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a moment in the rough

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Shane knows the house doesn’t look like it would be haunted. It’s even somewhat pleasant, with even Ryan suggesting the house “has an air of deception about it” in the melodramatic way he talks when he’s allowed to go on about these old buildings.

The house has been modernized recently, with the open space and minimal décor that has been popularized in recent years. And it’s pleasant, completely benign. Even the basement they’re walking through looks harmless, clean and odor free in a way that most of the places Shane and Ryan visit can’t also claim. It’s almost forgettable in its normalcy.

But Shane is staring at a woman with a deep gash in her head and a terrible look of shock on her face. The blood surrounding the wound is mostly dried, matted in her hair and across her forehead in a way that looks as if it would be tacky to the touch. The blood continues down the bottom half of her face in a parody of tear tracks, running down the curve of her cheeks and over the flat line of her expressionless mouth.

She’s dressed in something a little more recent than typical period clothing, a dress that could have been a popular style at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s dark blue and covered in blood, with the fabric around the collar stained to appear nearly black.

She looks like the woman in the old newspaper clipping Ryan had shoved into Shane’s hands earlier that day, babbling about murder and the paranormal, nearly trembling in his excitement; another case, another opportunity for evidence, for proof. She looks older; the photo perhaps taken a few years before her death. It’s unmistakably her.

For a brief moment, they lock eyes. Shane shifts his gaze just shy of too quickly to miss the spark of awareness in her eyes, the moment when she realizes she’s being looked at rather than through. She doesn’t react beyond that; Shane isn’t even sure she can, but he shifts from foot to foot, uncomfortable regardless. 

Shane swallows and pushes down whatever emotions the woman in front of him inspires. It’s something closer to guilt than fear; he hasn’t been afraid of these spirits in a long time. But he doesn’t remember her name, can’t recall the exact moment Ryan told him between describing her house and describing her death.

Ryan, unaware, is a few steps ahead, calling out in his reinvigorated determination for proof: “If there’s anyone here, say something now. Maybe throw something around. Give us a sign you’re with us.”

He sounds so serious, respectful even. Shane sometimes thinks it borders on reverence, and he smiles in spite of himself. Because sometimes he wants to give Ryan the world. He wants to give Ryan proof. He wants to stand Ryan in front of the woman before him, and watch as Ryan stares through and beyond her as Shane insists there’s someone there.

Ryan calls out again. The woman doesn’t respond, not even to glance in his direction.

“Knock me on my ass already,” Shane eventually chimes in, staring at the woman, but calling out to the room. She doesn’t respond, and Shane doesn’t expect her to.  “Pull my skin from my bones! Prove to Ryan you’re a lesser coward than he!”

He says his taunts with a flourish, and takes a moment to enjoy Ryan’s nervous chuckle—always somewhere between amused and terrified at Shane’s antics—before Ryan replies, “What’re you doing, man? There’s like, demons here or something." 

“Come on, Ry. It’s nonsense.”

Shane repeats the same sentiment again, again, and again and again. It’s the same at every house, asylum, hotel, everywhere they go, and sometimes Shane thinks it’s all he has to say. It’s all he can offer up to the face of the woman before him and Ryan’s unseeing eyes.

It’s nonsense. It’s fake. It’s bullshit. It’s nothing.

A fresh trail of blood runs down the woman’s face as she continues to stare, and Shane resists the urge to wipe it away in some fucked-up act of courtesy. Her mouth is open, widening slightly as empty eyes again meet Shane’s. For a moment, he stares back, searching her gaze for that spark from before. He’s surprised to realize her eyes are green.

Her face is abject in its agony, and Shane resists looking away again. He can’t decide if she’s in pain or just maybe just scared. He doubts anyone has seen her—acknowledged her directly—in a very long time.

Eventually, her mouth hangs open fully, slack-jawed and somewhat grotesque. She still remains quiet.

“It’s all bullshit,” Shane continues, and Ryan just laughs at him, shaking his head at Shane’s predictable skepticism. Shane waits for a reply, maybe a hasty defense on Ryan’s part, but when none is forthcoming, he decides, “I think we should move on to the other rooms. Maybe our girl will be more talkative upstairs.”

Ryan agrees, turning quickly back toward the door, insisting that the basement gives him the creeps. Shane watches Ryan shiver as he briefly brushes against the arm of the unmoving woman, but doesn’t comment. The woman herself fails to recognize the contact.

Ryan tenses, but only says, “Let’s get the hell outta here,” before reaching out and pushing Shane along as well.

Unlike the spectral woman, Shane feels almost electrified by Ryan’s touch. Ryan runs hot like a furnace, and Shane can feel the heat of Ryan’s hand bleeding through his jacket and across his back. For a brief instant, Shane considers reaching back and grasping Ryan’s hand, if only to feel the warmth against his own skin.

Instead, he hunches forward, separating himself from Ryan’s touch completely. He regrets the loss of contact almost immediately, but soldiers forward toward the basement door and steps leading back upstairs. 

