Lacking health insurance when he was diagnosed with cancer, Shawn Speakman asked friends in the science fiction and fantasy writing community to donate short stories he could use to counter mounting medical debt. The result was Unfettered, an anthology offering tales from some of the best authors working today.
Now, in Unfettered III from Grim Oak Press, Speakman continues to pay forward the aid he received, raising money to combat medical debt for SF&F artists and authors. He has gathered together a great mix of new and favorite writers―free to write what they like―the result a powerful new anthology perfect for all readers.
Tor.com is excited to offer an excerpt from “Second Chances”, a chilling ghost story from Megan Lindholm.
A Note from Megan Lindholm
I’ve always loved hearing the “behind the scenes” stories from friends in ﬁlm. My dad was an extra in Captain Blood, the Errol Flynn one. He told me that the director had the extras swinging back and forth on ropes to appear as though they were jumping from rigging on one ship to another, as the production assistants dropped ﬂaming pieces of canvas down around them. I’ve watched that movie more than once, hoping for a glimpse of him!
Reality television has become a ﬁxture in our entertainment. I trace its roots back to the old quiz shows and live shows like Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darndest Things. Linkletter was an expert at getting kids to reveal rather embarrassing facts about their home lives, to the intense delight of the audience.
But our current crop of reality shows has a more immediate source in The Real World. The instant success of “seven strangers picked to live in a house” led to many imitators. But I have to admit that the ones I’m mesmerized by are the home/garden improvement and ﬁnd a house and ﬁx it shows. Watching someone else transform a home is so much easier than actually working on your own! It happens so fast and always seems to turn out well!
But if you know people who work in the reality TV genre, one quickly comes to realize that there is much less “reality” in those shows than one might expect. Often “storylines” are constructed and “surprises” are staged. In a way, reality television is improvisational storytelling that happens after the initial ﬁlming. One takes the footage one has and creates a story from it. The unexpected event can be a curse, or a ratings boost!
Film is a strange world, and in this story, it gets one notch stranger.
It’s not a smell. It’s not a sound. It is, literally, the sixth sense that doesn’t have a name. It’s almost impossible to describe it to someone who doesn’t have it. Imagine conveying the fragrance of lavender to someone who has no nose. That’s why I didn’t mention it to the rest of the crew. The sensation permeated the house from the moment I arrived for work, and after everyone else left, it became stronger.
I don’t encounter ghosts daily, but I’ve sensed more than my share of them. I work for that ﬁxer-upper reality show Second Chances. A cute twenty-something couple, Bert and Giselle, with a curly-headed toddler nicknamed Sweetie and doting Grandma Chris ﬁnd rundown houses, ﬁx them up, and sell them to people who would not ordinarily be able to get ﬁnancing. The touching tales of helping the homeless into homes, a peculiar variation on ﬂipping houses, had started out as a blog, then moved to YouTube, and then became a television show. The ﬁrst season was mostly sincere. Real houses, real ﬁx ups, real homeless, and creative ﬁnancing. Bert and Giselle crowd-sourced funds for down payments and deposits on utilities. Grateful families Tweeted and Instagrammed for months afterward. It truly was heartwarming.
But suitable houses and appropriate families are hard to ﬁnd on a consistent basis. It gets messy when the house has real problems or the happy family is arrested for meth production six months after they move in. So by season three, Second Chances was cutting corners. It had been an underfunded shit show from the start, and the reduced budget had cut the crew to less than bones. But for a local-to-Tacoma show, it was still the best work in town. Good crew. Cringeworthy cast when the cameras were off. But since the cast owned the production company and were also the executive producers, the cringing was something best kept to oneself. I was the art department. All of it. Tonight’s task, long after the paid crew and the overeager interns had been sent home, was for me to “prep” the house for tomorrow’s establishing shots.
I didn’t like the late-night hours but the show had a tight shooting schedule. Can’t lose a day. Tomorrow’s episode was Giselle and Bert touring the rundown house they “might” buy. Tonight I was trashing the place they’d already bought to make it look bad enough that the rehab would be truly remarkable.
I had stocked the old fridge with some fungus-coated leftovers from home, and stuck dirty, sticky secondhand store alphabet magnets on the refrigerator door. My cat had contributed an overﬂowing cat box to leave under the rickety Goodwill table I’d brought. My staging goal was at least two “ohmigawd!” shots in each room. The wallpaper beside the range was decked in greasy cobwebs. I pulled some loose to dangle in shreds. Done.
I yawned. Not from boredom but because I was tired, and I still had ﬁve rooms to go. The master bath was easy. Smear yellow playdough on the toilet seat and sponge on a mixture of baby oil and Coca-Cola for the bathtub ring. Pull the shower curtain half down. Quick and easy, and I ticked those tasks off on my tin clipboard with the handy interior compartment. It was too warm in the stuffy house. I started to take off my sweatshirt. The long sleeves snagged on the scabs on my arm where I’d cut myself the day before. I left it on.
Who’s down there? Monty? Is that you? Have you ﬁnally come to tell her you’re sorry, you son of a bitch?
I looked up from my clipboard. The words had drifted into my mind in the same way that sometimes as you pass out of range of your car’s radio station, another one cuts in for a few moments. Thoughts in my head that were not mine. Ignore them. Get on with my work.
