Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“ ‘Die, you pig-faced bitch’!”
“Damn it, Kiki, we told you to never read the comments.” Chase scolds Kiki without looking up from the video he’s editing with intense focus.
“Do I have a pig face?” When Kiki looks up from her phone, she’s near tears. She’s the most sensitive soul on planet Earth. Also, somehow, the most lovable.
Emmaline sucks in a deep breath to suppress an eye roll, her fingers tightening on the EMF detector she’s fiddling with. Emma is thick-skinned, with steel guts. She’s smart as hell and will go to any school she wants next year. No doubt one of the Ivies.
This ghost detector is an Emma brainchild, just like a lot of our gear. Apparently, this one uses electromagnetic frequencies to spell out words. It mostly works.
“Oh my God, no,” Emma groans.
“It’s probably about me,” I say. Kiki’s pulsing with energy and I’m already on the verge of a headache. I throw her a reassuring smile and squeeze her hand. It does the trick. Her nerves settle and the throbbing in my head lightens.
Kiki’s gained a few pounds recently, and despite the fact that the weight looks good on her, she’s letting it get to her. It’s not something she says to me; it’s something that pops into my head. A thought that doesn’t belong to my own brain.
Other people’s thoughts often drop into my head like pebbles in a stream. Feelings out of place and unfamiliar, a voice that isn’t my own, knowledge I shouldn’t have and can’t explain.
I run a hand through my hair and realize the reason Kiki’s in my head is because I’ve taken my hat off to scratch my scalp. I throw the wool beanie back on and make a mental note to find a different, not-itchy hat for this weekend. Hats are my mind’s protection from unwanted, intrusive thoughts and feelings, from both the living and the dead.
Cue that famous line whispered by the little kid in the movie The Sixth Sense:
I see dead people.
A blessing and a curse, right? Scares you shitless when you’re three years old and you wake up to a shadowy man standing in your bedroom doorway. You’re unable to move, too scared to make a sound. After countless nights of terror, you get fed up and tell him to go away. Surprise, surprise, he doesn’t budge.
Shortly after he appears, your mom starts taking “special” trips to the hospital with your dad while you play at the neighbors’ house. Eventually, she loses all her pretty hair and gets really skinny and sad, with hollows under her eyes. For two years, the shadow man appears in your doorway, faceless and silent. It’s not until you’re five years old that you finally ask him what he wants. This time he starts to move, to shiver, like you’re looking at him through a glass of water. One second, he’s in the doorway, the next he’s right in front of you. No eyes, no mouth, no nose. A shadow where his head should be. You scream until you black out, and when you wake up in the morning, your mother is dead.
Everyone you try to tell pats you on the back with poor- little-girl-just-lost-her-mommy eyes. “What a horrible dream. That must have really scared you, huh?”
But what they don’t know is that now the spirit world has got your number, so your childhood bedroom becomes a rest stop on the road to the great beyond. A holding cell for souls with unfinished business. Or those who die too soon. Sometimes violently.
Unfortunately—spoiler alert—there’s no otherworldly psychiatrist to help you cope with all the dead people. You do eventually tell your dad and he shrugs it off as silly kid’s stuff. You realize you’re all alone with this curse, so you’re going to have to figure it out. You try lots of things to get the dead people to go away, to get them out of your head, but nothing works. No, they don’t always want your help. Yes, sometimes they just want to scare you. The spirit realm is not the rainbows-and-butterflies place most psychic mediums (who are mostly frauds) will tell you it is. It’s not black-and-white like that.
So you learn to deal because what other choice do you have?
You start sleeping with a pillow over your head because it drowns out the voices. Never completely, but just enough to let you sleep for a few hours at a time. You realize later that a hat works just as well as a pillow and is portable, so it becomes your number one fashion accessory.
