We were on the way back from the party when I mentioned that I was hungry. We had eaten dinner there, but it was kind of small and hours ago by this point, but I was only mentioning it in passing as something I was planning to amend when I got home. But Matteson took that as a request, and ended up pulling into an Eat’n Park that was still open. When we were asked about the smoking or non-smoking section, he looked at me, so I sighed and said smoking was fine.
“So,” he asked, while we were looking over the menu, “how about them flying squirrels?” I gave him a confused look over the top of my menu.
“What…about them?” He laid his menu down.
“Well, the thing, where they were proposed as having rebounded enough that they didn’t have to be endangered anymore?” I thought about that for a moment before remembering an email I’d received the day before.
“Oh! Yeah, I heard about that, but I hadn’t looked into it yet. I probably should. What did you want to say about it?”
“Oh, uh, well, that was basically all I know about it.” I started laughing, and he tried not to as he continued. “I just kinda hoped you would know more about it.”
“It’s a two-day-old news story, Matteson. I haven’t had a chance to dig into it much.” He kinda blushed and picked the menu back up, and I set mine down and reached over to touch his hand comfortingly. “But I appreciate the effort.” He smiled at me, and I picked my menu up and continued looking. The waitress came by and we each ordered, and after she was gone he leaned back in his seat a bit.
“Are they cute?”
“The squirrels?” He nodded. “Yeah, they are, though that’s hardly the point. It’s always so much easier to get people invested if the animal is cute, you know, but that isn’t a real ecological niche. Things need to be protected even if we don’t want to put them on Lisa Frank notebooks.” He laughed and told me he had forgotten about those notebooks, and I confessed that I had a few during my school years. We spent the next couple hours talking about our time in high school, and answering each other’s questions about them, since we apparently had very different experiences. I had been in private school, and generally tried to do the best I could with it, while his school sounded far more chaotic and violent than mine. He told me it wasn’t too bad—it didn’t have to involve most people if they didn’t want to be involved, and it’s fairly easy to let it become background noise—but I had to know if he’d been in any fights himself. He said that he had, though they rarely lasted long. His dad had taught him to fight at a young age, and he had always had a habit of working out, so he always had an upper hand. I told him that most of the drama at my school was academic or something to do with money, and while I’m sure there were some fights after school I never heard more than rumors about them.
I told him that his childhood sounded odd. Most people I know don’t have parents who teach them multiple languages, let alone dead ones, and intricate metaphysics, and how to fight. So what was going on in his house? He was quiet for a moment, then told me it was his grandpa. He didn’t say much about it, but he did tell me that his paternal grandfather, the son born to the couple we saw as echoes in my house, was apparently very powerful and very deranged. His dad had been involved in battling him longer than Matteson had been alive, and all the evidence Matteson had found so far suggested that he had been trained specifically to finally put an end to the old man. He warned me that this might be a thing if I keep hanging around with him, if this grandfather finally showed up. I took his hands in mine.
“John, this…this doesn’t sound healthy. Are you okay?”
“I mean, it’s been fine so far.”
“No, I mean. Have you ever talked to someone about this? Kids shouldn’t be raised as weapons.” He hesitated.
“I never really thought about it, I guess. But I mean, what do I say? Just tell some shrink I can see ghosts and my century-old grandfather controls water and I might have to kill him someday? There’s no way that ends in a way that will help me.”
“He’s a hundred years old?”
“Something like that. I don’t know exactly what year he was born, but I’m under the impression it was nineteen-oh-something.”
“Okay, well, you can talk to me. I’m not a professional, but I mean, I care.” He pulled his hands back and lit a cigarette.
“That kinda depends on you sticking around, though. And I gotta tell you, if he shows up and things go south, it’s gonna be a lot worse than a bit of ghost fire.”
“Do you want me to stick around?” He took a thoughtful drag, and watched my eyes for a moment.
