Growing up in Dieu-le-Sauveur, my friends and I told stories about ghosts—the Starving Man, the Sleeping Girl, and the House at the End of the Street. The summer I was twelve, I saw my first ghost for real. That was the summer my little brother Gen disappeared.
The first official day of summer, the day after school ended for the year, we gathered in Luke and Adam’s clubhouse—me, my little brother Gen, and Holly and Heather from across the road. Luke and Adam lived next door. By the time Gen was born, Luke and I had already spent years passing through the hedge between our houses.
That didn’t change immediately when Gen was born, but it changed when he got old enough to walk and my parents insisted I take him with me any place I wanted to go. Luke didn’t mind, but he was the younger brother in his relationship, the one used to tagging along. He couldn’t understand why I could be annoyed, and yet protective of Gen at the same time, the first to rush to him if he got hurt, or stand up for him if someone else gave him trouble.
This is what I couldn’t explain to Luke: It didn’t matter that I loved Gen or not, because I did; it didn’t matter that he was actually pretty cool for a little brother. What mattered was I didn’t have a choice anymore. I used to be just me, but for the last seven years, I’d been Gen’s big brother. I would always be Gen’s big brother, with all the weight and responsibility it entailed.
“This is that game I was telling you about.” Adam pulled out his phone. All week while we waited for school to be out, he’d been talking about an app called Ghost Hunt!, where you collected virtual ghosts and stored them in a scrapbook. He already had 27 unique ghosts, including the Bloody Nun.
“I found her behind the church. There used to be a cemetery there, but they dug up all the bodies and moved them somewhere else.”
He turned his screen to show us the Bloody Nun’s picture. The clubhouse was really a cleared-out garden shed, but Luke and Adam’s mom had put in a carpet for us and a mini fridge with an extension cord running to the garage. I reached to grab a soda, popping the tab before I looked at the picture on Adam’s phone.
The colors were washed out and strange, like one of those filters had been applied to make it look like an old photograph. The grass had a peachy tone, but I recognized the lawn behind the church, but not the woman, who wore an old-fashioned habit, with a wimple and a big silver cross. Her face was jowly, making me think of a bulldog, and at first I didn’t even notice her feet until Holly pointed it out.
“She’s floating.” Holly pointed at the screen.
Even though she was closer to Luke and mine’s age, Adam had a crush on Holly. Even though he hadn’t said as much, I’m pretty sure recruiting me and Luke to play Ghost Hunt! was Adam’s way of trying to impress her.
I leaned in for a closer look. Holly was right, below the nun’s full skirt, her feet just sort of vanished. Instead of standing flat on the ground, she hovered, casting a dark stain of shadow.
Gen jostled my shoulder. I glanced back, moving so he could see better, but he edged away from the screen as Adam continued to scroll. Heather looked doubtful, too. She and Holly were only eleven months apart, practically twins. Like me and Gen, they came as a set. Wherever Holly went, her sister followed.
“Certain ghosts show up more in certain places.” Adam continued flicking through his catalogue. “Like the Nun and the church, but regular haunts and ghouls can show up anywhere.”
He paused on the picture of a haunt, a black and white photograph made to look all harsh and full of contrast, so the boy in the picture appeared to have no eyes, only dark staring pits where his eyes should be. The ghouls Adam showed us looked like they’d been shot in night-vision, emerald-tinted blurs hinting at tooth-filled mouths and legs bending the wrong way.
“We should all play together.” Holly searched for the app on her phone, setting it to download, and Adam sat a little straighter. “I know some places where I bet we’ll find ghosts.”
Even though I didn’t know Holly all that well, I knew she considered herself an expert on ghosts. I looked back at Gen. He had his phone out, but he hadn’t downloaded the app yet. Our parents had gotten him his own phone just this year. They didn’t care if he used it to play games and watch videos as long as he kept it with him in case of emergency.
“It won’t be scary. I promise,” I said, taking his phone.
Gen scrunched up his mouth; I hadn’t played the game yet, so I had no way of knowing if it was scary, but I could tell he wanted to believe me.
“There are add ons,” Adam said. “EVP Mode, Night Vision, Auto Detect, but they cost extra. The game’s still fine without them.”
He led us outside, and we swept our phones around the yard.
“I don’t see anything.” Holly sounded impatient.
