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I was never normal, but I liked to pretend that I was. It usually took a few months before everyone else caught on. School would start out just fine, then Halloween would roll around, my parents would be all over the local news, and suddenly I would find myself exposed as Charlotte Silver, Princess of the Paranormal. I don't know why I thought this year would be any different, but I did. And maybe it was different, but not in the way I had hoped. If anything, it was much, much worse.
We had spent the summer in Charleston, South Carolina. My parents were producing another one of their documentaries, this one called Haunted Hospitality. They spent their days researching old hotels and restaurants that claimed to have ghosts, while I relaxed at the beach and took walking tours of the city with my sister Annalise, who was a sophomore at the College of Charleston. She worked part-time at one of the supposedly haunted local restaurants during her summer break.
"The only spooky thing about the place is my boss," she told me as we spread towels out on the sand. "He can get a little handsy, if you know what I mean."
I didn't, but I could guess. Annalise was strikingly beautiful with large hazel eyes and glossy black hair, just like our mom. Growing up, everyone talked about how she would become a model, but she was just over five feet tall, which is definitely a drawback in the modeling industry. Still, my parents had used her a few times for reenactments in their documentaries. Annalise would pull her hair into a bun, slip on a white Victorian dress and walk slowly in front of a green screen. When special effects were added later, she would appear as a transparent figure f loating above the f loor. She made a great ghost, which was ironic because in real life she was the one everyone seemed to notice while I was the one who slipped by, barely detected.
While Annalise resembled Mom, I took after Dad—tall and wiry, with dark hair that hung so straight it was infuriating. There wasn't even the hint of a curl. I kept it just long enough to tuck behind my ears and secretly resented it when Annalise complained that her glossy locks were simply "too bouncy."
During our third week in Charleston we decided to spend the morning at Waterfront Park. It was a warm Friday in June, the breezy air tinged with the sharp scent of seawater and the shrieks of gliding gulls. We walked along the pier searching for a place to sit and watch the boats. Tourists occupied all of the wide wooden bench swings that lined the dock, so we waited until a couple laden with cameras lumbered to their feet, then claimed the swing as our own. We sat back and rocked slowly, enjoying a clear view of the docked cruise ships and darting birds.
"This is nice," I said, pushing down on my feet to sway the swing.
"Summers are the best," Annalise murmured. She sounded drowsy. I felt tired, too, and worried that we might both fall asleep on the swing and wake up hours later, our arms bubbling red with sunburn.
"Maybe we should walk down to the beach."
"Can't. We have to meet Mom and Dad in less than an hour, and it'll take that long to walk to the beach and back."
I stopped swinging. "They didn't say anything to me about filming a scene today."
Annalise smiled. "They called me this morning. They need more chum."
"Chum" was what we called anyone who was brought in specifically to draw out paranormal energy. Some people claimed that a ghost would appear only if a certain kind of person was present, such as a curious child or a pretty girl. I didn't have to guess what kind of person my parents needed, and I felt a familiar twinge of jealousy. I was never asked to serve as ghost bait. Maybe I should have been grateful, but part of me wondered if it was because our parents didn't think I was good-looking enough to attract the interest of some dead, disembodied guy. It was insulting, really. Of course, no one in my family truly believed in ghosts, but still. Before I could get myself too wound up, Annalise spoke.
"They said they needed you, too."
"Really?" Maybe I had been wrong. Maybe my parents did see me as chum.
"Mom said the sound guy is sick. She needs your help."
Of course. Need a beautiful girl to lure reluctant spirits from hiding? Call Annalise. Need a plain and reliable worker to pick up the slack? Call Charlotte. Or don't even call—just tell Annalise to drag her along. After all, I couldn't possibly have anything else to do on a summer afternoon. I shook my head.
"I've got to stop thinking like that," I muttered.
I sighed and rocked the swing harder. "Nothing."
We sat a little while longer before strolling through the old section of town, our flip-flops slapping against the sidewalks. The air smelled like jasmine and felt cooler than it had been at the pier. Guys stopped to gawk at Annalise while I pretended not to notice. It was actually easy because there was so much to look at: the historic mansions, the moss-draped trees, the horse-drawn carriages pulling noisy tourists through the streets. I looked for black bolts on the outside of houses, the telltale sign that the structure had been damaged in the earthquake of 1886 but had survived. There was something amazing about those homes, I thought, that they had been strong enough to survive devastation and were still standing today. "It's so beautiful here," I sighed.
Annalise adjusted her bikini top. "Yeah? I forget. I guess I'm used to it, though."
I didn't think I would ever get used to living in a town like this, and I'd lived in a lot of places. Any time my parents received funding for one of their documentaries we picked up and moved, sometimes for just a few weeks. The place we had lived the longest was England, when I was four and Annalise was eight. Our parents spent a year researching ancient castles. I don't remember much about the trip, but my parents liked to tell stories about how Annalise and I climbed up dark towers and napped in basement torture chambers. Not exactly a typical childhood. Of course, we didn't have typical parents.
Mom and Dad met just after college. They'd both studied psychology at Ivy League schools and were attending a national conference when they bumped into each other— literally, Mom claims—outside a lecture about parapsychology. Neither one believed in ghosts or hauntings or telepathy or anything else about the field, but they were interested in one aspect: disproving it. Within a year, they'd married and had set about debunking some of the world's most famous ghost stories, from wailing women in hotel hallways to confused Civil War soldiers roaming empty fields. They cowrote a book, Ghost of a Chance, explaining the scientific causes of most "hauntings." Their careers took off, and soon they were being recognized as the world's foremost ghost debunkers. Then, when my mother was three months pregnant with me, something happened.
