So as it turns out, ghosts have rules.

Oftentimes, the people they’d been had died suddenly, unexpectedly, or in some extraordinarily horrible way. They demanded respect: that was rule number one. And if they received the opposite, in the form of a broken headstone or being buried in an unmarked grave, it often made the undead souls restless and annoyed.

So rule number one was to respect the dead. I learned a bunch of rules like that one in the course of trying to write a decent short story for the contest I’d found on Submittable. At any rate, Sacramento in mid-August wasn’t for the weak. I’d made sure to slather sunscreen on before leaving the house, and I had my iced coffee at my side in its drink holder, condensation coating it as I drove on down the road. The weather had been in the hundreds for the past week. I felt my forehead, absently.

Warm, but it’s August, I surmised. My brain had started playing tricks on me, started manifesting symptoms, ever since I heard about May. Looking up stuff about May had led me to an idea for a ghost story, about her life.

You see, one of the most well-known local ghosts was a little girl named May Woolsey.

May was twelve years old at the time of her death by encephalitis, in the year 1879. I had to admit, I hadn’t known much about that particular affliction and had to Google it. I’d scrawled a few pages of hastily-written notes, with descriptions from various websites. Even WebMD had an article on it. But at the time, what hit me the most was the phrase, “Encephalitis is rarely life-threatening.” But it had killed at least once. Poor May.

At any rate, the condition was apparently a swelling of the brain, and I had a list of symptoms which included fever, headaches, sensitivity to light, and sometimes weakness and seizures. Just to check, I felt my forehead temperature again: hot. Maybe it’s just the warmth of my hand, though. This time, I felt my head with my right hand: still hot. Now I started to worry, taking a big sip of my iced coffee, hoping it would cool me down.

My green notebook sat on the passenger-side seat. I don’t have encephalitis, I told myself, turning the key in the ignition. Even if I did, it’s rarely life-threatening. This is just my imagination playing tricks on me—or it’s that thing I heard about on the radio—medical students’ syndrome, where they start manifesting the symptoms of what they’re studying.

I continued on down the road, on my way to the Old City Cemetery in downtown Sacramento.

This is going to be fun. I generally hate driving downtown. It’s got lots of crowded, noisy one-way streets that are a real pain to navigate. But in order to write, I had to put myself in the story, get as close to the subject matter as possible. That was the idea. The Old City Cemetery was supposedly quite haunted. What a splendid location to write a ghost story in.

Anyway, back to the rules: rule number two stated that if you saw a ghost, there was usually a reason for it. Often they had reasons for sticking around, their souls plagued by the same sort of mental demons that attacked the minds of the living. They blamed themselves, or had other concerns, or sometimes weren’t happy to have died so soon.

I pulled up to a stoplight. Feeling a sneeze building up, I hastily withdrew some napkins from the glove box. I sneezed into them: black snot. I gasped. What in the world could be causing this? I had no idea that I was so sick. The light turned green and I shoved the napkin into the pocket of the door, as though wishing it away. I think I might be coming down with something. But if I turned back, I’d be so bored at home, taking care of chores and such. So I drove on, passing by stores and a psychic shop. I thought about the May Woolsey story.

After May died, her parents contacted a medium, and May came forth to speak with her parents from beyond the grave, to tell them that she was not dead, but survived in spirit, waiting for them on the other side. Her parents sealed May’s items away in a trunk and put them behind a false wall near the staircase of the house. May’s items were later discovered and put into a museum. A website mentioned the Sacramento History Museum, which was located in Old Sac. Admission was eight dollars. I’d made a note to go there, after the cemetery. Websites conflicted over the existence of a certain letter, supposedly found there, supposedly written by May, from the great beyond.

I rolled down the window as beads of sweat formed on my forehead. That letter: I have to see if I can find the actual letter somewhere. But I had no clue to its whereabouts, though I’d seen its contents posted.

The letter read:

Dear Momma,

I am so happy as I did write to you and say I was happy. Now Momma dear, do not weep for me. I am not dead, no, only gone before to wait your coming when you will be out of all sorrow and care and will be happy with me. Oh, what pleasure there is in the spirit life no one can tell. Only think of everlasting life and pleasure where we know no sorrow; all is sunshine, there is no cloud to darken our path as on Earth, we have our choice of mission…

This was all very interesting. It was a lovely story, to be sure. But something about it, didn’t add up. If May is so happy in the spirit world, then why is she appearing as a ghost in this one? It violated rule number two: that ghosts usually have a reason for sticking around. What was May’s reason if she was so happy? It was a conundrum, and whether it suggested that the rules were wrong, or that May’s story was incorrect, I could not say, with the information I currently possessed.

