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I never should have sent my boyfriend to the electric chair. Watching Noah from a monitor in the next room, I felt awful for him. Frayed leather straps restrained his arms. Shackles held his legs in place and, even though his eyes were squeezed shut, I knew he was anxious and uncomfortable.
"Was it really necessary to restrain him?" I asked Shane.
"We're keeping it authentic," he replied.
Mr. Pate, the prison historian, scoffed. "Then you shoulda put the blindfold on him like I suggested."
I ignored him. We'd been Pate's guests at the Southern State Penitentiary for only three hours, but he'd already managed to completely offend me at least a hundred times. It wasn't just that he insisted on referring to me as "little lady," or that he was constantly snorting instead of blowing his nose into a tissue. What bugged me most was that he refused to leave us alone for even a second. He was openly suspicious of me and Shane and Noah, as if he thought we might try to steal something from the nearly barren building. As far as I could tell, the only things left in the abandoned prison were rusty metal bunk-bed frames and hungry rats.
And one antique electric chair. "How much longer?" I asked Shane. He glanced at his watch. "A few more minutes should do it."
On the monitor, Noah swallowed hard. Guilt flared through me and I fidgeted with my bracelet, the one Noah had given me on my birthday. I was the one who had convinced him to come along on this last-minute trip, even though four months ago I'd sworn off ever participating in another investigation. I reasoned that this was not a true investigation, but simply an outing to piece together needed footage. And it was Shane who organized the whole thing.
My family was semifamous because of my parents' work as paranormal investigators. Mom and Dad spent decades together debunking ghost stories and working under the theory that all hauntings were actually the effects of residual energy manifesting itself in different ways. Their career crossed over into book deals, DVDs and cable-TV specials and made all five of usMom, Dad, me, my older sister, Annalise, and our longtime cameraman, Shaneinto dependable fixtures during Halloween TV marathons. I thought it would always be that way. It had never occurred to me that the Silver family would change the way we hadsuddenly, and soaked in blood.
Four months earlier, Mom had been attacked in our home by a strange entity calling itself the Watcher. The head trauma she'd suffered had left her in a deep coma and doctors had warned us that even if she woke up, she might never be the same. I knew I had moved past the denial stage of grief, but there were still days when it didn't feel real. It had only been a week earlier that I had spotted a pair of her worn blue slippers tucked under a computer desk in the living room. I had thought of her sliding them on while she worked, and the way they looked as if they were simply waiting for her to return. I had left them where they were.
My injuries from that night had faded, but my memories had not. I often awoke in the middle of the night, my hand throbbing with a phantom pain. I had wallowed in guilt for months, convinced that everything was my fault, including the death of Marcus, the young man the Watcher had possessed. Mine was the last hand to touch him. Now that hand was scarred and Marcus was dead and I felt like a dull photocopy of the person I'd been before it had all happened, someone who was trying to hold on to anything familiar before it shattered into unrecognizable pieces. Because the truth was, I may have stopped the Watcher, but I wasn't sure if I had destroyed it. I doubted if such a thing could be destroyed, and that thought was enough to make me tremble.
Since the attack, Dad spent most of his time at the care center where Mom had been transferred a month before. He slept on a cot in her room during the week, and came home on weekends. At first, he had said it was a temporary arrangement. But days folded into weeks, and Dad's computers remained turned off, his files untouched. We all noticed but no one knew what to say, not even Shane, who was like Dad's brother. I didn't know what would happen to the Silver Spirits franchise or the hours of video footage that sat, unedited, in our living room.
It was strange to wake up each morning to a quiet house, but even stranger was the absence of anyone sitting at a computer with earphones on, editing footage. There was something so unsettling and somber about those blank computer screens that I tried to avoid the living room completely. It was no longer the heart of our house; instead, it was more like a sort of graveyard, with the monitors serving as tombstones.
One evening, Shane pulled me aside. "I need to complete the DVD your parents were working on before everything happened," he told me after dinner at Trisha's apartment. Since their engagement, Shane and Trisha had insisted on hosting a Sunday-night supper every week. I liked it, not just because it gave me a chance to see Noah, but because it provided a rare opportunity to be with Dad, as well.
"Edit the footage," I told Shane. "Dad won't care if you come over and use the computers."
"I need more than that." Shane downed the last of his red wineever since he'd met Trisha, he had given up beer with dinner for a good Cabernetand looked at me. "I need to go back to that old prison we visited last year. The video I took didn't come out right. I have to redo it."
"So redo it."
"We were supposed to film a reenactment scene. I need Noah to fill in." He glanced over at Trisha as she set a peach cobbler on the table, then turned back to me. "I need you to convince Noah to help me with this one. He said he'd go only if you were okay with it."
I refused. There was no way I was dragging my wonderful new boyfriend, the guy who had stood with me during my darkest days and was still by my side, to an old prison where people reported hearing the wails of dying inmates. We'd been through too much, and I wasn't eager to throw myself again into anything even resembling a paranormal investigation for a long, long timeif everand there was nothing Shane could say that would change my mind.
