Fumbling with the too-large guitar, Jordan placed unsure, shaky fingers along the strings, trying to remember the arrangement she had seen in the video. It was her father’s old guitar; he had given it to her as a joke really, but Jordan took to it immediately. She had enjoyed the idea and the aesthetic of coolly strumming the strings in a pleasant, fading note. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. Her father had used this when he was sixteen, in the midst of puberty that had given him nearly six inches in a single year. Jordan was only five foot three and the only thing puberty had given her was her period and uncomfortable breasts. That was something she wasn’t sure how to handle either. They got in her way far more often than she’d care to admit. Even now, she’d hiss and curse under her breath as the guitar neck would bump into them. She wore baggy clothes now, refusing to acknowledge her growth. Luckily, there was no mother around to nag her and her father was still recovering from teaching her how to wear a pad.
After plucking the out of tune strings a few times, Jordan sighed and reclined in her chair. She looked out the window from her second floor bedroom. The sun had almost set now, the backyard partially plunged into a calming darkness. Summer was giving way to autumn; her vacation was almost over. She sat up in her chair, eyes glued to the small flitting figure moving through the yards and fences. She wouldn’t have caught it had it not sailed low enough to the ground to catch a few rays of light. It couldn’t have been bigger than the average bird, but its movement was far slower, as if traveling on a breeze.
Jordan rested the guitar against the wall, taking care it didn’t slide. She put her hands on the window sill and leaned her upper body out. The figure sailed higher to her floor; it was a small paper crane, shiny red wings flapping softly. She reached out, holding her palm out. It fell into her grasp. She drew back, cradling it gently.
“Sup, Rach?” The crane’s head turned left and right, as if it could see the messy room around it. Finally, its head turned upwards. Jordan imagined that if it had eyes, the beady things would be firmly on her now.
“My house, my house, my house,” a small voice came from the crane, its wing flapping to accentuate each repetition. It stilled after that. Jordan gingerly placed it on the shelf above her bed, alongside several other meticulously folded animals and objects.
She grabbed her backpack from underneath her bed, hastily throwing in all the supplies she’d need. A change of clothes, just in case, some pads—also just in case—a flashlight, extra batteries, her cellphone, and some of the cookies she had stashed in her desk.
Throwing on a large hoodie and baseball cap, Jordan lugged the bag over her shoulders. She closed her window and locked it, double-checking for any stragglers flying by. When none arrived, she headed to her closet, grabbing the baseball bat tucked against the wall in the corner.
Taking the stairs down quietly, Jordan desperately hoped her dad was passed out by now. His sleep schedule was all over the place, the joys of working freelance. He was collapsed on the couch, the blanket on his chest halfway to the floor. Jordan carefully put it back over him and whispered a good night before slipping on her sneakers and stepping out the front door.
Rachel lived a few blocks down. In the warmer seasons, Jordan enjoyed the walks to and back—the few quiet moments she had during the school year. In the winter, Jordan tried to break the record for fastest time, always making it to Rachel’s or her home as a half-frozen icicle, shivering despite all her layers. Rachel’s house was much nicer than Jordan’s. Her parents were still together. Jordan didn’t envy her. It was more common for Rachel to come over, eager to escape the tension at home. Rachel never talked about it. Sometimes, a bruise, half-healed, would peek out from the sleeves of her clothing; she always scrambled to hide it, tugging down on the sleeve and blushing heavily. Jordan never said anything, and didn’t plan to.
Luckily, Rachel’s room was on the first floor, so all Jordan had to do was scale the fence bordering the backyard to get to her. Her room, like Jordan’s, faced the backyard. The window was low enough that Jordan could comfortably rest her elbows on the sill. Perfect for sneaking in and out.
Rachel was already waiting for her outside her window. She, too, came prepared, her knapsack filled to burst. In one hand she held a flashlight, in the other a crumpled piece of paper. She didn’t even register Jordan approaching, she glared down at her shoes. As Jordan got closer, she noticed the fading, red mark on her cheek, barely perceptible against her dark skin.
“Hey,” Jordan said, swallowing the lump in her throat. Rachel jolted, embarrassment flashing through her eyes.
“H-hey.” Rachel knew she knew. Her brown eyes pleaded with her to act normal, but her mouth was set in a firm line, daring her to even try. Jordan laughed, adjusting the straps on her shoulders.
“So, what’d you call me over for? We got a new one?”
Relieved, Rachel held out the paper to her. Jordan took it, smoothing out the wrinkles as she read. The sheet had a single paragraph typed upon it. It read: A human ghost has remained trapped on Magnolia Street. Please be advised that the ghost is held by a malevolent being. Proceed with caution.
