Maggie sat on the edge of the sofa while trying not to take deep breaths. She clutched her doll in her lap as her gaze darted to the others around the room.
“This house is dirty,” she mumbled.
She turned toward the kitchen. Her mom and Mrs. Churchill were talking and sipping coffee like old friends. Maggie worried that Mrs. Churchill would give her mom a job and then they’d have to live in a dirty house.
Her gaze wandered back to the others in the room. Mrs. Churchill’s elderly mother’s vacant eyes were focused somewhere on the large bay window, though Maggie doubted the old lady was actually paying attention to the red birds building their nests in the heavy oak branches that shaded the large house from most of the sun’s rays.
An orange-hued cat sat in the old lady’s lap, his intent feline gaze boring into Maggie. But his cold stare wasn’t like the others. Maggie sensed the cat was more curious than anything.
She leaned toward the kitty and whispered. “You’re not as dirty as the rest. I might actually learn to like you.”
His ears twitched but he made no response.
Maggie took it as a good sign that the cat responded at all. She tentatively scooted closer to him. Interesting, she thought, as his aura seemed to be brighter than the old lady’s. Although it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the old lady’s light was fading. The sweet, pungent odor of death clung to the woman. The scent permeated the room and made breathing difficult for Maggie.
Maggie secretly hoped the woman’s death would pass soon. She didn’t know how long she could stand living in a dirty house that smelled like death, too.
But if the old lady died, Maggie’s mom would again be out of a job. Her mom had been stressed trying to find work and a place for them to live.
The cat’s ears twitched again and Maggie thought she heard a soft purring sound. Despite the overwhelming stench of the old lady and the cold, unwelcoming stares from the others, Maggie scooted even closer to the cat.
“How did you die?” she asked.
The cat responded by lifting his front leg and licking what appeared to be icicles off the pads of his paw.
Maggie’s breath hitched and the gooseflesh on her arms tingled. “You froze to death?”
The cat lowered his paw and twitched his ears again.
“How terrible. I’m so sorry.” And truly she was. Though they’d never stayed long enough in one home for Maggie to own a pet of her own, she’d always liked animals.
She briefly wondered if he’d been Mrs. Churchill’s cat and if Mrs. Churchill had killed her own pet.
The cat twitched his ears again and Maggie felt the tingling sink beneath her gooseflesh and into her bones. Her eyes fluttered shut and she was struck by several images. Mrs. Churchill sick in bed. An angry white-haired man throwing the cat outside during a winter storm. Mrs. Churchill waking up and finding her cat’s lifeless body on the porch.
“Thomas!” the woman sobbed as she fell to her knees.
The strange sensation crawled back out of Maggie’s bones and her eyes shot open. “Thomas, “ she said to the cat, “who was that white-haired man?”
Thomas turned his head and his tabby ears pointed in the direction of the mantle, toward the portrait of Mrs. Churchill and the same man from Thomas’s vision.
“Mr. Churchill?” Maggie breathed.
Thomas answered with a hiss.
The others said nothing as they faded behind a large tapestry on the wall.
Maggie worried her bottom lip as a fear like she’d never known suddenly took root in her gut. She wondered what other dark secrets were hidden inside this house.
“Oh, this house is very dirty,” she cried as she clutched her doll to her chest.
Just then, Maggie spotted a large black car pulling into the circular drive. Maggie could see that the person who stepped from the car was the same white-haired man from Thomas’s vision, despite the dark aura that shrouded the man like a heavy coat.
Maggie gasped as the others appeared from behind the tapestry again. Their spirits were defined enough that Maggie could make out the whites of their wide eyes. One of them appeared to be a young girl, probably around seven-years-old, just like Maggie.
For a long moment, Maggie and the girl locked gazes. Though the fading spirit didn’t share a vision, Maggie knew well enough by the fear reflecting in the spirit’s eyes, that Mr. Churchill was a dangerous man.
