It was one of those dark and stormy nights. The rain beat against the windshield with a methodical rhythm. The sound subdued Harrison’s overwhelmed brain, lulling him into a deeply relaxed state. Just as his mind had begun to wade through a catalog of daydreams, a crash of thunder returned him to the here and now. Harrison opened the briefcase with unsteady hands, retrieving a manila folder from inside. He parted the file to find a case synopsis for one Selina Rubanov, age 72, recently widowed. After confirming the address from the file, Harrison reached into his left pocket, feeling for the device. With his hand coiled around the cool metal surface, he found his center. After a moment of calm, he opened the car door to an onslaught of heavy rain.
After ringing the bell and knocking loudly for what seem liked eons, Harrison combed desperately against the wet hair that covered his eyes as Rubanov opened the door.
“Hello, Selina. Might I come in?” he asked, as patiently as he could manage.
“Of course. Get out of that rain before you catch cold!” Rubanov demanded, in that sweet, but firm tone universally preferred by grandmothers. “What you young folks have against umbrellas, I’ll never understand.”
Harrison responded with a shrug, then followed Rubanov to the living room where they had met two weeks prior. As Harrison settled on the plastic-covered couch, the old woman asked if he’d like a cup of hot tea. Considering his damp attire, he nodded yes. Her absence allowed him one last review of the case file.
Selina Rubanov’s case specifics met all of Harrison’s usual requirements. The subject of inquiry – Joseph Rubanov – was Selina’s husband of 48 years before passing away four months ago. In recent weeks, Selina bore witness to flashing images of her dead husband appearing about the house at random. Fearful that Joseph’s spirit may not be at peace, Selina became distraught, unable to sleep, unable to grieve, let alone move forward with her life. With the gracious help of a few church friends, Selina came into possession of Harrison’s business card. The tagline atop the card read: “Paranormal Counseling & Removal.”
Harrison recalled the first meeting with Rubanov – three hours of explaining he was not so much a “ghost-buster” as he was a psychiatrist. The cornerstone of Harrison’s service was a form of grief counseling. With a master’s in clinical psychology and a basic understanding of most religions, Harrison possessed an invaluable set of skills. He used this knowledge to ease the pain of those who, like Rubanov, were haunted by the people they’d loved and lost.
Rubanov reappeared with two cups of tea in hand, interrupting Harrison’s recollection. He reached for the cup, noting his client’s shaking hands. His heart sank slightly as he curled his fingers around the mug, worried she wouldn’t have the courage for what came next. As he sipped the tea, Harrison could feel the blood returning to his icy fingers.
“What type of tea is this?” he inquired between long sips. “It packs quite a kick.”
“Oh, I bet it does,” Rubanov laughed deviously. “I poured two shots of Pappy Van Winkle in there. I suppose you’re not much of a bourbon drinker, eh?”
“Not so much, but maybe I should rethink that.” Harrison sat his cup on the table, then leaned forward, reaching for Rubanov’s hand. He waited for her eyes to meet his before asking, “Selina, are you absolutely certain you’re ready to let go?”
With her free hand she drained the remainder of her cup, then glanced over at the photo of her husband on the end table. She released his hand to remove her glasses, wiping away the quickly forming tears. Harrison neither moved nor looked away. He had to be sure.
Her eyes leveled with his. She took his hand and said steadily, “I’m ready. Do what you have to do, Harrison.”
“The procedure won’t take long. Are you sure you want to be here for this?”
“I’m too old to go out in that damned rain, so just be quick about it,” she replied, once more in that abrasive tone Harrison had come to appreciate.
Harrison made his way up the creaking staircase toward the bedroom, stopping just short of the door. He retrieved the device from his pocket, studying it in his hands. The thing had never been properly named, as Harrison felt that honor should’ve been his father’s. At the press of a button the machine hummed to life. He inhaled sharply, extended the antenna and opened the bedroom door.
The room was pitch black, save for the faint green glow of the device. Harrison kneeled down in the center of the room and made himself comfortable, not knowing how long it might take for Joseph to appear. Just as he began to feel at ease, a sudden wave of nausea crashed over him. The room started spinning out of control as Harrison imagined a meaty hand tightening around his neck. Before Harrison could regain balance, Joseph appeared, radiating a cold blue light against the empty walls. Harrison tried silencing the alarms in his head, tried to focus on the ghost and what needed to be done.
Harrison began counting down from 100 to slow his breathing and compose himself. Joseph’s ghost walked about the room, pacing the floor in staggered frames. It would be an unnerving sight for the uninitiated, but Harrison was far more familiar with this scene than most. This was not the spirit of a dead man. Ghosts, as defined by pop culture and campfire stories, were fabricated fiction, loosely based on scientific fact. This Rubanov ghost was not a ghastly specter doomed to terrorize the living. Instead, the flickering images were merely the remainder of Joseph’s electrons, stuck in a time loop, replaying themselves until the batteries ran out. Harrison’s father had uncovered those secrets decades earlier.
Finally, Harrison felt able to stand. He moved toward the flashing image of the deceased Rubanov and raised the device to chest level, slowly inching closer, just as he had done on exactly 56 other occasions. In this instance, however, something unexpected occurred. As Harrison approached, Rubanov’s image turned to face him, looking directly into his eyes. The young man froze in his tracks long enough to hear a low rumble of crackling static. It was as if Joseph Rubanov was speaking directly to him. Although it sounded backwards somehow, Harrison thought he heard the words, “Join us.”
The phrase kept repeating, each “Join us” ringing louder than the one before. Harrison frantically sliced the antenna through Rubanov’s image, throwing sparks with each strike. Unfortunately, this did nothing to slow the advancing phantom. For the first time since starting this business, Harrison’s device had failed him. Had his father’s theories been wrong, or was this something altogether different? As Harrison realized he didn’t have an answer, the ghost of Rubanov closed around him, and then there was nothing.
“JOIN US!” The words echoed through Harrison’s dormant brain until he shuddered back to life. He awoke under the fluorescent lights of a hospital room, unaware how long he’d been there. His body seemed weightless, empty even. There was no fear, worry, or concern weighing on his mind – nothing whatsoever. A nurse hovering within his personal space appeared startled when Harrison’s eyes began to blink. When she regained her composure, she mumbled something about a doctor being on his way. Unable to wait, Harrison drifted away again.
When the fog finally cleared, Harrison noticed a slender blond woman in the far corner of the room. She approached his bedside, but he didn’t recognize her in the slightest.
“Where did your long sleep take you, Harrison?” she abruptly questioned.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he replied evenly. “Do I know you?”
“No, you don’t. You were asleep for nearly a year. Do you remember anything after the incident? Do you remember the incident itself?”
Harrison tried rising from the bed, but his muscles protested.
The stranger laid her hand against his chest.
“Easy – it’ll be a while before you are mobile again,” she said.
“A year?” he weakly repeated.
She nodded in confirmation.
Harrison had no emotional response to losing a year of his life, though he knew he should. It was as if this was happening to someone else. Perhaps he was someone – or something – else now. And although he wasn’t necessarily curious, he asked, “Mrs. Rubanov – do you know who she is?”
“I do. She was my grandmother.” She paused for a moment, removing her hand from his chest. “Grandma passed away shortly after your experiment went awry. No one had much hope you would ever wake up.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. She was a good woman.”
Harrison tried once more to rise, successfully this time. He regarded the granddaughter, her face suddenly filled with wonder.
“Now I see,” she whispered. “Not all of you came back, did it?”
Harrison was having trouble forming a response. Waiting on a punchline that would never appear, he just sat there with his mouth half open, hoping she would elaborate.
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