“It’s not a ghost.” Theodore Briscoll pinched the bridge of his nose, dislodging his glasses, and prayed for patience.
“You don’t know,” Mandy pointed out. “And what other explanation is there?”
“Look at the evidence,” Theo said. “A few slammed doors—obviously the wind.”
“The taps ran bloody.” His sister’s voice was delighted and horrified.
“Rust,” Theo said for the dozenth time. “The pipes are old. This house is ancient. It was bound to happen.”
“And the crying?” Mandy asked. “Explain that.”
Theo snapped his mouth shut and scowled at the diner’s far wall. At least he was alone, other than a disinterested waitress cleaning the stained Formica counter off to his left. The last thing he needed was the locals overhearing the ‘city slicker’ complain about the house he'd spent so much money renovating. He wasn't as oblivious as the residents of Kine thought him to be. He heard the whispers, the comments and muffled snickers behind hands.
"Damn fool, thinking he could fix up the old Whitaker place."
"Who the hell does he think he is, waltzing in here and throwing money around?"
"It'll come to no good end, you mark my words."
"He'll be gone soon enough."
Theo wasn't one to be motivated by spite, usually. But the muttered comments and sideways looks were getting to him. It was worse when the discussions turned to the color of his skin. Theo was beginning to wonder if the residents of Kine had only ever heard about black people in myths and legends.
Mandy was still talking. "I'm gonna come down this weekend."
"You are not ," Theo said sharply. He pinched the bridge of his nose again and sighed. "Sorry, sis, I just... I don't want you disrupting the twins' schedule, not to mention your own, and don’t you have a husband to think about?”
“What is this, the fifties?” Mandy retorted. "He can keep them for the weekend, he knows how to change diapers and heat bottles."
"It's appreciated," Theo said, digging for his wallet with his free hand. "But I'm still sleeping on the floor. I don't have any furniture. Can you give me another couple of weeks?"
Mandy sighed. "Fine. But I am coming down, so don't try to stop me."
"Kiss the twins for me. Not your husband. He's not my type."
"That's another thing!" Mandy said, and Theo hung up on her, stifling a grin.
He stood and counted out the tip, setting it next to the plate that had held his hamburger, and nodded at the waitress.
As he headed for the door, though, she spoke.
"You want the granny witch."
Theo hesitated and turned toward her. "Sorry, I what now?"
The waitress, closer up, was older than he'd thought, pushing fifty, with frosted blonde hair piled into an impressive beehive and heavy blue eyeshadow caked on over thick mascara. Her smile was sweet and Theo found himself smiling back instinctively. Her nametag said BETTY MAE, he noted.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
Betty Mae lifted a shoulder and rubbed at a spot on the counter with the frayed rag. "What I said. You want the granny witch, your house is haunted."
"It's not—” Theo stopped and prayed—yet again—for patience. "It's just old. Old houses do weird stuff sometimes."
"Sure," Betty Mae said. "But you want the witch."
Theo took a deep breath. "Assuming, for the sake of the argument, that a granny witch is a real thing, how would she help me with whatever my problem actually is?”
Betty Mae snickered. "City boy. Go on up the hill, find out yourself."
"Okay, this has been fun," Theo said. "I have to rejoin the real world now, goodbye." He escaped out the door, tugging his peacoat around his lanky frame and pulling the collar up to shield his face from the worst of the cold wind.
He'd regretted the decision to move in January a week after he'd made it, lugging boxes up the steps into his new place with a running nose and hands gone numb with cold, red and chapped from the wind that seemed ever-present, even among the trees.
At night, he huddled under several blankets on his mattress, still on the floor because the bolts to put together his bedframe had somehow mysteriously vanished.
During the days, he worked on unpacking, trying to get settled into a house that seemed somehow to be actively resisting his occupation of it. Frost appeared on the walls. Terrible insulation, he decided. The water from the taps ran red, and Theo tried very hard to believe it was rust. And there was the matter of the screaming. He hadn’t told Mandy about that. The first night he’d heard it, he’d searched the woods around the house for hours, waving his flashlight and calling out for an answer before giving up, half-frozen and shivering miserably, only to discover his front door had somehow locked itself behind him. He’d ended up breaking a window in the basement and slithering through, cutting himself only mildly on the edge of the sash.
