Must Believe in Ghost by Jeremy John Parker

I heard about Bob through a notice on the library bulletin board. Normally, it was unremarkable, filled with posters for the community theatre’s production of SPECTACULATHON!—all of Grimm’s fairy-tales compressed into “an unbelievable ninety minutes!”—and the Bread and Soup Dinner (suggested donation $2) on Wednesday at the First Baptist Church of Heartland. A “best of the 50s, 60s, and 70s!” cover band (Skyrock!) was looking for a new drummer. Some joker had put up a notice that said FREE TEARABLE PUNS, and the little strips of paper at the bottom said things like, “I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. It’s impossible to put down!” and “The scarecrow said, ‘This job isn’t for everyone, but hay . . . it’s in my jeans.’” So I didn’t usually pay much attention to the board, but Bob’s, handwritten in all caps, somehow grabbed me.

DEAR HEARTLAND COMMUNITY MY NAME IS BOB PRICE I’M 53 YEARS OLD, AND I’M LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO HELP BUILD A GHOSTBUSTERS PROTON PACKS AND GHOST TRAPS AND A CONTAINEMENT UNIT, MUST KNOW HOW TO BUILD ELECTRICEL EQUIPMENT, I HAVE BLUE PRINTS TO GO BY TO HELP YOU, LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO HELP ME TO DONATE TIME AND EFFORT WITH ME AND ASSIST ME TO B U I L D I T PLEASE E-MAIL ME AT ROBERTPRICE@1963 AND LET ME KNOW IF YOU CAN HELP ME OR GO TO ROBERTPRICE@1963.COM AT GOOGLE AT THE HEARTLAND PUBLIC LIBRARY, WILL PAY IF JOB IS DONE AND COMPLETED, WILL NAGOTIATE A PRICE FOR PAYMENT, MUST BELIEVE IN GHOST

I snapped a picture of it—interesting story, something odd to share with Fitz (Aurora Fitzpatrick, live-in girlfriend: MA candidate, English Lit; amateur photographer; bartender at The Woodshed; rural newspaper delivery gal) when I got back to the apartment. I’d gone to the library because it’s like retail therapy, but free, so it’s perfect for the unemployed—a degenerate group of sad sacks of whom I had recently found myself a member. Maybe the unemployed weren’t all degenerates, but I sure felt like one after the Lincolnshire Gazette went belly-up after a failed transition to an online subscription model. I knew it would flop, but I was just a reporter who hadn’t been on the job long.

The efficiency consultants, a Brangelina-esque power couple flown in from Houston, had been contracted to help the Gazette move into the Information Age a dozen years behind everyone else. The first thing they’d done was fire all of the photographers, claiming that “citizen journalism” would easily replace overpaid photographers, which meant we’d started cribbing photos from Facebook and Instagram for nominal “credit” fees.

I may have said something like, “I sure as fuck know that no one who gets news online wants to pay cash for the state farm board committee’s minutes accompanied by a blurry photo with the goddamn Hudson filter,” and then stormed out to cover the state farm bureau’s committee minutes. I may have been shouting, and that may have been why my termination was officially listed as “verbal abuse of a colleague,” which I sure as hell didn’t put on my résumé after the Gazette tanked five months later, and I found myself facing an onslaught of credit card debt and student loan payments, with only a bachelor’s in journalism to fend off the horde.

I’d only gotten the job because the managing editor, a sweaty harbor seal named Horace Malnichack, was a friend of my father’s. That’s what I figured, anyway, since I had no experience coming out of graduation, but got the job anyway. It was a small-town paper, but surely there had to have been a better candidate? My great journalistic career in college was a piece on whether college athletes should get paid, a kerfuffle that blew up when a junior starting lineman tore his knee, lost his scholarship, and sued the university. It wasn’t even a good article; the involved parties refused to comment, so it was three columns of speculation and indecisive hand-wringing. The day after Horace had to fire me—reluctantly, he said—Brangelina fired him, too. Horace had been at the Gazette since he and my dad were kids, delivering papers on their bikes back when the news cost a nickel.

