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  • Writer's pictureNicole Jorge


It’s a nice house, is my first thought. It’s not a surprise, just a fact. Every neighborhood has a House. It’s old and decrepit, uninhabited for as long as anyone can remember. Maybe there are tattered curtains hanging in the windows, blowing just so in the ghostly breeze. The kids dare each other to touch the front door - just one quick touch, just for a second, then they run shrieking into the night, the whooping of their less foolhardy friends following them. On Halloween night the older ones might break in, heedless of the wear and tear of the place, because who worries about termite damage when there are thrills to be had? Maybe they bring a ouija board, maybe they light some candles and chant latin phrases they found on a blog somewhere. Maybe the house is featured on a TV show, some douchebag in a tight black shirt shouting challenges into the night.

This isn’t that kind of House.

This house has nice latticework, a rose bush creeping alongside the garage. The railing of the wraparound porch looks like it’s been freshly painted. There’s a kid’s little red wagon in the front yard, and a Spring wreath hangs on the front door. When I knock, a face appears briefly on the other side of the frosted glass, a quick, anxious look. Then the door cracks open.

“Mr. Moises?” I ask, flashing my badge. “Agent Ysidron. I think you’re expecting me.”

The man at the door doesn’t respond right away. Something in his dark eyes goes faraway at the sight of me. Then he nods, his mouth pulled into a tight line, and opens the door a bit wider. “Of course,” he says, nervously. “Right. Come on in.”

There’s clutter in the entryway. Discarded shoes, boy’s and girl’s, and an assortment of toys overflowing from a bin by the stairs. A wet nose presses against my hand even as Moises scrambles for the dog, a shaggy retriever with dumb, happy eyes. I pause to give its head a rub, letting myself smile just a bit, maybe put the man off his guard some.

“Well hey there. I’ll bet those are your toys, huh?” I ask, and the dog gives my hand an exploratory lick. Moises looks sheepish as he hangs onto its collar.

“Sorry about her - the kids usually take her out back with them, but lately she’s been avoiding the yard,” Moises explains, all in a rush. “Never mind upstairs - she won’t even set foot on the steps, not anymore.”

There’s something plaintive in his tone. But we’ll get to that. I give the dog’s ears a quick rub - LAYLA, the tag on her collar reads - and straighten.

“The kids are outside?” I ask him, back to business. It’s best not to get too sidetracked. In and out, my predecessor said, before they can look at you too long. It’s not the kind of work for lingering. “I’ll need to talk to them as well.”

At that, Moises goes ashen. “I - is that really necessary?” he asks. “I’d rather avoid bringing them into this, if it’s have to understand, this has been really hard on them. They still - they still miss their mama. We all miss her.”

A sentimental appeal. I don’t blink, not for a while. I can go pretty long without blinking. It puts people off, someone told me once. Good, I’d answered. “I’ll need to speak to all members of the household,” I say, without a hint of an apology in my tone. Better to rip the bandaid off all at once. “It can’t be avoided.”

For a moment, Moises looks ready to argue. I almost hope he does. But then he slumps, resigned, and the light seems to go out of his eyes. As if on cue, there’s a sound above our heads - a faint, dull scraping, just barely detectable. Then a thump. Layla has trailed after me across the foyer, and she gives a low whine from behind my knees. Moises squeezes his eyes shut. “Okay,” he says. “Just...outside, please? It’s a beautiful day.”

He says it the same way someone in a burning building might point out a fire extinguisher. I hear another thump, and Layla’s pressing against my leg, her eyes on the stairs. I can oblige Moises in this, so I do. He leads me out through the shotgun back door, and Layla follows us out onto the screened porch. The sound of happy shrieking reaches my ears. Beyond the porch, a kiddy pool sits on the grass. There’s a boy splashing in it, maybe 4 or 5 years old, by my guess. He’s wearing water wings like someone is afraid he’ll float away. Layla doesn’t follow us down the steps, I notice. She stays behind the screen, her head resting on her paws like she’s yearning to join us out beneath the sun, but something is stopping her.

“JonJon! Kristen! Come on over here for a bit,” Moises calls.

“I’m here, papa,” a voice behind us says, and I look down.There’s a girl sitting with her back to the steps, a book balanced on her knees. Her thick, dark hair grows wild and the purple frames of her glasses are sliding down the smattering of freckles across her nose. She watches me quietly while Moises wrangles the little one, and I wonder what she sees that makes her stare the way she does. I’ve never been a kid person. But Kristen Moises doesn’t look intimidated so much as curious.