He nodded to the two old men parked in front of the diner despite the cold, feet propped up on the rail in front of them. One spat, missing the spittoon beside him. The other raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Theo couldn’t help himself. “Is it the race thing or the newcomer thing?”
Both men looked blank.
“Forget it.” Theo sighed and struck out across the street for his car.
Kine was a town barely deserving the label, a scattering of houses, the diner, a small gas station that doubled as the local grocery store, and an even smaller clinic staffed by the pretty doctor who was here to "make a difference", she'd earnestly told Theo when they'd bumped into each other at the gas station.
She had her work cut out for her, Theo thought, but he didn't tell her that. Instead he'd nodded and smiled at her and thrown her number away when he found it on a scrap of paper in his coat pocket later.
A small child of indeterminate gender dashed past him and Theo stopped dead to keep from squashing them. A gamine grin flashed from under shaggy hair and then the child was gone, whisked around the side of the building.
Theo climbed into his car and started the engine, staring sightlessly at the parking meter while the heater rattled and wheezed. He didn't need a witch. His house was not haunted. The entire thing was impossible.
The sun was dropping behind the mountain when he finally made it up the twisting, narrow path to his place. He needed an all-terrain vehicle, or he was going to find himself either stranded up here or unable to get home and trapped in town when the roads got icy, and he couldn't decide which possibility was worse.
The engine ticked and pinged as it cooled, and finally Theo sighed and got out. No point in prolonging the inevitable, not when he was likely to freeze if he stayed in the car.
His house loomed above him, crouched on the hillside like some unfriendly beast, dark and unwelcoming. The white door glowed faintly in the twilight, the windows empty and still.
Theo shook off the unease and climbed the steps. The key stuck in the lock again and he swore under his breath, jiggling until the bolt slid back and the door swung open.
It should have creaked, he thought wryly. "Add to the ambience," he said out loud. "If you're going to haunt me, you need to do it right!"
The door twitched from his grasp and slammed shut and Theo jumped.
The living room was silent, mahogany floor shining from the careful polishing he'd given it the week before. Theo eyed the bare windows. Need curtains. Something light and airy, to let in what little sunlight there is in the winter. And some actual furniture would be nice.
He stepped out of his shoes and set them by the door, then padded in sockfeet into the kitchen. He sighed happily, looking around. This was more like it. Every surface gleamed from his cleaning, the new marble countertops spotless in the soft gray light from outside.
Theo trailed a finger along the marble, then took a saucepan down from the hanging rack, high enough that he didn't bump his head on it. He whistled softly through his teeth as he began to prepare dinner, frying sausage and slicing bread for garlic toast.
He’d just slid the bread into the oven when the doorbell rang. Theo wiped his hands on the dishtowel and headed for the door.
The porch was empty. His nearest neighbor was three miles away up the twisting road that curved lovingly around the mountain’s bulk. Ding-dong-ditch wasn’t exactly something Theo had expected to get a lot of.
He scowled and shut the door. The stench of burning toast greeted him when he walked back into the kitchen and he swore and dove for the oven.
Plumes of black smoke billowed out and Theo coughed and spluttered as he grabbed the hot pad and fumbled the tray out and into the sink.
“Come on,” he said, “I was barely gone three minutes!”
The charred toast did not offer an explanation.
Theo muttered under his breath and stirred the spaghetti sauce. He’d have to get another starter going, so he could make more bread in the morning. Unless it, too, ended up with mold in it like the last one had, after one night out.
The doorbell rang. Theo peered around the doorway down the hall, wary now. It rang again, more insistently.
This time, Theo tiptoed to the door, feet silent. It ding-donged one more time and Theo flung it open with a triumphant noise that died in his throat at the sight of the empty porch.
“What the fuck is going on?” he demanded just as the smell of burning spaghetti sauce reached his nose. “No, no, no!” He bolted for the kitchen, slipping and sliding in his socks around the corner, to behold the pan of sauce smoking sadly on the stove.
Theo swallowed every filthy curse he wanted to hurl and lifted it off the heat. He stood still for a minute, trying to figure out what to do, just as the doorbell rang again.
