Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Part 9

Fish and Ghosts #1 by Rhys Ford
When his Uncle Mortimer died and left him Hoxne Grange, the family’s Gilded Age estate, Tristan Pryce knew he wasn’t going to have an easy time of it. He was to be the second generation of Pryces to serve as a caretaker for the estate, a way station for spirits on their final steps to the afterlife. The ghosts were the simple part. He’d been seeing boo-wigglies since he was a child. No, the difficult part was his own family. Determined to establish Tristan’s insanity, his loving relatives hire Dr. Wolf Kincaid and his paranormal researchers, Hellsinger Investigations, to prove the Grange is not haunted.

Skeptic Wolf Kincaid has made it his life’s work to debunk the supernatural. After years of cons and fakes, he can’t wait to reveal the Grange’s ghostly activity is just badly leveled floorboards and a drafty old house. The Grange has more than a few surprises for him, including its prickly, reclusive owner. Tristan Pryce is much less insane and much more attractive than Wolf wants to admit and when his Hellsinger team unwittingly release a ghostly serial killer on the Grange, Wolf is torn between his skepticism and protecting the man he’d been sent to discredit.

When I was searching for paranormal reads for October I asked around and Hellsinger by Rhys Ford was recommended more than once so I decided to check it out.  The connection between Tristan and Wolf jumps off the page and you can just feel it in every fiber of your being.  The secondary characters may be secondary by definition of their page time but not by their contributions to the story.  Don't even get me started on the creepiness of Winifred the ghost, shudders just thinking about it.


Duck Duck Ghost #2 by Rhys Ford
Paranormal investigator Wolf Kincaid knows what his foot tastes like.

Mostly because he stuck it firmly in his mouth when his lover, Tristan Pryce, accidentally drugged him with a batch of psychotropic baklava. Needing to patch things up between them, Wolf drags Tristan to San Luis Obispo, hoping Tristan’s medium ability can help evict a troublesome spirit haunting an old farmhouse.

With Wolf’s sister handling Hoxne Grange’s spectral visitors, Tristan finds himself in the unique position of being able to leave home for the first time in forever, but Wolf’s roughshod treatment is the least of his worries. Tristan’s ad-hoc portal for passing spirits seems to be getting fewer and fewer guests, and despite his concern he’s broken his home, Tristan agrees to help Wolf’s cousin, Sey, kick her poltergeist to the proverbial curb.

San Luis Obispo brings its own bushel of troubles. Tristan’s ghost whispering skill is challenged not only by a terrorizing haunting but also by Wolf’s skeptical older cousin, Cin. Bookended by a pair of aggressive Kincaids, Tristan soon finds himself in a spectral battle that threatens not only his sanity but also his relationship with Wolf, the first man he’s ever loved.

Just as in Fish and Ghosts, the characters are so enjoyable and feed the rainbow of emotions.  So often when reading a series the follow-ups, no matter how good never quite match up to the first book but I found Duck Duck Ghost to be even better.  There's heat, comedy, drama, mystery, and what would a good ghost story be without the ghosts.  I am just going to say that I will never look at dolls the same way and if I ever found myself in the room of a doll maker with shelves of doll parts I would run and run far and fast.  When I found myself at the final page I found myself wishing I had almost not started the series yet because the idea of waiting for book 3 is torture but once it is released it will be going on my Kindle immediately.


Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau & Violetta Vane
Ori and Kalani were childhood friends too afraid to be lovers. Now in their darkest hour—Ori disgraced and Kalani a wandering spirit—they’ll fight the world and death itself for a second chance.

Gregorio "Ori" Reyes thought there was nothing left for him in Hawaii. A former Army Ranger and promising MMA fighter, his dishonorable discharge turned him into the family disgrace, and his childhood best friend Kalani never could love him back--not the way Ori needed to be loved--even before Kalani's doctors declared him to be in an unrecoverable coma. Ori's return to Hawaii seems fated to be a depressing reminder of every chance he never took... until Kalani himself impossibly welcomes him home.

Kalani's body is bedridden, but his spirit is free to roam, and it turns out it's not just Ori who had unspoken yearnings. Kalani is eager to prove that he can still savor all the pleasures of this world. Together, they remember all those years of surfing, wrestling, touching and aching but too afraid to act; now, they cross that final barrier and struggle against each other in an entirely different way.

Passionately but tenuously reunited, the pair must solve the mystery of Kalani's unlucky life, sorting through dark family history and even journeying to the Hawaiian ghostworld. And the greatest terror of their journey is that Ori might have to put Kalani to rest.

Publisher's Note: This book contains explicit sexual situations, graphic language and male/male sex. Includes a flashback of m/m/f menage.

Bitten by Mistake by Annabelle Jacobs
From animosity to searing passion in a lunar cycle… but can their bond survive? 

Wolf shifter Nathan Kohl’s pack is his whole life. Arrogant and handsome, he avoids commitment to anything or anyone outside of his pack. He works hard, plays hard, and pursues humans as lovers because there’s little to no chance of him forming a permanent bond. However, when Jared Taylor comes into Nathan’s life, every rule is broken.

After a bad experience, Jared vowed to never get involved with another shifter, no matter how much they got under his skin. Despite being physically attracted to Nathan, who’s all kinds of hot, Jared only sees an arrogant, domineering bastard.

A disastrous case of mistaken identity throws Nathan and Jared together until the next full moon. Forced to spend the next twenty-eight days in close proximity, they can no longer ignore the powerful attraction between them. Passion ignites, and their relationship takes a turn neither of them wanted.

But when the full moon comes, everything might change again.

The Paranaturalist by Ki Brightly
As a kid, Joseph Appleyard saw things hidden from others. Now he is The Paranaturalist, an investigator and cohost of a television show that seeks to prove the existence of the paranormal. Some think Joe is crazy, but they don’t realize he knows firsthand there’s more to the world than what most perceive. The trouble is, somewhere along the way, Joe lost his vision and it left his world flat and dull. One night an investigation goes horribly wrong, and a powerful ghostly manifestation sends Joe tumbling into a river. Spirit worker Owen Watson saves Joe’s life, and once they are back on dry land, whatever has been blocking Joe’s vision has been washed away.

When a haunting goes from annoying to dangerous, people turn to Owen Watson. He hates those infuriating hacks from TV, but when he pulls Joe from the river, his mind begins to change. Joe is scared and confused, and, Owen realizes, he might just be the real thing. Together, they work to understand the part of Joe that has been shut away for so long. But just as Joe is acclimating to his abilities, his career as a paranormal investigator is in danger of being ripped away. Owen would gladly battle a bloodthirsty spirit for Joe, but he’s out of his element in the world of reality television.

Random Paranormal Tales 2016 Parts

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7  /  Part 8

Fish and Ghosts #1 by Rhys Ford
“SMELL THAT?” Wolf Kincaid paused at a narrow doorway, his broad shoulders wedged up against the creaking wooden frame. “Effervescent in nature, a whiff of dirt.”

He was speaking of the wispy mist blanketing the battered floor, its swirls created by the uneven knotty planks as much as by the two men walking down the hall. Around Wolf, the plantation house creaked with noise and echoes, tidbits of sound reaching back to tantalize the men sent to document its haunted history.

Built during the early days of Louisiana’s settlement, Willow Hills Plantation was once a hub of Southern activity, providing the surrounding area with food and, during bleaker times, an avenue for escaped slaves to begin a new life in the North. Stripped down nearly to its frame by its aging tenants, Willow Hills had been resurrected from its near death as a bed-and-breakfast. Positioned as the last stop of an Underground Railroad tour, the plantation soon earned a reputation of being a great place to eat as well as a home to restless spirits.

It was the latter part of its reputation that Wolf Kincaid came to tear apart.

“Hey, Wolf, want me to get an air sample?” Matt peeked out from behind his shoulder-mount camera, its illuminated trim splashing up enough of a glow for them to see in the plantation’s dark halls. “Or is it an ambient leak from outside? Swamp gas?”

“Some kind of gas,” Wolf muttered. “Nah, I know what it is. Don’t bother.”

No, he wasn’t going to feel bad about taking out the Willow Hills ghosts.

And if he had a chance, he’d go back in time and kick the shit out of its builders too. At a little over six feet, he should have had more space to walk around in the upper floors’ hallways. Instead, he felt like Alice after she had too many frosted cakes. His elbows hurt from banging into the walls, and the household staff wouldn’t have to dust for cobwebs because Wolf was pretty sure he’d walked through all of the ones in the attic storerooms. If he’d thought ahead, he could have taken a feather duster, done the job right, and charged the Willows for a deep cleaning as well as a spectral investigation.

Another step into yet another tiny room in the warren of servants’ quarters and Wolf found himself face-to-face with an apparition.

As apparitions went, it was fairly strong. White pallor, groaning black mouth, and empty eye sockets, with trails of ebony bleeding out under the spirit’s surrounding mottled skin. Her features were difficult to see, but the jut of her breasts straining against the thin lawn shirt she wore left Wolf with no doubt that he was staring through a woman.

Then she opened her mouth and a horrendous shriek rattled his eardrums and set fire to Wolf’s nerves.

Somewhere behind him, Matt screamed, and from the thudding sounds that soon followed, Wolf guessed he’d toppled over, probably taking the camera with him. The woman flickered in and out, a blue-white veil of features and fabric. Without warning, she rushed them, advancing on Wolf with her hands stretched out in front of her like talons.

He ducked. It was instinct born of human nature, and he cursed himself for it nearly as soon as he curled his shoulders away from the ghost. An icy chill hit him, whooshing over his face and arms. Then another struck, a stronger blast of air, cold enough to peel goose bumps up from his skin. The screaming continued, a murderous shriek echoed at a lower volume by his cameraman.

Something wet struck his cheek, and Wolf turned, looking up at the angled ceiling, where clotting strands of something dark and viscous dripped slowly down on top of them. It smelled rank and of curdled metal. Dabbing at a moist spot on his cheek, Wolf tasted the thick fluid, recoiling at its sourness when it spread over his tongue.

“Blood,” he murmured, holding up his wet finger for Matt to see. “Are you recording this?”

“I’m fucking freezing my nuts off, and I think I swallowed my tongue.” The young man struggled to get to his feet, tugging his ill-fitting Hellsinger Investigations T-shirt down over his slightly rounded belly. “Did you fucking see that? Shit, tell me you got readings on that.”

