“I don’t believe in ghosts, but you have a reputation for helping troubled properties.”
The market for housing in San Francisco was still strong, but had begun to soften at the very highest end. The condo Petra had been hired to cleanse had originally been listed for 11.9 million, but was newly reduced to 10.2. The current owners were looking to avoid another reduction. Petra could tell right away that there were no ghosts here, but her fee was nonrefundable, so she did a walk-through just to be sure. Three bedrooms, four and a half baths, ten stories up. Floor to ceiling windows, white rugs over polished concrete floors. Mid-mod chairs, tropical plants. All these high-end places were beginning to look the same. Were all rich people really so similar?
She paced the dark living room, opened and closed a hall closet. She took a few steps up the stairs and then came back down. There was something here, but it was faint. Unusual. She went to the kitchen, and that’s where she found them.
“Did the previous owner have cats?” asked Petra.
“Yes,” Wendy shouted back from the living room. “Why? Can you still smell the pee?”
“No, I can sense their presence.”
They didn’t appear to Petra as ghostly cats. They appeared as small, spiraling tumbleweeds of colorful energy that hovered just above the floor. Some gathered in a slant of sunbeam, while others swirled near the stove, a place where Petra guessed they had been fed once. Still more gathered at her ankles. These ghosts were hungry, or they had been at one time. It was strange to see so many. Usually animals were good at crossing over.
Petra removed the ceremonial knife from her satchel and considered what kind of portal to open for them. Should she even send them over? They didn’t seem particularly unhappy. They might even be nice to have around, like pets you didn’t have to worry about taking care of.
It was then that Petra decided to keep them.
Instead of opening a door to the spirit world, she opened her purse and used a ritual ruby to create a pocket in space. She walked around the room, herding them into her bag. Wendy walked in, and Petra knew that she must look strange, dragging her Mansur Gavriel bag across the floor. She had seen Wendy eyeing the bag earlier; it was the only thing about Petra that had been recognizable to Wendy.
“This is an ancient ritual,” Petra told the agent.
“Uh . . . is it working?”
Petra shrugged. Once she had all the cats in her bag, she tied the drawstring tight.
She had Wendy drop her off at a café in the Mission that was supposed to be good. The barista’s name was Lindsay. Petra wondered if she lived in Oakland. Every barista seemed to. Petra tipped a dollar, then used an app to figure out what music was playing. Mitski. She added it to her list of things other people found cool. Joanna, her therapist, had suggested that writing down her observations might be one way to keep up with everything she had missed during her time “abroad.”
The nice thing about having a therapist was you could ask her whatever questions you wanted without necessarily being judged as rude. That didn’t mean that Joanna would answer: She wouldn’t say where she lived (though Petra again guessed Oakland based in part on the style and quantity of her tattoos), or if she was married or had kids. She did say that she liked her job and saw no more than five clients a day.
So far, Petra had only four sessions with Joanna. Most of them were spent discussing loneliness. Petra had one friend—Corazón, an herbalist and alternative healer—and a strained relationship with her mother. Petra had been on several first dates, hardly any second ones, and never a third. These were problems, sure, and she and Corazón talked about them. But all of this felt like a warm-up to Petra. She needed to tell her story of her time “abroad” again. She tried to tell her mother, and Corazón, but neither believed her. Petra needed to tell her story. She needed to be believed. That was why she paid Joanna $200 for a fifty-minute hour.
At the café, Petra got a phone call from her agent, Nora. Petra suspected Nora was calling with bad news—maybe Nora had finally decided Petra was a fraud. That time might still come, but not today. Nora had another assignment for her. “Can you get to the Mission?”
“I’m already in the Mission.” The Mission was the center of the universe.
But as soon as Petra got to the building, she knew it was a mistake. The exterior had cracked walls and crumbling paint. Bedsheets were hung in the windows as curtains. Middle school-aged children hung out on the front step. One asked her in Spanish what she was looking at and she hesitated before answering, “Nada.” Her Spanish was rough from lack of practice, and she was embarrassed by it; bad Spanish was only cute when spoken by white girls. But Petra was morena with a Mayan nose. She felt she looked obviously Latina, but was not authentically so.
“It is very common for Latinas to feel inauthentic. That’s the problem with being second-generation—we’ll never be as authentic as our parents; our Spanish will never be as good as theirs; our knowledge of the homeland will never be as thorough,” Joanna once told her during a session. “But each of us has a right to self-identify.” Joanna said the word “Latina” in an emphatically Spanish way, though she pronounced her own name with a hard J. Joanna’s middle name was Ruiz, but her last name was Evans. Her skin was the color of milk. Joanna used the word “we” a lot when referring to the Latino experience, which was starting to get on Petra’s nerves. Petra made an effort to believe Joanna, however, in the hope that she herself might be believed when the time was right.
