Prompt — An Unexpected Chat

The breeze sent a chill down Merideth’s spine as she waited beneath the tree for the sun to set. It still had a ways to go. The nights came later now that daylight savings had passed. She didn’t know how to feel about that. The only emotion she really felt was weariness, but then, that was every day.

“You know, there aren’t many trees in England these days,” she noted, glancing back to the tree for a moment before returning her gaze to the sunset. “Perhaps that’s why I like this spot. You’re an odd one. An old sentinel from an older time.”

The tree made no reply, as right it oughtn’t. There was a structure to the world, and talking trees simply did not fit.

“I reckon you feel that bloody breeze as well as I, no? It’s a bit drafty up on this hill, how do you stand it?”

“I find a coat does wonders for the breeze.”

Merideth spun around, expecting to see the tree miraculously sporting a trench coat and scarf. Instead, she saw a man with a trench coat and a scarf, tipping his hat as he walked up the far side of the hill towards her.

“You heard all that?”

“Just the bit about the cold, I’m afraid,” the stranger replied. He sounded American.

“You must think me daft,” she smiled, scoffing a bit at her own embarrassment.

“No, but you do seem to be struggling with the draft.” He emphasized the last word to rhyme it with her pronunciation of ‘daft’.

“I’m not entirely sure it’s wise to mock the accent of a person native to the country you’re visiting.”

“Yes, well, ‘Hello I’m Raymond Stenton’ becomes a boring introduction after a time. I try to lead with the insults first and then be nice later.”

She eyed him, not sure what to think about his peculiarity.

“Hello, I’m Raymond Stenton, by the way,” he added with a wink as he extended a hand out.

“Merideth,” she replied, taking it.

“Lovely name,” he smiled.

She grimaced. “Okay, ease it up a bit, I’m not fishing for compliments.”

“Would you like me to make another quip about your accent?”

“Does this work on every girl?”

He shrugged. “Only the ones who are lonely enough to talk to trees.”

“You’re interrupting a perfectly good evening.”

“I should say the same to you, what if I wanted to chat up this tree?”

“I saw him first.”

“Yes, but I think your tree flirting could use some work. The weather is never a good place to start with these things.”

Merideth folder her arms. She wasn’t in the mood to talk to strangers. Especially not one like him. And yet there was something about his presence that seemed… genuine.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

He tapped a satchel he kept at his side. “I start every travel vacation by climbing to the highest spot I can find and drawing places that look interesting. Then I go there.”

“Not much of anything interesting here.”

“I wouldn’t say that. I’ve found no shortage of conversation, and if you run off I can take my chances with the tree.”

She chuckled at that, and Raymond’s eyes lit up. “I’m not sure you’ll get very far,” she said.

“Oh, I don’t expect to. Trees aren’t known for their love of long walks.”

“You talk almost as if you have quip for everything I say.”

“I do. I keep a small journal at home of every possible sentence a stranger might say to me, and I’ve written and memorized a response for each. It’s a lot of work, I admit.”

“I can’t imagine that leaves much time for anything else,” she reasoned.

He waved it off. “It was just a long weekend for me. Now, if you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing up here?”

Merideth looked back out to the horizon to watch as the last shred of light dipped beneath the skyline. She thought about telling him the truth, but he wouldn’t believe it. Nobody could, without seeing it. Still, she couldn’t outright lie.

“I was… planning on a chat. With someone I haven’t seen for a long time.”

His face grew more serious. “You weren’t talking to the tree.”

She looked back at the tree that served as the invisible grave marker, wiping away a tear. “No, I wasn’t.”

Another breeze went by and the cold flooded through her body. Before she knew it Raymond’s coat was wrapped around her and the frigid air was staved off.

“I’m sorry for interrupting you,” he said. “I had no idea.”

“It’s alright. You really are charming.”

“That’s nice of you to say, but in my ignorance I’ve been terribly rude. You can keep the coat as my apology. It was a pleasure to meet you.” He was already moving towards the direction he’d come, and Merideth was hit with several emotions she couldn’t immediately place.

“How about coffee?” she called after him.

“I’m sorry?” he turned.

“Let’s do this properly tomorrow, yeah? I’ll buy you a coffee and return your coat.”

He smiled and nodded. “I’d like that very much, Merideth. Have a good night.”

 

 

(Not as faithful to the prompt as I usually am, but hey, the story wanted to go it’s own way. I think it turned out all the better for it.)

Prompt: https://megatruh.deviantart.com/art/garden-in-the-sky-726244864

garden_in_the_sky_by_megatruh-dc0dy4g

Lisa Stenton — Lighting the Lackluster Lamp (Pt. 2/3)

“I’m a little new to this whole ‘magic is real’ thing,” I said.

“Are you now?” Cara smirked. “Well, looks like we’ve got lots to catch up on.”

“Maybe we should both be sitting, then.” A glance towards the couch full of unfolded clean laundry told me that wasn’t an option. We went into my bedroom instead.

Unfortunately, my bed was only marginally better.

“Sorry about all the mess,” I grumbled, grabbing a dirty bowl and bag of oreos from my bed and putting them on the nightstand.

She elbowed me in the rib before sitting down in the now clear spot. “I knew there had to be a reason we only ever hung out at my place.”

“Well, yeah. Plus we couldn’t exactly pick on your little brother if we were at my house.”

Cara laughed. “It’s the solemn duty of the older sibling to bring their friends over and harass the younger one.”

“Especially when that friend is an only child.” I laid down on the other side of the bed, which she took as a cue to do the same. “How is he, by the way?”

“Oh, Bax is great. Sophomore in high school now. Same age we were when we started dating. He’s still a big nerd, unfortunately, but I managed to get him on the lacrosse team. I told him it’s a good way to meet girls.” She looked at me and winked.

“I wouldn’t advise him to introduce himself the same way we met. That bump never went away, by the way.” I rubbed the back of my head in the familiar spot.

She rolled her eyes. “How many times are you going to make me apologize for that?”

“Oh, I forgave you years ago. But it’s still funny. You’re not going to live that down anytime soon.”

She jabbed me in the gauze hard enough to hurt, but still in jest. “Didn’t you have a bunch of supernatural questions you wanted to ask?”

“I did, it’s just… You know, when I recognized you back in the Passway, I expected this conversation to be a lot more awkward.”

She nodded. “Yeah, me too.” The moment passed, and she sat up with her legs crossed. “So anyways, like I said, most humans are born Wizened. It’s sort of like how you tell your kid that Santa Claus is real, only you then go to Santa Claus’ house for Christmas. It’s s—”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “Santa Claus is real?”

She laughed again. “No, no, no. It’s just an example. You tell your kids fairy tales, only when you grow up in a Wizened family, they tell you true stories. Most Wizened people belong to guilds that serve different purposes. Some are mercenaries, some are intermediaries, some are commerce oriented, that sort of thing. So since you’re born into being Wizened, most people are also born into their guilds.”

“Hold on for a second. Every person I’ve met in the supernatural has used the term ‘Wizened’. What does that mean exactly?”

“Oh, that’s just any person that is aware of and involved in the supernatural community. It pretty much exclusively refers to humans, because obviously faeries and goblins and whatnot are, you know… supernatural.”

“I’ve never met any of those. Only Doc.”

“Only what?”

“Doc?” I called, raising my voice. “You here, buddy?”

“Yes…” his little voice replied. The little blue spirit crawled out from underneath my side of the bed. “Sleeping…”

“You sleep?”

“Don’t… know. Maybe?”

I lowered my hand to the ground and he hopped onto it. His little feet felt like ice cubes without the wetness, and I lifted him onto the bed with us.

“What the hell? You have a pet leech?” Cara asked, making a face.

“A what?”

She folded her arms. “That’s a leech. Basically spirits that have lost so much of their humanity they’re dumber than a wolf hunting a squirrel.”

“What’s wrong with that? We can’t all be smart. Plus, I think he’s cute.”

