As Dana Spirezzo sat staring into the lifeless space of the long-vacant bedroom, headphones in position, she tried hard to practice slow breathing. Any interference with the signal could distort it beyond recognition. The random crackles and hisses of loose audio static filled her eardrums, but she filtered it out. The dust in the room had played havoc with her equipment at first, but a small glass case had cured that up - but from time to time it still sent a false flare into the microphone. She waited gingerly, listening for a sign, a voice, anything.
Suddenly, the machine sputtered to life with a violent burst of white noise, causing the monitors to clip. Dana scrambled to cut the gain as the splitting whine of the sound echoed in her mind. As she slowly cranked the knob down, the sound became more distinct, a dull hum of seething electricity. Dana squinted, attuning her ears to the fragments of noise that passed through her phones. "Hello?" she murmured somewhat weakly into her own mic. In the dark, a man's raspy, digitized voice rung in Dana's headset: Who's there?
Four days ago, Dana had received a call at her investigating agency office from one Del Morton, proprietor of the Cactus Inn, a tiny hole in the wall motel on the outskirts of Reno. He had seen the story about her in the paper, the one regarding the seances in Pasadena, and he wanted to know if she would come and "verify" his business. While he made his humble request, Dana rolled her eyes. It had been nearly three years since she had opened up shop as a paranormal researcher, and all the calls she ever got were from enterprising landlords and fameseekers trying to use her as proof that their hotel or home or upstairs toilet was haunted. It irked her to no end - but it also paid the bills. She agreed to meet Morton that night at the inn.
She pulled in and greeted Morton, a man in his mid-60s with a large moustache and a too-knowing wink, all while eyeing over her new temporary place of residence. She explained to Morton she would stay in the hotel for a week, doing research, observing and attempting to make contact with the ghosts that lived inside. If she did so, she would give him the thumbs up. "But I get paid either way, and I make no promises," she warned. Morton nodded apathetically. He seemed confident it would go over well.
As she began unloading her equipment and luggage for her stay, she continued to observe the modest building. The dry Nevada heat had weathered the outside considerably; she guessed it couldn't be more than 30 years old. A ghost visiting this place seemed unlikely. Oh well, she thought. An easy week's pay.
"Hello?" she repeated, this time in a stronger voice. She could hardly believe she had connected to the other side.
Who's there? it repeated as well.
"This ... this is Dana." She turned up her microphone a bit and made sure her recorder was on. As the tape rolled, she continued. "What is your name?"
"James, where are you?" Dana asked, enunciating carefully.
In your bedroom.
Dana froze for a moment and reeled around in the room. In the darkness she saw nothing out of the ordinary. Her bed was made, the bathroom door was shut, the closets were open. The window shade was down; it gave the room a bit of extra resonance. Everything was quiet. She froze again as she heard the radio crackle with a gasping breath. It filled the equipment with static, which went immediately dead when James had finished exhaling. Silence.
"Yes?" She answered quickly. She wasn't afraid of the ghost - just worried it might disappear. The line flickered, flatlining momentarily, before the next burse of audio rushed through.
I've been -
The crackle blurred out the last half. Dana quickly cranked a couple of knobs on her end. "James, are you there? I didn't get that last sentence."
The hiss that flooded her ears suddenly gave way, and she once again whirled around the room, looking for signs of a prank or life. Then the whisper returned with a low breathy sigh:
I've been looking for you.
Dana had set up all of her audio equipment in room 3A. The rooms themselves were small and tidy, but looked rarely used. Morton could no doubt use the business, Dana thought as she unpacked her things. He visited her twice in the first hour, but she gave off enough of a cold vibe to keep him at bay the rest of the night.
She fiddled with the knobs idly until midnight, reading a literary magazine to pass the time. Finally, she got up and took a small tour of the motel. Mr. Morton's room was at the far end of the first floor hallway, room 8A. All told there were 14 rooms and a large area for watching TV and doing laundry. As Dana crept by Morton's room, she was glad to hear no noise. He was out for the night.
Dana returned to her room and began adjusting her machines with a bit more deliberation. Finally, she was pleased with her results. She pushed record on the DAT and grabbed a microphone. Watching the oscilloscope in front of her, she slowly worked the faders on a small mixer she had brought along. Small tones of white noise and electrostatic began to materialize in her headphones.
