This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. Gabe and Violetta find themselves in mortal danger from a ghost trapped in a river, and one of them may not make it out alive.
Gabe sighed as they trekked over the rocky landscape. A mountain sat in the distance, its great peak rising up to meet the fading purple sky, and the trees pushed out of the ground like poles. A rifle was on his back, but Violetta only carried her pistol. Judging by what the hunters told them, it wouldn’t do much good, but she was one to prepare.
“They said they see it at sunset mostly,” she said as she looked over the spotted garden of trees. In some places they were tightly gathered together, but at times the land would rise up and separate their brethren. There was certainly enough space to move out here. Apparently the land had been plowed some years back during the gold rush and almost instantly ran dry.
“It’s not bothering anyone,” said Gabe, who believed in practicality over fancy. There’d been a bed back in the small town they’d come from, and the air was cooling off, meaning a drink was just the thing to warm the bones. Then some hunters had gone on about some local legend.
Violetta slipped on a rock, and he caught her by the arm. Rain had swept through recently. Luckily the sky was clear. The landscape was grey and the plants a dull shade of green and brown, and with the dying light it made everything look the same. A half-moon was already hanging over the landscape and stars were coming out.
They’d been walking for at least an hour to the place the ghost had most often been spotted. The hunters were sour about it. Violetta didn’t bother telling them their strange profession. There was no prize in its capture, nor did it seem capture was the true goal. But there was a ghost, and Violetta was insistent.
So they’d hiked out here, the horses too tired to ride anymore tonight, bringing lanterns and their packs in case. On the crest of the hill, they could see the town behind them, bright lights among a busy street. Gabe noted on the other side of threes there were more lights, smaller, not as bright.
“Another town,” he suggested.
Violetta peered through the growing gloom. “Seems strange to have one so far out.”
“Gold rush left a lot of empty towns.” He shrugged. “Could be someone’s still living in this one.”
They came down the hillside into the thicket of trees. A few birds chirped in the moonlight and fluttered off. There didn’t seem to be too much life at all here. The brush was made of tall grass that looked flattened by the wind. To the north, closer to the mountain, the landscape looked empty, and they could see ice on the higher peaks. But the hunters said deer were prevalent, and in the season they could take home twenty head in one day. It was unsurprising to see the deer tracks across the wet mud, and Violetta ran happily along them. The trees grew closer together here, their branches up high, sticking out like fronds.
The sun sank lower. The bruise of purple turned into silken night, and as the moon rose higher, Gabe considered aloud that there wasn’t anything to find.
“You’re the one who’s always complaining,” Violetta said. “You say you want something easy, and when we do, you get bored.”
“I appreciate being put in a position where we won’t die,” he said. “You’ve nearly fell three times already.”
“I haven’t,” she said as the mud slipped beneath her feet, and she grasped onto a tree. “It’s just rained, anyway.”
“Sure,” he said and pushed her along. “What’re we supposed to do when we see this thing?”
“I don’t know.” She grimaced at the ground. “Look at it, I suppose.”
“And we couldn’t wait for that hunting party to go out tomorrow.”
“You said they were making you nervous. They were drunk for sure.”
He gave another sigh. They had made him nervous. It wasn’t that they’d done anything in particular. They’d even made room for the both of them at the bar, but there was a nervousness to their glance. The bar had been filled with white men and only one woman in sight. He didn’t suspect they’d be invited along the next day.
The land sloped down again. More rocks protruded up from the ground. Violetta stopped suddenly, holding out an arm. Silently she pointed ahead.
Deer. They clustered together, small in frame, with small antlers poking off their small heads. Their eyes were saucers in the darkness. Three of them watched the travelers for minute and then skittered off, shaking trees and grass as they ran. Gabe lit his lantern, and it cast orange light across the grey landscape. The sun was completely down now. The trees were quiet.
They kept quiet now as they walked, the only sound their feet in the soft mud, and the occasional gasp from Violetta as she lost her bearing yet again. There were more deer ahead, maybe ten. Some of them bore no horns, and the light hit their wide, reflective eyes, and then they dashed away, leaving only trampled ground. Gabe held onto her shoulder as they came to a sort of clearing. He lowered the light in the lantern so the circle of warmth was only around their feet. The shadows fell back as their eyes adjusted. There were deer all around them.
