Emily regarded her older brother coldly. “Troye, I’m telling you. I don’t like it here.”
Troye sighed. “It’s time for bed, Emily. There’s nothing wrong with the house.”
“Tell that to the girl in my closest,” Emily said petulantly.
“There’s no girl in your closet,” Troye said, but a faded memory kept nagging at him. Glimpses of a girl he’d seen from the corner of his eye after his parents had brought Emily home from the hospital. It had only gotten worse after his parents died. “Have you been watching scary shows again? I told you Scooby-Doo gives you nightmares.”
“No. She’s real, Troye.”
Troye sighed again, trying to push the memories down again. Ghosts aren’t real, Troye told himself. There was no way she’d come back. To Emily, he said, “No, she’s not. Is this another excuse to stay up late?”
“No…” Emily hesitated. “Can I sleep with you?”
“No. Now go brush your teeth and put on your pajamas.”
Emily didn’t budge.
“Emily, we’ve been over this. Monsters don’t exist and your scary dreams aren’t real, okay? Your shadow isn’t going to get you.” Or was it?
“It’s not a dream,” Emily said stubbornly. Troye wanted very much to deny what Emily was saying, but there was still the memory of Emily’s birth, and the dead baby girl that was born with her.
“Do you want me to check your closet for monsters?” Troye asked, sighing for a third time. Emily sometimes acted like she was much older than six, and her vocabulary made him constantly forget he was speaking to a very young girl.
Taking Emily’s hand, Troye went to investigate her bedroom. Emily hung back in the hallway when he pushed open her door. He waited as patiently as he could until she finally entered the room. Troye knelt down beside the bed. Lifting her blankets, he looked under it.
“See? Nothing under the bed.” Troye stayed on the floor, holding the blankets back for her to look. He stood and Emily whimpered.
Emily started trembling as he moved toward the closet and reached for the knob. “Don’t go in there,” she pleaded. “She’ll get you!”
Apprehensively and with the hair on the back of his neck erect, Troye opened the door and peered inside, flicking on the light inside. “No monsters.” He was as relieved as Emily.
“She’s not a monster,” Emily said, curled up on her bed. “She’s like us.”
“What do you mean like us? Human?” Troye pictured a zombified baby stumbling through the house, eyes sunken in, skin rotting and peeling off its body, teeth sharp and ready to rip out his jugular.
Emily considered that then nodded slowly. “She had arms and legs and a head and a body. So… she’s human-shaped.”
Troye went to sit on the edge of her bed. “Tell me about her, Em. What does she look like?”
“Me,” Emily replied solemnly. “She looks like me.”
Troye nodded. “Exactly like you?”
“Well, not her eyes.”
“Tell me about her eyes.”
Emily nodded. “Like her eyes were replaced by coal.”
“And she lives in your closet?”
Emily shook he head. “I’ve seen her in your room once, and in the front yard a couple of times when I’m playing out there. And in the bathroom mirror a few times.”
“Does she say anything to you?”
Emily shook her head again, violently as if that was the most terrifying thing the girl could do.
“Come into the living room for a minute, Emily. You can watch TV— but no scary shows. I have a phone call to make.” Troye took his sister’s hand and led her out of her bedroom, shutting the door behind them.
Downstairs, Troye put on approved cartoons for Emily, went into another room, and then dialed a number he really didn’t want to. She picked up on the first ring. “Aunt Helen?”
“Troye,” she said. “Well. This is unexpected.”
Troye cut straight to the chase. “What can you tell me about my stillborn sister?”
Helen went quiet. Troye thought she wouldn’t answer until she asked, “Why do you ask?”
“Emily says she keeps seeing a little girl watching us who looks exactly like her.” Troye passed beneath the staircase. A slight breeze made him shiver and he swore he heard the creaking of a door. “I’m inclined to believe her, Helen.”
“Have you seen her yourself? Have you seen Lilith?”
“No. I mean, I’m not saying it’s a ghost, but…” The creaking continued, now sounding less like an opening door and more like soft footsteps on the wood floor above. Troye lowered his voice and whispered into the receiver, “I hear something, Helen. Just a sec.”
