Georgene Smith Goodin’s work has appeared in numerous publications, and has won the Mash Stories flash fiction competition. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the cartoonist Robert Goodin, their four foster children and two dogs. When not writing, she is restoring a 1909 Craftsman bungalow with obsessive attention to historic detail. You can find Georgene on Twitter. Ghosting Hunting was published previously in Bartleby Snopes, August 2016.
Mom went out for milk and never came back.
The police brought our parish priest with them to break the news, which was ironic because Dad never went to church. No one considered what a five year old should hear, so I listened to the sergeant say it was a freak accident, that the tree’s roots had died and the dirt holding them must have eroded in a recent storm.
It had been one of those scalding summer days where the air was thick and difficult to breathe, and tempers were thin and easily ruptured. Amy was newly born and her cries pierced the walls until her throat grew hoarse.
Mom cursed that her breast milk had dried up prematurely and that Amy didn’t like the formula my father brought home. Mom cursed better living through chemistry and cursed more when she heard me saying, “Fuck, fuck,” to the dog.
My father came home that day with ink stains on his shirt; pocket protectors were for nerds he’d said when they fought about the laundry. Mom thrust Amy at him and scowled because he removed the slide rule and compass from his breast pocket before taking her.
“You better hope she’ll drink regular milk,” Mom said, slinging her macramé bag over her shoulder. “Because I just can’t take it anymore. I just can’t take it.”
“Slurpee?” I asked, following her across the room.
“Please.” I splayed myself across the screen door.
“Please, please, please?”
“No!” She grabbed me by the armpits to move me out of her way.
I waved and she didn’t wave back. Her Ford Maverick balked when she threw it into reverse; its black stripes reminded me of a skunk scurrying down the driveway. I ran my hand over the cool mesh of the screen and poked my fingers through the hole at its bottom. Its rough edges left them raw with hair-thin cuts.
When the sergeant and the priest left, my father sat on the couch, his head in his hands, not making a sound. I sat by Amy’s bassinette, patting her head and wondering if any of this would have happened if I hadn’t asked for the Slurpee. Surely, if I hadn’t delayed her, she wouldn’t have been under the tree at just that moment.
After the inquisition, the sergeant returned my mother’s personal effects. My father directed him to our garden shed without looking at what he had brought.
Something caught my eye, though, and when twilight birthed the lightening bugs, I padded across the heat-scorched lawn. I had to stand on an upside down pot to reach the slide bolt, and the metal door screeched on its rusty track as I shoved it open.
Mom’s macramé purse was there, and the blanket she used to hide the rips in the backseat’s upholstery. There were misfolded maps, jumper cables and a case of empty Fresca bottles that needed to be returned for the deposit.
And under it all was the strawberry red suitcase she kept behind the laundry basket in the hall closet, the one she said my father was stupid to buy because she never went anywhere.
The first time I went home with Johnny, we hadn’t even kissed. I was one of four women in the science dorm and Johnny sometimes grunted at me on his way to the bathroom. We were lab partners, but our conversation never extended past pipettes and beakers. I never did ask how he learned I was spending Thanksgiving in the dorms, but he took pity on me and invited me to his mom’s.
When I met Adrienne, it was hard to comprehend how she’d raised a man of science. She dressed in flowing tunics topped with ropes of crystals she claimed had magical healing powers. She told me my aura was beautiful and asked to paint it. It was such a cliché, I kept looking for the hidden camera.
“Just go along with it, Laura,” Johnny said, when Adrienne went to fetch an elderberry tea that was supposed to promote pleasant dreams. “Tell her you slept well or it’ll hurt her feelings.”
That Thanksgiving I helped prepare a turkey for the first time. After the meal, when our stomachs could not stretch to accommodate one more bite, Adrienne and I cleaned up the kitchen while Johnny walked her black lab, Tabitha. Elbow deep in sudsy water, I confided that cooking with her reminded me of baking cookies with my mother, a memory I might have made up from photos I’d found shoved in a shoebox.
“Your mother line is your most powerful force,” she said, grabbing flour from the pantry. “You must seize every opportunity to connect with it.”
She asked if we should make chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin, and told me about growing up in a group home in Phoenix, how the nuns subbed Crisco for butter, making the cookies dense and greasy.
I’d read once that an orphan is a child without a mother and I told that to Adrienne, told her we were kindred spirits. We sat, licking gobs of creamed butter and sugar from our fingers, linked in a horrible way Johnny was lucky enough not to understand.
Johnny and I never discussed kids while we were dating. Or when we first got married.