 

The longer I sat with Bob’s notice on my phone, the more I realized I had a story here. If anything was going to save my journalism career, it would be a crazy story like this, some clickbait-gone-viral on BuzzFeed, or something with You’ll Never Believe! in the headline. Fitz encouraged me, said it would do me good, get me out of the apartment. I’m sure it wasn’t entirely altruistic good-girlfriend enthusiasm. She was working on her thesis, did most of her writing at home, because her office at IU was a commute, and I was frankly screwing with her juju.

The e-mail address and website in Robert Price’s notice yielded no results. 1963.com was an architecture website with mention neither of Robert nor ghosts nor busting. Google searches came up empty. Almost. There was one public court access result for a Robert Price, with a birthdate in 1963, who’d gotten tickets for speeding and reckless endangerment in 1985. Fines were paid; case was closed. The address listed was one of those long rural highway addresses, N754W8990 State Highway 42, just outside Heartland, in the township of Kinghill. I left my number and e-mail with the librarian, asked her to give it to Bob if he came in.

Fitz was working, so I went to The Woodshed. It had been a townie dive bar, the kind where unemployed shitheels spun their stools and mooched free beers starting at 11 a.m. and didn’t leave until bar time, but the year before it had been taken over by some craft-beer hipsters from out West somewhere, and now beers were six-to-eight bucks a pint, instead of the buck or three for domestic piss water. The dirty blue-collar drunks had vacated to make room for dirty trust-fund–white-collar drunks. I was sipping away at a Belgian Tripel, trying to get a few minutes to see Fitz, lamenting that I’d not learned a damned thing about Bob.

“You’re a journalist,” she said, shaking a martini. “Research.”

“I did, remember? Nothing but a speeding ticket from 1985.”

She put a twist of lemon rind in the martini and slid it down to a guy who could have passed for Abraham Lincoln in a Civil War reenactment. “On the Internet. You know the world existed before the Internet, right? Do you know how many actual books I have to read, like heavy, physical things? I have to page through disintegrating parchment in climate-controlled rooms, pour over old literary journals on microfiche readers in dark, scary rooms in the back of libraries. These things, and more, are protected by ancient guardians known only as Archivists! Some journalist you are.”

“Gah, I could kiss you.”

“Chaste kisses at work,” she said. “It cuts into my tips.”

I stood up from my stool and plunked one on her cheek.

I grabbed my bag and headed for the door.

 

The library’s archivist took a half-hour out of her day to show me how to use a microfiche reader. “Any newspapers after 2002 are available digitally and are searchable. Before 2002, everything’s on microfiche,” she said, spooling out and winding up these palm-sized rolls of three-inch-wide film. She told me the court records were all digitized years ago, but the library couldn’t afford to scan all the microfiche with the recession the way it was.

“It’s all arranged chronologically. Don’t put them away when you’re done; just leave them on this tray next to the machine.”

And I was left alone with a closet full of hundreds of boxes of microfiche rolls, going all the way back to the late 1800s when the town’s newspaper was still written in German. I spun through a couple issues of that just for the hell of it. Once I saw how the microfiche reader worked, I realized I’d seen them before, in films, in the scene when the cop/investigator/journalist/etc. has a hunch about a crime and goes back into the old files to discover that this isn’t some one-off crime, but the work of a serial killer who has been doing it for years. In newer movies, it’s just the Internet, but if you want to find a serial killer before 2002, you need microfiche.

I thought I’d start with the speeding-ticket day and go from there, but that week’s newspapers were full of news about Robert Price. The speeding and reckless endangerment tickets were issued to Bob because he raced from his house in Kinghill to the hospital in Columbus. Along the way, he careened into two other cars, and crashed his 1971 Jeep Cherokee into an empty ambulance parked in the emergency entrance. The details surrounding this were spread out over the next few weeks’ worth of papers. The more sensational headlines read “Murder-Suicide in Kinghill”—and here I’d thought clickbait headlines were a modern invention. The less sensational were more along the lines of “Wife, daughter deceased.”

