Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story, “The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter,” which originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a story about a young girl named Sylvie, who has a talent for manifesting ghosts around her, making them visible to others. And it’s about how her father, an out-of-work laborer, recently widowed, capitalizes on his daughter’s ability by becoming a ghost hunter. Set in Warren, Ohio, this is one my favorites of my “locally set” stories, because it features a scene at the Ghost Walk in Warren, an annual tour of the city’s historic district and mansions held in the month of October that I’ve like to go on for kicks since I was a teenager. Little did I know as a teenager that going on the Ghost Walk would give me a scene to write into a story fifteen or so years later.
The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter
“Syl-vie! Syl-vie! Syl-vie!” her father calls through the hallways of the house. The ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter sighs, wipes a tear from the corner of her eye, looks out the cobwebbed window of the attic. Sometimes it’s the basement, sometimes the attic. Occasionally a house has a secret crawl space, and if she sensed it, she’d go there and wait with the creepy crawlies and spinning motes of dust. Through the false eyes of the portrait of a lady with her toy poodle sitting on her lap, she’d watch her father negotiate the living room, the swathe of his flashlight cutting through the dark. “Syl-vie! Syl-vie! Syl-vie!” he’ll call–always call–until the ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter finally says, “Here, Daddy. I’m in here.”
“Sylvie,” he’ll ask, “my God, how do you do it? Tell me how to find you.”
How does she do it? If only Sylvie knew, she would try to stop it from happening. The whispered calls, the bloody walls, the voice of a house, the way it told you how bad it was hurting. If she could turn it off, she’d gladly do it. She’s had enough of houses, their complaints, their listing, the wreckage of their histories. If only she could be normal!
She peeked her head out the side of the false wall that time, waved, and he gasped. “Clever girl!” he exclaimed a moment later, his shock fading, replaced by a grin. He ambled over to put his arm around her and squeeze her affectionately while he admired the dark passage behind the deteriorating gaze of a two-hundred year old society woman and her once white poodle.
He calls now, too. His voice comes from the floor below her. Upstairs is where this house’s ghost lives, in the attic. They are so dramatic, ghosts, thinks Sylvie. If only they’d settle down, give up on whatever keeps them lingering, maybe their lives would get a little better. No more moaning in pain, no more throwing things around in frustration. No more struggling to get someone to notice you. Give up, thinks the ghost hunter’s beautiful daughter. Why don’t you just give up already!
“Here,” Sylvie whispers. When her father calls again, she speaks louder. “Here, Daddy!” she shouts. “I’m up here. In the attic.”
His feet thud on the pull-down steps until his head rises over the square Sylvie climbed through half an hour ago. The ghost here hadn’t tried to hide from her like some. She hates that, the way some shudder when they see her, wrinkle their noses, furrow their brows–the way they disdain her very presence, as if they are saying, You’re not who I was waiting for. You’re not the one I want. This ghost, though, had little expectations. It had few conditions or requirements. It was an old woman, and old women aren’t as picky as lost children, spurned lovers, old men whose sins were never forgiven, people who cannot bury hatchets, people who cannot bear to leave even after life has left them.
“Sylvie!” her father gasps. “Oh my, Sylvie, what have you found?”
The ghost is barely holding itself together. At first Sylvie wasn’t sure if it was even human. It might have been some strange sort of animal. She’s seen those before, though they’re rarer. Afterwards, they don’t always know how to hold the shape they had in life. The old woman is gaseous; she probably doesn’t even know what she’s doing in this attic. Liquids are sorrowful, solids angry, throwing chairs and mirrors and lamps across rooms at their leisure. Gases, often confused, are usually waiting for some sort of answer. What is the question, though, Sylvie wonders. What don’t you understand, old woman?
The ghost hunter nods at his daughter briefly when she doesn’t answer, then goes directly to the old woman’s figure in the corner. The old woman turns to look at him. Her face is misty. Wisps of moisture trail in the air behind her when she turns too quickly. She is like a finely composed hologram until she moves, revealing just how loosely she’s held together. She looks past the ghost hunter, over his shoulder, to meet his daughter’s gaze. Sylvie turns away from her to look back out the cobwebbed window. A long, wide park of a yard rolls out and away, trees growing in copses, with a driveway unspooling down the middle of everything, leading out through the wrought iron fence to the tree-lined road. This was her father’s favorite sort of grounds to hunt, his favorite kinds of ghosts lived in places like this, usually. Sylvie can’t bear to look back at the old woman. She knows what comes next.
There is the click, the sucking sound, the high moan of the old woman’s ghost, and then the silence ringing in the dusty attic. Her father sniffs, coughs, clears his throat, and Sylvie knows it is okay to look now. She turns to find him fiddling with his old Polaroid camera, pulling the film out and waving it in the air until it begins to develop. “That’s a good one,” he says. “Not the best, but not the worst either.” The old woman’s ghost is gone. He looks up and sees Sylvie watching him. Blinks. Sylvie blinks back. “Thank you, sweetie,” he says. Then: “Come on now. The Boardmans will be back shortly. We should get going.”
