From the author: This was written for a Halloween contest hosted by Wisconsin Public Radio back in 2012. It was judged by none other than Patrick Rothfuss, and was selected as one of the nine stories that would be adapted for radio. The radio adaptation is linked below.
An audio version is available for this chapter. Listen online →
“Are you Stefan the Wise?”
“I am,” said Stefan, legs crossed on his yoga mat. “Have a seat, my friend. What can I help you with?”
The stranger sat across from him. He was a gangly man in his middle thirties. “I’m Todd,” he said. “Is it true that you can communicate with the dead?”
“That is my gift,” said Stefan. “Is there someone I can—“
“How do you turn it off?” Todd interrupted.
“I, um… what?”
“I have this problem,” said Todd. “I’m surrounded by ghosts. I want to make them go away.”
Stefan arched an eyebrow. “Well,” he said, “traditionally ghosts cling to the Earth because they have unfinished business here. Perhaps if you—“
“I’ve tried that,” said Todd. “But they want too much. One of the ghosts, Bernie, he wanted to give a message to his daughter. So I did. Then he wanted to watch Battlestar Galactica from start to finish. So we did. Now he wants to learn French. The other day, he told me he’d never been able to balance a checkbook.”
“Well,” said Stefan, “one needy ghost—“
“There’s more,” said Todd. “There are five with me right now, two of them showed up in the last week. Alice wants to travel to India. Jermaine wants to play bass in a funk band. I can’t help him with that.”
“Maybe you could—“
“Do these look like the hands of a bass player?” implored Todd, showing Stefan his hands.
Stefan raised a finger. “Who else have you told about this?”
“You’re the sixth medium I’ve talked to. Please tell me you can help.”
“Possibly,” said Stefan. “What you’re describing is highly unusual. I commune regularly with the other side, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“So you can’t help me, either,” said Todd, deflated.
“I didn’t say that,” said Stefan. “Has anyone else been able to communicate with your ghosts?”
“No,” said Todd.
“I’m not feeling the presence of any spirits right now. You say they’re in the room with us.”
“Five of them.”
“I’m going to propose something radical,” said Stefan. “I don’t think you’re being visited by ghosts.”
“But I can see them. I’m not hallucinating.”
“Hallucinating is an ugly word,” said Stefan. “Think of them as manifestations of your own hopes and fears. Maybe you’re the one who wants to go to India. Maybe you’re the one who wants to learn French.”
“But I don’t want to learn French.“
“This could be your brain’s way of telling you that you do. I think you need to look to your own unfinished business.” Stefan reached pulled out his wallet and found a card, which he handed to Todd. “Here, take this.”
“Debbie Vorack,” Todd read.
“She’s my therapist. She’s very good. Tell her I sent you. She’ll give you a free screening.”
“I’m not crazy, Mister-The-Wise,” said Todd.
“Give her a call. If it doesn’t help, I’ll purge you myself, no charge.”
Todd stood and moved towards the door, but he hesitated.
“None of the other mediums could help?” asked Stefan.
Todd shook his head.
“Call her,” said Stefan.
Todd nodded and left.
Stefan pulled his turban off and let out a long sigh. “Balancing a checkbook, Bernie?” he asked. “You know I don’t like it when you improvise.”
“Sorry, Steve,” said the specter, materializing. “It was Dr. Vorack’s idea.”
“She’s trying to be more involved,” said Alice.
“Oh?” asked Stefan. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“She said it wouldn’t affect your cut,” Alice added.
“No complaints then,” said Stefan, shrugging. “Who’s our next mark?”