Long story short, Bob came home a little after 8:30 p.m. from his shift at the foundry to discover his wife, Darlene—a nurse at Heartland Hospice—on the floor of their bedroom with foam coming out of her mouth and their four-year-old daughter, Mary—a bright darling of a girl by all accounts—drowned in the bathtub. There was a brief investigation, and Bob was quickly cleared of any suspicion in their deaths once the police verified his alibi at the foundry.

The story didn’t end there, however. His family was Catholic, and while the church would perform the full mass for his daughter, victim of murder, they would not allow the same, not a proper Catholic burial, for his wife, victim of suicide. The local paper covered his appeals through the Church hierarchy, and Bob talked to the press often, hoping public opinion would help sway the church, but to no avail.

After that, Bob seemed to have slipped out of the public eye.

 

On one of her rare days off, Fitz and I drove in Fitz’s clanking, shuddering, convertible VW Cabrio to the 1985 address listed in the records. How she delivered newspapers and commuted to IU and back in that shambling car I had no idea. It was a Sunday at the beginning of June, and everything had finally become green, in the lush summer way, not spring’s yellow-and-brown-that-we-politely-call-green-because-we’re-so-happy-to-seea-color-other-than-winter’s-shades-of-dirtywhite way. I yelled over the wind, asking why she kept this shitty car.

She motioned with a pointed finger toward her blonde hair, swaying stalks of golden wheat against the backdrop of rural greenery. She Groucho Marxed her eyebrows and shouted back, “When I’m old, I want to look weathered. Leather-skinned, fine-lined, freckle-burnt, like I lived an exciting life outdoors! Not this indoor-academic-bartending shit! Dorian Gray, you know? The life you lead should be reflected in your features!”

We breezed right past the house the first time and had to turn around. The lawn was long overgrown. Birch saplings, tall weeds, and stray wheat overgrew the short grasses, hiding the house from view. A pair of willows wept over the front eaves and roof, the house itself an unremarkable colonial farmstead rectangle. Its unpainted wooden shingles faded gradually, from warm bronze in the shadows of the eaves to a dull wormy gray elsewhere. The Cabrio jounced through the muddy ruts of the driveway toward the barn.

I’d say the place had been abandoned for a long time, but there was some evidence of recent activity. There was a crop circle of flattened lawn behind the barn with a tractor rim as a fire pit in the center, filled with the remnants of burned logs and garbage, flattened beer cans and shards of broken bottles. Fitz knelt, muddying her knees to take photos of the mess, striped in the long, late-afternoon shadows of the trees. She stalked quietly around the lawn—a nature photographer approaching a sleeping lion—snapping pictures as she went. A rusted federal-blue tractor, wrapped in vines with purple Victrola-shaped flowers. A collapsed log cabin far behind the main house. A cobwebbed dollhouse on the front porch, mother and father and child sleeping quietly inside on their tiny doll beds.

I pressed my face to the glass, and what I saw reminded me of a movie I saw as a kid about a town terrorized by spiders. They’re everywhere, and they kill almost everyone. In the final moments, as the last two residents escape, the camera pulls back into this bird’s-eye view of the city covered in spider webs, and while chilling, it was also amazingly beautiful, like a laden ice storm, everything draped in this white crystalline lace, hummocks and hillocks of sloping webs.

It seemed that no one, not even vandals, had been in here in years and years. Even the cobwebs were old, as if the spiders in the house had long run out of insects to eat and had absconded to a more plentiful promised land.

“Noah!” Fitz, something akin to panic in her voice, from somewhere outside.

The barn door was now open, and Fitz— Nikon dangling from her hand—stood in front of an older man in blue overalls with thin, white pinstripes. He wore a scorched welder’s mask flipped up to show a deeply lined face with gray-spattered stubble, like a wire brush. His eyes were large and hooded, a dull cowbrown. I tried to put this image together with the note from the library and found them a perfect match. He watched as I jogged over.