“Oh, I got something on it,” Wolf replied with a grin. “Come on, Matty. See if you can keep up.”

He left the younger man behind, edging past him, then launching into a full run down the tight staircase leading to the kitchens. His elbows took a beating. Obviously, his body had picked through his genetic soup and decided it preferred the enormous bulk of his Scottish ancestors above everything else and poured out his muscles and bones with a maniacal, enthusiastic glee.

While height and brawn were good in a fight, it made for shitty going while trying to run down a spiral staircase meant for tiny seventeenth-century women.

Somewhere behind him, Matt clomped along. He’d hired the young man for his filming and technical skills, not for going through an obstacle course, but Wolf didn’t really care. Most of the time, Matt could keep up. This time, however, it wasn’t as important as Wolf getting down to where he thought the apparition originated.

Because he needed to put an end to the haunting.

It was what he was paid to do. It was what he loved to do. Capturing that moment on film wasn’t as important as just having that moment.

And Wolf Kincaid was famous for having those kinds of moments.

Booming thumps echoed in the rear of the house, percussive rounds loud enough to shatter the eerie silence that settled down after the ghost’s shrieking. The walls around Wolf shook, and he ducked out of the way as a framed sampler fell off its hanger as he rounded the stairwell’s landing.

Behind him, Matt followed, stomping and cursing at the tight fit. The young man would have a hard time of it. The camera was too big, too bulky to make the tight turns quickly if Matt insisted on keeping it fixed to his shoulder to film. Which was what he’d certainly do. It was what Wolf paid him to do, even as he was tumbling ass over teakettle down the stairs behind his boss.

The staircase let out into the servants’ kitchen, a dank-smelling, closed-in room that, despite the staff’s best efforts, seemed to cling to its grimy lower-class roots. Wolf slipped on a tile, his sneaker catching on a thick line of grout, the sandy mixture providing some traction against the overpolished ceramic floor.

Ahead, the noises grew louder, more ear-shearing rattles and booms. More shrieks followed, echoing first upstairs, then suddenly snapping to the bottom floor, louder and more profane than the ghostly banshee moans. Rounding the corner, Wolf found himself in a room directly beneath the staircase, a long, rectangular space the plantation used for storage.

A stein flew past Wolf’s head, nearly clocking him on the temple. The heavy ceramic shattered against a wall behind him, and he felt a shard cut his cheek, the brief sting deepening into something heavy and wet on his skin. Another stein followed, then a plate wide enough to host a good-sized turkey.

“Fuck!” Matt exploded into a round of curses. From the sounds coming from behind him, Wolf guessed a piece of flying crockery had found its target in the cameraman or his equipment. “Poltergeists now?”

Wolf fumbled to find a light switch. His fingers found a bank of sliders on the wall next to the door, and the storeroom burst into view, two banks of overhead fluorescents throwing everything into a stark contrast of bright and shadow. Fully drenched in light, two women in period costume froze in place, one caught in the middle of throwing a metal steaming tray while the other’s hands were tangled in audio-visual feed lines. The cables disappeared through a small hole in the ceiling tiles, and nearby, a tripod lay on its side on what looked like a camera case. Both women were bleached white from heavy layers of makeup, their eyes hollow and bleak from a coating of dense theatrical kohl.

Smug, Wolf gave both women a short, mocking bow, then sneered, “Hello, ladies.”

Chapter 1
“THEY WERE pretending to be ghosts so people would go stay there?” Nahryn placed a steaming mug of black coffee in front of Wolf and settled into an empty wing chair next to his. “Why would someone do that?”

A bubbly young Armenian woman and Hellsinger’s Girl Friday, Nahryn kept their office running at a finely tuned hum and, more importantly to Wolf, made certain he had a pot of Ka‘u coffee to bolster him by the time he made it into their San Francisco office.

Even if sometimes her coffee was strong enough to bleach Wolf’s dark-brown hair to white from its bitter shock.

“Because ghosts equal profit,” Gidget pronounced from behind her teacup, her mascara-thick eyelashes fluttering the steam rising from her Earl Grey. “It was a pretty stupid rig too. Projection onto dry ice mists with leads feeding into speakers on the third floor. They’re never going to get the pig’s blood out of those ceiling beams.”

Their technician and Matt’s lover went for a more Rosie the Riveter look that morning, a piss-yellow bandana holding back a spill of flame-red curls from her pale face and her overalls creaking as she shifted in her chair, the heavy denim still so new it stank of dye. Glass cherries dangled from her lobes, a row of four in each ear, and they chimed when she moved her head. While they matched the printed cherries on her button-up shirt, Wolf thought it looked like she’d lost a fight with a fruit salad.

He’d tell Gidget that as soon as he told Nahryn about her coffee. One wrong, pissy word and Gidget could have his sensors bleeping a spectral hit on every pile of dog shit he walked by.

While he might get the hots for a long-legged man in jeans, he could commiserate with a straight man about the minefields of living with a woman. He spent days on end with two of them and still had to tread carefully with the best of them. Also—Wolf grinned into his coffee—he always had Matt to throw in as a sacrificial lamb whenever he needed an out.

“But that’s lying,” Nahryn insisted.

“It’s what keeps us in business, Nah-nah,” Wolf pointed out. “And since Willow Hills invoked our confidentiality clause and paid their invoice in full, we can’t say anything about their two wayward docents. The powers that be didn’t know, and now that they do, they want to make sure no one else does.”

“So we can’t even tell people they’re lying?” Her big brown eyes were narrowing. “That’s wrong too. The world sucks.”

“People hire us to prove their ghosts are real or at least come up inconclusive.” Turning on his tablet, Wolf tapped through his appointments. “Willow Hills gambled and lost. They didn’t know they were playing loaded dice. It happens sometimes. A lot of people think they can pull one over an investigator—”

“But the equipment doesn’t lie,” Gidget crowed, resting her heels on the corner of the conference table.

“Nope. It usually doesn’t.” Wolf saluted her with his coffee mug. “Let’s see what we’ve got on the books for today.”

“You have an appointment with a Mrs. Walter Pryce the Third in half an hour. She called right as I was making coffee, so I didn’t get a chance to put it down on the books yet.” Nahryn scrolled through her own tablet, then stopped to wrangle her curly brown hair into a tie. “She wants to hire you to look into a haunting. She thinks it’s bullshit.”

“She actually say bullshit?” Wolf’s eyebrows lifted. “People with the Third in their names don’t usually trot out the word bullshit.”

“No, she said implausible, but I was having problems spelling that so I just wrote down bullshit.” Nahryn grinned at him. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“Nope, I don’t,” Wolf admitted. “Okay, I’m going to talk with Mrs. Pryce. Then, after that, I’ll take all of you to 39 for some lunch.”

“Crab?” Nahryn paused halfway out of her chair and did a little dance with her butt against the upholstery. “’Cause you know… crab.”

“For you, Nah-nah, we can get crab.” He tweaked his Girl Friday’s nose. “First Mrs. Pryce’s boo-wigglies and someone get Matt on the phone. About time he got to work.”

“MY NEPHEW is insane.”

Wolf spared the woman a brief glance as he shuffled through the papers she’d brought with her. Mrs. Walter Pryce III was an older woman, one Born-to-the-Park, pinkie-lifting Junior Leaguer. Patting her swing of artfully done blonde hair, she took a moment to pause at the doorway of his pier-front office, her critical gaze taking in the space’s blend of gentlemen’s club furnishings and broad, sweeping view of the water. He almost didn’t catch the curl in her lip or the slight flare of her nostril, but he did. The brittle smile that chased after the hint of disapproval slipped from her face. After tugging carefully at the hem of her cardigan, she then smoothed her black pencil skirt and held her head up as she let herself be led into Hellsinger’s conference room.

Now, settled into a leather wing chair and armed with a porcelain teacup filled with a lavender-lemon blend, Mrs. Pryce seemed much more in control, especially after she’d shocked Wolf with her pronouncement. She nodded curtly at Wolf’s glance, probably mistaking his curiosity for something else. Or maybe, Wolf thought, she didn’t really care what he thought just so long as he took the assignment and delivered on the job.

“Rather than me reading through now, why don’t you give me the highlights so I can decide if I’ll take the case?” Wolf matched Mrs. Pryce’s haughty sip of her tea with a sloppy slurp of his coffee.

“I didn’t realize I was here to be auditioned.” Another sip, and this time, the nostril flare remained too long on her face to be dismissed as a tic.

“I don’t take every case presented to us,” Wolf replied. “If I did, I’d never get any sleep. But please, tell me about your nephew… the insane one.”

“Are you mocking me, Mr. Kincaid?”

“Not at all, Ms. Pryce.” Wolf shook his head. A lot of people walked into Hellsinger either thinking they were crazy and hoping to find out they weren’t or dancing on the razor’s edge of needing a wraparound jacket and looking for someone to prove them sane. It was, however, the first time someone sat across of him and openly declared her prey nuts. “Please go on. I’m all ears.”

“Tristan has always been a delicate boy.” Her pinkie flexed slightly, hovering over the cup’s handle as if she was afraid to let it touch the porcelain. “It all started when Great Uncle Mortimer Pryce died—”

“Mortimer?” Wolf nearly snorted coffee through his nose. “Really?”

“It’s a family name,” she replied smoothly. “My third son is named after him.”

“God help him,” he muttered to himself. “Sorry, continue. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Tristan’s parents were quite normal. Did the best they could for him, but of course, he always seemed to wander away. Even if he was right in front of you, he would… rather… appear to not be paying attention. Great Uncle Mortimer was fond of the boy and would have Tristan visit him over the summers. I personally didn’t think his parents should have let him go to Hoxne Grange by himself. Mortimer was… a confirmed bachelor, if you know what I mean?” Her eyebrows somehow both lifted and scowled with disapproval, something Wolf had not thought possible before he’d met the woman.

He didn’t answer, merely blinking with a muted ignorance of what she was implying. “There wasn’t anyone for him to play with?”

“No, that is not what I meant,” Mrs. Pryce said firmly. “Tristan was a young boy and at an impressionable age. Great Uncle Mortimer should not have had access to him. He filled the boy’s mind with rubbish.”

“What kind of rubbish?”

