An old rocking horse never bodes well. As Gillian entered the unfinished nursery, her eyes were drawn to it immediately. It sat in the corner, covered in dust and bits of plaster. The paint was faded where it hadn’t chipped off completely. Yet, despite the neglect, there was strange vitality to it. The intricately carved legs looked tensed and ready, like a sprinter waiting for the pistol. Whoever had carved it — probably the original owners — had given it a sinister sneer and wide, terrified eyes. Where the top lip pulled back from the gums, she could see its teeth were pointed like needles. From where she was standing, she couldn’t tell if the teeth were painted or carved. She started to lean in to investigate but then thought better of it.
“Rookie mistake, Gillian.” She turned away to take in the rest of the room.
The nursery was only half painted; the bright yellow that covered two thirds of the room came to an abrupt halt near the bassinet. This place had probably looked like a bank commercial before the trouble. She could picture the two newlyweds playfully dabbing each other’s noses as they painted the nursery. Of course, the cliché came to a swift end. The painted footprints leading off the tarps and out of the room, indifferent to new carpets and refinished hardwood, were telling. These people left in a hurry.
The bassinette was wrought iron and looked even older than the rocking horse. Older than anything she’d ever seen. On the headboard, tiny cherubim and seraphim figures battled each other. The billowy white curtain that surrounded had been pinned to the side. Her eyes traveled upwards to the mobile that hung at the curtain’s center. Here, the same angelic figures were again doing battle, this time against a seven-headed dragon that pivoted in the center. When the wind blew, the tiny angels would circle the dragon, spears in hand, their tiny mouths shouting commands as they flew. The dragon’s wings were outstretched in defiance and Gillian could see that they too would catch the wind, turning the dragon in sync with its attackers so they would never catch it unaware. She stood there, transfixed by the battle, when she heard the first wooden creak.
There was no reason to turn quickly; she knew what she would see. The horse was rocking back and forth frantically. A large white paint chip had worked itself loose from the eye and had gotten caught on the horse’s lip on its way down. The horse now seemed to be closing its eyes and frothing at the mouth from the effort. With each frantic rock, it slid forward slightly, slowly closing the distance between itself and Gillian. The snarl was more pronounced and Gillian could see more of the needle teeth peeking out at her. Ever the professional, she simply turned and walked confidently out of the room.
The owners of the house, along with her producer and a cameraman, were waiting for her in the sitting room. The sounds of polite chit chat died away as she entered. A young couple sat on the couch. They set down their coffee mugs and looked up at her hopefully.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dobson,” Gillian began, “I think we can help you.”
Interior design is about making the best of things. Most of the people who Gillian helped on her show were first-time buyers who had barely scraped together their minimum down payments, often by working side jobs on the weekends. They were desperate to escape the rental market, desperate to own something. That desperation had them buying into more than they could handle. Once the papers were signed, problems emerged. Shifting foundations, drafty rooms, old pipes, and worse. The kinds of problems that required major renovations or simply selling. Both of these were options unavailable to overstretched couples such as the Dobsons. But, as a professional designer, there were ways that Gillian could make those places more livable. The bottom rung of the property ladder had splinters, and it was her job to sand them.
Of course, the Dobsons’ problems fell neatly into the “…and worse” category. All the people on her show fell into that category. While Gillian considered herself first and foremost an interior designer, that wasn’t what had propelled her to the prime spot on HGTV’s overstuffed renovation lineup. Gillian was a lapsed medium, and her niche was making over haunted houses.
She didn’t deal with removing or pacifying the spirits any more than a painter deals with a cracked foundation. She made sure her applicants understood that. She wasn’t just a lapsed medium in the sense she wasn’t practicing. In fact, she actively ignored the dead. And taking into account the substantial handicap of being able to actually see and hear them, she was quite good at it. This was her true gift. She didn’t help people deal with ghosts, she taught them how not to. Whatever had been in the Dobsons’ nursery would still be there when she left, but like that painter covering the cracks in the wall under a fresh coat of eggshell white, she would make it easier to live with.
Her philosophy was simple: some haunted houses were scarier than others, and this has more to do with design than ghosts. The Dobsons’ place was a perfect example. It was an old Victorian three-story house in a quiet neighborhood overlooking the cemetery. The house had shifted and it now seemed to lean hungrily towards the sidewalk. Outside, an old elm, many years dead, pushed back against the house. Its branches dragged across the second floor windows as though it were continually feeling for a way in. The lawn was a patchwork of dead grass and thorn bushes which had begun to spill over onto the front porch. It looked terrifying to deliver a paper there, let alone to live in.
