The first thing you’ll discover about the job is that you hate travel-sized soaps. It’s not dislike you feel, but an actual loathing for those cheap plastic packages, miniaturized openings clogged with off-white gunk. When you encounter tiny lotions stuffed in baskets (or flung carelessly into a damp sink corner if it’s a shittier accommodation), your lip will visibly curl. Picking through staged bedrooms, towels stuffed under the crack in the door to prevent light from seeping into the hall, you’ll smell the artificial fruitiness of an open bottle of conditioner and want to throw up.
“Pantene again.” Mischa pockets the set, the bulge poking up from her hip like a tumor.
“It’s better than Garnier.”
“Anything is better than Garnier.”
These soaps are perks of the job, according to the standard contract. Mini shampoos are considered bonuses by many professional haunters.
“I just want to go someplace where we can interact with the guests. Drink at a bar with some people. Daiquiris or like a gigantic margarita to share with the table.” Mischa tugs at her windbreaker, zips it up to the base of her throat. “Couldn’t we go to Cancún?”
I squeeze the lotion bottle so tight that some squirts on the carpet in a zigzag lightning bolt pattern.
“We don’t need anyone else.” Scrubbing the lotion into the nap with the sole of my sneaker, I toss the open bottle under the bed skirt. “Hand me that baby powder, let’s leave handprints on the desktop.”
You’d think haunting people would be easy money, but it’s actually mind-numbing work. You get bored and you absolutely can’t sleep on the clock. If the clients catch you, it’s an automatic fifty-percent rate deduction for the company and you lose your position. It’s written into all our contracts. At least, it’s written into mine and Mischa’s. They’re fairly standard, as far as clauses go.
I keep my contract in a wall safe at home. It was installed by the previous homeowner, an elderly woman who kept her Precious Moments figurines inside it. No sleeping on the job. It says that twice, actually, right below: No small talk with the clients. Haunters are like yesteryear’s children: they shouldn’t be seen or heard, unless you’re supplying the haunt-3000 packages, spectral lights, or employing a full-bodied apparition.
One weekend in Savannah it rained incessantly, the sound striking the tin roof overhead like spilled nails on a floor. There was a leak somewhere, and our clothes reeked of mildew. On our way back home, we threw most everything out and bought new tee shirts and jeans at the Walmart right off the highway.
“No more two-star bed and breakfasts, they don’t pay enough.” Mischa’s head was still turtled inside the sweater she’d grabbed off the sale rack. It was bright pink with an appliqued heart stretched across her breasts. The word “love” had an arrow shot through the middle.
“You know we don’t have a choice.”
“Let’s go to Spain. Let’s fly to Barcelona tonight and eat paella.” She climbed into the front seat and leaned down to grab the cheeseburger wrappers off the floor. We’d had three apiece and a couple hot fudge sundaes—the kind that came with plastic packages of crushed peanuts to throw on top.
“We can’t leave the States. You know that.” I kissed her hard and took the car keys. Her mouth tasted like French fries. “Let’s go home and sit on the back patio. Bet the marigolds look good from all this rain.”
“Who cares.” Pulling on her neck pillow, she turned her face to the window. “It’ll be too dark to see them.”
Gear out of the trunk, back into the front hall where it will wait for us like impatient pets. We drive new places, but we never get to enjoy the scenery. I’ve squatted in pantries, stuffed myself inside air conditioning vents, and rooted around in vegetable cellars. We’ve dug through your suitcase and snuck scent sachets inside your mattress pad.
New Orleans. Albany. Pensacola. Seattle.
You don’t have uniforms in our line of work, at least not most of the time. Those dress-up days, we play in clothes that aren’t ours. They’re provided by the people who’ve hired us, left in haphazard bundles, stuffed in crawl spaces, found in plastic grocery bags on closet floors. Mischa hates those gigs where we wrap ourselves in ratty bed sheets, but I find them the closest to what I’d actually seen myself doing with my life: acting, stage or screen. Mischa’s an art school dropout. She never even made it through her first semester.
Work is never-ending, but the pay’s first-rate. Our last four checks covered one year’s mortgage on the house. We’re assigned the jobs through our agency, emailed reservations and confirmations. We arrive late at night and leave before the sun comes up.