“Noah, this is Mr. Price,” Fitz said, wide-eyed and clench-smiled.

“Bob,” said Bob. “Don’t go in the house.”

“Oh,” I said, “Is that where the ghosts are? The ones that need busting?”

“It’s dangerous. An old house,” he said. “You saw my ad? Did you send me e-mail?” His voice had a rolling droop to it, like a boulder dipped in honey coming down a mountain.

I explained about the e-mail and website not working. I explained about the librarian who knew him but didn’t know where he lived, who said she’d give him a message to call or e-mail me, but apparently still hadn’t.

“I haven’t been to the library,” Bob said. “You’re the first.”

And then he interviewed me while Fitz sat on a stump by the fire pit, writing notes in the margins of an Eve Sedgwick book. I was careful—I didn’t want him to know I knew anything about him, about his family. I wasn’t a journalist. I was just this guy who definitely wasn’t about to monetize his grief. I didn’t want to lie, but I had to fuzz the edge of truth.

Did I know electrical stuff? Sure thing, my dad taught me when I was a boy. Could I read a blueprint? Pretty good, but it’d been a while. Did I believe in ghosts? Yes, I lied. It was the only part of the thing I felt guilty about. But what harm was in this one little lie? My disbelief in ghosts was not going to prevent me from putting solder on a wire and attaching it to a circuit board. Belief isn’t a prerequisite for anything.

“Your wife?” he asked, pointing a stubby, black-nailed finger toward Fitz.

“No, girlfriend. That okay?”

“She believe in ghosts?”

“Yeah, enough for the both of us.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Nothing, it just means a lot.”

And she did believe. Or she didn’t believe. Or she did and didn’t believe in things in equal measure? She called herself a model agnostic, which she said doesn’t mean the perfect model of agnosticism, but that her agnosticism was based on models.

“Humans are model builders,” she’d said the night we met. It was our last year of college at IU, and we were absolutely wasted, sitting in lawn chairs behind a frat house. Neither of us was affiliated with the house, but we had a mutual friend, Jameson, who wanted to crash one of their infamous parties. We’d lost Jameson somewhere along the line, and the house was so humid it was raining inside, water pooling and dripping from the ceiling. So drunk we could hardly move, we crawled into the lawn chairs like they were life rafts. Reaching for each other across the gulf between our chairs, our fingers interlocked and Fitz said, “What’s your name?”

“Noah.”

“Like the boat?”

“Noah wasn’t a boat.”

Fitz snorted a laugh, and there was a silence that stretched and spun around us for I don’t know how long before she spoke again.

“No, I mean, your parents—they religious?”

“No, it’s a family name. Dad’s a lapsed Catholic, Mom’s an . . . I don’t know . . . à la carte religioneer? She’s been into yoga, lately, and gods with lots of arms.”

That’s when Fitz said the thing about humans as model builders.

“I’m just an ark builder,” I said.

“No, really, this is important,” she said, smacking my arm inefficiently with the ends of her fingers. “All we have are models, see? We can’t really know, you know?”

“Know what?”

“Anything. So we just make models of everything. Like maps. Birth over here, death over there. Your mom’s just exploring the maps.”

“And what, the afterlife is marked with ‘Here be dragons’?”

We were laughing too hard to explain what was so funny when Jameson came stumbling out the back door of the house, soaked head to toe with beer. “I broke the keg,” he slurred, slumping to the crisp, yellowing autumn grass.

So when I came home from the library with the photograph of Bob’s notice, Fitz immediately suggested that I contact him.

“But I don’t believe in ghosts,” I argued, “and that’s right there in the requirements. You don’t believe in ghosts, do you?”

Distractedly, she said, “I can fit ghosts into several models of experience. Poetic, psychological, philosophical, religious, scientific.”

