starphotographs: This field is just more space for me to ramble and will never be used correctly. I am okay with this! (Default)
starphotographs ([personal profile] starphotographs) wrote in [community profile] rainbowfic2017-06-13 04:11 pm

Rain Cloud 18

Name: starphotographs
Story: Universe B
Supplies and Styles: Portrait
Characters: Scissors, Frankie, Satchel
Colors: Rain Cloud 18 (not the book/movie I wanted it to be)
Word Count: 9,700ish (A nominal mural!)
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Choose not to warn.
Summary: All the problems you can expect on a ghost hunt, and then some.
Note: I’ve been sitting on this since, like, last fall or something, so I figured I’d finally roll it out before I start on the Summer Things.


The Real Horror Story


“...Y’know, I’m gettin’ real damn sick of all this, like… Probably-bogus shit… Well, I mean, I guess it’s all probably bogus, ‘cause people are dumb, but, you know… Shit they know is bogus. I’d be, like, dude, don’t waste my fuckin’ time, but I get few enough calls as it is, so… Um... Frankie?”

Frankie was staring out the window, not even pretending to pay attention. I was about to ask what the fuck was up with him, but I noticed his hands were a little shaky.

Which usually means that I a) already know what the fuck is up with him, and b), don’t particularly need to hear about it again. Hell, I wish I didn’t even have to think about it, but I don’t have a choice. The stupid fuckhead probably dumped a pot of coffee up his ass again.

For some horseshit reason that he never coherently explained, Frankie thinks this is a good way to chase all the bad crap out of himself. He also thinks it’s okay to talk about this the way you’d talk about an ugly dog you saw, or boring early afternoon television, or what you ate for lunch.

...I’m pretty sure, in either case, he’s just spewing a bunch of over-caffeinated shit for no constructive reason.

Anyway, whatever it’s supposed to fix, it causes more problems than it solves. He ends up unable to hold anything steady, string two sentences together, or carry a train of thought for more than half a minute. More than once, he became so obnoxious I couldn’t stand to be around him anymore, and I had to call it quits on whatever we were doing. I’ve told him to stop. And Satchel has probably told him to stop about twice as much as I have. But, unlike the thing with the beer glasses of oil, or the pool filter chemicals, or the shoving stuff in his head and lighting it on fire, this seemed to be sticking around.

Oh, well. It’s his butt. And I guess this, like all things, shall pass.

(Gross.)

“...Frankie, snap the fuck out of it!”

It took a while for him to tear himself away from whatever the hell he was finding so fascinating, but he eventually shifted in his seat and faced me.

“What… Yeah?”

He sounded about as slow and dopey as usual, and not particularly anxious or edgy, so I guess I was wrong. But, then again, he was flushed and glassy-eyed and seemed a little quivery, so who even knows. Frankie has kind of a weird affect, and it makes it hard to tell if there’s something wrong with him beyond just being Frankie.

(God, like that isn’t wrong enough.)

“I said I hate these bullshit calls, but I like, you know. Any calls.”

He nodded. I gave up. Then he started coughing, while I just tried to watch the road.

“...Should I pull over?”

He stopped long enough to shake his head. I ran over a tin can or an old stick and bounced in my seat.

“...Alright, if you say so. But if something comes up, I’m pulling over.”

It sounded a little harsh, but I have my reasons. Or at least I did, before I found a month’s worth of them dried under the seats and had to chip them off with an ice scraper.

I mumble-chanted to myself, hoping he wouldn’t hear me over his own noises; “Don’t let it slide under the seat, don’t let it slide under the seat…” Frankie put his head on the dashboard, held his breath for a few seconds, then started rifling through the janky backpack at his feet.

“S’okay. Got myself covered.”

He pulled out a sloshing mason jar full of clear liquid, cracked it open, and started coughing again, spilling the juice everywhere. I turned up the radio and tried to enjoy the alcohol fumes. This was probably as clean as my van had ever smelled.

“Franks, do you have to do that here?”

He couldn’t answer, so I went back to ignoring him again.

Gag, plop, twist, pant, pant, pant, cough, Generic Relief Noise.

“...Didn’t want to, but I’ve still got a backup jar if it happens again.”

Of course you do.

“Feeling better?”

He cleared his throat, and seemed to have to think about it for a little.

“Yeah. Great.”

I put my phone back in my pocket, and parked beside the curb.

“Good! Because we’re here!”

The call was bullshit. The instructions hardly passed for vague. Frankie was starting to get on my nerves. But, I was determined to have a good time. I handed him his backpack, got my duffel bag full of crap out of the back, and went to find the key. “Key’s in the wizard,” he said.

Snag Number One: it took me fifteen minutes to find the fucking wizard.

I ended up having to crawl under a holly bush on my hands and knees. Said hands and knees crushed dried leaves that crackled and stabbed like plastic forks. I only had my glasses to thank for the fact that I hadn’t, thus far, put out an eye. Frankie sat down on the porch behind me.

“...Need, like, help?”

Actually, yes. Frankie is almost a head shorter and about as wide as a twig. Volumetrically, he’s probably half of me. He’d at least fit in the fucking bush, whereas I felt the way cats must feel when they try to cram themselves into hamster-sized boxes, except there was sharp shit everywhere and I had my foot caught in a moldy hose. But, I didn’t know how his back would hold up, so I didn’t say anything. Which didn’t mean much, because, by then, I’d found a hollow, scuzzy plastic lawn-wizard in a window well, shaken out the key, and was working on backing my way out.

“Nah, I’m good!”

My arms were scratched-up, in that weird shallow way where your brain just thinks you’re really itchy. Grass clippings in my hair; mud on my pants. I made a show of waving the key around for a few seconds, then jammed it in the lock. Frankie coughed, but it didn’t turn into anything.