Part of the job is projecting a certain look. You must appear painfully average. Dishwater hair, dumpy frame, khaki traveling clothes that look like any other Middle American nobody. We’re the kind of people who want to be seen, but just aren’t. Nobody noticed us before, and they certainly don’t notice us now.
In Missoula, we stayed at a crumbling Victorian mansion hastily converted into a hotel. We read the packet over chips and queso, plopped down at either side of the glass coffee table in our sunken living room.
“Dead sisters. Twins.”
Mischa stirred her cheese with the tines of her fork, making Rorschach squiggles. “Isn’t that the plot from The Shining?”
“Who cares.” There was already grease on the corners of the papers. I lifted them up and dabbed at them with a napkin. “These twins supposedly murdered their mother for insurance money. Killed themselves and their pet parakeet.”
Mischa scrounged the final chips from her plate. “So what, we gotta make bird calls?”
“Nope.” The print at the bottom was small and smudged. “Oh. They drank bleach.”
“Tell me we don’t have to clean their bathrooms.”
The twins played harpsichord. Mischa and I poured capfuls of drain cleanser onto washcloths and left them inside dresser drawers, stuffed them beneath mattresses. Our domain was the upper floors, but the harpsichord was downstairs in the sitting room. I played lookout while Mischa played a recording of Für Elise near the stairwell. Then we snuck upstairs, sprinkled birdseed along the hallway carpet. On our way out, we found a wrapped plate of warm cookies waiting for us. We fed them to each other on our drive to the airport, hands sticky with melted chocolate.
“I love old ladies,” Mischa said, moaning into her fourth bite. “I never wanna be one, though. Just have them take care of me.”
“That’ll be me someday. I’ll make you cookies.”
“Nah, you won’t.” Mischa stuffed the last cookie in her mouth, sucking chocolate from her fingernails. “It’s not our thing.”
I’ve never been someone who sleeps well. My family lived out of fifty-six different apartments growing up. My father would pick up a job somewhere, bring home paychecks, and then stop going to work. Every apartment complex, always the same. Cheap stucco, rooms painted the kind of eggshell white that makes you want to scribble on the wall just to have something new to look at. Instead you put up a stupid, ratty poster that you’re just going to take down in a few months’ time. Same posters, same walls.
Mischa says that’s why I took the job.
“You were already haunting places, even back then.” She brushes my hair back from my eyes. It’s always falling in behind my glasses, floppy little tendrils of gray-brown that stick in my eyelashes. “Now you just get paid to do it.”
I like to leave calling cards, little bits of myself I can tuck under a doily or slip under a butter dish. Proof I was there. Mischa does the opposite. In our bedroom, she empties the pockets of her coat on the nightstand: loose change, monogrammed napkins, squat water glasses, even the plastic rings used to hold the thick vinyl shower curtains to their rail. I leave bits of me behind; she takes bits of other places with her.
“I’m not a klepto,” she says for the hundredth time as she rifles through her stash, an overlarge box full of four years’ worth of four-star hotels, sleazy cut-rate motels, bed and breakfasts, and historic homes.
“That’s exactly what you are.”
“How could you possibly know that? I don’t even know what I am. I can’t even think what I’ll be in the next five years.”
I knew exactly what we’d be, right down to the clothes we’d wear and what we’d eat. The same, everything always the same.
Mischa pulled a glittery Christmas ornament from the wreckage.
“Let’s go to the North Pole,” she said. There was glitter stuck to her fingers. “Let’s go see Santa Claus.”
It’s easy to spot where we’ve been. It’s not on the nightly news, but it’s always on the internet. Websites dedicated to sussing out the paranormal hotspots show our handiwork. Hotel ratings go through the roof when there’s poltergeist activity. If a guest hears a noise in the night, you can guarantee they’ll say something about it. If they get a picture of something suspicious, even better; it’ll likely get posted on TripAdvisor. Clients are willing to pay big bucks for visual content—just enough amiss that it seems plausible. Something grainy, not easily defined.
If you try hard enough, you can make anyone think you’re a ghost.
We’re in a boxy bed and breakfast with four floors, not counting the attic and the basement. We’ve been told to stay out of the kitchen, for sanitation reasons. This information was supplied in a small, typed note tucked into our usual packet of instructions.
“Do they think we’re going to steal food?” Mischa’s mouth is pressed to my ear, so close I can feel the pressure of her breath wriggling in there like a tongue. “That’s fucking offensive. We’re professionals.”
