GHOST HUNTERS WANTED. NO EXPERIENCE NEEDED.
That was what sucked me into all this, that stupid ad. They even used the Ghostbusters logo. Totally illegal, sure, but it’s a Facebook ad and who cares, right? The familiar logo caught my eye, the text made me laugh, and I thought, “Sure, why not?” And I clicked their stupid ad.
“Past Owners,” that was the name of their show. Well, “show.” It was going to be a YouTube channel. You know the shtick: going into haunted properties, talking up the murderous history, getting excited every time there’s a squeak or a draft. Keanna was convinced that she had a new angle, though, nothing to do with ghosts at all. Her hook was SEO and targeted marketing. She was fresh out of some ad school and full of ideas about how to reach untapped markets and build a following.
Her idea was this: even people who don’t care about haunted houses in general care about haunted houses in their town, right? People like hearing about themselves, and their hometown is enough a part of themselves to scratch that itch. Keanna was sure that through keywords and location-specific ads, we could pitch each episode of our show to locals, people who weren’t already burned out on the whole ghost-hunting thing.
I was skeptical, but she was offering a regular paycheck and it sounded like fun, if nothing else. The “no experience needed” in the ad was because she’d already lined up her camera guy and tech folks. All she needed was a gofer to do—well, everything else.
I had one big question for Keanna before I joined up. “Do I need to believe in ghosts for this?”
She laughed. “Definitely not. Only Emmerich does and—nothing against him, but we don’t need two Emmerichs around here, that’s for sure.”
So I signed on as van driver, cord-carrier, coffee-getter and general stuff-doer. The team was small: Keanna, Merete, two guys named Jeff, and Emmerich. Everyone seemed genuinely pleased to have me on the team, and I was happy to meet all of them. Especially Merete, who was smoking hot. She was the one who was going to be in front of the camera, so it made sense. Plus she had this accent—man. Definitely convinced me that Keanna was going to be able to sell this show, that’s all I’m saying.
The Jeffs were in charge of the cameras. Everyone called them Stand Jeff and Sit Jeff to tell them apart. Stand Jeff was the guy who worked the standard camera, the kind you carry around to film people with. Sit Jeff dealt with all of the remote cameras. His whole deal was run from a control center, keeping tabs on a dozen different screens at once. Different skill sets, both camera-based, both named Jeff.
I asked Stand Jeff if we could call one of them by their middle name or something, and he looked disgusted.
“Yeah. You could. Except that his middle name IS Jeff.”
“Wait, he’s named Jeff Jeff?”
“No, he’s named Mark. He goes by Jeff just to tick me off. He won’t even respond to Mark now. If you don’t call him Jeff, he just pretends that he didn’t hear you.”
“Well, do you have a middle name?”
Stand Jeff looked offended. “Screw that! I’m not letting him steal my name. I was Jeff first.”
And then there was Emmerich. Everyone else was mid-twenties, I’d say. Maybe thirty for Stand Jeff. But Emmerich had to be fifty, and a hard-worn fifty at that. He was a happy guy, always smiling, but he looked like he’d spent his entire life outdoors and only found out about sunscreen last week. His skin was weathered and wrinkled like a broken-in baseball glove. His hair was close-cropped and bristly. He looked kind of like Malcolm McDowell, only if he were a walnut.
Emmerich was responsible for all of the weird tech. EMF meters, infrared stuff, Geiger counter, defibrillator, regausser—don’t quote me on the names of any of this, he lost me like six words in—whatever weird stuff might pick up a ghost, Emmerich had it and knew how to use it. Between his hard-sided cases and Sit Jeff’s banks of computers, the twelve-passenger van barely had room for the six of us to sit.
“You think this stuff can really pick up a ghost?” I asked him.
“Another skeptic, I see.”
“I mean, yeah. People die all the time, everywhere. I really think I would’ve seen a ghost by now if they existed.”
“Perhaps you have. Not all hauntings are equal, you know. Haven’t you ever felt someone watching you when you were alone? Or suddenly had your mood shift for no reason?”
“Those are your ghosts? They’re gonna make for some pretty lousy TV. ‘We were walking around in the dark, when this man suddenly became creeped out! Ooooooh!’”
Emmerich was unfazed by my mockery. “Some ghosts are minor. Some are major. If we’re lucky, we’ll find something in between. If we’re not, my equipment is good enough to pick up even the minor ones.”
“So the show might just be you pointing to a meter and explaining that this spike was a phantasm?”
He shook his head vehemently. “Trust me, we see a phantasm, you won’t need any explanation from me. Like I said, not all hauntings are equal. Your standard phantom, that’s just a lost scrap of a person. You might not even know it’s there without serious equipment like mine. Temperature changes, tingling sensations—that’s about as far as a phantom can go.
“A phantasm, now, that’s a full-fledged evil location. It’s a space-bending, time-dilating, hallucinatory murder waiting to happen. Phantasms are sentient and sadistic. They will lure you in, chew you up and swallow you whole. You spot a phantasm, you drop everything and run. If you still can.”