“What’ve you got there?” I ask, and she pushes her glasses up with a finger.

“Summer reading,” she says. “For school. Are you here for mama?”

Moises cringes as he kneels beside his son, wrestling with the boy’s water wings. “Is Mama here?” the boy asks, excitedly. “I wanna see!”

“Jon, we’ve talked about this,” Moises says, desperately. “Mama’s gone, honey. You can’t - whatever you see, you can’t - ”

“Have you seen her?” I ask. I put my hands in the pockets of my suit jacket, keeping the question light. Kristen looks to her father before answering.

“Just once,” she says, quietly. “I was in the bathroom, brushing my teeth. I saw her in the mirror.”

“How come I don’t see mama?” Jon asks, sadly, and Moises’s face is pinched.

“JonJon hasn’t seen her,” he tells me, shortly. “Kristen - I thought she was just tired that day - ”

“But I wasn’t!” Kristen insists. “I saw her! And I heard her go upstairs, to the attic. You hear her too, Papa, you said.”

I worry Moises is going to puke. He’s gone the color of watery oatmeal. His eyes flick upwards, and he seems to recoil. I follow his gaze to face the rear of the house. There’s a window set high above, smaller than the others and round. I see a flicker of movement through it, just for an instant, and I know where to go next.

“Take me there,” I say to Moises. He looks like it’s the last thing in the world he wants to do, but he nods, perhaps expecting it.

“Let me get the kids inside,” he says. “Then we can go.”

Moises sees the kids settled with a movie in the den before leading me upstairs.

“How long has it been?” I ask as we walk. Moises still looks like shit.

“About a couple months,” he tells me. The second floor is quiet save for the creaking of our footsteps across the polished floorboards. My hand slides up the smooth wood of the stair rail. “I thought I was just seeing things, at first. I missed her - we all did. The night Kristen saw her, we’d been talking about her just a couple hours before. I figured it was wishful thinking. But then it got...worse.”

“Worse how?”

We came to a halt. I watch Moises’s throat bob. “Things started moving. Chairs scraping, books falling off of tables. I really thought I was going crazy. And it wasn’t so bad, at first. I even thought - well, so what if she’s still here? Maybe it’d be nice. Maybe she’d be like, some kind of guardian angel, watching over the kids. But I don’t think she wants to watch over them, Agent. I think she wants them with her.”

I feel my eyebrows raise. “What makes you think that?” I ask, and Moises reaches up, his hands closing around the pull cord to the attic door.

“Wait till you see her. Then you’ll know.”

Moises doesn’t come up to the attic with me. I think about ordering him to, but there was something in his eyes that made me decide against it. I ascend alone, dust raining onto the shoulders of my jacket. My shoes squeak on the attic steps. All told, I wasn’t up there long. I didn’t need to be. There are events in our lives that change us, alter us in ways we could never imagine. It had been years since I learned to see into dark places where others couldn’t; And what I see there, coiled dark and waiting in the corner of the attic beneath the little window, sends me swiftly back down the steps to where Moises waited sweating. The fear was still in his eyes, wide and a little wild. The guilt was still there, too.

“Mr. Moises,” I ask, sounding so calm that I impress even myself. “Just what the fuck did you do?”

I need time to prepare. There’s no way around it. I take my usual room at the Alexandria Radisson, lugging my kit down from the trunk. I order room service for dinner as I take stock of my supplies. I’d come prepared, of course. I always do. Most of the tools of my trade appear innocent enough. Rock salt, chalk, binders of rules and procedures discreetly assembled by the bright minds back at Spooks HQ. Even the assortment of vials and herbs collected in a repurposed tackle box might have been mistaken for some especially ambitious aromatherapy. “And the candles?” a security guard had asked me once, frowning.

“What can I say? I’m a romantic,” I’d answered, with a wink. He’d been glad to be rid of me after that. But not as glad to be rid of me as Moises had been. I’d taken his confession like a priest, a different kind of Man in Black, and I’d known I needed to act quickly. For Jon and Kristen’s sake, at the very least. Those kids were innocent in all this.

“Who’s really innocent?” Ben had asked me, once. We’d been sixteen and fresh off a bout of heavy petting in the backseat of the truck my daddy bought me when I made QB.

“Kids are basically sociopaths. They act on their basic instincts. If you don’t teach them right from wrong fast enough, they’d be happy little serial killers.”