Troye approached the staircase, turning on the upstairs light with the switch at the bottom of the stairs. Troye slowly ascended the stairs. He stopped on the top landing, looking around. He didn’t see anyone, but Emily’s door was wide open and he was sure he’d shut it until it clicked.
“Helen, there’s someone here.” As soon as he’d said it, the lights in the house flicked off.
“Troye?” He heard Emily calling from downstairs.
“Get Emily into the car and bring her to my house.”
Troye hung up, ran back downstairs, and grabbed his keys. “Em, time to go.” Troye went to collect Emily when she screamed. Troye bolted into the living room to find every window in the room open, the TV full of static, and Emily lying on the floor. “Emily!” Troye rushed to her, dropping to the floor.
Emily opened her eyes slowly.
“What happened? Are you alright?”
Emily blinked at him as if she didn’t recognize him at first. Then she relaxed. “I don’t know. I was watching cartoons and then I was on the floor. It felt like someone pushed me.”
Looking troubled, Troye picked up Emily and carried her to the car.
“Troye, I don’t have my shoes.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Where are we going?”
“To Aunt Helen’s.”
“I thought you didn’t like her.”
“Then why are we going?”
Troye looked at Emily. “I believe you.”
“About the girl?”
Emily didn’t know whether she should look glad or terrified. The fact that she wasn’t the only one who could see the girl made it real. “But why do we need Aunt Helen?”
“She can help.”
“Help with what?”
Troye didn’t respond and Emily didn’t ask another question.
Aunt Helen was waiting for them in the front yard with the porch lights on when they arrived. She hadn’t gotten along with her brother, their father, but there was no need to turn away his children for something that wasn’t their fault. She hadn’t really minded their mother and her niece and nephew had inherited some of Elizabeth’s best qualities— her rationality and her kindness. Beth had been a sweet woman, deserving much better than Helen’s pathetic brother. Troye didn’t like Helen because he believed she was batshit crazy. Every time he saw her, she’d always talk about ghosts and voodoo. Now the tables were turned and Troye was here for her help… advice on a ghost problem. How ironic, Helen thought as she watched Troye’s car pull up.
“Emily was attacked,” Troye said first thing when he got out of the car. “Someone pushed her.”
“Maybe she fell,” Helen said, half mocking as Troye had tried to brush off her ghost stories countless times over the years with lame stories that didn’t really make sense. But this time they both knew what had really happened and Helen was surprised Troye wasn’t immediately in complete denial. It had taken Troye incredible belief and desperation to make the call to her, when Troye had mocked her for her crazy stories and said she was insane for believing ghosts were real.
Troye shook his head. “I heard footsteps in the house right before I hung up with you. Then all the lights went out.”
“So clearly we’re dealing with a malicious spirit here,” Helen said.
Troye nodded, face void of any mockery now. “Hostile to the max.”
Emily looked back and forth between Helen and Troye in confusion.
“Come,” Helen said brusquely. Troye spotted an odd symbol on the welcome mat instead of the usual Welcome orCome in. “Devil’s Trap,” Helen explained when he asked about it. “To trap the demons.”
Now Troye was sure Helen was testing him, trying to say the most ludicrous things to see if he’d make fun of her.
When Troye said nothing, Helen led them inside, flipping on lights as she went. Troye noticed vaguely that the wallpaper was green and yellow, depicting hundreds of little turtles.
Helen stopped in the kitchen, grabbing bags of salt from the cupboard.
“What are you doing?” Troye asked as Helen started lining the windowsills and doors with the salt.
“It keeps out the ghosts,” Helen explained, shoving another bag of salt at Troye. “Help me.”
“That’s just a myth TV writers use to—”
“Help me!” Helen said more forcefully.
Emily watched as Troye and Helen ran around the house, making sure all the entrances were blocked by thick lines of salt.
“I’m guessing since she died in that apartment, she’s connected to the house and not Emily, but just to be sure,” Helen said.
“How do you know all this?” Troye asked.
Helen shrugged. “I’ve seen loved ones after they’ve passed away, some kind, others vengeful.”
“So there are different types of spirits?” Troye felt stupid for even entertaining the idea that they were dealing withghosts. But he couldn’t deny what had happened back at their apartment. He tried his best to listen to Helen seriously.
