Wiping sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket, Paul replied, "Apparitions that come to take a person away when they die. Usually they are the souls of dead loved ones. Sometimes they're accompanied by beings identified as angels."
"Correct." Alva squinted at him in the dim light. He tried for the fortieth time that night to ignore the horrible smell coming from a pile on the other side of the locked room, but it was nearly impossible. That sickly sweet, awful smell. "If you're hot, why don't you just take your jacket off?"
"Because if we have to make a break for it, I don't want me grabbing my jacket to slow us down."
"Then tie it around your waist."
"Like a kid in junior high?" Despite the joke, Paul did as Alva suggested. It did make it feel better in the humid room. Paul sat down again and covered his nose. "God, that smell is the worst."
There was movement and noise from the other side of the door. Someone blocked the sliver of light coming from under it as they shuffled by, bare feet making a sliding-scratching sound.
Swallowing hard, Paul whispered, "What do you think she's going to do with us?"
Alva knew it wasn't good. If he could distract Paul for a while longer... "Collective Apparition."
"Keel, you didn't answer my question."
"Let's not focus on that right now. Collective Apparition."
Paul sighed. "What is the point of this?"
After all the time they'd worked together, Alva should be used to Paul calling him out on things like this. He never was any good at fooling him. "What good does it do for us to focus on what could happen when we're going to escape from here very shortly? Do you think Evie isn't looking for us right now?"
"But... what if...?"
"Don't think about it."
Paul covered his mouth and nose. "How can I not think about it when this room is littered with body parts from her previous victims?"
The gray feet shuffled past the door again.
"What is she waiting for?" Paul added, hysteria just on the edge of his voice.
Alva reached over and gripped the back of Paul's hand. To ground him, to ground both of them, in the dark. "I'm not sure. Paul, if you want me to be honest with you, I will." He turned his head to look at the door. "From what I've been able to gather about creatures like her, there is more to the banshee than what exists in folklore. Most people don't live to tell the tale. The banshee is more of a physical creature than a ghost or apparition. In other words, they must eat. They don't eat regular people, though, so someone like me will just be killed." Pausing, Alva considered how to say it. "You, however..."
Now it was Paul's turn to squint, to try to read Alva's expression. "What about me?"
"From what I've been able to gather through my research and the experiences of my colleagues from around the world, banshees feast on the bodies of mediums. Those who - "
"Those who can see the dead," Paul finished. "I'm familiar enough with that word to know what it means."
At first, Alva just nodded, but quickly realized it may be too dark in the room for Paul to have seen it. "Yes. And the worst part is... they eat you alive."
Paul tried to figure out how he could escape from this possible fate as it slowly dawned on him that the body parts scattered around the room were probably from other people like him. Other mediums. "Do you know how we kill it?"
Alva started to shake his head. "No. That particular bit of knowledge has escaped my knowing."
They didn't say anything for almost a minute. Something dripped in a far corner of the room, making fat plops on the stone floor. "A collective apparition is one that is seen by more than one person at the same time," Paul eventually said. "Much rarer than people think." He suddenly let out a small laugh. "I can't believe someone actually sat around and thought up names for all these things."
"How else would we communicate with each other about the paranormal if we didn't have a list of common terms to use?"
Paul made an "Mm," sound of agreement. "I get it."
Maybe it was time to move away from terms concerning ghosts, in light of what they might be facing. "What about the New Jersey Vegetable Monster? Do you remember what that one refers to?"
"Uh, I'd imagine it refers to the New Jersey Vegetable Monster..."
"There's more to it than that and you know it."
Chuckling, Paul said, "It's a creature seen by a drunk in the New Jersey Pine Barrens one night. Looked like a giant stalk of walking, talking broccoli. Paranormal researchers use the term to refer to a case that has almost no actual evidence."
"Very good." Alva clapped lightly, as to not make much noise. The idea of the banshee hearing them was unsettling. "What about the Batsquatch?"