The master bedroom had a smell like vintage Avon Brocade mixed with old urine. Too bad a camera couldn’t capture that. There were two badly patched holes in the Sheetrock at ﬁst height. I made a note to myself. A particle-board dresser and an old bed frame beckoned. I tugged the mattress slightly off the bed and then staged some dingy tighty-whities with Hershey’s stains on them. I pulled a drawer from the dresser and left it on the ﬂoor. A sprinkle of fake rat turds along the wall. Done. I checked my phone and nodded to myself. I might ﬁnish before midnight.
As if he had heard my thought, a text chimed from Raymond. Progress?
Raymond’s our AD, or Assistant Director. He’s a top-notch talent working in a third-rate market at crap wages. He shares custody with his ex-wife, so he lives in Tacoma instead of Burbank. Going good, I texted back.
Text when done, he instructed me.
OK! I tapped back. I knew if he didn’t get a response, he’d be at the door in ﬁve minutes. He wouldn’t sleep until he knew I was done and home.
I keep my kit in a sturdy metal toolbox. I grabbed my mug of coffee and my toolbox and headed up the shag-carpeted stairs. Nothing I could have done to them could have made them look worse. At the top of the stairs, the landing offered me the open door of the half bath, or either of two small bedrooms to either side of it. All three doorframes showed signs of splintering around the catches. That almost always meant someone had broken through a locked door. Domestic violence. And three doorframes to repair or replace. I noted them on my list.
The cheap toilet seat didn’t need help to look disgusting. The ﬁnish was warted with moisture damage, and mold had grown in the rough surface. I took out my squirt bottle of homemade “gas station dirty-soap grunge” and slimed the sink with it. There was a half roll of toilet paper on the hanger. I took it off, smudged it on the dirty ﬂoor, and put it back. Perfect.
My phone buzzed. Done?
Almost. Raymond’s like that. If I fell down the stairs and broke my neck, he’d be liable. But even if he weren’t, I think he’d still check on every crew member every night. He cares almost enough to make up for the crap wages we get. I feel like he knows each of us better than any of us know him.
Almost, I’d told him. Two rooms to go. I twisted the lid on my commuter cup and took two gulps of coffee while I did a quick survey of the smaller bedroom. Little to work with. The abandoned furnishings were a bare twin-size bed frame and a nightstand missing a drawer. Cheap cracked linoleum with a speckled pattern was peeling up from the scarred hardwood ﬂoors. Three walls were ecru-painted Sheetrock with the seams and tape showing through and a few amateur patches. One wall had terrible wallpaper, even worse than the teapots and ﬂowers in the kitchen. Scotty dogs in tartan coats. I stepped inside.
It was akin to walking into a garage full of exhaust fumes. Ghost permeated the room.
No matter. Get the job done and get out. I set my coffee and phone on the nightstand and opened my kit.
The wood-framed window had only a curtain rod above it. I knocked the rod loose so it dangled across the pane. From my kit I took bread pellets rolled in ash and did a sprinkle of fake rat poop along the sill. By the bed frame, I peeled a long strip of wallpaper and let it dangle in dusty shreds. The dust was from a ziplock bag, courtesy of my home vacuum cleaner.
As I was carefully dipping the wallpaper in dust, the ghost suddenly demanded, What the hell is wrong with you?
I made no reply. It’s best to ignore them, generally speaking. Most people can’t sense them. If you pretend you can’t hear or see them, sometimes they give up.
Monty sent you, didn’t he? The coward. I know what you’re looking for. Better be careful. You might ﬁnd more than you want.
It was harder to ignore that threat when I peeled back another strip of wallpaper. I exposed tally marks, the old four strokes and a cross stroke to mark groups of ﬁves. There were letters next to each group. B, NS, DR, R, and a couple of others that I couldn’t make out.
I told you so, said the ghost. Or didn’t Monty tell you about any of that?
Give no reaction. Pretend that I have no sixth sense.
B was for a beating. NS means no sleep. DR is drunken rage. R is for rape.
I touched the strokes by R. There were over ﬁfteen by the other letters, but only two by R.
And that makes it acceptable? the ghost asked acidly. Only two rapes as opposed to seventeen beatings and twenty-seven nights with no sleep? Twenty-seven nights of “scrub that ﬂoor again, I don’t care how tired you are, I’m not coming home to a ﬁlthy kitchen?”
I pressed my lips together, holding back my words. The ghost was getting angry, and that could be very bad. I zipped my bag of dust shut and marked on my tin how I’d dirtied the room.
But maybe it was more than twice. I didn’t always know what he did to her after the beatings. After she stopped shrieking and begging him for mercy. I was too scared to know.
I shook my head. A moment later, my cell phone fell from the windowsill to the ﬂoor. Okay, that wasn’t funny. I wiped my hands down my jeans and picked it up. Screen intact. Good. I wasn’t due for phone upgrade for eighteen months. I kept track of these things. I shoved it in my hip pocket and turned in time to see my commuter cup teetering on the edge of the windowsill. I caught it. But it was open, and that meant I drenched myself with what was left of my coffee. I’d ﬁlled it up at Starbucks, an expensive treat for myself. One I was now wearing for the rest of my night’s work. “Goddammit!” I shouted, shaking hot coffee from my hands.
Don’t blaspheme! Not in Jenny’s house! the ghost shouted, and the overhead lightbulb ﬂared sun-bright for a moment.
Excerpted from Unfettered III: “Second Chances”