Read The Burning Girl Online

Authors: Lisa Unger

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Supernatural, #Psychological

The Burning Girl

BOOK: The Burning Girl
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There was a small, angry girl sitting on Eloise Montgomery’s couch. The girl had a wild mop of tangled hair, was thin as a wisp. She had about her the look of neglect—dirt under her nails, the hem falling on her dress. She smelled of smoke—not cigarette smoke, but of things destroyed by fire. Eloise ignored her, because there was something different about this one. Maybe it was the rage—which was electric. Eloise could feel it as she pushed the vacuum around the living room, looking at the girl out of the corner of her eye.

“Try to stay away from the angry ones,” Agatha had warned her. “And those seeking revenge. They’ll shred you.”

Eloise often found Agatha’s advice difficult to follow. Maybe Agatha was tougher than Eloise, more in control of her abilities. Because Eloise hadn’t been able to turn away anyone yet, not in ten going on eleven years of Listening, as she’d come to think of it. Though it was more than that, of course. More than Listening.

“The dead have no regard for us at all.” More words of wisdom from Agatha Cross—psychic medium, mentor, friend. Agatha was a little bitter about the whole psychic thing and didn’t mind admitting it to Eloise. “We must protect ourselves from
them
. Or they’ll use us right up.”

Eloise got what Agatha was saying, but it didn’t ring quite true to her experience. There was more to it than that, wasn’t there? She didn’t know
what
exactly, but it was more than
them
showing up with their demands. There was another layer.

Eloise moved from vacuuming to dusting. From the end table, she picked up a picture of her daughter Amanda and her grandchildren, Alfie and Finley, who were living in Seattle.

Just looking at the photo made her heart clench. Eloise loved her daughter, and she knew that Amanda loved her, too. They weren’t estranged, exactly. It was just that Amanda wanted to be as far away from Eloise and her “abilities” as she could possibly get. And she didn’t want her children to be exposed to it at all. Eloise could understand all that. But still, it was an ache in her chest. One of many. Eloise could help
her visitors
with
their
problems. But she couldn’t help herself, it seemed.

The girl was smoldering.

“What’s your name?” Eloise asked. Most of them didn’t talk to her. But she had a sense that this one wanted to be known. She had a flare for the dramatic.

You can call her The Burning Girl
, the voice said. That voice in her head that wasn’t a voice.
She’ll be around for a while.

The girl’s hair had turned to flames, and her skin glowed as if there were embers burning inside her. Eloise tried to look away, but the girl’s fury was magnetic, her mouth opened in a silent scream.

Eloise put the photo down and backed away, trying to keep herself from disappearing down the black maw of the girl’s throat.

Agatha had instructed Eloise
to make her mind hard like a concrete wall when she didn’t want to get pulled into someone’s thrall. But Eloise hadn’t mastered that trick yet. And then Eloise was gone, sucked away like water down a drain.

• • •

The room Eloise found herself in was dark, lit only by the moonlight washing in through the pane glass window. The girl wasn’t burning now. She was small and sweet like any child. There was another bed beside hers, where a younger child slept peacefully, breathing even, mouth agape.

The Burning Girl lay awake, waiting. Eloise felt how her throat was dry, how her heart was pumping with fear; she could feel the girl’s tension. She held her body in a tight ball, all the muscles clenched. She was listening for footsteps in the hall. The girl knew he would come for her and that there was nothing she could do but lie silently until it was over. Eloise sensed all of this, though she was powerless to do anything but bear witness.

Except for a baby sister, The Burning Girl was alone in this world. Her father had died, and her mother was a shell of a person, barely able to care for herself. Eloise understood these things because she was inside the girl, without being inside her. She was beside her, without being beside. She was there, and she wasn’t. It was an imprecise experience, amorphous and changeable.

Eloise felt the steady pulse of the girl’s anxiety, but also an enormous swelling anger. The girl was young to be so filled with rage. Eloise wasn’t used to it. Her own capacity for ire was low; it didn’t fit in her body, made her sick when it came to call. But some people embraced it, gave it a home inside their hearts. They let it grow and get stronger. This girl was one of those.

