“What do you mean?” Mrs. Stiles asked. She set a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk in front of me on the coffee table in her spacious living room. Linus lay sprawled out on the black leather couch, his head wedged up against my thigh, and he heaved a huge doggy sigh in his sleep.
“Well, how long have you had him?” I asked.
Mrs. Stiles thought a moment. “About six months.”
I was surprised. “Really. You all act like he's been a member of your family for years.”
“He is a member of our family.”
I nodded and dropped a hand on the dog's head, patting it gently.
Mrs. Stiles sat in the chair on the other side of the coffee table, and took a cookie. “We adopted Linus six months ago from the animal shelter. Eloise adores him. She wanted a dog so badly, and when we saw him at the shelter...well, we had to have him.”
I smiled and scratched the dog behind the ears. “I can see why.”
“He's a doll," Mrs. Stiles said. "He's a sweet, lovable dog. He's never given us any trouble until this last month or so when the hauntings began.”
“Do you know his previous owners?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No I don't. The shelter didn't have much information. Why?”
"They didn't tell you why he was surrendered?" I asked.
"All they would tell us is that the family could no longer handle the responsibility of a dog," Mrs. Stiles said. "It wasn't anything he'd done. He's a good boy, and the previous family acknowledged that. They just...couldn't handle him anymore. Why do you ask?"
I shrugged. “He took me to the elementary school this afternoon. He sat there for hours like he was waiting for someone. I could barely drag him away.”
“Eloise's school?” Mrs. Stile's frowned. Eloise was nine years old and attended the small private school outside of town.
I shook my head. “The public elementary school.”
Mrs. Stiles shrugged. “Well, he does love children. That is evident.”
“He didn't go to any of them. He was waiting for someone.”
I took a deep breath and looked down at the snoring dog. “Mrs. Stiles, your house isn't haunted. Your dog is.”
The next day I gave Linus free rein at two-thirty again, and followed him to the school. Once again Linus sat in front of the doors of the school, waiting patiently while the children piled out of the building, exuding pent-up energy and relief. Linus waited until well after four-thirty when the schoolyard was deserted, the buses gone, and the last car had disappeared from the parking lot before he once again allowed me to take him by the collar and lead him home. The ghost stirred that evening in the house as well. Several doors opened and slammed shut, and a tremendous crash alerted me to the dog dishes sliding across the the tile floor of the kitchen and crashing into the opposite wall, sloshing water everywhere and leaving a trail of kibble in their wake. I heard Eloise scream upstairs, and lights flooded the house as Mrs. Stiles and her husband ran to their daughter to comfort her. I looked at Linus and he looked at me, his ears perked forward and his brown eyes wide in his face. He moaned, then lowered his chin to his paws again.
The temperature in the living room dropped a few degrees and I reached for my hoodie and the heavy throw on the back of the couch. I still had nothing but Linus to try to get the spirit to manifest. For whatever reason it wasn't showing itself, even to me, and it was obviously pissed. The wind picked up outside, rattling the windows and slamming eerily against the sides of the house. I had set up several large, fat, white candles on the coffee table, and I lit them. I heard footsteps creaking upstairs, announcing the Stileses moving back to the master bedroom, no doubt with Eloise. It was better that way, the family shut up together in their master bedroom. Without Linus I doubted the ghost would bother them up there. I watched the flames in my candles dance and shiver in the darkness of the room. A shimmer of translucent color arrested my attention, and I glanced at the corner next to where the large flat screen TV was mounted. The air in the corner flickered with shimmering lights like the onset of an ocular migraine. I blinked and focused on the spot, and just as subtly the shimmer disappeared like it had been nothing more than a trick of the mind. The wind outside died down, and the room warmed slowly, the chill bleeding out as if someone had raised the thermostat. I stretched out on the couch, pulling the throw around my shoulders, and closed my eyes, feeling the chill leach out of my blood. Linus rested his head on my legs and sighed mournfully.
Ghosts took a lot out of me, physically and emotionally. I fell into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
The next afternoon, Linus led me once again to the schoolyard, and this time I joined him, sitting quietly next to his erect form and waiting without a word.
As the last of the children left the building, a woman in jeans and a sweater set walked out of the school, struggling with a briefcase. She dropped the briefcase on the ground, a frustrated and resigned expression crossing her face as papers spilled out of it. Her lips formed a cuss word before she knelt down to retrieve the briefcase and gather up the papers.
I rushed to her side. “Let me help you with that."
