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HerculeHastings

R Becka

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The conveyor had gone around nearly twice before he remembered to pick up his luggage. He was vaguely annoyed at why he had brought so many bags with him; they were all unbearably heavy now, and he staggered feebly with them, trying to haul them up the trolley. A kind gentleman gave him a hand and was met with a soft murmur of thanks. With all his bags firmly perched on the trolley, he pushed it out the automatic sliding doors and entered the Arrival Hall of the airport.

 

There were people gathered around the rail, pointing at various people behind him, trying to decipher who was the person they were waiting for. Occasionally someone would wave, and presumably someone behind him would wave back. He ignored the noisy crowd and placidly, slowly, with his head bowed, traipsed out the airport.

 

She was supposed to have been waiting for him too, joining the crowd with their jabbering and their tiptoeing. But he was alone now. It felt as if time had stopped when he was away, and was now catching up so quickly he was out of breath.

 

“Evon Road, please,†he told the taxi driver. The taxi started and drove off, and he leaned back in his seat with a sigh of relief, as if he had just run a marathon.

 

Evon Road was a blistering cold place in the winter. There were a few squat houses to the side, with darkened windows and shady yards. He tucked his collar closer to his neck and walked on with his head bowed towards the playground.

 

The playground was surprisingly well kept, even when the rest of the neighbourhood was not. There was a slide and ladder leading up to it, a triangular netting with knobs to serve as hand and feet holds (he had often found it quite dangerous), a few see-saws and a swing. She had apparently loved to come here, during the months when he was away. He sat on a bench, wiping away the thick clump of snow that had gathered on it, and tried to imagine how she must have spent her time.

 

She would make for the netting first, because he forbade her from playing with it in his presence. She would probably stare at the structure, tapping her finger against her chin, trying to figure out the best and fastest way to climb to the top. She was unlike other children; she never ran to start doing things immediately, but would muse and ruminate and figure out an action plan first. She was a lonely, introverted sort of girl, probably as a result of that. He loved it though, and loved piquing her intellectual curiosity with all sorts of puzzles, and watch as her calm observant eyes took in all the details slowly, slowly, till he was shifting in his seat, before she raised her eyes and asked a question. She was by no means smart, but always endearing and eager to please.

 

The swing rattled. She would be sitting on the swing, her tiny hands gripping the rusty metal, kicking off on her own. She wouldn’t have swung far without anyone pushing her, but she would try and try again, laughing as her shoes slipped off her feet. Then she would jump up and run to the slide, crawling up from it rather than the ladder, her skirt crinkling up without him to flatten it down.

 

“Becka,†he muttered, tears that he thought had dried flowing down his face again. She was dead, dead, he would never see her again, never hear her laughter or watch her calm observant eyes appraising his puzzles or listen to her call him Daddy and give him a handmade paper flower on Father’s Day. Why was life so unjust? He hadn’t even made it back to be with her at her dying breath. Had she been scared, all alone, not knowing what was going on, or what would happen to her next? Had she blamed him for not being there with her at the most important moment?

 

A few hours later, he stood up, wiped his eyes with his sleeves, and walked away, his shoes making heavy footsteps against the ground.

 

Behind him, the swing rattled and swung with a dull groan, as if somebody was trying to kick off, unsuccessfully.

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There was a chill in the air today, the sort that leached into everything - clothes, cars, or even the bones - and left one feeling heavy and moody. Soft, murky, grey palls of cloud hung overhead, quietly threatening rain. 

 

It was winter after all. The season of harvest, of fecundity, of life had ended. Christ, even the radio was playing wistful and melancholic music.

 

"See I've been, breaking hearts, for far too long.

Loving you, for far too long.

Making plans now, for far too long..."

 
Clare Benedict looked out from a corner of her eyes at the snow-covered landscape of the suburbans as it passed swiftly by before her. The low crooning from the sedan's radio was a comforting companion, as was the muted vibration of the engine around her. 
 
There was scarcely anyone out along the roads this late into the afternoon. Those who had families had gone back home to be with them, finding solace from the chill in familial warmth. As for those who didn't… well, they found some way to cope.
 
"Think we'll see more snow tonight? It snowed pretty hard yesterday." She glanced at him using the rearview mirror, then reached to wipe away the condensation that had obscured it.
 
...
 
"Fine. Be that way." She let out a sigh of helpless exasperation and refocused her attention on the road.
 
The rest of the trip passed in deference to the radio. After another quarter of an hour, as day faded into twilight, she turned the vehicle down a right fork into Evon Road. She was headed there for formal business; some people had been speaking about paranormal activities that had started at some sort of playground there. Most of the time, it was just mild paranoia and a tendency to see meaning where none existed, but one could never be sure.
 
The playground was eerily quiet when Clare arrived, so she left the engine on for assurance. Two dying street-lamps illuminated the playground from opposite ends of the area, but mainly they threw shadows everywhere. Shadows that seemed to flicker and move. Clare felt a sense of disquiet.
 
"Stay with me, Hank."
 
She didn't bother waiting for a reply and stepped onto the playground by herself. A gentle wind picked up, and Clare took a deep breath.
 
"Alright then, let's do this."

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He did not know how long it had been before he found himself drifting, like an incorporeal being, back to the playground. Becka’s playground, he called it, even though it never belonged to her and certainly never would from now on. The time between the last visit and the present felt like it had passed by in a blur. There were the usual funeral proceedings, visits to relatives, being visited by relatives. It was comforting, sitting on the bench now, rubbing his gloved hands together for warmth, and yet it was also desolate. There was comfort in the desolation.

 

Maybe he really just liked wallowing in his own misery.

 

A blob of snow fell on his head, sending an instant shiver throughout his body. In his hand was a jigsaw puzzle box. He had forgotten to get a refund, in his hurry to get back. He didn’t know if Becka really liked them, but he did, and he was struck by a sudden realisation now that she probably just liked doing something with him, no matter what it was. She was not very good at it, and didn’t contribute much, but she would clap and cheer whenever he found the spot for a particularly tricky piece.

 

It was strange how he had never thought of that before. He had always assumed she loved the game as much as he did.

 

“Here, another jigsaw puzzle for us to do together,†he said, unwrapping the puzzle and spreading it out on the bench. “As I’ve always said, we do the easy obvious parts first.â€

 

The puzzle was moderately easy, and he had completed half the picture in no time – though his watch told him that two hours had passed; where had all the time gone? He scratched his chin. The second half was challenging, though. The picture was that of a beach, and the stretch of ocean was made up of nearly identical completely blue pieces. He tried a few combinations, but was always left with a piece that did not fit.

 

“Got to take a walk for a while, take my mind off things,†he announced aloud, though nobody was there to hear it now. “Our brain’s sub-conscious will work on the rest.†He tucked his hands in his coat pockets and stood up, taking a few jumps to keep warm. Leaving the jigsaw as it was, he turned around and began jogging down the road, watching big clouds of mist leave his mouth as he exhaled. Cold weather made him tire easily, so it took only a couple of rounds before he returned, worn out but pleased to exercise his brain again, and then he stopped short in front of the puzzle.

 

Right before his eyes was the complete picture, the beach staring back at him, every piece in its place.

 

He knew immediately that he was not crazy, not amnesiac, this wasn’t some kind of mistake.

 

He knew it immediately. Becka.

 

Becka had done it for him, somehow.

 

He broke into a slow, uneasy smile, as if afraid that by showing that he believed, he would revert everything to its place again.

 

“Becka,†he croaked, “you sure have learnt a lot about jigsaw, haven’t you?â€

 

Beside him, the see-saw creaked. It swung slowly, gingerly, like a kid trying to ride it on her own by standing up and sitting down alternately.

 

At the time, Lorne had felt no fear, only joy that his little girl had come back to give him a second chance.

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Clare dumped the dishes into the sink unceremoniously and commenced scrubbing the utensils vigorously. The clanging of metal and the sound of running water provided a perfect foil for mulling over matters. Matters such as a poltergeist haunting.

