|Pic via Flickr user mgabelmann|
Mr. and Mrs. Avery squirmed slightly, looking for more comfortable positions on the narrow-seated late 19th century chairs. Hand-me-downs from her mother's side, Eva hadn’t been able to bring herself to get rid of the chairs. They'd spent most of their time wedged in a tiny closet in the back of her house.
Until she'd started doing The Work.
The chairs added to the mystique of what used to be her dining room, with its blue heirloom flocked wallpaper, Victorian crystal chandelier, and the white candles that decorated nearly every empty surface.
And they were uncomfortable. They didn’t encourage lingering.
On days like this, that was a godsend.
Mrs. Avery clasped her husband’s left hand. Mr. Avery reached into his pocket with his right, placed a folded wad of bills on the table. "We have to know.”
Grief deepened the lines of their faces, the curves of their mouths, stiffened their bodies in such a way that it seemed if they moved too fast or too suddenly they might shake themselves apart.
“Your son,” Eva said. “Kyle.” She fought to keep her eyes from straying to the spirit of said son. Grey and filmy like oil on water, he lingered by the front door, watching her.
“Yes! You know him. You’ve seen him? Is he okay?” The words spilled out of Mrs. Avery in a torrent. Tremulous, hopeful, desperate.
For a moment, Eva considered leveling with the couple…but, no. Mrs. Avery was mentally recapping Kodak-moments of her son’s life, from first steps to birthday parties. Happier times. Mr. Avery, twisting his hat in his factory-roughened hands, recalled the last words he’d ever said to Kyle, over two years ago.
“He’s moved on,” Eva said. And so began the song and dance she’d had to do more often than she liked. On the “good” days it was for estranged families whose relatives had nothing more to say to them in death than they had in life. On bad…well, there were more skeletons in this particular closet than she was prepared to sweep out.
The ghost of Kyle prowled the edges of the dining room, restless, pissed. She’d felt the lurch of his surprise when she’d lied to his parents.
I know you see me, he said.
She ignored him in favor of handing Mrs. Avery a tissue.
Twenty minutes later—a new record—she had them assuaged and heading out the door. As they went, she pressed half the money back into Mr. Avery’s hand, shrugging. “You didn’t get to speak to him. Seems unfair to charge you the regular rate.” And they needed it more. Mortgage was due.
He patted her hand in thank you, guided his wife down the old stone steps and to their car.
Eva flipped the sign on her door to read CLOSED, set the locks, watched the glass panes fog with cold.
Why, whispered the dead man in a voice that was like the clatter of spilled nails, didn't you tell them? That I want to talk to them? That I’m here.
The chill of his rage burned through her. She breathed slowly, pulled the roller shade down over the frosted glass before facing him, taking in the deep set eyes and gaunt features that were familiar to her.
A spirit had shown her his image a year ago, as she hovered (literally) over Eva’s sofa, trying to piece together the scattered memories of the end of her life, the blind date who had seemed so perfect for her and had left her a broken mess on the floor of her own kitchen. The spirits of two more women had come in the following months, dead long before their time.
“They don’t need to hear from you,” Eva said, voice steady. “They don’t need anything more than what I gave them.”
You don’t get to decide that.
“Actually, I do. Part of my work is keeping parasites away from the living. You’re a parasite, Kyle. You feed off misery. You’re done. You don’t get to cause them any more. They’ll be moving on. And so will you.” Something skittered at her door. “Shortly, by the sound of it. And don’t think you’ll be following your victims to a new playground.”
Kyle’s photo-negative eyes narrowed. So I’m Hell bound, is that it?
The hinges creaked.
“Above my pay grade,” Eva said.
The frame shivered; the door thumped as something hit it from the outside. They couldn’t come in, whomever or whatever it was that came to deal with the broken souls who found her. They couldn’t pass through the protective wards that generation upon generation had placed on the house.
But those wards were to protect the living.
Eva stepped back as Kyle’s form shook, shivered, broke apart as if someone had struck a fault line in his center; he turned to so much grey smoke and was sucked out beneath the door. Hoovered into wherever it was that spirits like him went.
The world fell quiet, save for the passing of traffic, the sound of thunder in the distance.
She had no more appointments booked for the day, so a cup of tea and a long bath were in order. Eva slipped through the door to the kitchen, only to be brought back a few minutes later by someone pounding on her door.
“Sign says closed.” She raised her voice just enough to be heard.
“Please. Please. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what to do!” A hand rattled the doorknob.
Eva twitched the shade back, blinked hard before reaching for the locks, peering through gap of the open door.
The man on her stoop was dark haired and wearing a pair of green hospital scrubs that set off the unnatural pallor of his skin. They were too big for him and slipped off one shoulder, revealing the edge of the unmistakable Y-shaped incision of an autopsy. His eyes were wild, the pupils blown wide behind the hazy cornea.
“Please,” the dead man said. “Can you help me?”
This was written in response to three prompts. Inspiration Monday's uncertainty is worse; Studio30Plus' entwined; and Monday's Light and Shade challenge picture prompt. (Any embarrassing errors are the product of my sleep deprived mind. Other rough edges are part of my effort to embrace first drafts as being imperfect. I edited as little as possible.)