When Victoria summoned the dead, it was an accident.
The power flickered out just as Victoria locked the front door and flipped over the “We’re Open” sign. She heard the AC’s guttural last attempts at blowing cold air as it died out. She sighed, looking up at the ceiling regretfully. She would have to make do with what she had at the store. Using her phone flashlight, she ventured into the storage rooms in the back. She knew there were candles and matches somewhere—she had seen them out of the corner of her eye earlier in the week when she was organizing the new shipments. She struck the match against the side of the box and lit a large cylindrical candle.
Carrying the candle, she went to the back-room fridge and pulled out a gallon tub of ice cream and a bottle of sweet sparkling wine she had bought from the supermarket. She was so alone, a fact that haunted her. She had been put in charge of closing the shop today, and there was a tropical storm raging outside, so, she thought to herself, she might as well stay and have some wine and ice cream. Enjoy herself. The books made her feel less alone than all by herself in a condo with so many empty rooms.
She blasted Bon Iver, and the rest of her Twilight-inspired playlist on her phone and sang along, moderately buzzed after half the bottle was gone. She was sad and wanted to wallow in it. She had been so sure that living seaside and working in the bookstore would be something great for her—she could clear her head and restart. School had been so grating for the past several years, she needed a break from it all. She thought this trip to the beach would be refreshing, but it was turning out to be impressively lonesome. She had moved from school to school so much that she hadn’t been able to make many friends. Honestly, she hadn’t made any close enough to come live with her for a whole summer. She desperately needed company.
She was moderately drunk when she started exploring the store, browsing the books. Her gaze shifted to the stairs at the front of the store which led up to the second floor. She had only been there once, on a tour of the shop when she first got the job. It had been brief, and the floor was littered with boxes of extra books. Victoria made her way up the wooden stairs, all too aware of the creaks with every step she took. A gust of chilled air hit her face as her head crossed the threshold of the second floor. For some reason this floor was always a few degrees colder than the floor downstairs. She carried a candle in one hand, which was not as useful as period-piece dramas made it look—barely any light emitted into the stairway. Victoria reached the top floor and made her way to a small round table and set down her bottle of wine.
She perused the shelves lining the walls, most of the books were about the local history of Florida. For the life of her, she couldn’t fathom why anyone would care to read about this stuff. She stopped in her tracks, however, when she saw an old photo album sticking out on the shelf. She pulled it off the shelf and let it fall open in her hands, sinking to sit cross-legged on the floor. It was dim, but by the light of the fire she could see the storefront in a black-and-white photograph. It was not a bookstore yet, but it was the same building. The glass front was unchanged, and the door was the same as ever. As she flipped through the book, she saw photo after photo of the store’s inside and outside, showing how it had changed and yet remained the same through so many years of use.
In the center of the book there was a page devoted solely to a photograph of a family standing in front of the building. The photo was labeled “Catherine, Frederick, and children.” None of them were smiling, as per the era in which the photos were taken, but they looked content, nonetheless. There stood a short woman with what must have been brown hair, freckles spotting her nose and cheeks. Her hair fell past her shoulders, spilling down to her mid back. The man beside her was a tall and lanky fellow who wore a classic, ancient mustache and a brimmed hat. And to the left and right of the pair were two small children, who must have both been under five years old. There was something about the woman in the picture, though, that drew Victoria in. There was a kindness in the woman’s demeanor that was alluring to her. She looked as though she were the kind of woman you could sit and talk about life with. She looked like a friend. A tear fell onto the page, and Victoria quickly wiped it away, worried it would damage the picture. There was nothing on the Earth Victoria desired more than a dear friend.
And then, just as Victoria went to put the book back on the shelf, the woman in the photo moved. She was sure of it. Victoria threw the book across the room, a gasp shuttered from her lips as she scrambled away from the book on the floor. She sat there sprawled out, unmoving, holding her breath. Minutes passed in the dark silence, illuminated only by the feeble light of the candle. Eventually, she worked up the courage to crawl over to the book as it lay where it had fallen on the wood floor. The picture was as normal as any picture should be. The woman was still and frozen. After all, she told herself, of course she was. The woman was just a picture. She had had too much to drink and was seeing things. She needed to order a car and go home and sleep off the wine and forget about what she saw or more likely completely imagined.