Eloise looked around the room. Agatha had taught her how to do this, to be lucid in her visions and gather clues.
The faster you can figure out what they want, the faster you can be rid of them.
The floors were bare, unfinished wood. The light on the table between the two beds was a gas lamp. There were two desks, some books. Two handmade dolls rested on a simple shelf. There was a rocking chair with a knitted blanket hanging over the top. There were no outlets, no vents. This girl had clearly lived a long time ago. This was a first. Eloise had never gone back in time before, not this far.

She heard it then, the sound of footsteps in the hall. A little whimper escaped from the girl, a sound so helpless and afraid that Eloise turned to fend off whoever was coming. But, of course, that wasn’t possible. Eloise was as helpless as a shadow.

The girl sat up in her bed, her face pale and slack, her sky-blue eyes shining in the moonlight. How old was she? Maybe nine or ten, on the cusp of adolescence. A beauty with delicate features, a fine, thin nose, and rose-petal lips. Eloise thought of Amanda and how when she was flowering into her prettiness, the sight of her swelling hips and blossoming breasts used to fill Eloise with fear. How do I protect her? Eloise used to worry. The sad answer was that you don’t. You can’t protect them, not really, though you’d die trying. You try to teach them how to protect themselves and hope that is enough. It often isn’t.

The footsteps grew louder and then came to a stop. Eloise and the girl both stared at the door. The smaller child turned in her bed, issuing a soft groan. Outside, the moon moved behind the clouds, extinguishing the scant light.

“Goawaygoawaygoawaygoaway,” the girl whispered, soft and low like a chant. “Goaway.”

But the knob turned softly, and the door drifted open. Eloise watched as long, thick fingers snaked into view. Terror filled the room with its vibrations, and Eloise felt it in her bones like a dentist’s drill. She couldn’t just stand there.

She ran to the door and pushed it closed hard, used her body to hold it closed against whoever was trying to push his way in. There was a loud knocking that grew louder, more insistent, urgent. She wasn’t going to let him in. She wouldn’t let him hurt The Burning Girl, who wept silently on her bed.

“Eloise!”

She came back to herself on the foyer floor, her body resting against her own front door. Someone was knocking, actually trying to push the door open.

“Eloise,” said Ray Muldune. “What’s blocking the door?”

“Hold on a minute,” she said, pulling herself to her feet. She was confronted by the sight of a haggard and disoriented-looking old woman. Someone too thin, someone haunted and wasting. It took her a millisecond to realize with dismay that she was looking in the mirror that hung on the wall over the long table covered with photographs.

“Christ,” she said to herself. She’d never been beautiful, but she was really starting to look like hell. She was turning into a crone like Agatha, who was eighty years old if she was a day.

She opened the door for Ray, and he stepped inside. She ran her hands self-consciously through her hair. But he wasn’t looking too great himself. He’d been drinking too much, eating nothing but garbage.
We are letting this thing eat us alive
, Eloise thought but didn’t say. It was ruining both of them.

Agatha
had
warned her.
They’ll take everything if you let them. Everything from you and everything from those involved with you.
Eloise knew it was true; it was why she didn’t fight to stay closer to Finley, Alfie, and Amanda. It was why she kept trying to push Ray away.
Let them save themselves
, she thought.
They deserve to be happy.

But Ray wouldn’t budge from her. She couldn’t quite figure out what was in all of this for him. It couldn’t just be the money. No, it was something more. She should know, but she didn’t—probably because he didn’t know himself. And she hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask.

“What happened?” he asked.

He walked over to her and put an arm around her shoulder, ushered her to the couch in the living room where she gratefully sat. The events, the visions, were taking more out of her lately.

Eloise tried to get back into the present the way Agatha had taught her, though she still felt wobbly and light-headed. She needed to ground herself in the moment by observing the details of the real world: the sun washed in and dappled the floor; outside, the wind chimes sang in the breeze; sheets billowed on the line. She watched them fill and flap as Ray went presumably to get her some water.

