Shay bounced her heel against the pavement. If she was too loud Max would have to start all over and they would be absolutely insufferable about it.
“The Johnson House.” Max used their serious camera work voice. “A regular house, on a regular street, but something dark lurks behind the windows.”
Something dark was definitely behind the blinds, shut tight against the outside world. Shay was pretty confident it had more to do with the electricity being off than anything remotely paranormal.
“Tonight, I’ve been asked to investigate what could have terrified a mild-mannered suburban family so badly that they moved several hundred miles away without warning. Welcome… to Ghost Town.”
Shay waited a beat so Max could edit her out. “Boooo. I still object to that name.”
“That’s fine, it’s my show.” Max held out a hand to her and she accepted, letting them haul her to her feet. Even standing Max was a good head taller than her. “Well, you ready to go in?”
“I guess,” Shay said. “You really think this place is haunted?”
“Maybe.” Max squinted up at it.
“Are you going to cry like you did in that barn?” Shay asked with a slight grin.
Their glare was colder than the late October air. “That owl came for my face, Shay. It wasn’t funny.”
“Oh it was pretty funny,” Shay said. She nudged Max lightly with her elbow when they continued to sulk. “Hey, if you had been in actual danger, I would have punched that owl myself. With my bare fists. To defend your honor and your perfect face. Now c’mon, let’s go explore a haunted house.”
She supposed if any house on the block was haunted, it had to be that one. It was dark blue, or at least it had been. The paint was worn and weathered. Rust stains blossomed down from the gutter. The lawn was coated with dead leaves. The trees up and down the street were still clinging to their fall splendor, but in front of the Johnson House they were bare, branches forming a lattice of clawed, bony hands reaching for a dull, overcast sky. A for sale sign was sunk deeply next to the sidewalk.
It wasn’t the rust stains on the siding or the lawn that made the house foreboding, but she couldn’t say what it was. A cold wind rushed down the street, leaves clattering down the sidewalk. She shivered, huddling deeper into her hoodie. The for-sale sign creaked. A smiling woman had been plastered on it, but water stains had marred her smile and her eyes had been scratched into starbursts of white.
“Okay, gonna record again.” Max held up their phone and went back to their video voice, which was only a little more sinister than their normal voice. At least, that was what Shay thought they were going for. They just sounded vaguely British to her. “It’s been two years since the Johnsons picked up and moved out in a single night. No one knows why. The house has stood empty ever since, but sometimes a strange glow can be seen behind the blinds. Teen vandals? Or is it something more sinister? No one has ever investigated, but we have been given the green light to go in this evening and see if we can find out what terror has gripped the house.”
Shay laughed the moment it was safe to. “Something more sinister? Than teen vandals? Have you met teen vandals.”
“I’ve met you,” Max said.
Shay gasped, pretending to be scandalized. “That is rude. You know I have never vandalized anything.”
“Just my life, then.” They sighed.
“Shut up, you love me.”
“Unfortunately for me,” Max said. They pulled a key out of their hoodie pocket. “Quiet, I want to get us walking up to the house.”
Their shoes crunched on the driveway. The cement was pitted and cracked. Max turned the camera to her and she gave them a cheesy smile that had them grinning.
The Great Ghost Debate had started in middle school. Max was a believer. Shay wasn’t, really, but thought it was funny to rile Max up over things that didn’t actually matter.
Though apparently it had mattered more than she realized, because at some point while she was away for college Max had taken to filming crappy videos with their phone. They even had a following online. When Shay moved back she opted to tag along, mostly to keep Max from scaring themself into cardiac arrest over a weird shadow in a corner.
That and it was more entertaining than just sitting around at home, hoping someone would like her resume enough to call her back.
Max opened the screen door. It screamed on its hinges and they had to get their hip in the way to keep it propped open. They unlocked the heavy, wooden door behind it and stepped back, looking at her.
“What?” She stared at them.
“After you.” Max made a sweeping gesture inside.
“Ohhh you suck,” Shay said. “If something jumps on my face I swear I am never, ever forgiving you.”
“Gonna take my chances.” Max grinned at her.
“I guess we wouldn’t want more owls trying to steal your face,” Shay conceded, shouldering past them a little more roughly than necessary. The musty smell of a room that had been shut too long rolled out onto the porch.
It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness. The light switch next to the door didn’t work when she toggled it, but that wasn’t exactly surprising.
“No lights!” Max reminded her.
“Yeah, yeah.” Shay stepped farther in.
The entryway led to a set of stairs, the kitchen farther on and the living room immediately to her left. It was just an empty square of painted walls and carpet. Muddy footprints formed paths between indents still left over from where furniture must have sat.
She walked into the kitchen. The cabinets and island in the center were just shapes in the gloom before she pulled out her phone and used the flashlight. The only things on the island were a few extremely dead houseplants in ugly flower pots and an equally dead beetle, its legs curled up tightly
“Aww rest in peace, little buddy.”