These ghosts were hungry, or they had been at one time.
Petra crossed the street to call her agent. She got shunted to voicemail and left a message: “Nora, I told you, no evictions.” Landlords were scum. Petra would not steal from the poor. And Nora had pretended to agree, pretended to understand. “If you send me another one, I will get another agent.”
This threat felt a little ridiculous once she said it out loud. How many agents would represent a ghost huntress? But she could not work in these conditions. She would return to the underground gem market if she had to. Or she would try to lose her taste for the finer things. But she would not be involved in the fucked-up business of chasing people from their homes.
There was no way the landlord thought his place was haunted. He just wanted her to perform some sort of magic Mexican ritual that would scare the tenants away. Once the building was vacant, it would fetch a higher price.
Petra didn’t think of her work as magic. It was more like an esoteric science, combined with an unusual visual and psychic sense. Her rituals were the practical application of a philosophy that she understood on an intuitive level. Her craft was not Mexican; it came from some other place, a place she had only told two people about.
The first was her mother, who didn’t believe her. Petra had been gone for ten years with no explanation. Her mother had convinced herself that Petra was dead, and was initially overjoyed when Petra returned unharmed—and, more than that, rich. Why hadn’t she called? Petra tried to explain that there was no way to make calls from the place she had been. She told her mother that she had come back as soon as she could, but this was not quite true, and her mother mistook the smaller lie for a bigger one. She thought Petra had been a prostitute. It didn’t help that Petra’s Spanish was bad, that her mother’s English was bad, and that the world that Petra was describing was outlandish. Petra knew her story would be hard to believe, but her mother didn’t even seem to try. She didn’t think she needed to. Petra was the one who had disappeared, who’d frightened and hurt everyone with her absence; Petra was the one who needed to start making sense.
Two years had passed since their reunion, and their relationship remained difficult. A few years after Petra’s disappearance, her mother had moved back to Guanajuato, married, and had three more children. Since their reunion, Petra had sent remittances regularly. Her mother always made clear that she took this money reluctantly, though it did allow her to quit her job. Maybe that was fair. Petra’s mother had always worked so hard at jobs that hurt her body. Not like Petra’s work, if you could even call something so easy “work.”
And even though Petra was not a prostitute, her mother’s critique stung. Perhaps only your own mother could misunderstand you in such a devastating way. Sometimes, when Petra was performing her extremely rarefied rituals in full view of billionaire assholes, she did sort of feel like a prostitute. She didn’t have to participate in the capitalist system at all. This was a system that tried to steal away the homes of low-income families. It crushed the poor, it allowed her to buy designer bags and high-end combat boots.
Now Petra stared at the kids on the stoop. They had stopped looking at her—they were trading phones. Dramas playing out on tiny screens. Each phone contained an entire world of people. Each used technology that bordered on magic. Petra had visited a new world, and she had brought back a technology that bordered on magic. Why hadn’t her mother believed her?
The second person she had told her full story to was her friend and herbalist, Corazón. Corazón had an office in the Marina, a home in Noe Valley, and a husband who was a tech executive. Petra had found her on Yelp. Corazón made potions carefully, according to Petra’s instructions. She also gave Petra acupuncture, and she totally believed in Petra’s ability to cure her own cancer. There had been a painful lump in Petra’s breast that had alarmed several specialists. Corazón agreed that Western medicine was not the way to go. She had patiently listened to Petra’s story of her ten-year absence, her time in the other world, and her subsequent education as a ghost huntress. She had asked pertinent follow-up questions, but in the end, she had recommended Petra go to counseling and referred her to Joanna.
“You don’t believe me?” asked Petra.
Corazón spoke as if choosing her words carefully. “I believe that something really . . . complicated happened to you.”
Petra burst into tears. Corazón hugged her. “I believe that you are doing your best to come back,” she added. “I’m not giving up on you. No way.”
The women had remained friends. Petra did her best to gather whatever evidence she could. She showed Corazón her safety deposit box filled with uncut gems she had found in the other world. “These are rare on Earth. Not so in the other place.”
“I’m sorry, these just look like rocks to me,” said Corazón.
She showed Corazón the manuscripts she had brought back. Texts on medicine and ghosts, all written in a foreign language that Petra was mostly fluent in. “Look at this writing. This language is not spoken on Earth.”
“Are you sure? There are a lot of languages spoken on Earth. Maybe it’s a lost language, an Indian language.” Corazón had light skin and romantic notions about Indigenous peoples.
