Tina Grimes. Aka, Death Hunter or Ghost Breaker. Savior to some, devil to others.
Until now, she refused to share her origin story. When asked, she dismissed the question. Not important.
Now she reveals the story, a story that answers few questions, a short answer on how she got started. Flatly, on a dare.
People often ask me how I got my start. I wasn’t always like this.
In 2003, I was twenty-two years old, Tina Grimes. Not the Death Hunter, the Ghost Breaker. Nothing like the hardened and scarred woman I have become now.
Take highway 101 down the Washington coast. A little way past Raymond, in South Bend. A small fishing town along the Willapa River known for its oysters. That’s where it began, on Halloween night, of all things.
I’d gone there with two of my friends, Brianna and Kayla. The dare was Kayla’s idea. She loved horror movies. Her big idea for Halloween was to dare us to watch a horror movie marathon in an actual haunted house. Just the three of us. And we were crazy enough to go along with it.
How different would things have turned out for us, if we hadn’t dared? Since graduation, we’d been drifting apart and I think we all knew it was one of the few chances we’d have to spend together like this.
And it was hard to resist Kayla.
She was a year younger, a petite pixie of a girl with blond hair and blue eyes. She always said she got her mother’s coloring and her father’s short stature, but she didn’t actually know the truth. She’d never known her parents, orphaned on the way home from the hospital after birth when the car was hit by a drunk driver behind the wheel of a heavy duty pickup. Both parents died, and she ended up in an orphanage.
At the time I didn’t understand how she hadn’t ever been adopted. She was impossibly cute, had no end of guys asking her out. She must have been the cutest baby ever, and yet was never at home anywhere.
Brianna, was dark in contrast, with big dark eyes like pools of night. Her hair, too, was a mass of curls that had a mind of their own. She was the tallest of us three, even taller than me at five foot eight. In heels, she might have been striking if she wasn’t so ungainly and awkward, with a laugh like a donkey. Not that we’d ever say that—we loved her and her laugh.
The house Kayla had found stood in the hills above the town, back up a dirt road that switchbacked up the hill. If it hadn’t been surrounded by tall Douglas firs, it might have had a lovely view of the river and the town below. Instead, it was cut off and buried deep beneath the dark branches.
Kayla drove us to the place, hunched up over the wheel of her little red VW Beetle. She kept giggling.
“You’re going to love it,” she promised as we turned into the drive. “It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect!”
At last, she turned up a weedy drive, splashing through puddles from the rain the night before. It wasn’t even five o’clock yet, and already dark with thick gray clouds above and the smell of new rain in the air.
The Beetle’s headlights speared ahead, lighting up only trees and a drive that was looking like no one had been up it in years. A thin tree hung across the drive, hung up in the trees on the sides.
In the passenger seat Brianna, twisted her head, leaning forward as the Beetle passed beneath. Safe on the other side, she slumped back into her seat.
Brianna looked at Kayla. “You realize that this is exactly the sort of place that people always go in horror movies and end up stalked by a crazed killer?”
Kayla’s teeth flashed white in the dim interior. “I know! Isn’t it perfect?”
The trees pulled back, only slightly, and we saw the house. I don’t think it was ever a pretty house. It stood two stories tall, the spine of the roof slumped now, shingles covered in moss, branches, and debris. Windows boarded up. Nothing decorative about the place. It was grayed with age and weather.
“Okay, that’s a spooky place,” Brianna said. “I’ll give you that much. It’s also probably full of black mold and asbestos. How about we go back, find a nice motel room and watch movies there? Motels are scary by default.”
Kayla shook her head as she pulled up in front of the house. “No way! This is perfect!”
“It probably leaks,” I said.
“That’s why I brought the tent, just in case,” Kayla said. “We can set it up inside.”
“Really?” Brianna said. “Why are we doing this?”
“I dared you, and you accepted.” Kayla shut off the engine. Darkness swallowed the car.
Brianna laughed, a hitching, nervous laugh. “Uh, guys. It’s like really dark! How are we going to see anything at all?”
A bright light clicked on, shining in Brianna’s face. She winced and held up her hands. Kayla laughed, waving the flashlight she held.
“They’re called flashlights? I’ve got more in back. Come on, let’s get the gear and get inside!”