A knot of panic seized her chest. Rising on wobbly legs, she dropped her doll to the floor, not even bothering to pick it up as she hurried toward her mother in the kitchen. “Mother, we have to go,” she whispered into her mother’s ear through a shaky voice. “This house is dirty!” She’d accidentally blurted the last part.
When Maggie heard Mrs. Churchill gasp, she knew the woman had heard. But Maggie was too frightened to care. She only wanted to get far away from this place.
“Maggie!” her mother scolded.
“I beg your pardon, little girl.” Mrs. Churchill’s eyebrows dipped beneath the perfectly even bangs of her blonde coiffure as she leveled Maggie with a glare. “I’ll have you know my housekeepers work around the clock to ensure this house is spotless.”
Maggie’s gaze darted from Mrs. Churchill’s angry and twisted features, back to her mother’s tired eyes. Back before Mother started losing jobs, back when Mother had more meat on her bones and didn’t look so tired, Maggie thought she was a beautiful woman. With her high cheekbones, bright green eyes and thick, auburn hair, Mother was always turning heads. A wave of shame overcame Maggie. This was all her fault. She was the reason Mother was always losing her jobs. She was the reason Mother’s beauty was fading. But they couldn’t stay at this house. Not with an evil man.
Maggie’s lower lip trembled as she felt her eyes well up with tears. “But I must tell you a secret, Mother.”
Mrs. Churchill rose with a start and strode toward the counter, busying herself with adding more coffee and creamer to her cup.
Maggie knew the woman would try to listen. She’d come to learn that people were always curious about her, always asking she and her mother questions, and always pulling back with looks of horror and derision after they’d learned Maggie’s secret. That’s when Maggie and her mother had begun speaking in code, calling haunted houses ‘dirty’ and ghosts ‘others’.
Their simple plan had always worked in the past. Mother didn’t want to live in a dirty house any more than Maggie did. But as Maggie studied her mother’s weary eyes and drawn mouth, she feared her mother wouldn’t listen this time.
Maggie swallowed hard while tugging on her mother’s shirtsleeve. “It’s very dirty, Mother. It isn’t safe.”
“Maggie,” her mother warned through a growl. “Hold your tongue.”
“The white-haired man is here.” Maggie tried her best to whisper, but her voice rose along with the urgency in her words. “He’s evil. He killed Thomas. He threw him in the cold.”
Maggie winced at the sound of breaking glass. She and her mother both turned to see Mrs. Churchill sprawled out on the kitchen floor.
Maggie’s mom raced to Mrs. Churchill’s side.
Just then Mr. Churchill stormed into the room. “What happened here?” he bellowed as he stood over his wife’s lifeless body. “You!” He pointed a finger at Maggie’s mother. “What have you done to my wife?”
Maggie’s mother rushed to Mrs. Churchill’s side. “She fell, sir.” Mother placed her hand on Mrs. Churchill’s neck and then put her ear to Mrs. Churchill’s chest.
Mr. Churchill hovered above them and made no offer to help.
He scowled down at Mother. “Who are you?”
Mrs. Churchill moaned as Mother wiped a strand of hair out of the woman’s eyes.
“I’m Rebecca, your mother’s new caretaker,” Mother said without looking up at Mr. Churchill.
Maggie didn’t like the way Mr. Churchill tilted his head as his gaze roamed Mother’ s backside. Maggie had seen other men do the same. Mother had called them perverts. Maggie didn’t know what a pervert was, but she suspected Mr. Churchill was even more foul than a pervert.
Mr. Churchill snickered. “That old bat?” He nodded in the direction of the elderly woman. “She’s not my mom. She’s my wife’s mom.”
Mother pulled Mrs. Churchill into her arms before fixing Mr. Churchill with a glare. “Please, help me bring your wife to the couch.”
Mr. Churchill grumbled as he bent down and pushed Mother aside. He scooped his wife into his arms and briskly crossed into the living room before plopping her on the couch.
Maggie and her mother followed.