“That Hoxne Grange is haunted and that he somehow was its caretaker… the ghosts’ caretaker.” She shuddered, either with the foolishness or the growing bitterness of the cooling tea. “Mortimer was one thing. I mean, he was an older gentleman. Very set in his ways and the Grange is… well, it’s a family legacy. The Pryce family had it built nearly a century and a half ago. It’s on a fantastic property in Mill Valley. Great Uncle Mortimer inherited it when his father died. When he passed, he left everything to Tristan. It’s been a touchy subject in the family since then.”

“So Tristan getting the property wasn’t expected?” Wolf began taking notes, diagramming out the Pryce family tree.

“No, my husband is the next eldest son in the Pryce family. Tristan’s father was his youngest brother.” She set her cup down, the saucer rattling beneath it. “It should have gone to him, but instead, Tristan is Mortimer’s sole heir, and from what we can tell, he’s continued the man’s insane claims about the Grange being haunted.”

“How long has he been its owner?”

“Since he was nineteen. Really, it was too big a burden to hand over to a teenager. He’s almost twenty-eight.” Mrs. Pryce’s mouth flattened into a line, crinkling her pink lipstick. “Luckily, he kept most of the landscaping staff, and there is a daily housekeeping staff that comes in, so at least the estate isn’t being run to the ground.”

“So he’s maintained it?”

“Thankfully, Mortimer set up a trust fund to dispense monies to Tristan until his twenty-eighth birthday. It truly is a blessing. Tristan’s… an artist of sorts. A children’s book writer, I think. Certainly not enough of an income to keep the Grange up.” She lifted her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “On Tristan’s birthday, he’ll inherit the rest of the estate and have full control of its assets. The family is concerned that with Tristan’s… peculiarities… he’ll be taken advantage of. We’d like you to help us ensure this will not happen.”

“What about Tristan’s parents?” Wolf cocked his head, tapping the tip of his pencil on two empty boxes on his flow chart.

“Carol and Sandy… Alexander was his real name… they died in a small plane crash off of the coast of Italy about six months after Tristan inherited the estate.” A frown crinkled her smooth brow, and she played with a button on her sweater. “Sandy was against Tristan living there. He thought Mortimer was setting his son up to continue playing his little ghost game. Of course, Tristan denies this. He fully believes the Grange hosts his little friends. He’s turned the family home into an inn, Mr. Kincaid, and the majority of his guests are not real.”

Wolf didn’t have to guess at the Pryces’ motivations. Mortimer’s money and estate seemed to be their first priority, although he couldn’t rule out the woman’s concern for her nephew. A few taps on his tablet called up the Grange’s visual from an overhead map. Constructed during the Gilded Age, the sprawling estate was built into a nest of hills, and from what Wolf could make out, clearly designed by someone with a love for the Renaissance Revival form. A photo of Hoxne Grange called up a view of its front drive and landscaped grounds. The place was huge—sprawling seemed to be too weak of a word for the winged W set among the redwood trees—and embellished with formal gardens.

“What do you want me to do? I’m not in the business of declaring people mentally incompetent,” Wolf pointed out. “Even if I’ve got a sheepskin telling you I can.”

“The family would like you to stay at the Grange and investigate Tristan’s claims. Your agency is known to be fair. We’d just like you to show Tristan that his ghosts only exist in his mind. If you can do that, Mr. Kincaid, just show him that the Grange isn’t a way station for phantoms, we will pay you anything you ask for. He needs to be shown reality, Mr. Kincaid, and I think you’re just the man to do that.”

HIS UNCLE was going to wear a hole in the library floor; Tristan was sure of it. The last half hour was ticked off by the squeak of his Italian loafers when he turned, a five-second interval bleeding off Tristan’s morning. Checking the grandfather clock for what he thought might have been the hundredth time since Walter Pryce III came through his front door, Tristan waited for his uncle to wind up yet another argument meant to move him out of the Grange.

“Your aunt is speaking with the agency now—” Walter began another circuit, his meaty hands clasped around his back.

“Is she still counted as my aunt if she’s your third wife?” Tristan huffed a breath up at his forehead, hoping to move a chunk of blond hair away from his eyes. If he used his fingers, he knew he’d get trapped in playing with his hair, and anything Walter said to him would be lost in the contemplation of how the sunlight changed the colors as it bled through the shafts. “I mean, Aunt Judith counts because she was first, right? Sharon maybe because she had Mortie, but Ashley? Is she my aunt too?”

“Tristan, please concentrate on what I’m saying to you.” The man harrumphed, exhaling forcefully enough to make his lips flap. Tristan’s fingers itched for a sketchbook, wanting to scribble out his impressions of a disgruntled walrus waddling back and forth on an ice floe. “We’re hoping you’ll see reason.”

“Reason….” Tristan repeated softly. “By opening the Grange up to people who chase ghosts?”

“They are paranormal psychologists. Or at least the agency head is.” Walter turned again, squeaking off another tick of time. “I know it would be terrible to discover that perhaps you’ve been encouraged to… um… what is the word I’m looking for?”

“Hallucinate?” he supplied for his uncle. “Sucking on guano from the bats in my belfry? Rowing with one oar?”

“You’re not crazy!” His uncle frowned, caught in midstep, his large belly jiggling under his suit. “Look, boy, I’m fond of you. I want the best for you. Just let them come stay here for a bit and see what they can find. Is that too much to ask?”

Tristan stretched out his legs, rubbing at the cramp forming along his thigh. He’d not asked Mara to turn the heat on in the library that morning until Uncle Walter’s sedan pulled up in front of the Grange. It had been an unexpected visit, and they’d both sworn under their breath when the man’s driver let his short, soft-bellied uncle out of the car.

Well, he’d sworn. Mara merely muttered darkly and scurried off to turn the heat on before pulling together a coffee tray for his guest. He’d sworn enough for both of them. His elderly housekeeper, while a pleasant woman for the most part, liked to get her daily work done and out of the way so she could spend her afternoons watching the shows she’d recorded the night before. Since most of her day included making sure he kept himself fed, Tristan didn’t care how she spent her days so long as the Grange was always guest ready. With fifteen bedrooms to keep up and two young women from the nearby town coming in to help her dust and mop, Mara kept the Grange primed and lemony-fresh, and she resented his uncle’s sudden appearance on a tightly scheduled Tuesday morning.

Tristan wasn’t too fond of Walter’s arrival either. He had only ten more minutes before he had to be at the reception desk, and from the man’s squeaky pacing, it didn’t sound like Walter Pryce was going to leave until Tristan gave him some kind of concession.

“And if they find out I’m not crazy?” he offered up in exchange. “Suppose they hand you a report that I’m sane and the Grange is what Uncle Mortimer and I say it is? Will you leave me be then?”

The look of confusion on his uncle’s face told Tristan the man had not considered that possibility. A few lip flaps and another squeaka-squeaka pass later, Walter Pryce grumbled, “If he comes back and says that there’s something here, then yes, I’ll acknowledge that there might be something to your claims. But the agency has to verify that there is some sort of activity here. If not, then I’m going to insist you stop this nonsense and come home.”

“I am home, Uncle Walter,” Tristan said softly. “I’ve lived here at the Grange for most of my adult life and spent nearly all of my summers here. If this isn’t home, then where is that?”

“Then we’ll come to you.” The man’s hand on his shoulder was meant to be reassuring, but Tristan felt it held a greater weight than his uncle’s skin, bones, and flesh. “We’ll come here to you at the Grange. It is the family home, after all.”

He was able to hustle his uncle out with a few murmured assurances and then exhaled a sigh of relief when the door closed behind him. A few seconds later, the sedan’s quiet engine rumbled away and Tristan was left with the silence of the Grange around him.

The snick-snick of a dog’s nails on the foyer’s parquet floors echoed up into the high ceiling, and Tristan grinned at the shaggy gray head poking out from around the side of the sweeping mahogany counter Mortimer Pryce had built to be the Grange’s reception desk.

“Come on out, Boris.” He whistled to the Irish wolfhound. “He’s gone.”

“That dog knows evil when he smells it.” Mara appeared at Tristan’s elbow, moving as silently as one of the hall’s guests.

“He knows Uncle Walter doesn’t like him.” Bending over, Tristan scratched at the enormous dog’s floppy ears, sending Boris into a wiggling dance of ecstasy. “The man’s not evil, he’s just… closed-minded.”

“Well, ghosts or no, he’s a menace.” The woman’s harrumph was less pronounced than Walter’s, but it was still impressive. “Your ghosties are your business. This is your house. If you want to hold balls for faeries, it’s your right, and damn anyone else who says something against it.”

A dusting rag hung from her elbow crook, and a faint hint of the green-tea soap Tristan gave her for Christmas perfumed her soft white skin, its delicate scent fighting a losing battle against lemon polish and the arthritic salve Mara used for her aching knees. A softly curved woman, she came up to Tristan’s shoulder and often was in and out of a room, leaving behind only plates of sandwiches and cookies as evidence she’d been there. Something clung to the frosted candy floss of Mara’s silvery hair, and Tristan reached over to pluck it off.

It was a single diamond stud, and he handed it to her. “Did you find the other one?”

“No.” She shook her head, closing his fingers over the stone. “You keep that one. Maybe even change that silly hoop you have in your ear. You look like a little boy playing pirate.”

“Maybe.” He’d never told Mara the hoop belonged to his mother, a sliver of gold some faceless official handed him over her remains. She would scold him about being morbid, not understanding the hoop made him feel close to the woman who’d given birth to him but never really understood the changeling she’d been saddled with. “Or maybe even a second hole?”

“All you need is a parrot instead of that dumb Sasquatch you’ve brought into this house.” A deep belling roll began to sound off from the library, and Mara sniffed at the chilling air. “Well, that’s time, then. I’ll be off. You deal with… that. Don’t get to talking too much. I’ll be bringing you lunch at noon, and don’t forget, the gardeners will be here this afternoon, so get that beast to his walk before then.”

“Yes, Mara.”

He was talking to her back by the time the final chime from the library’s grandfather clock struck. Settling himself on the stool behind the old-fashioned reception desk, Tristan immediately regretted leaving his coffee behind. There was no telling how late his morning arrival would be, and he’d only had half a cup. He’d have to scare up another pot before he headed to his study on the third floor.

“If I’d really been thinking, I would have brought a sketchbook too,” he informed Boris. The dog lolled his long pink tongue at him and began a leisurely scratch at a spot near his jowls. “Really, Uncle Walter showing up just screwed the whole morning.”

