The Wrong John Dunham

The ghost didn’t leave after the séance was over.

That hadn’t ever happened to me before. Although I hadn’t ever had a real ghost show up to one of my fake séances in the first place.

It started off as one of the fake séances Madame had me do for her shop’s off-the-street clientele. Madame Nneke—whom everyone just called Madame—was the owner and proprietor of Tarot Express, a hokey tourist trap that provided all the New Age stuff any neo-pagan could wish for. Madame pulled out all the stops for the tourists—lots of smoke and mirrors, knocking under the table, me pretending to be in a trance when I pretended to contact the dead. That’s what people expect when they walk into a shop like Tarot Express.

Mr. and Mrs. Dunham had been no different.

“Our son was killed overseas. We just want to know what his last thoughts were and let him know how proud of him we are for his service.”

They presented the medal of valor that had been included with all of his personal effects.

I made a show of contacting the dead and about jumped out of my skin when he actually showed up. I sat frozen, staring at him. Luckily, the family thought it was part of the act. Unluckily, I didn’t know how to proceed with him standing there, staring at me.

I was still fairly new with the whole business of people with real abilities acting like they were pretend psychics. I’d been working for Madame for less than a year. I desperately wanted to ask her what to do, but I knew that the show had to go on, so to speak. She wouldn’t think kindly of me for breaking character and running from the room screaming.

Not that my ability to talk to ghosts had ever actually made me scream. It had seemed natural as a kid, when it had first started after my near-death experience.

I decided that having the ghost there would ultimately be helpful. I told the family I had contact, and they spewed out all the things they wanted to say to him.

He was very quiet as he listened to them, although an expression of growing alarm spread across his face as they talked about the medal.

I finally let my eyes go unfocused and asked if he had a message to deliver to his loved ones.

He was quiet so long I was sure I’d have to use a canned response from the scripts Madame had me memorize. We he spoke, it made me jump.

“Tell them it’s not mine,” he finally said.

I blinked, and my jaw hung open for a beat. I resisted the urge to ask him what he meant and instead shook my head and pretended not to hear him.

“He misses you and hopes you can find peace now that he’s gone.”

The ghost glared at me. “That’s not what I said at all. Can you even hear me?”

I ushered the family out the door with murmured condolences and leaned with my back against the door.

“You are terrible at your job. Are you a phony?”

I narrowed my eyes but ignored him as I began straightening up the room.

“You are a phony, aren’t you? You’re ripping my family off.”

I grimaced as I made notes about the séance in the log for Madame.

“You’re a terrible person.”

I made sure nobody was around, then turned to him and put my hands on my hips. “I’m not a phony. Now leave me alone.”

The ghost stopped short. “If you can hear me, why did you lie to my parents?”

I pressed my eyes closed. Why? Because Madame told me to, for one, but I didn’t think he’d accept that. He didn’t know Madame.

“Peace.”

The ghost didn’t move and didn’t respond, so I turned and headed back to the front of the shop.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the ghost said behind me.

I sighed. So much for him leaving me be.

I logged in to the computer behind the front desk to check appointments for the rest of the evening.

“I was trying to be kind. They suffered a loss and are still struggling with their grief. The séance was to sooth them and help them begin the healing process.”

“And not telling them what I told you to? How was that kind?”

I bit my lip as I made a note in the inventory log book that we needed more incense. “They came for closure, not unfinished business. Telling them you said the medal wasn’t yours would only hurt them, and they wouldn’t understand.”

“But what about me?”

I finally turned to face the surprisingly solid form of the boy I had pretended to contact. The dead weren’t typically able to project themselves so well.

“What about you?”

“That wasn’t kind to me.”

I bit down a retort about how he was dead. That was also unkind. I knew that the dead felt just as deeply as the living.

I sighed. “What’s this all about, then?”

The ghost was quiet for a moment, staring off into whatever it was the dead saw. “I didn’t earn any medal of valor. I was on a leave of absence. I died being stupid, not being a hero.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. “So why did they send you a medal, then?”

“It has to be the wrong John Dunham.”

Was it a common name? I wasn’t sure. I shrugged. “I guess that’s possible.”

“There’s no other explanation. Our records must have been switched or something.” The ghost became agitated, whipping from one end of the room to the other.

I ducked as he swooped over my head.

“You have to stop this nonsense right away. I can’t stand the thought of one of my brothers-in-arms not getting the medal he deserved.” He turned to me, expression pleading. “You’re the only one who can set the record straight.”

I couldn’t keep from frowning. “Let me make sure I’ve got this right. You want me to tell your family to give back your medal of honor because it belongs to someone else?”

I’d had a lot of strange requests when helping ghosts with unfinished business in the past, and while I realized it wasn’t exactly normal that I was able to do that in the first place, this was by far the strangest.

“Not just my family. Their family, too. All the families. The whole world!”