Enter Chase Montgomery. He’s cute and a nerd, so when he’s assigned to be your partner for a film class project, you secretly jump for joy. Little do you know, your secret talent for communicating with the dead shows up on film. Streaks of light and orbs plague the camera in your presence. Chase not only notices, he also directly inquires as to why that could be. You try to make something up on the fly, but unfortunately for you, Chase and his mom are avid paranormal TV enthusiasts. Chase calls you out as exactly what you are, and it’s the first time anyone has ever believed you.
He’s also the first person who sees your curse as a blessing. He calls it a “gift.” It’s refreshing, though you wouldn’t necessarily agree. He asks if he can interview you on his budding YouTube channel. The episode gains him one hundred new subscribers almost overnight, so he recruits his genius tech- geek bestie Emma to help him shoot a full episode of what starts out as Ghost Girl. You do readings for people and take your audience on what you call “ghost walks” of haunted Vegas locales.
In just a few short months, Ghost Girl gains a cute fan base of about ten thousand subscribers. It’s impressive, but Chase is always hungry, never satisfied. He recruits Kiki Lawrence to do a reading with you. Kiki is TikTok famous for her feminist rants, dramatic makeup transformations, and viral dances in kaleidoscopic sixties-go-go-dancer-inspired outfits. Not to mention she’s got the most beautiful color-changing hair on the planet.
Kiki’s terrified yet charming reaction to your talk with her dead grandmother skyrockets the channel to fifty thousand fans. Turns out the people want a cast of characters, and when you’re in show business, you learn to give them what they want. Just like that, the Ghost Gang is officially born.
Now you have friends and a purpose.
But what you don’t have is anyone who understands. You’re alone with the voices inside your head, and not even the scratchiest wool hat can keep them out.
Kiki gasps and it shakes me out of my reverie.
“Come on. Are you looking at comments again?” Chase asks, annoyed.
“No.” Kiki tries to hide her phone behind her back as Chase makes a grab for it. He’s quicker than she is. As he reads what’s on the screen, his jaw tightens.
“What is it?” I ask.
Reluctantly, Chase turns the phone so we can all read the comment.
if i kill u will u stay with me forever?
“Yikes, stalker much?” Emma tugs nervously at the strings of her hoodie.
“It’s hauntedbyher666,” Chase says, frowning. He looks at me, his eyes worried. I know he thinks it’s directed at me.
The problem is this isn’t the first time we’ve heard from hauntedbyher666. The comments started about a year ago. We think it’s a guy because, well, statistics point to online trolling being perpetrated mostly by men. His comments are usually about “killing u”—whoever “u” is—but he never goes into specifics. He just drops a murderous load in the comments and takes off. Other fans reply to him in our defense, but he never engages further. It’s one and done, and then he disappears, sometimes for months.
We always report him, but somehow he keeps coming back. It’s creepy as hell, but it never escalates past the comments, and there’s not much the authorities can do about cyberstalkers until they basically come to your house waving a gun around.
“It’s just some internet troll,” I say, trying to reassure Chase. “Report it to YouTube.”
Chase nods solemnly. He clicks the three little dots next to the username and flags the comment for harassment.
I do everything I can to stay out of Chase’s head—always. He hates it when I hear his thoughts, but this time his feelings make his internal dialogue too loud to ignore.
Chrissy’s in danger.
“I’m not,” I say. I clap one hand over my mouth when I realize I’ve just responded to a private thought.
Chase groans out loud and slams his computer shut. He stands up and shoves his hands in his pockets before stalking to the pool house door.
Kiki and Emma exchange a knowing look from the plush white sofa across the room. Chase’s family’s pool house is all lush decor meant to impress guests, but we’re pretty much the only ones ever in here to use the handmade marble coasters on the three-thousand-dollar Restoration Hardware coffee table. We keep the furry lavender throw pillows and crystal candleholders in pristine condition.
“Where are you going?” I ask him.
“Snack,” he says, throwing the door open.
It slams shut behind him.
