“Ohshitohshitohshit.” Jay scrambled up from the floor. He patted his torso like he was patting a ghost-fire. “It’llbeokayit’llbeokayit’llbeokay.”
Four out of five invisible watchers stood by, witnessing the amateur electrician.
“You know,” Isaac said, “for this not happening before for 200 years, it is a surprisingly common occurrence.”
“Jay should really stop trying to fix the wires,” Alberta said.
“In-deed!” Hetty agreed.
“At least he didn’t fly into you this time,” Isaac said, eyebrows raised. He brushed a bit of nothing off his lace.
“It’s fine. It’s fine.” Jay patted the front of his shirt. “I’ve still got this.” He cocked his head.
“You know,” his voice pitched up. He smiled. It was an even grin that took up both sides and said ‘cheese!’ “I think it was the green wire.” He shrugged. “Ah well, live and learn! Haha. I’m sure we’ll walk through the barrier and fix this right up!”
Jay shook his head. “Thanks Pete. ...I think I just got possessed, again.” Jay swallowed. He nodded his head. “Right. I’m possessed by Pete. D&D guy. You know, this is much better than being stuck with someone else.—
“Right-o! At least I’ve upgraded from Arrow-guy. You know what they say: Team work makes the dream work!”
“Right on.” He held out his fist, “go team! Pete! My man!
“Oh, I hope everyone’s seeing this. We’re gonna have so much fun!” They blasted the fist in midair.
Alberta leaned towards her friend. “Can anyone tell me what just happened?” Alberta asked.
“I believe,” Isaac replied, “Jay and Pete are about to go on a ‘field trip.’”
“Right straight through the barrier, huh.”
Isaac nodded. “Right straight through the barrier.”
“Total missed opportunity, huh?”
“Your bets that Pete’s gonna make a detour to the kitchen?”
“Not a chance.”
Flower shook her head. “He’s such a square. I really wanted Pete to have some fun.”
Hetty wrung her hands. “I don’t know why he would miss such a flavor explosion.”
The four ghosts followed anyway.
Sam held up two paint chips. She looked over her shoulder. “Don’t you have anything better to do than to watch paint dry?”
“Really,” Trevor said, “I’d go with cardamom mist.”
“CREAM MAKE ROOM BIGGER,” Thor said.
Flower walked through the study wall. “Um, Sam—” she stopped, “Ooh! You’re picking out paint?! I know this color...” her head wavered “...are you seeing it? Ooh...Sam, how did you get the paint chips to dance...”
“Well,” Trevor said, “Anyways, cardamom mist is clearly superior. It reminds me of this room. It was 1993, and this chick was—”
“Okay, Trevor! It doesn’t need to be perfect, guys. It just needs to be painted before Jay’s mom gets here.”
“Because if his mom sees he’s living in a half-constructed dump, she’s going to be disappointed in him forever,” Sasappis said.
“No. His mom’s really excited about the B&B. His cousin will send pictures in the family group chat and lord it over him forever because she’s married to a champion racehorse doctor or something.”
“Don’t you mean a track veterinarian specializing in equine practice?” Trevor corrected.
“How—” Sas asked.
“You wouldn’t believe what they get up to. It was 1995 at the Barnstable Brown Gala. And there was Monica Bellucci, with Thunder Gulch—and it wasn’t—”
“I—never needed to know that about horses,” Sam said.
“Wait—” Sas asked, “—why is Jay’s cousin coming?”
“Yeah,” Trevor added, “If she’s so busy with ‘equine practice’?—huh?—Get it?” He twirled his finger. “‘Equine practice?’”
“Well,” Sam answered, “Mrs. Arondekar wanted someone to travel with her, and.” Her thumb flicked the end of a paint chip. “Apparently Bela is busy with her new boyfriend—”
Trevor braced himself, hands on his forehead and hip. “He better be incredible.”
“—on an international 90’s jam bands and clubbing revival tour—”
“Okay, too incredible.” He shook his head. “But, seriously, I’m happy for her. Do you think you can message her to send pics?—Or nudes—” He held his hands out “—I-if her boyfriend is alright with it, of course—”
“—Trevor—” She shook her head. “so...a-pparently Mrs. Arondekar requested the favor from Jay’s cousin, instead.”
“So she’s the unlucky cousin.” Sas checked.
“Or.” Thor shook his head. “Very lucky cousin.”
“Right.” Sam nodded. “The designated cousin. Now—any pallet advice?”
“I’m still voting for the cardamom mist.”
“My vote’s for the evergreen waves,” Sas said.
Thor shrugged. “Cardamom mist pretty good too.”
Pete clipped in their seatbelt. They put both hands on the wheel. “Do we have to start the car?” He asked.
His head bobbed. “That’s what we did last time,” his borrowed mouth said.
“And I’m not taking any chances.” Jay held up his finger. “My cousin’s coming Monday, and if the lights flicker in her room, she’s gonna turn it into a gif and post it every time someone complains about infrastructure in the group chat. And she lives in Texas.”
Pete shook Jay’s head. “That’s awful! I can’t imagine seeing the flickering lights becoming emblematic of my failure as an amateur electrician.
“Well,” Jay said, voice back to it’s normal register, “it’s not gonna be that way.
“Wait—isn’t it pronounced ‘jif’?”
Outside the car, the late captain tilted his head. “It’s quite fortuitous that Sam left to go to the stores to buy the extra paint.” He sniffed. “Gives Jay more room for his vehicle.
“Oh, to be inside Jay, like Pete; to feel what he’s feeling. The soft curve of the steering wheel, the sharp bite of the engine under our thighs...”
“Yeah,” Alberta said, “Why did she leave while Pete was in him anyway?”
“I don’t know. Flower was supposed to tell her.”
“Are you gonna press the button?” Jay’s mouth hung open. His head turned from the blue-lit button to his gravel driveway.
“Are you? ” His voice peeped, “I know we are aiming for accuracy, but I can’t help be aware that this is your car and we are about to drive into a invisible barrier that is going to be very painful, and, at that point, hopefully I’ll be gone and on the road—haha—but—if you do not re-gain control in time, it could be very dangerous and result in your serious injury.” Jay felt his throat swallow. His hands sweat on the steering wheel cover. “I think you should drive.”
Jay nodded. He swallowed. “Alright. But I want you, at least, to press the button.”
Jay felt his head nod. He watched his hand reach out. Click.
It was funny, feeling Pete step back. Hetty never did that. She always had her hands in his arms, even (especially) when he was ringing pigeons’ necks and brazing the birds. He felt his face smile like a flashlight.
“Alright! Good luck! Break a leg!—” His throat swallowed, “or, hopefully, don’t break anything. Hahe.
Jay pressed the gas.
“Oh-kay, it’s happening...it’s happening...” Jay ground to the barrier “...hang in there Pete, my man...We’re almost there...Oumph!”
He kept driving.
“Pete! Pete! Are you still here? Pete?!”
Isaac and Alberta blinked at the thundering vehicle. “Where’s Pete?”
“Wasn’t he supposed to come out the other side by now?” The two ghosts jogged to the barrier.
Alberta held her hand out. The air warped. “Yup. It’s still here.”
Isaac looked around. “But Pete.”
In the car, Jay felt a hand placed on his chest. “Jay...” his mouth said, “...I’m still here.” Pete turned around. The manor was in the rearview, beyond a copse of trees. He didn’t see his friends, even though he knew they must be there. Watching them. For their entertainment, at the very least. “Did we drive long enough?”
Jay nodded, hand on his chest, “It’s—it’s further than I’d driven the last time. I remember. I almost ran into that tree there.” He pointed to a tree behind them.
“Fiddlesticks.” His shoulders shrugged. His face lit up. “Ah well! I guess we gotta try again! Let’s put this baby in reverse and let’s get zooming!”
Jay nodded. “Sure, Pete, buddy.” It was worth a shot.
“What happened?” Alberta asked, “Where’s Pete?”
Isaac shook his head, wrung his hands. “I honestly do not know.”
“Well, I hope he’s all right. I like that little boy scout.”
“He is indeed the best of us. k-kum. Besides Flower.”
Alberta nodded. Her fingers ran over her string of pearls. “Besides Flower.
“...She’s really just getting that spot because she robbed that bank that one time.”
Isaac looked around. “Yes. Yes she is.”
Sam nodded. She was trying not to pay attention to the young woman whose right eye was replaced with the heel of a paint can, the lip of the can sunk into her skull. An undersaturated green, veined white with unmixed gloss, dripped down her face and over the (inevitable) blood. How? It was probably polite not to ask. Sam smiled at the living attendant’s (comparatively) understated septum piercing. “Two cans of cardamom mist and one can of estate cream, please.” She twisted, shrugged. “It’s for the accent wall.”
The living employee nodded.
“Cardamom Mist and Estate Cream,” the ghost sputtered through paint-slathered lips, “who are you trying to impress.”