Victoria stood up and dusted her hands on her jeans as she shut the picture book and set it back on its shelf. Maybe this was why people didn’t come up to the second floor—it gave her the creeps. She quickly went back downstairs, left the store, locked up, and called a ride-share car. She needed sleep, badly. When she opened the condo door, she flicked off her shoes and began to undress on her way upstairs to her bedroom. She passed out on her bed on top of the sheets, too tired and wine-drunk to bother getting underneath.
Victoria returned the next day to the bookstore feeling foolish and confused, but she wasn’t entirely sure why—her memory was spotty. Sweat began to drip down the small of her back and on her forehead during the walk from her car to the storefront even though it was only a few blocks. She took out her keys and unlocked the front door, propping it open with a brick. She dabbed at her forehead with the back of her hand while she set down her purse in the back room. The power was thankfully working again, and Victoria felt a gracious cold breeze blowing down on her from the vents in the ceiling. Betty, the store manager, arrived not five minutes later, quaint, and old as ever. The hours went quickly as people came and went browsing and buying books. After some time, an older man with shockingly white hair approached the counter behind which Victoria stood and asked for a specific book on local Floridian history.
“Oh, well that one is going to be upstairs in the box labeled ‘local.’ Would you mind grabbing it for me, Victoria? My doctor told me to avoid stairs with my bad knee,” Betty asked.
“Of course.” Victoria removed the chain meant to deter customers from going upstairs. She scurried up the creaking stairs and started looking for the box Betty had specified. As she was crouched over sorting out boxes, something moved in her peripheral vision. Victoria whipped around, her heart thrumming in her chest.
“Hello?” she whispered.
A woman appeared around the corner of a bookshelf, standing awkwardly with her hands folded behind her back. Victoria had a mind to tell her to go back downstairs, as customers were not permitted upstairs, when she realized what the woman was wearing. It was as though she had stepped right out of the mid 1800s. This was not normal. Sure, there were a few fanatical weirdos who wandered the town from time to time but seeing as there was no old-timey convention anytime soon anywhere nearby, Victoria knew something was wrong.
“Who are you? And what are you doing up here?” Victoria asked the woman. She was petite and stout, like Victoria herself. This is where the similarities ended, however. The woman had dull brown hair that contrasted with Victoria’s strawberry red hair, and she had countless freckles spanning her nose and cheeks. This woman was familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on where she knew her from.
Then it hit her. It was like ice trickling down her spine as flashes of memory hit her eyes, and she realized where she had seen this woman.
“Stay right there. I mean it,” Victoria warned, and she side-stepped to the shelf containing the photo album. She flicked through the pages furiously, looking up at the woman standing in front of her every couple of seconds to reassure herself that she was indeed there. When she finally landed on the page, Victoria nearly jumped where she stood. There the photo was unchanged, except that the woman standing forefront was missing. That woman was standing in front of her.
“This isn’t possible,” Victoria breathed. “You can’t be here. I saw you there, last night. You’re Catherine!” she wailed at the woman in a hushed voice.
“Of course, I’m Catherine, and I don’t know how I’m here, of course I don’t know,” the woman said. “I was floating over here by the tables last night like I always have, and then you came up here. I don’t know what you were doing here so late at night, but I just watched. And then the next thing I know, the sun is coming up and my feet are touching the ground and I can feel my body again.”
“Floating. What do you mean floating?” Victoria asked, confused.
“I’ve been trapped here, dead, for Lord only knows how long.”
“You mean to tell me that you’ve been dead, and now, somehow, you’re here, not... dead?” Victoria asked.
“That sounds correct,” Catherine answered, looking down at her shoes.
Victoria tugged on the roots of her hair, utterly lost and confused as to what on earth she was supposed to do next. Somehow, this ghost named Catherine was standing in front of her, very much material, and it happened only after last night’s exploring the upstairs and the photo album. Was she, Victoria, responsible for this? How could she be? And yet, she felt she must be somehow.
“I need to get you out of here, so we can figure this out, whatever this even is,” Victoria breathed.
“I haven’t been able to leave this building for years, Miss. At least, as a ghost I haven’t been able to. I’m tied to it. But...seeing as I’m no longer a ghost, per se, I could try. But won’t everyone notice me? I may be dead, but I know that I very much do not follow the fashion of the day. I will inexorably stand out,” Catherine said.
“Well, God, let me think.”
