I’m not terribly good with writing prompts. I tend to like them as little snippets of weirdness unto themselves, rather than as a starting point for anything.
However, every now and then one just sneaks in. And, as I am Terribly Organised, I now of course can no longer find the exact prompt. But it did involve the ghost of a sous-chef whispering, The lizards are anxious!
So there we go. Enjoy!
Rachel Agnew, Ghost Hunter
Rachel ran her finger carefully down the table of contents in The Ghost Hunter’s Manual & How-to Guide.
“Poltergeists and Restless Spirits,” she read aloud. “Haunted Objects. Ek— eko— Ectoplasm and its Origins.” She closed the book with a sigh and looked at the cat sat on the table next to her. “Laetitia, it’s all just the same as the other books. Nothing new. Nothing interesting.”
The cat looked at her with cool green eyes, then rubbed her face on the edge of the book, almost knocking it from Rachel’s grasp. She giggled, and scratched the cat’s head.
“Honestly,” she said, “We’re not learning anything new here. I mean, the case studies are interesting, but it’s just rehashing the same old stuff. If only Mum would let me sign up for that online course. I bet we’d learn loads from that.”
The cat blinked lazily, then sat up straight, staring into the shadows of the library stacks. Rachel followed her gaze. She couldn’t see anything unusual, but all the books said that animals had better perceptions of the supernatural than even children did, so there could be anything out there.
Movement among the shelves, a soft scuff of shoes on worn carpet, and the squeak and groan of old wheels. Rachel relaxed. Ghosts didn’t scuff their feet. Or she didn’t imagine that they did.
A librarian rounded the corner, pushing a trolley laden with returned books. He spotted Rachel at the table and gave her a loose salute.
“Morning, Ghost Hunter General. How goes it?”
“Well, I’m researching,” she said, “But it’s the same in all the books. You need crosses and Holy Water, although doesn’t seem terribly scientific. And Mum won’t let me get holy water from the church anyway. She says it’s rude, especially as we don’t go. I said I’d sign up if I could get holy water, but she said it doesn’t work like that, and to stop asking.”
“I suppose she has a point,” the librarian said, unloading an armful of books. “You can’t just be going around stealing holy water.”
“I said that if I couldn’t have holy water, then I needed more scientific equipment, but she said I have to wait till Christmas to get an EMF. I think she thinks I’ll have grown out of it by then.”
The librarian gave her an amused look. “I’m sure she knows you better than that.”
“Well. Maybe.” Rachel closed the book. “But I don’t know how I’m supposed to build my career without the right equipment.”
“Indeed.” The librarian put the last of his armload away and scratched his beard thoughtfully. His name was Angus, and as well as the beard he had tattoos and a ring in his lip. Rachel liked him – he never tried to send her off to the kids’ section like some of the other librarians, or do the ‘Are you sure, dear?’ thing when she was checking books out. Now he selected a book from the Paranormal section and held it out to her. “What about this one?”
She slid off her chair and went to take it from him. “The Beginner’s Guide to Spirit Communication.” She glared at him. “I’m not some cheap medium. This is a scientific endeavour.”
“Absolutely. But the nature of scientific investigation is to eliminate all possibilities. So, you could set up a video camera and have a go at contacting the spirits, in order to disprove the practise of … of … spiritual charlatanry.”
She squinted at him. “You made that last word up.”
“Look it up.”
“You’re a weird librarian.”
Being a medium was a lot cheaper than being a ghost hunter. Rachel raided the candles from her parent’s bathroom – the book didn’t say anything about what sort of candles you needed, and she imagined that lavender and sandalwood scented ones would only make for more relaxed spirit communication. The crystal ball was trickier, but apparently it wasn’t strictly necessary. You just needed something to focus your attention, and her old shooting star night-light did just fine for that.
She set everything up on the desk in her bedroom, wondering if the drama of things mattered. The desk was pink, and still had My Little Pony stickers emblazoned across it from that embarrassing phase a year or so ago. She pulled out her Rachel Agnew, Ghost Hunter, notebook and wrote down her doubts about the unsuitable backdrop, then took a couple of photos on her phone. Thorough documentation was important.
