Quinn jumped, lost in thought as he stared across the Chicago skyline. December clouds rolled in, heavy and gray, and the wind cut through him. He stood on an unfinished townhouse balcony in Lake Shore East, the latest project of Nolan Construction. When he turned, the owner of the townhouse stood framed in the doorway behind him wearing nothing but a robe.
You gotta be freezing, Quinn almost said, but that probably wasn’t the right response. Brandi Santiago had been flirting with him for weeks, ever since her husband hired Quinn for the job. This was the first time she’d showed up in a negligee, though. Or maybe it wasn’t a negligee. Quinn didn’t know the right words for women’s clothing. He didn’t know the right words for most things when it came to women.
“Drink?” She held out a glass of something that looked like lighter fluid.
“Naw, thanks, I’m good.” He never drank on the job. He rarely drank after a job, and when he did, it wasn’t anything stronger than a beer. “We should be finished in another week,” he added.
“That’s too bad.” She took a step closer. Her robe fell open, and her nipples stood out like shards of glass in the raw winter air. “I’ll miss seeing you here.”
“Ah, yeah, well…” He rubbed his neck and tried to figure out how to make his way to the living room and the door and the elevator and escape. Brandi wasn’t the first bored rich housewife who’d come onto him over the last few years, but she was one of the most insistent.
Just do ‘em, his buddy Tony kept saying. You’re livin’ the dream, man. You’re a single contractor who looks like a goddamn Ken doll. You show up at a job site and I swear to God I can see panties melt.
But Quinn didn’t want to. He’d had more keys slipped into his palm, more numbers typed into his phone, more text messages and half-naked pictures from lonely women in the middle of the night, than he’d ever know what to do with. He didn’t want any of it. And he would’ve punched Tony for the Ken doll comment, but Tony didn’t know about Misterion College or Piper or what had happened two days before they were supposed to graduate. No one in Chicago did.
The door behind Brandi opened and closed, and a moment later her husband slipped his fat, flabby arms around her waist. “Hello, baby.” He buried his chins in her neck and nuzzled. Brandi visibly cringed. A moment later she wriggled away from him and flounced inside.
“Looking good,” the man said as he scanned the balcony. He pulled out his wallet and fished a hundred dollar bill from the expensive leather folds. “Here.”
“I don’t – I’m not sure – ” Quinn didn’t usually accept tips, and the job wasn’t done yet.
“For putting up with my wife.” He shoved the bill into Quinn’s hand. “And for not sleeping with her.” He paused. “You’re better than the last two contractors I hired for that reason alone.”
Quinn nodded and muttered a thanks. Was this what his life had become? Dodging middle-aged housewives, taking payoffs from their husbands, building home after home and not having one of his own? Part of him wanted to drop the hundred on the dirty sidewalk when he got outside and grind it under his heel.
But even he wasn’t that stupid.
Once upon a time, he’d dreamed of something different. He’d wanted to build a house on Drake Isle, on a knoll overlooking the water where he and Piper could raise their kids and grow old and listen to the wind and the waves together. They’d throw parties and tell stories about the night they met on the Delta rooftop and knew right then, when they were twenty years old, they were meant to be together.
Except things changed.
And Quinn died too, at least inside, where his heart stopped beating the morning they found her broken body on the sidewalk outside the Delta house. His heart stopped and his lungs stopped and his brain shut down and went numb. He spent twenty-four hours curled up on a friend’s couch, and then he got up and packed a duffel bag and left Drake Isle for good. Sure, his major organs worked okay now, at least to keep him alive. But alive wasn’t living.
Despite the frigid temperatures, he left his truck in the parking garage and started to walk. At rush hour on a Friday, the streets were filled with traffic, with car horns honking and cyclists weaving in and out and above them all, a thin, biting snow starting to fall. Festive garlands and wreaths decorated doors and storefronts, and he realized with surprise Christmas was just a few weeks away. Soon his mom would send him the obligatory invitation to Christmas dinner, and he’d send back his usual thanks-but-I-can’t-get-away response, and he’d spend the holidays alone, watching football and fielding phone calls from his three brothers and their wives and kids.
He passed a few bars, looked inside, thought about a drink, kept going. Snow covered his head and the back of his neck, and he pulled his wool cap lower and zipped up his coat tighter. Block after block he strode, until the tightness in his chest eased and the memories of Piper faded. He’d moved halfway across the country just to get away from them, and most days it worked. Even though his family still lived within shouting distance of the Drake Isle ferry. Even though his college buddies had moved back to the island in recent years. Even though he still dreamt of the place, of the way the wind sounded over the water and the way the lighthouse lit up the night sky and the way Piper’s hand had felt in his when they walked along the beach.
When the gray smudges of evening faded to black he headed for home, a gritty one-bedroom apartment filled with so many EMF meters and infrared cameras and voice recorders that his friends busted his balls and called him Ghostbuster.
