by Shirozubon Saruko (城図凡然る子)
By now, Kim’s brain seemed to have developed some weird sixth sense for the difference between “kid waking me up and it’s important” and “kid waking me up and it’s not important,” even before he’d really woken up at all. Sure, there were still false positives: he hadn’t completely stopped jerking upright in bed, heart thundering, when Bibi had just gotten bored of not being able to sleep and wandered in to climb up and play with her bug toys on the end of his bed. But for the most part, even when he hadn’t yet broken up through the surface of sleep, somehow some part of him knew when he needed to be awake right away and when he could take his time on getting there.
Tonight his brain said it was the second one, based on the slow, syrupy way he blinked out of dreams while the little hand kept patting at his arm. And the way he squinted first at the glowing blue numbers of the clock on the bedside table, groaning under his breath when they said 3:17. “Yeah, honey, what?” he mumbled half-into his arm and the pillow, fumbling out a hand to gently cover Bibi’s and hold it still. He blinked away a little more sleep then, at least enough to lift his head a bit. “We said you were gonna stay in your room until the clock turns green, right? You need something?”
“Daddy,” was all Bibi said at first, though. She still had a way of putting it together like it was two different words, maybe the article da before the important, emphasized noun ddee. “Daddy.”
“Yeah, sweetheart.” Kim yawned into his hand, still fully flat out. At least he didn’t have a job tomorrow until afternoon. “What’s up?”
“I saw a lady!” …At least, that was what Kim thought she’d said, his lax sleepy face starting to draw into a frown. Bibi was hitting maybe about eighty percent on the words being intelligible, these days, but shit like L’s and R’s was pretty rough when you were three.
“You saw a lady?” he repeated, and Bibi wagged her head up and down in a furious nod.
“Yeah. I saw a lady. There a lady. She was, she was… stand up. There.” She pointed dramatically with her free arm toward the bedroom door, ajar on a crack of darkness presumably from when she’d pushed her way in.
Kim just petted Bibi’s hand, though, his frown starting to relax away; the answer seemed obvious at this point. “Honey, you just had a dream,” he said, his voice already blurring again. Being able to fall back asleep on a dime was also a survival skill he was very glad his brain had eventually learned. “You wanna go back to sleep with me?” He started to twist himself backward, pulling back the covers, but Bibi caught at his arm with both hands and tugged, her voice ratcheting up in urgency.
“No. There a lady. Daddy! Come look. There a lady.”
Okay. All right. Looked like he was not getting out of this one. For whatever reason she was super stuck on whatever dream she’d had about there being some woman in the house, or she’d just come up with this somehow, busting out extremely creepy shit out of nowhere was like a top-tier toddler specialty. Hopefully, if he just showed her there was nothing there, she’d chill out and get distracted and he could get her to pee one last time, just in case, before getting her back into bed. Kim heaved a sigh and pushed himself up to sitting on the edge of the bed, scrubbing a hand over his face and rucked up hair for a long moment before letting his hands fall on his thighs. “All right, babe. Let’s go look. But then we’re going back to sleep, okay?”
“Okay,” Bibi said readily, though he doubted she’d even been listening to what she was agreeing to. He scooped her up regardless as he got up, shifting his weight with hers to get her settled on his hip, her clinging to him agreeably koala-style with arms and legs while he held her in the securing wrap of his arms. He shifted her to one-handed for a minute when they got to the door, to open it the rest of the way, and then stepped out onto the upstairs landing, wincing at the chill of the bare boards.
The rowhouse was small enough that the hallway didn’t go far back from the stairs, and his and Alma’s — his — bedroom was closest to them along it. Once outside his door, they were steps from the top of the stairs down to the first floor and the bottom of the ones up to the office, in the vertical center of the dark house, sideswiped by the shaft of orangey city glow from the skylight. Kim took a step forward away from it, blinking and having to readjust his eyes after even that much light.
So it took a second for him to see the dark figure at the bottom of the stairs, standing below them on the house’s lower level.
First it just looked like an odd, out-of-place shadow. Then it moved slightly, the real and breathing way a person shifted on their feet, and Kim’s breath caught up tight in his chest. The more his eyes focused and adjusted, the more undeniable it became: a dark place in the shape of a slight human figure, amorphous at the head and upper thighs in a way that suggested a corona of hair, a dress. A woman. Standing at the bottom of the stairs inside their house.
There was a lady, Bibi had said, and.yeah. Actually, there was.
The figure didn’t move, except n those occasional slight adjustments that just made it clearer that this was a person he was looking at, and for what seemed like a long time Kim couldn’t move either. Just stood clutching Bibi and tried to get his brain and breath in order. Bibi’s breathing, noisy and wet through her mouth and ever-present runny nose, seemed like the loudest possible noise in the world where it came from his shoulder, near his ear. Everything else was impossibly still.
“Hey,” Kim somehow got out finally, without ever really knowing he was going to. The sound of his own dry creaky voice, raised to carry down the stairs, both startled him and managed to shore him up a little — reminding him he was the person who actually belonged here, and also a pretty big and not-unintimidating guy, at least on sight. He cleared his throat slightly before trying again, got his voice out sounding stronger and more sure. “Hey, ah… I don’t want any trouble, all right? I don’t know how you got in here, but — I don’t wanna call the cops on you. You just leave, and we’ll call it even. Okay?”
But there was no response. No movement at all. The darker figure cut out of the darkness downstairs just stood there, like it had all along, doing and saying nothing. Increasingly, he had the unsettled feeling that it was making some expression, something he couldn’t quite see.
“Hey — ” Kim started again, a little more forcefully, taking a step forward.
The figure moved. Fast.
One second it was just standing where it had been, and the next it was launching forward — in a stuttering patter, straight at the stairs, straight at them. Kim barely even had time to freeze, though, iron-locked and huge-eyed, before it tilted. Somehow when its vague shadow-feet should have started pounding up the creaking wood stairs, they twisted onto the base of the wall beside the staircase instead. Then up it, skirting above the bannister and up the wall in a swift wild overhead arc, perpendicular to the ground. Kim could barely hear the soft tap of its footsteps on the wall as it went, barefoot-steps, so terrifyingly fast they almost all blurred into one. He clamped Bibi at his side and jerked his head up to watch but it was over in barely seconds, almost before he could even look: a too-fast sprint that propelled the figure up to the very top of the staircase wall and into the depths of shadow there where it was no longer visible. The corner of the wall at the top of the upper flight of stairs was more illuminated, its planes picked out by the skylight glow, and the figure did not emerge there. In fact, the longer Kim looked, the more sure he was that it was not in the shadows, either. That it was nowhere now.
Leaning on his shoulder, Bibi giggled, loud and bright and surprised. Like she did when she was following a cricket along the wall in the front yard, and it jumped, suddenly somewhere it hadn’t been before.
It seemed to take Kim another very long moment to be able to move again. To stop just staring up at the corner of the ceiling at the top of the stairs where they opened to the top floor, unstick his feet from the floor, unlock every muscle in his throat and his whole body and act alive again.
Then he backed up, slowly, never taking his eyes off the place where the woman — the thing — had disappeared. He shifted Bibi into the crook of one arm again to fumble out with the other, thumping with it clumsily until it found the open bedroom doorway. And then, as much all in one motion as he could manage, he ducked them both back inside the bedroom, and clapped the door shut behind them.
He put Bibi down on the bed, despite her small grumble, before getting around behind the tall dresser next to the door and starting to shove it with his shoulder. It took some doing to get it out of its settled divots in the carpet, but after a minute he could push it across to move it in front of the door. How hard it was to move, how heavy and sturdy, was both comforting and not really comforting enough at all, all things considered.
“Why you do that?” Bibi asked from where she was sitting in her plop on the bed, though of course it was really much more of a dat than a that. Kim just grunted at first, getting a bit stuck once he got the dresser up to the doorknob.
“Kinda just because, sweetheart,” he managed a second later, which was more true than he would have liked it to be. If that had somehow actually happened, if there was someone or something out there, if he wasn’t just going insane, or having an — incredibly real-feeling dream, or something, then what good was a dresser going to do? What good would anything do? He didn’t want to think about it. He just got the dresser at least snug enough up to the doorknob to satisfy him, and stood back, catching his breath for just a second. Then he went back to the bed, back to Bibi, sitting down next to her and putting his arms around her very small body, hugging her. The puff of her hair tickled his chin, and she felt smaller than ever somehow, with the way the baby-roundness of her limbs was now stretching out into skinniness as she grew.
She leaned back on him, taking a small fistful of his t-shirt over his belly into her grasp, and that at least let his breathing ease a little and his eyes shut a second. “Let’s go back to sleep, okay?” he murmured into the top of her head, and kissed it, squishing his face down into the miniature afro she kind of had going to do it. Bibi giggled, tucking up against his side as he started to settle them both back on the bed.
“Okay,” she even agreed, for a wonder, though Kim still knew better than to take that as a binding contract. She was starting to sound pretty tired, though. He lay on his back on the messy heap of the pillows, Bibi tucked up against his side, seemingly made one hundred percent of wriggles and uncomfortable digging skull and knees and elbows, but also being herself and breathing and safe. He yanked up the covers around them and held her to his chest, and stared up at the ceiling, and breathed. And listened.
Listened for footsteps on the walls.
Long after Bibi was asleep again and drooling a little puddle onto his shirt, long after the first number of the glowing ones on the clock had changed over to a different one, and then another one still, he stayed like that. Breathing a little too fast, his eyes darting. Listening, and waiting, and not going to sleep.
The room was still dim and dark when he startled awake again, but another part of his hindbrain could tell that was because of the blackout curtain, and not the hour. Kim glanced over at the clock and saw 8:04, and then stared at it for way too long in total disbelieving bafflement. He didn’t think he’d actually fallen asleep until after dawn light had started to creep under the door, but how the hell would Bibi not have woken him?
He jerked and flailed upright, staggering over to the window to yank back the curtain and then wince at the flood of bright full daylight. The bed was empty when he turned back, the room was empty, and his heart jackhammered. That was impossible, the dresser was still in front of the door — “Bibi?” he called, his voice almost cracking out from under him.
“Yeah?” a small muffled voice almost immediately answered, from underneath the bed.
Kim stood very still for a second, then let out a breath that felt hurricane-force. He took the couple of steps back to the bed and knelt down, going down on his elbows too as he pulled up the disarrayed swags of duvet and blankets and sheets.
Yeah, Bibi was there, all right: sprawled on her stomach under the low clearance of the bedframe slats, deep in concentration. Also there was an empty toilet paper roll flopped on its side, and so was a substantial amount of unrolled toilet paper, in loops and piles stretched out alongside her. However, there really wasn’t that much of it compared to how much she had managed, and was still managing, to shred into ragged little white scraps in her fingers, maybe a half-inch square each. The amount of those was absolutely astonishing, even as they skirled and billowed and floated around with the rushing air of Kim’s lifting the blankets. It looked like Bibi was making the space under the bed into her own personal snow-globe.
“Aww, Beeb, what the fuck,” was the only thing Kim’s still sleep- and fear-deranged brain could seem to get out of his mouth at first. He realized his mistake immediately, but not before Bibi looked up at him in surprise, and then clearly decided all at once this was the funniest thing it was possible for a person to say. She burst into wild, bright laughter, flopping and flailing around enough to be concerning in the small space.
“Wha tta fug!” she repeated in rapture, approximately, between giggles. Kim hesitated, and then set his palm gently down on the floorboards ahead of her, trying for attention.
“No, uh — that’s not something we say, sweetheart. I mean, that’s something Daddy says, but you shouldn’t say it.”
Bibi giggled freshly at that, although this time it seemed to let her go quicker. “Why?”
Good question, honestly, from her point of view. “Well, it’s… not a nice thing to say. I mean. Daddy really shouldn’t say it either, I just forgot.” He made his unfortunately high-use ‘Daddy did something dumb’ gesture, bonking himself melodramatically on the forehead with the heel of his hand, which made Bibi laugh like always even if it probably wouldn’t be the end of the matter. No question, as soon as he thought he was safe, what the fuck was definitely going to put in an appearance at daycare now. Might as well resign himself.
That thought was almost immediately interrupted by another, though, and he frowned suddenly, really giving all the toilet paper another good look. “Hey, did you go in the bathroom while I was sleeping?”
Bibi nodded, jerking it up and down way too hard in the way she did, and making him lunge forward to protect her head from the bed-slats with his hand. “Yeah. I went pee the potty.”
“You went pee in the potty, all by yourself? For real?” She nodded again, which at least he was ready for this time. Kim let her head go afterward and wriggled himself backward, pushing back up to a knee and then his feet and only staggering a little bit. When he popped into the master’s ensuite bathroom, though, the story checked out: the second potty chair he’d put in here, in addition to the one in the hall bathroom, had clearly been in use. Not to mention the little stool had been pulled into place in front of the nearer of the two sinks, and there was water all over absolutely everything, but a little soap too. And of course the toilet paper had been popped out of the holder as well, the rod now lying discarded on the floor, but on balance, he was willing to count that as pretty much cancelled out.
He came back beaming and got down beside the bed again. “You washed hands, and everything?” Bibi grinned at him hugely, showing off teeth with some still truly unpredictable spaces between them.
“Beeb, that is awesome. Up top.” He pushed his hand forward under the bed, palm out, and her tiny palm thwapped into it off-center a second later. “I’m sorry I slept so late, but thanks for being so cool and doing stuff by yourself and letting me sleep. That was really nice of you.” Bibi didn’t particularly acknowledge this, but he guessed it was a little abstract at this point. “I bet you’re hungry, huh? Wanna go get some breakfast?”
“No,” Bibi said immediately, with the start of a stubborn little frown in her brow. Which was also no surprise. There was absolutely no way she wasn’t starving, but somehow the longer you let her go without eating anything the more deeply entrenched she got in the idea that eating was over now and she was never going to eat again, which she thought worked out great for her because it meant not having to interrupt any of the infinite number of activities in the world that were more interesting than eating. Like shredding toilet paper, for example. Kim put on his game face, and gently pushed back the whole bed frame as much as he could to let him clamber in and snag hold of her.
“Nope, sorry, that’s the wro-o-ong answer,” he said, as cheerfully as possible, in the process. Bibi wriggled and protested as he scooted her back to him, and they burned about ten minutes or so on the argument and the tantrum and the calming down from the tantrum, but in the end he got her up and willing to wait while he pushed the dresser back out of the way.
Which just knotted his chest back up inside him again, even as he was doing it, now that his brief distraction was over. As much as it was standing in the way, the dresser was undeniable proof of everything he might have wanted to deny, in the bright bland light of a normal day: he might have been able to think it hadn’t happened, none of it had happened, it was just impossible, except that the dresser was still sitting there at the end of the drag-marks in the carpet. Not to mention that, when they both came out of the bedroom, Bibi’s eyes immediately zeroed in on the wall along the lower stairs.
“Where the lady go?” she asked — still all interest and no fear, from the sound. Kim’s stomach tightened more, although he tried not to show the tension in his face or voice.
“I dunno, honey.” He swallowed slightly, hanging on to the casual tone. “You remember the lady we saw, huh?”
“Yeah!” Another very enthusiastic nod. “She went… zoom! Up there!” Bibi pointed up along the wall, vaguely at where Kim remembered the horribly fast arc of that dark figure moving too, and then giggled again — bright and vivid. “That was funny.”
“Yeah, that was pretty funny,” Kim repeated, faintly and mostly by reflex. He took another second to swallow it away again, catching his balance. There was nothing but bright daylight splashed up the angles of the stairways, the corner to the stub of hallway upstairs that ended in the closed door of the office, the hardwood boards of the floor where they stood. There were no answers now one way or another, and he had a kid to take care of and feed and a house to move this afternoon. No time to worry about what was real and what wasn’t, and at least that was something.
They took a quick detour to get Bibi out of her pajamas and overnight pull-up — which she’d actually maneuvered off to go to the bathroom by herself and put back on again, he couldn’t get over that; this was parenthood right here, the most exciting part of your day being someone else’s achievements in taking off their pants to pee — and into a dress and leggings for the day, and then they compromised that she’d eat breakfast if she got to ride downstairs on his shoulders, which was pretty mild as these kinds of negotiations could go. They spent the rest of the morning with Kim dealing with some invoices on his laptop at the dining room table, in between Bibi’s demands that he look at the picture she colored, or put on Dora on Netflix, or play horseys on the living room floor, or listen to an extremely incomprehensible toddler ramble about frogs and make interested approving noises. Then after lunch he started in on the half-hour lead time it took to bundle her out to daycare: a small in-house operation run by an unbelievably nice elderly Greek woman and her unbelievably nice adult daughter down the block, aka Bibi’s beloved Miss Vasia and Miss Alex. And then, finally, he could get down to the warehouse to start checking the truck and equipment for the job.
It wasn’t a huge move: a nice, if awkward, older Korean couple leaving their tired-looking Morton rowhouse for a cute 55+ community out in Roxborough. They were furnished sparsely but immaculately, and Kim noticed the guys instinctively trying to practically tiptoe their floral couches and china cabinets out to the truck, which was amusing to watch if nothing else. Kim’s seniority had him working loader these days as often as not, and it was calming to get lost in the familiar game of delicate Tetris that was fitting everything together, making everything make sense, keeping it all protected from itself. In spite of being bastard cold out in the truck, it felt good today of all days especially: taking just enough brain to keep him from thinking about anything else, but not quite enough to stop it from being chill and Zen.
Simple and close as the job was, they were unloaded and done by early evening, and though he still had a while before he needed to pick up Bibi from the Karagiannis’, Kim turned down Jorge’s offer of a beer with the younger guys on the crew. Instead, he swung by home for a while, to see if he could catch up on some chores that were a lot harder to do with a tiny person all up in your business. He could only get so far with vacuuming, though, before he finally had to stare down the boxes still piled in the corner of the dining room, from what had been left in Remedios’s apartment and hospice suite. Fuck, he really had to do something about those. Most of it he’d probably end up just taking to the attic, but he was going to have to go through them first. Stalling was just making it worse — especially this time of year.
So with a huge sigh, he sat down on the dining room floor, and pulled the nearest one off the top and over to him, breaking the tape with his keys. It was one of the hospice ones, from the label and the top layer, and as such it was mostly personal items and mementos. He pulled out a stack of Remedios’s neatly-folded satin hair-wraps to lay across his thigh and make room inside, his chest aching distantly, and then pushed around the other contents, trying to think what might be good to keep on hand and what wouldn’t be needed anytime soon. Her small box of jewelry would be good to hang onto for Bibi, if he could find a safe place to put it in the meantime. Her bag of toiletries could probably go in the attic, along with the paperback novels and figurines: just having the faint fragrance from the tiny bottle of Chanel no. 5 drifting up amid all the little items was making that constriction in his chest tighter and tighter. But there were also —
There were also photographs, still in simple silver and wood frames, the props on their black backing warped and bowed from how long they’d spent propped up on bedside tables and dressers. Kim took them out slowly into his hands, holding first one up to look at, then setting it reverently down to consider another. The old bleached and bleary Kodachrome wedding photo of Remedios and Eduardo, who had passed before Kim had ever even met Alma; and then Kim and Alma’s wedding photo for its bookend, some thirty-five years later, in crisp digital detail and way less impressive outfits. A shot of a substantially younger Kim and Alma and Remedios all together at the edge of one of the walkways at Penn’s Landing, framed against the water behind them on a bright pretty day, arms around each other with Alma in the middle and the wind doing varying degrees of damage to Kim’s close-cut white-boy hair and the little twists Alma’d had back then and Remedios’s beauty-shop relaxed silver coif. Another one of Alma close-up in her maternity hospital bed, looking about like you’d expect from someone who hadn’t slept in about 48 hours and who’d just pushed a human out of her vagina, but with bright tears streaked down from her eyes and a giant smile on her face as she touched her huge-by-comparison finger to one of Bibi’s tiny red newborn cheeks.
Kim’s face was at least as wet by now, and at that last one his vision finally doubled and blurred so much he couldn’t look anymore. He set the frame down blind and gentle on the pile in his lap, and pressed the heels of both his hands into his eyes, trying to take a deep breath and then clenching into a fit of huge, choked sobs instead. It still came out of nowhere, still hit just as hard. There was nothing to do but ride it out.
Shit. Those had to be right n the first box he opened, didn’t they?
It fucking sucked that the anniversary came up in early December, right before Christmas and New Year’s and then Bibi’s birthday, all the best shit that ever happened when you were a little kid. It was just going to get worse now that Bibi was getting big enough to actually get and care about all of that. All the most exciting times of the year, and your dad always got all sad and fucked up beforehand because this was the time when your mom had died, when you weren’t quite a year old and couldn’t remember her at all, and now she wasn’t here to see you talking and learning and getting tall and going to the bathroom by yourself. Remedios had passed away in September, had finally gone into hospice that past spring, so that stood alone as its own thing, but there was no prying December away from the endless loud clock ticking away seconds in the hospital room, where Alma had struggled to breathe and whispered I feel sick, I feel bad, and Kim had said something’s wrong, help her, something’s wrong, and the white nurse had smiled and said condescendingly you just need to calm down, sweetheart, you’re working yourself up, and then left them alone, fucking alone, until she had started to seize and people had finally rushed in and Kim wasn’t allowed in the room anymore.
He took a huge, trembling breath, and let it out in a gust, starting to scrub at his eyes with his hands instead of just holding them there. Enough, all right, enough. He had to go get Bibi in a few minutes, and Bibi was what mattered. Hang on to the jewelry, close this box up again and put it on a new “to the attic” pile, close all this shit up and put it on its own pile too. He could do it. He’d been doing it all this time.
Kim jolted awake that night for no reason he could immediately figure out. He didn’t think it was Bibi who’d woken him up this time: his first impression was that the bedroom was silent and dark. He had his back to the clock and couldn’t check the time, but the quality of the crack of dimness under the door suggested that it was around 2 or 3 again. And after a moment of blinking into the dark, he realized that if Bibi had woken him up, it had definitely only been by accident. There was a small person-shaped lump curled into the covers inside the curve of his body, tangled in them so he and she kind of had separate cocoons, just a little puff of hair sticking out the top on the other pillow. The lump rose and fell steadily with thick breathing, and part of it twitched just once, and Kim couldn’t help a smile even as his eyes were getting heavy again, and he settled back in with his arm on top of the covers on top of her. Sneaky little thing. It was good to have her weight and warmth in the bed, and it brought sleep close again all at once.
It was only at the first click of the doorknob that it finally occurred to him, alongside the heart-stuttering burst of panic, how weird it was that the bedroom door was closed. Bibi never shut the door behind her when she came in.
Kim’s eyes snapped open again and he scrabbled up on his elbow, his breath hissing into him. The ambient glow from the skylight spilled in as the door pushed open, slightly brightening a broad swath that fell across the carpet and the bed. At first he could only see a silhouette in that light, dark and outlined against the city-glow.
That dark shape gained clarity and recognition in the same instant that it said, “Daddy?”
It was Bibi standing in the doorway: half her hair squashed down and eyes puffy, her pajama shirt halfway twisted around in a weird way that exposed a big stripe of soft light-brown belly. She was clutching the tail of her stuffed iguana so the rest of it dangled down along her side. Even as Kim stared at her, utterly frozen, not able to think or process, she went on plaintive and thick: “I don’t like the lady. She mean.”
She was clearer than usual, and he was absolutely sure of what he’d said. And that was somehow what cracked his paralysis enough for him to first swallow, and then slowly, slowly look down at the bed next to him again.
The lump was still curled against him, warm in the circle of his arm. It twitched again, just once, deliberately.
A little rattling noise tore out of Kim’s throat even as he was flinging himself up, flailing his arm away and back out of the bed and up onto his feet. He was barely aware of Bibi staring at him as he stared at the bed, the unmistakable lump in it, where it had now gone just as weirdly still as it hadn’t been before.
For a few seconds neither of them said anything. There was no sound at all.
Kim mustered what felt like everything in him, lunged forward, and yanked the blankets away.
The bed was empty. There was absolutely nothing there: not even a hint of anything, not a divot on the pillow, not the impression of a body. There was a blank, rumpled sheet, with only evidence of where Kim had been laying on his side, and the misaligned tumble of the pillows, and nothing else. No sign there had ever been.
Except he had seen it. Felt it, the unquestionable weight and solidity of it, in his arms. He had seen that hair, poking out the top of the covers. Seen it. Just the edge of its dark fuzz, but totally unmistakable: the exact shape of Bibi’s hair. Or maybe…
Or maybe —
“Daddy?” Bibi said again then, more urgently, and everything else fell away when he heard it go high and wobbling. He looked up to see that she was starting to sniffle and well up with tears. She still didn’t have the words to put together the pieces of What’s wrong? Did something happen? What are you doing? in the midst of a situation this baffling, and with none of that at hand she just said it again, even louder: “Daddy?”
“Yeah, baby,” Kim said, in a high hard rush, and then he was stumbling around the end of the bed to her to land on his knees and hug her, hug her tight, her hair soft on his face and her iguana bapping lightly against his thigh. “Yeah, I’m here. I’m here. Everything’s okay, it’s nothing. It’s okay. Everything’s fine.”
She sniffled into his shoulder a while, him stroking her back and murmuring soothingly in her ear, kissing her head, and only then would let herself be picked up and carried to the bed with him. There was nothing there now, without question, with only the questions about what might have been there before, and it took only a second of pulling himself together to be willing to lie down there with her, to let her cling around his neck and snuffle and breathe. And then when he was sure she’d fallen solidly asleep, he eased away and out of bed and turned on the lights, went all around the house turning on the lights, looking everywhere. There was nothing, of course. Nothing at all.
Except that was when, on his way back up from checking the downstairs, he first noticed the footprints: faint, but dark-colored impressions of smallish bare feet, tracing an arc up to impossible heights on the wall along the stairs and then disappearing at the top. Easy to miss in daylight, and impossible not to keep seeing once you’d seen them once. Whether they’d been there the previous day or not, he couldn’t say; and he found he honestly had no desire to know at all.
He stayed awake again until dawn.
“Oh my god, this is so fucking dumb,” Kim muttered into the palm of his hand, and then scrubbed it over his face. Fortunately it was quiet enough that Bibi, who was deeply engaged in sing-songing garbled dialogue between her My Little Ponys over on the living room floor, didn’t even look up.
He’d had both a morning and early afternoon job today, so Bibi had just gone to daycare from as soon as they opened until four; better just to let the Karagiannis keep her day structured and get her fed at lunch than to try to wrangle her home for it himself. Now Kim was at his computer again while she made a gradual disaster of every room downstairs playing by herself, at least until she decided he needed to join her. And for some godforsaken reason, Kim was staring down a Google search box that now honest-to-god had the words “ghost hunters philadelphia” typed into it.