She sat down, closed her eyes, and announced, “I am talking to those who have passed over! Come, speak to me!”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the response was an overwhelming silence.
“Good morning, Laetitia,” Rachel said to the cat, who was sitting on the returned books pile.
“Her name’s Miss Bronte,” the librarian said. Rachel didn’t like this one as much as Angus. She was young and pretty and sniffy, like she didn’t think libraries were a place for aspiring Ghost Hunters.
“It’s not,” Rachel said. “She told me it’s Laetitia. It’s really rude to keep calling her by the wrong name.”
The librarian rolled her eyes and went back to the computer. Laetitia jumped from the counter and followed Rachel deeper into the library.
The library was an old building, nothing grand or particularly beautiful, but aged and solid and soaked in years. At some stage there had been a suspended ceiling and clad walls, hiding the grey stone, but sense had eventually prevailed, and now hooded lights hung suspended from the dark beams high above the stacks, and the walls were bare and beautiful. Well, Rachel thought they were. Except in the kids’ section, where they were all primary colours and big-eyed animal posters. She skirted it carefully, as if afraid she’d be dragged in, and found a quiet corner between History and Nature.
She set out a black cloth (it was an old t-shirt that her dad never wore and she was fairly certain he wouldn’t miss) and placed LED candles around its edges. Her mum had been less that happy when she’d walked into Rachel’s bedroom to find all the candles burning. She’d confiscated the matches and given her a lecture about playing with fire, and hadn’t listened a bit to Rachel’s indignant assertions that she was working, not playing. But she had found the LED candles for her in a drawer in the kitchen, so there was that. Rachel supposed that lighting candles in the library would probably have been pushing things anyway.
Now she sat down cross-legged, closed her eyes and intoned, “Spirits, come to me. I am talking to those who have passed beyond. Come to me.”
Silence. No cold drafts or whispering voices. Just the muted clatter of keys from the internet stations and someone laughing toward the front of the library.
“Spirits, come to me,” Rachel insisted, starting to feel a little silly. “I mean no harm. Reveal yourselves.”
Still nothing, and she opened one eye a crack. Laetitia was sat in the centre of the black cloth, staring off into the stacks.
“Laetitia! You’re sitting in the middle of the summoning thingy. That’s not going to help matters.”
The cat didn’t look at her, just kept staring.
“Laetitia?” Rachel followed the cat’s gaze cautiously, feeling the hairs beginning to prickle on her arms. Was it colder? She didn’t think so, but—
There was a man standing in front of the History shelves, the books still faintly visible through his white jacket and checked trousers. Rachel stared at him, suddenly far too hot, almost feverish feeling. It was like when she’d been really sick that once, waves of heat and cold passing over her and black spots swimming in her eyes. The man lifted one hand uncertainly, then dropped it again, and his movement broke her paralysis. She scrabbled for her phone, the video already running, and turned it toward him. She could see him on the screen, a little faint and quite suddenly not that terrifying at all. She raised her eyes to him again, reminding herself that she was a scientist first and foremost, and she needed to act like it.
“Hello … uh … spirit,” she said. “Can you identify yourself?”
The spirit took a hesitant step closer, and Rachel zoomed in on his feet. It looked like he was standing on the carpet rather than floating, but it was hard to know for sure. She zoomed out again.
“I’m Rachel, and I’m a Ghost Hunter,” she told him. A look of terror crossed his face, and he backed up, starting to fade into the shelves. “No, no! Not like a … I don’t kill ghosts, or anything. I just investigate them. Come back!”
The ghost stopped, a copy of The Battle of Britain protruding from his forehead, which was somewhat off-putting.
Rachel smiled encouragingly. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to find out why you’re haunting the library.” Although, come to think of it, she’d never heard of the library being haunted. But he did seem to be a particularly nervous ghost, so maybe he just hid all the time. “Come on,” she said. “Look, we’re friendly!”
