“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."
TW: suicide mention
Theo closed the door behind him, stalked to the kitchen, and spent the next hour scrubbing charcoal off every surface. He was still angry when he was done, but the worst of the energy had burned off. He sighed and dropped the sponge in its dish, sneaking a look at the corner of the room. It appeared unchanged, the wallpaper faded in spots where sunlight had damaged it, patchy with old damp and the occasional bit of mold.
Next up on his list was taking all the wallpaper down and restoring the natural wood, he decided, and wiped his hands on the towel.
Might as well sleep. Tomorrow, he’d go in and borrow the diner’s wifi and find out what the internet had to say about granny witches. He took the desiccated crow’s foot from his pocket, grimacing, and dropped it in the trash before climbing the stairs to his bedroom.
But sleep didn't come. Instead all he could think about was delicately veined lids covering silvery grey eyes and a slow, entrancing smile on a distractingly lush mouth.
Theo finally dozed fitfully, dreaming of a soft, husky voice and gentle drawl.
Screaming woke him again. He bolted upright, heart pounding, and looked around. The room was dark and still, but before he could lie down again, another scream ripped through the velvet black.
Theo scrambled out of bed, swearing, and groped for the flashlight he'd started keeping beside the mattress. He knelt by the window, keeping to the wall, and peeked out the lowest pane. The moonlight filtered through the bare tree branches in splintery fragments, too weak to reach the ground. There was no wind—everything was utterly still.
The longer he knelt on the bare boards, the more foolish Theo felt. It had been a dream, that was all. A vivid, terrifying dream brought on by the stress and frustration of his evening and the tales Ephraim had spun.
An owl hooted and its mate answered, farther up the hill. Theo stood. Sleep was impossible. He wasn’t about to risk further incidents with the stove, no matter how much he wanted cocoa, but maybe he could find out a bit more about the previous occupants of the house.
All he knew from the realtor was that Solomon Whitaker had built the house himself around the turn of the century, making it one of the newer houses on the mountain. He and his wife Maisie had lived here until her death in the forties. The realtor had glossed over the details of how she passed, saying only that it had been peaceful.
Theo snorted to himself and stalked out of the bedroom, heading for the attic stairs. There were some old boxes up there he’d been meaning to haul to the dump, but he hadn’t found the time yet. Maybe there was something in there.
The house creaked and settled around him, a sound almost like a forlorn sigh as Theo climbed the steps, flashlight still in hand.
The attic was bare—no cobwebs, no dust, no spiders. The boxes were stacked neatly in the far corner under the sloped roof, and Theo ducked to avoid bumping his head on the rafters, dropping to his knees and lifting the first box off the pile.
Old Life magazines, dating from the fifties and sixties, were on the top of the stack. Wonder if they’re worth anything? Theo mused, setting them aside. Next was a set of Reader’s Digest condensed books. Theo flipped through them idly but found nothing interesting.
At the bottom of the box, he struck gold with what looked like a family Bible, a huge, leather-bound thing stuffed with loose papers and filled with tiny, crabbed writing on the pages.
Theo crossed his legs and settled the book on his lap, opening to the first page. Solomon Whitaker’s signature on his side of the family tree was tightly controlled, each letter precisely set down. Maisie’s was loose, sprawling, the shapes of the letters almost unrecognizable. Theo traced each signature with his finger. There were three names underneath Solomon and Maisie’s lines, and he bent to see them more clearly.
Prudence Whitaker, b. 1923, d. 1924, aged 6 mo., 3 days.
Solomon James Whitaker II, b. 1925, stillborn.
Aaron Joshua Whitaker, b. 1927, lived two days.
Theo swallowed and turned the page. A branch tapped on the glass and the wind picked up again, moaning softly through the trees.
“Give it a rest,” Theo said aloud. “This is called overkill, and I’m not impressed.”
The branch stilled and the wind died off. Theo suppressed a grin and studied the next page. It seemed to be a genealogy of Solomon’s family line, dating back to the 1700s.
“Where’s Maisie’s?” Theo asked the book. “Seems a little misogynistic to only have the man’s family tree.” The wind rattled the glass, making him jump. “Stop that!” he shouted, and the breeze died off.