“Scientific?” My tone might have been described as incredulous.

“Let me explain ghosts to you, okay?” Fitz waited for my acquiescence. She poured the rest of a cab from yesterday’s bottle into a World’s Best Grandfather mug. “This is scientific, but let me start with an analogy, okay?”

I closed my eyes and nodded.

“Ghosts are a smudge on the film. I don’t think spirits are trapped here with vicious motives or any of that weird shit. What I’m talking about is pure physics. We know that matter is energy, right? E=mc2 —it’s all energy. So our bodies are just frequencies of energy, from our core, out our aura. Don’t roll your eyes—the aura’s just the energy of our bodies radiating outward: heat, electromagnetism, thoughts, whatever. And that’s just energy, too. We’re just energies moving around, interacting with other energies.

“So, back to the film thing. Now imagine you’re some guy, like a preacher. And you come down the stairs and have breakfast and go out the door to the church every morning. You’re thinking deep thoughts, getting down into that transcendent, existential root of yourself, and you do this, like, every day. Your energy is rubbing that same place over and over, smudging reality. Like the imprint of millions of footsteps in two-thousand-year-old Roman marble. And that smudge is the sound of the stairs creaking, the kitchen chair shifting, the front door slamming—long after you’re dead.

“Or maybe you’re home alone and someone breaks in and viciously murders you. Your mind leaps, explodes, reaches for the deepest survival instincts while also grasping at those same existential chords—should it be any surprise that your spirit smudges that hallway where you were killed, that your last-ditch effort to escape into the bathroom was recorded in the fabric of space-time, that your scream echoes occasionally when some other person living in that house, long after your funeral, tunes into those terrified tones? I don’t think so. Human consciousness is a long, sadly ignored, fundamental force in the calculations of quantum mechanics; it’s as powerful and prolific as electricity, magnetism, and gravity. Got it?”

I said I got it, but I didn’t. Not really. But I kept it in my mind, tried to hold it there like a dream upon waking as Bob leaned in close, too close, deep into my personal space. When I stepped back, he stepped forward, squinting into my eyes. Up close, I could see that his hooded cow browns had thin filaments of green ringing them. The pores of his nose were huge, and his cheekbones had a fine charcoal dusting. He smelled of ozone and bleach. He stepped back, nodded, and said, “You start now.” I don’t know what he was looking for, whether I believed or not, but if he saw what he was looking for, it was Fitz’s belief, not my own.

Before I could agree, Bob turned and walked back into the barn, shuffling like his ankles were manacled. Inside, I’d imagined the mad scientist’s lab from every sci-fi film I’d ever seen—Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein to David Bowie’s Nicola Tesla. But it was closer to the workshop in my dad’s garage. Dirty chipboard on the walls with equally spaced holes with pegs in them for hanging tools: coils of wire and empty spools and smoking soldering guns. An oxyacetylene welding machine. A Geiger counter’s unmistakable click ticked sporadically on a bench near the window. When Bob saw me look at it curiously, he said, “Don’t worry about that. Not yet.”

 

Over the next few weeks, I went back to Bob’s house in Kinghill every morning and helped out in the barn. He’d only just started the project to build a pair of proton packs and the containment unit where the captured ghosts would be stored. True to his posting, Bob had a set of schematics that, at a glance, looked authentic. The wiring diagrams were in order. According to the blueprints and instructions, the proton pack was supposed to work on the idea that ghosts were “negatively charged ectoplasmic entities,” and the pack produced “high-energy positrons” to create the proton stream, which allowed the Ghostbuster to “dissipate psychokinetic energy,” which, let us not forget, would also dissipate anything in its way, destroying just about everything it touched. Fire, flames, general mayhem. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.