Like a curtain being pulled back, a small number of them parted. Something walked between them. Unlike the small deer encircling them, the creature was an elk, tall and broad and muscular. On its forehead were antlers so tall they reached up to touch the branches of the trees. On one side there were ten points to its antler, and the other twelve. Its eyes were bright in the darkness. It was a shade of brown that lended itself well to the darkness. It was still as it looked at the travelers. No noise carried through the forest.
“Well,” Gabe whispered as he looked at all the deer around them. “What do we do now?”
Violetta glanced at him and then, taking a breath, stepped forward. The ghost deer tilted its head at her. The trees above fluttered slightly, as though bothered by the wind. She moved forward some more, and within the forest there sounded a crack, like a tree branch being broken. The ghost deer startled back and then jumped away, fading into the shadows. The other deer panicked, and at once there was a stampede of them. Each of the deer that had gathered were running, and the herd came together. Violetta jumped to avoid a deer that swiped to her left. They both staggered forward, trying to break out of the stampede, but it was chaos. There were deer everywhere. Violetta ran forward, and Gabe followed. The terrain was rockier here. The trees started to break away, and stones jutted from the path.
Violetta kept running. She wasn’t sure where she was going. The whole world seemed to tremble around them, and she could barely see in the darkness. A glimmer out of the corner of her eye looked deer shaped. She turned, felt a deer hit her arm, and Gabe shouted something, and she felt herself hit water.
The river rushed forward, bolstered by the recent rain. The water was ice cold from the mountain, and it knocked the air out of her longs. She tried to break surface, but something grabbed at her ankles. Something dragged her down, and she twisted and kicked and swam. Water bubbled up, and she saw face staring at her, water and pale. Black hair stretched from the paper white skin, eyes sunken and black, and when it opened its mouth there was only darkness.
The deer curved off from the water, and Gabe looked over its edge. In the darkness it was hard to see its depths. Something bubbled a few feet downriver, and he ran towards it, surprised to find the water was almost instantly waist deep and ice cold. He reached down, grabbing desperately at anything. He gripped her waist and dragged her back. She was caught, and whatever had her nearly dragged him down as well. He came up sputtering, still holding desperately to Violetta, who started to fight and struggle. Her elbow came up to his chin, and she was kicking wildly. He pulled her up with all of his strength and grasped for the edge of the river. The current was fast and knocked him over twice before he managed to drag her body to shore.
He placed her down in the mud on the other side, now shivering and wet and cold. He pressed his hand to her neck and felt a heartbeat. Her eyes were closed, her face was white, and she barely seemed to breathe.
There were lights in the town ahead. He could see them glowing through the trees. He picked up Violetta’s body and started walking.
Lien had been talking with the laundry men as the sun went down around the small town of Shanzhen. They’d worked hard that day, and she was delivering a remedy to Huifen, one of their wives. She’d made the tea pills herself this time, though she didn’t tell anyone that. The people of Shanzhen relied on her father. Some of the people outside the town did too, but that was slowly dwindling. Still, the name Jing-Shen Tong was recognizable to most people around the mountain, and she doubted they would like hearing instead of the doctor they were getting the work of his sixteen year old daughter.
The laundry men, as usual, had taken up most of her time with gossip and laughter. Half an hour later than she’d meant to she was walking home through the quiet houses. She carried back with her the dinner Huifen had made for them, payment instead of coin. It smelled warm and sweet, like all the houses. Most of the men did not have their wives to cook for them, and so the few that had come made extra and shared it as much as possible. She nearly dropped it too, when she saw the figure emerge from the trees. For a moment she feared men, guns, shouting, more fighting, but the figure was alone, except for what he carried with him. She nearly dropped the food again when she saw the condition of the girl.
He did not have to ask for a doctor. Lien took him to her father’s home at the edge of town, closer to the river. She pushed open the door and instructed him to lay her on a mat. They were both shaking and wet, and she had him hold the pot of food as she moved across the small house. The wide living area was often co-opted for the sick, and a year ago when a small flu went through the town, the house had been filled with the groans of people as they lay on their floor. She started a fire in the hearth and went to get blankets.
“She fell in the river,” the man said. “I think she got caught on something.”
The glass container of herbs fell out of her hands. She turned and looked at him. “What?”
“There were these deer…” He shook his head. “She fell, I think. She nearly drowned.”