Sam huffed. “No one,” she denied, “okay, Jay’s cousin. She’s a physicist. And her husband’s a ‘veterinarian specializing in equine practice,’ apparently. They have a group chat.”
The ghost leaned back from Sam and shook her head, eyes wide. Undersaturated green gobs spattered across the concrete floor, sheet-white droplets drizzled into the paint mix.
The living attendant turned around, their workboot smearing through unmixed green. They tilted their head. “What?”
Sam waved a hand. “Nothing.!”
“Cousins,” the ghost bemoaned. She snapped the sticky paint like caddy gum. “We were, like, two doors down. Until...”
“Until, um, what?”
She rolled her eye. “What do you think? It was totally Flamingo Pink.” She eyed Sam. The eye-ing did not have the reassurance of being distributed between two pupils.
“Group chat?” Sam ventured.
The late paint attendant sprawled across the spattered counter. “Group chats. All the way dow-n.” The paint-gloss dispenser hissed. “A girl tries to patch the whole mess with some Pistachio Gelato...” She pointed to her head. “Hey. I’ll say. It doesn’t taste like that. Least you’re trying Cardamom Mist.”
“Well, we ran out of Canary Yellow.”
“We can fix that!” The living attendant offered, “bring in a sample. Betcha we can match it.”
“Um, thanks! (Sure. Jay’s physics cousin is going to be fixed with a bunch of paint.)” Sam brushed a hand down her skirt, leaned against the opposite side of the paint counter; the mixer ch-chUNK ch-chUNKed. She looked at the former employee and her paint can. “I hope Jay’s alright. Maybe I should text him to see if he needs anything.”
beep. “Huh. Rope.” Sam tilted her head, “And he’s asking if we have any candles...” she began pitter-pattering on her phone, “w-e s-h-o-u-l-d period. H-o-w m-u-c-h r-o-p-e question mark. There we go!” She looked up from her phone to the (living) paint attendant. “A-and now you probably think there’s something weird going on. My husband’s a bit of an outdoors enthusiast,” she confessed, “he likes keeping up with his knots—oop! It’s done, isn’t it? The paint mixer. The paint mixer’s done.”
“Are we just going to watch them drive back and forth?” Hetty asks.
“It seems so,” Isaac replied, “he’s getting quite proficient at driving that strip.”
The car door swung open. “Alright. We’ve driven it, what? Eight times. Nine. Would you like to drive?” Jay’s head shook. His feet walked out of the car. The door slammed behind him. “At this point, I don’t think it’s really going to help,” his mouth said. It was weird. This whole experience was weird. He could feel Pete’s dejection.
“Well, at least we’ve already texted Sam to pick up the rope. And some candles. All we need is a bell and a book now, right?”
“Hey, uh, ghosts?!—Ask for Isaac. Isaac will know what to do.—He’s the one who has a crush on me, right?” Right. “He’s also been possessed before. Isaac! ISAAC! I CAN’T GET OUT OF JAY! Please tell me how to pull out! Are we going to have to do a home exorcism? Are we going to have to exorcise ourselves? Tell me how that works. Will we have to do it in front of a mirror or something?? Can a ghost exorcise another ghost?” Jay shook his head. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Calm down, Pete. We just have to wait until Sam gets home. She’ll know what to do. She’s watched the Youtube video, right?” He pitched his voice up, “even I’ve watched the Youtube video and it seemed pretty straightforward. Wait—why are we going to the bathroom?” Jay closed the door and flipped on the shower. “Hey, can someone go get Trevor? I need him to do his ... thing. His creepy thing. I’ll make pizza.” Jay waited and tapped his feet on the white tiles. “What are we doing?
“I know it might be a little weird and creepy—okay, a lot weird and creepy—that you can’t see everyone. But trust me. I’ve had a lot of practice interacting with people who I can’t see or hear. They’re all probably here, somehow. Still staring at us. Isn’t that right, Trevor? One tap on that upper corner for ‘yes.’”
Squeak. A dot appeared on the fogging mirror.
Jay’s body began hopping up and down. “Trevor! Trevor! Wait—oh! Who else is there? Flower? Hetty—I know you’ve been here before—Isaac?! I think we’re going to have to do a home exorcism—”
Squ-eak. Squeak. ... Squeak.
“Ooh. You’re all here.” Jay’s throat swallowed. “That—That’s good. I MISS YOU GUYS! WE’RE GOING TO DO AN EXORCISM AND I’LL BE RIGHT BACK! GOOD AS NEW! HAHA. ISAAC—ISAAC—CAN YOU HEAR—” Jay shuddered. “I’m pretty sure he can hear you just fine, dude. Y’know. This is a tiny room.” Jay straightened and smiled like a motivational cat. “Oh, right. Isaac. Can you tell me if the YouTube video we watched about the exorcism is going to work, please? And—ooh!—if I’m going to be able to have to do this on myself? Can you? Can a ghost exercise a different, possessed ghost? Can we wait for Sam to get home to record it? We already texted her to pick up the rope...” He leaned forward to the mirror. “Jay, I never realized how tired you look. Are you getting enough sleep? The prospect of your cousin coming must really be stressing you out. I can feel it! Isaac is normally on sleep-watching duty but—” Jay grabbed the bathroom sink. “Whoa. Pete. That's a lot of questions. Let’s just go with—Isaac, do you think the exorcism is still gonna work, since we drove through the barrier like, eight—nine!—nine times? And, uh...do we need anything else to get it to work. Yeah.” Jay nodded. “Those are your two questions. Yeah.” He rubbed his hand down his face. “Let’s start with that.”
Sam shook her head. “No—” she held up a hand. And an offending paint can. “Excuse me, but I believe this was supposed to be ‘Estate Cream’, not ‘Almonds In My Coffee’.” She shrugged at the attendant. “It’s just—one of my roommates is colorblind and I think he’ll notice.”
The paint specialist scrunched up their nose. “I’m sorry, m’am. I’m sure we’ll get that fixed for you. Right after we finish taking care of this scouting troop.”
“We’re building a mosaic!” One of the kids said. “It’s painting, Todd! Painting!” “Oh, you know what I mean.” “I’ve heard it both ways.” “Ms. Faucet says we all get to choose our own color!” “I want Knock-Out Orange!” “You don’ even know the color!” “Is Knock-Out!” “I want Passion Peach Punch!”
“Whoa-oh, kids. Kids,” The young woman smiled like a brochure. “This wall’s gonna be very active! (and apparently very violent) What about a cool Mattasaurus Rex?! You can look like a dinosaur!”
“It’s not a mosaic, it’s a mural,” one of the kids said. And they were off again. For dinosaur-themed paints. “This one’s named ‘Dinosaur’!”
The scout leader shrugged. “I’m very sorry about this. We’re painting a mural for the Day Rosefields Center—it’s an older-aged living facility, we thought that they would have lots of fun participating with the residents—and I said each of them got to choose their own color. After all, it’s like the Field Manual says, ‘Every trooper has their own color to contribute to life! Teamwork makes the dream work!’” She smiled like she believed it.
“Hehe, yeah!” Sam replied, “I have a friend—an old friend—who would say that. It’s just—I have some guests. My husband’s mother and one of his cousins are coming over, and we really need to get their room painted—we don’t want the results ending up on the family group chat! And...”
“I completely understand.” The scout leader was still smiling. “I’m sure everyone will choose their colors quickly and you can go paint right along!”
“Ooh! This one’s called ‘Pea Pod’!” “It doesn’t look anything like peas.” “What if you smoosh it...”
Sam smiled. “I’ll just be,” her head twitched, “picking up some rope.”
“Righty-o! Nice to meet you—”
“Nice to meet you, Sam! And, Hello!”
“Uh. Hello. Goodbye.”
“Have fun with your rope!”
Jay stared into the muffled bath-fogged mirror. “We’re uh, gonna.” He nodded. “This is gonna take a while.
“Do you remember the time you all wanted some kind of P-E tiny-C pizza? Except the ‘c’ was backwards? And really tiny? I think someone walked away. Trevor? Was that you?”
Sam watched the scout leader load a dozen grade schoolers into a ratty van. “Safety! Everyone!” she called out.
“Oh, I hope I get home soon....” she muttered.
“Fat chance,” said an old lady through her window. (And through her window. Her head and neck hovered through rolled-up glass.)
“It looks like you rolled over Mike’s renovation plans, which, un-sens-i-bly, in my opinion, included far too many nails.”
Sam rested her head on the steering wheel. “Oh no.”
The woman snorted. “At least someone listens to my advice around here.” She motioned to brush embedded parking-lot gravel from her bloody palms. “Been building houses and pools for 32 years...and one Chevy-I-can’t-be-bothered-to-have-his-lights-on...”
“Yes. Thank you.” Sam opened her door through the woman. “If you would excuse me...”