“They obsess over humans because they miss being alive, so they crave attention and human interaction. That’s pretty much all they know once they get to that stage. You keeping one as a pet is like feeding a rat that lives in your home instead of exterminating it.”

“I think that’s a little harsh, don’t you Doc?”

“Hmm… Harsh,” he nodded before lying down on the bed like a snow angel.

“Besides,” I added. “He’s taught me lots about the supernatural, since nobody else would.” I couldn’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but he had taught me… some things. I was sure of it.

“Well, it’s extremely rare that some random person just becomes Wizened,” she said. “You can’t even see spirits like him until you are. How’d you do it?”

“Funny story,” I said. “This guy walked into my apartment through my closet one day.”

“Your Passway?” she offered.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know it was there, obviously. He had a dog mask on his face and was looking for my mom. He gave me that magic Sharpie.”

Her eyebrows raised at that. “Black and white robes? Tall and gangly? Looks like a grim reaper wannabe?”

“You know him?”

“Oh, that’s one of the guilds I mentioned earlier. They’re called the Scavengers. They’re sort of like the black market of the Wizened world. There’s two things that are really weird about that story.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, first is that he knew your mom. That means she’s Wizened. And didn’t tell you about the supernatural world.”

“Yeah, I got that far. My parents moved to London several months ago, though, and this Scavenger guy thing happened only like last month. I’ve tried contacting her, but she’s been even harder to reach than usual.”

“That part’s not surprising,” she said. “Magical beings don’t like technology. Lots of liasons to the supernatural world are practically Amish. But anyways, second important thing. He gave you that Sharpie? No deal, no contract, no money?”

“Nope. Just told me to give it to my mom next time I see her.”

“That’s weird. A magical artifact like that is bound to be insanely expensive. I wonder why he gave it to you. He must have owed your mom a huge favor or something. Or maybe it’s cursed.”

I paled at that. “What would that mean?”

She shrugged. “Dunno, could mean a lot of things. Maybe after a while it’ll start using your blood instead of normal ink, and it will slowly, bit by bit, start consuming your soul.”

I gulped, looking back to the nightstand where the Sharpie sat. Such a powerful object, yet such a high price.

But when I turned back to Cara, I could see her stifling laughter.

She got a pillow to the face.

“You’re such a jerk,” I said.

“Yeah, well, you know. Oh. Actually, there’s three weird things about your story.”

“Go on?”

“Where did your door to the Passway come from? They’re usually made by the Locksmiths, which is another Wizened guild. And they have real, magic locks on them, not like your dumb padlock.”

“Hey, I did what I could!”

“Sure, it works for weaker stuff, but if a vampire sees a door without a proper lock on it, you’re screwed.”

“Well, that means I have to go find a Locksmith, right?”

“Sure, but that doesn’t answer the question. This guy. This Scavenger came into your apartment through the Passway. Before you bought a lock for it, your door was completely free to be opened at any time. It was only a matter of time before something came through, you were just lucky enough to have it not want to eat you. But it begs the question of how long that door was there, and who put it there.”

Lisa Stenton — Lighting the Lackluster Lamp (Pt. 1/3)

I didn’t want to die. I hadn’t really been worried about the possibility until the lake of lava about a month ago. But since then it had become a near daily concern.

Rarely though, was that concern as immediate as it was now, being marauded by almost a dozen demon skeletons.

“Back!” I yelled, magic red Sharpie sword in hand. No words came out, of course. The Passway was as eerily silent as it always was.

The skeletons did not relent. They stalked towards me as a pack of wolves surrounding a squirrel. Do wolves and squirrels live in the same ecosystem? Wouldn’t they fight over who got to eat it? Bad analogy I guess. You’ll have to forgive me for that one. Not dying was a more immediate concern than being clever.

I swung my sword out, and they took a step back. Not afraid, but at least they knew I was a threat, glowing red eyes seething hatred as they watched.

“You know, I’ve never enjoyed the stereotype of the damsel in distress,” I said. “But I’ll allow it this once, if you guys don’t mind waiting for my Prince Charming to show up.” Feeling my lips make the words brought some comfort at least.

One lunged for me. Swinging in panic, I brought the sword in between us, and the skeleton impaled itself. I might have screamed, but since I didn’t hear one it probably didn’t happen.

Relief washed over my face when I realized I was fine, but then it receded immediately. It was a skeleton. The sword had passed through all his ribs and he was now flailing his arms wildly at me.

“This is probably the grossest thing that’s ever happened to me,” I muttered, grimacing at the skewered thing swing like an overturned cockroach. Okay that analogy was much better. I could tell because I almost puked just thinking about it.

With a mustered force I shoved my foot right into his femur. It snapped in two with what I imagined to be a sickening crunch, and the demon skeleton collapsed to the floor.

Only eight more to go.

Seeing their brother-in-bones fall in combat sent them into a frenzy. They watched as his skull hit the ground and roared, glowy red essence spewing from the gaping holes of their mouths as, obviously, no sound came out. I bet it was terrifying. Bone-shattering, even.

They charged.

I swung, seriously hoping I would have the foresight to take swordplay classes in my next life.

A flash of red and silvery-blue, and a glimpse of something else caught my eye. Another person.

No time to look, though. I kept blocking and batting away claws and bites, staggering back into the wall of the Passway. Several blows hit their mark, and I could feel stinging pain on my arms, chest, and face as their hands clawed at me. It had never occurred to me how sharp phalanges could be. Especially demon skeleton phalanges.

Before I knew it, the skeletons were reduced to a pile of bones on the ground. The sole credit went to my rescuer, whose daggers seemed to be literally engulfed in flame and… ice? Once the threat was gone, the person directed me to sit with my back to the wall and gestured towards both directions of the Passway. Can’t sneak up on you if your back is to a wall, the person seemed to be implying.

I really was a damsel in distress now. To my dismay, though, it wasn’t Prince Charming that had saved me, but some girl that looked… really familiar, now that I thought about it. And she was staring at me.

Wait, I knew those eyes.

Carmen?” I mouthed, at the same time she mouthed “Lisa?”

That was ludicrous. Carmen was a guy. We dated back in high school before he moved away.

And now he was back. And female.

As soon as she realized I recognized her she averted my gaze, turning her attention to my wounds. She was untouched somehow, daggers safely tucked away at her hips. They hurt a lot more now that the danger and adrenaline had passed.

“You don’t happen to have any magic band-aids, do you?” I said. She was obviously just as deaf as I was here, but it was worth a shot.

I watched as she frowned in sympathy at the cuts on my arm, carefully avoiding inspection of my face and chest. There was no use in staying here, though. I grabbed her arm and pulled her up with me as I stood. When she looked up I motioned in a direction with my head. Back towards my apartment. She still seemed a bit uncomfortable by the situation, but nodded.

 

“I thought you moved,” I accused, frowning as she wrapped my bicep in gauze. We were in the dining room at the desk where I did my painting, with me sitting in the only chair. I held my breath and clenched my teeth as much as possible to keep her from seeing how much it really hurt.

“I did,” she said, as if she was conceding some well kept secret. “I still live in Oregon actually. It’s just pure coincidence that our doors to the Passway happen to be very close right now. How’s that?” she asked, patting my arm.

“It’s fine… A little tight, though.”

She looked up at me. “I can loosen it if you want.”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll be fine.”

She ignored me, loosening the wrapping and redoing it with less force. The affectionate warmth of her touch encroached into awkward territory as I found myself staring again. She was just so… different now.

“I… uh…” I sighed. Where to even start. “There are so many questions flowing through my head I don’t even know where to start. Carmen, it’s been so—”

“Cara.”

“What?”

“It’s Cara now,” she corrected.

“Isn’t Carmen a unisex name?” I asked. It’s not like I had a problem with that, it just seemed strange.

“I know, but it’s Cara now. Please. Can we not talk about that?”

