“I don’t want to be a dick, because this is really nice and everything, but what am I doing here?”
Tommy sat in the far booth, her back against the wall and legs stretched out so her feet dangled off the far end of the bench seat. Sam sat across from her, idly playing with the hagstone. Casey sat at the counter next to Alex, facing the table while Herb had pulled a stool from the kitchen to sit on the other side.
“Well there’s this entity-” Herb started.
“There are these camfluencers-” Sam began.
“The cafe has a history-” Alex opened with.
“Hey, what happened to that dog?” Everyone looked at Casey, who looked confused. “What? I just remembered the dog. It was pretty cute even though it tried to eat me.” Alex rolled her eyes and stood up.
“I have something in the office I think you all should see. I’ll be right back.”
“Sis, if this was a horror movie…”
“Shut up, Casey!” Alex threw this over her shoulder as she made her way into the kitchen. Herb leaned forward conspiratorially.
“I mean, you’re not wrong about the trope, but also, you’re a fucking ghost, dude. What makes you think this isn’t a horror movie?”
While Casey stewed in thought, Sam took the opportunity to interject.
“I don’t know why you’re here, Tommy. I’ve been seeing ghosts all my life, but most of the time they don’t stay long and if they do, they don’t retain as much of themselves as the ghosts I’ve encountered in this town.”
“How many have you seen in town? Are there ghosts all over the place? Are there ghosts here now?”
Casey waved and smiled.
“An accurate number would be difficult to gauge. But from what I can tell, all of them are, if not directly benevolent, wholly uninterested in the living.”
“Then how do you explain that nightmare you summoned earlier?” Casey stopped trying to pick up a fork and turned to face Sam.
“Yeah, that was-I’m genuinely not sure what that was. My mum was always really good at connecting, and always seemed to know just how to help. A lot of the time, signals get crossed and people get stuck, but even then, it’s a fragment of memory more than the original person. Usually they just needed pointing in the right direction or someone to assure them it was okay to let go. Whatever that was, it had an agenda.”
“Yeah, it wanted us to come and find it or something? But why would we do that since it also told us we’d be meat for the beast? It obviously knows nothing about enticement. The weird thing is, I feel like I’ve heard that somewhere.”
Herb smacked the counter.
“That’s what I was saying earlier!”
Alex had returned carrying a large binder.
“What were you saying earlier?”
“That creepy ghoulie ghostie and its yammering about us being meat for the beast. Casey and I both remember hearing that somewhere before.”
“Hmm, that is odd. I can’t help you with that, but check this out.” She flipped open the binder and set it on the counter. The group gathered around. Tommy, being the tallest, leaned over Sam, who responded with a shy smile and moved to give her space. Alex turned to a page she’d marked, near the centre of the binder.
“The café has been here in one iteration or another for a very long time. Like, longer than seems normal. At one point, it was a bus depot and if we go back far enough, there was a train station. Except there are no remnants of tracks or anything. It’s as though the route was erased.”
Herb looked over her shoulder.
“Where did you find all this?”
“When she was helping me refurbish the office, Lydia asked if I wanted to borrow this. I thought it would be interesting to learn some of the history, but this strikes me as odd. At some point people settled here, and started to build. But every time it reaches a point where expansion seems the next logical step, the progress is interrupted, if not entirely quashed. Except for the café. It’s a mainstay.”
“Why do you think that is? Do you have any ideas?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say it acts as a boundary marker of sorts. The town as it stands now is completely to this side of the restaurant, even though a lot of the surrounding area is just as level and easily built on.”
“Yeah, I remember when my dad was building the resort, there was a lot of resistance from town folks about it. They told him it was a bad idea, but he dismissed them because he was a complete asshole.”
“As was your brother.”
Herb gave him a sad look.
“No argument there, Casey.”
Alex flipped a few pages.
“And look at this. At one point there was an industrialist who sent some surveyors to check out the hills, including the one directly behind us. I guess they found enough to get them excited because that’s when the railway was built. It was all very rushed, and all the labour was outsourced. Not one townsperson was hired to help, but not for the reason you might think. They all refused. But money talks and so the trains started running, and they started digging. It stopped really suddenly one day. They didn’t even pack up, they just left. For all I know, all of their tools are still in the ground somewhere. But the mine was sealed up. I think the trains ran for a few years longer, but they didn’t stop here anymore at the request of the townsfolk.”
“So this whole town exists to keep people from visiting? That doesn’t make any sense.” Tommy sat back down on the bench, a confused look on her face.
“Well, if you factor in the entity, it might.” Herb wandered over and sat across from her.
“Ok, now it’s getting weird. What’s the entity?”
“I’m not totally sure, if I’m completely honest. It takes various forms and has a companion, which sometimes shows up as a dog who mistook Casey for a snack one time.”