It was such a non-topic, I was certain we were on the same page. I’d never told Johnny the whole story about Mom; the obituary version was so much easier to recite. He knew I’d grown up with one parent tragically dead, and one incapable of being present. If that wasn’t a recipe for becoming a failed parent myself, what was?
Imagine my surprise, with our post-docs behind us, and the chance to finally enjoy ourselves in front of us, Johnny announced it was time to start a family.
I stalled for acceptable reasons: a mountain of student loans, a studio apartment. But as we ticked past those hurdles one by one, I reached a point where the only objection left required deep personal confessions, and I’d be damned if I’d fall back on those. After all those years of marriage, I was still just a scared little girl, terrified of being left.
Imagine my surprise again, when I went off the pill only to find I’d gone through menopause while on it. The doctors said it was a one in a billion situation, and I felt like a sociopath while I silently resented years of unnecessary periods while Johnny mourned the loss of potential little Laura’s and Johnny’s.
We tried scientific intervention of course, three rounds whose costs dashed all hopes of ever owning a home. The doctor notified us of the last failure just before we left for our annual Thanksgiving celebration at Adrienne’s.
She greeted us with a soothing hot tea, and only halfway into my second cup did I realize it was spiked.
“I have a present for you,” she said, and slid a small velvet box across the table at me.
It was a blue calcite crystal.
“It’s what you need now.”
“Jesus Christ, Mom,” Johnny said. “Your hocus pocus isn’t going to give us kids when the best reproductive specialists in the country couldn’t.”
I’d never seen him dismissive of her, and although he apologized the next morning, blamed emotional devastation and financial distress, the rent fabric of their relationship could never fully be knit closed.
Before leaving for the airport, I took the crystal out of its box for the first time. I thought Adrienne should see me wearing it, see the rift was with Johnny alone.
That’s when I found the slip of paper with the microscopic type. Blue calcite wasn’t for fecundity, like Johnny and I had both assumed; it was for self-acceptance, healing and fostering calm communication.
I cried when I put it on, certain it was too late for all three.
Johnny had his doubts about the ghost hunt, but Adrienne wanted to do it for her seventieth birthday, so he promised me he’d suck it up. He didn’t have much of a choice. I’d booked the plane tickets before even telling him we were going.
Adrienne lived in the part of Arizona that was all pine trees and mountain vistas; not a single saguaro cactus flipped us off as we drove along the twisty thoroughfare to her cabin. The curves made me long for the airplane barf bag.
“Slow down,” I said, as we whipped past a pile of flowers at the base of a white cross.
Johnny took the next curve a little bit faster.
Lately, when Johnny was pinching my nerves, I imagined life without Adrienne, and Johnny’s flaws shrank to a manageable size.
Adrienne was waiting on the porch when we pulled into her driveway. She’d already lugged her suitcase, a leather thrift shop find, to the end of the walkway so Johnny could load it into the car.
“I’ve wanted to do this my whole life,” she said, and I wondered why she hadn’t done it sooner. It was just a stone’s throw from her home, such an easy bucket list item to cross off.
I stumbled on the gravel driveway when I got out to hug her, and the blue calcite crystal swung out from under my shirt.
“You still wear it,” she said, beaming.
I nodded, not wanting her to know the pendant was a sore point in my marriage.
“And it still works?”
I bit my lip, checked to see if Johnny was watching, and nodded again when I saw he was actively playing suitcase Tetris in the trunk of the rental.
The hotel where the ghost hunt took place had started life as a hospital clinging to the side of Cleopatra Hill. A mining company built five stories of concrete in which to nurse the injured, and it abandoned the fortress-like structure when the copper veins bled dry. The building sat vacant for decades, until someone decided a place to stay was the key to revitalizing the surrounding area.
“The ghost hunt starts at six,” the clerk said as Johnny checked us in. “In the boiler room.”
On cue, the old pipes clanked.
The elevator was original, wide enough for a couple of gurneys. Adrienne felt dizzy when we got to our floor, which she blamed on the altitude even though we were no higher than at her place. We helped her down the hall, and she sat on her suitcase to rest at the halfway point. I tried to catch Johnny’s eye, but he was engrossed by a display case of old medical instruments.
“Don’t forget your camera,” Adrienne said as we headed down the hall. “It captures things the eye can’t see.”
The tour guide gave us electromagnetic sensors and infrared thermometers to aid our search. Dramatic drops in temperature allegedly indicated other-worldly visitors.
Johnny shot his thermometer at the boiler, and then at the frosty window. The digital reading dropped 30 degrees.
“Ooohhh,” said a woman peering over his shoulder. She left to request a thermometer for herself.
“Unbelievable,” Johnny said.
I could hear his eyes roll.