Crouched by the bed, I look underneath and encounter a horde of dust bunnies. “Not really sure how they can say anything about sanitation with the dirt in this place.” Our packet says to stick to the third floor and the attic. I don’t mind either of those spaces—wide open, easy access without running into guests. From that same packet, we know that it’s a low-capacity night. Only a third of the rooms are booked, and that’s mostly first and second floor. We’ve holed up in the blandly named George Washington suite. Every bed and breakfast in America has a bedroom named after our first president—as if dedicating a room to him might trick guests into believing he once stayed a night there.
“We should cut out of here early. There’s an outlet mall off the interstate, maybe twenty minutes outside town.” Mischa tugs down her gray thermal. It’s lodged over her stomach, riding up to expose a lot of pale skin, riddled with pink lines from where her pants cut into her. “I kinda want to get a food dehydrator.”
“Fruits, maybe like pineapple or something.” She wedges a towel next to the door, and I pull open our resource bag: flashlights, confetti, and several peacock feathers.
“You’ll never use that. I can’t even imagine you eating fruit, honestly.”
“The one they have at the Bed Bath and Beyond’s got a supercharger on it or something, says it dries the fruit three times as fast.”
“You will never, ever use that. It’s gonna wind up in the garage with all that other crap I trip over.”
I hand her a black ski mask, the kind they sell in bulk at the Dollar Tree. She pulls hers down over her face and moves her jaw around until it slithers down her neck.
“I’m gonna get one. It’ll be fun.”
Ski masks aggravate my allergies. Already my nose drips freely through the cheap poly blend. I snuffle back a river of mucus and rub my itchy eyes.
“Let’s just get started. I’m tired of this place already.” Mischa holds up a yellowing lace doily, a round brown coffee ring marring its center. “They charge two hundred a night for this dump.”
Sometimes it feels like we’re being hired to play hide-and-seek with each other. I’ll hear a creak on the stairs and recognize Mischa’s Walmart sneakers. Riffling through dust-moted curtains, rooting in pantries, and rucking up the nap on frayed accent rugs, we find each other over and over again. I can tell Mischa apart from anyone. She’s the only one who’s ever found me.
In the community bathroom of a rundown hotel in Gettysburg, I bent over the toilet and vomited up yellow bile for the twelfth time in an hour. Three in the morning, and the ghost was supposed to be the widow of a decorated general, not a middle-aged woman suffering from acute food poisoning. On my hundredth hurl into the squat, dirty bowl, I banged my head on the lip of the seat hard enough to make my vision go spotty.
Fluorescent lights popped on, and I cowered next to the toilet, curled up on a rose-colored floor mat already encrusted with my vomit.
“Oh yikes, you’ve got some in your hair.” It was Mischa before I’d known her, but still the same. Thinner. Shorter hair. She wore a Tampa Bay Buccaneers oversized sleep shirt and glasses that kept falling off her face.
I was still wrapped in the old bed sheet I’d been wearing, a gray thing, traditional, with a neck hole cut out. My body fit through it like a kid in a school play.
Mischa bundled up my hair in an old scrunchie off her wrist. She pulled me down the hall, still heaving violently, into her bedroom. We sat side by side on the creaky, terrible mattress, and she fed me sips of water from a dirty-looking glass with the previous hotel’s name embossed on the side.
“I gotta get to work.” When I tried to stand, my legs gave out, and I half crumpled over Mischa. She smelled like lavender bath soap and her legs pressed against my stomach warmly, calming my queasiness.
“Just go to sleep.”
“I need the money. I have to go in the attic and move furniture around.”
Her hand pressed my forehead. “You don’t have a fever.”
I clung to her wrist, inhaling her scent. There was also a musky vanilla odor. I wanted to lick her pulse. Instead I heaved, burping rancid peanut butter. “I’m a haunter,” I told her, my voice gone scratchy from stomach acid. “I have to do this or I’ll get fired.”
“Let me do it.” She pulled her warm, nubby bed sheets over my shivering body and left me in the darkened room. I fell asleep to the sounds of her moving furniture, slowly, not slamming anything. Just enough to make it sound natural.
The next morning I woke curled into her side like an answered question. Her fingers were tangled in my hair. When I sat up, some of the knotted strands pulled free, still full of dried vomit.