“Ghosts don’t appear everywhere.” Adam put his phone away. “Anyway, I have soccer practice now, but we’ll go on a proper hunt tomorrow.”
He tried out a grin, seeing whether anyone would challenge his self-appointed role as our leader. Holly fake-pouted a moment, but no one else said anything, other than agreeing we would meet up again tomorrow. I couldn’t tell whether Holly liked Adam the way he liked her, or just considered him a means of finding ghosts. I couldn’t tell whether I liked Holly, not as a girl, but as a person. But the best place to hang out was Luke and Adam’s clubhouse, which probably meant I’d have to put up with her either way.
I ducked through the hedge, pausing when I realized Gen wasn’t following me. He stood framed by the gap we’d made over the years, the ground worn by our feet so the grass didn’t grow. I crouched, so I could see him fully. He had the look of concentration he got when he was trying to solve one of the math problems my parents gave him to practice while I was doing my homework, so he wouldn’t feel left out.
“What if I don’t want to see a ghost?” Gen fidgeted with the pack around his waist. It held his phone and his inhaler; he wasn’t allowed to leave the house without it.
“You don’t have to play.”
“But then you won’t play with me if you’re all doing it and I’m not.”
Gen pushed his lower lip out. Guilt stung me, making the hope that flared for the briefest of moments feel ugly and cruel. I couldn’t help the thought: would it really be so bad if Gen stayed at home and played with his own toys some days while I played Ghost Hunt! with Luke and Adam? At the expression on Gen’s face, I tried to push the thought away.
“Hey.” I crab-walked through the hedge and put my arm around his shoulders. His bones poked at my arm, even through the fabric of his shirt. He’d always been small. Reminding myself that Gen needed my protection chased away the last bit of hope so that I could almost convince myself I’d never felt it in the first place.
“It’s just a game.” I tightened my grip into a one-armed hug. “If it gets too scary, we’ll both stop playing, okay?”
“Promise?” Gen looked up at me through his lashes.
I held out my hand. Our dad had once sealed a promise to take us out for ice cream if we cleaned up the yard with a handshake. Gen had been three-years-old, and the idea of a handshake had stuck with him as the gold standard for a really serious deal you couldn’t ever go back on.
“Promise.” I said it loudly and clearly, making sure I believed it, too.
“I have a good one,” Holly said.
The six of us sat shoulder to shoulder in the clubhouse. We’d been hunting ghosts all morning, but only Holly and Adam had caught anything, a regular haunt and a ghoul each. After a while, it had gotten too hot out, and we’d retreated to the shed with a fan run from the same extension cord as the mini fridge, and freezies from the corner store.
“It’s one you haven’t heard.”
At the edge in Holly’s voice, I looked up. She was looking straight at me and I blushed, realizing I must have rolled my eyes. She held my gaze for a moment longer, then launched into her story.
“Before Dieu-le-Sauveur was a real town, it was just a bunch of houses and a general store. A man named Martin St. Jean lived in the last house at the end of town, and everything after that was fields and forest. Everyone knew everyone back then, and neighbors looked out for each other, except for Martin St. Jean.
“He didn’t go to church on Sundays. He would grunt instead of saying hello to his neighbors. His wife was even worse. If she came to the general store with him, she would sit in the wagon and wait, or walk behind him with her head down, never looking at anyone. She never spoke at all.
“The last time they came into town together, Martin’s wife was pregnant. They were there to get supplies before a big snow storm. The shopkeeper’s wife tried to talk to Martin’s wife about the baby while their husbands loaded up the supplies, but Martin came back into the store and grabbed his wife’s arm saying they were done.”
Holly paused, looking around to make sure we were all paying attention. Seeing nobody was looking away or playing with their phones, she gave a half-smirk of satisfaction, and continued.
“When the storm came, all of Dieu-le-Sauver was snowed in for weeks, but no one thought to check in on Martin St. Jean and his wife, even with the baby on the way. Or maybe they did think of it, and they chose not to go because he didn’t smile and nod at them and because his wife looked so small and afraid all the time.
“Once the snow thawed, people started to feel guilty. They got a party together to check on Martin St. Jean. No one answered when they knocked, but they heard a sound like a wild animal inside his house. It took three men to break down the door.”
Holly dropped her voice, leaning forward. I found myself leaning forward, too, and Gen’s shoulder brushed mine.