Coincidence. Theo leafed through the book, pulling out the loose papers. Most of them appeared to be sermons, treatises on spirituality and the dangers of hellfire. Was Whitaker a preacher? Or just very religious? Theo filed that away to ask the realtor or someone else who might know. Maybe Ephraim.
He shook that thought off. Ephraim was as unhinged as he was attractive. Theo didn’t need that kind of imbalance in his life, no matter how grey his eyes were or how sweet his smile.
He spent a few more minutes looking through the Bible but nothing else jumped out at him. Finally, Theo set it aside to inspect more thoroughly in daylight and put the rest back in the box.
The second box held a wedding dress, white silk yellowed with age, lace at the wrists and neckline gone ivory. Theo didn’t take it out of its resting place, putting the lid back on with care and setting the box aside gently.
The third box was stuffed to the brim with baby clothes, layettes, delicate hats and ribbons and tiny shoes that looked either hand-knitted or crocheted, Theo didn't know the difference. The stitches were intricate, meticulously detailed. Theo cupped one in his palm. It weighed almost nothing but he could feel the love that had been poured into it, could almost see Maisie Whitaker bent over it, maybe humming a soft tune to her rounded belly as she made shoes for a baby that wouldn't make it out of infancy.
Theo set the shoe back in the box, feeling like an intruder. “Sorry,” he said under his breath.
Bible tucked under his arm, he padded back down the stairs to the bedroom.
He woke up on the edge of a cliff, inches from toppling over the edge. Theo flung himself backward with a startled shout and landed hard on his back in the dusty road.
Reality snapped into place with a sickening rush and Theo froze where he lay, staring up into a deep blue sky studded with icy stars. He wasn't in his bed. He wasn't in his house. He was somewhere on the mountain, barefoot in his soft pajama pants and thin T-shirt, with absolutely no idea how he'd gotten there.
Theo dragged himself to a sitting position, trembling all over from the adrenaline still coursing through his system. He could see the edge of the road he was on, a sheer drop into blackness just a few feet from where he was sitting. If he'd taken another step forward, he would have fallen God only knows how far.
“This is impossible,” he said aloud. A shiver wracked him and he rubbed his arms as gooseflesh rose. Impossible or not, he was very obviously no longer at home, and he was also in danger of freezing to death if he didn't get indoors quickly. He scrambled to his feet, hugging himself, and turned in a circle. He didn't recognize this part of the mountain, but judging from the way the trees had thinned, he couldn't be far from the peak.
That meant it was a hike of at least two miles back to his house. Barefoot, in below freezing temperatures. A light caught his eye and Theo straightened. That wasn't starlight—that was the warm golden glow of a habitat, friendly and inviting, and Theo was moving in that direction before he stopped to think.
He stumbled into the clearing and up the steps onto a neatly swept porch and pounded on the door with a shaky fist.
“Please, please, please,” he chanted under his breath.
Rapid footsteps sounded and the door swung open to reveal Ephraim, looking not at all surprised. “You threw the crow’s foot away, didn’t you?”
“You win,” Theo said through chattering teeth. “I'm haunted. Please can I come in?”
Ephraim put him in front of a fire that was crackling merrily and whisked a heavy blanket off the back of the couch and over Theo's shoulders, wrapping it neatly around him and tucking it under so no drafts could get in.
Theo clutched the blanket to his chest, teeth still chattering and body wracked with spasms, as Ephraim straightened.
“Stay there,” he directed, and disappeared. He was back in under a minute with a mug and pressed it into Theo's hands. Fragrant steam curled up into Theo's lungs and he took a sip of hot apple cider with a grateful shudder.
“Y-you knew,” he managed after a minute.
Ephraim settled cross-legged on the rug beside him. The firelight threw half his face into shadow, dancing across the other half in quick, teasing ripples as he arched a brow.
“You were waiting,” Theo continued. “It's—what time is it?”
“About three AM,” Ephraim said.
“No reason you'd have a fire going this time of night,” Theo said. “And lights on so I knew where to go and hot cider ready when I got here?” He shook his head. “You knew I was coming.”
“I suspected,” Ephraim said. “I thought it… likely. Your haint is escalating.”