I shrugged. “Alright, sorry.” It was quiet for another moment as we both avoided eye contact. “Can I ask one more question before we change the subject then?”

She looked into my eyes, and for that one moment I was back in high school, wishing that I had done everything differently. Wishing that I hadn’t made so many mistakes with her. She nodded.

“Is…” I paused, unsure of how to phrase it. I settled for gesturing at her general person. “Is this why you broke up with me?”

She nodded again, expecting the question. “It’s more complicated than that, but… yeah, I think so.”

“Alright.”

She finished up by closing the first aid kit and standing. “I’m sorry.”

I punched her in the arm.

“Ow! What the hell?”

And then hugged her.

“Thanks for probably saving my life,” I said.

It took a moment, but she hugged back, and all the tension in the room washed away. “Yeah. Any time.”

“In that case, could you maybe do it faster next time? I could have donated all that blood.”

“You donate blood?”

“Well, no. But I tried one time. They rejected me ‘cause I didn’t have enough iron.”

I broke the hug, and we locked eyes for another minute. There was something there that I couldn’t place, but it didn’t matter. Hers were the only eyes I felt comfortable looking into, and I was glad to know that that hadn’t changed.

The moment passed, and all the other questions came flooding back.

“Have you known about the supernatural this whole time?” I asked.

“Sure. Born into it, like most humans. You’re saying you weren’t?”

“Yeah, I’m a little new to this whole ‘magic is real’ thing,”

“Are you now?” she smirked. “Well, looks like we’ve got lots to catch up on.”

Story — Cara the Wizened

(Rare content warning on this one.)

 

“Raise five,” I said, tossing another red chip into the pot.

Benny’s shoulders slumped even more, but was careful to keep his hands where they were as he thought. He knew I was watching him like a hawk, tracking his body language to figure out what he had.

“Uh… I call,” he said after a while. His words carried a hint of hesitation. He had nothing. Of course, I didn’t either. I had a pair of threes after the flop. But with a Queen and Jack showing, he was right to worry. Benny was too trusting, and his dwindling pool of chips reflected that. He was also easily distracted, so having cleavage gave me a distinct advantage.

“Cara’s bluffing again. She does this to you every time,” Matt told him, glancing up at the both of us before dealing the next card. Another Queen.

“Bet three,” I stated, keeping my tone flat.

Benny eyed Matt, who shrugged. Matt had folded minutes ago and had been watching this hand patiently.

“Well… how do you know she’s bluffing?” Benny asked.

“She’s playing you, man. Been milking your chips all night.”

“Hey! No helping,” I snapped. I held my empty beer can towards him. “Can I get a refill, oh gracious host?” Matt snagged it and stood, going back into the kitchen.

Benny analyzed everything about me in that moment, trying to glean any information about the cards placed neatly face down in front of me. His gaze lingered on my chest, revealing where his mind really was. I stretched my arms forwards for good measure, encouraging him to choose poorly. “I’ll, uh, raise two,” he said, pushing one of his last red chips in.

“Raise five,” I said in a heartbeat, doing the same.

Matt came back with two fresh cans, putting one next to my mound of chips. I nodded my thanks.

“I can’t do it,” Benny groaned, throwing his cards into the middle. “I fold.”

“Ha!” I shouted. “I barely had two pair!” I flipped my cards over to prove that I had indeed been bluffing.

“Told you,” Michael said, cracking his can open and taking a sip.

“Damn it… how do you do that?” Benny said.

I hooked a palm around the pot and shoveled it back towards me. “Credit goes to my sick reads. You guys better step it up or I’m going to be thirty bucks richer in the next half hour.”

My phone started ringing the retro Batman intro.

“Shit,” I mumbled, pulling my phone out and pushing my way out of the chair. “Play the next few without me, I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Your brother again?” Michael asked.

“Yeah,” I lied. With a nod to the both of them I rushed out the front door of Michael’s house and into the cold night air. The phone felt warm on my face as I pressed it against my cheek, careful to keep my voice low. “Everything okay?”

“Of course not,” my brother called over the phone. “I’m picking up lots of unusual movement in the Passways. You’d better come home soon and check it out.”

“On my way.” I hung up and exhaled slowly.

Michael’s house was still warm and inviting when I stepped back in, but the atmosphere had changed. The two of them were chatting with low voices, not expecting me to have come back so soon.

“Uh… you leaving?” Benny said.

I nodded. “Sorry guys, I gotta go. You two split the winnings. I owe you guys a bit for ruining the night anyway.”

Michael shrugged. “It’s whatever. You gotta do what you gotta do. You gonna be good to drive, though? You had like three—”

“I’ll be fine. Sorry, it’s just… duty calls. Everything will be fine, but I have to go. See you later.”

This was the third time this month there was an incident in the Passways.

~~

I got home in ten minutes—roughly half the time it should have taken me. I may have ran a red light or two, but nobody would be out driving at this hour anyway, so it didn’t matter. I flung the door open to see Baxter chewing his nails off as he stared at the computer. “What’s the situation?” I asked.

“Thralls.”

That sent a chill down my spine. Undead? How had they gotten into the Passway?

“What kind?”

“Mindless ones, mostly. About half a dozen due north about five hundred feet of our entrance. There was more. Something’s fighting back.”

I could take that many easy. But there was no way to know how long that person or thing might last. “Any sign of their master?”

He shook his head. “Not that I can tell, but I keep telling you our trackers don’t work that well in the Passway. It’s like using a heat camera to find people when it’s already a hundred degrees outside.”

“I’m going in there.” I opened a cabinet in the hallway and grabbed my two knives. Snapping their sheathes onto the sides of my belt. “Be back in fifteen. Have first responders ready in case that person is hurt. Unless they’re not human, obviously.”

“Stay safe,” Baxter said.

I shrugged as if to say ‘no promises’, then put the key into the deadbolt lock of the closet door. The door that actually opened into the Passway. Here we go.

As always, the Passway resembled a nice garden walkway that extended to infinity in two directions. The floor was covered in soft, well tended grass with flowers strategically placed throughout, and a tall, white picket fence walled off the sides. The doors back to the real world were little more than gates, each with their own unique handle. There was no light source, yet it seemed to be a clear sunny day.

No time to waste, though, I had to move.

The total absence of sound in the Passway never failed to unsettle me. It was disorienting to say the least, especially since the haze of the tunnels limited visibility to about one or two hundred feet.

When I saw a cluster of grey bones, my daggers were out with a flash. A calm breath and I funneled my ki into them, pouring the elements of fire and ice into the blades.

The thralls were all crowded around somebody who seemed to be fending for herself pretty well. She held a solid red sword out in front of her, ready to defend herself if any of the undead lunged for her.

A wide arc of the ice dagger sheared straight through the head of one of the thralls, then two quick stabs into another. Once they discovered a new threat, some of them turned to face me, but they were slow and unarmed. The other girl and I were flanking them now, so we had the advantage here.

~~

A minute later and all that was left was a pile of (once more) lifeless bones between us. I could feel my chest heaving with exertion, and after a cursory glance around I sheathed my daggers. Back planted firmly against the wall of the picket fence, it was important to make sure nobody could sneak up on you in the Passway.

This girl seemed pretty inexperienced, so I directed her to do the same. She seemed pretty stunned, staring at me without so much as wiping away the blood from her wounds, but she did as I directed.

It wasn’t until I got a chance to really look at her that I realized who she was.

Lisa?” I asked, though no words came out. We hadn’t seen each other since I broke up with her in high school. That was before I moved and before I…

She analyzed me up and down, and like Benny her gaze lingered on my chest, but for completely different reasons. I pulled my shirt up and shrunk a bit at her gaze. She hadn’t seemed to have changed since we last saw each other.

I certainly had, though, and this was going to get awkward very fast.

Lisa Stenton — Likable Living with a Lifeless Lawyer (Pt. 2/2)

(Read Pt. 1 here!)