She looked up in surprise and then smiled. Up close she looked younger than I'd originally thought. Her brown hair was pulled in a smooth bun, and her face was free of makeup.
“Thank you. It's been a day.” She rubbed a hand across her forehead as I gathered up the papers and shoved them into the briefcase. She accepted the briefcase gratefully.
“Tell me about it,” I said. “I've been chasing him all day.” I gestured to the dog who still sat perfectly erect, ears pricked forward, staring at the front doors.
“Is that Linus?” the lady asked me, clutching her briefcase to her chest.
“You know him?” I tried to keep the eagerness from my voice.
She nodded. “He used to wait here every day after school. But he hasn't been by in months. Not since...” She glanced down at her briefcase, her face turning red. "Never mind. It's not my place."
“Since?” I pressed.
The woman brushed her hair from her eyes and looked at me, forcing a smile. “Since the accident. His little girl – Madison Fleming. It was a terrible thing.” She shook her head. "Is he yours now?"
I looked at Linus. “No. No, he's not. I'm sort of his shrink.”
“A dog whisperer,” the woman said with a smile. “He never seemed like the sort of dog who needed it.”
“His new owners are having a bit of trouble with him. They've been keeping him cooped up, but he escaped the other day and I've been letting him go. You know, exorcise some demons.”
The woman nodded. “Madison was my student,” she said. “Last year, second grade. Linus came to pick her up from school everyday. Her family doesn't live that far from here, and he'd walk her home.”
“What happened to her?”
“Car accident," she said and I felt something click in my brain. "Drunk driver," she continued. "Hit them head on. Her parents and older sister survived. She didn't.” She looked at Linus again. “It kind of pains me to see that they gave him up. Poor guy."
“Maybe the memories were too painful,” I said.
“What can you tell me about Madison?” I asked.
She looked at me. “I'm sorry?”
I shrugged. “I just thought if you could tell me anything about her, it would help me with Linus. His new family has had him about six months, and he isn't settling in well.”
Her brow creased. “Well, she was a good student. A lovely child, really. Quiet and reserved, but she loved to draw. She was very artistic. Her favorite color was pink. Oh, and peanut butter and jelly was her favorite lunch.”
I bit my lip. Sounded like every child I ever met. Livvy loved peanut butter and jelly too. “Do you think it would be a good idea to visit her family?”
The teacher shook her head. “They moved. Not long after the accident. I guess they went back to Michigan where Madison's grandparents live.”
I heaved a sigh. “Is she buried here?”
The woman looked puzzled. “In the cemetery as far as I know.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I guess I'll take Linus home now. You've been very helpful.”
I turned away.
“Wait!” the teacher called, and I turned back to her.
The woman set her briefcase down on the ground and opened it. She removed something from one of the pockets and held it out to me.
“Madison left this in class once,” she said. “It was a bandanna she wore. I always meant to return it to her parents but...” She looked down. “Well, maybe Linus should have it.”
I took the bandanna and looked at it. It was pink and had the initials M.F. embroidered in one corner. I clutched it in my hand and nodded, then turned and headed back to where Linus still sat ramrod straight, ears pricked forward. As soon as I walked up to him he shoved his nose into my hand, sniffing at the bandanna and whining deep in his throat. I tied the bandanna around his neck and clipped the leash to his collar.
It took me an hour to find the tombstone, but I finally found it at the very back of the cemetery. A small headstone inscribed with a name and a date told me I'd found the right plot. Fresh flowers, the stems tied with a pink ribbon, lay on the grass beside the stone. If the family had moved back to Michigan I wondered where the flowers came from. I squatted down and placed a hand against the stone. Linus sniffed around the plot, slobbered on the stone, and slid down to his stomach, groaning. He rested his chin on his paws, and watched me with large brown eyes. The wind picked up, ruffling Linus' fur and the hem of my black T-shirt. The branches of the trees around us rattled and leaves rained down, swirling into a small cyclone and scattering across the green grass. I pulled out the items I'd collected earlier, and arranged them beside the gravestone: the pink bandanna, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fudge brownies, a package of colored pencils and a drawing pad, and finally, a picture I'd found on the Internet. A little girl with blonde pigtails and beautiful blue eyes smiled out of the picture. She was missing one of her front teeth, and she wore pink ribbons in her pigtails that matched the pink short-sleeved dress she wore. I'd found the picture with the newspaper story about the car accident when I searched the local paper online at the library. She looked nothing like my Livvy, but she could be her, right down to the pigtails and the gap-toothed smile. I felt a lump in my throat as I brought Linus closer and ordered him to sit. I dropped to the ground cross-legged by the items I'd gathered, and lit a small candle. Several minutes passed as the wind pushed against us, scattering more leaves. There was a noticeable chill in the air. Clouds scudded across the sky, blocking out the sun and swallowing the shadows on the ground, turning everything greyish. Linus whined and got to his feet, tail wagging and I glanced up.