Helen nodded. “Poltergeists are a pain, but the ones that want revenge are the worst because nothing will sway them until they avenge themselves or whatever they feel they were wronged.”
“What does this ghost want from Emily?”
“I’m guessing she wants revenge.” Helen said. “Assuming it is Lilith.”
“Revenge? For what?”
“Emily living when she didn’t. I think Emily is Lilith’s anchor.”
“What’s holding her back from moving on. Spirits who feel they have something left undone in life often won’t go to a better place until it is resolved. Since Emily is Lilith’s twin, it’s a good bet Emily is Lilith’s unfinished business.”
They both glanced to Emily, who was petting Aunt Helen’s white cat, Purity.
“I have something for you, child,” Helen said to Emily. She left the room and returned seconds later with a cross necklace. Fastening it around Emily’s neck, she said, “Never take this off. Understand?”
“It’s made of iron. It should protect you. I wore it during my ghostly encounters and they couldn’t touch me.”
“How did you get rid of the spirits?” Troye asked.
“I dumped a box of salt on the first one. I don’t know if it truly got rid of him, but he never came back. The second wasn’t here to hurt me, so I left her be… and never saw her again.” Suddenly Aunt Helen looked very sad.
Emily picked up Purity and cradled the cat to her chest. “Does the girl want to hurt me?” She asked, her face deadly serious.
“We don’t know yet,” Helen lied.
Emily fixed her with a stare that said she knew Helen was keeping the truth from her. Then she turned and carried the cat out of the room.
Helen spoke to Troye in a hushed tone. “Does Emily know?”
Troye snorted. “She knows nothing.”
“Good. Let’s keep it that way.”
Troye nodded in agreement.
“Do you feel that?” Helen asked.
Troye nodded again as the house’s temperature steadily dropped.
“Emily?” Helen called.
Emily came into the room again, still holding the cat, shivering slightly. “I don’t like it here, Troye. We should go outside.”
“No.” Troye went and dropped to his knees before his sister, rubbing her arms in a vain attempt to get rid of her goosebumps. “Going outside is a bad idea.”
“But she wants us to.”
“Which is exactly why we’re not going to.”
“Emily?” Helen asked. “How do you know that’s what she wants you to do?”
“She told me.” Emily turned and left with the cat. Troye stood and they followed Emily into the living room. Emily went to the back screen door and sat behind it, staring across the line of salt into the backyard and the starless ebony sky.
The lights on the back porch flickered on, then off again.
“Emily, get away from the door,” Aunt Helen warned.
Emily didn’t move. She didn’t appear to have even heard Aunt Helen. Her steady gaze was fixed on something in the shadows out back.
“Emily?” Troye knelt by her side. “What do you see?”
“There’s someone out there,” Emily said with a blank face.
Emily shook her head. “A man. He’s just standing there, watching the house.”
“I don’t see anyone,” Troye said.
“That’s because he doesn’t want you to see him.”
“What does he want?” Helen asked.
“Me,” Emily said plainly. “He wants me to come outside.”
“You mustn’t do that,” Troye said. “Understand?”
Emily nodded. “There’s a woman with him now.”
Emily nodded again. “They both look so soggy.”
“They’re wet. Like they’ve just gone swimming, but with their clothes on.”
Helen and Troye exchanged a look. Helen motioned for Troye to come closer.
“What could our parents possibly want with Emily,” Troye whispered. “They’re dead.”
Helen glanced back at the screen door, watching Emily. “My question is… They’ve been dead for six years. Why come back now? I suppose you and Emily are their anchors.”
Troye jumped, flinching back at the feminine voice in his head, which caused himself to ram his head back painfully into the turtle-clad wall.
“Troye?” Helen asked in concern.
Troye, said the woman’s voice again.
“What do you want from me?” Troye demanded aloud.
I want us to be a family again.
“We can’t!” Troye shouted. “You’re dead!”
Troye noticed Helen was looking at him strangely, with alarm evident in her dark brown eyes.
It’s simple, Troye. Do as we say and we can be together again.
“No, no, no.” Troye went to Emily, pulling her and the cat into his lap. “This isn’t real. You’re not real.”
