Norman was starting to know that look on sight.
It varied a little from person to person, but the basics were still the same: the deep frown, the wavering, the taking little steps back and forth as if not sure where to go. And the staring. Always the staring. Even if they decided to walk away, Norman always knew they were trying to figure out whether to approach or not.
I might be crazy, that look said. But I’m going to ask anyway.
Salma had none of that hesitation – at least not at first.
When she first walked up to him that morning, it was business as usual, down to the brisk stride and the clipped “Norman.” That was when she hesitated.
“… Salma?” he said.
“I need to talk to you.” She glanced around, as if to make sure they were alone. “Do you have a minute?”
“Yeah. Yeah, no problem.” He usually tried to sound more calming, more reassuring – it generally helped when someone burst into tears on him – but Salma wasn’t the bursting-into-tears type. “What’s up?”
“It’s not me, just so you know,” she sniffed. “I have better sense than that. Our house is brand new, built in the seventies. Previous owners are alive and well, living in Boca Raton.” Norman thought he kept a straight face, but she sighed and added, “I looked it up, after the Agatha Prederghast incident.”
“... okay,” he said slowly, at a loss. “Then what is it?”
“I don’t know if I’ve told you this, but my grandmother lives pretty close to here, twenty minutes away. In the old Sutton House.”
“You mean…” Norman swallowed hard. “Oh.”
“Right.” She flashed a thin smile. “So I don’t have to explain, then.”
“Absolutely not,” his father declared.
“I wasn’t finished yet,” Norman muttered to his green beans.
“You are now,” Dad said. “No, Norman. I’ve heard about that place. I saw it on Ghostbusters, or Ghost Fighters, or whatever that program is.”
“The one with the cute one?” Courtney said.
“Whichever one!” Dad shot back, increasingly agitated. “They recorded all sorts of knocking and screaming and whatever else. You’re not going there.”
Norman sighed. Most of the time he was happy that his family believed him now, but sometimes it was much easier not to tell them anything. “I promised Salma, Dad. Her grandmother’s lived there for twenty years and she’s been fine, but she says it’s different now. She’s scared.”
“I swear to God, Norman,” Courtney said. “I can’t believe you sometimes. You need to be charging some kind of fee for all this. A consultation fee or something.”
“… consultation fee?” Mom echoed in a high, bright voice.
Courtney beamed. “Dylan’s going to go into finance.”
For the third time that month, nobody pointed out that Courtney’s college boyfriend Dylan was about to flunk out of freshman Econ.
Mom took the opening to slip into the conversation. “Perry, Norman knows a lot more than we do about these things,” she said. “And he did promise his friend.”
“Listen, if Norman’s gonna be a psychic—”
“Medium, dear,” Mom corrected.
“—psychic, medium, either one,” Dad grumbled. “He’s gonna have to be more careful is all I’m saying.”
“Then maybe someone could go with him,” Mom said.
“I don’t need—” Norman began.
“Who, exactly?” Dad snorted. “Sorry, kid, but none of your friends are really bodyguard material.”
“Oh.” A slow smile spread across his mother’s face. “I don’t know about that.”
And that was how Norman ended up in the Sutton House driveway with the Downe brothers the next night.
“Maybe I could stay in the car,” Mitch said, hovering by the driver’s side door.
“You’re the bodyguard, Mitch!” Neil protested, far too chipper for the circumstances. “What if Norman gets snatched up by Angelica Sutton?”
“… I have good ears,” Mitch said at length. “I could totally hear the screaming from here.”
Shaking his head, Neil turned to Norman and asked, matter-of-factly, “You did tell your dad there’s probably nothing Mitch can do, right?”
“I tried.” Norman clutched his backpack to his chest and hopped out of the backseat. “He never used to be like this. He acts like I’m going to get eaten every time I leave the house.”
“He does kinda have a point,” Mitch mused.
“So how does this go?” Neil chirped. “How are you going to get rid of her? Do you have to wave around a cross and be all ‘the power of Christ compels you!’ and all that?”
“N-No…” Norman shook his head, wide-eyed. “I mean, I think we’re Presbyterian, but still, I’m not going to exorcise her.”
“Why not?” Mitch said. “She’s scaring Mrs. Wilson, right?”
