04: Lost Animals

Story 046,627 words

Published by Plotter

Lost Animals
Geoff Manaugh


It once took me half an hour to get up the courage, sitting alone behind the wheel of a rental car in upstate Michigan, in front of a house I’d never seen before. An old Victorian by the lake, three stories tall, with a turret and a back porch, it had been without electricity for years and most of its windows were shattered.

In the back of my car was a jacket, heavily patched up the arms with ripstop fabrics and leather padding; I put it on. Next to it was a bottle of painkillers I’d picked up at the airport that morning; I swallowed three.

Beside them both was a baseball bat.

* * *

I clear houses. I’ve been doing it for more than fifteen years, because it’s the only thing I know how to do now. A hopeful client reaches out or a friend of a friend contacts me. I hear what’s expected and where. I ask when they want it and why.

If I agree, we work out the date and some travel details, a per diem for heavy gear if I need it, and I never compromise on fee.

For each gig, I charge $25,000. I clear more than 30 houses a year.

* * *

The Michigan job came directly from the family. It was a woman in her mid-40s who called. She sounded hesitant at first, as most of my clients do, embarrassed by her situation, afraid I wouldn’t take her seriously. She said she was calling about her brother—our brother, a second voice on the line cut-in—because he wouldn’t leave their family home.

The oldest of four siblings, the man had been plagued by behavioral issues his entire life, cycles of confusion and rage, and the house itself was now falling apart, from its floorboards to the roof. No one had taken care of it. No one had taken care of him, the second voice added. Now no one could get him out.

Then the woman told me how tall her brother was, that he had played football in college, that he had abused steroids since high school, and some doubts began to creep in.

* * *

I stood there beside my car in the darkness, breathing. I ground my teeth together and clenched the baseball bat.

Then I did what I always did. I stormed through the front door, making as much noise as possible, shouting, banging my bat into the walls, throwing open closets, checking every room, floor by floor, basement to attic, until I heard someone make a sound. A hesitant, drunken stumble inside a bedroom on the second floor.

The woman had told me her brother drank himself to death here five years ago, in his own childhood bedroom, fatally mired in the past.

And that, a few days after the funeral, he showed up again and never left.

* * *

The most important thing in my line of work is to establish dominance. That means acting without hesitation, not letting any situation frighten me into immobility. So I lunged forward and kicked the bedroom door in, slamming it into the man’s face. All six-foot-six of him crumpled, knocked to his knees on the hardwood floor.

I pulled my bat back, aiming at his head, threatening to swing.

My clients hire me to get rid of ghosts. None of them care how I do it.

* * *

The summer before I started high school, my family moved into an old but comfortable house in the Cincinnati suburbs. It had a big, sloping roof and a brick fireplace we used once a year, our Christmas mornings defined as much by woodsmoke as by generous presents.

But our house also had a ghost, this little kid who appeared now and again at odd moments, never with any clear goal or purpose. Based on its clothes, my dad figured it must have died as recently as the 1980s.

My parents, I later learned, knew about the ghost before I did. They just didn’t admit anything, not to me, not even to each other, too embarrassed to say that they thought our house was haunted. The first time I saw it, we had sat down to watch TV after dinner when the ghost came out of nowhere—walking out from behind an upholstered chair, pale as paper, and standing there, blocking our view of the screen. My parents froze—I could see they were terrified and didn’t know what to do—but I leapt out of my seat. It was a small moment that would influence the rest of my life: as I stood up in front of it, the ghost seemed to flinch.

Some nights, the boy would emerge from the shadows in the upstairs hall when I got up to go to the bathroom; I’d have to step around it, then check my entire room before I could sleep again, in case it was there somewhere, hiding. Other times, it would lurk upstairs on the second floor, staring down at me through the banister rails, and, some evenings, while I was playing out in the backyard, I saw it sitting by my own bedroom window, watching me with empty eyes.

My parents were uncharacteristically passive about the whole thing, as if they didn’t want to hurt the ghost’s feelings, or maybe it was just too far outside their comfort zone to confront. They expressly forbid me from mentioning the ghost to anyone, scared our neighbors would think we were crazy—or, more likely, that having a ghost would tank our home’s resale value.

Finally, one night, I’d had enough. The ghost had been standing in the corner of our dining room for nearly thirty minutes while we ate. I was no longer scared; I honestly just wanted it to leave. How on earth had my parents put up with this kid for so long?