They were filming one of their documentaries inside an abandoned insane asylum. Dad was repositioning a camera when he felt something brush past his leg. When he looked down, he didn't see anything, but later, when he checked the tape on his thermal camera, it showed a small figure, about three feet tall, sliding past him. When Dad checked the sound readings and matched them to the exact time he felt something against his leg, a clear voice could be heard saying, "Pardon me."
I guess everything changed after that. It was the one thing my parents couldn't explain. Dad became obsessed with EVPs, or Electronic Voice Phenomena. They're sounds that are too low for a person to hear but can be picked up by recording devices. He found natural causes for some of them, like local radio interference, and proved many to be hoaxes, but he could never fully explain what had happened to him at the asylum that day.
Dad once told me that the trick is not to prove something is real, but to prove that it is not real. My parents spent their lives trying to prove things were not real, and for the most part, they were successful. Very successful, judging by their book sales and TV deals. But I wondered sometimes if what they really wanted was to believe beyond a doubt, to have a clear and absolute answer to the question of what happens after a person dies. Personally, I didn't think I wanted to know because there was nothing you could do to change it, but I could understand how the question consumed people.
By the time Annalise and I found the restaurant our parents were investigating, I was starving and my forehead felt slick with sweat. All I wanted was some lunch and a blast of air-conditioning. When I opened the door to the Courtyard Café, I instantly knew I'd get neither.
Inside the restaurant it was dark and stuffy. A few ceiling fans churned the thick air slowly, creating only a hot breeze. All the tables had been pushed against one wall, with the chairs stacked at the other end. I knew most of the crew and guessed the rest of the crowd consisted of employees waiting for something to happen.
"Girls! Thank goodness you're here." Mom rushed toward us. She was wearing her work clothes: a pair of khaki pants and a black T-shirt. "We're way behind schedule," Mom said to Annalise. "The owner is getting frustrated and we've had absolutely no readings today." Mom lowered her voice and nodded in the direction of a dark-haired woman standing in the corner. She was wearing a long apron with "Mrs. Paul" stitched across the front. "She claims this place has a green lady." Mom smirked. "Right."
Mom didn't believe in apparitions of any kind. She said people thought they saw something, and their brains tried to connect it to the familiar, and that in twenty years of research she'd never once confirmed an actual, stereotypical ghost.
Annalise smiled. "I'm here for whatever you need."
"Me, too," I chimed in. "Could I just grab some lunch first?"
Mom glanced at me. "No time. We'll go out to dinner later, though, okay? Great. You know where the sound equipment is, hon."
I trudged away to locate the boom mic while Annalise pulled a black T-shirt over her bikini top and got ready to serve as the day's chum. Everyone on the team wore a black shirt because it made it easier for the cameras to pick up light around a person. I was wearing a white cover-up over my bathing suit, but it didn't matter too much—the sound person always stood behind everyone else.
Dad came into the room and clapped his hands together. "Attention, please!" he said. "We're going to be moving into the next room. We'll set up and start rolling."
He saw me across the room and waved. I tried to wave back, but I was holding the boom mic and accidentally knocked Shane, our main camera guy, on the head.
"Watch it," he snapped, but when he saw it was me, he smiled. "Oh, hey, kid. Filling in?"
"Unfortunately." I sighed.
Shane had been with us for so long we considered him to be family. He was thirty, stocky and a devoted fan of low-budget horror movies. He was trying to film his own slasher flick when he met my parents, who promised him a steady paycheck and strange adventures, so he stayed with us instead of running off to Hollywood. Shane was the only crew member who had been with us since the beginning. Most people stayed with us for a project or two, then settled down somewhere like normal people. Shane was like us—definitely not normal.
We all moved as one slow, sweaty herd into the adjoining room. As in the front room, all the tables and chairs had been stacked against the walls and the drapes had been pulled shut to make it darker. It took a second for me to register, but the room was much cooler than the first one. In fact, it was downright cold. Within minutes I had goosebumps.
"Do you have a sweatshirt I could borrow?" I whispered to Annalise.
She gave me a funny look. "There's one in my beach bag." She went to the corner of the room and came back holding a pink sweater. "Try this. It's long on me, so it just might fit you."
I carefully set the heavy equipment down and pulled on the sweater. It was a little short but it fit, and I began to feel slightly warmer.
Dad asked everyone to quiet down and get ready. Then he had Annalise stand in the middle of the room. After checking all the cameras twice, he gave her the signal to start talking.
"Hello," she said. Her voice was confident and friendly, as if she was simply introducing herself at a crowded party. "My name is Annalise and I'm wondering if anyone is here with us today."
One camera focused on Annalise while one stayed on my parents and the rest of the team. They held up their heat-sensing monitors and EMF (Electro Magnetic Field) readers while I positioned the microphone above their heads.
"Okay, we're getting something," Mom said. "It's faint, but it definitely wasn't here last night."
I felt my nose begin to tickle and knew a sneeze was coming on. I tried to hold my breath.
"Keep talking," Dad instructed. "I think it's working."
Annalise kept up her conversational tone, asking simple questions and then waiting a moment as if she expected an answer. My sneeze was building, I could feel it. I tried not to, but just as Annalise asked again if anyone was present, it happened. I sneezed so loudly that half the team jumped, startled, and the sound echoed off the walls. Dad shot me a disapproving look while a few people tried not to giggle.
"Sorry," I said, loud enough for the entire room to hear. "My bad."
"Charlotte, please, if you could just—" Mom was cut off by sudden activity on all the readers. "Wait a minute. We're getting something."
I could see the lights of the equipment dancing wildly. It was rare to get so much activity so quickly. My parents were smiling and everyone seemed excited.
Everyone but Annalise.
"Um, guys? Something feels weird." She looked around the room and grimaced.
"What's wrong, sweetie?" Mom asked.
"I don't know, but something's not right."