This was a conundrum worth investigating. And besides, it would take my mind off the drudgery of my food service jobs for a while. Working so hard ground you down in short order. That’s why they called it a grind.

But there were ways to make yourself feel human again, and writing was one of them. I thought of myself as a writer first and a fast food worker second. The food jobs keep a roof over my head, but the writing feeds my soul.

My CD of Prince played as I turned in to the Old City Cemetery and took a parking space right up front. I took up my leather satchel, exited the car, and locked it before walking over and gazing up at the monolithic tombstone of John Sutter. It stood sentinel at the entrance, like they’d buried him under the parking lot. I looked around and saw no other living creature here. For a place that was supposedly haunted, it looked awfully deserted.

The quietness of the place gave it a unique creep factor. I walked on down a path, past the firefighter memorial where a ghost dog had been spotted by someone online. What instantly made itself known was just how vast this cemetery was, filled with its trees and rose bushes and oleanders, and stretching itself out for a few city blocks at least. How would I ever find May Woolsey’s tombstone? I walked on and began to search, checking names on the headstones I spotted as I walked past.

The breeze felt refreshing, but I started to feel a pounding in my head like a throbbing drumbeat. Headache. That was one of the symptoms that May had. My hands began to shake. “What’s happening to me?” I said, thankful that no one could hear me. I searched my leather satchel for a bottle of aspirin that I knew would not be there. Then I began looking around for a bench, and soon found a white stone one. Sitting down, I tried to calm myself down, though my thoughts raced uncontrollably.

I’ve got a fever like she had, and now I’m getting headaches as well. When I sneezed, the snot was black as midnight, black as coal, black as the robes of the Grim Reaper. I pressed my fingers to my temples, hoping to make the headache go away, but the pounding only increased in intensity. “What if I’m psychic?” I thought. I could be one of those empaths that feel what other people do.”

“What if you’re dying?” said a voice. Startled, I nearly jumped from my seat. That voice had come from an old woman with sagging, sallow skin and pale blue eyes. She wore glasses and had her white hair pulled up in a ponytail.

“Did you say something?” I asked.

The woman didn’t hear or didn’t understand. She mumbled incoherently to herself and kept on walking. Still feeling both a headache and a distinct, strange feeling of unease emanating from this strange place, this cemetery that was once designated for cholera victims, I walked back to the front of the cemetery, where earlier, I’d spotted a tiny one-room office.

I need to just ask around, or I’ll be searching around all day for this tombstone. Maybe someone has some aspirin as well.

I walked over to the screen door and peered in, seeing a woman with dirty blonde hair sitting by the computer.

“Hello there,” I said, plucking up any courage. “I’m just looking for the grave of May Woolsey. Also, I was wondering if you might have some aspirin.” It was worth a try.

“Oh, okay,” said the woman, looking a bit shocked.

She went to get up from her chair, stretching her arms into the air. “Oh, a stretch is nice. I think I’m starting to get arthritis. Oh, I like your shirt, by the way.”

I looked down, noticing that I’d picked out my blue shirt that read “I’m Silently Correcting Your Grammar.” The woman rifled through a stack of papers. “I think she’s on the self-guided tour here.” She opened the door and handed me a pamphlet. “She’s number twelve on the tour, right there down Buckeye. You’ll see this big statue of a Union soldier. There are 24 of them in the U.S. Ours is the only one that’s painted. He’s in his uniform coat, you know, but it looks like a dress. I tell everyone to look for the man in the blue dress. Oh, and let me see about the aspirin.”

The woman returned to the old wooden desk and started rummaging around. Eventually she managed to find a little plastic pill bottle. “Here you go,” she said, opening the screen door and handing it to me. I gratefully took it, but noticed that the label had been completely torn off, revealing only the white beneath it. These pills could be anything, I thought, before shoving that terrible thought to the back of my mind. I opened the lid, tapped two pills into my palm, and handed the bottle back.

“Thank you,” I replied, popping them into my mouth. I gulped down the pills without water. That was a skill that had taken years to perfect.

With that, I went on my way. With the help of the pamphlet (which contained a map), I soon found May Woolsey’s grave, and pulled the silk rose from my bag that I’d brought by way of token. The offerings left by others included crayons, a pencil, a rock, a My Little Pony (possibly Rainbow Dash), a toy car, a plastic bead necklace, and a tiny bundle of real roses that were beginning to wilt.