 

Sam had to go pick up her daughter, but I agreed to come back home with her to see if I could figure anything out for her. I decided to bring Doc along with me, too. I hoped ghosts wouldn’t try to claw each others’ eyes out if they didn’t like each other. One too many bad experiences introducing cats to one another taught me to be wary. Doc could do whatever he wanted. I literally couldn’t stop him if he wanted to be somewhere, but he seemed to listen to me when I asked him to. Most of the time, at least.

Her house was much better than mine. It was a house, for one thing. It had a driveway with a nice car, a watered lawn, and it was an overall respectable home. It reminded me of the house my parents and I lived in before they moved to England. As much as I liked being independent, this was a staunch reminder of the peaceful, cleaner, and altogether simpler life I had had just a few months ago.

“Uh…” Sam started, voice hushed as she held the sleeping Chloe with both arms. She was already so big! “Just so you know, the fact that my house is haunted isn’t the only reason I never have anyone over.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let me just light some candles before you go in, okay?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure I’ll be fine, Sam.”

She smiled a little. “Okay, but if you pass out you’re going to have to call your own ambulance.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense,” I objected.

“That’s the deal,” she said, struggling to put her key in while holding her daughter. I moved to help her, but she turned it and pushed the door open with her hip before I could be of any use. She had gotten some aspects of parenting down, it seemed.

As soon as we walked inside, though, all the nostalgia of my old home faded.

Sam’s place was a mess. It was as if five of me lived together and had no reason to leave. And maybe also had to resort to eating baby food to survive. A bunch of shoes lay scattered in a pile near the doorway. Most were tiny. An open box of crayons was left on the floor next to one of the rear walls, and though several half-ripped sheets of some mermaid coloring book were set aside near them, Chloe had evidently used the wall as her canvas instead. A pungent smell wafted into my nose the further I got in, but it was hard to place. Old and fruity was the best I could manage.

“I know it’s bad,” she said. “I’m sorry. Here, let me just put Chloe down so we can talk.”

“Sure, alright.”

I stayed in the entryway as Sam went upstairs, looking for any signs of ghosts but not having any idea what those signs might be.

“Ghost… here,” Doc said, holding one of Chloe’s old shoes up to his face and sniffing it.

Well, that was easy. I didn’t even know ghosts could smell.

“You can tell by sniffing a shoe?”

“Smells… like human,” he confirmed.

“We’re not looking for humans, Doc. We know humans live here.”

“Human ghost,” he nodded, tossing the shoe aside.

“There are not human ghosts?”

He put a tiny arm to where his chin might be, then waved his hands out. “Maybe?”

“Some help you are,” I muttered, walking down the hall.

I passed the stairs and what seemed to be a bathroom, entering where the kitchen married the living room in one big, open area. The sound of my shoes sticking to something caught my attention, and I looked down to see the culprit of the smell. The corpse of some orange popsicle lay forgotten in a sticky pool of gross, passing through the cracks of the tile and pooling around the carpet of the living room, too.

“Such a shame, that,” a deeper voice said. “Peach raspberry is such an underappreciated flavor.”

I swung around to see an older man in a suit standing next to me, pondering the sorry puddle as if he was mourning the loss of a dear friend.

It took no small amount of effort not to cry out in panic. Okay, maybe I did squeal a little bit, but it certainly wasn’t loud enough to wake up any napping baby-toddler.

He looked real. Alive. As if somebody had just walked in through the front door. I even looked down the hall again, just to make sure nobody had simply walked in behind me. Sure enough, it was closed.

“Who… are you?” I asked. “Where did you come from?”

“Hm?” He looked up at me, scratching one of his sideburns. “Oh my, you can see me, can’t you?”

That seemed rather obvious, so I didn’t dignify that with a response. Instead, I took a careful step away from both him and the puddle.

“That won’t be necessary, I don’t bite. I’m not sure I even can in my old age. But it’s nice to have somebody who can hear me for a change. Well, besides the child, of course. My name is Martin Morris. I used to be a family lawyer in a local law firm. A pleasure.” He held his hand out towards me.

I tried to take it, but my hand passed right through. It felt almost like dipping my fingers into freezing cold water, and I flinched.

“Ah,” he said, looking back at his hand and returning it to his side. “My apologies. I’ve been rather forgetful lately.”

“You said… the chi—Chloe can see you?”

“Why, yes. Rather remarkable girl. Very smart for her age. Though her mistreatment of popsicles is rather tragic.”

“So you’re the ghost that’s been haunting this house?”

“Is that what I’ve been doing?” he frowned. “Hm. Well, the mother has seemed rather anxious of late. I thought I might try to help out around the house. I’ve been here longer than her, after all. It’s more my house than it is hers.”

“I don’t think that’s true, seeing as you’re… well… dead.” Nice job being tactful, Lisa.

“I suppose that’s true. But—”

“Are you talking to the ghost?” Sam asked.

I turned to see her standing at the bottom of the stairs, glancing back and forth between me and the rest of the house with wide eyes.

“Um…” I looked between them. Martin shrugged. “Yes, it seems so. Man, of all the random hobbies I could have picked up in my early twenties, being a medium was really unexpected.”

“You’re… very tall,” Doc said from my feet, pointing up at me.

“Yes, thank you, Doc, but seeing as I’m barely five feet tall, I think most people would disagree with you. You have a very skewed perspective.”

But Doc already wasn’t listening. He had taken to rolling in the puddle of popsicle.

This was too much. “Can we sit down?” I asked the two of them.

“Fine,” Sam said, pulling her frazzled hair out of her face again.

“Certainly,” Martin chimed in simultaneously.

We moved into the living room to sit down on the couch, but there was a bunch of laundry on it, so Sam went to work folding it. I took a seat on the couch next to the laundry while Martin sat on one of the rocking chairs nearby.

“I’m… uh… not really sure where to start,” I said.

“I believe introductions are customary,” Martin smiled, scratching his sideburns again.

“Right, right. His name is Martin Morris. He was the previous owner of the house I think.”

Martin shook his head. “No, not quite. There was one or two residents in between me and the good… I’m sorry, what’s her name? I see it on the mail all the time, I’m simply drawing a blank.”

“Sam.”

“Hm?” Sam looked up at me as she finished folding a pair of jeans.

“Oh, nothing,” I said. “Just telling him your name.”

“Is he dangerous?” she asked, picking up a tiny shirt.

“He’s in the room, Sam,” I said, looking to the ghost, who seemed taken aback at the question.

“I know, it’s just… Where is he sitting?”

I pointed to the rocking chair.

“Mr. Martin,” she said, putting the shirt down without folding it. “I realize you’ve been very nice, and this you’ve probably been here the whole time I have, but I’d like to ask you to stop helping me. No more unexpected microwaved dinners. No more setting off alarms or slamming doors when you know I need to wake up. No more anything.”

I raised a hand. “Sam—”

“No,” she interrupted. “I don’t want to be one of the crazy ones. I don’t want to be scared to bring people into my home. I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking… this is normal. As nice as you are, it’s just impossible to get any sleep around here knowing there’s this thing in your house that you can’t see, can’t touch, but it can still do things.”

This was different. Apparently it had been some time since I had known Sam the rambunctious teenager. Now she was Sam the concerned mother.

I bit my lip and looked to Martin, who stared down as he scratched his sideburns. “I see,” he said.

“Sam, he has feelings, too.”

“He’s not alive, Lisa.”

“Let’s have a civil discussion before we get into the territory of ultimatums, okay?”

She huffed and went back to folding.

“Martin,” I addressed. “Do you know why you’re still here?”

The ghost shrugged. “I suppose there must be a reason.”

“How did you die?”

“Lung cancer. I’m afraid I picked up some bad habits in youth that were a real nuisance to break.”

Part of me hoped he was an unsolved murder victim, but then I regretted even having that thought.