I put my fork down. My mom exclaimed as I pushed my chair backward, warning me not to get too close, but I walked over anyway and held my hand out like I wanted to play. I put on a friendly expression and pointed into the other room. Slowly, almost tenderly, I escorted the ghost toward the back door. I opened it up, let the ghost walk past, then locked it outside in the cold. I stood there, staring through the glass, deliberately rubbing it in, our roles in the house reversed.

I cursed, walking back to the table. Instead of thanking me, my mom grounded me for using bad language.

But I didn’t mind. I spent the next week holed up in my bedroom, blissfully alone, reading fantasy novels. We never saw the ghost again.

* * *

Ghosts are not supernatural, in the sense that we might think. They don’t have magical powers. They don’t cower at the sight of crosses. I have never seen a ghost float, glow, turn its head around backward, or walk through walls—though I have seen one fall off a roof, another get hit by a car, and one break both its arms when I slammed an attic trapdoor on it, preventing it from crawling up after me.

For most ghosts stuck haunting a specific place, I’ve seen, it’s usually because of something they miss, a cherished possession, a much-loved—or hated—child or partner, even the building itself, some situation left unresolved there when they died. They could have been a victim of crime or of suicide; killed by disease, despair, or deception; in a painless flash or over months of agony. In all cases, something about the life they left remains unsettled.

In the past decade alone, I’ve seen confused ghosts fumbling with things they no longer know how to use—can openers, gardening implements, office filing cabinets—ghosts opening and closing drawers in the darkness for years. I found one ghost rattling nail polish bottles alone in a mold-covered bathroom, another endlessly rustling through cupboards in a forest cabin, the floor around it covered in dead leaves. I once watched a ghost shuttle boxes from one shelf to another in an auto-repair warehouse in New Jersey, never saying a word.

The times ghosts truly scare me aren’t from the shock of a dead face staring up from the bottom of a basement staircase; I’m usually too drunk or high for that, too hyped up on aggression. I’ll simply charge at the thing, running after it into a root cellar or climbing a wooden ladder into an unlit barn attic to chase it away. The sights that genuinely unsettle me, that keep me awake at night, are the weird, demented loops I sometimes catch them in, the bleakness of a ghost’s new existence, the never-ending isolation of the afterlife, empty versions of ourselves stuck in routines that have lost all meaning.

* * *

It wasn’t until I got to college that I got rid of another ghost, and I didn’t do it for money. I didn’t even do it as a dare. I just wasn’t afraid.

A fellow student admitted to me over a beer that he had been seeing a ghost at his apartment off-campus the last few weeks. He was now too scared to go back. He’d been sleeping at his girlfriend’s house, he said. He looked embarrassed.

I said, you want me to go take a look? Show him who’s boss? I asked for the front door key and, on my way there, grabbed a baseball bat.

* * *

Word got around. It became a side-gig, something I’d do for people on weekends or after work. On a whim, I started charging. I’d agree to clear somebody’s place for them—or their office, their cabin, their brownstone downtown—and make their problem go away. Sure, I’d say, I’ll check your basement or garage—but it’ll cost you a hundred bucks. Your parents’ attic—two hundred. Some guy’s toolshed in the suburbs, filled with saw blades, cans of gasoline, and the ghost of a woman murdered three generations ago—two-fifty.

For five hundred dollars, man, sure—I’ll spend an entire weekend at your place and make sure that ghost never comes back.

Over the years, my prices went up.

* * *

There are times I feel like I’ve seen everything that haunts this country, from hog farms to luxury skyscrapers, from public housing complexes in the south to millionaires’ yachts on Martha’s Vineyard.

In the span of just three weeks once, I cleared a grain warehouse in rural Wisconsin haunted by the town’s founder (where I first learned to pad my jacket for added protection); an old carpenter’s home in central Maine, its original occupants shot dead in an unsolved crime (where I learned to always, always check the basement); and a research library in Los Angeles haunted by the son of a 19th-century oil tycoon (where I learned to charge much more for my time).

Not every place I go to is abandoned; I can’t always smash a baseball bat into the walls or overturn antique furniture. More often, it’s somebody’s home or office. I have to intimidate and coerce, force ghosts out without breaking anything, without attracting undue attention from the neighbors. I have to bully and, if needed, grapple, showing enough strength to keep even stubborn ghosts from returning—so that, a few days later, living people, young married couples, families with kids, can move back in.