“Now,” Pete dug out Jay’s phone, “I wonder who that happens to be...” Jay’s eyebrows rose. “It’s your cousin!” His voice squeaked, “she’s coming early! Wow! She’s coming today! Yes. I know Pete. I can read it.” Jay looked up from his phone. “Can you hurry up here?”
“That was a rhetorical question!”
“Hey, honey,” Jay kissed her on the cheek. “Glad you’re home. You would not believe...”
“So sorry I’m late! There were a bunch of kids and then I accidentally parked our tire into an eight-inch nail...”
“Well, good thing it wasn't a Nine-Inch Nail... Do you perhaps have the rope? That I asked for...that’s perhaps in the ca...”
“Oh. No. What is it. Sam? Sam!? Oh no, is she okay? What do we do??”
“I’m fine. I’m fine, Jay. I just think I forgot the rope.”
“Oh no. I’m never going to get out of this,” Jay squeaked.
“Get out of what?”
“Uh, hehe.” He held open his palms. “Funny story. Ha.” He tweaked his nose. “I was trying to fix up the guest bedroom’s lights...”
Sam tilted her head. “Jay, please tell me you didn’t...”
“Oh yes,” Isaac said from over his shoulder, “he did.”
“...and I kindof...”
“Jay. Who is it? Who did you fly into this time? It’s not Trevor, is it?”
Trevor walked into the hall. “Hello, I’m present and accounted for. But I can still stand-into your husb—”
“It was Pete. Hi! Jay and I have got to be preparation buddies! We tried driving through the barrier a half a dozen times—nine times—but it didn’t work! So we are hoping for an exorcism.”
“Isaac was going to guide us through it.”
“I’m sorry Pete. I forgot the rope.” She held up a couple of buckets. “I did remember the paint, though.”
“Oh. Right. The paint.” Jay’s shoulders shrugged. “Wait—” Jay said, “—if you gave us the receipt, Pete and I could run back out for the rope. And that way you can get started painting the room.”
“That’s great, Jay, but what if—”
“I go on a bender and re-discover Hot Cheetos?”
Jay smiled. It looked like school picture day and he had practiced getting his picture taken. “That’s okay! Moderation is important to any healthy lifestyle! I’m sure I’ll be fine! I’ll let Jay take back over. Right Jay? Err. Yeah. Sure. Right.” He flexed his fingers. “Give us the receipt. We’ll go get the rope.
“I’m sure I can exorcise myself from my own ghost.—Well, actually, Isaac said that we would probably be in too much excruciating, distorting pain to finish the last bit! But that’s fine! Self-exorcism it is!”
“Great. I have no idea which one of you said the last bit. But it’s fine. I’ll just go out to the car and get the receipt for the rope.”
“Great!” Jay’s mouth smiled like We’re going to Disney World, kids! “We get to go on a drive! It’s been a few years since I’ve been anywhere besides this house, a few square green miles of the grounds, and that strip of driveway we drove down, like, nine times this afternoon! yay! I’m excited! I mean—not great, because we have to get started on painting for your cousin but, we’re going that way anyway...” Jay grinned. “Right-on! Pete, my man!” He tossed his keys into the air. “...And maybe, we’ll stop by to get you—” he tapped the air “—a Hot Pocket on our way back. ...as long as you don’t just suddenly decide to go on a giant binge and eat the gas station...”
“I was wrong!” Sam called from the front hall, “Found the rope! I’ll meet you upstairs!”
“Al-right. We’re not going to go on a drive, then.” Jay spun his keys.
“Okay!” Jay’s voice squeaked. Jay shook his head. “Yep! I’m fine! I’m fine! That Hot Pocket probably couldn’t make it up to my memories anyways. Haha.” Jay’s hand set on the rail and his feet began to ascend the stairs. “Actually.” Jay looked down. “Not at all okay.—Jay—” He lurched. Grabbed the banister. “Nope! Like, seriously. Man.” His feet scrambled. “I know. I know.” Jay held up his hand. “We really do need to go get exorcised—because my cousin and my mom are going to be knocking on our door at any minute now. Not that Champa Arondekar wouldn’t love you. If she knew it was you. And that you are currently hanging out in my body.” Jay shook his head. “Oh, hehe. What is my life? But. Pete. I gotta tell you, man. I’ll be really sad to see you go.” Jay’s mouth smiled like he just spotted a tree full of presents. “Right-o! Jay, I’ll be fine!” Jay smiled like he was staring at a wall full of sheltered puppies. His feet started stepping.
“No, but really. This was way better than last time. I don’t quite feel like I’m being colonized from the inside out. Right? We make a really good team. Yeah. I’m going to kinda miss seeing you go.” They got to the last stair. Jay’s hand brushed across the banister. “I’ll hang around again when you’re working on the electrics. Yeah.” Jay gave a half-smile, pushed open the door. “Thanks man. I might work on the other-other guest bedroom next.” Jay turned around to his wife. “You got the computer, babe?”
Sam nodded. “Right here.” She lifted the screen.
A woman smiled at him in storefront display; a bell, book, and candle lit and paused in 1080p60.
“I couldn’t find a silver bell,” Sam continued, “do you think a porcelain one will work? Hetty pointed me to her collection...Apparently Trevor thinks the one in the video is pewter...but, Alberta thinks it’s probably actually tin. Or some nickel alloy. And Flower doesn’t think it’ll work without—” She looked between the bedposts. “Jay?”
“Huh!?” He looked up from the twisted comforter. He blinked.
“Jay.” She stepped forward. Her hand reached out. “Are you okay?”
Jay blinked. “Oh! I gotta—” He swept his hand across the bed.
“Mm-hm.” Sam nodded.
Isaac entered behind her. “Right. Now. Tie him up!”
“You really wanted to say that, didn’t you,” Alberta muttered behind him.
Isaac looked over. “It is the first step to a successful exorcism. A veritable precaution. Not that I’m not looking forward to seeing Jay tied up.” His eyebrows jumped. “For protective reasons.”
“Right. Captain,” Sas said. He stopped by the nightstand. “Nothing to do with the rope. I’m sure we’re all recording this for academic purposes.”
Sam set the laptop on the dresser. Jay sat on the bed. He swung his feet. Clapped his hands together. “Right! Let’s just tie me up and get this occult ritual started, shall we? Not like my mom and cousin aren’t going to be pulling in our driveway in 15 minutes.”
“Oh, yes. Right.” Sam agreed.
Jay stopped. “Jute?! Jute!?! You got us jute rope?!?”
“What’s wrong with Jute rope? The guy at the store said it was easy to knot.”
“Sam!” Jay’s mouth fell open, “If I am going to be tied down and exorcised, I am not doing it in inferior rope!” He pointed at the ground. “Why not go with cotton, then! Come on Jay! We’re going back to the store!” He nodded. “Isaac! P-lease tell Sam that I don’t deserve to be tied down with in-ferior rope!”
Isaac shrugged. “Jay does not—”
“—And he’s probably talking about Jay now? Isn’t he?! Just never mind good old Pete! Your buddy! Your friend! I’m in the Friend Zone! I’m al-righty and great! Just great! Just ask your old buddy Pete to help out! What color do you want the walls, Pete?! I don’t know—! He’s colorblind! Do you want to eat or drink when you haven’t had the chance the past 30 years? Oh, no your buddy Pete’s fine! Just fine! I still have an arrow in my neck and I can feel Jay breathe around it and all I wanted was to be special for once.” He smothered his face in his hands. “I just wanted to be able to guide Pinecone Troopers again! To have someone to look up to me. I might not be the oldest or the newest or the coolest or have a really-easy special power that you can just walk through, but I loved my life. I enjoyed being able to be there for everyone.
“At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want? For everyone to work together? To be part of something bigger—or,” he shrugged, “in this case, someone?
“I want to be able to see my friends. I want to go to Summer Camp again. And do you know the only person who’s stuck with me through this? A-and I realized what it’s like to be important again. To be seen—even though he can’t really see me ‘cause I’m kinda in his head—hahah.” Jay took a breath. “Which is to say, I’m taking a buddy and we’re going on a field trip. And we don’t care who says funny things or if we get mocked in the family group chat forever. Because adventurers support each other. And I might have to leave Jay before sunset tonight—because that seems kinda reasonable when it comes to a possession deadline—no pun intended—but I’m going to live while doing it.” He nodded.
Jay turned back his head and half-smiled. “You heard the man. We’re gonna be going out on an adventure. Just us bros.” He shrugged. Patted his own shoulder. “You can tell mom to help you paint the walls. I already have stew cooking.”
Sam stood in the bedroom. Jay snagged from her hands the inferior jute rope. “Right. Have fun, honey.”