“When they got inside, they found Martin St. Jean crouched in the corner, covered in dirt and blood. He snarled, and when one of the men spoke to him, Martin St. Jean tried to bite him and tear out his throat.
“Another man tackled him, and they dragged him outside. That’s when the men who were still inside found Martin’s wife. She’d been tied to the bed, and pieces of her had been carved away. In the fireplace, they found bones. Some were too small to belong to anything but a baby, and they all looked like they’d been gnawed on.”
Beside me, Gen flinched. Holly grinned.
“Martin claimed a wolf got into the house. He said he killed it and survived on its remains, even though he was too late to save his wife and child. No one believed him. They locked him up and he howled night and day, never stopping except to say how hungry and cold he was. In the end, they couldn’t take it anymore, and they strung him up from a tree without waiting for a trial.”
Holly paused again, making a point of meeting each of our eyes before delivering her last line in a dramatic whisper.
“And that’s how the Starving Man was born.”
I caught my first ghost in the high school parking lot after we’d been playing for a week. The six of us rode our bikes over together, then split up. I went to the far side of the lot near the trees, Gen sticking close as my shadow.
There was nothing, nothing, nothing, then suddenly a girl crouched on the asphalt right in front of me. When I looked away from my screen, I couldn’t see her, but through my phone she looked as real as Gen. She wore a bathing suit. Water ran from her skin, pooling beneath her and soaking into the ground. I didn’t remember animations from Adam’s phone, but then he’d only showed us the still pictures. I wasn’t prepared for how real she looked, the dripping water, or the way her lips seemed tinted blue.
“She’s talking,” Gen said.
I’d almost forgotten he was there. The girl’s lips moved, but I couldn’t hear anything.
“It’s okay.” I didn’t look away from my phone.
I centered the girl and clicked the app’s camera button. The girl’s blue-tinged lips and the multi-color stripes of her bathing suit resolved into a black and white picture like the ones Adam showed us. I breathed out.
“I got one!” I raised my voice.
“Where’d you find her?” Holly was the first to reach me, everyone crowding around.
I pointed. Holly lifted her phone, but her screen only showed only asphalt and painted lines.
“Must have timed-out.” Adam shrugged. Holly looked annoyed.
“She was talking,” Gen said. A small line dented the skin in-between his eyebrows, his math problem look again.
“If you download the EVP add-on, you can play that back. Sometimes you can make out words,” Adam said. “Here. Listen.” He tapped a button and held out his phone out. A garbled sound emerged.
“What’s that?” Heather’s eyes widened.
“Ghost voices.” Adam played it again.
“It’s just noise.” Holly’s mouth crimped, and Adam’s shoulders slumped.
“I’m going to keep looking.” Holly followed the border to some trees to the left, Heather trailing after her.
“Why was she dressed like that?” Gen asked.
Adam was still close enough to hear and answered. “There used to be a swimming pool here. Maybe she drowned.”
“Seriously?” I couldn’t tell if Adam was messing with us, but he didn’t have that look.
“I took swimming lessons here when I was really little. They filled it in right before Luke was born. I’m sure hundreds of kids drowned here.”
Gen made a small noise, and I leaned down to whisper in his ear. “It’s okay, we don’t have to play anymore today.”
I straightened, pitching my voice louder so Holly and Heather would hear, too. “We have to go home now. Our aunt is coming over for dinner.”
I put my hand on Gen’s shoulder, squeezing so he wouldn’t give away my lie. I was proud of myself, not for the lie, but for keeping at least part of my promise to Gen.
Later that night, I downloaded the EVP add-on, and pulled up the picture of the ghost girl in the bathing suit. Green lines scrolled across the screen, jittering up and down with the volume. I didn’t have the add-on installed when the ghost girl’s lips moved, so there was no way I could have captured real sound.
Even though I knew it was just a trick to make the game feel more real, I couldn’t help the tightness in my chest as I listened. The noise on Adam’s phone sounded like someone talking with marbles in their mouth, or a recording slowed way down so you couldn’t make sense of the words. The sound on my phone was nothing like that at all.
It reminded me of how when we visited our grandparents, Gen and I would sink to the bottom of their pool and take turns saying words and trying to guess what the other was saying. Gen was always better at it than me. The sound on my phone was like that, a wet sound. I listened five times in a row, and after the fifth, I crept down the hall. Gen’s door was open a crack; he lay on top of the covers with his back to me, the lights off.
