#horror #shortstory #amwriting #jjreichenbach #fieldguide #spiritguides
Lit candles. Ouija board. Solemn expression. Oh yeah, she was going for it. This was supposed to be strictly recon, but, well, Penelope never was any good at passing up opportunities like this. Little Scamp.
“Oh, Jesus, she’s at it again.”
Lit candles. Ouija board. Solemn expression. Oh yeah, she was going for it. This was supposed to be strictly recon, but, well, Penelope never was any good at passing up opportunities like this. Little scamp.
“You’re up this time,” Jules said, pursing her lips. “I dealt with the last one--and that poltergeist in Ohio. That counts as two, by the way. At least two.” She shook her head.
A sigh. The air barely stirred, easily mistaken for a draft. “Yeah, I know,” Kale said. “I’ve got it.”
He kept an eye on Penelope as the girl laid out her arsenal on the dusty wood floor. It was a makeshift, rudimentary Ouija board with Penelope’s messy handwriting scribbled on it, just the alphabet and a couple of symbols along the edges for the design aesthetic. She hadn’t had a chance to replace the last one yet, but they’d work with what they had.
Her image flickered and slid out of focus for a moment before snapping back into place.
She lit another candle, the light casting a strange yellow glow on her pallid face without illuminating much of the room around them. Ambience, Penelope would say. She loved that sort of thing.
Kale glimpsed movement to his right—a shadow lurking in the dark corner by the fireplace.
He frowned. Kale knew this type of shadow; oily and slick, with a certain clichéd sinister air about it like it went around calling itself The Son of Darkness, or some shit, to impress the ladies. It was the kind of shadow that took lurking to stalker levels, and Kale was having none of that nonsense tonight, no way.
“Hey, you! Yeah, Shadow Man.” Kale leveled a firm glare in its direction, making sure it knew he meant business. “Maintain the perimeter—give the lady some space! Don’t you hiss at me, bub.” Kale took a step forward, a sneer twisting his lips.
Jules placed her hand on his arm. “Kale, don’t.”
“Don’t escalate.” She huffed. “Every time with you, you just get them riled up. Why do you have to start something?” She moved toward the smarmy bastard with far too much civility. “Sir? Sir? Please be on your way now. Yes, that’s right,” she said, leading him from the room, “no need for hurt feelings, just move it along. We’ll be on our way momentarily.”
When Jules returned, Kale avoided eye contact. “I had it under control.”
“Shh, shh,” Jules hushed him, waving a hand. “She’s saying something.”
Penelope’s pale lips moved and Kale sensed more than heard the low chime of her voice. He squinted, turning to Jules. “Did you hear it?”
“Hmm, couldn’t quite make it out.”
They leaned toward Penelope, listening.
Ah, there it was. The girl’s voice glided through the air between them, soft but distinct.
Spirit Guide, I beseech you, guide my hand.
Jules’ eyes widened. “Oh, we’re on!” She slapped Kale in the chest. “She means you!”
Kale huffed and crossed his arms. “Oh no, I’ll only escalate things. Wouldn’t want that.”
“Shut up and sit down,” Jules said—redundantly, in Kale’s opinion, since her glare already said that and more.
“All right,” he conceded. “But I’m doing it for her, not because you told me to.”
“Of course, Kale,” Jules dismissed him. Under her breath she muttered, “Not like you ever listen anyway.”
Spirit Guide, are you with me?
Kale glanced at Jules then sank into a sitting position on the floor across from Penelope, reaching out and laying his hand gently over hers.
Penelope’s eyes shot up, staring just past his shoulder, a broad smile on her face.
Spirit Guide, I sense your presence! Thank you for joining me tonight.
Kale shrugged, good humor curling the corner of his lip and replacing the sneer that had taken up residence there. “Yeah, well. Don’t mention it, kid.”
Are we alone in this house, Spirit Guide?
Again Kale locked eyes with Jules. “What should I tell her?”
Jules shifted from foot to foot. “I believe the truth would be what she’s seeking.”
Kale considered this. “But if I tell her there are spirits here, she’s going to keep trying to talk to them. I’ll spend the whole night playing bouncer.”
“That is essentially your job.”
“We’re supposed to guide her,” Kale said. “Hence the whole Spirit Guide handle. You always get to do all the guiding and I always end up running block when spirits get too close to her. Other than the whole poltergeist thing,” he clarified, “but that was one time.” Jules really had to let that one go.
“Well, yes,” she said in a tone that was suspiciously close to agreement, before adding, “I am the superior guide, clearly. And you do have a certain brutishness to you that many spirits seem to find intimidating.”