Jay’s finger hit the blue-lit Start button. “So,” he grinned in the rearview mirror. “Where are we going?” His hands reached for the glove compartment. “Do you think the cartographers have updated their maps?” He ruffled through the registration and still-sealed manual. “The closest Home Depot was only built a couple of years ago, wasn’t it? Do you have the new maps? You know, Carol always says you should pick up new maps every five years,” Jay’s shoulders shrugged, “since the roads change. Haha. I like to pick them up every year! Just to be safe! Do you have the new ones?” He sat up and looked into the rearview mirror. “Uh, Pete, buddy. Maybe you should let me drive. Right. Right! With all that construction! I’m sure you can drive to Home Depot in your sleep!
“Remember to buckle up! So ‘We can Be Safe!’ Right. I know.” Click. “Not gonna be violating any federal laws, here. Ooh! They made the laws federal?”
Sam stared at the stripped wallpaper. She looked down to the blue-green bucket.
“That not cardamom mist,” Thor said.
Trevor tilted his head and patted the big guy’s shoulder. “That’s not cream either.”
Sam looked to the plastered ceiling for guidance. “It’s a dinosaur. Oh no. The kids.”
“What about the kids? What kids?”
Sam tossed up her hands. “There were a group of kids who were getting paint for a scout project or something. We must’ve gotten the paints mixed up.”
“Oh. And the children wished to paint dinosaur?” Thor asked.
“The paint. It’s called Something-Rex. The girl leading the troop convinced them it was dinosaur-colored.”
“Well, do you have any extra Canary Yellow?”
“No. I’m going to have to text Jay.”
Trevor’s brow furled. “Those poor kids. They won’t get to paint with dinosaur.”
“I know.” Thor thumped Trevor on the back. “Trevor. Children so sad.”
“Wow! I love the 21st century! The variety!” Jay smiled at the rope like he was selling it instead of buying. “Nylon, polypropylene! Wow! This one says Zenith!” Jay’s grin expanded to a half-smile. “Seeing some good rope there, man?” He nodded. “Oh yes! This 1/2 in. polypropylene braid has a 80kg safe load rating! Can we drop by the comic book store next? I think I saw 50ȼ in the glovebox.” Jay laughed, “sure man. I mean, hehe, you have me ‘till sundown. No need to spend too much extra time with my family.” His mouth fell open. “Oh. I’m sorry Jay. I didn’t think—let’s just pick this—” He grabbed the candy cane-striped rope. “It’s cool man, it’s cool. Sam can survive for half an hour. You were right. It is kinda fun. I don’t think I’ll ever look at Home Depot the same way ever again. And wait ‘till you see Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?.” Jay shrugged. “It came out in ’86.”
A woman shuffled her son to the far side of the isle, away from the grown man talking to himself in front of the spools of chains and rope.
“Jay...” he said, “I think we scared her.” His brow furrowed. “Is this what Sam feels like when we talk to her?
“I bet it is. Hey, do we want to stop by and pick up some green wire? I’m sure I got it this time.”
The front door swung open with Sam’s smile. “H-ello and welcome, Mrs. Arondekar and Aanya.”
“Please, Samantha, call me Champa. Mmh.!” She embraced her daughter-in-law. Champa hummed when she hugged Sam, like she was embracing her ears, too.
“Jay will be right back.” Sam patted her on the shoulder and stepped back. “He’s just gone to Home Depot to get...building supplies.” She shrugged. “Sure. Let’s go with that.”
Alberta coughed, “obvious.”
“Welcome to Woodstone Manor,” Isaac said, mostly for the sake of courtesy.
“Indeed,” Hetty agreed, “Welcome.”
“Oh,” their younger guest looked up from her phone. “This is your house.” She looked back down.
“Indeed,” Hetty replied, “it’s been in the Woodstone family for generations.”
“Yes, it’s been in the Woodstone family for generations,” Sam said, “did Jay tell you? I inherited it from my great aunt.”
“And you’re building a bed and breakfast,” Aanya confirmed, like there was a wrong answer.
“Yep! We’re telling the neighbors it’ll be like Newhart.”
“What is that?”
“It’s, uh...” Sam glanced over her shoulder. “A show. Which I’m sure Pete—I mean Jay or I—will tell you about. Later.”
Aanya looked up from her screen. “Siddharth has told me that the real estate and travel markets are collapsing.”
“A-ha. Of course your husband said that—that is not what I had heard, but thank you.”
“Bubbles always burst,” Trevor confirmed.
“Thank you Trevor,” Sas said.
“—Bu- but they always grow again! And then you’ll be right ahead of everyone else!”
Aanya bowed her head; her screen re-lit. “I am so sorry for your investment.”
“Thank you, Aanya,” Mrs. Arondekar said, “please do not crush your cousin’s dreams.”
“What? He’s not here to hear it. His wife deserves to know what he’s putting her through.”
Alberta coughed again, “projection.”
“Indeed,” Isaac agreed.
“Her husband’s massively invested in real-estate,” Sas predicted.
Trevor put out his hands. “Who wants to bet?!”
“I’m glad to see you’re recovering well.” Mrs. Arondekar patted her shoulder. “From what Jay said, you took quite a tumble. He was so scared you wouldn’t make it.”
“Now, Mrs. Champa,” Aanya said, “it was just a knock on the head.”
“Right. I was only legally dead for three minutes. Just. three minutes.”
“I never knew my son to be so worried. He said right in the main stairway. Are those the culpable stairs?”
“Sorry about that,” Trevor mumbled.
Sam smiled. “It was an accident.—And yes. It was a very long way to the bottom. But—as you can see—I’m back up.”
“Oh, a house this old with all the history...I am sure it will make a wonderful breakfast in bed.” She stopped under a portrait. “And who might this be?”
“Baron Lavencaster,” Isaac supplied, “his first name was Baron.” His voice carried a certain opinion of any man with a Christian name ‘Baron’.
“My third cousin, once removed. And my niece’s brother-in-law, by marriage,” Hetty finished.
“Man never scraped his shoes,” Thor commented.
“Oh,” Sam summarized, “that was Baron Baron Lavencaster, my great-great” “Great-Great!” “—great-great aunt’s—” “Grandmother!” “—sorry, Grandmother’s third cousin, once removed.” Sam bobbed. “He apparently never scraped his shoes.”
“See Aanya.” She held one of Aanya’s phone-touting wrists. “Such fascinating history. Oh! I’m a little scared to sleep here tonight!” She clutched her chest. “Think what ghosts must whisper through these halls!”
“Ghosts sleep too.” Sam tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Don’t worry.”
“We don’t whisper that much,” Trevor clarified, “we mostly just speak at a normal volume.”
“Why does she think ghosts would be whispering if they can’t hear us?” Flower asked.
“Mrs. Champa!” Aanya looked to Sam. “Don’t encourage her. She heard of ‘ghosts’ from her friend Louise...Her and her friend Louise...They’re spending all this money going on an ‘American Hauntings Tour.’”
“Well, we’re not quite open yet—but we’re happy to make Woodstone Manor your first stop. Come along everyone! Jay made some stew!”
“Wait—what makes you think ‘ghosts’—do the lights flicker or something?” Aanya asked.
“Sometimes,” Sam replied.
Aanya shook her head. “Jay has probably tried to fix it, hasn’t he?”
Sam nodded. “He’s been working on them. Off and on. You’re—You’re an electrical engineer, right?”
“Physicist. I actually have a clue about the theoretical basis of what I’m doing.”
“Has Jay gotten to be a better cook?”
“Aanya!” Mrs. Arondekar chided, “don’t insult your cousin’s profession!”
“Should I go humming by Jay’s cousin’s room?” Alberta asked.
“Mm. Please,” Isaac agreed, “I almost wish to walk through her right now.”
“Ooh! I love music!” Flower said, “have you ever seen music? Like, really seen it?”
“Right!” Sam called, “right this way to the dining room!”
“Can you show us our way to our rooms first?” Aanya asked.
Sam glanced up. “I’m sure your suitcases will be perfectly safe right there.!”
Alberta leaned back against the kitchen counter. “I’m almost disappointed in meeting Jay’s cousin. Meeting Jay’s cousin makes me so sad. He and his mother are so nice!”
Isaac coughed. “Yes. Indeed. It must be that husband of hers.”
Flower tilted her head.
“What makes you say that?” Sas asked from across the kitchen table.
“I heard Jay speaking to Sam the other night,” Isaac said, resting his fingertips upon his chin, “He and his cousin were once quite close. He was quite excited for her to finally visit, after all these years.
“Perhaps he could finally live up to her standards.”
“By what? Living in this big house? I’m sure that would satisfy Dr. ‘Knows the Nature of the Universe’. I wonder what could have happened,” Alberta said.
“Well,” Trevor shrugged, “my cousin and I didn’t really talk after I got into Penn. Did I ever mention: I went to University of Pennsylvania.”
“You have a cousin?”
Trevor huffed. “Yes.”
“How come I never heard of this?”
“I mention her on Family Day. My point is: A lot of things can break a family up.”