“Hey. I downloaded the EVP mode. Will you help me figure out what the girl is saying?”
His shoulders might have twitched, but it might also have been a trick of the shadows as a car passed by outside. I waited, listening to his breathing, but I couldn’t tell if he was really asleep or faking.
“Gen?” I tried one more time. No answer.
Before I could decide whether to barge into his room anyway, the screen lit up on Gen’s phone. Wavy green lines scrolling, just the way they had on mine, the wet sound, but louder so I could almost make out a word.
I stepped back. Gen hunched his shoulders. I couldn’t hear his breathing at all now, but I couldn’t make myself move. Was he holding his breath, waiting for me to go away? Trying to pretend I hadn’t seen anything at all, I retreated to my own room, closing the door behind me.
I woke to the sound of Gen’s screams. Disoriented, my legs tangled in my covers and I hit the floor with a crash trying to get up. I made it into the hall at the same time as my parents.
Gen stood at the top of the stairs, his heels hanging over the top step like he was about to do a back flip off a diving board. His eyes were blank, his mouth a perfect circle of darkness. He looked like one of the ghost pictures on Adam’s phone.
No one moved. Up until he turned five, Gen had suffered night terrors. The sleep specialist my parents took him to said to let Gen wake up on his own, no matter how bad it seemed. I never understood that, and my mom looked doubtful now, too.
“Gen, honey?” She took a cautious step, one hand out like she was trying to catch a nervous dog. “It’s okay. You’re safe.”
Her fingers sketched the air near his arm, but she didn’t touch him. “Gen?”
He turned toward her, his mouth widening impossibly, and let out another shriek. He leaned back, like he was trying to get away from her, and his arms pin-wheeled as gravity snatched him. My mother threw her arms around him, yanking him back. They hit the floor together, Gen’s limbs flailing in panic and hitting my mother in the nose.
“Get his inhaler.” My father spoke without turning around.
I found it in his bedside drawer. My father still didn’t look at me as I handed it over, concentrating on Gen. When Gen’s eyes finally focused, he reached toward my mother’s face.
“Mommy, you’re bleeding.”
“It’s okay. Just a nosebleed.” She smiled, her eyes bright with more relief than pain, but it still made Gen cry.
He buried his face against her shoulder, exhaustion and fear coming out in a rush. She held him, rubbing his back and reminding him to breathe. My dad stayed nearby, watching them. There was nothing else I could do, and everyone seemed to have forgotten about me.
I crept back to my room and opened Ghost Hunt!, thinking of the green wavy lines scrolling across Gen’s screen. I hadn’t seen him download the EVP app, or take a picture of a ghost. As far as I knew, he hadn’t caught any at all. I pulled up the ghost girl again. Nothing had changed. Some part of me expected to see Gen’s picture instead, his mouth open like a circle of darkness, bruised eyes staring at me from the screen.
The next morning, I looked up the swimming pool before I went down to breakfast. Adam hadn’t lied, but he’d exaggerated. Hundreds of kids hadn’t drowned, just one. Her name was Jenny Holbrook, and she lived right behind the pool so she could get there by cutting through her backyard. I read through the stories about her, piecing together a narrative. Gruesome as it was, I had a vague idea in my head that the next time we all gathered in the clubhouse, that would be the ghost story I would tell.
Jenny used to sleepwalk when she was little. She hadn’t done it in years, but one night when she was almost twelve, she got up, put on her swimsuit, and went outside. She cut through the yard and somehow got inside the fence around the pool even though the gate should have been locked. A lifeguard found her floating in the deep end the next day. Jenny had climbed the high dive board, jumped, and hit her head on the way down. She might not have even woken up before she drowned.
Another story published a few months after Jenny died said how she’d been planning to try out for the diving team. She’d been practicing for days. In the follow up report, the coroner revealed Ambien had been found in her system during the autopsy. Jenny must have been so nervous that she wouldn’t sleep before the tryouts, she’d taken a pill.