Ben never liked kids much, I figured. It had bothered me, once. Now, I couldn’t blame him. Children complicated things. It was just a fact. And the kids trawling the streets of downtown Alexandria as I park on East Columbus Street after sundown aren’t much more than children, themselves. I’ve been in Alexandria often enough to familiarize myself with some of its current favorite haunts, but I’d never been to the bar Moises had told me of in his furtive whisperings back in his home, the one he’d frequented behind his wife’s back - The Chessboard. Its blacked-out storefront spoke of discretion. The neon sign above simply reads SOCIAL CLUB. There are no hours posted outside, nothing to indicate whether the place is open or closed aside from that lone sign. But a bouncer meets me as soon as I pass into a dimly lit foyer. I can just hear dance music through the double doors at his back, being played at a respectable volume.

“ID,” he barks, and I oblige. I left my suit jacket back at the hotel - the night is sweltering - but I haven’t changed, and he eyes me warily as he scans the card. I wonder if I should have changed. Something about the getup sets people on edge. Normally, a good thing.

“No trouble tonight,” he says, and I grin.

“I’ll try.”

It’s just as well my hotheaded brawling days are behind me, because the space I pass into beyond the doors is downright classy. I don’t spend much time in bars anymore, and when I do, it’s usually just a quick beer at a sports bar with dinner while I’m out on a job. Ben had liked dancing. Me, I was a wallflower. So are most of the men loitering in the bar, seated quietly in their booths or perched on bar stools. I don’t know the song, some top 40s crooning, and there aren’t many people on the dance floor. I make my way to the bar and slide onto a stool. When the bartender turns to me expectantly, eyeing me critically beneath immaculate eyebrows, I get the impression I won’t find my usual beer-and-dinner fare here.

“Tom Collins,” I say, and he gives me a curt nod.

I linger as the bar fills up, never quite becoming crowded. Moises said it catered to a fairly discrete clientele, which explained why I hadn’t heard of it before. At half-past ten, a drag queen in sparkling red takes over the DJ booth and the music takes on a fast-paced, insistent beat that gets some of the more shy bar goers onto the dance floor. I hadn’t meant to stay long. I would be back at the house early the next day, while Moises takes the kids to the community pool for the morning. I’m trying to catch the bartender’s eye for my check when a raised voice catches my attention.

“- seriously, I suck, anyway! I’m fine,” the kid two stools down is saying, his cheeks burning with mortification. His would-be suitor is easily twice his age, a man with gray at his temples and peppering his beard. He must’ve been dancing up a storm, because sweat stains the front of his button-down. He has a hand on the kid’s elbow, and he isn’t letting go.

“Just one dance,” he insists, “and I’ll cut you loose. Scout’s honor!”

The kid shakes his head hurriedly. “Please, I really don’t want to - ”

“I’m not taking no for an answer!”

The kid looks like he wants to crawl into a hole somewhere. He’s young. Maybe a little too young for the empty pint glass on the counter in front of him. He’s wearing an AU tee. What had the bouncer been thinking, letting him in? The kid meets my eyes, and I recognize the desperation in them at once. I’d probably looked much the same at his age. And that’s the only reason why I swivel on my seat towards them, raising my voice over the music.

“Excuse me. Have we got a problem?”

The kid’s would-be suitor’s eyes flicker to me in irritation. “Back off, man.”

“I’m not talking to you,” I say, keeping my gaze fixed on the kid. My badge is still in the pocket of my slacks. I flash it quick, too quickly for it to be read in the dim light of the bar.

“Can I see your ID, young man?”

At that, the kid looks like a deer trapped in the headlights. Romeo lets him go at least, taking a step back. “Whoa, man,” he says, raising his hands. “I thought he was legal, Jesus. Never mind.”

He beats a hasty retreat, and I turn to find the bartender scowling at me.

“Anything else?” he asks, and I give him my best smile.

“Just my tab. Oh, and the kid’s, too. He’s coming with me.”

I half-expect the kid to try to bolt as I pay my bill. He’s sputtering as I jerk my head to the doors, signaling for him to follow. But he does, excuses falling from his lips all the while.

“ - turned 21 last week, I swear, you can call my sister, we’re twins, just not my parents, please not my parents, they’ll - ”

I wait until we were out of the bar, the bouncer glaring daggers at my back all the while, to face the kid at last. “Relax. I’m not calling your parents. I was just doing you a solid. Now go home, would you? You look like you’ve got homework to do.”

I’m parked just a block down. I’m halfway to my car before I decide to address the kid again, as he trails after me in a stupor.

“I said you could go home,” I remind him. He stares at me with comically wide eyes. They’re mismatched, I notice, one a pale green, the other soft brown.