 

No matter how many times it had happened to her, it still surprised her every time it happened for the first time with one. Hell, when Hank first started pranking her by yanking at her feet while she slept at night (like he had used to when they were younger), she had screamed so loud it brought the neighbors knocking. But that was a long time ago. She was no longer the weak-willed woman she was then. These days, she hunted the stuff of nightmares, the things that went bump in the night, the monster in the closet. Although they weren't monsters so much as spooks; this last bit was a… a metaphor, wasn't it? I really should get back into reading again… someday.

 

Back to the issue at hand. The poltergeist at the playground. It seemed meek enough. The creaking of the swings was as creepy as it came, but it wasn't a particularly strong manifestation. She might even have imagined it, but Clare knew better than to doubt her intuition. A woman's intuition is pretty top-notch, isn't it?

 

Well, you -were- wrong about Hank. You went back to sleep that time.

 

She should stop having conversations inside her head - only old, senile people did that - but it was all Hank's fault for being such an unsociable douche.

 

"You're not going to argue with that, are you?" Clare wondered out aloud. The rest of the trailer greeted her in silence.

----

A couple of hours later, around late noon, Clare parked her sedan next the playground at Evons Road. She was about to get out of the car when she spotted a man sitting at a bench. She ducked back into the sedan immediately.

 

Shit, shit. Should have come at a later time like last time. Damnit.

 

Well, there was nothing to do but to wait until the man left. She sure hoped he would hurry up. What was a man doing by his lonesome here anyway? Reconnecting with his childhood? 

 

And what about you? Playing ghostbuster? That was Hank's wry humor right there. God, she hated Hank so much sometimes.

 

She rubbed her hands together and blew on them. Hell must be freezing over today.

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Briefly surveying the landscape, Lorne had nearly not spotted the sedan parked at the side of the road. Now that he’d seen it, though, he wondered how he could have missed it before. It stuck out like a sore thumb against the old, wasted backdrop. He had been so used to the same old scene greeting him everyday that the car just didn’t fit in. He sat and waited for the car to leave, or for the owner to step out so he could see what the person would want to do here.

 

The car did not leave, even after a few minutes. Neither did anyone step out. It just remained parked there, still and silent, as if it was waiting for him. How very ridiculous.

 

The playground behind him was silent. He could feel a quivering tension in the air.

"Don’t be afraid, Becka,†he said.

Becka had not materialised, or done anything odd, again ever since the jigsaw incident. He continued talking to her as if she was there, but gradually he was starting to wonder if perhaps he had been mistaken that day. And yet… there was always the presence that jolted him back to this thought. The sudden cold wind blowing from the wrong direction. The darkness that seemed to fall over this playground even under bright sunlight.

He did not know why Becka was scared of the car, or if he was the one. He realised he had been holding his breath, and quickly exhaled, for fear that the driver in the car had noticed. He was scared that this playground wouldn’t belong to him anymore. Someone else was claiming it. He couldn’t be alone here anymore.

And he was also afraid of what the fellow was doing here. Was he watching… Lorne? All the theories of persecution and conspiracies flooded his mind in those brief minutes. Perhaps the CIA had caught wind of his frequent visits, and thought he was a smuggler of cocaine, leaving his goods here for the next person to retrieve. Perhaps somebody had heard him talking aloud to Becka, and asked someone to take him to the asylum (though it didn’t feel right for them to do so in a comfortable sedan). Or maybe, maybe this person had bought this place, and it wasn’t public property anymore, and it might be demolished to make way for another one of those identical office buildings.

His hands gripped the edge of his seat so tightly the whites were showing.

The possibilities would not stop, and the person did not step out to confirm any of his suspicions. He tried to look through the window without looking like he was obviously doing so, which involved a convoluted process of inclining his head to face the roof of the house behind the car, then darting his eyes downward to look into the car, and darting them upward again before the chap could notice. Needless to say, his neck was stiff and his eyes sore from these unnatural actions.

He had always been prone to give way to fantasies, and the more he fantasised, the less inclined he was to just get up and ask the driver what he needed. Lorne was not a direct, straightforward person, and direct confrontations with strangers that would possibly put him at risk was out of the question. He would patiently sit and wait all day if he must.

And it looked like the other party was going to do the same. Definitely suspicious.

Very well, he would play the waiting game.

What was certainly out of the question, though, was leaving his prized spot in the playground. He wasn’t going to let some land developer (which was really the most logical conclusion) take it away. This had been Becka’s hideout.

And it might still be, even now.

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Clare drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. She was locked in a battle of attrition against the man, she was aware of that. She also knew that she wasn't the patient sort. What's that saying again? Time's a-wastin'? No time like the present? Time and tide waits for no man. Yes, that was it.

 

You're not getting any younger.

 

"Geez, Hank. Thanks. That's helpful," replied Clare sardonically, then she held her breath in silent anticipation. But no rejoinder came, and she exhaled with a mix of disappointment and annoyance. Why did Hank have to be the first one to go? She could be the one messing with him right now, whispering to him out of the blue and in such a faint voice that he couldn't be sure he hadn't imagined it… 

 

She shivered, her breaths condensing in the cold air. The vehicle’s heater was spoilt or something. Great. Looks like she had no choice then.

 

Sighing, Clare clenched the handle and pushed her door open. She winced as the winter chill swooped in and bit into her bones, then tucked both hands into the pockets of her parka. She trudged over to the man, her boots crunching in the soft layer of snow. Hank chose to hang back in the car, that bastard.

 

“Who are you?†the man asked, eyeing her apprehensively. He was a shy man, that much was obvious. However, he seemed rather defensive. A suspicion formed in the back of her mind.

 

“Clare. The name’s Clare.â€

 

The man obviously expected more, but Clare kept silent. Partly out of resentment for the fact that his presence here was impeding her from fulfilling her task here, but also partly because she didn’t know exactly what to tell him.

 

Excuse me for disrupting your sabbatical, mister, but you’re in the way of an exorcism. And let me guess, it’s your child I’m going to be exorcising! What a happy coincidence! Shall we go for a beer later?

 

“You know what’s going on here, right? We, uh, need to talk.â€

 

She could sense Hank rolling his eyes from all the way back in the car. But it’s alright. Gotta go with intuition, right? Besides, this will buy me some time to think. And get us both of out this goddamn coldddd.

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“You know what’s going on here, right? We, uh, need to talk.â€

“Do you mean, the land development?†asked Lorne. “I mean, I don’t know anything about that, because I don’t see a sign saying the land has been sold. And at any rate, I don’t believe this counts as trespassing, when the land hasn’t been developed yet.â€

Lorne had some limited knowledge about how housing developments worked, and he was pretty good at sounding more informed than he really did. He looked suspiciously at Clare. She hadn’t presented him with a name card, which housing developers did. Was this some kind of illegal establishment?

Just his luck, an illegal developer taking an interest in Becka’s hideout. Maybe he could report this to the authorities. Would the authorities be interested in a dinky abandoned playground, though? It was a slim chance, but it was better than nothing. Lorne resolved to visit the library and do some research later. His fingers clenched into a fist in his pocket. What was he getting himself into? He took a deep breath and swallowed.

A faint chilly wind blew at him, which only served to highlight to him his already raised goose pimples. He heard a creaking sound behind him. Something metal was moving. He turned his head and let out a gasp. The swing was moving on its own, swinging constantly from left to right. It wasn’t as shaky as before, like as if someone was sitting on it and trying to swing themselves; no, rather, it was firm and decisive, and its momentum never stopped. Lorne had never seen the swing behave so violently before.

And next was the see-saw’s turn. It rose and fell alternately, much quieter this time. Lorne looked wildly at Clare, not sure what she would think. He didn’t know what to think, himself.

“So… you were saying…†he continued lamely, not sure whether to point her towards the phenomenon or pretend it didn’t exist. He had no wish to regale her with tales of Becka, but if this could scare Clare off, it would certainly help. And yet, it did risk him being clapped in an asylum as a deluded and emotional Dad who never got over his little girl’s death.

He trailed off, not really sure what she had been saying, really.

And maybe she didn’t even think much of what had transpired. She looked a cold, calculating New Age woman, and New Age women didn’t believe in ghosts or the occult. He was suddenly aware of how very old he must be.

And then the wooden bench started moving.