He didn’t have to wait long. A few minutes after he’d sat down, the Grange’s front doors rattled and swung open. A brisk wind cut through the open portal, carrying in the scent of rain on its breath. As suddenly as it opened, the wide doors closed, whispering on their well-oiled hinges. From behind the desk, Boris whimpered, tucking himself into a huddle, and Tristan patted the dog’s broad head.

A wet footprint appeared on the wooden floor about two feet into the foyer, then another, a sopping trail of steps marking someone’s progress toward the reception area. Elongated shadows played beneath a large round table set in the middle of the circular area, and something brushed against a stray pink rose that drooped from the enormous flower display sitting in a mint-green urn on the table’s top.

She came into view a step or two after she passed the table, a bedraggled woman dressed in a neatly patched plain dress. Clutching her case in front of her in a white-knuckled grip, she nodded carefully at Tristan, then plastered a tentative smile on her pleasant face, clearing her throat before she spoke.

“I’ve come about the cook’s position, sir.” Her melodic voice was stamped with the distinct grit of a Northern Londoner, and if Tristan looked carefully, he knew he would see the black grime of the Lower Hells stuck under her fingernails. The rest of her was neat and trim despite the wear on her clothes and the fatigue on her still young face. “I’ve got no references, as the Lady turned me out for what the Lord was doing, but….”

“I don’t need your references. You’ll do fine,” Tristan reassured her. “Wages are forty pounds, and you’ll be given tea, beer, and sugar, as well.”

“That’s too generous, sir.” She blushed, a pink lightening up her pallor. “I’m not skilled for that—”

“We’ve only one cook position,” he cut her off gently. “Kitchens are through that door and down the hall. Can you start now? I’ve nearly a full inn and need a dinner set up for the guests. Your rooms will be behind the kitchen.”

“Yes, sir. I can start immediately.” She dropped into a short curtsey, nearly losing her satchel. “My name’s Heather. Heather Cook, sir. Thank you so much. I won’t be letting you down.”

“I know, Heather. I know,” Tristan said, pointing to the door. “Welcome to Hoxne Grange. We’re glad to have you here.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, she whispered away, dropping out of sight in flecks of light until nothing remained of her but the wet footprints on the foyer’s wooden floor. He was about to fetch a mop when Mara came out of the door he’d directed Heather to.

“So she’s gone, then?” Mara asked, wheeling out a metal mop bucket in front of her.

“Yeah, she is.” Tristan smiled, saddened by the young dead woman he’d spoken to.

“Well, then, it’s done until next Tuesday,” his housekeeper pronounced in a firm voice. “I’ll clean this up, and you go on upstairs. There’s coffee waiting for you and some brekkie. Maybe later on, you’ll get a nap. I know how Tuesdays wear you down.”

“Thank you, Mara.” He kissed the froth of silvery-white curls at her temple. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“You’d be mopping your own damned floors every Tuesday after you hire your dead cook again.” She slapped at his arm. “Go on with you, and take that cowardly beast with you.”

Duck Duck Ghosts #2 by Rhys Ford
Chapter 1
THE SMELL of rot permeated the air.

It was a foul smell. A blackness to it Wolf would never get used to. With the proximity of the Florida swamp and Atlantic, there was a faint hint of stagnancy as well, with an overlay of brackish algae just for good measure. He couldn’t imagine living in its stink every day. Like cigarette smoke, it would flavor everything he touched, breathed, or ate.

He’d expected some dampness, especially in the lower jut of an ill-advised half basement below the church turned hostel, but when his sneaker sloshed through an actual puddle in the kitchen, Wolf wondered if the owners had less of a ghost problem and were more in need of a home demolition.

The basement seemed to be where most of the noises were coming from. At least from what Wolf could figure out. Creaky, eerie sounds wafted through the sprawling hostel, carried through the antique ductwork set into heavily built walls, and they certainly appeared to be originating from underneath the first floor. Tapping at the plaster, Wolf frowned, wondering what the builders had been thinking when they’d put in so many tight hallways and corners. The maze made it difficult to find the source of the hostel’s supposed haunting, but it apparently helped keep the place cool when it got too hot.

“It’s like they got paid by the fucking corner,” he grumbled. “Every single damned old house has a million stupid little corners.”

An undulating groan drifted through the hostel, and a screeching wail followed close on its heels. A startled yelp nearly broke Wolf’s eardrum, and he stopped for a moment with his foot on the second step down to the basement.

“Jesus, you trying to get me killed?” Wolf muttered, flipping the light switch at the top of the stairs one more time. “I could have fallen down this death trap and broken my neck.”

Much like the other five times he’d clicked it, the light stayed off, and he glanced up, fumbling in his pocket for his flashlight. After finding it, Wolf turned the torch on and splashed the beam up along the ceiling, not surprised to find a pair of dangling capped-off wires where a light fixture should have been.

A woman’s voice tickled Wolf’s ear as he crept down along a tight spiral staircase. “I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing here, Dr. Kincaid.”

Wolf sighed and leaned his head against the cramped interior stairwell. Cupping his mouth over the wireless headset he wore to keep in contact with his intern, he counted to three, then said, “You’re supposed to keep up with me.”

“I’m trying to, Dr. Kincaid.” The young woman sounded exasperated. “But your legs are too long. I can’t keep up. I lost you back in the hallway. The lights aren’t working in this end of the house. Everything went black.”

“Where are you, Trixie?” he growled into his mic. “And more importantly, how soon can you get to the basement stairs?”

“Shit, you’re going to go down there? Why? Can’t we just use something to see underneath the house? Like they do for dinosaurs. What is that? Sonar? Can’t we use that?”

Biting back a sarcastic reply, Wolf reminded himself that soon-to-be-Doctor Trixie Huff was his only staff on the hostel job, so snarling at her probably wouldn’t necessarily endear him to her.

Initially, he’d agreed to use the headsets because he wanted to keep his communication to a whisper so as not to telegraph where they were in the building’s labyrinth of cellar space and servants’ quarters. Now Wolf was partially glad he had it on because he kept losing his damned intern.

It wasn’t Trixie’s fault.

Wolf was just too used to working with his team, and the intern, while highly intelligent and sharp, hadn’t planned on spending her summer vacation hunting ghosts in tourist-infested St. Augustine, Florida. Instead of lounging about the pool—or beach—being brought drinks by hot cabana boys in tight, skimpy shorts, she was tromping behind a grumpy parapsychologist in cobweb-cluttered mazes while rats and spiders dropped down on her like turtle shells in a game of Mario Kart.

When Hellsinger Investigations agreed to take on a pair of summer interns from Berkeley, it sounded like a perfect solution to his staffing woes. His techs, Matt and Gidget, longed to explore the Welsh countryside with its rambling hills and ghostly apparitions, while his office manager, Nahryn, planned on having a three-week visit with her grandparents in Los Angeles.

Trixie’d been a godsend. Especially since she was enthusiastic and, more importantly, a bit of a skeptic about paranormal activity.

If there was one thing Wolf needed in his life at the moment—it was a skeptic.

No, he wouldn’t think about Tristan. Not while he stood halfway down a flight of stairs with one wet foot waiting for an intern he was probably abusing by dragging her off to Florida so she could record his progress through a haunted hostel.

Something dropped onto him from above and skittered across his neck. Wolf resisted the urge to slap at it. He’d done that piece of stupid when he was younger and bore a half-moon scar on his shoulder from the very pissed-off centipede he’d slammed his hand over.

A strong beam of light cut over him, and Wolf grinned, glancing up at Trixie as she aimed the shoulder camera down the stairs. At some point, she’d dragged her glossy brown hair back and pulled a ponytail through a Hellsinger Investigations ball cap. Having abandoned her contacts for a sturdy pair of glasses to protect her eyes against the hostel’s dirt and cobwebs, Trixie’s eyes glittered with excitement behind her clear lenses.

“You ready, Huff?” Wolf grinned in the bright light.

“Sneakers on, boss,” she retorted saucily.

“Good, because we’re going in.”

They went down the stairs together, Trixie’s camera beam lighting up Wolf’s shoulders. It actually wasn’t a bad thing, because in the dank darkness, any light was welcome. Aiming his own smaller flashlight up, Wolf trudged through the tiny rooms built into the hill under the hostel, noticing the damp air thickened into an almost mist as they drew closer to the outer wall.

“Isn’t a basement in Florida kind of stupid?” Trixie asked above their squeaky footsteps.

“Yeah, not exactly the smartest thing. Whoever built this place made the hill first. It’s called a berm. It’s a smart thing to do to get your property above the flood line, but instead the asshole dug in and put half of the house into it. I’m surprised this place hasn’t come tumbling down on their—” A hissing noise made Wolf pause, and he turned, holding up his hand to stop Trixie from going any farther into the dark.

“What was that?” She kept her voice as steady as she could. Wolf gave her that. Even with the tremble in her throat, she held the camera steady, trained just beyond Wolf’s shoulder as he’d instructed her. “Oh God, something’s over there.”

Wolf’s beam was too weak to do anything but catch a sliver of movement beyond a turn in the hall. He took a few steps forward, but the camera’s light didn’t follow him, so he turned around, staring into the beam at the silhouette behind it.

“Come on, almost-Doctor Huff. Time to chase our ghosts,” he urged her on. The light bobbed once, and Trixie moved in step behind him, but he could still hear her mutter under her breath at his back.

“You are certifiable. No college credit is worth this.”

The thick rough walls under the old church must have been the only thing shoring up the foundation, but Wolf had to acknowledge the builder might have had something going. Lifted up off the ground, the airspace below would keep the building’s lower level cooler during the hot summer months, but he’d have been more scared of wood rot than a high air-conditioning bill.

Especially when his foot went through one of the floorboards, and his leg dropped out from under him, slamming his crotch into the rotted wooden planks.

Wolf grunted from the pain of getting his balls shoved up into his rib cage, but he stopped himself from whimpering out loud. Huffing to maintain his composure, he shouted back, “Trix, stay back there. The floor’s gone here.”

“Oh God, are you okay?” The large light bobbled and then dropped low when Trixie set the camera on the floor next to her. “Do you want me to go get someone?”