The road is gray, the tree trunks are gray, the sky is gray above her. There are no discernible clouds, only drops of gray rain pattering down, speckling the windshield of her father’s car as they pull away, and further away, from the haunted mansion. Sylvie remembers visiting the mansion once with her mother. In October. For Halloween. The mansion, one of many, sat in the historic district of one of those small Midwestern cities in one of those states with an Indian name. Each Halloween, members of the community theater hid among the mansions and family cemeteries of the historic district, buried themselves in orangey-red leaves, covered themselves in clothes from the previous century, adopted slightly archaic ways of speaking. They were ghosts for an evening, telling stories to small groups of people–parents and children, gaggles of high school boys and girls who chuckled and made fun of their dramatic renditions–who had come on the Ghost Walk through the park and along the river, where once the people whose ghosts they now played actually had walked, loved, hated, drowned themselves out of unreciprocated affection, hid amongst the tombstones from abusive husbands, hung themselves before the police came to arrest them. Her mother’s hand holding hers, how large and soft it was, moist, how her mother’s hand quickly squeezed hers whenever a ghost brought his or her story to a climax. “This is it, Sylvie!” said her mother’s hand in that sudden squeeze. “Something wonderful or terrible is going to happen!” the hand told her.
Out of those park-like promenades of oak and maple lined streets they drove, back into the center of their shabby little city. Warren. Named after the man who surveyed the area for the Connecticut Land Company that pioneered the Western Reserve, Sylvie had learned in Ohio History class only a week ago. Before that, when someone said the name of the city, she had always thought of mazes and tunnels instead of a man who measured land. She misses picturing those mazes, those tunnels. Though the city is small, shrinking each year since steel left these valley people decades ago, it is tidy and neat, not maze-like at all. It’s a city you could never get lost in.
Once past the downtown, on the other side of the city, the wrong side of the tracks but better than where they’d been living, her father likes to say, they stop at the Hot Dog Shoppe’s drive-thru window, order fries and chili cheese dogs for both of their lunches, then continue on to the house Sylvie’s father purchased several months ago. “An upgrade, Sylvie,” he had said when he took her to the old brick Tudor with the ivy creeping up one of its walls. Much better than the falling-down house where they’d lived when her mother was alive. Sylvie still passed that house on her bus ride to and from school each day. That house could barely hold itself up when they’d moved out last spring. Now it really was falling down, leaning to one side unsteadily. The windows had all been broken by vandals and thieves now, people looking for leftover valuables. Not jewels or antique furniture. Copper piping, aluminum window frames and siding–anything they could turn in for money. They found nothing in that house, though. Sylvie’s father had already stripped the place before others could get to it.
Inside he sits at the computer desk, as usual, one hand pressing the hot dog to his mouth, the other moving the mouse, clicking, opening e-mail. They’d had a lot of work in the past year, after word spread that her father could truly rid homes of lingering spirits, temper-tantrum poltergeists and troublesome ghosts. He’d built his own website after a while, and bought the new house. He was going to give her a better life, he told her. A better life than the one he’d had. Sylvie wondered why he spoke as if his life was already over. Her mother was dead. Her father was alive despite his deathly self-description. How could he not see the difference?
“Another one!” he shouts while chewing a bite of his chili dog. He grabs the napkins Sylvie has placed beside the mouse pad and wipes away the sauce that dribbled out while he spoke. “Listen to this, Sylvie.”
Dear Mr. Applegate,
My husband and I have recently read in the newspaper about your ability to exorcise spirits. Frankly, my husband thinks it is bullshit (his word) but for my sake he said he is willing to try anything. You see, we have a sort of problem ghost in our home. It was here before we were. It’s the ghost of a child, a baby. It cries and cries, and nothing we do stops it except when I sing it lullabies in what must have been the baby’s room at some point in this home’s history. Sometimes we’ll find little hand prints in something I might spill on the floor–apple sauce, cake batter I might have slopped over while I wasn’t paying attention because I was on the phone with my mother or perhaps a friend. If it were only the hand prints, I don’t think it would matter very much to us. But the crying just goes on and on and it’s begun to drive a wedge between my husband and me. He seems to be–well, I’m not sure how to put it. He seems to be jealous of the baby ghost. Probably because I sing it lullabies quite often. At least four or five times a day. Sometimes I worry about it, too, when I’m out shopping or seeing a movie with a friend or my mother, and I’ll think, How is that baby? I hope the baby is all right without me. I mean, it won’t stop crying for my husband even if he was at home. The baby doesn’t like him. And often he’ll leave and go to the bar down the road when that happens until I come home and sing it back to sleep. We’re not rich people, though, Mr. Applegate. And the prices I read on your website are a bit out of our range. Would we be able to bargain? I know it’s a lot to ask, considering the task, but as of now we could afford to pay you eight hundred dollars. I wish it were more, but there it is. You’re our only hope. Would you help us?