“Look, Alice. I like you, I really do. And I like to think this is going somewhere. I just. There are only so many people in this world who can put up with this stuff very long. I can’t get away from it. It’s always going to be a part of my life, and I just—”
“You want to know if I’m easily scared off.” He paused, then nodded. “Look, I don’t know. This is all very new to me. I don’t know what I can and can’t handle when it comes to magic and ghosts and everything else you do. But, you know, I’m willing to find out. If you’ll let me.” He smiled, and reached down with his left hand to lightly rub my hands.
“And how do I let you?”
“You tell me a whole lot more about this stuff and what you do. Preferably, all of it.”
“That’s gonna take a pretty long time.”
“We’re young yet.”
“Okay. But it’s late, maybe I should start telling you stories tomorrow.”
“I’m on break from classes. Do you work in the morning?” He shook his head. “Then come on. I’ll make us some cocoa, we can bust out some thick blankets for the couch, and you can tell me some ghost stories.” He laughed, but he got up and tossed some cash on the table for a tip and jammed out his cigarette before we went to pay and head back to my place.
17 December 2006
The whole way up, I was torn about whether or not I should even be doing this. I mean, he didn’t exactly give me his address personally, and our only interaction was supposed to be professional but ended up…not being that. And he probably didn’t almost catch my house on fire, but it kinda still feels like he almost did. But he did tell me it might be dangerous, and I told him to do it anyway, so really, whose fault would that have been?
Mandy was surprisingly eager to give me Matteson’s address, on the condition that I told her what happened as soon as I left. Sometimes I worry that girl is too invested in knowing everything about everyone, but I couldn’t deny it was helpful at the moment. I parked across the street from his house, took a deep breath, grabbed the box, and headed for the door. A woman answered, and I faltered for a second.
“Oh, uh, hi, sorry, I was looking for John Matteson?” The woman glanced down to the box quickly, but smiled.
“I can go get him, who should I say is here?”
“My name’s Alice. If he’s busy, I—”
“Alice! Rick’s friend?” I nodded. “Oh it’s nice to meet you! I’m Jackie, Rick has said so much about you. Come in, come in!” She stepped aside and I walked into the living room. I forgot Rick had said his girlfriend lived in the same house as Matteson. Seems like the sort of thing I should have made sure to remember before coming here. Jackie closed the door and ran off toward the kitchen, vanishing around a wall, and I stood looking around. Based on what Rick had said about Matteson and Jackie, I expected to see some bookcases; but all I found in this room were seats, and a tv, and some kind of multi-part stereo system. I was looking that over when I heard Matteson’s voice behind me.
“That was my dad’s,” he said. I spun around. “Had it as long as I can remember, and now it’s mine. Should probably get some new records for it.”
“Right, yeah, that would be good,” I said, tucking my hair behind my ear. “I was just expecting something different, I guess.” He raised a brow.
“Oh, well, uh, books, mostly.” He smiled and motioned with his head before walking back to the kitchen, and I followed. The place where Jackie had vanished was apparently a stairway into the basement, and when I got down there I felt my breath catch in my throat. The very back was devoted to a washer and dryer, and some exercise equipment, but the rest of the room was a fully furnished library. Jackie was down there, looking through a book with alchemical symbols on the front, I recognized them from that year I spent reading everything I could find on The Philosopher’s Stone after Harry Potter came out. “Ah, yep, there they are, then.” He nodded, looking over the room.
“Yup. Still organizing a bit,” he said, pointing to a stack of book-filled milk crates near the stairs, “figuring out how to work my books into my dad’s collection.”
“There’s still a lot of him here, huh?”
“I imagine there always will be.” He took a sad breath and then turned to me. “So, what brings you by?”
“Oh! Right!” I set the box on the table in the middle of the room and opened it, and he stepped forward to peek inside. “Well, you know, now that I own that house, I had gone looking into the property history. And after our encounter with, uh, your family, I went back and looked over it again and found some records of their time there.”