If a job is quick, I’ll check into a cheap hotel. If I have a couple hours to kill, I’ll look for a local gym and get a day-pass, a man nearly 50 doing dumbbell presses next to guys half my age, trying to pump myself up before storming a house later that evening.

Other times, gigs take longer—sometimes, much longer. One summer, I did an entire foreclosed subdivision in Stockton, California, every house there half-built, each one haunted. I walked structure to structure every night for ten days, back and forth, dodging the occasional rattlesnake, clearing away the ghosts of people who, for reasons that didn’t concern me, had congregated there. Another year, I spent three weeks living alone in an unfurnished mansion in West Palm Beach, trying to clear the ghost of an 18-year-old boy who had drowned in the middle of his own high school graduation party in the family pool; the neighbors were so freaked out by the sight of me sleeping in a tent inside the master bedroom that four different people called the police.

Then there was the longest gig of all. I was flown from Cincinnati to Denver, then onto an unpaved airstrip in eastern Idaho, all on a private airplane; from there, I had to hike more than two hours, alone, into the forest. I was probably the only living human being for twenty square-miles. My job was to clear an old mountain logging camp that my client wanted to turn into the headquarters of some sort of political think-tank. It took me an entire month and I was paid $125,000.

Only once have I been called to clear the same ghost multiple times, and it took me several days to believe it was really him. I had chased this guy out of a place in Oklahoma twice already before he reappeared near Santa Fe on the grounds of an online-retail warehouse. There were five hundred miles between those locations. I came to the conclusion that he had somehow hopped a train.

It feels petty to complain—the pay is amazing, nearly a million dollars one year before taxes—but I would never say that this work makes me happy. Sitting alone in someone else’s house, holding a baseball bat, always drunk, often high, waiting for some horrible thing to reveal itself to me in the darkness—a long-dead child crawling out of a flooded basement, an old man limping down from an attic on broken ankles, eyes fixed on mine, a howling woman in a bloodstained dress who cannot accept the fact that she’s dead.

Looking in the mirror one night, I realized with a shock that I had become as pale, forgotten, and nocturnal as the ghosts I’d spent my life fighting. I was turning into a version of the very thing people hired me to clear.


A woman got in touch one summer, explaining that she and some folks up in Boston wanted to meet. In fact, she said, they would fly me out east to speak in person. They didn’t need me to clear a ghost—at least not yet. Instead, they had a business proposition.

During a long evening of drinks and dinner in a house outside the city, I was introduced to four people—three men and a woman, who steered the conversation. I was prepared to skate around what I actually did for a living, but they all mentioned it casually, as if I was just an unusual athlete.

Their idea, she explained, was that I would train a small crew of people in clearance techniques. She said she’d heard how much I was paid from a former client of mine, and that she knew how long that job had taken me; she and the group there at the table had calculated that easily five or six more people like me could do this work all over the country—all over the world—and I would lose no revenue myself. There were plenty of ghosts to go around.

All it would mean was more homes cleared, more families made safe again—and more money for everyone there at the table.

* * *

So began a humid summer in western Massachusetts, in a rust belt city called Pittsfield, where I trained six men like myself, ranging in age from 22 to 40. They were from all over the country and were as adrift in their lives as I was in my mine. Like me, they thrived on confrontation. They knew they could make a living only one way, and that was with their bodies, never with their minds.

My lessons covered everything from useful tools and clearance techniques to tax deductions and legal liability. I pointed out the benefits of specially padded jackets, reinforced wherever each man might think he needed it—your gear should reflect your own physical tendencies, I explained, if you struck with your arms or elbows first, or if you simply rammed forward, shoulders down. Some of them liked to kick; we discussed work boots and ankle braces.

At some point, I introduced them to the wonders of carrying a big stick—a club, staff, or baseball bat—and, without alienating my new business partners, hinted at the value of intoxication for eliminating fear. I had been expecting some push-back, for a few guys to shake their heads at the very idea of working anything less than sober, but all I got were nods of recognition. It shook me. They saw me for what I was: a drunk guy, with few friends of my own, swinging a bat at things that haunted other people.

