I daydream a lot, especially during science class. I can dream up the perfect dessert, the perfect day, the perfect slice of pizza, even the perfect boy. But I have to tell you, sleeping or awake I could never have imagined a place that looked like the Whispering Pines Mountain House.
My best friend Jac’s mother was a painfully slow driver, so it seemed to be taking forever to get closer to the hotel itself. But eventually she managed to pull the car into the circular drive by the main entrance. Almost immediately, a guy in a red-and-black uniform and an embarrassing little cap approached our car.
“Checking in?” he asked. And he glanced at the backseat at me and Jac and gave us a little wink. Now that’s what I call service.
“Yes,” replied Mrs. Gray, a little icily. “We’re with the Young Northeast Musician’s Convention.”
Jac’s mother is not exactly the warm and fuzzy type. I’m betting in a previous life she was Attila the Hun, or some other big guy with a spear that scared everybody half to death and ate raw meat.
Jac leaned close to me and whispered. “Kat, what do you think? A place like this has to be seething with ghosts, doesn’t it?”
I didn’t quite take to the concept of seething with ghosts. But Whispering Pines was built in the mid-1800s, and it was enormous. As one of the oldest hotels in the northeast, the place was certain to be filled with spirits, and I was betting some of them were going to be very happy to see me. What’s worse, I was betting some of them weren’t.
I didn’t ask to be a medium. It just happened. Apparently it runs in the family. My mom says if I ever have a child of my own, chances are fifty-fifty that on the kid’s thirteenth birthday they’ll start seeing spooks, too. Then there will be three consecutive generations of us who can communicate with the dead. If I have triplets, we could start our own spirit-seeing volleyball team. Imagine the possibilities!
“Girls, I’m going to go inside and get us checked in. Why don’t you stay here with our things until I’m done?”
It wasn’t really a question. Jac and I nodded, and Mrs. Gray stepped out of the car and walked primly toward the entrance. As usual, she was dressed like she’d just come from a reception at the White House.
“She seriously thinks the bellboy might rip off some of our stuff if we leave the car unattended,” Jac said. “I’m sure her collection of tweeds and velvet headbands would cause a virtual stampede on eBay.”
“I think it’s your cello that she’s worried about,” I said.
“Well, that makes two of us,” Jac muttered, staring out the window.
After the huge deal Jac had made about quitting the cello just two months ago, I was as surprised as everyone else when she started playing again. Secretly, I was pleased, but I tried not to make too much out of it. I knew Jac well enough to know that if and when she wanted to talk, she’d let me know.
I examined her profile. Her red hair was pulled back with a silver barrette, exposing one tiny ear, and her eyebrows were furrowed.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Having second thoughts?”
I remained silent. There was nothing I could say that would help the hopelessly complicated relationships that Jac had with her mother, and with her cello. Jac was incredibly gifted—there was no doubt about that. But after a lifetime of being pushed to excel at her music, Jac had rebelled.
Mrs. Gray had spent the last two months trying to lure Jac back to her musical studies. When she pitched the idea of attending the weeklong YNMC convention at the famous Whispering Pines Mountain House, Jac agreed—under one condition.
I had to be invited, too.
“Let’s at least get out of the car,” Jac said. “I want to smell the mountain air. I don’t think the cello-thieving bellboy will try to make a move if we’re standing right here.”
I agreed with a giggle, and we climbed out of the SUV, which was the size of a small hut. I think Mrs. Gray thought it was safer to drive a ginormous car.
“This will be so worth it,” Jac said, taking my arm. “Look at this place. Look at that lake! There are supposed to be hiking trails all over the place, and you can take boats out on the water. I even heard there’s a labyrinth in one of the gardens. I’ve never been in one, have you?”
I shook my head, pleased to see Jac looking so animated.
“And the best thing, Kat, the reason I agreed to come, is that none of the YNMC stuff is required. You show up to what you want, when you want. And the parents have their own meetings, so they can’t play prison warden 24–7. No pressure, for once. We’ll have plenty of time for some adventures.”
She whispered the last word, and I knew that the adventures Jac most wanted were of the supernatural kind. Though Jac had an almost pathological fear of everything from yellow-jackets to food poisoning, she had a hearty interest in the spirit world. Her enthusiasm had not been thwarted by the mega-haunted house we’d explored over spring break or by the ghost of the miserable flute player who’d haunted the school library. I had chosen my best friend wisely, because I had come to learn all too well that spirits flocked to me like moths to a flame.