“Oh, wow,” he said, pulling out a copy of a notarized form from when the property was given to Aaboukingon. “This is amazing!” We worked through the box, talking about the stuff we found and what Matteson knew about it, and Jackie told me about how she’d met Aaboukingon now that he was part of the river again, and it was really nice. After a while Jackie went to work, and the two of us kept talking. He showed me around the library a bit, how the books were arranged, which ones were in which languages (and which of those languages he could read), and I asked some questions about the books that were out and being researched. He told me he had been learning to use his abilities as an Anchor by reading some theories about how the metaphysical realm worked and what his part of it was. It was starting to get late in the afternoon, so we went back upstairs and he insisted I stay for dinner, at the very least to make up for overcharging me about the ghost that wasn’t even a ghost. So I went back down and grabbed a book on alchemy, and flipped through it in the kitchen while he cooked and we talked. He confessed pretty early on that he hadn’t done much work with alchemy, specifically, but he was sure the book would give me some helpful tips if I wanted to dabble at it. It was old, the pages felt like they were written on vellum and the cover was certainly leather. I couldn’t even start reading it until I’d smelled it a couple times.
“How do you keep old books like this safe?” I asked. He shrugged.
“Some books are just like that, I guess. Usually ones about magic or some other powerful and important topic. It isn’t magic directly that keeps them intact, otherwise they wouldn’t last around me, but something like magic just seems to have become part of what they are.” Over dinner, he asked about what I do, and I explained my biology degree and my hopes of getting work in the conservation field, and he seemed legitimately interested so I ended up telling him all about how I got into it and my little side projects of setting up trail cameras behind the house.
“You know, if we worked together, I bet we could find a proper cryptid,” I joked.
“So you can poke at them?”
“Mr. Matteson, I told you, I have a heart for conservation. I would, at worst, tag them.” We both laughed at that one, and I asked him if he really did know anything about cryptids. He told me that he had heard rumor that most of them were just spirits that got stuck on this side of reality, but he hadn’t asked one to verify that. I almost chickened out and left immediately after dinner, but I took a moment to compose myself and then went for it. “Hey, so, look. My program at school has this Christmas party in a few days, and I was wondering, you know, if you’d be free on Thursday.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I think I could be. Should I pick you up, or meet you there, or…?”
“Pick me up, I think that would be best.” He nodded. We paused for a moment, and then I quickly waved. “Okay, well, see you then!” He smiled and agreed, and stood on the porch to watch as I returned to my car and drove away.
15 December 2006
It was a couple days before I heard from Matteson, but once I did, we were able to arrange a time for him to come by and check the place out. I don’t know exactly what I expected, honestly. Based on Rick, and what little I had learned about his friends, I guess there was a part of me that suspected I’d open the door to find some guy with dyed hair and a coat with holes in it, carrying around some kind of device from one of those ghost hunter shows and talking about weird conspiracies. The person who showed up on my porch, however, was a broad-shouldered black man wearing a black wide-brimmed hat, a dark long coat, a white button-down shirt, and gray slacks. About the only thing I saw that seemed to fit what my head had drawn up in advance was the smell of cigarette smoke. I was certainly not expecting him to be attractive.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, because he was late, by about twenty minutes. “Your police seem to think only white people come here.”
“Well, you know, near as I can tell, that’s probably accurate.” I offered him a handshake and he accepted, and then I stepped aside and invited him in. He entered, scanning the room with eyes that seemed sharp but tired, like they’d seen too much to risk missing things now. He carried himself like a professional, stern and without any slouch, and stopped just inside the door to check if he should remove his shoes. I told him not to, and he seemed only slightly bothered by that, but wiped his boots and finished entering all the same. “Should, um…would you like a drink?”
“Oh, uh, sure. What do you have?”