It moved very slowly, as though whatever was pushing it had not very much force. It ploughed through the thick snow about a centimetre at a time, with no aim in mind, simply moving forward. The swing and see-saw continued to act independently. It looked to Lorne as if Becka was quite, quite furious, and throwing a tantrum to show it.

“Let’s go somewhere else to talk this further.†The sounds of swing creaking and wood moving were drowning out his voice. “I know a good café nearby. Can we take your car?"

All of a sudden he was very anxious to get out of there. He had never seen anything like this happen before. There was a negative tension stirring in the air, and something told him it was unsafe to remain there any longer. It took him a moment to realise this was no metaphor. There was a voice whispering to him in the wind.

“Go.â€

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D’Good Café was a small café with a modern, minimalist sensibility. The interiors were painted a crisp white and the flooring was lacquered wood. The air carried an aroma of coffee powder and fresh wallpaper. It was so prim an environment that it made Clare feel as though she was on a first date all over again. It was mildly sickening.

Clare gulped down the espresso mocha and wished they had gone to a bar instead. She needed to calm her nerves after the sinister spectacle the playground poltergeist had put up and caffeine wasn’t cutting it. Even Hank seemed subdued as he sat next to her.

The man was seated across the table from her. His face was visibly pale, although his body language seemed guarded.

Oh well, at least we don’t have to do the tango anymore. We both know exactly what we’re talking about here.

“Hi, I’m Clare. What’s your name? And how are you related to the ghost?â€

“What, what ghost?†He looked suddenly very alarmed. One could even say he looked as alarmed as if someone was talking to him very casually about a pet rabbit he thought he had hidden very well in his locker.

Clare rolled her eyes. Really? We have to do this still?

"Come on now. Don't play coy. We both saw what happened back there."

"Oh, ah, yes, you're right." The alarm on the man’s prematurely creased face turned into subduement.

"Look, I don't really care about your name. I just want to know if you know that ghost."

"Know that ghost? Oh, certainly- certainly not. Why do you ask that?"

Clare snorted in derision. "Oh, you don't? Then we're done here. You have a good day, mister."

She drained her cup, then made to stand up and leave.

"Er, hey hey wait!" Lorne stood up. "Can you tell me more about this ghost business?"

Clare sat back down and looked at him expectantly. Come on, just spill the beans already.

He looked back at her, visibly more nervous. After a while, he asked,†I just want to know what you are. Do you deal with ghosts a lot?"

His dalliance irked Clare. "Somewhat. You still haven't answered my question."

The chinking of windchimes became audible from the café’s entrance; the number of people in the café now numbered seven.

"What happens if I say yes?" he mumbled. Finally.

"Then we can start discussing the situation." Next to her, Hank seemed bored as he stared out of the glass window at the snow falling outside.

"What're you going to do with the ghost?"

"I plan to exorcise it."

"Exorcise?" his eyes widened. "Is it painful to the ghost?"

Clare debated what to tell him. He was obviously concerned about the spirit.

"Technically, they're dead so they can't feel anything like pain. More to the point, none of the previous ones have ever given up without a fight, so."

He fell silent. Then after a pause he said, "Can I be there when it happens?"

"I'd prefer not. You wouldn't be the first overprotective parent to try and stop an exorcism halfway through and that's very dangerous."

Lorne looked resolute. "Then I won't let you do it."

Clare cocked her head at him accusingly before saying,†"You saw what it could do now, didn't you?"

"I saw her trying her best to push a bench and move a swing, which are frankly exceedingly harmless actions. Why can't you just let her stay there peacefully?"

The man – she didn’t know his name – gripped the table edge until his knuckles turned white.

"Do you know what happens when you do something over and over again, mister? You get better at it. She is going to get better at it. She's going to grow stronger over time."

"That's only what you say. I'm sure... I'm quite sure she won't. Can't you just let her do what she likes? She's already dead.. Back when she was alive... she couldn't do what she wanted. At least when she's dead... maybe she can..." he lowered his head and choked.

Clare's expression softened. "Your time with her is over. The spirit haunting the playground isn't her. It's an echo- how did she die? Your daughter."

"You won't believe this but... I don't know. I don't know how she died. I wasn't there." His face grew gaunt as he spoke.

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This conversation was definitely not going as Lorne had expected. He didn’t know what he did expect, but certainly not this burning feeling that he had said too much, and that this woman sitting coolly across from him was going to use it to his advantage. Manipulation. Yes, that was the word. He could feel starkly that she was manipulating him, and he was ashamed of himself for it.

“Anyway,†he said, “I’m not trained in this occult business. Before this happened I didn’t even believe in ghosts. So I don’t know at all what you mean by echoes, and spirits, and exorcism. Good afternoon.†He got up from his seat and left.

Rather than return to the playground, he caught a bus back home instead. He didn’t feel fit to face Becka again now, or her ghost. The air-conditioning in the bus was strong, and jets of cold air blew onto his face, clearing his thoughts. This was not Becka. Clare might be right. It was just her ghost, or her echo, whatever that meant. It wasn’t really her.

And yet, all the little endearing actions had to be hers. Only she could finish the jigsaw, and kick herself off from the swing so awkwardly, and push the bench with the strength of a seven-year-old. If her ghost could do all these things then, well, what set it apart from the real Becka? What was wrong with treating her ghost as her, if they were fundamentally alike anyway?

What is wrong is that Becka’s dead, and you can’t get away from it. Thinking she’s still here lightens your guilt, which you don’t deserve.

Lorne was struck by how harsh his own words were, and yet how true. He only badly wanted her to remain in the playground, so that he could make it up to her, play out the various scenarios in his mind where he was here for her, by her side, until her dying breath.

He nodded to himself. He knew just what to do now. All that remained was to find Clare again. Had she left him a name card? He didn’t think so. Well, there was only one way to go about it then. He pressed the bell, waited for the bus to slide gently to a stop, and got off. He took a bus back to Evon Road.

Clare was not at the playground. However, he was sure she would come back sooner or later. He would wait here for as long as he must. He was reminded of doing the very same thing earlier today, only it had been to wait for her to leave. Now he was waiting for her to come. How fate could play a cruel irony on people.

The playground was silent and peaceful again. Lorne didn’t know if Becka was here. He didn’t know if she was always at the playground, or if she flitted to different places. If she were here, what would she make of his hunched shoulders, his sunken cheeks and his listless eyes? Would she know what he would say to Clare? Would she approve?

She had always silently approved of everything he decided and did. He had learnt to read telltale signs very well, from his daughter. If Becka was sad, she would look down on the ground, and walk at a slower pace from usual. If she was angry, she would refuse to eat her food. He had often encouraged her to speak her mind, but it was not in her nature. She was a person who bottled things up.

He tried to rehearse what he would tell Clare later.

“Clare,†he began haltingly, aware that anybody passing by was going to find him extremely peculiar talking to himself, “I really want to be there when the exorcism happens. I promise I won’t stop you. I really want to be there this time, because I wasn’t around the last time, when she died, and I swear never to make the same mistake again.â€

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Clare mulled over the matter before turning in that night.

 

She had been nonplused when the ghost's father seemed to have a change of heart abruptly and left, but decided in the end that it didn't change what she had to do. Nothing could change it; spirits left to linger in this world gradually lost their humanity and became little more than malevolent geists that lashed out at anyone who came near them. The bereaved would always try to cling onto these souls, hoping that doing so might lighten some of the burden of their passing. But no matter the intention, the kind of relationship engendered this way was always going to be an unhealthy one. Hank and herself was a pretty good, ongoing example.

 

She rolled over to lie on her other side in the sleeping bag. The floorboards of the RV were deathly cold tonight, but she was long accustomed to it. She had started living in the RV shortly after Hank had returned all those years ago. Living in the house they had shared was driving her crazy; she would hear sounds of night-time activity from some other part of the house she couldn't see at random intervals throughout the night. She didn't think if Hank meant to be a nuisance, but he was being a worse partner than before he had left. At least in the RV, everything was within sight, which meant that Hank was always within sight as well.

 

Tomorrow, she would go ahead with the exorcism and move on to other things. She didn't like this part of town much. 

 

------------

The next day.

 

She crossed her arms and furrowed her brows at the man. Is this guy for real?