Kale balked. “You just lectured me for escalating things!”
“Only when things don’t need to be escalated, Kale! Can’t you just answer her questions? She’s starting to fidget.”
Kale returned his attention to his charge and moved her hand. She gasped. He guided her to the N and then the O, using broad strokes and jerky movements to make sure she got the message clearly. This board wasn’t as state-of-the-art as the last one. Made it more cumbersome to use, but Kale didn’t really mind.
Penelope’s smile widened, accidentally igniting Kale’s own.
“You’re such a softy,” Jules chided.
Kale frowned at her. “Like you aren’t.”
As comebacks went, his wasn’t really pulling its own weight, but Jules just smirked and admitted, “She is a sweet girl.”
Smugly, Kale returned his attention to Penelope.
Who is here with us?
Kale glanced around the room, but with the smarmy shadow gone it was just the three of them. The others were scattered throughout the house. He tried to recall how many spirits he’d seen on their way into the decrepit old building, but he’d been more focused on the seventeen obvious class-one safety hazards they’d passed just between here and the sidewalk, not to mention the thirty-five class-twos which were still a legitimate concern no matter how many times Jules reassured him otherwise. He sighed. “Uh…how many were there? Four? It was four, right?”
Jules squinted and tilted her head. “I think there were others on the upper level. I sense quite a few.”
“I’ll just say many.”
Are the spirits in this house friendly, Spirit Guide?
“That shadow guy was kind of an ass.”
“He was harmless, Kale. We already scanned for dangerous spirits. The place is fine.”
“I didn’t like the way he looked at her. Plus, maybe she’ll cut this short if she thinks it’s a hostile environment.”
Jules snickered. “Oh, yes. Because that always works. You know she loves the hostile ones the most.”
Kale took in the eager expression on Penelope’s face, the way she was trying not to show her excitement even while her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Yeah,” he admitted. “I guess you’re right. My girl loves her adrenalin rush.”
“Just tell her the truth.”
Kale leaned over the board.
Penelope’s face fell. She was disappointed.
“She’s sad now.” Kale stared at Jules accusingly. “I knew I shouldn’t have told her the truth. You give terrible advice.”
“Hush, you have to tell her what she came for.”
“Maybe I can go find that shadow guy and escalate things a little. Give her a show.”
“Don’t be foolish, Kale. Say something to her.”
“Something comforting and wise—well, as close as you can get, anyway.”
“Pfft. Watch and learn.”
Penelope’s grin lit up the room far better than the candles.
“See?” Kale bragged, straightening his shoulders. “She’s happy again.”
Oh yeah, he nailed it. The ‘Superior Guide’ over there could stand to learn a thing or two.
Spirits, if you are with me now, make your presence known.
“Quick,” Kale said, motioning to Jules, “we need to get someone in the hot seat!”
“Oh, I’ll go grab that boy from the lobby. He seemed interested in chatting.”
Jules returned a moment later with a young boy in tow. He was well-dressed and well-groomed, his aura a very reasonable shade of light green, and he didn’t strike Kale as a threat. Still, he’d keep an eye on him. He waved the boy over and made room for him in front of Penelope.
“Okay,” Kale instructed, “just put your hand on top of hers and spell out your answers on the board.”
“What do I say?” the boy asked, a slight tremor in his small voice. He was nervous. Good. A little healthy fear meant he’d be easy to keep in line. Kale liked him already.
“Just start with hello, sweetie,” Jules suggested.
Penelope stared with rapt attention as the pointed moved beneath the light touch of her fingertips.
Her eyes widened as the seconds spread out between them. An awkward silence filled the room.
“Uh,” Kale said when the kid didn’t do anything, “you forgot the O. Maybe I should do the spelling and you can just tell me what you want to say, hey?”
The kid nodded and scooted backward, a sense of relief tinting his aura blue. Hastily, Kale added an O to their conversation.
Penelope sighed. She seemed pretty relieved herself.
The boy and Penelope carried out a brief, stilted exchange with Kale as facilitator. He could feel Jules’ judgement like a hole boring through the back of his skull, but what did she know? He had this under control.
How did you die, Spirit?
Kale looked to the boy.
“Mother fed me a bad heart,” he explained in the least illuminating explanation Kale had ever heard.
“You’re, uh, going to need to clear that up for me a bit, kid.”
“The heart mother fed me. It had gone bad. Liver, too. It made me sick and then I was here.”
Jules interrupted, “Do you want me to take over?”
“No. I’ve got this.” Kale hunched his shoulders over the board, thinking.
“I think he means he died of food poisoning,” Jules suggested, like Kale hadn’t figured that out.