“Let me see if I can get out of this hole.” Wolf hissed when he leaned back. Massive splinters from the rough floorboards drove into his palms, and for once he was glad Nahryn insisted they all were current on their tetanus shots. “Okay, I’m going to rock back and pull my leg out. Be careful in case the boards go down behind me. I don’t know how big this hole in the ground is.”

“Why would someone dig a hole in the basement, then cover it with boards?” Trixie scooted forward a bit. “Do you want me to grab you and help?”

“No,” Wolf said with a shake of his head. “Our weight might bring the whole thing down. Stay back where we know it’s solid.”

Wolf gritted past the pain and pushed himself up, leveraging his weight back until he got his knee clear of the hole. His jeans were shot, torn along his thigh and flecked with blood where broken wood scratched into his skin. Another heave, and he cleared the hole up to his calf. Then the deep shadows beyond the camera’s powerful beam moved, and a low hiss echoed through the confined space.

The movement was slow, nearly graceful, and Wolf froze, trying to see into the darkness.

Then he realized what he was looking at, and his stomach crawled up to lodge itself into his throat.

“Trixie, I need you to move slowly back and go up the stairs. Now.”

“And leave you here?” she scoffed. “That makes—”

“Leave the camera and get the hell out of here. Use the flashlight I gave you.” Wolf kept his voice low, not wanting to spook the young woman. “Like right—”

The gator lunged out of the shadows, its teeth flashing a sickly yellow in the light beam. The reptile was nearly as wide across as Wolf’s hips, its quick legs whipping its long body back and forth as it moved across the floor. Its long tail slapped into one of the walls, making a wet sound on the hard surface.

Trixie screamed and fled, her cries for help seemingly coming from all directions as she ran out of the space. Wolf jerked himself free of the hole, rolling to the side as he tried to scramble to his feet. The alligator made another lunge, throwing its body up a few inches, and his sneaker sole caught in its teeth, ripping from the bottom of his shoe as the gator twisted its head.

“Fuck!” Wolf dodged the camera, catching his nearly bare foot in its harness.

The gator went after him again, the floors creaking under the reptile’s enormous weight. The boards bounced, and Wolf heard them cracking under him as he ran toward the room’s entrance. Trixie’s anxious screaming continued to bounce about the basement, a high-pitched wail loud enough to drown out the gator’s aggressive hissing.

His own flashlight flickered woefully when Wolf tried to aim it down the hallway outside the room. A fragmented beam warned him he’d probably broken the lens, but it still gave off enough light for him to see his way out. Something heavy slammed into his side, and Wolf’s heart jerked in fear until he realized it was Trixie running out from another room.

“I can’t find my way out!” she wailed, grabbing at his arm. “Oh God, it’s right there!”

Wolf chanced a glance back, and the gator grumbled with a menacing roar. Nudging the discarded equipment, the gator made the camera’s light flash and tilt against its hide, illuminating its variegated skin. Wolf grabbed Trixie’s arm and dragged her with him, urging her to run. A loud cracking sound came from the room behind them, and some small part of Wolf’s brain wondered if the gator would be trapped in the hole he’d almost fallen into.

The larger part of his brain shoved that thought down, intent on escaping the seemingly pissed-off reptile rather than pondering if the rot would give before the gator could catch up with them or if gators could climb stairs. They hit the steps at a run, and Wolf pushed Trixie up ahead of him. Her sneakers pounded up the staircase, and he followed close behind, his hands pressed on the small of her back.

All around them, they heard the hissing and screaming wails of the gator thrashing its way through the basement. Its vocalizations echoed through the ductwork, and somewhere in the hostel, someone else started screaming, matching Trixie and the gator in volume.

Voices called out from various rooms, but Wolf didn’t have the breath to answer. He shoved the intern through the open door at the top of the stairs, flung himself through, and kicked the door closed behind him with a mighty thump.

He lay on the floor, panting as people poured into the kitchen. Trixie lay on her stomach next to him, her body heaving from the sprint up the tight staircase. Someone sounded alarmed at the sight of his leg, but Wolf didn’t care about the pain. From what he could tell, he was still intact, if just a little bit winded.

The owner, a long-haired older woman, leaned over him, her bright blue eyes blinking in surprise at his bloodied and mud-caked body. Patting him on the shoulder, she asked someone to call 911 before Wolf could stop her.

“Oh my, Doctor Kincaid. Are you all right?” she murmured in her soft butterfly voice. “What happened?”

“Found your ghost,” Wolf gasped, fighting to push words out as he sucked in clean air. “And it’s big enough to make a whole set of luggage.”

“THEY ARE never going to give you another intern,” Nahryn, his girl Friday, complained loudly as Wolf came through the front door of Hellsinger Investigations. “You keep breaking them!”

“Hey, I returned that last one in perfect working order!” he shot back, dropping a bag of donuts on her desk as he hobbled by. They were damned good donuts, hot and yeasty malasadas from a nearby Portuguese bakery. Good enough to ward off a scolding from a girl ten years his junior, but Nahryn wasn’t having any of it, judging by the look on her face. “I’m the one who got fucked up.”

“Yeah, well, death by gator isn’t something a lot of people want to put on their résumé.” She sniffed at him and opened the bag. The pretty Armenian girl eyed him, as if searching for sugar around his mouth. “Did you already eat one?”

“Yeah, on the way in.” He winced at the steady ache along his thigh. Eight dissolvable stitches and a few shots later, his leg was patched up, but he was reminded constantly of his refusal to take any of the painkillers the doctors shoved at him. A few ibuprofens would do the trick, he promised his leg, along with a very nice hot cup of coffee.

“Well, take one in with you. Meegan’s here.” His office manager stepped in behind him before Wolf could turn around and drag himself out of the office. “Oh no you don’t, Kincaid. She’s your mother, and she’s here to ask you something.”

“I’d rather be eaten alive by the gator,” Wolf muttered darkly. “Go get me coffee, and if I buzz you in ten minutes, I expect you to come rescue me.”

“You’ll be lucky if I even answer,” Nahryn shot back with a Cheshire cat smile. “But I’ll bring you some coffee, you big baby.”

His mother was standing at the wraparound glass window of his office, her hands cradling a large cup of fragrant jasmine tea and her eyes dreamy as she stared out at San Francisco’s bay. Ferries jetted from shore to shore, carrying tourists and locals alike. The morning fog kept a light grip on the shoreline, but it was a weak one, with a lemony sun pushing its way through the watery mist.

The faint sunlight shone around the older woman, outlining her long, curly bright auburn hair and crazy-quilt peasant dress. Large chandelier earrings made of tiny bells and beads tinkled when she cocked her head, her eyes following the activity on the pier below. She’d lost her sandals somewhere in the office, her bare toes spread over the office’s wooden floors, and she shifted slightly, adjusting her black cobweb lace shawl over her pale arms.

His coffee arrived with a filthy look, both courtesy of Nahryn, and Wolf nodded pleasantly at her, then shooed the young Armenian woman out. Meegan Ocean-Kincaid turned and caught her son’s eye, but instead of the beatific, motherly smile she normally gave him, her mouth was set into a neutral straight line.

From his hippie-gypsy mother, this was tantamount to a scowl.

“Hello, Mom.” Wolf leaned in to give his mother a kiss, but she tilted her head back to stare up at him. Sighing, he rolled his eyes and said, “What?”

“What now, you mean?” Meegan sniffed.

It was a mighty sniff. Possibly one of the greatest she’d ever given him. It rivaled the one she’d aimed at him and Bach when they’d shaved Ophelia Sunday’s head with their Uncle Stavros’s clippers, but he still thought the time he’d dumped an entire load of horse manure on their living room floor because he was looking for gold coins held the top spot.

Another sniff, and the Horse Manure Incident sadly dropped to second place.

“I take it this is about Tristan?” He wondered if he could bribe Nahryn to go to the corner store and grab him whiskey so he could doctor his coffee or if it was still too early to start some serious drinking. “Have you talked to him?”

Her arched eyebrow lift was pointed enough he could hang a Christmas ornament on it, and Wolf took a gulp of his coffee, wincing at its sugary taste.

“Great, now even my office manager is trying to poison me,” he muttered, setting the mug down. “Okay, get it out of your system, Mom. Go on and scream at my head.”

“I don’t scream, Wolfgang,” Meegan informed him smoothly. “What I am going to do is tell you how disappointed I am in you. You have a chance at so much happiness, and you’re letting your pigheaded stubbornness get in the way.”

So yes, his mother had spoken to Tristan, and knowing his reclusive lover, he’d probably been nudged, bothered, and poked at until he spilled every last detail of their argument.

He didn’t need his mother to tell him he’d fucked up. He screwed up by starting up a fight with Tristan Pryce, owner and proprietor of Hoxne Grange, a spiritual hub for ghosts passing on to the afterlife, then walking out on Tris. The gorgeous blond man was reserved, quirky, and more importantly, willing to shove back at Wolf’s strong personality—and damn it, if Wolf didn’t miss the hell out of him.

Tristan ended up under Wolf’s skin, and part of the argument—most of the argument, if Wolf was really honest—was that he was scared. He was frightened by how quickly Tristan hooked his soul and pulled in Wolf’s heart. He hadn’t been looking for love when he went to debunk Tristan’s ghost-hosting inn, but that’s what he found—and he didn’t want to ever let him go.

And that scared Wolf most of all….

“We had a fight, Mom,” Wolf protested. “Things like that happen—”

“You accused him of hallucinating everything the two of you went through!” She turned on him, setting her cup down. Jasmine tea sloshed over the cup’s rim, leaving a small amber puddle on his desk. “What happened at the Grange was—”

“Mom, the iced tea you gave us to drink had euphoric honey in it, and then you left a quart of it in his kitchen cabinet!”

“How was I supposed to know he’d make baklava with it?” She waved off his disgusted look. “Really? Does he look like he’s the type to bake homemade anything? Does one even bake baklava?”

“He could have poisoned us with it! Honey’s a major ingredient in that.”

“No, really, how do you make baklava? Does it really go into the oven?” Meegan’s attention had obviously wandered off into the intricacies of Greek pastries.

“Jesus, Mom. That stuff was potent. Hell, no wonder we ate ten pizzas after that damned séance. We had the raging munchies. What were you thinking?”

“Just to calm everyone down after the haunting!” Meegan protested. “I’ll even bet you the baklava was good. It was premium honey. So what if it was a bit hallucinogenic? Some of my best memories were when I was a bit baked. Hell, you’re here because of a bit of that honey.”