As we waited for Jac’s mom to return, enjoying the sun on our faces, my eye was drawn to a figure approaching on my right.
She was a very tall, heavyset woman of a grandmotherly age with a severe face and a constricting Victorian outfit of long full skirts and a cinched-in waist. She walked regally with a serious sense of purpose and was surrounded by an electric flicker that only the alternately energetically abled can achieve. Dead, you know. So I wasn’t even in the door yet and I’d seen my first ghost.
Jac’s mother came out to get us, turning over the luggage and the keys to her monster SUV to the bellboy with obvious reluctance.
“We’re on the fifth floor,” she said, casting a suspicious last look at the bellboy over one shoulder as we walked inside. And she handed me something brass colored, attached to a tag.
“Here’s your key, Katherine. An actual key, if such a thing provides any security these days. How archaic.”
My mom and I didn’t travel much, but even I knew that most hotels used plastic key cards to open doors. I loved the old brass key, which felt cold and heavy in my hand as we waited for the elevator. My room number was 505—easy enough to remember.
The official plan was that Jac and her mother would share one room, and I would have another. So not cool, and Jac and I decided not to mention this little detail to my mom. Anyway, Jac was already plotting to modify this arrangement—her theory being that her mother would agree to anything to keep her at the music conference now that we’d arrived. She shot me a knowing look as the ancient creaking elevator arrived.
We rode the elevator up five floors in silence. Jac’s mother clutched the railing on the back of the car, white knuckled, and I have to admit the elevator did seem a little shaky. As it lurched along, Jac’s hand shot out and she grabbed onto the railing, too. The sight of both Mrs. Gray and Jac hanging on almost cracked me up. I guess Jac inherited her anxieties directly from her mom. To me, this was like wearing a seat belt in an airplane. If the thing goes down, you’re toast either way.
The hallway on the fifth floor was dimly lit and heavily carpeted. Everything was super plush, highly polished and slightly musty—“Victorian chic,” as I’d seen it described on a blog review of the Mountain House. I much preferred it to the Pleasantview Motor Inn my mom and I stayed in last year for our one glorious day of room service and indoor swimming. Family vacation, Roberts-style.
Our rooms were at the end of the hall, facing one another. Jac grinned wildly at me and waggled her eyebrows up and down while her mother fumbled with the key to room 504.
“I’ll be over soon,” she mouthed, and I nodded and slipped the key to room 505 in the keyhole. It turned smoothly and the door opened with a low-pitched creak. I walked into the room, shutting the door behind me. It was big, with a double bed, an enormous wardrobe, and a door that opened onto a little porch with a lake view. I crossed to the window and looked out at the water, sighing with happiness. This was the perfect way to start the summer. I loved Whispering Pines Mountain House already.
I was turning around to go inspect the bathroom and see what kind of free stuff was in there when I found my way blocked.
It was the large, imposing woman I’d seen outside.
Instinctively I jumped back, because we were practically nose to, well, collarbone, and mumbled “sorry.”
The woman’s eyebrows shot up.
“Yes, I can see you,” I said. There wasn’t any point in waiting to be asked.
The woman looked to the left, then to the right, then back at me. She looked as if, I’m sorry to say, she’d seen a ghost. Her mouth dropped open in frank astonishment. The shawl that she had around her shoulders dropped to the floor on one side. Automatically, she reached up and pulled it back over her arm, never letting her eyes leave mine.
Okay. This one wasn’t going to be easy. But that didn’t mean she had to be difficult.
“I can see you,” I repeated, slowly and deliberately. “Is there some way that I can help you?”
The woman took a step back, and her gaze intensified. Very slowly, she began to smile.
“Can I help you?” I repeated, because frankly the Victorian specter was starting to get on my nerves. Did she speak English?
“Success,” the woman whispered, her eyes widening. “I have lifted the veil! Lifted the veil!”
What? Did the woman think I was a bride or something?
“Excuse me, I don’t understand,” I said.
“I knew that with patience… you are here at last! I have summoned you!” the woman proclaimed triumphantly.
I sighed. Spirits were often muddled. They didn’t know what year it was, or where they were, and they sometimes mistook you for someone else. I was getting used to it. But this was my room—I had to sleep here. So the Victorian lady and I needed to get our ducks in a row.
“Okay. Now is there something you need?”
You have to ask, because sometimes spirits are wandering around their old haunts, so to speak, because they enjoy it. They’re attached to something about the place, and they return to it frequently. Like comfort food. Not all ghosts were wandering around tormented and confused and unable to cross over to the other side. Those just seemed to be the ones I attracted.