Sas shrugged. “My brother and I were never the same after that hunting trip.”
“What happened then?” Alberta asked.
“Primarily, I was dead. Really changes the sibling dynamic.”
Flower hung her head. “I feel so bad for Jay. I wish there was something we could do.”
“Yes...” Isaac agreed.
“Well,” Alberta said, “He’s out bro-adventuring with Pete right now.”
“Thor destroy Aanya’s phone.”
Isaac nodded, “yes. Yes. Good idea. Anyone else?”
“Wouldn’t she still just go home and be smug about it?” Alberta asked, “spread it to all her family and friends once her phone got fixed up?”
“Mm. Yes. Any other ideas?”
“Ooh! I know!” Flower jumped up. “We can remind Jay of all the ways he’s really wonderful! We can tell Sam to tell his cousin and then his cousin will remember why she loved Jay after all!”
“Oh, yes!” Isaac agreed, “a fit, able-bodied young man. His jawbones...”
“Fantastic cook,” Sas added.
Trevor waved his arms. “N-no. This isn’t going to work.” He straightened. “We can’t just remind Jay why or his cousin why he’s completely baller. That would add fuel to the fire and be cheating in the unfair art of family rivalry. No.”
“Then what. Do you suggest we do?” Isaac asked.
“We fight fire. With fire.”
“What?! No!!” Alberta cried.
“What? We figure out all the ways Dr. Mrs. ‘I’m not an engineer I’m a physicist’ actually can’t do anything. We spy on her. And then we’ll convince Sam to arrange a situation where Aanya is completely overwhelmed and Jay can shine.”
“That doesn’t seem very nice,” Flower countered.
“Yeah, Trevor. That all seems a bit underhanded, coming from you,” Alberta agreed.
“Oh! What does it matter?!” Isaac cried, “Jay and Pete will be home soon with the rope and new paint anyways.”
“Are you gonna suggest we just let Jay deal with it and work out his own relationship with his own cousin?” Alberta asked.
“No—yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Look, I am sorry to remind everyone, but we are dead. And, I must be honest with you—Jay seems happy. And maybe right now that is because he’s being possessed by Pete—”
Alberta shook her head, “That man doesn’t know how not to smile.”
“But—We wait until his cousin and his mother go away. And then, we will assess the damage. Our rehabilitation campaign may begin then.
“Until such time, we will absolutely listen to and catalog any possible weakness—physical, psychological, emotional, social, dermatological—of Jay’s cousin and summarily point out these differences to Sam. For her education.”
Trevor clapped. “Here here!”
“So,” Alberta summarized, “We’re going the blasphemy and blackmail route? And we’re just calling it something else.”
“It seems like it,” Sas replied.
“Thor still buzz phone.”
Alberta shrugged. “Alright. Let’s go see what Dr. Not-an-Engineer has to say!”
Isaac nodded. “Dis-missed!”
Silver forks scraped heirloom china.
“And,” Aanya was saying, ostensibly to her aunt, directly to her screen, “I was looking at the derivatives and I was going—”
“—AGGGHH!!” Thor bellowed. The lights flickered. The phone screen went black. “There.” The Viking nodded. “Peaceful supper.”
Aanya stared at the screen’s empty shine.
“Well,” Sam interrupted. She smiled. “Two bowls of stew. And one for me. Wow. Jay really made a lot of stew. Hehe.” She looked up to the fitzzing chandelier. “Good thing there’s candlelight. Jay probably wanted it frozen for leftovers. But we have plenty for seconds! And sixths!” She smiled. “Dig in!”
“Sam thank Thor. You are welcome.”
Aanya placed her phone on the table. “I wonder if this is going to be any worse than his last stew. The one with the live lobsters.”
“Aanya! The lobsters were not alive.”
“They were when he brought them home.”
“Be nice.” Mrs. Arondekar looked up from her bowl. “This looks lovely, Sam. Jay must be taking good care of you.”
“Oh, now hush,” Hetty said, “Samantha and Jay have a reciprocal loving relationship. Jay hasn’t slept with the maid once. Not that they could a-fford a maid.”
“Well.” Sas tilted his head. “To be fair...”
“Jay may not bring cod, but he kill pigeons,” Thor said.
“Well, uh, we help each other,” Sam replied.
Mrs. Arondekar smiled. “Isn’t that all of the best marriages.”
“He’s the best DM a girl can ask for,” Alberta said, “tell her that, Sam.”
“He’s a pretty good DM,” Sam said, “he almost makes Dungeons and Dragons bearable.”
“Hehe! Right! Speaking of Jay...” Aanya said, “I wonder what’s taking him so long.”
“He probably just didn’t want to see you,” Mrs. Arondekar said, “Oop! I didn’t mean to say that.”
“If Bela wasn’t off jam-touring—”
“No! It’s—” Sam said “—I’ll text him. I’m sure he just got caught up. In traffic or something!”
“Indeed,” Isaac said, “I don’t know about you, but I, for one, have been wondering where he is.”
“D’you think Pete and Jay actually went on a bender?” Alberta asked.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Sam muttered from the side of her lips, “Completely fine.” Her phone was dark. She set it on the table. “Thor!”
“What?” Mrs. Arondekar asked.
Sam looked down. “Nothing!”
“While we wait.” Mrs. Arondekar picked up her spoon. “Why don’t you tell us what it was that I heard on the news a bit ago? About a visiting professor? Is it true that you’re getting a museum now?”
“Wait! Wait!” Jay’s mouth called, “Pull over!” He tilted his head, but let off the gas. “Right. Let’s pull off the side of the road to a shitty white van that could have anyone in it. That’s not a recipe for being shish kabobbed then divvied out with a chainsaw.” Jay’s voice squeaked, “I see campers!”
Jay’s foot settled on the break. He pressed the button. “Okay, Pete. Let me do the talking. And if things get weird and I say ‘run’ I am taking the legs and getting as far away from here as possible. Alright? Agreed! Let’s shake on it!” The right hand shook the left. “Ooh! This is going to be so much fun! Actual people!”
The young man walked out of his minivan and closed the door. He smiled, affably enough. Just the friendly teeth. “Hey!” The man called, “looking like you’re stuck over here.
“D’you think you could use a hand?”
The young woman turned to the stranger. She brushed down her button-up that, in better light, could only be described as a shade of kaki. Her blue neckerchief itched around her collar. Her red-striped knee-highs were caked in mud.
“Oh! Hi!” She said. She smiled like she wasn’t almost terrified.
“Hello fellow trooper!” The strange man called, “Up! Sorry! I wasn’t supposed to say that!” He lurched, “but hey, seriously. Do you need any help? It looks like you’re broken down here and could use a hand.” The stranger held out his hand. “I’m Jay.” Mention the seven principles. “I was, uh. A troop leader! A Pinecone Trooper leader once.” Jay felt his hands make a motion that ended in a “Booplty-boo Troopers!” He shrugged. “Just the secret handshake!”
She laughed. “Oh! My mother used to do that handshake in the ’80’s! I keep telling her that we don’t use it anymore.”
The man sagged. “We don’t?”
She smiled, and her hands did a motion that ended in a “Booplty-boo Troopers! Most of us don’t. Jenny.”
“Ms. Faucet?” There was a kid in red-cuffed socks at her ankles. “Are we going to go soon?”
“Once we get the van un-stuck, Traci, we will.”
“Okay, it’s just that, I need to wee.”
Jay squatted down. “Do you remember page 30 of the Manual?”
The kid blinked at him with pop-quiz innocence. “No sir.”
“Well, go look at page 30 for how to wee-wee outside, and be sure to remember to take a buddy! Check back in with us when you get back, okay?”
“Yes sir! Okay!” She nodded and ran off.
Jenny shook her head. “I’m not sure that was a good idea.”
Jay’s hand waved. “Oh. That manual taught me everything. She’ll check back in.”
Jay’s hands rubbed together. “Now! We’ve got a stuck van on our hands?”
Jenny shook her head again. “It seems so.”
The man froze. “Oh no? No what? I can’t remember? What can’t you remember? What—Page 97. I can’t remember all of page 97. That’s the page where it tells you how to get your vehicle unstuck.” The man’s jaw dropped. “Oh no.”
“It’s okay! We have a copy in the van.” Jenny started to march back to the white doors. “I forgot that was even in there!”
“O-h. I read the manual a lot. While I was in the car. While my wife was out with her knitting club.—Come to think of it.” He held up a finger. “She might not have been knitting. But that’s okay!” He shrugged. “I forgive her! Forgiveness! The most important of the Trooper’s seven values!”
Jenny laughed from between the seats. A dozen kakied eyes stared at them from the bench seats. “I’m partial to friendship myself! Teamwork—”
“—makes the dream work! Haha.” “—makes the dream work! There it is.” She leaned back.