Mrs. Churchill moaned as her hand flew to her brow.
Mother sat beside Mrs. Churchill and clasped the woman’s pale hand. “Mrs. Churchill, can you hear me?”
“W-what happened?” Mrs. Churchill moaned.
“You fell and hit your head,” Mother said. “Let me look into your eyes.” Mother held open Mrs. Churchill’s eyelids, examining one, and then the other. “Well, it doesn’t look like a concussion, but you’d better lie down for a while. Can I get you anything?”
“I’m thirsty,” Mrs. Churchill rasped.
“Maggie,” Mother called over her shoulder, “Fetch a glass of water from the kitchen.”
But Maggie stood rooted to the spot. The others had returned and they were glaring at Mr. Churchill. Their bodies were much more defined than before. Maggie could even make out bruises circling the child’s neck.
“You heard her, girl! Move!” Mr. Churchill bellowed while stomping his foot.
Maggie thought she heard her mother calling her, but the others were moving their mouths. Though no words came out, they were trying to tell her something, she knew it.
“Is she dumb?”
“The kid looks like she’s seen a ghost.”
Finally, the girl with the bruised neck pointed toward Mr. Churchill. Maggie’s gaze followed to his dark aura.
That’s when Maggie saw them. Really saw them. The dark shroud Maggie once thought was an aura, was not an aura at all. Maggie’s mouth fell open but she was too shocked to even scream. Black winged creatures with sharp fangs circled Mr. Churchill’s body like bees swarming a hive.
Mother stepped in front of Mr. Churchill and clutched Maggie’ shoulders. “Maggie. Water.”
Maggie nodded and ran into the kitchen. She was relived to be away from the living room, away from Mr. Churchill.
Maggie returned to the living room, walking a wide circle around Mr. Churchill. Those black things were still swarming him. She could hear them now, buzzing and growling like rabid animals. Luckily, he stood far enough away from the sofa where his wife was lying down. Far enough that he could still gawk at Mother’s backside.
Maggie really didn’t like Mr. Churchill.
Some of the color had returned to Mrs. Churchill’s face. Mother had propped some pillows behind her back. Mrs. Churchill sat with her hands folded in her lap while she glared at her husband. Maggie handed the glass to her.
Mrs. Churchill took a sip of the water and then threw the glass at her husband. “You killed my cat!”
Mr. Churchill ducked as the glass narrowly missed his head. The beasts swarming him howled and hissed. When Mr. Churchill stood, his face was as red as a ripe apple.
He splayed both hands and spoke through a frozen smile. “Sugarplum, we’ve been through this before. “
“You killed Thomas!”
He shook his head and took a step forward. “You hit your head. You’re not thinking straight.”
“Get out of my house!” Mrs. Churchill raised a shaky finger and pointed toward the kitchen door.
The beasts swarmed Mr. Churchill’s ears and hissed, the sound reminding Maggie of sibilant whispers.
If it was at all possible, Mr. Churchill’s face turned an even brighter shade of red. “I just unpacked my things.”
“Well, pack them again.” Mrs. Churchill’s bottom lip quivered as her eyes watered over with unshed tears. “And this time, don’t come back.”
Maggie retreated to the corner while Mr. Churchill stormed out of the house.
Mother cleaned up the broken glass then sat beside Mrs. Churchill.
After Mrs. Churchill had reassured Mother that she was well, she tossed her legs over the side of the sofa and looked directly at Maggie.
“Come closer, child.” Mrs. Churchill crooked a finger at Maggie. “I need to get a good look at you.”
Maggie warily eyed Mother for permission. When Mother nodded, Maggie slowly walked toward Mrs. Churchill. The woman was no longer scowling, and her smile, though slight, seemed genuine.
“You have circles under your eyes. Don’t you sleep?”
Maggie shrugged. “Sometimes.”
When she wasn’t woken by the sound of Mother sobbing beside her, or when she wasn’t worrying where she and Mother would live, or when the others weren’t appearing in her room in the dead of night.
