short story · what we can't see

Bonus Story: "What We Can’t See"

As a special treat, I’m going to post a short story that I originally wrote for a guest post on For What It’s Worth. The story takes place about one year before the events of Flicker, and is dedicated to my friend Jordan, who wanted to read more about Alice. Enjoy!

Summary: When Filo and Alice face a poltergeist, they have another ghost to deal withone that won’t disappear so easily.

“What We Can’t See”
A Short Story
“You lied to her,” Alice said, her voice low as she sketched the first lines of the binding circle on the linoleum floor. The chalk didn’t want to stick, and she pressed harder. “To that woman who hired us.”
            “I did not.” Filo yanked the flower-print curtains closed, blocking out the August sunlight. The kitchen went dim, all the smooth, clean surfaces gleaming mutely. “I told her we could handle a poltergeist, and we can.”
            “You only said that because she looked at you like you were a kid and it made you angry,” Alice protested, knowing she was right. Filo was fifteen, not quite finished growing into his limbs, though Alice could already see the man he was becoming starting to emerge in his features: the elegant lines of his face were strengthening slightly, and the cast of his incredibly blue eyes was more focused every day. Alice was the same age, but she looked even younger than he did. “You don’t have to prove anything to her.”
            “I wasn’t trying to—”
            “Besides,” she went on, “this isn’t the job she hired us for. She made it sound like a faery, not a ghost!”
When they arrived at this house half an hour ago—the house of the woman who’d hired them to look into her family’s supernatural trouble—it had immediately become clear what kind of problem she had. Alice had hesitated, but Filo had plowed ahead and asked the family to clear out for a few hours while they worked.
            And now they were standing in a suburban kitchen, preparing for an exorcism. Even now, Alice could feel the cold, chaotic energy rushing through this house like wind, making her skin crawl. She suppressed a shudder.
            In their business, Filo and Alice mostly handled problems like evicting pixies from attics and returning runaway gargoyles to their cathedral posts. Werecreatures, shapeshifters and half-breeds hired them to brew potions and craft prepackaged spells. Once, they broke a curse for a vampire. But ghosts were a whole different ball game.
“Ghosts aren’t like faeries,” Alice insisted. “We can’t even See them!”
            It was true: Alice and Filo had the Second Sight, which cut through faerie glamour and other illusions, but ghosts didn’t have to reveal themselves, not even to their eyes. To deal with them, you had to rely on what you could feel.
            “Look,” Alice began. “We don’t have to do this. We can pass the job along. That half-phouka uptown—”
            “We can handle a damn poltergeist,” Filo said sharply. As he spoke, he pulled a bundle of sage from his bag and touched his fingers to the leaves, igniting them with a pulse of magical energy. The smoke wafted across the kitchen, making Alice’s eyes water. “It’s not like they’re even real ghosts. They’re just bundles of loose energy. We just have to lure it, bind it and take it apart.”
            “I’m just saying, if you don’t feel like you’re ready—”
            “We’re ready, Alice. We don’t need him to do it for us.”
Nasser. That’s who he meant.
In the past, Nasser had always taken the lead on ghost jobs; his extreme sensitivity to magical energies made it easy for him. Ghosts didn’t scare him—but Alice feared them because they didn’t always follow the normal rules, and Filo was afraid of anything he couldn’t see, even if he’d never admit it.
            If Nasser had been with them, they’d have no doubts. But Nasser had been gone for almost a year. They hadn’t accepted a single ghost job since he and Jason had left them. Until now.
            Gripping the thick piece of chalk harder than before, Alice looked up at Filo. He was examining the blade of his short-handled knife, the one he used in spells and rituals. The blade was inscribed with thin, elegant runes.
            “You can say his name, you know,” Alice said. “It won’t hurt you to say Nasser.”
            But when she said it, he flinched a little. For a moment, she abandoned her task and stood, cupping his elbow lightly.
            “It’s okay, Filo,” she said softly. “I miss him, too. I see him everywhere—every blond guy on the street is him until I take a second look. And every time I hear music, I think it’s Jason. It’s okay to want them here. It’s okay to miss them.”
            “I don’t miss them.”
            “Filo, they’re our friends.”
            His voice went low and sort of hollow as he shrugged her off. “They were our friends. They betrayed us, Alice. I don’t miss them at all. Now let’s get to work.”
            Alice sighed, but didn’t argue. It wasn’t worth it.
            By the time she finished sketching the binding circle on the floor and sprinkling salt around it, Filo had prepared the bucket of salt water and shredded sage, and placed three stubby white candles in the center of the circle. Alice had molded the candles herself; shavings of rowan bark and salt were mixed in with the wax, which was gouged with runes of attraction.