The ghost of John Dunham flailed wildly, and I flinched. I didn’t think a ghost couldn’t actually harm me, but one hadn’t ever actually tried. It was unpleasantly cold when one of the dead touched me, but more that, my gut clenched any time a ghost came too close. My hold on the land of the living was tenuous at best. What if it could grab me and drag me back to where I belonged? I had been dead for over a minute, after all. I belonged with the rest of the dead.

“Please calm down, or I won’t help you.”

The ghost froze at that, although they were never perfectly still. There was always an unearthly breeze that undulated around them. Sometimes I could feel it, too, especially when I’d summoned one of them.

“You will help me?”

I didn’t want to. I didn’t like confrontation and I hated causing already grieving families more pain.

“Will you leave me alone if I don’t?”

“Nope. I will haunt you forever.”

I sighed. I wasn’t sure that was how it actually worked. Most ghosts faded in with the sunset and out with the sunrise and rarely stayed consistently in between, but the idea of this ghost finding me every night until I either complied with his request or found a way to get rid of him would make my job nearly impossible in the meantime.

“Fine. I’ll see what I can do.”

He hovered near me all evening, but there wasn’t much I could do in the middle of the night. I promised him I’d do what I could at a decent time of day.

That gave me time to come up with a plan of action. If I could avoid getting his family involved, that would be ideal. He may want them to know the truth, but the truth didn’t necessarily have to come from me. If I could contact someone who had access to John Dunham’s paperwork, maybe I could get them to look into it, and then they could tell the family what they had found.

The only problem with that? Well, for one, it was a lot of ifs and maybes. More importantly, it would expose me as a fraud. And, by extension, Madame. She would be none too happy about that. And I needed this job. Without it, Kate would have to go back to being a dancer. I couldn’t let that happen. She was finally beginning to thrive in her new life with me.

When my shift ended, I went home and went to bed, curling myself protectively around my girlfriend. Maybe the problem would figure itself out while we slept.

I woke up late afternoon, nuzzling Kate in bed before my nightly run in the neighboring cemetery. I tensed momentarily as the sun set, but the ghosts that materialized were all the ones that were supposed to be there. I greeted each of them with shy smiles and nods, their familiar presence a comfort as I made my circuit around the cemetery.

Maybe John Dunham had given up.

I knew it was too much to hope for. He was waiting for me at work.

“So? Did you do it?”

I pressed my lips together as Madame pushed through the front door.

“Evening, Liv. Last night went well, I trust?”

I opened my mouth to say yes but hesitated. Should I tell her about the ghost? The easy thing would be to tell her what had happened and have her fix it. But I felt like I had to figure it out. I wanted to prove to her—to myself—that I could handle this job and all of its unconventional hazards.

“Fine. I’d like to do a follow-up, though. Something wasn’t quite right when the family left yesterday.”

Madame’s eyes narrowed and darted to the side in a barely perceptible glance. Where the ghost of John Dunham hovered.

But that was ridiculous. Madame couldn’t see ghosts.

“That’s fine. Let me know if you need anything from me.”

She waited expectantly for a moment, and I finally shook my head.

“I should be fine. Thank you, though.”

She nodded and made her way to her office.

I let out a breath. I was on my own.

“Wow, she was scary. I swear she looked right at me,” the ghost of John Dunham said.

Not entirely alone, as it turned out.

“Tell me about your life. Your family.”

The ghost tilted his head. “Why?”

I let my gaze go vacant as I thought about my own family. They’d never taken it well, my being able to talk to ghosts. Several visits with shrinks over the years taught me to hide my ability and to look at it like a curse. I’d kept it from everyone, until Kate. She accepted me exactly how I was, saying I had a gift, not a curse. She helped me find my job with Madame, who, in turn, allowed me to actually use my ability for good rather than hide from it.

“It will help me help you.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Tell me about your childhood. What was your relationship with them like before you were deployed? Did it ever change?”

The ghost drifted away from me. “I had a pretty laid back childhood. I was an only child to well-off parents. Never wanted for anything. I was a lazy kid and an even lazier teenager. Expected things to be handed to me.”

I felt my eyebrows raise. “That’s pretty perceptive for someone who was barely out of their teens.”

He turned back to me. “Was.” He sighed. “I suppose I should be upset that you’re talking about me in the past tense.”

I tried to smile. “From what I hear, you get used to it.”

He didn’t answer, just stared at me.

“Sorry. I’ve been talking to ghosts for most of my life.”

“That’s really weird, you know.”

“I know. So. You were a disappointment to your parents, so you joined the army?”

The ghost grimaced. “Something like that. After two semesters at college, I flunked out. My dad cut me off. Told me I had to figure my life out without his help for once. He was really proud of me for joining up.”

“And your mom?”

“She was upset. Said there had to be something else I could do for money. Said she’d keep sending me money until I found something else. Anything else.”

“Did you?”

He shook his head. “No. It was the first time Dad had ever been proud of me. And I knew that Mom would be, eventually, too. So I went through basic training and was almost immediately deployed.”