That wasn’t what you actually called it, though, was it? That was what they called it on shitty TV shows, but not in real life, if you could honestly really expect to find anything like that in real life. He chewed on his thumb for a second, and then frowned and backspaced the “ghost hunters” part away, tapped in “paranormal experts” instead. Probably not much better, but… hell. He sighed and clicked the search button.
The first links that came up did nothing to encourage him. Pages of Philly ghost lore that just had a statement across the top that they weren’t what he was looking for (if he admitted to himself he was looking for anything), a Facebook group for trading real-life encounter stories (pass), a news article about a local paranormal investigation team mostly made up of cops (hard pass), ads for ghost tours, and a defunct amateur student group at Drexel. He scrolled down, and even clicked to the second page of results, even though in the back of his head he was already giving up on this actually extraordinarily dumb idea and thinking about whether he could get Bibi doing a clean-up game with her toys while he started to make dinner.
And then one result caught his eye just because it was so different from the other ones — not even immediately identifiable as relevant, on a glance. The site link above the title read
www.yelp.com › search › find_loc=Philadelphia,+PA, and the title itself just said “Saleem Jefferson, Paranormal Investigator.” The last bit almost got completely lost to your eyes as you scrolled through, scrunched at the end before it trailed off into a truncated ellipse.
Kim blinked at it, and then snorted after a minute. Then he clicked on it, because why not? What kind of Yelp reviews did a paranormal investigator get?
5 stars from one review, it turned out. More amused than ever, Kim clicked through to the reviews page and scrolled down to the lone paragraph contributed that past June, by Wanda B., which other users appeared to have found neither Useful nor Funny nor Cool.
I asked Saleem to come and investigate my house to see if I had a haunting in May of this year and he did an excellent job. He looked all around the rooms and the basement and attic with all kinds of instruments and he was very thoughtful to tell me about what each type of thing was for. I am eighty-three years old now so I can not climb the stairs to my attic or down to my basement myself so he was also good enough to straighten up a bit while he was there. Even though he told me that the noises that I had heard came out of my boiler which is a bit old like me, and it was not a ghost at all, he was kind and he treated it serious when he thought that I might have a ghost. Saleem is a polite young man with lots of intelligence and he is also a real professional about his job. I would recommend him to anyone who thinks that they might have a haunt in their house because he will find out the truth. Five Stars. Also, Saleem says that I should also say that I am his proud great-auntie because that might be a “conflict of interest.” Sincerely, Mrs. Wanda Brown.
By the time he finished reading, Kim had his hand sealed over what he could feel on his lips was a growing, huge grin. Honestly, he would bet cash money Saleem had gotten pressed into more than “a bit” of tidying up in the basement and attic; between the lines, the lady sounded like a real firecracker.
There was a website linked from the review page, which turned out to be a surprisingly sophisticated and immaculate piece of WordPress for what seemed to be the circumstances, although it contained exactly two pieces of information: an email contact form and the fact that Saleem Jefferson served the greater Philadelphia area. Not even a photo. Kim looked at the site for much longer than was really necessary, and then took a deep breath, shook his head, clicked back to the form, and started to type into it. Just for sheer entertainment value alone, the least he figured he owed this guy was a chance to wave a Geiger counter or something at his house, talk seriously about ectoplasm, and collect a couple of bucks.
Well, he couldn’t say he hadn’t known this was going to be a bust. He got up and stretched out his sore back, went to collect his kid from her trail of wreckage, and basically forgot all about it.
At least, until he woke up foggy and needing to piss at some dark hour after midnight that night, and stumbled into the bathroom without even bothering to turn on anything more than the little plug-in night-light. And then as he was washing his hands at the further sink, the one without the stool at it, he happened to glance at his dim-lit shape puffy-eyed in the mirror, and saw in the shadows behind its shoulder a dark and silhouetted woman, leaning forward as close as she could and shaping soundless whispers faster than anyone could possibly speak, with a mouth that was a few inches too wide for her face.
He sprayed a fan of water off his hands across the mirrors and sinks as he yanked and thrashed around, and stumbled into slamming his kidneys against the counter hard enough to punch all the air out of him. But of course there was no one behind him. No one in the mirror, either, when he looked. Nothing but shadows.
And two lighter, smaller footprints behind his own in the memory foam bathmat, when he turned on the light. Right behind where he’d been standing, fading with every second.
With Bibi apparently still asleep in her room this time, Kim turned on the lights in the bedroom too, and sat up on his phone in bed trying to calm down the buzzing jangle of his nerves somehow. And when he happened to check his email, just for something to do, he found that he’d missed a message earlier: it was timestamped around 10:30, after when he would have tried to make himself quit noodling around after putting Bibi to bed, and actually read a book for a while and then sleep.
The sender was “Saleem Jefferson” at a blandly professional gmail address, just an S for his little round user icon, and the subject line was “Thank you for your message.” The preview was just the text of his own filling-out of the form from the website, and he clicked through mostly expecting just a boilerplate acknowledgement.
Thank you very much for contacting me. It’s a big step to reach out to somebody when you’re in a situation that you would have thought was impossible, so I appreciate you for that. It sounds like what’s been going on is really worrying you, and I want to help.
If you’re ok with it, absolutely, it’d be my pleasure to visit your home and do a preliminary investigation. Or if you’d be more comfortable, we could meet somewhere in public first and talk some more about your experiences. I just want to be able to help you out with what’s happening if at all I can. In answer to your question, my rates are negotiable and I would only charge at all if it really looks like it’s going to be a paranormal situation. We can talk that out and I’m flexible with what you need.
Please let me know when would be a good time for you to meet, and take care in the meantime.
In the state Kim was in right now, the mix of eager interest and equally eager kindness that read out of every word of the message was both helplessly charming, and actually a little much to handle. He backed out of the email and just sat for a second, breathing, looking around the bedroom that he was still trying to get himself to trust again in the lamp-light, now that he was fully awake and there was nothing sinister there to see. Honestly, he could let the email wait until morning. It’d be weird to answer in the middle of the night, and he didn’t need to be thinking about any of it right now. He’d write back in the morning, pull himself together a little before trying to tell this poor guy he didn’t really believe in any of this, that he was sure there was some reasonable way to explain it.
Then five minutes later, he opened the email again, and started tapping out his reply.
The next day was Friday, which Kim had off, just to play with Bibi and do some meal prep for the weekend: last-minute moving jobs had a way of popping up when the work-week was done. The doorbell rang a few minutes before 5:30, which had been Saleem’s sheepish counteroffer when Kim had suggested he come by at 3. Early dinner worked well with Bibi’s rhythm, though, and Kim went to the door with rolled-up sleeves and a few last shakes of sudsy water from the dishes off his hands.
He opened it to a tall, slim, handsome Black man in maybe his late twenties, with a broad dazzling smile already shining out of his dark skin. He was dressed on the smarter side of business casual, in shirtsleeves and fitted slacks and an only slightly whimsical tie under his leather bomber jacket, though also with sneakers at the bottom of it all, and a bulging messenger bag on his hip. His hair was a close-cropped shadow over his skull, his broad smooth cheekbones highlighted by a beard and mustache that were no longer than his hair. He nodded to Kim, all nervous excitement.
“Hi, good afternoon,” he said, practically on a rush. “My name’s Saleem Jefferson, I’m looking for Kim Mendez-Andersen?”
“You found him,” Kim said, sticking out his damp hand and smiling back; how could you not? “Hi, Saleem. Thanks for coming by.”
Saleem shook his hand almost at once, and managed to do a pretty great job of pretending that he wasn’t completely thrown off his balance, although not good enough to actually hide it. “Oh, uh — hi! Hey, good to meet you. Face to a name, and everything.”
Kim took pity after only a second more, finishing the handshake with a knowing smile even as he stepped back to allow Saleem in. “But you were expecting a woman, ’cause my name’s Kim.” Saleem hesitated in mid-step inside, eyes widening slightly in a caught way, and Kim laughed. “No worries. I get that a lot.”
Saleem hesitated a second later, and then also laughed, sheepish again already. “Probably gets old,” he said, with an apologetic tone that Kim waved off, scoffing. “The, uh, hyphenated name, too, though, I just figured… well, you know what they say about assuming, though.”
“No asses here, I promise,” Kim said, grinning a little in spite of himself. “My wife and I both hyphenated when we got married. Seemed fair.” Before Saleem could feel like he had to say anything to that, Kim turned and called around the corner into the living room: “Beeb! Come in and say hi, we’ve got company.”
Little legs came stampeding toward them almost immediately — and then as soon as Bibi appeared in the opening by the stairwell and took in the scene, she stopped, and pressed up against the wall with a couple fingers in her mouth. Saleem smiled and waved to her, invitingly, but she just made a break for Kim, to press beside and behind his leg. Kim couldn’t help laughing, reaching down to squeeze a fond hand on her little shoulder.
“Oh, you’re shy now? This is big news to me.” He crouched down next to her, letting her grab onto his arm a little bit instead. “This is Saleem, babe. He’s gonna help Daddy… uh, check out some stuff around the house, okay?” Bibi just kept staring a hole in Saleem for now, though, so Kim looked back up at Saleem, with a big smile to try to keep it from feeling weird to him. “This is my daughter Bibi. Can you tell Saleem how old you are, sweetheart?”
Bibi appeared to consider this for a second, and then meticulously counted out one, two, and three fingers, and stuck them up and out toward Saleem. Saleem, to his credit, looked dutifully impressed.
“You’re three, huh? That’s pretty cool. And you got counting on lock.” The sheer warmth of his smile actually seemed to be starting to get Bibi smiling back, Kim was pleased to see, and he straightened back up even as Saleem spoke again. “Well, it is very nice to meet you, Bibi.” He hesitated a moment there, with a bit of a frown, and glanced at Kim. “Uh, like… the gun?”
That took Kim a second of frowning himself, and then his brow cleared and he laughed, harder than necessary. “Oh, no! No, no, uh, sorry. It’s short for Bienvenida. I forgot that’s not obvious.”
Saleem grinned back, shaking his head. “Nah, no big. Just wondering.” His eyes dropped again, addressing Bibi directly again. “That’s a really pretty name.”
Beneath her round, solemn eyes, Bibi gave him another shy smile.
Kim offered decaf and Saleem accepted, and the coffeemaker burbled to itself around the corner in the kitchen while they settled down in the living room to talk. It took a lot of picking their careful way around Bibi’s toys and the cushions that had gotten tossed on the floor to get to the couches, but Saleem seemed understanding. Bibi started out hefted up onto the couch beside Kim, to snuggle under his arm, and then quickly got bored and less shy and wriggled away to resume playing with whatever she could find. Saleem grinned after her, clearly already fond and amused, and Kim’s already good feeling about him nocked up a little higher.
“She’s a real cutie,” he said, glancing back at Kim with the smile still on his face. “I got a couple of nieces just a little bit younger. Kind of reminds me of them.” Kim smiled back, nodding.
“It’s a lot, sometimes. But she’s a good kid.”
“Is your wife out tonight?” Saleem asked next, though, and that gave Kim a sudden weird jolt — a vertigo second of wondering if they were dispensing with the small talk and talking about the haunting or whatever it was already. It took him a second or two to re-orient himself, and understand what Saleem must have meant, and then he was breathing an attempted little laugh while he shook his head.
“No, uh… sorry, I guess I didn’t say. My wife passed away. About three years ago.”
Saleem’s eyes widened again, and much worse than before. “Oh… Jesus, I’m so sorry, I didn’t even think — “
“It’s fine,” Kim said, trying to cut him off, smiling with a grimace in the middle of it. “I mean, it’s not — fine, but it’s not your fault.” Saleem didn’t look very comforted, his eyes still wide and worried, and Kim looked away from them. “So, yeah, it’s just gonna be the three of us. …Uh, though Bibi did see one of the same things I did, if that helps. I mean, I know she’s three, but I asked her the next morning and she said the same stuff I remembered.”
“That does help, actually,” Saleem said, after a brief hesitation where he might have been wondering whether to just follow the obvious change of subject or not. “Do you want to talk about what you saw?”
And Kim found himself surprised and, honestly, touched by the sincere tone he asked that with: like even though that was supposed to be the main point of why he’d come by, Kim could say no if he wanted, until he was ready to say yes. Saleem was good to wait if he needed it. And maybe, if he kept being honest with himself, that was what finally made up his mind on something he still hadn’t a hundred percent decided yet.
“I’ll get the coffee first,” he said, pushing his way to the edge of the couch to stand up. “But yeah. Let’s get to it.”
Saleem listened attentively to his halting attempts to describe everything, nodding in the right places, not interrupting, occasionally asking a clarifying question only when he paused. As Kim went along, though, Saleem seemed increasingly to be trying to keep his expression neutral against whatever wanted to start happening there, which Kim wasn’t sure how to interpret. Was he hiding a new level of excitement? Disbelief? Maybe even fear, maybe this wasn’t what he bargained for after all?
When Kim finished and they’d mostly finished their coffee, though, at Saleem’s request Kim started taking him around the house, just bringing Bibi along on his hip. They went to the stairs, looking up at the wall, and the faint impressions of footprints that still lingered at the highest point, where even in his panicky attempts to get rid of them Kim hadn’t been able to reach. They went up to the second floor, to Kim’s bedroom, where he had object examples to fill in details of the stories: the shape in the bed, the shape in the mirror.
“What’s up there?” Saleem asked with a little frown when they came back out again, gesturing up the second flight of stairs to the stub of hallway, and the door visible at its end. Kim boosted Bibi up a little bit in his tiring arms, ignoring her poking at his ear.
“Just another room. My wife used to use it as her office when she wasn’t on campus — she was a professor at Temple. I don’t really go up there much these days.” He glanced at Saleem, whose eyes were still fixed up the stairs. “How come?”
Saleem twisted back toward the wall above the lower staircase, tracing the top arc of the line with his pointing finger. “Looks like that’s where the apparition was running toward, doesn’t it?”
And Kim found himself staring, even after Saleem had dropped his arm again. That had honest-to-god never occurred to him.
They climbed up to the house’s half of a third floor, where the shape of the roof steeped on a sharp angle down to the outside-facing wall of the office, making a good trap for bonking your head as you walked over there. The unfinished space of the attic hid behind the interior wall, meanwhile, accessible by a trap door in the second-floor hallway ceiling. Kim kept the office door closed just in case Bibi managed to give him the slip long enough to clamber up there someday, it had never been toddler-proofed as a space, and as they all stepped up to the short length of floor at the top of the stairs and came to that blank plane of wood, he found himself swallowing a little, hesitating a little. Was there something to find in there? Was there something they were about to see?
But when he mustered himself to open the door, there was nothing. Just the office, exactly as he’d left it: the huge vividly-colored knotted rug over the wood floor, the tidy desk and chair and lamp and file cabinets up against the interior wall, the bookcases along the wall to its left, and the vintage turntable setup on the table under the low-sloping roof across from it. The sight of it and the speakers underneath the table gave Kim the biggest half-expected pang in his chest, when his eyes fell across them. On how many afternoons had those speakers let down whispered strains of the old bachata records Alma had been listening to as she graded papers, while he’d scrubbed the hall bathroom or moved around the bedroom timing out choreography, each of them comfortable and connected even as they kept to their own spaces for a while? There had even been a few scattered days in the last year when Alma had been feeling well enough to work up there while he’d taken care of Bibi, hearing those snatches of music as he’d changed her diaper or fed her Alma’s breast-milk from a bottle, a tiny perfect little baby who’d turned into this awesome kid so fast it was like some weird optical illusion. Those were hard memories to face, and even harder to swallow back down into his stomach and step away from.
Saleem looked around a minute while Kim hung back with Bibi, hmming to himself, and then glanced at Kim as he touched the bulky bag he’d brought along. “Is it okay if I do a few tests in here?” he asked, with a mix of professional courtesy and personal understanding that made Kim laugh awkwardly, just for a way to twist away from it.
“I… sure. That’s the idea, right? Knock yourself out.” Saleem smiled and hefted the bag off, opening it to rummage through, and Kim just kept talking in spite of himself. “So, uh, you been doing this long? Paranormal investigating, this kind of thing?”
That made Saleem hesitate a second, looking up from the sort of remote-control-looking object he had gotten out in his hand, and then smiling sheepishly. “Oh. Um, not too long, nah. I just started out last year, and it’s been kind of, like, slow going. Partly ’cause, I guess you figured from the time I asked to meet, but I’m still doing a day job. I actually work at an IT call center in Center City.”
It was Kim’s turn to be startled, and then wince. “Aw, geez. Sorry for dragging you all the way out to Germantown on a Friday night.” Saleem laughed, though, and shook his head.
“No, no, no worries! Honestly, I was real ready to get started. Like I said… it’s been slow going.”
Kim was just starting to say something back to that, though, when he was interrupted by a hissed stage whisper of, “Daddy? Daddy? Daddy!”
He craned back and around to look at Bibi on his hip, though her eyes were still fixed on Saleem even as her little fists were clenched up in his shirt and tugging. His distraction at least gave Saleem a minute to get the device started, with a little rising squeal of noise. “Yeah, sweetheart? What’s up?”
“What he doing?” she asked, with all the urgency of a layperson trapped in a cage with a lion calling out to the trainer through the bars. “What he doing, Daddy?”
Kim smiled at her, jostling her a little, and then started letting her down to the floor with a faint groan of effort. He flattered himself he was pretty damn good at carrying heavy stuff, but over too long a time she was starting to be a bit much for even him. “You wanna go ask him?”
She goggled up at him a second, clearly thunderstruck, but then just crept over to where Saleem was already crouching down, smiling at her. “What you doing?” she asked him this time, a bit more diffidently. Saleem’s smile grew, and he tilted the device her way, so she could see.
“It’s called an EMF detector. Here, take a look. It measures energy, and when there’s more energy than normal around, it goes beep-beep-beep-beep-beep!” Bibi laughed with obvious delight at his high-pitched impression of the device, and that seemed to warm her up a little bit, get her less convinced that this whole situation was not to be trusted.
“Meff decker,” she said, confidently, prodding it with a finger, and Saleem couldn’t stifle a laugh of his own. A minute later he was standing at least partway up again, and taking her little hand like he’d been doing it all his life, to lead her around with him as he waved the thing.
They proceeded that way all around the office, with a couple different tools Kim barely caught the names of, and then did much the same thing back down on the second floor, after Kim had carried Bibi down. If he had to guess, he’d have said Saleem seemed a little dissatisfied with what he was finding, but all the same he’d soon pulled a battered notebook out of his bag too and started noting things down in it, muttering to himself.
Then at Saleem’s request, they climbed back up to the office, and Saleem took out a hand-held digital voice recorder, giving an explanation of EVP that was so charmingly excited it only really half made sense. Kim had to admit this part was a little creepier, though, once Saleem got started: hushing Bibi carefully and keeping quiet himself, while Saleem asked the empty air if there was anybody here, if they could tell their names or who they’d been, what they were looking for in this house. The only sound in the silences in between was all of their breath; there was never any answer, at least that Kim could hear, even the few times that Saleem experimentally ran the recorder back and listened. In the end, they made it all the way back to the first floor without incident that Kim could discern.
“Honestly, I’m really not getting anything, though there’s a lot of reasons why that could be,” Saleem said, when he’d finally taken enough readings to start stowing his instruments again. Kim was faintly amused to note the reassuring tone he was quick to use — taking pains to put the lack of anything in context, to keep his client from losing heart. “You said all this stuff happened in the middle of the night, right? Might be whatever it is has a particular time it likes to come out, and it’s good at hiding the rest of the time. I also don’t see anything around the house that could explain the things you saw, so there’s that.”
Anything like an old boiler, Kim guessed, trying not to smile, and nodded. “Well, that’s something, I guess. Sorry to waste your trip, though.”
“Hey, no, not at all.” Saleem held up his hands, placatingly. “It really helps just getting a sense of what’s going on and how it’s all laid out. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to set your mind at ease right now.” Kim waved that off, and Saleem glanced back up at the stairs to the second floor, apparently considering. “Here’s what I’m thinking, though. I’m gonna look over my notes, run some numbers, and see if there were maybe some patterns in the readings after all that I just couldn’t see while I was here. Go over the EVP recordings more carefully, too, see what comes up once I run it through some processing.” Kim nodded, and Saleem thought for another minute. “I’ll do some research, too — see if I can find some history of the neighborhood, anything that might have happened around here, stuff like that. But can you do something too?”
Kim tilted his head. “Sure. What do you need?”
“Do you have a way you could set up a camera, or even an audio recorder, maybe in your bedroom and in the hallway?” Saleem asked. “I mean, not like invading your privacy or anything, but at night when you’re going to sleep, is there any way you could record what’s going on in both of those spots?”
He tried to hold it back, he really did, but there was no way Kim could resist a broad grin at that. “We gonna Paranormal Activity this thing?” he asked, and Saleem was already rolling his head back and groaning with loud mock outrage before he was finished saying it.
“Man, I knew you were going to go there! Recording’s a great diagnostic tool, but every time you bring it up now, everybody just goes — “
“‘Paranormal Activity,'” Kim finished with him, and they both busted out laughing. It was enough to make Bibi run back over from where she’d gone back to messing around in the living room, to peer through the doorway critically at them.
Once Kim got a hold of himself, his breath still hitching a little, he gave it some thought. “Anyway, yeah, I think I could pull that off,” he said, finally. “I usually leave my laptop downstairs, but I could put it up on the nightstand, leave the door open, run the webcam all night. That’d at least get part of the room and a little of the hallway, and there’s actually some decent light from the skylight at night. Unless that’d take up just, like, an insane amount of memory?”
“Nah, not if you compress it right. I’ll send you some specs.” Saleem nodded, looking avid and excited all over again. “And we can meet up again in a few days, compare notes.”
“Sounds good, man.” Kim stuck out his hand again, and Saleem shook it, smiling at him with real warmth; and there was no question of how sincerely Kim returned it. It was obvious Saleem had done what he could do at this point, and in theory he was just a guy doing a job, like a plumber or a carpenter (even though that was a kind of funny thought in itself, for a number of reasons). All the same, though, Kim found himself liking him so much that he was actually a little reluctant to let Saleem go. It was enough to make him realize, maybe for the first time, just how long it’d been since he’d had a real conversation with another adult who wasn’t the Karagiannis or the guys from work.
But he let Saleem’s hand go, because that wasn’t anybody’s problem but his own, and Saleem was a good-looking young guy who had to have better things to do tonight than hang out at a single dad’s house looking for ghosts. Or spending the whole night on the train, for that matter.
At least for his part, Saleem didn’t seem impatient to get out of here either. He suggested exchanging numbers first, and after Kim rattled off his cell number Saleem texted him a ghost emoji and a brown hand waving to it, cracking him up even as he added the number to contacts. Kim let him out the door and they exchanged goodbyes, and then Bibi startled the hell out of both of them by flying in and insisting on hugging Saleem around the leg, which he bent down to answer the best he could with awkward care.
And then he was on his way, and Kim was locking up and turning back into the house and feeling kind of okay about it, actually. Before long it’d be time to get Bibi into pajamas and start up the slow gentle wrestling match of getting her down to sleep, and before much longer than that it’d be time to make his way to bed himself, but he felt like he could face that prospect all right, for the first time in days. Nothing had really changed — not yet, if it was even going to — but he felt better, all the same. There was something about just knowing you had somebody on your side.
Saleem did try to convince himself to wait until Saturday morning to go over the recordings. He really tried. “If you want to go pro, you need to treat it like a job,” he’d read in lofty posts on the forums from the couple of guys, rare as unicorns, who were actually making a living at this (and never mind that they were mostly making it from book deals, or the occasional web series decent enough to do well from monetization and Patreon). “Set your boundaries, keep a reasonable pace. Don’t break your back.” But it wasn’t going to break his back, he rationalized, and he absolutely couldn’t help himself, his brain was buzzing too much just from the thought of all this. It made him feel kind of like a jerk to be so jazzed when Kim, who seemed like a really nice guy, seemed so freaked out about it, but god damn, if even a third of what he’d talked about was real? Saleem had never even heard about shit like that, let alone seen it. It was the job of a lifetime. One uneventful hour and a half in the house couldn’t even start putting a damper on how he felt about it.
And if, okay, a little bit of his enthusiasm might be coming from the client’s being this legitimately gorgeous ripped Greek-god-ass-looking dude who seemed like an awesome dad to an adorable little kid, well… that wasn’t really anybody else’s business, he figured.
As it stood, he’d no sooner gotten in the door of his apartment, kicked out of his shoes at the door, and yanked off his tie on the way in, before he was setting up his personal laptop at the table, and cabling the digital recorder to it. He didn’t honestly expect the readings to yield much in the way of a pattern from mathematical analysis that he hadn’t been able to see from eyeballing the numbers, and the EVP was the exciting part anyway. Not that he’d ever actually heard anything on one, of course; Great-Aunt Wanda had been very patient about letting him do the recordings, but she’d also kept asking him questions and ruining them, and even if she hadn’t he doubted if the boiler would have been very chatty about its personal history.
He pulled all the recording files up in his audio software and took a minute just to look at the shape of the tracks, leaning in probably too close to the screen and zooming in way too tight and scrolling back and forth along the bar. At first glance, though, they all looked very disappointingly the same, and like you’d expect: the spikes at the beginning of him asking the question, and then a long flatline of the silence afterward. The closer in he zoomed, though, the more the flatline showed itself to have some little bitty peaks and valleys within it, too. Probably all just the three of them shifting their weight or rustling their clothes or breathing or something, in his experience, but it was worth checking on, right?
The files had loaded up in reverse order, and Saleem went through them that way, starting from the ones he’d recorded when they’d gotten back down to the first floor. He was pretty sure there was nothing to find in any of those, though, and confident of it once he’d had a listen on his good headphones, with the volume up as high as he dared. All of the tiny spikes he could see in the graph had corresponding very human activities to go with them: shuffles of movement, mostly, and in one case Bibi starting to whisper something to her dad and getting gently shushed, which made him smile a little. More of the same in the recordings in the second-floor hall and master bedroom, for that matter. In the latterone there was one slightly weird sound that he couldn’t immediately identify, after he asked if anybody was there: it sounded like a soft rush of air, like a little bit of escaping steam, or even a voice sighing. From what he remembered, he didn’t think any of the three of them had made a noise like that at that point, although he couldn’t have positively sworn to it. It wasn’t a word or anything, though, so in the end he reluctantly discounted it and moved on. Maybe just the heating, hell.