The woman raised both hands in the air in a biblical-looking gesture.
“Madame Serena triumphs! Detractors and skeptics will laugh no more. The Colonel’s wife will be vindicated. You are here, as clear as day. I see you as you see me.”
I nodded, tapping my foot a little and resisting the impulse to look at my watch. You couldn’t just tell a ghost to get on with it. She’d tell me what she wanted when she was good and ready.
She looked good and ready. She took a step toward me and opened her mouth so wide I could see her phantom tonsils.
“I command you,” she cried, “to do my will!”
Oh for Pete’s sake, I thought.
But my irritation was interrupted by a loud knock on the door.
“Excuse me for a sec,” I said, crossing to the door.
I peered out through the peephole and saw the bellboy from check-in, holding my old suitcase in a neatly gloved hand.
Great. A cute boy knocking on my door, and I’ve got six feet of dead Victorian drama queen looming over my shoulder. Very appealing to guys, I’m sure.
I shot a glance back at Madame Serena, who was standing up so straight and breathing in so deeply it looked like she was about to launch into an ear-splitting, operatic solo.
I yanked the door open and stood in the doorway, blocking the bellboy’s view of the room. My stance seemed to perplex him.
“Where would you like this?” he asked, after a moment.
“Yes,” I said.
He went from looking confused to looking a little alarmed.
“I mean, anywhere inside is fine,” I corrected.
He hesitated again.
“Excuse me, but… um…” he said, his voice hesitant, as he tried to look around me and into the room.
Oh no. He’d seen her. She was almost a foot taller than me and half again as wide. Now what?
“Excuse me, I can’t get by with you standing there,” he said.
I stepped aside and he pulled my bag into the room, as if the Victorian woman wasn’t there. Which I suppose technically was true. She, on the other hand, was giving him an outraged glare.
I nodded, then gulped as the bellboy walked straight through the back of the lady and out the other side. He deposited my bag at the foot of the bed, and extended one gloved hand, palm up, toward me as he glanced at the floor.
Did he want me to high-five him?
It wasn’t until I saw the Victorian lady fumbling in her purse that I realized the bellboy was waiting for a tip. Apparently some traditions are timeless. I reached in my jeans pocket, pulled out a mushed and slightly damp dollar bill, and put it in his hand.
“Thank you!” he said smartly, then quickly strode out of the room, closing the door behind him.
He wouldn’t be so thankful when he opened his palm and saw there was only one measly, yucky dollar there that would probably leave a little stain on his glove. But what could I do? I hadn’t been prepared.
With the bellboy gone, my gaze returned to the Victorian lady, and I remembered again that she was waiting for me to do her will.
“I think you may be a little confused,” I said, keeping my tone as polite as possible.
She drew herself up to her full height. The sight was intimidating. Seriously, for all the frills and lace and feminine little bows on her outfit, the woman resembled a linebacker.
“I have been more than patient,” the woman said, her voice wavering dramatically. “I have endured the waves of skepticism—I have listened to them brand me a fraud and a charlatan. The fox would have destroyed us all. But now, after so long, you have come. We have much work to do, spirit!”
Spirit? Fox? Did this have something to do with the bride and her veil?
I had to proceed carefully. Clearly, this was one of those ghosts who was operating under a misconception. Put simply, she didn’t realize she was dead. This was complicated by the fact that she apparently believed I was the one who’d died.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’ve never had the experience of having to inform someone that they’re dead. And I hope you never do. It’s a tricky business. I know this more from hearing about my mother’s experiences than having had my own. I’m still pretty new at this.
The way Mom tells it, learning they’re no longer among the living doesn’t exactly strike many folks as good news. Ghosts do a wide variety of things when they’re mad. According to my mom, their reactions can range from hurling furniture to turning the room into a virtual freezer. They could wreak havoc through the electrical systems, or drive you nuts by hiding your stuff. They could make sudden loud noises and turn you into a nervous wreck. They could appear out of thin air and hover in front of you. They could invade your dreams. Maybe worse.
I wasn’t too keen on any of this stuff happening, though if forced to choose, I might go with the turning the room into a freezer. The cold had never bothered me much, and I had packed a well-worn and comfortable sweatshirt.
“I can try to help you,” I told the woman again. “But you have to want to be helped. Did you say your name was Madame Serena?”
She placed one hand to her chest, half closed her eyes, and nodded. Like just admitting she was Madame Serena was a major emotional event. This lady was Very. Highly. Dramatic. I decided maybe I should postpone the little news flash about her being dead, in the hopes that I could find out something about who she was and why she was connected to Whispering Pines. I mean really, how many Madame Serenas could there be?
