This is one of those memories where emotion overshadows detail for all eyewitnesses present and willing to provide their perspective.

Char, driven down the hallway by the massive black dog that had emerged from the cellar stairs.

Me, in pursuit, behind the dog, shivers running through my body, a spectral woman breathing down my neck.

All the lights we’d turned on flickering, flashing, dancing wildly on and off, transformed from filament to flame.

The black dog closed the distance while Char hauled one large front door open. Either the door resisted or my adrenaline slowed my perception of time. She turned, framed by the entry so much like I’d been just moments before, but she wasn’t smiling. The camera swung wildly from a lanyard around her neck now as she scrambled backward and the dog stalked forward.

She thrust her hand into one of her pockets to pull out a colorful little cylinder with an elastic string. A reusable confetti popper? Her mother offered those as eco-friendly party supplies for events she catered.

I went for the dog.

The dog went for Char.

Char pulled the string.

A glimmering dust cloud popped into the dog’s face, and it yelped and drew back.

But Char was still moving backward, eyes wide.

“The porch!” I shouted, too late.

Now I rushed past the dog, toward Char, as her foot went over the edge of the porch and she fell backward, body twisting, arms flailing, eyes wide. The confetti popper fell from her grasp. Momentum and angles worked against her. Her arm gave an audible crack.

She wailed.

And suddenly, somehow, a lithe, pale man with dark hair dressed in an expensive suit bounded up the stairs, waving his arms and shouting to drive the dog back.

The Silphium Lawyer? Had I hallucinated him into being physically present, somehow? (And why him, imagination?)

Then Tricia Anholts was there, too, in her own expensive business suit, kneeling down next to Char, cell phone up at her ear.

“I promise you, this is not a prank call. I am calling from Paxwood House. That’s right, that Paxwood House. I’m here with a teenager who may have a broken arm.”

What were these two doing here?

I was kneeling next to Char, across from Tricia Anholts. When had I done that? Char cradled her broken arm against her chest, trying her best to slow her breathing. I rested a hand gently on her uninjured shoulder.

“You’re going to be okay,” I told her.

This. This was my fault. I ignored warnings—Mx. Cardoso, the way the realty people spoke, the looming aura around the house, even my physical reactions to this place. I hadn’t been fast enough to notice the dog or the ghost. And now…

“It… wasn’t a ghost,” Char said. “The salt hit it, and nothing happened.”

“Salt,” I repeated. Then, the confetti popper. It wasn’t full of glitter. Char actually listened when I talked about the paranormal stuff. She even paid attention to my cross-cultural analysis of natural preservers and purifiers that provided protection against hostile metaphysical entities. And that had been a tangent.

“The dog ran away.” The lawyer emerged from Paxwood House.

“Yes, she’s breathing, and her pulse is steady,” Ms. Anholts was saying into her phone. “I don’t think I see any external bleeding, no.”

“No external bleeding, but…” I gritted my teeth and inspected Char’s injured arm. What did my health teacher say prevented vomiting or fainting at gruesome sights? Balanced breathing, inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth. “It is swelling.”

“Hugh, would you be a dear and go open the gate for the EMTs?”

How did she manage to sound so courteous, so polite? the Silphium lawyer, Hugh, was paler than ever. Had his gaze been a little too intently focused on Char as she writhed in pain? Was Tricia sending him away because of it?

“Of course.” He moved past us, down the drive.

Ms. Anholts focused her gaze on me next. “Please keep her talking while I make sure there aren’t other surprises.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

Then she was standing up, phone still pressed to her ear, moving around the outside of Paxwood House, and I was alone with Char.

Pain twisted her face, tears still flowing.

“I’m sorry,” I said, fumbling with my phone. “I’ll call your parents, put it on speaker, okay?”

“Good idea. They need to know what’s happening.”

As I scrolled through my contacts, looking for either of the adult Musos, a question occurred to me. “The dog wasn’t a ghost, but… did you see the woman?”

Char took a shuddering breath, but then she nodded. “Yeah. That… had to be a ghost.”