Listen carefully, Troye.
Take your sister into the garage, the voice said, ignoring his protests. Put Emily in the car. Clog the tailpipe, lock all of the doors with both you and Emily inside, and then turn on the engine.
“No, no, no, no, no. I’m not listening to this!”
Helen knelt beside them. “Troye, what’s it saying to you?”
Troye looked up at Aunt Helen with large eyes. “They want me to join them. To kill Emily. So we can be a family.”
Helen put her hands on either side of his shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. “Troye, look at me. Listen to me. Those things are no longer your parents and sister, okay?”
Troye nodded woodenly.
“It’s just a poor copy of them. Your parents wouldn’t ask you to kill yourself or Emily for them. Do you understand?”
Troye nodded again, holding Emily tight to his chest. Purity yowled and wormed herself from Troye’s arms, jumping over the line of salt to trot out the door.
Emily screamed and moved to chase Purity.
Troye held her against him, refusing to let her follow the cat outside.
I want us to be a family again, Troye, the voice said. We could be happy.
“You’re not my mother!” Troye yelled. “Get out of my head!”
When he lifted his hands to cover his ears in a pointless attempt to block out the ghost’s voice, Emily broke free and raced through the screen door in pursuit of the cat.
“Emily!” Helen called after her.
Without another thought, Troye ran after her, staring at the slamming screen door in horror.
It was unusually windy outside, causing trees to creak and branches to thwack against the house’s side and windows like long spindly skeletal brown hands. Leaves blew into Troye’s face and rain pelted him. Troye wasn’t sure when it had started raining, but he was definitely drenched now.
“Emily!” He called, but his sister didn’t answer. “Em?”
A bolt of lightning shot across the sky, illuminating his father’s battered and waterlogged face inches from his, smiling grotesquely.
Troye yelped and stumbled backwards. He called out for his sister once more, but Emily was nowhere he could see.
He turned and ran, but the rain was in his eyes and his heart was thumping too loudly in his ears for him to hear his sister. Thunder rumbled the sky, sounding like a giant’s angry footsteps. In his sheer terror, Troye half expected to see a beanstalk descending from high above, gaining a hungry giant access to an all-you-can-eat neighborhood buffet.
“Emily?” he tried again.
“Troye?” Helen called. “Emily? Where are you? Come back inside! Get behind the salt!”
Lightning showed him the grotesque form of his dad was now in front of him. Troye switched course, running in the opposite direction, still frantically trying to find his sister. He tripped over something and went sprawling. He glanced down to find he’d tripped on a garden gnome with faded paint. It seemed to be smiling up at him knowingly, like Now it’s your turn to be forgotten in this yard!
Troye’s heart was galloping like a panicked horse.
“Troye!” Helen’s voice seemed farther away as the malformed shape of his father drifted nearer, smiling. We’ll be a happy family again, the voice said in his head.
Then, faintly, as the peeling-skinned spirit drew closer, he heard a distant meowing. At first he’d thought he’d imagined it, but then…
“Purity!” He called as the white cat was suddenly launching itself, caterwauling and howling, through the downpour, to land between Troye and the ghost of his dead father. “Purity, where’s Emily?” he asked the cat. Troye had a feeling this cat wasn’t of the normal feline variety.
The cat turned and suddenly there seemed to be an army of cats in the backyard, thirty at least. Troye couldn’t imagine where they’d all come from.
They were all surrounding Emily, who was lying on the ground in a curled up ball, as if they were protecting her while the ghosts of his mother and sister circled them.
His mother called out tauntingly without words, Don’t you want to get to know your sister, Emily? She died when I had you! You’re twins!
Emily covered her ears and tried not to listen, but that did nothing to drown out the voices of the malevolent ghosts.
“Emily, don’t listen!” Troye shouted. “They’re angry spirits! They don’t want a family, they want revenge!”
His mother and sister turned to pin pitch-black glared on him. Lilith looked better than his parents, because she didn’t die gruesomely in the car crash that had plunged his parents into the lake. He directed his words towards her.
“Lilith! It’s not Emily’s fault you died, no matter what our parents told you! It’s not her fault!”
Lilith’s black eyes shimmered, indicating her growing fury. She lived when I died! How is that fair? How is that not her fault?
