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Spirit Box

2nd Place Winner - 2019 Fiction Contest

Kristin searched for a sound in the still air of the historic inn’s guest room, holding up a hand for silence while Mark dropped the equipment on a rosy bedspread. Muted light filtered through warped glass, long shadows reaching over papered walls. Coming here at night would have been better. It was when the street noises dwindled, when quiet things felt empowered to become visible. 

“Do you hear something?” 

The voices were never voices, but more like the memory of sound—an echo off cavernous, sweating walls; a subaqueous whisper. It was more like a vibration. Maybe Kristin associated the not-voices with dampness because they felt damp, too heavy to rise from the place they once existed.  

“Try the box,” she said. 

Mark switched it on, letting it cycle through radio frequencies. 

Tch tch tch tch tch tch tch tch… 

“Is anyone here today?” Kristin asked. “Can you say hello to us?” 

They waited for the right radio frequency to be selected and used by an inhabiting spirit. The owners of the building—a historic inn—had called her, with the usual mix of skepticism and hopefulness in their questions. They’d purchased the inn several years ago knowing the stories associated with it: the anachronistically dressed apparitions, a light on or a door closed when it hadn’t been, footsteps on the unoccupied third floor. They believed the stories would add character, attracting adventurous ghost-experience seekers and giving a chuckle to the non-believers. It was like that for a while. Then it became more concrete and undeniable. There was screaming in the witching hour, a window slammed open, and a cocktail glass—hurled by an invisible assailant—shattered on the bar, cutting a guest. For some guests there was an oppressive feeling of wanting to be anywhere but there. What had started as spooky fun had turned nightmarish; the inn owners had to refund too many visits and pack up for guests who simply threw on coats and said to send their things later.  

“Can you say hello?” 

Tch tch tch tch telephone me tch tch tch tch … 

“What?” Mark said. “Was that a hello? Hello me?” 

“No, it said, telephone me,” Kristin said. “It’s residual. An imprint.” 

Telephone. When did we stop saying that, like a verb?” 

“Did you ever say it?” 

“Maybe my parents did. They had the kind with, you know, the dial.” 

“Rotary. I think the owners are wrong, then, it’s not Marie. It’s too recent.” 

Kristin had looked into the history of the Civil War-era building, which first belonged to Marie Marchand after her husband died—under mysterious circumstances, of course. There were the standard old stories about poison and a wicked heart, of servants chained in the basement. Marchand had lost her fortune to bad investments and the house went to the state, first becoming a school for girls and then an asylum and then a guesthouse again. It was broken up into apartments in the 1950s, going vacant two decades later, brooding over a dying neighborhood until the young couple with bad credit and misfortunate naivety bought the building. 

“Give me the EMF,” she said. Mark handed it to her.  

Help.  

That voice didn’t register on the spirit box but rather inside Kristin’s mind, part of whatever unexplained talent or gift or curse had led her here. 

The green light flickered to yellow to orange and red. 

“Whoa,” Mark said. 

The meter went back to green. 

“There are a lot of them.” 

“How can you tell?” 

Tch tch tch tch tch tch tch tch … 

It was another thing that was hard to explain. Individual voices didn’t always surface; it was more a sense of layers and crumbling, a residual pastry. Kristin sensed whoever belonged to this “telephone” voice wasn’t causing the disturbances. The fathomless sadness and fear carried those words beyond linear time but did not carry physical force. She handed the EMF back to Mark and twisted a small flashlight on, aiming the beam in the corners of the room where the light couldn’t reach. Beyond the liability concern, the innkeepers had been most unsettled by the screaming. They suspected it was Marie, the original owner, as one guest had seen an apparition in long skirts with a bustle. 

Tch tch tch tch tch tch tch tch … 

“What are we looking for?” 

“Just looking,” Kristin said. Once, in an abandoned asylum, she found scratches on the floor—not words but hashmarks, marking time. Sometimes decades-old stains marked the wood, the telltale heart of atrocity. She checked for places where rickety fixtures could fall and for clues left behind by forgotten lives. The beam spotlighted only sections of wallpaper and cobwebs. She set the flashlight illuminated on the windowsill and spoke to the room. 

“Can you make this light go out?” 

