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I would never get used to spending Christmas in an insane asylum. My parents laughed and said that, after seventeen years, I should have looked forward to it, but I would much rather sit in front of a roaring fire with a mug of hot chocolate listening to Christmas carols instead of this year's version of holiday cheer: roaming the barren hallways of an empty sanitarium in a quest for restless energy.
After opening presents in yet another beige-and-floral hotel room and wolfing down the hotel's complimentary cinnamon rolls, my family piled into our van and drove nearly an hour west of Cleveland to Lake Sanitarium, a somber-looking brick monstrosity that was, despite its name, located nowhere near a lake. Dad opened the massive front doors by shoving against them with his entire body. My teeth chattered as the five of us climbed the stairs, our footsteps echoing until we reached a large, empty room on the third floor.
"It's colder inside than it is outside," I muttered to my sister when we reached our destination.
"Welcome to Ohio," Annalise replied. "It's supposed to be nearly seventy degrees back home today."
I groaned and thought of our house in South Carolina. I could picture my best friend, Avery, taking her little dog for a warm winter walk, shading her eyes from the sunlight. Or Noah, who told me that he grilled steaks for his mom every Christmas. And Jaredwell, I didn't know what Jared did for the holidays. We were friends, but he was an intensely private person, and he rarely offered details about his life.
I glanced out one of the grimy, narrow windows onto the sprawling white lawn of the sanitarium. The perfectly undisturbed snow was lovely to look at, but I was too cold to enjoy it.
"How are we doing, girls?" Dad clapped his hands together and walked over to where Annalise and I stood huddled in the corner.
"We're freezing." I could see my breath, which was the same pale color as the cinder-block walls.
"Well, the best way to stay warm is to keep moving. How about helping Shane with the equipment?"
I sighed, sending another puff of white into the air, and hurried across the empty room. There was no furniture to offer a clue of what the space had once been used for, but I guessed it had served as a massive holding area for the insane people who had lived there decades earlier. I knew the building had housed thousands of dejected people. Many of them had died here, as well, earning it the nickname Last Stop Lake.
"Hey, kid, can you give me a hand?" Shane was struggling to sort through a nest of cables and camera wires. I knelt down next to him and began picking through the different cables.
"This is a mess," I complained. Shane was usually more organized. He'd worked as my parents' full-time cameraman since I was a baby, traveling all over the world with us to produce documentaries about the paranormal. I'd never seen his equipment so scattered.
"It's a little chaotic," Shane admitted. "Been distracted lately, I guess."
I snorted. "Distracted, huh? I wonder what's causing that?"
He shot me a look but said nothing. Shane had begun dating Trisha, the mother of my friend Noah, right around Halloween. They were always together, it seemed, and while I liked seeing Shane crazy about someone, Noah was not nearly as thrilled.
"She's acting like a teenager!" he told me during AV. It was the one class we shared together, and we usually worked as a team to edit the daily school news footage. "I'm supposed to be doing this, not her."
"And anyone in particular you'd like to be immature over?" I teased him.
His eyes had widened and he immediately blushed. I suspected he harbored a little bit of a crush on a freshman girl I'd seen hanging around his locker, but he hadn't admitted to it yet, and I didn't ask a lot of questions. We had gone to homecoming together, an event I thought might lead to something more. At the end of the night, though, he'd just smiled, said he had a great time and left. That was it. I was totally confused, but Avery said that maybe Noah and I were destined to be good friends. Since I would be graduating in a few months, it didn't make a lot of sense to start something with a junior, but I had been hoping that Noah and I could be more than just "friends."
After sorting through the web of wires, I helped Shane set up a tripod, then returned to a corner of the huge room and pulled out my cell phone. Being the daughter of paranormal investigators provided a few perks. My parents were always buying different gadgets, and they appreciated great technology, so when I asked for a new cell phone for Christmas they gave me the best one they could find. While they set up their equipment to begin their research, I stood by the window and attempted to download my email.
"Hey, Charlotte. Do you have a signal yet?" Annalise walked over, gathering her long black hair into a ponytail. My sister had gorgeous wavy hair, just like our mom. I, on the other hand, inherited our dad's straight locks, which I'd recently chopped shorter, so that it was just long enough to tuck behind my ears.
