Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.
Lorelei realized she had not yet been in the basement of Moonlit Shores Manor, and traversing that barrier down a creaking staircase at three in the morning didn’t seem like the most welcoming time to do so. Candles in their holders along the walls cast Hotaru’s and her own long, black shadows ahead of them as if they followed a set of robed figures. The darkness changed as they descended, more complete and quiet, and she could feel the ground rising up around her.
As they came to the narrow landing at the staircase’s end, a soft, violet glow met them, accompanied with a briney, wet scent like that of ocean air. Illuminated by splashes of blue, purple, and green luminescence crawling over rocks and sprouting from the midst of leafy foliage, Lorelei could see that the walls in the space they’d come into were cut from natural stone arching up above them to form a craggy ceiling. From the ceiling, stalactites hung, shimmering like icicles in the luminescence, and some even met the rocky places that grew up out of the ground, though she soon realized it was not an earthen floor, but water.
“Is the manor built over a pool?” Lorelei whispered, though her voice echoed into the cavernous chamber. Taking a step forward, she felt uneven planks below foot.
“I would call it more like a salty lake,” Hotaru told her offhandedly, “But you can swim in it if you’re brave enough.”
Lorelei knelt at the edge of the boardwalk where the water gently lapped at the planks. From the blackness below, she saw a pale orb rising up to the surface. She leaned a bit closer then, in the darkest depth that she could perceive, noted two eyes staring back at her own. She let out a squeak and jumped back, colliding with Hotaru. Water sprayed up at them, then there was a splash somewhere at the farthest end of the space, followed by deep, feminine laughter echoing off all of the walls.
“This way,” Hotaru giggled, gesturing for her to follow around the lake on the boarded path. Lorelei kept her eyes glued to the black waves, but saw no other movement. They came to an archway in the stone and found themselves traveling down a more traditional basement corridor, with block walls painted a soft grey and more sconces holding candles. Ahead, one of the many doors opened, and a tall shadow staggered into the hall. Lorelei stopped, nerves on edge, but the candles illuminated Conrad’s unshaven face. With sleep in his eyes, he yawned with a wave, “Morning, ladies.”
“Shut the door!” a familiar, annoyed voice shouted from deeper in the room.
He took his time reaching for the handle and gently pulled it to, avoiding both girls’ amused looks then joined them on their trek. Down the corridor and around the corner, they came to yet another set of stairs. Lorelei’s heart pounded a little harder as they descended, and she reached out a hand to steady herself as there was no railing. The wall was rough here and gritty as if the stairwell had been carved out of the earth. Lorelei had never been a fan of tight spaces, but the cool stone on her hands made her feel something different, and when she took a deep breath, she thought she could feel the manor breathe with her.
At the base of the stairs, they reached their destination, a room glowing orange where Ziah waited, tapping her foot. Grier was already sitting at a round table in the room’s center, leering at the door, his eyes locking onto Lorelei when she entered. Seamus and Ren conversed in a corner, the elf nodding solemnly at Seamus’s big, articulate motions with his hands. The space was warm, a few degrees beyond cozy, Lorelei reckoned, and there was a humming coming from the walls.
“That’s all of us,” Ziah turned to the only figure Lorelei didn’t recognize.
Shadowed against the furnace, a massive metal chamber encrusted in orange rust, a fire glowing from behind its mouth-like grate, a woman’s figure stood. She threw her hands into the air, spinning to face them and tilting her head to the ceiling. “I feel it!” her exclamation made each of them jump, “This place,” her accent was thick and southern, and Lorelei took a quick peek at her feet to check for cowboy boots, “it’s brimmin with life!” Point-toe, red-soled, nude pumps. Lorelei cocked her head.
“Yes,” Ziah spoke through grit teeth, “You said. Please, can we get started?”
“Started?” the woman snapped her head to stare at Ziah, “Darlin, there is no start, no beginnin, to eternity. Whether we cross the veil or not, the spirits are here.” She wore a ruby lip and cat-eyed, purple shadow, with hair, bleached blonde, surrounding her head in a perfectly round helmet. Lorelei said a silent prayer for the ozone then realized she’d done that before.
“I know her,” she whispered, sidling up to Ziah, “from TV.”
“Betsy Jo LaReaux,” the woman crossed her arms and popped out a hip, mimicking the pose Lorelei had seen in the opening montage of her show, “Clairvoyant to the Stars. You musta spent some time out there amongst my kind,” she winked at Lorelei, “The Charmed don’t like it, but simple human folk like me gotta earn a livin, and the spirits tell me everythang. Every. Thang.”
Lorelei gulped; at least the spirits hadn’t spoken of her secret yet.
“Betsy Jo can walk and work in both worlds. She’s exceedingly rare: a human with a charmed gift,” Ziah eyed Lorelei as if she were contemplating a new thought, then shook her head, “She’s the best, from what I understand, and she’s visited here before as a guest.”
“And I been itchin to come back,” she rubbed her hands together and glanced around the room, “Let’s all take a seat, shall we?”