“Coffee, tea, water, probably some milk.” He smiled and requested a tea, and I slipped off to the kitchen to get that going. I had received some new coffee maker thing with little disposable cups as a housewarming present, so I quickly made a cup of tea for him and a cup of coffee for me as I rehearsed in my head how to explain to him what was happening and not stare. God, I couldn’t stare. Would he know it was because I liked his look? Would he think I was freaked out by his skin? I had to imagine either option would make him uncomfortable. “Come on, Alice,” I whispered to myself, “you hired him to do a job, just let him do it.” Wait, money. We never talked about money. I had no idea how much I was supposed to be paying him! I called out asking if he wanted cream or sugar, and he said sugar would be nice, so I put the mugs and some sugar on a platter and carried them over to the dining room. When I looked on my way by, I saw he was standing right where I had left him, though he now had his jacket off and folded over his arm. His much more muscular than I expected arm. I called him in, and he followed to the table, laying his jacket across the back of his chair.
“Do you usually offer hirelings tea?” he asked. I laughed a bit nervously.
“Do you usually accept tea?” He smiled and put some sugar in his mug as he sat down.
“Full disclosure, Miss Templeton—”
“Call me Alice.”
“Right. Fact is, I’ve never done this before. Not officially, anyway. I mean, I work with an investigation firm, but I’m not exactly in the field usually, and we don’t deal with ghosts.” I sat down opposite him, realized I hadn’t put any creamer in my coffee yet, and ran off to the kitchen to grab it.
“What do you do there, then?” I asked as I returned.
“Mostly paperwork, looking stuff up online, that sort of thing. Really, the job is mostly tracking people down for debt collectors and the occasional person looking for dirt to use in a divorce hearing, anyway.”
“I always thought it was a bit more, I dunno, active than that.”
“So did I. And maybe it was, once. But I’m told this is pretty common across the industry.”
“Would you rather be doing stuff like this?” He smirked.
“Do you mean having tea with pretty brunettes, or investigating ghosts?” I barely stopped myself from choking on my coffee.
“Ah, um…well, I—”
“Sorry, that was probably—”
“No, no, it’s fine. You’re fine. Really. I meant the ghost thing, though. Maybe we could…talk about the other one some other time.” He chuckled and looked around, as if hoping the answer to my question was on the wall somewhere.
“I dunno. I never thought about the idea that it could be a thing. I guess we’ll have to see how this case goes.” We were both silent for a little while, and then he smiled at me. “So. Mind if I look around a bit?”
“No, of course not, do, you know, whatever it is you do.” He nodded and stood, finishing his tea and setting the mug down before heading for the hall. “Do you need anything from me?”
“Don’t know yet,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets and vanishing around the corner. I took a breath and finished my coffee before gathering everything up and taking it back to the kitchen. I saw him looking around at the base of the stairs as I passed, but he didn’t seem to be paying attention to me. I put the dishes into the dishwasher and the creamer back into the fridge as I heard him on the stairs. The cold from having the door open when he was coming in, and now the fridge, seemed to finally catch up with me, so I went into the living room to grab a knit shawl before going to look for him. Matteson was, by then, coming back down the stairs.
“Anything interesting?” He was frowning.
“Well, not really, but. Okay, let me explain.”
“In the living room? It’s more comfortable there.” He paused as if taking that in, and then nodded. I led the way and sat down on the couch, and he took the loveseat facing me. “So what do you mean by ‘not really?’”
“So the metaphysical realm is complicated, and malleable. The way people think about it seems to shape it. So while ghosts are real, and so are spirits, and I can see and interact with those, there are also…less real things in it.”
“If they’re not real, how are they there?”
“Well, it’s not that they’re not real, exactly. Just that they’re not real ghosts or spirits. I call them echoes, they’re like…memories, or something, embedded in the fabric of the metaphysical realm, that flare up occasionally. Like, maybe something very important happened, and even though the ghosts of the people involved have already moved on, that embedded memory still flashes now and then and seems like a ghost.”
“And you think that’s what’s happening here?”
“I think it’s a very real possibility. Any ghost or spirit that was close enough to the physical world to draw your attention would be close enough for me to see, and I just didn’t find any trace of that.”
“The alternative is?”
“The alternative, as far as I know, is that what you encountered was either a spell made to look like a ghost that accidentally got dispelled when I got too close to it, or wasn’t supernatural at all.”
“Do you just, normally dispel things by accident?”