“That’s not the point.” He rubbed at his face, then dropped his hands to his hips. “And I didn’t say what happened that day wasn’t real. I just—”

“You accused him of drugging you and said the whole experience was a mass hallucination!”

“I did not say that.” Wolf kept his voice as even as he could. “When I was done tripping along the Timothy Leary Highway—”

“Something that wasn’t his fault—”

“Mom, will you let me finish one sentence?” Wolf gritted his teeth and took a long breath to steady himself. “Please?”

“Fine, go ahead.” Meegan threw her hands up. “Talk, but nothing you say to me is going to fix what you messed up. So you got a little bit stoned. It’s just a relaxer—”

“It wasn’t the five minutes of fun-house-mirror world, it was the hour and a half of me living in the bathroom, wondering if I was going to have to reel my guts back in, after the two hours of trying to talk to Tristan’s monster illustrations,” he insisted. “I might have said a few things I wasn’t proud of, but I never accused him of drugging us that day. You did that.”


“I told him I loved him and I’d call him in a bit. Did he tell you that?”

“I didn’t actually talk to him about afterwards. He’s very close-lipped,” his mother hedged. “But I definitely got the feeling things went a bit haywire. Then you hied off to God knows where.”

“Florida. I had a job in St. Augustine, and I couldn’t cancel. I was going to call him this morning.” Suddenly tired, he sat on the edge of his desk, wincing when his leg reminded him of his stitches and bruises. “I just needed to think of what I was going to say.”

“I’m sorry is a good place to start,” Meegan replied tartly. “Then I’m sorry again. Maybe even I love you? You do love him, don’t you?”

“It’s complicated.” The weariness of dealing with his mother set in, and he rubbed at his leg. “But yeah, I love him. It’s crazy because I’ve known him for what? A month? And it’s not like he’s totally normal. We’re going to have to come to some kind of middle ground.”

“Well, it’s time to uncomplicate it,” his mother ordered. “And I have just the thing for that. Something you both can do together.”

“Why does that scare the shit out of me?” Wolf picked up his coffee and took another sip. The sugar in it hadn’t magically evaporated. “God, I’m going to kill Nahryn. This is like hummingbird food. I did text him while I was in Florida.”

“And what did you say? That you were sorry?”

“That we needed to talk.” Admittedly, his messages had gotten more and more insistent with each unanswered text. He hated being ignored, and Tristan could ostrich with the best of them. “And I was an asshole. He didn’t text me back.”

“You should have called. It’s been over a week, Wolf,” Meegan huffed. “Okay, we can fix this. I have just the thing.”

“I’m already going to go up there, Mom. I don’t think I need—” He intercepted her simmering glare. “Fine, what is it?”

“Do you remember Sey? Your second cousin from your Great-Aunt Natty?” Meegan frowned at Wolf’s clueless look. “The one in San Luis Obispo.”

“Sey with the toys? Yeah, I love her. We’ve kept in touch.” A slender, brash woman known for her boisterous laugh and nearly endless energy, Sey was one of the few relatives he positively adored. He’d spent more than a couple of summers as his older cousin’s satellite, a tall lanky girl with sharp elbows and freckles. She’d been the one who’d taught him how to shoot a crossbow… and more importantly, how to run away from a charging bull when he’d accidentally fallen into the temperamental bovine’s corral. “Why? What’s up with Sey?”

“Funny you should ask that,” Meegan practically cackled as she rubbed her hands together. “Because she’s got a problem, and it’s one that is totally up your alley.”

Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau & Violetta Vane
The islands were fished from the bottom of the ocean by a god, and now, a million years later, they bobbed tiny and green and jewel-like on the foamy surface of an endless bright sea. It should have been beautiful.

“Home,” said the soldier who’d been sitting next to him since LA, looking over Ori’s shoulder and out the window. The banking plane angled them at a perfect view, and after hours of featureless blue ocean, the chain of islands seemed almost like a mirage, like Ori could blink or rub his eyes and they’d be gone again. Disappearing things, transient things, undependable things--Ori was used to all that.

Home. Ori didn’t say anything, even though the soldier had been earnestly trying to start a conversation for the last half hour. He knew Ori was another islander, and it hadn’t taken him long to peg him as a fellow soldier too. The inevitable question--where were you stationed?--was something Ori wanted to avoid at all costs. Leavenworth. The Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility. Before that, two tours in Iraq, but nobody cared about that, not when it ended in dishonorable discharge.

“I got a girlfriend in Honolulu,” the soldier said, and Ori almost felt bad. He was so damn nice, the kind of guy who’d be lucky enough to get photographed petting a kitten or playing jump rope with a couple of Iraqi kids and wind up universally loved. He probably had a golden retriever waiting at home for him too. “Where you from?”

The soldier finally gave up after Ori’s curt nod and mutter of “Nanakuli.”

They landed in silence, and then the captain said, “Mahalo for flying with us,” and wished them aloha in his aggressively cheerful New Jersey accent as he turned off the FASTEN SEAT BELT sign for the last time.

The small crowd of people waiting in arrivals greeted the tourists with leis and the soldier with applause. A honey-colored girl with a hummingbird tattoo across her breasts fell into his arms and showered his face with squealing kisses, like some tropical version of V-J Day in Times Square.

Ori swept his gaze aside, visualized his route to the baggage carousel, and drifted smoothly through the jubilation.

The moist island air curling into his lungs felt sweet and medicinal after the dryness of desert and mainland, not to mention the recycled pressurized air of his hours spent sitting in coach. He had the sudden desire to check how pale he’d gotten, buried like a grub in prison. A quick assessment of his forearms confirmed he was still darker than the tourists, at least. And he’d kept in shape. One of the only things that kept him sane, in fact: that he could rely on his body, on the ache of his straining muscles, even when his mind played tricks on him.

Like right now.

He bent to snatch his suitcase off the conveyor belt, and when he straightened again, Kalani stood on the other side of the carousel, wearing that worn ringer T-shirt that Ori had given him as a hand-me-down nearly five years ago, now--still so tight on his big body--and his dark hair shaved close to his scalp just like Ori remembered him. Haloed by light from the huge glass doors to the terrace garden. So bright, Ori had to shut his eyes.

You wanted him to welcome you home, and here he is. Kalani, as strong and shining with life as ever. He’d reach out to Ori with a confident grin and fold him in his arms, one of those hugs that Ori wanted to believe were too long to be just between friends or even brothers. And then he’d headbutt him and clap him hard on the back and--

And nothing. Ori opened his eyes to the same door, the same garden, the same warm, sparkling light...and a pair of overweight mainlanders taking a photo of their equally overweight kid.Because he’s not here.

Kalani would be shrunken after more than a year in a hospital bed, body eating its own muscle mass, and there’d be an ashy pallor lightening his dark brown skin. He wouldn’t be smiling, not as anything other than a reflex or a fluke, and maybe not even that. Kalani’s Aunt Anela hadn’t exactly been clear on his condition, except for one thing.

The doctors said he wasn’t coming back.

* * * * *

Ori had a few relatives he could have stayed with in Honolulu, but he wasn’t feeling fit for human company these days. So he took the bus to a cheap motel in Kalihi where the tourists were scarce and the streetwalkers were just beginning to make their rounds.

The room was small, blank, sparsely furnished, but relatively clean, at least. The bed was a bare frame with a visible box spring and thin mattress, jammed halfway into some kind of alcove created by the unfortunate geometry of the tiny triangular bathroom. The window looked out onto a Dumpster in the parking lot, so he kept the blinds closed. It was a sad room, but enough like his cell in Leavenworth that it seemed...comfortable.

That realization, that connection, was sadder than the room itself.

He cleared enough space on the floor for a circuit of sit-ups, push-ups, jump squats, and lunges, enough to get himself panting and shiny with sweat; then he took a shower.

Still in his towel, he ate the take-out rice bowl he’d brought from the airport food court.

He sat blankly for a while, staring at the blank walls, tapping the disposable chopsticks against his knee, lacking any other physical purpose to fill up the hungry, empty blank seconds until the appointment at the hospital tomorrow.

He should have watched a TV show or some local news to find out what was happening on the island so he could have a hope of making small talk tomorrow. Instead, he brought out the pictures Anela had mailed him and leafed through them. Him and Kalani. Him and Kalani. Him and Kalani. Teenagers. Kids. Graduating high school. Kalani smiling in every single picture, even the one of them in his hospital room, Kalani’s arm in a cast. Him and Kalani. Him and Kalani.

It was like they didn’t even exist, if they weren’t together.

Ori never smiled as wide as Kalani, but he looked happy enough in the photos. He even looked more handsome standing next to Kalani--the sharper lines of his face softened, the stiff set of his shoulders relaxed. Just a little.

Kalani, pushing six feet, was a few inches taller than Ori and broader at the shoulders, that surfer’s body that came naturally to Hawaiian men. But Ori’s family was all Filipino and built lean. He’d been a skinny beanpole of a little boy until he filled out as a teenager and started getting serious about mixed martial arts. And there was one of Ori in a gi holding up a trophy, Kalani pointing to the trophy with his left hand and making the shaka sign with the other. And grinning like crazy, of course.

Ori covered Kalani’s smiling face with the pad of his thumb and held it there, trying to imagine the photo without him. Even after all these years--three months in training, give or take, two years in Iraq, one in therapy, and one in jail--Ori still couldn’t wrap his head around it, but it was about time he learned. A few wet drops hit the stack of photos and rolled off their glossy curved surface. He tapped the stack on the top of his thigh to straighten them, order them.

Then he threw them to the floor.

They spread out into some indiscernible pattern across the carpet. Birthday parties. Football practices. Showing off their surfboards. At prom, with two of Kalani’s cousins in their homemade dresses, Kalani with his bowtie undone. Kalani and him. Kalani and him. Kalani and him. Kalani and him.

He clapped his hand over his mouth, hard enough that his lips stung. Lowered himself to his knees, tenderly gathering the photos back into their neat little pile. He took three deep breaths, put the photos back in their battered envelope, and put the envelope in the bedside table drawer, tucking it safely under the Bible. Then he stripped to his boxers, climbed into the creaky little bed with its ill-fitting sheets, and turned off the light.

* * * * *

“Wake up.”

A police siren wailed down the block.

Aloha, suckers.