"It's faint," I told Annalise.
She sat on the cement floor. "I can't believe how much I miss Mills."
I rolled my eyes. "It's only been three days." "It feels like three years."
I'd never seen my older sister so head-over-heels for a guy. I'd met Mills two months earlier, in Charleston. Annalise was a junior at the college there and Mills was a grad student. We were in Charleston to put an end to a seriously supernatural situation, but our gathering had also served to introduce Mills to the family. Mom loved him. Dad was not as thrilled.
"He's a little old for her, isn't he?" he asked me the day after we met Mills.
"He's just a couple years older," I pointed out. "Besides, aren't you five years older than Mom?"
"That's not the point," he grumbled.
I wondered if Dad would have the same disgruntled reaction when I began introducing guys to the family. Of course, I didn't see that happening in the immediate future, but still. A girl could wish. I finally felt somewhat secure in my life since we had moved to South Carolina at the end of the summer. I had a bedroom that was completely unpacked, whereas in the past I'd always used moving boxes as my dresser. I would be graduating from Lincoln High in the spring instead of transferring to yet another high school. And best of all, I had friends who knew what my parents did for a living and still chose to be associated with me. Things were great, but there was still something missing from my life.
Or, more accurately, someone was missing.
I wanted to meet a guy, someone I could spend time with and share inside jokes with and curl up next to. Someone who would take me to the movies or out to eat and, most importantly, to the prom. More than anything, I wanted to go to prom, if only because it seemed like the most glamorously normal thing I could do.
"Girls?" Mom called from across the large room. Her voice echoed. "Any sign of him?"
Annalise stood up and looked out the window. "Not yet."
We were waiting for Leonard Zelden, a "renowned de-monologist" and bestselling author who was already an hour late. My parents weren't happy about having to accommodate someone whose work conflicted with their own, but it was the only way they could get permission to film and research in the abandoned asylum. The owner of the building knew Zelden, and had promised us full access to the property on the condition that Zelden was present to document his own findings, which would undoubtedly find their way into yet another fat, glossy book.
My parents were known as debunkers; that is, they went into a "haunted" place and methodically uncovered evidence to prove that paranormal happenings were, in fact, just plain normal. They also worked under the theory that strange occurrences were often caused by harmless residual energy. Dad was a staunch believer in the effects of energy. Mom had been, toountil two months ago. Now she was beginning to research different theories about the paranormal, theories my Dad absolutely rejected. It was causing some tension at home, and I hoped it wouldn't spill over into their documentaries. They had obviously decided to set aside their professional differences for the holiday, which I appreciated. It was weird enough to be checking the lights on a camera instead of on a Christmas tree, without the added stress of yet another parental disagreement to deal with.
Annalise sighed and wandered off to wallow in her longing for Mills while I tried to force my new phone to show signs of life. It was hopeless. Nothing could get through the thick concrete walls of Lake Sanitarium.
"Someone's here," Shane announced. We all stood at different windows and watched as a sleek white car slithered up the winding driveway and parked in front of the entrance. The graceful curves of Zelden's vehicle were a sharp contrast to our bulky van, which was painted black with the word Doubt stretched across it in tall silver letters. A young man got out of the driver's side and quickly opened the back door. An older man wearing a gray wool coat and hat emerged. He surveyed his surroundings and said something to the driver, who scurried to open the trunk.
"I already despise this guy," Dad muttered.
"He's not even helping with the camera," Shane pointed out. "What a tool."
"Be nice," Mom warned.
We heard footsteps thumping up the stairs and turned to greet our late guest. Zelden entered the room and immediately walked over to Mom, smiling wide and taking both her hands in his.
"Karen Silver! So lovely to finally meet you! I've heard marvelous things about you."
Mom was flustered. "Oh. Well, it's lovely to meet you, too."
Dad stepped forward. "Mr. Zelden, I'm Patrick Silver."
Zelden frowned. "It's Doctor Zelden, if you don't mind. I do hold a doctorate in theology, you know."