Laetitia gave her a look that suggested she might not entirely agree, but the ghost re-emerged from the shelves and came a little closer. He didn’t drift, exactly, but his footfalls were entirely silent, so Rachel supposed that the less keen-eyed observer might imagine he was drifting.
“Now,” she said. “What’s your name?”
The ghost whispered something, a rustling sound like pages turning.
Rachel frowned. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”
He whispered again, more forcefully this time. “…lizards…”
“Lizards are what?” Rachel asked, bewildered. “What lizards?” This was not going exactly how she’d expected.
“The lizards. The lizards are…”
“Rachel? What on earth are you doing?” Unfriendly Librarian demanded.
Rachel gave a little shriek of surprise, almost dropping her phone, and the ghost let out a startled wail, spinning around and diving head first into the History shelves.
“No, no, come back!” She rushed to the shelves, ignoring the librarian, peering between the books, but there was no sign of the lizard-obsessed ghost.
“Rachel! I asked what you were doing.”
She turned back reluctantly, and looked down at Laetitia, still seated in the middle of the electric candles. The Unfriendly Librarian obviously hadn’t seen the ghost. Not that Rachel was surprised – grown-ups lacked the sensitivity of children and animals. All the books said so.
“I’m having a tea party with Laetitia.”
The Unfriendly Librarian looked sceptical. “Really? Where are your tea cups, then?”
Rachel snorted. “Since when do cats use tea cups?”
The woman shook her head. “Honestly. Your mother shouldn’t bring you to work like this all the time, expecting us to babysit.”
“I don’t need a babysitter. I’m a Ghost Hunter.”
“Sure you are.” She turned away. “Don’t make a mess. And don’t hassle Miss Bronte.”
“Her name is Laetitia,” Rachel whisper-shouted at the Unfriendly Librarian’s back, but she didn’t turn around, just gave a vague wave with one hand. Rachel looked at the cat. “Isn’t it?”
The cat winked, which Rachel figured meant yes.
The ghost refused to come back, although Rachel tried summoning him several times through the afternoon. The Unfriendly Librarian had obviously frightened him off, not that Rachel was surprised. She’d seen small children reduced to tears by the Unfriendly Librarian, so it made sense that a timid ghost would want to avoid her.
At home, she uploaded the video onto her laptop and watched it over and over, but she couldn’t find out anything more from it, except to determine that he was wearing chef’s clothes. Still, it was excellent research material, and she entered the relevant notes into her logbook, remembering to highlight the bit where the Unfriendly Librarian had scared the ghost off. Honestly. How was she expected to work under these conditions?
The next day she set up her workshop – she couldn’t bring herself to call it an altar, even in the name of scientific investigation – in the same spot, and called for the ghost once more.
There was no response, and eventually she had to give up when an elderly woman came to browse the war section, and kept stepping over the cloth, muttering “excuse me”, and once treading on Laetitia’s tail. They retreated together to the big sofas in the adult reading section, and curled up to read about the significance of lizards to ghosts, something that had surprisingly little documentation.
Rachel had dozed off over a copy of The Layperson’s Guide to Spiritual Symbolism when she felt the cat shift and sit up. She petted her reassuringly. “S’okay,” she murmured. “Go back to sleep.”
The cat gave a soft, breathy mew, and Rachel opened her eyes.
The ghost was crouched in front of the sofa, his vaguely translucent and very worried face so close that she’d have felt his breath if he’d had any. Rachel gave an unprofessional yelp, pressing herself back into the sofa, and the ghost flinched backward, his eyes wide and terrified.
“No no! Don’t go! Stay, please!” She reached out to him instinctively, her fingers passing through his arm and setting an electric little shiver up her spine. They gawped at each other.
“The lizards,” the ghost whispered. This close, she could see that his checked trousers were dusted with ghostly flour, and that he had a burn on one hand.
“What lizards? I don’t understand.”
