It was resoundingly dusk in the parking lot of the complex where Gavin shared an apartment with his two fish and a much older, rarely-present roommate. As the owner and sole employee of Multioak Spectral Excursions, Gavin could wear whatever he wanted while he was on the job, but he had an outfit that he considered his uniform and he always wore it while conducting a spectral excursion. The most important item was a black Multioak Spectral Excursions t-shirt that he’d had a friend screen-print for him. He wore the shirt tucked into his black jeans which were cinched around his narrow waist with the blackest belt he had, which was actually dark brown but had looked black hanging on the rack in New to You Thrift and Consignment. His sneakers were also entirely black.
Gavin glanced in the rearview mirror to check on the status of his passengers only to be rewarded with the sight of the boy gently, repeatedly kissing the girl on the forehead. Gavin wondered why they would want to pay him eight dollars a piece to do in the back of his van what they could have done free of charge any number of other places. “We’re gonna get going here in another minute or two,” said Gavin, not looking at his customers.
The voice that responded was disconcertingly husky. “OK.” It could have been either male or female.
In his quest to look anywhere except the rearview mirror, Gavin noticed two figures walking across the parking lot towards his van. They were tall and they walked with hunched, irregular strides. Both figures had long, dark hair but they were clearly men. Gavin didn’t like the look of them. They gave him a bad feeling.
Gavin started the van’s engine. As he shifted into gear, the two men broke into a sort of shuffling jog, thin chains swinging from their belts. “Hold on,” said the girl in the back seat, suddenly deciding to pay attention to her surroundings when it was least convenient for Gavin. “It looks like those guys want to go on the tour too.”
The two men turned out to be members of a metal band from Heavenburg that had broken up that very night on the first stop of what would have been a sixteen-gig tour. Tanner, the one with stitches over his left eye and dark circles under both eyes, started to explain the cause of the band’s breakup to Gavin, but Ike, the one with the long neck, round head and prominent underbite, objected to Tanner’s failure to characterize their former band’s sound beyond simply calling it “metal.”
Tanner and Ike sat on the bench seat directly behind Gavin. The two ten dollar bills with which they’d paid for their spots on the spectral excursion were wadded up in the empty cup holder attached to the van’s center console. To the couple in the back’s credit, they hadn’t said a thing when Gavin had quoted the higher price to Tanner and Ike. But the couple hadn’t said much before or since then either, so maybe it wasn’t to their credit after all. Who knew if they’d even noticed?
Ike was still trying to put a finer point on his and Tanner’s now-defunct band’s sound. “It’s more of a, like, deathy, sludgy-”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Tanner. “Sludgy, blackened, sort of grindy.”
“But intelligent grind,” said Ike. “Like, death grind but with more breakdowns.”
“But not stupid breakdowns,” said Tanner. “Not like that deathcore garbage. Intelligent breakdowns. Kind of a swampy, Southern-friend, almost doomy-”
“Definitely some doom elements,” said Ike. “But also some melo-death elements. But sort of progressive, but not progressive like you’re thinking.”
“Yeah,” said Tanner. “Not progressive like you’re thinking. More atmospheric. But technical. Almost mathy.”
“Super technical,” said Ike. “But still super heavy.”
“What was the name of the band?” asked Gavin.
“Heathen Hemorrhage,” said Tanner.
“Never heard of it,” said Gavin, feeling a small surge of bratty pleasure.
“Doesn’t matter now,” said Ike. “Heathen Hemorrhage is no more.”
“Where’s the rest of your band?” asked Gavin.
“Oh, no, it was just us,” said Tanner.
“We were a two piece,” said Ike. “Let’s see some ghosts.”
“Hopefully,” said Gavin, trying not to chuckle. He pulled the van out of the apartment complex parking lot and onto the street. “First stop: The Multioak Library.”
After a short drive through the darkening streets of Multioak, Gavin pulled the van into the Multioak Library parking lot and turned off the engine. A layer of brown and orange leaves covered the library lawn, shifting in the wind under the pale glare of the streetlights. As Gavin turned to address his customers, Ike opened the van’s side door and he and Tanner piled out.
“Where are you going?” asked Gavin. “What are you doing?”
“We’re going in,” said Tanner. “Aren’t we?”
“No,” said Gavin. “We can’t go in. The library’s closed.”
“Then how are we going to see the ghost?” asked Ike. “Does the ghost appear in the windows? Is the library’s lawn haunted?”
“Just get back in the van,” said Gavin. “And I’ll tell you all about the library ghost.”
“When did you see the ghost?” asked Tanner. “Did you see it while the library was open?”
