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Ghost Night

Dani Atkinson is trying to finish several old stories, but the new stories are so SHINY.

***Editor's Note: Issues of Self-Harm in the Adult Story that Follows***
It's a Ghost Night tonight. The weather reports all agreed for a change, and nobody really needed the warning. The birds aren't flying. They're perched low on fence posts and bushes, grumpy and silent, acting as if it's pouring too hard to fly even though skies are calm. Anybody who pays attention knows that means Ghost Night, long before the phone apps start beeping warnings.
The astral meteorologists' monitoring systems are at least good for narrowing down the starting time: they're pretty sure the dead will begin passing through no sooner than nine-forty-five, so they want everyone to have the doors locked and blackout shutters up at nine-fifteen to be on the safe side. Most will have their shutters up the instant the sun sets, though. Except for a bunch of idiots who'll forget, or miss all warnings, or worse: who'll hear, but won't be able to resist peeking, just once.
Then there's the handful who actually know what we're doing.
I hope.
I walk down my building's hallway with the groceries and supplies that Maria told me to get. I think the Silversteins next door are wrestling their shutters into place; the walls are thin in here, and I hear banging and cursing. I hear the television from Mrs. Ando on the other side playing far too loud. Mrs. Ando keeps her shutters up full time now, since she's gotten too stiff to move them herself. I've offered to help, but she doesn't like being dependent on anyone else. Which is fair enough. I've offered to help her other ways, teach her, but she hates that idea. It is technically illegal. She didn't report me, bless her, but she does turn the TV up extra loud every Ghost Night now. To drown out what she thinks she might hear.
I didn't have the nerve to try it before, or until last week, the need. But I suppose there's a chance her precaution might be needed at last. Maybe I should tell her to turn her TV up higher.
I must have left my own TV on when I left; a solemn announcer is giving a late warning to anybody who might have missed all the others. "...Spiritual incursion should last until dawn. Block all possible openings into dwellings. Remain indoors. Under no circumstances should anyone look outsi--" I flip to an empty channel, letting the screen blaze blue. Maria says that helps; in the old days they'd put chemicals in the hearth fire to make it burn blue or green but a television screen is much safer and steadier.
I lock my door. I don't put up the shutters.
Maria says a lot of things. Mostly that the government is stupid for banning ghost viewing. "Sure it's dangerous. It's more dangerous not to teach people to do it right." She'd snort and pound the table at that point. One of the glitter-covered Styrofoam spheres in her centerpiece would always bounce out of the bowl and then Maria would catch it and throw it at the wall for emphasis. It was practically part of the speech now. "There'll always be folk who'll try to see the dead, and get dead doing it. If the threat of being dragged out and ripped apart by restless spirits isn't enough by itself, how the hell will jail time stop them? They're already too dumb or desperate to care. Better to teach them how. Might save at least a few that way."
I prop my phone in the stand with the built in speaker and set it to play a track I recorded of myself speaking the warding rhyme, on a loop. You're supposed to have at least one person who never stops chanting the rhyme, but Maria figured out that a recording works fine. Better, actually, because it's less likely to get startled or run out of breath. "Technology is amazing," she'd sigh happily, hunting for where the glitter thing had rolled.
I sprinkle a blend of rosewater and lemon lime soda onto the windowsill and then scatter salt on the drops. Then I smear the mixture onto my eyelids, my nostrils, the lobes of my ears, and the tip of my tongue. It tastes better than you'd think. I go to the bathroom and dab a bit inside my underwear. There. All entrances to my home and body, marked and guarded. I hesitate, then smear a little on the scars on my thighs. I'm not sure those count, but it can't hurt.
I return to the living room with my back kept turned to the window and unwrap the most important thing, a makeup mirror I've been preparing for months. "Thrice blessed," Maria always insists. "Earth, water, and fire. Do not skip a step." Around then would be where she'd find the glitter ball and put it back in the bowl, ready to be thrown again.
I didn't skip. I buried this mirror in a pot on the balcony for a full lunar cycle, new moon to new moon. I passed it through flames on a cake with twenty-eight candles, five times. I washed off the dirt and soot in a running stream; one of the few old ways that can't be swapped with something modern and convenient. For some reason the fountain at the mall doesn't cut it.
I set the mirror up to have a clear view of the window. "Only look at them through the mirror. If they meet your eyes directly, they'll have to take you, they'll be driven to it. Understand?" Maria always sighs here. "I love you, and I trust you. I'm scared, but I trust you. Trust me back."
"I do," I whisper.
The noise from the Silversteins' is quieter. The noise from Mrs. Ando's is louder. I listen to the rhyme from my phone and amuse myself drawing on my arms with a red pen. It's something Maria taught me to try instead of cutting, when the urge built up. I don't exactly feel like it right now, but I'm bored, and some of Maria's books from the secret library under her bed say that red clothes and paint might help as a precaution. They're under my bed now. I should have gotten one to read.
The air changes. I can smell it, under the roses and lemon-lime flavoring. I look in the mirror. Shadows start drifting past the window. A vaguely girl-shaped shadow slides into the window upside down, thighs and breasts lashed with blood, the cuts more real than the smoke that makes up the rest of her. She's familiar. I saw her in the hospital. I'm sorry to find out she's dead. But she's not who I'm waiting for.
Shit. I forgot. "Something to call. Something familiar."
The girl ghost cries out like ice cracking on a lake and blows away in some current I can't feel.
Panic rises but I force it down. It's not that important. Forgetting the anchor didn't make tonight's ritual unsafe. Just pointless. Possibly. Familiar ghosts might still find me. Hospital girl did, though she was probably looking for someone she knew better than a patient two beds down.
I could try again. We don't know for sure that a spirit only comes back on the first Ghost Night after their death. So little research has been done since the ban. I could hope. I could wait.
...I can't wait. That's always our problem, people like me. Dumb and desperate. We can't bear to wait to meet them again. We need them now.
I close my sticky eyelids and crawl for the grocery bag, praying I don't knock over the mirror, or the still chanting phone. I fumble in plastic and then swear when I hear something roll away. Where? I pat blindly in circles... if I opened my eyes, for a second, maybe...
"I love you, and I trust you. I'm scared, but I trust you."
I keep my eyes shut. I'll find it. I WILL find it. Don't be dumber than you need to be. Don't skip a step.... My fingers bump something round. I grab with hands and thighs, trapping it before it can roll again.
I crawl to the mirror. I touch it with my hand so I know exactly where to look when I open my eyes. When I do, I have a clear view of the mirror's surface, perfectly reflecting both the window, and the glitter ball I've placed in front it.
Then it reflects another ghost, hovering in the window like a guest in a doorway who's not certain they have the right address. The black fog that makes up her body is a dense lump in the part of her chest where her heart used to be, and a fine mist elsewhere. Her limbs are nearly invisible, but she has glitter on her hands.
I swallow. I smile into the mirror. I hope I did this right.
"Hi, Maria."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 1st, 2016

Author Comments

I'm starting to get frustrated with urban fantasy stories featuring a secret magical underworld that nobody notices. I get the reason; if you want your reader to be able to imagine that the fictional magic world you've created could be our own, you have to explain why the leprechauns never make the news. But I'm falling in love with the stories where the leprechauns not only make the news, but they're commonplace enough to make the weather report.

Maria is loosely named for Mary, a rather awesome old lady in my neighborhood who is dearly missed.

- Dani Atkinson
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