Tucker Winslow – alive for twenty-six years, dead for three, employed by Here and Beyond Solutions for two and a half – was sitting on a crappy plastic chair in the breakroom, staring at the soda machine without really seeing it. The Sector 1248 break room shared a physical space with the break room for a Gulp ‘n’ Go, so in a technical sense he was sitting next to Tammy while she Face-Timed her step-daughter on her own fifteen. He could tune in and listen, if he wanted. Satan in stretch pants, he did not want to.
Prior to haunting the Cho residence in the middle of whatever bland California suburb he was sitting in – mortal plane locations really stopped mattering after a while – he’d been working the Walkers out in Georgia somewhere. Atlanta, maybe? They did live on Peach Tree. That job had been a cake walk. He’d done a good job. Too good, in fact, and after the fifteenth night of little Luke and Emmy Walker running to their parents’ room the whole family had up and quit. He thought that was the point. He thought he’d done something good. When his supervisor, Mitch, had called him into his office he had honestly thought he was going to get a promotion.
“We don’t want to make them move. Didn’t you learn that in the training?” Mitch asked, barely looking up from his computer, his fingers flying over the keyboard too fast to see. He was a man of average build who had died in a freak rider mower accident, and the stresses of his job kept him so distracted he usually forgot to switch from his death state to a more neutral appearance. Tucker tried to keep his eyes on his face, and not on the ten-inch mower blade embedded into his left temple.
“No…I mean, yes…I mean…I must have misunderstood the material?”
Mitch sighed long enough for Tucker to smell burnt coffee and gasoline, tapped a few more keys before hitting the ‘enter’ key with a bit of mustard, and then finally looked at Tucker.
“One family, one house. We don’t follow the family if they move, and we don’t stay with the house, either. Then things get too obvious. Got to keep the living on their toes.”
“Right.” Don’t look don’t look don’t look don’t look.
“We’ll have to reassign you. It’s your first job and you were doing good work, so there won’t be any marks on your permanent record. Another slip-up like this, Taylor-”
“-and we’ll have to discuss some re-education.”
While alive, Tucker had worked for enough major corporations and seen enough science fiction to know that any interpretation of ‘re-education’ was going to be soul crushing, the only question was in what way. So he had been determined to get it right this time. He’d requested a new handbook and had read it so many times he could now recite all thirty-four pages from memory alone. He’d been attending all the Tools of the Trade Zoom meetings and had even agreed to join the Baby Haunters-Big Haunters to get more tips. He was going to get this right, and he would be haunting Harry and Rose Cho for decades. Maybe even their kids.
Tucker hadn’t counted on one thing.
The door to the break room swung open – the one on Tucker’s plane, Tammy didn’t stop yelling into her rose-gold iPhone – and in walked Marty carrying his packed lunch.
“Cripes, Tucker, what’s the matter with you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
Marty laughed at his own joke as he sat down, his huge belly jiggling. You could never tell what state Marty was in. He’d croaked of a heart attack and the differences were minor.
“I’m stuck, Marty,” Tucker said, running his hands through his hair. “I botched my first job and I really don’t want to mess up this one, but I don’t know what to do.”
“Uh huh,” Marty said, digging through his huge Igloo lunchbox, really more the size of a small camping cooler. “Aren’t you down at the, uh, the Cho residence, right?”
Marty shrugged. “Young couple, just starting out, first house. I mean, very basic situation. I’m not seeing what the problem is.
Tucker took a deep breath and tried not to let his fingers fidget on the table.
“They have cats.”
“Oh,” Marty said. He sat back in his chair, his pepperoni and provolone sandwich forgotten. “Shitfire, man.”
The break room door swung in and Sweaty – a nickname he had chosen, would not explain, and would not respond to anything but – zoomed in laughing that ridiculous, high pitched cackle of his. From what Tucker heard it scared the shit out of the Jones-Simpsons. Only made Tucker feel like he was wiping his ass with steel wool.
“’Sup, idiots?” He punched the soda machine in just the right place and waited for it to spit out a root beer. It didn’t spit out a root beer on the mortal plane, but the soda machine still jumped a little and actually made Tammy look up from her conversation about her infected ingrown toe nail long enough to glare at it.
Sweaty leaned in until what little mustache hair he was able to grow was tickling the back of Tammy’s ear.
“Good evening, Tammy,” he whispered in a sensuous way that made Tucker feel like he needed a shower.
Tammy screamed, and Marty pulled a face.
“Not supposed to scare folks who aren’t your family,” he said in a sing-song around a bite of a Ho-Ho, watching Tammy hustle out with her hand clutched around her phone.
“The only way they find out is if you snitch, and you don’t have the balls or the energy for that.” Sweaty plopped down in the seat Tammy had been using and put his feet up on the table. He looked at Tucker and sniffed. “The fuck’s the matter with you?”
“The family he’s been assigned to has cats.”
Sweaty shrugged. “And?”
Sweaty had been nineteen when the skateboard his friends had duct-taped his feet to had missed the jump ramp they’d built and sent him careening into a local quarry, and he was only six weeks into his first assignment: one of those Christian families bordering on extremism. All Sweaty had to do was blow his nose in the vicinity of their baby before the family was hauling some sort of priest out. He didn’t know how good he had it.
“They’re not afraid of anything I do,” Tucker said. “Anything I do, they just say, ‘oh, it’s probably one of the cats.’”
“How many they got?” Marty asked.
“Fucking why?” Sweaty asked.
Tucker shrugged. He’d always been a dog person. “They’re in the bedroom, so I start slamming cabinets in the kitchen. They don’t even get out of bed. Or they’re watching television, so I start switching stations and changing the volume. Must be the cats, sitting on the remote! Even though the cats are in the other room and the remote is right in front of them! Everything I’ve done, for the past three months, has been pinned on those stupid fluffy pieces of shit.”
“I knew a fellow once,” Marty said, “got assigned to a house with six of the little turds. Couldn’t do a fucking thing without the family hollering at the cats. Eventually he got so frustrated he burnt the house down. And do you know what the bitch of it is?”
“They still blamed the cats?”
“They still blamed the cats! Couldn’t even get credit for good old arson. I don’t think a single cat died in that fire, either.”
“I don’t want to start any fires,” Tucker said. “But I need to figure this out. I don’t want to be reassigned so soon. Not again.”
Sweaty shook his head. “You’re looking at it all wrong, man.”
“Sweaty, no offense, but you’re an idiot and you’ve only been doing this for a month and a half. What do you know about it?”
“First off – fuck you. Second off, my mom had cats my whole life. And those fuckers scared the shit out of me.”
“Stupid shit. I’d catch one staring into a dark room. Like, really staring and getting all fucked up about it. Or one of them would be sleeping next to me while I’m playing Call of Duty, and out of nowhere it would freak out, bite the shit out of my elbow, and run screaming down the hall.”
Marty looked from Sweaty to Tucker. “Do the cats even see you?”
“Oh, they see me,” Tucker said with a nod. “They don’t seem to care, but they see me.”
“So you’ve got to make them!” Sweaty said, finally cracking open his root beer. “Use them to scare the Cho’s. Then, when they’re on edge, start pulling your others tricks. They’ll stop thinking its just the cats real fucking fast.”
“Wow. That’s…actually a good idea. Thanks, Sweaty.”
Sweaty shot finger guns at him, spilling root beer all over his shirt in the process.