Shane thinks the woman watches him go, but he refuses to look back and can’t be sure.

***

One thing Shane notices—and can’t account for—is that they don’t show up on camera. Not even for him. He can never find an outline or even a glimmer, but instead is subjected to the same normalcy that anyone else would encounter had they accidentally pointed their camera toward one of these leftover souls.  

It makes him curious in a way Shane knows only leads to frustration, and he often thinks endlessly of Ryan’s stupid bottle of toothpaste, debating with himself again and again on whether its nosedive was simply gravity or possibly something more. He thinks of the way it falls—unnatural, but still so mundane. And Shane thinks endlessly that this was the start of Ryan’s belief. This small unaccountable act hurdled Ryan toward his current trajectory, and maybe even toward Shane.

There are countless souls drifting throughout the Queen Marie, as Shane learned during his brief stay aboard the ship with Ryan and their seemingly uneventful investigation. But after so many years, they’re mostly benign. They had stared at him with eyes set in hollow faces, with very few attempting to interact. But Shane thinks to himself that if anyone could inspire them toward action, it would be Ryan and his absolute conviction, and he forces himself to tamper his own smile at the thought.

Eventually, Shane pulls himself back to the present and stares at the footage in front of him, blank despite being the exact spot where the woman had stood. The empty basement that fills the frame appears larger for its conspicuously absent occupant, and Shane doesn’t think of how confining it felt when it was just he, Ryan and the woman filling its space, all calling out to each other in their own way.

The woman’s name was Katherine Abel. Ryan had repeated it in his futile attempts to contact her in her old bedroom. Ryan had called out to her again and again, and Shane had watched as she eventually came to hover in the doorway, otherwise unresponsive and unwilling to enter the room. Ryan had said the room felt heavy, causing a feeling of despondence that he thought Shane wouldn’t believe. But Shane had been staring at the translucent frame of Katherine Abel, her face still the perfect picture of agony, and had not replied.

Katherine was most likely murdered by her father, but it was never proven. It was the turn of the twentieth century, and the lack of forensic evidence combined with an incompetent investigation led to her father walking free. He would outlive his own daughter by several decades. But in the afterlife, Katherine was left alone in the small house. Wherever her father ended up, it wasn’t with Katherine. Shane would like to think he’s somewhere rotting.

“Find anything good?” Ryan pops up behind him, leaning over the back of Shane’s chair so he can get a good look at his screen, squinting at it as if he expects a ghost to appear right there before his eyes. But it’s only the same 20 seconds of footage—the same emptiness—that Shane’s been staring at for the last 15 minutes.

Shane thinks he covers well for how Ryan startles him, and tries not to laugh piteously at how—out of everything—only Ryan seems to be able to draw that sort of reaction from him.

Ryan leans further down and presses slightly against him, and Shane keeps from responding to the sudden warmth he feels against his shoulder, except to carefully lean into it the smallest amount. It’s a comfort against the unexplainable blankness before him. If Ryan notices, he says nothing.

“No, you know this,” Shane replies, and there’s a taunt in his voice if Ryan’s willing to go looking for it. But he glances up and Ryan is smiling, eyes crinkled in a way that suggests his mood is too good for Shane’s cynicism to spoil. Shane smiles back, open and completely content. “Nothing as usual.”

“That’s from when we were in the basement, right?” But Ryan continues on before he gets an answer. “I was going over the audio and I swear there’s a whisper when I asked her to give me a sign that she’s with us. I can’t wait until we go over evidence together. You can eat your words then, asshole.”

Shane scoffs, and remembers Katherine’s cold eyes and unmoving features. Shane tries to be lenient toward Ryan’s “evidence” when they encounter more recent spirits—the ones young enough to remember themselves, who try to garner Shane’s attention and seek out his assistance—but Katherine is barely more than a shell. Given a little more time, and he thinks she’ll fade out completely.

“Trust me, you’re just hearing things. It’s probably just us moving around or something.”

Ryan laughs, the outlandish way he does whenever he thinks Shane’s being ridiculous and overly dismissive. He’s trying to speak between breathy giggles, and something like, “You’re unbelievable, dude,” finally makes it way out.

Shane feels warm all the way to his core, and he wants to lean back further into Ryan and bask in his presence completely. But his eyes focus back on the video, and the emptiness where Katherine belongs chills him almost instantly.

Shane grounds himself in the faint press of his shoulders against Ryan, calming himself considerably. He wants to press back completely, encounter something inarguably solid compared to the phantoms of their exploits. But more than that, he wants to grab Ryan by the shoulders or possibly take him by the hand. He wants to beg.

Shane would say, I’d show them to you if I could or even They’re right there and I need you to see them just as much as you want to.

He wants to reach out to the point that it hurts, and that pain settles somewhere deep in his chest next to Katherine’s hopelessness and Shane’s own anxiety. It makes Shane feel primal and reckless, so close to losing it all on the slight hope of understanding or comfort.