“Listen,” said Gavin. “I haven’t seen the library ghost. I’ve just heard about it. But there are some really creepy stories. You guys’ll like them. Get back in the van.”
“We don’t want to hear your stories,” said Ike. “We want to see ghosts. Why else would we come on a ghost tour? I can find second-hand ghost stories anywhere.”
“That’s true,” said the girl from the back seat. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Gavin turned to face her. The boy was nuzzling her neck but the girl wasn’t paying attention. She’d decided to join the discussion at the front of the van, for some reason.
“Give me a break,” said Gavin, scowling at the girl. “You’re not here for ghosts.”
“Don’t tell me what I’m here for,” said the girl, her voice rising. She shoved the boy away from her and he looked around as if he’d just been woken from a trance.
“If we can’t see a ghost here,” said Ike, “then take us somewhere we can see a ghost.”
“No one gets out of the van on the excursion,” said Gavin. “Except for a bathroom break at the midway point.”
Ike and Tanner looked at each other with incredulous, bulging eyes, their long hair swaying as they shook their heads and said “Hah!” to each other, apparently in complete agreement. Ike had his arms crossed. Tanner had his hands jammed in the pockets of his battered, black denim jacket. Gavin wondered how two people who were basically the same person couldn’t get along well enough to play even one show on their band’s tour. Maybe music brought out the worst in them.
“Do you want to hear about the library ghost or not?” asked Gavin.
Ike gazed at the library’s front entrance as if a ghost might open it up and invite him in personally. Tanner heaved an exasperated sigh, and then spat on the ground at the very end of the sigh. “Fine,” he said, climbing back into the van. “Tell us all about this ghost that we’ll never see.”
Ike climbed in behind Tanner and slammed the van door. Gavin usually asked people to not slam the door, but he decided to let it slide this time.
“So the story is,” said Gavin, lowering his voice to a suitably eerie timbre, “that there was an old janitor who worked here in the 60s and one night-”
“What?” asked the girl from the back seat. “Speak up. I can’t hear you.”
“Who cares?” said the boy. “It’s all made up. Here, let me-”
“Ugh,” said the girl. “Get off me. I want to hear about ghosts.”
“I’ll summarize,” said Ike, turning around in his seat to face the back of the van. “A janitor died in the library and now, sometimes at night, people hear him mopping.” He turned back to Gavin, one eyebrow arched. “Right?”
Gavin started the van and backed aggressively out of the parking space. “Next stop: the old Danfinch barn.”
During the fifteen minute drive out of Multioak and into the surrounding farmland, Ike and Tanner held a quiet conversation that Gavin couldn’t quite hear, although he heard what sounded like his name a few times. The old Danfinch barn was usually the fifth stop out of eight on the spectral excursion, but Gavin thought it was the creepiest setting and he hoped that it would satiate his customers enough that they wouldn’t demand their money back. The fields and forests were big, black masses cut into manageable chunks by the bumpy county roads. Overhead, there wasn’t much moon. Just a thin, pocked, glowing-white crescent.
Gavin pulled the van into the weeds on the road’s wide shoulder and stopped. He turned off the headlights and the engine.
“I can barely see anything,” said Tanner. “Is there even a barn over there?”
“There is,” said Gavin in his scary voice. Everyone in the van had been reduced to an indistinct silhouette.
“And there’s a ghost in the barn?” asked the girl from the back seat. Before Gavin could answer, there was a brief scuffling sound and she said, “Yuck, get off of me! I’m moving up.”
“No, come on,” said the boy. “I’ll stop.”
“Nope,” said the girl. “You blew it. I want to hear about the ghosts.” Gavin saw the girl’s dark shape clamber over the backs of two empty bench seats and settle into the seat just behind Ike and Tanner.
“Fine,” said the boy, turning to sit sideways on the back seat with his back against the window. “Listen to the lies instead of spending time with your boyfriend.”
“Good,” said the girl. “Let’s just break up then.”
“Good. Let’s do it.”
“Then I guess we’re broken up.”
“I guess we are.”
“So anyway,” said Gavin, “the story of the ghost in the Danfinch barn only goes back four years.”
“How many ghosts have you seen in your lifetime?” asked Ike, his voice hard and pointed.
“Me?” asked Gavin.
“Yes, you. How many total ghosts have you seen in your whole life?”
“They’re very rare,” said Gavin. “Even a lot of professional ghost hunters have never seen a ghost.”
“So the answer is zero,” said Tanner. “That’s what you’re saying. You’ve never seen a ghost.”
Gavin said nothing. The van was still. A crescent-shaped cloud had perfectly obscured the moon.