I don’t know how Kayla got the key to the place, I never found out. I don’t even know how she found it, but she did.
She let us in with a flourish. She threw open the door as if it opened onto a grand ballroom, while somehow holding onto the sleeping bag and tent that she carried. She had the straps from the camp chairs over her shoulders.
Brianna was right. It smelled like mold. Mold and piss and dust. Cobwebs and dust coated the floor and wallpaper peeled on the walls. The entry way was narrow and as gray as the exterior, everything swathed in dust as our flashlights flitted around the entry.
It wasn’t much of a foyer. There was a small space facing a narrow passage straight ahead, and a staircase rising up to the second floor. Off to our right was closed door, and to the left an archway into a front room.
Kayla bounced in and went straight for the stairs. I stepped in front of her, managing to hang onto the sleeping bags, and camp stove that I carried. It was hard hanging onto all of that, and manage the flashlight at the same time.
“Don’t think of going up there.”
She twisted around. “Why not?”
“How long has this place been empty? Let’s see. The stairs might give away. Or the floor. You could get hurt. We’re here, but let’s stay on the ground floor.”
“We can still leave,” Brianna said, moving into the archway. She carried the bags of food in her arms. Her light moving around the room. “There’s no furniture or anything!”
I joined her. She was right. The room was empty except cobwebs, dust, and some leaves. And pitch black except our lights. Another door stood open in the back corner, past the empty fireplace. Even if it’d been light out the room would have been dark with the boarded up windows.
Kayla joined us. “Look, there’s plenty of room. We can set up the tent, if you want. We’ve got camp chairs and the cook stove. Everything we need.”
The front door slammed shut.
We all screamed. Brianna dropped the food in a heap and rushed to the door, her eyes wide. For a second I thought it wouldn’t open. We’d be trapped.
I didn’t drop anything. Instead I was frozen in place, watching Brianna reach the door.
The door opened just fine, hinges groaning. She went out onto the porch, realized we weren’t following and turned her flashlight back on us.
“Why are you still in there?”
Kayla dropped the tent and sleeping bag. “I dared you. Remember what happens if you back out?”
“Oh, come on! The door closed on its own!”
“The wind,” Kayla said.
Brianna waved her arms. “There’s no wind! Let’s go!”
Kayla shook her head. One of the camp chair bags started to slip from her shoulder. She caught it, hitched it up and grabbed the tent. She dragged it through the dust into the empty room.
Brianna looked to me. “Tina, you’ve got to convince her.”
I couldn’t give a reason for it, but I didn’t want to. Between problems with my parents’ health, the prospect of finding a job still bleak months after graduating college, I wanted a fun night away from everything. I wanted to face imaginary bumps in the night with my friends, rather than another day trying to find a job.
I didn’t say that, even if it went through my head. “We took her dare. And I can’t afford to pay up if we back out.”
“This is seriously messed up,” Brianna said.
I smiled. “Maybe it’ll be fun? We’ve got marshmallows.”
“We can make s’mores!” Kayla was already pulling the tent out of its bag.
Brianna took a step closer. Her voice took on a pleading edge. “Really? We’re really going to do this?”
I looked at Kayla and she looked back. We shared something then, something I don’t think either of us was even conscious of yet. This started on a dare, but neither one of us was going to give it up.
How different would things be if we had?
Thirty minutes later the room looked less grim, as long as you didn’t look away from the circle of light from Kayla’s portable DVD player sitting on top of a camp stool, in front of our chairs. The tent was behind us, the camp stove set up in the fireplace. We wouldn’t build a fire, the chimney was undoubtedly clogged from years without maintenance, but the place was drafty enough to risk using the stove indoors.
Kayla unzipped a DVD case holding a bunch of discs in sleeves. She collected horror movies. “What’s first? Friday the 13th? The Hills Have Eyes? Evil Dead?”
Brianna was huddled up in her sleeping back, sitting on the camp chair like a giant purple worm with only her head exposed.
“Don’t you have anything funny?”
“Evil Dead is funny,” Kayla said.
“It doesn’t sound funny.” The sleeping bag rustled as Brianna huddled deeper.
Kayla laughed. “Wait a minute. You haven’t seen it?”
“I haven seen any of those! You know I don’t like horror movies!”
