There’s no business like ghost business.
Locker thirty-five in Springside High School has always been haunted.
At least, as far as I know.
I press a hand against the cool metal, searching out the sensation that tells me an otherworldly presence is nearby. My business partner, Malcolm Armand, places his hand above mine. He stands so close that the pocket of air between us warms with the scent of nutmeg and Ivory Soap.
“Do you sense anything?” I ask, keeping my voice hushed in the long-emptied hallway.
It’s like we’re violating some rule, milling about the corridors long after everyone has left for the day. No teachers. No kids. Some places feel off when completely empty. A high school is one of them.
“There it is,” Malcolm says. “Do you feel that?”
Something stirs beneath my palm. It feels like a yawn. “I think we woke it up.”
“Man, I’ve met some lazy ghosts, but this one barely registers. I’m not sure it’s an actual ghost, never mind our culprit.”
“It’s not,” I say. “I only wanted to make sure.”
Truthfully, part of me wanted to check on an old friend. The ghost of locker thirty-five might not possess a sparkling personality, but it is consistent. I’m not sure there is a culprit, not in this case, and we’re in for a long night of walking the halls and checking bathrooms for a ghost that doesn’t exist.
“Does it ever do anything?” he asks.
“Only on pep rally days, then it”—I wave a hand at the locker—“expels everything onto the floor. It gets excited. I think.”
During my four years at Springside High, I never had locker thirty-five, although I’ve stepped over the mess its occupant made plenty of times.
“Performance anxiety?” Malcolm suggests. “I used to throw up before every cross country meet.”
I turn to him. The hallway is dark enough that reading the expression in his eyes is difficult, but this surprises me. Malcolm is always so confident, so self-assured. I’ve only known him a few months, but if you asked me, I’d say he had one of those charmed high school experiences.
“Really?” I say.
“Yeah. Really.” He takes my hand. “Come on. Let’s tell Gregory he doesn’t have a ghost problem.”
His skin is so warm against mine. Technically, we’re working, which means, technically, we shouldn’t be holding hands. But the lines blur after five in the afternoon. Malcolm, my business partner, becomes Malcolm, my boyfriend. We have rules around this because, as co-owners of K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists, we work so well together.
We don’t want K&M the couple ruining that.
But rules have exceptions. I think holding hands with Malcolm while walking the halls of my old high school happens to be one of those.
“What do we tell Gregory instead?” Malcolm asks.
“That it’s most likely kids playing a practical joke on him? I mean, I’m sure they’ve all seen the Ghost B Gone webcasts. They’re still up on YouTube.”
Before Gregory took on a substitute-teaching job and volunteered to direct the school play, he was Gregory B Gone of Ghost B Gone, a web show that did weekly ghost evictions.
Granted, the most dangerous thing they ever “evicted” was a sprite—well, almost. There was that encounter with an evil entity, but that never ended up on video. It’s not something any of us like to talk about.
“He wants more than anything to see a real ghost,” Malcolm says.
Oh, he does. He really does. That Gregory built an entire career and life around something he couldn’t see, never mind sense, still puzzles me.
“This plays right into that,” Malcolm adds.
I’m sure this is something the entire cast and crew of You Can’t Take It with You have figured out. So when we arrive at the auditorium doors to find Gregory out front, expression lit with anticipation, I take the easy way out.
“You tell him,” I whisper to Malcolm.
Unfortunately, Gregory hears.
“Tell me what? You found something, didn’t you? I was right this time! Tell me I was right.”
Malcolm skewers me with a look. “Coward,” he mouths.
Why, yes. Yes, I am. Besides, of the two of us, Malcolm is the one who can work a room, talk to anyone, convince the only law firm in town that they need us on retainer. (You’d be surprised how many divorce lawyers end up haunted.) He can handle Gregory.
Me? Well, I make the coffee.
Malcolm shakes his head. It’s a slow, consoling sort of gesture. “You know, Katy and I were talking, and we think it’s probably a practical joke your students are playing on you.”
“We open in less than a week.” Gregory throws an arm toward the auditorium’s double doors. “Why would they do that?”
“Because they can. Because they’re high school kids.” Malcolm shrugs. “Maybe they want to see Ghost B Gone in action.”
Gregory strokes his beard. It’s closer to a goatee now, more award-winning director than rugged ghost hunter.
“So the flickering lights with no one in the booth?” he asks.
“A timer,” Malcolm says. “That’s pretty easy to rig up. I can even show you how.”