Lien stared at him as her father came in the front door. He stopped, glaring at the two on the floor, and then looked at his daughter. He was a tall man, thin, the long queue down his back. His coat was dusty, and it was clear he’d been working a long day. She remembered a woman in the nearby town had a difficult birth the other week and was probably still in need of help. Even the white folks didn’t refuse a doctor who brought something to take away the pain.
Her father removed his coat, waving his hands as he spoke in Mandarin. “You shouldn’t have let in strangers, Lien.”
Her gaze fell to the woman on the mat, her white face pale, her brown hair twisted around her like snakes.
“Tell them I’m taking no more business today,” he continued. “Not if they came from Murphyton. They cannot threaten those boys and demand treatment.”
The woman stirred, her eyes fluttering open. From where Lien stood, it looked as if she had no pupils at all. Her hands reached out, and in a familiar voice she said, “Lien? Baba? Shén mi shi?”
Her father turned. Lien brought a hand to her open mouth.
“She came from the river,” she said when her father looked at her.
Her father knelt down beside the woman, pressing his fingers to her small wrist. The man watched, expression blank. He was aware something was happening, but he was willing to wait to find out what. After a minute, her father rose, and she saw him take a familiar box from the cabinet. He set it down beside her and gestured to the man.
“She is nearly drowned.” His English was accented heavily by his Chinese. He carried the words like lead, which was why he so hated to use them. “Lungs full of water. You wait outside.”
He started to protest, but Lien raised a hand.
“He’ll do everything he can,” she said hurriedly. “But your friend may be very sick. Let him work, please. He won’t do it with you standing over him.”
The man hesitated again. “We don’t have very much money.”
Her father was listening to the woman’s chest. “Tell him how much it costs.”
“It’s free,” she said, ignoring the glare he sent her. “Please, just step outside.”
After a reluctant glance, he rose to his feet and followed Lien out the door. Lien looked back at the sleeping form as her father opened the box, removing a long needle from its compartments.
Gabe could see the river from the front porch of the doctor’s house. It glimmered off moonlight.
Lien stood on the porch beside him, nervously wringing her hands together. She was too small for sixteen, and her dark hair was kept back. Gabe wished for a change of clothes, as his still clung to him, but the town was small, barely even a street, and he doubted there was an inn here. He stood there a minute before looking back at the young Chinese girl who’d helped him. Her eyes were down. She was thinking intently.
“What’d she say?” he asked.
Lien’s eyes darted up at him and then back down. “She asked where she was.”
He watched her fidget before shaking his head. “I don’t think Violetta knows a single word of Chinese.”
“And she called you by name.”
She gave him a startled look as she squeezed her hands together again. “You must trust my father. He’s the best doctor in this whole mountain.”
“Something tells me there’s not much competition.” He sat, leaning back. Give it to Violetta to run after one mystery and fall directly into another. “I’m Gabe, by the way. Gabe Valentine.”
“Lien, you heard.” She sat beside him. “My father is Jing-Shen Tong. He will know what to do.”
“Lien,” he repeated. “You wouldn’t happen to know where I could dry off?”
“Wei-shan might have some spare clothes. Wait here.”
He watched her run off in the direction of the other houses, and then his eyes turned back to the door of the doctor’s house. A part of him considered pushing the door open and peeking at whatever the good doctor was doing, but another part of him said to wait. He could be patient.
When Violetta opened her eyes, she was floating. Her eyes felt heavy as though laden with sleep, and her arms were stretched out around her, elbows dipped below the river’s surface. She remembered the river, which jolted her, and she struggled to sit up. But it was different here, muddy and slow, and her limbs were stuck in place, her head unable to move. She opened her mouth, and the river water came in, filling her throat and lungs, sinking her down. Grass prickled her skin as she passed, and though her vision blurred she could see the desert landscape all around her. Rocks jutted from the dirt, causing odd shadows, and the sun was red though it hung halfway down. Thin trees without leaves broke like lightning from the ground. She stopped struggling. She had been here before.
Something hit her face, soft and delicate, and then more. Purple dots floated down from the sky–no, flowers. Violets. For her. Shadows passed over her face, and she glimpsed a figure with a hood over their face. More flowers floated around her. Rosemary. Pansies. Ravens filled the trees now. They watched her as she passed. One fluttered up, feathers a grey hood over its black body, and landed on her chest. She wanted to cry out, but every time her mouth opened more mud poured in. She was encased already in her tomb, the dark silt slowly washing over her limbs.
