Nadia knocks on the door for the second time and waits. She can hear shuffling footsteps, the rustling of papers, the blowing of a nose. The clients like to tidy up before Nadia arrives, make a good impression—despite this loss, I’m still holding it together!—even though she couldn’t care less about their unwashed dishes, tear-stained tissues, or deflated couch pillows. If anything, the more disheveled, the better Nadia can sell her service. Look at all this carnage and watch it disappear.
“Sorry,” the woman—Annabelle, according to Nadia’s intake form—says as she opens the door. “Come in.”
“Where should I set up?” Nadia asks. She’s not one for pleasantries, for getting to know her clients and pretending they’re about to become good friends, united by this intimate ceremony. Her mother, if she were still alive, would tell her she needs to work on her bedside manner.
Annabelle gestures to a table in the kitchen, still damp with a hibiscus-scented cleaning spray. “It’s all in the shoe box, like you suggested. The last of Roger’s things, anyway.”
“Good. So, here’s how we’ll evict Roger’s ghost from the property,” Nadia begins.
Annabelle winces. It’s subtle, hardly noticeable, but Nadia always catches twitches like these. Most of her clients are the kind of people who wear suits to the office, work in fields that speak in acronyms—IPO and ROI and SEO—and are selective with their faith in the unseen. They believe in the stock market and solar energy, but not ghosts. Nadia’s name gets passed around in whispers and the discreet exchanging of business cards. I know, they say. I know what you’re thinking. It’s crazy, but it works. Her website is also full of reviews, praising her talents, though almost everyone posts anonymously.
If they contact her, Nadia knows they are desperate, that they have tried everything to shrug off the grief that hangs on their shoulders. In her two years as a ghost and spirit evictor, she’s met with hundreds of people haunted by breakups, divorces, or deaths—people just like those who came to see Nadia’s mother years ago. They all sought relief, and the ceremony that Nadia’s mother performed (the one she’d taught Nadia and left as her legacy) provided that. The difference is, Nadia’s mother believed in it all, and Nadia wishes she did.
Nadia explains the ceremony to Annabelle.
“First, we’ll do a quick sweep of the place. Feel where the energy draws me. Then, I cleanse using rosemary. It has a heavy enough presence to encourage Roger to release his hold. The positive energies I infuse will sweep him away, along with any remaining negative energies. After that, I’ll take that box with me when I leave for purging.”
“That’s all? We can do it that quickly?” Annabelle asks.
Nadia’s mother would have hugged Annabelle, believing in every word she just said, would have told her you will get through this. But Nadia can only muster a smile, incapable of offering her clients the reassurance her mother was so skilled at bestowing.
“Yes,” she says.
Nadia walks through Annabelle’s apartment, lingering in the primary bedroom.
“There’s a heaviness here,” Nadia assesses.
Annabelle’s eyes widen. “Yes!” she hisses. “I knew it.”
Nadia and her mother had a keen ability to sniff out the rooms and corners with the most tension. Nadia’s mother called this intuition, but Nadia wonders if it’s just inductive reasoning. Along with the main bedroom, the kitchen was another space to assume a ghost would linger. It’s where her father, before they left him, argued with her mother. Nadia still remembers the muffled cries behind the closed door of her parents’ bedroom late at night, the sharp slams of fists and drawers in the kitchen that followed in the morning.
Nadia lights the rosemary stick and walks through the apartment again. She looks like a hippie Statue of Liberty, her rosemary raised like a torch. As she weaves in and out of each room, she whispers the chant her mother taught her. Your time has come to clear, you are no longer needed here; be at peace, you are released.
“It smells woodsy,” Annabelle says when Nadia returns to the living room.
“It will fade soon.”
Nadia dips the burning tip of rosemary into a bowl of sand.
“I like it,” Annabelle says.
Most clients find the scent calming, but Nadia finds it astringent and headache-inducing.
After the cleansing, Nadia’s mother would sit with her clients and wait for as long as they needed. Let the smoke settle, repeat the chant once more, give the client a moment to feel the emptiness of the space. Her mother was a natural, suffusing grace and respect into the ceremony, but Nadia only ever felt like a fraud. She never knew what to say the way her mother did. Her mother excelled at comforting the grieving, relieving them of the weight of a shadow that lurked behind them.
Nadia wishes Annabelle good luck when she leaves and takes the box of Roger’s leftovers (pictures, a t-shirt, a pair of broken glasses) and the $500 cash payment. Her mother took the clients’ boxes home with her—at one point, she’d filled an entire one-car garage with other people’s memories—but Nadia buries them in the woods behind her apartment. It would be easier to toss them in the trash (it’s not like anyone would know), but she respects the grieving of loved ones. Besides, it feels like the least she can do is respect the ceremony her clients are convinced works.
Each time Nadia returns home after a ghost eviction, she likes to stand under the shower as the hot water drowns the aroma of rosemary lingering on her body. She waits until steam clouds the bathroom, until the mirror is fogged enough that she can no longer see her reflection, only the ghost of an outline.