Paul let out a louder laugh, then immediately covered his mouth. When there was no response from the other side of the door, he replied, "Batsquatch is a giant bat seen in the same area as Bigfoot. Probably a Blobsquatch, if anyone could catch it on film."
Alva chuckled along with him. "If only someone could capture a nice, clear picture of Sasquatch, we probably wouldn't have to come up with terms like that. That is, if Sasquatch existed."
After having another good but quiet laugh, they fell silent. At least until Paul thought of one that might stump Alva. "What is another word for speaking in tongues?"
"Glossolalia," Alva said immediately, in a tone that almost sounded offended. "Surely you can do better than that."
"The use of sensory deprivation to stimulate psychic powers."
"An unwanted or surprise spirit that shows up at a séance." Actually giggling, Alva continued, "Remember the Natalia case where we performed a séance to contact the woman's dead husband, and some spirit came through talking like a pirate?"
Paul couldn't help but laugh too. "Arrrrr, me hearty, are you a landlubber or a swashbuckler, arrrr?"
The banshee suddenly let out a screech and started scratching at the doorjamb. Paul jumped, slid his back up the wall a foot, and grabbed Alva's arm hard enough to hurt. Alva squeezed his hand and they both panted in fear in the dark, waiting for the next sound. The banshee growled low in her throat before shuffling away.
"We gotta find some sort of weapon, something to..." Paul looked around, searching in frustration in a room where he could barely see.
"Paul, we've got to calm down. We'll never get out of here alive if we panic." A weapon would sure come in handy, though; Paul was right about that.
"Did you see anything we could use as a weapon when she brought you in here? The open door must have let in some light."
"But it was only for a couple seconds..."
Letting out a huff, Paul slid back into a seated position. "Give me some more of those terms. They're helping me focus, keeping me from losing it."
"Okay." Alva tried to stay calm himself, taking slower breaths. "I've got a stumper for you. Hyakusetsu Monogatari."
Paul gave it a good try, but had to shake his head. "That is a stumper. Is that Japanese?"
"What's it mean?"
"The 100 Ghost and Demon Tales."
"Sounds like a colorful story. What does it refer to?"
Alva put on his best storytelling voice. "It refers to a ritual a group of people can use to conjure up a ghost or demon. Nowadays, teenagers perform the ritual as a game to scare each other."
Paul scoffed. "Typical."
"The basics are you get a group of people together, up to one hundred, and everyone brings a lit candle. In ancient times, they used paper lanterns called andon to hold the candle, but it's not required. Everyone sits in a circle with the candles placed in the middle. If you do manage to get one hundred people together, then simply form as many circles as it takes to accommodate everyone. There should be no other illumination in the room except the candlelight. Each person takes a turn telling a ghost or otherwise supernatural story. When you're done, you take a candle and blow it out. Some versions of the story had you taking the candle into an adjoining room, looking into a mirror, and then blowing the candle out. Either way, you can see how it would be pretty spooky."
Paul nodded. "Yeah. It sounds like something we would have done at summer Bible camp."
Alva grinned in the dark. The smile crept into his voice as he finished the tale. "The goal was for every person to tell a story, some more than one, and blow out all the candles one by one until you had reached one hundred and the room was completely dark. At that moment, a ghost or demon would appear in the middle of the circle."
"Hm. Is this a technique you've ever used to raise a spirit?"
"No. Well, Dr. Tanaki and I tried, but we ran out of stories."
"One hundred is an awful lot," Paul chuckled.
The banshee let out a louder cry so piercing that Paul and Alva had to cover their ears. She threw herself against the door, scratching at it as if she had to hunt for the knob. Both men plastered themselves against the wall.
"What do we do?" Paul asked. "I'm not letting that thing eat me alive."
"That's exactly what we do. We fight."
The door flew open and the banshee stood there, clawing at the air. Her red hair hung in her face, but they could still see her glowing green eyes staring at them, sizing them up. She now began clawing at her scraggly mane. "Hungry!" the banshee cried. Just the sound of her voice made Paul and Alva wince in pain. "So hungry! Must feed, must feed!" She shuffled into the room.