He closed his eyes, frustrated. “The lizards. The lizards are. The lizards are…”
He shook his head in frustration, drumming his fingers against his lips. Laetitia had been sniffing around his feet, and now she tried to rub against his leg. She stumbled sideways and through his trousers, an astonished look on her face, and Rachel stifled a giggle. That would be very unscientific, laughing in the middle of an actual ghost encounter. Which reminded her … she grabbed her phone and put the video on.
“The lizards are what, Mr. Ghost? And what’s your name? Do you remember?”
He opened his mouth, thought for a moment, then repeated, “The lizards.”
“But what’s your name?”
He pounded a ghostly fist against his ghostly thigh. “Lizards! The lizards are! Lizards! LIZARDS!”
“Okay, okay. I get it. The lizards are the important bit here.” She supposed she should have been a little scared at least, but it was hard when the ghost looked so unhappy. Obviously she needed to release him from his haunting, but she wasn’t quite sure how she was going to do that. She’d not researched exorcisms yet. “Okay, so I think I see the problem here. You have to tell someone about the lizards, then you’ll be released from this earthly plane, right?”
The ghost looked puzzled. “Lizards?”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to understand. That’s my job. I’m a professional Ghost Hunter.”
“Lizards.” He sounded suitably impressed.
“So, sometimes ghosts are an echo of our former selves, but you’re interacting with me, so that’s not it. Which means you have unfinished business. Obviously this unfinished business involves lizards.”
“Exactly.” She frowned. “But how … oh, I know! Stay here!” She jumped up and ran toward the children’s section, leaving the cat and the ghost sitting next to each other in the quiet library.
She was back a moment later with a chalkboard. “There. Now you can write it out.”
The ghost looked at the board dubiously, then reached out for the chalk. His fingers passed through it. “Lizard?”
“Well, not with your hands, obviously. You have to use telekinesis.”
“Move it with your mind. You know, like a poltergeist.”
“Lizard!” The ghost became markedly fainter, looking around nervously.
“No, no – there aren’t any poltergeists here. You need to move the chalk like you’re one, though.”
The ghost frowned, then stared at the chalk, his face screwed up in concentration. Rachel and Laetitia looked on with interest. There was a long, tense silence, then the ghost sighed, and shook his head in frustration.
“Really? You can’t move it at all?”
“Maybe you just need some practise.”
The ghost shrugged, then pointed to the stacks, mimed opening a book, and shook his head again.
“You can’t even open a book?”
He pointed at her and nodded.
“Wow. How long have you been dead?”
He turned his palms up and shrugged, then brought his hands together and pulled them apart again, eyebrows raised.
“A long time, huh?”
“Umm … so, have you communicated with anyone before?”
He shook his head, made a sad face.
“Okay. Okay, let me think.” He was a bit of a rubbish ghost, really – dead for ages, but he couldn’t even haunt anything properly. Still, every Ghost Hunter has to start somewhere. “Alright. So, maybe if you mime out the rest of the sentence, so I understand it, then I say the words, maybe you’ll be able to as well. Then you’ll be released. That’ll be good, right?”
“Lizards!” He sounded suddenly excited.
“Okay.” Rachel had a quick check around, but there was no one about. The library was always at its quietest in the early afternoon. “Off you go.”
“The lizards. The lizards are. The lizards are…” He pulled a gruesome face.
He shook his head, tried again.
He waved. Closer.
“Umm … angry. Furious. Hungry.”
He stopped, glared at her.
“Sorry. I missed lunch.”
“The lizards are…”
“Scared. Frightened. Worried. Anxious. Panicking—” but she stopped, because he was bouncing up and down, feet soundless on the carpet, one leg vanishing into a shelf. “Anxious? The lizards are anxious?”
He nodded eagerly, clapping his hands together. They connected, Rachel noticed, but made no sound.
“What lizards, though? And why would they be anxious?”
His smile faded, and he shrugged, looking worried.
“Okay, well … maybe that’s not important. Say it. See if you can say the words.”
“The lizards. The lizards are. The lizards are…”
He stopped, and Rachel could see his throat working. “Come on! Come on, you can do it!”