The baseline levels of noise looked a little higher in the silence parts of the three he’d recorded in the office upstairs, which didn’t surprise him much. It hadn’t been a still night out tonight, and on the top floor of a corner rowhouse, right under the roof, the wind was bound to be a factor. When he listened to the first one, though… sure, he could hear some wind on the recording, but he wasn’t sure that was all it was. Its rushes were intermittent and very faint, and didn’t really match what he was seeing on the graph. In fact, as he listened to it over and over again, frowning with his eyes unfocused on nothing ahead of him, he thought he was definitely hearing some sound he couldn’t place, something he really didn’t think he could remember hearing at the time. It was… weird. Low, ambient, and deep, kind of a droning hum just at the edge of hearing, and then sharpening very gradually into sort of a hiss at the end. And it took him a couple more listens to hear it, but there was something else weird, too: it wasn’t there when he was talking. It started right as soon as he finished asking “Is anybody there?” and lasted until the end of the track, but while his voice could actually be heard asking the question, there was no weird hum sound. Just the wind, at most.
Saleem stared at the screen a second, pinching his lower lip between his fingers, thinking. That deep droning sound to it. There was something about that.
He sped up the playback, and ran the file back again. First his voice, hustling through the words amusingly now, and then that long low sound again, now a little less long and a little less low. And there was… a shape emerging, wasn’t there? It was starting to sound like something at the higher speed, he was almost sure of it. Not quite a drone now, now more of just a very drawn-out, but discrete sound.
So he doubled the speed again. His voice was now a chipmunky skitter, and then — he felt his eyes go very big. He actually sat back a little from the computer. For a second he almost couldn’t convince himself it was real, that he was actually listening to the right file and not random noise from one of his browser tabs going off or something.
It was still too long and slow, the sound drawn-out and artificially deep. But it was now also, absolutely unmistakably, the sound of a human voice saying Yes.
Saleem sat very still for a second after the sound file had finished playing, staring at the screen. His pulse in his neck felt very heavy, and somehow he didn’t feel like he was blinking enough. Air was a little hard to get into his lungs.
Then, working automatically from what seemed like a tremendous distance away, he increased the speed again. And played. And heard it.
The file now took almost no time to play at all, even though he’d recorded for a pretty substantial amount of time, like always. His voice was nothing more than a high-pitched little blip at the beginning. And then at once, at almost a perfectly normal speed and pitch, a completely clear, distinct, and calm woman’s voice said, “Yes.”
He stared at the file, and played it again. “Yes.” The last sibillant was almost clipped off by the end of the file, that was how long it took the voice to say it in real time.
Is anybody there?
Well. Uh. You could not ask for a much more clear-cut answer than that, could you?
His hands actually a little shaky now, Saleem went on to the second file, the one where he’d asked “Can you tell me your name, or who you were?” After his own voice stopped, he recognized the same nearly-inaudible humming sound at once, and his pulse spiked again, his eyes shutting while he swallowed a second. The sound of it was a little different on this one, though, now that he was listening for it: a little tighter at the beginning, rounder and hollower by the end. He took a second to steady himself, and upped the speed by the same factor he’d wound up with on the first file.
“No,” the same woman’s voice said, just as clear and definite and calmly conversational.
Third file, then. The one where he’d asked “What are you looking for in this house?”
Even listening to this one unprocessed sent a little bit of gooseflesh up the back of his neck, once he heard it. If he’d started with this file, he would have realized immediately that there was a sound running through that he hadn’t heard at the time: it was a definitively creepy one, less of a drone this time than a rushing overlap of long sounds, hisses and rushes of sound colliding into each other and running together, almost like water moving or shifting static. If the static had something to it that just barely, almost sounded like it could be a voice.
He sped it up again. And listened.
It was the same voice – but multiple voices, too. The same voice multiple times at once, saying different things. And the tone was no longer calm and conversational: it was faster, urgent, maybe greedy. Hungry.
Or maybe he just thought that because —
“Nothing,” one of the voice said when he could tease it out from the rest of the chaos, barely more than a mutter. That one was almost still calm. “Go away,” another one spat, faster and more intensely, but it didn’t exactly sound angry. Amused? Predatory? Both? “It’s mine,” another said, its hiss overlapping over the top of the others. And then, low and maybe even whispered, so buried under the overlap that it was almost inaudible, but there enough for him to be pretty confident of it when he listened close enough: “To eat them.”
To eat them.
Okay. All right. So this was… going to be like the closest thing somebody like him had to a bar exam, but that wasn’t what mattered; what mattered was the living man and little girl he’d left behind in that house. It was after nine now, the kid had to be asleep, and calling right now would be shitty, but even if he’d meant to take a little while to do some research before getting in touch again and not seem like a crazy overeager dork about it, this kind of shit definitely overrode needing to look cool. He was going to call Kim first thing in the morning, and hopefully get back in the house before the weekend was over.
Which meant now he just had to figure out how to somehow get to sleep tonight.
Saleem didn’t end up doing great with that task, but as it turned out, calling Kim first thing in the morning turned out to be a non-issue. He’d barely stumbled out of bed and was still flossing bleary-eyed into the mirror when his phone buzzed on the countertop next to him, “Kim M.-A.” showing on the screen. Saleem spat and rinsed in a hurry and snatched it up immediately, answering before the second ring was even done.
“Hey, morning,” he said, trying for as bright and cheery and reassuring as he could get himself to sound. He must have fallen at least a little short, though, because Kim hesitated on the other end of the line with only a bit of a breath noise, and then exhaled a laugh that made a tinny sound into the phone.
“Hey… Jesus, I just realized how early it is. Totally forgot. I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“Nah, not at all. I was up.” Barely, but no need to tip his hand on that. “Bibi’s off at the crack of dawn, huh?”
Kim laughed a little again, and there was more warmth in it than sheepishness this time, which was nice. “If I’m lucky she waits that long.” He paused another moment, and then said, more haltingly, “I just — sorry, I know it’s a Saturday and we just talked last night, I don’t mean to be hassling you or anything, but…”
“No, it’s okay.” Saleem turned so he could lean back on the edge of the sink, his eyes unfocused with all his attention on Kim’s voice. “I was actually going to call you this morning anyway, which I was hoping wouldn’t seem like hassling you.”
“So you found something?” Kim asked, after a beat of pause. Saleem nodded reflexively before correcting and saying a thing Kim could actually hear.
“Yeah. Uh. Something came up on the EVP I think we should talk about.” He let that sit a second, while he reviewed the facts and implications of the situation, and then he spoke again, more quietly. “And I’m guessing you found something too.”
Another laugh on a heavy breath out. “Yeah. Uh… yeah, safe to say.” There was a little sound, maybe like someone swallowing. “Look, uh… not to mess up your weekend, but any chance we could get together today? I think I’m gonna take Beeb to daycare, and they don’t take kids on Sunday, they’ve got Mass.”
There was a lot going on under the surface of that: wanting Bibi somewhere else even if they were going to meet at the house, wanting to meet again as soon as possible so that even Monday might be too late. Not that Saleem didn’t agree with that last, from his point of view.
“Yeah, that’s fine, today’s okay with me,” he said, and although Kim didn’t make a sound he could hear, he could almost feel relief pouring down the line. It just set his resolve more than anything. “Want me to come back by the house?”
The sound Kim made wasn’t quite a laugh this time. “Yeah, I think you better.”
He ended up back at the house in late morning, his sense of urgency pushing him to drive instead of take the train; given that he lived in the western suburbs and could pretty much skirt most of the city proper getting up to the northwest, it was actually way more convenient for a non-workday, too. It was a grey, bitter day, windy and desert-dry, and though he managed to find parking close by on the street, he was still relieved when Kim opened the door for him.
The house was weirdly quiet and serene with Bibi absent from it since a few hours, and they sat at the dining room table this time, with both of their laptops placed in front of neighboring chairs. A part of Saleem sort of hesitated to play Kim the audio files in spite of himself, and to his slight chagrin he was burning with curiosity by now too, so he agreed a little too readily when Kim offered to go first. He opened up the camera app on his computer, and pulled up a recording from its roll: with a running time of 7:48:51, it had to be the overnight monitoring.
Kim muttered “Just a sec,” and scrolled around the bar for a while, moving it to a little before two-thirds of the way through the recorded time. All the frames he was skimming past seemed to be a static view of the doorway from the master bedroom to the hall, from around hip-height, including one edge of the dresser by the door and the corner of the end of the bed The whole scene was dimly lit and heavily artifacted, grainy from the darkness. Kim kept scrolling, though — and after a second or two, a dark looming shape in the doorway suddenly blipped into view in one frame, actually making Saleem jump. From what he could see, though, Kim only set his jaw, and scrolled a bit earlier much more carefully, a few seconds at a time, until the frame was the empty shot again.
He hit play, and they watched the empty, still edge of the bedroom for a little while. The sound was low-quality, heavily compressed — one of Saleem’s space-saving tips he’d texted to Kim from the train — but he could faintly hear the regular, heavy rhythm of what must have been Kim’s sleeping breath. It was sort of a pleasant, soothing sound, honestly, although that was edging into some inappropriate thought territory and Saleem pushed it aside.
And then it was totally gone from his mind, because the image on the screen started to change. First it was just a dim, far-off suggestion of movement in the darkness beyond the bedroom door — mostly just a shift in the artifacting, one that was stronger than the little twitches here and there that had previously been the only sign this was actually a recording, and not just a still. Then the dark spot loomed forward, and coalesced into a greater darkness laid over the darkness of the hall, a concentration of shadow like a spot of ink at the center of the doorway. It became larger, moved closer, from there by gradual degrees, in a way that was just a little too obviously not at all the way a person would walk into the room, both too quick and too stiffly jerky. In the background, the sound of the steady rise and fall of Kim’s breath never faltered.
As the shadow came inside the doorway, a little more detail became possible to see; the laptop screen was throwing a glow over the things in its view, and the figure was now one of them. The shape of what might have been a soft, wild corona of hair was just visible around its head, fuzzing its edges. Hands dangled at its sides, but they moved occasionally, in quick startling jerks that didn’t seem to have any purpose. Touches of light glinted off the suggestion of eyes in its face, and below them, more disturbingly, also the shape of what seemed like teeth. The shape drifted closer — specifically closer to the view, to the camera. Not coming toward the bed, but diverting toward the laptop once inside the door.
Closer. And closer. The sense of the figure was quickly lost in the too-close blur of what might have been fabric and skin, at the middle of its shape. And then a shift: quick movement, the whole view of the camera blurring out briefly.
It was bending down.
A face filled the whole screen so suddenly that Saleem couldn’t help recoiling. It was too close to see all of or see well, too close even for the camera to handle at first; it fuzzed out again for a few seconds, before resolving itself back into more detail than he really would have wanted. The round, hugely over-wide whiteness of eyes staring into the webcam lens, around deep black cores of iris and pupil. A bright, white knife-blade of an open grinning smile below, too wide by several degrees to be in proportion with the eyes, the face. All other details were only suggestive smudges of greater or lesser dark on dark skin, lost to the vividity of those two parts. The eyes, the smile.
It stayed right there for a moment, unblinking, unmoving. Staring into the camera, smiling.
And then it was gone. Not walking away, not moving out of frame — it was just there one second, and then the next, it wasn’t. The time marker kept moving smoothly across the bottom of the video file, but the image jumped as suddenly as though frames had been skipped: from the huge smiling face blotting out the whole screen, to the same old view of the side of the bedroom and doorway and hallway again. Nothing in the darkness. Nothing anywhere. Only the sound of Kim’s breathing: soft, regular, and undisturbed, the whole time. Never waking once.
They both sat still and looked at that for a moment, as the artifacting on the image went back to just shifting very slightly as the time rolled forward. And then Kim reached out again, very deliberately, and clicked pause.
“That’s all I saw on there,” he said, quietly, into the silence that followed. “As far as I knew, nothing happened last night, ’til I scrolled through.”
“Jesus,” Saleem said, which he realized a second too late wasn’t exactly what you’d call a professional evaluation. He did his best to collect himself, scrubbing one palm over his mouth. “Well, uh. I’m even more glad you called, let’s say that.”
Kim smiled at him wanly, sidelong, and then after another second turned himself more toward Saleem’s laptop screen. It also put him closer to where Saleem sat, and the mingled faint smell of clean sweat and soap and general really butch guy didn’t do much to help with feeling like a cool collected professional, if in a very different way. “So what did you get, then?”
There was no putting it off anymore, for certain, and Saleem didn’t try. He got his headphones out of his bag and handed them off to Kim, and prompted Kim to check the laptop volume himself so it was good and loud but not going to hurt him or anything. Kim did it agreeably, and with a slight amused smile that Saleem guessed he probably deserved. He pulled up the files and played them back, one at a time: first at regular speed, so Kim could hear again what he’d said, and then at the much higher speed where the other voice could be heard. Kim listened to all of them, both ways, without moving or speaking. His expression barely changed at all.
When Saleem had played the last one and sat back, looking hesitatingly at Kim’s face, Kim finally shut his eyes a minute, and took a long, slow breath. Then he lifted the headphones off, and set them carefully down on the table next to the laptop, his eyes only fixed on them for a little while. Processing.
“‘To eat him,’ right?” he said, at last. “The last quiet one in there, that’s what it’s saying, right?”
Saleem had thought he was as ready to talk about it as he’d ever be, but that threw him enough he had to pause for another second or two. “‘To eat them,’ I thought,” he said, as neutrally as he could, looking carefully at Kim’s eyes. Kim didn’t look back for a few seconds more, though, just looking unfocused at the headphones where they rested on the table. Finally he made a little hmm noise, and glanced over at Saleem.
“Hard to say,” he said, with a nod. “I guess it doesn’t matter much, though.” He didn’t seem to be able to put together words for a moment, and then he said, with a cracking sort of difficulty: “It’s… I know the voice. It’s harder to hear on that one, but mainly from the first two, it’s, uh… It sounds like my wife. It sounds like Alma.”
“She had preeclampsia, probably starting in the second trimester,” Kim said quietly, as they sat on the living room couches a while later. He was leaning forward with elbows on his knees and his fingers interlaced between them, and he wasn’t looking at Saleem, barely even seemed to be seeing this room at all. “It’s hard to say because it took a while to catch it. She was having really bad headaches, and feeling sick a lot of the time, but that was all kinda normal by then, and her OB/GYN just said to keep an eye on it but it was probably nothing, until it definitely wasn’t nothing.” He took a steady, measured breath, in and out. “It was bad enough and she was close enough by that point they had to induce labor, and it was rough, but… that was supposed to fix it, right? Eventually. But… the more time went by and follow-up visits she had, it was obvious it’d fucked her up pretty bad. She was just really sick most of the time, that first year. Mostly her mom and I took care of Bibi, and she just… had to stay in bed. It was really awful for her, she’d always been this — 24/7, go all the time kind of person, and now she had her first kid but she was too sick to do anything she felt like she needed to, and she was too sick to do anything else, too.”
Saleem nodded from the opposite couch, not knowing if Kim was even seeing it but knowing there was nothing he could say. Kim propped up his hands, resting his chin and mouth against their clasp for a minute. “Her kidneys took the worst of it, anyway, and… while we were in the hospital because she’d really been having trouble breathing, she went into kidney failure. They… they didn’t realize for too long what was going on, and they lost her. Just one thing after another, everything got out of control, and then she was gone.”
It was all mechanical enough, factual enough, that Kim’s voice stayed steady all through it — all except those last few words. Those had a few cracks run through them. Saleem let them fall into quiet again for long enough to be respectful, and then he said, again, “I’m so sorry.”
Kim’s mouth flexed in a way that was hard to define, but after another moment or two of stillness he seemed to cast off the spell a bit, sitting back on the couch. “It… yeah. Well. Bibi wasn’t quite one yet, when she died. It’ll actually be three years exactly a week from tomorrow. And since all this started, in the back of my mind, I’ve just kind of been thinking… you know, it’s a woman I keep seeing, right? I can’t see it clearly ever, I never really knew if it looked like her or not, but… it’d make sense for it to be her. For her to be pissed.” Saleem was frowning a little by now, and Kim glanced at it and then glanced away, grimacing a smile. “This horrible thing happened to her, and — drug out for a year making her miserable, and… you know, after that, she didn’t get to — really be with her kid. See her get bigger, and everything, like I did.” His eyes turned down and far away again, he seemed to think for a moment, making a little contemplative noise under his breath. “Yeah, so. I can see why she’d be mad.”
“At you?” Saleem asked, after another careful pause. Kim hesitated, and huffed a breath that wasn’t really anything like a laugh.
“I mean, maybe. Who knows, right?”
Saleem took another moment on that, and then just nodded. Getting into an argument about it really didn’t seem like the way to go here, and if Kim said it sounded like his wife’s voice on the recordings, it would be a dick move not to just take him at his word about that. They could come back to the rest, maybe. “Yeah, true. And that does give us some more things we could try, if this is — like, the spirit of someone you know.” Kim didn’t seem to have much to say to that, though, just staring downward, and Saleem watched him a little bit and then mustered up a smile, leaning in to try to get Kim’s attention. “Hey. One way or another, we’re gonna figure this out, all right? I’m not going to let anything happen to either of you.”
Kim looked briefly surprised by that — and then the surprise seemed to draw out a small smile, while he rubbed at the back of his neck. “Thanks. I mean… really, thank you.” He hesitated another moment, and then managed a laugh. “Honestly, I keep thinking, you know, whatever happens, it’s just — nice knowing we’ve got somebody on our side.”
That was more touching to hear than anything Saleem might have expected, and he found himself first caught off guard and then feeling a bit of a warm, half-shy smile on his mouth. “I’m definitely that,” he said, making Kim smile again without looking at him. “So… here’s what I’m thinking next. The EVP aside, we didn’t find much during the day, right? And you’ve never seen anything except in the middle of the night.” It wasn’t quite a question, but Kim nodded anyway, confirming. “I know it’s a long shot, but do you happen to remember when specifically you saw any of that stuff? Like, what time?”
Kim thought about that for a minute, and gradually started frowning the more he did. “The first time, uh… I think it was about three in the morning. I remember looking at the clock when Beeb woke me up and I think it was a little after three. Not sure about the two after that, but it seems like… it might’ve been around the same time, now that I think of it? Somewhere around two or three or so.” He thought again, and then gestured at the laptop sitting over on the table, beyond the opening to the dining room area. “And the recording, from the time on there, it would’ve happened around three.”
Saleem nodded, trying not to get too visibly excited in spite of himself. “Three a.m. is actually supposed to be a really strong time for spirit activity, so that tracks. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of this stuff did happen all around the same time.” He paused a moment, there, though, choosing his next words carefully. “So, uh… I really don’t want to cross a line, or anything, I mean — we can negotiate about how to handle this. But if I’m really gonna get hands-on with investigating these things as they happen — “
“You gotta be here at three in the morning,” Kim finished for him, startling him, and gave him a knowing little smile when he glanced over. “I kinda figured we’d have to get to that eventually.” Saleem opened his mouth to say something else, about how they could ease into that or work around it — he really didn’t want to wrestle his way in this poor guy’s front door and set up whole-ass camp in his house before Kim could say anything — but as it turned out, Kim didn’t give him time. “I mean, that’s fine with me. Honest. I know we don’t know each other that well yet, but if you were — I dunno, up to something, you’d be doing a really bad job at it.” That made Saleem laugh, unable to help it, and Kim gave him another little smile. “Just, uh… I don’t have a guest room, or anything. You saw, it’s just our room and Beeb’s, and the office upstairs. It’d pretty much be the couch.”
It was both a totally practical concern and somehow the most sweetly goofy-ass thing to be worried about in this situation possible. Saleem could only laugh a little, shaking his head. “That’s no problem. Hundred percent. It’s a nice couch and, look, I haven’t been out of college that long, I’ve definitely slept way worse places that I can remember.” That made Kim laugh this time, and Saleem pushed the moment, getting a little more serious while he could. “I just don’t want to — invite myself over, or barge in on you, or anything. Especially with so much to handle already.”
“I know,” Kim said, and he was still smiling, now more warmly than ever. “And I appreciate it. But you’re fine. Honestly… it’d be pretty great. Bibi wouldn’t shut up about you this morning, she’s crazy about you already, she’ll be over the moon. And… you know.” He hesitated for only a moment. “It’d… be good to know, waking up at three a.m. or whenever, that you’re — somebody’s there. Somebody who knows what he’s doing around, you know.”
It would be absolutely inappropriate to have a nervous little thrill go through him at that first slip-up, Saleem reminded himself, and firmly decided that it had never happened.
“All right, well… if you’re sure, then let’s do it.” He set his hands beside him and pushed upright, and Kim followed his lead. “I gotta do some stuff back home, and get a bag and everything, and I’m sure you’re busy too. So I’ll go ahead and take care of business, and then I’ll be back this evening? What time’s good?”
“Whenever, honestly. I mean it when I say Bibi’s going to be going nuts the second she gets wind that you’re coming over, though. So, you know, plan for that.” Kim hesitated, and then grinned at him, maybe looking a little bashful himself. “Though if you want to come by a little early, before five or so, you’re welcome to come to dinner. If your idea of dinner entertainment is watching a grown man mostly lose a fight to a three-year-old over whether she needs food to live.”
Saleem laughed, and was surprised into doing it harder than he might have expected to. “I dunno, when you put it like that, it does sound like it could be a good time.” Kim laughed too, and Saleem took the moment’s advantage to try to push past his awkwardness and give an answer to the rest. “If I wouldn’t be imposing or anything… that sounds great. Eating something I didn’t order on my phone is a pretty wild concept most of the time. We can, ah, take it out of the bill, or — “
“Or you can never bring that up again, because you’re my god damn guest for dinner,” Kim said, in such a forbidding tone with so little actual bite to it that Saleem couldn’t help cracking up again. “Seriously, you’re doing me a favor. It’s easier to cook for two people than… kinda one and a third.”
“Well, I’m not gonna say no,” Saleem said, giving in with a grin. “All right, it’s a — it’s a deal. I’ll see you in a while, man.”
And fortunately, he could escape out the door there, which let him cover for how his total dumbass of a mouth had somehow managed to almost say it’s a date, instead.
Dinner was pretty much all the chaos and drama Saleem had been promised and more, and afterward he very quickly ended up pressed into service on the living room floor with a couch cushion hugged to his chest, to facilitate a mildly dangerous game that involved Bibi running at him full speed and crashing into the cushion in a pile of giggles. Kim tried to raise some objections early on, almost entirely on Saleem’s behalf, but once it became obvious that Saleem was pretty fine with getting a selection of choice bruises on his ribs in exchange for the kid’s absolute joyful hysterics, he relented. Instead, he just ended up sitting up on the couch and observing, which ended up making him laugh to the point of tears in his eyes a couple of times at Bibi’s more extravagantly failed landings.
When the last pre-bedtime energy storm was starting to wind down toward full-on crabbiness, Kim expertly intervened, wielding enough calm confidence to get her upstairs to pajamas and her nighttime routine with only minimal objections. She was allowed a visit downstairs to spring another big hug on Saleem before actually going to bed, and then Kim was gone a long time with her, no doubt talking and reading to her and getting her settled down. Every now and then as he was settling in with his laptop, Saleem could just barely hear the resonances of Kim’s room-fillingly big brassy voice from upstairs, its blue-collar local accent chewing up all the vowels.
Kim finally came back down with an apologetic grin, and Saleem accepted the beer he offered and drank with him as they sat on the couch, ending up chatting about nothing important at all. What Saleem did, what Kim did (owning a piece of an independent moving company and doing jobs with it part-time, it turned out), how long they’d been in town. Saleem’s family were from Philly proper since a long way back, but Kim mentioned he’d grown up out in Pottstown: “My folks are still there, as far as I know, but, ah… we don’t really talk,” he said, with a smile so lemon-bitingly bitter Saleem knew better than to ask any follow-ups. They kept it to just mundane stuff, getting-to-know-you stuff, at least for now. The serious and truly weird parts could all wait.
Finally Kim excused himself to bed, and Saleem made his quiet-as-possible way up to the second-floor bathroom once before settling in on the couch, with the sheets and blankets and pillows Kim had dug up. It all smelled strongly like soap and fabric softener and closet, and he lay in its heap with the lights off for a long while, messing around on his phone while he tried to get his brain calmed down enough to sleep. The good old little glowing rectangle was at least something to look at, that wasn’t the unfamiliar patterns of laddered city light through the blinds on the front windows, the hulking shadowy shapes of the furniture in the dark. And something to think about, for that matter, that wasn’t what other shapes might be lurking behind those later tonight, just beyond where he could immediately see.
Finally he got drowsy enough he could set his phone down and doze off, though his sleep was restless and interrupted a lot by the unaccustomed noises of the house around him. It took him a while to stay under long enough to even have a weird dream.
In it, he was still in Kim’s house, but he was hovering in the little stub of a front foyer by the door, at the bottom of the stairs. Although of course it was all bigger and warped and flipped around, like dreams always were. A woman he didn’t know — a tall slender Black woman in a brightly patterned dress, with close-cropped hair like his but lighter skin — came up to the front door while he watched, holding a big butcher knife in her hand. She didn’t quite seem to move right as she came, not quite looking like she was making contact with the floor or the room at all, or even like all of her limbs were under her control. While he watched, she reached up with the knife and began pruning at a spiky plant hanging in a pot over the door, which he hadn’t seen before. Maybe an aloe plant? He didn’t even really know what they looked like exactly, but some part of him thought it must be, for no real reason at all. He didn’t think it had been there before, and he’d realize only later that it definitely wasn’t in reality.
She hummed softly as she cut away the dead leaves, tested at the dirt with her fingers and then dug into it, like she was rooting for some kind of treasure in there. Saleem could see now that the plant didn’t look well, that it was withering and drooping. Is it going to die? he began to ask her — but as soon as he did she whipped around, wide-eyed, to stare right at him and press her finger tight to her lips. The desperation in the shushing gesture cut all through him, felt like it stabbed down to his bones.
When she took her finger away, the woman only mouthed words, though he knew with no effort what they were. It’ll hear, her lips shaped, her eyes still fixed on his with that unbearable intensity.
And then she had turned back to the plant, and began working on it again, humming softly again as though nothing had ever happened. The moment hung like that, spinning out to what seemed even in a dream like excruciating awkwardness.
Then she stopped, very suddenly. She didn’t turn back to him, but her hands went still. It looked like her head was cocking a bit to one side, too: as though she were listening.