Emmerich was staring me dead in the eyes. I opened my mouth to make a joke, but nothing came.
“Check,” I said instead. “Gotcha. Noted.”
I didn’t get it, of course. But then again, Emmerich still came along, so maybe even he didn’t really get it then.
It was our very first location. Keanna had found this amazing place outside of town, a full-on mansion called the MacDermott house. It had some kind of intense past, a hundred and fifty years old since Old Man MacDermott murdered his whole family and stuffed himself up the chimney, ghost haunted the attic and stared out the window forever, I don’t know. I wasn’t listening. I mean, I was listening, but Marete was reading and so actually I was just listening to her accent and imagining other words. I kept the van on the right side of the road and got us to the MacDermott house without incident, so whatever. I think I did fine.
The setup went like setups do. Emmerich and Sit Jeff and I hauled heavy stuff into various locations around the house and ran cables as inconspicuously as we could. Stand Jeff got a bunch of shots of the outside of the house, and then filmed Marete talking about the history of the place. Keanna helped Sit Jeff get everything up and running, supervised Stand Jeff’s camerawork for a bit, and then probably took a nap or something. I don’t know what producers do. She wasn’t helping me haul equipment, that’s all I know.
Once everything was set up, we all ditched and went out to a nearby pizza joint to get dinner. Keanna wanted to wait until sunset to get started, so we ate dinner and cracked jokes until dusk, then headed back to the house.
Sit Jeff parked himself behind his display of monitors and declared that everything was rolling and ready to go. Stand Jeff and Marete took a thermometer and an EMF meter and wandered off to film in various rooms. Emmerich had me grab some of the more esoteric machines and follow him off to take soundings or something. Keanna was off on her own, I thought at the time. Looking back, it was probably already too late to save her.
Emmerich and I were down in the basement when my walkie crackled to life.
“—ere are you guys?”
“Basement. Camera…four?” I flashed my light up at the wireless camera we’d fixed to the wall earlier, reading the tag. “Yeah, four.”
“No w—” The walkie cut in and out erratically, fizzing with static. “—hing there but—”
I waved my light at the camera again. “See the bright light? That’s us.”
Nothing but static came from the walkie, so I took a picture of the camera and texted it to Sit Jeff.
Moments later, my phone buzzed with a response. It was a photo of the camera banks, centered on the monitor labeled CAMERA 4. It showed an empty basement room, the same one we were in.
I glanced over at Emmerich’s machines, which were completely silent. Emmerich was tapping on the walls. Both of us were completely visible to the camera.
Ha ha, I wrote back. Earlier picture. Very funny. Text me if anything’s really going on.
On the walkie, I said, “Basement’s looking quiet. Stand Jeff, Marete? Anything up where you are?”
“Come up,” said a voice on the walkie. It didn’t sound like either of the Jeffs, and it definitely didn’t sound like Keanna or Marete.
“Jeff? That you?”
I looked over at Emmerich, who shrugged. “Nothing down here,” he said.
We were almost out of the basement when Emmerich paused.
“How many stairs were there on the way down?” he said.
“I don’t know. Like, ten? Twelve?”
“There are thirteen now.”
“Okay, so it was thirteen. What, is that an unlucky number of stairs?”
“I don’t think there were thirteen on the way down.”
“Man, if there are thirteen stairs on the way up, there were thirteen on the way down. That’s how stairs work.”
“There weren’t thirteen,” he said mulishly, shaking his head. I sighed and pushed past him.
The ground floor was quiet. I thought about shouting, but something held me back. Instead, I reached for the walkie again.
“What room are you guys in?”
“Upstairs, then? We’re back on the ground floor.”
“Thanks, man. Helpful.” I turned to Emmerich. “Up, then.”
He looked concerned. “I want to swap out some of the equipment.”
Back in the main room, the chair in front of the bank of monitors sat empty. Emmerich and I exchanged glances.
“Sit Jeff?” I said into the walkie. “Where’d you go, man?”
“I’m with the others. Come up.”
“All right,” I said uncertainly, eyeing the monitors. I couldn’t see anyone on any of the screens. “Emmerich’s just grabbing some stuff.”
“Come up and join us.”
“Okay, yeah. We’ll be right up.”
I flinched as Emmerich pressed a small box into my hand.
“What—” I started to say, but he pressed two fingers to my lips. For the first time since I’d met him, he wasn’t smiling. He tapped the box in my hand, which had a post-it note on it.
TURN THIS TO MAX, it said. The box had a single dial, like a car radio knob. It had two rubber antenna sticking out of the top, and its back was a single speaker.
I gave him a questioning look. “If you need to,” he told me. “Not before.”
“I don’t thi—”
Emmerich put his fingers to my mouth again. With his other hand, he pointed down the unlit front hallway.
In the gloom, at first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Then, with a shock, I realized:
The front door was gone.
The large wooden door, with its half-circle of leaded glass above and rectangular window panes down either side, was no longer there. Instead, the hallway terminated in a small alcove with a chair, lamp and end table. It would have looked like quite a cozy reading nook had I not known that it should have been the way we entered the house.