“Yeah, I told you, I’ve got this,” he snapped. Food poisoning. Obviously. All right, he could work with that.
Jules huffed again, one of her patented long-suffering huffs, but Kale ignored her. He reached out for Penelope’s hand and moved toward the scrawled F. Nothing happened. His hand slid right through hers.
Again, she flickered, her specter foggy and ethereal, before sliding back into focus with just the slightest buzz of static. He tried again and managed to land on the A. Jules snickered behind him.
Okay, fine. A. He could work with that too. Carefully, Kale managed to get out the words ATE and HEART.
You…you ate a heart? You eat hearts?
Damn. This was basically where the shit hit the metaphorical fan and he probably should’ve got Jules involved…in hindsight. Things were not going as planned, but Kale wasn’t a quitter, no, he could salvage this.
Kale should’ve just gone with food poisoning—it was much less ambiguous sounding. Penelope was clearly taking this the wrong way. Kale tried to communicate this to her:
YOU ARE—and where he meant to write you are misinterpreting and it was food poisoning, which was not an uncommon way to go at the time of the boy’s death and was certainly nothing his charge had to worry about since, obviously, Kale wasn’t about to let her get food poisoning any more than he was going to let anybody eat her heart, but of course the board cut out part way through his first sentence.
Upper lip trembling and eyes wide, Penelope whispered, I’m…next?
Her mouth hanging open, a bead of sweat rolled down her forehead.
“Damn it,” Kale said, trying to move the pointer again. “I hate these things. Piece of junk is cutting out on me.”
“Try it again,” Jules said.
“Well, shake it a little to get the connection back!”
“Try harder, she’s going to freak out if you leave it like that!”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
It was too late.
Penelope scurried backwards, away from the board, a look of abject fear on her face like Kale had never seen before.
“Oh-oh! Watch out, she’s going to knock the candle over!” Jules shouted.
Kale dove forward, stabilizing the candle as it teetered, and inadvertently sending the board flying across the room at the same time. The boy ran off during the commotion, but at least nothing had lit on fire. “Phew, close call.”
But Penelope didn’t even notice the candle. Her gaze was locked on the homemade Ouija board scattered haphazardly by one of the walls.
Kale scrambled to stand. He caught up with Jules halfway out the door as they ran after their spooked charge. In leaps and bounds, Penelope was across the overgrown yard, narrowly missing eight of the class-one safety hazards and a full twenty-four of the class-twos, coming so close to tripping on a fallen tree branch and bashing her head open that Kale’s heart would have stopped if it was still beating.
His charge slowed as she reached the other side of the rotting fence. She stopped by her car to catch her breath.
Panting, Kale and Jules leaned against the car beside Penelope, who now looked equal parts terrified and exhilarated. As her breathing slowed to a more normal rate, a wide grin split Penelope’s face and she started to laugh, clutching at her side, hands shaking with adrenalin. She glowed, her pale white figure brightening sporadically as she laughed.
At least she bounced back fast, he supposed. Any other charge and Kale might have permanently deterred them from ever leaving the house again, but not Penelope. No, she was as thrilled as ever.
“I don’t know why she loves this so much,” Kale said between staggered breaths. “She doesn’t even like talking to people when they’re alive. It’s not like they improve all that much when they’re dead.”
“It’s a hobby, Kale.” Jules swallowed hard. “She likes it, that’s all that matters.”
“It’s a pain in the ass.”
“You don’t mean that. Come on…” Jules said, nudging Kale’s shoulder. “You like that she likes our company. Not many guides get to work this one-on-one with their charges, let alone interact on a regular basis. It’s…it’s nice.”
Kale frowned and shrugged noncommittally. “I guess it’s not always horrible.”
“Oh, you love her,” Jules teased, “admit it.”
“You want to protect her and make her smile,” she added in a sing-song voice. Jules was even grinning now, Penelope’s elation as contagious as a yawn. “You know it’s true. She’s the only thing you and I have in common, after all.”
“Yeah,” he had to agree, his frown slipping in spite of himself, “that’s for sure.”
Penelope dug her keys out of her pocket.
“Hmm, looks like she’s ready to leave,” Jules pointed out.
Kale brushed his hands off on his knees and stood up as Penelope got into the car. “We better catch up. You know how she drives when she’s all hopped up on adrenalin. Didn’t even see that stop sign last time.”
“Yes,” Jules agreed with a teasing smile, “we’d best keep a close eye on her on the way home.”
A spirit guide’s job was never done. But with this charge, Kale supposed he didn’t really mind.
Horror writer, author of NIX Series, spinner of tales, weaver of webs, twisted mind.
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