Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
There are three things one needs to know about ghosts:
1. Ghosts have bad teeth. One more rotten tooth for every stolen year on this Earth.
Eva looks up at the round window of the attic of the house she just bought. There stands the small woman, still as death, face pallid. Her cheeks are caved in under sharp bones. She seems as old as the decayed house.
The baby in Eva’s arms bursts into tears. She lulls him softly while she rummages in the bag for the pacifier. A gnashing sound erupts from the chimney and the whole house twists as if coming alive. The pacifier slips and tumbles to the ground. “Shit!” she blurts out. Then bites her lip. “Pavlo, can you give me a hand?”
The boy in the red cap comes running. He flashes a gap-toothed smile at the baby and picks the pacifier up from the grass. The baby stops screaming, his eyes fixed on his big brother’s face.
Eva looks up again, only to see the ghost smiling with her sparse, rotten teeth.
2. Ghosts always follow their families.
The exorcist comes out of the house looking beaten, the collar of his shirt undone.
“She won’t leave,” he says, sweat dripping down his chin. “I burned the haunted chair, but her grief has seeped into the walls. We would have to remove the floorboards and change the tapestry and….”
But that’s not why she won’t leave, Eva knows. The ghost could move on if she wanted to. Vanish into thin air in an instant. But she let her essence permeate the house itself to have an anchor to this world for as long as she wishes. She is still waiting for the family who left her behind fifty years ago. Eva wonders if the ghost knows how much time has passed, that probably most of her family is dead or ghosts themselves. Wonders if she would recognize them at all anymore.
The exorcist pauses and smiles at the boy. Pavlos doesn’t smile back. He gets behind Eva at first and then sprints to the big oak tree. She lets him.
“But you can still move in today,” the man says at last. “You know the attic door frame is fortified with salt. Her family did that so she can’t walk around the house. She just makes a lot of noise.”
What the exorcist doesn’t notice is the swing seat at the side of the garden, rocking lightly. Like the chair he just burned to ashes.
“Got to go. I’ve got two more houses today.”
He offers his hand and Eva takes it absent-mindedly, her gaze fixed on the swing seat.
“But not the window,” she whispers.
“Excuse me, what?”
“Is the attic window fortified too?” Eva asks.
He glances at his watch, impatient.
“Um…. Yeah, sure. Got to run now.”
3. Strangers’ ghosts don’t make good roommates.
Eva lets him go. Her attention shifts to the robed figure sitting on the swing. She takes slow steps towards the side of the garden.
Her son has already climbed on the low branch of the oak tree by the fence. He smiles and waves at her as she passes him by.
“Can I… join you?” she asks the ghost.
The woman shrugs.
Eva sits next to her, cautious. Ghosts that aren’t family can be hostile to strangers, even other ghosts, abandoned or not.
“Where are they?” the old woman whispers. She seems baffled more than anything else. Something tugs at Eva’s heart as she settles in her seat.
“I don’t know,” Eva says, blushing.
The ghost stares at her veiny hands wavering in and out of existence. She looks forlorn. The baby squeals with delight and goes for the flowery robe. His little hands pass right through the ethereal body.
The ghost looks at Pavlos with hollow eyes.
“All I wanted was to see the children. Their room was right under the attic.”
The baby chuckles and the woman’s expression softens.
“I could get out, you know. But I didn’t want to intrude. I only stole glances of them from the window. Then one day they vanished.” She gestures at the sky, frustrated.
Eva breathes out the tightening in her chest. She tries to remember the name the man told her.
“Alexandra. Is that your name?”
The woman nods and strokes the baby’s cheek. Her hands are solid now. Eva flinches but the baby laughs and gurgles.
“Alexandra, I want you to meet someone,” Eva says and waves across the yard at the boy, who’s studying a squirrel.
The boy disappears only to materialize next to them a moment later.
“This is Pavlos,” says Eva. She squeezes his hand into hers. “He is our family ghost.”
Her tongue is in a knot. She doesn’t like to explain things to strangers but the woman doesn’t ask questions. She just smiles a rotten smile at the boy and pats his head over the red cap.
“You’re a good boy,” she says. “A good boy.”
And just like that she vanishes.
Eva looks at her son. At his calm face, at his strange crooked teeth.
“What do you think?” she asks.
The boy shrugs and looks at her with bright eyes.
“Do you think she might know any good bedtime stories?” he asks.