“What about all the thumps and bumps?”
“Special effects?” I say. “I mean, you guys are in a theater. You have that sort of thing, right?”
“The malfunctioning curtain?” Gregory tries again. “That couldn’t be caused by a student, could it? The whole thing came crashing down. Someone could’ve been hurt, and the kids were shook. I let them go early.”
And that was when he called us. I want to suggest that the kids took things too far, so of course, they were scared. I cast a glance at Malcolm and see the same conclusion reflected in his eyes.
“And nothing since, right?” Malcolm says. “Things don’t happen when you’re here alone.”
“I feel like I’m being watched.” Gregory rubs a hand across the back of his neck and shudders. “It’s kind of creepy, actually.”
I decline to point out the overabundance of security cameras in the school.
Gregory pushes open the auditorium door and secures it with a stopper. He waves toward the stage and the curtain pooled at its edge. “So all of this? Just a practical joke?”
We head down the aisle to where we’ve left our field kit. I open my mouth to speak, to frame my response in the nicest way possible when an otherworldly presence invades the space. It’s insidious at first, like a fine mist you don’t notice until your clothes cling to your limbs and your hair is plastered to your scalp.
Gregory remains despondent, arms crossed, expression dour. His sense of the supernatural is nearly nonexistent. But Malcolm’s isn’t. I reach for his hand and find him doing the same. We lace fingers just as a jolt runs through me, cold, wild, and wholly unpredictable.
Then an unearthly howl fills the entire auditorium, one that we all hear—even Gregory.
* * *
Behind us, the auditorium doors slam shut. The lights flicker. An icy surge of air flows up the aisle, bathing us in goosebumps. The presence swirls around us, pushing us into one of the rows.
“Coffee?” Malcolm asks.
“Down front, in the field kit.”
“We’re about to go into a full-on ghost infestation here,” he says, his voice taking on an edge.
I know, and the cold that comes with that will render the coffee we do have useless. We’ll have to backtrack, get the camp stove, or figure out a way to brew on the premises. Assuming this thing will let us leave. The way it’s shoving us into our seats makes that unlikely.
The ghost pushes again. I’m braced against Malcolm. He holds me steady, but his arms tremble with the effort. Gregory, on the other hand, lands hard in one of the seats. When he tries to stand, he’s shoved back down again.
All ghosts want something, are driven by one overriding desire. Often this is nothing more than to feel human again, which is why coffee works so well to catch them. But some ghosts have an agenda. This one has enough strength that I’m not certain a cup of coffee will distract it long enough so we can trap it.
Assuming, of course, we can reach the field kit and the set of precision-made German thermoses filled with Kona blend.
With us pinned in the theater’s prime viewing spots, the ghost retreats to the stage. It flows over the fallen curtain, the material undulating, and lets out another howl. The lights flicker again until a single spotlight shines on center stage.
“Katy?” Malcolm stares straight ahead. His voice is low, perfectly measured. “Do you think this ghost wants to star in a play?”
“A ghost could want that?” Gregory asks.
A ghost could. Not so long ago, Malcolm and I caught a ghost that wanted nothing more than constant attention and praise. Why shouldn’t a ghost want to star in a show?
“You’re brilliant,” I whisper to Malcolm.
“Eh, not really.”
But I catch a hint of a smile.
I clutch the seat in front of me and pull myself to standing. An icy cold finger shoves me backward, but Malcolm steadies me with a hand on the small of my back.
“I don’t have a program,” I declare. “I want to know who the star of the show is.”
The neat stacks of programs by the door shoot upward. The space erupts in a flurry of paper. I duck, hands covering my head, but the sting of paper slicing skin is sharp. Malcolm swears. The cyclone of torn scraps tightens until it has swallowed up every last program. Then, like a cloudburst, the whole thing explodes, and bits of paper rain down on us.
Next to me, Gregory turns ashen. He stares, mouth slack, and then he buries his head in his hands.
“Those were the programs for opening night.”
“Sorry?” I say, but it comes out small, pathetic, and useless.
Malcolm leans down to pluck a wayward program from the floor. He flattens the paper against his thigh. I read the list of names and realize my mistake.
Of course. The program is filled with student names, the actual performers in the play. No ghost included.
But then, neither are we. Well, Gregory is, as director. With that thought, an idea takes shape. I’m still standing—barely, but I straighten and call out.
“Malcolm, haven’t you always wanted to work in the light booth, but no one would let you?”