“So, like, why the heck are we here again.”

I shrugged at him on my way through the door.

“Weird old guy. Says there’s something wrong with his basement.”

Frankie shifted his backpack. I heard the jars clanking together.

“...But you think it’s bullshit?”

I dropped my bag in the living room and headed for the kitchen.

“I think that he thinks there’s something down there. I also think he has me here on pretense because I’m cheaper than a real housesitter.”

Frankie sat down at the kitchen table, resting his head on his arms.

“How’d you figure that one out?”

I started rifling through the fridge.

“Says he’ll be back in two days, wants us to stay until he gets back. Said to feel free to eat anything I want as long as it’s already open.”

Having found a pack of bologna (open), some cheese (individually wrapped and scattered around the bottom shelf; outside packaging missing), and a neon yellow bottle of mustard (full but lacking a foil seal), I reached for the huge bag of white bread on the counter (probably unopened; but unless he counts the slices and memorizes the exact position of the bread tag, nobody has to know), pulled out a plate, and got to work making a sandwich. Frankie propped his head up with his hands.

“Satchel house-sits sometimes, and that’s what he does, yeah. Eats stuff.”

I took a bite of my sandwich.

“He’s got the right idea! Eat stuff while it’s free, right?” I waved the pack of bologna around. “...Want one?”

Frankie started going through his backpack.

“Nah, I’m alright.”

...Buzzkill!

“C’mon! Get in the spirit!”

He sat the jar from earlier in front of him, got out a pen and a roll of label stickers, and started writing. I alternated between stacking and eating until he had a sandwich and I had half of one. I plunked them on the table and sat down. Frankie took a bite and chewed on it absent-mindedly, taking down whatever the hell data it is he takes down. I was never sure what the fuck he was supposed to do with that information. And by now, I’m pretty sure he’s seen every possible variation on the “things that come out of me” theme. His little research project had been over for a good, long time. But, nobody tells him that. They either feel bad for him, or just don’t want to get into it if they don’t strictly have to.

“...Franks, do you have to do that while we’re eating?”

What I really meant was, “do you have to do that at all?”

“Writing in the car makes me carsick. Had to wait…” He peeled the label off the roll, slapped it on the jar, and, thank fuck, shoved the jar in his backpack and got it out of my sight. “...There. Done.”

With that out of the way, he took another bite of his sandwich. I went to see what else was in the fridge. There was beer, which made me wonder what, exactly, qualifies as “open.” I shrugged, figuring the case being open counted as open enough. I took a beer, and drank it while snooping through the cupboards. Found an open box of cookies, ate two, decided they were too stale to fuck with any further. I put the box back, finished my beer, and tossed the can in the trash. Well, tried. I missed and had to get it off the floor and throw it out the boring way.

“Okay! I’d say we’re all gassed up! Let’s get started, huh?”

Frankie, who had been sitting quietly at the table, chewing lethargically and staring at me while I stole food, ate the last bite of his sandwich.

“Sure.”

I darted back into the living room to grab my things.

“...To the basement!”

Snag Number Two: I realized that I had no idea where the basement door even was.

*****


It was toward the back of the house, across the freakishly narrow hall from a door to a tiny, dark room containing nothing but a low toilet and a janky sink. It looked like the builders had gotten sick of building by the time they got there and just stopped giving a fuck if anything made sense.

...In other words, it looked haunted. Maybe the old guy was on to something.

Only one way to find out, I guess.

Well, two ways. Looking at the tan-carpeted, wood-paneled basement full of exposed beams and dying furniture was one. Actually seeing if I could pick anything up was another. I told Frankie to start setting up the candles, while I started looking around for the fusebox.

Anything could be a false positive. The washing machine in the corner. The computer on the desk below the narrow window. The fridge upstairs. The wires in the walls. Turning off the whole house was the only way to be sure. I eventually found it, but waited for Frankie to finish up before I actually flipped the switch.

(The candles aren’t some kind of ritual thing. They just keep me from falling on my ass in the dark.)

The last flame was lit. I started laughing.

Back in business!

“You ready, Franks?”

He went through his backpack until he found a set of dowsing rods.

“Yep!”

I’ve never not been excited to see them in his hands. No matter how many how many failed expeditions, how many inconclusive results, I can never shake the sense that this might be the day everything changes. The sense that no, really, this is it.

Finally.

I shut down the electric grid of the house with a smile.

“Let’s get to work!”

We probed the air in front of us, gently prodding at the unknown, praying it would wake for us. Frankie with his rods. Me with my EMF meter in one hand and my little voice recorder in the other. Waiting for wires to cross. Following upticks and playing back a whole lot of nothing.

Forgetting how stupid we probably look, stumbling around in some random fuckoff basement.

Frankie cleared his throat.

“...They’re not crossed, but I might be, um, getting something.”

I turned around to get a look.

“Yeah?”

It looked like he was having a little trouble holding them steady, but I wasn’t sure what that meant anymore. I hadn’t bothered with dowsing since I was a teenager, because I could never get it to work.

(...And then there was the time I accidentally jammed one of the rods up my nose while gesticulating at someone, which kind of confirmed it was Not For Me.)

“Yeah.”

Fuck, just let this be it.

“Well, lead the way, dude!”

Frankie took the lead, which basically meant we kept bumbling around like idiots, but I was behind him now. I thought I felt a cold spot. The meter was trying to tell me something. I froze in place.

“Hold up a sec, Franks.”

He turned around, letting the rods fall to his sides.

“Hm?”