I added my silk rose to the collection and walked back to the cemetery entrance. Thankfully, that headache began to subside. I drove to Old Sac to get to my second destination for this part of my writing research. I found parking easy enough.

But as I navigated the streets of Old Sac on foot, wondering how to write this ghost story, after having not seen a single ghost at the Old City Cemetery, the light began to get to me. Was this the “sensitivity to light” that was one of May’s symptoms? A fear crept into my heart again. Fever, headaches, sensitivity to light: would I experience weakness and seizures, next? Maybe if I figured out what May wanted, these symptoms would go away. Then it hit me: what if my story was part of this?

What if what May wanted was for me to finish writing the ghost story?! I began to focus on what I knew for sure: what I’d experienced at the cemetery. A mere “feeling of unease” does not make for a compelling story. Fortunately, there was more of this story to uncover.

After all, the trunk and some of May Woolsey’s items were housed at the Sacramento History Museum in Old Sac. I paid my eight dollars and found the trunk’s display, up on the third floor. The display plaque clearly said that over 600 items had been found in that trunk, yet only about thirty or so were on display.

I began to suspect that something strange was going on. In particular, I wondered where the letter was, as I gazed at the displayed items—a school diploma, pressed leaves, fabric butterflies, a beaded purse, a tiny leather clutch, little dolls—the treasures of childhood. These items provided an interesting glimpse, sure enough, but it became clear that the real story here was being hidden and omitted.

One of the tour guides threw open the curtains covering a window, letting sunshine flood the room. I threw my hands up like a vampire from one of those old black and white films, in defense against the blinding, overpowering force of the light.

“Oh, is that too bright for you?” the young man asked, drawing the curtain back to its original position. All I could bring myself to do was nod silently.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, miss,” said the young man. “You should have told us that you have a light sensitivity. We try our best to accommodate people with sensitivities as much as possible.”

The high school-aged fellow looked quite concerned. I brushed him off. “I’m okay,” I answered. “Really, it’s quite kind of you, but this sort of thing doesn’t happen often.” In fact, it usually never happened at all. But I wouldn’t tell him that.

“Oh, okay,” he replied. “Well, if there’s anything we can do for you, you just let me know, okay?”

“Alright,” I answered, hoping I’d feel better soon. But all this was starting to concern and frighten me. I’d never been light-sensitive before. The young man left.

I felt an overpowering sense of weakness in my body, as though all my muscles protested at once. I walked over and sat down at a chair and table near a display of a cardboard city meant for children to interact with and began to record what I’d found thus far, and the strange journey I’d taken, in a quest for answers. “Write what you know,” went the old adage. But if I had to modify it, I’d add, “…and also write what you don’t know, what you wish you knew, what you don’t yet have answers to.”

I recorded everything about the trunk that I saw, and other things to follow up on, like whether the poem that was posted “Don’t Kill the Birds” was a May Woolsey original or not. I liked the thought of the girl writing it, but had a feeling that this wasn’t the work of a twelve-year-old. The poem was too polished, too solid. It had that grown-up feel to it that I couldn’t put a finger on exactly. The handwriting was beautiful cursive, but why had the museum chosen to show this particular piece, with the printed image of a bird, next to it?

Something about this whole thing seemed wrong and morbid. A bigger story lurked under the surface, and yet my public sources of information were drying up by the moment. I’d already been to the cemetery, none of the websites mentioned where May Woolsey’s house was at, and I didn’t have a location for the letter. So I was at the last place I could definitively pin down. So I took up my notebook and decided to look into the rest of all this at another time. There was always more research to be done, but I didn’t feel so well.

I got up—perhaps too quickly—because all at once, I felt dizzy and nauseous, like I was going to puke. I felt a sudden drumming in my head again, and for a second, my vision closed in and went dark.

I was somewhat used to this from being in martial arts for so many years. That sensation of darkness meant I was close to passing out. But I could usually just relax and breathe through it, even at those times when I saw little silver “shooting stars” after being choked. The blood eventually flows like it’s supposed to again.

I tried to slow my breathing, telling myself to relax, and that everything would be alright again in a moment. That is, until I heard her voice, and realized what this all was really about.

“Come with me, Melissa,” said a voice, and I turned. My vision temporarily restored, I saw a little girl standing by the display case wearing a white dress, holding the silk rose I’d left at May Woolsey’s grave. “What pleasure there is in the spirit life…we have our choice of mission…”

Her mission. Those words sent shivers through my bones. Her mission was to destroy me. I screamed. My vision faded to black.