We talked about different kinds of ghosts—aggressive and territorial vs. confused and afraid—and what to do if a living person showed up during a clearance. A question from the group: Are ghosts infectious—can you become one if you’re bitten? Answer: I’ve had my shoulder dislocated, two ribs broken, and my ankle sprained, but no ghost has ever once tried to bite me. (Real answer: This isn’t the zombie apocalypse, they’re just ghosts.) Another question: Can you use fire to clear a ghost? Answer: I mean, maybe—but you’d probably burn your client’s house down with it. (Real answer: You want to set fire to a ghost?)

One day, I did admit that I had used a road flare once to chase a ghost out of a haunted movie theater in Iowa, running after it through the lobby with orange flames shooting out of my fist. I was laughing as I said it, showing off a bit, but, I realized later, it sounded like advice.

* * *

I took them on team-building trips throughout New England, from small towns in the mountains, where we cleared whatever haunted them, to foreclosed homes in the suburbs, to practice room-clearance techniques. When I could, I brought trainees along on real gigs to gain firsthand experience. A hospital in Brattleboro with an unwanted guest on its cardiac floor. A high school in Amherst whose dead science teacher wouldn’t go away. We came, we saw, we cleared, even once at a state senator’s house near Albany. 

Seeing the guys step in, watching them do my job, however, didn’t have the effect I’d been expecting. All my talk of establishing command presence, of throwing open doors and breaking furniture, of making noise, had—unsurprisingly—come across as advocating outright hooliganism. I thought I’d been telling fun ghost stories, but I’d given already-damaged men an excuse to break anything that stood in their way.

Near summer’s end, I agreed to bring a single trainee along with me on a gig that should have taken one night. He was the son of a retired NFL star. Our funders had brought him into the program thinking it might help attract future media interest, maybe even inspire his dad to invest, but they didn’t realize he was the one trainee I trusted the least. 

I’d been hired to clear the ghost of a man killed by arson, but, as we approached the outer edge of New York City, he became increasingly agitated, even manic. It was like he thought he had to impress me—to intimidate me—and I was too focused on the job at hand to realize what that might mean later. 

Geared up, we stood together on a weed-choked sidewalk, facing a partially inhabited apartment complex in the Bronx. The ghost was somewhere inside. It hadn’t gone far, I saw; the blackened ruins of the house where the man died loomed just next door. 

I was about to say it was time when I heard my trainee unzip his backpack, pull something out, and let loose with a kind of war whoop. He then began spray-painting his own head. Red mist settled down over his shoulders. He must have thought his buzzcut had been transformed into a red-capped warrior’s skull, like something out of a Viking film, but the nozzle had been pointed at a funny angle. His left temple was now smeared with an idiotic spritz of red paint, as if he’d been slapped with a packet of ketchup. 

Then he ran forward and shattered the front door—I was holding a key—and the entire gig fell apart within minutes. 

It took me three nights to get things under control. Instead of scaring the ghost, the guy’s antics provoked it. Worse, he managed to do what I’d urged the men to prevent: the ghost quickly established dominance, unphased, slipping from one apartment to the next throughout the complex for days. While my trainee was off doing god knows what in empty rooms on other floors, I was left trying to reassure families terrified by the noise and commotion. 

On the third night, I smelled smoke. My trainee later said he remembered my comment about road flares, and—accidentally, he insisted, though I’ve never believed him—he ended up setting two apartments on fire, waving his flare around like a Tiki torch. Technically, it worked—we cleared the ghost—but, as fire engines howled in the distance, it was difficult to consider it a success. 

* * *

Looking back now, I see how obvious the change was—the comments I began to make, pointing out how much time I had spent with ghosts, that I had grown old with them, joking that they were practically my relatives now, almost friends. I laughed about the similarities between myself, with my bloodshot eyes, my unshaven face, my pale skin, and these spirits, how, in sleeping alone in haunted houses several weeks of the year, I was now more ghost than man, alone, lost, just looking for a place to feel comfortable. 

Pretending to be kidding, I said that, someday, we should try talking to a ghost, just for kicks. Maybe all it wanted was for someone to come along and explain why it had ended up like this and how it could be freed. We could stage an intervention, I said, not a raid, take a ghost aside and ask it questions. 

The guys laughed, my business partners laughed, but then we got back to our pool cues wrapped in duct tape and our exaggeratedly padded jackets, gearing up like we were about to storm a Mob warehouse. One of the guys started incorporating a hockey mask into his routine, as if it might become a signature move, his personal branding, and the other guys loved it, cheering every time he put it on, sometimes clapping, as if the sight of his mask meant that things were finally getting real. 

I began wondering if I had done the right thing.