It was time to see what I’d recorded in the last few minutes. I had a good feeling about this place. Okay, talk to me…

“Just wanna see if I have something. I… Feel like I have something.”

I held the recorder between our ears, and pressed play. I swore I heard words in the static. We just had to figure out what they were. Frankie guessed first.

“Huh… ‘Hid,’ maybe?”

Rewind.

“Shit, I don’t know.”

I moved my ear in closer.

“...Head…”

“I think it’s ‘head.’ Bunch of other mumbled shit, too.”

Rewind.

“Need… Head… Give...”


I about threw the recorder across the room.

“...I hope to fuck you heard that!”

Frankie took a little while to think about it, looked stunned, and started laughing.

“Oh, man, Skizzy… Ghosts like you, dude.”

He coughed a few times, so hard I could hear his throat catch with a rusty squeal. Serves him fucking right.

“Well, I don’t know why! And maybe I don’t want ‘em to! I have enough problems without randy ghosts chasing my ass all through the great friggin’ beyond and shit!”

Frankie sounded like he was trying too hard to find his breath. And trying too hard not to laugh. At the same time. It was probably going to scare the ghosts. (Good. Goddamn perverts.)

“Oh, dude. Remember that one under that covered bridge?”

He’d given up on not laughing, but he was still struggling to breathe.

“Yes, Frankie, I remember.”

He inhaled, long and wet, and tried to compose himself.

“And the-”

I snapped.

“...Yes! Quit talking about it and start looking for this lowlife.”

Frankie fell silent, turned on his heel, and held out the rods again.

“...’Kay.”

He was doing his best to be quietly businesslike, but, in the underground stillness of the basement, his breath was like an unoiled chainsaw, and it was making it hard for me to concentrate.

“...God, tone it down! Jesus… Fuckin’ mouthbreather...”

I swore I could hear his upper and lower teeth click together.

“...’Kay.’”

His breathing settled down to a sedate, raspy wheeze, which was more like what I was used to. And less like the sound of a leering ghost panting in my ear, while furiously… I don’t know. Whatever the hell they can do with whatever the hell they’ve got left. I don’t like thinking about it.

Now that we were both settled down, I could get back to work. There’d been something a little different about how my EMF meter had been acting. Like there were no real hotspots, but there was a weak rise in a certain quadrant of the basement. I guess, sometimes, you have to do things the old-fashioned way.

“I’m switchin’ to the compass now.”

Frankie was still dowsing around at nothing, steps slow, hands wobbling. It seemed like he must have been onto something, but again, I didn’t remember how it was supposed to work.

“Smart.”

I took the compass out of my pocket. The arrow wasn’t finding North, and it was my duty to follow it.

I’m going to kick the ectoplasm out of you, rude-ass fucking ghost.

“...Okay. Compass says it’s over here.”

I’ll smack you so hard you’ll get killed back to life.

“You lead the way, then!”

You propositioned the wrong alive guy!

“...I’ve been tryin’.”

When I get my hands on you I’ll-

The compass lead me into a corner containing an old hat rack. The hat rack itself contained an old hat. It looked like a fedora, or… I don’t know. Another one of those big felt things nobody cares about anymore. It wasn’t exactly what I’d been expecting, but Frankie seemed excited enough. Actually, it was the most animated I’d seen him all day. Maybe he had a Good Feeling. Maybe I’d try to have one, too.

“I’m… Not getting any crossing, but I feel a pull. It’s weird.”

Even I could tell his rods were picking up on something, and my own equipment was going crazy.

“Yeah, we’ve got somethin’ goin’ on here!”

I took another step toward the old wooden post. Frankie, wires at the ready, wasn’t far behind.

And then it happened.

Snag Number Three: the hat rack fell over and scared the bejeezus out of us.

Without thinking, I jumped to the side, doing whatever I could to avoid getting my bell rung. I ended up body-slamming the carpet. Frankie crumpled to the floor and curled in around his head, mumbling shit, shit, shit under his breath. When the adrenaline fog cleared, I picked my shaky, rug-burned ass up off the floor. Frankie unrolled, coughing slightly. He was the first to say something.

“...Oh. That’s what it meant.”

I tugged my shirt back down, rubbed the floor-dirt off my glasses with the hem.

“Hm?”

He gestured at the fallen hat with one of his rods.

“It’s a hat! It wants a head to sit on!”

...Fuck.

“Huh… Well, now I just feel bad.”

Frankie inched closer. It actually sort of looked like the rods were dragging him along.

“...I’m gonna put it on.”

I saw a few ways this could go. Some of them were bad. A few were just disappointing. Either way, I wasn’t ready for that shit, so I stuck my foot between my halfwit assistant and his new friend.

“...Nope! Fuckin’ dillhole, goin’ around puttin’ random haunted-ass hats on your head... I mean… Maybe we can wear it later and see what happens? At least check the thing out first.”

I got out my voice recorder again.

“Um, hello?”

I pointed it at the hat and pressed the button, holding that pose for a few minutes. Frankie looked like he was falling asleep. He held both rods in one hand, but they were still jutting out steadfastly in the hat’s direction. When I thought I’d waited long enough for a reply, I nudged him back to reality and held the speaker between us.

“...Bananabananabananabanana…”

I scowled. Frankie looked faintly unimpressed.

“I don’t think this hat’s very smart… I mean… HuhIs it a hat? Like, originally? Is it dead? Do hats have ghosts?”

You’re no shining light yourself, buster.

“Jesus, Frankie, I don’t know.”

All I could think to do was try again.

“Number two pencil. Number two pencil. Number. Two. Pencil.”