“But that’d be like killing her,” Norman said. At their stares, he added, “Again. It’s just, Angelica Sutton wasn’t a bad person or anything like that. She was a teenage girl who died from cholera. But she’s probably just been here too long.”
“So what will you do, then?” Neil said.
“Just… talk to her, I guess.” Norman closed his arms tighter around his backpack. “If she’ll listen to me.”
Mrs. Wilson, Salma’s grandmother, had left the door unlocked for them. Norman wished she’d left some lights on, too. He should have been immune to dark, silent old houses by now, but a chill settled on him anyway as he crossed the front step.
The Sutton House was small. There was that, at least. Not too many places for anything to hide. From the front doormat, Norman could see the living room, the kitchen, and the staircase down to the basement. All empty. Nobody there just yet.
But down the stairs, they heard a door shut.
Mitch took a huge step back, directly into the wall, and even Neil jumped. But Norman took a deep breath and called, in his most confident voice, “You don’t have to try to scare me. And I’ve probably seen all your tricks before, anyway.”
In response, a sharp burst of static blasted from the radio on the counter, and they all jumped that time. The static slowly dissipated. After a few beats of silence, a mournful voice filled the kitchen.
A chair is still a chair
Even when there's no one sitting there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there's no one there...
The music faded, and the knob slid back to the ‘off’ position.
“… okay,” Norman admitted at length. “That was new.”
“Ohhh,” Mitch groaned, “she’s gonna eat us.”
Norman was about to explain that ghosts didn’t eat people, but it occurred to him that he didn’t know for sure, so he decided not to tempt fate. As he stepped further into the Sutton House, he heard rustling under the floor.
“We’re not going in the basement, are we?” Mitch said. “’Cause I have these allergies—”
“Shhh!” Neil chastised. “You’ll scare her away!”
They hovered in the background as Norman wandered through the living room, looking for signs of life. Or death. Or whichever. “Angelica?” he called. “Are you here?”
A voice responded – though not to him.
“If you’re here, Angelica, can you give us a sign of your presence again?” It was the kind of high, mocking tone Courtney would have followed with an epic eye roll, but this voice laughed bitterly instead. “I already gave you your little show, kid, so how about you go away instead…”
Norman saw a shadow shifting behind Mrs. Wilson’s big red armchair, a kneeling figure. He didn’t have time to approach it before it slowly straightened and began to stand. Seconds later, he was face to face with Angelica Sutton.
She was abnormally tall and thin, like she’d been stretched, and her tattered shift hung loosely off her shoulders. Norman dared to think to himself that it wasn’t that bad, until she tipped back her dirty blonde hair and revealed two black shadows where her eyes should have been. And every line in her face radiated anger.
The longer a spirit had been unhappy, the more terrifying they tended to look, and Norman had certainly seen worse. But it was always an unpleasant surprise.
As Norman tried to swallow any reaction, Mitch leaned forward and stage-whispered, “Is she there now?”
Angelica locked eyes with Norman – so to speak – and her fury faltered. “You can see me.”
“… yes,” Norman squeaked.
“And you’re alive,” she pressed.
“I hope so.” He attempted a smile. “I just wanted to talk with you for a while. Is that okay?”
Angelica Sutton studied him, eye-sockets narrowed, but at length, she nodded. “I suppose.”
At her gesture, Norman sat opposite to her on the couch, clutching his backpack. Mitch looked uneasy, but Neil was watching Norman, completely rapt.
“M-My name is Norman,” he began clumsily, “and I’m a friend of Salma’s. Do you know Salma?”
Angelica hummed. “The girl. Mrs. Wilson’s granddaughter.”
Norman bit back a laugh. She even made her household ghost call her ‘Mrs. Wilson.’ “She says you two got along for a really long time, but it had been different lately.”
“And she doesn’t know why that is?” Her shoulders stiffened. “She brought those people in, just to make fun of me.”
“Oh…” Norman said. “The TV show?”
“That’s right.” Her voice grew low, and the floorboards shuddered. “She said they just wanted to talk to me, but they just wanted me to knock on the walls on command. They kept asking me if I understood I was dead. How stupid do they think I am? Of course I’m dead.”