Lorelei found herself between Hotaru and Conrad as they filled in around the table, Betsy Jo directly across from her. Their positions faintly resembled what she’d seen of seances on the couple episodes of Clairvoyant to the Stars she’d allowed to play in the background while doing other tasks, but the glitz was missing. Instead of the dark cloth draped over the table, it was bare wood, older and covered in knicks and scratches. There were no candles in varying sizes melting all over one another lining the walls, no purple and gold crystals reflecting the candle light, no massive crystal ball in the table’s center. But Betsy Jo was dramatic enough.
The woman threw her head back and her arms up, addressing the ceiling, “Spirits of Moonlit Shores Manor, hear my request. I beseech you, oh spirits, to assemble here this night, to wrap us in your protective light, and to present to us the truth we seek.”
Lorelei felt her stomach flutter. She always thought Clairvoyant to the Stars was a hoax, and yet Ziah had called her up to solve a very real problem. She glanced at the others around the table. Grier was still glaring at Lorelei from under a heavy, furrowed brow, Ziah and Hotaru beside him, both looking at Betsy Jo with a quiet suspicion. To Betsy Jo’s left sat Seamus, eyes twinkling as he apparently surveyed everyone as well, giving Lorelei a nod when their eyes met. Ren stared straight ahead at nothing in particular. Conrad, beside her, returned her look when she glanced at him, raising an eyebrow and gesturing toward the woman. I can’t believe it either, she told him, but only in her mind.
“By golly!” Betsy Jo exclaimed, slamming her hands against the table. She popped her eyes onto Ziah and huffed, “This place is fuller than a tick on a coonhound!”
“Well, many have lived–and I guess died–here over the last four hundred or so years.”
“And they come back,” she put a finger to her mouth in thought, “Even when they pass far away. This place calls to em. You’ve got to let me shoot here, for my charmed show!”
“Let’s see how this goes first, hm?”
Betsy Jo huffed, then sat back, “Alright, alright. Come on now,” she laid her palms up on the table and wiggled her fingers, “Ya’ll are gonna need to help, as I predicted.” Seamus immediately grabbed her hand, but she had to reach out and take Grier’s. When the rest did not rush to comply, she gestured with the hands she already held, nearly yanking Grier from his seat, “All ya’ll now!”
Lorelei looked to Conrad beside her hesitantly. He gave her half a grin and offered up his hand. She sat hers on top carefully then clasped down when she felt Hotaru picked up her other hand. When Ziah finally made reluctant contact with Grier, a spark flew through the group, zapping each in a wave as it traveled from Betsy Jo and back to her again. They were connected. “Now,” she gazed out over the table, “Do not let go.”
Their guide tipped her head back once more, but this time when she spoke, it was quiet, half in whispers, half inaudible. Gentle hisses filled up the room, riding on the hum of the furnace, until her one voice sounded as if it were many, layered on top of one another and coming from every corner. The others could hear it too, Lorelei confirmed, when they swiveled their heads to peer into the shadows at the edges of the room, but they followed Betsy Jo’s instruction, and she felt both Conrad and Hotaru’s hands tighten on her own.
Words began to form from the whispered sounds, each a fragment of something more, a “kitchen” or “hello” or “statue” rising up out of the sea of whispers each in its own unique voice none of which matched Betsy Jo’s, then fading back in. A chill ran up Lorelei’s spine despite the heat in the room, and a voice sounded just next to her ear, “It wasn’t me!” She jumped, but Conrad was holding fast and they did not break the circle.
As the voices became louder, there was a tinge of anger, blame perhaps, as they answered one another. Pieces of conversations floated around them as if the speakers were passing by. Lorelei thought she caught sight of a figure walking behind Grier, but when she turned to see it fully, it was not there. Another shadow flitted from the corner of her eye near Ren’s shoulder, and when she swiveled to catch it, there was again nothing, but Ren appeared paler, if possible, his eyes locked on the table, wide and searching.
The voices crescendoed suddenly, unmistakable now, loud and shouting. The bodies around the table all leaned forward, closer together, grips tightening, breaths held. Even Grier had lost the ire in his eyes and was panicked. Then Betsy Jo’s head snapped forward, her hair unmoving in its perfect halo, and her eyes fixed on a place just above Lorelei’s head, “There you are.”
The room plunged into silence in an instant, and Lorelei’s ears rung. Despite the orange glow, the room’s temperature had dropped, and if she had breathed, Lorelei thought she might see it.
“It’s okay, honey,” Betsy Jo spoke to no one, “I’ll help you. You can use me to talk to these nice people. Go on now.”
She snapped her head back, then gently dropped it forward again. Sleepy eyed but only for a moment, they popped open and she gasped, “No way!” Eagerly, she looked around the room, blinking, then down at herself, any trace of her accent gone, “This is too cool!” The look she wore disappeared, and her voice changed back to its failair southern drawl, “Don’t get comfortable, ya hear? I’m only allowin this so you can answer these nice people’s questions.” She gulped and nodded, her voice again dropping its accent and taking on a lilt, responding to herself, “Yes, yes, okay.”