“Too much water hast thou,” the raven said, and in its beak was a smaller raven skull. “And therefore I forbid my tears.”
She closed her eyes. This was the same dream she’d had since she was thirteen, the water slowly rising, her bones slowly sinking. In the safety of her London home, she’d thought of it as an element to her madness, a succumbing to what she did not want to be, but since arriving in Virginia, it’d only grown stronger, and seeing the vast desert landscape in person had told her this was a vision of the future. Her end.
The water moved beside her, and she managed to turn her head. Again she caught the shadows of figures throwing flowers to her muddy grave, but the dream was changing. The water bubbled, and a second figure floated up beside her. It was a face she didn’t recognize, a young girl with black hair that stretched out around her. Her face was near blue, a shock of cold in the warm landscape, her eyes closed, but she turned to Violetta as though she sensed her. The raven flew away, and the trees exploded with birds, who took to the sky, darkening it. As the girl’s eyes opened, they were pitch black, black water pouring from them. She raised a hand, dragging it from the water with some effort, and touched Violetta’s face. The water around them grew deeper, and they were sinking together. Violetta took one last gasp of air as her whole body tilted back, and the girl was now floating over her, digging her fingers into her face. Violetta tried to kick and push, but she was as trapped as she always was, and the girl’s hair seemed to fill everything, blocking out any light. Violetta closed her eyes, consumed by darkness.
In the morning Violetta was still sleeping. Her skin was cold, and water still made her hair heavy, though Lien had tried her best to keep her dry. She shivered madly, and no amount of heat seemed to help.
“Keep her by the fire,” Lien’s father instructed her. “Get some broth so she’ll eat. Have Li Yong sit with you.”
She glanced at Gabe, who was examining several of the herb containers with the air of someone pretending not to take an interest. “I’ll be fine, baba. He’s only worried about his friend.”
Her father had an expression that said he was right to be. “I would feel better if you weren’t alone.”
He put on his coat and took his bag, giving one more look at the white woman laying on their floor. Lien waved him off before turning around and looking at Gabe.
“He’s always needed around here,” she said as she sat beside Violetta. “He won’t go to some of the towns, but he can’t really refuse a patient.”
“Y’all been getting trouble?” Gabe asked.
She nodded. “Two weeks ago a few of the hunters were harassing some of the men. Things… escalated.”
“I bet.” He gave up on reading the Chinese labels and stood over his friend. “Your dad was real nervous about us last night.”
“He thinks having your friend here will bring trouble. But you’re travelers, aren’t you? You’re not even from here.”
“Nah.” He paced nervously. She considered making him sit. “I come from New Mexico. She came all the way from London.”
“So she’s an immigrant too.” Lien pushed her palm over the woman’s face. Her skin was ice cold. “I’ve always wanted to go north, but my father wouldn’t have it. Have you been to Boston?”
He shook his head.
“The medical school there graduated a woman, and a college in New York. They’d never let me in, but if I could go and see, I think that’d be good.”
“You want to go into medicine too?”
She nodded. “I’ve been working with my father since I was born. My mom died when I was young, that’s why I’m here instead of still in China, and he took us with him everywhere. He lets me make the medicines now. When he doesn’t have the time.”
“You’ve traveled farther than I have then.” He was looking out the window. They could see the river from here. In the morning sun, it shone. “You’ve probably seen all sorts of things.”
“I barely remember home. We were babies. He used to say he’d send us back, until…”
She looked up at the river as well. “The past two years, things have gotten bad here. The people over in Hisk, they came by with torches one night. I don’t know what would’ve happened if my father had talked to them.”
“Some people are desperate to make trouble.”
There was a knock at the door, and Lien stood to answer it. Li Yong stood there, looking nervously inside. He was a few years older than she was, and he carried the laundry back to town with the others, which had made him more nervous in the past few weeks. Her father must’ve stopped by and talked to him. She wanted to roll her eyes, but instead she offered him inside. He stood there on the porch, leaning forward.
“Your father said the woman fell in the river last night,” he said. “Is she–I mean, has she–did she see–”
Lien glanced at Gabe. “She hasn’t woken yet.”
“Your father doesn’t want you alone.”
“I’m fine, Li Yong. Really. You don’t have to stay.”
He rocked back on his heels. He was telling himself he should stay, but the woman had nearly drowned in the river. Who knew what would happen when she woke. He leaned in, caught Gabe’s expression and ducked his head.