Dana took a deep breath, and then began mumbling into the microphone. As she did so, she patiently slid up one of the faders into the mix. Now in the headphones she could hear herself, but her voice was altered, lower, like a young boy's. She mumbled almost incoherently, occasionally muttering a word like "Mama" or "hot." It was an art, really, more than a science, but Dana had perfected both the technical and the metaphysical aspects of her job.
Dana was a fake.
She had gotten her Masters in psychology with an emphasis on poltergeists and the untrained energy of the psyche. She had visited a few supposedly haunted sites, but had never felt the vibe her other classmates claimed to get. She had assumed rather quickly that they were just exaggerating their own inner wishes. Dana was nobody's fool, but she was a firm believer in other people's ability to believe almost anything.
She had started out small, making tapes in her cramped apartment bathroom and then field recording the results in abandoned warehouses and the city hospital. She contacted other paranormal researchers, borrowed their recordings, and set out to reproduce them. She was mildly successful, but in her business, that was enough.
Once she charged these businesses to verify they were haunted, she would go to the site and create appropriate recordings for the situation. Creative reanimation, she liked to call it. Sometimes she would sit idly and wait for a voice to come over her several thousand dollar equipment, but she never heard one. Not once. All the same, Dana had never felt bad about her trickery - she was giving people what they paid for, wasn't she?
Dana's skepticism had toughened her up over the years in more ways than one. She was rarely spooked in the places she visited, though they were more often than not creepy isolated shacks like the Cactus Inn, filled with creepy isolated people like Del Morton. And she was an excellent actress, showing wonder and amazement at just the right pitch of "I almost can't believe it myself" when she delivered the goods at the end of the week. All of those expectant people, feeling vindicated for their fears and paranoia, just knowing "something wasn't right" and thanking Dana with heartfelt handshakes and certified checks.
Yet somehow it saddened Dana that she had never come across a real ghost.
Dana paused to consider what the ghost had said. Looking for her? She hadn't exactly been looking for him, but at the same time, she had. For her whole life, in fact.
"Me? Why were you looking for me?"
The disembodied voice ignored her. Can you see me?
"No, are you still in the room?" Dana asked, standing up slowly, her eyes darting around the room.
The whisper again. Yes. On the bed.
Dana jumped back from where she was standing, next to the bed. She tried not to panic. Was this even happening?
I need - help.
"Help? I can help you. What do you want me to do?" Dana offered encouragingly. The line grew increasingly pale. Dana watched on the oscilloscope as the signal slowly began to fade. "Hello? James! How can I help you?" Dana scrambled to her machine and pounded on the back of the oscilloscope as hard as she could. "Help you how? I want to help!" She was almost crying now, partially out of fear, partially out of hysteria. She sobbed in choking gasps. The static in her ears began to rise, swelling in a magnetic swirl.
Just before the connection dropped out completely, a harsh mechanical tone panned across the headphones. Faintly in the distance, like on a broadcast from outer space, she heard James' voice, clear and unprocessed, a desperate scream:
Where did you go!?
Dana flipped switches and turned knobs on the recorder, but to no avail. The signal was lost. The quiet crackle of pink noise danced around her, a low dirge as that final question echoed in her mind. Where did you go, where did you go ...
James ripped off the headphones as a piercing tone shot through his ears. His drums still rung as he turned to his partner Thom, sitting at the controls of the audio workstation.
"I lost her! What did you do?"
"Nothing, James. The signal just got cut. It happens sometimes, can't be helped, you know that."
James and Thom sat in room 3A of the Cactus Inn. It had been two weeks since Dana Spirezzo had disappeared while on the job here at the Inn. The two amateur ghost hunters had followed her on the trail, and picked up where it ran cold. They had sat in the room for nearly a week trying to contact Dana. More than once they had wistfully joked that they couldn't reach her because she was still alive, but that was doubtful. The police had picked up Del Morton for 12 counts of murder two days after Dana's disappearance. The math added up too well.
Finally, they had had a breakthrough. Dana's signal had passed through to them, a meek "Hello?" that they hadn't identified at first. They confirmed it was her, and tried to ask her where she had gone. They hoped to help find her body that way. But the conversation had gone south, and as the connection had started to fade, Dana had gotten angry, filling the room with a wild banging noise as they lost touch.
James and Thom were still reveling in their success; they'd never made contact with the other side before. "Lucky for us," James said, putting on his headphones again. "We'd better get back on the job. For all we know, Dana might still be trying to contact us ..."