I. Spider Season
The house is haunted, of course. That’s why the rent is so cheap. It doesn’t matter that it’s only April, that ghosts dream quietly when the world is in full bloom. Nearly any haunting will be small: flickering lights, a mysterious lullaby, an intrusive thought chasing the living from room to room. Fatalities are incredibly rare, though most people, even the disbelievers, fail to find that reassuring.
December is not most people, not when it comes to the dead, but she promised herself twenty years ago: when I’m grown up, when I can choose, I’ll never live with a ghost again.
Unfortunately, part of adulthood is discovering you can’t always afford better choices. Especially when a child is growing inside you. Especially when someone is hunting you both.
The house is white and sprawling and isolated, a short distance from the Mendocino Coast. There are more spiders than ghosts her first week there, all seeking shelter from the rain. December finds them on walls, in her bedsheets, curling up inside her shoes. She talks to them often, names them, wonders what they might name her in return. It’s always best to befriend house spiders, something she learned when she was young. Dozens might be crawling around at any time; more, if you’re counting the dead ones.
The human ghost in this house is Olivia de la Cuesta, murdered five years ago in a botched home invasion. By all accounts, she was bright and ambitious, two months shy of leaving for her freshman year at college. December lives in the house two weeks before Olivia’s nightmare begins to manifest visibly: wet footprints, all over the hardwood floor. When she steps in them, December can feel sand between her toes.
Sometimes, there is music: Ellie Goulding, slurred and strange.
Sometimes, December brushes her teeth and spits out Olivia’s blood instead of toothpaste.
It’s not a restful environment, certainly not ideal for a woman eight months pregnant. December will have to be vigilant, although it’s unlikely Olivia will be capable of any real harm until she manifests at her full strength, when the days are darker and the nights are longer, when spirits are at both their most dangerous and most coherent. Ghosts are tricky in winter. To be dead is to be disoriented, but if December can establish contact in the next few months, if she can slowly, repetitively, build trust between them, then she just might wake Olivia up by the new year. They could all live together safely. Maybe even happily.
But it’s always a risk, depending on others for happiness, the living as much as the dead. If you need someone to follow, they’ll stay behind. If you need them to stay behind, they’ll follow. They’ll never let go.
Another contraction. Braxton-Hicks: false labor, real pain. December eases herself down on the couch, as she feels a small, dark spider crawl across her bare feet. “What should I call you?” she asks the spider. The baby’s name, of course, she already knows.
He won’t find us here, December promises her child, but this is a lie: it’s only a matter of time.
II. Beach Season
She wakes up in the dark, too quickly, a dream still spun about her. Where is she? What is she doing here? There was laughter, she remembers that. There was blood everywhere, bright red and gushing. What’s happening, where is she, where—
Her bedroom. Of course, it was just a nightmare. It’s okay, she’s safe. Maybe still a little drunk: her skin feels strange, her head heavy. Her feet are still damp and dirty from the beach. She’d locked the door behind her, changed out of her jeans, forced herself to drink a glass of water—but the prospect of showering had been just too much. Standing was effort. So was taking off her hoodie or brushing her wind-tangled hair. She’d needed the relief of horizontality.
It’s still so very dark out. She couldn’t have slept for long.
There’s music: “Ex’s and Oh’s” playing from the vicinity of her pillow. Groaning, she pushes the earbuds away, fumbling for her phone, and dropping it at the sound of footsteps down the hall.
There’s someone in the house.
Her parents are out of town. Could they have come back early? They’ve basically been a wreck since finally accepting that no, she isn’t going to live in this house forever; she’s getting her degree in bioengineering, and then she’s going to see the world. They could’ve come home—but that would be a waste of money, and Mama never wastes money already spent. No, it must have been her imagination. There’s no one here, it was only a dream, there’s no one—
The footsteps are louder. Voices, too. A man, laughing.
He’s right outside her bedroom door.
She stops breathing. (Was she breathing before? She can’t remember, she can’t think, everything hurts.) There’s a hand on the door, pushing it open—but it stops, as someone else calls out. Footsteps again, walking away, leaving her bedroom door half open.
Slowly, she slides out of bed, wincing at the chill of the hardwood floor. She has to get out of here. There’s barely any space to hide in her closet, no room at all under her bed. If the man comes back, if he sees her . . . but the window, it always sticks, impossibly loud in the dark of night. They’ll catch her, whoever they are. They’ll grab her by the ankles and pull her, screaming, back inside.