I didn’t know what number it was, but I took the mechanical pencil out of my pocket and tossed it to the hat, figuring it was better than nothing. The eraser end of the pencil looked like it was being drawn in, so I also threw down my notebook, just in case. Then I waited. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it never happened. I figured I’d try recording again.

“Sheeeeeeet roooooock….”

And again.

“Tree Shoes.”

Again.

“Masking tape district.”

“It’s the gun show!”

(Frankie having a poorly-timed coughing fit, hacking like a cat with a hairball.)

“A bad, bad milk crate.”

“...And a haircut, two bits…”

“Goat nugget!”


Eventually, I had to give up. I had about twenty minutes of useless nonsense on tape. During that time, I swore to all hell that it asked for a quarter, a stick of gum, and a lock of hair. All of these things I gave, and got nothing in return. The hat was just a moron.

(It’s dead. It’s a hat. I shouldn’t have expected anything of it in the first place.)

Or, maybe I was the moron. Maybe it was saying perfectly sensible things through all the static, but I was interpreting it as gibberish. Either way, I knew when I’d been beaten.

“...Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to get anything out of this.”

No answer. Stupid thing probably bored him to sleep.

“...Frankie?”

He was leaning forward on his crossed legs, head in his hands. I poked him with my spare pencil.

“Dude. Wake up.”

Eventually, he did, but not all that much.

“...Think I should lie down for a while.”

It took a long time for him to get to his feet, and something about the way he moved seemed disorganized.

“You alright, Franks?”

He dropped his dowsing rods beside me.

“Yeah. Um… Migraine. Don’t worry about it.”

Snag Number Four: critical partner malfunction.

That said, he stumbled over to the threadbare sofa in the middle of the room, and became one with it in an instant. I shrugged. Whatever. This was pretty usual for these outings. Frankie would run into some dippy problem or another, wander off to be Tragic about it for an hour or two, and come back when he was ready.

In the meantime, I’d see if I could finally squeeze something out of that fucking hat.

*****


Long story short: I couldn’t. I tried everything.

I tried talking first. I tried more waiting. I tried giving it space. I tried getting closer. I tried getting closer than that.

Well, the stupid moth-eaten fucker must not have liked that at all, because, next thing I knew, everything I’d recorded that day had been spontaneously erased.

I might have lost my cool a little bit there.

“The fuck did you do!? What!? Don’t want public record of your goddamn blathering stupidity!? Too bad! I remember! And, when I’m done here, I’m telling everyone about you, you fartknocking piece of shit!”

Then I hauled off and kicked the godawful thing.

Shit.

Now it was probably mad.

I should have just let Frankie wear it.

I sat there for a while, unsure of what to do. Then I saw Frankie’s abandoned dowsing rods, and thought, well, it’s worth a shot. Maybe I could get a beat on its mood and start over from there.

“Look, I’m sorry.”

I’m talking to a hat. I’m an idiot. This day is a disaster.

I held out the rods, and, what do you know, I did feel a weird tugging. Knowing full well the thing might be trying to trap me there or something, I worked my way across the floor. The hat pulled me harder. And I, like a giant dupe, kept following the rods.

I mean, I can probably fight it, if it comes to that. It’s way smaller than me. It doesn’t even have hands. What’s the worst that can happen?

I was feeling pretty confident, until I got too close. Before I could really register what was happening, the hat flew at me, like it was going to see me dead or impale itself on the rods trying. I screamed in horror, and tried to kick it away from me, but it wasn’t going to stop. I loudly insulted everything it tried to say to me. I hassled it nonstop for over an hour. I kicked it in what, for all I know, was its face or its butthole or something. So I kept fighting back, but it was with the knowledge that I’d brought this on myself.

Snag Number Five: Scissors Lower is murdered by a haunted hat.

Or, maybe it was the other way around, because, over all my grunting and thrashing, I heard a loud gluey rip, and a metallic ping that seemed a little out of place. Everything stopped moving all at once, and I sat up to get a better look at the fallen hat. The band had been torn off, but I wasn’t sure when or how that could have happened. Oh well.

At least it wasn’t trying to kill me anymore.

I felt around for my glasses. When I found them, they seemed oddly heavy. I squinted down at them.

One of the lenses was cracked, and there was a weird metallic disk stuck to the frames. I tried hard to pull it off, but it seemed stuck. I eventually managed to slide it off, only for it to suck up a dowsing rod.

Oh.

All of a sudden, everything made sense. Well, the weird readings, the behavior of the rods, and the erased recordings, at least. I still couldn’t wrap my head around why this weird old dude was keeping a rare earth magnet in a dusty old hat. But, that was something he did. Then we thought it was haunted. Then it tried to fight me. It broke my glasses.

That was the last straw.

I started laughing so hard I tipped over, and ended up lying face-down on the carpet, cramping and snorting and running out of breath. I pounded my fists on the floor, crunched myself up in a ball, and let the laughter wear me out. If nothing else, it made the whole day worth it after all.

When it finally wrung me dry, I sat up and took a few deep breaths. The basement was dead quiet. The candles were burning low. And, somehow, Frankie had slept through through the best, not to mention loudest, thing that happened to us down here. Whatever. If my racket didn’t wake him up, I’d just have to wake him up myself. He had to know what happened. Even just thinking about how I’d tell the story had me cracking up all over again. I laughed my way to the couch.

“Oh my god… Franks… This is going to sound like complete bullshit, but trust-”

Then, just like that, I wasn’t laughing anymore.

You lying sack of shit.

On the off chance he did actually have a headache, that was the least of his problems. Or at least ranked somewhere between the damp-looking hair and whatever the hell noises he was making that sounded like a death rattle through a bad phone connection.

Snag Number Six: friend fucking started dying without telling you.

I went back to the fuse box, flipped the house on. We were done. The party was over.