“The lizards are. The lizards are…an…anxious! The lizards are anxious! The lizards are anxious!” The ghostly chef was jumping up and down again, shouting the words, and one of his out-thrust hands caught a book, sending it spinning to the ground.
“Ooh,” Rachel said. “I thought you couldn’t do that?”
He stared at the book, then at her, eyes wide. “The lizards are anxious?”
“Try it again.” She kept the phone camera trained on him as he reached out carefully, and pushed at a book. He didn’t look any more solid, and his fingers sank into it up to the first knuckle, but then it moved, sliding out of place and teetering on the edge of the shelf before falling to the floor. Rachel winced as it flopped open, and she went to pick up both books. “Okay, so that’s interesting.”
“Indeed. Why haven’t you vanished, now you’re been able to say your words? I mean – can you see a door, or a white light, or anything?”
“Lizards.” The ghost picked up the piece of chalk gingerly, managing to hold onto it for a moment before it fell to the floor. “Lizards!”
“Yes, but this wasn’t the point. You were meant to move on once you could talk, not turn into a poltergeist.”
“The lizards are anxious!”
“Stop that!” Rachel grabbed a book before it could fall to the floor. “You’ll scare Laetitia!”
The cat gave her a bored look from the back of the sofa.
“Lizards! Lizards lizards lizards!” The ghost spun in a circle, grabbed the chalk from the floor and flung it across the room. “LIZARDS!” Then he dived into the shelves and was gone.
Rachel looked at Laetitia. “This did not go quite the way I intended.”
The cat gave a yawn that was uncomfortably close to laughter.
The ghost didn’t appear again that afternoon, and when they arrived back at the library the next morning everything seemed normal.
“Are you sure you’re okay hanging around here again?” Rachel’s mum asked her. “You know I could probably find a babysitter you haven’t scared off with your ghosts yet.”
“And what? Have to go to the park or the movies or something? No. I’m happy.” Rachel was examining the shelves for signs of disruption.
“Are you sure? You seem a little anxious.”
“Anxious? No! I mean, no. I’m fine. Is Angus working today?”
“Yes, he is. Don’t be hanging around bothering him all the time, though.”
“And please stop calling Tamara the Unfriendly Librarian. It’s not nice.”
“Yes, Mum.” Rachel was already heading into the stacks.
The library was quiet. It was sunny outside, and not many people bothered with the library on sunny days. Rachel and Laetitia patrolled the shelves, the sound of footfalls and books on the counter making her jumpy. But all was quiet. No whispers, no supernatural activity at all. Maybe it had just been a bit of a delayed reaction. Maybe the door had opened for him during the night or something, and off he’d gone into the light.
She jumped. “Yes?”
“What’re you doing? You’ve been walking in circles all morning.” Angus stepped around one of the stacks. “You’re going to wear poor Laetitia’s paws out.”
Rachel peered around him. The Unfriendly Librarian was on the front desk, ignoring them. “Have you noticed anything unusual?” she asked.
“Other than you?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, other than me.”
“Because I think the library has a ghost.”
“Oh! You found one! Well done.”
She scowled at him. “I’m serious.”
“So am I. That’s great ghost hunting.”
“Well, the thing is, we may have a problem.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“The lizards are anxious!”
The whisper came from right next to her ear, and she jumped, spinning around. The ghost grinned at her from among the books.
“Rachel? Are you okay?” Angus asked.
“Didn’t you hear that?”
“Shut up!” Rachel hissed.
“I’m sorry?” Angus was frowning at her now.
“Not you, the ghost.”
“The ghost’s here now?”
“Lizards. Lizards. Lizards lizards lizards!”
“How can you not hear that?” Rachel demanded.
“Humour me,” Angus said. “What’s it saying?”
“’The lizards are anxious’.”
“’The lizards are anxious’?”
“Yeah. Or quite often just ‘lizards’.”
“I see.” Angus scratched his beard. “Um … do you think maybe you’re spending a bit much time in here?”
“That’s what he’s saying!”
“Okay, but Rachel—”
“Lizards! Liz-ards!” Three books spun off the shelf from behind Rachel and onto the floor.