“I know, but really? None of them?” Kayla laughed again.
I chuckled too, then said. “Let’s go easy on her. Night of the Living Dead.”
“That doesn’t sound easy,” Brianna said.
“Oh, it is.” Kayla flipped through the discs. “And it’s a classic. There’s so many references to it in other movies.”
“Maybe later we can watch Shaun of the Dead,” I suggested. “It’s funny.”
Kayla laughed again and pulled the Night of the Living Dead dvd from its sleeve. She did that with all of her movies, got rid of the packaging and kept them in cases. Easier to move, she said. She’d gotten an iPod earlier that year and had converted her CDs over to MP3s as well. It was only 2003. She never kept much, always ready to move.
Brianna’s gaze moved between the two of us. “You’re tricking me, aren’t you? This is scarier than the others, isn’t it?”
“It’s pretty scary,” I said. I crossed my legs and arms. “If you find being in an isolated old house surrounded by zombies scary.”
Brianna moaned, as Kayla laughed and the movie started.
Half the fun of the marathon was watching Brianna hide her face like a little kid during the movie, and hearing Kayla’s laughter.
We’d watched about thirty minutes of the movie when a board creaked upstairs. Kayla’s laughter died. I sat up in my camp chair, planting my feet on the floor.
“Okay, I didn’t imagine that, did I?” Brianna asked.
We were all quiet. Listening.
“Old houses —” Kayla started to say.
Boards creaked again. The squeak and release of someone stepping on a board, then stepping off again. A footfall echoed through the roof, and another board creaked.
“Ohmygodtheressomeoneupthere!” Brianna said.
Kayla stood up. So did I, and then stopped. The next footstep hadn’t come. We waited, looking at each other in the flickering glow from the player’s screen. The sound effects from the movie weren’t helping.
I pointed. “Pause it.”
Kayla hit the button. The movie froze with Judith O’Dea clutching her head, face twisted.
Quiet settled in around us. I turned away from the light of the DVD player and clicked on my flashlight. The beam lit the dust in the air and hit the peeling wallpaper by the stairs. Nothing moved except those slow-floating motes.
Brianna whispered behind me. “We didn’t imagine it.”
“It’s just the movie,” Kayla said. “It spooked you, that’s all.”
The sleeping back rustled, making more noise than you’d expect. They’re like potato chip bags, except for people. Brianna’s feet were loud on the floor.
“We should go. Come on, it could be some crazy person up there!”
I knot of unease settled into my gut. Maybe there was someone up there. It’d be sensible to listen to Brianna and leave.
“It’s the movie, our imaginations, and an old house,” Kayla insisted.
“Who are you trying to convince?” Brianna asked.
Good question. I twisted around, turning the flashlight on them.
A person walked through the doorway past the fireplace. Walking away_ from us, as if they’d been standing in the room and were leaving. I only caught a glimpse, a bit of a pale arm and a pale leg.
A naked arm. Naked leg. A suggestion of a face with dark eyes, all of it gone before I could move the light over.
My friends saw it on my face when I aimed the flashlight at the doorway. My skin was cold.
“What is it?” Brianna turned on her light, pointing it at the doorway. Her light bounced around as her hand shook. “What did you see?”
“Stay here,” I said.
I didn’t say that I’d be right back as I pushed between them. I at least knew that much.
I also knew we weren’t alone. You’ve all felt it before, the difference between an empty room and one with someone else in it. You don’t have see the person. You can sit in a room with someone else, your backs to each other, silent, and still know that you’re not alone. With the right person, it is comforting.
This wasn’t a comforting feeling. We weren’t alone in the house. If Brianna had seen even that glimpse of what I saw she would have gone running from the house and probably wouldn’t have talked to us again.
She didn’t see it. Neither of them did. Kayla must have suspected something even though she didn’t say anything. She did move over next to Brianna and stood at her side. Both of them had their flashlights on my back so I kept mine down, pointed at the floor.
That’s why, when I turned the corner at the doorway, I saw her feet first. Maggot-pale and dirty, with cracked, bleeding toenails, just the feet at first, caught in the light while the shadows swallowed all but her silhouette standing there in the darkness.