“How do I do what you do.” Not a question, really, but like she was already telling me that she’d be my ghost-twin – the one who’d float the floors with me, creeping through pantries and basements, riffling through outdated furnishings and linens, and swapping out portraits from the hallways with the ones from the bedrooms.
Protocol when a haunter encounters a living person in the residence is trifold:
- Assess whether it is the owner. That’s a best-case scenario. If it’s the owner, or the management, you might keep your job.
- If it’s not the owner, you’re in trouble. You’ll likely be fired.
- If it’s not the owner and you want to keep your job, you’ll have to recruit them. The only way to recruit another person as a haunter is to take them on with you. Sort of like an apprentice, except you’ll always be together. Forever, the two of you, living in the same house, crammed into the same closets.
I sat up and drank another glass of water. I asked her if she’d like to make some money. She said yes, but that she also needed healthcare. I said that was fine because our dental plan was stellar. She said I was going to teach her everything I knew. I said damn right I would, and then I threw up the water in the wastebasket next to the bed, slopping some onto the crocheted blanket that still covered our bodies.
Mischa stayed in my bedroom. She used my bathroom. We ate breakfast together (three eggs, over-easy to the point of gelatin mopped up with French toast), and I read to her from the manual. The whole thing. It took a day and a half to get through it all. By then, we were already finishing each other’s sentences. I wore her blue sports bra with the anchor embroidered between the breasts, and she claimed my pink spandex bike shorts.
“I am in love with this,” she told me as we sat on my front porch swing, her head leaning against my shoulder, me reading aloud to her from the 401(k) plan.
“I am in love with this, too,” I said, kissing her hair, meaning: I am in love with you, I am in love with the person who could love you this much, I am in love with who I’ll be when we haunt the world together.
“I’ve gotta take a leak.”
Mischa’s got one hand gripping my neck and the other cupping her crotch. She’s the kind of person who never knows when she’s got to go to the bathroom. It’s an endearing quality, unless we’re trapped behind a water tank in a mildew-ridden butler’s pantry, which is nearly always.
“You’ll have to hold it.”
“I’ll pee on your foot.”
“At least it’ll be warm. I’m dying in here.” Twitching my shoulders, I let some of my hair cover my neck. It slithers down inside the hoodie I’ve got on, and it feels wet, like it’s gotten damp on something, and I try hard not to think about what could’ve done that.
“Do you think we’ll get a gig down south soon?”
“Probably not.” Our last three had been up north; there’d been a rash of interest in holiday spectral activity. People wanted to see apparitions while cozied up beside a roaring fire, snow softly blanketing the ground outside their hotel windows. You couldn’t expect a full-bodied specter wearing Christmas gear in the middle of palm-laden Miami.
“I can’t wait,” she says. “I’m going.”
“Fine. But use the sink down here, don’t go upstairs. I think one of the couples got back late and dipped into the winery tour gift baskets.”
When we need to pee, we sit on the lips of the sinks and let it drain down that way. It sounds weird, but it’s better than flushing a toilet or leaving behind evidence. Ghosts don’t use the bathroom.
Mischa runs her fingers along my neck and I lean into them, but she’s already moving away.
We’ve been in the house for less than two hours, and we’ve got four more to go. It’s a rambling bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Buffalo, a kind of lopsided wedding cake of a home: three stories tall, porches listing, paint peeling off and attaching to the soles of our shoes in large flakes.
According to our packet, a cook who worked in the house poisoned her husband and then shot herself, gun pressed into the soft cavity below her jaw. We’ll have to make the kitchen sound alive, replicate the smell of baked bread. Before we leave, I’ll drop an overlarge dictionary on the floor in the hall to replicate the sound of a single gunshot.
When the door opens, I look up, expecting to see Mischa, and stare into the face of a stranger. It’s a woman. Her mouth hangs open in a look of shocked annoyance, as if she were expecting to find anything else but me, crouched awkwardly among the stacks of old silverware and yellowing tablecloths. Hoping that she’s one of the winery tour people, I settle on my haunches and pray she thinks I’m a mirage.
No sound comes from either of us. Her eyes are dark smudges set in a narrow face topped by a blade-sharp nose. I know what it means to be spotted by this person. It means that Mischa and I no longer have jobs. It means no more trips together, no more funding our relationship, no more cuddling, hunkered together in attics and in linen closets, making love while the house settles around our hidden bodies.