“I knew it wasn’t just a dog!”
“Shut up, you did not.”
“Okay, I did not. But I can see that Tommy would rather hear about the entity. Please continue, Herb.”
“Thanks Casey. Yeah, so there’s this creature doesn’t quite cover it. I’m not sure where it’s from or what it is exactly, but it’s old. And it inhabits the forest, but not in any particular way, like it doesn’t have a house or anything. I think it’s more likely that it is the forest. Or the spaces in between the forest.”
“Herb, what the fuck are you talking about?”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Alex? You got anything?”
Alex was quiet for a moment, gathering her thoughts. She nodded, as though deciding on a course of action and walked over to the kettle. After she turned it on, she turned back to the group and smiled.
“I think there are spirits which are born of story. God is a construct of man’s conscious thought. If people don’t believe in gods, will they cease to exist? We could play the chicken and egg game, did man invent god or vice versa? Some choose to believe it only goes in one direction, and others believe it only goes the other way. Maybe it’s both. At any rate, there are things which happen within our own bodies that most of us have no conception of, so why couldn’t there be things in the world, in all the worlds, which are beyond our immediate rational reckoning. There is something which inhabits this area. I don’t know how large of a territory it inhabits, but I believe the town might have created it if it didn’t create the town or at very least the boundary that the town appears to enact.” The kettle boiled and she walked over to it, pouring the water into a mug over a teabag and a spoonful of honey. Tommy huffed.
“Well thank you for that, I’m far less confused.”
“I’m not finished. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, since I first met the entity on that horrible night. It might have been the worst day of my life, and I’ve had nothing to do but process it and make sandwiches since. Herb was laid up at the cabin and redecorating the cafe was a good distraction but goddamnit!” She slammed a hand on the counter, her hair swinging to cover her face. When she spoke next her voice was quieter. “I was all alone. And I’d just lost my brother, my best friend and her boyfriend, found out my childhood friend had grown up into a psychopath, almost lost Herb, and then this thing showed up dressed as you and honestly? I’m really surprised I’m not completely insane.”
Tommy stood and walked around the counter. She wrapped Alex in a hug, noticing that she the sensation was duller than before. She hoped Alex didn’t notice and kissed the top of her friend’s head. That broke Alex and she started to sob, hanging onto Tommy as much as her molecular structure would allow.
“I’m sorry Alex. I didn’t mean to leave you alone. If I’d not been so caught up in Kirk, I might have noticed Nathan was being sketchy. Hey, that’s something. If Casey and I are here, where the fuck is Nathan? Ooh, Sam, can you make Nathan solid so I can kick him in the balls again?” This made Alex laugh, a tearful sort of gurgly giggle, and she took a step back, wiping her eyes. Casey finally managed to make contact with something and slid a napkin across the counter. Alex took it gratefully and wiped her nose.
“Thanks little brother. It’s not your fault, Tommy. None of us could have predicted Nathan being such an utter pile of wank. It’s just that seeing you has reminded me how much I miss you.” She took a deep breath and picked up her mug of tea. After taking a sip, she cleared her throat and turned back to the group.
“Now, where was I?”
“You were rambling-”
“That’s right, thanks Casey. So that night, the entity and I had a chat…”
“Wait, did you say, dressed as me?”
“Yes, it was most unsettling. Anyhow, as I was saying, we had a chat and it shared some of the details of its nature with me. I’m not actually sure it knows how old it is. But it refers to itself as a steward of sorts, a representative of the land and the stories which are tied to it. As long as the stories are told, it weaves this web of power and it’s able to maintain a certain amount of strength to defend or maybe protect? To keep the wild places intact. To keep the dark spaces undisturbed, or maybe inert is a better word. But sometimes stories aren’t enough. That’s where caretakers come in, like Herb, and inadvertently his brother before him. And then there was Ray and his family going back I’m not sure how far. Apparently Ray was due to marry a local girl named Moira. She killed herself when she found out he’d been murdered. Her dad still lives here.”
Sam piped up.
“Does her dad run the general store?”
Alex was taken aback.
“Did you see her there?”
“She was sitting in the window playing with the rabbit earlier. I usually try not to draw attention to myself when I see ghosts, I’m never sure how they’ll react. Sometimes they yell at me.” Sam cast a sidelong glance at Tommy who had the decency to look a tiny bit chagrined. Herb looked devastated.
“My family ruined a lot people’s lives, didn’t they?”
“They sure did, Herb.”
“It’s true that some of your family caused a lot of harm, but you’re not your brother or your dad, Herb. You made a conscious decision to stay and try to help.”
“Help what? Help a folktale monster who likes to cosplay dead girls? I mean, I get why it would choose me, but it’s still fucking creepy.”
