I try to publish something spooky each year around Halloween. In 2013, the date snuck up on me and I quickly wrote A Proper Haunting as I was working on a fantasy novel at the time. I wanted something that started light and ended dark; a definite tonal change before the end, since a lot of the time that’s how I see real life. Sometimes the worst news hits you on the best days, and the horrors of this world don’t stop to consider how good your life might be before they cast a dark shadow over everything.
A PROPER HAUNTING
by Sam Best
Miles Dooey sat patiently and waited for his sister to finish her story. She had always been inclined to dramatize even the littlest of events, and though this seemed like a big one, she still enhanced her visit to the palm reader with an unhealthy layer of indulgence.
“I swear to God,” Margaret was saying, “if it hadn’t been for Madame Lara, Harold and I never would have thought to put salt around the baby’s crib.” She rested her small hands atop the bulge of her stomach. Miles couldn’t remember the exact due date, but he knew it was close to that very night of Halloween.
Pregnancy suited his older sister. He always thought she had been too skinny, but she had absorbed some of the sympathy weight meant for her husband and looked all the more healthy for it. Harold—good old reliable Harold—had maintained his mildly stocky frame throughout the entire ordeal. He was shorter than Marge by two inches yet it never seemed to bother either of them. Miles was always surprised at how happy they seemed whenever he stopped in for a visit. Their house was only a ten minute drive from his small apartment downtown, and he found his sister’s cooking pleasant, if a little tired. Yet, she had this way with croissants that was absolutely divine.
At first, Marge thought it would be fun to have a baby on October 31st. She and Harold decorated the nursery with cartoonish pumpkins and friendly ghosts that could never scare the wings off a fly. Everything was perfect until the night the fireplace had supposedly lit itself and the radio switched on and played old Christmas songs. Marge and Harry had just come home from the grocery store and still had their bags in hand when they were apparently welcomed by an unseen visitor.
And then came the trip to the palm reader, which had completely changed her mind about wanting to have a child on Halloween.
That’s how she told it, anyway. Harry remained silent during her long recounting of the night in question and the subsequent visit to Madame Lara. Apparently the palm reader had filled his wife’s head with a story about a disembodied specter who, once a year at Halloween, steals a baby from new parents. The form of the bogeyman changed from story to story, but one thing remained the same—its insatiable desire for newborns. Marge was convinced she and Harold had been chosen by said ghost, and they wanted to do everything they could to ward off the baby-snatching ghoul.
“So you see why you just have to help us, Miles,” Marge finished. Harry took her hands in his and squeezed them comfortingly. Miles frowned at the clump of knuckles and stood. For all the guff his sister gave him about the way he advertised his business, she was certainly willing to entertain his methods now that she had a slight fire problem and a buggy radio.
“Let’s get started,” he said.
Marge’s face lit up as she hurried to her feet and smoothed out the front of her dress. “Oh, thank you, Miles! It just means so much to Harry and I—”
The mention of his name awakened something in the meek insurance salesman. “Now wait just a stinkin’ minute,” said Harry. He stood with one hand held up, commanding the universe to stop. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable having you here, Miles.”
“Oh, Harry,” said Marge. She affected the practiced stance of women everywhere, one of simultaneous sympathy and bemused condescension that said she understood where he was coming from, but in the end it didn’t matter because they both knew things weren’t going to go his way.
“Now hold on,” he said. He tugged up his beltline and retucked his plaid polo shirt. “I don’t mean any offense, Miles. You’re Margie’s brother and I respect that. But I just have to say that I’m not entirely convinced that you’re able to do…well, what you say you can do.”
He squared his shoulders in the way that a playground weakling does to try and tell the bully he means business. It was weak and ineffectual, but Marge rubbed his arm and hooked her elbow through his just the same.
“Oh, Harry,” she sighed.
Miles frowned and nodded. If he wasn’t hoping to get paid for clearing the house of whatever “spirit” his sister and her dull but well-meaning husband had imagined, he would finally have that talk with Harold he had been meaning to have ever since he married Marge—the one about growing a little more of a spine when it came to dealing with uncomfortable situations.
The money had been drying up at Dooey’s Paranormal Counseling for the last year. The city of White Falls, Colorado, had been recovering nicely from the economic downturn, and whenever the economy did well, the so-called ghosts stayed away. There was something in that about external stress manifesting itself in the form of poltergeists and hauntings, but Miles had never paid attention to the soft science of his profession. He relied on his gut to ferret out the heart of an issue.