There. Her dad. I dialed. In two rings, he picked up. A stupid pang of jealousy plucked at my heart. My parents loved me, even if they’d only call back after I left a voicemail or sent a text. Every family had different ways of communicating.

“Char’s hurt,” I said. “Paramedics are on the way. Here.”

I held my phone down close to her.

“Char?” Mr. Muso asked, breath hitching.

“Hey, dad,” she said. “Sorry. Wasn’t watching, and I missed a step. I’m… pretty sure my arm’s broken.”

That was about as far as the conversation got before the sirens. Everything blurred again. The ambulance. The paramedics. One asked for my phone to talk directly with Char’s dad. It could have been two minutes or ten before they had her on a gurney and moved her into the back of the ambulance. Time was meaningless while she was hurting.

“Can I ride along?” I asked.

The paramedic sized me up, then handed my phone back and nodded. “In the front seat. You’ll still be able to talk to her from there.”

“Thank you.”

Ms. Anholts reappeared just as I started toward the passenger side door of the ambulance. “Miss Rhys-Hayes, before you go, we were here looking for the keys for Paxwood House. We’d wanted to do a walkthrough today, but the agency checked them out to you?”

“That’s right.” Well, that explained the curiously timely arrival. “I’ll make sure the keys get back to the agency first chance I get, and you can check them out next. They told me not to give the keys to anyone and return them when I finished.”

“Oh, I can return them for you, no problem at all,” she purred.

I didn’t have time to analyze what made me so uncomfortable with her offer.

“I’d rather keep to the letter of my agreement, sorry.”

I hopped into the passenger seat and closed the door before she could offer any other protests.

More sirens, more time blur. Then Char was in surgery while I sat with her parents in the waiting room, working out some way to apologize but finding only pensive silence.

At some point, Mrs. Muso put her hand on top of mine and asked me if I’d called my mother yet.

Which, I hadn’t. It gave me just the excuse I needed to step away for a moment, gather my thoughts, find something to say other than, “This is all my fault.”

I headed outside of the hospital to find myself some breathing room, but rather than call, I just sent a group text to my parents. “Sorry. I’m fine. Char’s hurt. I’m at the hospital waiting for her.”

When my mom’s reply text came through, the time stamp gave me an anchor point, even if I swore it had to be a text from the future. Could it really be almost 4 PM already? Char and I had met at Paxwood House about noon.

The message itself was about what I would have expected: “I’m glad you’re all right. Keep being a good friend.”

I headed back into the waiting room. After more pensive silence, the surgeon emerged, smiling.

“The surgery was a success. She’s waking up. You can see her now.”

“Go ahead, Kerry,” Char’s mother said, waving a hand. “I want to ask a few questions about the injury and the operation, if I can?”

“Of course,” the surgeon said.

I asked for a room number and went on my way before anyone could change their minds. Char was already awake and talking with a nurse when I arrived. Between the adjustable bed and the plush pillows, she was sitting upright. The nurse was in the middle of explaining the controls.

“And if you need help with anything at all, no matter how small, press this call button,” the nurse said, finishing up. She did one last comfort check before she moved on.

Char tracked the nurse out the door, then saw me there.

“Kerry.” She sounded so tired.

I came in and stood next to her bed.

“I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”

“Accidents happen.” Her words were so soft. “No one’s fault.”

“But everyone was saying not to go. Everything about that place said we should leave. And I ignored it all.” Tears stung at my eyes—unfair tears. I wasn’t lying in the hospital bed with a broken arm. I didn’t need to cry here.

“You did it for a story. It’s who you are.”

What did she mean by that? I couldn’t read her strained expression, interpret the pitch of her voice. She didn’t sound like herself.

“I’m… going to need some time.” She was looking down at her cast now.

I swallowed against a massive lump in my throat. My fault. All my fault. “Of course. That makes sense.”

“I saw it, though,” she added, softly. And now, I recognized that her head was lolling slightly, eyelids drooping.

“You’ve been through a lot.” I stood up. “Sleep if you need to sleep. I’ll get your parents, okay?”

The best friend I’d ever had, and she needed time.


This… was not the story I’d come searching for.

09: Ignore Instincts; Suffer the Consequences
error: Content is protected