Chase blows off steam for a few minutes and comes back in a much better mood with an armful of snacks from his parents’ overstuffed pantry. We gorge ourselves on Cheetos and Doritos and all variations of ee-tos, using paper towels to clean the dust from our fingers so we don’t get it on the throw pillows, and wait impatiently for the final cut of our latest episode.
“Genius perfection,” Chase finally exclaims, spinning around in his editing chair, eyes a little dilated from staring at the screen. Joy pulses from him like the score of a Disney movie. “Anyone want a final look before I upload?” He’s not really asking.
The cursor hovers above the Publish button.
“We know that’s rhetorical,” Emma says, shooting up from her chair and over to the black bags she’s lined up to load all our gear. She sets the EMF reader in its cushioned bag right next to the thermographic camera filter she assembled from materials she found on Amazon.
I watch the little gray bar on Chase’s screen slowly edge forward. The video is a teaser for the Halloween special we’re shooting this weekend. It’s a sizzle reel of the last few months of episodes plus a reading at the Bellagio Ballroom on the Las Vegas Strip.
Most of our episodes are documentary-style, like Ghost Hunters, but without the Syfy budget. We’re most funded by Chase’s real estate mogul father when he decides to take a break from being disgusted by his son’s Hollywood dreams. Also, Chase mows lawns on weekends to pay for our travel expenses, and Kiki worked out an influencer deal with an online store called Ghost Tech to get us discounted ghost-hunting gear.
Vegas is full of haunted locales, and we use the Montgomery name to shoot just about wherever we want (since most of the casino owners live in houses developed by Chase’s dad).
Our first on-location shoot was at the Sandhill Tunnels, the site of a tragic car crash. We’ve filmed at the Luxor on the Strip, where too many depressed patrons have leapt to their deaths inside the pyramid. Then there’s the Hoover Dam, which has a similar problem, and lest we forget, the corner of Flamingo and Koval, where Tupac was gunned down at a red light. Even in broad daylight, there’s something eerie and sad about that intersection.
Chase pops up, stretching long. My eyes fix on the strip of tan skin showing between the hem of his T-shirt and his jeans. He’s backlit by the three computer monitors set up on the wall-to-wall desk that he uses to edit in addition to his laptop. I don’t realize I’m staring until he walks over to the snack pile and picks up a Kit Kat. He unwraps it, snaps it in two and shoves half into his mouth.
“All right, plan for tomorrow?” he asks, mouth full.
Kiki is already taking off her swimsuit cover-up like business time has ended, but with Chase, that’s never the case. Her face twitches with disappointment and my heart clenches—she’s right, we rarely just chill. Kiki rolls her eyes and flops down on the sofa, crossing her legs. Her newly pink-and-purple-streaked hair sits coiled on top of her head, beautifully contrasting with her dark brown skin.
Chase grabs a Mountain Dew from the mini fridge and hovers behind the sofa, holding the soda in one hand and opening the Waze app on his phone with the other.
“I’ve packed up most of the gear,” Emma says. She yanks off her glasses and uses the hem of her T-shirt to wipe them clean of any smudges.
“We should head out in the morning,” Chase says. Kiki groans loudly. Chase messes with the Plan a Drive settings in the app. “It says the Hearst Hotel is only four hours away as long as we leave by eleven.”
We’re going to what is quite possibly the most haunted hotel in America in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Los Angeles in record-scorching SoCal heat on Halloween weekend, all without parental permission.
“I can’t believe you’re actually going to go through with this,” Emma says, eyes on Chase. Chase is willing to make bold moves for the channel but has never risked the wrath of his parents in such a blatant way.
He shrugs, but he’s sweating. “This trip is our ticket to one million subs. The benefits outweigh the risk.”
“Taking your mom’s Escalade to downtown LA without telling her?” Emma says. “You’re a madman.”
“We’re there and back, just one night.” Chase forces a grin. He simmers with nervous energy, ready to explode into a rolling boil any second. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Why would you say that?” Kiki squeaks, covering her ears.