“Victoria, everything all right up there? Do you need any help?” Betty called up.
Victoria panicked, and in a strained voice shouted back, “No, I’m fine, Betty. Please just stay downstairs. I’m coming. Just a second.”
“OK, here’s what we’re going to do. You need to take off your clothes. Most of them, at least, just until you’re not noticeably out of fashion and stand out,” Victoria said.
Catherine stood there, mouth agape. “Are you seriously intending that I walk around in just my chemise? I can’t undress! I may not be from today, but I can’t go out in public half”— she leaned into whisper—“naked. I’m a married woman, after all.”
“If you want to leave this store, it’s your only option,” Victoria said. “I have no other ideas. If you go outside in that giant dress, people will ask questions. And if we tell them that you’re a suddenly materialized ghost from the 1800s, they will think both of us are insane. Nobody will believe us, that’s for sure. No, it’s best we keep this secret. So. You either get undressed and leave out the backstairs or you stay here, waiting to be discovered and kicked out on the streets for trespassing where you shouldn’t be. It’s up to you.” Victoria rushed out, feeling out of breath. “Quickly, you have to decide, or my boss will be up here soon, and then we’re both screwed.”
“Modern phrase, it means we’re doomed, done for, f’d. Take your pick,” Victoria explained.
Catherine stared at Victoria with panic in her eyes for a moment until she shored herself up and said, “Fine. I’ll leave through the backstairs if I can even leave at all, that is.” She started unbuttoning her dress, her fingers fumbling with the buttons in her distress.
“OK. I’ll go downstairs and say I have a migraine and need to leave for the day. You meet me outside at the back of the store. OK?” Victoria asked.
Victoria rustled through the box of books and found the one the man was looking for, before tucking it under her arm and rushing down the stairs, her heart in her throat.
“Here you go, sir,” she said as she thrust the book into the man’s hands. “Betty, I’ve got a really bad migraine, I think I need the day off. I knew you’d understand. Thanks, Betty!” and Victoria was out the door without a word from Betty or a backwards glance. She hurried to the end of the street and made her way to the back of the building. She found Catherine there, clothed in what looked like a corset top and white linen pants. Surprisingly, Catherine was pretty in vogue. She was obviously uncomfortable, however, because her arms were wrapped around herself in attempt to cover herself up a little more.
“Stop that, it makes you look cold, and its 95 degrees outside,” Victoria scolded, looking left to right to check that they were alone. “We need to get you to my house so we can sort this out. Just walk alongside me and don’t talk to anyone.”
They crossed the road together and made their way to Victoria’s white SUV. Catherine walked to the passenger side of the car and stared at the handle, unsure of what to do with it. Victoria, already buckling herself into the car, huffed and rushed around to the other side of the car to show Catherine how to open the door. This must be real—Victoria thought—everybody who has lived in the last hundred years knows how to operate a car door handle. She felt absurd as she buckled Catherine into her seat, though not entirely sure why she even bothered, considering that Catherine had been dead for at least a century. What harm would she come to in the event of a car crash? She wasn’t alive. Or was she? Victoria wasn’t even positive that Catherine was still dead, or if she had somehow resurrected.
The drive to the condo was silent. Nobody talked and no music played from the stereo. What could they even say that wouldn’t feel absurd? They wound their way through the canopy of live oaks and the top of their car brushed Spanish moss where it hung down from the tree branches. The drive was a short one, but that day it felt eternal. When they arrived, Victoria guided Catherine through the building, up the elevator—to Catherine’s amazement—and to the door of the condo. Catherine looked exhaustingly nonplussed when Victoria punched in the keycode to the door lock instead of inserting and twisting a key.
They walked into the condo, Victoria gesturing to the couch for Catherine to sit. Victoria huffed and sat down in an upholstered chair opposite the couch. Victoria didn’t know where to start.
“So, you’ve been dead for...how long, exactly?”
“I died in 1882. As to how long I have been dead, I’m not sure. What year is it?” Catherine asked.
Oh God, Victoria thought. “It’s 2021. That means you’ve been dead 139 years. Jesus. And... how did you die?” She wondered briefly if this was too personal but seeing as they both acknowledged that one of them was dead and the other believed it, she thought they were past formality.
“I had scarlet fever. It was quick, no longer than two days. I fell ill at home and then before I knew it, I was floating in the top floor of the bookstore, alone. After a few days, someone came upstairs. I screamed and pleaded with them, but they couldn’t hear me. I figured out quickly that I was dead when they walked right through me.”