 

"Suit yourself. Just don't touch anything." 

 

She went about preparing the playground for the exorcism. As she scattered the salt around the edges of the area, she spied the swing begin to sway, almost imperceptibly so. Uh oh, she's spotted us. Hank, be a dear and go play with her for a bit, will you? The sun bore down brightly on them, although the frost leftover from the night before prevented its warmth from reaching them. The mittens she wore hindered her somewhat, but they were necessary to combat the numbing chill.

 

The father hovered near her anxiously as she reached the center of the playground and finally turned around. "We're ready. Shush now."

 

She retrieved a leather-bound copy of the Rituale Romanum, spread it open to chapter XII and began chanting from it. A girl's crying soon became audible, prompting her to shoot a warning glare at the man with her. He looked startled, then stared hard at the rest of the playground - which was beginning to come alive. The see-saw started to creak up and down. The merry-go-round started to turn. The screeching of metal was ear-piercing. Clare felt goosebumps rise all over her body. It was a thankful thing that there was no one else around to witness all these paranormal activities, for the ghost was definitely making its presence, and reluctance, felt.

 

Yet despite her fears, nothing particularly violent happened. Glancing warily in all directions, Clare finally uttered the final line in the incantation. Almost simultaneously, something that had previously been oppressing the area lifted and the temperature warmed appreciably. The see-saw and merry-go-round ground to a stop.

 

Clare wiped a bead of sweat away from her eyebrows, tension leaving her body. The exorcism was complete.

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Was this how Becka would sound when she cried?

The exorcism was over, but Lorne couldn’t get it off his mind, not even after Clare suggested he take a seat. He was indeed feeling quite dizzy, and so did not refuse some help getting to the bench. It had been a trying occurrence that he had witnessed, after all.

Becka had never cried before, not in front of him. There had been a time when she had fallen and hurt her knee, but even then there had only been soft sniffles. He tried to shake away the memories of her crying over the years.

“Guess it’s all over now, huh?†he asked, almost in disbelief. It was not as if he had really spent a long time with Becka’s ghost, but he felt like his life was now devoid of purpose, yet again. He exhaled the breath he seemed to have been holding for years. There was really no need to visit this playground anymore. He had seen enough here.

That night, he dreamed of Becka. She was vivid, standing right before him. They were in the kitchen, and he had been making a burger for her. She eyed him, and the scene around them vanished and changed into the playground, and she was still eyeing him, even as Clare beside them started chanting and muttering words he did not understand from a book. Becka coughed, and blood dripped out from the side of her mouth. Blood started gushing out from her eyes too, but the eyes were still fixed on him, still staring, deep into his soul.

“I’m sorry,†he croaked, holding out his hand.

Becka walked up to him, such that she was just out of reach of his hand.

“It’s okay,†she said.

He woke up with a start and realised that it was not okay. It was not okay to her at all.

This was, however, undeniably the end. The New Year decorations were being taken down in shops, the festive feeling was over and everybody was back to work. Back to daily life, without thoughts of ghosts or regrets from the last year. Lorne, too, resolved to put them aside and set his focus on finding something meaningful to do. The economy was going well, and he quickly found a job he loved, as a computer technician, going around homes to fix computers and install servers.

He never saw Clare again. She had probably left the town, having done her duty here. He wondered how she had caught wind of the haunting. He certainly had not spilled a word. Perhaps someone in the neighbourhood had known? Did Becka manifest even when he was not around? He would never know the answer. Either way, exorcists probably had their sources.

The first day of work was pretty hectic. He had three homes to visit over the day, and each one took more time than he expected, so it was evening when he finally lumbered into his apartment, dragging his feet as he walked, holding a packed dinner in his hand. He switched on the light, stretched his arms, and walked towards the kitchen for a drink of water. Something on the wall made him pause and turn in his steps.

There was one word written on the wall.

It was red and scraggly. Rather like a child’s handwriting, except the words were written in something slimier and more vibrant than crayon.

It read, “Daddy.â€

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Clare's sedan was an old piece of junk and its performance was far from topnotch. However, all its little flaws - an odd squeak in the left passenger's door, the scratchy fabric of the seats, the driver's compartment that wouldn't open fully, the rearview mirror whose cant cannot be adjusted - had come to grow on her like how a pet's quirks might endear it to its owner. She spent most of her time in it traveling across the states, a kind of nomadic way of life resembling the Winchester brothers' in the tv series Supernatural.

 

God, did she love that show. It made their line of work seem so much more hair-raising than what she had actually faced on her travels. Clare herself had never swiped someone else's credit card for herself, much less purchased an armory of her own. She has never faced a demon before; the most malevolent being she had ever come into contact with was an overly distressed mother who had attacked her halfway through an exorcism and given her some nasty cuts with a pair of scissors. It was more of something you might mention as a caution tale rather than horror flick material.

 

She had been on the road for about a week now, ever since the end of the Becka episode. After bidding Lorne farewell and giving him he usual pep talk about moving on, she had just been wandering around the country, killing time until the next job. It had done wonders for her wanderlust, although Hank had been uncharacteristically dour company. He mostly lurked out of sight, which was an incredible feat considering the limited amount of space available in the sedan for him to haunt.

 

"Well, Hank, next stop: Old Fork City! I hear they recently had a terrorist bombing. A lot more ghosts around now, eh? You'll have company soon, old boy. Hope you didn't miss Becka."

 

She's still around.

 

Clare nearly crashed her beloved sedan.

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Mrs Ebonwood was tapping her foot in great impatience, directing a painful glare at the man who was now doubled over in apology.

“You were supposed to have arrived 5 hours ago,†she said pointedly. “I was going to get my internet fixed before picking my daughter up from school, but look what happened now? My daughter’s still stuck in school, I haven’t even prepared snacks for her, and I’ve been stuck wandering around inside the house aimlessly! Why’re you so late? I shall send a letter of complaint to your manager immediately.â€

The man continued bowing and muttering apologies. He looked quite a neurotic sight. His hair was dishevelled, dotted with silvery strands, and his hands were squeezing his trousers so tightly that she could see the whites of his knuckles. Mrs Ebonwood was a soft-hearted woman, despite her threats, and simply stepped aside for him to do what he had to do. If he managed to resolve the problem in the next hour or so, she would still have time for the snacks before Lydia fetched Sue home.

The man walked towards her modem, kneeling down on the floor to examine the connecting wires. Mrs Ebonwood knew a little about modems. Three flashing lights were always a sign that it was functioning properly. Currently, only one spot was lit up. She hoped it had nothing to do with having cleaned the back yesterday with a damp rag…

In her defence, it was getting really dusty. Sue had been sniffling a lot these past couple of days, and she wouldn’t want her asthma to act up, especially now that spring was here.

“I’ll just leave you to it then,†she said. “If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen.â€

Sue’s favourite snack was cookies, and she would make a fuss if she didn’t get a plate of Mama’s homemade cookies when she got home. Mrs Ebonwood set to work, deftly breaking six eggs into the bowl of flour. Something crashed on the floor in the living-room. She was beating the eggs, and so decided not to check. Some amount of noise was inevitable when machines were being repaired, right?

“No! No! Don’t do that! Please! Please!†the man started calling out from the other room. Mrs Ebonwood widened her eyes. Had someone just come in? Maybe it was another technician, though the man sure sounded alarmed to have his colleague’s presence.

The batter was mixed and promptly poured into six aluminium dishes. Mrs Ebonwood proudly placed them in the oven and set the perfect temperature and timing. Now she could go out and see if the man needed help.

“If you want to check the computer or whatever, it’s in the study- what is going on here?†she gulped. The man, all alone, was looking up at her forlornly. The telephone was strewn on the ground, its cable disconnected. The television was blaring, though she wondered why she had not heard it back in the kitchen. The modem itself had been smashed to bits, pieces of its casing lodged in her sofa and armchairs.

The man calmly stood up and handed his name card to her. It read Lorne Hilary Linton.

“Just phone this number,†he said, pointing to the company hotline, “and they’ll send in a replacement. I guess I should go. You probably won’t be seeing me anymore.â€

He stumbled out the door, leaving Mrs Ebonwood with a frown on her face. She watched him walk away, his shoulders hunched up, every step screaming resignation and helplessness.

