My sister Lucy—or I should say “my sister, Lucy,” since I have no other now—sighed and stuck out her jaw. The longer she holds that expression before speaking, the worse the words she’s about to unload are going to hurt. I watched her, feeling my throat tighten, as she toyed with her rings for a long moment. “Mattie,” she finally said in a voice laced with artificial sweetness, “you are not the only person here who’s concerned about the ghosts.”
Among all the many things Lucy has—and the rewards for being professional matchmaker and “love psychic” are rich indeed—she’s especially got a lot of nerve. Still, I couldn’t let it lie. “You could at least call them by their names,” I told her. “We’re still family, even if some of us are dead.”
We were sitting on the hard wooden chairs of our sister Nora’s scrupulously clean kitchen, which had been Mama’s kitchen before her. Their dim forms worked side by side, but out of sync. Even the spice rack was different for each of them: A careful array of flavors for Mama, a jumble for Nora. Mama’s gift was finding the most efficient way to arrange things; it’s how we crammed five people and all their things into a tiny house in moderate comfort. The oldest and most indistinct of the ghosts, these days Mama rarely did anything more strenuous than sweeping spilled coffee grounds into a pile.
After Mama died, Nora, ever the most dutiful of daughters, cared for Papa until he passed, too. Papa was good at finding the most he could get from people. He accepted the meals, the rides to doctor appointments, the laundry and cleaning and other housekeeping, but he never forgave Nora for not being Mama. Despite his lack of life skills, he outlived Mama by four years. Even now, his misty presence strutted through the living room, making the boards creak and the windows rattle.
“There’s no point to keeping the house.” Lucy leaned in as if delivering a confidence. “I’ve always hated this place, and you’re hardly ever home a week at a time. And face it, you could use your share of the money.”
Lucy and I aren’t close, but she knows that I have to travel to help the frightened families—and the occasional open-minded police department—who are willing to work with a psychic. “You know I bill on a sliding scale,” I told her. “Poor people go missing more often than rich ones.”
“Rich people look for their soul mates just as much as poor ones,” Lucy said in a mincing, mocking voice. “But the rich ones pay a lot better.” She rubbed her fingertips together, making her rings’ jewels sparkle and their metals gleam. Not just a band of gold and commanding two-carat marquise diamond on her left hand, but a large ruby set in filigree on her right.
I pressed my lips tight. “Never mind what each of us thinks about how the other uses her finding gifts. The ghosts are still here. Nora died just a month ago.” Still fresh enough to hear my words, Nora’s ghost looked over her shoulder at me and smiled sadly.
“And they’re fading, as ghosts do. Mom’s ghost is barely an outline anymore. It’s weird now, but soon she’ll disappear. In time, all of them will.” Lucy tossed sleek hair over one shoulder as she looked around with disdain. “Maybe sooner, once we get all this junk out of here. Attachments fade. The ghosts may drive the price down a little—it’s a valid concern—but in this neighborhood, it shouldn’t be too much. Not enough to justify waiting for them to disappear.”
The three of us had grown up in this house, and despite Mama’s gift, our home had never been big enough for Lucy, whose ambitions were always for bigger and better. These days, it felt smaller and dowdier with every visit as Mama’s clever, cozy arrangements of furniture degraded and the neighborhood gentrified around it. But even a haunted house would sell. Lucy was right; I could use the money.
Papa strutted into the room, cock of the walk as always, but death had softened him. He was a vague presence who could barely interact at this point, more pitiful than frustrating. Mama’s thin back was a reminder of who we’d lost even as her material legacy deteriorated. As for Nora—I was grateful that she’d spared Lucy and me the brunt of Papa’s caregiving, and sad that she’d given her own health short shrift. I saw families who’d lost people all the time. Even though I wouldn’t live with our family ghosts every day, I didn’t want to lose them before I had to. “Let me have the house for a while. I’ll move out of my apartment. After the ghosts are gone, we can sell it.”
Lucy scoffed. “The real estate market’s hot now. Come on, Mattie. You don’t have anything left here. You and Nora never were close.”
Nora left her ghostly knife and cutting board behind and stepped toward us, gray and soundless. “Not as close as we should have been,” I admitted with a twinge. “I never even figured out what her gift of finding was.”
“She didn’t have one,” said Lucy impatiently. “Nora was never like the rest of us. Come on, what kind of moron would give up a law practice to take care of a sour old man?” She gestured at Papa’s ghost, the floorboards creaking under his inaudible footfalls.
“Nora did love working on immigration cases,” I said slowly. Nora’s ghost smiled encouragingly, as if I were close to something. “Please, Lucy. Just for what time they have left. Ten years, maybe less.”
“No.” Lucy’s voice was flat, all the sweetness gone.
I looked at Nora’s ghost helplessly. There was no way I could buy out Lucy’s share. Nora’s ghost held a hand out, and for one stupid second I thought maybe she was pointing to buried treasure hidden in the floorboards, but she was just reaching out to take Papa’s hand. A moment later, she had Mama’s hand in her other hand. They glided toward us.
They’d never done this before. We hadn’t seen Mama’s ghost without a transparent kitchen utensil in years. “What the hell…?” said Lucy.
The immigration work. Moving back in when Mama died. Mama’s gift of finding was such a subtle thing. A prickle ran down my spine. “I think Nora did have a gift of finding. I think maybe she still does.” Nora’s ghost nodded, and I continued, “Nora’s gift—Nora’s ghost’s gift—is finding ways to keep families together.”
The three ghosts stretched and thinned into wisps, spinning like tornados. Lucy yelped as Papa’s ghost poured itself into her golden band, dulling its sheen. Mama’s clouded her two-carat diamond. Nora’s ghost veered to Lucy’s right hand and filled the ruby.
Lucy tugged frantically at the rings, but they wouldn’t come off. “It hurts,” she moaned, her face pale and sheened with sweat. “Get them out!”
“They’re giving you a choice,” I told her, bitter satisfaction rising. “We’re all family. The ghosts are going to stay with one or the other of us. They can stay with me in the house, or they can stay with you wherever you go.”
Nora’s eye looked out from the ruby, waiting for an answer, patient as a stone. When the bell rang, I beckoned him to come, my voice lighter than it had ever been. He could not have turned away. As soon as the door was shut behind him, we fell together in a great clashing of wings, blades and blood glinting in the day’s new light.
Laura Blackwell is a Pushcart-nominated writer of speculative fiction. Her stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Nightmare, PseudoPod, and 2015 Locus Recommended and 2016 World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows. She co-hosts the online reading series Story Hour with Daniel Marcus and is the copy editor for The Deadlands. You can find her on Twitter at @pronouncedLAHra.