“Do you know how many ghosts I’ve seen?” asked Tanner. “Sixteen. I’ve never been on a ghost tour and not seen a ghost. And I’ve seen several in non-ghost tour settings as well.”
“Thirteen for me,” said Ike. “Do you even want to see a ghost?” His tone was less inquisitive than it was threatening.
“Tonight’s spectral excursion is over,” said Gavin. “If you would like a refund, we will discuss the details back at the parking lot.” He turned to face forward, reaching for the key in the ignition, but as he did, Tanner grabbed him from behind, wrapping him in his arms and pinning him to the seat. As Gavin struggled and shouted, Ike opened the van’s side door, got out, opened the front passenger’s door, reached across the console, and grabbed the keys out of the ignition, dropping them into his jacket pocket.
Once Ike had the keys safely in his possession, Tanner let go of Gavin.
“Give me the keys,” said Gavin. “This is illegal.”
“We’re going to see a ghost,” said Ike. “Do you want to come?”
“No,” said Gavin. “Give me the keys. And just so you know, once you give me the keys, you will still not be welcome back inside my van.”
“If there really is a ghost, we’ll be back for you,” said Tanner, climbing out of the van. In the dark, Ike and Tanner looked like black ghosts themselves, lurking by the side of the road, foul and irritable, waiting for someone to look for them.
“Can I come too?” asked the girl.
“Come on,” said Ike. “See this, Mr. Spectral Excursioneer? Some people are actually curious, not just scavengers capitalizing on the curiosity of others.”
“Great,” said the boy in the back seat. “Just leave me here with the lying dork.”
“We broke up,” said the girl. “And no one’s making you stay.”
“Whatever,” said the boy.
“Whatever,” said the girl, and she waded into the waist-high wheat after Ike and Tanner as they made their way through the field toward the dark hulk of the barn.
“I forgot what you told me your name is,” said Gavin to the boy in the back seat, trying to build something like kinship with his only remaining ally.
“Shut up,” said the boy. “You ruined my love life with your lies. Teenage girls love ghosts more than anything. I’m just a teenage boy. I can’t compete with ghosts.”
“Then why’d you bring her on a ghost tour?” asked Gavin. “That seems kind of short-sighted.”
“Haw!” The boy slapped his hand against his thigh. “Well, you didn’t call it a ghost tour, did you? You called it a ‘spectral extrusion.’ If I had known that was just a gayer name for a ghost tour, I never would have brought my girlfriend on it. Never. Idiot.”
Gavin felt no more kinship with the boy than he had before. Less, actually.
Ten minutes passed in silence broken only by the boy in the back seat’s occasional dramatic sighs. Gavin stewed. He couldn’t figure out what Ike and Tanner wanted from him. He wondered what it would take for them to return his keys. Gavin didn’t believe in ghosts, but maybe they’d see or hear something in the barn spooky enough to satisfy them. Maybe even spooky enough for them to not demand their money back, although at this point, Gavin just wanted to go home, even if that meant taking a financial loss for the night. He could deal with that. A lot of nights he didn’t get any customers and ended up driving around town anyway, looking for new stops he could add to the excursions. Usually they were just old-looking buildings with convenient parking nearby. It didn’t take him long to make up a story about a stop. They all followed the same formula: someone had died there and now people claimed to hear or see that person’s ghost wandering around or doing whatever task it had done during life. At first, Gavin had tried to build the stories on kernels of truth, but now he just made them up out of thin air. He knew they weren’t very good, but the few customers he’d had so far had only been on the excursion because they wanted to believe their home town was haunted, so they were an easy audience. It hadn’t occurred to him that guys like Ike and Tanner were out there, hijacking the vans of opportunistic entrepreneurs in their senseless pursuit of actual ghost-sightings.
The driver’s side door was yanked open from the outside and Gavin jerked in his seat, just managing to stifle a shout at the last instant.
“Come on,” said Tanner. Ike and the girl were standing behind him in the shallow ditch between the road and the field.
“Where?” asked Gavin. “Why?”
“I’m not coming,” said the boy from the back seat.
“No one invited you!” shouted the girl.
“Good,” said the boy.
“You’re going to see your first ghost,” said Tanner, grabbing Gavin by the upper arm and pulling him out of the van. Gavin stumbled but didn’t fall, yanking his arm away from Tanner’s grasp.
“I’m not going to see any ghosts,” said Gavin. “Give me my keys.”
“But there is a ghost,” said the girl, her voice a high-pitched hiss.
“There is,” said Ike. “It’s a good one too. I wish my first ghost had been as good as yours is about to be.”
“I don’t believe you guys,” said Gavin. “I’m sorry you haven’t been satisfied with the excursion, but I think you’ve gotten back at me enough now. Your point has been made.”