She loathed men who gave up without a fight.

The realisation astounded her. It was rare that Mrs Ebonwood had such strong feelings towards strangers. Besides, she knew nothing about him, nor what kind of “fight†he was even giving up from.

She replaced the phone and dialled the number indicated on the card.

“Hallo, is this Yes Telecomm? Yes, I’m Mrs Elle Ebonwood. Yes, the technician did come… er, may I know more about him? He’s Lorne Hilary Linton…â€

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"That's the second time already. I'm surprised he's still trying."

 

Clare watched from the confines of her sedan as Lorne descended the steps from the front porch of the house. He walked with his shoulders slumped as though bearing an invisible burden, which in this case mayn't be all that far from the truth. The poor sod was being haunted, all right. She couldn't tell what exactly happened in the house for the two visits he had made today since she had started surveillance on him, but she had heard the sounds of china breaking and saw how he had left the residence with his head bowed in disgrace. The leap to the conclusion was one she had made countless times before and she was more than comfortable with it this time as well. Having a ghost linger around made daily life nearly impossible, and she knew that firsthand.

 

As Clare watched him lower himself into his van, she felt a twinge of sympathy for him; the young ones were the worst. They degenerated much faster into malevolence than adult spirits. She wasn't certain of the explanation, but thought that it might be because their souls were "purer" and thus more susceptible to the corrupting nature of their spectral existence. The longer they stayed around, the more their humanity faded. Hank had been like that as well, until she gave him the ultimatum.

 

Stop or I'll kill myself!

 

She exorcised him shortly after, but he had somehow managed to return, more mellow than before. She had been shocked at first, but eventually warmed to him, only to come to find him irksome as much as she still loved him. He was like the elongated evening shadow that one couldn't quite help but be aware of. She wondered how Becka made her presence felt.

 

"You think you could talk to her or something? Give her a few tips about subtlety?"

 

...

 

"Of course I'm kidding. You never talk to anyone else."

 

Lorne had begun driving. Clare counted to ten before starting her engine and tailing him. She had spent a week trying to tracking him down after learning about Becka's continued existence and it hadn't been easy. It had occurred to her during this period that she should have taken note of his ID during her correspondence with him, but she wasn't used to providing post-service support. Becka was the first time a spirit had rebounded on her since Hank did five those years ago. Clare couldn't help but ponder the reasons for the return. What was it that Lorne and herself had in common? Or was it the spirits? A reluctance to stop loving and move on, perhaps?

 

Either way, this situation was novel to her and she had wanted to confirm Becka's existence first. But- wait, now it seemed that Lorne had stopped his van. Was it another call? No, he didn't take his toolbox with him.

 

Must be his house then.

 

Sometimes, she wasn't sure who the thoughts originated from. Hank had been the more assertive one during his life, but she's changed a lot since his death.

 

Who else do we know has changed a lot? Time to drop the father and daughter a visit.

 

That was probably hers.

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Lorne made tea for the both of them.

After a pause, he followed it up with a plate of soft-boiled eggs for himself, and was about to lift his spoon when the tea at the other end of the table began quivering.

“You want one too?†he mumbled. The quivering stopped, and he got up to make two more eggs for her. With Becka placated, he was about to take a bite once again when the doorbell rang this time. The chair on the other side made a creak against the floor. He jumped up from his seat.

“No, no, Becka, don’t open the door. I’ll do it. I’ll do it. Just drink your tea.†He raced to the door, panting, and flung it open without checking whom was outside. When he saw his visitors he made a move to shut the door again, then thought better of it and stepped out onto the porch instead, gently closing the door behind him.

“What’re you doing here?†he whispered. He was not angry, really “weary†would be the better word. He was weary of people pulling strings with him and causing him greater trouble. Clare was a prime example.

“In any case I can’t let you into the house. Becka’s inside,†he lowered his head. “She wouldn’t want to see you. So please leave and leave us to our lives; I’m having enough of a headache getting on with my everyday life without Becka being aggravated.â€

In some ways it astounded him that this was the life he had wished for, without knowing the consequences then. He had wished for Becka to be back, so that they might lead the same life as before, together again. He had wished for Becka to be more assertive with her wishes, so that he would not need to keep guessing what it was she wanted, or feel guilty about having left her to the sidelines. And no one could doubt that she was not expressing her wishes much more clearly now.

Sometimes it seemed like even her return was in accordance with his wishes, that Becka was doing all these for him.

And sooner or later, he would need to face up to the question he had been avoiding. Why had she died? He knew how she died, the police and doctors had told him that much. But why? Why was his baby girl chosen to live such a destiny?

She was a victim of Fate, they had told him with a pat on the shoulders. There was no reason why she was chosen. There was no way it could have been predicted.

But it was all his fault. If he had stayed with her, or even just seen her when the end had come, then she wouldn’t have needed to come back as a spirit. Yes, this much was undeniable. Despite all the empty words of consolation the police tried to give him, it was nobody else’s fault but his own.

“I really don’t want to see you, ever again,†he said bluntly. “And you’re interrupting my breakfast. I haven’t had anything to eat the whole day. Goodbye.†He walked back into the house and slammed the door shut.

“No, it was nobody, Becka,†he said, taking his seat again. “Just some insurance salesman. Ah, you’re done with the eggs? How were they? I think I timed them just right; mine on the other hand seems to be a tad over-cooked. Drink your tea then.â€

He took the plate from the other end of the table and slurped up the 2 soft-boiled eggs swimming around on it. Indeed, they did taste just right.

Boy, was this a filling meal.

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Clare walked to the parking lot the two blocks away where she had left her car, fuming over the exchange all the way as she did so. She hadn't expected Lorne to welcome her with a smile, but the brusque treatment had been nothing short of shocking. As if she had wanted to see him again! The cheek! She got into her car, and swung the door shut angrily. Then, she slapped her hands onto the steering wheel and gripped it tightly, relishing the smarting sensation in her hands from the impact.

 

Fine, if he wants to be that way, I'll leave him be. He'll be crying for help soon enough. That big baby. Shit, no. I can't. What if the stupid ghost kills someone? Christ.

 

She drew down the windows, pushed open the driver's compartment and rummaged for the pack of cigarettes she'd kept in there. As she did so, she flipped back her hair several times in exasperation. After a few moments of frustrated searching, she finally found the little box tucked away under a stack of manuals and drew a stick from it. Swearing as it slipped out of her fingers, she bent down to pick it up and lit it with the car's lighter receptacle. She then balanced it between two fingers in her right hand and took a long, sweet drag from it, sighing as the smoke filled her lungs. The tension in her shoulders vanished with her next exhalation.

 

Resting her forehand against the palm of the hand with the cigarette, she massaged her temple with the other. A headache had settled in suddenly, making it hard to think.

 

Well, okay. I've just got to give him some time to think. He can't possibly live with a ghost his entire life. I'll back off, give him some space and come back a few days later when we're all more rational. Yes, that's it.

 

With that in mind, Clare started the engine, shifted her car in reverse, and set off for the nearest bar in town. 

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The next time the doorbell rang Lorne contemplated just not opening it.

However, the ringing was persistent, and Becka was starting to stir. He got up and opened the door, saying at the same time, “Look, I can call the police about this-“

“Oh, hello, Mr Linton.â€

Lorne blinked, not knowing how to place this woman who was looking at him coolly at his doorstep. She seemed familiar, but where had he seen her before?

“I’m Mrs Ebonwood.â€

Still no recollection. Lorne distinctly associated the name “Ebonwood†with something bad, though. Oh right, she was his last customer. The one who made snacks for her daughter. Was she here to sue him or lodge some kind of complaint?

“Mrs Ebonwood, I’m afraid I’ve no money to pay you for damages.â€

“Oh, that’s quite alright. Your company has compensated me, along with a promise that you’ll be fired instantly. I came here more on a personal matter. Your home address is listed on the Yellow Pages, by the way. Your company didn’t disclose it.â€

Lorne could only stare at her, not knowing whether her thinly pressed lips and crossed arms were genuine. She had an icy way of talking, her eyes looking at you matter-of-factly. If she were not a housewife, Lorne could easily see her as a very efficient secretary.