Bob had already started working on the frame, an aluminum plate welded to an Advanced Light Infantry combat equipment frame. What Bob needed help with was the more complicated parts, like the primary power distributor and the positron collider. I’d seen Ghostbusters as a kid, but not since, so I’d forgotten the part when Egon talks about having a nuclear accelerator strapped to his back. It was then that I understood the Geiger counter. So I went to work, soldering and wiring the parts Bob put before me. And every Friday he’d smash a crumpled fifty-dollar bill in my hand and say, “See you Monday.”

As the weeks passed, I thought I’d learn more about Bob, that he would eventually tell me why he was building this stuff, about his belief in ghosts, who was haunting him, but he was remarkably close-mouthed except when it came to the project. He’d obviously had a background in engineering, because he did have solid metalworking skills and a rudimentary understanding of electrical work, but not nearly enough to do the more complicated things these blueprints called for. He said years of foundry work had made his fingers “slow and dumb,” so that’s why he needed help with the finer details.

One day a beachball of a man in the dirtiest white T-shirt I’d ever seen rolled his salvage truck into the muddy ruts of the driveway, delivering a massive metal tube, nearly five feet in diameter and twelve feet long. It was from a decommissioned submarine and had housed a portion of the engine. We unloaded it and rolled it into the barn and immediately went to work transforming it into the containment unit. When asked where he got the blueprints or the materials, his answer was always, “The Internet.” For someone who couldn’t accurately transcribe an e-mail address on a library bulletin board posting, he was awfully adept at finding obscure and probably illegal equipment and materials online. For a week, I came home to Fitz grimy from a long day of sanding the old paint and rust off the containment unit.

 

Knowing what Bob had not wanted to tell me, I didn’t know how to act when I first went back to the barn. Because that had to be what he wasn’t telling me, right? What other ghosts would he want to be rid of? It had to be his family. This wasn’t Ghostbusters. There were no hazy, voluminous cheesecloth specters or blobs of neon-green gluttonous ectoplasm. Bob wasn’t just some down-on-his-luck scientist mocked out of respectable academia looking to make a buck. Here was a mentally ill man, literally haunted by his dead family, willing to recreate Ghostbuster technology to quiet that poltergeist.

We exchanged so few words, it was almost like being alone, which is what rubbed me wrong. My dad had been an electrician. He taught me the basics of electrical flow before he taught me how to throw a baseball. He loved electricity—always explaining and joking, lit up with the joy of the work, describing how amperage was measured or how to calculate resistance and insulation. He had me wiring circuits on this old electrical play kit he’d had in the 60s. His dad, also an electrician, got it for him as a boy. I was pinning wires beneath tiny springs, lighting bulbs and digital clocks before kindergarten. When my Nintendo blew a fuse in first grade, we took it apart and repaired it together.

But when things went wrong, Dad would rage and throw things and scream, grab a wrench and smash malfunctioning transformer boxes, computer motherboards, the sound-effects chip in my Star Wars blaster. I couldn’t take it—that anger—and over time I faded from his workshop. He never said he was disappointed when I went to university for a liberal arts education instead of trade school to be an electrician. I think he kept a corner of his heart cleared out for the dream of my apprenticing with him after high school, but I ran from that like the lone survivor in a zombie apocalypse.

Bob was my father’s inverse—quiet and aloof, and even quieter when things went wrong. I wasn’t looking forward to the way my immediate future looked—days in silence with Bob, wiring ribbon cables through the PPP to the motherboard on the proton packs, evenings in a dusty closet with old newspapers projected on my face in an epileptic nightmare. My continued research yielded few results. Available records showed Bob paid his property taxes on time, had been a registered Republican until 1980, and hadn’t voted since 1984. I’d been wondering, why Ghostbusters? The film had played at the Heartland drive-in the weekend before the killings. It made sense—the last good moment of his family before the tragedy. Why now? I didn’t know. I’d have to ask, but I couldn’t, not yet.

And so Bob’s continued silences led me to push further and harder. I couldn’t help myself asking other questions, interrogating him, pressing into that smoldering aloofness, searching for a nick in his armor. I couldn’t come right out and say I knew, so by the end of the first month, I was relentlessly barraging him with questions, anything to get him to talk.