“Oh.” We sat for a second as I thought through what he was saying. “Okay, so, let’s say it’s the echo thing. Do you have a way to test that?”
“I might. I’ve been reading a bit about this, and I think there’s something I can do, but I’ve never tried it before.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“I have no idea.”
“If it is dangerous, what would happen?” He took a sharp breath through his nose and leaned back, crossing his arms and thinking.
“Well, I suppose, the most likely bad thing would be drawing the attention of local spirits. Which, I mean, the danger of that really depends on what spirits you have kicking around here. But unless they’re very monstrous, I could probably just wait around a bit until they show up and then ask them to leave.”
“Would they just leave?”
“I’d probably have to convince them, explain that it was an accident, but there’s like, I dunno, a 60% chance they wouldn’t keep bothering you?”
“Did you just make that number up?”
“Maybe.” I laughed, then stood.
“Okay, magic man. Let’s try this experimental ghost-calling thing.”
“I am absolutely not calling it that,” he said as he rose from the seat. I directed him to where the sound seemed to be coming from, and he closed his eyes and started to breathe very slowly and carefully. Slowly, his hands started to raise, until his palms were facing straight ahead, and then his fingers began to close. I started to hear whispers, a few different voices, but they were garbled and distant enough that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I inched closer to Matteson until I felt myself press against him. The voices grew more clear and soon I could start making out forms, then faces. There was a woman, and a set of stairs that certainly didn’t belong to this house, and a man walking over from the stairs. I turned around and saw three more men, they were all yelling about something to do with the river and a curse. Matteson’s eyes were open now, wide open and his hands were shaking slightly. One of the men pulled a gun and fired a shot and I screamed, and then Matteson grabbed me and spun us both around. He was covering both of our eyes from seeing the men, but I could see the woman bleeding out on the floor and I started to freak out. Then I heard the scream, that scream I had already been hearing, but now it sounded real. It was loud, and close, and tinted with pain and rage and these terrible wet crunching noises. Matteson was muttering, and it took me a second to realize he was swearing under his breath.
“What’s going on? Do you know what this is?”
“Yes,” he said, quietly. He tilted his head to indicate the couple in front of us, the man now kneeling down to check on the woman. “These are my great-grandparents.”
8 December 2006
It was a few more days before Rick and Mandy could come down. They probably would have come faster, but I didn’t want to sound crazy over the phone and decided to hold back on explaining the situation until they got here. They were excited to see the new house, and we had arranged for them to stay the night with movies and snacks like when we were teens, before she moved north. I had expressed some interest in meeting Rick’s girlfriend, who Mandy said was a witch, but she wasn’t available.
I gave them the tour of the house when they arrived, since they hadn’t seen it yet, and we talked about the layout and the beautiful tub upstairs and the railing on the stairs. I explained that it had been built sometime early in the 1900s, on the site of a previous house that had been torn down or something. The records were kind of murky once we were looking that far back. I had ordered delivery, and when it arrived we all gathered around the living room and caught up on what’s been new with them and how school was going, and it was a really nice time that I wasn’t sure whether or not to interrupt. But I knew Rick liked talking about this stuff, so I slipped in a question about whether or not he had seen anything weird lately. He turned off most of the lights and told some extravagant story about a place called The Devil’s Church where he insisted he and a couple of his friends nearly died. Mandy rolled her eyes every time he said that, which made me laugh, which made him insist that we had no idea how lucky we really were to have him still around.
“Well,” I said once he was done, “what’s it like being such a fearless expert of the unknown?” Mandy shoved me and laughed, but he took a heroic pose.
“It’s all part of the job, ladies.” We threw fries at him until he sat down.
“Okay, okay, so tell me honestly. If there was a ghost here, for instance, how would you find out?”
“Ah, well, about that—”
“He wouldn’t!” Mandy cried out. “Don’t let my cousin fool you, he’s just along for the ride. It’s that Matteson that’s supposed to see ghosts.”
“Oh, really?” I asked. “You never mentioned that!”