“Rachel!” Angus exclaimed.
“It was the ghost!”
He shook his head. “Put them back.”
“But it wasn’t me!”
“Oh, shut up!” Rachel shouted at the shelves.
“Pick those books up, then go calm down,” Angus said. “Otherwise I’m going straight to your mother.” He turned and walked away, and Rachel slumped against the shelves, her face hot and tight-feeling. Laetitia sniffed the fallen books, then sat down and started cleaning a paw, unconcerned.
“Lizards?” A voice said, rather apologetically, and the ghost emerged from the stacks. He tried to pick up the books and accidentally put his hand through the cat, who hissed. “Lizards.”
They sat on the sofa, the girl, the cat and the ghost. Every now and then the ghost forgot he was meant to be sitting on top of the cushions and sank in up to his waist, which was disconcerting.
“I helped you,” Rachel said to him. “I mean, I know the door and the white light didn’t appear, but I helped you.”
“Lizards,” he said, rather disconsolately.
“Now Angus is angry at me, and thinks I’m a liar. And a book damager, which is even worse.”
“It’s just no good. You’re going to have to stop.”
“Well, it’s just too bad. You should have behaved.”
The ghost pulled himself out of the sofa and carefully picked up a book. “The lizards are anxious,” he said earnestly, and the book floated into the air, followed by a cushion.
Rachel gaped, watching the book turn a lazy somersault, then land on top of the drifting cushion. “That’s amazing!”
“Lizards!” The ghost gestured towards Laetitia, who rose into the air, looking mildly astonished.
Rachel burst out laughing, then covered her mouth with her hands, still giggling. The ghost grinned, and another few books slipped off the shelves and headed skywards, circling each other like some complicated mobile. “How did you learn that so quickly?”
Rachel felt her feet leave the floor, then her bottom lift off the sofa, and she covered her mouth again, smothering a torrent of giggles as she floated past Laetitia, banging her knee on a bookshelf and rolling upside down with her hair in her eyes.
“I’m okay, I’m okay.” She paddled wildly at the air, managing to right herself, still giggling.
“Lizards!” The ghost sounded happy, and she saw him smiling as she spun slowly on the spot, like a ball drifting in a pool.
This would all have to be recorded in detail, of course, but right now she didn’t even care that her phone was still on the arm of the sofa below her. They’d do it again, properly documented, and then she’d write a ghost hunting – no, a ghost befriending book, and be world famous and … she was upside down again, and looking at a pair of pointy purple heels.
And then she fell. Everything was falling, the floor too close for her to get her legs under her, and she just knew she was going to break her nose or lose a tooth or—
Strong hands grabbed her, setting her upright almost effortlessly before she could face plant into the old green carpet (although it was a close thing), and steadied her as she staggered. Laetitia gave an indignant hiss as she plunged to the floor behind the sofa, and books rained down all about them. The owner of the purple shoes let go of Rachel and caught one just before it could land on Rachel’s head, and looked at the shelves.
“Ghosts,” the Unfriendly Librarian said thoughtfully. “Has Angus been giving you books?”
“Umm … yes?” Rachel offered, her ears rushing with the adrenaline of the fall.
“Damn Warlocks. I thought he was one.” The Unfriendly Librarian shook her head, sleek dark hair shimmering over her shoulders. “That’s a dirty trick, though, getting you working spells for him. Bet he was hoping for a demon. Never mind. I’ll sort it out.”
Rachel stared at her as Laetitia wandered out from behind the sofa and rubbed against the woman’s legs.
“What?” the Unfriendly Librarian said. “You’ve never seen a witch before?”
Rachel made a very small sound in the back of her throat, and wondered how exactly she was going to work this into her Ghost Hunter’s report.
Like Rachel’s investigative work, and fancy seeing where it might take here? Then read about her Christmas encounters here!
And should you fancy having Rachel on your own bookshelves, you can find this story along with a whole collection of others in Oddly Enough, which you can grab at all the usual places. Just mind the very hungry caterpillar …