The truth was that, since he broke from the Catholic Church two years ago—and from a promising career in psychiatry two years before that—to start his own business, every call he had taken as a self-described Paranormal Counselor was explained away as symptomatic of a real-life problem. There was always some lingering debt or guilt that hung around the shoulders of the recently left-behind that forced their minds to imagine their loved ones returned from the grave to exact cruel vengeance by knocking over teacups and making the tub water cold when it should be hot.
Superstitious people paid well to have their fears allayed, and Miles never once felt even the slightest pang of guilt from his profession. He expected it on every house call, but the thanks heaped upon him after rooting out the issue were enough to fill him instead with a sense of purpose he had been searching for, unbeknownst to him, for his entire life.
“I understand your skepticism, Harry,” said Miles. “I really do.” He held up a hand of his own to push the universe back toward Harold. “But I would ask that you hold off your judgment until we investigate.”
Harold hesitated. One of his feet rubbed into the carpet and, for a brief moment, Miles expected him to stuff his hands in his pockets and say, “Aw, gee.”
Instead, Marge released her husband’s arm and guided Miles over to the fireplace.
“It just lit up all by itself!” she said excitedly.
Miles knelt down in front of the small stone fireplace and opened the gates. A small hill of ash and charcoal decorated the middle, beneath the metal stand that held firewood. He could smell that a fire had indeed been kindled recently. A cold front had pushed through the state two nights before, leaving behind a chill that was expectedly harried from households by cozy little fires. Nothing unusual there.
“Did your visitor put a fresh log on the stand?”
“That’s not funny, Miles,” said Harry.
“There was no wood at all!” said Marge. “The fire hovered over the stand right in the middle.”
“And how much did you two have to drink that night?” asked Miles.
Marge sounded shocked. “You know I can’t drink with the baby!”
Miles knew. He was often surprised how many of his clients’ woes could be explained away by the ingestion of too much booze. Apparently the dead preferred to commune with people who were bombed to the point of blindness.
“You saw it, too, Harold?” asked Miles. Harold looked around the room, searching for rescue, then reluctantly nodded his head and stared at the floor. “How long did it last?”
“Why, until I closed the flue,” said Marge. “Probably about thirty seconds.”
“And then the radio came on?”
“No, it came on before the fire went out.”
“That could have been interference from a neighbor. Perhaps their radio remote is set to the same frequency as yours.”
“Well, it’s never happened before,” said Marge.
“Could be a new radio,” said Miles. He stood and walked over to the entertainment center. His sister had never watched a lot of TV, and her small, outdated television set confirmed she hadn’t yet changed her mind about the device.
Miles turned the radio on. Static. Off again. Silence.
“Hm,” he said.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Harry. “I suppose you’re going to ask your full fee for this nonsense.”
“Harold!” said Marge.
“Not the full fee,” said Miles. “Not for family.”
“But you’re still going to charge us!” said Harold.
Miles sighed. There was that pang of guilt. “How about a half-dozen of those frozen steaks? Don’t you guys get forty at a time or something?”
“Not my steaks!” said Harry.
“That’s fine, Miles,” said Marge in her peacemaker tone. “Harold, that’s fine. We’re just grateful for the help.”
Miles brushed off his hands. “Anything else unusual? Just the fireplace and the radio?”
“Isn’t that enough?” asked Marge.
“I wish it were,” said Miles. Now it was his turn to affect a heightened sense of drama. “These things start small, but usually escalate until someone gets hurt.”
“So you actually believe we’re being haunted?” asked Harold.
“I’ve never once seen anything that leads me to believe in ghosts or spirits,” said Miles.
“But you say you’re a paranormal counselor!”
“That’s the flash,” said Miles. “That draws in the customers. It’s business. It’s what people want to believe. But the truth behind the issues is always—and I mean always—the symptom of a real problem. For example: how’s your sex life?”
“I beg your pardon!” said Harold.
“I’m sure you do. You’d be shocked to learn how many problems I investigate that can be solved by a simple application of nookie.”
“Get out!” said Harold.
“That bad, huh?” said Miles. “Sorry, Sis.”
“I’m pregnant, you jackass.”
He shrugged. “Show me the nursery.”
Marge led him down a long hallway off the living room. It turned once or twice and Miles had a hard time keeping track of the doors they passed. The light seemed less and less inclined to reach the dark recesses of the house through which he was being guided. Night had been falling when Miles arrived, but even the soft afterglow of the sun once it dipped below the horizon would not penetrate the clear windows of the rooms at the back of the house.
“I never realized that this was such a big place,” he said in a whisper.
“Why are you whispering?” whispered Marge.