In August, I flew home to Ohio. I was paid $300,000 and given a generous stake in the resulting company.

* * *

Over the next year and a half, my trainees expanded their reach across the country. They established thriving businesses in the Mississippi Delta, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest. One guy made a living without ever needing to leave Los Angeles, clearing streets and alleys around Skid Row, gangland ghosts in neighborhoods so bleak they didn’t have grocery stores, and the surprisingly common Hollywood suicide. I heard stories of ghosts cleared, families reunited in safe surroundings, kids with their childhood traumas now eased. From a business point of view, things could not have been better.

Then the NFL star’s son signed a deal with a TV studio and, eight months later, a weekly show debuted, following him around the country with a small crew as they cleared people’s houses of ghosts. It was ridiculously over-stylized, I thought, like watching an action film, and, the worst part—a part I didn’t expect—was that it also looked cruel.

In one clip the guys texted me, the trainee and his team were at a house in Georgia where a father had been killed trying to protect his wife and son from a crew of home invaders. The wife and kid survived, and had long since moved away, but the dad’s ghost was now stranded there, unable to process what had happened to him, where his family went, or how to move on.

I couldn’t watch the end of the clip. This was exactly what I’d trained them to do, against the sort of ghost I’d taught them to expect, so I shouldn’t have felt anything.

They had the ghost surrounded. They were all holding baseball bats.

I realized that the greatest advantage we have over ghosts is that we can be beat to death. Ghosts can be beat forever.


Long before the franchising deal, back when my ghost work first took off, I started sinking all my extra money into real estate. I wanted to expand out into the lands surrounding the farmhouse where I lived, into the foothills of the Appalachians in southern Ohio.

My parents were still alive then, still in Cincinnati, though the inevitable dread had begun to hit me, a fear that they, too, might someday return as ghosts, that someone would call me to propose a new clearance job—and, my god, I’d realize, standing there in my padded jacket, drunk, it was my own mom and dad, fidgeting with something in the darkness, staring back at me with empty eyes, neither of them remembering who I am, their minds empty, my own parents now just two more anonymous ghosts I had to clear.

I had no real reason for buying so much land at the time, no long-term goal. I just wanted property. Some purchases took longer to finalize than others, but I was looking for specific things. I sought abandoned farms, underutilized plots, unpopulated parcels with dense thickets of trees, and I wanted them all to be connected, to be able to walk from one property to the next, to the next, even if it took me hours—even if it took me days.

Over time, I picked up hundreds of acres, including eleven empty homes and two dozen barns conveniently secreted away on long driveways, protected from view by Ohio hills. I came to own both a lake and a pond—though I remained hazy on the scientific difference between the two—as well as two drained swimming pools. On one farm, the engines and blades of ruined harvesting equipment rusted away like dinosaur bones in the grass, in a landscape nearly the size of a county park.

I was not a property developer and I did not want to become one. It was more of a romantic vision I had of myself, my own kingdom there, where I could grow old with music on the stereo and an iced drink in my hand, watching autumn colors burn across the landscape, waking up to summer birdsong, hiking across winter fields where only my own footprints marked the snow, becoming a real backwoods eccentric.

Of course, a part of me knew the truth. I had seen absolutely terrible things. I made a living running into stressful, even dangerous situations, and I needed a place to relax. I needed routines and solitude. Defensible space.

Some men will spend millions of dollars on Ohio real estate instead of going to therapy, but more than 500 acres of forest and moonlight were now mine.

* * *

It was on a job in Illinois when the idea first came to me. For all the ghosts I’d cleared, I had never followed one after the job was done. I had no idea where they went next—because I didn’t care. If you find a raccoon living under your house, you wave a flashlight and scare it away. If you see a possum, you make threatening sounds or sudden movements until it crawls off. If a coyote runs through your yard, you might even appreciate the moment, this brief glimpse of a world beyond human control.

I had spent fifteen years making clients feel like their ghosts were gone, but all I’d really done was kick their problems elsewhere. Ghosts are lost animals. Their goal isn’t to hurt you; they just have nowhere else to go.

In Illinois, I had been hired to clear a farm. Its owner had died years earlier of a heart attack and his ghost still haunted the place, a pale face staring at people from the barn door at sunset, a rickety form wandering through the fields and startling the livestock. I could easily have been there for just one night; it was a routine job, an easy in-and-out, but my schedule was open, my mood unsettled. The ghost was an old man, confused by his circumstances, his family long-gone, no one in the world left to remember him. 