The scent of my dad making banana pancakes wafted up from the kitchen, Gen’s favorite, but it made me feel sick. I abandoned the idea of telling the story in the clubhouse, imagining the hungry expression on Holly’s face if I did. Jenny Holbrook had been a real girl, and she’d died in Dieu-le-Sauveur. Why would the makers of the Ghost Hunt!, who had probably never even heard of our town, have put her in the game?
“I have a story,” Adam said.
He slid a glance sideways at Holly. She put her phone down, and Adam struggled with a smile. I wondered if he’d been reading up on ghosts and the history of Dieu-le-Sauveur.
“In the 1960s, there was a girl in Dieu-le-Sauveur named Candace Warren. She disappeared and no one knows what really happened to her. Candace lived in the House at the End of the Street.”
Adam grinned, waiting for the startled look of recognition. Of course we all knew the House at the End of the Street. There’s a cul-de-sac at the end of our street, and a set of wooden steps leading up to street running parallel. At the end of that street is the House. There’s an empty lot beside it, and a park with a big willow tree, but nothing else around.
“There used to be another house there a long time ago, and that’s the house where Martin St. Jean lived.” Adam’s grin widened, and Holly smacked his arm.
“Shut up. That isn’t true.”
Holly crossed her arms; she was supposed to be the expert on ghosts. Despite her frown, it was clear she was still interested. After a moment, she relented.
“Okay, keep going.”
Adam took a breath and continued. “Candace spent most of her time with her babysitter, Abby. Her parents fought a lot and sometimes Candace would have bruises on her arms. She never talked about it with Abby, but Abby knew what the bruises meant. Because of that, Abby and Candace spent a lot of time away from the house, and one of their favorite places was the park across the street. They would have picnics under the willow tree, and Abby would tell stories.”
It had taken him a few moments to recover from Holly’s interruption, but he’d fallen back into a rhythm. In fact, it was the same rhythm she used, like he’d been studying the way she told her stories. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Gen looked uncomfortable, like he was trying hard not to squirm. I’d taken him away from the parking lot, and after his night terror, I thought for sure he’d want to stay home, but he’d crossed through the hedge right after me. I’d briefly considered turning back, but a nagging voice in the back of my head spoke up—why should I have to give up my summer and my friends just because he was scared and too stubborn to stay home?
Gen met my eyes, and I looked away, concentrating on Adam’s story.
“One day while they were having one of their picnics, Abby showed Candace a secret. There was a certain spot under the willow where if you squinted just right, it looked like winter on the other side of the branches even in the middle of summer.
“Candace asked how it worked, but Abby said she couldn’t tell her. The magic wouldn’t work if it was explained. Instead, she told Candace to close her eyes until her lashes and the willow branches made a crosshatch pattern. When everything was hazy and glittery, Abby took off her shoe and threw it. They saw it pass through the branches, but they never heard it hit the ground. They made a full circle around the tree, but Abby’s shoe was gone. When Candace asked where it went, Abby would only say one word: winter.
“That night, Candace disappeared.”
“That’s not a ghost story.” Annoyance edged Holly’s tone. This time, Luke was the one to answer her.
“Shut up. He’s not done yet.”
Holly opened her mouth, but Luke and I both shot her a look, and she closed it.
“This is the part with the ghost,” Adam said. He glanced at Holly as if for approval. She didn’t say anything, and he went on.
“A couple years after Candace disappeared, another family moved into the House at the End of the Street. Everyone had forgotten about Candace by then, and even Abby had moved away. The new family didn’t have any kids, but people would sometimes see a little girl standing at the upstairs window. Then one day, a whole pile of drawings appeared around the oak tree in the House’s yard.
“They were a kid’s drawings, in bright crayon, hundreds of them. They showed a stick figure family—a mother, father, and little girl. The parents always had red smiles, but the girl’s face was blank, with no mouth or eyes at all. There were also pictures of a tree that looked like it had been drawn over something else, and a house with its windows scribbled out.
“No one could figure out where the drawings came from. They thought it was a prank until they noticed something weird. Every picture had a figure in black ink somewhere on the page. Sometimes it was so small you could barely see, and sometimes it would fill the entire page, like it hadn’t been there before and suddenly spread. It was a tall, thin man, so thin he looked like he was starving. He had no eyes or nose, but he always had a mouth, full of sharp teeth, and it was always open.”
Adam sat back; he wore a satisfied look, but he looked at Holly while trying to pretend not to.