“Would you ask me in?†she asked after a 5-second pause. Lorne felt as if he was faced with his school teacher once again, or a bossy elder sister. No was not an option.

“Er, sure, come on in.†He stepped to the side, looking around nervously. Becka was not in sight. Mrs Ebonwood walked in, coolly surveying the living-room as she settled herself on the sofa.

“Your house is very neat and organised,†she commented, “for someone with a, well, a condition.†She glanced at him, then looked down at her feet, evidently embarrassed by her own words. Lorne mustered a nod. This was after all the most visible explanation for his behaviour. He was crazy. It was ironic that people could accept he had a mental disorder, but nobody bothered to contact an asylum. Maybe there was an unwritten threshold about when a mental patient became too mental.

“The personal matter I came about is, well, this is just a little embarrassing to relate,†she added as Lorne slid silently onto an armchair. “But now that I’ve seen your home I think I can trust you. Mr Linton, would you like to own a fish?â€

“A- a fish?†Lorne barely managed to stammer. Mrs Ebonwood was relentlessly dishing out surprise by surprise.

“Yes, you see, my daughter Sue has a pet goldfish that she’s been keeping for a month now, but there’s a neighbour – some ill-disciplined boy next door – who delights in bullying the fish, and Sue fears for its safety. I couldn’t very well forbid him from coming to our house again, because his father’s such a nice person, so we decided we should just give the fish away. If you don’t mind, can you help us take care of it? I’ll bring Sue over to look at it maybe once in a while. It wouldn’t intrude on your time very much, and since you’re unemployed anyway maybe it’ll be good to have it to pass your time, you know! It may be therapeutic and everything.â€

Lorne blushed, but it looked like Mrs Ebonwood, once she started talking, found it hard to stop.

“I’ll pay for the fish’s necessities, of course. You can even make space for it once you move the bookcase to this side; the tank’s not very big. It’ll be nice if you could have it, because not many people want fish. All the kids want dogs and cats, but turn their noses up at fish. Such snobs.â€

He really had no idea why he said yes. Maybe he didn’t want to be thought of as a snob as well, on top of the other misconceptions.

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Clare woke up in the dark feeling sore all over. Still in a state of grogginess, she groaned and rolled over to her other side in the soft, lush bed. Her body bumped against the rugged outline of Hank and she wrapped her arms around him, pressing her body flush against his back. She inhaled deeply, indulging deeply in a faint whiff of his cologne. That was when her brain finally caught up to speed with her surroundings and the multiple unfamiliar sensations. Bed. Man. Cologne. She opened her eyes slowly, almost dreading of what she'd see. Her eyes gradually grew accustomed to her environment, affirming that, yes, she was in a bed and the man next to her wasn't Hank.

 

Oh, fuck. It was all rushing back to her now, despite her hazy mind. The bar, whose name she didn't remember. Didn't care. Just any one will do. Any place to get wasted. The stranger with his cute smile. She didn't even remember how they'd made it to this place. And then the sex, that part was a blur too. How many times did we do it? Christ. It's like being back in college all over again.

 

Her next thought was to check for Hank. She eased her arms out from underneath her anonymous lover, and sat herself upright. Scanning the room slowly, she was struck by how tidy it all was. There was scarcely an article out of place, besides their clothes strewn all over the floor, that is. It reminded Clare of how fastidious Hank had been about orderliness during their marriage. In any case, Hank didn't seem to be present in the flat, which worried Clare; he usually stuck to her like a shadow. Even back when they still lived in their apartment, she could always felt his presence in some corner of her mind. Yet right now, she had nothing at all.

 

Regardless, Clare decided she had best leave before her lover awoke. She slid herself out of bed noiselessly, albeit taking slightly longer than necessary to do so, and began to retrieve her clothes. When she was dressed, she took a quick peek at his face, noting with some guilty satisfaction that even drunk, she had standards. She was about to lean back and make her exit when the man mumbled a word that stopped her cold," Clarebear."

 

She regarded the man's sleeping face again, this time too shocked for words.

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Mrs Ebonwood was one of those people who seemed cold and distant at first, but opened up to people surprisingly effortlessly. It had only been a fortnight, but Lorne felt as if he and her were best friends. He had met Sue a few times during this period. She was a charming girl, who seemed to have inherited her mother’s trust in strangers (he would never have allowed that in Becka). She talked loudly and was always running around. He found her so very shallow and childish. So very unlike Becka, who was quiet and did not talk and walked in a much more stable manner.

And yet, people could tell at a glance that Sue was happy.

In fact, people could tell at a glance what Sue was thinking and feeling at all times.

“I want to feed Goldie! Goldie’s hungry now! She eats the big pellets in the morning! Where is it where is it?!†And she would run around like a headless chicken till Lorne bent down and calmly opened the cupboard, when she would swipe the blue bottle of fish feed and pour its contents indiscriminately. Lorne would reach out and pull her hand back to stop her from emptying the whole bottle. The first impression he always got was that her hand was so warm. He would instinctively worry if perhaps she was running a fever, but she ran around so energetically that it was absurd to conclude that she was anything but in the pink of health.

She could not pronounce her “râ€s properly – “hungry†always sounded like “hungwyâ€. Lorne had tried correcting her a few times, but she would simply grin at him in a sort of goofy way and run off before he could finish, leaving a trail of upset cups, sweaty footprints and spontaneous laughter in her wake. At the end of the day, after Mrs Ebonwood had taken her home, Lorne would slump on the sofa, completely worn out.

Becka was dangerously quiet these few days. He always held his breath whenever Mrs Ebonwood brought Sue over, but nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all. In fact, Becka had not appeared after they had left either. He was aware of the silence and solitude that hung in the air. It left in him a sense of foreboding he could not shake off.

If only Becka could stop… manipulating his feelings.

He pressed his fingers against his temples. After a day of dealing with a physically over-active 7-year-old, he wasn’t ready to deal with an emotional one.

“1 will do.†That was what Rosemary had said. “Just 1 child.â€

She was always wise, Rosemary was.

He leaned back against the sofa and closed his eyes.

The water in the tank let off a soft plop. The goldfish must be hungry again. The next feeding time was in two hours, though, so he still had time for a nap.

He woke up with a jolt twenty minutes later. His hands were clammy and had found their way to the edge of the sofa, clenching it tight. He took a few deep breaths, scowling. He could not remember for the life of him what he had dreamed of that had made him so scared. He tried searching his memory, but all that turned up was an annoying blankness. Never mind. It was time to feed the fish. He got up slowly, reluctantly, and walked to the tank. The fish was mooching about in the water, it seemed. Not moving its fins, just floating in the water, its stomach facing upward, letting the small ripples of water in the tank carry it to and fro.

Wait a moment.

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No matter what they say about life being full of ups and downs, at some point one stopped being surprised by those and simply managed them as they came. Clare had reached that point shortly after Hank had died and then returned as an invisible presence in her life. His presence had eradicated all possibilities of normalcy, of ever moving on with life and finding someone else. Once she realized that, she promptly quit her day job, sold off the house they had lived in together in order to buy the RV and begun her life as a wanderer. She called herself an exorcist, but really she was a wanderer. A hobo, if you like.

 

Being an exorcist was dangerous work. But with time, even the ever-present possibility of injury to self became part of the tedium, just like how it was with firefighters, soldiers and other people who put their lives on line every time they went to work. Human beings could adapt to anything, or so it seemed to her afterwards and it made her doubt her initial decision to flee her prior existence just like that. However, she had mostly resigned to this strange status quo with Hank as her omnipresent companion.

 

Now, for the first time ever since Hank’s return, she couldn’t sense his presence in the room with her. Not since she had slept with that stranger from the bar, only to hear him utter a name that only Hank had ever addressed her with when he was alive. She was convinced right there and then that Hank had somehow possessed the young man during the night before, something he had never done before, and made love to her using the man’s body. The idea repulsed her, and she had fled his room before he could awake.