But Trisha could. "I know you've been through so much, Charlotte, and the last thing on your mind is stepping into a strange situation," she said. "But it means the world to Shane. He thinks that if he can complete this DVD, he'll be doing something for your mom, something she would be proud of." She lowered her voice. "And he doesn't want to worry you, but the production company needs the DVD completed before Halloween. Your family is under contract, but Shane doesn't want your dad to have to deal with it right now."
The practical importance of fulfilling a contract was one of the business aspects of my family's work that I was actually familiar with. Growing up I had witnessed my parents pulling all-nighters to get their work turned in. The house would fill with the scent of coffee, Mom and Dad would wear the same baggy sweatpants for days on end, tensions would rise and then, finally, the work would be completed and we would all go out to a fancy dinner to celebrate.
I missed those dinners.
"No pressure," Trisha said. "But please think about it, okay?"
And I did think about it. I thought about how Shane had been a constant presence in my life, how he would do anything for me. Now I had a chance to do something for him and for the rest of my family.
Mom had always been in charge of the finances. I didn't know how much money we earned from DVDs, but I knew it was the most vital source of our livelihood. And while I was sure my parents had a savings account and we weren't drowning in debtthey were frugal people whose only indulgence was state-of-the-art equipmentI also knew that Mom's medical bills would be staggering, even with decent insurance. Meeting a deadline meant earning a paycheck, one I was sure we would need.
But I wasn't entirely comfortable with walking into an abandoned prison, and I suspected that Trisha had no clue that her youngest son would be an integral part of the investigation. I called Beth, my mom's friend and owner of a shop called Potion, to get her advice. I trusted her and her knowledge about the Watcher.
"Do you think we'll be in danger if we do this?" I asked her. Part of me hoped she would say yes, that the Watcher was asleep for the moment but if I did this he'd wake up. I didn't really believe that, though, and if I was truly concerned about rousing a demon, I wouldn't be conducting my secret late-night experiments on the floor of my bedroom. I realized that I needed Beth to tell me that everything was okay. Because if it wasn't, I had been putting myself in danger for weeks.
"I honestly believe that you subdued him for a good long while," she'd assured me. Her voice had a soothing, confident quality that acted like a bandage wrapped around my nervous mind, despite the fact that she had said subdued. Not destroyed or vanquished or incinerated. "This work is a part of your life," Beth continued. "The longer you stay away from it, the more scared of it you may become. Don't let the fear chase you, Charlotte. This could be a good thing for you."
A good thing for me would be to have my mom home, safe and recovering. I could almost hear her voice reciting words she'd spoken ever since I could remember:
Don't let fear guide you, Charlotte. Don't let it make your decisions for you.
In the end, I agreed, which was how I had ended up listening to the tired tales of Mr. Wilbur Pate, whose father and grandfather had worked as prison guards at the penitentiary.
I watched the monitor closely for any signs that Noah was in distress. He was alone in the execution chamber, with only a tripod camera stationed in front of him, but it was creepy to think that he sat in a chair in which hundreds of lives had come to their violent ends. I twisted my bracelet, feeling the cool black stones that circled my wrist, and turned to Shane. "We have enough footage," I said. "Please. Let him out of there."
"One more minute."
I narrowed my eyes. "In one more minute, I'm calling your fiancée."
The threat worked. Shane hurried out of the room, appearing a second later on the screen. I knew he was trying to recreate the execution of a young man, and that with his brown hair and medium build, Noah fit the description, but I wished we had spent a little money and hired an actor. Noah didn't mind, though. "It's initiation," he told me. "I'll feel like I'm a real member of the team."
I didn't have it in me to tell him that there was no more team. Once Mom had been hurt, it was over. But finishing the final DVD was important, and it only required Noah's presence for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon.
Shane released Noah from the chair and returned to the viewing area with him.
"Noah!" I flung my arms around him, careful to avoid touching his neck, and planted a kiss on his cheek. He cleared his throat and stepped back.
"That was intense," he said, keeping one arm around me.
Mr. Pate snorted, and I cringed when he loudly swallowed. "You was only in there for ten minutes. Anyone can sit in an ol' chair for ten minutes."
"Really?" I challenged. "Could you do it for ten minutes?"
Pate moved his mouth like a cow chewing his cud. "I do believe I could, little lady."
While Shane strapped Pate in the chair, I turned to Noah. "Was it terrible?"
He ran a hand through his hair. "I can think of better ways to spend an afternoon."
I tried not to look at the little bruise on Noah's neck. It was the size of a thumbprint, and midnight-black in color, almost like the stones on my bracelet. I knew how he'd gotten it, but I didn't understand why, after more than four months, it still remained. The other bruises had faded after a couple weeks, but this one refused to disappear.