“Your friend,” he said, the English uncomfortable in his mouth, “I’m sorry.”
He gave a nod to Lien and hurried back. She closed the door with a sigh. If Gabe had paid attention to the exchange, he didn’t show it. His face was etched with concern, but his eyes were on the river.
Lien chewed on her lip. “She’s going to be okay.”
“You don’t gotta lie,” he said.
“Well.” She leaned down again. “All we can do is wait anyway.”
He turned back to his friend, looking her over. He pressed the back of his hand to her chin, feeling the cold skin. Nothing had managed to keep her dry. His brown eyes looked up at Lien, who shifted nervously.
“What’s in the river?” he asked.
“What?” She sat back. “What does that–”
“She’s not drowned. She looks it, but she’s breathing. Something’s spooked y’all. What’s in the river?”
“It’s–” She swallowed. “It’s your friend. We’ve had no shortage of trouble recently. These men from Murphyton, they came to burn everything down, and the laundry men are hassled enough.”
He was staring at her intensely, and she ducked her head down. It wasn’t the truth but it wasn’t a lie. She was surprised when Gabe stood and walked to the door. She jumped to her feet and followed him.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
He pushed back the door and stepped off the porch. In the light of day, Shanzhen seemed even smaller. The collection of small homes had initially been built far off from the other, but had slowly clustered together. A small number of people were walking around, tending to their daily chores. A few looked up when they saw the two moving, their faces filled with worry.
“Your friend–” Lien started.
“Violetta’ll be fine for a bit. Something happened in that river. Feels like something got left behind.”
“You can’t–we aren’t supposed to–I can’t–”
Lien stopped. The river was only a few feet in front of them, wide and flat as it streaked through the landscape. It looked so calm and quiet, the water cold even in the summer, and the wind carried it in the air, so the whole riverbed smelled sweet and earthy. Gabe didn’t notice that she’d come no closer. He marched up to the river and walked along it, looking for the spot they’d come out. Lien’s feet wouldn’t move, and her heart pounded in her chest. No one came to the river anymore, but she could barely stand to look at it.
Gabe glanced back at her. “So there is something in the river.”
“N-no.” Her throat constricted, making it hard to swallow. “Something… bad happened here. We aren’t supposed to go near the river anymore.”
“Ain’t that always the way,” he murmured. “Did someone drown?”
Her nails dug into her palm. Tears stung her eyes. “Yes.”
“Was someone else with them?”
She sucked in a sharp breath and forced herself to turn away. “Your friend needs looking after. Don’t–just be careful.”
She ran all the way back to the house. Closing the door behind her, she looked over the sleeping form of the woman, who remained still and quiet. She pushed a hand over her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut. Tears were running down her face.
“Wǒ xiǎng nǐ,” she murmured. “Meifen.”
She wiped her face hurriedly and went to tend the fire.
By nightfall, Lien’s father still hadn’t returned. Li Yong came again with news that a sickness had struck one of the towns, and he was there offering the help he could. Huifen had come by with dinner and sat with Lien for a while. Gabe had found the river increasingly frustrating. There was no way to just look at it and discern its secrets, and the water moved too fast and was too cold to consider a swim. Violetta hadn’t moved. She remained, as she had before, cold and still damp, no matter how close they moved her to the fire. A few other towns folk had peeked in through the door, but Lien sent them all away. Night cooled the air, and the moon was high overhead, but neither of them considered sleep.
“You worried about your dad?” Gabe asked. He’d taken residence at Violetta’s side, propped up on one of the mats. He’d been flipping through her journal, which was giving him a headache. The girl could not write smaller in loopy handwriting that made it impossible to read.
Lien had been quiet all night. She’d been crushing herbs for the past thirty minutes, possible just to give herself something to do. “He has to do this sometimes. There aren’t many doctors out here, and he can’t refuse someone in need.”
She poured the crushed herb into a glass bottle and cleaned out the mortar. Out of chores to do, she returned to the fire.
“Most folks must’ve come here during the gold rush,” he said.
She shrugged. “They dried up years ago, before we even came here. Some of the men still talk about it. Father wanted to leave all the fighting, and now he complains about all the fighting here. I tell him all the time we should just leave, but I think he’s tired of moving.”
“Lots of things seem better from a distance. The problems here are familiar.”