“Dressed like that,” she whispered when she was sure the cameras were off, “you’re practically asking for it.”
The spirits usually pushed back. They didn’t like someone getting rid of their billowy drapes or creaky wooden shutters any more than a carpenter would like you opening their toolbox and throwing out all their hammers. In fact, this particular spirit had tried just that but an attentive cameraman had spotted them in the trash. “The Residents,” as Gillian referred to them when she had to, could be annoying, but they were rarely dangerous. Ghosts preferred to haunt people when they were alone, and Gillian’s crew observed a strict buddy policy. Anyone wandering off on their own could expect a pink slip when (or if) they returned. The crew was also forced to take mandatory ghost training which consisted of a Netflix subscription and a large viewing list. In the end, it all boiled down to Gillian’s golden rule: “If you have ever seen a blonde girl do it in a horror movie, don’t.”
The work itself was hectic. Gillian walked through the house, room by room, giving instructions while her design team followed scribbling notes. The first order of business was the south kitchen wall. It had a nasty habit of bleeding whenever someone was alone with it. Here, Gillian broke her rule and posted a production assistant with paint swatches. Once they matched the shade, they would have to get new appliances in. She sent another PA off to call their sponsors at Sears.
Her crew didn’t need to be told everything. While she led the design team around imparting her vision despite her visions, electricians and carpenters went to work. Chandeliers were lowered and replaced with bright, non-swinging track lights. Creaky floorboards were pulled up and replaced. Old toys were gathered from the nursery and the attic. So far, they had the rocking horse, mobile, and several porcelain dolls stuffed into garbage bags by the front door. Two staff members were replacing all the curtains with smart looking venetians. Ghosts could not jump out of venetians. In fact, Gillian knew we took with us to the next life the frustrating inability to lower venetians properly. Even the dead had to shimmy them down by alternating pulling one string and the opposite corner of the blinds. And they too knew it was probably better not to bother in the first place.
“It’s not going to make any difference you know…”
She brushed past the spirit without acknowledging it, her team still in tow. He was an older looking man dressed in dark robes that hung down over his face. If she had cared to look into the history of the house, she would have recognized him as Herman Phillips, the reclusive and mysterious architect. However, looking into it was dangerously close to trying to solve the situation, which she very much opposed.
There was an unrealistic expectation on mediums. People thought that just because they see the dead they should dedicate their life to helping them. When she was growing up, the only advice she ever got was maybe if she tried to help them, they would leave her alone. Helping seemed like a lot when these ghosts made her life a waking nightmare. If a living person broke into her house and somehow threw open all the cupboards when she went downstairs for a glass of water, they would be arrested. She would not be expected to tell that person’s estranged spouse how they really felt. If anyone else jumped out of her shower at her every time she got up to go the bathroom, she could get a restraining order. But no, society seemed to think it was the teenager’s fault for not agreeing to solve cold cases in her spare time.
“But you have a gift!” they would say.
So what? She was also good at math but that didn’t mean it was okay for her math teacher to sneak into her room in the middle of the night and throw all her clothes in the air until she agreed to take the advanced class. For a while, it seemed to her that medium was the only career path that existed outside the confines of free will but she was determined to resist as long as she could. Then, one day shortly before she graduated high school, she realized that she could put a lock on her drawers and her clothes wouldn’t fly out. She took down the shower curtain later that same day and was able to use the bathroom after sundown for the first time in years. She applied to design school a week later.
“When the goat with a thousand young emerges this open shower design will not save you!”
They were in the bathroom now. The plumber was putting the finishing touches on the rain shower. The ghost had been following them since the main floor. She was the only person who saw him and was for that reason the only one pretending not to. But like the craziest man at the bus stop, the ghost had seen a flicker of recognition and latched on. He continued to shout as the crew pulled mirrors of the walls. Ghosts loved to appear suddenly in mirrors and Gillian always did what she could to deny them a venue
“The old one aw. . . .”
She pushed her ear buds in.
Later that afternoon, Gillian was busy filming the requisite shots of her rolling up her sleeves and helping the crew when her assistant tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hey, uh, we found something in the basement you might want to see,” he said.
She doubted that but followed him anyway.
The basement was musty. They were adding lighting but there wasn’t much to be done down there. In fact, their only contribution in this area had been building a small annex off the back porch that they were going to move the washer and dryer into. Now, there was no need for anyone to be down here at all. It was the electrician that found the room.