Jordan frowned. “Seems a little dangerous, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t chicken out.” Rachel bumped her in the shoulder as she passed, walking out of the backyard onto the sidewalk. Jordan stuffed the paper in her pocket, jogging to catch up with her friend.
It started in last summer. The strange letters, that is. They came to Rachel’s house, with only her name written on the envelope. They were never sent through the mail, but were tucked into her window, so she’d find it every time she’d open it. Jordan had a feeling that they arrived sooner than that because Rachel knew exactly what to do when she brought Jordan into it.
Psychopomp, she had said, initially struggling with the word. She didn’t do a good job explaining it either; Jordan understood enough of it after a quick internet search: get ghosts to move on. Easy peasy. She initially worried about the danger, having grown up on a steady diet of horror movies, but, surprisingly, most ghosts were just ‘stuck’. They had passed away and forgotten all about it. The way Rachel would gently nudge them along reminded Jordan of her an old woman being led across the street by a kind citizen.
Maybe that was why Rachel was also so tight-lipped about her life, not just what happened at home, but the poor girl saw ghosts too. The ability somehow extended to Jordan, too, when they went out on these missions together. Jordan didn’t question it. That was the summary of their relationship: Rachel doing things and Jordan not saying a word. It worked well; Jordan took things as they came and Rachel was glad for her silence.
Magnolia Street was a little well known, at least to the older people in the neighborhood. Jordan’s father had talked about how the street was thought to be haunted, and that kids would often go missing passing through. Jordan had thought it was rather stupid for an entire street to be haunted. The street itself was rather normal; single-story houses of only slightly varying design lined up neatly. Nothing too haunted, even as the sun set and the street lights flickered on.
“Hear anything?” Rachel asked. She slowed down to a leisurely pace.
“No?” Jordan wasn’t sure what she should be listening for anyway. Screams? She fished out her phone from her back, illuminating the touch screen. She still had service—that was something that was a mildly reliable marker. For some reason, Jordan never had phone service when a ghost was nearby.
Rachel groaned in frustration. She stopped along the sidewalk, tapping her foot impatiently. Jordan remained quiet while Rachel slowly looked around her, trying to glare a hole into everything.
“Excuse me.” Jordan’s hand gripped the baseball bat tightly, turning on her heels. She nearly had it raised in defense before her mind finally caught up to what she saw. A young girl, tiny and blonde, stood in front of her. The first thought that came to mind was that the girl was dressed rather oddly—a little old. Her bangs were pulled back with a slim black band and her dress covered her from neck to well below the knees. The old-fashioned modesty reminded Jordan of her father’s baby photos.
Jordan, still gawking at the girl, shuffled to the side, allowing her to pass. Rachel still had her back turned to them, staring off somewhere. As the girl quietly passed by them, Rachel turned so fast Jordan thought she’d have whiplash. Her eyes followed the girl before looking to Jordan incredulously.
Rachel made a strangled sound. “Of course it’s her!” She yelled for the girl, stomping towards her. “Hey! Hey you! Wait up!”
The girl didn’t stop. Jordan and Rachel chased after her, slipping into a light jog to stay ahead of her. “Wait a minute! Listen, we’re here to help you. Are you even paying attention?”
Rachel continued to shout at the poor girl. Initially, she remained stoic, her face set in a passive expression, her eyes off in a thousand yard stare. As they got closer to the street corner, the mask broke and emotion appeared. Her mouth turned down into a troubled frown and her eyes began to dart everywhere, trying to avoid Rachel’s glare.
“Please go away.” She whispered. It was so quiet Jordan had barely caught it over the sounds of Rachel’s ramblings. “She’s going to hear you. Please leave.”
“Who?” Jordan asked just as softly. Rachel, thankfully, noticed the exchange and stopped. She took to sleuthing out ahead, hyper vigilant. The girl bit her lower lip, her steps slowing to a stop. Her hands grasped the hem of her dress, wringing the fine material. “Who’s going to hear us?”
“Her!” Rachel screamed. Jordan looked up, both hands on the bat. Three houses down from the corner emerged a woman, her darkened figure striding purposefully towards them. Jordan couldn’t see her well in the added shade of the trees. Rachel, much closer, seemed alarmed; one more glance at the woman had Rachel bolting for the two of them.
Jordan steeled herself, firmly planting her feet on the ground. Rachel skidded to a stop and grabbed the girl, keeping the two of them safely behind Jordan’s protective back. “All yours, Jordan!”