“Um - I just - I feel like I should thank you? I mean I don’t usually go to places like that, and I didn’t know it was gonna that,” he trails off, lamely. I try not to roll my eyes.

“It happens. Stick to Cyril’s next time. Safer crowd,” I suggest.

“I can’t go to Cyril’s,” the kid counters, and his face is burning again. “I - I know people who go there.”

He’s still following me. I’ve reached my car. “Then you’ve got some choices to make,” I tell him. He stands fidgeting. He’s still looking at me with those big eyes. They’re so bright against the flushed skin of his face.

“Do you think you could give me a ride?”

His name is Elliott, and he’s pre-med at Alexandria University. A junior. I’m not sure what to make of this kid who all but spills his life story to me, eager and rattled at the same time, as I drive him to his apartment on the edge of campus.

“ - and my sister, she thinks I should just tell them, but it’s not that simple, you know? I mean, she knows what our dad is like. And he just - he’d freak. Seriously, he’s got that whole disapproving Asian parent thing down to a science. Oh, you can park right up here - that’s my unit right there.”

There’s a light on in the window. I ease the SUV into the spot Elliott indicates and let it idle. “Like I said - you’ve got some choices to make,” I repeat, the only words I’ve spoken the whole ride. He stares at me.

“What did you choose?”

I never got to choose. That choice, and many others, were taken from me long ago. Sometimes there were circumstances beyond your control. I’m trying to think of a way to explain that without sounding too ominous when I feel a light touch on my knee. Elliott’s fingers are trembling. He looks like he’s about to piss himself.

“Um,” he says, shakily. “Can I get you some coffee?”

He makes me coffee with too much milk and not enough sugar, but I drink it anyway as he stares moon-eyed at me across his little kitchen table, his chin in the palm of his hand. “How’d you hear about the bar, anyway?” he asks, finally.

I’d asked Moises the same question. He’d looked away, ashamed.

“From a...friend,” he’d answered, at last. “You have to understand, it was innocent. I only ever went there to kill time. I had no idea things would get so - so complicated.”

“From a friend,” I say behind my mug. Elliott accepts the answer with a smile.

“So what were you there for?”

“Killing time, I guess,” I answer, truthfully. “I’m here for work. I had nothing better to do.”

“Well, I’m glad you did. ”

“What about you? What got you to the bar?”

At that, his face burns. “I heard about it online. From this guy. Who knows, maybe it was the creeper who wouldn’t leave me alone - I didn’t even get his name. Hey, what’s your name?”

I could have laughed. For a moment, I think to give him a fake. But I don’t. “Ray,” I told him. “Ray Ysidron.”

I’m still thinking of Elliott as I check out of the hotel the next morning, loading up the vehicle for my final trip out to the Moises place. I’ll be hitting the road from there, make my way back to DC. If everything works out like it’s supposed to, anyway. It doesn’t always. But I hope it will, just as I hope things will work out for Elliott. He’d shyly asked for my number before I left him that night, looking a little hurt when I’d refused.

“You’ll find a better fit,” I’d assured him. “Someone closer to your own age, someone who can stick around. You deserve that.”

“But I like you,” he’d insisted, with that youthful earnestness burning in his eyes. And he’d reminded me so much of Ben then that I couldn’t stop myself from pressing a kiss to his brow, just one last time. He was a sweet kid. He really did deserve better. I wonder how differently things would have turned out if Moises had felt the same way about his wife.

There’s no sign of the family as I pull up at the house. Good. Better that they didn’t hear any of this. Moises left me the key under the mat, and I let myself in. The house is still around me. Then I hear it - that dragging sound from above, followed by the thump that seemed to resonate within the walls. I pad my way upstairs, kit in hand. There was no particular routine to the sounds, Moises had told me. They heard them at odd hours of the day, every day. A bad sign. Some things are bound by time, following a schedule dictated by rhyme or reason. The ones that aren’t, are the ones you want to watch out for. The vengeful ones, the ones that act out when they can because they can.

A blast of cold air welcomes me when I lower the steps to the attic. I’m grateful for the warmth of my jacket as I make my way up. The roiling nausea sets in almost at once, setting my stomach churning. I’d avoided breakfast for that very reason. I peer through the darkness to that corner where the activity is centered. Strange that she’s chosen it, rather than, say, the empty space stretching to the beams above. Perhaps she felt safer there, more comfortable. It makes no real difference to me, so long as she stays there while I set up.