“So you didn’t stay here to get revenge on anyone?” I asked. “Or make amends with somebody? You don’t have any regrets?”

“You don’t live a life as long as I did without piling up a mountain of regrets, child,” he laughed.

“Can you think of anything that might be holding you back from the afterlife?”

“Hm… Not in particular. I can’t seem to leave this house, however. Is that normal?”

“Yes, ghosts typically attach themselves to a residence,” I lied. I had no idea what I was talking about, but maybe if I sounded professional I could keep this conversation where I wanted it.

“Have you ever meant harm to either Sam or Chloe?”

He gave a fierce shake of his head. “No, absolutely not! Why should I?”

“What did he say?” Sam asked, voice anxious.

“He’s perfectly harmless, Sam,” I assured her. “Why are you so hung up on this? He seems like a wonderful gentleman and he only wants to help!”

Sam took a deep breath and sat down on the couch where the pile of clothes used to be. “I… I don’t want anyone to come by here and have any reason to take Chloe away from me. It’s not just the weird ghost stuff I’m worried about. It’s my sanity level. What if somebody comes here and thinks I’m crazy, or sick, or that the house is too dirty for a child to live in?” Her voice cracked at the end like a dam that was about to burst with the pressure.

“You’re losing the battle,” I breathed. Out loud, to my dismay. She nodded, and burst into tears. Dam broken.

I wrapped my arms around her, and a moment passed. Several moments.

“I… think I might be able to offer something of a solution,” Martin said.

Still holding Sam, I looked to him and nodded for him to continue.

“It’s admittedly been some time since I practiced law,” he noted. “But I specialized in divorces and custody battles.”

My shoulders relaxed as the tension eased. This was the news both of us needed.

“The trouble is,” Martin said. “I’m not so good at the minute details. I can’t pick up a pen and write, for instance. I could read documents and determine their credibility and provide legal assistance, but it would all have to be indirect, of course.”

“You would do that?” I asked.

“Of course. “The last thing I want is for a daughter to be taken away from her mother. Especially if it’s my fault.”

“What’s he saying?” Sam asked, wiping away the tears.

“He says he can help you with your custody stuff. He’s a divorce lawyer.”

“Well, that’s the short of it, though ‘divorce lawyer’ wasn’t technically the job title,” he put in.

“How could he possibly help with that?”

“He can read the papers for you and help you understand them.”

“He can’t even talk to—”

“Sam, he can talk to me.”

“You’re asking me to take legal advice from a dead person.”

Well, when she put it like that…

“A dead person who cares about you two and genuinely knows more about the situation than you do,” I countered.

“That means you’re offering to help me, too, you know.”

“I’m not going to stand around and watch this happen to you if I can help, Sam.”

She sighed. “Alright, but we do this on my terms. Does he agree?”

“Of course,” Martin said.

“He does,” I translated.

“No more ghost crap. I don’t want anyone to know this place is haunted. Not even if the house is empty and somebody breaks in, okay? No door slamming or floating stuff, okay?”

“Agreed,” I said at Martin’s approval.

“The only time I ever want evidence of your existence is if Lisa is here, got it?”

“Got it.”

“And no talking to my daughter. I don’t even want you in the same room as her, whether I know it or not.”

Martin didn’t seem to like that. “Is this an indefinite promise or until the legalities are in order?”

I relayed the message.

Sam frowned. “When I win and get to keep my daughter, we’ll talk about changing these terms then.”

“Understood,” I said for him.

Sam shook her head as if she still wasn’t satisfied.

“Sam?” I asked. She looked to me. “I… I can take care of Chloe for a while. While you’re at work and I’m not busy. I can take a break from painting. It’s cheaper than a babysitter, and having a trusted friend watch your daughter will look better, for whatever that may be worth.”

 

“I’m not sure you’ll be the best influence on her,” she smiled.

“That’s the idea.” I poked her in the side.

She laughed. “I don’t want to ask you to come over so often, though.”

“Hey, if anything it’s a self-esteem boost. My apartment looks great by comparison. As long as we’re not talking about the exterior.”

“Well, having Chloe over at your place may change things.”

“I’ll just sue you for every time she colors on my walls.”

“Oh God I don’t have that kind of money. You’re going to have to hide all the writing implements in your house, she loves drawing. Especially on things she shouldn’t.”

That brought up a question I hadn’t considered. What would happen if you just scribbled with my magic Sharpie? Would it fizzle out like words not written in cursive?

“Well, Doc and I should probably get going,” I said, getting up from the chair. Doc was still rolling around in the popsicle puddle, which was now smeared everywhere. “Sorry about that.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Sam said. “It won’t be any harder to clean up now.”

She followed me to the front door, with Martin staying behind. I waved goodbye, and he gave me a warm smile on my way out. As soon as he thought I wasn’t looking, though, I saw the warm expression vanish. He probably wished he could be of more use.

“Thanks again, for everything,” Sam said, opening the door.

“No problem,” I said, giving her a hug. “Come on, Doc!”

While we were waiting, I thought of one extra thing. “Don’t forget Martin can hear you. Tell him that if he ever needs to talk to you—or, well, me as it so happens—you two should establish a signal. Like a red crayon in the sink means he needs to talk. I don’t know, you’ll probably think of a better signal. But once you do figure out a signal, let me know and I’ll come as soon as I can, got it?”

“I will,” she nodded. The smile on her face was clearly a polite one. The kind of smile she gave when she was thankful, but still worried. I couldn’t blame her.

“It was nice to see you,” I said, walking out the door.

“Lisa?” she called after me. I turned. “I’m glad I’m not the only crazy one.”

Lisa Stenton — Likable Living with a Lifeless Lawyer (Pt. 1/2)

“The worst part is, just when you start thinking you’ve got a handle on things, she changes it up on you.”

I tried to make a distinct frown in between coffee sips. It probably just looked like I hated the coffee. “What do you mean?” I asked.

Sam curled her hair around one ear and looked around to make sure nobody was paying attention. When she felt safe, she scooted her chair closer to me. “Chloe has recently declared a war on wearing clothes. It’s ridiculous. She’s fine with the diaper, thank God, but I can’t take her anywhere because she starts screaming her head off.”

I shrugged and took another sip of coffee. “Sounds a lot like you in high school, minus the diaper, of course.”

“Lisa! We’re in public!” she hissed, blushing.

“Well, I just thought the irony was funny. She’s already so much like you.”

“You certainly haven’t changed at all,” Sam huffed. “It’s no surprise you’re still single.”

Ouch.

We were both quiet for a moment, staring at each other. But then she smirked, and I smirked, and we both started laughing.

“It’s been too long,” we both said in unison. A brief pause and we chuckled again.

“How’s the painting going?” Sam asked, pulling her frazzled hair from her face.

That was one way to kill the mood. “Slowly,” I admitted. “I’ve… been busy, lately.”

“With what?”

Here we go. I had to deflect fast. “Work’s just been a nightmare these past few weeks.”

“Did you get a new job? I thought you were still working night shifts at that shady hotel?”

“It’s not as easy as I make it sound.”

“You always say they’re just paying for the body and that they let you watch Netflix all day.”

“Well it’s not.”

“Lisa,” Sam smiled. “I love you and all, but you’ve got to work on your lying skills.”

I shrugged. I should have known that wouldn’t work. I did know that wouldn’t work. “I’m just a little confused is all. Life’s been different lately.”

“Different how?”

I thought about how to answer that. I could be vague and change the subject. I could tell her I didn’t want to talk about it. But Sam was a friend. A good friend, and though we didn’t see much of each other these days, I trusted her.

“Did you see my post on Twitter about that weird dream I had a few weeks ago?”

Sam looked up, then back at me, nodding. “That one with the lava and the old music player?”

“Yeah.” I could feel my chest pounding. I had never told anyone the truth. “Do… do you believe in things like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, or weird things science can’t explain?”

Skepticism washed over her face. “I don’t believe anything I see on TV or online.” She took a sip of her own coffee as if to prove it.