I snapped the light up, catching her square in the face. She screamed into the light, blood-shot eyes wide. Her mouth was a dark, pit lined with bloodied cracked and broken teeth. Stringy hair hung down in mats around her dirt-lined face. The smell was rotten, decayed and thick.
My gut did somersaults and I held my ground the way you stay still when a vicious dog comes at you. Run, and they’ll get you.
“Is there anything there?” Brianna asked. “What do you see?”
The woman ducked her head, reaching up with filthy hands against the light. Her skin was pale beneath the dirt, fingernails as cracked and bloodied as her toenails. Her head twitched and shook. All of her twitched and convulsed with spasms. Her rolling eyes didn’t hold any sanity.
“Tina?” Kayla called. “You’re freaking Brianna out, come on. Joke’s over.”
The woman screamed again, blood-tinged spittle flying from cracked, peeling lips.
No answering screams from my friends. They didn’t hear her. It was obvious. If they had, they’d be screaming too, and running.
I held my ground, holding the light on her. I didn’t know what she was, I was acting on instinct.
“Kayla, Brianna, you need to get outside. Now.”
Kayla laughed. “Come on, Tina. Don’t —”
I turned a hair. Only a bit, still not taking my eyes off the woman, but that was enough. She growled and ran at me, her bare feet slapping the floor.
When she got close enough she shoved me. I reacted too slow to get my arms up. Her momentum knocked my hands aside and hit me low in my chest.
It hurt. My breath exploded out of my mouth. And the force of it knocked me off my feet into the room. I dropped the flashlight.
There was more screaming. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t breathe. Tears stung my eyes. The screams weren’t coming from my attacker, it was my friends.
I rolled onto my side as lights danced in my face. I raised a hand to shield my eyes, trying to see where the woman was.
I didn’t see her anywhere.
“Holy shit!” Kayla crouched in front of me. Her hand touched my shoulder. “Tina? Are you okay? What the hell happened?”
“Please tell me you did that?” Brianna said. “It was a joke, right?”
I sucked burning air into my lungs along with the dust. I started coughing.
“I don’t think she’s joking,” Kayla snapped.
“What are you saying?”
The coughing subsided, but my throat stung. I pushed myself up and found my voice. “You didn’t see her? The woman that hit me?”
“What?” Brianna’s voice rose higher. “That’s not funny!”
“No one’s laughing.”
I got up with Kayla’s help. Brianna’s light hit my eyes again. I raised a hand. “Brianna, not in my eyes!”
“Sorry.” She moved the light.
The woman was standing right behind Kayla. Her eyes locked on mine. She reached around Kayla’s neck like she was going to strangle her.
I grabbed the woman’s wrist.
Brianna screamed. Kayla screamed in my face and jerked away. The woman hissed and grabbed at Kayla’s arm. Her nails raked across Kayla’s skin but didn’t find purchase.
My friends could see her now!
I hung onto her arm. “Who are you?”
She snarled, lips curling in a sneer, and swung at me. I blocked the blow with my arm. Her flesh oozed and split beneath my hand. The smell was terrible. I shoved her away from me.
The woman stumbled back and hit the camp stool with the DVD player. It tripped her and she fell, knocking it over.
Brianna was still screaming. I glanced at her, and when I looked back where the woman had fallen she was gone.
I spun around, searching the dark around us for any sign of her. Nothing.
Kayla went to Brianna and pulled her into a hug. She stroked her hair. Brianna stopped screaming, crying instead into Kayla’s shoulder.
I took three steps to pick up my flashlight and did another sweep with the light around the room. No woman. We were alone.
Kayla looked at me over Brianna’s frizzy hair. “What was that?”
“I don’t know.” I surveyed the room again.
“Get everything together and let’s go,” I said.
Brianna lifted her head, tears streaking her face. “Let’s just go! Before anything else happens!”
Kayla shook her head. “I’m not leaving without my stuff. Help me.”
“I’ll keep an eye out,” I said. “You two get things together.”
Brianna jumped into action. She grabbed her sleeping bag and shoved it into the stuff sack. Kayla picked up the fallen DVD player.
“The screen looks fine.” She turned it over. “The battery compartment popped open.”
She pushed it back into place and hit the power button.
“What are you doing?” Brianna asked as she scooped food up into the bags.
“I want to see if it’s broken or not.”