She brought Corazón to some of her dehauntings. She had her watch the ritual of ghost cleansing and let her feel the energy shift. Corazón believed that spirits were real, that Petra was skilled in handling them, but she also thought such skills could be acquired in the rainforest. “Have you ever been to the Amazon?” she asked.
“No. Never,” said Petra. But despite her denials, Corazón became convinced that the “other world” Petra had gone to was really just Brazil. And Petra realized it was time to give up on explaining her past to her mother or her friend, at least for the time being.
Aside from being believed, the other thing missing from Petra’s life was the sense that she was helping people. Sure, she was helping rich property owners get richer. But besides that, she was of no use. She stared back at the kids on the stoop. Should she warn them about their landlord? They probably already knew.
She looked down at her clean, manicured hands. Her nail polish was a pretty, sparkly grey. Maybe she could get them a lawyer? She thought about how she might talk to them. Reading Spanish was easy—conversation was hard. She didn’t have anybody to practice with, and she couldn’t think and talk at the same time. She was always saying the wrong thing, and badly. Even at the taqueria, she ordered in English.
Maybe she wasn’t trying hard enough. She went back to the café and ordered another Americano. She wrote phrases in her journal:
¿Necesitas un abogado? Puedo ayudarle
She wrote out a whole conversation, one that ended happily with Petra’s offer of assistance understood and accepted by the kids on the stoop. She consulted her watch to see if she had time to go back over there. She did not. The kids were probably gone by now.
It was getting dark. And Petra had one last appointment she needed to get to.
Petra told herself that today was the day she was going to tell the truth. But then Joanna opened with a question that threatened to derail the whole session. “I realize now that we didn’t talk about your cancer last week. Any updates?”
Petra shook her head. Her tumor was still there, and getting bigger if you believed her doctors. And maybe it was serious, at least by this world’s standards. She wished she hadn’t even told Joanna about her diagnosis. It wasn’t a big deal, and it was distracting her from the main issue.
“Do you ever feel that your work with ghosts impacts your feelings about your own mortality?” Joanna asked.
It was a good question, and a complicated one. Petra found herself lacking any desire to answer. They sat in silence.
On a whim, Petra untied the drawstring of her purse and removed the ritual gem. It was an uncut ruby the size of Petra’s fist, probably worth at least six figures on the open market, although Petra sold her treasures for less than they were worth on the black market because she didn’t want to say where they came from. She handed the gem to Joanna. “It’s warm, you see. Filled with ghosts.”
Joanna nodded. The fact of its warmth proved nothing to her. This world contained almost no proof of the other world. She gave it a cursory examination and then handed it back. “It’s pretty,” she said, even though it wasn’t. It was coarse and scratched, the color of a day-old scab.
Petra shook it, releasing some of the feline spirits into her therapist’s office.
“What are you doing?” Joanna asked.
“Oh, just making sure they are still in there,” said Petra, even though that was the opposite of what she was doing. She examined Joanna’s face for any evidence that she’d felt the energetic shift in the room. She thought she saw Joanna’s brow furrow slightly.
Petra needed to tell her story. She needed to be believed.
“It’s cold in here,” said Joanna. She reached for the cardigan draped behind her chair. Petra took this as a sign that it was finally time.
“When I was thirteen, I was struck by lightning,” said Petra. Joanna nodded for her to continue. “Well, it wasn’t actually lightning, but I don’t know what it was. Just one of many things that I don’t understand and can’t really explain. I had just snuck out in the middle of the night to take a walk in a nearby park. I wanted to clear my head. The lightning—the light—it transported me. I was walking across wet grass, and then lightning hit and there was something totally different under my feet. It was dirt. I was in some kind of dry forest, and it was daytime.”
“I want you to believe me. I really disappeared. For ten years.”
“I believe you. Did you run away?”
“No,” said Petra. “I was taken. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“So you were kidnapped?”
“That’s not the right word for it. More like teleported.”
“And then what happened?”
“Then I was found and sold into the Queen’s service. Not a queen you’re familiar with. She wasn’t human, she was a Gargoyle.”
“A gargoyle—is that slang?” asked Joanna.
“No, she had scaly skin and claws and wings. She sent me to the convent, and that’s where I learned to see ghosts; that’s where I learned my rituals . . . ”
“Were you trafficked?”
“No, trafficked is not the right word!” Petra realized she was yelling. Suddenly she was on the verge of tears.