“What about ghost stories?”

Sam choked as she drank, putting the cup down and swallowing carefully as if I had just suggested jumping on the table and screaming. “I’m sorry?” she asked, still clearing her throat.

I frowned. “Ghost stories? Not like in the scary horror movies or the TV shows about haunted houses. Why was that so troubling?”

She waved a hand, assuming a more casual posture. “Oh, it’s nothing. I just watched Oculus last night after putting Chloe to bed. Terrible idea.”

I sighed, wanting to continue the conversation, but not liking how public the coffee place was. “Right. Actually, do you want to go back to my apartment? Do you have somewhere to be?”

“Well, I have to pick Chloe up from daycare soon, but we’ve got time. I just hope she wasn’t a brat again today.”

“Why don’t you just get a babysitter? They’re cheaper and can hang out at your house.”

“I don’t like the idea of somebody that doesn’t know me staying at my house,” she said.

“What, do you think they’ll steal from you?”

“Something like that. I’m still having trouble getting over my trust issues.”

I winced. “Sorry, didn’t mean to bring it up.”

“It’s fine,” Sam said, but her fist was clenched. “You’ll have to tell me where your new place is.”

We got up from the table and threw our cups away as we walked outside. “I’ll text you the address,” I said. “But you can just follow me. Also, warning you now. It’s not the cleanest. Or the biggest… Or the—”

“Oh stop,” she laughed, slapping me on the shoulder as she pulled her keys out. “I’m sure it’s awesome. I’ll see you there!”

 

About twenty minutes later I opened the door to my apartment, and the two of us stepped in. It really was a mess. Dirty clothes littered both the couch and the floor in one of the corners, the carpet obviously hadn’t been vacuumed in weeks, and forgotten dishes sat on the coffee table. That was the worst part. The kitchen was twenty feet away and I didn’t even have the decency to put them in the sink. I was regretting everything about the decision to bring her here.

“I really need to pull myself together,” I muttered.

“I think it’s great,” Sam said, rushing over to Whimsy, who laid sprawled in the middle of the carpet where the sun peeked through from the only window.

“Ah, yes. My official Guest Distractor. Keeping people I have over from noticing how much of a literal dump my apartment really is,” I sighed, grabbing pants and underwear on the couch and stuffing them into a single pile along with the other clothes in the corner. I should at least get a hamper for the laundry.

I scooped up some dishes and rushed them over to the sink, rinsing them off. The leftover food didn’t come off with the water, but cleaning it now would be even more embarrassing.

Sam didn’t seem to mind. She was still pushing her face into Whimsy, who was now purring loudly as he snuggled back. She didn’t love cats as much as she let on, and we both knew it, but she was polite enough to seem distracted to give me time to clean a bit. I really missed having her around.

“I see the rule of ‘Whimsy likes everyone except me’ is still in effect,” I said, grabbing something off the counter and returning to the living room.

“Aww, he loves everybody, he just doesn’t need to prove it to his mom,” she cooed.

“Could have fooled me,” I grumbled, glancing over to where I knew some of the pawprints stained the carpet from earlier.

She looked at me, head still buried in Whimsy as much as possible. “So did you want to just show me your new place? Or let me say hi to your cat?”

“No, I wanted to tell you what’s been bothering me.”

“Shoot.”

“That dream I posted. The one we were talking about earlier. It…” I took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. “It wasn’t a dream.”

“What do you mean?”

“That story with that masked guy coming into my house, then the weird tunnel, then the music and that guy luring a bunch of tiny ghosts to their deaths was real. It happened. I changed up a few of the facts, but it’s true for the most part.”

“Ah, so you’re crazy.”

“I think so,” I nodded, not sure what to feel in that moment.

She stood up and sat next to me on the couch. “We’ve all got our own brand of crazy, Lisa. ‘Bout time you discovered your own.”

“You don’t understand. I have proof.” I produced the red Sharpie the masked guy had given me. Taking the cap off, I wrote ‘mug’ in cursive right on the coffee table. Sam made a sound of confusion, but the word immediately folded into itself, forming into the shape of a small, solid red coffee mug.

Sam stared at it, expression blank. “Holy s—”

“Wait,” I interrupted, grabbing the mug and walking into the kitchen. I turned the sink on and poured water into it, bringing it back to Sam and handing it to her.

She took it with a careful, overprotective grip, as if handling the Mona Lisa or something.

“You can drink it, it’s just tap water,” I said. Part of me wanted to laugh at how astonished she was, but I didn’t want to seem rude.

She put the cup to her lips and drank. “How did you…”

Okay, I couldn’t resist messing with her. “Oh, just wait.” I held my hand out, and she gave the mug back to me. I drank the rest of the water and threw the mug across the room into the kitchen.

It shattered with a loud crash, and Sam flinched. “Oh God!” she cried, shielding her eyes from any shrapnel.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve been toying with it a lot. It’s the Sharpie that’s magic, not anything I make with it. As far as I can tell, you can only write one word, and it has to be in cursive. That word takes the shape of whatever you write, influenced by whatever you’re thinking of. You can only have one object at a time, and if it breaks, it shatters into a million pieces that vanish almost instantly. It can’t hurt you.”

“You almost gave me a heart attack,” she breathed.

“Here, try it yourself.” I handed the Sharpie to her. She drew back, cautious, but with a nod and a smile she took it.

“Anything?” she asked.

“Write one word in cursive. Small objects work better, and you can’t make living things.”

She deflated at that. “So I can’t infest your house with magical red snakes? Or spiders?”

“You sound incredibly disappointed at something you thought was literally impossible two minutes ago,” I chided. “Plus, you can only make the one anyway.”

She wrote the word ‘bike’ on the coffee table, and the red words folded into a three-dimensional space as they formed a bike. It was too small for an adult to use, and as soon as it finished forming, gravity pulled it down and it fell off the table onto the carpet.

“Also, I’ve found that small objects work better,” I added.

“This is amazing!” she said, eyes lighting up as she stared back and forth between the Sharpie and the bike.

“Li… sa…?”

I looked over to see Doc standing on the arm of the couch, his enormous head tilting back and forth like a curious dog. It wasn’t as cute without the floppy ears, but I still found it charming.

“Oh!” I shouted, grabbing Sam’s arms and pointing excitedly to the spirit I had befriended from the lake of lava. “There he is, there he is!”

Sam broke out of her reverie to see where I was pointing. “Who?”

“Doc! One of the tiny ghosts I saved from the lake of lava. He’s sort of been my roommate since then.”

“Your… roommate,” she said, voice flat.

“Yeah. Well, maybe more of a pet. I was the one who named him Doc. He can talk, so I figured he could teach me about the supernatural. He isn’t so good at sentences, though, so I haven’t learned much.” Realizing I was talking too fast, I exhaled slowly, then noticed the confusion in her face. “You can’t see him? That’s disappointing. Whimsy can. They don’t get along so well, though.”

“Maybe you really are crazy,” she smiled.

“Wha—but I just showed you real magic!”

“No, no, I totally understand. Now I know why you wanted to show me your place.”

I frowned. “I’ve seen the little guys walking around town since that one day. They’re not everywhere, but they’re pretty common. Maybe one per twenty people I encounter in just daily life.”

“You said they’re ghosts?”

“I mean, they seem like it. They can pass through things when they want to, and they have eye holes like I would imagine ghosts have. Not real faces. They can’t fly, though. But let me tell you: it’s super unsettling when you’re in the shower and he’s suddenly there.”

“I know what you mean,” Sam nodded.

“Yeah. They’re kinda cute, though. Doc is the only one I’ve ‘adopted’, if you will, but—wait. You know what I mean?”

She looked away, putting the cap back on the Sharpie and setting it on the coffee table. “I… uh… yeah. My house is haunted. I know what you mean.”