For a young ghost girl, she had a powerful voice that resounded above the echoing thunder.
She’s my twin! If one of us lives, the other lives. What one of us does, it isn’t supposed to be without the other! I am going to make sure we’re never apart again. I murdered our parents that night on the foggy road. I can kill my twin just as easily.
“Lilith!” Troye shouted as she turned her attention back to Emily, who was now clutching Purity like the cat could save her.
There was another flash of lightning and Troye thought he saw something metallic glinting around Emily’s throat. He remembered the cross necklace. The ghosts couldn’t touch her. But the ghosts were still trying, not having noticed the necklace yet.
Lilith touched the nearest cat, rendering it to a stain on the wet grass as if it had never been there in the first place.
Encouraged, an evil grin twisted Lilith’s face. She pointed to another cat and it exploded like someone had stuffed a bomb into its stomach. Chunks of still-warm cat landed by Troye’s feet and Emily shrieked as she was showered with blood. Purity planted herself directly in front of Emily, gallantly determined to protect her at all costs, even if it meant she met the same grisly fate as her two clowder mates.
Emily was screeching like a banshee, her tears mingling with the rain and dirt on her face. Troye just stood, dumbfounded by the cat massacre he’d just witnessed. Lilith pointed to a third cat— Purity.
Without thinking, Troye ran straight toward Lilith, yelling, distracting her. Lilith’s full attention was now on Troye. He ran in an uneven path, hoping that if she tried her killing powers on him, she’d miss. Leaving their dead mother to stand guard over Emily and the cats, Lilith chased after Troye.
How dare you keep me from my twin, brother, Lilith shouted in his head. Emily will be mine, if I have to kill every cat and pesky human boy who tries to get in my way!
Troye ignored her, running to the front yard of the house, hoping Helen could get to Emily through her sister-in-law and get her inside before the dead girl gutted him. Lilith kept throwing bolts of her power at him, but he had managed to dodge them so far, which was frustrating her greatly. Troye heard Helen calling to his mother, “Beth!”
Troye couldn’t see his father’s ghost as an idea struck Troye. He skidded to a halt and spun to face Lilith, who was floating seven feet in the air. She was pale white, translucent, a wispy specter against a painted summer backdrop.
If salt repelled ghosts, maybe large, concentrated quantities could get rid of it permanently. Troye sprung into action suddenly and veered to the left, and bolted himself inside the house, making sure the salt was line wasn’t broken.
Troye knew his uncle Ben had been a hunter, so he had to have a gun of some sort around here somewhere. Troye’s heart was pounding in his throat as he went in search, hoping Helen hadn’t gotten rid of them. Troye found a revolver in the upstairs bedroom. He then went into the kitchen to get the salt, deciding to experiment.
Outside, Troye was nervous about his aim, not wanting to accidentally shoot Emily, Helen, or a cat. He tried to stay hidden inside, behind the line of salt by the back screen door, but he eventually realized he’d half to come out to get the best shot.
Helen was still calling to their mother. Lilith was touching random things in the yard, popping them like balloons. Luckily, it didn’t look as if she’d touched any more cats. Troye watched Lilith disintegrate a lawn chair, the garden gnome he’d tripped over earlier, and a small willowy tree before he lifted the revolver. He pulled the trigger, nearly falling over with the force. To his surprise, the bullet made its target but passed right through her. Lilith only looked like the salt that had somehow remained on the bullet mildly stung. She turned her angry black gaze sharply on him.
Troye retreated back into the house to figure out how to make a purely salt bullet. He suspected it was impossible, but he wasn’t giving up, no matter what. It was his little sister in trouble, after all.
Troye nearly dripped the bullet he was working on when Helen entered the kitchen.
“Beth won’t listen to me,” Helen said.
“It’s not Beth anymore,” Troye said. “It’s not my mother.”
“What are you doing?” Helen asked, noticing the salt and array of gun parts and bullets on the kitchen counter.
“I’m going to kill these dead creeps once and for all.”
Outside, Emily was certain this was how she would die, at only six years old. She had been so excited for her seventh birthday, only a month away. Troye had promised her he’d take her somewhere special, anywhere she wanted.