Peeking over the top of the gravestone were a pair of large blue eyes. They blinked at him.
I raised a hand but did not get up. The eyes disappeared from behind the gravestone, and Linus whined, straining harder at his leash. I released the dog and got slowly to his feet.
“Hello?” I whispered.
A little girl slid from around the gravestone and held her hands out to the dog. Linus lunged happily at her, but slipped right through her and the little girl's eyes widened and glittered with unshed tears. Linus whined in confusion.
“Are you Madison?” I asked.
She nodded, but remained silent.
“We've been looking for you,” I said. “Linus is very upset. He misses you.”
The little girl looked at Linus who now sat beside her and was trying to sniff her. Her outline blurred and shimmered, giving her an unsteady and ethereal appearance. She kept slipping in and out of focus, and her colors looked leached, translucent. I could see the tombstone through her.
“Can he see me?” the little girl asked.
“I think so,” I replied. “Have you been trying to get him to see you?”
She looked down at her feet. She wore sneakers with her jeans, and pink T-shirt. “I wanted to say goodbye. I'm sorry I scared those people.”
I looked Linus. He whined again, trying to paw at the little girl. His paw kept passing through her. I knew what he felt. When a ghost passed through someone it turned their blood cold and froze their insides. It was like being doused from the inside with a bucket of freezing water.
"Madison, why wouldn't you let me see you?" I asked.
Madison tried to pat Linus' head but her hand disappeared in his fur. The dog's eyes seemed to widen. "I was afraid," she said.
"Afraid of me?"
She nodded. "No one has ever seen me before. It scared me that you knew I was there. I wanted to talk to you, but I was scared."
"That's what I'm here for, Madison," I said. "You can talk to me. You can tell me why you aren't crossing over."
"I miss Linus," she said. "I want to be with him."
“Honey, you need to let Linus go,” I told her gently. “Why have you been haunting the Stiles?”
She looked up at me again, her face sad. “I was angry,” she said. “He's my dog.”
I crouched down so my face was level with hers. “You're angry because your family gave him away, aren't you? He's your dog and he doesn't belong with those people.”
Madison nodded, looking ashamed.
“Madison, listen to me. Linus is with a wonderful family now. They have a little girl just like you. She loves Linus, and she can be here for him in a way you can't anymore. She loves him. He's in good hands, I promise. You can let him go.”
Madison looked at Linus. He stared back and whined softly. "No," she said, tears feeling her eyes. "He's mine."
"You'll be with him again," I said. "But now you need to let him go. And you need to move on too."
“I wish I could touch him,” Madison said.
I reached out my hand. “Take my hand,” I said.
“Take my hand, Madison," I said. “If you take my hand, you can touch him. You can say goodbye.”
Madison hesitated a moment longer before she floated closer and took my hand. Instead of passing through my hand, it became warm and alive at my touch.
That was my gift, bringing ghosts to corporeal form, if only briefly. As long as they touched me, they became warm and solid.
Linus bounded forward, tongue hanging out. He gave a little hop, and slurped his tongue across Madison's face. The little girl giggled and reached out to pat Linus head. She gripped my hand with one of hers, and stroked Linus' long silky ears with the other. A moment later she wrapped her free arm around Linus' neck. Her other arm pulled me closer, and the three of us sank to the ground in a three-way hug, Madison buried her face in Linus' fur and wove her fingers tightly through mine. The dog went very still between us as we embraced. He closed his eyes and rested his chin on Madison's shoulder. We stayed in that position for a long time. I didn't dare move despite the cramp in my legs and the tingling feeling in my fingers.
“Goodbye,” Madison whispered finally, and she kissed the top of Linus' head. She dissolved slowly from my embrace, her form leaching to colorless, fading into the late afternoon rays of sun until there was nothing left but a slight shimmer in the air. Linus sighed and leaned his large head against my shoulder, then looked up at me sadly. I patted the dog, gathered up the items on Madison's grave, and tied the pink bandanna to Linus' collar. Then I whistled for the dog and turned away. Linus followed him calmly and obediently all the way back to his new home.