“That had to have been hard.”

“Yeah, I was terrified. And Dad was still proud, but I could tell he wasn’t happy about it. Mom cried for days.”

He was quiet for a moment, and I let him work through whatever he was thinking about in silence.

“It all seemed so surreal once I got over there. We didn’t have much to do. It was almost boring.” The ghost laughed. “One day, we goofing off trying to ease the boredom, and I twisted my ankle. Well, since we weren’t a crucial unit, they approved me to go on leave so I could keep off it for a week while it healed. Well, that only lasted a few days. I was back to my old ways pretty quickly. Partying and being lazy. And then I got talked into base jumping with some people. And I…well, it didn’t go so well.” He gestured at himself.

There were a dozen questions I wanted to ask him about being dead—questions I’d been too afraid to ask—but it seemed insensitive. As a kid, I’d been a lot less hesitant, but the dead never seemed to really know how to answer stuff like, where do you go when you die and why do you keep coming back.

“Then what?” That seemed safe enough.

He didn’t look at me. “As I was dying, I thought, well, that’s it. My parents will never get to be proud of me again. But then I felt this…overwhelming feeling of pride, only it wasn’t coming from inside myself. And then I was there in that room with you, staring at a medal I didn’t earn, seeing the adoration on their faces…and it felt like I was dying all over again.” He closed his eyes and took a shuddering breath. “As much as I would love to let them be proud of me, it’s a lie. I can’t find peace, knowing they remember me as someone I wasn’t.”

I blinked several times and tried to swallow past the lump in my throat. “I’m sorry, John. I really am.”

He shook himself out of his revelry. “Please. I don’t know how else to set this right. I don’t think I can without your help.”

I nodded. “I’ll call your parents.”

It was the hardest phone call I had ever made, and I’d made some difficult phone calls. John’s dad was out of the house, so I had to talk to his mom. My heart throbbed and I had to swallow several times.

“Mrs. Dunham? Liv from Tarot Express calling.”

“Is this about the bill? Madame called this morning to waive it, but I want you to keep your tip, dear.”

My whole body tensed. Why had Madame canceled their fee? Had she known the truth? But how was that even possible?

And my tip. Most guests didn’t tip. Most people didn’t know they were even supposed to. It didn’t bother me all that much. Madame made it worth it in other ways, when I actually contacted the dead for her special clients. The twenty Mrs. Dunham had handed me as thank you felt like a chain around my neck. I’d tried to be kind, and now I had to take that back. The money should be taken back, too.

“I appreciate that, Mrs. Dunham, but you might change your mind after what I have to tell you.”

Her tone was wary. “What is it, dear?”

“I…after you left, your son…” I took a steadying breath. “He didn’t leave after you did. He stayed. And he…told me something.”

She was quiet for a moment. “Something else?”

I pinched my eyes closed so I didn’t have to see John’s hopeful yet pained expression as I revealed the truth. “The medal. He said he didn’t earn it.”

“My boy, being modest?” She let out a strained laugh. “That doesn’t sound like him.”

I bit my lip. “It wasn’t modesty. He said the medal wasn’t his. He didn’t…he wasn’t…his death didn’t happen on duty. He was on a short vacation and had an accident.”

Dead silence. I licked my lips and glanced at John.

“Give her a minute. Knowing her, she wants to argue with you, tell you you’re wrong, but in a second, she’ll realize that sounds more like me than getting a medal.” He sighed. “It’s probably better you got her than my dad. He’d never listen to you.”

After a long silence, Mrs. Dunham cleared her throat. Her voice came out hoarse. “And the medal?”

“He thinks it should have gone to a different John Dunham.”

“I see. And does he think the military will discover this oversight?”

I raised my eyebrow at him, and he shook his head.

“No. That’s why he asked me to call you.”

She choked on a sob. “He asked you to tell us about this?”

“Yes, ma’am. Insisted, actually.”

I heard her sniffling and trying to contain her sobs. A hard knot bunched up in my stomach. Why had I agreed to this? I’d ruined everything. Couldn’t I have just let her be happy?

But when I looked up at John, he’d started to look less solid. He didn’t look happy, but he seemed more relaxed.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Dunham. He said he couldn’t rest until you knew the truth. I didn’t want to tell you…”

“No!” she said forcefully. “No, dear. I’m…I’m glad you did. As hard as it is to hear my son didn’t earn the army’s recognition…it had to be harder for him make sure you told us. He hated to admit his mistakes.”

I heard her take a deep breath.

“Liv, dear? If you see him again…can you tell him I’m proud of him?”

I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I looked up, and the ghost of John Dunham smiled before fading away completely.

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t worry. I’m sure he knows.”

Madame found me staring at the phone half an hour later.

“Everything all right, Liv?”

Amazingly, everything was.

Sara is a Kansas-grown author of the fantasy and horror persuasions. She is convinced that fantastical things are waiting for her just around the corner, and until she finds the right corner, she writes about those things instead.

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