Paul had felt the strength in her arms when she originally took them prisoner less than an hour ago. No matter how weak the creature looked with her gray skin and gnarled fingers, he knew she was not weak, and could probably take him with ease. They needed a weapon, and they needed it now.
The open door let in enough light for Alva to search the room with his gaze. Oh, it was awful. There were rotting body parts everywhere, but especially in one corner of the room. Then he saw it.
In that corner, a shovel was propped against the wall.
Just as Alva took off at a run, the banshee rushed at Paul, growling. He put up his hands and tried to wrestle her away from him, but just as he thought, her monstrous strength could not be fought. The banshee pinned him to the wall and opened her mouth against his neck, chewing lightly at his skin, not sinking her teeth in just yet. Paul winced, bracing for the moment she would open his throat and begin feasting on his flesh and blood.
"Mmmm... seer... soothsayer... it has been almost a month. You will restore my full strength," she mumbled against his neck, and bit at him harder.
"Keel!" Paul yelled. A split second later, the banshee's head snapped to one side as her skull let out a sickening CLANG! Paul saw Alva behind her, holding the shovel with which he'd just struck her.
She turned on him, but before she could take even one step, Alva hit the banshee in the head once more, swinging the shovel like a baseball bat. The banshee stumbled and tried to recover.
Paul spotted another shovel close to where Alva had seen the first. A thought skittered across his mind that she must bury some of her leftovers on his way across the room.
When Paul got back with the shovel, Alva already had the banshee on the ground. He raised the shovel with the blade aimed downward, toward her throat, but her supernatural strength allowed her to catch the blade and hold it away from her body. She and Alva fought to keep the blade in opposing directions, both panting with the effort, arms shaking.
With her arms in this position, the banshee could do nothing to fight off Paul. He raised his shovel and brought it down, flat side smacking her in the face as hard as he could muster. The banshee screeched and her arms gave way. A second later, Alva sunk the sharp end of the blade into her neck. She made choking sounds and her arms shook almost to the point of seizure. Alva then put a foot on the shovel, shoving it down like one would do to stir up the dirt. Blood ran over the cement floor and the banshee's head rolled to one side, now free of her neck.
Both men stood over the creature's body, making sure she did not move again. "How did you know?" Paul asked, breathing hard. "How did you know that cutting off her head would kill her?"
Alva stood the bloody shovel up on its end, leaning on the handle. "You don't need any supernatural knowledge to figure that out," he replied. "Cutting off the head will kill almost anything."
Rolling his eyes, Paul nodded and said, "Good point."
Evie fussed over them both, although their injuries amounted to a few bruises. They got to her house just in time for dinner.
Paul tried not to think just how closely he had come to becoming the banshee's dinner as he ate his own. Evie's mother had made such a good meal that he didn't want to put himself off it. "Tell your mom it's all delicious," Paul said. Her mother spoke only Spanish and it had been a long time since high school Spanish class.
"You're lucky she didn't make the really spicy chicken tonight," Evie said back. "It always gives Alva gas."
Alva coughed, and took a sip of his drink. "Does he really need to know that?"
Both Paul and Evie grinned.
Thinking he was going to get some fancy answers in Spanish, Paul pointed to the main dish and asked, "What's that called?"
"Chicken and rice."
"...Is that it?"
"It's not the Spanish version. Just plain ol' baked chicken and rice."
"Oh. What about that?" He pointed with his fork at the green beans.
"Green beans," Evie answered, sarcasm in her voice. "Don't you recognize them?"
Paul rolled his eyes. "What about that one?"
Seeing that he had pointed to the broccoli and cheese casserole, Alva cut in with, "New Jersey Vegetable Monster."
Evie and Paul stopped short, while Alva now grinned. Then Paul began to chuckle and shake his head. "You always know just what to say, don't you?"
Alva shrugged and went back to enjoying his meal, that mischievous grin plastered on his face.