I took a deep breath
“Okay, Madame Serena. I am Kat.”
“A cat!” the woman whispered. “The spirit world has sent me an animal guide—excellent! Are you a leopard? A cougar? Tell me, spirit—are you a jaguar?”
I suspected that in the mid-nineteenth century someone had filled Madame Serena’s head with a load of hooey.
“I’m not a jaguar,” I said, hearing how ridiculous it sounded to my own ears. “It’s a name, okay? That’s all. It’s simple. Kaaaaaat,” I said, drawing the name out like she was a very young, hard-of-hearing child who spoke only Portuguese.
“But of course!” she whispered. “I have been told of Indian guides remaining in the astral realms to assist the incarnate. I am honored to meet you, Simple Cat.”
“I’m not… my name isn’t… there are a few things you are not understanding correctly. I’m… I come from…”
“The Gates of Horn!” Madame Serena cried, clapping her hands together.
“Upstate New York, actually,” I corrected. “What I’m trying to say is that I come from another…”
“Dimension! Valhalla, the Great Unknown, the Realm of Golden Suchness!”
“… from another time,” I finished.
Madame Serena closed her eyes and tilted her head back.
“The Time of No Time, which is its own beginning, and its own end,” she whispered reverently.
I sighed. This was the slowest dead person I’d encountered in my very brief career as a medium. I needed to unpack, and I had to use the bathroom. I should just blurt out the truth and get it over with. If Madame Serena turned out to be a furniture hurler, maybe I could ask for a different room.
“Madame Serena–,” I began, but I was interrupted by another knock on the door.
“Now that you have come, there is much we must accomplish. We meet here tonight,” Madame Serena said excitedly. “We will form the circle for all who request help, and I will call for you. Come to me in the circle, Simple Cat, and we will begin our work.”
The knock sounded again.
“Kat?” I heard Jac’s muffled voice through the thick door. “Come on, open up!”
“I don’t think this is going to work the way you think it will,” I said. “You’re not understanding. And I’ve got to open the door.”
Madame Serena clasped her hands together and beamed.
“Yes, Simple Cat. You must open the door between the worlds. You are the Guardian of the Sacred Portal of Transmigration.”
I shook my head in frustration, crossed to the door, and opened it to reveal Jac’s beaming face. She stood on her tippy toes to look over my shoulder.
“I heard that!” she said excitedly, pushing past me and walking into my room as I shut the door behind her.
“You were talking to someone,” Jac said triumphantly. “Your room is haunted, isn’t it?”
Great. Jac has just inadvertently tipped off Madame Serena to the possibility that she was a ghost. But a quick glance showed that Madame Serena was gone. Apparently she’d said what she wanted to say. For such a large lady, she’d sure made a quick exit.
“Well, Maestra, as a matter of fact it is,” I told Jac, and she gave a little whoop of excitement.
“I knew it! Tell me everything! Who is it? Were you scared? Was it a woman in white wringing her hands and wailing? That show Real Afterlife had an episode about a hotel haunted by a woman in white wringing her hands and wailing. Did you see something right away? Did the room get cold? Was there a murder? Or was it someone who died for love?”
The rolling shade on the window suddenly snapped up with a clatter. Jac shrieked, and jumped about a foot.
“Jac, it’s just a shade. I think you need to cut back on the Real Afterlife marathons.”
“No way, it’s the best show ever!” Jac exclaimed. “Way more fun than Celebrity Shoplifters. So who’s doing the haunting? What’s their deal?”
“A woman. An older woman. Victorian era, I think, from the dress,” I said. “She’s very confused. Doesn’t know she’s dead. I haven’t really figured out how to deal with her yet. I don’t think she’s dangerous.”
“You don’t think?” Jac repeated. She grabbed my arm.
“I want to hear everything that happened,” she said, “but not…” she dropped her voice to a whisper, “in here. Let’s go to the lake.”
I let her lead me from the room. I’d had enough of Madame Serena for the time being, and I certainly didn’t want to confuse her more by discussing the possible means of her death where she might overhear it. I thought there was a bathroom in the lobby, anyway.
I stole a last look into the room as I pulled the door closed. It was as still and quiet as a tomb.
Excerpted from Suddenly Supernatural: Unhappy Medium by Kimmel, Elizabeth Cody Copyright © 2009 by Kimmel, Elizabeth Cody. Excerpted by permission.
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