After a shower, she sits on the floor of her bedroom and sorts through her own box of ghost remains. A drawing that her nine-year-old self made of her father, pictures of her mother, her mother’s tarot deck. Nadia’s mother taught her to ground herself after every ghost eviction, return to the land of the living. But Nadia can’t help remaining with the dead.
It’s been two years since her mother died, but Nadia can’t shake the grief. It clings to every part of her body. At thirty-one-years-old, she shouldn’t need her mother, should find her own path, but she wants to prove her mother right about all this. It feels as if it’s the only way she can find her way back to her mother, if only in spirit. It feels like something she needs to do before she can let go, before she can forgive herself.
Nadia wishes the ghosts were real, wishes she could talk to her mother once more, the version of her before she lost her hair and the pink in her cheeks. After dinner—a simple bowl of pasta, eaten alone at her kitchen counter—Nadia returns to the dark cave of her bedroom, her legs criss-crossed on the bed and head pressed against the wall, cold and pulseless as a corpse. She knocks on the wall and waits for a response, for the minuscule chance the spirit of her mother might respond with a tap, but hears nothing. A hive buzzes in her stomach. The simultaneous relief and disappointment in knowing that none of it is real, that she must keep trying until her mother is right, tangles into a knot like a noose around her heart.
For as long as she can remember, Nadia has spent her life in doorways, incapable of deciding whether to enter or leave, to kick the door open or lock it shut. Even as a child, she hovered in thresholds, unsure if she was welcome, if she even wanted to walk through. Her presence both pleased and irritated her mother; she was in the way or never around enough. Her mother would call Nadia her greatest gift and then shoo her off to her room, complaining that she needed alone time.
“It’s exhausting to always give, to take on the burdens of others,” she’d say, massaging her temples.
It was a curse, Nadia’s mother said, that most women bore, but for the women in their family, it was also an inheritance. Nadia’s mother’s mother and mother’s mother’s mother had also communicated with the spirits. They’d believed in all of it—ghosts, energies, the afterlife, everything you can’t see but have to trust is there. Her mother taught Nadia how to commune with ghosts, detect their presence, and request that they leave the living in peace. She expected Nadia would accept the family business as her birthright.
But Nadia’s faith in the unseen disappeared the same night she and her mother vanished from Nadia’s father, their home, everything they knew, to start over four states and one time zone away. For all her mother’s promises of expelling the negative presence of a past loved one, her father’s spirit kept haunting them. Nadia’s mother never dated another man and warned Nadia of the lies men told. She flinched when she heard their upstairs neighbor slam the door, when a car across the street blared its horn, when their landline rang past eight at night. Her mother promised her clients the very thing she couldn’t provide herself or Nadia: the comfort and relief that came with freedom from the ghosts of one’s past.
When Nadia left for college, she promised herself she’d leave behind the ghosts—both real and imagined. It wasn’t as easy to abandon them as she’d expected. Sometimes, late at night, she whispered protection spells. But after a few years, she filed them away as Things She Had Learned, But Didn’t Need, like knowing the capital of Alaska or the first two decimal digits of pi. Nadia spent nearly a decade free of ghosts and shadows and spirits. And with every passing year, she heard fewer whispers, fewer taps on the wall, fewer footsteps above and below. The price of this freedom cost Nadia her relationship with her mother. Fewer phone calls turned into fewer visits, until they hardly saw each other, and then not at all.
And then her mother got sick with pancreatic cancer. She’d caught it too late for any kind of treatment. The doctors said the only thing to do was keep her comfortable for her last few weeks.
When Nadia visited her mother in the hospice center, it had been four years since they’d last seen each other. She barely recognized the gaunt skeleton before her, a woman so previously full of life.
Nadia stayed at the hospice center for two weeks, spoon-feeding her mother applesauce and complaining about her job at the hospital gift shop. At night, she slept on the stiff loveseat that smelled antiseptic like everything else in the spartan, beige room.
“You have my gift; don’t turn on it now,” her mother said on her last day.
They’d tip-toed around the conversation this whole time, but Nadia knew her mother had been thinking about it, that she was disappointed Nadia would be the one to break the family tradition, that she’d rejected her inheritance.
“I don’t have it anymore.” Nadia shook her head. “None of it is even real.”
“That’s not true. You just need to let it in.”
Nadia kissed her mother’s forehead. If she could have any power, it wouldn’t be communicating with ghosts; it would be to turn back the clock and undo all the mistakes that had led her here. In her youth, she and her mother had been so close. How had she let the weight of disbelief come between them?
“I’m not ready to lose you,” Nadia cried.
“Believe in your gift, and you never will. Let me in, and I will always be here.”
“Okay,” Nadia said. She didn’t know how to tell her mother that she wished it were that simple.
There is no door for Nadia to knock.
Come in when you get here, the client, Sparrow, had instructed.