Harsh light strobed through the cracks in the blinds.

“Shoot him in the leg, Sergeant, should I shoot him in the leg?”

The graceful parabolas of tracer rounds lighting up the Iraqi night, like school trips spent staring upward in wonder at the dome of the Bishop Museum Planetarium.

He had no idea where he was anymore.

Ori groaned and threw a forearm over his eyes. At least he hadn’t hurled himself off the bed and fumbled for his nonexistent M16. That had been one hell of an ending for a one-night stand.

The siren faded. The slivers of light thinned. He blinked, but the silhouette by his shoulder remained. He rolled onto his side to face it.

“No,” he said.

He willed the phantom image of Kalani to break apart and melt back into the dream-fog, but the harder he tried, the more real Kalani got. The outline of his features channeled the last sliver of light and the planes of his cheekbones gleamed faint like a mica-paneled lantern. Oh Jesus, Ori could almost see his eyes.

“Wake up, Ori, you have to wake up.”

A soft moth-wing touch against the side of his head, just next to his eyebrow. Yes, he had to wake up. This dream was heaven and hell all at the same time, and he couldn’t stand it a second longer.

“No!” The sound filled every corner of the cell-like room, bouncing off the walls and knocking him back into reality. He surged for the light switch.

The bare bulb cast out an ear-drilling fluorescent buzz as it flickered reluctantly toward full strength. It strobed light and dark and light again, and for a fraction of a harsh-lit second he thought he saw Kalani clear as day, hand stretched out toward him, a pleading look in his widened eyes, mouth half opened, every faintly shining inch of his body asking a question.

Dark again. The lightbulb stayed steady, and Ori was alone.

His shrink had said...had said... Flashbacks. Yeah, flashbacks. Said it could be just like he was there again, all the same sounds and smells and everything, and sometimes he wouldn’t even know the difference between reality and memory, or even what triggered it. It had to be that.

But why Kalani? He should have seen dead bodies, felt imaginary aftermaths of explosions rumbling through his bones, flinched from the endless crack of machine gun fire. Maybe it didn’t make sense because nothing really made sense, not anymore--but at least it fit.

He must not be fully awake yet. He’d gone to bed with Kalani’s face fresh in his mind from the photos, and his unconscious mind was just recycling the images. That was all.

He turned off the light and eased back under the sheet.

So why could he smell him? That clean bright smell, like new leaves in a light rain, mixed with salt, of course, because Kalani surfed so much it was like he was permanently crusted with a thin sheen of evaporated saltwater.

It was so easy to pick up the dream--fantasy, flashback, whatever the hell it was--where he’d left off. He breathed deep. Imagined Kalani there with him, spooned behind him, Kalani’s broad, soft chest pressing against his back. The smell of new leaves and salt and coconut oil and a young man. Kalani would breathe into his ear, and they would wordlessly melt together, their lips touching with such easy sureness, as easily as they used to come together wrestling or helping each other through steep climbs. He ran his hand under the waistband of his boxers and wasn’t surprised that he was hard as iron and almost as hot, like he could burn a hole through the fucking sheets with his cock. He should have been ashamed to do this, knowing where Kalani reallywas, but he told himself to save the shame for the morning as he worked himself with short, angry jerks.

He just wanted to get this over with. This horrible fucking night.

His strokes seemed to slow without his permission; he couldn’t bring himself to wish away the sensation of a hand cupped around his own, guiding him, setting a gentle but insistent pace. Kalani’s mouth and nose tucked against his neck, and oh God he never wanted this to end, hanging here on the verge of the best dream in the world with the man he’d loved all his life, but then his release exploded low in his spine and sent his cum spilling onto the rumpled sheet.

When he stopped shivering from pleasure and self-loathing, he got up, felt his way to the towel rack, threw a towel over the wet spot, and did his best to go back to sleep.

When that didn’t work, he turned on the television and switched between an incomprehensible Korean costume drama and a cooking gadget infomercial until his vision blurred and he fell into a mercifully dreamless stupor.


The Paranaturalist by Ki Brightley
Joe Appleyard
THE BASEMENT door rattles in its frame. I sneak toward it with my hockey stick in a firm grip. I try to control my breathing, keep it from running away with me. I have my winter boots on, the pant legs of my flannel PJs shoved down into them, in case I need to escape, but outside doesn’t seem safe tonight.

“Who’s there?” The wooden door shakes as much as my voice. No one answers me. God, what could it be? What in the heck could be down there?

Zombies. Vampires. A serial killer.

I moan to myself. Why did Mama and Dad have to go to that Christmas party? As I edge toward the door, inch by hard-fought inch, the smell of something unpleasant batters at my nose, like a dead animal by the side of the road on a hot day. The door shakes harder in its frame, and a low whisper starts up around me in the hallway. I can’t make out the words, but they’re angry and hateful. Sweat runs down my back.

“It can’t hurt me,” I mutter to myself. The whispers grow louder, take on the contours of language, but it’s not one I understand. With a burst of courage, I crack the door hard with my hockey stick. A jolt of cold dread tunnels under my skin and curls around my bones. My stomach heaves. The door stops moving while my heart tries to jump out of my chest. I pant harsh breaths in and out and pull my inhaler out of my pocket when a familiar vise clamps around my chest. I puff on the nasty stuff twice, then shove it back into my pocket with shaking hands.

“It can’t hurt me,” I repeat stupidly, trying to convince myself as I reach for the doorknob.

When I twist it and throw the door back, the smell blasts me in the face. Nothing is on the other side but darkness and the steep stairs down into the basement. I stare into the black depths, and fear wells up in me, clasping and horrible, corkscrewing around my insides, an ache that isn’t quite physical. A dark outline of a man, tall and terrible, appears at the bottom of the stairs.

I slam the door and run all the way to my room upstairs. When I get inside, I swing around, wielding my hockey stick in front of me, my heart in my throat, braced for action. Nothing. No feet on the stairs. No weird whispers following me.

I sweat and wait.

“Peter? Peter, where are you?” I yell. Seconds tick by. No answer. I get a vague tug near my heart. I think he knows I need him, but he’s not here. Where is he? Oh God. After a while I can’t stay on high alert. I leave the door open so nothing can sneak up on me, kick off my boots, and climb into bed.

I wish I could call Mama and Dad. Mama will yell for a week if I call her home for something like this.

Maybe an hour later, as I’m huddled under the blankets on my bed with my hockey stick while I try not to panic, the front door opens and closes. Every muscle in my body freezes.


I sag. Thank God, it’s Mama. I pull the blankets over my head and ignore my mama even though I want to see her. I stow my hockey stick under the side of the bed. The inside of my quilt is a sea of navy blue from my bedside light shining through it. With my finger I trace the pinholes of brighter light where the stitches make a wavy pattern and wait. Her heels are like gunfire tapping down the wood of the hallway until she stops outside my open door.

“My little garbanzo bean, you are too old for this nonsense.” Her loud voice stirs the guilt in my gut, and I sink down farther into my pillow.

I chew on the inside of my cheek while I try to think. How can I make her understand? There’s nothing that won’t result in another talk with our priest, and he’s mean. Told me to stop making things up to scare my mama. Anger prickles through me. I’m not a liar.

She clicks across the floor in her heels until she reaches the girly, sky-blue rug she put under my bed for “happy thoughts,” and then the mattress dips down beside me with her weight. I curl away from her under the protection of my quilt.

“Did you have a good time?” I ask her, my face still covered. She can’t be mad at me if she can’t see me, just like they can’t get me if they can’t. How was she so sure I was awake, anyway?

“It’s almost midnight. I love you, son, my wonderful boy, but why are you awake?” She pats my shoulder through the blanket. It’s a warm relief. I know her fingernails are a deep purply color to match her dress. She was beautiful before she left the house. I watched her put on her pearl earrings as she hurried out the door and waved to me in my spot on the couch in front of the television. Dad was already outside heating the car up so she wouldn’t have to be cold.

I hate being in our house alone.

I’d promised to do my homework and be good, and I had, but every dark corner seemed like it was creeping closer to me, so I’d turned on all the lights. They weren’t enough.

Things keep getting worse.

“I don’t know,” I mumble into my pillow.

“Twelve is too old for nightmares.” She pokes at my shoulder, but I don’t come out. I know she’s upset with me, but I can’t help it. The world isn’t the same place for me as it seems to be for everyone else. For me? It’s scary when I’m alone, and my body starts noticing all the stuff I can ignore when other people are around. Flickers of… ghosts? I guess? But not. Scary things. They want me to see them.

I shiver under my warm blankets. “They’re not nightmares, Mama. I’m awake.”

“Too old.” She tries to pull my quilt down to look at me. I have it held tight in my fingers. She gives it a good yank, but I’m getting stronger. I smile when she sighs in defeat as she lets go.

“Can I please leave the light on? It’s no big deal. Please?” The begging makes my stomach tight with shame, but tonight, even with the Christmas lights in all the windows, the dark seems more alive. Stranger. Like things, dangerous things I don’t understand, are going on outside.

“No. God help me, Joseph, and all the saints too, you’re far too old to do these things,” she mutters to herself in Italian, something she only does when she doesn’t know what to say to me. I squirm under the blankets, try to catch the words, and curl my toes in my socks.

I fold the quilt down in time to watch her rings sparkle in the yellow light of the lamp before she turns the little black knob that steals the light. Her small, pointed face is kind and softly framed by her black curls, but there are lines at the corners of her mouth that aren’t there when we aren’t talking about “my problems.”

Mama pats my cheek with her soft hand, a smile set on her red lips. She smells like smoke. The light spilling in from the hallway makes her look like a Christmas angel with her curls close to her cheeks. I smile my best smile and wait for the flash of her teeth in the darkness.

“May I leave the door open? Please?”

She chuckles a wine-scented breeze across my face as she plants a kiss on my forehead. “You are almost a man. You must be brave, hmm?” She hugs me and I cling as long as she’ll let me, which is a few minutes since she loves me a lot and she understands, I think, that I don’t want to be this way. She’s warm and comfortable, and so is the kiss she plants on my cheek. “Sleep.”


Anxiety inflates my chest till I’m almost sure I’m a balloon. She stands, glances over her shoulder. Her smile is meant to be comforting as she eases the door closed.

