Something terrible has happened, and I’m afraid I may be responsible. I should have foreseen it. I should have warned Belinda – I should have told her the truth about the town of Asteria. As it was, she didn’t even know what I really did for a living. I told her that I sold insurance.
If I missed the warning signs, it is because my real job, the one where I don’t sell insurance, had gotten very busy. Maybe it is that people grew bored as winter began to paint the world with its icy paintbrush. And what do residents of Asteria do when they’re bored? Call me for psychic readings or séances. Beg me to read their tarot cards or gaze in my crystal ball to help them plan for the upcoming new year. Once in a while, someone even called me to “clean their house.” In other words, their house was possessed, or poltergeists made mischief in their basements. Mostly, these turned out to be nothing – a family of possums, or a tree branch scraping against a window. But once in a great while, I encountered an actual haunting.
The week before the attack, I received an urgent call from D.J. I hadn’t heard from him since he had begun his alchemy training with Clara the Genie. “Can you come to our house right away?” His voice sounded anxious. I agreed, and was just getting ready to go when Belinda stopped me.
“Hey, you said when you had a minute, we could talk about Justin,” she said.
I sighed. I really didn’t have a minute. But Belinda had been trying for days to tell me about her new boyfriend. “You guys are getting pretty serious, aren’t you?” I asked. Belinda nodded, her eyes shining with happiness. I patiently listened to her, and over the next ten minutes, discovered that Justin was perfect, funny, thoughtful, liked New Wave music, and was cuter than Corey Haim. Or was it Corey Feldman?
“He’s so different from any guy I’ve ever met!” she gushed.
I rolled my eyes. “You’ve barely met any guys, remember?” I picked up my handbag, promised we could talk more about Justin later, and rushed out the door.
By the time I arrived at D.J.’s house, I had put Belinda and Justin out of my mind. “What seems to be the problem?” I asked. D.J. let his roommate, Keith, do the talking. There had been a series of strange occurrences and sightings in their home. Objects that moved on their own. Odd sounds. Toys and books that appeared in random places.
“Do you have any of the toys or books?” I asked. “I may be able to use them to channel any spirits that may be lingering here.” Keith retrieved a worn stuffed bear. As soon as it touched my hands, a cold energy radiated from the toy and flowed through me. As I pointed the bear around the room, the sensation grew duller, then more intense. “Are you there?” I called out.
“I am here,” said a deep, raspy voice. Keith and D.J. made no indication of having heard. I continued to converse with the spirit. His name was Raymond. He had lived in the house with his family until the winter of 1921, when a terrible accident had occurred. His younger daughter, Talia, had wandered to a nearby pond, fell in, and drowned. Raymond was so overcome by grief, that he had drunken himself into a stupor and fallen down the stairs. The impact snapped his neck, and he, too, had died.
“Have you been lost here ever since?” I asked the ghost. “Is Talia here, too?”
“Yes,” said a high-pitched child’s voice. “I’m here, too. Do you want to see my room?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “I would like very much to see your room.” D.J. and Keith had been staring in fascination as they watched me talk to thin air. Now they followed, bumping into each other like puppies, as I followed Talia up two flights of stairs and toward a closed door in the attic.
“Oh that door’s locked,” said Keith. “We’ve never been able to get it open.”
I gave the knob a twist. It turned, and the door creaked open.
“How did you do that?” asked D.J. I ignored him and stepped inside. Talia’s room was freezing cold. Everything in it was covered in a thick layer of dust. But I could picture how it had looked one hundred years ago, the dollhouse and rocking horse shiny and new.
“You had a beautiful room,” I told Talia.
Talia didn’t answer.
“Talia?” I called. “Raymond?” No answer. The cold current of energy had faded away the moment I had entered the little room. I turned toward D.J. and Keith. “I think they’re gone.”
It was a happy ending, I guess. I sang to myself as I headed home that night, feeling satisfied at having helped someone. But the moment I arrived home, I knew that something was wrong. The front door was open. A trail of blood led up the rickety staircase and into the house. “Belinda!” I said. Heart thudding in my chest, I raced inside. More blood was smeared across the living room floor, where Belinda, my dear adopted sister Belinda, lay crumpled in a heap. I fell to her side. “Please don’t be dead, please.” The last word came out as a sob. I couldn’t lose her. Not after I had lost so many of the people I had loved.
Belinda stirred. As she turned toward me, I could see where her clothes had been ripped, exposing one of her shoulders. Blood seeped out from a huge, jagged gash on her shoulder. It looked like…a bite mark. Had she been attacked by an animal?
“What happened to you?” I asked.
Her eyes fluttered open. She reached up and grabbed my arm, then struggled to take a deep enough breath to utter one word. “Justin.”