Sparrow was the friend of a previous client. She said you did good work, Sparrow wrote in her email with a request for an immediate ghost eviction. She’d offered to pay double if Nadia came the next day.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Sparrow clasps her hands around Nadia’s as if clutching a broken-winged bird. Gold bangles spider up Sparrow’s arms, cha-chaing in time with each wrist flick. A tangle of beaded necklaces claws at her chest. Nadia eyes Sparrow’s bare feet, the stiff linen tunic, the nest of a bun atop her head. She’s unlike any of Nadia’s usual clients.
Nadia shifts her focus to Sparrow’s apartment, the walls tangerine with cobalt accents. On the coffee table in the center of the room, a cedar stick burns in an abalone shell of black sand.
“I’m an energy healer, like you,” Sparrow says.
Nadia freezes. Sparrow’s words feel like a punch to the stomach. Nadia imagines all the ways Sparrow will identify her as a fraud and tell everyone that woman knows nothing. Nadia coughs, the camphoraceous odor of cedar irritating her throat.
“I’ve already tried removing the spirit myself,” Sparrow continues. “Several times. Spells, purifications, prayer circles—you name it, I’ve tried it. So typical of mothers, you know? Even when they’re dead, they refuse to let go.”
“Mhm,” Nadia mumbles. She presses a hand to her forehead and feels the beads of sweat pooling at her hairline.
“I’m thinking she’ll respond better to a stranger. That’s where you come in.”
“Sure. Of course. Let me just prepare,” Nadia says, a fist clenching in her stomach as she walks through the apartment. With each step, the floorboards beneath her shudder.
“I can’t make out her words, just the humming,” Sparrow says.
Nadia listens, but she only hears ringing in her ears.
“I think it’s a nursery song. Something she sang to you when you were young,” Nadia says. It’s a risky, but reasonable, guess.
Sparrow considers Nadia’s suggestion. Nadia waits, breath held.
“I think you’re right. Now that I listen again, I think it’s the lyrics to ‘Lavender’s Blue.’”
Nadia sighs, and the fist in her stomach unclenches. She’s good at bullshitting if nothing else. She lights the bundle of rosemary and walks through each room, repeating her mother’s chant. After, she dips the bundle in her bowl of sand.
“So, I can take the box if you have yours ready,” Nadia says.
“That’s it? We haven’t even assessed the energy shift, if any.” Sparrow’s eyes narrow.
“Oh, right. I can wait.”
Sparrow plops into an armchair and closes her eyes.
“Listen,” she says, frowning.
“Do you hear that?” Sparrow asks.
“I—” Nadia starts. She squeezes her eyes closed. Her mother always said the darkness helped her hear better. And then a creak.
“Did you hear that?” Sparrow cocks her head. “We need to try again.”
“No. That’s just the floorboard or something in the wall. Older buildings do that.”
Another creak, the sound of footsteps.
“That’s your upstairs neighbors,” Nadia says, waffling between irritation and concern. She wants Sparrow to pay her, she wants to leave, she wants her hands to stop shaking.
“No, open your ears. It’s—wait.” Sparrow’s voice drops. Her nose wrinkles, and the corners of her mouth slide down like a melting popsicle. She looks at Nadia and sees something she doesn’t like. “You don’t believe in any of this, do you?”
Nadia’s eyes meet Sparrow’s narrowed gaze.
“I—” Nadia starts, but she can’t finish the sentence.
“You convince others of something you don’t believe in, which most would call manipulation. What’s even worse is that you actually have some kind of gift. Or at least intuition. Something is guiding you, but you refuse to follow it.”
Nadia knows she should say something—to confess or apologize—but the creaking floorboards above are too distracting. It sounds like someone is dragging furniture across the floor, back and forth, like a game of Tetris. She tries to remember if she saw a moving truck outside when she’d arrived.
“Why won’t you consider the possibility?” Sparrow asks.
Nadia shakes her head. There’s nothing she can say that will fix this other than the truth, which feels too monumental, too personal, too painful to speak aloud to a woman named after a bird or a pirate. If the ghosts of loved ones are real and linger long after their physical bodies have left, then where is her mother? Why has she abandoned her? Why does she not come when Nadia calls? If the ghosts are real, then Nadia really is alone.
“I have to go,” Nadia says.
She leaves behind the bowl of sand and the rosemary. She can buy new ones. Or maybe she’ll never need them again. As she flees to her car, she glances back at the apartment above Sparrow’s, but the windows are dark, the door shut.
Once home, the silence of her apartment pulses like a heartbeat. She closes her blinds, lights a candle, and sits against her bedroom wall. She can’t stop thinking about what Sparrow said. Something is guiding you, but you refuse to follow it.
It reminds her of one of the last things her mother told her. That she just needed to let her in; that vulnerability could be a gift, if she let it.
Nadia knocks on the wall with two heavy knuckle raps. Nothing. She knocks again and waits, this time opening herself to any sound that presents itself. Whatever she hears, she will respond: there you are. Whatever she hears, she will invite it in.
Melissa Darcey Hall
Melissa Darcey Hall is a writer and high school English teacher in San Diego, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast Journal, phoebe, Santa Fe Literary Review, Fugue, The Coachella Review, The Florida Review online, and elsewhere. View more of her work at www.melissadarceyhall.com.