“You need to get up now,” she said with equally shocking suddenness — fully out loud in a smooth and lovely deep alto voice, which he felt like he almost recognized. And Saleem’s eyes snapped open in the dark living room, his breath hissing into his chest, as the soft alarm he’d set on his phone for three a.m. beebled out, right beside his ear on the pillow.
He took a second to catch his breath, to re-orient himself in his body from the startling vividity of the dream. There didn’t seem to be anything to see or hear in the room, once he’d silenced his phone and turned on its flashlight to shine around, and he couldn’t hear anything from anywhere else in the house, either. No sounds of movement, human or ghostly. Just deep, dark stillness draped over everything.
Not that that made a difference. Time to go to work.
Saleem clambered up off of the couch and tried to get all his yawns and stretches out at once, and then rubbed his arms through the henley he’d been sleeping in against the middle-of-the night chill. By the light of his phone he dug through his bag, getting out the hand-held thermometer and the EMF detector and lining them up on the couch. Finally he got out his good high-powered flashlight and strapped it on with the dorky hands-free headband, and set off around the first floor with a gauge in each hand, watching the readings. Nothing that wasn’t immediately explicable came up down here, which didn’t exactly surprise him. It was very quiet.
As he rounded out his scan of the living room, though, he happened to wave the thermometer over his head when he was passing by the other couch, near the back of the room. He kept watching the numbers the whole time — and it jolted all through him when he saw them drop. Not a lot, just a little. Still, it was definitely a visible change from the rest of the room.
Saleem froze in place a moment, catching his breath, and then moved the thermometer again, more deliberately, up in the air. Even within just the reach of his arm, back out toward the middle of the room the reading was normal again. Toward the couch, and the ceiling above it, that was where the dip happened.
He stared upward, in the flashlight beam, and then swallowed and took a step or two forward, until his knees were pressed against the seat of the couch. Then he raised the thermometer as high as he could again. This time, the dip was more pronounced than ever: unmistakable. It was full degrees colder up toward that part of the ceiling than it was anywhere else. When he lowered the thermometer and raised the EMF detector, with slow dreaming curiosity, he saw its values also climb slightly but definitively in the flashlight’s glow.
By his mental map of the house, where he was standing right now, he was right under Kim’s bedroom.
He collected his breath again, firming himself up, and headed for the stairs. The light from the flashlight bobbed when he walked and danced up the steps as he climbed them, creating the illusion of weird jumping shadows and the darkness moving around him. Not really something he’d ever noticed before now, and now it felt like all he could see.
At the top of the stairs he hesitated just a few seconds, and then went over to Kim’s door, first along the hall. They’d reached a mostly unspoken agreement that video recording again wasn’t necessary with Saleem here — and wasn’t really something either of them quite wanted to see the results of — but Kim’s door was half-open to the hallway, the room inside a slice of deep black against the flashlight glow and the slight gloomy light outside. Before they’d gone to bed, Kim had given express permission for Saleem to check into his room in the night, but it still took a little bit of doing to get himself to lean in and look inside.
Darkness blinked away from a moving circle ahead of him, swept aside by the flashlight beam. In its stark, weird, flat colorlessness he could see around the inside of the room: the bedside tables, the bed, the curtained window beyond it, Kim lying in the bed asleep with a restless ruck of the covers around him.
And the deeply dark shape beside the bed that the flashlight finally touched, the light just glinting off gleams of eyes and teeth. And, with perfect clarity, the way the air rippled and distorted in a sort of narrow column, a conduit, that ran between its head-shape and Kim’s open mouth.
“Kim, wake up,” Saleem said in a strained sharp hiss, low but out loud, before he even knew he was going to speak. At the same time he jerked his head around by reflex, angling it toward that figure to find and pin it. Even with the flashlight beam blinding him to everything darker, there was no mistaking its shape or where it was, or the glints of light that came off it — but when the flashlight moved and the light should have struck it head-on, it was gone. There was nothing beside the bed, nothing where it had been, not even darkness.
“Hunh?” Kim said even while Saleem was still staring, though, or something like it. Saleem looked back at him, and Kim’s sleep-squinted eyes winced tighter shut, his hand coming up to protect his face from the beam. Saleem pulled off the headband to let the light dangle toward the floor, muttering an apology, and then Kim could blink again and rub at his face. “Nn. Uh. What’s… what’s going on?”
“It was here,” Saleem said, and then tried to control his voice when it came out still too fast and out of breath. “Right there, next to the bed.” Kim’s eyes were a little more open now, and he was frowning, pushing himself up to struggle for a sitting position on the bed while Saleem pointed. “It was… it was doing something. I dunno. It looked like it was… feeding on you or something, man. Are you okay?”
“I… yeah. Fine. I think so.” Kim rubbed at his face and then fully sat up, pushing over to the edge of the bed. “Did you see where it went, or anything?”
“No. It was just gone.” His own voice wasn’t sounding quite as bad to Saleem now, but he kept working to collect himself up a little more still, to put on his best professional calm and sound like he had things under control. “I’m going to walk around some more, see if there’s anything else. Sorry to wake you up — I got this, you go back to sleep.”
Kim snorted, though, and pushed himself upward, grimacing in the indirect flashlight glow as he stretched out his lower back with both hands planted on it. “Yeah, ’cause that’s ever gonna happen. Is it all right if I come with you instead?”
“Sure, of course,” Saleem said immediately, trying not to sound too relieved about it. “If you’re up for it.”
Kim went to check on Bibi first, naturally, and Saleem brought the flashlight along for him to the smaller bedroom at the end of the hall. He stood just to one side of the door as Kim peered in, keeping the beam turned aside and its glow diffuse and dim. The kid looked totally sacked out inside the little room, though, sprawled with her face in a comical mash into the pillow and what looked like a stuffed lizard clamped to her chest. They traded relieved smiles and moved away, after a second’s whispered discussion, with Kim now holding the flashlight as Saleem kept his eyes on the device displays.
The hall bathroom next to Bibi’s room was silent, and although Saleem thought the office upstairs might be a good bet, the tension in Kim’s face as he looked up toward the closed door made it harder to make the suggestion. In the end they went back downstairs instead, at least to start, making their slow way past the front door and through the living room, checking every corner along the way. There was nothing to see even when they braced and rounded through the last corner in the dining room, though, and once they were in the kitchen the EMF detector was basically useless, unless it turned out the fridge really was haunted as hell. Saleem found some of the tension relaxing out of him at last, to be replaced with feeling pretty goofy about the whole thing, and he thought Kim was feeling the same. The night hadn’t been a bust, exactly, but it seemed like the show had been over pretty quick.
They headed back into the dining room — and then a shudder of motion just barely caught Saleem’s eye, at the edge of the flashlight beam. He caught up short and reached out to stop Kim by his arm, now that he’d given up checking the instruments and was just carrying them in one hand. Kim stopped, and they both stood there and looked ahead a second, in the flashlight’s cold flat light. It shone back at itself in reflection from the bottom edge of the window across the room, and fell across the small stacks of cardboard boxes gathered by the corner.
And while they watched, the one of those boxes that had been set on the floor apart from the others moved again, unmistakably.
It wasn’t a huge motion: rocking a little from side to side, barely making the faintest whispery sound. One of the cardboard walls also might have bulged out just a little, as though something were pressing on it from inside. It fell still again even while they were watching, and just sat on the floor, totally innocent. And then it shivered and moved again, one corner twitching an inch or two across the floor.
Saleem couldn’t seem to move or do anything else, his breath completely dead in his throat. He wasn’t even really aware of what Kim was doing until the flashlight beam had already begun to narrow to a smaller and more focused point, and Kim moved past him, toward the box. Slowly, but not sneaking or anything, just walking up to it like it was something he had to move for work. Saleem grabbed out at him to try to stop him, a second too late, but his voice wouldn’t seem to work, and his hand just glanced off of Kim’s surety.
Kim bent down, the flashlight now a spotlight on the box, and pulled apart the folded-together top flaps with his free hand. And then everything happened very fast.
A hand burst up out of the box. It looked flat and grey and maybe too long in the brief blur of it Saleem saw, but it was only an instant. Then it had grabbed Kim’s forearm in a murderous clamping claw, dragging on it, and Kim had dropped the flashlight with a yelp, and there was only darkness and confusion. Motion and scrambling and scuffling noises — Saleem running at where Kim was, Kim flailing in a rush of limbs, more creepy scraping rattling sounds from the box itself, all at once, all running together. And then Saleem’s body had collided into Kim’s, and they both went stumbling and falling hard across the floor with his weight, crashing up against the far wall between the other pile of boxes and the window.
It was only by pure luck they hadn’t both gone full-length to the floor. The wall was enough support to let them both push themselves back up again, though, and then Kim dove for the adjoining wall, slapping out along it puffing breath and muttering curses. A second later the overhead light came on, sudden and blinding. Saleem winced his eyes shut against it and then immediately opened them again, tearing up a little from trying to force them to adjust too soon, and see.
But there was nothing to see. The dining room was bright and bland and ordinary in the new light, nothing out of place in it but the wild-eyed and panting two of them. The flashlight still lay where it had tumbled on the rug, next to the box, which sat still and innocuous with its flaps open on the floor. Inside was a jumble of what looked like fabric and photographs, and nothing else. Shadows crowded in at the far ends of the still-dark living room and kitchen, dimmer in the furthest places from the glow of the dining room’s chandelier, but there was nothing to see in either of those directions, either. Everything was quiet.
It was like nothing had ever happened. But when Saleem looked down at Kim’s arms, on the forearm that had been grabbed, there was now an unmistakable purple-red imprint in the vague shape of fingers and palm: a clear outline of bruise and broken blood vessels, as though from a grip harder than any real hand could readily grab.
“So here’s the thing,” Saleem said, quietly, not wanting to and knowing how much he needed to. “I don’t think y’all are safe here.”
They were sitting at the dining room table together now, having turned on all the lights in the living room and kitchen too, against the darkness that crowded up against the windows. Kim had a cold pack wrapped in a dish towel and held around his arm, where it rested on the table. As soon as they’d gotten themselves together and Kim had immediately run back upstairs to check on Bibi (still totally fine, unbothered, and fast asleep, thank god), they’d come back down to start turning on lights, and Kim had gotten the pack from the freezer. Unthinkably, even by now the clock over the stove said it wasn’t yet 3:30 in the morning. It felt like Saleem had woken up from his weird-ass dream tonight maybe about five years ago, but everything that had happened hadn’t taken much more than fifteen minutes, total.
Kim was quiet for a long moment after Saleem spoke, and not looking at him, just down at how the edges of the towel spilled over his arm. When he finally said anything, it was without raising his eyes. “If we’re not, what are we supposed to do?”
“Leave,” Saleem said, keeping his tone as kind as it could possibly be. Kim shook his head as soon as he said it, though, a sort of smiling grimace pulling at the corners of his mouth.
“Where? How?” When Saleem didn’t have an immediate answer, Kim dropped his head a bit more to rub his forehead, leaving the cold pack balanced over his forearm. “This house was… it was Alma’s, my wife’s, dream house, I guess. I mean, maybe not this one exactly, but — she always wanted one of these old brownstone rowhouses, up in Germantown or Mt. Airy, from the time she moved here. She started looking not long after we started dating, but by the time she found the right one, this one, we’d gotten to where we moved into it together. It was…” He glanced up at Saleem there, though, and whatever he saw starting in Saleem’s face had him going to interrupt himself, changing tracks. “I’m not just being sentimental about this. I mean, I am, obviously, but… Alma bought the house, she paid the mortgage. She paid off the mortgage, the whole thing, while she was so sick after we had Bibi. She said… just, whatever happened, she didn’t want us to ever have to worry about it.” His throat worked in a swallow, as he looked away for just a second, and then met Saleem’s eyes again with hurting honesty. “I make enough with the crew to take care of Bibi and me, with Alma’s life insurance and the settlement from the hospital. But not enough to pay for a place on top of that. The whole idea was… you know, mostly I’d focus on being her dad. And Alma’s parents have both passed, and even if I’d talked to mine in the last ten years, I would starve to death on the fucking street before I let them around Bibi.” That last came out spat with a crescendo of venom in it that was actually a little alarming, from Kim. He’d dropped his eyes away again, at least. “I can’t just — leave.”
Saleem nodded, wrong-footed and sorry but still too worried to do much good at hiding it. “I get it. I really do. But — “
“It’s just a couple bruises,” Kim broke in over top of him, almost laughing, though about the least real laugh Saleem had ever heard. A “tough guy on my macho bullshit” laugh, almost, though a little less infuriating than that under the circumstances. “It’s — it’s fine. We’ll be okay, right?” Saleem didn’t answer that, and Kim didn’t look at him. “She hasn’t… she wouldn’t hurt Bibi. That’s all that matters.”
There were about a dozen different problems in those two short sentences, and right now there really wasn’t any way to start pointing them out at all. Saleem didn’t bother to try.
“I want to help,” he said, quiet again, leaning forward in his chair toward Kim. “I want to make this okay for you, figure out some way to fix it so it doesn’t hurt as much as it helps. But I feel like I’ve got to tell you the safest thing for you both would be just not to be here.”
Kim half-smiled at him, wry and tired, and nodded. “I hear you. If that’s just not an option, though… what’s Plan B? Do we, like… get rid of her? It? Cleanse the place, or do an exorcism, or some shit like that?”
Saleem hesitated… and then bit down. No. No more dicking around. Kim had been honest with him, and it was time for everybody here to come clean.
“I don’t know,” he said, leaning his elbows on his knees and resting on them, and looking straight into Kim’s eyes. “I don’t know what comes next if this is actually dangerous, because — I’ve never done this before. Not for real.” Kim was frowning at him, and he sighed, all the guilty resignation settling on his shoulders like a lead scarf. “I… wasn’t up front about this, and I’m really sorry, man. I should’ve been. I was just so psyched to get a real actual job, and… doesn’t matter. When I said it’s been slow going, getting started with doing this investigation business, I meant — I’ve never had a job. Not a real job. I mean, my great-aunt Wanda told me she was hearing noises and let me go over and wave a flashlight around and figure out it was her boiler, but you know, the way she talked about it that was just her getting it into her head, ‘oh, Saleem’s going into business for himself, we gotta support our men,’ and — “
Kim was actually laughing a little now, just barely, sheepish and under his breath. “Yeah, I, ah, got to you from your Yelp review,” he admitted, the smile he turned up to Saleem looking at least a bit more real now. “I think you’re lucky to have her on your side.”
Saleem blinked at him, and then groaned, pressing his hand over his eyes. “You read that? Aw, man. Don’t know how I’d tell her, but I should really get them to take it down.”
“Don’t you dare,” Kim said at once, really grinning now, and they both managed to laugh a little.
It died away fast, though, and Saleem fell quiet a moment before clearing his throat. “But… yeah. I mean. Doing this whole gig, for me, it’s just… I was always really big into ghosts and hauntings and paranormal stuff, and I always wanted to, you know, hunt ghosts for real. I was falling all over myself excited when I finally got a steady job and settled in and felt like I could start this thing up on the side. But I don’t know what I even pictured business would be like with this kind of thing, I guess?” He let out an awkward little laugh, looking away from Kim’s steady eyes. “I think it’d be hard enough if I were doing something normal. But — anyway, that’s not the important part. I’ve read tons of shit online, and lots of books, and everything, I’ve practically got all the things you’re supposed to do memorized, but… it’s always just about finding something. Just maybe, once in a lifetime, seeing something real. I don’t know if I know anybody who does this who actually claims they really saw something that didn’t have an explanation, and I’m really sure I don’t know anybody who says they saw something like this. Where it’s like one hundred percent there and full-ass attacking people. Maybe it’s never happened or maybe they just don’t talk about it if it did, but basically, it means I don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Sure, getting an exorcism or something sounds good, but like, you want to get the pastor from down at St. Vincent’s to do it? Maybe when they don’t have a computer class for seniors already going on?”
Kim nodded his understanding, grimacing again. “Alma hardly ever went to church anyway.”
There was another pause there, and then Saleem broke into it very gingerly now, tiptoeing his way around. “I don’t want to be an asshole, but… can I maybe ask why you’re so sure it’s her? I know it sounded like her voice on the EVPs, but it’s not like that’s perfect sound quality. And… I don’t know. I’m just not sure I get why you think she’d be this pissed at you.”
Kim didn’t answer that for so long that at first Saleem thought, wincing, that it had offended him. Finally, though, Kim leaned his head on his hand and exhaled a long breath, and the expression shaping it was just rueful and tired, not annoyed. “It’s… complicated,” he said, low. “It, the person I keep seeing, it honestly does look like her, sort of. It’s hard to say, and not the freaky stuff, but just, the general shape of it, I guess. And the other part…” He swallowed, and looked even further down away from Saleem, to where it hid his eyes completely.
“I’m still alive,” he said finally, fast and blunt. “I’m still here, and with Bibi, and she’s not. And… she should be. It’s bullshit she’s not, it’s not fair. She should’ve been here.” Above the towel and surely warming cold pack, his hand curled into a fist. “When she died — when we were in the hospital, and it started happening — she knew something was wrong. I knew something was wrong. She was going into kidney failure, we could both tell she wasn’t okay. And we kept trying to tell people — I kept trying to tell people, she couldn’t breathe, something was wrong, they needed to help her. But she’d just been really tense and kinda irritable since we’d come in, and they figured she was just panicking and getting upset, and they were really busy, and they just… didn’t listen.” His mouth curled in on itself, deep and sour. “And like — I know you get it. I don’t have to tell you. She was Dominican, and she was Black. The nurse we were telling was white. She saw this Black woman with a Spanish name who was really tired of being sick, out of breath and freaking out about it, and she thought… yeah, I don’t know what she thought. I can’t prove she thought anything. But I know anyway.”
Saleem nodded without saying a word — all of that tightening inside him around a hundred of his own shitty little memories. Kim’s shoulders clenched up even further; and then after a few more struggling seconds, the rest of it came out of him all at once, in a poisonous rush.
“But that was why I was there. I should have made her listen. Or the other people I tried to go get, or… I should have been able to fix it. If I’d just been able to get somebody to pay attention maybe ten minutes sooner, she might still be here. But I didn’t.” He swiped a big hand at his eyes, furiously, without ever looking up. “And she died, and she’s not here, and I am, and her kid’s about to turn four, and she’s so amazing, just every day, she… and Alma’s supposed to be here seeing it, and she’s not. I let her die and I lost her but she lost everything, and now I get what she got screwed out of. It’s so fucked up. …Fuck.”
Saleem let him sit a moment with his hand pressed over his face, his shoulders heaving, just out of sheer stunned helplessness. When he finally moved, he did it on instinct: his hand not giving his brain time to think about how this might come across, especially to a straight dude. Instead, it just reached over and rested on the back of Kim’s hand, where it sprawled under the towel on the table.
“You tried,” he said, quietly. “You didn’t know. It just happened. Yeah, it’s awful, but it’s not your fault.” He took a slight breath, and then added, as gently as he could: “Don’t you think she knows that?”
And it was a relief on all kinds of levels when, slowly, Kim’s hand turned over underneath his, and gripped it tightly back.
“I don’t know if it matters,” Kim said, with a choking little noise that wasn’t really a laugh at all. After another second Kim took a deep breath, scrubbed his palm into his eyes again, and then let his hand drop away to half-smile at Saleem in clear exhaustion, battered redness and heavy dark circles making concentric rings around his eyes. “Anyway… yeah. I don’t know. It just makes the most sense, for it to be her, haunting this house. And if she’s mad at me… I get why she is. That makes sense to me, too.”
Saleem still had plenty of objections, and none of that quite addressed them head-on — but it seemed like something they weren’t going to make much headway on right now, and he couldn’t think of a way to try that didn’t feel obnoxious and pushy. He squeezed Kim’s hand instead, trying to answer his almost-smile in kind.
“Well… I may not know how to fix it,” he said, coming back around to the subject if only to firm up the ground. “But here’s what I can say: I’m absolutely staying in this until I’ve tried literally everything I can to fix it, if that’s what you want me to do. I signed on for this and I meant it, and I’m not leaving you and Bibi out on your own with this thing. Assuming you want me to stick with it, and not just get out of your hair.”
He could almost manage a laugh along with that last, although it wasn’t one that he much meant, under the circumstances. Kim was looking at him with slightly wide eyes by then, though, and he shook his head when Saleem had said it.
“Trust me, I want you to stick with it,” Kim said, and he swallowed and managed a watery smile of his own. “I mean… it’s okay. If you haven’t done this before. It’s not like I have, and you still know a lot more about how to deal with it than I ever will. And like what I said before –” He ducked his head down, looking toward where their hands were still awkwardly joined on the table. “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad it’s not just me, and I’m glad it’s you.”
Saleem smiled broadly back at that: relief and touched pleasure and a spreading warmth in his chest all tangling together. “Then I got you,” he said, and meant it for all it was worth. “And I’m gonna help you get through this. I promise.”
That fell into a slightly awkward but mostly warm silence between the two of them, sitting together and holding on to each other. Which made it so that they both heard it perfectly clearly when the cardboard box at the edge of the dining room — the one that had disgorged that impossible hand not all that long ago — made an unmistakable rustle, exactly once, before falling still.
Kim ended up getting what sleep he could get for the rest of that night by bedding down with a pillow and blanket on the floor of Bibi’s room. It helped just being able to listen to her breathing and see her shoulders rise and fall above him, so he felt like he could keep a little more of his shit together than he could have otherwise. He was still a fucking wreck, but having her close at least let him shut his eyes and fade out for a while. As far as he knew, Saleem went back to sleep on the couch downstairs, although it was hard to say how much sleeping he’d actually manage to get done. It felt pretty bad right now having him that far away too, honestly, but Kim couldn’t figure out a better answer, and they were both tired.
The next morning was bright and clear, though, a stark sunny winter day, and everything seemed easier with the light pouring in the windows. Bibi woke him up at barely dawn by jumping on him giggling, and he spent a while groaning and bellowing like he was a buffalo she’d brought down just to keep her laughing, before finally coaxing her to the bathroom and downstairs to breakfast. Saleem was up by the time they made their way downstairs — probably for the best, since Bibi did not have a stealth mode even a little — and he grinned from where he was sitting up on the couch wrapped in a blanket and with his computer, chatting with them both while Kim made them all three eggs and pancakes like he did it every day.
With cartoons blaring on the TV and Bibi tucked up to Saleem’s side on the couch and staring at them, he and Kim talked in low circumspect tones about plans for the day. Saleem would go back to his place for a while and do some research, maybe even try to get in touch with some of the experts he knew of in his field and see if they had anything to say. Kim would get Bibi out of the house as much as he could while Saleem was gone: maybe even take her into Center City to the Christmas Village, if she seemed like she was in the kind of mood to handle some train rides and walking without a total meltdown. They’d meet up back here in the afternoon, and go from there.
As it turned out, though, Bibi was sort of generally keyed-up and out of sorts today, and she was crabby about being pulled away from cartoons and crabby about Saleem leaving, even with the promise he’d be back. After the ordeal of getting her into clothes and a coat and outside, it didn’t seem worth it to try for much more than the rec center with a playground a few streets away. There wasn’t much wind and in the bright sun it wasn’t even that cold, and she cheered up pretty quick just on the walk, pulling on her tether of Kim’s holding hand to point out squirrels and dogs and totally imaginary sightings with noisy joy.
She wore out and started complaining about being cold after not much more than an hour on the playground, and they had lunch in the ridiculously good Chinese place Kim got delivery from sometimes, a tiny little storefront on the first floor of a brick rowhouse with a hand-lettered sign and badly peeling paint on the upstairs window. It was warm and rich with good smells, and the college-aged kid with punky hair and an earring behind the counter absolutely fell in love with Bibi, coming over to check on them way more than necessary just to hunker down and chat with her and make her giggle and hide in her sweater. It was good not to have to feel bad about lingering there as long as they ended up doing, and Kim made sure to get an extra twenty from the ATM and put it in the plastic tip cup on the counter before they left.
With Saleem due back before long, Kim risked the house again to put Bibi down for a nap, though he sat sprawled out on the floor of her room with her again while she was sleeping. He brought his laptop in to balance on his knees, and really meant to do something useful with himself, but he actually found his own chin dipping toward his chest more often than not, and had to struggle it back up blinking each time.When his phone buzzed with Saleem’s “Almost there” text, it was a relief just to have something new to focus on.
He watched out the front windows and had the door open before Saleem could knock on it, with a quelling gesture. “Beeb’s taking a nap,” Kim said low, smiling sheepishly at Saleem’s startled look, and stood aside to let him in. “She should be up soon, but you know.”
Saleem nodded his understanding, smiling back, and made his way in to set his bag down by the couch: already like he just knew his spot in the house, which kind of gave Kim a little warm feeling in his chest for no good reason at all. This was maybe the weirdest way possible to make a friend, but… it felt like that was where this was going, had maybe already gone, and it was nothing he was about to take for granted at all. He’d never really had enough of those, as far as he was concerned.
“I got in touch with at least one guy, down in Cape May,” Saleem said when Kim had come over to sit by him, and his whisper was so quiet that it started to hilariously overestimate how easy waking up Bibi would really be. “Still waiting to hear back from some others. But he gave me some tips, and I did some digging. I think I’ve got some ideas.”
Kim nodded, smiling more from gratitude than from much hopefulness. “All right, cool. You need to set anything up, or…?”
Saleem shook his head. “Not yet, at least. I’ll see what I think when it starts getting late.”
They chatted a little while longer, and then soon there were sounds of Bibi stirring upstairs, and Kim excused himself to go help get her up. She was delighted to see Saleem back and attached right to him immediately, of course, and he seemed happy enough to get quickly roped into coloring with her on the floor. Kim had only been watching that for a few minutes, though, when Saleem cast a critical eye up at him and then sat back, a bit more serious.
“No offense, man, but you look like you’re barely keeping your eyes open,” he said, over Bibi’s head where it craned down intently to the page she was working on. “Do you want to go lie down for a while? I’ll keep an eye out.”
Kim hesitated, on instinct about to laugh and wave it off… but Saleem’s gaze and tone were warm and sympathetic, and he at least sounded like he really meant it. Enough to make the hesitation change shape. “…Are you sure you’d be okay with that? I mean, uh… you’re not gonna get any more work done, I can tell you that.”
Saleem grinned, and nodded. “No problem at all. I got this, You go take a nap.”
That actually got Bibi’s attention, and she blinked up at both of them, pausing the big scrawls of her crayon. “Daddy take a nap?” She said it with such clear skepticism — that was just not the natural order of things as far as Bibi was concerned — that Kim couldn’t help laughing, and got off the couch only to get down on the floor and give her forehead a kiss.