Theo closed his eyes and groaned. “What do I do?”
“You’ll sleep here tonight,” Ephraim said. “And maybe it’s time to tell you the story of Solomon and Maisie Whitaker.”
Sitting in front of the fire, Ephraim told Theo the tale. Born into the long, glorious tradition of bootlegging, Solomon rose quickly through the ranks of his family’s business until he was calling the shots, making rotgut whiskey and moonshine in various stills that were carefully hidden from any law enforcement officials who had the bad sense to come snooping around.
Most people knew enough to stay away. Solomon ruled his tiny kingdom with an iron fist. His word was law, and those who bucked his rule paid dearly.
Theo pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders and watched Ephraim’s profile as he gazed at the fire. He looked tired, Theo thought, and guilt tremored through him.
“Before your time, I guess, unless you’re a lot older than you look,” he ventured.
Ephraim’s eyes creased with amusement. “I’m only twenty-five,” he said. “I never knew him, but my—” He hesitated. “Reckon you could call her my aunt. She knew him. Tangled with him, time or two.”
“She and Solomon married young. She was a sweet thing, my mama said, quiet and shy and I suspect lonely.”
“I found a Bible in the attic,” Theo said. The warmth from the fire and the blanket were finally making themselves felt, and he relaxed slightly, leaning back against the base of the couch.
“Don't imagine there was much joy within those pages,” Ephraim said quietly. He drew his knees to his chest. “Solomon wanted babies. Maisie couldn't give them to him—not ones who lived, anyway. And when they didn't—”
He shifted around until his back was to the couch as well, close enough their shoulders brushed, and stretched his long legs out in front of him.
“When they didn't, he blamed her?” Theo guessed.
Ephraim nodded. “She held out, long as she could. But finally she couldn’t take another minute, and she left the only way she knew how.”
The firelight washed his features a soft gold, making him look young and vulnerable, and Theo was torn between wanting to kiss him breathless and a sudden need to protect him, keep him safe from whatever horrors haunted him.
“I don't need protectin',” Ephraim said, turning to face him.
Theo stiffened. “Are you psychic too?” That was just what he needed, on top of all the other weirdness going on in his life—a disturbingly attractive young man who could also read his mind.
Ephraim laughed and shook his head. “Mama always said I was Sensitive.” Theo could hear the capital letter in the word but Ephraim wasn't done. “It's easier with just one person—I don't hear much in a crowd 'cept noise.” He sobered. “I'm doing fine, but I appreciate the concern.”
Theo had his doubts, but he didn't argue. “So I'm the first person in the Whitaker house since he passed on? Is that why he's so pissed?”
“That and you're—” Ephraim hesitated and Theo rolled his eyes.
“The race thing again?”
“And the, ah... Solomon was pretty set on 'one man, one woman', from everything I've heard.”
“Ah.” Theo scowled at the fire. “Solomon was a prick.”
That startled a snort from Ephraim. “Indeed he was, and things ain't changed much since he died.”
“So how do we get rid of him?” Theo asked, turning back. “Can we?”
“'Course we can,” Ephraim said, sounding nettled.
“Well, what do we do?” A yawn caught Theo by surprise, and he covered his mouth hastily, mumbling an apology.
“First, we sleep,” Ephraim said, eyes creasing with gentle amusement. “You can have my bed. I'll take the couch.”
“Absolutely not,” Theo said. “I'll sleep on the couch.” He folded his arms, daring Ephraim to argue.
Instead, Ephraim laughed quietly, deep in his chest. “I like you,” he said. “You may not know how we do things, but you're alright, for a city boy.”
“High praise,” Theo said, nudging Ephraim's shoulder, but he couldn't stop his own smile. “Listen, I'm sorry I was an ass, before.”
“I've dealt with worse,” Ephraim said, ducking his head as his smile widened. “And I reckon they never said 'we', neither.”
A delicate silence drew out between them like spun sugar, sweet and fragile.
Ephraim broke it before Theo could. “I said I didn't need protectin’,” he whispered. “I didn't say you couldn't kiss me.” His eyes were dark and unknowable, the fire reflected in them, and Theo caught his breath and reached out, cupping the back of Ephraim's neck and fitting their mouths together.