The back door. It’s the only way.
She slips out of her bedroom carefully, eyes still not fully adjusted to the dark. She can’t see the men, but can they see her? Are they watching her, even now? She creeps down the hall in slow motion, inching past the guest room, past the baby that woke her with their incessant screams—
There’s no baby; it was laughter that woke her, a man, two men, intruders, thieves—
But there is a baby, white and chubby and wailing her cute little head off. She can’t be more than a couple months old. What is she doing here? Who put this nursery in her house? When did they do it, how, what the fuck is even happening—
“Olivia, sweetheart. Can you step away from the crib, please?”
Olivia looks up, heart in her throat. (Something is in her throat, something wrong; she’s choking.) The man is there, the tall white man with the gun, he’s laughing, he’s laughing, he’s laughing—
“I won’t hurt you, Olivia. No one can anymore.”
The man is gone. It’s just a woman now, in her late twenties or early thirties. Dark frizzy hair, pale skin, a soft, sagging belly underneath a sleep-wrinkled tank top. “I don’t suppose you remember me yet,” the woman says. “I’m December, and that’s Clara. We’ve done this a few times now.”
The lights are on (when did the lights turn on), flickering violently. Olivia doesn’t understand; she doesn’t understand any of this.
“You’re dead, Olivia,” December says softly. “You’re dead and dreaming.”
No. No. That doesn’t make any sense. She was just at the beach a few hours ago with her friends, one last party before the future beckons them forward, drives them apart, swallows them whole. She was just in bed, dreaming of terrors, but she isn’t, she can’t be—
The men are still in the house. She can hear their footsteps. She has to get out.
“I know you’re afraid,” December says, “but I will wake you, I promise. I can help. We—” She closes her eyes. “We can be friends.”
She says it like it’s an inevitability, like something she desperately wishes wasn’t true. But Olivia isn’t fooled; she knows who her friends are. One of them lives only a few blocks away. If she can get to the back door, if she can escape—
But suddenly she’s at the back door, pulling it open, and the man grabs her from behind, dragging her away. His breath smells like red wine and tobacco. He’s laughing in her face.
She’s fighting back, kicking and screaming. She has to get out of here; her parents need her to survive. She’s punching and clawing, digging at his face. His cheek is bleeding. He isn’t laughing anymore.
The gun is cold, kissing the hollow of her throat.
Olivia can’t get out. She’ll never get out.
III. Fire Season
It used to be scary in the closet. It was dark there, cold and quiet, and there was nothing to eat or drink at all. Clara slept curled up against her shoes. And it smelled, too, because she had to pee, and there was nowhere to go, so she went in her pants. Father would be mad, if he knew, but he doesn’t because he hasn’t unlocked the door yet. You have to hide, he’d whispered, so very long ago now. I’ll come back. I’ll get you when it’s safe.
She doesn’t know how long it’s been. There’s no time in the closet.
It’s not so bad anymore, though, because she has a human friend, Dot. Dot is nine, just two years older than Clara, and she talks and dresses funny because she’s from the future. Dot teaches Clara new songs they can sing, and Clara teaches Dot that spiders aren’t scary, not even the ones that vanish when you blink. Clara tells Dot all her spider friends’ names. Dot tells Clara that she’s dead.
Clara doesn’t mind being dead, exactly, but it’s confusing sometimes. Other children have told her ghost stories before, sad souls who’ve been barred from the Kingdom of Heaven. Is that where Father is, the Kingdom of Heaven? But she has to wait for him; she promised she would, and anyway, he locked the door. She can’t get out.
You can, Dot keeps telling her. The door is open, see?
But she doesn’t see. With Dot’s help, Clara has learned to do magic: she can imagine the closet brighter and prettier and make it smell nicer, too—but the door is always shut. Only one person can open it. Clara knows this, the way she knows God exists, the way she knows the sun still rises and sets. She knows this because it’s always been true.
Something’s different today, though. The closet smells like smoke, no matter how hard Clara wishes it away, and it’s hot in here, so hot. Dot’s kneeling beside her, wearing that funny red sack she calls a backpack. Her eyes are watering, red and frightened.
“Clara,” Dot says, “There’s a really big wildfire. It moved so fast; it’s already here. You have to come with me, okay?”
Why does Dot keep saying that? Can’t she see the door is locked?
“The door is open, Clara!” Dot screams. “How did I get inside, if the door is shut?”
