Harlan stared at the scuffed, dented metal strip across the bottom of the doorway. Behind him was worn linoleum, with a pattern so familiar that he could have drawn it from memory. Ahead was a concrete sidewalk. It was scribbled with cracks, and there were piles of sodden leaves gathered anywhere the wind couldn’t touch them, dark spots where people had spat out their gum, cigarette butts, candy wrappers and so many people.
Inside—order, sameness, routine.
Outside—chaos, change… Excitement.
Harlan wasn’t looking for excitement or change. He wanted very much to turn around, away from the physical and mental threshold the doorway represented and vanish into the building that had housed him since he had been five years old.
“Do you need a push?” Tom asked, gently.
It was still difficult for Harlan to think of him as Tom. He’d known the man since he was eight as ‘Mr. Addison’.
Mr. Addison had called Harlan into his office a few days before. There had been a paper on his desk with an official-looking stamp that Harlan hadn’t been able to identify before the man had covered it with his broad, hairy hand.
‘Am…am I in trouble, Mr. Addison?’
Mr. Addison had laughed and said, ‘No, of course not! Please, call me Tom. You’re an adult now, and I’m no longer your teacher.’
Those words had dropped something heavy and poisonous deep into Harlan’s guts and it had stayed there for the last three days. It had been there while he’d packed his few belongings, while he’d said goodbye to everyone he’d ever known his whole life—everyone who gave any kind of shit about him, anyway.
Harlan shook his head. No, he didn’t need—didn’t want—a push. He wanted that letter to have never arrived. He wanted to stay in the Centre, the only home he could really remember.
After leaving him there, his parents had visited for a few years, and it had been strained for all three of them. Then Harlan’s parents had had a new baby, one without ‘the’ ability. They’d visited once a month, then twice a year—his birthday and Christmas—then just sent cards. And after a few years…nothing. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard from them, but it wasn’t a relationship he intended to pursue, in or out of the Centre. They’d made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with him—and the feeling was mutual.
He didn’t really consider anyone at the Centre his family, but it was his home, and he was being forced to leave with only his tiny, overstuffed duffle bag. Most of the things inside were just silly little presents the other kids had made him, not even personal items. He was also holding an envelope that Mr. Addison—Tom—had pressed into his hand with great importance, telling him there was three thousand dollars in it.
Harlan had never had to worry about money before. The resident children were given allowances, to spend or save as they chose, and some kids snuck out of the Centre to buy candy—or cigarettes and alcohol when they were older—but Harlan had never been tempted to leave. He’d been given everything he needed there, and they’d kept him safe. A cigarette that smelled bad and made him cough or a beer that made his head swim and made him sick in the morning weren’t worth the risk of stepping beyond the Centre’s encircling walls. He would have been happy to stay forever, maybe even eventually become a teacher like Mr. Addison… Tom. But apparently that wasn’t his decision to make.
“Harlan? Is everything all right?” Tom asked.
No. Everything was not all right. It would never be all right again. “Fine, Mr.— Tom.”
Tom grinned at Harlan—the smile of a man who would, in just a few minutes, be shutting himself back in the safety of the Centre, closing out the rest of the world.
Harlan tried to return the smile, close-mouthed, afraid that if he opened it, he’d throw up.
Looking past Harlan, Tom waved. “Ah! Your ride’s here!”
A sleek, black car with tinted windows drew up beside them. The driver climbed out, circled the car and opened the door closest to Harlan without speaking.
“You’ve got everything?” Tom asked. The too-enthusiastic, bubbly voice that had encouraged Harlan as an eight-year-old didn’t have the same effect at twenty-one.
Harlan shrugged, throwing his bag into the back seat and climbing in after it.
Tom sprawled one elbow on the roof of the car, leaning way down until his face was uncomfortably close to Harlan’s. “Great! And don’t worry—the car’s been specially treated. Didn’t want to stress you out too much on your first day! Give me a call if you need anything.” His voice was positively saccharine, and Harlan wanted to punch it.
Tom slammed the door and rapped on the trunk as though he were dismissing an ambulance.
Harlan didn’t look back.
He closed his eyes when he saw the first ghost. He’d seen plenty, first as a kid, then when his parents finally realized what was going on, in the controlled environment of the Centre. As a child, he hadn’t understood that other people couldn’t see his ‘visitors.’ They’d been excellent playmates, until one wouldn’t go away. Harlan had been too afraid to sleep, jumping at noises no one else could hear, having screaming fits with no apparent cause.
His parents had taken him to psychiatrist after psychiatrist, desperate to deny that their son might be a medium. They’d wanted something medical, something they could cure with pills and therapy. They hadn’t wanted their son to be one of those people.
Answering the doctors’ questions, Harlan realized for the first time that he really was the only one who saw the ‘see-through people’. He’d always thought his parents were just ignoring them.
The psychiatrists tried to convince Harlan—and his parents—that it was just a phase, imaginary, nothing to be afraid of. The ghosts didn’t go away, no matter how hard Harlan tried not to believe in them. Finally, the Centre had called Harlan’s folks. He’d found out later that one of the psychiatrists they’d seen had taken pity on Harlan, contacted the Centre and informed them she had a patient who was potentially a medium. The Centre had invited Harlan and his parents for a tour. His mom and dad certainly didn’t believe in that sort of thing, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, but they had run out of options and Harlan wouldn’t even go into his bedroom without screaming. He hadn’t slept in days, and the whole family had been desperate.
Young as he’d been, Harlan remembered his first step past the threshold of the Centre. It was…silent. There were no voices here—unlike everywhere else, where they surrounded him like a wall of sound, people he could and couldn’t see clamouring for his attention. There was no one but those he knew were really there—him and his parents. He realized he’d never felt this blissfully alone before. There had always been ghosts. And now they were gone.