Ephraim tasted like apple cider on Theo's tongue, tart and sweet, his lips parting as his taut frame loosened in Theo's hands like sun-warmed honey.
“God, you’re beautiful,” Theo murmured against his mouth. “I saw you on my porch and I—” He nosed along Ephraim’s jaw, pressing soft kisses into the skin. Ephraim shivered all over and brought a hand up, curling it loosely around Theo’s bicep.
“Thought—” Ephraim’s voice was husky and he tilted his head up so Theo could investigate his throat. “Thought you were gonna knock me flat.”
Theo laughed and drew away. “It was a really stressful evening. I am sorry about that.”
Ephraim’s smile spread slowly and Theo couldn’t help bending to kiss it off his face. Ephraim made a contented noise, but when Theo tried to lift his shirt, Ephraim caught his hand and stopped him.
“Not that I wouldn’t love to let you explore some more,” he murmured, his pupils blown so dark only a thin strip of grey remained, “but we got a lot of work to do in the mornin’. We should sleep.” He flattened a palm against Theo’s chest. “Separately.”
Theo sagged and groaned theatrically, mostly for the laugh that won him. It was the first real laugh he’d heard, and it lit Ephraim’s thin face, grey eyes dancing as his lips curved and a dimple appeared in his cheek.
“Sure you don’t want my bed?” he asked.
“Only if you’re in it too,” Theo said, leaning in to drop a kiss on Ephraim’s straight nose and then rolling to his feet. He held out his hands and pulled Ephraim to a standing position, smiling at him. “I’ll be fine on the couch,” he said. “Are you going to tell me what we’re doing tomorrow?”
“More fun to show you, I think,” Ephraim said, matching Theo’s smile. “But I guess I should ask—how do you feel about the color blue?”
TW: creepy imagery (it's a ghost story, y'all), talk of suicide
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If he’d thought Ephraim was beautiful before, Theo mused, standing in his kitchen with hands on hips, it was nothing to Ephraim on a ladder, wearing faded overalls tied around his waist and a white t-shirt that had seen better days and clung lovingly to his spare frame.
He was all angles, razor sharp and lean, humming to himself as he painted the ceiling in broad, smooth strokes and Theo watched.
“What exactly is this shade of blue supposed to do?” he asked, mostly to distract himself from the way the muscles shifted and slid in Ephraim's shoulders.
Ephraim's eyes gleamed as he looked down at him. “It's haint blue.”
“And that's just... supposed to explain everything?”
The ladder wobbled dangerously as Ephraim laughed. “Spooks don't like it. We'll do your doors and thresholds, too.”
Theo steadied the ladder and Ephraim's eyes creased into triangles of amusement.
“I ain't gonna fall,” he said, but he touched Theo's shoulder briefly before returning his attention to the ceiling.
Theo looked around the kitchen. It was spotless from his attentions the night before, nothing out of place except for the ratty leather satchel Ephraim had brought down the mountain with him. Theo made sure the ladder was steady and took two quick steps to the trash can. The crow's foot wasn't any more attractive in the daylight, but Theo scooped it out and dropped it into his pocket before returning to the ladder.
Ephraim said nothing, but the silence was approving, and Theo found himself relaxing slightly.
“So do you have to... I don't know, banish Solomon's spirit or drive him out somehow?” he asked.
Ephraim hopped lightly off the ladder and moved it along the floor to the next segment of the ceiling. “Most likely,” he said, climbing the steps again and accepting the paint roller from Theo. “Usually they'll leave of their own accord, but I get the feeling old Solomon's gonna make us work for this.”
“Maybe we should kiss some more,” Theo suggested. “You said he was homophobic, right? Maybe it'll make his head explode. If he has a head, I guess.”
Ephraim's laugh pealed out. Theo was half in love with that sound, he thought, and he wanted to hear it more.
“So what's the procedure for banishing malevolent ghosts?” he asked instead.
“Gotta cleanse the place first,” Ephraim said. “Once we’re done painting, I’ll show you.”
Done with the kitchen, they carried the supplies through into the living room. Ephraim lingered in the hall, looking at the pictures still hanging on the wall.