“That can wait!”
I was inclined to agree but stayed silent, watching the shadows. The woman had come out of nowhere. It was Halloween night. I didn’t want to believe it, but there was only one explanation I could think of.
She was a ghost.
Brianna pulled the supports free on the tent, letting it collapse in on itself.
“Guys?” She said, her voice quaking. She backed away from the tent.
She pointed her light at the tent. I added my light.
The fabric had fallen down, over the shape of someone lying inside the tent. The bright blue and yellow fabric showed the curves of someone curled on their side.
Kayla still held the DVD player. The screen came to life and O’Dea’s voice rang out, screaming. Kayla hit the pause button and the sound stopped.
A ragged rasping breath noise came from the collapsed tent. The fabric rose and fell with the breath.
Brianna made a high-pitched noise in her throat and broke into her clumsy run. She was making a high keening noise as she ran to the front door.
Neither Kayla or I moved.
Brianna reached the door, opened it and ran outside.
Slowly, Kayla put down the DVD player, closing the lid as she put it on the floor. She pointed her light at the tent as the fabric rose and fell again.
“What is that?” She asked.
I was scared and pissed. Sure, we came out here to have a spooky Halloween night, but this? This was something else.
“Let’s find out.”
“You’re kidding. You are kidding, right?”
I shook my head. “Go with Brianna if you want. I want to know what this ghost or whatever it wants. There has to be a reason for this.”
Another ragged breath came from beneath the collapsed tent. A sound like a sob.
“Maybe we should leave it alone.”
I’d made up my mind. The part of me that was scared was pushed down deep inside.
It only took a couple of steps to reach the tent. I didn’t hesitate. I bent down and flipped back the fabric revealing a pale, dirty foot. A decaying stink rose up and the foot kicked, squirming deeper like a grub trying to get out of the sun when you turned over a rock.
I grabbed the foot and pulled. She screamed then, the ghost. She kicked and came out of the tent clawing the fabric away. She came not at me, but at Kayla. Her nails scratched at the floor as she kicked and squirmed, trying to get to Kayla.
I held on and yanked the ghost back. For a ghost, she felt solid enough. My fingers sank deep into her flesh, parting pale skin into the cold oozing flesh beneath.
Kayla moved around her, staying out of reach, but then she crouched, staring at the woman’s maddened face. “Mother?”
At the word, the woman collapsed on the floor. She sobbed into the floor boards and stopped struggling. I let go of her leg.
The instant I let go, she was gone. Kayla looked up at me, her face pale, and in the dim light, I saw a resemblance there to the ghostly woman.
“Where’d she go?” Kayla asked.
I turned, using the flashlight. I got a glimpse of something by the front door and steadied the light.
It wasn’t the ghost. It was Brianna, peeking in through the open door.
“Guys?” Her voice still had that frightened whine. “Come on, please! I don’t have the keys!”
Kayla stood up, her light on me. “Make her come back.”
“I don’t know how.”
She came at me in quick steps, stopping when she was inches away. “That was my mother. How is that possible? Bring her back.”
“I don’t know how.” I looked right back into her eyes. “Why do you say it is your mother?”
Kayla’s eyes flicked away. “I recognize her. I have a few photos. Well, I did. I don’t have the originals, I scanned those. Digital lasts forever.”
“Why is she here?”
“Guys?” Brianna said. “Please —”
The door slammed shut in her face. She screamed outside.
I looked around with the light and didn’t find the ghost, but she was there. Watching us from the shadows. Listening, maybe.
“This was my house. Our house,” Kayla said. “It sold after the accident. It’s had a few owners since then, but they always left quickly. Eventually, it was bought as a rental, and no one wanted to rent it. Then it sat empty. I don’t remember living here, but I wanted to come back and see it.”
Kayla turned away from me, facing the dark. “Momma?”
Upstairs boards creaked again, the clear sound of footsteps.
Kayla took off running. I acted on instinct and chased after her.
She didn’t listen.
She was fast for her small size. She got to the stairs before me and ran up the old steps. About the fourth step up, a board cracked but Kayla was already past it and continuing up.
“Guys?” Brianna called from outside.
I didn’t stop. Brianna was out, I was more concerned with Kayla.