She glanced at the EMF reader in Mark’s hand but already knew it would be quiet. Whatever she was waiting for was big enough that she would feel it first. She had known the feeling since her mother moved her to that house, her pubescent electricity mixing with the damp air of angry residue. Whether it was already in the house or she had brought it with her, she didn’t know. But Kristin quickly learned to recognize the change in air, the stale heaviness, heat that wasn’t exactly heat. Sometimes an overripe smell, like musty fruit rubbed into upholstery. Her innermost senses would urge her to leave that place. But she couldn’t stop looking for the source of that feeling. The wandering souls, the ones seeking retribution or closure, they sought her out. However, they weren’t the ones she was after. 

The flashlight turned off. 

“Whoa,” Mark said. 

“Okay, let’s try again.” 

Mark set the EMF meter on a small table, reaching for the spirit box. 

The otherworld was as complex as the physical one. Intellectually, Kristin understood the danger. But she instinctually felt it now, signals jolting through the tree-like structure of her nervous system. She checked the EMF reader again but knew it was waiting. Like anything born of the dark, it despised the light. The heavy air relented to cooler eddies of spirit, the others moving away. In this place, there was a hierarchy. Marie was here, certainly. She was only the beginning. The screamer was another, and the glass thrower, and the apparition. Kristin waited for the thing that held them there, the architect of pain. 

The box pulsed, waiting to capture metallic voices through the filter of radio static.  

Please.  

“I heard it!”  

“Shh.” 

The stale air grew dense, the pressure growing inside her chest felt like being held underwater. The air around her turned frigid. She held the spirit box into invisible space and asked for a name. 

•  •  •  •  •

Weird things had started happening even before Kristin and her mother moved to the old part of the city. How many times had she felt the oppressive bubble followed by an imagined whisper? As a child she recalled her mother hastily packing their belongings in the space of an afternoon, moving them from their apartment across town because of something Kristin had, for years, remembered as a dream. She’d been sleeping in her mother’s room that night, because of a storm or a nightmare, and woke to a scraping sound. She lifted her head, seeing her mother was already awake, staring at her dresser. The third drawer was open. After a period of time that made Kristin believe her mother had fallen asleep, she finally stirred, moving toward the dresser in a way a person might move toward a wild animal. Her mother hastily pushed the drawer closed and turned her back on the dresser, smiling at Kristin in a reassuring way.  

Then the drawer opened again. 

The sound that Kristin’s mother made still haunted her dreams, an unambiguous acknowledgment of horror. She remembered being scooped up and thundered from the room and out into the cold night air, amber streetlights illuminating their new reality. It hadn’t been the first time strange things happened in the house, but it was the most blatant, the crossover moment when they couldn’t ignore or shrug off or explain away something odd. When lights had gone on or turned off without warning, her mother would mutter something about surges and wiring. If a door slammed, a draft or uneven hinges. When Kristin woke up one morning, inexplicably sprawled in the hallway and tangled in her blanket, it was sleepwalking. Now, everything had changed.  

They left that night only to have whatever it was follow and resurface in the new house, and from then on it was a continuous sense of unease for them both, like the wallpaper had eyes. Kristin felt herself changing, grappling with a presence or an ability she didn’t understand. But her mother had changed, too—smoking more, drinking, surrounded by a cloud of frenetic vibration, staying up late on the phone when Kristin thought she couldn’t hear. I think it was him, she heard her mother say one night into the receiver, the spiral cord stretching around the corner under her closed bedroom door. Don’t you think it could be? I told you about that night. No. I was afraid, what was I going to say? No, she doesn’t know

There were things on the news back then, serious men with wide lapels and moustaches gravely recounting tales of missing women, of unlocked windows and broken glass. There were pen-and-ink drawings of a dark-eyed man posted on telephone poles and in the window of a grocery store. Whenever they passed that grim face, her mother gripped Kristin’s hand in a way that made the delicate bones and sinew under her skin grind together. “Why are you afraid of that man?” Her mother denied it once too often, and finally Kristin demanded to know who he was. “He’s a bad person,” her mother said. “That’s all you need to know.” 

•  •  •  •  •

Oh, my God, did you hear that?” 

Over the years Kristin learned to sort her assistants into three buckets: the serious believers, the pot smokers, and the overexcited pleasers. They never stayed long, mostly because paranormal investigations didn’t pay much but sometimes because something rattled them. They came to learn how to hunt ghosts for their own YouTube channels or for an oddball experience to add to their resumes; they never expected the feeling of ice-cold hands shoving them at the top of a dusty staircase or a demonic voice calling their names. 