“Come to the barn with us,” said Tanner. “And we’ll give you your keys back.”
“You have to see the ghost,” said the girl. “You have to. It’s so cool. It’s kind of pretty, even.”
“This is stupid,” said Gavin. “You guys are trying to bully me now. I had enough of this in high school.”
“Walk,” said Tanner. “Or I will bully you. You think I got these stitches over my eye from minding my own business and letting people do as they please?”
“All right,” said Gavin. “I’ll walk over to the barn. But if I do, I get my keys, but you guys don’t get your refund.”
“Sure,” said Tanner. “Whatever. Trust me, you’re not going to be worried about gypping us out of ten bucks once you see the ghost.”
“Ten bucks?” said the girl. “He only charged us eight.”
No one said anything for a tense moment. Then Gavin said, “Well. Let’s walk to the barn.”
As Gavin walked through the field, his feet sank into the soft dirt. He held his hands up by his chest so they wouldn’t brush against the damp stalks of wheat. Ike, Tanner, and the girl said nothing so Gavin said nothing too. The only sound was the swish of jeaned legs through wheat and the whirring of an insect that sounded like it knew there was a frost coming with its name on it. For a while it seemed like the barn wasn’t getting any closer and then, abruptly, they were at the barn, stepping out of the field and onto the circle of old dirt that surrounded the barn, into the barn’s sphere of influence, into the barn’s heavy shadow.
Ike and Tanner walked up to the barn’s big front door. The girl followed close behind them. Gavin brought up the rear.
Ike put his hand on the door. “Seek and ye shall find,” he said.
“But,” said Tanner, “Merely pretend to seek and you may still find.”
“I’m scared,” whispered the girl. Gavin could feel her smile aimed right at him.
Ike pushed the barn door with a low grunt and it swung silently open. “After you,” he said to Gavin. “Just keep looking straight ahead. That’s where we saw it. Way in the back.”
The inside of the barn was probably the darkest place ever. Gavin stepped up to the doorway. Ike and Tanner and the girl were all beside him. “What did the ghost look like?” asked Gavin.
“A figure,” said Tanner.
“Moving back and forth,” said Ike.
“Beckoning someone,” said the girl.
Gavin took three steps into the barn. It was colder inside than out. He thought he heard something at the back of the barn, like a mouse or a cat doing what they do in the dark or, more precisely but less likely, a person clicking his or her teeth together. Gavin also smelled several incongruous odors: new rubber, rotting fruit, snow, charcoal, and so on. A tendril of cold air licked at his face. Something made him want to weep, but only for a second. His ears popped, he shuddered, and he heard a small jingle. There was a familiar weight in the pocket of his jeans that had not been there a moment before. He slipped his hand inside and felt his keys. He looked over his shoulder at Ike and Tanner and the girl, still flanking the doorway, too far away for any of them to have reached his pocket. Whoever had returned Gavin’s keys, it had not been one of them. Gavin was not scared because he knew he had won.
“Look again,” said Tanner.
“Go in further,” said Ike.
“It took us a few minutes to see it too,” said the girl.
Gavin took one more step, paused, screamed, and ran out of the barn and into the field, the shouts of the former members of Heathen Hemorrhage and the girl whose name Gavin had just now remembered was Louise ringing after him, but too slow to catch him.
“Where’s everyone else?” asked the boy in the back seat of the van as Gavin climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine. Gavin still couldn’t remember his name.
“They’re still at the barn,” said Gavin. He turned on the headlights and pulled the van back onto the road, executing a quick two-point turn, pointing the van back towards Multioak, and accelerating.
“How’d you get the keys back?” asked the boy.
“I outsmarted them,” said Gavin.
“Pfft,” said the boy. “I doubt it.”
“You’re a true skeptic,” said Gavin. “I like that about you, at least.”
“Yeah, you would,” said the boy. “I want Louise’s refund too since I paid for both of us.”
Gavin officially gave up on remembering the boy’s name. It felt good.
“Do you hear that?” asked the boy.
“Kind of a clicking noise. Phew, what’s that smell?”
“Are you asking what the smell is or what it means?” asked Gavin.
“Um,” said the boy.
“Because no matter what it is, it doesn’t have to mean anything,” said Gavin. “Isn’t that beautiful?”
“No,” said the boy, but he didn’t sound certain. It was possible that he didn’t understand Gavin’s point, but it was also possible that his convictions just weren’t as strong as Gavin’s. Likely, even. Either something would happen or it wouldn’t. The boy would succumb or overcome. But it didn’t matter to Gavin. He knew where he stood.