Joanna took a deep breath, which she did when she wanted Petra to take a deep breath. Petra wasn’t telepathic—certainly the nuns never taught her how to read minds—but she felt she could see the calculations Joanna was performing in her head. Joanna was thinking that some trauma had tampered with Petra’s memories. That Petra had run away and then been trafficked into sexual slavery, and that the only way Petra could cope with the horror of what happened to her was to make up a fantasy story that involved ghosts, magic powers, and a Gargoyle queen.
The conclusion that Joanna would reach would be much the same as her mother’s. Only Joanna would say that it wasn’t her fault. Or maybe Joanna would be more like Corazón, and believe in her heart that Petra was doing her best.
Petra looked around the room. Some of the cat spirits were floating toward the ceiling. They were getting agitated. It might be time to get rid of them.
“I have a confession. I released some ghosts into your office.”
“Are the . . . ghosts . . . speaking to you?”
“No, I’m pretty sure the spirits used to be cats and they aren’t meowing or mad or anything, not as far as I can tell. What I’m going to do is open the spirit door for them. With your permission, I’m going to light some incense, then take out a knife and draw the outline of a door, right near your actual door.”
“Can you do the ritual without the knife or fire?”
“I can try. It might not work.”
Petra left the knife and lighter in her bag and took out an opal and a sheaf of tightly bound herbs. Her opal ritual lacked practice. It was a more potent ritual, and one that could supposedly be done without fire, but it had been a while since Petra had attempted it. She used the celestial calendar on her phone to point herself in the right direction. She heated the opal in her hand, and then held it above the unlit bundle of herbs. Nothing happened. The ghosts were ignoring her, and the unlit herbs were worth next to nothing.
There was one last thing she could try. She reached into her bag for a thumb-sized piece of rutilated quartz. It was her most powerful gem, and her most unpredictable. She carried it for protection, but she hadn’t used it in a ritual since her training. She placed it in her palm and wrapped a tight fist around it. As soon as the quartz began to heat in her hand, the ghosts noticed. They gathered at her ankles, almost nuzzling. The effect of so much ghost energy in one place displaced Petra, and she realized she was floating above the ground. Her head gently bobbed against the ceiling. The ghostly pressure under her feet was building, but Petra didn’t have her knife, which was the easiest way to release it.
She opened her palm slightly to release some of the quartz energy, and the ghosts began to speed up and spread out. The effect in the room was like a spiral. A circular motion like a gentle tornado, gentle as it softly rustled the leaves of Joanna’s tropical plants, but the spirits were getting stronger. Petra dropped the quartz and it fell to the floor, narrowly missing Joanna’s sandaled foot.
“Shit, sorry,” said Petra, still four feet above the ground. She looked down at Joanna’s face and could not tell if Joanna was alarmed or really alarmed.
The circular breeze in the room became a stronger wind as the cats sped up in their frenzy. The light in the room took on a lavender cast. Petra had learned at the convent that you could make monsters out of gentle spirits if you were careless. And she had been careless. She never should have agreed to do a ritual without her preferred tools. Two years of easy work had made her complacent.
She threw her opal to the ground, next to the quartz, and the spirits followed the second stone down. As they descended, they dropped Petra, who landed on her feet before falling to her knees. She crawled over to the tangle of cat spirits, who were slowly fusing into a larger mass around the opal. This would become a poltergeist if not properly attended to. She hastily sketched a door on the ground with her sharpest fingernail and then blew on it to open it. She forced her hand into the spirit tangle around the opal, dragging the ghost mass to the doorway. The spirits fell through the invisible trap door.
They were gone. Petra smoothed her hand over the door to close it. She looked up at Joanna, who seemed to be without words.
“Are you okay?” asked Petra.
“I don’t know.” Joanna’s voice was small. “Is it over?”
“Yes. I’m sorry about that. I fucked up, I’m always fucking up.”
Petra returned her stones to her bag. She pulled two hundreds from her wallet and placed them on Joanna’s table. “We can end early today,” she said, wondering if Joanna would ever want to see her again.
Joanna shook her head. “We still have time. Will you tell me what happened?”
Joanna, Petra could see, was not a coward. A coward would have ordered her out the door by now. So Petra explained what had happened with the ritual. Mistakes were made. She should have used the incense and the knife, like she always did. The last time she had attempted to use the quartz, she had been an apprentice . . .
“An apprentice?” echoed Joanna.
“Yes, when I lived with the nuns in the convent, remember?”
“Could you tell me again? I don’t think I quite understood the first time.”
And so Petra began her story again, from the lightning strike, knowing that it would take many fifty-minute sessions to tell. Joanna might not believe her, but if Joanna was brave enough to try to listen, then Petra would summon the courage to try to explain.