Gregory casts me a look like I’ve lost my mind. To Malcolm’s credit, he merely grins, those dark eyes of his taking on a gleam. He almost always knows what I’m thinking—and trusts me even when he doesn’t.
“Yeah,” he says, “there was this clique at school, the theater group. I never got the chance.”
“Well, I’ve always wanted to be a stagehand.” My voice doesn’t ring quite as false now. There’s something about talking nonsense to ghosts—and especially talking nonsense to ghosts with Malcolm—that inspires confidence. Besides, as a stagehand, I can approach the stage.
And then, I can grab the field kit and start pouring coffee.
“We have our director,” I say, easing past Gregory.
He peers at me through the v made by his fingers. The look is both accusatory and curious. “We have our tech crew.” I nod at Malcolm, who starts creeping along the row in the opposite direction.
I throw my arms wide. “And we have our star!”
The stage shimmers with the ghostly presence. Then the image contracts into an almost humanlike form. I squint, trying to detect something familiar about its shape, something that might give us a clue to what this ghost wants. Its outline is blurry, but I get the impression of an otherworldly sword in a scabbard at its side.
There must be thousands of plays that involve swords, but my mind goes blank. I can’t think of a single one.
I approach cautiously, each step deliberate. I inch forward, crouching lower and lower with each step. By the time I reach the first row, I’m hunkered down, next to the floor. I loop the canvas straps around one arm and hurry toward the stairs to my left.
Center stage, there’s a table already set up. It’s the perfect spot to place the cups and start pouring the coffee. For a ghost this strong, we’ll need all twelve cups: three black, three with half and half, three with sugar, and three extra sweet and extra light.
Always twelve, always the same combination. My grandmother, who taught me everything about ghost hunting, was adamant about this.
“As if ghosts don’t have a preference,” she’d always say.
I’m halfway there when I need to shield my eyes from the glare of the spotlight.
“Hang on,” Malcolm says. His voice echoes in the quiet auditorium, and it’s odd to have him sound so close without having him by my side.
I miss his sturdy warmth, his conviction. He either knows what to do or believes I know what I’m doing. In most cases, I’m running on instinct—this time included.
The brightness fades to something softer, an evening sort of glow. I blink, scan the stage, and locate the ghost. It’s wavering as if it can’t decide whether it likes me interfering with its show.
“Katy,” Gregory calls out in a stage whisper. “There’s a scene in You Can’t Take It with You where Alice and her father have an emotional moment. It’s just the two characters on stage. Maybe that’s what this thing wants, to act out a scene.”
I shake my head, not because he’s wrong, but because he’s so very right. And I know what comes next. My heart takes up residence in my throat. I can barely swallow and must force the protest from my mouth. “I don’t know the play.”
Gregory rummages in his messenger bag and pulls out a script. “I’ll feed you the lines.”
I meant to be a stagehand, to pour some coffee, ready a Tupperware container, and pounce on the ghost once it drank its fill. I have no intention of starring in a play, not with a ghost as a leading man, not even if the audience is only Malcolm and Gregory. Heat floods my cheeks, the sensation prickling. Even in the soft glow of the stage lighting, my blush must be apparent.
So must my discomfort, my awkwardness. Suddenly, I don’t know what to do with my limbs.
“Just repeat the lines and pour the coffee,” Malcolm says, his voice low, encouraging. “I bet that’s all it takes.”
So I do. Gregory feeds me each line. I stumble through the words. My hands shake, and I slosh coffee over the rim of three cups. I’m never this sloppy, haven’t been this sloppy since I was eight.
At the scene’s end, I’m supposed to embrace my father—or rather, my character is supposed to embrace her father. The ghost continues to waver by my side. Once or twice, it surged forward, swooped around the coffee cups, and then retreated.
The coffee’s starting the cool. It won’t tempt ghosts—or humans—for much longer. The ghost makes a final pass. As I’m reaching for the Tupperware, it settles next to the cup with extra cream and sugar.
“Yes.” Malcolm’s whisper fills the auditorium.
I’m poised to make the catch when the ghost slips beneath the table. All at once, the table leaves the floor, shooting upward. Cups scatter everywhere, and coffee splatters across the stage, onto the curtain, and—of course—onto me.
* * *
Malcolm’s voice is so loud that the speakers screech a protest. I slam my hands over my ears, not that it helps.
“Katy,” he says, quieter now. “Are you okay? Did you get scalded?”
Scalding is an occupational hazard. I pluck damp sleeves from my arms, blow on the back of my hands. A few spots sting, but nothing requires immediate attention or the burn kit we keep in my truck.