Now I had to play necromancer, for however long it was going to take. The new light was burning my eyes. It’s weird, how little time it takes for everything to turn awful. One minute, I’m laughing hysterically on a stranger’s basement floor. The next, I’m trying to get my friend awake enough to up sticks and head to the emergency room.

It wasn’t looking good. The only color in his face was a weird greyish blue cast around the lips. I tried shaking him. I tried yelling at him. For a few seconds, I ran out of ideas. Then I sat him up myself, held my phone next to his head, cranked the volume all the way, and played the really obnoxious alarm, the one I just couldn’t bring myself to use, no matter how early I needed to get my ass out of bed.

If this doesn’t work…

Honestly, I didn’t know what if it didn’t work. But, it did, so I never really had to worry about it. Frankie cracked his eyes open, made a little strangled horrified noise, and jerked his head away from my clanging phone.

“Hey… You’re alright. It’s okay.”

I think we both knew that was horseshit. I was standing around looking traumatized. He was doubled over on the couch, hacking into a bunch of used tissues he groggily pulled out of his sweatshirt pocket. It sounded like it hurt. I didn’t know what I could do about that. I hated that the answer was probably “less than fucking nothing.”

The whole Hat Fight Ordeal took about half a minute, max, but it felt like an endless knock-down-drag-out when I was in the middle of it.

Now, multiply that. It doesn’t matter how many times. It all feels the same after a while. I stand there frozen. Time stretches on forever, and he still can’t catch his breath. When he does, he sounds broken. The tissues are disintegrating on the floor, crumpled around part of a yellowish cast, soaked with gunk in all the colors of some dingy, biological rainbow.

“...Frankie?”

He was still folded in on himself, shivering, trying to breathe.

“...I don’t feel very good.”

You don’t say.

“Yeah, no crap. You could have said something before we left.”

He slowly unbent himself, leaning back against the couch.

“...I could not have. You would’ve just took off without me.”

Now that he was sitting up, I could finally get a good look at his face. A few things I’d barely even picked up on before slotted into their proper context. He’d been drifting in and out of reality this whole time, and I hadn’t even noticed.

Shitty friend. Shitty, shitty friend.

“No, I’d have skipped this whole thing and taken you somewhere. You can hardly breathe.”

All out of dry tissues, Frankie started coughing into his sleeve.

“...Same fucking difference. I’d been looking forward to this all week, and then, like, yesterday… I don’t know. I just woke up like this. I thought I’d be alright by now, so I didn’t mention anything.”

I went through my pockets. The closest thing I could find was an old pay receipt, but I figured he wasn’t all that picky.

“Here… Stop fuckin’ up your shirt… I just… Frankie, this was really stupid. I… This isn’t something to screw around with. You feel like a goddamn radiator. You’re drowning in your own juice.”

He managed to focus his eyes long enough to give me a disgusted look.

“...Dude. Gross. But, yeah, I feel like crap, okay? And… I don’t know. I can handle it for now. I’m not much worse than I was yesterday, and we’re staying two nights here, right? I think I’ve got some time before it gets really bad.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“Franks, it is really bad. And you’re not staying two nights anywhere, unless you mean the fucking hospital. Which I’m driving you to. Come on.”

I stood up. Frankie didn’t. At first, I thought he might need help, but it became pretty clear he was just being a stubborn jackass.

“God, why can’t you just trust me?”

Honestly, in the time it took him to say that, I could think of about forty different reasons off the top of my head. I tried to stick with just the pertinent ones.

“You’re sick, you’re tired, you’re confused, you think it’s a perfectly good idea to die in some stranger’s basement.”

Frankie laid back down, and rolled over to face the back of the couch.

“Jesus, don’t be so dramatic.”

Pretty brave words coming from you, King Whiny.

“I’m not being… I’m just… Okay. Here’s what I’m going to do… I’m going to call Satchel, he’ll check on you, and if he says you’re alright to stay, you get to stay. Sound good?”

It was, admittedly, a very weird, very lame plan. But, it was the best I could come up with on the fly.

“No. He never thinks I’m alright to do anything.”

Well, that would be the idea.

“We’ll just see what he says when he gets here, okay.”

I pulled out my phone. Frankie stayed buried in the couch.

Fine. I’m going back to sleep.”

“More power to you. I’ll be here, okay?”

He didn’t say anything, but I kept on listening. Just to make sure he was breathing.

He was. It wasn’t great, but it sounded clear enough that I could probably let myself relax a little.

...Now all I had to do was figure out a way to explain all this that wouldn’t end with Satchel biting my head off.

*****


Eventually, I figured out that the explanation I wanted didn’t exist. Satchel would pick up the phone and rush over to a total stranger’s house without a second thought. He’d act like he came for Frankie, but I knew he was just coming to lay the blame on me.

But, there wasn’t much I could do about that, so I occupied my mind with other things.

Was it only ever the magnet?

Was the old man right?

What was saying all that bullshit to me?

Was everyone involved just imagining everything that might have happened?


Frankie kept on sleeping. I paced the floor, waiting to feel something, if there was something around to feel.

It really didn’t seem like there was anything. Or at least anything that wanted me to feel it.

Fuck, you know you’re a twerp when even senile old bored dead people don’t want to talk to you.

After a while of wandering around in silence, waiting to hear something, I finally did, and I practically crapped my pants. Then I remembered it was probably just Satchel.

Then I remembered that was a good enough reason to crap my pants in and of itself.

I decided I was just going to let the situation hit me like a truck, and back over me as many times as it was going to. I’d mentally check out, let him say what he was going to say, and wait for him to leave. Whatever was going to happen, it probably wouldn’t be as bad as letting myself dread it. I took a deep breath, got my head together, climbed the stairs, and answered the door.