“I didn’t mean to,” said Miles, forcing himself to speak in a normal tone. It sounded like a scream.
“Don’t yell,” whispered Harold. He followed the two of them down the hallway.
“Seriously, who designed this place?” asked Miles.
“Something’s not right,” said Marge.
“Turn on a light or something.”
Harold flipped a switch on a nearby panel and a dim bulb illuminated overhead. Miles, much to his own consternation, felt undeniably relieved.
Several open doors led to rooms on either side of the hallway. Miles took a few steps and the doors slammed closed, one by one. He turned quickly to Marge.
“Are those on a timer?!” he asked.
“Are you joking?”
Miles wanted to say that he was, because he doubted most people had timers on their household doors. Marge led him farther down the hallway. After a few steps, the overhead light clicked off and plunged them into darkness.
“Harold!” hissed Marge.
“It wasn’t me!”
“Still think our neighbors got a new remote?”
“Power could have gone out,” said Miles.
The overhead light flicked back on.
Miles stared at the buzzing bulb. “Or a short in the wiring.”
“Let’s go back to the den,” said Marge.
They turned back and Harold led them down the circuitous hallway. The corridor turned left, then right, then left again.
“Harrrollld…” said Marge. She grabbed his arm with both her hands and pressed her pregnant belly against his body. Miles frowned at the natural sign of affection and comfort. He was still going to take the steaks, but he was sure he would feel damn guilty chewing every bite.
“What is it?!” whispered Marge.
“The doors,” said Harold. “They’re gone.”
Miles looked at either side of the hallway. There were no open doors—no doors at all—along the hallway. Both walls were solid wood paneling. Behind Miles, the hallway extended into the distance as far as the eye could see. The end in that direction—if there was one—was lost in a soft haze.
Ahead, the hallway ended in a single door. A cartoonish pumpkin sticker had been placed in the center. It wore a light blue baseball cap for the boy Marge and Harold were having. Something about the pumpkin’s grin unnerved Miles. It was more sinister than playful, and it seemed to grow as the three of them approached the door.
Harold reached out for the doorknob and Marge slapped his hand away.
“Are you crazy!” she hissed. “Let’s go back!”
“There is no back!” he said.
Miles strode forward and pushed through them to get to the door. He studied its seams, its surface, the grinning pumpkin, and the doorknob. He turned the knob and pushed open the door.
The room was dark but for a dim shaft of moonlight spilling in from the lace-curtained window. The light fell across the white crib in the middle of the room. A hanging mobile spun slowly from the ceiling, tinkling out what Miles assumed would normally be a comforting lullaby. Now it sounded like the door-chime to Hell.
The circle of salt around the baby’s crib that Marge had confidently laid down earlier was broken on one side. Marge gasped and clawed for Miles. He hurriedly pushed her onto Harold. The two of them shrank back from the doorway as Miles approached the crib.
Something lay within.
A blue blanket concealed a wriggling, baby-sized lump. Half horrified and half intrigued—well, mostly horrified and only a little intrigued—Miles reached out a shaking hand and pinched one corner of the blanket.
Something picked him off the ground and slammed him into the corner face-first. Marge screamed from the doorway.
“Margie, run!” shouted Harold.
Miles tried to turn around but couldn’t. He was suspended a few feet off the ground by an invisible pressure that crushed him into the corner of the room and would not let him move. He tried to call out for help but all he could manage were two pathetic moans. He was fairly certain he wet himself.
In the middle of the room, the crib rocked slowly back and forth.
“Oh my God, the baby’s coming!” screamed Marge.
Miles couldn’t turn his head to see. The force pinning him to the wall lifted him up until his head banged into the ceiling.
Then he heard footsteps. Heavy, slow, thudding footsteps that started near the crib and approached Marge and Harold. Miles heard them slump to the floor. He heard Harold whimpering, saying, “No, no,” over and over again.
Marge’s screams turned from fright to pain as she writhed on the floor. The heavy footsteps stopped and there was a brief moment of silence. The pressure eased up on Miles slightly and he managed to barely twist his head enough to see Marge out of the corner of his eye.
A tall, thin figure stood before her, silhouetted by the hallway light. On the ground in front of Marge lay her new baby boy. She whimpered and shook her head as the tall figure stooped down and reached out for the child with long fingers.
Suddenly the pressure returned greater than ever and smashed Miles into the corner. His screams joined Marge’s as the invisible force twisted his head to the side until he could no longer see.
The baby cried and was shushed by a soft whisper. The spinning mobile tinkled out its soft music overhead, playing the dread soundtrack of that terrible Halloween.
© Sam Best