Tch tch tch tch here tch tch tch tch… 

“It said here!” 

Similarly, Kristin categorized the voices. One, residual haunting: an impression of energy, something that wasn’t really a ghost, but like a groove worn in time, a skip in temporal vinyl. Two, sentient: the ghost of someone who hadn’t expected to die, or had something left to resolve. Three, something else: a spirit gone wrong, a poltergeist, power galvanized by fear. She was hearing a two and she was waiting for a three. 

He’s here. 

“Who’s here?” Kristin asked. 

A long pause, frequencies scratching a pulse. 

Killer

“What is his name?” 

Static thumping.  

George. 

Kristin took a few seconds pause to control the bubble of emotion growing in her chest. “But he has another name, doesn’t he?” 

The scratching static. Mark’s rising and falling chest. 

The guest room door creaked, moving open. 

“Are you here?” 

Another voice, male and chilling. 

Leave.  

 “I know what you did,” Kristin said. Mark glanced in her direction. “We’re not going anywhere.” 

I know you. 

•  •  •  •  •

The man on the TV, the one on the faded fliers, went by the name George Winters. The Hacksaw Killer, the newscasters called him, because that’s how he decapitated his victims and because the name was instantly catchy. At this point, her mother operated on a hair trigger. She’d known him somehow; that much was clear to Kristin. She had processed what she’d heard her mother say on the phone and rendered the comments into a confession about her own origins. To think this killer could be her unknown father both terrified and thrilled Kristin, and for this she felt a crushing sense of guilt. It drove an unceasing curiosity, a desire to be the one to catch him, to stop him. In her mind, she made herself the hero, the abandoned offspring coming back to slay the monster, the only one who could. 

She clipped out every story from the newspaper about Hacksaw, and when her mother caught on, she cancelled the paper. It didn’t stop Kristin. She waited for her neighbors to drop their old papers in the trash or stole them off their lawns. If there were no stories about him on a particular day, she’d refold the paper and put it back under the shrub where she found it. She pasted each article in a notebook dedicated solely to Hacksaw. 

Her obsession with the killer took seed not only because of her possible connection to him but even more, perhaps, because of the collective fear she felt surrounding her—from her mother, from the newscasters, from people in the neighborhood. It was the only time she thought other people understood how she felt every day. She began to believe it was his fault that she drew the inexplicable and unsettling activity, like maybe he’d passed along a part of his soul with his DNA. It was all the more reason to find a way to end his dominion of fear. 

After years of hearing the angry voices of lost souls, few responses rattled her. The worst was in an old hotel, when it felt like something was pulling her essence through the floor, replacing her soul with ice, saying, Now you’re mine. This, she guessed, might have been an elusive and rare number four, a thing that was never human. She’d felt the words in her head and the spirit box caught them, too. She felt herself wanting to surrender to whatever had taken hold. Her then-assistant, a graduate student in psychology, had pulled her by both arms out into the parking lot. It took Kristin a few days to lose the chill.  

Now this. 

You follow me. 

“That’s right,” Kristin said, her heart thumping. 

“What’s happening?” Mark said. 

“I know your name.” 

Say it. 

“You say it!” 

Hahahahaha.

•  •  •  •  •

She began to visit the crime scenes. Almost right away she felt a voice saying, Help me. That was the first time the heavy stale-air feeling and the cold bubbles of chill had given her more; it solidified her suspicion of a deeper connection to this man. She used her birthday money to buy a spirit box to confirm what she heard. It was rarely as detailed as the words in her mind but it helped her to trust that it hadn’t been her imagination, and later, when she began to bring friends along, it proved to them that she wasn’t crazy.  

“Who killed you?” she would ask, and she would sometimes hear George and sometimes other names and often nothing.  

Kristin got arrested at age thirteen for breaking into the last crime scene with a friend. She was made to wait on a plastic chair at the police station while her mother signed papers. 

“What were you thinking?” her mother asked.  

The words came out of Kristin in a rush of accusation, a defensive attack. 

“No,” her mother had said. Her expression held such a twist of disbelief that Kristin knew her mother wasn’t lying, that George Winters was not her father. Her mother explained that she’d had an encounter but nothing more, allowing him to drive her home one night after a party. “You were three or four years old. I think—maybe because so many people had seen him that night, it stopped him from—from what could have happened.” 