“Your… really? Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I’ve been sure for a few months now. I don’t know what to do about it, though. I’m not sure if I should like—get an exorcism or something. I don’t want to be one of the crazies.”

“Like me?”

She smirked. “Like you.”

“Is that the real reason you didn’t want to get a babysitter?”

She nodded.

“If you’re feeling unsafe, you should get out Sam.”

“That’s the thing, though!” she said, leaning towards me and putting her hands on my leg. “I don’t feel unsafe. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately, with work, and Chloe, and you know all the legal custody stuff. But the ghost that’s haunting my house is… like… helpful. And that’s the craziest thing of all. If I sleep in too late, doors will slam. If I drop something breakable, it almost looks like it slows down before it hits the ground. If it’s too hot, the AC will turn on even though I didn’t set it.”

“That last one sounds like a problem with your electrical.”

“And my bills are way lower than they should be if the wiring is faulty!”

She sounded like she was complaining, which I found a little annoying. How could anyone complain about having access to free AC in California?

“And you’ve never seen any ghost in your house?”

She shook her head. “Never.”

“But you also can’t see…” I turned to Doc, who was still bobbing his head back and forth playfully.

“But you can see them,” Sam finished the thought.

 

(Read Pt. 2 here!)

Lisa Stenton — The Last Laugh at the Lake of Lava (Pt. 2/2)

(Read Pt. 1 here!)

 

It was bright. Not like the blinding light of the sun peeking through the window in the morning and waking you up. It was just super colorful. Like I had stepped into a kindergarten classroom that the kids had barfed paint all over. There wasn’t any white or black to be seen.

I found myself in what seemed to be a giant hallway. Both my right and left extended out endlessly, though I couldn’t see very far. A hazy blue fog obscured my view so I couldn’t see past a few hundred feet. The hallway was both wide and tall. Several dozen feet in both directions. On both walls there was an innumerable amount of doors. They were only separated by about a foot or so. And some of the doors were several feet off the ground. The hallway was slightly rounded off the edges, and there were absolutely no features to identify beyond the various door handles, which were all unique in their own right. No stairs, no tables, no benches. Just a huge hallway with a bunch of doorways and no end in sight.

After a few moments, I also noticed the sound of music. It seemed to be a sole piano, and though it was distant, but unmistakable. In fact it was the only thing I could hear. My footsteps made no sound whatsoever. I even tested it by stomping. I tried snapping, and then shouting. Nothing. I almost tried clapping when I realized I still held the red Sharpie in my left hand.

“What in the world?” I said. Well, at least I tried to say it. I felt my mouth move, but still the only noise was the piano playing so far away, and yet somehow so near.

I turned back to the door I had come from, still ajar. Like a window back to the bland world of normalcy. No amazing colors. Just Lisa’s small, lame apartment.

Movement caught my eye, and I hurriedly focused on it as I backed to safety.

Tiny little creatures walked out of some of the doorways, passing through them rather than opening them. They were about as high as my knee I guessed, with heads bigger than their torsos and arms and legs the size of baby carrots. Their shape and color varied somewhat, but they all seemed to be some sort of translucent pastel. They had only the barest modicum of a face—only two eye sockets and a hole where the mouth should be. They looked like colored sheet ghosts, really, only humanoid shaped rather than formless. And their heads gave me a vague impression of lumpy bowling balls. To my surprise, I found the little things adorable.

Whatever they were, they were all marching (though they didn’t have knees) in the same direction. They made no sound as they all massed to the right. I watched as one colored a sky blue tripped and faceplanted onto the painted floor. His tiny little limbs noodled around, but he couldn’t seem to pick himself up.

They were moving like a giant, or tiny, rather, herd of… mice? I don’t know. There must be tiny animals that travel in herds. Lemmings! It was like a tiny herd of lemmings, but even so I found my way across to the one that had fallen over. Gently, I grabbed his head and pulled him onto his feet. It felt cold and sort of squishy, but he was practically weightless. I got the distinct impression that he was male, even if none of the creatures seemed to have any sort of gender. Thus saved, the little thing glanced up at me, cocking his head.

But then, both of us seemed to notice the music once again, and he joined the other little ghosts as he walked alongside the rest of the lemming herd.

I followed the crowd with tentative steps. They didn’t move fast—consequence of their carrot legs—so I could have turned around at any time. With how much bigger I was (wow, I don’t think I’ve ever said that in my life), running in the opposite direction and bulldozing over them probably would have been easy. If it came to that.

These little guys seemed entranced. By the music, probably. Though it was still quiet, it seemed somewhat clearer in my mind. If it was magic—a notion I found myself more and more willing to accept—it didn’t work on me. I was just a curious bystander wondering where these little guys were going.

As we walked through the endless shades of reds and yellows and blues, the crowd of little guys got thicker. They all bunched up around one specific door, trying to get past one another without having the dignity, intelligence, or supervision to make an orderly line.

By now the hallway was absolutely filled with them, and walking was getting difficult. Of course, the ones closest to the door never opened it. They weren’t even tall enough to reach the handle. Instead, they just passed through like it wasn’t even there. It was eerie seeing so many little things moving around and yet not hearing anything except for the music.

The piano was still quiet, which seemed weird. I must have walked a quarter mile or more. If anything, the music sounded grainy, like it was coming from one of those old record players with the brass horn on it.

I carefully stepped in between the squishy little ghosts and approached the door. The handle to this one was pretty ostentatious—one of those twisty carved bar handles to mansions. It didn’t seem to have a hinge, or whatever you call those mechanisms that keep the door closed. So once I got close enough, I grabbed the handle and pulled.

A rush of hot air blew into the hallway as the door opened. The floor on the other side was dark, natural stone. With the little ghosts bunched up both ahead of and behind me, I stepped outside into the noonday sun.

I could feel the heat through my shoes as I stepped onto the rock and gazed out into the open air. I heard some sort of… bubbling, in addition to the piano now, which was definitely an old recording rather than a live performance.

The little things were waddling off and, to my horror, plummeting out of sight as they stepped off a cliff ahead of me. They really were lemmings!

I scrambled after them, but stopped short as the light and heat of the enormous pool of lava blasted into my face. I had to recoil at the intensity of it. A phonograph sat on a nearby outcropping at the edge of the cliff (and I felt a wave of satisfaction having remembered what it was called). I didn’t know the composer, but the piano was fast paced, almost comical in a sense. Like the music to a silent film that was sped up. The way it was angled, the little guys were walking straight out of the door—which, I realized now, was carved directly into the rock—and headed straight for the source of the music, only to fall into the pit below.

I crept on my hands and knees to the edge once more, and exhaled a breath of relief when I saw that there was a huge iron cage installed below the cliff that was catching them. They weren’t falling to their deaths, at least. But there had to have been hundreds of ghost-things already, trapped like the fish in the net at the end of Finding Nemo.

“Well, well, well!” a voice boomed from ahead of me, across the lake. I glanced up to see a well-dressed man standing on a column of rock that jutted out from the cliff. His coat wasn’t quite modern, and the staff he held looked like he had taken it right out of a video game. “If it isn’t the always punctual Lisa Stenton! We meet again, for the first time—for the last time!” He spoke that last bit with an air of ruthless defiance, his free hand clenched as he shook it towards me.

“First my cat ruins my house, then this skull-face guy breaks in through my closet looking for my mom, and now this evil super villain guy killing ghost things knows me by name,” I muttered under my breath as I stood. “Sure, Lisa. You’re not insane. You’re just having a rough day. No biggie.” I looked back to the river of little guys flowing into the cage. “What in the world is going on? Who are you?” I yelled to him.

“My name is Wesley Blankenship, wizard extraordinaire and a chronomancer of unique talent, thanks to you. You and I are both doubtless here for the same reason: revenge! As for me, you and your little leech friend have ruined my plans one too many times, so I’m going to destroy it before you two get the chance to meet! Not to mention that you’re the one that got me into this mess! I’m ruining your future so you won’t be there to ruin my past!”