Quinn didn’t care. It gave him something to do to fill his nights and weekends when beer or television didn’t cut it. What had started as a hobby years ago had turned into a full-fledged side gig. He didn’t advertise, but he didn’t need to. Word of mouth traveled fast in the world of ghost hunting, and Quinn took his work seriously. He sometimes wondered if Piper would laugh if she knew the one-eighty he’d pulled when it came to believing in the paranormal. Probably. He’d been such an ass back then, so sure ghosts didn’t exist and everything could be explained by science.
Now he knew better.
He walked in the door and pulled off his coat and hat, spraying snow everywhere. Kicked off his boots and left them dripping in the kitchen. He sank into his favorite easy chair – okay, his only easy chair – and turned on the TV. He didn’t watch too many ghost hunting shows, because most were filled with scam artists and gimmicks, but one did fascinate him.
Behind These Walls was filmed in Ireland, and the host, Sean McClaren, knew what he was talking about. This week he was exploring apparitions at some castle ruins that had scared the pants off more than one trespassing teen. The opening credits rolled, and Quinn had just enough time to microwave some leftovers before the show started. On impulse he picked up a notepad and pen. Sometimes he jotted down thoughts as he watched the show, things he hadn’t tried before, a new piece of equipment, a way of reaching out and bridging the divide between this world and another.
Maybe he’d go to Ireland someday. Or maybe Italy. Maybe he’d hike Machu Picchu and listen for the voices of Incan warriors. Because one thing was damn sure: as long as Quinn spent his time searching for the ghostly voices of someone else, he wouldn’t have to listen to the ones inside his own head, reminding him of everything he’d lost the night Piper Townsend died.
“Average-Joe Ghost Hunter? Yes. Real World Hauntings? Yes. Behind These Walls? Not sure yet. But yes, this one’s probably also going to be added to my list of too-stupid-to-exist television shows. The jury’s still out, though. I’ve only watched it twice.” Polly Parker crossed her legs beneath her and passed the bowl of popcorn to her best friend Mason.
The muscular ex-Army captain took a swig of beer and a handful of popcorn. “I don’t get it, Pol. You have cable. And every streaming service known to man. There’s about a thousand other shows you could watch on a Friday night.”
“I know. But it gives me a certain satisfaction to point out all the obvious scientific flaws in ones like this.”
Mason took another swig of beer. “You really know how to get a guy all hot and bothered, don’t you?”
“We both know nothing I could do would ever get you hot and bothered.” She stretched out her legs and rested them on his lap. “Although I wish I could. For both our sakes.”
He chuckled. “You should be out with your friends. Or on a date. Not spending a Friday night at home with me.”
“I like spending time with you. Plus there aren’t any eligible men on this island to date.”
“Tell me about it.”
“So why do we stay? Tell me again?”
“Well, you stay because you’re a native,” Mason said. “And I stay because there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Despite the serious lack of single men. Really. I should start a dating service.”
“Yes! You totally should.” Polly rested her head against the couch and closed her eyes. Even though Mason Dewan wasn’t an islander, even though he’d only taught at the high school for three years, she knew the moment they met that they’d become friends. Of course, she also spent that moment hoping the tall, muscled teacher with the rugged good looks would turn out to be an eligible bachelor – and he was, but not for her.
Polly rolled her head from side to side, trying to work out the kinks. It had been a hard week. It had been a hard year, actually, and she wasn’t even halfway through it. She’d picked up two extra earth science classes, her least favorite of any of the sciences. She loved her upper-level biology and chemistry, but the AP sections had been recently shuttered, and physics was a senior-only elective. So she spent the bulk of her days wrangling hormonal freshmen while trying to ignore their fart noises and giggles when she said things like crapulence and homo erectus.
Footsteps came down the stairs and into the kitchen behind them. Polly muted the volume on the television. “Dad? Everything okay?”
He muttered something unintelligible, but she didn’t bother responding. Dr. Thomas Parker was a brilliant but introverted man. He’d lost his wife when his only daughter was two, and he had no idea how to raise a child except by making cold sandwiches and telling stories about thermodynamics and relativity. Now they lived together on the island, an odd pair of scientists, and if warmth and affection were lacking in her home, Polly found them in other places. Like with her best friend.
“How’s he doing?” Mason asked as cabinet doors banged open and shut.
“Your guess is as good as mine. He’s working on a proposal for a conference. I haven’t gotten more than two sentences out of him all week."
He wiggled one of her feet. “Show’s on. Time to tap into your inner critic.”