“I keep meaning to take those down,” Theo said, pausing. “Did either of them leave any relatives behind who might want them?”
Ephraim shook his head, gray eyes sad as he trailed a finger along the heavy frame of the biggest one. “Not a soul living would want these, I reckon. Maisie’s family is long gone, and the Whitaker family these days ain’t a shadow what it used to be.”
Solomon glowered out at them, brooding, heavy brow and pursed mouth, his hand resting possessively on Maisie’s shoulder. Maisie sat with her back straight and head up, but her dark eyes were sad and she stared unsmiling at the camera, hair black as a raven’s wing smoothed into a severe bun at the nape of her neck.
“She was beautiful,” Theo said.
“‘Deed she was,” Ephraim said quietly. “Good as the day was long, too. Solomon didn’t deserve her.” He looked at Theo. “We should keep going.”
Painting took most of the morning. Around noon, done with the living room ceiling, the hall and upstairs left, Theo called a halt for lunch.
Ephraim protested. “Still lots to do, we should keep going.”
Theo ignored this and marched to the kitchen, Ephraim trailing behind him, arguing.
“We can eat later,” he pointed out. “We should get this done while the sun’s up and Solomon won’t bother us.”
Theo pulled out the loaf of bread he’d made two days before that was—miraculously—not moldy, and the knife.
“Theo,” Ephraim complained.
“I figured it out,” Theo said, and sliced a piece of bread.
“Figured what out?”
Theo cut another slice. “Why you’re so skinny.”
Ephraim crossed his arms, bristling visibly. “Is that so.”
“Yup. You’re so busy taking care of everyone else that you forget to take care of yourself. When’s the last time you had a proper meal?”
Ephraim scowled and said nothing.
“That’s what I thought.” Theo pointed at him. “You’re going to eat. We’re going to eat. And we’re not doing anything else until we have food in our stomachs.”
Theo dropped the knife and reached out, hooking a finger in Ephraim’s overalls and pulling him close.
They hadn’t kissed since the night before. Theo had wanted to, on easily a dozen occasions, but the time hadn’t been right. Judging from the way Ephraim’s throat bobbed and his eyes had gone wide, he was feeling the tension too. But Theo didn’t close the gap, much as he wanted to.
“We’ll be done in time, and we’ll work faster with fuel in our systems.” He skated fingers up Ephraim’s too-prominent ribs, making him shiver. “How long have you been doing this, anyway? Banishing ghosts and everything?”
“Born to it, remember?” Ephraim said. He was warm and yielding against Theo’s body. Despite the hunger in his eyes, there was no urgency in his voice as he brought a hand up to rest lightly on Theo’s waist. “Mama always said I had ghosts in the blood. Runs in the family.”
“So you’ve done this all your life? How do you make money?”
Ephraim shrugged and stepped away, turning to wash his hands in the sink as Theo returned to cutting bread.
“I don’t need much,” he said over his shoulder. “I keep a garden. Do a lot of canning in the summer. Folks give me things—either food or money—when I help them. I sell remedies and the like. I do alright.”
They ate sandwiches sitting on the porch, the weak winter sun filtering through the canopy above them and setting Ephraim’s hair aglow. Theo watched him surreptitiously but Ephraim didn’t seem to notice, gazing thoughtfully out over the clearing.
He pointed. “Down there, past that tree—see the one I mean? Back in there is the Whitakers’ private cemetery. I ‘spect I’ll need to pay a visit to the graves when we’re done with the house.”
Theo nodded absently, still watching him.
Ephraim smiled at his sandwich and took another bite.
“What about you?” he asked when he'd swallowed. “What brought you to Kine?”
Theo gestured wordlessly at the valley spread below them. The side of the mountain dropped steeply, trees hugging its slope in hues of brown, the occasional stubborn evergreen among them. At the bottom of the mountain, the river carved its way through the rock in glittering silver.
“We do have some good views,” Ephraim agreed. “Do you work from home?”
Theo hunched his shoulders. “I'm—” He grimaced. “I sold an app. I'm technically retired.”
Ephraim's eyes widened. “Nice! What kind of app is it? Would I know it?”