“All mine,” she repeated to herself, trying to calm her heart. Emerging from the cover of the trees and into the beam of the street light, Jordan inhaled sharply. Every bit of her body screamed at her to run and never look back. The woman looked completely normal; light brown skin, long, flowing black hair, and pure darkness for eyes. It wasn’t as if she even had sockets but just an endless absence of light right where they would have been. “S-stay back!”
“Where’s my daughter?” Her lips didn’t move but her voice was in Jordan’s head, cold and intimidating. Jordan clenched her teeth. She raised the bat in warning.
“She’s not your daughter!” Rachel shouted back. The girl was whimpered down, begging for Jordan and Rachel to just leave already, that they were going to make things worse. The woman snarled and she lunged at Jordan with an ear-piercing shriek. Reflexively, Jordan swung out at the woman’s torso. Her body exploded into dark mist around the bat, reconstituting itself as the weapon passed.
Jordan didn’t have time to scream before the wind was knocked out of her, the woman’s palm slamming straight into her sensitive chest. Her bat fell from her fingers with a clatter. She bashed the back of her head into the sidewalk, stars dancing in front of her eyes. Groaning, Jordan tried to recover as the girl started sobbing loudly.
Curling on her side, Jordan squinted and groaned, trying to spot the woman. She had Rachel and the girl cornered against a tree. The feral aura she had before was gone, replaced by a calm anger.
“Come now, it’s dinner time.” She held a hand out, the same hand that Jordan was sure left a bruise on her. Rachel refused to step away from the girl, holding her arms out protectively.
“She’s not your daughter. I don’t know who…what you are, but she needs to go.”
“Yes, she needs to go home.” The woman took a step forward, her voice tinged with an unhinged quality. “So, come now, sweetie. Come home.”
The girl, her hands clenched in Rachel’s backpack, looked nervously between Rachel and the woman. Her hesitation doomed her; the woman’s anger came back full force, abyssal eyes deepening with ferocity.
“Get over here right now!” The intensity scared Jordan, her whole body flinching painfully. The girl shrieked and held her hands up over her head, eyes clenched shut tight. Rachel froze too, her head turned sideways at the girl. The fear was there, but something else flashed in her old friend’s eyes.
Rachel took a step forward. Amazingly, the woman stepped back. If Jordan wasn’t aching so badly from the previous hit, she would have thought this was funny. Rachel’s tiny form, even shorter than herself, continually advancing and the woman retreating, as if in fear.
“She’s not your daughter.” Rachel said darkly. As they moved along the sidewalk, the woman tripped over the fallen baseball bat, stumbling to the ground ungracefully. It rolled to Rachel’s feet and she picked it with one hand, squaring her shoulders. “A parent doesn’t yell at their kid like that. Okay? She’s not your daughter. You’re not her mom. Parents don’t act like that!”
She raised the bat high above her head and the woman shrieked, arms crossed protectively over her head. As Rachel swung it down, the woman disappeared into the same dark mist; this time, she did not return. The mist drifted into the street, into nothing.
Jordan held her breath. Rachel’s grip on the bat was tight, her knuckles visible through the skin. “R-Rach?”
“I-I wasn’t going to hit her.” She replied, quietly but firmly. “I’m not like that.”
The girl reached out for Rachel, small hand tentatively reaching for Rachel’s, falling over her bone-white grasp. Rachel looked at her. Although her curls covered her face partially, Jordan could see the glistening of the tears in the street light.
“It’s okay.” The girl said, a little awkwardly. Jordan smirked through the pain as she stood up. She was glad that cheering people up was a skill everyone lacked, even ghosts. “Can…can I go now?”
“Yeah…I’ll take you. Is there anything you want to say?”
The girl pondered for a moment but shook her head. “I’ll…I’ll be seeing them soon, won’t I? My family?”
Rachel nodded and the girl’s face lit up in a smile. Jordan took the bat from her hands, using it to support herself. Rachel held the girl’s hands in hers and sniffled. She stared down at their fingers, letting silence fall. The poor girl looked confused and shifted uncomfortably. She looked at Jordan pleadingly and just as her mouth opened to ask when something was going to happen, she disappeared. Not like the woman, who disappeared into mist, but, with a blink of an eye, she was gone.
Passingly, Jordan noticed that she could hear the cicadas again, filling the night with their song. Rachel rubbed at her eyes with her sleeve. A million questions ran through her mind, there was so much Jordan wanted to ask, but she wasn’t sure her mouth was capable of voicing them all. Instead, Jordan put her hand on Rachel’s, curling her fingers around hers.
“You wanna sleep over?”
Rachel, eyes red and puffy, stared at her. A moment passed. She smiled, eyes shining.“Your dad won’t mind?”
“Naw, you’re like family.” Rachel leaned her head against Jordan’s, sniffling all the way home.