I once read that tragedy can anchor a soul to a location. That anger or fear or sadness can imprint a spirit like a palm pressed into wet cement. Maybe it’s true—who am I to dictate the laws of the universe? But I do know this: you squeezed the life from my body in this very house, and I could vanish into eternity at any time.
When the film crew leaves, you tell me that you know tonight was difficult. You expect to net two, maybe three thousand. Live show. Video. Personal attention, for a price. I don’t doubt you. You’ve always had an eye for business.
I ask to see her. This is our arrangement. You recite a litany of excuses. She’s already missed so much school. She’s with your parents this week. It isn’t a good time.
A picture then? You retrieve the photo from your wallet, the same token you’ve offered so many times before. She’s a child, six, smiling with teeth too large for her slight frame. She radiates joy, unabashed and unrepentant in the way only children can be. I imagine her face, how it has changed as she becomes a woman. I tell myself I will still recognize her. I will always be her mother.
I threaten to leave. We both know that I could; we both know that I won’t. You laugh. I try to bargain. A hundred more performances. A thousand. Let them cut me. Let them crush me. Let them have me. I need to see her again.
“You always were so damn needy,” you say.
A month later I feel you, feel the crunch of your boots on loose gravel. Who have you brought this time? I feel them, too, not as individuals but as a single, parasitic mass. The warmth of their breath, syrupy thick with the residual sweetness of bottom-shelf bourbon, permeates the air before settling on the ground of this place that is both mine and myself.
I defy you and fold into myself again and again until I am nothing. You will learn to honor the terms of our agreement. I ignore your pleas and remain hidden.
“I’m reading a cold spot. She’s here.”
I can’t tell if it is you or them, compressed as I am into such a narrow slice of myself. I hold my breath out of habit. I ignore your threats. You will not find me. I will teach you to keep your word.
Weeks, months, maybe years. I feel time passing across my skin. You punish me. Knowing makes it no easier. It never has. I feign strength. Your body will erode. My form is eternal. For once, I hold the advantage.
When you return, your eyes are hollow, your manner tense. Four men follow. Hard men. Men here to collect, not to enjoy. They watch you closely.
You tell me to come out. I maintain my resolve and wait for you to begin the negotiation. I resist asking: Did you speak with her? Do you have news? Will I see her? Is she here?
You command me again. You never were one to admit fault. Your clients are not amused. They stare through you with equal parts malice and impatience.
“Honey, don’t make this difficult,” you say. You are nervous.
What about this isn’t difficult? You made that decision so long ago and so many times since.
You place a small box on the counter. It clicks as you engage its mechanical switch. Then thump, thump, thump. Louder with every repetition. Thump. A sharp pain shoots up my back. Thump. My nerves light up. Thump. It reaches into me.
Again, you take by force that which I have not offered. I spill out of the aether and land, sprawling, at your feet. Your face lightens in relief.
“Now that wasn’t so hard, was it,” you say. You don’t know I’ve changed.
I roar, wielding time and loss and rage like a serrated blade. I rend your machine into metallic ribbons. I claw at flesh, first yours then your associates’. Five bloody gashes on five unsuspecting faces. I pour myself out, violently, like retching water from a saturated lung.
I press too far, become too present. And then I am gone. Not a controlled retreat but a sudden, nauseating annihilation pulling me back into oblivion. Pain tramples through my veins. Through the emptiness, I hear a distorted crunch of bone followed by the wet pop of your face being broken as your clients beat you to unconsciousness. I sleep.
I am not yet whole when you return. Your bruises have healed; one eye is gone, sewn shut. You reveal nothing, walking directly to the kitchen. You place two photographs on the counter, face down, a final offering. Then you are gone, without fanfare or farewell, leaving only destruction in your wake.
I embrace the pain and force my essence to manifest. Turning the first photograph, I see her. She is older now. 30s? 40s? Eyes dull, expression flat. Nothing has ever been easy for me, she says without speaking. Still, my heart sings. I weep.
I should know the trap you have set. Yours is a language of transactions, not of gifts. I should see, but I don’t. I turn the second photograph. It is her. And you. And so much blood. You smile. You know you have won.
I erupt, reverberating through the aether. Rage. Loss. Regret. They pour out of me and seep into the bones of this house that has brought me so much pain. Pain and anger weave me into the fabric of the land. Hatred—for myself, for you, for the world that brought us together—anchors me. Once again, your gift is a noose masquerading as a kindness.
You will never return. She will never laugh again. And I can never leave.
Casey Woolfolk is a writer, runner, and pug enthusiast. A native of rural Kansas, he now resides in Colorado Springs where the mountains occasionally lure him out of his office. Connect with him on X @ccwoolfolk.
For Everything, a Price is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine October Flash Fiction Challenge, which was based on the prompt Ghost Hunting Reality shows.