“Daddy take a nap,” he agreed, solemnly, and with confirmation she started giggling. Peak toddler absurdist humor, for sure. He gave her another kiss and added, “Saleem’s gonna hang out with you while I do, though, okay? Be sweet for him.”
“Daddy take a naaap,” was Bibi’s only opinion on the matter, before collapsing into more giggles. Kim was too tired to do anything besides take that as agreement, just grinning his thanks at Saleem on his way out.
He’d been a little afraid his brain would manage to keep him awake, all the same, but it turned out he didn’t need to worry. He was passed out almost before he’d finished kicking out of his jeans and crawling into pajama pants and under the covers, and was aware of nothing until he blinked awake in a room that was solid dark except for the crack of light streaming in from the hall. Totally disoriented in that “I slept until evening” way, Kim shuffled squinting out of the bedroom, and was about to turn toward the stairs when the sound of voices from down the hall pulled him toward Bibi’s room, instead.
When he made his way into the doorway and stared in bleary-eyed, he found Saleem sitting on the floor, not far from where Kim had slept himself the night before. Bibi was sitting in front of Saleem, but up in one of the little miniature-sized chairs that crowded around the miniature-sized table she had stuffed into one corner of the tiny room, barely usable in between shelves and baskets of books and toys and stuffed animals. She had an iPad that must have been Saleem’s clutched on top of the table and was staring rapturously at more animated videos, while Saleem behind her had the thick, dense piled curls of her hair stretched gently in expert fingers, and was nearing the end of weaving them into a few neat but sturdy braids that lined her scalp.
Even as Kim was still staring at this, Saleem looked up to see him there, and grinned. “Hey! How’d you sleep?” Bibi was far too intent to look up herself, but Kim guessed that was probably for the best, under the circumstances. He managed a smile of his own, rubbing a palm at his sticky eyes.
“Ah, not bad, actually. Kinda still groggy, but… man, I needed that. Thanks.” He hesitated a second, and then his smile broadened as he gestured at the work Saleem was doing. “That… looks awesome.”
Saleem might have looked a little uncomfortable as he laughed, and his hands did pause a second, letting Bibi’s hair go more lax even as he held it to keep his place. “Oh, thanks. Yeah, between my baby sister growing up and my nieces, I know a thing or two about laying edges.” At Kim’s even bigger smile, Saleem seemed to ease a little, with a more sheepish smile of his own. “I got to showing her some pics of my nieces, and when she saw Brianna’s braids and I said I did ’em, it was all over. Hope you don’t mind?”
Kim laughed, shaking his head and waving his hand. “No, course not! I’m just impressed.” He paused a second, and then nodded at the floor next to Saleem. “Actually — could I watch? I’ve been looking at some stuff on YouTube since she started getting big enough to need it, but seeing somebody in person who knows what they’re doing, that’s got to be better.”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” Saleem scooted over a little on the floor, as best he could, to make room for Kim to sit beside him close enough to see. “I mean, I’m almost done now, but I could give you some tips some other time, too.”
“Thanks,” Kim murmured, as he was sitting down. And he did his best to ignore the warmth that his chest wrapped around the whole idea of some other time.
It really wasn’t much longer before Saleem finished, but Kim watched as intently in that time as he could while still bleary. Afterward, with all of them getting hungry, he declared defeat and just ordered pizza for dinner — which Saleem insisted staunchly on paying for half of in spite of his protests — and he took over entertaining Bibi after they’d eaten, to let Saleem get back on his computer for a while. Bedtime, with three whole books demanded before Bibi even started drooping, hopefully gave him some more down time, and Kim came back down to find Saleem already straightening up on the couch to greet him, alert and keen.
“All right, here’s what I’m thinking,” Saleem said, and Kim came around the bottom of the stairs and over to join him on the couch while he kept talking. “People come at this from all kinds of angles, but the main thing I got from the guy in Cape May was — don’t make it all about some ritual from something you don’t even believe in, right? Not only is that kinda gross, it’s not really going to help anything, either. If it’s a hostile spirit, it’s not gonna care just because you’re waving incense or something at it. The key is really to get it talking. They don’t just hang out for no reason — if it’s here, it wants something, and it’s like with a living person, you can’t figure out a compromise without communicating.”
Kim nodded, where he’d leaned back on the couch, even though just the whole idea of all of this was already making muscles start to tense up in his back. “So… how do you get it talking?”
“There’s a bunch of different things we could try.” Saleem started tapping around on his computer to open up what looked like notes he’d taken, flipping back to a couple of browser tabs. He clearly couldn’t help being a little bit excited, though he was just as clearly trying to hide it, and Kim felt a grin trying to pull at the edge of his mouth. He couldn’t be mad about it even if he’d wanted to, it was too charming. “There’s a thing called a spirit box — it scans across radio frequencies really quickly, and that’s supposed to help generate enough energy that the ghost can manipulate the little snatches of sound that come through into words. I never really got into using them, though — they’re pretty noisy and I don’t want to drive people up the wall — so I don’t have one, but I could get a hold of one if we think it might help later. Honestly, though, I’m not sure it’s the right tool for the job. It doesn’t seem like this thing has any trouble manifesting itself when it wants to, it doesn’t really need the leg up.” Kim nodded his understanding, and Saleem switched notes again. “Then there’s the classic spiritualist stuff, like seances, Ouija boards, automatic writing, and so on. I’d say something in that line is probably more what we’re looking for: it all focuses more on just opening up a direct line of communication. But that’s why it can be dangerous, too, especially with a hostile entity. We’ll need to be really careful.”
Kim nodded again, almost as if he were fine with the words “hostile entity” being a regular part of his life now. “So do you want to try something like that tonight?”
“Seems like our best bet,” Saleem said, looking back at Kim from his computer. “Don’t suppose you have a Ouija board just, like, hanging around somewhere?”
“Yeah, I gotta find out who likes me at slumber parties somehow,” Kim said without missing a beat, deadpan, which at least made Saleem laugh even if Kim immediately regretted it. He smiled back after, apologetically. “Sorry, I know. Supposed to be taking this seriously.”
Saleem shook his head, still smiling himself. “You take it however you need to, man. I think you’ve earned the right.” Kim laughed a little under his breath, nodding his appreciation. “It’s hard to do much of a seance with two people, too, from what I’ve seen. But if you’ve just got a pen and some paper, we could try automatic writing. That’s where you just start kinda scribbling on the page and ask the ghost to move your hand and write something.”
Kim made a slight face, for different reasons this time, now that he’d been emboldened a little to be up front about what he thought. “Well, that’s good and creepy. But… yeah, sure. I’m up for it if you are.”
“Sounds good, then.” Saleem pushed the laptop away a little, turning more directly to Kim. “Honestly, if you want, I could just do it myself, too. Let you sleep.”
“That doesn’t sound like being really careful,” Kim said, making Saleem duck his head a little in acknowledgment, and smiled a bit when he looked back up. “It’s cool. My house, my pissed-off ghost, right? We’re in this together. Just tell me what you need me to do.”
Saleem nodded again at that, giving in pretty readily. He had to have known it was a goofy suggestion all along, which in a way just made the fact that he’d offered anyway more touching. “We should probably plan for the usual most active time again, then. I’ll set my alarm and come wake you up?” Kim nodded, and Saleem smiled. “Better try to get to bed early this time, then.”
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” He laughed a little as he said it, and Saleem’s smile spread to a grin. “I got lucky not getting called out on any jobs this weekend, but I think I’m gonna shoot Sal an email and let him know I’m off the roster for a few days, too. Means I can focus, and I’ve been pretty wrecked from all this.”
“I can’t blame you for that,” Saleem said, soft and kind enough to make Kim have to look away from him, with just a meaningless tight little smile guarding his face. After a beat of pause Saleem added, deliberately casually, “I think I’m actually going to email out of work tomorrow, too. Not that I’m trying to be in your way the whole time, but, uh… not sure I’m going to be able to concentrate much, you know?”
“I know,” Kim said,half-smiling at him sidelong. “I’m sorry.” But of course Saleem just waved that away.
They ended up sitting up and just talking a while longer, taking the chance to at least let the time slip by in a friendly way, before it’d be time to go grab as much sleep as possible for another wrestling match with a ghost that hated him. And it wasn’t exactly a surprise that before too long, without Saleem even being the one to bring it up — although he had every reason and every right to, by this point — that turned into talking about Alma. Kim even swallowed down the knot in his chest and got out his laptop to go into his files, and showed Saleem some of all the digital pictures he still had saved up, carefully set away where he could look at them when he wanted but didn’t have to if he didn’t. He flicked through favorites: some earlier ones of her from not long after the wedding, with twists in her hair and bright-colored scarves around her shoulders, sitting on a bench on campus and laughing at some dumb attempt of his to get her to smile; some later ones of her with her hair shorn close and a quieter, almost mischievous sort of smile, in a flowing dress and cradling the small bump showing at her belly. Still early on, before things had started to get so hard for her, when all there had seemed to be were a few ups and downs in an overall world of happiness and comfort.
A frown started growing between Saleem’s brows as he was looking, though, but when Kim gave him a quizzical look he shook his head. “Sorry. These are really nice, thank you for showing me. She seems like a great person. I just — keep having this weird feeling like I’ve seen her somewhere before. Not, like, the ghost, or I don’t think so, just… somewhere.” He paused a moment, thinking, and then seemed to try to shrug it off with a small apologetic smile. “Probably just one of those weird brain things. Sorry.”
Kim nodded equably enough, and closed up the folder; weird brain things aside, it was getting to be a little much for him too. He cleared his throat a bit as he set the computer to one side on the couch. “We were married about three years, and together about four years before that,” he said, picking back up some sort of thread, as he laced his fingers over his knees. “It… god, it’s weird, it doesn’t sound like that much when I say it like that. Seems like a — lot more than that.”
“I’m sure it was,” Saleem said, in that quiet kind voice again that made it so Kim couldn’t really look at him. “Time isn’t everything, right?” Kim barely nodded to that, trying a half-hearted little smile.
“We got together in Philly, anyway, she’d been here for a while for the position at Temple,” he picked up after a minute. “She grew up in Brooklyn, though. Her dad was a professor at UASD when he married her mom, and then he got a position at Brooklyn College and they moved to the States before she was born. He always sounded like a really cool guy, but he passed away before I ever met Alma. Remedios — her mom — moved down here to be near her, though, and she was so awesome. We were all really close.” Kim smiled a little, and then let it melt away, staring off in the distance at nothing. “She basically moved in with us when Alma was sick, and after Bibi was born. I don’t know what I would have done without her after Alma — you know, after everything. But she, ah, she had a lot of heart problems, too — she’d gone into heart failure, actually, not long before Alma got pregnant, she was on a lot of meds and we all sort of knew it was just a matter of time, and that was part of why we started trying to have a kid, you know? We wanted to make sure Remedios would get to spend time with her.” He paused, and rubbed at his forehead. “She finally went into hospice care last year, and she passed away this past fall. It was really hard, but it wasn’t a surprise or anything, and she was pretty out of it by the end. I’m just glad she got to spend so much time with Bibi while she was doing better.”
“Jesus,” Saleem said softly, after a while of respectful silence. “You’ve had a really shitty couple of years, huh?”
That managed to throw Kim for a second, make him blink around at Saleem and then drop his eyes away with a tentative smile. “I… guess, yeah? Honestly, I never really thought about it that way. I just kinda… have to keep going.” That fell between them a bit heavily, though, bringing on another minute of quiet, and finally Kim just huffed an uncomfortable little laugh. “Sorry. That, uh, got kind of depressing too, huh.”
“It’s fine, don’t apologize,” Saleem said, with such surprised certainty that it actually let Kim relax a little. “I’m sorry. That’s really rough.” He paused a moment himself there, and then said with a bit of a smile, “If you want to talk about something happier for a while, though, I get it.”
Kim smiled back, though it felt kind of tired on his mouth. “Like what?”
“Well…” Saleem thought about that a minute. “How’d you and Alma meet? …I mean, if you don’t mind.”
Kim shook his head, his smile firming up a bit. “No, it’s fine — the whole thing was a little out of the blue, honestly. I’d only moved to the city since a couple years, and I was staying in this shitty little apartment in North Philly to hang around with some of my friends who lived nearby. I knew this one girl who was in the dance school at Temple, and she’d get me in to use their dance studios for practice sometimes, mostly. And Alma’s office was in the building right across the way, and there was this coffee shop around the corner where she’d go to get away from grading and I’d go to bum around waiting for my friend. I definitely noticed there was always this gorgeous woman in there getting coffee and reading, but I was like, she’s got her book and she’s doing her shit, she doesn’t want me bugging her. Then one day she just came over to my table and said she was always seeing me there and asked if I was a student, and I said no, and then I had to explain what I was doing there then, and we just got to talking… we ended up going out, and it just went really, really good. Just one of those things.”
Saleem didn’t respond to any of that immediately, and when Kim glanced over at him he had a sort of unfocused look about the eyes. It took him another moment to hold up his hand, and actually speak. “Okay, wait. That is adorable, and I love it, for the record, and I’m sorry, I just… we need to go back, because I think you just said you dance?”
“What, I can’t dance?” Kim demanded, although there was a smile already pulling on his mouth, a relief to feel even in spite of the stone still lingering in his chest. “I bet lots of big dumb guys know how to dance. We gotta know something.”
“That’s not what I mean — ” Saleem was already trying to get it out in between laughing, though. “I just had no idea — honestly, that is amazing to me. I am a stupidly clumsy-ass person, I can’t even play rhythm games. Like, what kind of dance?”
“Modern mostly, little bit of ballet here and there. I don’t have a ton of formal training, though.” Kim shrugged, actually getting a bit bashful in the face of Saleem’s increasingly incredulous look. “I, uh, I’ve tried doing some choreography here and there, just on my own. Even got a couple tiny little performance spaces when Alma and I were dating. Can’t really say how well it went.” He scratched at his hair, ducking his head. “Alma was really great about it, though. She really wanted me to go after it. I got the gig with the moving company in the first place because it was something I could just do whenever without really worrying about it too much, you know? She brought in most of the money, and she just wanted me to be able to focus on dancing as much as I could.” His smile went a little bit wan, then, while he was looking away from Saleem. “I haven’t really gotten back to it since she got sick, though.”
Saleem nodded his understanding, his expression definitely looking more sober now. “Yeah, it’s gotta be tough,” he said, quieter. He let that sit a moment — but then his smile started coming back, seeming to spread in spite of him. “So does this mean I’m not going to get you to teach me to cha-cha?”
“I will one hundred percent teach you to cha-cha, if you want to learn to cha-cha,” Kim said immediately, dead serious, looking back at him. Honestly before he could think better of it, but hey, why not? “You try to save me from angry ghosts, I have to teach you cha-cha. I think that’s the rule now.”
Saleem stared back at him a minute — and then burst out laughing, barely managing to muffle himself, and clapped his hands. “All right, I was mostly kidding, but you know what? You’re on. Let’s do this. You are gonna be very disappointed.”
So that was how they ended up both up in the middle of the living room, with Kim very quietly putting on a “Cha-Cha-Chá Hits” Spotify mix through the TV. He talked Saleem patiently step-by-step through where to position his hands and arms, and how to offset where he stood a little so they didn’t step on each other, and Saleem followed his instructions with all the apparent diligence he’d put into braiding Bibi’s hair, even while laughing at himself now and then. Once they got started, Kim was really amused to find Saleem genuinely hadn’t been selling himself short: he followed the idea of how the step was supposed to work and what he was supposed to do with his feet well enough, he was a smart guy who picked things up fast, but the process of translating it into things he could actually do with his body just seemed to completely, hilariously evade him. Honestly, Kim thought it was probably mostly just lack of practice, but trying to put the step into application seemed to turn Saleem into a human jumble of rubber bands. It was so weird to him to try to picture; his body was the one thing he’d always felt like he had total control over, like he could get it to operate exactly how he wanted if he put his mind to it, even when his brain spent so much time feeling like it wasn’t doing anything he expected.
Still, he tried to walk Saleem through it, although neither of them could stop ending each attempt by cracking up. “Okay, just watch a second, just watch,” Kim was eventually saying, moving Saleem’s hands to a loose two-handed hold so his view was better and shaping out the steps, the shifts, the rock. “You just want to keep it light, right? Like on the balls of your feet.”
“Okay, whatever you’re doing with your hips, there?” Saleem choked off hiccups, nodding his head toward Kim. “I cannot do that. I promise you I cannot do that. I definitely hope you aren’t expecting me to.”
“I am expecting you to,” Kim said, looking back at him grinning even as he kept in his easy motion, Saleem tethered to him by their hands but just standing awkwardly by. “That’s part of how it goes. You got to get the hip going, that’s how the whole motion looks. Honestly, this is nothing, I’m not even good at it. Alma’d make fun of me anytime I tried to do anything Latin; she’d be like ‘aww, look at this white boy trying.'” Saleem cracked up again, and Kim took the opportunity to let the step bring him in close again and back into a closed position. “All right, come on. One more time. Get those hips in there.”
“What hips?” Saleem demanded, jerking his head down at his own slim long body that seemed to have magically turned into all legs. But even as they were both laughing, he was trying again, stumbling along after Kim’s feet.
To Kim’s pride, he did eventually get Saleem pretty close to stable on the basic step, and then he was immediately leading them into hilarious failure again by starting to try to take them through turns. “All right, I’m going to spin you,” he said, before they’d even really recovered from that, staying in motion the whole time. “Just kind of do the same step around in a circle and come back, all right?”
“What, no. No. We are not ready for that.” Saleem was laughing through his protests, though, and Kim just grinned.
“Yeah we are. It’s easy. Here we go.” Saleem was trying to sputter some other objection but Kim just ignored him, and moved fluidly into the turn, lifting their joined arms. Admittedly, this did work better with someone who wasn’t his same height, but no harm in trying. Saleem halfway tried to turn the wrong way in spite of Kim’s hand pressing at the small of his back, shuffled around more like a horror-movie zombie than in a cha-cha step, and almost tripped on his own feet near the end anyway, but he was laughing hard enough all through to make it all feel like a success anyway. And then Kim brought him through the end of the turn, and pulled him back into the closed position with his hand on Saleem’s back and Saleem’s on his shoulder. And all at once they had both lost the motion, and just came to a rest like that, their laughter drying down gradually toward a quiet that spun a not-at-all unpleasant tension out between them.
Saleem’s back was warm through the hoodie he’d dressed down to today, and his hands on Kim’s shoulder and clasped in Kim’s hand felt even warmer. His eyes were turned down, not quite seeming to want to meet Kim’s eyes for a second, and he had surprisingly long dark eyelashes. The curve of his mouth looked smooth and full and inviting in the frame of his beard.
Kim cleared his throat, blinking hard to pull himself out of that train of thought. That made Saleem seem to catch himself too, and he looked back at Kim with a sheepish little laugh. “Okay, not that I’m not impressed with your dedication to a hopeless task,” he said, easing his hands and himself away from their grip in a careful and friendly sort of way, “but we really should probably think about getting some sleep.”
“Yeah, probably,” Kim agreed readily enough, letting Saleem go too and doing his best to seem like he had himself together. “Don’t think we’re not coming back to this, though. I pay my debts.”
“You find some weird-ass ways of paying them, my dude,” Saleem said, but he was grinning a little; and in the end, Kim managed to shut off the music and escape before they could say much more about it.
He got ready for bed and settled in on his habitual half the mattress, in spite of it feeling like sort of a lost cause given how recently he’d just woken up. He had to try, though, if he was going to get any sleep tonight at all. And besides, it sounded like the best way of escaping the churn of anxious butterflies and stormy thoughts and sorry amusement that was running all through him, in the wake of that weird moment he’d had with Saleem.
All right, he liked Saleem a lot. And Saleem was really attractive, that wasn’t weird to notice by itself. Kim had been on his own for a long time, and it was nice to really connect with somebody the way they had so quickly, to feel like he could really talk to somebody. None of that made it a good idea to get a thing for Saleem, though: to start thinking about things like his mouth and how appealing it looked. The situation was just way too wonky, for one thing. He’d still technically hired Saleem as a contractor, even if that wasn’t really how any of it felt anymore, and that should be enough to put a hard no on the whole thing even without the part where they were working together to hunt the furious ghost of his wife. Who he still hurt over just about every day, it felt like, for that matter. There were just too many layers of good reasons why not.
And none of that changed the fact that it had felt really good to hold Saleem in close. Kim sighed, long and gusty, and pressed his hands over his eyes where he lay.
He hadn’t been with a guy in over a decade, since as far back as his early days couch-surfing and roommate-hopping in Philly, but it wasn’t like it was something that went away if you were distracted long enough. Alma had always known, they’d talked about it after it had first come up: when there’d been a blood drive on campus and she’d suggested going together with her usual matter-of-fact, firm compassion, and he’d had to admit he couldn’t, and then had to explain why. And then it had been another thing about him she hadn’t just accepted but had seemed to honestly welcome, just because it was a part of him, and everything about him just as he was, she’d thought was fine. Wanting to be a dancer, not being the one earning the money, staying home with Bibi, not speaking to his parents, the GED that was the top of his schooling — all of it. It wasn’t just fine, even: it had value, because it made him himself.
It was horrible to think that outliving her was, at last, the one thing he could have done that she couldn’t love him through. That he’d finally found the straw that, in death, broke her back. But it also, in its terrible way, made a kind of sense to him. It felt fair. She had always held nothing against him, and now she’d earned the right to hold this one thing, even if it made no sense and she wasn’t even alive to hold it. His debt was enough that anything would have been deserved.
So starting to form feelings for somebody else, on top of all that? No way. It just wasn’t an option. The only thing to do was put it aside and not think about it.
He shouldn’t be thinking about anything, come to that. He should be going to sleep. With another smaller sigh, Kim rolled onto his side and re-settled himself, and did his best to do exactly that.
Saleem woke him a few minutes before three in the morning, bending down by the side of the bed and saying his name softly. Kim rubbed sleep out of his eyes and nodded blearily, and Saleem waited in the doorway fiddling with the big yellow ruled notepad and pens they’d found while Kim got himself upright and stretched and got his shit together. It took him a few seconds of fumbling to find what he was looking for on the dresser by the bedroom door, and Saleem looked at him inquiringly in the dim light from the hallway.
Kim held up the little speaker in his hand, smiling a bit. “I dug out Beeb’s old baby monitor and put it back in her room,” he explained, in a low half-whisper. “Just… wanted to keep track, just in case.”
Instead of smiling or laughing or even commenting, though, Saleem just nodded, looking about as serious as Kim had ever seen him. It was hard to say whether that was comforting or really the opposite.
In the glow from outside and Saleem’s flashlight beam, they climbed up the stairs to the office: the obvious place to try to make contact given the voice recordings, the apparition’s behavior, and also not wanting to wake up Bibi by accident. Kim almost went automatically to turn on the light once they were in the room with the door shut behind them, and then remembered that they were going for a certain type of atmosphere, and left it alone. All the familiar shapes of the room seemed to become ominous in the dark, hulking angles of shadow looming out of the paler walls as Kim and Saleem sat down on the floor, in the middle of the rug.
Saleem set up his flashlight pointing upward between them, so there was a column of light that at least diffused out a little bit around them, although it didn’t do much to make anything brighter. Kim glanced at it, and then nodded to the pad in Saleem’s hand. “So, uh… which one of us should do the actual, you know, writing bit?”
“I can, if you want,” Saleem said, but after just enough of a hesitation for Kim to understand exactly what he was really saying. His mouth twisted, though it wasn’t exactly into a smile.
“Yeah, I know you can. But which one of us should?”
Saleem took a long breath, and then sighed, although a bit of a laugh came out with it. “You,” he admitted, giving Kim a wincing apologetic look. “If it’s a spirit of somebody you know, and that’s tied to you, then, yeah, it should be much easier for you to make a connection.” He paused a moment, and then added, “But you don’t have to.”
“I know,” Kim said again, and reached out to drag the notepad and pens closer to him, picking one up and pushing the others aside. “How do I do this?”
“Just, uh.” Saleem swallowed a little, and then seemed to get some of his balance back, picking up his thread. “Try to clear your mind, and… open yourself up, sort of, I guess. Just focus on the ghost, and wanting to communicate with it. And just kinda scribble on the page, let your hand do whatever. If it works, you won’t have to do the rest.”
Kim nodded, swallowing another grimace at the idea. “All right. I’ll do what I can.”
He took a second to close his eyes and just breathe, trying for clearing his mind — although that seemed like sort of a lost cause, under the circumstances. After a moment, though, he guessed he was settled enough to put the pen on the top page of the notepad, and start letting his hand scratch at it in aimless pen-strokes. He didn’t look at what it was doing, although in the dark he probably couldn’t have seen much of it anyway. Mostly he just kept his eyes closed, listening to the sound of his breathing and Saleem’s and the motion of the pen, the only things there were to hear. Moving his hand and keeping the rest of him still.
If time passed, Kim really had no sense of it. Once he’d gotten the rhythm of what he was doing, it was almost sort of peaceful and relaxing, untethering him slowly from all his thoughts and his sense of himself. He wasn’t sure he had any idea what a trance was, or if this was anything like it, but he did feel after a while like he was sort of floating without much of a body at all, just an idea of himself that went soft at the edges. It felt like he only had thoughts he was barely aware of, like they were submerged under the surface of deep water. Still, even amid all that, it didn’t seem like long that he had his eyes closed and his hand moving. A minute, maybe, at most.
Nice as it was, though, it really didn’t seem to be accomplishing much of anything. Eventually Kim stopped and opened his eyes, stretching out his shoulders a little and lifting his pen hand to shake it out. It felt surprisingly stiff, for how short a time he’d been at this.
“Sorry, I don’t think this is working,” he said, huffing a small laugh as he glanced at Saleem. “Maybe I’m not –“
“Kim,” Saleem said, in a low thin voice. And when Kim really got as good a look at him as he could, frowning, he saw that Saleem was sitting very still, and looking down.
With his hand out of the way, in the cast-off glow from the flashlight, when he followed Saleem’s eyes Kim could just see what was on the notepad. A full page of scratches and scribblings, filling it in from top to bottom, looking dark enough to be double- or even triple-layered in some places — way more than he could possibly have done in the amount of time he’d thought he’d been writing. The work of maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, at least, maybe a full half hour. He couldn’t really read any of what it said in this light, if it said anything: most of it just looked like aimless scribbling. Except that at the very tail end of the bottom where it straggled off, his print getting bigger and sloppier, it looked like it might have been YOUR FAULT, over and over.
But even in this light, he could see perfectly well that the writing didn’t cover the whole page. There were three areas that he had left blank, just plain pale paper in between the words, apparently skipping right over them without even noticing.