I followed her up, keeping close to the wall and the front of the steps where I figured the wood would be stronger. By the time I reached the top, she’d already gone around the corner and the light from her flashlight was fading.
At the top it was easy enough to see where she’d gone. Light came out of one room. There was a sob from that room. I didn’t hesitate. People think I don’t hesitate to go into these situations because of my experience. I don’t think that’s it. You either have it or you don’t. Some people run toward the emergency, others run away. I’ve known plenty of cops with the same response.
Whatever else was going on, my friend needed me.
The room had been a small bedroom once upon a time, lost now to the past. The only thing that remained was a pale, faded and moldy floral wallpaper. Broken glass lay on the floor from the boarded up window, and long dark streaks ran down the wall from the window like tears.
Kayla stood in the middle of the room, her face in her hands, the flashlight pointing up at the ceiling. Her shoulders shook with the sobs.
“This was your room?”
Kayla dropped her hands and turned around, shrugging. “I don’t know! I don’t remember. I thought maybe I would, you know? If I saw it?”
Her mother came through the freaking wall.
If there was any question of her being a ghost, that cinched it. Ordinary decaying people don’t walk through the solid, mold-ridden walls.
And she wasn’t interested in some sort of tear-drenched reunion with Kayla either. She came at Kayla fast, pulling her arm back, fingers like claws.
Kayla didn’t see her and didn’t react.
I jumped forward, and then Kayla screamed, shrinking back from me.
I caught the ghost’s arm and pointed the flashlight at her face.
She screamed and swung her other arm at me. I blocked her strike.
For a ghost, she was solid enough that the blow was hard and painful. It was like being hit with a hammer.
She tried to pull away. I held on. I didn’t dare let go. The last time I let go she disappeared on me. I wasn’t letting that happen again.
When I didn’t let go she went crazy. She screamed. She thrashed and twisted. The skin on her arm tore and my grip slipped.
I dropped the flashlight and grabbed on with my other hand too, gripping her arm in a two-handed grip. I wasn’t letting go.
She kicked and spun and I hung on.
Kayla screamed. “Why? Why are you doing this?”
Her mother, what was left of her, hissed and lunged for Kayla, clawing with her free hand. She almost got away from me.
I planted my feet and swung her away from Kayla. She slammed into the wall and bounced off. I brought my knee up, hard, into her gut.
Her head snapped up. Her eyes were empty of anything except madness and pain. I twisted her arm around and shoved her at the floor. She fought but she was skinny and dead. She went down with me on top of her.
The stink of dead flesh choked me. She thrashed and screamed beneath me.
I glanced at Kayla. “Get out! I’ve got this!”
For a second, Kayla hesitated, then she ran.
“Mine,” her mother hissed beneath me.
I pressed my knee down into the center of her back, pulling up on her arm. “She’s not. Not anymore!”
The ghost fought to get free. She was strong, slippery and determined. I was just as determined to keep her from following Kayla. Why had Kayla never been adopted? Why did she have such bad luck all the time? Maybe because her dead mother hadn’t fucking moved on?
Sounded right to me. I pulled harder. Bones snapped and the ghost screamed.
Whatever else she was, she still felt pain. My gut tightened. I’d do what it took to stop her from following us.
It took a long time.
Ghost Breaker, they call me. The woman who makes ghosts flesh and fights them. Kayla’s mother was the first one. The first time I touched a ghost and made it solid. Why then? I don’t know. The combination of the house, and Halloween? Whatever the reason, after that night it didn’t go away.
There are no friendly ghosts. Those people, the ones that call me evil? They don’t know. They can’t see, not until I touch the dead. I give the things that go bump in the night substance, and with enough effort, I can break them. Force them to move on.
To where? I don’t know. I don’t see that.
After I was done, tired and sick, I rejoined my friends outside. Kayla wouldn’t talk to either of us. She voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric facility a week later for nightmares she couldn’t shake. She’s better now. I’ve checked. We haven’t spoken in years but she seems happy now. Married, two children as beautiful as she is.
I lost a friend that night and it was worth it to save her.
Brianna? That’s a different story.
That’s how it started. I’m Tina Grimes, also called the Death Hunter and the Ghost Breaker. I got my start on a dare.
This story is the 96th short story release, written in March 2013.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Child of Their Minds.