I hold my breath, heart thudding wildly as I sit up in my bed to stare him down. He could pop me right now. The strange thought grips me. I don’t want to explode. The intruder is a shadow near my closet door. It’s… he’s there, a vibrating dark shape. He’s not the same boogeyman that’s in the basement, not as bad, but I hate him. The outline of his body wiggles so fast to my eyes that he’s almost like a puff of man-shaped smoke. I know, somewhere in my guts, that he’s solid, though not to the touch. He’s tall, almost the size of the closet door. My room is colder than it is when he’s not here, but I know if I call Mama back, she’ll tell me it’s nothing, a draft. He’s not a trick of light or my imagination either. He’s another reason I had my light on. He likes to scare me. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with him hovering over my bed, his face inches from mine in the dark, but instead of a mouth and nose and eyes like a normal person, there’s a dark hole where it should be.

The darkness is worse than a face.

“You stay over there,” I whisper, dragging the quilt higher until only my eyes and the top of my head stick out. Once in a while, letting him know I know he’s around is enough to keep him away from me. Now and then he seems scared of me, but most of the time he’s not. I’m not sure what the difference is. He boils toward me, a cloud of black smoke, and I swallow down a yelp, my fear charging around in my guts. I’ve dealt with him for almost a year now.

“Peter? Peter, where are you?” I whisper as loudly as I dare. If my mother hears me, I’m dead. Okay, so he’s my imaginary friend, but sometimes he can help. He’s about my height, but older, stronger. He has red hair and freckles, skin whiter than white, whiter than snow. My stomach flips while I think about him. He’s been gone most of the night. I’ve wondered more than once what a figment of my imagination—Mama’s words—might be up to when he’s not with me. I hope he’s not far off.

I’m not, you know, his answer whispers into my mind. I don’t hear him with my ears, but I still know what he’s saying. I know the words aren’t me, my imagination, because he talks differently than I do. Confident. Like he knows things. I can’t see him, not the way I can the shadow man near my closet, but I know he’s beside me, as close to me as he can get, legs dangling off the bed.


Peter Pan. Soft, happy laughter twirls around in my mind. I glare in his direction. I know he’s not, but as a five-year-old, he’d looked like Peter Pan, and that was good enough for me.

“I know. You won’t save me like he would. Take me off to Neverland.” I sigh and anger clangs through my mind, going out to him over the connection we share. He frowns, and I can sense it when he tilts his head to look at me. I can’t explain how I know what he’s doing, but I do.

No, kid. You’ve got to save yourself.

“I can’t do anything!” I wave a hand at the menacing phantom near the closet. I couldn’t do a darned thing about the basement either. The shadow man takes a few steps toward the window in my room, where the Christmas lights are actually cheery now that I’m not as scared. Now that I’m pissed off.

Sure you can. You don’t know how, is all. Peter rests his chin on my shoulder, and I can feel it, not with my skin, but inside somewhere. I simply know he’s touching me that way, and it’s nicer than hugs from Mama. A strange punch of fluttery heat replaces the icy fear in my belly. I look his way, wish I could see him beside me in the dark with my eyes, really feel the warmth of him.

“Can you teach me?” I ask him out loud instead of in my head. This is so important I have to use words, even if I might get into trouble for talking to myself.

I could if you wanted to learn, but you don’t. He’s sad. I know he’s sad, not from the way he says the words, but from the pokes of emotion that I know aren’t mine sneaking into my heart. They’re his.

“I want it all to go away.” My face is hot. I swipe at tears that make the shadow man, the faint glow of the Christmas lights, everything, turn into a blur while my heart speeds too fast and pounds in my ears.

If he goes away—in the corner of my eye, the silhouette of an arm points in the direction of the looming blur that has been making my every night’s sleep chancy—I go away too.

There’s a tingle on my cheek. Shocked, I turn my head, even though I know I won’t be able to really see him. I felt his lips. I felt him there, a warm buzzing brush like bumble bee wings over my skin. And the kiss was nothing at all like Mama’s. My cheeks burn while I stare steadily into the dark. A sharp, sad pain mixes with my excitement. Scrambles my brain. I love him. He’s been my best friend, not my imaginary friend, for years.

But it’s all so hard to deal with.

“Don’t know if I care anymore. I need to not see… things. Everyone says it’s wrong. Mama. Dad. The family. Our priest. Everyone. Mom and Dad fight about it.” Tears spill over, and I wipe the back of my hand across my eyes. “Please make it stop if you can.”

The pain in my chest is like a thousand metal pieces of a construction set thrusting out everywhere, and then there’s more, and more, and more… not all mine, but his mixes up with it too. The hurt grows until it seems like my chest might rip open, and my insides and all that pain will splash up onto the ceiling and out onto the walls. I can’t talk. I can’t think.

I’m unable to take it away, but… I can close your eyes until you’re ready. You will be ready someday? You won’t forget me?

“You’ll be gone?” Suddenly the sleepless nights with him beside me, whispering with me while the horrible, creepy shadow man sneaks around my bedroom don’t seem so bad. They weren’t that bad, were they? Really? So I fell asleep in class and got yelled at a lot because I couldn’t pay attention. So I wanted to come home and nap on the couch while Mama made dinner rather than go to hockey practice with my friends. So what?

No, but you won’t be able to see me or hear me. Talk to me. I’ll still be here.

“You’re my guardian angel?” I ask and tell him at the same time. He is. He’s been with me all this time. Sharp fingers of fear ease in around my panic. The night sky is alive, actually alive, with strangeness tonight. My eyes try to stare beyond the red-and-green glow at the windowsill into the darkness outside. It picks at my mind, making normal things hard to do. Mama worries about me. I blink away more tears.

Close enough. Another one of those surges of warmth land on my cheek, and tingles skip across my skin as the hair raises on my arms. I close my eyes, wish I could hold him close. It’s so good, but not. Not when we’re talking about him being gone.


I’ll miss you. There are tears in his voice too, and I wish I could reach out and touch him. Grab him. I shoot out my hands, and for a second, I think I’ve caught hold of something, not flesh, but something. I swipe through it into thin air.


A touch to the top of my head, he twists his fingers in my hair, and then a real pain like a knife drives into my skull and has me gasping. I fumble around in the dark, looking with my own fingers for the blood that must be there. Fear crashes over me, almost puts me under. The world grays out, then snaps back. What’s happening? The skin above my thumping heart burns like it’s been splashed by acid. A flash of seconds later, an arctic chill bleeds through my chest. Colder than popsicles on my tongue in sunshine. I shiver and shake in the dark, and as minutes go missing, my world is different.

Less vibrant. Less real. Flat.

I SNAP my eyes open, turn on the lamp with fingers I can’t hold steady. The hands of my alarm clock tick over to just past three in the morning. I throw back my quilt and stand, push my hands to the top of my head where there’s no pain. I tug on my hair as I take in the sight of my room. Completely different, but the same. I pull off my flannel pajama top and slap a hand to my chest. The skin above my heart is cold, so cold, but I’m not scared anymore.

The hulking shadow man who’s been on the edge of my consciousness every time I come into my room for the last year, light or no light, is gone. The Christmas lights are aglow. I inch toward the window to look out at the snow drifting down like feathers from angel’s wings, and the night is only darkness and ice. I’m warm except for the skin under my hand that slowly comes back to life. My room is cozy. My desk has homework spread out on it. To Kill a Mockingbird is open facedown, the way my teacher always yells at us for doing.

The night isn’t scary. It’s just dark. The world shifts, and with surprise I realize I’m on my butt on the floor. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I reach out with that part of me that feels things, scary things other people can’t see, and I’m… alone. My attention isn’t yanked anywhere.

It’s creepy quiet in my room.

“Peter?” I whisper into the shadows. “Peter?”


“I love you.” I wipe at the tears that sneak onto my face, and sit watching the snow fall until the sky turns the steel gray of a snowy December morning.

Author Bios:
Rhys Ford
Rhys Ford was born and raised in Hawai’i then wandered off to see the world. After chewing through a pile of books, a lot of odd food, and a stray boyfriend or two, Rhys eventually landed in San Diego, which is a very nice place but seriously needs more rain.

Rhys admits to sharing the house with three cats of varying degrees of black fur and a ginger cairn terrorist. Rhys is also enslaved to the upkeep a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, a Toshiba laptop, and an overworked red coffee maker.

Heidi Belleau
Heidi Belleau was born and raised in small town NB, Canada. She now lives in the rugged oil-patch frontier of Northern BC with her husband, an Irish ex-pat whose long work hours in the trades leave her plenty of quiet time to write. She has a degree in History from Simon Fraser University with a concentration in British and Irish studies; much of her work centred on popular culture, oral folklore, and sexuality, but she was known to perplex her professors with unironic papers on the historical roots of modern romance novel tropes. (Ask her about Highlanders!) When not writing, you might catch her trying to explain British television to her newborn daughter or standing in line at the local coffee shop, waiting on her caramel macchiato.

Violetta Vane
Violetta Vane grew up a drifter and a third culture kid who eventually put down roots in the Southeast US, although her heart lives somewhere along the Pacific coast of Mexico. She's worked in restaurants, strip clubs, academia and the corporate world and studied everything from the philosophy of science to queer theory to medieval Spanish literature.

Annabelle Jacobs
Annabelle Jacobs lives in the South West of England with her husband, three rowdy children, and two cats.

An avid reader of fantasy herself for many years, Annabelle now spends her days writing her own stories. They're usually either fantasy or paranormal fiction, because she loves building worlds filled with magical creatures, and creating stories full of action and adventure. Her characters may have a tough time of it—fighting enemies and adversity—but they always find love in the end.

Ki Brightly 
Ki grew up in small town nowhere pretending that meteor showers were aliens invading, turning wildflowers into magic potions, and reading more than was probably healthy. Ki had one amazing best friend, one endlessly out of grasp "true love", and a personal vendetta against normalcy.

Now, as an adult, living in Erie, Pennsylvania, Ki enjoys the sandy beaches, frigid winters, and a wonderful fancy water addiction. Seriously, fancy waters...who knew there were so many different kinds? It's just water...and yet...

Ki shares this life with a Muse, a Sugar Plum, and two wonderful children.

Rhys Ford

Heidi Belleau

Violetta Vane

Annabelle Jacobs

Ki Brightly 

Fish & Ghosts #1

Duck Duck Ghosts #2

Hawaiian Gothic

Bitten by Mistake

The Paranaturalist

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