            “Ready?” he asked.
            Before she could speak, all the cupboards flew open, slamming open and shut with tremendous force, the dishes and glasses rattling maniacally on the shelves. Drawers flung themselves open, cutlery jangling like bells. Goose bumps bloomed all down Alice’s arms as the frenzied energy flowing through the house intensified, a charge in the air that prickled against her skin.
            Hurriedly, Filo touched his finger to each candle’s wick. A bright blue flame, the same color as his eyes, ignited on each. He reached for the third wick—
            —and the room exploded with sound.
            Alice ducked as a dinner plate shot across the kitchen, through the space where her head had just been, and shattered against the far wall. Mugs launched themselves at Filo, catching him across the shoulders as he hunched over defensively. He tried to stand, but a chair dragged across the linoleum and slammed into his legs, bowling him over.
            A plate connected with Alice’s ribs, and she stumbled, gasping. The room was a whirl of crashing plates and slamming cupboards, a tornado of sound. The poltergeist’s energy pulsed beneath it all, insistent as a heartbeat, urging the chaos.
            Knives and forks leaped from a drawer, hurtling toward Filo as he straightened. With a flare of magic, he flung his right forearm up, baring the protective bracelet he always wore—and the projectiles bounced away from his face with sparks of blue-white light, as if striking an invisible shield.
            A chill washed over Alice like ice water, and she jerked around. The poltergeist was in this room, its interest piqued, drawn by the magical candlelight like a bug to a lamp. She could feel it in the air, pressing in against her—but there wasn’t enough light.
            Alice lunged toward the circle. She forced so much magic into her fingertips that she almost incinerated the wick of the last candle—but the bright white flame caught and held, and she scuttled away from the circle as the poltergeist’s cold chaos energy rushed past her, toward the light, into the binding circle.
            Filo flattened himself against the linoleum, diving under a chair that crashed through the air, and whipped out his knife. He swept the blade across his palm and slapped his hand onto the edge of the circle, releasing a pulse of magic that even Alice felt—and the circle snapped shut like a trap.
            At once, the kitchen fell still.
            Every animated object clattered to the floor, but inside the circle, the poltergeist raged, a little storm cloud of energy. Alice could almost see it—the faintest outlines of it, shadows—as it hurled itself against the magical barriers with a sound like distant thunder. But it was sealed with blood and salt and magic. The poltergeist was going nowhere.
            Rising, Alice flung open the curtains, flooding the kitchen with fierce light. Sunlight disrupted spirits, pulled them apart like loose seams, but the bucket of salt water that Filo pitched into the circle was what finished it.
            The air sizzled and hissed as the poltergeist dissolved; Alice opened the window and screen door so the excess energy could dissipate into the dry heat outside. Filo burned more sage, fanning the purifying smoke through the room.
            For a long moment, they stood catching their breath.
            “I told you it would be fine,” Filo said eventually. He tossed the burned-up ends of the sage leaves unceremoniously into the backyard.
            She shook her head. “You really needed this, didn’t you?”
            A heartbeat passed, and she was sure he wasn’t going to answer. His gaze was fixed on the lawn, green and vibrant, where a sprinkler ticked back and forth, little rainbows arching in its spray. Then he lifted one shoulder in a shrug.
“I wanted to know that we could do it,” he admitted.
“What?” she asked, walking up behind him. “Fight what we can’t see?”
He shook his head. “No. Just that we can still do some things ourselves.”
            “We can do everything by ourselves, Filo,” she replied. She reached for him, meaning to squeeze his shoulder, then dropped her hand. There was so much he couldn’t see. Ghosts weren’t the half of it. “Doesn’t mean we always should.”
            Frowning, he let the screen door fall shut. Alice winced when it slammed against the door frame. Then she swept her gaze around the kitchen once more. Shattered bits of glass and plates glinted on the off-white linoleum. Wooden chairs sprawled in pieces. Granules of salt and powdery chalk slowly dissolved into the water splashed across the floor.
            “Did you make any promises about damages?” Alice inquired, biting her lip. “Like, partial refunds for cleaning costs?”
            “Of course not,” Filo snorted. “Poltergeists are messy by nature. If you want to make omelets, you have to crack a few eggs. Or, you know, smash up a kitchen.”
            Shrugging, Alice mused, “Maybe they’ll be so grateful we exorcised the poltergeist that they won’t even notice.”
            Filo waved away her words. “Doesn’t matter anyway,” he drawled. “I don’t believe in refunds. And besides…” The smallest of smiles quirked his mouth, and Alice reflected the expression instinctively. “They already paid.”

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