Mrs. Churchill leaned toward Maggie and clutched her hand. Mrs. Churchill’s hand was clammy, but Maggie did not pull away. Something in the woman’s touch was soothing.
“You see things other people can’t see,” Mrs. Churchill said.
Maggie looked to her mother again, whose eyes were wide with what looked like shock. Maggie didn’t know how to answer Mrs. Churchill, so she simply nodded.
“Do you see…” Mrs. Churchill’s voice broke. She heaved a sigh before continuing. “Does my mother have a light?”
Maggie’s jaw fell open. How did Mrs. Churchill know about the light? Maggie had only shared that secret with her mother.
Mrs. Churchill squeezed Maggie’s hand and gave her a reassuring smile.
Maggie glanced at the old woman. Her jaw had gone slack and she was no longer stroking Thomas. She stared vacantly out the window. If the woman had a light, Maggie didn’t see it. Maggie shook her head. “I don’t see one.”
Tears streamed down Mrs. Churchill’s face. She swallowed before casting a glance at her mother. “And Thomas. Is he with her?”
Mrs. Churchill wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. “I see her stroking him sometimes. I loved that cat.”
Thomas stretched his legs before jumping onto the sofa beside Mrs. Churchill and climbing into her lap. He lovingly purred while rubbing his face against her arm.
Maggie smiled before looking back up at Mrs. Churchill. “He knows.”
Mrs. Churchill looked down at her lap. She raised a shaky hand and began palming the air. Thomas leaned into her hand and purred louder.
“He likes it,” Maggie said.
Mrs. Churchill answered with a strangled cry. More tears streamed down her face, but she continued to palm the air.
Mother’s face was now ashen. She clutched her knees as her wide gaze traveled from Maggie to Mrs. Churchill and back again.
After several tense moments, Thomas finally jumped from Mrs. Churchill’s lap and wandered into the kitchen.
“He’s gone now,” Maggie said.
Mrs. Churchill fixed Maggie with a hardened stare. “Mr. Churchill said it was an accident.”
Mother finally cleared her throat and leaned toward Mrs. Churchill. “I’m sorry about all this.”
“Why are you sorry?” Mrs. Churchill’s voice rose several octaves. She waved a hand at Maggie. “You have a very special child.”
“I-I know,” Mother stammered.
Mrs. Churchill’s shoulders fell. “I knew my mother didn’t have much longer.”
“I’m really sorry,” Mother said with an edge of defeat in her voice. She slowly came to her feet. “Maggie and I should go.”
“Why would you go?” Mrs. Churchill gasped before reaching up and clutching Mother’s hand. “I need you here, Rebecca.” She turned kind eyes toward Maggie. “I especially need you, Maggie.”
“Me?” Maggie barely choked out the word.
“You said it yourself. I have a dirty house. Who better to clean it?”
Maggie’s knees felt weak. Could she and Mother really have found a place to stay? A home where they wouldn’t be judged for Maggie’s strange sight? This was too good to be true. She shook her head. “The others don’t always talk to me.”
“But they will, child.” Mrs. Churchill’s smile widened. She reached out and clasped Maggie on the shoulder. “Give them time.” She stood and smoothed a hand down her wrinkled dress before pushing a few loose strands of hair behind her ears. “Rebecca,” she said to Mother in a voice that left no room for argument. “You and Maggie must stay. I’ll double your salary.”
“Double?” Mother gasped. “But what if your mother—”
“My mother’s passing will be even more reason for you and Maggie to stay.” Her eyes began to water again and her lower lip trembled. “Please.”
Maggie looked at her mother. Her hesitant smile was reassuring. Maggie looked back at Mrs. Churchill and nodded.
Mrs. Churchill leaned over and wrapped Maggie in a strong hug. Thomas was back, purring as he rubbed against Maggie’s legs.
The house was dirty, very dirty, but if Mrs. Churchill was willing to accept Maggie, maybe she would learn to like living there.