Jay’s hands reached out. “The manual...” His thumbs flicked through worn pages. “Page 40, page 78, page 90...a-ha! Ha.” His face scrunched up in the headlights. His thumb flicked the bitter, fiber-ended craggly page-end. “Someone tore it. Someone tore page 97 out.” His face crumpled. “Fiddlesticks.”
“So we don’t know how to move the van?”
“Wait—” Jay pulled out his phone—“—we can just google this...nope. Right. No data.” He half-shrugged. “We got phone, but no data.”
“That’s good,” Jenny replied, “we can at least call someone if we need to.”
“Ms. Faucet! Ms. Faucet!” The little trooper scurried up. She was jumping up and down. “Matty and I wee-ed in the woods!”
Jenny smiled expressively. “Very good! And did you use the hand sanitizer?”
Traci nodded. “And we used the paper, too!”
“What?” The smile froze.
The girl pointed to the torn manual. “The book said if you go number 2 to use the paper.”
Jay pointed at the book. “Oh. So that’s where. Oh. This is awkward. Good job, uh. Traci! Right. Good job Traci. Now how about you get back in the van while the adults figure out what to do.”
Traci stuck her lip up and hands into fists. “But when we have a problem, pinecone troopers solve it together! Everyone helps! ‘Every trooper has their own color to contribute to life! Teamwork makes the dream work!’”
Jay nodded. “You’re right Traci...you’re right.” He held up a finger. “Hold on a second.” He took a few steps away from the van.
“Jay,” he said, “what are you doing?” He pulled out his phone. “We don’t have page 97, right? Right...But—” he held up a finger. “—we know someone who does .” He scrolled across the screen. Closed his eyes. Pressed a button. The man held the phone up to his ear.
“Hello, who is this?”
Jay coughed. “Hey, Carol—Carol?! You’re Carol! HELLO Carol, CAN YOU HEAR ME?!!” He coughed again. Put his hand over the phone speaker. “not so loud.” He coughed again. “Sorry, it’s Jay. Sam’s husband. I helped you install your late husband’s memorial bench. Sorry about the yelling, we’re—I’m—in bad signal.”
“Oh! Jay! Lovely to hear from you.”
“Oh, thank you for asking, she’s doing well! Did I tell you? She invented a new flavor. Raspberry crème.”
“That’s my—k-km—I mean your—Laura. Such a genius.”
“She would never say that of course. Humble. Just like her father! But what she’s really proud of...”
Jay’s eyes gazed southwards through the woods. Right towards Philly. “Yes?”
“She’s been telling Jerry and I all about how she’s on a team for the golden rice.”
“Yes. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it. It prevents blindness in third-world countries. Sorry—you’re not supposed to call it that. They’re using it in Detroit.”
Jay was grinning. “That’s wonderful!”
“Yes. She’s been called to speak with Congress about funding more research and distribution of it. Just private meetings, of course.”
“Well.” Jay cocked his head. “That’s where the real work is.”
“Isn’t it? She’s so excited.”
“I bet her dad would have been proud.” His voice cracked up. “Very proud. She didn’t have to go to space to make a difference after all.”
“Thank you for calling. I don’t know why, but I feel like I’m talking with an old friend.”
“Carol. It’s good to speak with you again. Really good.”
“Well, I have a feeling that this isn’t just a social chat.—Though I’m happy to keep talking. Jerry has found a group of guys at the local library. Other old men, I keep telling him, just like him—”
“Um, Mrs. Carol, I would. I would actually be very interested in hearing about Jerry’s library club, but, um. Would you be able to do us a favor first?”
“Of course, what is it?”
“Do you still have that Pinecone Trooper Manual handy?”
“Oh yes. Why? Is something wrong with it?”
“Uh, no. Pete—I—just forgot what was on page 97, and the copy of the edition I had went the way of number 2 and it’s kind of important.”
“Of course, of course. Let me just go get it. You can walk with me! What’s on page 97, and would you like for me to photograph it. Little Pete was just showing me how you can send them over the texts. Aren’t kids these days just brilliant?”
“Uh, I don’t think we have service for that? Can you just read it out to us? Please?”
“Oh, of course. Here it is. ‘How to Free a Stuck Vehicle.’ Are you alright?”
“We will be shortly. Got all my buddy-troopers right here!”
“Alright. Let me know if you’d like for me to call you a tow. It says...”
“...And that is how I knew little Jay must be a cook.”
“A-ha.” Sam replied, putting down her fork, “what a great story, Mrs. Arondekar—”
“Pacing a bit slow in the middle,” Thor said.
“I can go to the kitchen and see if Jay prepared dessert.”
Mrs. Arondekar tilted her head. “Are you sure Jay is alright? Do you think you should call and check in on him? He is a grown adult, of course, but—”
“Yeah,” Alberta agreed, “what’s taking Jay so long?”
Trevor smiled. “Who wants to bet Pete went on that bender? Huh? Huh? Any takers??”
Sas looked to his housemate. “I’m not sure what we would bet. We’re dead and you’re the only one who can touch anything.”
“Yes,” Isaac agreed, “I do wonder where those two ran off to.”
Sam picked up her phone. “You’re right. I’ll just—” Her phone screen was black.
“Oops,” Trevor said.
“Thor sorry. Thor got eager on the lights. Was trying for Aanya’s phone. Got Aanya’s phone.” He lifted his shoulders. “Got Sam’s phone too.”
“So,” Aanya looked to Sam. “How are the electrics?”
“I-it looks like I forgot to charge my phone, oops! I-I’m sure Jay can handle everything on his own. Yeah? He’ll call if he needs us, right?”
“To what number.”
“I’ll—just—I’ll go check on dessert.”
Sam stood up from her chair.
“Thor still sorry. All better!”
“A-lright troopers!” Jay’s mouth called.
“Do you have the branches?” Carol asked over speakerphone.
“Yeeahh!” “Yes Mrs. Carol!” “No.” “Ssshh Taylor, they’re right there.”
Jay’s head nodded. There were rows of thick branches stuffed under the van’s tires, perpendicular to its tread. Like the orange-and-blue National Geographic illustrations of ancient Egyptians rolling the Great Pyramid’s cornerstones across matchstick logs. His smile lit up like a flashlight. “Yep! We sure do!”
“Yep! The Trucker’s Hitch is hitched!”
“Yay!!!” “Thanks Mr. J!” “Good job!” “Can you teach me how to tie that?”
Jay’s hand ruffled Victoria’s hair. “Sure thing! Okay, Carol, what’s next?”
“Everyone needs to grab the other end of the rope. It says here, that it’s going to take teamwork.”
“Well, you heard the old woman everybody! Grab a rope!”
There was a general scramble as little hands and hiking-booted feet tussled to get up into places.
Jay took the front of the rope, tied into a bowline. Ms. Faucet took one place behind.
“Al-right everybody!” Jay’s voice called. “On the count of three! We pull the rope! Al-righty! One—Two—” Little boots and summer tennis shoes started scrambling “—Three!”
The heavy sticks crunched and the van creaked. “You’re doing great! I can feel that Teamwork! Again! One—Two—”
There was a crunch like broken matches. A scramble of boots and feet as they scurried away from the rolling metal—“Three!”
The van trundled onto the road.
“How did it go? Do we need the next steps?”
“Yay!!!!” The kids cheered.
“We did it! We did it!” Jay coughed. “We actually did it. I can’t believe the manual worked.” He shook his head and smiled for the press. “Of course it worked! Good job everyone! Remember: Teamwork makes the dream work, troopers!”
Jenny coughed. “Alright troopers! Back into the van! Let’s see if we can get us all to some dinner.”
Jay tapped the phone off speaker and held it to his ear. “We did it.”
The woman on the other side of the phone laughed. “I heard. Thank you, for a lovely evening. It was really good to hear from you, even if it was unexpected.”
“I-it was great to hear from you too, Carol. Amazing. Give my love to Laura! And tell little Pete I said ‘hi’ and that his grandpa’s proud of him! And tell Jerry-bear ‘hi!” And that I hope that he’s having fun at his library club—”
“Oh, of course. Of course.
“This was fun.
“Maybe you could call again some other time when you’re not just stuck in the mud?”
“Yes! I mean...” He coughed. “Yeah, sure.” His voice lower. “How about next week.”
“Oh, that would be lovely. Same time.”
“Sure. I’ll text you.”
“Have a good night. And thank you for helping those kids get home.”
“Have a good night, Carol. I love you.”
Jay cleared his throat. Wiped his face. His eyes. “Well.”
Jenny marched up to them. “Hello. Call go okay.”
“Really lucky that you stopped by. A-and you happened to be a pinecone trooper too!” Her hands did a motion that ended in a “Booplty-boo Troopers!”
“—Booplty-boo Troopers! Well. I just happened to be driving home and—”
“Oh! You’re local? I was wondering! Do you know someplace where I could get these kids fed? Victoria is hypoglycemic...”