“Well, I did say he was there, you know,” Rick offered.
“There, he says. It was Matteson’s idea. Well, that night, anyway, Tony convinced us to try going before,” Mandy said.
“Us? Did you go to this Devil’s Church?” I asked, turning to her.
“Well of course I did. I was with Matteson when Rick called to invite him.” Rick cleared his throat and Mandy rolled her eyes again. “Rick doesn’t like me talking about that. But we went to the Devil’s Church, and someone freaked out, and we left. Nothing happened. Maybe nothing happened when they went back, either, who knows?”
“I know,” Rick said, “and it definitely was not that nothing happened.”
“So why haven’t I heard more about this guy in your stories?” I needled, reaching over to poke at Rick’s stomach. He swatted me away with a laugh.
“He doesn’t like not being the center of the story,” Mandy said, “you know how he is. But oh! You should meet Matteson. I think you two would get along great, he’s a bookworm like you. But he’s in my band, too.”
“At any rate, I’m always excited to meet your friends, even if it does sound like you just made him up based on the town I moved into.”
“His name’s John,” Rick explained, “his ex started calling him Matteson, that’s his last name, because it set him apart from the other Johns in town, and I guess it just stuck.”
“Why are you asking so much about ghost stories anyway, Alice?” Mandy leaned forward, staring into my eyes. “You don’t normally ask about ghost stories.”
“Oh, no,” I waved the question off, “no reason, really.”
“Is it this old house?” She gasped in mock drama. “Are there ghosts in this old house?”
“Now, Mandy, come on, I just—” She jumped up and walked into the hall between the living room and the stairs, calling for the ghosts. I started to shake, and Rick must have noticed because he sidled over and rested his hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, Alice, you alright?” he asked. I nodded and gave him a fake smile, and then we heard that scream again. It was like a man in agony, echoing from somewhere far away, but loud. Loud like it was inside the house. Mandy screamed, too, and ran back into the living room. We all huddled on the couch, peeking over the back of it for something to follow her into the room, but the sound ended and nothing new happened.
“Shit,” Mandy whispered. “There are ghosts in this old house.”
“I’ll get you Matteson’s number.” I nodded, and we all resumed watching for a little while, before they started asking me about it. I confessed that there was no evidence I was in actual danger, but I certainly wasn’t comfortable with this going on, and we decided to turn some comedies to calm down.
2 December 2006
My father had said it was a great time to buy, and even though I wasn’t quite ready to do that yet, he insisted it was important I got into a house before the market turned against buyers. He said it was likely prices would get lower before they turned up again, but it was impossible to know how long that would be, and he didn’t want me to finish my degree only to find the prices higher than they were now. So I picked out a nice place in Madison, with some woods and a small creek behind it, and my parents made sure I had the down payment and a significant chunk of the contract price handled, and I moved in just after Thanksgiving.
I was there nearly a week before I first heard the voices at night. The neighbors weren’t close enough for it to be them, and when I called the police they checked and found no evidence of anyone in the house and nothing missing. All the same, I had a better alarm system installed, and I slept uneasy the next few nights. But last night, I heard them again. I couldn’t place where they were coming from. It was like they were going downstairs, but through the bathroom, instead of the actual stairs. I went down to the first floor with a flashlight and a baseball bat, but the only sound I now heard was my own heart thumping in my ears. I did some breathing exercises I’d learned that time my mom insisted I just had to try yoga, and as I began to calm down I flicked on the light. There was a brief shimmer in the corner of my eye, which almost seemed like a man in midair, but as soon as I turned to it, it was gone. I heard a scream, distant and brief, and spun around to see where it was coming from. Then everything went quiet, and a chill ran down my spine. I stood fixed, waiting for something else to happen, but nothing did.
I considered calling the police again, but I recalled the way the officer looked at me last time as he shoved his report back into his pocket and suspected that wouldn’t help anything. I remembered, then, Rick talking about looking into the supernatural with some friends of his. I didn’t know what else to think about it, so I made a note to talk to him in the morning.
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.