The shapes of two round, empty eyes, and of a slice of grin too wide for them, reaching to the edges of the page.
Sitting on the floor beside him, the baby monitor burst into sudden life, making both of them jump. And then tense up and then scramble to their feet in rapid succession, a twin flailing of heart-pounding urgency.
“No!” Bibi’s voice wailed out of the little speaker, tinny and twinned with the faintest echo of her real voice floating up from downstairs and through the door, at this volume. Chasing and hounding both of them as they were jumping up, bursting out the door, clattering down the stairs. “No! Go away! I don’t like it! No! Daddy! Daddy!“
Kim burst into her bedroom first, slamming on the light switch, Saleem close on his heels. He had only an instant’s impression of Bibi sitting up in bed crying and cowering, the dark shape that was looming in close over her, still there in the light, and then he was hurling himself at it without a single pause to think. Just meaning to knock it away with the whole force of his own body.
He barely saw it move, but he felt the clamp of the horrible, inhuman grip that seized around his throat with perfect clarity. There was only another instant’s time to recognize how wrong it felt, how insubstantial even through its bruising intensity — like solid smoke — and then he was airborne, fully off his feet, and then slamming into the far wall high up and hard enough to white out his vision and shudder books thudding off of Bibi’s little shelf. From somewhere miles away he heard Bibi scream, heard Saleem yell “Kim!“
Whatever passed for the shadow-thing’s face was a blur in his vision, looming so close it sent his heart into a hysterical stutter. Kim clawed at the grip around his throat, his teeth completely bared grimacing from the black spots in his vision and the huge agony in his neck. He could only dimly tell that Saleem was coming at them too, couldn’t even try to get the breath to scream at him to stay back. And the thing snapped around toward Saleem, turned its terrible face to look at him — or maybe past him.
And then it was gone. Blinked out of existence, like it had never been.
Kim fell from where he was held up against the wall in a vertigo drop that ended with a bruising, breaking crash half on the top of Bibi’s table. He hit his head on the wall, his shoulder and hip on the table, his kicking feet against the bookshelf, in no particular order, and all the breath crushed out of him in a whooping whoosh. There was a second or two of nothing that made sense, just smeary shapes and the panicky flatness of his chest. But then he managed to wheeze in a gasping, gulpy breath, and start to struggle back toward something like seeing and hearing again, where he sat slumped and tumbled in the fallen books and the battered ruin of the little table and the wall. Bibi was crying, whimpery terrified wails that tore at his chest. Saleem had picked her up and was holding her, her clinging to him koala-like in return, even while he was stumbling to Kim to kneel down in front of him. The room was a disaster, but empty except for the three of them.
Kim closed his eyes for a second, and breathed.
Saleem talked about the hospital, fast and stumblingly enough to barely make sense, but Kim just kept saying no. That was expensive, for one thing, and he was increasingly sure it was unnecessary: he hurt literally everywhere, but he could satisfy their meager combined knowledge of testing for concussion that he didn’t have one, and nothing really hurt in the way it would have if it were broken. Just more bruises, probably, and that wasn’t so bad. Not enough to make him want to be away from either of them for even a second.
It took him longer to get Saleem to settle about it, but he did eventually, just quieting down and sitting holding Bbi on his lap. They were all still collapsed on her bedroom floor, recovering slowly, Bibi clutched in a dazed mess of slow-leaking tears and wet snuffly breathing to Saleem’s chest. Saleem stroked her new braids absently even while Kim was stretching out his arms and neck a bit, wincing, testing where the worst of the pain was.
“So, one thing I never asked you about Alma,” Saleem said suddenly out of nowhere, and right away he sounded weird. Brittle and fake-bright and more edged than Kim had ever heard. “Was she, you know, like, a really shitty mom?”
Kim froze, and then his head jerked up and his spine went stiff, even before his brain had really registered what it had heard. “What?” he managed in a dusty voice, staring at Saleem. Not even able yet to fill the hole where anger would eventually go.
Saleem went on as if he hadn’t heard. “Like, was she the kind of mom who’d scare and threaten her little kid, just to get back at you?” His eyes were fixed on Kim, too intense for the put-on casualness of what he was saying. “Would she have thrown you around the room in front of her, no matter how pissed off she was at you? Does that sound like something she’d do? Just do it and not give a shit at all if it hurt Bibi too?”
Kim just stared at him, even when Saleem had finished and just stared back at him. Couldn’t move, couldn’t think.
“No,” he said finally, still sounding like a croak, his mouth feeling numb and clumsy around it. “No. She wouldn’t.”
“It’s not her, man,” Saleem said. His stare stayed just as intense even as the edges of it softened, as his voice softened, turned unbearably kind. “It was never her.”
Kim stared back at him until his eyes went out-of-focus and blind and blurry, until he couldn’t really see Saleem through them at all. The knowing that Saleem was right — that really, he must have known for a long time that Saleem was right — lurched up through his stomach and into his chest and lodged there, a painful and breath-blocking stone. He choked on it.
Then he had his hands over his face, and he was nodding, fast and hard, because he couldn’t speak to agree out loud. Because he was crying, thick tearing lung-shredding gulps of crying, into the press of his hands, shaking his whole chest and his whole body. It was relief, a little, he guessed, or he’d guess later, when he could think at all. It was terror and uncertainty and despair, a lot.
But mostly, it was that if it had been Alma — even if she’d been angry, even if she’d hated him, even if she’d wanted to genuinely hurt him… it would have meant she was still here.
He bent over his pressing hands, and curled in on himself, gradually. But then there was soft, shuffling sound from somewhere out in front of him, barely reaching him through the sound of his own noisy breath. And they were there. Saleem, shifting Bibi against himself to wrap one free arm around Kim’s shoulders, and pull him in close. Bibi, a warm small weight pressed in between them by the closeness of their bodies, still clinging to Saleem, but taking a handful of Kim’s shirt to grip too when she could reach.
They both held onto him. They all sat like that for a long time.
After he had put himself something like together again, when he could let them all move apart again, Kim found he was finally ready to give in on one other point. No matter what was going to happen tomorrow, they should get out of here for the rest of tonight.
He threw together a suitcase for himself and Bibi, limped around grabbing essentials pretty much at random, and packed everything together in a haphazard mess. Saleem carried the bag downstairs for him while Kim took over carrying Bibi. Without ever really even putting her down, he struggled coats on over their pajamas, grabbed his keys, and headed for the door.
And then, when he put his hand on the knob, couldn’t open it.
Not like he was having some emotional thing where he was dramatically hesitating, either. When he put his hand on the knob and turned it, it literally wouldn’t go. There was nothing stopping it, no weird inside lock of any kind engaged, it just… wouldn’t turn. At all. It was like it was a decoration just stuck out of the wood, not even a functional thing.
“It won’t,” Kim said stupidly, and then just stood there staring at it. There was no idea left in him how to deal with this, how to talk about this or what response he could come up with. Incredibly, he just felt tired — sleepy, even. Suddenly what seemed to make the most sense to him was just sitting down right on the patch of front foyer where he was standing, curling up into a ball with Bibi in his arms, and going back to sleep. Whatever was going to happen next could happen without him. He was done.
Obviously Saleem could see exactly what was happening, although from what Kim could see from the corner of his eyes, Saleem’s gaze was just as blank and numb with the understanding as his own felt. He reached around Kim — Kim couldn’t even summon the energy to move himself and Bibi out of the way — and tried it himself. Just because you had to, Kim guessed. It didn’t magically turn for him, either. It was like there wasn’t even a real door there at all.
Totally disconnected from all sense of himself, feeling like it was a dream, Kim moved at last, to cross slowly over to the curtains over the living room’s front window. A hand that didn’t feel like his reached out, and pulled them a little open. It seemed very dark in the room, some part of him was finally noticing, in spite of the light they’d turned on over the stairs.
There was nothing outside.
No light from the streetlights and the city-glow and security lights of other houses along the street. No car headlights sweeping by distantly on the bigger street a few blocks down. No anything else, either: not the shapes of the sidewalk and grass strip and street in the glow from the window, not the dim shapes of cars parked along it, not the shapes of other houses. Nothing but blackness. Pure uninterrupted dark, that crowded close up against the windows and took up all of the space that fell away from the house, too. He couldn’t even see the grass that should have been right under the window, the ground right beneath. Just an endless expanse of blank, empty, dark night.
His own shape and Bibi’s reflected dimly on the glass, against the dark and with the light from over the stairs behind him: the completely still, silent shape of a man staring out at endless nothing, a little girl pressed clinging to him against his chest, her head mercifully still buried against his shoulder. After a few moments, although he was barely aware of any sound, another shape came over to join his, another man’s narrower frame with a face as struck still as his own. Both of them standing side-by-side, and just looking.
Chill radiated from the glass as they stood and looked at it. If they leaned close enough, all it would show was their breath.
Saleem was standing at the end of the house’s second-floor hallway, at the foot of the stairs up to the office where Kim didn’t like to go. It was night, but there was clear, bright moonlight spilling through the skylight, along with the ordinary orange city glow that gave him a pang of deep relief even now, when he didn’t quite remember or understand why. It was dim and gloomy, but it was easy enough to see the stairs, and the woman at the top of them, at the mouth of the little hallway that started there.
The woman was stretched out in a cruciform spread-eagle, her hands braced on the walls high above her head to either side, her feet also stretched out to brace hard up against the baseboards. She was straining, gasping for breath, fighting with all her might to keep holding the position she was in. Saleem was only dimly aware, with the certainty of dream-logic, that she was the same woman who’d been in his dream the night before: the one who’d been tending the aloe plant by the door.
There was something behind her, in the shadows of the hallway, trying to get past her. Pushing at her, grabbing at her, trying to force its way around the stubborn blockage of her shape. She was rocked back and forth where she stood, buffeted like she was in the full force of a wind tunnel, but she held her place. He couldn’t see whatever was attacking her, not exactly. It looked like the shadows themselves were moving, solidifying and building into a bank, like gathering thunderheads. Every now and then, though, a roiling mass of something dark and formless would punch suddenly through her — spiking through the front of her body from the back, making her shout with effort and maybe pain. These violent emergences were horrible to watch but at least bloodless, and they didn’t seem to wound her, exactly. But after each, he thought that the part of her that it had passed through — her belly, her thigh, her arm — looked somehow less solid than it had before. Like it had become slightly more transparent.
Still she held on. And when her head dropped forward, in an incredible weariness and determination, her gaze fixed down on Saleem.
“Tell him to find the ring,” she said down the stairs to him, her voice raised through the tautness of strain. Her eyes boring into him with an intensity that almost made him want to flinch, even while he was trying to think, how could he help her? “Tell him he has to find the ring. Tell him.” The thing struck at her again, and she grimaced through another brace that seemed to rob from her all the air to speak. And then she was growling it, commanding it, her voice rising up to a roar: “Tell him! Tell him! Tell him!“
And then Saleem’s breath hissed into him on a gasp again, even as his eyes were snapping open and the dream broke open around him.
He let out his breath slowly, rubbing both his hands over his face. It was still dark in the living room, whatever time it was, but when he glanced around at the other couch, it looked like he hadn’t woken up Kim or Bibi, at least. The dark indistinct shape of Kim’s big body was still sprawled out over the cushions, the little blanket-covered lump of Bibi immobile on top of him except for slowly rising and falling with his breath in his chest. That was a good sight to look at for a minute, he found. Calming.
Saleem sat up slowly, as quietly as he could, pulling the blanket that had been half kicked off of him across his lap. He grabbed up his computer from the floor nearby, and hauled it onto his lap too, wincing a little as the glow of the screen came on and lit up a little bubble around him. He logged in and pulled up a blank document right away, and then sat there frowning, rubbing absently at the back of his head. Then, haltingly, he started to type out the best summary he could of the fragments of dream that were already fading out of him: rediscovering pieces out of order, one at a frustratingly gradual time, some only coming back to him by association once he’d gotten something else.
She said “tell him to find the ring,” was the last detail he added, before letting his hands lapse and go quiet for a while. He rested his thumb against his mouth a moment, pressing his lips back into his teeth and debating with himself, and then finally clicked back toward the beginning and put in the piece he was both most certain of, and least inclined to admit it.
The woman was Kim’s wife Alma.
She had been the night before, too. There was really no denying it now, why seeing her in those pictures had rung a bell, even though in his dreams she had looked different in so many definable and less-definable ways. Even though he hadn’t seen the pictures yet when he’d dreamed about her last night, for that matter. There was still no doubt in his mind.
Not that he was ready to even guess what any of that meant.
It was only when he was finally satisfied that he’d written down as much as he could remember that he finally noticed the time on the clock in his computer taskbar. And then he got caught there, just staring at it, going numb all over again. 9:46 AM, it said.
He’d glanced over the weather forecast for the next few days when he’d been bringing over stuff to stay the night here. It should have been full bright, clear, cold winter daylight outside by now, all the relievingly normal things of the world lit up outside the front window. But it was still solid dark outside and inside, the deep still dark of the middle of the night. It looked exactly like it had when he’d woken up at three this morning, to go upstairs and wake Kim for the stupid automatic writing idea.
Saleem sat very still for a little while, listening to the sound of his own breath in and out and the light raspy burr of Kim snoring under Bibi’s weight. Then he pulled up his email. At least if it was almost ten in the morning, the world was awake, somewhere outside. There were people out there, beyond where they could reach, probably doing things like it was a totally normal day and not the end of the world. Getting on the phone was out for right now, but —
He opened up a new message window, putting “HELP” in the subject line and flagging for urgency, and a long list of names in the To: field: his parents, his sisters, a friend or two from work, even the guy from Cape May who’d been helping him out. In the body he typed a very vague and detail-light description of the situation and a plea for them to come try to bust into the house or get the fire department or something, trying to put it all in the most urgent possible terms without getting into any of the weirder parts of what was going on. The window vanished as he clicked Send, and he could let himself have one exhale of breath, feel hopeful for a second.
Then two seconds later the replies arrived: all at once, in a simultaneous column of the bold text of unread messages. Way too soon for a response, and way too synchronized to make any sense. Saleem stared at them. For a minute he honestly couldn’t even move enough to open them.
The body of every reply was exactly the same.
By the time he’d gotten to the last one, the flesh was crawling on his back and the nape of his neck so badly he had to close the message immediately, with a slightly shaky jerk of his hand on the touchpad. There was a tight sinking ball in his stomach, too, but he honestly couldn’t even make time for that yet.
As calmly as possible, he switched windows, moving to his browser instead. He opened a new tab for a search and put in “hauntings inhuman spirits,” even though he pretty much already knew the gist of the advice anything useful would give. Get a priest or a psychic or both, let a specialist do an exorcism or a cleansing or both, and keep your expectations low. If this is what you’re dealing with, there might not be a solve, ever, and containment might be the best you can hope for. This is basically the part of the movie where everybody dies.
It didn’t matter anyway. On the page of results, the text of every link that came up was :), blue and underlined, and the plain text of the description underneath said the same thing. A solid wall of it all the way down the page. From what felt like a hundred miles away Saleem actually clicked on one of the links, not even knowing what he expected. The browser loaded a single image, massive, high-resolution: a still from the video Kim had captured, of the horrible bright eyes and mouth in darkness of when the thing had leaned down to the camera. It filled the whole window, right up in his face.
Saleem closed his browser, closed his email, and then, a second later, shut the lid of his laptop. Then he sat there with his hand on top of it, breathing in the dark.
Something about the sound or the change in the light seemed to wake Kim, though, which Saleem could feel a little guilty about but not quite sorry. Kim stirred, groaning under his breath, though Bibi barely moved when he jostled her trying at first to sit up. As Saleem watched in the dim, centering himself on them, Kim stopped moving at once, and then gathered Bibi into his arms with deep tenderness. He moved with the slowest, most graceful care even half-awake, to lift her up and then set her curled up back on the couch beside him, as he moved to a sitting position.
Kim sat rubbing at his face for a minute, yawning, and then he glanced up and blinked until he could seem to see Saleem sitting there. “Hey,” he said, barely above a whisper. “You been up long?”
“Nah, just a few minutes,” Saleem said, just as quietly. He hesitated for only a second before adding, “I think I got a couple things we need to talk about, though. When you’re awake enough.”
Kim looked down a minute to pull the blanket back up around Bibi, and then got up, moving over to the other couch beside Saleem. Good idea to keep their voices a bit further away, even if Saleem didn’t think Kim would be letting Bibi out of immediate sight range anytime soon.
He told Kim about the emails and the search results, as calmly as he could. Not opening his computer back up to show Kim, though; he didn’t think he was quite ready to handle that, and why wouldn’t Kim believe him about it at this point? Kim just nodded, sure enough, mouth set in a grim tight line. Then came the harder work of telling about the dreams — but it was way past time to have some courage about that, too.
“You’re sure it was her?” Kim asked after a very long silence, after Saleem had given him the basics. Saleem nodded, holding Kim’s eyes the best he could in this light.
“Positive. From the pictures you showed me, yeah, that’s why she looked familiar when I saw them, but even more than that, just from — knowing. You know, like how it works in dreams. Even if something or somebody doesn’t look quite right, you know who it is, ’cause it’s your dream.” Kim nodded, at least in acknowledgement if not agreement, and Saleem took another breath. “And… she said something at the end, right before I woke up, this time. I don’t know what it means, but I figured it had to be about you. She said, ‘Tell him to find the ring.'” He paused for a second’s quick search of Kim’s face, but it looked blank so far. “That mean anything to you?”
“Not… off the top of my head,” Kim said, slowly. He sat back a minute, resting his arms over his thighs, far-off and thinking. “I mean, the only thing comes to mind about a ring and Alma is, you know.” He held up his left hand in front of him, its back toward Saleem, so he could see the wedding band there glint in the very faint light. Whatever Saleem’s expression might have been — he wasn’t honestly sure — it made Kim’s mouth turn into a sheepish grimacey smile. “For a while I wasn’t ready to take it off, and then I figured it’d just make my hand feel weird,” he said, by way of explanation, though Saleem could have told him he didn’t need to, he could have had any reason he wanted and it’d belong only to him. “But, I mean, I definitely don’t need to find it.”
“What about her ring, then?” Saleem said, after a minute to debate it. Kim shook his head.
“I still have it, yeah. But I always just keep it in the drawer in her nightstand — I haven’t even opened it in months. So that’s not missing, either.” He let that sit a moment after saying it, though, his brow gradually creasing as he seemed to turn it over in his mind. “You want to go get it, just to make sure?”
Saleem didn’t, particularly — not least because that would involve getting up and moving around this goddamn dark house some more, and who knew what that might lead to at this point — but he nodded anyway. “Yeah, might be a good idea. Just in case, like you said.”
He waited for a minute while Kim gathered Bibi up off the couch and into his arms to carry her, still wrapped in the blanket. Of course they weren’t going to leave her alone in another room from them for even a second. She murbled a little under her breath when she was lifted, but seemed to go right back to sleep with her cheek smushed against Kim’s chest as soon as she was settled again. That was cute as hell, of course, but also tugged a little uncomfortably at the back of Saleem’s mind, making it snarl into threads of worry. Kim had said she was usually up and running as soon as the sun was up, and here it was almost ten in the morning and she was still this conked out? They’d all had a pretty interrupted night, but it didn’t seem like it should have been that bad.
Then again, maybe it was for the best for her to stay sleeping. All things considered.
They climbed the stairs, sticking all three close together. Kim flicked the light-switch at the bottom of the staircase when they got there, but when nothing happened, he just let out a sigh that sounded tired and disgusted but not at all surprised. Saleem couldn’t say he was either, even though he hadn’t tried any of the lights himself yet — but he’d also noticed that, even so, the heat still seemed to be on, and his laptop had still been drawing power from where it was plugged into the wall. So it didn’t seem like it was anything as complete or as benign as a blackout, either. It was just… supposed to be dark, apparently.
When they got to the second floor, they turned into the master bedroom, Kim going first with Bibi in his arms. Saleem didn’t much like being back in here like this, not after seeing that thing in here on the first night, and he just hovered by the door as Kim went to the nearer nightstand and pulled its drawer open.
And then stopped, and stood very still, just bent over the drawer and staring.
Saleem was just opening his mouth to ask what was wrong, his heart already instinctively starting to pound hard, when Kim got there first. “Do you…” he said, but then his voice went dry and creaky on him, and died out. He swallowed, and tried again. “Do you have your phone on you?”
Without a word, Saleem handed it over, and with the flashlight app already pulled up. So he guessed he must have already known. As soon as Kim had asked, he must have understood.
Kim could barely reach from under Bibi to accept it, and then he just held onto it in his hand as he bent down and laid her on the still-unmade bed, where she stirred and snuffled again and then lapsed just as quick back into sleep-heavy breathing. Then he had both hands free, to turn the flashlight on with one hand, and use the other to pull the drawer as far out as it would go with a soft groan of wood on wood. He took his time there, shining the flashlight all through the clearly empty drawer, into every corner.
When he finally straightened back up and looked at Saleem, he didn’t say anything at first. But his expression was helpless in a way that was too horrible for Saleem to look at for long. He kept his eyes cast down, even as Kim was holding out his phone and Saleem was taking it back.
“Well,” Kim said finally, and he made a sound a little like he was strangling on a laugh. “I guess that answers one thing.”
They talked about looking for it, of course, but as much as Saleem didn’t like to admit it, it was hard not to feel like that was a dead end for now. If the ring wasn’t where Kim had left it, it could be anywhere in the whole house, and searching top to bottom for it by flashlight seemed like an exercise in frustration that might not help much. And the fact that it might be a lengthy waste of time seemed, increasingly, like cause for concern.
He helped Kim scrounge some cereal together when they got back downstairs; it wasn’t like he wanted to eat anything, but he knew they were all at least going to need fuel. Bibi could be grudgingly roused to sit up at the table and eat hers, but she was groggy and uncharacteristically quiet as she did. As much as there were a lot of questions that it would have been awful for them to try to answer for her right now — Why can’t we go outside, why’s it so dark, why can’t I sleep in my bed, or the best toddler approximations she could have made of each — somehow it was worse that she asked nothing at all, didn’t even seem to question the extremely weird situation. She just seemed really tired, like Kim did. Too out of it to really register what was going on.
After breakfast they all went together to get an armload of picture books from the shelf in her room, and Saleem sat by on the couch while Kim held her in his lap and read to her by flashlight for a while. She started drooping by about the third one, though, and was out again pretty quick afterward. Seeing the way Kim looked at her as he tucked her back on the couch under the blanket — the same tight lines of worry that Saleem could feel inside his own chest, but with a whole extra layer of agonized helplessness — hurt astonishingly just to look at.
“So, um,” Saleem said softly after only as much silence as he could bear after that, although it still made him wince to hear himself break it. “I think it’s… safe to say we’re really far out of my depth at this point. But I’m working on a theory.”
Kim pulled his eyes slowly away from Bibi to turn to him, and Saleem at least thought there was a bit of a relieved twist in his mouth, just at having something to focus on. He didn’t look anything like hopeful about it as he came over to sit again, but Saleem guessed that would have been a lot to ask. “Yeah?”
Saleem nodded. “I definitely don’t think this is any kind of residual haunting, or anything that was ever human. I think that kind of goes without saying at this point.” Kim’s mouth twisted a little more, but that was all the answer he seemed to have. Saleem took a breath, blew it out through pursed lips. “I can’t say anything for sure — this goes way over the edge of anything I’ve even read about — but if I had to guess based on what I’ve seen… I think this is some kind of spirit, or manifestation, of something malicious, that was attracted to you because of, ah, strong emotions, if that makes sense.” He hesitated another second, and then plunged ahead into the rest, without ever quite looking at Kim straight on. “All the grief, and guilt, and everything that you’ve got about Alma. It’s… you know, I can see it’s a lot, and this thing, it seems like it… feeds off of it, somehow. I definitely think I saw it drawing some kind of energy out of you that one time, and all the stuff it’s been doing — kind of looking like her, sounding like her, reaching out of the box with pictures of her, the ‘YOUR FAULT’ stuff in the automatic writing — it seems like it’s really trying to push you on the stuff with Alma. You know. Make it worse. And… I think, especially this time of year, with the anniversary of when she passed away coming up like you told me… it’s been making it stronger, so that it can do more real stuff. Be more physical, and attack, and now — do this.”
He waved his hand vaguely around toward the space over their heads as he said that last: indicating as best he could the darkness in the house, and their being trapped here. When he glanced at Kim, though, he found Kim wasn’t looking at all. He was just staring down at his own hands, sitting still, with his shoulders slumped.
“So it is my fault,” he said quietly, after a long moment, and looked up at Saleem with a jagged broken little smile. “Even if it’s not Alma being angry at me, it’s happening because of me. If it wasn’t for all my shit — “
“Hey, no,” Saleem said — with more force than he’d planned, and louder than he might have wanted in a room with a sleeping kid, making him have to wince and dial himself back a little. He grabbed at Kim’s hand instead, though, holding onto it without much thinking about it. “That’s bullshit. It’s not your fault.” Of course Kim didn’t look convinced, already looked like he was about to say something, but Saleem cut him off, staring and holding his eyes as best he could. “Would it be your fault if you had a really awesome car and somebody stole it? If you just had something this thing wanted — which is just my theory anyway — yeah, that’s a why, but it’s not about fault. You can’t blame yourself. None of this is on you.”
“You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me, though,” Kim said, in something more like resignation, after a pause that didn’t exactly seem to be of acceptance. “I’m… God, I’m so fucking sorry I got you into this. You shouldn’t even be here right now.”
It was hard to stand the thickness in his voice, the way he wouldn’t even look at Saleem. Saleem squeezed his hand, where he was still holding onto it, just for something to maybe make him stop. “Yeah, I should,” he said low, and when Kim finally managed to lift his head again a little, smiled at him as firmly as possible. “I’m the pro here, remember? Just think how this is gonna look on my resume.”
Kim stared at him a second — and then snorted himself into laughter, even while he looked more surprised by it than anyone. He put his free hand over his face to rub at it, although some part of Saleem’s chest felt warmer at noticing that he never let go with his other. “Christ. They got a spot for this shit on LinkedIn?”
“They should,” Saleem said, grinning now with something more like honesty, and then they were both cracking up more than any of it warranted.
When they’d subsided again (quicker than Saleem would have liked), he took another breath before pushing further ahead. “Anyway… look, I’m not gonna pretend I know the way out of this.” If there even is a way out of this, he didn’t say, but he doubted he needed to. It wasn’t like that hadn’t been on the table since the doorknob wouldn’t turn last night. “But I do think, at some point, we’re gonna need to go back up to the office. It seems pretty clear at this point that’s where the entity’s focused, like that’s where.it… gets the most food, if you get me. It at least seems like it shows up strongest there.”