Theo didn’t even try to stop the rage that blinded him as he flung himself back toward the front. He was going to find the little bastard who was doing this and he was going to—he would—he yanked the door wide on a roar of fury and charged through, making the slender young man standing there stumble backward in surprise in an attempt to avoid him.
Theo twisted sideways at the last minute and jerked to a stop, and they stared at each other across the expanse of the porch.
“Are you the one responsible for this?” Theo asked flatly.
The young man was tall like Theo but thin with it—alarmingly so, Theo realized. Hair so blond it was almost silver fell over a high forehead, liquid gray eyes sunken above cheekbones that were too prominent and a razor jawline. For all his angles and edges, though, his smile was sweet like honey, spreading across his face and lighting his sober eyes.
“T’wasn’t me,” he said. “Reckon you’ve got a haint.” He had the soft, slurred accent of the mountain folk, dropping his g’s and flattening his vowels.
Theo stared at him. “A what? Who are you?”
“Ephraim Tate, from just up yonder,” the young man said, pointing with a long, slim finger toward the top of the ridge, now out of sight in the fast-gathering dark. His teeth were white in the dim twilight when he smiled again. “I’m your neighbor.” He shivered and rubbed his arms through the heavy flannel shirt that hung off his shoulders. “S-sorry, but you think I could come in and warm up a touch? It’s a mite nippy, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Guilt washed through Theo and he moved aside, gesturing to the door. “Please, of course, make yourself at home.”
Ephraim bobbed his head and stepped over the threshold, hands cupping his elbows as he craned his long, swanlike neck to get a better look around him.
“You’ve done a right nice job with the place,” he said, smiling over his shoulder at Theo, who shrugged and shut the door behind them.
“What’s a haint?” he asked.
Ephraim swiveled to face him, arms still folded around his narrow middle. His smile was open and easy and Theo recalled his manners with another rush of guilt.
“I’m sorry, would you like something to drink?”
“Only if it’s no trouble,” Ephraim said, soft and earnest, and Theo led him to the kitchen. Once there, he pointed to the stools at the carefully restored bar and waited until Ephraim was settled on one of the cushions.
“Tea or cocoa?” he asked, and didn’t mention the hope that sparked in Ephraim’s eyes at the mention of cocoa.
“Water would be just fine,” Ephraim said, but Theo was already pulling the cocoa powder out of the cabinet.
“I want some too,” he said, and set a clean saucepan on the stove. “Of course, this is assuming it won’t burn the kitchen down or catch on fire or something.”
Ephraim clicked his tongue. “Been doing that? Guess it is angry.”
"The haint," Ephraim said. "Ghost, you'd call it. You never heard that term?"
"I'm from the city," Theo said as he poured the milk into the pan and turned the heat to low. "We tend toward a more civilized view of things there, like the revolutionary idea that ghosts don't exist." Ephraim snorted softly and Theo rummaged in the drawer until he found the whisk and the sifter for the cocoa, and set all his tools out in a neat row. He glanced back to see Ephraim’s cheek propped on his hand, lashes on his cheeks. Even from where he was, he could see the delicate blue veins in Ephraim’s eyelids, the dark circles that looked like bruises under his eyes, and concern made him move closer.
“When’s the last time you ate a full meal?”
Ephraim jerked upright. From the surprise on his face, that wasn’t the question he’d expected. “Don’t see how that’s any of your business,” he said flatly.
“It’s not, but a stiff breeze would knock you down,” Theo said, gesturing at him. “Look at you, are you ill?”
“I’ll thank you to keep your nose to your own business,” Ephraim said, tugging his sleeves down over bony wrists. “I guess maybe you can deal with the haint on your own, if this is how you’re going to be.” He moved to slide off the stool and Theo flung out a hand to stop him.
“Wait. Please, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend, I just—” He gnawed on his lip, a nervous habit he’d never outgrown, and Ephraim’s eyes eased a fraction.
“I don’t need your charity,” he said, his voice still soft but with steel echoing through it.
“Of course not,” Theo said instantly. “Look, just—what the hell is going on? What’s a haint? Why are you here? Who’s the granny witch, and for that matter, what’s a granny witch and how can she even help me? I don’t understand any of this and—” He looked closer. “Why are you laughing?”