“Probably not, unless you’re a Youtuber or Instagrammer,” Theo said. “It’s a social media organization app. Basically, say you’ve made a post that you want as many people as possible to see—this app analyzes the post, diagnoses exactly what demographic it appeals to most, the best hashtags to add for visibility, and the optimal time to post it.”
Ephraim looked thoughtful. “I can see how that would be helpful. Not that I’m on Instagram much.” He grinned. “So how’re you liking Kine?”
Theo shrugged. “I like it, but I don't think the townfolk like me much.”
“They don't do well with outsiders,” Ephraim agreed. “Doesn't help you don't look like them. Fuels that whole 'not one of us' idea. Don't worry—they'll come 'round. Hell, they looked at me funny when I came back from college, and I'm a local born 'n bred.”
“Did you major in ghost-hunting?” Theo asked, grinning.
Ephraim laughed and elbowed him. “Asshole. Comparative literature and ancient religions, actually.”
Theo's eyebrows rose. “Double major, wow. Couldn't have been easy.”
Ephraim shrugged and hopped to his feet. “Daylight's wasting, more to do.”
Theo followed him back inside and accepted the paint roller from him with only a tiny grimace. He was rewarded with one of Ephraim's rare smiles, and Theo fought the urge to kiss him again.
Ephraim's smile widened but he just dipped his own roller in the tray and set to work again.
They were working on the doorframes when something shattered behind them in the hall below the stairs.
Theo spun to see the picture of Solomon and Maisie facedown on the floor, glass shards spread around it in a fractured halo. He swore under his breath and stomped over to pick it up. Ephraim said something but Theo didn’t hear what he said, bending to lift the heavy frame. Ephraim's shout startled him and Theo jerked his head up just as a shard of glass whipped past his throat and embedded itself in the wall behind him.
Theo fell over backwards, scrambling to get away, and Ephraim caught his forearm, hauling him upright, but when they reached for the door, the knob wouldn’t turn. Theo jiggled it, swearing. Ephraim shoved him hard and Theo stumbled sideways just as another shard hit the door where his head had been.
“Kitchen,” Ephraim said, and grabbed Theo’s hand.
They were halfway there when their surroundings blacked out, like liquid pitch poured on driven snow. Ephraim slammed to a stop and Theo ran into his back. There was silence for a moment in the black, so dark Theo couldn’t even see Ephraim’s silver hair. Then came the sound of someone breathing, slow and ragged and malevolent, echoing from every corner of the hall.
Ephraim’s hand tightened painfully on Theo’s wrist. “This ain’t your place now, Solomon,” he said, voice slicing clear and sharp through the gloom.
The laugh was wet, slippery, as much hacking cough as amusement, and horror crawled over Theo’s skin. Ephraim’s bag was in the kitchen, with—presumably—ghost banishing supplies in it. All they had to do was get there. Theo felt along the wall with his free hand. The entrance to the kitchen was close. It had to be. He took a step, then another, as Ephraim moved with him, keeping his thin frame between Theo and the source of the laugh.
“Mine,” Solomon rasped. His voice seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere, disorienting in the black. “Mine!”
“Not anymore,” Ephraim said flatly.
Theo felt along the wall. The door had to be close, where was it—hot wind brushed his face, bringing with it the fetid stench of rotting flesh. Theo gagged and Ephraim yanked him sharply sideways.
They fell into the kitchen in a sprawling tumble of arms and legs, sunlight drenching them through the window over the sink.
Theo rolled to his hands and knees and dry-heaved as Ephraim lunged for his bag. The hall was solidly black, like a curtain had been drawn across the doorway.
“Stay here,” Ephraim said briefly, and before Theo could protest, he flung himself back into the hall, vanishing immediately.
“Ephraim!” Theo scrambled to his feet and lunged after him. He hit the doorway and bounced off with a grunt. He staggered back and tried again, with the same result. It was like a sheet of black steel had been welded in place between the kitchen and the hall.
“Ephraim, goddammit!” No answer. Theo turned in a circle. What was he supposed to do? He wasn't trained for this shit.