Behind the dryer plug was a bricked-over secret room. It was dark and windowless. As Gillian swept it with the beam of her flashlight, she saw what appeared to be large ceremonial candles. The intern struck a match and Gillian blew it out.
“We are not going to light those,” she said
She stepped through the hole in the wall and into the room. It didn’t take long for her crew to string lights through it. It was a small space. The walls were plastered in arcane symbols and something about the room’s geometry seemed…off. A granite altar occupied the center of the room. Two production assistants found excuses to leave, not being afraid of the room as much as the now inevitable heavy lifting. Atop the altar was a massive tome bound in what Gillian sincerely hoped to be leather. Well shit, the Dobsons had a secret Book of the Dead. She’d never seen one before but she knew how to handle them.
“Look upon it, look upon your do . . . ”
She handed the book to her assistant and put the ear buds back in.
“Get rid of this. Don’t read it, don’t open it, don’t even think of putting it in the trash. When Joseph is done taking apart the bassinet, you ask him for his blowtorch,” she said in a tone that left no room for misinterpretation.
He hurried off with it, carrying it with his sleeves in the likely case that it was in fact not leather. She looked back at the spirit who was standing at the altar screaming at her like a country preacher. For a moment, his mouth synced with her music and he appeared to be giving a furious sermon on having kissed a girl and liking it very much. Against her better judgment, she laughed.
The reveal was her favorite part of the show. She did it with a degree of ceremony that walked a fine line between popularity and possible litigation. Gillian and her crew stood behind a large semi-trailer that any lawyer could see was quite different from a bus. The Dobsons returned from a one-week spa vacation and stood there with her and the crew. Gillian drew out the moment with the usual questions: “How was your vacation?” “Are you nervous?” “What are you expecting to see?” When she finally decided they’d had enough, they all counted down from five and yelled the show’s catchphrase.
“DRIVE…THIS…SEMI . . . AWAYYYYYYYYYYYY.”
The Dobsons were awestruck. The gardener had done an amazing job with the front lawn. The elm and the bushes were gone. The dead grass had been replaced with artificial turf. Nothing good could grow in that evil soil but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be the envy of their neighbors. The house still leaned towards the sidewalk, but with the lighter paint job it looked peckish at best. Mrs. Dobson began to cry.
“Are you ready to see the inside?” Gillian asked for the benefit of the cameras.
Mrs. Dobson nodded and the entire group began to cross the street. They hadn’t reached the meridian when the ground began to shake. Gillian instinctively pulled the Dobsons back and they all ran for the cover of the semi. Suddenly, massive tentacles tore through the artificial turf. Each was easily as large as the semi itself. A low guttural scream rose from the ground and filled the air and sickly green light bled from the chasms in the ground. Everyone except Gillian, who was able to shove her ear buds in, fell to the fetal position with their fingers in their ears. She watched as the writhing tentacles pulled the house apart, ripping it into chunks that they then pulled down into whatever dark dimension or hell they were reaching from. A chunk of the second floor was torn off and, for a moment, the second-floor guest bathroom with the new Jacuzzi tub and heated towel rack was visible. Gillian resisted the urge to pick the Dobsons up for a quick look.
It only took a moment for the tentacles to drag the entirety of the house down into oblivion. When the last piece was down, the chasm closed. Once it was gone she could clearly see the backyard (though she supposed it was just “yard” now). There, next to the old tool shed, stood her assistant. He was holding a blowtorch in his hands and, in front of him in the fire pit, something smoldered. It appeared to Gillian that, in a purely dimensional sense, the Necronomicon had been load bearing. Live and learn. In hindsight destroying the book did seem now dangerously close to trying to solve the problem. As the rest of the group got uncertainly to their feet, she pulled out her cell phone.
“Hi Jenny, can you put me through to legal?”
Ultimately they settled out of court. The Dobsons had signed a waiver but Gillian didn’t need that kind of press. This was the easy victory for the poor couple. While “acts of god” was technically included in their policy the insurance company waged a prolonged legal battle over which god that referred to. Eventually, the court sided with the Dobsons, agreeing that while the comparatively kind Old Testament god might have been what the company intended, nothing in the wording of the policy explicitly excluded the Great Old Ones who sleep at the edge of space and whose names are madness to anyone who dare to speak them aloud. As the latter are more apt to be destructive, this has had a terrible effect on rates.
ROB ERN is a currently pursuing an MPA in the Canadian prairies. In addition to writing short fiction he enjoys horror movies, travel, and the occasional pint.