Clara doesn’t know that. Maybe Dot isn’t here. Maybe she’s been the ghost all along.
Dot grabs Clara’s hands. For a second, for just a second, they touch. That’s never happened before, but Dot doesn’t smile. She’s coughing too hard. “You have to wake up now,” Dot says, in between choking. “You can’t wait anymore. If the house burns up, you’ll burn up with it.”
“He’s been dead for decades! He isn’t coming back! Please, Clara.” Dot starts crying. “You’re my best friend.”
Dot is Clara’s best friend, too, and she doesn’t like it when her friends are sad. But Dot’s wrong this time. Clara can’t leave the closet. It’s the only place that’s safe.
Then Dot disappears in the smoke. Clara hears her screaming from far, far away. “Let me go; I can’t leave her! Clara, you have to follow me! Follow me!”
The closet is on fire now. But Father’s coming; he’ll open the door soon.
IV. Ghost Season
It takes too long, far too long, but finally, Jacob finds her.
She’s come back to California, her first mistake, staying in some shithouse cottage by the coast. Dorothea grew up somewhere in this state, called herself a child of specters and the Santa Ana winds. She was always saying weird shit like that, at least before he trained her to speak like a person. Painstakingly, he’d taught her, molded her, protected and perfected her. Good wives were investments. You had to put in the work.
Jacob might have expected some goddamn gratitude. Instead, Dorothea fled with his unborn baby, grabbing her red backpack and vanishing in the night. He’d never liked that backpack. Her eyes shifted suspiciously whenever he brought it up. I’ve always kept a go-bag, she’d whined, when he’d told her to throw it away. Fire moves fast. You have to be ready.
She thinks she’s ready. That bitch. That whore. She has no fucking idea.
Fire will find her tonight.
Jacob walks through the house, pouring kerosene as he goes. He’d watered the front lawn with it, too, the thick mist shrouding him from view. It’s not raining, though, not even properly cold. Almost Christmas, and only forty degrees. How do you trust a state without seasons?
Silently, he steps into the nursery. His baby is sleeping in her crib, dressed in a Star Wars onesie, a head full of dark, curly hair. She looks like him. He’d suspected as much. Dorothea had wanted to name her Clara, but Jacob’s already decided to call her Lucy. He’ll teach Lucy manners. He’ll teach her respect. She won’t grow up believing in nonsense like ghosts.
Dorothea changed her name when she ran, cut and dyed her hair, too. It looks ugly, butch. And whoever heard of a name like December?
“It’s all right now,” Jacob whispers to Lucy, touching her cheek. “Daddy’s gonna make it all better soon.”
A spider runs across his finger.
He curses, flings it into the wall, but it vanishes before he can crush it for good. He stares at his hand. That’s not possible; must have been some trick of the light. He rubs his knuckles against his jeans and leaves Lucy where she is, for now. He’ll come back when he runs out of kerosene. If she’s lucky, Dorothea won’t even wake up before fire engulfs the house. He’ll have to make sure she isn’t lucky.
Jacob turns and startles hard. There’s someone in the doorway, but it isn’t Dorothea. Some Mexican teenager wearing glasses, an oversized gray hoodie, and boxer shorts. Jacob has never seen her before, even though he’s been watching the house for the past week. Is she some kind of live-in nanny? Illegal, probably, watching Lucy for a few bucks while Dorothea sleeps like a lazy cow.
It doesn’t matter. She’s seen his face now. She has to go.
“I won’t hurt you,” Jacob lies. “You understand?”
She stares at him, eyes wide with terror.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” He reaches slowly into his jacket, a comforting smile on his face. “Come here, bitch. I’ll make it quick.”
But the girl bolts.
Swearing, Jacob drops the open jug of kerosene and runs after her. She’s quick, already at the backdoor, but he gets her by the hood and yanks backwards, hard. She screams and stumbles, clawing at his face, but her fingers won’t seem to connect with his skin. He slams her to the floor, pulling out his gun and jamming the muzzle into her throat. Blood wells, then spurts, gushing out of her neck—but he hasn’t pulled the trigger yet. What is this, what—
And then there’s a sound behind him, and it’s Dorothea, swinging a Maglite at his face.
His nose erupts in blood as the bone crunches. “Fuck!” Jacob screams, dropping the gun.
Dorothea has Lucy strapped to her stomach. The go-bag hangs loosely off one shoulder. “Go, Olivia!” she yells, swinging the Maglite again; it catches Jacob against the left temple, and he drops to his knees. “You can, I promise you can!”