Satchel was pretty much as expected: mostly quiet and concerned, but with a tinge of poorly-concealed resentment. He didn’t know what was going on, but he knew it was my fault. He just came over to figure out the nature and magnitude of the offense

“...Sorry it took me forever. I was working and didn’t have my phone. Anyway…”

Well, then, maybe we should talk about you for a while. Sanctimonious asshole.

“Yeah, he’s right-”

Satchel cut me off.

“...The fuck happened to your face?”

I ran my hand down my entire face, trying to to feel what he might have been talking about.

“Wha…?”

He looked at me like I was nuts.

“You have a black eye and your glasses are all fucked-up. The hell happened to you?”

Oh. I hadn’t had a chance to look at myself.

“Well, I thought I got my ass kicked by a ghost in a hat, but I actually got my ass kicked by a magnet…”

Somehow, I just knew that would sound even stupider once I’d said it out loud.

“...Long story. Anyway, are you here to talk about my busted-ass face, or are you here to see your brother?”

He shook his head, like he was coming out of some kind of trance.

“Sorry… Yeah. Where’s he at?”

I won’t start a fight… I won’t start a fight… (He’ll start the fight.)

(No, I won’t let him.)


I lead him through the kitchen.

“Downstairs. We were checkin’ shit out, and he just sort of…”

Back to the little hall; past the creepy toilet booth.

(Jesus fuck, this house has a weird layout.)

By the time we got to the basement, Frankie was awake, leaning against the armrest of the filthy couch and dicking around on his phone. Seeing him like that, this whole thing was starting to feel a little unnecessary. He just got too congested in his sleep. I overreacted. I forced his obnoxious loose-cannon brother to overreact with me.

But, now that he was here, I figured I’d let them talk. It would at least give me a chance to clean myself up a little. I sat down on the floor, went through my duffel bag, and found my spare glasses. Put the busted ones in the case, and the fresh ones on my head. Found a bottle of water, sucked down half of it, dumped the rest over my head and arms, toweled off with my shirt, and pulled the now-damp shirt back over my head.

I tried not to eavesdrop. Partly because it might wreck the whole “don’t start the fight” thing, but also because the two of them could get pretty boring when you put them together. I once had to sit through an hour-long conversation about a kitchen chair they had in their house as kids. Who all got their limbs stuck in the slats and how, what people stood on it to reach what things, the time their older brother sat on and crushed a pen that was in his back pocket and left a permanent stain in the wood. I came this close to throwing myself out on the highway and taking my chances with the rushing concrete that day.

I stood up to stretch my legs, and came face-to-throat with Satchel, who looked pissed.

“...No, he can’t stay here.”

Stay cool.

“Okay. Just thought you’d know better than us.”

It didn’t take me long to realise that we weren’t actually having a conversation.

“He’s burning up, his breathing sounds like crap, he coughed up two casts today, and he’s getting stabbing pain in his ribs. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing here in the first place.”

He got in my van this morning, and now I guess I’m liable! Take me to court! Yell at the judge for having a boat flag! Publically humiliate all of us and get thrown out the door within the first fifteen minutes!

“He’s here because he wanted to be.”

Satchel inhaled through his teeth, fighting the same current I was fighting, and losing.

“I don’t care! He’s in no shape to be… Doing whatever the fuck it is you guys do with all this shit.”

He gestured around for a while. At the ruined recorder. At the fallen EMF meter. At the scattered dowsing rods. I bit down on the inside of my mouth.

Yeah, okay. We fucked up. I admit it. Could you not insult my hobbies for no fucking reason?

“Well, I know that now! He didn’t say anything! Jesus H., I’m not a mind-reader!”

Somehow, in the middle of all this, it made me sad to finally say that out loud. I grew out of that phase when I was about fourteen, but I hadn’t really noticed until now.

“Oh, yeah, because you’d have to be a ‘mind-reader.’”

My jaw started to clench.

“He. Didn’t. Say. Anything.”

I felt myself starting to slip. Satchel looked like he wanted to take a swing at me.

“Why, with anyone else, would he need to? It’s not his fault you caper around with your fuckin’ head up your ass twenty-five hours a day!”

Those are some brave words coming from from you, goddamn dumbass kook.

(Okay. Breathe.)


“Satchel… He’s always like this. Some days less than others, yeah, but the fuck you want me to do? Tell him to screw off and go home every time he freakin’ coughs? Yeah, I think we’d both be real thrilled about that.”

I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t want things to get personal. I also want to talk to a ghost and keep my favorite snacks from getting discontinued.

...By which I mean, the world doesn’t give a damn what you want. It’ll do what it does, no matter what you think of the whole mess.

“I think there’s a big fucking line between that and what’s happening here. Hell, fuck the goddamn line, because, yeah, you know what? If he isn’t doing well, you shouldn’t drag him out on these little dipshit snipe hunts!”

Well, shit, what do you know! All my fault! Again!

“...I didn’t ‘drag’ him anywhere! He came of his own fuckin’ free will!”

Honestly, I didn’t know where else there was to go from that point. I parked at the curb and honked the horn. Frankie dragged himself out of the house and got in the van. As far as I was concerned, Satchel could take it up with him.

He can’t just do whatever he wants!”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I stepped back, took a deep breath, and let go.

“Well, yeah, not with you around he can’t! God, you expect him to live in suspended animation just because his insides are a little fucked-up! Then you wonder why he doesn’t tell anyone when he feels like shit!”

Snag Number Seven: attempts to prevent fighting unsuccessful. I don’t care anymore.

