Jose said the same thing again, that it was probably Just an animal. But he didn’t look too sure this time, and he kept looking at the old man. Then he looked back at me All Of A Sudden, and said, “Wait, you can see someone?” And it was an easy question, so I said Yes, and I asked him if he could see anything there, and he said No. Then he said a very intelligent thing: “Where’s your camera?”
I had forgotten all about my camera phone. It was in the pocket of my blue winter coat. I had put it in there so that I could get it very easily, and I had practiced to make sure that I could open the zipper on the pocket with my gloves on. It was still cold, so I didn’t want to take my gloves off, but I slowly pulled on the zipper and got the phone out and picked it up and held it in front of me, and then I realized that I hadn’t practiced actually taking a picture with my gloves on. First I had to unlock the phone with my secret code, which I won’t tell you because Granpy taught me that you should never tell anyone your secret code, because You Never Know. And the new phone was a Touch Screen phone, which meant it didn’t have any buttons, and you have to press on the screen, and there are special sensors there that can feel your fingers and it works just like buttons. But the problem was, the screen can only feel fingers, not gloves. I don’t like that at all. My old phone had buttons and they were easy to press. The touch screen was something I would have to Get Used To, which is never fun. But there was Nothing I Could Do About It then, so I put the phone back in my pocket and took my gloves off, which wasn’t fun because it was really very cold in there, and Jose held my gloves while I pressed my secret code and unlocked the phone and started the camera working. While I was doing this, the old man turned two pages, and Jose jumped both times, and he didn’t try to say that it was Just an animal.
Finally the camera was ready, and I lined it up so I could see the old man on the chair with his magazine, and I was just about to press the button to take the picture when we heard a girl scream from inside the house and I dropped the phone on the floor.
There is another thing I don’t like about the Touch Screen phone, which is that it is big and heavy and easy to drop, and if you drop it, it’s very easy to break. If I dropped my old phone on the floor, and I did that a few times, sometimes the cover would fall off and I’d have to put it back on, but it never broke. But the Touch Screen phone is not so strong, and when it hit the floor, it went crack, and when I looked down at it, there was a line going all the way across the screen.
But I didn’t notice that right away, because I was putting my hands over my ears and squeezing my eyes shut and trying to hide from the scream. But it didn’t work. It was just like before. It sounded like the scream was coming from inside my own head, and I couldn’t get away from it. The good news was, it only lasted for a few seconds, and then it was over. I opened my eyes and looked at Jose and he was shaking all over and his mouth was wide open and his eyes were somehow even bigger Os than before, which surprised me because I didn’t think they could get any bigger. He was still looking right at the old man, reading his magazine just like always. But the way Jose was looking at him, this time I was sure he could see something there.
The old man turned a page and scratched his hair underneath his hat, and for a second I smelled stinky old pipe tobacco. It was like the kind my uncle always smoked outside when he came to visit me and Granpy, because Granpy wouldn’t let him smoke inside the house. It smelled terrible. The the old man said, “That’s just the Duchess. Don’t pay her no mind.” And then he turned another page in his magazine.
I looked at Jose. His hand was up in front of him and he was pointing at the old man and his mouth was wide open. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he couldn’t. I knew how he felt because that happens to me all the time when everything is Just Too Much and I can’t figure out how to make words for a while. Finally he said something. Actually, he really whispered it. Maybe his voice was still too scared to come out. So he whispered, “Who is that?” He was still pointing at the old man and his finger and his hand and his whole arm were all shaking.
But actually, that was a hard question, because I didn’t really know the answer. I decided that the best thing to say would be the truth, so I said I don’t know. I felt really sorry for Jose, and I remembered the first time I saw a ghost and how scared I was. Granmy had helped me then, but she was back at home with Granpy, so she couldn’t help Jose. It would have to be me.
I was a little bit scared, of course, but not too much. There was only one scream, and it didn’t last for too long. The Duchess wasn’t there with us, and the Dead Eye ghosts weren’t there, and there were no ghost bugs or ghost spiders, just an old man with a magazine. Yes, he was a ghost, but like I said before, I’m not afraid of ghosts because they’re normal. They’re everywhere all the time. If I was scared of ghosts, I would just have to be scared every second of my entire life.
The one thing I was a little bit scared of was the screaming. I was afraid that it would happen again, or that it would be like before, going on and on and on for a million million years. Or maybe the Duchess and her Dead Eye ghosts would come try to scare us. I hoped that she would leave us alone.
Jose was tall, and pretty strong. He played on the basketball team. I had never seen him scared before, and it was a little bit strange to see. I felt embarrassed, like it was something I wasn’t supposed to see. But Granpy always says You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do, so I reached over and touched his arm and said, “It’s okay. He won’t hurt you.” I tried to think of the things Granmy had told me to make me feel better when I was little, but all I could remember was, “It’ll be okay,” so I said that.
Slowly, Jose turned his head to look at me. It was like he was afraid to close his eyes or look away, and I knew exactly how he felt. For once, I understood everything that another person was feeling. I knew just what was going on in his head. That didn’t happen very often. The bad news was, I didn’t really know what to do to help him. So I said “It’ll be okay” again and patted his arm.