He closed his eyes and breathed it in—the silence, the solitude.
He startled when he felt a soft touch on his shoulder. A few minutes of peace had been wonderful, but he knew it couldn’t last.
An older man—even older than the grandparents Harlan was no longer allowed to see after he’d frightened them by passing on messages from people who’d died long before he was born—was kneeling in front of him.
“You must be Harlan.”
Not wanting to speak, to shatter this beautiful silence, Harlan nodded.
The man smiled. “Do you like it here, Harlan?”
“Yes! Very much!” Harlan had said. He’d been afraid that if he didn’t speak up, didn’t answer this man’s question, he might have to leave. He’d wanted to stay…as long as possible. Just a few more minutes.
“There’s someone I’d like you to meet. If I’m right, she won’t be much of a surprise to you. And if I’m wrong, you can go on home.”
Harlan nodded again, fighting to keep his face blank. He didn’t want to go home, where it was always noisy and crowded with people only he could see or hear, never mind the thing in his bedroom—
The man offered Harlan his hand to shake, just as seriously as he would an adult.
Harlan shook, just as solemnly. The man’s hand was pleasantly cool and dry, and he didn’t squeeze too hard. Harlan wished his own hands weren’t so clammy.
“I’m Dr. Cunningham, the director here at the Centre. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Harlan.”
Harlan tensed—just another doctor, more tests to see what kind of crazy he was. And that was a pity, because it was so lovely here. Harlan didn’t think he was crazy, but his parents did, so he must be. They just hadn’t found anyone who could prove it.
Dr. Cunningham laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m not… This test will be different than any you’ve done before. I promise.”
Standing, Dr. Cunningham gave Harlan’s parents a reassuring wave before immediately returning his attention to Harlan. “Would you like to come with me?”
Harlan had heard plenty of stories from ghosts about how to tell if someone was dangerous, what would get a person killed and who to trust. Dr. Cunningham felt safe and genuine.
He nodded, allowing Dr. Cunningham to take his hand and lead him deeper into the building. They left his parents behind, but he didn’t mind very much.
This part of the building was different. The front part, where they’d come in and where they’d left Harlan’s parents, had carpets and art on the walls, like a hotel lobby. Here, the floors were bare concrete, the walls plain white with pipes visible overhead.
Dr. Cunningham’s shoes clicked as he walked. The sound, the way the doctor walked with confidence, as though he belonged here and expected everyone to know it, made Harlan feel special. He belonged here, too, and he’d take any test they wanted to prove it.
Maybe reading Harlan’s excitement as nervousness, Dr. Cunningham gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “Don’t worry. The dormitories are far more comfortable. This is the lab, and you won’t be spending much time here. That is,” he said, smiling down at Harlan, “if you pass this test, which I very much think you will.”
The doctor winked, and again Harlan felt as though he was being included in a wonderful secret, one not even his parents knew.
“We have a ghost in here.”
Harlan stiffened. He’d never had a grownup talk about a ghost like it was real, and he felt a surge of bitterness when he realized the doctor had just been making fun of him like everyone else did.
Dr. Cunningham gave Harlan a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. She’s quite safe. She won’t hurt you.” He laughed. “She actually used to work here, in the lab. She always talked about becoming a research ghost when she died.” His face turned grim. “She should have had many years ahead of her, but… Well, she still works here, just in a different capacity. You don’t have to be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid.” He was, though—afraid that Dr. Cunningham was teasing him and afraid that he wasn’t. Ever since that horrible woman had taken over his bedroom, ghosts weren’t fun anymore.
“Good lad.” Dr. Cunningham gave Harlan’s shoulder a brief squeeze. “I’ll be right here with you the whole time. When you’re ready, step onto that pad.” He pointed at a metal circle set in the concrete floor. “This whole building is warded against ghosts, except for a few select places like that one. You won’t run into any by accident here…if you choose to stay.”
Harlan bit his lower lip, hard, so he wouldn’t cry. He wanted to stay. He had to pass this test.
“If, at any time, you get scared or you want to stop, just step outside the circle and she’ll disappear again.”
“W-what do I have to do?”
“Just talk to her. Say ‘hi’. It’s only polite. She’ll tell you a special word that will let me know you’ve really seen her.”
“I just have to talk?”
Dr. Cunningham nodded.
Harlan drew in a slow, deep breath and briefly closed his eyes. He could do that. He’d always found it easier to talk to ghosts than to ‘real’ people. He could never tell what the living were thinking or feeling, but ghosts kind of…projected their feelings, whether they meant to or not.
Breath hitching in his chest, Harlan stepped forward onto the pad. He realized he had his eyes closed and had to force them open. His hands were trembling.
She appeared slowly, not just popping into his view the way ghosts sometimes did, and he suspected she’d done it on purpose so she wouldn’t scare him.
“Hello. Are you Harlan?”
He nodded, just a tiny tilt of his head. He’d learned to hide when he was listening to a ghost, and he almost never spoke to them out loud anymore. He glanced back at Dr. Cunningham, but he just gave Harlan an encouraging nod. He didn’t look at all angry or mocking.
“It’s very nice to meet you. I’m Gwen. Are you ready for the word?”
He nodded again, a little more confidently.
“The word is ‘ludicrous’. Ludicrous. You’ll remember?”
“Yes,” he said, shyly.
She waved and started slowly fading.
He stepped out of the circle and turned to face Dr. Cunningham again. “She said…ludicrous.”
Dr. Cunningham beamed. “You passed the test.”