“Emmer—” I tried, but he pressed his hand against me harder, mashing my lips into my teeth.
The walkie crackled to life again. “Come up.”
“Let’s go up,” Emmerich said. He held up a box identical to the one he’d handed me and looked at it meaningfully, then back at me. “They’re waiting for us.”
Together, we walked up the house’s narrow staircase. I counted the steps this time. There were thirteen.
The stairs let out into a dark hallway lined with doors. Every one was closed. An aura of menace hung in the air, an almost palpable sensation. I could feel it settling into my lungs with each breath.
I tried the first door. It was locked. Emmerich tried the one across the hallway, with the same result.
I glanced back downstairs. The steps stretched away into blackness, far beyond the reach of my light.
“Up,” said the walkie.
At the end of the hallway, a set of folding stairs led up to a gaping hole in the ceiling. I cast a pleading glance at Emmerich. He gripped his little plastic box and walked toward the stairs. With dread in my heart, I followed.
The attic was dusty, black and silent. Our lights barely seemed to pierce the air, illuminating mere feet in front of us. A splintery wooden floor stretched out beneath overhanging beams. Boxes and discarded furniture were strewn erratically about.
“Oh, good,” said a voice. It came from the walkie, but also from above, behind and all around us. “You’ve come to join us.”
The walls heaved, then, spitting out a darkness with tangible form. I dove for the stairs, fully willing to crash headlong down them, but instead skidded off of bare wooden planks. Laughter echoed as I scrambled to my feet, searching desperately for an exit that was no longer there.
Behind me, heavy footsteps thumped across the floor, and static crackled. “Wha—no! No!” shouted a facsimile of Sit Jeff’s voice, and I whipped around but saw nothing. Instead, a hand caressed the side of my cheek and I heard Marete’s soft voice in my ear. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
A rough hand grabbed my other shoulder then, spinning me away. “Up! Move!” shouted Emmerich, pulling me to my feet. He dragged me across the attic, our footsteps drowned out by the cacophony of voices calling out from around us. Phantom hands grasped at my arms and clawed at my face, but Emmerich’s presence was more solidly real than any of them.
“Was there an attic window?”
“What? I don’t know! Maybe?”
“Think!” Emmerich towed me in a circle, the attic closing in around us. When we had first come up here, it had stretched out in every direction. Now, we were tripping over boxes with each step, and I could see all four walls with a sweep of the light. “When we pulled up, did you see a window? A dormer on the house? A circular pane at the top? It doesn’t have to open, it just has to be there. Think!”
The walls were closer now, no more than two steps away. They were closing in, forming a coffin. “There’s no window!”
There were no windows. There were no doors. There was no escape.
“Not is. Was! Was there a window?”
“I don’t—” And then a scrap of memory caught my attention, a piece of the house’s history that Marete had been reading in the car. The ghost had been seen in the attic window. I was sure of it, sure she’d said it. “Yes! Yes, toward the street, an attic window!”
“Then run!” And with that, Emmerich shoved me away from him, dropping his flashlight to twist the dial on his little plastic box to the max. As feedback squealed forth at an ear-shatteringly painful volume, the walls around us wavered, and for just one instant I could see moonlight streaming through a window.
I charged for it, twisting the dial on my own box high. A tortured electronic scream shrieked forth, holding back the walls as I dove bodily into the window, smashing through it into the wide open night, twenty-five feet above the ground.
I don’t know how I survived the fall. The ground was soft enough, and I landed just right, I suppose. If you count three cracked ribs, a broken ankle and a broken elbow just right, anyway.
I do. I didn’t even feel the grinding bones until I was back in the van, jamming the keys into the ignition and slamming my broken ankle onto the accelerator to get away. And even then I didn’t stop until MacDermott house was miles behind me and my body was screaming at me to stop and rest.
That was almost a month ago. I don’t know what happened to the others, not exactly. I saw Emmerich at the end, as I tumbled out into the air. He looked stretched, broken, his limbs bent into unpleasant angles and his skin pulled taut until it was starting to tear in places. But it was the look on his face that is seared into my mind, a look of horror and hopelessness and horrible comprehension, all blended into one. It was the look of a man who knows in terrifying detail everything that is about to happen, and understands that knowing will not make it hurt any less. I wonder if he knew he was saving me at the cost of himself—or if he thought that the window was the other direction, and was attempting to offer me to the house as he flung himself to safety.
I don’t sleep much any more. Minutes at a time, maybe half an hour if I’m lucky. Or unlucky, perhaps. Because every time I sleep, I’m back in the MacDermott house. Voices taunt me, bubbling up from the darkness. Hands grasp at my body, pulling me back. Hallways stretch away as I run down them, lifting doors out of my reach. And always, always the whisper:
Did you really think I’d ever let you go?
I think I made it out in time. I remember the glass cutting my skin, the impact with the ground. I can feel the hard casts on my arm and leg, bite my finger for the pain, pick away a scab to see myself bleed. I’m sure that I’m here.
But then again, that’s exactly the sort of hope the house would want me to have.