I planned to use my phone to take pictures, but the guide insisted I take one of the hotel’s cameras.
“I’ll compile all the photos on one disc,” he said, “so everyone gets them.”
Johnny pantomimed that I should photograph his ass and pretended to unbuckle his belt. I scowled and took a shot of Adrienne instead. Light ricocheted through the room.
I fiddled with the settings, trying to mute the flash. Johnny helped, but that function was disabled. “Flash probably creates a better chance of spangles,” he said. “Light bouncing off dust or bending in reflection.”
I nodded. The pamphlet in our room was filled with photos of the phosphorescent orbs that supposedly confirmed those who’d passed over were among us.
The tour opened with a story about the caretaker who guarded the building during its vacant years. He committed suicide just off the boiler room. An X marked the pipe on which he’d hung himself. A veritable catalog of suicides ensued: a young woman with schizophrenia, a miner with a shattered leg.
If you weren’t already thinking about doing yourself in when you started the tour, it seemed like a good idea by the time you reached the old maternity ward two hours later. It was the hotel bar now and the guide gestured for us to sit at the rough-hewn tables.
The cocktail menu was cutesy clever, naming drinks to incorporate legendary ghosts. I ordered a Casper to get a Cosmopolitan; Adrienne ordered a Phantom of the Opera and asked the waitress to confirm it was actually a Manhattan.
“The women who gave birth here mostly worked at the ‘house of joy,’” the guide said, using air quotes to underscore his meaning. “A nun came regularly from a group home in Phoenix to collect the babies.”
Johnny and I locked eyes, and then looked away, unsure of the conclusion we both had reached. We stared into our cocktails as if the ice cubes were crystal balls.
I counted back the decades to Adrienne’s birth, and confirmed the hotel had, indeed, been a hospital then. How many group homes could Phoenix have had when she entered the world?
“Is this where you were born?” I asked even though Johnny should have done it.
She nodded, like she was afraid she’d cry if she tried to speak.
“Why didn’t you just say that’s why you wanted to come?” Johnny asked.
He sounded harsh without meaning to be, and I patted Adrienne’s hand reassuringly. Her skin felt like butterfly wings, the pinned specimens that shed tiny, papery scales when they were passed around the lab.
“I thought I might feel her here,” Adrienne said. She sipped her Phantom of the Opera, stalling. “I might finally know if she died here. Or just gave me up.”
The clerk gave us two copies of the photo disc. Johnny tossed ours in the trash next to the registration desk. I shrugged an apology, but the clerk was already busy helping the next people in line.
Adrienne wanted to see the pictures as soon as we got to her cabin. Her computer was ancient and each photo took forever to load. Johnny called the lab to check on his rats while she clicked through. I squatted beside her and cursed that I couldn’t think of a way to be more supportive. The moment seemed too private to pat her back reassuringly or hold her hand.
I jumped a little when I saw it. Adrienne froze with her fingers on the mouse.
One of the other hunters had taken the photo, a shot of the heavy oak door leading to the maternity ward. Adrienne was peering at a brass plaque posted on the wall. Beside her was a smoky shadow, simultaneously transparent and substantial, flowing and shapeless, as if draped in one of Adrienne’s flowing gowns.
I was well-schooled in the concept of pareidolia, but I’d have bet money that thing had a face. I’d have sworn it was a woman.
Adrienne’s whole arm shook as she advanced to the next picture. Expectation extended the load time to an unbearable length. The figure wasn’t there. Nor in the next one.
She appeared again towards the end, in a shot I’d taken of Johnny lounging against the flocked wallpaper, a hand raised towards him as if tucking a wayward lock behind his ear.
“There must be some sort of projector,” Johnny said. “Some sort of stage trick.”
He sounded doubtful.
No one said what we all were thinking, that this was Adrienne’s mother.
We promised to come back for the Fourth of July. There was a parade planned for the anniversary of the Pony Express. Adrienne thought we would enjoy it, and I said it sounded fun even though I hated that kind of pomp.
We were back before spring.
“Congestive heart failure,” said the doctor who met us outside of ICU before we went in to visit. “She’s had it for years.”
I heard the subtle accusation and answered it silently with a question, How could she have not told me?
We took two weeks off for the funeral and to pack up her place. Johnny shipped the sentimental things to our apartment. To my surprise, he kept her crystals and a painting she’d done of his aura when he finished grad school.
I said, “No,” when he asked if I wanted anything, and didn’t mention I’d already grabbed the photo disc.
I didn’t tell him because I wasn’t sure he’d understand what I now knew; that the pearly evanescence on the third floor of that hotel was not a visitor from the other side. It was not Adrienne’s mother.
It was Adrienne, already leaving me.