But after a moment of silence, Ryan straightens up and steps back, and Shane’s shoulder cools to match the rest of him. Ryan returns to his desk, and he’s only a few feet from Shane, but the urge to reach out vanishes anyways. This is a distance Shane doesn’t know how to close—the space between Ryan’s belief and Shane’s reality.

But he yearns for it the way Ryan yearns for his ghosts and for his proof.

He turns back to his screen fully and presses play on the footage, while his mind wanders back to Katherine. He stares hard at the screen, giving off the appearance that it holds his concentration completely. He knows that nothing will appear.

***

At home, Shane tries not to entertain his nerves at the sight of the ever-shifting shadows that follow him around as he makes his way through his flat, picking up stray glasses and bowls as he shuffles toward the kitchen. Most of them are actually bullshit, tricks from his eyes that are too accustomed to something lurking right at the edge.

But some of them press closer, and Shane quickly shifts his gaze so as not to make out any details. He squeezes his eyes shut, but the image of Katherine Abel in her blue dress with her thousand-mile stare is superimposed against Shane’s eyelids, waiting for him every moment he blinks or contemplates respite.

He briefly considers dinner, before realizing he simply doesn’t have the appetite. Eventually, Shane pours a glass of water and tries not to read too much into the way the water shifts and turns even after he’s set it down.

Seated on his old sofa, Shane’s mind again turns to Katherine, unmoving and alone in her unassuming, quiet house. She hadn't even tried to speak, to reach out to Shane in any way other than her eyes. But the agony of her countenance was unmistakable.

Suddenly, he feels exhausted.

Shane thinks of Ryan’s hand pressed firmly against his back, or Ryan’s torso leaning lighting against his shoulder. Shane thinks of heat, of hands pressed against his skin anywhere he can get them. Shane thinks of the way he followed Ryan into the house—into every house, asylum, hotel—down the stairs and into the basement, always drifting behind, and feels just as much Ryan’s ghost as Katherine is his.

Ryan and Katherine. He can’t separate the two in his mind.

Another wave of exhaustion hits Shane without preamble, and he downs the cold glass of water in one go to counteract its effects. He’s not ready to sleep tonight.

At some point, Shane turns on the TV. He restlessly attempts to watch the program in front of him; his focus falls in and out, and he catches only half of the news story playing before him. Another local murder. The second of its kind within a month. Authorities are following up on all possible leads. Shane blinks slowly and feels as the words glide over him and around the room.

Every few seconds his eyes glance toward his laptop, but Shane looks away just as quickly, caught within the same cycle of reluctance and guilt that follows him around endlessly. He doesn’t want to do this tonight; he’s not even sure it would matter if he did.

Eventually, he sighs and turns off the TV, cutting off the newscaster just as she begins a new story on the increased number of violent crimes reported throughout the city. It’s as close to an omen as Shane is willing to admit.

He grabs his laptop, pulls up Google, and—before he can change his mind—hurriedly types Katherine Abel. An endless page of search results appears before him.

He considers what he learned from Ryan as he relayed to Shane the details of the case, and then he thinks of the woman he saw brutalized, left a shadow in her own home. He steels himself for the more gruesome details to come.

After a few hours, Shane closes his laptop and picks up his phone.

He feels tired; he doesn’t want to do this. He closes his eyes, and he sees Katherine. Shane sighs, long and low.

Shane blocks the caller ID before typing in the number he memorized out of dozens on an online YellowPages listing. The phone on the other end seems to ring endlessly, and Shane entertains the notion that no one will pick up. He wonders if he’ll have the courage to try again tomorrow. 

Eventually, the ringing stops and Shane hears a click before a woman’s muttered, “Hello?”

“Yes, I’m calling for an Isabelle Abel?” Shane asks, keeping his voice as even and pleasant as he can manage. He thinks it shakes slightly, and some part of him sinks down at the evidence of his own nerves.

“Uh, speaking. Who’s asking?”

Shane ignores the questions, before stating: “Just listen, please. Your great aunt Katherine was murdered by her father. He was never convicted, but she deserves the justice of someone knowing what actually happened. It was officially deemed an accident, but it was murder. It was her own father.”

Shane hears a choked gasp, but he doesn’t wait for a reply. He hangs up.

He considers again the hollow eyes of Katherine Abel, trapped in a worn face no longer capable of expression. Shane can’t be sure that this is what she needed; it’s so hard with the older spirits to tell what will help them move on. But he hopes.

An instant passes and Shane glances back down at his phone, and he stares at the list of recent calls. For a brief moment his thumb hovers over Ryan’s name, and Shane considers shifting his hand only slightly and pressing down. He considers calling. Confessing everything. Breaking down. Begging Ryan to come over and sit too close and say nothing and somehow comfort Shane regardless.

After a few moments, his screen times out and goes black. Shane swallows thickly and feels like he’s holding down expectations and disappointment and something unidentifiably bittersweet all at once.

Eventually, Shane sets his phone down, leans back against the couch and closes his eyes. It’s a long time before he eventually falls asleep.