“How’d you pay for this?”

“Where’d you get radioactive material?”

“Why do you sleep on a cot in the barn when the house is right there?”

“Have you ever seen a ghost?”

“What ghosts have you seen?”

“Why do you want to bust the ghosts?”

“What’d the ghosts ever do to you?”

He never answered, and I ran out of questions, and, before I started yelling, began to tell stories instead. I told Bob all about my mom and dad, her fad spirituality and everything he taught me about electrical work, about his disappointment at my career, about how at least he died before he could see me fail as a writer, not long after my mom died of pancreatic cancer, despite years of so-called healthy living and homeopathic supplements and every in-vogue cancer-reducing diet foisted on the market. I told him about Fitz, about her rotating dozen odd jobs and grad school and her thesis, a queer reading of Herman Melville’s works, the working title of which was “I Wished I Was a Buttered Muffin Myself,” a quote from his novel, Redburn , in which the main character working on a whaling ship spends an odd couple of days in a gay brothel. Bob would occasionally look up at me, watching me talk, but not as if he understood more like a naturalist observing the strange diurnal yappings of a newly discovered mammal from some remote outpost beyond civilization. Then he nodded and said, “You should marry her.” And he was right; I probably should.

Of course that night, we fought. Between her myriad jobs and school, and my time with Bob and the library, I’d hardly seen her in weeks. I told Fitz that Bob and I were almost done and that I wasn’t going to go through with the test. That I’d never turn those crazy machines on. That the story was interesting, but it wasn’t the career-saver I’d been hoping for. I’d gotten this far, and Bob hadn’t told me a damned thing.

“I’ll confront him. Tell him everything I know, that I know his secret, what he’s doing.”

Fitz slammed her heavily margin-noted copy of Typee on the floor. “You can’t tell him you know! Do you have any idea how personal that is?”

“It’s a matter of public record!”

“Fucking journalist. So cliché! It’s personal! If he wanted you to know, he’d have said as much. You can’t take this away from him!”

“Fitz, he’s mentally ill and building portable nuclear accelerators. He’s not just a danger to himself, but to anyone within god-knows-how-many miles of that place.”

“And what if he’s not? What if it’s really ghosts? What if it really works, and this is the only way he’ll ever get peace of mind?” She was walking around the apartment, straightening up. I knew she was really mad if she was cleaning. I was the neat one.

“And I’ve done my own research! Let me tell you about infrasounds!”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, hands on my shoulders. “It’s his mistake to make. If you’re not comfortable, stop going. Acts of God, magic, psychic phenomenon, miracles—they’re like lightning. There has to be this context, this… confluence of energies and atmosphere for them to happen. That’s why they’re unreproducible. The proof-wanters don’t believe, aren’t providing the proper catalyst—not electricity but consciousness.”

“That’s nonsense! If you think that, then why encourage me to do this in the first place? You knew I didn’t believe!”

“It’s like the proton streams, right? In the movie, you’re not supposed to cross them. One stream is Bob’s belief, and the other is your skepticism. I never thought you’d cross the streams. I didn’t think you’d take him down with you.”

“Bob did tell me one non-project-related thing.”

She sighed, downcast. “Yeah?”

“He said I should marry you.”

Fitz wide-eyed me. “Surely that answers the Is he crazy or not? question for you.”

She’d gone to bed before I realized how fucking ambiguous that was.

 

Bob and I worked through the day, and around noon Fitz stopped by to drop off a bag of sandwiches. A peace offering? She didn’t stay long. I finished wiring the ion arm to the booster and ate my sandwich. Roast beef.

She gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Good luck, Bob,” as she made her way through the tall grasses, toward the house and her Cabrio.

We were putting finishing touches on the proton packs, installing the ion arm and the heat sink for the positron glider. We’d already tested the traps and the containment unit, and they made all the requisite lights and noises, but Bob said we really wouldn’t know if it worked until we tried to put a ghost in it. And for that, we needed to, first, finish the packs, and second, find some ghosts.