I frowned. My little friend? Ruining his past? What was he talking about?

Whatever his plans were, I had to stop him. Those little guys were obviously creatures of some sort, and were defenseless.

Somehow I had to stop that music.

I started pacing towards it (if running near a swimming pool was dangerous, I could only imagine how dangerous it was with lava pools), and he started laughing. He held his staff up and angled it carefully, and the light of the sun reflecting off his staff shot right into my eyes.

Flinching, I threw my arms up, blocking the intense beam. He was laughing even harder now. A chilling and menacing, but undoubtedly practiced, laugh.

Something hard struck me on the back of my head, and I staggered forward, reeling in pain. I eased my eyes open. The guy on the rock wasn’t there anymore.

I turned around to see him standing right behind me, swinging the staff upwards in another attack.

It caught me right in the stomach, groaning as I doubled over. I could have stayed in bed today, I thought. Getting beat up on the top of a volcano was definitely not on the agenda.

Mercifully, he stopped. I looked up to see him slack jawed, staring at me in… terror? But no, he wasn’t looking at me.

He was looking at the red Sharpie that I somehow still had on my person.

“You already have it?” he said, shocked. “Impossible. You aren’t supposed to be Wizened yet!”

Head and stomach throbbing, I got to my knees and held it up at him as if it was some sort of weapon. If he was scared of it, maybe I could beat him. Or get out of here, in the very least. After a second thought, I pulled the cap off and stuck it on the back end. “Get back or… or I’ll…” I’ll what?

He furrowed his brow. “You… don’t know how to use it?”

Uh oh. He was on to me. I took a quick breath and lunged at him, swiping the Sharpie downwards. I slashed down and got the sleeve of his coat pretty good.

Nothing happened.

Wesley smiled and started laughing again. “You don’t know how to use it! Wonderful! I’ll destroy you and take the artifact! Besides, my cursive is much better than your pathetic scribbling. With the pen in my hand, no one will be able to stop me!”

Cursive. I had written on my notepad, but it hadn’t done anything. It had to be cursive?

He swung at me again, but I ducked out of the way and ran in the opposite direction. My head pulsed again with a throb of pain, and I tripped over the uneven rock.

My knee skidded against the ground, and I winced in pain. He was coming. I didn’t have time to get back up.

Panicked, I wrote ‘gun’ in cursive on the rock.

I watched as the word began to glow and actually lift off the ground. The letters wrapped around themselves and… turned into a pistol, a solid red color, the same color as the ink from the Sharpie.

With one swift motion, I scooped it up and swung around, aiming it at him as he made to strike at me again with his staff. He stopped short instantly.

“Whoa,” he said. “Let’s not get hasty here.”

I didn’t want to kill this guy. I didn’t know if I could. He seemed bad, but I really had no grasp on what was really going on here. If I had to… go to court or something for this later, could I call this self defense?

I pointed at his foot and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

The blood drained from my face. I had a gun, but I didn’t have bullets. I was still powerless.

He smirked and swung downwards.

I rolled to the side, dodging out of the way. Rushing to my feet I threw the gun at his head.

It didn’t hit him in the forehead like I had been hoping, but he did grunt in pain when it smacked his nose.

I bolted for the phonograph. That ridiculous piano was still playing, and the ghosts were still falling into the cage. It was super packed now.

I looked back to the phonograph, and the wizard guy was now standing in the way.

The momentum carried me right into another vicious swing of his pointy staff. I could feel the blood on my cheek before I even hit the ground.

“How… did you…” I muttered.

“Chronomancy,” he said. “Your future self had the audacity to sever my temporal connection to the world. A small blessing in some ways, but it’s a infuriating when you go into a Starbucks only to find that the drink you hadn’t ordered yet is already ready and cold. You can’t imagine the horrible things I’ve had to suffer through because of this curse. Because of you!”

Hurriedly, I wrote ‘sword’ on the ground with the Sharpie.

As he approached, I swung upwards with the solid red blade as hard as I could.

Metal slammed against metal as I sliced right through his staff. The force of the blow thrust the two pieces from his grasp, and it toppled over the cliff into the lava below.

He staggered backwards, anger and fear painted on his face.

Getting to my feet took some effort and no small amount of pain. I hurt all over, but he didn’t seem eager to fight anymore. The sword was a lot heavier than I expected, but now he was the one who was unarmed.

Short of breath, I walked over to the phonograph and heaved it off the cliff. The music stopped almost immediately. I didn’t even hear it hit impact the lake over the sound of the bubbling. I watched as the spirits all stopped walking in a little trance. They all seemed to regain a sense of themselves.

“No!” he shouted, looking back and forth between the ghosts and me. “No, no, no! You’ve ruined everything!”

You’re the one who attacked me! And those little guys, too!”

“You started this,” he seethed. “And I’ll be damned if I let you be the one to end it.”

He charged.

I had nowhere to run. On all sides of me was more lava.

Throwing the sword away, I dropped as low to the ground as I could right as he lunged for me.

A rush of air whizzed over me, and it was followed by a loud slam against the rock along with a cry of panic.

I peeked around to see him barely holding on to the rock by his forearms.

“You give up yet?” I said, trying to sound confident. It came out as a request.

“I may have seen the last of you, Lisa Stenton,” he said. “But you have most certainly not seen the last of me! I will be your end, even if it’s the first thing I do!”

And with that, he let go of the rock. My breath caught. One moment he was there. The next, he wasn’t.

I didn’t have the courage to look over to see if he… made it. I didn’t want to have to live with what I expected to see.

But it seemed it was over. Whatever it was.

This wasn’t how Harry Potter was introduced to the supernatural. I wondered if I was supposed to have some guide. Some sort of Hagrid that would teach me about wizards and goblins and vampires or whatever. Instead, I was just a girl that had found herself, by circumstance alone, fighting a wannabe villain based on some weird personal vendetta against her. My mom owed me some sort of explanation for my near death today.

I turned back to see the little ghosts starting to file back into the doorway through which we had all come. ‘The Passway’, I supposed.

“L…Lisa?” I heard another voice say. It was high pitched and distinctly not human.

I looked down to see one of the little ghosts looking up at me. He was sky blue just like… like the one I had helped up after he had tripped.

“You can talk?” I asked.

“A… little,” he replied. His voice went up and down. His voice was like a wind chime trying to speak English.

“Well, we should probably go home. I’ve got to clean still. And maybe go to a hospital. We’ll see.”

“Home,” he hummed. “With you?”

“That’s not what I meant. Haven’t you got a home?”

He hummed, but made no reply.

“I suppose you can stay with me a while,” I said. “I have to admit I am a little curious as to what you are.” That gave me an idea. “Maybe you can be my guide!”

“Guide…” he said. “Home?”

“Well, I’ll take you home. Then you tell me what you know. Deal?”

“… Deal.”

Having almost forgotten about the spirits in the cage, I really had to scratch my head as to how I would get them out. Eventually, I remembered my Sharpie, and wrote ‘ladder’. It worked perfectly, and though I was worried I’d have to make several hundred trips scooping them out, they actually managed to hop onto the rungs themselves and climb their way out. It took probably an hour for them to clear out, but I didn’t mind. None of my cuts were bad, and though I’d look atrocious tomorrow, I was pretty sure I only needed some good rest.

I realized later that finding my way back could have been a nightmare. All of the doors in the colorful Passway looked the same, except for the handles. In fact, I might never have found my way back home, had I not left the door to my closet wide open. Whoops.

Luckily, Whimsy was still locked in my bathroom. And after thorough inspection of the rest of my house, I concluded that nothing spooky, supernatural, or magical had found their way into my apartment via my closet. I really should invest in a lock of some sort, but for now, I settled for pushing all the boxes against the door to deter any would-be intruders.

Plus, I kept the red Sharpie on my nightstand. Just in case I needed a sword at a moment’s notice.