“Hey, yeah, it’s not like he’s almost died from this before or anything! It’s not like he tore himself up coughing so bad he needed massive chest surgery! Not like I had to move him in with me, for fucking months, because he was falling the fuck apart, and you were doing shit-all!”

God, he was still stuck on this shit. After fucking years. Fine. He wants to keep it going, I’ll keep it going.

“It’s not like I had to move into the fucking waiting room at the ICU for half a week, because you were out running around drunk and phoneless in the goddamn woods with a bunch of paranoid lunatics!”

We both went quiet for a few seconds, staring each other down, trying to think of more ways to turn that whole mess back around on each other. After all this time, we were running out, but it’s not like we’d let that stop us. Where we’d gotten ourselves, nothing would.

Though, we could be temporarily distracted. Maybe by an unexpected noise, like some creaky old springs. Or a person we’d been so fixated on discussing that we’d somehow managed to forget all about him.

“If you want to keep talking about me, like I’m not here, that’s just fine. I’ll help.”

That said, Frankie shuffled off the couch and over to the stairs, vanishing up them with some effort and closing the door with a surprising amount of force.

Satchel and I stood around glaring at each other for about a minute, each trying to work out how they could blame the other, and how they could possibly turn someone walking out of the room into enough of a disaster for the blame to be worth anything.

Eventually, he sat down on the couch, leaning his head on his hands, hiding his face.

“...I’m an asshole.

And this is how it ends: we gave up.

I sat down next to him.

“I’m a defensive little creep.”

He glanced over at me, and I thought, well, I might just be a mind-reader after all. He didn’t even have to say it.

(“Yeah, you are.”)

...Okay, so we didn’t really give up. But we were at least making a good-faith effort at giving up. Satchel leaned back on the couch and sighed.

“I don’t know what gets into me.”

I shrugged.

“It happens.”

Upstairs, the front door slammed. We both sat staring up at the ceiling.

“I think he just went outside.”

I groaned and hauled myself up off the couch.

“He can’t make it far. I’ll go get him.”

*****


Snag Number Eight: he made it farther than expected.

I thought I’d find him on the porch, or the lawn, or maybe, at a stretch, the curb. But I didn’t find him until I’d walked a block. And then another block in the opposite direction.

Then I passed a particularly sketchy gas station, and, what do you know, there he was, leaning against a saggy chain-link fence surrounding a particularly sketchy church. He had a big rattling plastic cup of orange soda and ice, which he was holding against his forehead, and he was trying to smoke and mostly failing.

Like I said: he always ends up needing to sit down somewhere and be Tragic for a while. Normally, I found it mildly obnoxious if anything. But, this time around, there was something about him that seemed so depressing I could hardly stand the idea of getting any closer. Like he’d accidentally suck me into some kind of Pathos Vortex.

Fuck it. I’d lost control of the situation a long, long way back. What more could happen? I sat down next to him in the soggy mulch.

“Um, hey…”

Frankie kept on smoking and headbutting his cup. I worried that he was worse than I thought, and too out-of-it to even notice I was talking to him, but he was just ignoring me on purpose.

“I’m fucking exhausted. Just… Don’t even try me right now.”

That was actually pretty hilarious, considering he looked like eighty pounds of dirty laundry and sweaty hair. I tried not to laugh at him, but he made it too hard.

Dude. What the fuck would you do?”

He tried to take a drag, made a weird gagging noise, and forced a cloud of smoke through his clenched teeth.

“Sit here and not say anything until you go away.”

Huh. Right.

“...That’s fair, I guess. But-”

“But nothing! Fuck off!”

I think he thought he was raising his voice at me, but he actually shifted to a harsh, creaking rasp. Then he had to stop and cough into his sleeve for a while. I waited until he was almost finished.

“Franks… You’re not in good shape right now. I mean, no offense, but I wonder how the hell you got out of bed this morning.”

He sat back against the fence again, trying to catch his breath.

“I drugged myself up pretty good and had a cold shower. Thought that would at least buy me… I mean, okay. I admit I didn’t think it all they way through. You’ve got me.”

I pushed some mulch around with my shoe. Frankie went back to trying to smoke.

“I’m not trying to ‘get’ you. I just want to know how you thought this was a good idea.”

It was getting pretty obvious that he was having trouble with the whole “inhaling” thing, so he gave up and watched the ashes burn down.

“I didn’t.”

...Okay.

“Well, then what the fuck gives?”

He shook the ice around to get it moving, then pressed the cup to the side of his face.

“I didn’t know what else to do. I mean… I’ve been pretty bad lately. Even before everything got all infected. And I spent all week trying to be okay for this. Like, I even used the vaporized shit or whatever you call it.”

I could have told him, for the thousandth time, that he was supposed to be using it all along, and coughing up perfectly intact casts was a pretty screwy priority to have when his own insides were strangling him all day. But, I’d given up that fight a long time ago. I let it slide.

“I understand, but like… Even if you tried, it didn’t work. You should have told me that before I came and got you. It wouldn’t have been a big deal.”

Frankie started creaking at me again.

“Says you!”

He flinched like he’d been stabbed, then started coughing. I made a note that it was probably about time to get going, even if this was nowhere near sorted out yet.

“Yeah, and I’m also saying this is a way bigger deal than you deciding to sit this one out. That would have, maybe, been a little disappointing. But right now, you’re really scaring me. And I don’t know if you even realize-”

“I realize! God, I’m not an idiot. I just… I… I don’t know. I wanted to spend some time with a friend like a regular fucking person.”

There were some pretty easy responses to that one, but I couldn’t think of one that wouldn’t make things worse than they already were.

“Franks, I…”

Fuck.

He was crying.