“It seems so unfair though.” She sighed as she sat back. “He’d never agree to go north with me, and all I–”
She stopped as Violetta let out a groan. They both sat up. Violetta twitched, and then she raised herself up as though pulled on a string. Her eyes fluttered, and they looked sunken in, no pupils at all, just a shock of white. Gabe reached out a hand, but she didn’t notice him as she lurched to her feet. Water ran from her mouth and eyes, dripping onto the floor as she took a step forward, and another.
“Hey,” Gabe said as he held her arm. “Violetta, can you hear me?”
Her head jerked back and she looked at him, confusion knotting her brow before she pulled away. Arms outstretched, she clattered open the door and wavered on the porch, swinging as though she’d faint. Lien stood in shock.
“Děngdài!” she called.
Violetta’s form swivelled. She was soaked again, as though they’d just pulled her out of the river.
“Mèimei,” she said, and then, jerking to the Gabe again, “She’s still in the river. Bāng wǒ.”
She pitched forward, vomiting water onto the wood slats. Her whole body was shaking, and she collapsed again. They both ran forward. Violetta was again cold, still, and silent.
Gabe carried her back to the mat in front of the fire. Lien fluttered around, grabbing things off shelves and putting them back, taking heated water skins and placing them to her skin. Violetta didn’t speak again, didn’t move, and her pulse was slow, her breathing shallow. Gabe squeezed Violetta’s hand and looked to Lien.
“What’s in the river?” he asked again.
Lien collapsed beside them, her whole body sinking down. Wiping her face, she said, “Last year my sister drowned.”
Gabe waited in silence as she composed herself.
“Meifen was a year older than me.” She smiled as she remembered. “We were so close. For a long time, after coming here, we were all the other had, the only ones who understood each other. She was–father spent a lot of time worrying about the two of us, and she often made it worse. She liked doing things we weren’t supposed to. We’d go into town together, talk with the men, steal wine and drink it in the woods. And one day she wanted to go swimming in the river. We thought it’d be fine, it’d been a dry summer, and so we went up the road where no one would come across us, and–I don’t know. The river took her. The men managed to drag her body out, and we buried her. Just like that. My sister was dead.”
She used her sleeve to wipe the tears from her face. Her eyes turned down at Violetta, and she took her other hand, turning the palm up.
“Do you know what a shui gui is?” she asked. “Sometimes, when a person drowns, their soul gets left behind in that place. A shui gui drags people under, and they’ll–they replace that person. The spirit gets to go forward in that person’s body, and the victim takes their place. Your friend called me sister. She told me to help her. I don’t know if you somehow kept Meifen from fully taking over your friend, and that’s why she’s like this, but I think my sister is still in the river, and I think your friend might be too.”
“You think that could happen?” Gabe asked.
“I don’t know. But I think if my sister wasn’t trapped in that river, this would not be happening.”
“How do you stop a shui gui?”
She let Violetta’s hand fall back to her side. “I don’t think you do. Everyone stopped going in the river. The men go far upstream to fish, and even then they’re nervous. If I knew a way to–to help her, I would.”
He placed a hand on her arm. “Lien, I am going to fix this, and I will help your sister. Me and Violetta have seen a lot of things stranger than any river ghost.”
She shook her head. “You don’t mean that. How could you?”
“Trust me on this,” he said. “This isn’t the first ghost we’ve ever dealt with, and Violetta’s lived through a lot worse. I haven’t been to Boston, but I’ve been to New York. This fella had built himself a nice big mansion, only to find it haunted by the spirit of a young girl.”
“Was it really?” Lien asked, staring up at him.
“Turns out some girl had started living there during construction and never left. But I can tell you about the time we saw a real ghost.”
They spent most of the night telling stories. Gabe regaled her with all the ghosts he could remember, and Lien told him about her sister. It was nearing dawn when the door opened and Jing-Shen Tong removed his coat. Lien jumped up to greet him, and there was a hurried conversation in Chinese.
“She woke,” she said quickly, before her father could argue. “She was speaking to me in Meifen’s voice, baba.”
Her father was stone faced as he looked down at the sleeping woman. “This is not the time for games.”
“This isn’t a game! Gabe, tell him what happened.”
“My daughter tells you ghost stories,” he said, cutting them off. “The loss of my daughter, very hard, on both of us. Lien, to bed.”
“But she spoke–”
Lien looked at him and huffed, turning on her heel and slamming the door behind her. Jing-Shen stood over Violetta’s body and looked at Gabe.