 

Now, sitting in her car on an interstate highway miles away from any town, Hank’s absence seemed to confirm her suspicions; surely he was still inside that man. She opened the driver’s compartment, fumbled inside for the pack of cigarettes, shook one free from it and lit it, her hands shaking slightly. It was then that she noticed that there were light bruise marks on her wrists. Had… had he been rough with her during their love-making? She drew a blank after a few minutes of consideration and cursed her inebriation.

 

But what could have caused him to do such a thing like that? He was usually so mild-mannered and sedate. Was it the fact that she had hooked up with someone at the bar? If so, then it was an on-the-spur decision, which wasn’t so bad.

 

Clare did her best to ignore the possibility that contact with Becka had somehow made him more aggressive. Surely spirits didn’t communicate in such a way?

 

At this point, her cellphone buzzed to life.

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Lorne never thought the day would come when he would actually find Becka annoying.

He was shocked at it too. He found himself sighing inwardly when he heard the sound of water gushing from the tap, again, after he had just washed the dishes a moment ago. And the resolute shutting of the front door when he went out to say hello to a neighbour.

And of course the incident of the fish. He had tried changing the water, stroking its belly (which he realised after a moment was exceedingly ridiculous), but it was undeniably dead. He had not dared to tell Mrs Ebonwood yet. She had only phoned once, and he was ill at the time, so it was not wholly a lie. But he knew he could not avoid this forever. And so he had done the impossible and called Clare up.

To be frank, she sounded a little distracted herself. However, she was willing to come and meet him, which was more than enough. They agreed on breakfast at the same café they had been the first time they met.

3 months had passed since then, but everything was just as before. Clare was still an exorcist that Lorne trusted and at the same time did not trust. Lorne was still defensive. Defending Becka, defending the knowledge that he was hopelessly going nowhere in his life and sticking obstinately to the past. And they were still talking about Becka. But this time, he had asked her out. He had taken the initiative to make a change in his life. Why?

The question startled him. What did he mean, why?

Clare showed up and confirmed his suspicions. Something was up on her end too, she seemed a lot less confident and attentive. Lorne didn’t care so much. She was a professional, and he was giving her another opportunity.

“Clare, I’d like you to exorcise Becka, and successfully this time,†he said, going straight to the point. Then he sighed.

“I never used to have many friends,†he began in a low voice. “Becka was all I had, so we kept each other company all the time. I guess I can understand that she’s uncomfortable now. But… she’s dead.â€

And she’s disrupting my attempt at starting a new life without her.

There. He had said it. She was dead. The raw truth of the sentence pierced him. He should have softened it up for himself, used words like “deceased†or “passed away†or any of the polite words people use to skirt around the taboo. It was funny, though, that he needed to butter up his own words for himself.

“I don’t want to lose Mrs Ebonwood… as a friend, I mean,†he continued. “But I think right now she thinks I’m crazy, or a neurotic. And Becka’s not helping. No, she’s far from helping…â€

“So, is there anything I can do to help you this time?†he asked, sounding a lot more tired, as if facing the truth had taken all the breath out of him. “And, well,†he added, curiosity getting the better of him, “may I help you? You seem to be… a little stressed.â€

He paused as the waiter came up with their orders. He accepted his plate of omelette. Omelette was something he would always order in cafes, by virtue of being so hard to cook at home. He twirled his fork around the edges of the egg, not feeling much of an appetite. One would have thought that resolutions made people more energetic and motivated, but it seemed to do little for the appetite at least.

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“Clare, I’d like you to exorcise Becka, and successfully this time.â€

 

She scowled and was half-inclined to take offense at the statement, which seemed to suggest that she had intended for it to fail the first time. That hadn't been the case at all. In fact, her own troubles with Hank might never have come to pass if Becka had moved on like she was supposed to after the exorcism. The more she thought about it, the more she worried that their paranormal kins has had some sort of contact with each other. But she let him continue as she stirred her milk into her coffee, watching as the black surface faded into a rich brown swirl.

 

She arched an eyebrow at his offer of assistance as she raised the cup for a sip. She briefly considered letting him into confidence about Hank, but dismissed the idea. Best to tackle these things one at a time. Oof, too bitter.

 

Setting the porcelain cup down with a light chink, she replied, "Nothing that concerns us right now. Let's talk about business. You sure you want her gone now? Because I'm not going to do another exorcism only to have her latch onto you again because you haven't let go of her. That's how she managed it the first time probably. Anchored herself on your feelings when the link with the playground was severed. Then she followed you back home. So you'd damn well resolve to see her gone when I visit your home next time."

 

Clare tapped a finger on the table and her eyes roamed the cafe while she thought furiously. It's in everyone's interest to see Becka gone as soon as possible.

 

"Tonight, it's gotta be tonight. We'll get it done before she knows what hit her. I've brought my tools. The minute we get to your house, you'll have to collect everything she might have left an imprint on since she took up residence. We have to exorcise all physical anchors like we did the first time with the playground."

 

She downed the rest of her coffee in one gulp.

 

"You sure you committed to seeing this through, Lorne?" Because we are so going to exorcise this little brat. And after Becka is done, I've got to do something about Hank. He can't keep possessing someone's body forever. It's not right. He's not acting himself.

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Did all exorcists blame their clients for failed exorcisms? Lorne was not a person inclined to quarrel, but asking him to “damn well resolve to see her gone†when she next visited sure sounded like it was designed to rile up some kind of heated defence.

“Tonight, it's gotta be tonight,†she decided abruptly. It seemed as if she was talking more to herself than to him, her eyes shining with conviction. She proceeded to instruct him to collect all of Becka’s anchors, anything that she might have left an imprint on.

“You… you mean before she died, right?†he said stupidly, momentarily wondering if the goldfish counted too. Though of course the dead fish had long been buried by now. Even so, it was going to be hard. Becka had touched almost everything in the house. Should the entire house be exorcised then? He had seen movies where the exorcism would take place in some barren yard, and the curtains in the window would flap about due to the intensity of the generated wind. It had been a much more peaceful and subdued affair the first time, maybe that was why it failed.

“Drop by tonight then,†he said.

The weather was unusually hot on his way home, a sign perhaps that summer was nearing. Springcleaning. I shall just regard this as springcleaning. Cleaning out all the old furniture, cleaning out traces of Becka’s imprints, and cleaning out-.

It didn’t feel right to finish the thought.

Perhaps he had sub-consciously expected that this wouldn’t be so easy, because he was not in the least bit shocked to see Becka at home, watching him expectantly. Could it be possible that she didn’t know about the exorcism tonight? Even if she didn’t, she probably could sense it in him now. He could feel himself involuntarily stiffening, his lips drying. She could sense that. She was like a bear, able to smell fear and secrets in people.

“I’ll be in the attic, packing things up,†he said. “We haven’t done any springcleaning, and summer’s already upon us.†He strode determinedly up to the attic, vaguely aware that she was following him. The doorknob itself was dusty. The last time he had cleaned it was 3 months ago, when he had returned to the country at the news of his daughter’s death. He turned the knob. His nose prickled at the interior of the attic. “A lot of trash†was an understatement. Some of them had been accumulated from even before Becka was born.

Becka flitted across the room (he couldn’t tell if her legs were moving, or if they had to move) and stopped at a box at the far end. He remembered it contained her toys. He walked over. On top of the toys rested a book. Becka’s diary. He hadn’t read it before.

Becka was looking meaningfully at him, so he picked it up and began reading a few entries. The first entry started the day after he had left.

Day 1

Daddy,

I made my own lasagne today. Someone threw out the cookbook and I went to the supermarket and bought everything written there. I asked the woman for crushed tomatoes but she gave me whole tomatoes and told me to ask my Mummy to crush them. I told her my Mummy was dead. Then she said to ask any adult at home, and she was busy. So I crushed the tomatoes myself, with the big knife. Some of them were too big and some too small, but it still tasted like your lasagne from yesterday. I felt like you were right beside me again, patting my head and telling me I am a smart girl, and know how to cook lasagne.

You’re not at home, so I can watch TV the whole night. There are no cartoons at night, so I watched soap operas. I watched them till I fell asleep on the sofa, then I woke up and the TV was still on, so I continued watching until there was only static on the screen.