“Was it the Starving Man?” Heather asked. “In the pictures?”
“Yup.” Adam nodded.
“How do you know it’s true?” Holly asked.
“How do you know your stories are true?” Luke countered.
A low-level argument broke out. I ignored it, turning toward Gen. I felt guilty for looking away before, pretending I couldn’t see he was upset. I caught my breath. Tears rolled down Gen’s cheeks, his shoulders hitching. I grabbed his pack, which he had taken off, and dug out his inhaler, but he shook his head.
“Come on, let’s go,” I whispered.
Luke and Holly were still arguing. Gen took my hand and squeezed it so hard I felt my bones shift, but I didn’t pull away. I let him hold onto it as we crossed through the hedge and back home.
Gen forgave me. When I asked, he said he’d never been mad, but he also didn’t want to talk about it. I tried to make it up to him by staying away from Ghost Hunt!, and from Adam and Luke’s house for a whole week. Everything went back to normal for a bit, and Gen didn’t have any more night terrors. I started playing Ghost Hunt! again on my own without mentioning it. If Gen knew, he didn’t say anything.
Three weeks after Adam told the story about Candace Warren, Gen and I were on the swings in the park near the school. I’d just finished baseball practice, and we were waiting for our parents to pick us up to go to our grandparents’ for the weekend.
“Push me?” Gen asked.
I dragged my feet to stop my own swing.
“Think I could push you all the way around?” I asked as I pulled his swing back.
“Don’t!” He squealed as I let go, kicking his feet, but laughing. It was an old game between us. I pushed as hard as I could.
I pushed again and as the swing came back toward me, Gen’s phone pinged. It was the Auto Detect sound Ghost Hunt! made. Gen yelped, jumping. The swing’s chains jangled as he hit the sand.
“Hey! You okay?” I caught the swing before it cuffed him.
His phone had fallen when he did. Green lines scrolled across the screen. I froze. The sound coming from Gen’s phone was cold wind and the rattle of chains.
Gen whimpered. I inspected his hands. No scrapes. I brushed dirt off his palms.
The sound from Gen’s phone changed. The chains rattled more violently, and underneath came a noise like someone struggling to breathe.
I reached for the phone, and Gen yelled, “Don’t!”
I rocked back, startled. I pulled out my own phone. Gen shook his head.
I ignored him, and opened Ghost Hunt!, panning across the park. In the empty swing at the far end of the set, a girl sat with her hands wrapped around the chains. Her lips moved, breath trickling out in a cloud despite the summer day.
Gen turned to look over his shoulder, leaving his phone where it lay. He scrambled back, almost knocking me over.
I reached for him, and he twisted away. Grabbing his phone, I ran after him. At that moment, our parents pulled around the corner. If they saw him running, I would be the one to get in trouble. Gen slowed at the park’s edge, and I caught up. His breath rasped, but he wasn’t having an attack.
“What happened?” I touched his shoulder, but he shrugged me off, climbing into the car. He tucked his fingers in his armpits; goosebumps rose on his skin. I held his phone out and he shoved it into his pack without looking at it.
“Everything okay?” Mom glanced in the rearview mirror, looking between us.
Gen’s face was pale, but blotchy with high points of color. He pressed his lips together. I shrugged. Her gaze lingered, doubtful, but she pulled away from the curb.
That night, I lay awake for a long time, watching the unfamiliar shadows slide across the ceiling of my grandparents’ spare bedroom. I woke to Gen peering over the side of my bunk bed with no memory of falling asleep. I always slept on top, because Gen was afraid of falling off.
“What’s wrong?” I sat up.
Gen didn’t answer. I made room for him, and he scrambled up. A nightlight by the door gave off a bluish glow, and orange-tinted streetlights seeped through the window. Gen had been crying. He shoved his phone into my hands, the case damp like he’d been clutching it in sweaty palms. Ghost Hunt! was open to the scrapbook page.
It took me a moment to recognize the girl from the park. On Gen’s phone, the swing she’d been sitting on hung from one chain, empty. The other chain had been cut, a length of it wrapped around the girl’s throat so she dangled from the crossbar, her bare feet high above the ground.
“She can’t breathe.” Gen touched his throat.