“If you died at home, why did you end up in the top floor of a bookstore? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know. I haven’t been able to figure that out, myself. But now maybe I’ve been given a chance. A chance to figure out why I didn’t move on. Why I’ve been stuck here.”
Victoria sat deep in thought, unsure of how to proceed. She needed to help this woman move on to whatever comes next, because Catherine was now her responsibility. Victoria stood and walked over to the desk near the coatrack to retrieve her laptop. In the search bar, she typed out “local mediums.” It was the only idea she had, and what was the harm in a quack thinking she was crazy? Nobody would believe them, anyway. Not if they openly claimed to be a medium. Victoria saw that the address wasn’t listed as open until 8:00 P.M. Odd, she thought. It must have been some strange spiritual thing, where the medium’s psychic vibrations only work after dark. Sounded like a load of bullshit, to her. But, then again, Victoria was the one with a materialized ghost sitting in her house. Maybe she was not one to talk.
As dark began to creep into the sky and the sun blazed brilliantly on the horizon, Victoria donned her shoes and jacket, preparing to leave. Catherine stood near the door awkwardly, waiting to leave as well. She looked extraordinarily nervous. Victoria felt a rush of pity and reached out to touch Catherine’s shoulder in consolation, only for her hand to fall right through Catherine’s body. Victoria’s eyes bulged as she stared in awe at her own hand, amazed at what had just happened. She reached out again only for her hand to sink through the air as though Catherine was not indeed standing right in front of her at all.
“Well...I didn’t expect that,” Victoria said nonplussed. “This must be a side effect of being a material ghost. You may be visible, but nobody can touch you. OK, well, I guess this is just another thing to show to the medium for proof,” Victoria said, desperate for some sort of positive outcome from the off-putting event that had just occurred.
Catherine wore a pair of bike shorts and an old, double XL T-shirt. Victoria had given Catherine a new outfit so that she felt comfortable leaving the house, rather than walking around in what was essentially her undergarments. The two women were the same build, so the clothes fit Catherine comfortably, even though they were not her style.
The pair walked to the car, anxious to get any answers from this medium. Catherine had figured out how to work the door handle, and she even buckled herself in. Victoria was impressed by how quickly she learned. Victoria plugged in her phone to the cable in the car and selected her favorite playlist. When sound began blaring out of the speakers, Victoria could have sworn Catherine jumped a foot up out of her seat. Victoria immediately reached to turn down the volume knob and looked over at Catherine apologetically.
“What on Earth was that?” Catherine breathed, looking alarmed.
“My bad. I forgot I had the volume up so high. The car can play music, by the way.”
“If it weren’t for the fact that I am not sure how I am sitting here right now, dead, I would be amazed. I cannot allow myself to care about the changes in the world until we figure out what is going on, and how we can fix it.”
Victoria played her music at a low level as she began the long drive to the medium’s house. Catherine watched what passed by out the window. Victoria didn’t know what to say to her. What does one say to a ghost from the 1800s? Victoria had no idea. She did notice, however, that for all of Catherine’s declaration that she wouldn’t give any attention to the new world she found herself in, Victoria saw Catherine bob her head ever so slightly to the music.
The sun was gone, and the moon began to shine its milky light on them. The headlights illuminated the road in front of them as they followed the map’s directions through the increasingly remote island. Spanish moss littered the road and hung limply from the trees, swaying ever so slightly in the warm night breeze. The trees seemed to come alive, twisting their way along the roads, their branches looking as though they were frozen in stretching out their limbs after a long slumber. Finally, they arrived at a decrepit house, or rather, a shack. Victoria could see the faint yellow glow of lights on inside, the only way she could tell the house was inhabited. Now or never, Victoria thought.
Gravel crunched under their feet as they walked to the shabby front door. Victoria knocked three times, heart hammering in her chest. Seconds ticked by, and Victoria heard rummaging coming from inside the house. More time passed until a middle-aged woman threw open the door, looking out at Catherine and Victoria.
“Ah, I knew you would be coming. Come in,” the woman said in a croaky voice that sounded as though she had been smoking. She led them into her house, which was eccentrically decorated. Jars of mysterious objects floating in liquid were strung up along the walls and throughout the rooms. Candles were lit throughout the space, and Victoria wondered if the place had ever been fitted for electricity.