“What was that?” Max asked.
“Nothing!” she called back in a sing song voice. A few of the cupboards were hanging open, but there was nothing inside of them.
There was something about empty houses that made Shay uneasy. It wasn’t a ghost thing: she’d been in plenty of supposedly haunted places and had never felt anything like that. The idea of someone living somewhere, then leaving behind an empty shell of their life, felt like stepping down and expecting a stair but there was nothing but empty air. It had been that way when her parents sold her childhood home and they’d stood in front of it for the last time after a flurry of cleaning, trying to find the last few things that had washed up in the corners. A potent mixture of nostalgia and sadness.
Kitchens were the worst. They were the center of life, the heart of a home, where meals were cooked and families gathered.
Without that, a house felt gutted and dead.
Maybe it was that feeling that made so many people think that empty places were haunted.
“What do you see?” Max’s voice broke through her thoughts. “Did you get eaten by owls?”
“The owls want to carry me off and make me their queen actually, but no luck so far. Place is move in ready, comes with its own dead plants, and a bug,” Shay said. “The bug is dead, too. Just in case that was a concern.”
“Not really.” Max finally joined her in the kitchen. “Here, save your phone battery.”
They handed her a thin, metal flashlight. She clicked it on and swept the beam over the cupboards, throwing them into much higher clarity than her phone had managed. “Thanks.”
“Ugh, do you feel that?” Max shuddered and stepped a little closer to her.
“Kinda chilly, yeah, but the heat hasn’t been on for a while,” Shay said. Cold air pressed around her. The house must have had poor insulation. She wasn’t too surprised given the state of the outside.
“The air feels heavy,” Max said.
Shay nodded. “Sure, kind of stale. Anyway, I’m going to check for random wildlife, you can do your EVP or whatever you need to.”
“Yeah, good idea,” Max agreed.
She left them to ask the empty kitchen questions like “is there someone here with us? Do you have unfinished business? Are you aware, sir, that you are, in fact, a ghost?” and continued her tour of the house. All she found was dust and a large spider in the downstairs bathroom. She shut the door behind her just in case. The sun was setting outside, the house growing darker. She finished with the downstairs and sat down on the stairs, waiting for Max to be done. A cold draft wafted its way down the stairs. She made a note that it was time to wear a real coat to investigations.
Max was nearing the end of their script when she heard the footsteps.
They were loud and heavy, like a large, angry man was pacing down the hall. A shiver that had nothing to do with the temperature worked its way up her spine. She stood up and took a step back towards the door, eyeing the top of the stairs. It was lost to gloom. She tried her flashlight but it didn’t catch anything. Whoever it was stayed hidden.
“Did you hear that?” Max came out of the kitchen to stand next to her.
“I thought we were the first to investigate?” Shay looked up at them.
“We are,” Max said. “I don’t know what that was. We just heard the sound of footsteps coming from upstairs, even though the house is locked and we’re supposed to be the only ones here. Could this be the house settling? Or could it be what drove the family out of their home? We’re going upstairs to investigate now.”
“Do you mean we or just me?” Shay asked.
“We,” Max confirmed. “I’m… kind of worried that was a person, and we’re not here alone, and they’re just lurking in the dark, and somehow that’s a lot scarier than ghosts.”
“Agreed,” Shay said. “Mostly because ghosts aren’t real.”
“Are we really going to do this right now?” Max raised one eyebrow at her. She was always jealous they could do that.
“Guess not.” Shay took a breath, steeling herself. “Okay. Great. I’ll go first.”
Max winced. “No offense, but you’re not exactly intimidating.”
“I am super offended,” Shay said, but they had a point. She was five feet nothing, especially in her chucks. Max was almost six feet tall and quite a bit bigger than her. They were a softy, but they could look kind of scary. For a moment. In a pinch. “And because of that, I’m going first.”
Unfortunately for her Max didn’t argue with her stunning lack of logic. Really, she was pretty sure she was more likely to come up swinging. She walked up the stairs, gripping her flashlight tightly. Each step felt colder than the last. There was a door across the hall from the top of the stairs, white and nondescript. She swung the light, the shadows on either side lurching and jumping. Her heart was beating in her ears. She heard a noise to the left and darted the beam towards it, but she couldn’t see anything beyond the edge of the wall.
“Okay I’m getting kind of freaked out,” Max admitted in a quiet, small voice. They were very bravely a few stairs behind her. “We should go.”
“No, we’re investigators, so we investigate,” Shay said, even though she wanted nothing more than to turn and run down the stairs herself. She really wished she’d taken the baseball bat her brother, Duncan, had offered. She’d stupidly said it was probably useless against ghosts. Against a person it would be just the thing.
She reached the top of the stairs and shrieked.