“I’m okay. The coffee was already cool.”
Well, cool-ish, anyway.
“You’re sure?” Doubt laces Malcolm’s voice. Yes, he knows I might lie about something like this.
“I’m sure. Really.”
I peer into the rows below me. Gregory is standing, arms slack, script dangling from his fingers. He mouths something that might be a curse or a prayer.
“Maybe it doesn’t like comedies?” I say.
To be honest, part of me is relieved. I don’t want to stumble through more lines or playact on stage. I want to catch this ghost, go home, and wash the sticky, coffee-soaked sugar from my skin. I have the feeling that won’t be happening any time soon.
Despite the spotlight’s glare, I see the moment Gregory’s eyes widen. His mouth opens, but it’s Malcolm’s voice I hear.
“Katy! Watch out! To your left … right. Just—”
The creak of wheels against wooden floorboards has me jerking around. Barreling toward me is a structure that appears positively medieval—a battering ram or some elaborate device for scaling castle walls.
I leap back as the thing zooms past. It stops, abruptly, a few feet from where I now stand. Dust mingles with the scent of coffee, and I feel grit in my eyes and against my lips.
“Oh,” Gregory says, almost conversationally. “It’s the balcony.”
“Balcony?” I squeak.
“From last fall’s Romeo and Juliet.”
From nowhere, a script lands at my feet with a thump. I pick it up before the puddles of coffee can do too much damage. I’m not surprised by the playwright’s name.
“Maybe it wants to do the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet,” Gregory suggests.
The ghost whirls around, its joy tangible. It fills the air with sparks; the underlying menace, the threat of a full-on ghost infestation lessens—slightly.
The ghost flies upward and smashes itself against the glass of the sound booth. Malcolm yelps, and his cry reverberates through the theater.
“Mood lighting, tech crew,” Gregory says, sounding every inch the put-upon director. “We can’t keep our star waiting.”
The ghost returns to the stage the moment the lights dim, and Malcolm paints the area around me a deep indigo. Tiny fragments of light speckle the floor beneath my feet, the backdrop behind me, and I want to ask him how he figured out how to create starlight.
“Uh, Katy?” Gregory says.
I turn to face him, arms crossed over my chest.
“The scene needs a Juliet,” he says. When I don’t respond, he adds, “That’s you.”
He’s right. The way this ghost swirls about, bumping against the back of my knees, I can already sense what it wants—me, on the balcony, waiting for my Romeo.
“I don’t suppose you’d want to do a role reversal?” I say to it.
The whirling doubles, flavoring the air with anger—and more dust.
“Yeah,” I mutter, “I didn’t think so.”
The balcony is oversized, cumbersome. Its shadow stretches across the stage, and I feel tiny in comparison.
“Secure the wheels,” Gregory calls out. “We don’t want you rolling off the stage.”
No, no, we don’t.
With the toe of my sneaker, I lock each wheel into place. Then I grip the rails that will help me navigate the set of stairs to the top. The climb takes longer than I expect, and my thighs protest each steep step I take.
Once I’m at the top, I grip the balcony’s edge and peer out over the auditorium. Even though I’m fully dressed—if coffee-soaked—even though it’s only Malcolm and Gregory witnessing this debacle, I feel exposed. I feel … alone.
I feel like I’m back in high school, back when I was the girl who caught ghosts with her grandmother, the girl who made numerous trips into the boys’ locker room to do just that.
The girl who was always the odd one out.
“You’re Juliet. Look … pensive,” Gregory commands, still in director mode. He’s scrolling frantically through something on his phone. He eyes me, and then his phone’s screen. “I’ll read Romeo.”
He clears his throat, and when he speaks again, his full, modulated tone startles me so much that I nearly tip off the balcony.
“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
“Damn,” comes Malcolm’s whisper through the speakers. “I need to learn to do that.”
The ghost surges upward as if it’s Romeo, and I’m truly its Juliet.
Gregory continues to speak, low and sonorous, things like: O, it is my love! and O, that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek!
Malcolm coughs, once, twice, the third time coming out as a growl. Gregory casts him a quick look over his shoulder. Whatever passes between them is lost on me.
I’m still leaning forward as if I’m hanging onto every one of my ghost Romeo’s words. The planks beneath my feet creak. I tap the wood, not certain the construction is all that sturdy. I grip the rail of the balcony even tighter.
I’m so distracted by this that when Gregory clears his throat, for what must be at least the third time, I start.