I wasn’t really sure what to do with that. For all he came off as a whiny, complaining, catastrophizing pain in the ass, Frankie was always pretty… I don’t know. Placid, I guess. Even when he was blowing everything out of proportion, or in some kind of genuine distress, he always seemed pretty leveled-off. Like, sure, everything might suck, but it was almost like he forgot to actually get upset about it. Hell, even now, he was just sort of crying. Not bothering with either trying to cover it or making much noise, or trying to stop. It was just another thing that happened to him, the way things always happened to him, and he was sitting through it, the way he always sat through things.

Though, he did take a short break to pull a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and throw it at me.

“I don’t know why I even bought these. I can’t get them to work right.”

I wasn’t really sure why he did that. It’s not like I was going to use them.

“Frankie… Are you, like, okay?”

He shook his head.

“My chest hurts, and I keep seeing all these weird hand things out of the corner of my eye.”

Okay, we need to get you checked out.

“I meant… You know. Besides that.”

He looked like he was having a hard time figuring it out.

“I don’t know. I’m sick of it.”

Something in him broke, and he started to leak a little harder.

“Sick of…?”

He sat the cup down in the mulch, and leaned forward so I couldn’t see his face

Everything. Getting stuck in my house. You telling me I have to stay there alone when I already feel like shit. Not being able to do anything. You guys going at it like that.”

I sighed.

“Yeah, I have trouble keeping my big mouth shut. It ain’t cool. But Satchel just really cares about you. Really. You know how he gets when he cares about things.”

Stupid and loud and irrational.

Frankie started digging his hands into his scalp.

“...I still can’t fucking stand it. Jesus, if anything’s going to put me in the hospital, it’s that shit. Listening to you guys stresses me out so much that start feeling like I might be… And, like, last time. It pretty much sent me over the edge, okay? It sucks. I’m sorry I have to say this shit to you, but I’m at the end of my string with this crap.”

God, I’m a douchebag.

“Frankie-”

He wasn’t listening.

“...And the thing is, I don’t care about who did what when or any other shit like that! I’m not counting! Why the hell would I be counting!? Like… Thinking back on it, I just remember you sitting next to me on the floor until the paramedics got there, and Satchel coming to get me when I was really going downhill. And that was all fine. Until you guys started making me feel like the whole thing was just some pissing contest that didn’t even have to do with me. It’s shit! Like… Okay, this sounds shitty, but where even am I in there?”

I wanted to tell him he was right in the middle, like he should be, so of course he felt like he was just getting carelessly yanked around between us. But, hearing it from him, I could only think of all the times he really had been sidelined. And how I got so caught up that I let it happen, not even thinking about what I might really be doing. How that was just another way he got shafted.

“Franks, I… I mean… Look. I’m glad you said something. I know it probably should have been self-explanatory, but I guess I’m… Just a piece of shit. I’ll talk to your brother about it, okay?”

He shook his head.

“Hey, it’s all the same to me. Don’t worry about it.”

I didn’t really know what he meant, but it still made me sad.

“Frankie…”

He was sitting with his legs drawn up and his wet face buried in his sleeves, still crying. Still letting it happen. I wished I could have said something, but it occurred to me that he was literally inconsolable. He was sad, and ill, and in pain, and he’d just have to be like that for a while. And I’d just have to be right there with him until it blew over.

It felt a little weird, because, crawlspaces and drainage ditches notwithstanding, I was usually friends with him in an “eighteen inches of personal space” kind of way, but I put my arm around him and pulled him in, holding on tight. To be honest, I probably just confused him more than anything.

“...Wha?”

I shrugged.

“You looked like you needed it.”

Frankie relaxed a little.

“Oh. Okay.”

He settled in for a long fifteen minutes of leaking on my shirt. I made myself stop wondering when the hell he’d get off of me. He needed me to act like I actually gave a genuine fuck about him more than I needed to keep him at a professional distance. Why do I even do that? I’m an asshole.

Eventually, he calmed down, and it actually seemed like he was falling asleep. I would have been relieved, but, up close like this, I could feel him struggling to breathe, which put me on edge. His ribs felt like they were going to snap and burst through his skin. I didn’t know how he managed to function for as long as he did. And god, I felt like a shitheel for getting bent out of shape over him breathing too loudly and coughing up crap in my car.

“...Will you go to the hospital?”

Frankie straightened up and sat back against the fence again.

“If I need to, I guess.”

He grabbed his cup again, and took a long sip of what had to be all melted ice and backwash by now.

“Do you feel like you need to?”

If you say no, you’re crazier than I thought. Shit, look at you.

“I don’t know… I feel like I-” He didn’t get a chance to finish before he dropped the cup in his lap, knocking the lid off and getting him all wet on top of everything else. “...Wow, I really can’t grip stuff.”

I looked at his hands. They looked the way they always did when shit got bad like this. All blue and white, and like he probably couldn’t make a fist if his life depended on it.

“Um… You should probably at least have someone look at you, yeah.”

He tried to sigh, but it came out as a long whine, backed by what sounded like his pipes slapping together.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

I pulled out my phone.

“Okay. Should I tell Satchel to bring the truck around now?”

Frankie shrugged.

“Sure… Also, I have a question.”

I gently patted him on the back.

“Shoot!”

He gave me a long, confused look.

“...What the what happened to your face?”

Shit. I’d forgotten all about it again. Remembering made me laugh a little.

“Long story. I’ll tell you on the ride.”

He picked the scattered ice out of the dirt, and plopped it back in the cup.

“‘Kay… And here. For your eyeball.”

Well shit, if that ain’t what friends are for. I took the cup, pressed the butt end against the bruised socket, and smiled.

“Thanks.”

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