I dropped the phone, then picked it up again, stabbing the button to close the app. It didn’t feel like enough. I turned the phone all the way off, and shoved it under the pillow. Then I pulled Gen closer. He shivered against me. I imagined the sound of cold wind and chains, the sound of someone struggling to breathe.
“We should go to the House at the End of the Street for real and hunt ghosts there,” Holly said.
Gen drew his knees up against his chest. After what he’d shown me at our grandparents’ house, I’d thought for sure he would stay home when I mentioned going over to the clubhouse. I don’t know why I’d suggested it, why I was still playing Ghost Hunt! when I’d promised him we’d quit.
I hadn’t even been playing that much since catching the first ghost in the parking lot, but no one else had quit yet, and I didn’t want to be the first. If it wasn’t for Holly, I’m sure Adam would have quit long ago. Same thing with Heather. But there was no way Holly was giving up.
As for Gen, I don’t know if he was being stubborn, or in some weird way he was trying to shame me into keeping my promise. Surely, if he got scared enough, I would quit, right? Until then, he wouldn’t stop, no matter how miserable he was, which left us in a weird standoff. Every time I didn’t shut the app down, or suggest doing something else, it made me angry at myself, which inevitably turned into being angry at Gen. Why couldn’t I have this one thing? Why’d he have to be such a baby about it? When I wasn’t looking at the pictures on his phone, or hearing the sounds, I could forget how terrible they were. I could convince myself it really was just a game.
“We should go tonight,” Adam said.
“Mom and Dad would never let us.” Heather spoke without looking at her sister, but Holly still turned to glare at her.
“So we don’t tell them.”
“I know how we could do it,” Gen said. As small as the clubhouse was, his voice was almost lost. I stared at him, but he ignored me, looking at Holly and Adam instead.
“All our houses are on the same security system. If we trick them into doing a maintenance cycle, we can sneak out and our parents won’t know we’re gone. I saw how to do it on the internet.”
It was simple once I thought about it, but I hadn’t thought about it, and Gen had. How long had he been planning this? Gen finally looked at me. Some trick of the light made his eyes as dark as the ghosts in my scrapbook, a stranger staring back at me.
Maybe Gen’s asthma made him vulnerable, or maybe it was his night terrors. Maybe being afraid is what let the ghosts in. Martin St. Jean’s wife was afraid. Jenny Holbrook was afraid. Candace Warren was afraid, too.
Or, what if Candace Warren’s parents did more than just leave bruises one day? What if Jenny’s parents gave her the Ambien because they just couldn’t take her nerves and wanted her to shut up? What if there’s a reason we tell so many stories about ghosts?
What if we need an excuse.
Or maybe, Dieu-le-Sauveur really is haunted. Maybe a bad thing happened here long ago, and it keeps happening, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. It’s a comforting thought in its own way.
Every town has their version of the Starving Man; The Bell Hook Witch; the Weeping Woman; Drip, Drip, Drag. Ghosts have always known how to get inside people’s mouths, using them to tell themselves over and over. Before everyone had smartphones and creepypasta, and Normal Paranormal, they had nursery rhymes, and clapping games, and campfire tales.
There have always been ghosts.
And even if there weren’t ghosts, kids would still disappear all the time.
It’s not my fault. Just because I wanted Gen to quit the game. Just because he got more attention than me because he was sick and small and afraid.
There’s a reason we want to believe in ghosts. We need them.
Luke, Adam, Holly, Heather, Gen, and I gathered in the middle of our street and walked together to the cul-de-sac. At the top of the stairs, we turned right. Shadows jittered through a stand of trees, and Heather’s phone pinged. She jumped, but stopped and snapped a picture. I didn’t look at her screen. I didn’t want to see. Holly whispered something in her sister’s ear, and jabbed her with her elbow.
We kept walking, stopping at the edge of House at the End of the Street’s lawn. The streetlights threw harsh patches of darkness across the empty lot next door. I imagined the Starving Man folded away in one of those patches, waiting.
The House looked perfectly normal, even in the dark. It was two stories, painted a pale yellow like cold butter, the door and windows edged in white trim. The yard bore a scar where the oak tree had been pulled up, roots and all. The worst thing about the House was that it felt empty—hollow all the way through—the kind of loneliness that goes with a place where no one has lived for years.
“Well?” Holly nudged Adam. “You’re the leader.”
