“There’s…something, in here, yes.” I closed my eyes, made a moue of obvious concentration, reached out with both hands as if to - “No, no, this won’t do at all.”

“What won’t?” He’d been following me around the whole time through the house, getting more excited and more nervous all the while. He’d been almost amusing at first, but by this point it was really getting beyond a joke.

“I’m going to need a few minutes alone in here, Mr. Deerling. There is a spirit reaching out, you were right about that, but…something’s preventing me making contact. At a time like this, it often helps to have a calmer environment. Easier to reach back, you know. Eliminate confounding variables.”

He looked around doubtfully, but it wasn’t as if there were anything in the room in the first place; they’d left it empty because of what he was sure was a haunting, and what Mrs. Deerling was sure was a bad heating vent. She’d been barely polite. “All right, I suppose. Do you need anything?”

“No, just quiet.” I shooed him toward the door. “I’ll come down in a bit, okay? Now, off you go…” I heard him all the way down the stairs by the creaking of the old risers. Then I blew out the candle, leaned against the wall by the door, and closed my eyes. All right, then. What’s got you bothering these people?

I don’t like them! Youngish, girlish. Hard to tell for sure.

Would you like to talk about why?

Why should I? Angry and petulant, too.

Who else have you met lately who wanted to listen?

Nothing for a moment. Think that one over. Then: They’re mean. I just wanted to be friends, but they heard me and Susan playing, and now they think there’s something wrong with her. She’s scared to play with me!

I thought back over the research I’d done before coming here. Married fifteen years, one kid, hadn’t met him. No pets, two incomes - both tech, Silicon Valley kind of stuff. They’d moved in three years prior, but from what Mr. Deerling had said it was only in the last year or so they’d started having trouble. Nothing I could recall about anyone by the name of - Susan? Who’s that? Does she live here with you?

Susan lives here with them! Don’t you know anything?

I’m starting to think that I don’t. Or, more precisely, that I hadn’t been told, and a very unlovely suspicion was beginning to form. Will you tell me a little more about Susan?

No! Susan’s really shy! I promised her I wouldn’t tell!

Well, then, it would be wrong of me to ask. I hadn’t entirely been lying when I told Mr. Deerling that calm and quiet helped; even with practice, it’s often not easy to relax into a house that’s strange to me. This house didn’t really mind, and before long I had found what I’d expected I would and hoped I wouldn’t.

Susan’s parents call her something else, don’t they?

They’re mean! And stupid! They think her name is Anthony! She cries a lot and now she’s scared to even talk to me!

Yes, I see. Susan is your friend, isn’t she?


Do you want to help Susan?


Okay, then. I stood up, leaned forward, reached for a tinge of mischief and conspiracy. Listen up, kiddo. What you do is, you wait until they fall asleep, and then…

Of course they ignored the invoice, but it was too late to claw back the deposit by the time they thought of trying, so as far as I’m concerned I still got paid - not that I would’ve minded working a case like that for free. All it really came to was a few weeks of sporadic voicemails, starting out angry, passing through frantic, ending up plaintive. Probably a couple Nextdoor posts, too, but who cares about that?

I haven’t heard from Mrs. Deerling in a couple of weeks, but I’m sure she and her husband will be just fine, even if she does probably still think I hypnotized both of them somehow. By now they’ll have realized sleeping pills only help with regular nightmares, and maybe even started figuring out what does work on these. Sure, it’ll be hard on them for a while yet, but - look, they’re not trying to be cruel, okay? Neither am I. Their season of terror will last only so long as they succeed in failing to learn from it.

You’d think it would be hard to make a living this way, wouldn’t you? But it’s a great line of work, really. Set your own hours, name your own rates, meet new people every day, maybe even do some good now and again. What’s not to like?

(803 words)

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