“The electricity throws off my physic vibrations, sweetie,” the woman said as though she read Victoria’s mind. Sets of mortar and pestles and jars of herbs plagued the house.
“My name is Alawa. You have come to me because you need help dealing with the other side—the dead,” Alawa said as they sat down at a run-down table.
“Yes, yes we have. The thing is—it’s difficult to know how to begin. My name is Victoria, and this is Catherine,” Victoria gestured to Catherine who sat beside her, “and she’s dead. She was a ghost in the bookstore I work at and then I looked at this photograph of her and her family and the next day she was standing in front of me. I know it sounds crazy, but look,” Victoria said. She reached out her hand and watched it as it fell through Catherine’s immaterial body.
“My, my, isn’t this a treat. Yes, I know who you are, Catherine. I did some work for the owner of the bookstore a few years back, transcribing what the spirits in that place were feeling.”
“Yes, indeed! I remember that. I was unaware that you could truly understand me,” Catherine said animatedly.
Victoria’s gaze shifted back and forth between the two women, shocked to hear this piece of information.
“I believe the owner had your message pinned to the wall behind the counter, am I correct, Victoria?” Alawa asked.
“I... I don’t know. I never bothered to read all that stuff pinned up,” Victoria said, feeling foolish. “The point is, anyways, that we need your help. We need to find out why Catherine is no longer a ghost stuck in that bookstore and how to help her move on.”
“And what makes you think Catherine wants to move on? Have you asked her?” Alawa gave Victoria a pointed, knowing look, which gave rise to a pang of guilt in Victoria’s stomach.
“Well, she’s dead. She must move on. She can’t exactly live in this world if nobody can touch her. She’d be found out, and who knows what would happen then. And besides, it’s just the natural thing to do. You live, you die, you move on to what’s beyond,” Victoria said. Catherine remained quiet, a strange look in her eye that Victoria could not place.
“You summoned Catherine because you were so lonely that your desperation for companionship materialized her,” Alawa said. Victoria was shocked and embarrassed. How pitiful must she have been to have affected the supernatural world? “As for helping Catherine move on, I happen to know quite a bit about that.” Alawa stood and walked over to a makeshift bookshelf stuffed with extremely old-looking leather-bound books. “Catherine can read this,” Alawa motioned to the thick tome she pulled out from the shelf, “and learn what she needs to do.”
Catherine took the book from Alawa’s hands and held it close to her body, as if it were precious.
“Now, out with you. Out. Come back when you’ve sorted everything out, and I’ll take the book back from you,” Alawa said as she stood up and began hushing the two women out the door. The door shut on their backs with a slam and a gust of wind. They looked at each other with a bewildered look.
They drove back to the condo in silence yet again, Catherine studiously reading the ancient book. Victoria had no idea what Catherine could be reading, but she hoped it gave instructions on how to lead a soul to peace.
When they entered the condo, Victoria flipped off her shoes and said to Catherine, “You can sleep in the guest bedroom for now.” Victoria was extremely tired and wanted nothing more than to sleep off such a bizarre day and hope that when she woke up Catherine would have resolved what she needed to resolve. She never saw the flash of the sharp edge coming as it arced down through the air, settling itself deep into Victoria’s back just between her shoulder blades.
“Thank you, Victoria, you have been a great help. But the thing is, I’ve decided I don’t want to move on. I was so suffocated by my life when I was alive, having children so young and married to an insufferable older man, that I want to live it now. The thing is, I just want to live yours,” Catherine whispered as she watched Victoria’s body fall to the ground, pulling the kitchen knife out of Victoria’s back with a grunt. Blood bubbled up into Victoria’s mouth, her eyes bulging with fear, shock, and pain. The life slowly left Victoria’s eyes, and Catherine stood over her, watching intently as she died. When Victoria drew her last gurgled breath, Catherine lay down on the ground where the body fell. A rush like nothing Catherine had ever felt flooded Catherine’s veins. She felt Victoria’s still-warm body fuse with her own ghostly one.
Catherine stood up, and the body she inhabited moved with her. She walked to the mirror by the door and examined her host, making her blink and raise her eyebrows on command. She grinned at her reflection, victorious. She was not moving on, not when there was life to live. And after all, she had places she needed to be—she had a book to return.