Kristin learned, finally, that her father was one of two other men, neither of whom would have been good for her or her mother. But they certainly weren’t Hacksaw. 

Was she disappointed? It was more like confusion, the inexplicability of her life. 

The voices quieted for a while, like they were giving her space.

•  •  •  •  •

“I want to know where they are,” Kristin said to the room. 

Mark glanced at her. “Where what are?” 

She had never stopped following George Winters. She was seventeen when a particularly vocal poltergeist led her to a shallow grave, and she finally found a sympathetic detective who had the time and resources to humor her. When his crews uncovered the mummified and headless corpse, he had asked her pointed questions, staring in that way people did when they were trying to file her into their own category. He sifted through “A” for accomplice and “I” for insane until he finally got to a letter he could live with. 

The detective would call her whenever they had run through every possibility on a missing person or had an antsy supervisor who wanted to clear out some cold cases. But the George Winters case continued to dog her, inextricably connected to her own conflicted feelings about what some called a gift. Why had she been cursed with the voices of the dead in her mind, or the terrifying ability to see specters walk across their own graves? Why had she been dogged by other people’s nightmares in addition to her own, which only grew worse with every passing year? 

Growing up, her friends had noticed that she would pale when she passed by a cemetery or frown to concentrate on a voice that wasn’t part of a crowd. One by one they fell away, distancing themselves from potential contagion. If she wasn’t the blood and bone progeny of that freak of nature, how and why did she become this strange being, walking with one half of her mind in the living world and the other in a place that was no less real but terrifying to navigate? At least her imagined connection with Hacksaw offered some reasoning; without it, she had no explanation for why she was so different. 

Kristin kept looking years after headless corpses stopped surfacing and the police assumed Hacksaw had died. She continued to investigate hauntings, tapping into the wake of psychic energy she felt whenever a body had not been put to rest properly. That’s how she found the inn, years before the innkeeper called her, by accident or perhaps not, stopping her car outside and staring into the eyes of its broken windows. Foolishly, she had returned, ducking under the broken chain-link fence with a flashlight and a recorder.  

That first time, when she had broken in, there had been overlapping residual voices. She knew the inn was filled with death, but she had left without any answers. Kristin sought out the last owners, searching records, looking for names. Twice she’d heard the first name, once on a midnight taping at a popular restaurant known to have been frequented by Hacksaw and once in a building that later revealed a headless body. She suspected the inn held more secrets. She suspected it had been quiet because George Winters was still in charge. 

And now she was back. 

“I know you’re here,” Kristin said. “This is where you died.” 

“Who? Who died?” Mark asked. 

Hacksaw. 

“That’s the woman again,” Kristin said. “Is he gone?” 

Go. 

“Us? Where should we go?” 

Basement. 

“Come on,” Mark said. “What’s in the basement?” 

“Will we find bodies?” 

They waited for innumerable scratching beats. 

Heads. 

“Shit,” Mark said. 

Sudden cold, like a refrigerator door kicked open. 

Bitch. 

“This is what we came for,” Kristin said, watching the EMF in Mark’s hand spin up. “I want to talk to you, George.” 

Hacksaw stayed silent through the frequency shift. 

Tch tch tch tch tch…. 

What would they find if they started digging in the basement? The police knew of eight and suspected more, twice as many.  

“You have a chance to show the world who you really are. Come on,” Kristin said. “How many are there?”  

A silent pulsing of radio air. 

“Are you afraid?” 

Tch tch tch are you? tch tch tch tch…. 

She recalled their pixelated faces stacked up in neat newspaper columns, how she sat at the kitchen table late at night, sleepless, and clipped carefully around the margins of their lost lives. If she could find them all, if she could put them all to rest, maybe she could offer not only closure to the families but also something like it to the young girl who stayed awake so many nights, trying not to see the death that lingered in the heavy space between flesh and the unknown. 

“Yeah,” Kristin said. “I have been for a long time.” 

The spirit box continued its staccato hiss, holding her in its mesmerizing, unchanging rhythm.  

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Nikki Kallio worked as a newspaper journalist on both coasts before coming home to Wisconsin, where she is now a freelance writer, editor, and writing instructor.

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