“You believe what my daughter says?” he asked.
Gabe nodded. “I’ve seen a lot more than most men.”
“So have I. War, famine, sick men, men who threaten us because they do not like the Chinaman. My daughter wants to go east, even though they burn Chinatowns to ground. There are true horrors in this world, and losing Meifen was among them.” He shook his head. “It is hard to explain to westerners, but your friend’s spirit is unbalanced. If it is because of what is in the river, then the best you can do is pray.”
“You don’t think anything else would help?”
“I think anything else would cause more pain.”
The doctor went to his room, where the long day would no doubt drag down his bones but make it impossible to sleep. Men like that carried the weight of the world on their shoulders and still found strength for more.
Gabe laid back and turned his head to Violetta. She looked worse than yesterday, and water filled her tiny breaths. She wasn’t all there, and the other half of her was drowning. There had to be something worth doing. The answer would lie in the river.
The day started late in the Tong household, but the second Jing-Shen woke, he kissed his daughter goodbye and returned to his work. Lien sat on their porch, chin in hands, frowning at the river. Gabe came to sit beside her.
“He doesn’t even care,” she murmured.
Gabe leaned back. “I’m willing to bet he cares a lot. Some things are just too painful to think about.”
“My sister has been trapped in that river for a year. That’s too painful to think about.”
“Would you like to hear my plan then?” he asked.
It was not a great one, but only a few hours of sleep it was the best he’d been able to come up with. They went back into the house, where Lien watched over Violetta as Gabe explained.
“What happens,” Lien said slowly, “if we take her to the river and Meifen takes over her completely?”
“What is supposed to happen when a shui gui takes its victim?”
“I know you’re trapped as a shui gui now. But the person whose spirit was taken–I don’t know. I’d have my sister back, but she’d be in this stranger’s body that belongs to someone else.” She squeezed her fingers together. “And what if we do this, and Meifen is still trapped in the water?”
“There are ways to help ghosts move on,” Gabe said. “We just have to find the right one.”
“How can you be so sure?” she asked. “How can you trust that your friend will be alright? That Meifen even can move on? How can you sit there and say things like it’s nothing?”
“I’ve traveled with Violetta for two years now,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of things in that time, the sort of things that make you question just about everything. But I trust her to make it through this, and I trust you to look out for your sister. You have to trust that I know what I’m doing.”
She looked at him earnestly. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
Gabe sucked in a breath. Honestly, it was a fifty-fifty shot how this one turned out, and he was banking on a miracle.
“Absolutely,” he said and squeezed her hand.
It took some time, but Lien fashioned a gurney out of the mat. She ran to Li Yong’s house, knocking on his door.
“You’re going to the river?” he said. “Lien, you can’t–”
“I’m going to fix this,” she said. “Just–when my father returns, if I–come check on him. Tell him where I’ve gone if I haven’t, you know.”
“He’d kill me if he knew I let you run off with some stranger.”
She smiled at him. “Then I’ll try my hardest to come home.”
By now afternoon had taken hold. The sun had begun its descent, and Gabe noted stormclouds on the horizon, making the sky a dim and dust grey. The river continued its journey down from the mountain. They carried Violetta’s limp body down its snake-like body.
“It was up here,” Lien said. “Meifen and I decided to swim away from town.”
She was pretty certain of the spot. It was possible they moved up or downriver as they’d swam, but the spot where they’d gone in was always the same. They rested Violetta on the ground, and Gabe prepared to take her into the river.
“Hold on,” Lien said and kneeled down beside the water. Her throat was tight, and the sound of the water rushing by made her sick. But she leaned all the way forward and called, “Meifen, wǒ zài zhèlǐ.”
A ripple in the water suggested movement underneath. Lien gasped as she saw a face come forward, pale pale white, black hair stretched out around her, and eyes turned endlessly black. Thin fingers stretched forward, and the shade of her sister opened her mouth, at the same time Violetta began to speak.
“Mèimei,” Violetta said, and the ghost in the water formed the words as well. “Bāng wǒ. Dài tā zài zhèlǐ.”
“Meifen.” She gasped, tears falling from her eyes. “No, I can’t. It isn’t fair to take a life like that.”
The face in the water scowled, and Violetta sat up, screaming, “Let me out!”