As Betsy Jo looked out on them, they came to the shared conclusion she was no longer herself. Or she was a fabulous actor.
“So,” Ziah drew out the word, biting a lip, “are you our troublemaker?”
Betsy Jo shook her head, violently, eyes wide and unblinking.
“You’re not the one who made the chandelier fall or let the goats out?”
“Or unknotted all my ties?” Seamus piped up and the woman looked at him. “I, uh, have Arista pre-tie them all.” He grinned.
“Nu uh,” she shook her head again, then winced as if she’d been stabbed. Betsy Jo sighed, “Tell the truth,” in a scolding, southern drawl. “Ugh, okay, it was me!” she hung her head.
The alarm draining from her face, Ziah pursed her lips, “Well, why?”
“Cause,” Betsy Jo huffed, “I felt like it.”
The group traded looks, still holding one another’s hands though it felt normal now. Ren appeared composed again, and asked, “What is your name?”
“Samuel,” she ventured carefully.
Something stirred in Lorelei’s brain–a name, a face–but she couldn’t place it.
“And how old are you, Samuel?”
Betsy Jo’s eyes glanced around the table, and Samuel answered: “Forty nine.”
Ziah leaned forward, “How old were you when you…passed on?”
Samuel grumbled in the back of his throat, “Ten.”
“That’s a long time to be hanging around still,” Ziah offered cautiously, “Why are you still here?”
“I’m waiting for my mom and dad.”
A wave fell over the table and the cold felt different then, more empty. Ziah sat back, “Samuel, you could have hurt someone.”
“No!” he shouted using Betsy Jo’s voice, “I made sure nobody was around when I did those things! You didn’t get hurt, did you?” he looked directly at Lorelei.
She paused, then shook her head slowly.
“See, she’s fine.”
“Samuel, does Lorelei have something to do with why you’re…acting out?”
Betsy Jo’s eyes were staring daggers at her.
Grier laughed, “I knew it!”
Ziah glared at him, and he shut up immediately. She was careful how she went on, “Do you want to elaborate?”
“It’s just…that’s my fort, and she’s messing it up.”
“The room with the boxes,” he said as if they all should have known, “She moved everything.”
“The office,” Lorelei nodded at him, “I’m organizing the paperwork in there.”
“Typical,” Betsy Jo came back all at once, sitting up straight and arching a perfectly tweezed brow, “Construction and other big changes to living spaces really put a burr in their saddles, even the most casual hauntings. We can send Samuel to the other side, if you’d like. He’s not a particularly strong spirit, used up mosta his energy runnin all over hell’s half acre the last day.”
Though she clearly didn’t want the obstacle to her work, Lorelei felt a pang in her heart at that suggestion.
“That might be for the best,” Ziah offered quietly.
Suddenly panicked, Lorelei shouted, “Wait! What’s Samuel’s last name?”
Betsy Jo was quiet a minute, rolling her eyes back, “Winchester.”
She searched her mind. “Can I talk to him again? Just for a second?”
Closing her eyes, the woman sighed, then when she opened them again they were looking straight at her. There was panic in them, just like how she had felt a second earlier. “Sam, do you want to stay here?”
This time he nodded frantically.
“You know, if I finish organizing the office, there will be a bunch of space in there for you to play.”
“Yeah,” she couldn’t help but smile at the look Betsy Jo was giving her, even if it was an act, “But you can’t mess up the papers. And you definitely can’t drop heavy things from the ceiling.”
“Promise,” Ziah added, narrowing her brow.
“Yeah, yeah, promise!” Betsy Jo shook her head then blinked, “So what? No cleansin?” It was her again.
“I guess not,” Ziah shrugged and flashed a quick smile at Lorelei.
“Well, I ain’t givin ya a discount.”
Betsy Jo spoke to the manor’s spirits again, bestowing thanks on them and protection on the circle, and ended their communication gracefully. When finished, she released Grier and Seamus’s hands and placed her own flat on the table. She looked tired, if only for a moment, then pushed herself up to stand and began shaking hands.
Ziah touched Lorelei’s shoulder and leaned over in her ear, “Nice catch with the Winchester reservation.”
“Every year,” Lorelei sighed, “It must be sad for them.”
Betsy Jo took Ziah away then to discuss payment, and Lorelei lingered near the door while the others filed out, Grier now avoiding her gaze like the plague. Finally Betsy Jo broke off from Ziah and reached out for Lorelei’s hand. She was reticent to take it, but when she did, felt that same spark that had shot around the table.
“Oh!” Betsy Jo jerked as if she’d heard someone call her name. “Well,” she smiled, “they got a lot to say about you.”
Still trapped in her handhold, Lorelei attempted to lean back, but was only pulled in closer. “She won’t do it,” she whispered, “Trust yer gut, hun.” As if she read the look on Lorelei’s face, Betsy Jo LaReaux flashed her a dazzling red smile, “I’m bout as confused as a hen in a ping pong ball factory bout that too, but that’s what they want ya to know. Consider it a freebie.”
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