Emily reached out and felt fur under her hand. She curled her hand around the body of the nearest cat and pulled it to her, for comfort. It wasn’t Purity, but it calmed her down a bit.
She tried to brush away some of the blood on her that the rain hadn’t washed off from the murdered cats, but it distressed her too much so she stopped. She wasn’t sure where her brother or aunt had gone, so she stayed in a curled up ball, wrapping her tiny body around the cat to protect it. She glanced around frantically for Purity, wanting to protect her too, but she couldn’t see her.
The storm continued to rage around them. She was worried the cats, with their small bodies, would be whisked away in the strong wind.
Some of the cat’s warmth, even through its wet, matted fur, began to seep into Emily. Emily pressed a kiss to the top of the cat’s orange-brown head.
“I’m going to call you Pumpkin,” she whispered to the cat.
The cat’s purr rumbled against Emily’s chest, letting her know the cat approved of its new name. The rain seemed to be falling harder now and Emily wondered if Troye and Helen had abandoned her out here, to die alone.
Not alone, she reminded herself. The cats were still on her side.
Emily reached a hand under her shirt and gripped the iron cross necklace Helen had given her. Instantly she felt a surge of strength rush through her.
I’m not going to die, Emily thought. Feeling stronger, she stood, still holding the necklace in one hand and Pumpkin in her other arm. She stuck put her chin.
I’m not going to die, Emily told herself again. Then she said it aloud, “I’m not going to die!”
All three ghosts turned their full attention to her.
Emily gulped, slightly less sure of herself. Pumpkin placed his paw on Emily’s arm and her confidence returned. “I won’t let you take me!” She shouted to the ghosts. “I’m not afraid of you!”
The ghosts’ forms flickered.
“You don’t scare me!” Emily yelled. “I won’t go with you! I refuse!”
The ghosts flickered again.
“You can’t take me!” Emily shouted to them again, as the storm lessened slightly and the back door banged open.
Emily turned her head to see Troye standing in the doorway with Helen behind him, holding a gun.
Emily screamed to the ghosts again, clenching her fists. “I’m not yours! You don’t own me! I’m done being scared! I’m not afraid of you!”
Pumpkin placed his paw on her balled fist, his tail thrashing in agreement.
The more the ghosts flickered and the storm lessened, the stronger Emily felt.
“You can’t control me!”
The wind died down completely.
Emily saw a flash of white fur and looked down sharply. Purity had come running and planted herself firmly by Emily’s left foot. She placed Pumpkin on the ground on her right side, both cats standing sentry by her legs while the rest of the clowder gathered behind her, ready to attack or defend if necessary.
Troye stood, stunned, at the sight of his little sister heading an army of cats against three vengeful ghosts. Where had Emily’s sudden courage come from? She was the most timid girl he had ever met. When she was three, she had been determined to never leave Troye’s side because she was scared of her own shadow. Now she was leading a clowder against three very-real ghostly threats without flinching.
“I will not let you hurt any more kitties!” Emily screamed, directing her words toward Lilith who backed farther way, her form flickering. “And I won’t be tormented by you!”
Helen looked just as dumbstruck as Troye, her mouth hanging open in surprise. “I guess the salt gun isn’t necessary,” she whispered in awe at Emily’s performance.
“Leave me, my family, my friends alone!” Emily shouted. When she said ‘friends,’ she gestured to the cats. “You are not welcome here!”
The storm stopped suddenly, the rain disappearing as if it had never been raining in the first place except for their soaking clothes.
“You are not welcome here!” Emily shouted. “You are not welcome here! You’re not welcome here!” The last one was a sheer shriek. Emily closed her eyes and when she opened them, the backyard was empty. She turned toward the dazed faces of Troye and Helen.
“I am truly astounded,” Helen said, blinking as if she didn’t quite understand what she’d just witnessed.
“Come, Em. Let’s get you cleaned up and into dry clothes.” Troye said. The cats saved her, he thought, trying to wrap his head around what had happened.
Emily went into the house, followed by her parade of wet cats.
Nobody complained, even when they dripped water and mud all over Aunt Helen’s new rug and tracked little paw prints all the way upstairs to the bathroom behind Emily.