Jay coughed. “Well, actually,” he coughed again, held up a finger. “Give me a second.” He walked over to his car. Muttered. He walked back. “I happen to be a professional chef. My wife and I are in the process of opening a hotel. Woodstone Manor.” His head twitched. “You might have seen us on social media.”
“Oh! The jazz poisoning!”
“Yup. That’s us. Anyway. Since I’m a professional chef, I made lots of extra. I don’t know if everyone here likes stew...but...”
“Stew!” “Stew!” “Stew!” “That’s kinda blucky.”
“Well, I make fancy stew. So I cook all the blucky right out of it.”
Jay shrugged. “So, if you want.”
Jenny smiled. “That would be amazing.”
“Great. Let’s hope my wife hasn’t murdered our relatives.”
“You can follow me while I drive!”
Sam held up a box. “O-kay. I found a third of a box of Oreos, which I swear should have been more, but you know...”
“LAND SHIP! LAND SHIP!”
“Jay!” She dropped the Oreos on the table and dashed to the hallway. Two pairs of headlights gleamed through the windows.
Sam ran outside. The ghosts poured through the doors.
“Jay?!” Aanya had followed.
The car door opened. “Sorry I’m late!” He held up a hand. The door closed behind him. “Had to help out some fellow troopers! Carol says ‘hi’, by the way! Apparently Laura is talking to Congress.” Jay kissed her on the cheek. “And, I even secured some nice rope. 80kg safe load rating.” He raised his eyebrows.
Children began pouring out of the white van. He embraced his cousin. “I hope you and mom didn’t eat sixths.”
Aanya stepped back. “Jay? What happened? Are you alright?”
“Yep! Fiddles and peaches!” He chirped, “just got to help out some of my fellow troopers on the road! That’s friendship! My second-favorite Attribute of a Model Pinecone Trooper, haha, after Forgiveness, of course.”
Hetty smiled. “Welcome home!”
Thor turned to her. “He still can’t hear us.”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
“Yes,” Isaac said from the porch, “Pete and Jay. Welcome home.” Then he stopped. Gazed at the running children. “Oh no.”
“I hope you don’t mind us dropping by,” the young kakied woman said.
“Oh no. Did Jay tell you? We’re making it—”
“It’s going to be a hotel, right? Wait—weren’t you—”
“—weren’t you in front of us at Home Depot?” “—in front of us at Home Depot? Ha! I think so! Small world! Oh, gosh! Your husband’s family is coming! So sorry—”
“No, no. It’s fine. It’s fine. If Jay invited you—”
“Come along troopers!” Jay called. “Single file! Let’s wash our hands and get to the kitchen! And then, after dinner, maybe we can do some paint!”
The children cheered and scrambled behind.
“Well,” the young woman shrugged, “Got to take care of my troopers! Hello! And Bye!”
Sam laughed. “Bye!”
Mrs. Arondekar stood next to Sam, watching the procession. “He’s good with them, isn’t he?”
“Well, he has a lot of good friends for guidance. And a good family.”
Mrs. Arondekar nodded. “That he does.
“Who’s this ‘Carol’ woman?”
“Yeah,” Aanya asked, “who is this ‘Carol.’”
“Oh, she’s just the wife of an old friend. She’s 70 now. But she sometimes stops around the place. She donated that old bench!” Sam pointed out into the now-dusk.
Jenny ran out of the house. Isaac plastered himself against the door.
“She must have some memories of his place,” Mrs. Arondekar said.
“Her husband does—well—did. He was a Pinecone Trooper counselor here.”
Jenny stopped. “Oh! Was this where they used to run the camps? Back in the eighties??”
“My mom was at one of those! She said she had so much fun! Honestly, that’s why I wanted to join, when I saw this opening for a part-time job! She said one of the counselors got shot right in front of her! By one of the campers—it was an accident. But she still wanted to go back.”
“Oh, wow,” Sam said, “that sounds tragic.”
“I figured any camp that good that a guy getting killed at it didn’t dampen the mood—I wanted to be part of! And it’s coed. Unlike the boy scouts.”
“Yes. It is,” Sam agreed.
Mrs. Arondekar turned back towards the house. “I can’t help but think. It must be like ghosts, all those young campers, still wandering the halls.”
“Mrs. Champa,” Aanya smiled, “you know ghosts aren’t real.”
“Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t a little bit scary.”
“Maybe it’s not all blood and mysterious sounds and flickering lights,” Sam supplied.
“Perhaps it is not.” Mrs. Arondekar sighed. “I can’t help but think. If the ghosts, the spirits, were real. That Jay might not be listening to them.”
“Maybe he’s being influenced, no matter how small, with that joy from the camp.” She shook her head. “When he was in the city. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this happy. Perhaps the country ghosts are guiding him after all.”
“It’s not been easy,” Sam said, “he’s been really lonely, being away from his friends.” She shrugged. “Hitch—his D&D character—died.”
“Oh-ho. He was always getting so attached.”
Jenny disappeared back into the house. “O-kay Troopers!”
“...But I have a feeling he’s making more.”
“I don’t know, Aunty. Maybe he doesn’t have everything.”
She turned to her niece. “Do any of us?”
Sam smiled. She patted Mrs. Arondekar and Aanya on the shoulders. “Come on. I have a feeling one of our walls is about to become a dinosaur.”
“Aw,” Sam said, “isn’t that cute.”
“It’s preposterous!” Hetty shrieked, “cacophony! Child workers back in my day were much better behaved!”
Jay looked over at Sam. “It’s kinda weird that we’re making them paint our wall. We’re exploiting children, huh. Hetty must like that.”
“She thinks that they could be better behaved.”
“Of course she would. Could’ve guessed that.” He turned and returned with a 50-watt smile. “I think it’s fun! It’s a great activity! They’re going to have so much fun tomorrow! Helping and enriching the lives of all those old people!”
“Technically,” Sas said, whilst getting flicked through with paint, “we’re the old people.”
“Sas says you’re the old people.”
“And Hetty agrees.”
Jay’s head tilted. “Huh. You’re right. O-kay troopers! Keep it on the paint tarp! Does anyone remember what to do when it spatters??”
A safe distance from the cacophony, Hetty turned to Isaac. “He is quite good at this, though,” Hetty conceded.
“I remember when he—Pete used to conduct the activity for Rock Painting,” Isaac said.
“The children were so cute then too,” Alberta said. A table got splashed in Sonic Lime. “And they were still making a mess.”
“Man, I never had anything remotely like this,” Trevor said, “Not even remotely. This reminds me of this banger—it was 1992—”
Alberta held up her hand. “Don’t spoil the moment.”
Sas and Thor watched children fling paint into the mural. A young girl in the corner held her brush steady while she looped a petal of a purple flower.
“Ooh. I love flowers,” Flower said, “did you know I was named after one? We used to paint the sides of our tents like this, when I was in the cult. And the sides of our vans, when I was in the commune. We also painted each other.”
Jay held out a brush to Aanya. She looked up from her dissected battery and black phone screen. “Hey, uh, Would you like to help out?” He smiled like he was wearing a clip-on tag and was Very Happy To Be Of Service.
“I don’t know...”
“You don’t have to be good at it! ‘Every trooper has their own color to contribute to life!’” He coughed and looked to the side. “But, seriously. Uh.” He stuffed a free hand into his pocket. It was still holding his brush, which pasted Almond In My Coffee on his leg. “Sam likes to say, this isn’t my house, this is our house.” He smiled.
“You know I can’t do 2D.”
Jay smirked. “I bet you can show up a couple of kids.”
She grabbed the brush. And started to paint Jay.
“Hey! That’s unfair!”
Isaac hummed by Sam. “It looks like the two of them made up.”
“Well, hehe, you know what they say—”
“The family that covers each other in paint is just fine with each other?” Alberta guessed. “This would be different if they did it back in my day; everything had lead in it.”
“Oh, you would have to air out the whole hall,” Hetty reminisced, “you wouldn’t be able to walk into the room for days.”
“Yeah,” Sas agreed, “lead poisoning. good times.”
Thor grabbed his shoulder. “Yes. Good times.”
“I was going to say,” Isaac sniffed, “‘All’s well that ends well.’”
“Ooh,” Alberta said, “Shakespeare.”
Back by the spattered wall...
“Hey,” Jay said, “my phone still works. Technically it didn’t get struck by Viking ghost lightning early this evening.”
“Smile for the camera! This’ll be great on the group chat...”
He felt her tug across his waist. “Technically it wasn’t lightning. A-and technically you’re covered in paint too! We should take the picture together! Smile!”
“What? No! Yes! This’ll be fun! Cheese! Jay, how do you work this thing? Where’s the button? Oh. There it is! Cheeeese!” click. And this time, they really were smiling for the camera.
“You’re right,” Aanya said, snatching the phone, “that’ll look great on the group chat. Aunty Turvi will really get a kick out of it.”