His gaze landed on the corner where Maisie had hung herself. It was just as unremarkable as before, plaster and wallpaper, nothing to suggest a miserable, trapped woman had taken the only way out she'd thought possible.
Theo swallowed hard. “Maisie?”
No answer. The hall was silent, like Theo was alone in the house.
“Maisie,” Theo said again, feeling foolish. “Maisie please, my friend—he's—Solomon's going to kill him, I have to help him, Maisie, please—”
The air shimmered and Theo gulped and held his breath.
“Run.” It was a breath, a whisper, a suggestion of a word, and the hair rose on the back of Theo's neck but he stood his ground.
“I can't,” he said. “My—I have to help him. Please—”
The air shimmered again and then smoothed out. “Salt,” Maisie sighed. “Go now.”
Theo grabbed the fat-bellied stone jar of salt off the stove and charged the doorway.
He burst through into tarry blackness and stopped dead. He wasn't in his hall, with the familiar warped board in the corner and the mahogany siding under the stairs.
There were trees arching high above his head, and he could see stars between the branches, Theo realized. His blood turned to ice in his veins and he clutched the salt jar to his chest and turned in a circle. All he could see were trees in every direction, all he could hear a black, brooding silence that hung over him with claws ready to sink into his flesh at any moment.
“Ephraim?” Theo whispered.
No answer. Theo took a step backward, toward where the kitchen was, and a branch kissed the nape of his neck, clammy wet on his skin. Theo ducked forward, gripping the salt even tighter, as a howl ripped through the air.
It came from down the hill, Theo realized, and he was plunging that direction before he thought, slipping and sliding down the steep slope, salt jar in the crook of his elbow as he fought to keep his feet under him.
He fell into a clearing on one hand and his knees. A thud and grunt echoed and Theo looked up just as Ephraim fell backward and landed on top of him.
The salt jar skittered across the ground as Theo and Ephraim went sprawling in a tangle of arms and legs.
“Eph,” Theo panted. A sharp elbow dug into his ribs and he wheezed painfully. Ephraim was bleeding from a cut on his temple, red streaked across his cheekbone and down his jaw. His mouth was set in a grim line and he pushed himself up, off Theo’s form.
“Get out of here,” he said, and clambered to his feet, back to him.
Theo scrambled upright too and Ephraim put out a hand, holding him in place.
“Don’t touch him,” he said, voice like frozen nails, and Theo looked up, over Ephraim’s shoulder, to see Solomon.
He hovered, six inches off the ground, skin rotting off in great, peeling swathes, teeth showing through the gaps in his jaw. When he smiled, nausea welled and Theo had to fight the urge to vomit.
“You will both die here,” Solomon rasped.
“Go,” Ephraim hissed to Theo.
“I’m not leaving you,” Theo snapped. “Tell me what I can do.”
“I gotta lay his ghost,” Ephraim said, and shoved Theo sideways just as Solomon hurled a heavy stone at them. It sailed by and thudded into a tree behind them, and Theo took in their surroundings for the first time. They were in a tiny cemetery. Solomon had thrown a headstone at them, he realized.
“How?” Theo demanded, and ducked another stone. At least there’s no glass for him to throw here, he thought, and pushed Ephraim out of the way of yet another missile. “Can we hit him?” he asked, twisting sideways just in time to avoid a branch hurled like a spear. “Is he solid?”
Solomon laughed and the wind whipped up, flinging dirt and pine needles into their eyes.
“Doubt it,” Ephraim panted. “Gotta get—” He threw himself flat to avoid the next stone as the wind howled, circling them like a tornado, shrieking like a wounded creature. Ephraim rolled back to his feet and feinted sideways. Solomon followed the movement and Theo used the distraction to dive across the ground and grab the jar of salt.
He rolled with his momentum and wrenched the stopper off. A bubbling snarl echoed across the clearing as Theo shoved his hand inside and grabbed a handful. He flung it out and salt sprayed in a graceful arching curve.
Solomon howled. Ephraim grabbed Theo’s wrist and yanked. Solomon flickered. The wind died. Theo dropped the jar and stumbled in Ephraim’s wake.