There was still a trace of a smile on Kim’s face as it turned back up to him, although it was a lot more weary and bleak now. “Those all seem like really good reasons not to go up there.”
“Not if we want to confront it. Force a showdown. And I think we’re gonna have to at least try that eventually.” Kim’s stare was edging toward pure incomprehension now, though, and Saleem set his mouth and met his eyes. “If it’s feeding off you, it’s only going to get stronger the longer this goes on. And… Jesus, I didn’t want to say this, but… it’s weird how tired Bibi is, right? How much she’s sleeping? I think, now that it’s come this far — “
“Yeah, no, don’t say it,” Kim said, so tightly it was almost choked. He was looking away from Saleem again, though – from the look of it – avoiding looking at Bibi at the same time. “I know.”
Saleem nodded, pressing his lips together. “So I’m just saying… I think we’ve got to make a move first, because whatever this is we’re stuck in, I don’t think we have an unlimited amount of time here before… I don’t know. Some damage gets done.” He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. “And the longer it keeps eating, the less likely it is that we’re ever getting out.”
They talked for a while more on the couch, heads close together, scraping for anything that felt even a hair better than hopeless. Finally they got up, and Kim got the biggest, sharpest knife he had around out of the kitchen, and wrapped it up in a towel for transport. If the thing had a physical body now, maybe that body could be hurt, right? Saleem found he could find that idea encouraging while having no hope for it at all, which seemed like a hell of a trick. They also ended up popping open a couple more boxes of Kim’s mother-in-law’s things, for Kim to gently dig through until he found the Bible he’d remembered was somewhere in there. It was a prettily decorated old Biblia de Jerusalén, with a faded illustration of the Holy Family on the front cover. Completely in Spanish, of course, but Kim at least could read aloud from it and have some idea what he was saying, if it came to that.
They put together those and a few other items: another flashlight, batteries, some candles, whatever seemed useful. And Saleem would have sworn, if he’d even felt like he needed to think about it at all, that they were out of the room for no more than a minute or two to get the stuff, tops. Only technically out of the room, at that: the dining room where the boxes were was really part of the same space as the living room, wide open to it, and the kitchen hooked around the corner but likewise was open to the dining room along one whole wall. They should never have even been out of sight range of where Bibi was sleeping on the couch. Hadn’t they both been so careful about that all morning long?
But even still, between the darkness and their preoccupation, somehow when they came back in —
“Bibi?” Kim was already saying, in a tight and strained but also loud voice, even while Saleem was still frozen. Still standing just behind him and staring at the rumple of empty blankets on the empty couch caught in his flashlight beam, where Bibi had just been an insanely short amount of time before. When he could finally move, it was only to sweep the flashlight desperately all over the room: both couches, under the coffee table, the corners, the shadows. There was nothing and no one there.
This time, Kim’s yell was loud enough to make him wince — almost a hoarse scream. “Bibi?“
No answer. But maybe, distantly, a sigh of something like rushing air. And then a thump of movement from upstairs.
They ran pounding up the stairs, Kim screaming Bibi’s name, Saleem following as close as he could with the flashlight beam bouncing in crazy strobing loops ahead of him. Kim skidded out into the second floor hall and began whipping around, looking all possible ways — and then froze when he looked up, toward the stairs up to the office. Saleem had thundered up beside him panting a second later, and shone the light upward.
And every muscle in him locked.
Bibi’s small body, still wrapped in soft disheveled pajamas and the hoodie Kim had put on her to keep warm, was floating prone in mid-air. Her eyes were closed, her arms and legs dangling lax toward the floor and her head lolled back, still lined with the braids Saleem had put in. Curled all around her, enveloping her like arms, were swathes of a deep, rolling blackness, a formless empty space that was still somehow darker than all the other darkness in the house, too dark for Saleem’s flashlight or anything else to penetrate. It seemed to pulse and squeezed around her, and his skin crawled with the shreds of what he could remember of his dream.
Even as they caught sight of it, the darkness was already pulling on her where she floated, both keeping her aloft and drawing her upwards along the staircase. Floating her smoothly but not slowly, so that before either of them could even really react, she had reached the upstairs hallway. Her little, creepily drifting form was reeled back deep into its darker shadows, and behind the door at the end.
“Bibi!” Kim screamed again, and he was hurtling forward, up those stairs too at a run too fast to be safe. He was only a few steps up, though, when the door slammed shut, with a clap that was hugely loud in the ominous dark quiet of the house. And Bibi on the other side of it.
Saleem hurtled up after him, and by the time he got there Kim was already throwing himself full-force against the door, trying to slam it back open. Saleem rushed in to throw his considerably lesser weight in beside Kim’s, when the door didn’t move, but at least it didn’t seem to be like the outside door downstairs: it wasn’t motionless, like it was more wall than door. It gave a little each time under Kim’s doorknob-twisting and their combined shoving. It would even shudder inward, when they pushed, and then settle back into place. It felt more like someone was standing right on the other side, holding it closed. Someone very strong.
Still yelling Bib’s name, Kim quickly lost all control and started actually backing up a bit to crash into the door in a full-on tackle, making it and the walls all around them rattle. The best thing Saleem could seem to do was get the hell out of his way, and hold the light for him. He bodyslammed the door three, four, five times, undoubtedly turning his shoulder into so much raw hamburger though there was no way he noticed that now. And then on the last slam the door finally splintered, the smooth white wood of its top bevel buckling into jagged spikes of raw wood under his hammering force. It seemed to warp the whole door a bit out of its frame, too, and maybe that was what got it to finally stutter and drag open, and let them both stumble inside.
The roiling darkness was everywhere in here, like an oily black cloudbank that had gotten into the house somehow. Like smoke that had come to life. It licked over the walls, collected along the floorboards and billowed through the air, but the largest part of it gathered into a building piling pillar like a tornado at the center of the room. It was wrapped around Bibi there, still holding her aloft but now close to the ground, her back bent backward and arms dangling. She was thrashing and convulsing, Saleem could see in dim numb horror from behind Kim, and the black shadow-stuff was actually covering her face, pouring over it and burying it inside a thundercloud darkness. It was hard to see what it was even doing to her, but it looked like something around her mouth — maybe even pressing itself into it.
Kim was already rushing at her, anyway, grabbing her into his arms with terrific force and yanking her away from where the moving darkness concentrated, dragging her back where it was at least a little thinner. It didn’t look like it gave her up to him with any small amount of effort on his part, either. She collapsed heavily into his arms when he had pulled her free, but she was still thrashing, her whole little body wracking with some effort that was horribly silent.
If it had just been Saleem, he had no idea what he would have done. But Kim never hesitated.
HiIs face still frozen in wild-eyed tooth-bared fury and fear, Kim dropped into a tumble on the ground and laid Bibi forward over his lap, with fast expert hands. He held her there with one hand while he thumped the other palm five firm, careful times against her back. Then, when that awful silent coughing didn’t stop, he pulled her back up against his chest, made a fist below her ribs and against her belly, and hefted it sharply upward with his other hand.
There was a harsh, wet, barking sound, and something small hurtled out of Bibi’s open mouth — flying a good distance across the floor and making a dull cling even against the rug. But by then, it was almost covered by the sudden outburst of sound of her coughing and crying: thick and wet and painful, laced with pitiful little whimpers, and still absolutely blessed to hear.
Kim just hugged her to his chest now, his arms gentle instead of purposeful, his face buried against one side of her head and his other hand stroking her hair. He was shaking too, all through him. The darkness was churning slowly all around where they sat, but with increasing purpose as it shifted itself around. Starting to redirect itself, and move in their direction.
And Saleem only barely saw any of it, because he was taking the few numb, sludgy, dreamlike steps that brought him to the thing that had popped out of Bibi’s mouth. Bending down, and picking it up in his hand.
It was a ring. What looked like a woman’s wedding band, plain and made of white gold and a perfect match to the bigger ring that Kim still wore on his left hand, apparently no worse for being a little wet and tossed across the room. Of course it was. He could find no surprise in himself at all.
A totally unnatural and unhealthy sort of calm had taken over him by this point, and in the midst of it he looked up from the ring and started moving again. He was only half-aware of the double-deep darkness swirling faster and faster around the room and tightening in on itself, and beginning to pull into a towering, hideous shape that was almost like a woman’s, looming over where Kim and Bibi hunched small and helpless below it. Saleem just closed the distance to them, and crouched beside them. He took one each of their hands with gentle certainty out of the embrace, Kim’s big one from Bibi’s hair and Bibi’s tiny one from a panic-lock behind Kim’s neck. And he pressed them together, with the ring clasped between their palms.
For a second, nothing happened. Neither of them really even seemed to notice.
The light started slowly. At first it was just a dim flicker from the crack between their hands, warmed and pinkened by the combined tone of their skin. Then it was brighter, and brighter, and then brilliantly no color at all, so bright that Kim and Bibi both squinted back from it and their hands glowed translucent from trapping its intensity. First it cast shadows from everything in the room — their huddled forms, the shapes of the furniture — and then it banished all the shadows, painting everything flat and bright. Even the dark depths of the furiously grinning woman-shadow-shape seemed to dim in its glare.
Then at last, in the halo of that light, a figure unfolded itself with smooth, dignified grace from the joining of Kim and Bibi’s hands. A head and shoulders, then a long lean torso arching upward, then one leg stepping itself free followed by the other. It eased out and straightened up with the elegance of a woman getting out of a limousine onto a red carpet, and it was a woman, not an it but a she: tall, slim, brown-skinned, with a halo of short hair and large dark eyes and a wide and expressive mouth that would always smile easily, clad indistinctly in some sort of long dragging gown the color of light. The shape of her was both ethereal, soft-edged and light-filled and hard to see clearly, and also profoundly, beautifully human. As much so as she had looked while she had been digging at the roots of a wilting aloe plant, and sweating and straining with the effort of holding back the thing that was trying to tear her away from her protective position, and captured in dozens of photographs where Bibi was just a bump under her dress or she was laughing on a bench on a college campus in golden autumn light, frozen in time, a memory held forever.
Alma walked forward, ahead of where Kim and Bibi both huddled in her shadow and stared up at her in frozen dumbfounded silence. Behind her, connecting her back directly to them, trailed two soft thin connections of rippling, distorted air, but neither of them seemed to have noticed that at all. She came completely without fear up to the twisted, malformed woman-shape of shadow that looked more than ever like her negative image, a hole meant to crudely parody her that had been cut out of the world. She looked up at it and suddenly Saleem was very glad that from this angle, he couldn’t see her face anymore.
She thrust both her arms up and forward and at it. Into it. Stabbing them wreathed in light right into the middle of the thing.
It tried to flinch from her but couldn’t, and her arms slammed through it, all the way into it. It spasmed around them, flailing, bubbling. The air split with a howl that hurt to hear, like the sound a thing would make when it was being tortured. Its limbs scrabble-clawed at the air faster than any living thing should be able to move.
Alma stayed there a moment, pressing even deeper, grinding her arms forward with a gathering strength in her upper arms and shoulders that Saleem could see clenching there. And then, with all her strength, with her hands hooked into claws — she wrenched them apart. Ripped them apart. Forced them tearingly, powerfully wide, light spreading in a punishing arc all around them.
And the shadow-thing, screaming, shredded apart from the inside out.
Its darkness was pried open in a thick, stringy division at the middle that implied gory violence, even while there was nothing to it that was recognizably human. The wall behind it became visible through the middle of it, and then it was splitting into two distinct halves, and then splaying and splashing out into dissolving, unformed, scattering nothing. Dark shapeless matter parted ahead of Alma’s arms and then fell apart around them, away from them, out to the walls and corners and then fading even from there. Becoming insubstantial, then transparent, then not there at all.
And then there was nothing left. Even its scream had already faded completely into silence.
They all stayed exactly where they were for a moment. It felt very long, but it probably wasn’t. Then Alma, still draped in light and luminescence and soft insubstantiality but still there and undeniably real, turned around. Whatever look had been on her face before, now it was only thoughtful and tender. As Kim and Bibi stayed frozen in their clasp on the floor, both staring up at her with huge eyes, she came back to them, making her slow deliberate way across the floor, those distorted tethers connecting her to them first shortening and then disappearing as she came close enough. She bent, and reached out with her hand, and laid its too-bright not-quite-solid-enough shape on the top of Bibi’s head, which looked very disheveled and sweaty and ordinary by comparison. Bibi only kept staring back up at her, mouth open and enraptured, as Alma smiled down into her eyes.
Then she looked at Kim, and cupped her other hand against his cheek, brushing a thumb that glowed from inside like a beacon over the trickle of tears that was leaking steadily from the corner of his eye. And she knelt in front of them, lighting them both up with her radiance, and put her arms out around both of them, gathering them in to her. Her head came to rest in between theirs, tucked over Kim’s shoulder, and as she cradled the back of his head Saleem could see her turn to whisper something into his ear, something that Saleem couldn’t have heard and that wasn’t at all meant for him to. But he could see the way Kim’s eyes squeezed shut and his face crumpled hard in on itself in a desperate tightness that didn’t quite look like pain. And the way he buried his face against her, trying to reach up for her insubstantial back, as his shoulders shook and wracked in her arms.
Saleem looked away, into nothing in the dark room. He let that happen without intruding on it any more than he could help, and just breathed, his head empty and pulse heavy and thick in his neck.. His attention was only finally caught back when there was motion again in that bright light at the edges of his vision — and he finally looked to see Alma had raised her head and was looking back at him, and giving him, specifically, a knowing and warm sort of smile.
Then she was sitting back, drawing clear of Kim and Bibi again, her hands lingering reluctantly out toward them and their arms toward her. Kim tried one more time to catch desperately at her hand as she stood up, and she let him do it, and just waited there for a moment. Finally, he took a deep breath, and he let it fall. He let her go.
Her gaze lingered on them even as she was turning, walking away again, toward nowhere more particular than the outer wall of the room, and the nothingness that lay beyond it. But she faded out of existence even as she went, her light dimming, what solidity she had ebbing, becoming transparent and then nearly invisible and then gone. By the time she would have reached the wall, there was nothing left of her at all.
Kim sank crumpled over his knees, hugged Bibi to his chest, and buried his face against her hair and shoulder. After a while, Saleem came over, slowly, and sank down to sit next to them on the floor. He reached out, like Alma had done but in his own way that couldn’t take her place, that was just from him instead, and put his arms around both of them, and held them. Eventually, first Kim and then Bibi fumbled out, sluggishly, and held onto him back.
They stayed like that for a long time. And at some point, Saleem noticed over their shoulders that the darkness outside the windows had lessened, as it was diluted with the ambient orange light of an ordinary, living city.
It should have been daylight out, of course — they’d only been up a few hours from what had claimed to be mid-morning — but somehow Saleem wasn’t surprised when they all blundered back downstairs to check things, and discovered it was already a little after 3 AM on the following morning. Another good reason they wouldn’t have wanted to be in whatever that was for long. Kim stumbled straight to the front door even while Saleem was checking the time, moving Bibi onto one hip, and unlocked and wrenched it open; it came with absolutely no trouble at all, letting in the sight of Kim’s comfortable little neighborhood and the light from the streetlamps, along with a blast of dry and freezing December air. It looked like Kim might have stood like that for quite a while, just staring out and breathing in the wind that was skirling in, if Bibi hadn’t wriggled and burrowed against him and whined that it was too cold. She didn’t sound sleepy in the least.
They collapsed in the living room again in the end, all the same. On maybe three hours of sleep, in the morning Saleem emailed out of work again and then finally — completely bizarrely, feeling like it had been about a hundred years — went home. He blinked around at his apartment after he let himself in, a place he’d last left feeling so confident and normal only maybe a couple days before, like he’d never seen it in his life. And then he had to force himself through the motions of showering and changing before falling into his bed like a sack of rocks. He was going to need every minute of the holiday break coming up, that was for damn sure.
He woke up in early evening panicking out of nowhere, and texted Kim, asking if everything was all right, was the house still okay, were they still okay. The response — yeah, they were, everything was normal — was fast enough to give him almost no time to freak out. Which Saleem guessed meant Kim had probably been keeping his own phone right on him, waiting for a message, worrying the same things about him.
Even as he was staggering around getting his life together, ordering dinner and checking his computer, trying to get everything into an order that would let him go back to his insanely normal job and life tomorrow, Saleem kept texting with Kim about absolutely nothing. Just sending words to each other for the sake of maintaining the lifeline: waiting for the buzz the whole time he was doing anything, dropping everything as soon as he heard it to check. He found the emails he’d tried to send asking for help yesterday in his outbox, all marked with the red that said they’d failed to send, and there were no responses in his inbox anymore that he could see. He deleted all of the unsent messages, even while he was typing out another reply to Kim with his other hand.
And the next day, and the day after that, and the ones after, the weirdest thing yet was how things just… went back to normal. Saleem texted with Kim a couple times every day: checking in first thing in the morning on whether he and Bibi were all right, checking again when he left work just in case he might need to swing by. But by all Kim’s reports, things stayed totally normal in the house, too. He was sleeping through the night with no disturbances — other than Bibi kicking him, since he confessed she’d been sleeping in his bed all the time since. Not that Saleem could ever have begrudged him that. Kim had even set up the laptop camera again the first night Saleem had been gone, and recorded all through. But there’d been nothing: not at three in the morning, not at any other time. Only an empty hallway and room.
Honestly, as much as Saleem could relate to the anxiety, he hadn’t really expected any different. It was pretty clear the job was done, even if in the end, he hadn’t been the one to do it.
Not that that seemed to matter to Kim as much as it should’ve. “I’m still waiting on a bill, you know,” his voice said over the phone on one of their occasional actual calls, apropos of nothing. Saleem made a face, safely unseen, where he stood at the stove with his Bluetooth earpiece in and phone in his pocket; he was trying his best to make some mac and cheese, at least, instead of ordering delivery for the fifth time this week. Christ, he missed Kim’s cooking.
“Yeah, you can keep waiting,” Saleem said, and frowned as he prodded at the gumming-up bottom of the pot. Kim made an annoyed noise, and he tried to firm his voice and keep it sounding like a joke at the same time. “I don’t want to charge you, man, that’s stupid. I didn’t do anything. And — “
“Are you kidding me? You spent hours over here doing all kinds of assessments, and investigating, and staying up all night, and with all your equipment and everything… Hey, babe, put that down, all right? We don’t play with that.” This came slightly muffled and off to one side, and Saleem could guess to whom. He did his best not to let his grin distract him.
“Yeah, all right, but still. The heavy lifting? Not me.” He let that fall into the awkward pause it was bound to, if only for a moment, before picking up again with false lightness. “You made me like five different meals in there and put me up on your couch, how about we call it even.”
“No. We’re not doing that.” And now Kim’s voice was so actually stern that it made Saleem blink a little, and he turned halfway away from his doomed pasta just so he could really listen. “I’m gonna pay you, because you’re a professional and I respect what you do. It meant a lot to me to have you in there, and you stuck with it even when you didn’t have to, when things got really hairy and you weren’t sure how it was gonna work out. And no matter what happened at the end — I hired you, you showed up and you did the work. That means you get paid. That’s the deal.” There was a slight pause, and then Kim added, in a kind of different tone of voice: “Plus, if you bill me and I pay you we can close out the contract, and you’re not on a job for me anymore, and then I can invite you over to hang out and have dinner without having a weird gross thing hanging over it.”
A tiny smile had been gradually growing out of Saleem’s face all this while, but at that it finally turned into a full-on grin. “All right, all right,” he said. “You got me with that last bit, not gonna lie.”
And when Kim laughed, the warmth spreading out in Saleem’s chest felt like it could be something that could be okay to be there, after a long time of not being sure. Something that was right.
He slapped together an invoice later that night and sent it to Kim’s email, and if all the charges were kind of less than he might have settled on for anybody else, that was nobody’s business but his, right? Not fifteen minutes later the full amount was paid in Cashapp, anyway, and that was the end of it. There was more than one nice thing about finally having a client who was younger than eighty.
There was a short spell of quiet the following week, when Kim had said the anniversary of Alma’s death was, which Saleem absolutely understood and gave a respectful distance. Then a few days later Kim called him again, just chatting for a while before awkwardly coming out with, “Hey, uh, I hope this isn’t weird, but — do you do Christmas?”
“I barely even do Eid,” Saleem said, and then laughed off Kim’s start of an apology. “It’s cool, I appreciate you thinking of me. I figure you could probably still use some just family time for a while, anyway.”
“Maybe,” Kim said after a moment’s pause, with a soft blow of breath against the speaker. “I’ll give you a call after, all right?”
“Sounds good,” Saleem said, still smiling. And he even managed to mostly keep from wondering, in the anxious little place at the back of his mind, whether that was true or whether with some extra time to think, Kim would realize he’d rather not see somebody who was going to keep reminding him of everything that had happened.
There’d been nothing to worry about, though, of course. In the drab grey week between when everything shut down for Christmas and everything shut down for New Year’s, Kim called him again, and asked him over for dinner. “If you’ve got time,” he added, sounding almost embarrassed about it, and clearly not realizing he was blocking Saleem’s rush to say yes as soon as he possibly could.
It was good, coming back, after a few weeks shoved confusingly back into the workings of real normal life and trying to remember how it went. No sooner had Kim let him in the door than Bibi was barrelling at him, full-on shrieking, and launching herself at him in a hug hard enough to make him stagger and crack up. He scooped her up, trying not to squash the very store-bought rolls he’d brought, and gave her a couple big loud smooches on the top of her head while she wriggled and giggled. And Kim just stood by in a nicer shirt than his usual tees and laughed and looked really warm and soft around the eyes, in a way that was hard to look at and even harder to look away from.
Dinner was incredible — Kim had actually roasted a whole-ass chicken, Saleem had never suspected the man was quite this extra — and hanging around playing with Bibi and helping tuck her into bed (her own bed now, he noticed) alongside Kim was even better. He couldn’t help seeing in the process, though, that the high railed headboard along her toddler bed had acquired a new ornament since he’d seen it last: a long, sturdy cord woven around its top bar and in between the slats, and weighted down in a dangle at the middle by two differently sized white gold wedding bands. Sure enough, the next time Saleem glanced at Kim’s left hand he finally realized it was bare, except for a clear indentation in the third finger where a ring had been for so long.
When Bibi had finally dozed off and they were making their way back downstairs, Saleem’s curiosity got stronger than the need to leave the elephant in the room alone. “Hey, I was wondering,” he said from behind Kim on the stairs, trying to keep his voice down. “Did you ever get any idea how the ring got to Bibi, that night? You know, after we couldn’t find it, before it — showed up with her.”
There was a twist in the half-smile Kim turned up to him from the bottom of the stairs, one that said he knew what Saleem was trying not to say but appreciated it anyway. “I asked her about it, actually, after you went home the first day,” he said, as Saleem came down the last few steps to standing in front of him. “She just said ‘Mommy gave me it.’ I… tried to get more out of her about what she meant about that, but I couldn’t. She didn’t get what the problem was, and I couldn’t understand anything else she tried to say. Just ‘Mommy gave me it.'” He lapsed into quiet for a moment, looking off into nothing in the dark, and then returned his eyes to Saleem with a resigned little smile. “No idea what to do with that, if it even matters anymore. Who knows if she means sometime before everything happened, or after, or if it’s even something that really happened she’s talking about or just the story of it in her head. Time and whether stuff is made up or not all kinda runs together when you’re that little.”
Saleem nodded, slowly, turning all that over in his mind. “Well, it showed up where it needed to, when it did,” he said finally. “That’s something, right?”
They let the subject slide away, though, after an awkward pause, and headed back into the kitchen. Saleem insisted on helping out with the dishes, and they finally got to chatting again as they carted things in from the dining room.
“So how’ve you been doing?” was specifically how Saleem decided to start, carefully setting down by the sink the nice serving-dish with what was left of the chicken carcass. It seemed to him like it might be a neutral enough way to phrase the question that Kim could decide to answer it any way he wanted. Though if he didn’t know if he was fooling anyone after what he’d asked just a minute ago.
“Pretty good, honestly” Kim said, from where he was rooting around in a cabinet that looked full of little rubber leftover containers. His tone was a little softer than it might have been, but it didn’t seem put on, and neither did the little smile he glanced at Saleem with. “I mean, under the circumstances. I, uh…” He paused, with a couple containers now set out on the counter, and rubbed at the back of his neck before squinting at Saleem with an impossibly charming awkward smile. “I’m — starting therapy, actually. I’ve been looking nearby at people I might be able to afford, and there’s this clinical social worker around the corner who seems really good and does a sliding scale. Got my first appointment next Wednesday, and I guess we’re gonna see how that goes.” However Saleem was looking at him, it seemed to make him drop his eyes and laugh self-consciously. “I dunno. I just figured… if I’ve got enough shit eating at me that it made like a fucking demon or something show up, I probably ought to be talking to somebody about that, right?”
“That’s awesome,” Saleem said, with enough of an honestly impressed tone that it made Kim glance up at him again, his smile surprised. “Seriously, dude, I’m really happy for you. I mean, like, you don’t even have to have demon-summoning-level shit going on for that to be a good move. I just… yeah. I know this has all been really hard for you to start talking about, so — I just think it’s awesome that you feel like you’re ready for that now, man. Right on.”
Kim laughed a little more, looking a little bit awkward about it, but he definitely might have looked sort of pleased in a weird way too. “Well, uh… thanks. Yeah. Just… you know.” He shrugged, looking like he was struggling for his thread a minute, and then let out a long breath. “It’s been — a rough year even before any of this happened, I guess. Like you said. Though if anything… it seemed like it was a little easier to do the whole anniversary thing this time, you know?” He paused a moment, and then laughed unevenly. “I guess partly because I actually knew it might make a difference to her. And because now I’d kind of gotten to say goodbye for real, finally. It feels… like it’s more really over now than it ever felt like before. And like that’s okay. It still sucks, but it’s okay. You know?”
Saleem nodded, not quite sure what to say. Kim didn’t seem to expect him to be, though, just lapsing into quiet again as he was taking out containers and setting them out on the counter.
“What do you think happened?” Kim asked, at last, looking back at him as he moved closer to start transferring the last of the chicken. “With her part of it, I mean. I’ve been turning shit over in my head, but… well, you’re the expert.”