Bob said, “You’re quiet; no questions today?” with a mouth full of pastrami.

I tried to walk the line that would be fair to both Fitz and Bob and my own conscience, so I said, “I don’t believe in ghosts, Bob.”

“I know. I saw.”

“But your ad, you said your helper had to believe in ghosts.”

“You said your girlfriend believed enough for both of you.”

I laughed.

“Is that not true?”

No, it’s true. She didn’t want me to quit.”

“Good. Because we’re done.” He pulled the proton pack onto his back and clipped a trap to his belt. “Put yours on.”

Bob turned to me, adjusting his pack, absentmindedly tightening the straps.

“Let’s not do this,” I said. “Let it go. There’s no ghosts in there. How about this? I’ve been doing research, okay? Infrasound is like infrared light—it’s there, but it’s too high for our ears to detect, but we still hear it—between six and twenty hertz, infrasound makes people feel afraid, panicked, like they’re being watched. Toward the upper range, it minutely vibrates your eyes and brain, causing hallucinations.”

“So,” said Bob, flipping the switch on the power cell, a round and heavy whoom as it began to warm up.

“So! So! So—old houses, like yours, have these old metal pipes rattling around in thick walls made of god-knows-what, and they radiate these infrasounds!”

“But it’s them,” he said.

And I knew that he knew that I knew, and I knew then what people mean when they say they feel their heart drop. I slipped into my proton pack, flipped the switch, and quoted Ghostbusters, “I just realized something. We’ve never had a completely successful test with any of the equipment.”

Bob smiled. “I blame myself.” And I knew he was quoting the next line in the film, but I think he was also telling me why he was doing this. My mom had said it, in the hospital before she died. By then she’d come back around to Buddhism again and was all about making sure her karmic ledger was neither red nor black. “Put your ghosts to rest before you go,” she’d said. Fuck, why was I remembering that now?

And so we went on. It was easier to quote Ghostbusters.

“No sense worrying about it now,” I said.

“Sure. Each of us is wearing an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on our back. No problem.”

We opened the barn doors and walked through the tall prairie grasses, through the tangles of the weeping willows, up the porch, past the dollhouse, to the front door. The hum of the proton packs wove through the fields, out with the symphony of the peepers, the croak of the crickets, the buzz of the locusts.

“Wait,” he said, “there’s something important I forgot to tell you.”

“I know, Bob, I know about—”

He said, “Don’t cross the streams,” and nudged open the front door.

There was a couch and a chair and a television and all the other accoutrements of modern living, but they were hazy and indistinct beneath a sheet of dusty webbing. We stepped into the house, Bob first and me a step behind. He moved slowly, toward the staircase, the susurrus of his boots stirring up devils of dust. A series of small thuds and their creaks echoed from the second floor.

“Darlene?” said Bob, voice quaking. Something stirred sickeningly in my guts, and I silently whispered infrasound over and over, but then I stopped. Instead, I looked toward the shadowy landing at the top of the stairs and tried to see Darlene standing there. The woman I’d only seen in old, high-contrast scanned newsprint, smiling on her wedding day, and it was as if I really could see her there, but I couldn’t hold the image. The white lace of her wedding dress shifted, and her face flickered—one minute Darlene’s, the next like Fitz’s—her expression tentative, inscrutable in the shadows.

Then a voice, soft and sad, floated out of the darkness. It said, “Bobby?”

Bob pressed the trigger on the positron glider, and the light, the light was so bright.

 


Jeremy John Parker is a writer, book designer, and fiction editor for Outlook Springs. A recipient of the 2015 Tom Williams Prize in Fiction, judged by Kevin Brockmeier, and a semifinalist for The Hudson Prize, his Pushcart Prize-nominated stories have appeared in The Normal School and decomP magazinE.

Ghostbusters Squircle: Xurble via Foter.com / CC BY