She turned up the volume again and leaned forward. The host of Behind These Walls, a burly, bearded man with an Irish brogue, fascinated her. She could debunk most so-called reality shows in a matter of minutes, and it had turned into a perverse sort of pleasure for her. But Sean McClaren was harder to doubt. For one, he didn’t dress like a hipster. He wasn’t twenty-five. He didn’t talk about his blog or ask people to subscribe to his social media channels. He didn’t do stunts. Instead, he looked steadily into the camera and explained his equipment and his investigations in a methodical way that almost appealed to Polly.
Because he was talking about ghosts, of course. About residual hauntings and paranormal imprints and things that simply didn’t exist.
Mason munched through most of the popcorn. When the show went to a commercial break, he turned to Polly. “Need anything?”
She picked up her seltzer, but the can was empty. She shook it and looked longingly at her kitchen. “Well, if you’re getting up.”
He smiled. “I don’t know why you don’t just give in and have a beer with me once in a while. It’s Friday night,” he added as he got up. “Let down your hair.”
She wound her fingers around a couple of strands. “It is down.”
“And purple this week, I see. Returning to an old favorite?”
He returned with fresh drinks a few moments later. “I know you laugh at this stuff, but people are pretty revved up about what’s going on at the Delta house.”
“Oh, I know. It drives me crazy. My students can’t stop talking about it.” Ever since the island’s college had reopened, people claimed to see ghosts. Or hear ghosts. Just because a student had fallen off a fraternity house roof and died fifteen years ago.
Mason shrugged. “Lotta shit’s been happening, ‘specially the last few months. College kids say they hear people talking, doors and windows opening and closing...” He shivered dramatically. “Plus there’s that woman in white on the roof.”
“Stop. There’s no such thing as a ‘woman in white.’” Polly lifted her fingers in air quotes. “The college sits up over the ocean. The wind whips through there twenty-four-seven. Of course doors and windows are opening and closing. Plus the place is two hundred years old. Nothing’s square or straight anymore. People think a white shadow is a woman who died there? It isn’t. It’s a cloud. Or some kind of fog or mist. Drake Isle has crazy weather phenomena, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“What about the voices?”
“Probably also wind. But maybe just rumors. Campfire tales.” Polly sat up and folded her hands under her chin, the way she always did right before she leapt into lecture. “Listen, if enough people hear a story enough times, they start believing it. It’s called the illusory truth effect. It was made popular by a team of researchers in Philadelphia, in the seventies.”
“How do you know something like that?”
Polly shrugged. “I read a lot.”
“And you’re a science nerd.”
“That too. Anyway, they proved that if people are exposed to the same information over and over, they start to believe it’s true, even if it isn’t.”
“So that’s how brainwashing works?”
“I guess.” She started to say something else but the show came back on, and for the next twenty minutes they sat in silence as Sean McClaren concluded that a pile of rubble in the hills didn’t hold any evidence of paranormal activity. He couldn’t promise it never would, only that in the short time he’d spent there, he hadn’t found any. He looked steadily into the camera as the episode wrapped up.
“It’s important to consider that there are others more sensitive to apparitions than I. There may be ghosts here at this very moment who are simply choosing not to reveal themselves,” he said to his viewers.
Polly stifled a laugh. Mason gave her a disapproving look over the cushions.
“It’s also important to remember, at the end of the day, that ghosts once walked this earth as living human beings, the same way we do now.” He folded his hands as if in prayer and bowed his head. “We should honor their memories and respect them for that. And if they reach out to us, we should listen to what they have to say.” The Irish countryside faded to black.
“The college should get someone like him to come here,” Mason said as scenes from next week’s episode scrolled by. “Do some investigating of the Delta house. Sean McClaren doesn’t look like he scares off easily.”
“No, but I’m pretty sure he’s not going to cross the Atlantic to come to our tiny island and sniff around a fraternity house.”
“Maybe not, but there must be someone like him here in the States. Ghost hunting’s become a thing lately, hasn’t it?”
“I don’t know. I guess so.” Polly chewed her thumbnail. She’d been a teenager when Piper Townsend died. No one knew what had happened, only that the pretty college student had ended up dead on the sidewalk outside the Delta fraternity house one morning, days before graduation. Misterion College had shut down for over a decade, and the island had writhed in pain. She recalled the collective mourning, the investigation, the unanswered questions, the economic depression that followed when people and businesses fled to the mainland.
“The last thing we need is a ghost hunter around here,” she said.
Mason laughed. “I could only imagine you going toe to toe with someone like Sean McClaren. Actually, I might pay money to see that.”
Polly didn’t bother answering. Illusory truth. As a science teacher, sometimes she felt like she fought against it all day long. Facts, evidence, math, science, numbers, proof – those were the things that made the world go round. Not whispers or rumors or shadows on rooftops. Even if the islanders didn’t know exactly what had happened the night Piper died, that didn’t mean the poor girl had come back to haunt them. Every single thing people thought they saw or heard on campus, from the woman in white to the slamming doors to the disembodied voices, could be easily explained.
Polly was sure of it.