“Right. Wait—no! You gave me bunny ears! Aani! That’s not funny! Well,” he tilted his head, “that is a little bit funny. And it really reflects upon her character that she gave you the bunny ears! Thanks Pete,” he muttered.
“What was it about that Viking?”
“Oh, yeah.” Jay looked up from his phone. “The ghost Viking. That’s his special power.”
“Did—Did Sam not tell you? I just thought...mom said...She didn’t. Did she.” Jay looked to the ceiling, like someone hoping to get sucked off. “This is going to be awkward. It’s waay-way after sunset, isn’t it though?”
Jay looked up from the bed where he was tied. “So, you’re going to ring the bell, someone is going to say the little phrase, and hope-fully Pete will nope out of me like a Spirit Halloween on November 2nd. And then I’ll pass out and have a hangover like it’s January 2nd.”
Sam paused for a second, book held aloft. She smiled. “That’s right.”
Aanya stepped around the bed. “So you’re saying, your husband—my cousin—has been inhabited by a ghost from the ’80’s this entire time.”
“Yep!” Sam nodded.
“Pretty much!” Jay’s mouth chirped from the bed.
Sam leaned over a bit towards Aanya. “That would be Pete.”
“...And the ghost’s name is Pete.”
“And I’m going to ring the bell, and you’re going to say some words, and Pete is just going to fly right out of my cousin, please-and-thank-you, unharmed.”
“...Isaac says ‘relatively unharmed.’ It’s going to do nothing to Jay’s vessel. Jay—your cousin—will be completely in-tact.”
“...right. And Isaac is...”
“The Revolutionary War one. He’s possessed people before. ... A person. They were installing the electricity.”
Aanya nodded. “I have no idea how this works or any of the mathematics behind this, but—let’s follow the pretty lady in the YouTube video.”
“Okay, what does it say?”
“Well,” Sam says, “first, it says we have to identify the possessing spirit.”
“Yes, Pete, we know it is you.” Aanya replied. “What comes next?”
“Three rings.” dink. dink. dink. “Then. You...um...repeat the thing.” Sam looked down at the book. Leaned over to read the words off of the paused frame. “‘Ex-orc-iz-a-mus te, o-mn-is imm-imm-undus spirit—’ ”
“Oh, for godsake! That was nothing like the video.”
“And you believe you can do better?” Hetty asked. Sam took a step back.
Aanya pulled back her hair. “Right. Level 1 Biology, don’t fail my cousin now.” She cracked her neck. Leaned forward towards the screen. “‘Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus, omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii, omnis legio...’ ”
Jay began to twitch against the rope. “It hurts! It hurts! Keep going! It’s working!”
“‘...Vade, satana, inventor et magister omnis fallaciæ, hostis humanæ salutis...’ ”
“Wait—did we steal this from a TV show?”
“Ssh!” Sam hissed, “It’s not stealing when we’re not trying to make money!”
“‘...Ab insidiis diaboli, libera nos, Domine. Ut Ecclesiam tuam secura tibi facias libertate servire, te rogamus, audi nos.’ ”
Pete shot out like a hopper popper. “Aahhh!” He hit the ground. “Eghn.” He looked up. “I’m out!”
“Pete’s out,” Sam reported, “now you ring the bell again.” dink. dink. dink. “And that should be it!”
Aanya hugged him. He hugged her back, as much as two arms fastened by 80 kg safe load rating solid polypropylene braid in a set of single-column ties could hug a cousin back. “Welcome back, Jay.”
“...I’ve been here this whole time, but. Thank you. I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. ...two trucks.” He looked over his cousin’s shoulder.
“Pete says he’s fine.”
Jay stared at Sam.
“...He’s clutching his stomach, but Isaac says that’s temporary.”
Jay leaned back on the pillow. “Right. Let’s trust Isaac for how long stomach pains are supposed to last.”
Aanya tilted her head.
Jay closed his eyes. “He died of dysentery.”
“Like in Oregon Trail.”
“Yep. Full Oregon Trail. I think I’m just going to hang here a while.”
“Well,” Sam shrugged, “your mom’s downstairs and we haven’t told her we were exorcizing you from a ghost. So. Can I at least untie you first?”
Without opening his eyes. “...sure.”
“You can talk to Mrs. Champa,” Aanya said, “I’ll make sure he stays hydrated.”
“Oh, right. I’m dehydrated. And also hungry.”
“Yeah. Pete didn’t want to eat too much. The flavor was overwhelming for him and he didn’t want to lose control.”
“Oh. Can ghosts taste?”
“They can when they possess people. To be honest, I think the Hot Pocket was a little too much for him. Which is funny. After Hetty, I didn’t have to eat for a day and a half.”
“I know, right?”
“Oh, she’s just Sam’s Great-Great-A-Lot-of-Greats Grandmother. She used to run the place.” Jay cracked open an eye. “Does this mean that we get to host Christmas?”
Aanya smiled. “I’m sure Sidd would love to see the place. And you’ll get to do the cooking.”
“Ha-he. Right.” He held up a finger. “But guests bring the dessert.”
“Deal. And there’s plenty of room for the foals to run around too. Maybe Sidd will bring them.”
Jay nodded a bit. “Isaac would like that. Definitely bring the horses. He has a crush on me. He’s probably watching me right now.” He lifted his head from the pillow. “Aren’t you, Isaac?!” He put his head down. “According to Pete, apparently the only thing he likes more than me is gossip. And that guy in the shed. And that guy on season 3 of It’s Getting Hot in Here.”
Aanya laughed. “Isaac sounds like he likes a lot of things.”
“That guy’s clever. You know. Did I ever tell you about the Farnsby’s? They’re terrible. Right next door. Pickleball court. He found out—”
Aanya brushed a hand over his hair. Un-tugged the knots. “Get some sleep, Jay. Your mom’s and I’ve extended her vacation through next weekend. You can tell us about the pickleball when you wake up. I’d be excited to hear about the pickleball.”
“O-kay.” Jay turned over to his side. “Did I ever tell you...when Sam first started hearing voices...”
“Well,” Isaac said in the drawing room, “that was quite the adventure.”
“Too bad most of it happened five miles down the road,” Alberta said.
“Here-here,” Hetty agreed.
“Well,” Pete said, “I’m still curious how Jay drove us there in the first place.”
“Pardon—” Hetty held out an arm—“—Jay drove you? Could you please repeat what you—” she circled an arm “—just said?”
Pete smiled like he was completely innocent in this matter and it was a fine day officer, isn’t it? “Of course! He knew the way to Home Depot like the back of his hand!” Pete stared at the floor, hands on his hips. “And I don’t think he updated his car maps!”
“You know they have the internet—”
Isaac coughed. “Yes, thank you Trevor.” He settled upon the sofa and crossed his legs. “Mystery solved; apparently we ghosts cannot leave the premises, but a living still can.” The back of his knuckle brushed his lip. “You weren’t in control of Jay’s body...”
“So if Hetty would have just let Jay drive...” Trevor said.
Hetty sighed. “Bonjour Paris.”
The ghosts milled about the sitting room, as they had before the new livings arrived and, they supposed, as they would after.
“You know,” Pete smiled like it was the morning of Christmas, “it’s really good to see you all again.”
Thor wrapped an arm around his shoulder. “Good to see you too.”
“Nop—” Trevor was pulled in by Thor.
“Hug for the group!” Thor called.
"Careful of the arrow! Ha-ha!
“...you know,” Pete muttered from the middle, “whenever Jay’s working on the electrical wire, we should really all vacate the room.”
“Ab-so-lute-ly,” Alberta agreed.
“We shall assemble a watch!” Isaac said.
From the bottom of the pile, a chirping voice...“...are we finished hugging now?”
Jay was sitting outside on an old wooden bench. It was in the middle of a field. There wasn’t anything particularly remarkable going on. The birds were chattering their daily conversations. A set of old foam targets were tilted helter-skelter in a rough approximation of a row, like a group of child troopers asked to stand in a single-file line.
“Hey, uh, Pete. Hope you’re doing okay, buddy.” The sitting man ran a hand over his face. “Sam says you are. Listen. If you’re not feeling up to it, we can always postpone D&D to tomorrow night, or even next Thursday. I don’t know if that exorcism really took the ringer outta you. Those three cave trolls will still be there, buddy.
“But. k-khm. Listen. Gotta say, man. I had fun. Seriously. Thanks for helping me work it out with Aanya. And—I didn’t get to really know you when you were alive—I didn’t get to know you at all, actually. But I think that you were—that you are—a pretty cool dude.” The man stood up.
“Thanks for not making me eat four party-sized bags of Cheetos.”
The man standing next to the bench did something with his hands. He had never done it before, but his hands recognized it. He ended the sequence with a “Booplty-boo Troopers!”
He nodded into the open air, and ambled through the field.
A man, formerly known as ‘Arrow-Guy’ followed him towards their home.