Blood drips into Jacob’s eyes. He sees the Mexican girl through it, but she’s just . . . standing there, in the open doorway, staring out at the backyard. Maybe she’s having one of those absence seizures; maybe all the blood is some weird medical condition, hemophiliacs or something. It doesn’t matter; if she wants to play lamb for the slaughter, so much the better.
Dorothea reaches for the gun, another mistake, and Jacob tackles her at the knees. She falls backwards, trying to catch herself with one arm while protecting Lucy with the other. Her head bounces against the hardwood floor. Her eyes flutter, roll back.
Jacob kneels over her. His blood drips against her check. “I told you,” he says. “You don’t walk out on me. You can’t take what’s mine and expect to escape retribution.”
She blinks, too slow. He’s not sure she’s really hearing him, and that won’t do. He flicks his lighter on and off. “Wake up, Dorothea.”
Her eyes blink, again and again. Finally, they focus. “Jacob,” she whispers.
Jacob smiles and throws the lighter.
Dorothea struggles frantically as the hallway erupts in flames, trying to kick, to shove him off. It’s all too easy to hold her down. The baby carrier, though, is a problem. Lucy is still trapped inside it, red-faced and screaming. How the hell is he supposed to get her out of this thing?
Dorothea begins hyperventilating as the smoke thickens. “Jacob,” she begs, choking out the words. “Please, please don’t do this. You don’t have to do this—”
“I told you,” Jacob reminds her. “If only you’d listened—”
Something touches his ankle, then skitters up his calf.
He twists around, batting at his jeans. A spider crawls out, then another, then dozens, all spilling to the floor.
“The fuck,” Jacob yells, frantically brushing them away—but there are more of them, too many, crawling across his shirt, whispering up his back. One skitters across his cheek before he knocks it away. The spider disappears, and the ones on the floor—where are the ones on the floor? What, what is happening—
The front of the house is engulfed in flames. Dorothea runs past Jacob, swaying and unsteady; he lunges for her and misses, distracted by impossibility. The Mexican girl, Olivia, is still in the doorway, and Dorothea doesn’t push past her; she runs straight through her.
It doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense.
The gun. The gun makes sense. He just needs to find it, somewhere in this smoke, but he can’t, he can’t find it anywhere—
Because it’s in Olivia’s hand.
She stares at it, turning it this way and that. She lifts her head, looks at him.
Suddenly, he’s on the ground.
She’s holding him down, which is impossible. She’s a bundle of twigs, can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. Doesn’t seem to weigh anything, and yet Jacob can’t get up, no matter how hard he fights back, kicking and screaming. He has to get out of here. This is a madhouse, and it’s burning down around him. He has to get out of here and drag his wife back in.
“Olivia!” Dorothea keeps yelling. “You have to wake up now! There’s no more time. You have to follow me!”
Olivia stares at him. She presses the gun into the hollow of his throat.
“Olivia! Follow me!”
“You won’t,” Jacob says, swallowing against the gun. “You can’t—”
Olivia starts laughing.
There are spiders crawling up her arms. There are tears in her eyes. She looks at the backdoor and smiles.
“I can,” she says, wondering.
V. Earthquake Season
“Shhh,” Mom says softly. “Wake up, sweetheart. You’re just having a bad dream.”
It was a very bad dream. The ground shook apart, swallowing Clara whole. She’s not usually scared of earthquakes. They have little ones all the time—Mom says every season is earthquake season in California—but this was the Big One, and Clara didn’t just die; she went missing. She kept dreaming and dreaming, and nobody found her ghost.
“Impossible,” Olivia says, perched on Clara’s bed. Her neck is all bloody—it usually is, at night—but she says it doesn’t hurt anymore. “We’d find your ghost anywhere.”
“Promise?” Clara asks.
Mom and Olivia solemnly pinky promise.
A pinky promise can’t be broken. Clara knows that, like she knows the sky is blue, like she knows that any bad dream can be broken eventually, if you try hard enough. But still . . . “Mom? What if you die like Olivia?”
“Then,” Mom says, brushing Clara’s hair away from her forehead, “you and Olivia can wake me.”
Clara nods sleepily. That makes sense. She sinks back down in bed, giggling at the tickling between her toes. “Okay,” she announces seriously. “I’m ready to sleep now.”
The spiders sleep with her, dreaming of sweet and sticky things.