Dad gave him a stiff smile. "Of course."
Both my parents held doctorates in psychology, but they never referred to themselves as doctors. They said that title should be reserved for people who could actually save lives, not just write a thesis.
Zelden's assistant stumbled into the room, struggling under the weight of the video equipment. "Over there, Marcus," Zelden said in an unconcerned voice. He turned back to my mother. "Good assistants are so difficult to acquire," he said, winking. "Marcus has been with me for two years, and I'm still training him."
Mom nodded. "Dr. Zelden, I'd like to introduce you to our daughters." Annalise and I stepped forward, but Zelden was looking at Shane, who was positioning the tripod.
"Is that on?" he asked.
Shane grunted yes, and Zelden positioned himself directly in front of the camera. "As you can see, I travel without an entourage," he said, his voice louder. "I believe the pursuit of truth is a somewhat solitary calling, and, even though my devoted fans have often offered to help me with my research, I choose to focus purely on the work, with only minimal distractions." He glanced at me and Annalise.
"Our daughters are not a distraction," Dad said, clearly insulted. "They've been assisting us since they learned to walk."
Zelden smiled. "Of course. Now, where should we begin?"
While Marcus the Assistant made trips up and down the stairs to retrieve cameras, candles and coffee for his boss, Zelden and my parents went on a tour of the building to get
a "feel for the energy." Shane followed with his video camera. Annalise and I stayed behind with Marcus.
"Merry Christmas," Annalise said to him as he hunched over a camera.
He looked up. "I'd forgotten that was today."
"How could you forget Christmas?" I asked.
Marcus shrugged. "Dr. Zelden doesn't celebrate the traditional holidays."
"No kidding." I was ticked that we were spending the day researching. It had been Zelden's decision to work on December twenty-fifth. While my parents usually scheduled something around the holiday, we rarely spent the actual day doing anything besides lounging around in a hotel watching classic movies and eating too much fudge. I studied Marcus as he pulled fat white candles from a cardboard box. He looked to be about college age, and was dressed like his boss: dark dress pants and a white-collared shirt with a tie. Again, it was a stark contrast to my family. We were wearing jeans and sweatshirts beneath our heavy coats.
I offered to help Marcus set up, but he firmly rebuffed me, saying that Dr. Zelden expected things to be done precisely.
"No offense," he said. "It's just that I can't allow any mistakes. It could interfere with his process."
I knelt down on the cold floor next to him. "What is his process?" I knew a little about Zelden's work, but it was mainly through what I'd heard my parents say, and none of it was flattering. They saw him as a complete fraud, although Zelden's book sales indicated that many people believed the opposite. He claimed to contact demons who resided in people's homes or businesses and "send them back to their place of origin." My parents scoffed at not only the concept of demons, but also the idea that one could summon and control something supposedly so powerful.
Marcus considered my question as he arranged the candles in a circle on the floor. "He's very guarded about the process. I don't completely understand it, and I've watched him work hundreds of times." He stood up and surveyed his work, then knelt down again to move a candle so it was perfectly aligned with the others. "The spirits speak through him," he continued. "His entire body changes. His voice becomes something otherworldly. It's fascinating."
"It sounds, uh, fascinating," I said.
Marcus smiled. "It's okay if you don't believe in it. You will, though. Before today is over, you'll get it."
I seriously doubted that Zelden's performance would convince me of anything other than his acting abilities, but I nodded. Marcus stood up.
"Is that them?" he asked, looking toward the doorway. "That was quick."
I followed his gaze but didn't see anything. "They're probably on another floor by now."
He frowned. "I heard voices."
"I don't hear anything."
Marcus returned to his work and I wandered over to Anna-lise, who was blowing into her hands to warm them up.
"What'd Marcus have to say?" she asked.
I shrugged. "Nothing much. He says we'll be amazed by Zelden's process."
"Unlikely." She looked around. "Where are they? I want to get this thing over with so we can go somewhere that actually has heat."
The group returned ten minutes later, Zelden leading the way. "Are we ready?" he asked Marcus. "Yes, sir."
"Very well, then. May I have everyone gather around the candles?"