I hadn’t been much older than Elliott when I’d been introduced to the business. I remembered the excitement in those early days, feeling like I’d been welcomed to some kind of secret superhero cabal, the backpack-wielding line in the sand between ordinary folk and a Stay Puft Marshmallow man. Reality was a bit of a downer. There’d been a lot more getting dirty, for one thing. There was more beginner chemistry than occultism. There was also the math.

But the important thing is, the thing that had been Mrs. Moises keeps put while I inscribe the mandala as precisely as I can on the floor. I battle the chills that make every hair on my body stand on end. It was a sad day at HQ the day these kinds of things became popular as tattoos. You try explaining to a terrified coed and a traumatized tattoo artist why their arms have suddenly fused together in unholy union.

Salt, water, potassium nitrate, iron shavings. Candles. That corner stays dark, even to my eyes. The physical symptoms of the manifestation stay strong - I have to step out of the circle once to puke up Elliott’s coffee, emptying my stomach. Then I look up from my work, and there she is. Mr. Moises had shown me a photo of his late wife the previous day. She’d been pretty enough, beaming in her wedding dress on what had no doubt been the happiest day of her life. She doesn’t look so happy now. Her dress hangs in ragged strips from her shoulders, shades of gray darkening to pitch black where she bleeds into being from that corner. Her eyes bulge in her gaunt face. There’s no comprehension in them as she regards my work.

There’s not much artistry to what I do. A lot of it is trial and error. And it’s all in the binders. It’s simple procedure. I keep my eyes on the thing that had been Mrs. Moises as I run through the first incantation, then the second. By the third she’s beginning to swarm like an angry hive of bees. Behind me, something falls over. I hear the lid of a box begin to rattle, flapping open and shut, open and shut. Wood snaps.

My children. Where are my children?

You don’t engage with the dead - it’s one of the first rules of the trade. They can’t be reasoned with, trapped in their own circular logic, the roundabout line of reasoning that keeps them on this earth. The question is angry and sullen. But for some reason, I think of the man in the bar with his hand on Elliott’s elbow, the blind possessiveness of the gesture. It rankles me.

I want my children. They’re mine. He gave them to me. Where are my children?

“Your children are alive, Mrs. Moises,” I say. “And you can’t have them.”

The thing that had been Mrs. Moises seems to swell. MINE!

A box to my right flips end over end through the air, coming to a rest just outside the protective circle. An old paintbrush whistles through the air right past my head. All told, a fairly tame manifestation - for now, anyway. He lied to me, the thing that had been Mrs. Moises rants, her long fingers clenching and unclenching in the air. He promised me forever. Just him and me, forever. Liar, liar!

“That may be,” I tell her. “But we all make choices, Mrs. Moises. And you made yours.”

There’s a reason we don’t engage with the dead. My words set the thing that had been Mrs. Moises off in earnest. The attic comes to life all around me, boxes rising into the air, odds and ends spinning in an angry vortex. A cold wind whips at my short hair. I go straight on into the fourth incantation the geeks at HQ scrounged up, years of trawling old texts and the internet for bits of jargon that might actually work in the field. And wouldn’t you know it, they’d done something right, because the thing that had been Mrs. Moises seems to wash out suddenly. She makes a horrible, keening sound as I read on, objects coming to rest with resonating thumps all around me. The air seems to warm fractionally. Bony fingers grasp desperately at empty air. My children! My children! My -

I watch her recede into the corner, shrinking away from the space beneath the rafters where her body had hung after she’d made her decision. The darkness swells, then fades, until all I’m looking at is shadow - maybe a little darker than those elsewhere in the attic, but shadow nonetheless. My chest is heaving. I feel a dripping warmth on my face and reach up to realize that I have a nosebleed. Damn it. Not again. I fish through my jacket pocket for a napkin. Instinct tells me to get the hell out of there as fast as I can, but I know to go easy on my body now. I take my time wiping up the inscription, extinguishing the candles and sweeping up the remains of my work. I pack everything away in the kit before making my way downstairs. So long, Mrs. Moises.

I leave Mr. Moises a note in the kitchen. The crisis is averted, at least for the time being. But these things, it’s hard to predict what will happen next. Spooks HQ policy dictates suggesting the family move as soon as possible. Just to be on the safe side. Perhaps the next wave of inhabitants will have no troubles at all, though I doubt anyone will ever enjoy spending much time in the attic. There might be no further activity for as long as the house stands. Or perhaps it will become one of those Houses, one day - the ones standing abandoned for as long as anyone could remember, the ones that kids dare each other to spend a night inside, though no one can ever make it all the way through.

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