“That’s what you’re going to get hung up on? Tommy, it chose you because it found you in our minds as being someone we loved.”
“Well that might be sweet but I’d like to see how you’d feel about otherworldly beings strutting around in your body that you spent a lot of time and energy perfecting only to have it stabbed. Ugh, sorry, I think I’m still bitter.”
“So, there’s always someone keeping tabs on the thing in the woods? For generations? Is this your job now? Your life? How do you know when you’re finished?”
Casey rested a hand on Tommy’s shoulder.
“Not everything gets finished in a tidy happily ever after way. I mean, look at us, half of us are dead, but we continue.”
“Speaking of continue, that’s not the end of the story. The caretaker is kind of the last resort. Whoever runs the café acts as a sort of gatekeeper, in an attempt to move people through. A stopover between here and there. The motel, the general store, even the museum exist for the purpose of recharge, refuel, acquire some quaint historical knowledge for the diehard tourist types and move on. If there’s nothing, there will be those who see it as an opportunity to create something. If there’s too much, it draws people. At some point it was decided that just enough was ideal. Was it a conscious decision on the part of the town? I can’t tell you that.”
Sam piped up.
“I’m going to suggest that most of the people I’ve interacted with are fairly aware they’re part of something, even if it’s not openly discussed. I’ve already told you about how odd it is to find so many ghosts in such a small place, but there are a couple of other things I’m struggling with. One is the video of the women at the motel. The owners there don’t seem the type to rig up something to fool people. And not just because if people think the motel is haunted they’ll want to visit all the more.”
Alex and Herb nodded their agreement. Sam continued.
“So if it did happen at the motel here, the women in the video arranged it all. Maybe for clout? For likes and subscribes? But why do that if it’ll fall apart as soon as someone works out where it happened and checks it out. So maybe it was somewhere else. But whoever told Shooter about it directed him here. As well, no one has seen them since. So that’s one mystery. The other involves the caretaker.”
“I wondered when we were going to get back to that.” He turned to Casey. “Do you have any more information about that?”
Casey shook his head.
“All I know is, there was this weird flash, I heard two people talking but all I could make out was when someone said, ‘keep her away from the caretaker’ and then it felt like I’d been pushed down stairs, except there were no stairs. I closed my eyes, anticipating the hurt but it didn’t obviously because you know, I’m vapour or whatever. When I opened them, I was here, sitting at the table. I was totally surprised to see Cassie behind the counter, I thought maybe I was dreaming. But then she couldn’t hear me and kept walking past me. Everyone did. But it was weird, no one sat here, ever. It was like they knew I was here but had instructions to ignore me. I saw the napkins there and wished I had a pen so I could at least doodle, and then I did. I just wished it into existence. Then I thought I should warn you about the caretaker, but you couldn’t see it anyhow. Until Sam showed up, which was cool. Thanks for the near corporeal form.”
“It’s my pleasure, Casey.”
“But speaking of ghost spotting, what’s with your friends, Sam?”
“Oh yeah, so Shooter and Angelié bill themselves as the Ghost Getters. They’re tubeyoube camfluencers mostly because it’s Angelié’s dream to be famous or something. I don’t think Shooter is really into it, but he’s a really good guy and totally supportive of her dream. I’m under the impression that she’s tried a few different things, and it could be that this is just another in a long line of attempts. That’s my hope anyhow, that she’ll lose interest and move on before she stumbles into something which could end up hurting her or Shooter. I’m still not sure how she found Tommy. But I know how they found this place. Ange said she’d heard about some message board where people share stories and convinced Shooter to join. He started a conversation with someone who shared the video of the women and told him about the motel. She insisted they hire someone to do all the camera work so they could focus on their image and brand. Mostly I’ve just been running interference while recording tons of footage of Ange posing and preening in front of historical monuments or spooky looking houses. She wants to upload it instantly, ‘striving for revelance’ as she calls it, but I told her it would be more professional to edit it before posting, which isn’t easy to do on the fly. My mom is worried about this place though, she’s hoping we’ll leave soon.”
“Did she say anything specific?”
“Only that it feels like there is something with a powerful draw here, like magnets. Which might explain the excess of ghosts.”
Herb looked grim.
“She might be referring to the Other, as well.”
“Oh for fucks sake, how many more things are there? This is a lot to take in, you guys. So there’s an Entity who likes to dress up as me, some inept ghost hunters who accidentally find ghosts, a caretaker who Cassie’s in danger from, a town with a history of trying to convince people not to visit it even though it has a museum, a motel which isn’t haunted except it is, a resort where a bunch of people died, and now you’re going to throw some evil magnets at me?” Tommy let out a breath. “Where does it all end?”
“From the sounds of it, not long after the Other wakes up.”
Photo by Anna Marie on Unsplash