“I don’t know,” she called after him. He’d asked his question a while ago. But she was just getting around to answering. “Nothing current.”

He made an affirming noise from the kitchen. Since retiring from The Hollows Police Department, Ray had opened his own private investigation firm. Eloise helped him with his cases, when she was able. She had her own things, and the things they worked on together. It was usually pretty clear which was which. Although not always. It was a tricky business. Eloise never knew what was connected to what, or when those connections might reveal themselves to her.
Adopt the pace of nature
, said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Her secret is patience
.

Ray returned with the water and handed it to her.

“You okay?” he asked.

He sat in the chair across from her, regarded her with worry. He had a lot in common with the old recliner. It needed reupholstering, was showing its age. But it was the most comfortable, embracing seat in the house. It was reliable, did the work it was designed to do, unfailingly. It had been Alfie’s reading chair, and it still wobbled from bearing his substantial weight, though Alfie had been dead nearly fourteen years.

Her Alfie was gone now almost as long as they’d been married. And she still missed him every day. Some losses you never get over. There would never be another love like that in her life. She knew this in a practical and not self-pitying way. There was such a paucity of true, selfless love in this world; it wouldn’t be fair for her to have it twice. Whatever it was she shared with Ray, it could never approach what she had with Alfie. She hoped that Ray might find it with someone. But she suspected it was too late for that.

“I’m okay,” she said.

She could still smell The Burning Girl, the acrid odor that remained after fire. It never went away; whatever fire had touched must be discarded.

“You look tired,” Ray said. She took a sip of the cold water and let the sensation wash over her. The cold in her mouth, moving down her throat. The water, the sunlight, the billowing sheets.
Seize upon the moment
, Agatha would say,
to hold
on to what’s real right now.

“I
am
tired,” she said.

But she couldn’t stop thinking about the girl. Eloise felt a vibration unlike anything she’d felt before. She would need to talk to Agatha. She considered telling Ray about it, but she wound up staying quiet.

They weren’t working on anything now, and she sort of wanted to keep it that way. They’d had a couple of high-profile cases in a row, and her voice mail and mailbox were full of requests for their help. But she didn’t have
the feeling
. She couldn’t help any of the people who needed her right now. And that was weighing heavily on her.

But she didn’t have a choice in these things. She didn’t invite the visions. It wasn’t on demand—even if someone brought her an article of clothing, or a picture, or a plush toy (though this sometimes worked when Ray brought it). Even if desperate people wept on her doorstep, or waited in her driveway for two days, or followed her around town—all of which had happened—she couldn’t
make
something happen.

She could only walk through the doorways that were opened for her. That’s why she thought there was more to it than Agatha believed. Eloise thought there was a puppet master, someone pulling the strings.
There’s no puppet master, honey. That’s the problem
, Agatha insisted. The old woman was always very sure of herself. But that didn’t mean she was always right.

“I came to take you out to dinner,” said Ray.

“I’ll cook,” she said.

“No,” he said. “Let’s go out. You look like you could use it.”

She didn’t like to go out anymore, especially in The Hollows. It was one thing if they were traveling and no one knew who she was. But here at home, people stared, they whispered, they scowled. Some people snickered, some looked on in sympathy, or fear—suspicion, disdain. The one thing no one ever did in a small town was mind their own goddamned business.

In the end, she acquiesced because she always did where Ray was concerned. She loved him in the way that she could. It was
he
who needed to go out. He was an extrovert, needing human contact all the time in order to stay energized. That was why he dealt with the clients. And she dealt with the dead—though they weren’t always dead. It was complicated.

She showered, dressed, and did her hair—which basically just consisted of drying it and pulling a brush through it. It was brittle and dry. She even put on some lipstick, but she still looked like an old hag.

While she was getting ready, The Burning Girl sat on Eloise’s bed, and the smell was powerful. Her hair was flame, her face a mask of pure fury, her body glowing like a hot coal.

“What do you want?” Eloise asked at the door. But the girl didn’t answer. She wouldn’t, of course. She usually couldn’t hear Eloise; they did not exist on the same plane. Eloise was going to have to figure it out for herself.

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