--

Day 2

Daddy

I tried to do a jigsaw puzzle today. It is hard to do it without you, but maybe when I finish the puzzle you will come home.

I told Elise today that my Daddy was gone. She asked when will he come back. I said I don’t know. She said I should tell the teacher so that I can go and live in the teacher’s house, like Matilda. I quickly walked away, because I don’t want to live in the teacher’s house. I must stay at home and take care of the house so that everything will be the same when you come back.

--

Day 3

Daddy

I found a nice playground down the neighbourhood. There is nobody there, which is the best. And there are swings and slides and all the fun stuff. You can’t stop me from crawling on the netting now. I shall come here everyday when I am bored.

I watched some more of the soap opera too. The bad person in the show is really very bad. He scolds people and then kills them.

You are a bad person too, but you don’t do that to people, right? You are always nice to people. And nice to me.

--

Day 4

Daddy

The teacher talked about bad people in Ethics class. She said we have to be good, and that being good is a choice. I stood up and shouted at her that Daddy surely didn’t choose to be bad, and he didn’t choose to run away so he won’t get caught, and then leave me here. If anyone is a bad person, then it must be you, because you scold people.

Then I ran out of the classroom. I think I don’t want to go to school anymore.

--

Day 48

Daddy

I can complete whole jigsaw puzzles in 3 hours. I must show you how I do my jigsaw, when you come back. Then I can help you solve them faster.

--

Day 70

Daddy

The thermometer still says 38 degrees. It is too cold to get out of bed, but I am hungry.

I can’t call Elise to come. She will ask me to live with the teacher.

Can you come home, and bring me some porridge?

--

Day 71

Daddy

I think you said that you will tell me when you are coming back. Then I can go and find you at the airport.

Maybe the telephone is spoiled. I must test the telephone.

But it is so cold, and when I lift my head everything seems to be moving.

--

Day 75

Daddy

You will never come back, right?

I don’t think I can wait anymore.

I see on TV that when people die, there will be a funeral. And then people will come back to see the dead person.

I want to see Daddy.

I want to go back and live with Daddy again, and we can cook lasagne and do jigsaws again.

Daddy, why didn’t you take me with you? I have nobody here.

But if I die, Daddy will also have nobody. He will be as sad as I am.

Don’t worry, Daddy. Even if I die, I will still be with you. I will try very very hard to always be with you, so that you never feel lonely and sad like me.

--

He closed the book. There was a strange tightness in his chest. He looked up at Becka.

“You’re going to leave me again, aren’t you?†she said. He was taken aback. It was the first time he had heard her ghost speak.

“I tried so hard to be with you, and now you want me to be sad and lonely again.†Tears were welling up in her eyes. “I don’t want to be sad and lonely anymore. It was… it was painful.â€

She took a step towards him, and he took an instinctive step back. She was bawling like a little girl now, rubbing her eyes with her hands. Then she stopped rubbing and held out her hands instead. Her eyes were glowing red as they stared angrily at him.

“If Daddy dies as well, then we’ll always be together again!†she screamed. In an instant her hands were around his neck, squeezing, squeezing, tighter and tighter. He let out a choke and a gasp, and took in a whole breath of dusty air. Her tear-streaked face swirled before him before everything turned black.

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Clare kicked herself mentally. She should have seen it coming. Things had a way of falling apart just when it seemed like they were about to come together at long last. It happened in television and to other people all the time, so why should she be an exception? And God help her if she knew what to do about this scene before her. He was dead, had been dead for a long time now. Yet he stood before her now with that familiar, wry smile on an unrecognizable face.

 

She was too stunned for words, and so he was the first to speak,"I've missed you, Clare."

 

The voice that uttered that line was a foreign one, but it brought back familiar echoes from the past. In her mind's eye, she relived the dozens of different contexts when he had whispered that same line to her ear. In a different voice, one that will never be heard among the living ever again but will continue to haunt her dreams until the day she ceased to exist as well. She struggled to maintain her composure long enough to manage a terse reply.

 

"What are you doing still inside his body, Hank?"

 

Concern lit up in his eyes, which were fixed on her intently, as he replied simply, "I'm not Hank, Clare. Hank has been dead for a long time, remember? You told me that."

 

His answer threw her off momentarily, as she tried to keep her confusion from showing on her face. What kind of games is he playing?

 

Hank, or rather, the man Hank was possessing shifted his weight off her car and took a tentatively step towards her, stopping when she stiffened in response. He was dressed in a plaid turtleneck and a pair of working jeans, which made him appear harmless enough but her instincts cautioned her against lowering her guard. This was not the man she had known for years. Or is he? A tiny voice nagged.

 

"What do you want, Hank?

 

A perturbed expression crossed his still-youthful face as he continued," I'm not sure how much of it you remember, so I'm going to start from the beginning, alright? We met at the bar a couple of nights ago. I bought you a drink, and we got talking. I'm not sure how much you've had to drink already before that, but you were quite out of it. You said many things, you see? You told me about Hank and how he'd died all those years ago. You told me what you do for keeps-"

 

"I'm not lying," he said as he raised a hand in halt when Clare was about to interject. "You spilled all that by yourself. I think, I think you've had it on your chest for a very long time, and just haven't had anyone to share it with. I'm… I'm not Hank. My name is Ethan and… I'm in love with you."

 

Clare's mind was reeling from hearing what this man was saying. She needed time to think about this, but whatever the truth is, this matter takes second priority after Lorne and Becka right now.

 

"Look, Hank… Ethan, whatever. I don't know what to say to you right now. But regardless of who you say you are, if you know what it is that I do, then I'm going to use your help right now. What do you know about Becka?"

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Someone was shaking Lorne awake.

He opened his eyes, wondering if he was in Heaven, but no, he was still in his attic, and Mrs Ebonwood was sitting beside him, a mildly puzzled expression on her face. His eyes widened.

“Mrs Ebonwood, why- why’re you here?†he spluttered, rubbing his neck gingerly. It still ached from Becka’s attack before.

“Oh, I came to visit. I brought a cranberry pie that I’ve been experimenting with, and thought you might want to try it. I left the pie in the dining-room. But are you alright? Did you faint in the attic?â€

“Yeah, I was, er, packing stuff,†he mumbled, still disoriented. But Mrs Ebonwood had reached out a hand to help him up now. He rubbed the back of his head. It was throbbing too. His entire body was throbbing. He looked around in trepidation.

“Are you searching for something?†asked Mrs Ebonwood.

He found he couldn’t quite speak.

“The pie’s good,†Lorne said. The two of them were sitting in the dining-room, and Lorne had only taken a nibble of a corner of the pie. His throat hurt when he swallowed, but he didn’t want to let on too much about his symptoms. He had only told Mrs Ebonwood that he had suffered a bout of anaemia while clearing his attic, to which she concluded that he must be working too hard without any rest.

He had a hunch she might think it was his mental condition acting up (she did still think him crazy after all) and for the first time in his life, he was glad that she thought so.

“I suppose you’re still not up to eating,†she said with a sigh, as Lorne tried valiantly to muster another bite. “It’s alright. I’ll leave the pie in the refrigerator, and you can re-heat it anytime!â€

“Yes indeed, I’d like some rest on my own,†he nodded vigorously. She had no idea how much danger she was putting herself in, being in this house. He walked her enthusiastically to the door – far more enthusiastically than he had been with the eating – and unlocked the door for her. With a wave, she put on her shoes and walked out. Lorne made sure she had disappeared from view before closing the door again. He looked calm, but his heartbeat betrayed his fear. Where had Becka gone?

“Becka?†he cried uncertainly, staying close to the door so that he could run away when necessary. Was it a good idea to call out to her? This was one of the many questions swirling around in his head.

Why had she not killed him then?

Why had she disappeared now?

He took a deep breath. Still nothing. It was as if he had imagined everything. He didn’t feel particularly inclined to visit the attic again. Perhaps he should go out to wait for Clare. Being alone in this house was definitely perilous. Mrs Ebonwood had no idea what a dangerous timing she had chosen to arrive.

As he thought about Mrs Ebonwood, yet another question popped into this mind, one that made his hand turn cold as he turned the doorknob.

How had Mrs Ebonwood gotten in if the door had been locked?

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