Adam didn’t move. I could just make out the willow in the park across the street, its branches swaying even though there was no wind. A glimmer of light showed through the leaves, sparkling and hard-edged, then it was gone.
“Gen, let’s go.” I caught my brother’s sleeve.
Gen glared at me, but didn’t move. It was my fault he was here, and he wanted me to know. I wanted to tackle him to the ground like my mother had when he was gripped with a night terror. I wanted him to bloody my nose. It would be easier than admitting I was wrong, saying I was sorry. Gen spun on his heel, brushed past Adam and Holly, and kept walking right up to the House’s front door.
It shouldn’t have opened, but it did. I can’t remember whether he looked back before he stepped over the threshold, daring me to follow, giving me one last chance to keep my promise.
From where I stood, it looked like he fell into a solid wall of darkness, visible one moment, then gone. I hesitated; it was only a split second, I’m sure. My chest tightened; my heart kicked against my ribs. I hated Gen for everything he had and hadn’t done, then I loved him again, and I sprinted up the porch steps.
I caught myself on the doorframe. Musty and still air greeted me. My upper body leaned inside, while my feet stayed planted outside the door.
A staircase stretched up to my left; a hallway receded to the right. Doorways opened in either direction, revealing furniture-less rooms. Blank walls, nowhere for Gen to hide.
I must have shouted his name, because it echoed back to me. I caught a flash of movement, a small face peering over the railing at the top of the stairs, but it wasn’t Gen.
I took the stairs two at a time, wheezing the way Gen did in the middle of an asthma attack. In room after room, my feet kicked up dust. My footsteps overlapped until it seemed like a whole herd of ghosts running with me. I searched, going through more rooms than the house should have, but Gen wasn’t in any of them.
Finally, I pulled out my phone. Fumbling, I got Ghost Hunt! open. Nothing. Nothing except green lines briefly skittering across my screen, accompanied by a sound like snow ticking against windows, building up and sealing away the inside like a tomb.
I shouted Gen’s name over and over, but no one answered me. In the end, I folded myself onto the top step. I wrapped my arms around my legs, my knees pressed against my chest, and struggled to breathe.
Before we moved away from Dieu-le-Sauveur, before my parents got divorced, one more thing happened. On a rainy day, I crossed through the hedge and knocked on the clubhouse door. Moisture spotted my shirt and dampened my hair. I heard shuffling inside, hesitation, then Luke opened the door. An uncomfortable glance passed around the room like they’d just been talking about me. I didn’t blame them.
Luke sat back down, and I sat beside him. Holly put away her phone, her expression guilty. I suspected they’d been comparing ghosts like nothing happened.
No one said anything. It was clear they wished I hadn’t come; everything would be so much easier if I’d just disappeared along with Gen. I didn’t disagree. The truth was, I didn’t know why I was there either. Except it was better than listening to my parents shout or staring at the walls while my eyes stung.
In that awkward silence, while everyone searched for something to say, my phone pinged.
I hadn’t opened Ghost Hunt! since Gen disappeared, but the sound was unmistakable—Auto Detect kicking in. It was so quiet I could hear everyone breathing. Then Holly spoke, her voice barely more than a whisper and rough around the edges.
“Aren’t you going to look?”
Her eyes were bright, but for once it wasn’t with eagerness. She looked like she regretted her words, but couldn’t stop herself.
I picked up my phone. Green wavy lines scrolled across the screen. At first, all we could hear was wind blowing and an old house creaking. Then the sound of breathing. Louder than any of us, and getting more strained. Someone struggling, someone running out of air. I thought of Gen touching his throat. I wanted to scramble in his pack for an inhaler that wasn’t there.
Before I threw my phone against the clubhouse wall. Before it shattered and tears gathered in my eyes and my own breath hitched in response to the terrible noises coming out of my phone, one more thing happened. We heard a voice.
It was a bare whisper, but I would recognize it anywhere—Gen saying my name.
A.C. Wise‘s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Shimmer, Tor.com, and The Best Horror of the Year Volume 10, among other places. The podcast version of her story Final Girl Theory, which appeared at Pseudopod, was a finalist for the 2013 Parsec Awards. Additionally, her work has won the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, as well as twice more being a finalist for the award, and has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a novella published by Broken Eye Books. Along with her fiction, she contributes the Women to Read, and Non-Binary Authors to Read columns to The Book Smugglers.