“What?” I say.
“Not what, wherefore.”
Wherefore? Oh. Wherefore art thou. Of course.
“Romeo,” I begin, and my voice is a thin, reedy thing. “Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”
At least I know these lines, but then, I think everyone knows these lines. I’m poised to continue, to utter the next couple of sentences, at least. The next line is there on my tongue, so strong I can almost taste it: Deny thy father and refuse thy name, for if thou wilt not but be sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Before I can, the planks beneath my feet groan again. The sound is ominous and fills the auditorium.
“Katy,” Malcolm begins, his voice hushed and worried. “Maybe you should—”
I never hear what Malcolm thinks I should do. I plummet through the balcony floor, the only thing keeping me from falling to my death—or at least grave injury—is my grip on the balcony’s rail.
I think I scream. At least, my throat aches in the aftermath of my plunge. One plank hits the stage with a thud, the other swings next to me, barely tethered to the structure by a couple of nails. At least, I think they’re nails. I’m mostly concentrating on my tenuous hold on the rail, not to mention the long drop below.
And the fact I don’t have too many options.
Gregory starts for the stage, but before he can clear the row he’s been standing in, Malcolm tears down the aisle. He doesn’t bother with the stairs but launches himself up and onto the stage.
And then he is there, standing beneath me, arms outstretched.
“Cross country?” I manage.
“And track in the spring.”
He gives me a sheepish look. “Co-captain my senior year.”
Around us, the scene is still set. The light is soft, like twilight. Malcolm looks every inch a knight in shining armor—or at least one in loafers and a pressed dress shirt. He looks like a boy I might have crushed on in high school, the one who might have never acknowledge my existence.
That isn’t Malcolm. If I have any doubts about that, they vanish the moment he gives me one of his sweet, dark-roast smiles.
“Let go,” is all he says.
“Won’t I hurt you?”
“You could never hurt me.”
Sweat builds beneath my grip. My arms ache from fingertips to shoulders. Another minute and this won’t be a choice. I’ll slip.
“And I won’t drop you, Katy.”
So I shut my eyes, and with one deliberate movement, I commit.
I let go.
The fall lasts forever and is over in a second. Malcolm catches me. He teeters for a moment, then we both crumple to the stage. We remain there, panting, gasping, and when I catch his eye, I don’t even need to ask.
So am I.
“Uh, guys,” Gregory says. “You should probably do something about that.”
We struggle to stand, Malcolm tugging me up with a hand, and confront the thing that Gregory is pointing at.
Center stage, one of my Tupperware containers sits. It’s one of the larger ones, and it’s missing its lid. That, in itself, isn’t so remarkable. What’s remarkable is what happens to be inside the container.
Malcolm laces his fingers with mine, and we approach, steps soft and controlled. But I’m not sure the effort matters. When we reach the ghost, it floats contently inside the Tupperware. Something that sounds like a ghostly sigh fills the space around us, and in it, I think I hear an apology.
I kneel next to the container and ease on the lid.
“Now what?” Malcolm’s hand rests on my shoulder. “Nature preserve?”
That’s our standard procedure for releasing a ghost once we’ve caught it. For the really nasty ones, we drive further out. Once, we went all the way to Wisconsin.
I hold up the container and peer at the ghost inside. “Actually, I have another idea.”
* * *
We hold hands all the way to locker thirty-five. The fact that it’s dark and the halls are empty doesn’t bother me on this trip. We stand in front of the locker, Tupperware positioned at the vents. My fingers are on the lid, although I haven’t cracked it.
“You sure about this?” Malcolm asks.
“Not totally,” I admit. “But I think this one just wants to belong … somewhere. Maybe that somewhere is here?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“We can always come back.” I rap the side of the Tupperware with my knuckles. “If this one doesn’t behave.”
Inside the container, the ghost swirls its agreement. At least, I think it agrees with me. With ghosts, you never can tell. I crack the lid.
The ghost streams through the vent. I place my palm against the locker, and Malcolm adds his above mine.
“Verdict?” he asks.
There’s a bit of nudging, some jockeying for space, but then nothing but warmth.
“I think it belongs here,” I say.
“I think you’re right.”
Malcolm takes my hand again. When we reach the doors to the school, his arm wraps around my waist.
And I think: Yes.
I belong here.
That’s right! Another Coffee & Ghosts story, this time a standalone short story that I wrote a few years back.
Hey, it’s October, we all need some more ghosts (and coffee).