Jose looked like he wanted to turn and run right out of that house. I did, too, a little bit, but I remembered that we were being brave. He whispered again, and he said Camera, and I realized I had forgotten all about my camera phone, which was on the floor. I reached down to pick it up. It was hard to pick up because my fingers were starting to turn numb from the cold air. I held on to it tight, so I wouldn’t drop it again, and that’s when I realized the screen was cracked. Then I panicked.
It was a Brand New phone. It was an Expensive phone. And it was broken. There was a big crack in the Touch Screen. It went all the way from the top to the bottom, right through the middle. Granpy had just bought me that phone. I had promised to be careful with it. He had spent his money on that phone for me, and now it was broken. It was broken because I wasn’t careful enough. Because I dropped it. I felt a sick feeling in my stomach. I felt like the Absolute Worst person in the Whole Wide World. I remembered how the phone fell out of my hand. I remembered how it felt when I dropped it. I could have caught it. I could have held on to it tighter. It was my fault.
Granpy was going to be upset. Maybe he would be angry, or even worse, maybe he would be sad. Maybe he would think about all the money he spent on that phone and it would make him feel bad.
And I would have to tell him how I broke it. And we don’t lie to each other because of our deal, which meant I would have to tell him we’d gone into the Haunted House and I dropped it because of the screaming ghost. I broke the rules. I didn’t tell him the truth. I remembered him telling me I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do. He made it my choice. I made the wrong choice. I started to cry.
“Just take the picture!” Jose didn’t know that the phone was broken. I couldn’t talk because I was starting to cry, but I showed it to him. “Don’t worry about it,” Jose said. Then he said, “It’ll still work. Just push the button. Take the picture!” I wanted to tell him it was impossible, to tell him that he was having a misunderstanding, but I still felt like crying, so I just pushed the button, to show him it wouldn’t work.
There was a bright flash of light and a loud noise. They came from the phone. It worked! It wasn’t broken at all. I couldn’t believe it. The crack was there on the screen, but the whole phone wasn’t broken. Maybe it was really going to be okay, which was good, because that’s what I’d been telling Jose, and I really didn’t want to be a liar.
I blinked my eyes a few times. I hadn’t expected the bright flash, and I couldn’t see straight. When I got my vision back, the old man was not in the chair anymore. I looked at my phone. The picture was still on the screen. Just a chair. An empty chair. Not even a magazine.
I was going to say, “Where’d he go?” but I didn’t get the chance, because the big heavy wooden door opened. It opened slowly, but it made a loud squeak. Suddenly, the air felt warmer. Much warmer. Too warm. My glasses fogged up and I took them off to wipe the fog off them. It took a minute, because I had to pull a cloth out of my pocket to wipe them with. I always have one in my jacket pocket because this happens All The Time, and if I try to wipe them with my shirt, sometimes they get pieces of fluff on them and I have to wipe them again. When I put them back on, the Duchess was standing in the doorway.
Jose was looking at her. Or maybe he was just looking inside the doorway, because it had opened All By Itself. Neither one of us was even close to it.
The Duchess had her Sad face on. She looked scared. She looked like she wanted to cry. She looked at Jose, and she said, “Please. Please, help me.”
Jose took one step towards her. He didn’t look scared anymore. He had a funny look in his eyes and I didn’t know what it meant. Then he took another step towards the Duchess, and he dropped my gloves on the floor, like he’d forgotten they were even in his hands. I didn’t know what to do. I thought he probably shouldn’t go near the Duchess, because I had a Bad Feeling. I remembered the screaming and the Dead Eyes and the spiders from the last time. But I also remembered how she asked me for help. She was asking again. And I remembered my Unfinished Business list. If a ghost needed help, I had to try to help. But I didn’t know how to know if she needed help or not.
I looked at the Duchess, and her face was different. She didn’t look sad anymore. Her mouth was smiling a little, and her eyes looked angry. It was almost the same as Jose’s face when he is about to prove that he’s right about something, except even more so. But Jose kept walking, slowly, one step, then another step, then he was at the door. I decided that Jose shouldn’t go in there. Maybe the Duchess did need help, but we had to find a safe way to try to help her. This wasn’t safe. This house wasn’t safe. It was old and Abandoned and Falling Apart. It was dusty, musty, fusty, and dim. There were too many ghosts in this house, and I didn’t know why, but I knew we needed more help if we were going to go any further.
I picked up my gloves, and I said, “Jose, stop,” but he didn’t stop. He was almost touching her now. He was reaching out, very slowly, and her eyes were getting angrier and her smile was getting bigger. She wasn’t even looking at me. “Jose, stop it! Don’t touch her!” I said it louder, even though my voice was shaking. I was starting to panic again. Jose wasn’t listening to me. Maybe he couldn’t even hear me.
The Duchess opened her smiling mouth and started to scream. Jose didn’t even blink. “Jose! Listen to me! Listen!” I was almost shouting, which is something I never do. I don’t like loud noises, even if I’m the one making them.
“She’s just looking for attention.” It was the old man’s voice. He was behind us, back in his chair. I turned around and saw him turn the page in his magazine. “Don’t give her the satisfaction.” That made me really panic, because I realized I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the Duchess, or about me.
There was a loud bang and the screaming stopped. I turned around and the wooden door was closed. I tried to open it, and it was locked. I tried to look through the window, and it was dark.
Jose was gone.