Ephraim managed to quell his giggles, hiccuping and covering his mouth. “I’m the granny witch,” he said, eyes dancing.
“Oh,” Theo said faintly. He reached for the pan to stir the milk without looking away from Ephraim’s bewitching smile. “What, exactly, is a granny witch? And—forgive me for pointing it out, but—”
“I don’t look much like a granny, I know,” Ephraim said, smile still curving his mouth. “It’s not usually something the menfolk pick up, but Mama was real insistent I learn the craft, being the last of the line and all.”
“The craft,” Theo echoed. “What is it you do, then?”
Ephraim lifted one narrow shoulder. “Whatever’s necessary,” he said. He looked suddenly sad, slim fingers worrying a thread on his cuff, and just then the milk chose to boil over, running down the sides of the pan in scalding, steaming foam, and Theo swore and yanked it off the heat.
“This keeps happening!” he said, waving off the clouds of steam, and dumped the pan in the sink on top of the other burnt items, resisting the urge to kick the cabinet.
Ephraim rose. “Should have known Old Man Whitaker wouldn’t let go of this place so easy.”
Theo coughed through the smoke. “What? Who?”
“This is the old Whitaker place, you knew that, right?”
"Well yeah," Theo said. He grabbed a washcloth and began wiping up the milk still bubbling on the stove surface. "But he died like forty years ago, didn't he? The house has been empty since the eighties."
"No one's lived here since the eighties," Ephraim corrected. "It ain't empty."
A chill skittered down Theo's spine on icy feet. "This is ridiculous. Ghosts aren't real."
Ephraim didn't dignify that with a response. He was looking up at the ceiling, head tipped back and throat exposed.
Theo glanced away guiltily, but Ephraim didn't seem to notice. "There," he said, pointing.
Theo followed his eyes to the unremarkable corner of the kitchen ceiling. "I don't see anything," he said.
Ephraim's eyes crinkled. "Wouldn't expect you to. But reckon that's where Maisie Whitaker hung herself, way back when."
Theo gaped at him and back at the corner. The paint and plaster seemed unmarred, no cracks or stains.
"How do you know?"
"'Sides I can see her?" Ephraim countered. He laughed out loud at the consternation and disbelief Theo knew was on his face. "You ain't gotta believe me, posh city boy like you—guess it's easier for you not to believe in haints and spooks and the like. But she’s there, plain as day."
He reached in his pocket, eyes on the corner, and held something out to Theo without looking at him.
Theo took it and then nearly dropped it. "What—”
"Crow's foot," Ephraim said absently. "Keep it on you."
Theo stared at the wizened claw in his hand, grimacing. "Did you seriously kill a crow just for your... witchcraft or whatever it is you do?"
Ephraim whipped his head around, eyes suddenly flinty. "Judas was a member of my family until the day he died of old age," he said. "I'll thank you not to make assumptions about what I do or how I do it."
Theo gulped. "Sorry," he said.
"Reckon you don't know no better," Ephraim said after a minute, and headed for the living room.
Lacking a better idea, Theo trailed behind him. Ephraim moved quickly, striding through the living room in a big counter-clockwise circle, then from there down the hall to the laundry room tucked off the back porch.
He didn't say anything, moving with purpose, eyes intent, and when he'd swept through the entire downstairs, turned to Theo, right behind him.
"I need to see the upstairs," he said.
That got the same treatment as the downstairs, although Ephraim spent particular time in the guest room at the far end, kneeling with his hand splayed on the aged boards and muttering to himself.
Doubt was beginning to replace the fear Theo had felt downstairs. When Ephraim stood and turned, Theo had his arms crossed over his chest. Ephraim raised his eyebrows.
"I know that look," he said.
"This entire thing is stupid," Theo snapped. "Ghosts aren't real, this is all just coincidences and weird stuff but it's not supernatural, okay, none of it is, because stuff like that doesn't happen . Please just... get out of my house so I can go to bed, I have a long day tomorrow."
To his surprise, Ephraim didn't argue. He just nodded and slipped by Theo into the hallway.
"When you change your mind, follow the road up the mountain," he said at the door. "It knows how to find me."