Alfredo's home bustled with the kind of multi-kid confusion that an only child like me dreams about. Backpacks and shoes filled the front entrance, neatly arranged but numerically confounding. The ceiling shook from pounding feet on the floor above. And from the kitchen poured a days worth of appetizing smells, as though someone was trying to cook all three meals at one time.
“Two more for breakfast, Mama,” Alfredo called out as we entered.
“We really don't want to impose,” said Steve.
Alfredo grinned. “She's already feeding twelve. Two more won't make much of a difference.”
“Wait,” I interjected; “Twelve?”
“Sure. Me, Mom, Dad, my niece Mary, and eight of my nine brothers and sisters.”
“Breakfast,” a woman yelled from the kitchen.
Over a dozen feet pounded through the halls and down the stairs. Kids spilled out of every door. They converged in the living room and rushed into the kitchen. I flattened up against the wall. The whole house vibrated from human motion. The front door flew open, and Tina and Mary joined the melee.
“If you want to eat, you better hurry. It goes fast,” Alfredo said. He followed the crowd into the kitchen.
Except for the sounds of two people breathing, the room was silent. I looked up, and saw Steve beside me leaning against the wall.
Steve looked down at me. He seemed a little dazed. “So that's what it's like to have siblings,” he whispered.
“I guess so. Shall we join the feeding frenzy?”
Steve nodded. He led the way to the kitchen, walking slowly.
There was no feeding frenzy. Everyone sat quietly at one of two large tables, eating happily. It was amazing. If ever there was an opportunity for mass chaos, it was Alfredo's family. But somehow order existed. How was that possible?
“Steve, Maryanne, I'd like you to meet my Mom and Dad,” Alfredo said.
And I had my answer. The petite, black-haired woman and her quiet husband exuded calm. They nodded and smiled from opposite sides of the room. But even though two tables of kids separated them physically, you sensed they were standing together. A united front trumped chaos, and family harmony reigned.
Alfredo's Dad finished cutting food for one of the younger kids and pulled out two folding chairs. “Two seats by the window,” he offered cheerfully, and set up seats for me and Steve.
“Two plates,” said Alfredo's Mom. She turned around from the counter holding two plates loaded with food.
I'd already eaten breakfast at the hotel. But seeing that plates piled high with chorizo, eggs, and potatoes, my pitiful foraging efforts over the hotel offering shrank and faded to nothing. I set to eating with as much eagerness as any of the kids around me.
We were about half-way through with the meal when Tina caught her mother's attention. “Steve and Maryanne were trying to go into the haunted house,” she reported.
Her mother looked at us with concern. “It is to be avoided. Even Mrs. Johnson fled the place,” she said.
“She didn't flee. She'd temporarily away visiting friends,” Steve said quickly.
I knew what he was thinking. Words like 'fled' suggested abandonment of the homestead, one of the key issues in the case we were fighting.
“Ma'am, do you mind telling us why your family is so sure the house next door is haunted?” I asked.
Alfredo stood up. “I thought we could show her the dish,” he said. His mother nodded. Alfredo extracted himself from his chair and the crush of siblings around him then grabbed a cabinet door in the corner of the kitchen.
“I scrubbed it,” his mother said suddenly. “I scrubbed it over and over.”
All of the kids in the room nodded. “It's true. She did,” Tina told me.
Alfredo pulled a plastic bag out of the cabinet. From the careful way he held the bag, I guessed the contents to be some sort of breakable dish. The kids nearest me moved their plates, clearing space on the table. Alfredo set the plastic bag and it's contents at my elbow.
“Open it,” he said.
I pulled the bag open and pushed it back from the contents.
Steve leaned in close. “What...is it?” he asked.
“It's a casserole dish. Probably Renee's casserole dish,” I quietly replied.
“I can see it's a casserole dish. What's in it?”
Blotches of green dotted the inside of the dish. I picked the thing up and held it in front of me, looking for a pattern. “They're fingerprints,” I realized. “Someone grabbed the dish and held it tightly.”
“Fingerprints shouldn't look like radioactive jello.”
I agreed with him. Normal, human fingerprints shouldn't look that way at all. But the thing we were dealing with wasn't human.
A boy, about eight years old, leaned across the table. “Watch this,” he said. He dragged one of his fingers through the glowing green gunk in the casserole dish. He held the finger up to my face. I watched the green gunk on his fingertip slowly fade and disappear. Looking into the dish, I witnessed the green marks reappear in their original place.
“Unreal,” gasped Steve.
“We offered to help Mrs. Johnson one day by doing some yard work and cleaning the downstairs rooms,” Alfredo explained; “Mama found the casserole dish in the kitchen. It had rotting food in it. The kitchen was so creepy, she brought the dish back here to clean. After she'd scrubbed it out and dried it, the fingerprints appeared.”
“I scrubbed it and washed it again and again, but those marks keep reappearing,” his mother bemoaned.
“The marks won't go away until the ghost does,” I announced.
Alfredo's Dad nodded. “We thought as much.” He looked at the boy across from me and said, “Roberto, go wash your hands.”
“But there's nothing on my hands. It went back in the bowl,” replied the boy.
“What is the rule about handling the ghost bowl?” prompted his father.
The boy sighed. “Wash your hands after you touch it,” Roberto muttered. He slithered out of his seat and crawled under the table, to the amusement of his siblings on all sides.
“Pass the bowl to me, Maryanne. I'll put it away then you and I can wash our hands, too,” said Alfredo. I pulled the bag up around the bowl and passed it over.
When the three of us finished washing our hands, Alfredo gestured to the drawn screen over the window at the sink. “Ready to see the other thing?” he asked.
“Bring it,” I replied.
He nodded, and yanked at the base of the screen. The material snapped up. I stared out the window and into a companion window of the Johnson house.
“There you are,” I murmured; “I've been looking for you.”
“You expected this?” Alfredo asked, surprised.
I nodded. The white face of Hank Johnson's black-eyed ghost pressed against the glass, staring hatefully at nothing and everything. “He has to lurk somewhere. I'm guessing that's the kitchen window in the Johnson house.”
“Yes,” Alfredo's mother said behind me. “Please, pull the shade down. I don't want to see it.”
“Just a minute, ma'am. Does it ever move? I mean, has anyone seen it move from that window?”
“When the sun hits the window directly you don't see it all,” said Alfredo.
Roberto jumped excitedly. “I've seen it move,” he announced. “I can make it move. Watch this!” Before anyone could stop him, he grabbed a piece of toast off the nearest plate and ran out the back door.