The woman hasn’t moved from her perch in the doorway. Her expression is leaden, lips pale as piecrust. There’s a dampness to her eyes that looks less like crying and more like retribution.
There’s no end game for a third party catching you during a gig. It’s not feasible for three people to live together, to creep around spaces that aren’t ours, to haunt the living. It’s all in the contract. One or two haunters, never more than that.
There’s a rolling pin in the box nearest my feet. I’m close to it, so close I can imagine what it will feel like, smooth against my palm. There’s a wild vision in my brain, how I will sweep it in an arc, a kind of crude baseball bat.
When I raise my arm, the door opens, and the woman steps through. Her arm is raised like mine, but her hand is empty. When the rolling pin connects with her skull, I feel the crack all the way down my arm. Her body folds over, slumping down onto the linoleum, draped behind the water heater. So much hair trails over her, spilling down her back like a dark cloak.
There are two or three sets of everything at our house. Mischa likes to buy things off the internet, but she forgets what we already own. Loads of brightly hued Corning Ware compete for shelf space in our cupboards, though we’re never home to cook, and we prefer to wrangle takeout from the closest fast food option.
“I like to have my things,” Mischa says, surrounded by bubble wrap and tissue paper. “It just makes me feel comfortable.”
She gets bored once the packages are opened. We have so many cardboard boxes stuffed into our garage that there’s no more room for a car. I park our sedan in the driveway, scraping off the ice when the weather gets bad.
“Couldn’t we go to Maui?”
I don’t look at her when she asks me these things anymore. I don’t want to go to Maui, or Brazil, or London or Paris or Budapest, or even see Antarctica, our breath foggy mist mingling in the dead air. I want to stay how we are now. I want to stay how we were when she found me in that bathroom, vomiting up my life for her, kneeling on the cold tile floor.
“Don’t you love this so much,” I whisper, draped in dusty white sheets, creeping down a hallway with my hand clutching hers.
“I love you,” she replies, but she’ll turn away when she says it, moving down the stairwell to a different floor.
I’m staring at the open doorway, rolling pin clutched against my chest. Mischa comes in, hitching up her pants over her ample behind. She’s looking at me through the holes in her ski mask, but she’s got it rucked up over her chin so I can see the bottom half of her bared face.
“Urinary success.” She laughs, closing the door behind her. “I didn’t even get pee on my shoes this time.”
There’s just enough light coming from a plug in the wall to illuminate my hands and what I’m holding. I don’t look behind me or between my legs. I don’t want to see the woman sprawled there. I don’t want to see what the rolling pin has done to her skull. Already the space smells thick with something yeasty, a kind of deep aroma like mineral deposits.
Opening and closing my mouth, I can taste the dampness in the air. My bowels feel liquefied. “I don’t want to leave,” I finally say, the pin gripped tight in my fist. “I want to stay here.”
“Let’s just get this over with. I wanna get pie at that diner. Or some diner. Pie, though.” Mischa pulls down her ski mask, and the half-moon of her mouth disappears. When she kisses me, there are two sets of lips and the wool pressed between us. I fall back a step into the water heater, and my body connects with a loud clang. There’s no woman sprawled between my legs. It’s just Mischa, putting one hand around my neck and making strong eye contact.
“I’m taking the rolling pin,” I say, pushing away from the wall. My hand comes back damp. “They’ll never miss it.”
“I’ve already got a set of coasters I took from the parlor.”
The kitchen is dark, and I don’t look at the doorway to the pantry as we grab soup ladles, tureens, and mixing bowls. The smell hangs, the dank odor like mixed earth and biscuits, following me around the room. Mischa takes a serving spoon and stuffs it in her pocket.
“Huh. It already smells like bread in here.” She’s not looking at me; she’s already looking out to the driveway. I pick up the dictionary and hold it over my head. The rolling pin feels like a hand pressing into my side, asking me to stop.
“It smells like home,” I say. “Like birth and death.”
Throwing the book to the floor, I let my arms fall down with it. The resulting slap loosens my spine. I take Mischa’s hand and pull her outside, toward our car at the opposite end of the street. Our breath leaves our bodies in twin trails. Our feet leave tracks like deer in the icy grass. There will be a face in the window, following our progress away from the bed and breakfast. I don’t need to turn around to see it. Those eyes will follow us all the way to the car. They’ll follow me all the way home.