Without much effort, I hustled the guy out of his barn, past a maintenance shed, and off into a cornfield—but, with nothing rushing me back home, I decided to follow. I tracked the man across dozens of fields into a local thicket, then deep into the woods toward a drainage culvert that hadn’t been maintained since the 1990s. The water reeked of industrial solvents. Islands of foam washed by.

All I could see there was an old man—a loner like myself—with no place of his own, no longer welcome anywhere, a man who once had a farm, a family, a role in the world, now just hoping for a safe place to sleep. Here he was, sitting on a river bank, staring at polluted floodwaters, alone.

* * *

I came back around in my truck an hour later, navigating a maze of unsigned farm roads, and parked half a mile away, covering the rest on foot.

When the man saw me emerge from the trees, he recoiled in horror, as if I had come to finish the job. It was almost physically painful to see. I thought, what have I done? What have I done to these—not things, but people?

It took me two more nights, camping there by the stream, before I managed to coax the ghost back to my truck. He climbed into the backseat warily, watching me, partially wrapped in a wool blanket I had pulled out of a duffel bag. I cranked the heat and drove all the way home in one shot, through Indiana’s Hoosier National Forest at sunrise, straight to one of the most isolated homes I owned, a colonial-style place with a wraparound porch and a detached barn.

The place was no longer furnished, but I led him inside to a large bay window overlooking a pond, and I let him keep the blanket. He could haunt this place if he liked.

* * *

This became my routine. I told none of my clients, covering any excess expenses myself. I would fly to places like Cheyenne or Tallahassee on my clients’ dime, then drive all the way home, sometimes thousands of miles, in a rental car.

It was the exact opposite of my earlier approach. No longer would I burst through the front door, swinging a baseball bat. I would let myself in with a key and hang out. I wouldn’t storm through every room, garage, or closet; I would let the ghosts come to me, pulled by curiosity.

I gave the ghosts space. This is your place, not mine, I was trying to say. I’m the guest here, not you. I’m just sitting in the darkness, being me—like you.

It added another day or two to the job, sometimes as much as a week, but I needed the ghost to trust me enough to hop in a car or truck and make the long drive back to Ohio. I became excellent at hiding ghosts, piled under blankets and laundry, sometimes sitting upright in full view in the passenger seat, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, flipping through a magazine I’d bought at a gas station two counties back. Modern Lawncare. XXXtreme Snowmobile.

One night, coming back across the river from Kentucky, we got pulled over by a bored traffic cop. I managed to laugh off his questions about my apparently inebriated passenger, an old ghost I’d cleared out of a bourbon warehouse at enormous expense to the distillery. He’s dead drunk, officer. The cop waved us off. I could have sworn I saw the ghost smile.

* * *

I was under no illusion that the ghosts and I would become friends, that there were long conversations to be had about art and philosophy, that they would enjoy my taste in food or music. But nobody else wanted them; I gave them a place to stay.

Ghosts sitting under oak trees. Ghosts with their feet in a creek. Ghosts sleeping next to each other against the walls of old barns. They had whole houses and gardens to explore now, places out of the rain where they could curl up and rest; woods everywhere; huge, untended meadows visited all day by birds who had no idea they were singing to the departed.

The ghosts came to recognize each other over time, I thought. I’d sometimes see the same group of four ghosts milling about together on the sloping hills, the sun about to rise. They clearly enjoyed each other’s company. They almost appeared to be talking.

* * *

The number of ghosts grew, another one every five or six weeks. Then every four weeks. Then every three. I accepted more jobs, impossible jobs, every job I could, taking them as rescue missions, wanting to get a particular ghost before my former trainees could. A factory in Nebraska; a dangerous curve in the road in New Mexico. I brought back as many as time allowed.

Population control is not something I would have anticipated when it comes to ghosts, but their numbers began to rise, steadily, with every job, until I was worried they might attract attention from the neighbors.

Then the problem began to take care of itself.

* * *

I was out one night, walking my property, looping around one barn to circle back toward another, up wooded hills and down along streams, before heading home hours later. I noticed something happening over the next ridge, in a meadow I rarely visited. A small cluster of ghosts had gathered, assembled around one another in the shadows.

As I got closer, I saw it: one of them, the focus of the others’ attention, appeared to be thinning. Disappearing. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air; one of them had found a way to move on and the others were watching, perhaps hoping to learn how, in awe.