Gabe grabbed his friend. “Be careful–”
Violetta shoved him aside and scrambled to the river. Lien tried to grab her, and she was dragged with her, hitting the ice cold water with only a gasp of air. She held tight to the arm of the woman as the river tried to shove them along. Gabe was shouting from somewhere above her, and she saw her sister in the water, flitting toward Violetta, arms outstretched. She saw Meifen place her hands on Violetta’s face, saw them both writhe and let out bursts of air. Meifen was becoming more indistinct, and darkness was filling Violetta’s eyes. Lien felt her fingers slipping, and then she was falling back. She shouted, a cloud of bubbles releasing from her throat, and she saw the ghost of her sister turn her head. Meifen seemed confused for a moment, and then Lien couldn’t see either of them anymore. Her hand broke the surface, and she tried to bring her face up for a breath of air, but the river held her down. Her legs kicked, and she focused on the two blurry shapes in front of her. Violetta was dragged back, pulled from the water, and she was alone.
The sound of rushing water became silence in her ears. Her lungs ached to bursting, and she released the last of her air. Like Meifen, she was dragged by the current, lost to the river, to become a ghost of herself, far away from any kind of home. Her eyes closed as she felt something grab onto her arms. Suddenly she was free of water, and her lungs sucked in a deep breath of air. Lien started coughing and hacking, her fists pulling up mud. Eyes still blurry with water, she could make out two shapes further down the riverbed. She tried to call out, but only water spit out. Turning, she saw Meifen’s ghost still holding onto her, a look of concern on her face.
“You saved me,” she gasped out. “Meifen, you saved me!”
Meifen tried dragging herself forward but was buffeted by the river. “I couldn’t watch you drown.”
“Meifen, please.” She pulled herself up and held out her arms. “You can’t stay like this. You can’t stay in the river.”
“I need a body to leave.”
She shook her head. “You’re dead, Meifen. I love you. Father loves you. We all miss you so much, but you can’t stay. You’re dead, and you have to move on.”
Her sister stared at her from the water, and dark eyes turning down. “I miss you, Lien. And father. I thought–I thought I could make my way back to you.”
“One day you will, but not like this.”
She closed her eyes and gave a solemn nod. “I love you, meimei.”
“I love you too.”
Her sister let go of her. Lien watched as her sister once again let the river wash her away, until this time there was nothing left.
It was difficult to explain exactly what had happened when Lien’s father returned home long after the sun had set. Violetta was still shivering by the fireplace, but she was upright, a cup of tea in her hands, listening to Gabe tell her everything that had happened. Lien greeted him, hurrying with an explanation, but he only grabbed his daughter and held her in an embrace.
By morning, Violetta was up and walking around. She and Gabe chatted quietly as they gathered up their things. Jing Shen was gathering his things to return to his work. Lien stood at the doorway as they prepared to leave.
“Where do you go next?” Lien asked.
Gabe shrugged. “We don’t often choose.”
“I have to thank you again for saving my life,” Violetta said as she threw her pack over her shoulders. “Gabe told me you deserve all the credit.”
Her face flushed red. “I barely did anything.”
“You rushed into danger and took on a ghost, which is about all we ever do.” Violetta smiled at Gabe. “She did our job for us.”
“You are going?” Jing Shen asked as he came into the room.
“On our way out,” Gabe said. “Thank you again.”
He nodded and placed a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “We must go too.”
Lien looked up at him. “I’m going with you?”
“I will need help. Good day, travelers.”
Violetta gave a mock hat tip. “And a friendly goodbye to you too.”
Gabe shoved her along, and they started down the road. A minute later, Lien was running after them, calling Gabe’s name.
“I almost forgot!” she said, breathlessly rushing up to them. “Here!”
She pushed a small bottle of tea pills into Violetta’s hands. They were small and blue in color.
“Gabe told me you can’t sleep at times.” She cast an apologetic look. “Father makes these for nightmares. They’ll help. And, um–” She looked at Gabe and quickly placed something in his hands. “That’s just–for–for you. I hope, one day, we’ll cross paths again.”
With another hurried goodbye, she ran back. Gabe opened his palm. Inside was a dried and pressed lotus. He held it up to Violetta.
“You heartbreaker,” she said, grinning widely. “I spend the whole adventure knocked out, and you get all the glory.”
He tucked the flower into his shirt pocket. “I dragged you out of that river twice.”
“What would Marie say? You’re an absolute romantic.”
She teased him all the way back to the road. They crossed back over the river and through the silent trees, until the small town disappeared behind them.