“We’re doomed for sure now!” Emma slaps a hand over her forehead for added drama.
Chase frowns at both of them and crosses his arms over his chest, trying to hide the pit sweat seeping through his white T-shirt. I giggle, fully aware that they are (mostly) teasing him. Chase is serious about being serious, a trait he inherited from his dear old dad, who inherited it from his dear old dad— a fact that I know only because I catch occasional glimpses of Chase’s dead grandfather scowling at me from a second-story window.
We all told our parents different stories about where we’re going on Saturday. Chase told his parents he’s doing an SAT prep all-nighter at our school. Kiki told her mom we’re going on a camping trip and Emma told her parents she’s going to a robotics conference. As for me, my dad doesn’t really notice when I’m not there, so I plan to leave him a stack of microwave meals in the freezer along with a note that I’ll be back on Sunday.
Not that my dad would care that much anyway. He’s got more of a fall-asleep-in-front-of-the-TV type of parenting style. Also, depression. My grandmother (whom I never met) shows up in my dreams sometimes begging me to get my dad on meds. I always remind her that I’m not a doctor and that he refuses to see one. She’s not happy with how my dad is handling things in my mother’s absence, but there’s not much she can do about it from beyond the grave.
As for my mother, I’ve never seen her in spirit. Not one time. I tried to summon her myself once with a Ouija board in an attic and ended up with a back full of bloody scratches from malevolent ghosts. (Don’t ever, ever touch—don’t even look at—a Ouija board.)
Unfortunately, you can’t pick and choose the ghosts you summon—they choose you.
“People,” I say, drawing their attention to me before everyone’s nerves get the best of them. Kiki told us recently to stop saying guys since it’s not gender inclusive. “It’s too late to back out now. The Halloween teaser is up. Our subscribers have been asking for this video for months.”
What they’ve really been asking is for me to use my gift to make contact with Eileen Warren.
You see, the Hearst isn’t just your average, everyday haunted hotel. It’s also the site of one of the most internet-famous mysteries of the last decade.
Nearly ten years ago, after going missing for almost a week, the remains of twenty-five-year-old grad student Eileen Warren were found scattered in an elevator shaft. A month into the investigation, authorities released footage from hours before Eileen’s untimely death. Her bizarre and erratic behavior led many Mom’s-basement-dwelling internet sleuths to believe her death was not the accident the coroner had ruled it to be.
These Reddit detectives all have their own theories about how and why Eileen Warren ended up in that elevator shaft. But based on her posts and my own experiences with the paranormal, I have a sneaking suspicion that her visions were more psychic than psychotic.
“We’re not backing out, we’re just wigging out,” Emma counters, chewing on her lip. Despite Emma’s laissez-faire facade, lip chewing is her number one tell that she’s nervous as hell.
“Can I swim now?” Kiki asks, arms folded and lips pouty. Her bikini is tie-dye and matches her hair.
“Go for it,” Chase says. “I gotta go inside and finish AP calc.”
“You’re not done yet? I finished that at lunch.” Emma yawns and stretches, rubbernecking Kiki as she leaves to splash into the pool.
“I finished that at lunch,” Chase mocks Emma’s not-so-humble brag. He chugs the rest of his Dew and then smashes the can in one hand and Kobes it into the trash. “Eleven a.m. tomorrow. Please don’t be late.”
He shouts the last line for Kiki, who is always late to absolutely everything. She flips him off from her rainbow pool float, confirming that she one hundred percent plans to be late.
Chase groans and pauses to flip the light off inside the pool house. He looks back at me. “Coming, C?”
I stare past him at the faceless shadowy figure standing in the doorway. It’s been many years, but there’s no mistaking it. The deadly omen that haunted my preschool years, that vanished the day my mother died . . . is back.
“Chrissy?” Chase blinks at me with concern in his eyes. I’m frozen in place.
I shut my eyes tight and when I open them again, the shadow man is gone.
“Coming” is all I say.