“I don’t think Mrs. Wilson meant for that to happen. I think she just wanted to help you move on.” Norman shrugged. “And I don’t think she’d actually watched the program before, so…”
Another loud thump from the basement nearly drowned out her reply. “She’s tried everything. She’s brought in newspaper clippings on my parents, and my siblings, and their children, and their children’s children. She’s brought a priest, a pastor, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk. Nothing’s worked.”
Norman blinked. “Where did she find the Buddhist monk?”
“Sudbury. I don’t know.” Angelica crossed her arms and dropped back into the chair. “She keeps telling me I shouldn’t stay here. If I could have left I would have left already, especially when she’s made it clear I’m not wanted. But I don’t even have any unfinished business. I was dying a long time. I said everything I needed to say to everyone that mattered.”
“Sometimes it’s not like that, though,” Norman said. “Sometimes people just get stuck anyway.”
She just watched him for a moment. “And you help people get unstuck?”
“I mean…” He fidgeted, suddenly nervous. “I try, I guess.”
For the first time, Angelica turned to Mitch and Neil, taking them in. “And these two help you.”
“Well.” Norman said. “That one is my bodyguard… sort of.”
“Really.” Angelica’s lips finally twitched upwards as she looked over at Mitch, who looked unsettled to be called out. “And the little one? He doesn’t seem to be bodyguard material.”
“He says he likes to watch,” Norman said.
“A strange thing to say when he can’t see me,” Angelica said, and as Neil leaned further forward, she added, “But I suppose it’s you he likes to watch, isn’t it?”
“… yeah.” Norman hadn’t thought of it that way, but he guessed that was true. He was lucky it was dark. Neil probably couldn’t see him turn red.
Angelica turned back to Norman. “When Mrs. Wilson realized I was here, she thought I was her husband, at first. He died not long before she moved here. But even when she found out I wasn’t, she wasn’t sad. She just acted like I was a friend she couldn’t see. She talked to me without knowing for sure if I was listening, and I answered her knowing she wouldn’t hear me. Her husband was her companion, and then I was her companion.”
She folded her hands on her lap. “When she wanted me to go, I thought it was because she wanted to find someone living again. But you do both, don’t you? You talk to them, and you talk to us.”
“I didn’t always,” Norman mumbled. And sometimes it was still a little awkward –the dead were, more often than not, easier to talk to than the living. But he still wouldn’t trade that balance for anything. “But I found out it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I’m sure Mrs. Wilson knows that, too. I think she just wanted to do something for you. As a friend and all.”
Angelica considered that for a long, long moment. Then she smiled for real, and Norman could almost see how she might have looked when she was alive. “You’re very kind. I’d forgotten people could be so kind, after so much time alone with him.”
As soon as the words left her lips, a faint glow began to appear in the cracks of her skin, and the air around her trembled. She studied her arms wonderingly and sighed, “Oh. Of course. That’s what it was.”
“Angelica?” Norman asked. “What are you—”
“That’s it,” she said breathlessly. “I was leaving this house, not long after I died, but I saw something, something that had been here the whole time. And I thought I should tell someone, and after that I couldn’t find the way out—”
“Tell someone what?” Norman pressed. “What’s been here the whole time?”
But a dull roar filled the room as the light shone brighter, almost drowning out her voice. “Tell Mrs. Wilson I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have stopped protecting her from him. But I was so angry…”
“Protecting her from what?” he called over the sound. “Who’s him?”
Angelica’s last words, barely audible, echoed through the room long after she vanished:
“The one in the basement.”
The house was dark, silent, and still again, and Norman didn’t dare to move, even as Neil started towards him.
“She’s gone, right?” he said, beaming. “I think I actually saw something that time! I mean, it might have been dust, but—”
“Uhh. Norman?” Mitch glanced around nervously. “If the ghost girl’s gone… why does this place feel even creepier?”
Norman held a finger to his lips, waiting. And sure enough, somewhere from the bottom of the basement stairs, someone was breathing.
Sighing, Norman slung his backpack over his shoulders. The dead were generally less complicated than the living. But not by much.
“Sorry, guys,” he said. “We’re going to the basement.”
“Ohh.” Mitch nodded slowly as his younger brother bounded after Norman. “Well that sucks.”