Saleem acknowledged that with a wan little grin, and didn’t argue only because of how wrong the moment seemed for it. “I honestly don’t know,” he said to start, though, sort of by way of warning. “I’ve never really known with any of this, I can just guess based on what I see and what I’ve gotten from other people. But if I had to guess…” Kim nodded, maybe a little impatiently, but Saleem still deliberated over it a minute before very carefully starting to put the sentence together. “I think maybe whatever that thing was doing, it got her attention, kind of? It pulled her back from wherever she was, ’cause she knew she needed to protect you two. And she slowed it down, maybe, kept it from being worse than it got, but it was too strong and it just kept getting stronger. So… finally she figured out how to kind of do the same thing it was doing, but the opposite. She pulled on all your good feelings about her, and each other, and got real enough for a minute that she could kill it. So when it worked, she was like the antidote for it. …Or something like that. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, it does,” Kim said, after a pause. His voice sounded heavy with something Saleem looked elsewhere from, but he seemed to recover himself quickly, clearing his throat and going to put away the packed-up chicken in the fridge. “It’s good enough to go on, anyway. I know I’m probably never gonna a hundred percent know what really happened. When I think about it, though… I guess I don’t need to.”
“I think you know the important parts,” Saleem said softly, making Kim pause a minute in the fridge and then pull back to shut the door with a slight smile. “Still. Wish I could tell you more.”
“It’s all right. I think you did more than enough to help already.” Saleem scoffed a little, but the new smile Kim turned to him was sincere enough to make that falter. “Do you think, uh, you’re still going to keep doing this? The whole… ghost-hunting thing? After all this?”
“Yeah, of course.” The question honestly surprised Saleem, and it came out in his tone, enough to have Kim stopping with eyebrows raised in the middle of packing up the vegetables too. “I mean — I feel you, and yeah, that was definitely wilder than I bargained for, you know? But that’s, like… part of why I feel like I need to keep doing it, too. We saw while we were trying to figure out what to do: there’s almost nobody out there who’s ever dealt with something like that, and now I have. If somebody else got in trouble like that — yeah, I still can’t say I exactly know how to fix it, but at least I’ve seen it before, and I’ve seen it get fixed before. And all right, most of what I run into from here on out might just be shit like somebody’s boiler, but if there’s a chance something like that could happen again and I could be able to help at all… I want to be out there, helping.”
The look Kim turned to him with, vegetables fully forgotten behind him, was too soft and too honestly impressed for Saleem to look at for long. He dropped his eyes away almost at once, stuttering off into a nervous laugh and then nothing, and then they just stood there. Until finally Kim said softly, “You’re really amazing, you know that? Honest to God.” Saleem made another noise that might have been a try at a laugh, more desperately awkward in his skin than ever, but Kim just kept going. “Even just the first night I emailed you, you were just so… honestly nice and thoughtful about everything, and you obviously wanted to help so much, and that was huge for me right then. I don’t know if you have any idea. It just made everything so much more okay suddenly, hearing from you like that and knowing there was somebody I could count on. I don’t think I would’ve ever even written back, if it was anybody who wasn’t you.” Saleem couldn’t even begin unfreezing enough to respond to that, but Kim just let out another soft laugh, shaking his head. “You keep saying you didn’t do anything, it wasn’t you who fixed it, but like — that’s not even what matters, at least as far as I’m concerned. You were there. You were right in there with us, and you weren’t gonna give up until we were safe, no matter what. That was the important part, for me, and I know that’s gonna be the important part for everybody else you help out. Just you. You’re just… really probably the best guy I ever met.”
“You gotta get out more,” Saleem finally managed to say to that, desperately half-laughing, still avoiding Kim’s eyes. Kim didn’t laugh, though, and it fell kind of flat between them, leaving the silence just empty and waiting. Finally, Kim closed up the container of vegetables and took it to the fridge, put the empty dishes in the sink when he came back, and took a step closer to Saleem along the counter. Standing there nearby.
“Can I ask you something?” Kim said, and there was enough of a change in his voice that Saleem couldn’t quite read to make him finally dare looking up. Kim was looking back at him, steady and serious and a little uncertain. His big broad handsome face, with all its pretty lips and kinda big ears and skim of stubble from the day, was closer than it probably should have been to be safe. Saleem nodded anyway, finding it as hard to look away now as he’d been finding it to look before, and Kim took a breath before continuing. “Am I reading it wrong that there’s, like… something here?” He made a vague gesture with his finger in the air, in the direction of Saleem’s body and then in the direction of his and then back and forth, that was somehow a lot more absolutely clear than it should have been.
Saleem’s breath hitched in his throat a little, and he swallowed. “No,” he said, quietly, when he could get it together to the point that he could. “I mean — no, you’re not reading that wrong.” That fell into another moment of quiet, and then he pressed tentatively: “Is that, uh. Okay?”
Kim’s mouth cracked slowly into an actual grin at that, handsome and earnest enough to be kind of dazzling. “Yeah, it’s okay,” he said, half-laughing, though still low. “It’s really good, even. I…” He ducked his head down a second to think, even while Saleem was still reeling from the impact of that, before looking back up at him. “I think I wasn’t sure, for a while. Whether I was ready for it to be okay. With all of this happening, and everything it brought up, and the anniversary, and everything…” Saleem was already nodding his understanding while Kim talked, and it made him finally trail off, gathering his breath. “But… I’ve had some time to think about it. And deal with stuff, at least a little. And I think… I’m good to give it a try. If you are, I mean.”
“I really am,” Saleem said, almost too fast while nodding, enough to make both of them burst into mostly-breath nervous laughs. “As long as you… well, you just said. Don’t wanna get stuck in a loop here.”
Kim grinned at him again, a little shy and puppyish, and it was honestly just too much to take. Saleem stepped in closer, enough to feel a little bit of the warmth of Kim’s chest through both their shirts (god, this actually put Kim’s nicer shirt for the evening into a different context, didn’t it? God damn), and settled a hand around behind the back of Kim’s neck that, at long last, couldn’t be mistaken for just a friendly thing.
“This good?” he asked, barely a murmur, from close enough that he couldn’t actually see how Kim responded. He didn’t need to, though: he could hear the swallow that bobbed in Kim’s throat this time, and feel the way Kim’s forehead brushed his on his nod.
So Saleem tilted his head in to kiss him, and Kim leaned back into it and met him halfway. Their lips first brushed and then pressed and then parted, and Kim’s big hands came to settle at Saleem’s waist even as Saleem’s other arm joined the first up wrapping Kim’s shoulders. They swayed in toward each other along the counter and pressed flush, with a soft wet space gradually opening at the meeting of their mouths. Kim smelled good, like always: just clean warm skin and pleasant little traces of soap and deodorant and shaving lotion, the most basic things but in his own perfect way. He really was a big guy, and getting pulled in close to the broad solid size of him was both hot and comforting somehow.
Kim rubbed his big warm palms in very slow, small circles around on the small of Saleem’s back, and Saleem got his own back getting his hands all over the muscled planes at the backs of Kim’s shoulders. The kiss seemed to be getting softer and messier by degrees all the while, now a little of Kim’s tongue here, now a little of Saleem’s own teeth there. Every little bit he got just seemed to make him want to get more, lingering over the taste of Kim’s mouth while trying to shift angles to something closer, and deeper. This was maybe starting to move a little quickly past what he might have considered “giving it a try,” Saleem though, but… well, he wasn’t about to complain about it.
Even less so when Kim eventually made a gradual shift to get his back up to the counter, for something to lean on, and his grip pulled Saleem along with him. Their bodies pulled in a little too tight in the best way, Saleem’s mouth getting a little hungrily deeper into Kim’s and Kim’s broad thigh ending up right up between both Saleem’s. It was starting to feel like time to back off a little, catch his breath and cool his head off, when Kim actually shifted to roll their hips together gently. Saleem ended up groaning against Kim’s mouth, and having to break off just to gasp for breath alongside Kim’s head, instead.
“Sorry,” Kim murmured, not sounding it much. His own breath was fast and his voice was dark in a way that made Saleem shiver. “Getting a little out of hand.”
Saleem shook his head, the tight curls of his hair rubbing pleasantly along the spiky shortness of Kim’s. “Nothing to be sorry about,” he said back in Kim’s ear, half-laughing, and Kim swallowed his way into an answering breath of laugh while he smoothed his hands down Saleem’s back.
“Hey, um… I know this is gonna sound…” He didn’t seem able to finish that, though, and finally instead he just pulled his head back, leaning back over the counter so he and Saleem could look at each other. “Do you wanna take this upstairs? It’s okay if that’s too fast, but — “
“It’s not too fast for me, necessarily,” Saleem said, as carefully as he could, when he could do a little of the work needed to get his breath under control and his head steady. Looking into Kim’s eyes, which were soft and wide-pupiled on him, didn’t really help much, but it was important anyway. “I think it’s more important whether it is for you. Are you really good with this? We don’t have to rush.”
“Fuck, I really want to rush, though,” Kim said low on a heavy thick breath, his eyes hotter than ever on Saleem’s, and god damn if that didn’t just pull half the responsible sensible ground out from under Saleem’s feet by itself. Kim’s mouth cracked on a crooked smile after a second, and he laughed a little with his head ducking, it seemed like mostly at himself. “I knew you were gonna get it, and be cool about everything, and honestly… that’s what makes me feel like it’s all right? Like, I think I’m good with it, ’cause I know — I can trust you about it.” And even while that was blooming into a tight knot of half-embarrassed, half-happy warmth in Saleem’s chest, Kim looked up at him halfway to a grin again and added, “Plus, you don’t know how long it’s been since I had a chance to just do something kinda stupid and crazy.”
That startled Saleem into laughing, and he leaned his head back into Kim’s neck while he did, his lips moving almost against it when he could get it together enough to speak. “Hey, I can’t say ‘stupid and crazy’ isn’t something I know how to help out with, too.” Kim shivered against him a little at the soft touch, and he couldn’t help a little grin, placing a kiss where his mouth rested. “If you want to, I am more than into that. And no obligation. You want to just see where it goes, that’s cool.”
Kim was silent for half a second, and then his breath heaved hard out of his chest. “Somebody could fall in love with you,” he muttered; but before Saleem could even get over reeling off his feet from that, Kim was kissing him again.
They managed to disengage after only another minute, though, and left the dishes in the sink and the lights off behind them, moving together as quietly as possible up the familiar stairs, to the familiar second floor, and into Kim’s only slightly less familiar bedroom. Kim shut the door out to the hallway — probably mostly just as an early warning system, Saleem thought, and firmed his resolve to be absolutely as quiet as possible — and led Saleem to the bed. They kissed sitting up on the side of it for a little while, before ending up easing back together to end up just lying sideways across it, on their sides face to face, making out and touching each other aimlessly like teenagers. It was a peaceful, friendly sort of quiet in here, only disturbed by the occasional city-night drifts of traffic noise and someone’s music a few blocks away.
After a while Kim got Saleem’s own nicer-than-normal shirt completely free of his belt, and ran his hand up under it and his undershirt to skim warm over his lower back. It sneaked its way around to the front too pretty quickly, up Saleem’s belly and chest, making his breath catch in a way that had Kim grinning against his mouth. Kim pulled back a second later to tug meaningfully at the whole shirt, and Saleem obliged by helping him rush through getting the buttons undone, both their hands a little unsteady. He pushed up and lifted his arms to let himself be pulled out of both layers afterward, and then it only seemed fair to go after Kim’s shirt, too. When they flopped back down, bare chest to bare chest, Kim pulled Saleem over to land mostly on top of him. He wound up lying propped over Kim’s broad body on his elbows, both their legs entangled.
There was no way to pretend that what followed that didn’t turn quickly to grinding. The kissing and petting was starting to get sloppy and urgent, but also increasingly incidental. Having Kim’s upper thigh and hip pressed tight against his dick, moving and rolling slow under him, was good enough to have Saleem’s head buzzing, his breath panting out of him like he’d been running a mile. Kim, for his part, was flushed down to his chest, a splotchy mottle of pink under the light pale hair that Saleem could barely see in the dim glow from the window. He stared up at Saleem when heavy breathing kept breaking them apart, his eyes hazy and hungry and dark. By this point he’d gotten a pretty good double handful of Saleem’s ass, and kept using it as leverage to keep them pressed tight as their hips shifted. Having Kim laid out under him like that seemed like an invitation to push up and get his hands all over Kim’s chest, and Saleem took it, stroking the big cut curves of muscle made soft and sleek and pretty by a little fat over top. God, he just looked so fucking good. Seeing him dance — beyond just trying to teach some clumsy nerd a ballroom step in his living room — had to be a hell of a thing.
“Do you want to fuck me?” Kim said then, though, his eyes still steady and greedy on Saleem’s, and that was good for wiping every other thought out of his head. “I really want you to fuck me.”
“I — Jesus.” Saleem broke into a couple seconds of out-of-breath laughter, helpless. It was kind of a relief that Kim joined him a little. “Yeah, I mean, if you’re sure.” Kim nodded fast, his breath through his parted lips now shaped by a smile, and Saleem couldn’t help smiling back and planting another short kiss on his mouth. “All right. Let’s get crazy. Do you have stuff?”
“Yeah — ” Kim nodded again, and then started pushing upward, so Saleem backed off a little bit to let him get up to sitting. “I got it, one sec. It’s all — in the bathroom somewhere still, I’m pretty sure — fuck, I hope so — “
Saleem tried not to laugh at that again, he really did, but he couldn’t completely help it. It dried up fast, though, when Kim climbed out of the bed and then just took the opportunity of being upright to undo his pants, and shuck them and the boxer-briefs and socks under them off into heaps on the floor. His dick was gorgeous, more than half-hard at this point and a flush of a darker pink on its skin, but it had pretty fierce competition in the big perfect toned curve of Kim’s ass. Kim glanced back at him at Saleem’s sudden stillness, and when Saleem looked back up at Kim’s face he caught a pleased little grin there that brought up a harder flush in his own face, too. At least then Kim did actually head toward the bathroom to start rooting through cabinets, though, and Saleem tried to catch his breath some even as he sat up on the side of his bed and started fumbling with his own belt and fly.
Kim was in there long enough to be a little worrying, making soft sounds of bumping around and rooting through cabinets and drawers, and muttering curses under his breath. In the end, though, he quieted down and then came back looking relieved, holding a condom and a mostly-full plastic bottle of lube. Saleem had managed to get naked too and sit on the edge of the bed by that time, and when he reached up for Kim, Kim just climbed onto his knees over Saleem’s lap and kissed him again. Honestly, doing that shit with his hands full, he had to be just showing off. When Saleem’s arms drew Kim in and their cocks rubbed luxuriously together between them, though, Saleem was anything but about to complain.
“All right, let me lie down,” Kim muttered against Saleem’s mouth after a minute of that. His breath was fast on Saleem’s lips and he seemed to ease away only very reluctantly. “Been a while, this is… probably gonna take some work.”
“No rush,” Saleem promised, and he took the supplies from Kim to let him get situated, too. Kim stretched out back on the bed, his head on the pillows and legs spread, and Saleem had to swallow hard at the sight of him: his cock lying thick and heavy low on his belly, his arm stretched up behind his head to hold the pillow in place, his heavy-lidded stare. He curled his big hand around his cock near the base after a second more, just holding it. It took a deep shaky breath or two for Saleem to get his hands steady enough to even pop open the lube, and start getting it all over his fingers. They were practically dripping by the time he shifted closer, between Kim’s thighs.
Kim spread his legs a little wider, lifting his knees and planting his feet to raise his hips some. His gaze never wavered, and Saleem could swear he could feel it on his skin, a hot touch like sunlight. He pressed one of Kim’s thighs a little higher from underneath, and put his lubed hand to the cleft of Kim’s ass, touching and slicking with his fingers around the edges of Kim’s hole. Finally Kim’s eyes fluttered shut, and he huffed out a short hard breath, canting his hips up further with Saleem’s other bracing hand. The resistance under Saleem’s finger had become almost nothing, and he slid it inside with slow steady control until it had completely seated itself.
That drew another shaky exhale out of Kim, and Saleem flexed his finger a little, testing. Getting it where it felt right, and then starting to pulse it in and let it ease back, just barely moving. Kim’s breath was getting faster, his hand on his cock trying to squeeze just a little, and Saleem paused pretty soon.
“More?” he asked softly, and Kim nodded fast. His brow was creased, not exactly a frown.
“Yeah. That’s — shit, that feels really good.”
Saleem smiled a little even though Kim couldn’t see it, parted around how hard he was breathing. He eased his hand back out just long enough to add another coat of lube, and then pushed back in with two fingers, trying to drop his forearm low to improve the angle. Kim groaned softly from the back of his throat this time, and when he pushed his hips up it looked needier: trying to meet Saleem’s fingers as they came, and invite them in.
For a little while Saleem just worked his fingers there, first mostly just flexing and curling, and then picking up a definite in and out that got some friction going up against where he pressed into Kim. Spreading out the lube and warming things up. Kim was gradually going redder, for his part, sweat starting to prick out of his temples and chest and arms. His hand holding his cock looked increasingly restless and hard to keep still, and the cock itself was definitely fully hard, starting to bead wet at the tip. His hips picked up a rhythm of their own, rocking into Saleem’s hand and asking more of it. Finally he rolled his head around to open his eyes again, feverish and hazed on Saleem as his chest rose and fell.
“All right, that’s good,” he said, on a hot fast rush that all ran together. “I’m good. Come on.”
It was hard to move or think all over again suddenly, but somehow Saleem managed a swallow and a nod after hopefully not too long. He drew his fingers out slowly, and immediately had cause to regret he hadn’t opened up the condom before getting his hands all slick with lube. Still, he pulled it off somehow without embarrassing himself too much, and as he rolled the condom down onto his cock and went back for another generous helping of the lube, Kim pulled closer to him, laying his spread thighs up over Saleem’s knees.
Saleem got his arms up under Kim’s thighs and pulled his hips in tight, then pushed up on his knees over Kim, his shoulders and arms pressing up Kim’s thighs from underneath. One braced him on the bed, while he wrapped the other around his dick and guided it between the curves of Kim’s ass. Kim braced his feet and arched up his hips, and Saleem slid into him slow and easy as water. Kim’s muscles were tight around him, hot and close and absolutely dizzying, but Kim was taking his breaths long and slow and all of him felt heavy and relaxed. Something inside Saleem went very still and warmly quiet, with the humbling power of knowing that he was trusted so much. That it was so easy for Kim to find a place for him inside, and maybe that was because he’d already had one, for a while now.
He slid to his depth, and then firmed his hips up at the end, giving his stroke a little extra emphasis that got Kim’s ass pressed tight up to his lower belly and his thighs. Kim jerked a little when he did, hissing a soft inhale, and Saleem paused to look up at him fast.
“Okay?” he asked quietly, his voice mostly made up of his heavy breath. Kim nodded fast and hard, though, and his own breathing sounded shivery and uneven until he could manage to answer.
“Really okay,” he clarified, with a little wheeze of a laugh that Saleem echoed. Kim swallowed and stroked his cock once, then let go for the time being with what looked like a real effort. “…Fuck.”
Which was good to know, in addition to making all Saleem’s blood seem to buzz hot right up against his skin. He braced himself on both his hands now, and let his hips relax back for a second or two, some of his length easing slick and smooth back out of Kim. Then he pushed again, all the way deep, deep enough to hit Kim right on the spot again, if that was something he was really into. And it sure as hell seemed like it was: Kim arched and twisted a little on his back, grinding his lower half into Saleem’s lap, sweating and flushed and panting, and he groaned when Saleem got deepest. It would’ve been almost hard to remember to move, given how hypnotizing it was to watch him, if the hot slippery clutch of Kim around him hadn’t also been lighting up every nerve in him.
He went slow and easy for a few more strokes, out and in again, and then when Kim pressed up to him and gasped “Harder” he went harder, because how would he not have? His hips started to pick up a rhythm, a steady pulse that was getting faster, plunging in Kim and making him twitch and gasp a sound every time. Kim grabbed at him with both hands, maybe just to keep them off his dick for a little while longer; he clutched at Saleem’s lower back both for leverage to work his own hips against, and just to get big groping palmfuls of his skin. And Saleem just bent over him, fighting his heavy-lidded eyes to keep staring at all the hungry, needy pleasure tightening and twisting up Kim’s face, making his eyes squeeze tight and mouth go slack.
They rocked together with more intensity and more enthusiasm every second, to the point that Saleem was really glad that it seemed like Kim’s bed was sturdy enough not to creak under them. After Kim’s hands had been trembling on his back for a while and Kim squirming and tossing his head restlessly under him, Kim finally muttered another heartfelt “Fuck” under his breath and pulled one hand clumsily back around, squeezing it around his cock and starting to work it fast and hard. Almost immediately he was gasping much deeper, the slick at his head rubbing off against Saleem’s belly where it pressed close over his with every enthusiastic stroke. It had gotten to where Saleem’s hips made a soft slap up against Kim’s ass every time he thrust in, a wet sound made all the more obscene by its quiet amid the greater quiet of the room.
It wasn’t much longer before Kim’s breathing started to get erratic, with a little of his voice shaping every breath, and helpless jerks and twitches started working through all his muscles and pulsing in the heat of his cock. His hand sped up to a peak on himself, wild enough for Saleem to feel bumping against his stomach. And then all of him heaved up and arched, he made a shocked-sounding cry as quietly as he could manage in his throat, and he came: rigid and trembling, not breathing at all for a second and then panting hard and deep, his cock jumping in his hand and spilling over his belly and Saleem’s and his hand.
He also bore down on Saleem’s cock through all of this, hot and tight enough to be almost unbearable. The combination was nothing Saleem could hold out against long. He gasped himself, a shudder going through his back that seemed to land directly in his dick, and pumped harder into Kim a few last times while he was still writhing around. Then it was too much, building up into a huge hot wave that overtook him. He spun out of himself, everything collapsing into heat and chaos as he buried his hips one last time and came, biting down on his groan.
Then they were just there for a second, still and gasping and quiet. It was only needing to deal with the condom that managed to get Saleem moving again: he braced his fingers at its base as he slowly eased his softening dick out, which when he’d done it made Kim let out a long shaky breath and relax deeper into the bed. Saleem got the condom off and got up just long enough to toss it in the bathroom, wash his hands, and grab a washcloth to dampen with warm water.
Kim laughed a little when he brought that back, but his sleepy eyes were soft and warm when he looked up at Saleem. “Thanks,” he said, his voice sounding a little on the dry and creaky side, and took the washcloth to start gingerishly scrubbing at himself. “I probably oughtta get up and clean up for real, but… ah.”
Saleem laughed too, settling back in beside him on the bed. “Yeah, no, been there,” he said, Kim grinned at him sidelong before tossing the washcloth at the laundry hamper across the room, and Saleem was pretty impressed to see it actually mostly make it in. He looked back at Kim then, though, and reached out to touch his chest before asking softly: “Are you all right?”
“Better than all right,” Kim said almost immediately — looking surprised into it, half-laughing. He put his hand over Saleem’s and held it there, and the soft warm look was back in his eyes when he looked up. “You?”
“Yeah, same,” Saleem said, smiling, and he was pretty sure whatever was in his own eyes was a match for Kim’s. They sat like that a second, and then Saleem leaned in questioningly and Kim met him in a kiss. It was slow and luxurious, and peaceful somehow. Safe.
“Stay here tonight?” Kim murmured, close to his lips, when they finally let go. Saleem nodded, his forehead lightly brushing Kim’s, and let their mouths meet again.
“I’d really like to.”
It was still dark the next time Saleem woke up, blinking his eyes up at the ceiling. The weight of Kim dipped the mattress beside him, his breathing still heavy and steady with sleep. When Saleem glanced over at the clock, somehow he wasn’t surprised to see it was 3:07 in the morning. You got into enough of a habit with your sleep in a place, and your body just recorded it sometimes, and stuck to it. Hopefully it would pass. Hopefully he’d spend enough more nights here for it to pass.
The house was quiet now, anyway, as he carefully eased out of the bed to go to the bathroom, as long as he was up. Once he’d washed his hands he came back to the bedroom window, though, instead of going back to bed right away, just to peer out the edge of the thick curtain for a minute. The neighborhood was all out there, just like he’d left it, dark in general but lit up with streetlights and porch lights and city-glow. Not that he’d thought it might be otherwise, or needed to check.
He hadn’t exactly brought any of his instruments, but he also didn’t need them to know that everything was okay, that all the corners of the house down to the study upstairs were empty and at rest. It was just a house now. A home. A place that a smart, kind, well-loved woman had once dreamed of having for her own and living in, and had finally gotten her wish. It was good that she’d have that, and what had come after. She’d made a family here, and though she’d had to leave them, they were still here, where they could remember her best. They did remember her, all the time, and that was hard but it was good, too. It was awful what she’d lost, but she had also been able to protect them, and that was even better. And she had trusted Saleem to protect them, enough to guide him to what he needed to do to help her when the thing feeding on Kim wouldn’t have let her reach for him, and he was grateful for her trust. He was grateful to be able to think that she might have been glad to know that he was here now, that he was coming to love Kim and Bibi both like she had, even if she couldn’t be there to do it herself anymore.
Saleem was going to do his best by them, and anyone else who needed it like they had. It was the only thing that made sense to do.
He let the curtain fall and went back to the bed, settling carefully back in beside Kim so he didn’t disturb him. He’d thought it might take him a while to get back to sleep, but in the end, it hardly took any time at all.
It was several weeks later — after more dinners and visits and the occasional night out, and the riotous chaos of Bibi’s birthday party — when Saleem got the notification from Yelp that his business had a new review, rating him five stars. He scrolled to the text frowning, baffled, and then read:
If something’s happening you can’t explain and you don’t know what to do about it, you absolutely need Saleem. He helped me with some weird stuff that started happening at my house this past December. It got pretty wild there for a while, but Saleem stuck with me and my daughter until it was taken care of. I never even believed in ghosts or anything before this, but it doesn’t matter if you do or not when it starts happening to you. The only thing that got me through it was having Saleem on my side.
He’s really serious about what he does, but you can tell he does it because he really cares about people. He did awesome work and he’s really professional, but what mattered the most to me was just that he was so caring and he really wanted to help. It’s scary when you don’t know what’s going on but having someone there who knows what he’s doing and wants to support you helps so much. That’s Saleem, a hundred percent. You can trust him to help you, no matter what.
Also I know Saleem would want me to say that I might be biased because I’m dating him now, but it’s really not that I’m biased at all. It’s not that I’m saying what a great guy he is because we’re together, it’s the other way around. It’s what a great guy he is that made me want to see him again afterward. And we got together after I wasn’t his client anymore, so it wasn’t unprofessional or anything. Just for the record.
Anyway, you should definitely hire him if you’re in Philly and you’re worried your house is haunted, for real. He’s going to do great.