’ she called out cautiously. Sam felt her nose being pulled, like her dad would do when he came home from work. That’s Dad all right, Sam thought, smiling. “I love you, Dad,” Sam whispered, droplets landing on the thick book cover. Whatever this book is, I think you want me to read it, Sam thought, shoving all of her faith into her instincts. A book about hauntings, strange eyes, a disappearing man talking to her mother, maybe it was all him. Maybe he had never left her.
Sam curled up in a corner and poured her heart and soul into absorbing the big red book. Light dusted through the curtains as the sun waved goodbye to her, beginning to dip below the horizon. She closed the book only after she read every word, even the acknowledgements and the author’s note in the back. She set her gaze at the far wall of the study and pondered this strange story of a little boy who saw the spirits of his relatives. What does that have to do with me? Sam thought. Maybe the book really did just fall off of the shelf.
She stood up, her cramped legs clicking in protest. She limped over to the bookcase, searching the titles for something, anything. She paced around the study, trying to piece together her father’s message. An idea lighting her mind, she raced to her room, which was crammed with boxes of her books, filled with fantasy and paranormal stories. She shuffled through the mess of vampires and phoenixes, picking out Tales of the Macabre and other wacky, fantastical books. Sam knew she had it right under her nose. She flipped through her novels and short stories, piecing everything together bit by bit. The way her mom flickered was like a description in Dark Shadows, and the sudden coldness of her mother was like the spirit from Time and Terror. Hallowed said that spirits were just energy, sometimes hanging on to the mortal world by using electricity–like the chandelier.
How could I have missed it? Sam thought, her eyes flashing like lightning.
“Is she Dad? Is she…a ghost?” Sam asked, her voice laced with shadows. Sam hoped with every fiber that her mom was fine. She waited. No response. She picked up her drawing, crumpled it into a ball and threw it across the room. “You can’t just disappear on me now,” Sam yelled.
As soon as Sam plopped down on her bed, heart a shipwreck, she heard the screen door greet its opener with a creak. She tiptoed to the kitchen and saw her mother crumple down at the table. Her mother put her head in her hands and choked out a few sentences. Sam could only catch a few words.
“You need to help me. I can’t do this alone,” her mother pleaded. She waited, staring at a fixed point, then continued. “I will not have Elaine in my house.”
“Hey, Mom,” Sam said, trying to be casual as she walked in. “What about Aunt Elaine?”
“Nothing. Just know that I love you, Sam,” her mother said.
“I love you too, Mom,” Sam said, slipping closer her mother, eyes inspecting her from head to toe. Not finding anything unusual, Sam let her mother wrap her in her arms and drag her onto her lap. Her mother’s hands were always cold, but now they were like popsicles. As she sunk deeper into their hug, she saw her mother disappear from under her for a moment, then re-appear. I was right, Sam thought, feeling like a real detective, pride surging. All happiness washed away, though, when she realized what it meant.
“Mom, we need to talk,” Sam began, choking up.
“Sam,” her mother said, cutting her off. “I’m sorry.” Her mother’s blue eyes looked different, rimmed with a blood red tinge. They bore into Sam, drilling holes through her. Wrapping her tighter, bringing her down, her mother’s hands passed into Sam, and the rest of her soon followed. Sam somehow swallowed her mother like a boa constrictor.
Sam could feel her legs pounding on a dirt path. She felt her mother’s presence, too, with her, together, inside of her. She also felt a deep well of love flowing into her consciousness, and gave into it, letting it wrap into her and around her. Sam felt an underlying tremor of guilt radiating from her mother’s awareness. Then it all went black.
Sam woke up in the tangled forest by a pond. That was a bad dream, Sam thought, shivering. She didn’t know which path led to home so she made a break for the path dead ahead. She stumbled up the overgrown trail, trees guiding her and giving her support. Her mother, frozen tears staining her cheeks, blocked her path.
“Don’t cry, Sam,” she said in a soothing voice, then rushed forward, grabbing Sam’s shirt with sudden strength. Sam yelped as her mother dragged her back along the path.
“It’s okay. I’m here, Sam,” her mother said
“No you’re not. You’re a ghost,” Sam sobbed, throwing a punch through her mother’s chest.
“A few more minutes, Seahorse,” her mother said in a stony voice. Sam needed a new strategy and fast.
“I can’t wait for school. It’s going to be a good year, I can feel it. It’ll be different here. I'll make new friends, play soccer,” Sam said, butter in her voice.
They stumbled along, ferns and vines snagging at their clothing, until they reached the pond, the ancient pier set against the glowing water. Her mother lifted Sam up like a ragdoll.
“No, we can figure this out,” Sam wailed.
Her mother hesitated for a moment then released Sam into the dark water. The cold made Sam’s bones feel like a crumbling statue.
“I’m losing power faster than Dad. We’ll never be separated again,” she said, plunging Sam’s head deep under the water.
Sam kicked frantically and grappled to free herself. I want to be with you, Mom, Sam thought, willing her thoughts into her mother’s mind. But not like this. Sam’s lungs screamed for mercy. Betrayal surged through her, consuming her, making her fight with what energy she had left. There’s so much I want to do! Please! She felt her mother wince. She knew she could hear her. The fire within her began to fizzle as water began to flood in. Her mind drifted to one of the books she had read. I know a way we can be together…
As if hearing Sam, her mother’s grip loosened. With every last atom of energy, Sam broke through the surface and gulped in deep breaths. She clambered onto the dock and collapsed on the splintered wood, breaths ragged, coughing up grief and water from deep inside of her. Her mother sat across from her as regret and exhaustion did a pitiful dance across her face. Then her mother’s features softened as understanding dawned.
“You really think it’ll work?” her mother whispered, eyes wide. The hand that held Sam under the water now reached out for her. This time, Sam knew it wasn’t going to hurt her. She felt the chill against her cheek just before she passed out. White light enveloped both them until only icy shards lay shattered on the wooden plank next to Sam.
That spring, Sam sat on the same rotting dock, a Ouija board laid out next to her. The triangular planchette did loop-de-loops across the surface, pointing at letters in a rapid succession. Giggles could be heard throughout the forest, sending raccoon families scampering back into their mossy hollows. The dappled light played on Sam’s long, chestnut hair, and when the shine was just right, the faint outline of a woman could be made out sitting beside her. It could have been a trick of the eye caused by the sun, whose beams kaleidoscoped off the water. Sam stopped whispering when she heard the call for scrambled eggs coming from the house.
“Coming, Aunt Elaine!” she hollered back. She packed up the board and headed down the familiar path toward home.