The ghosts were saying goodbye.

* * *

Over time, thirty-four ghosts became thirty, then twenty-nine—then up again here and there—but, even as I brought back ghosts from as far away as Oregon, the numbers were undeniably going down.

Ghosts from all over the country had found comfort here. Space to relax. Time to settle. Whatever had haunted them was gone. Whatever had trapped them in their lives, they’d forgotten. They were free to go.

* * *

One night, headlights appeared in my driveway. At that very moment, nineteen ghosts wandered my land. I wasn’t expecting a visitor and I certainly wasn’t prepared for one.

Then I realized who it was. I hadn’t seen my agent in person in years and couldn’t imagine why she had come to visit me; but there were voicemails I hadn’t listened to in more than a week, emails I hadn’t opened all month.

We hugged and said hello. I suggested we go inside, hoping she wouldn’t have a chance to notice the ghosts, but summer was coming to a warm end of slow evenings and fireflies. She said we should stay outside and talk on the porch.

It didn’t take long before the sight of strangely bedraggled people wandering across my property became too much for her to ignore.

I told her I had cousins in town. As I said it, a ghost wearing an antique ball gown, its head a nest of uncombed hair, was staring at a tree in my front yard. Just staring.

“Your cousins are from—”

A half-naked ghost I’d cleared from a house in West Virginia the previous month came running across the yard in full view of us both, before disappearing into the forest.



* * *

Over a glass of wine, my agent explained why she was there. Look, she said. We have a chance to grow the business. Everyone wants it. To go international. But they need my sign-off, she said. They need me to approve.

I must have looked hesitant.

Think about it, she urged. Ghosts in Europe, Japan, and Africa. Mexico. Brazil. The Arctic. She said she’d heard stories from people in Marrakech. She had a long list of potential clients in Southeast Asia already. If I wanted, she said, I could start training overseas. Move abroad. Leave Ohio behind.

I turned my glass around in my hand. I don’t know, I said. I’m getting old. I’ve made my money. I have my land. I said I wasn’t sure flying off to Morocco or wherever was really the best thing to do right now. Chasing more ghosts out of places they felt comfortable, like waking up hibernating animals only to force them into the cold. I said I had people to look after now. Myself. Aging parents. Unexpected guests.

My alleged cousins from California had come out in larger numbers by then, a whole group of them milling about in the moonlight. When I looked sideways at my agent, I could tell she’d just figured it out. She had realized who and what they really were. I could see her hesitating for a second, taken aback.

* * *

It was an autumn night in upstate Michigan, six years since I’d last been there. It seemed maybe like a waste of time, but the one thing in the world I had now was time.

Our first European bureau had opened in Vienna that spring and was already doing well, its locally-trained clearance team recording regular TV spots, even being celebrated one night on the pitch before a major international soccer match. Heroes.

But I had no part in it. I’d left. Retired. I still collected my percentage, but I was safe at home now, with my hills and my barns, my music on the stereo, my pond and my lake. I’d disappeared into my own kind of afterlife, of familiar routines and sunsets. As my agent quietly put it, I was haunting my own farm.

I parked my truck ten miles down-shore from the house I’d originally cleared there, in a remote part of Michigan. I had been following the local news for months, searching online every few nights for talk of a new haunting. Local newspapers, social media.

Finally, something popped up. A ghost, people said. Huge. Like a linebacker. A gigantic dead man wandering the woods.

It was on my sixth night, camping alone on state land as close as I could get to the reported sightings, that I finally heard something in the woods. The footsteps of a lumbering beast, tripped up in the undergrowth.

Then he appeared in the darkness. Lost. Homeless. Old. The many years since I’d cleared him out of his childhood home had not gone well.

I stepped forward. Even in the shadows, I saw, the man recognized me. This ghost twice my size flinched, aware things could always get worse.

But I was carrying a blanket this time, not a baseball bat. I had a place he could go.

U.S. Library of Congress
Geoff Manaugh is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, author of the New York Times-bestselling book A Burglar’s Guide to the City (2016) and co-author, with Nicola Twilley, of Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine (2021). He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Financial Times Magazine, Wired, and many other publications. His short story “Ernest” (2017) was adapted into a feature film by Netflix under the title We Have a Ghost (2023).

©2023 Geoff Manaughplotterstories at gmail dot comPublished by Plotter