“Help me pick it up,” Ephraim gasped, and bent to catch the corners of a huge, white stone. Theo obeyed and together they heaved until the stone came grudgingly free of the dirt. It was easily two hundred pounds, cold and unforgiving in Theo’s hands. The sky was black, barely a foot of visibility in front of Theo’s nose, but Ephraim seemed bright somehow, almost glowing from within.
“Where is he?” Theo managed as they staggered toward one of the remaining headstones, still set deep in the ground.
“You chased him off,” Ephraim said between his teeth. “T’won’t hold him long though, we gotta lay his ghost fast.”
Sure enough, another snarl tore through the black and Theo flinched, nearly dropping his heavy burden. The wind picked up again, catching and pulling at Theo’s hair and clothes.
“How do we—” Theo jerked sideways and just caught the stone before it fell as another branch barely missed him.
“On the head of his grave,” Ephraim said, and a rock hit him from behind.
He went down like a rag doll, sprawling bonelessly as Theo heaved desperately and just kept the stone from landing on Ephraim’s body.
“Eph,” he said as he came to his knees, and Solomon laughed, glee thick in his voice.
Theo looked around him. Ephraim’s glow was extinguished, his body limp. Theo swallowed the impulse to go to him and instead struggled to his feet as the wind battered him. He dropped the stone the first time he tried to pick it up.
“Give up,” Solomon hissed, and Theo set his teeth and tried again. Every muscle straining, he got the stone off the ground and staggered in the direction of the grave, praying it wasn’t far.
Please, please, please—his foot caught on raised ground and he nearly fell. He’d gone far enough that he couldn’t see Ephraim’s form in the gloom. His face was numb from the cold and he couldn’t feel his hands. The stone fell from nerveless fingers and Theo scrabbled at it, swearing under his breath.
“Solomon.” The voice was clear and cold, slicing through the black, and Theo froze as Maisie’s slim form materialized in front of him, between him and Solomon. Her back was to him, body rigid and contained, but Theo could feel the steely determination radiating off her. She glowed, almost like Ephraim had, and Solomon roared.
Theo let the noise and fury roll over him and pulled on the stone, bent double and dragging it up the grave. He went to his knees as Maisie and Solomon clashed in the middle of the clearing. Bracing himself on the frozen ground, Theo put the palms of his hands against the rock and heaved, lifting it up and over.
It teetered on its edge before toppling onto its face on the head of the grave and Solomon screamed in pain. Light broke over Theo as he crouched on all fours, panting for air.
He twisted to look behind him. Solomon was gone. Daylight bathed Ephraim’s body in a soft, white glow and Theo didn’t bother getting to his feet, scrambling on hands and knees to his side.
Please be alive, please—
He found a pulse and nearly sobbed in relief.
“Theo.” Maisie’s voice was soft, desperate with unspoken sorrow.
Theo lifted his head. Maisie knelt beside him. Theo could see trees through her body. She met his eyes.
“Put me to rest too,” she whispered.
Theo blinked, slow to figure out what she meant. “The—stone?”
Maisie nodded. “Please, Theo. I’m so tired.”
Theo stifled a groan and stood. It didn’t take long to find another heavy stone, but it was much longer before he managed to get it across the cold ground to Maisie’s grave.
His hands were bleeding, he realized dimly as he pushed the stone up onto the mounded earth. It didn’t matter. He hesitated before allowing the stone to settle into position, looking up into Maisie’s dark eyes.
Thank you, she mouthed.
Theo almost managed a smile and let go. Maisie winked out of sight and Theo sagged, head drooping.
“Th-Theo?” Ephraim’s voice was blurred with confusion and Theo stumbled back to him, dropping to his knees beside him. “What—”
“Be still,” Theo said. “You’ve probably got a concussion.” He cupped Ephraim’s jaw, wiping away a trickle of blood with his thumb.
“I had help, but yeah,” Theo said.
Ephraim closed his eyes, dark lashes stark on his pale cheeks, and his mouth curved. “You did it,” he whispered.
“I guess I did,” Theo said, smiling back, and bent to kiss him, wind soft in the trees above them.
Sorry about the delay, cats and kittens. Life threw me a curveball and it took me a few days to get my mojo back. Come find me on Tumblr if you haven't, and thank you so much for reading!