Sadie clutches her hands beneath her chin and stares at our percolator, her eyes huge. The thing gurgles and hisses as if it
resents being pressed into service. My own reflection in its side is distorted. When I was younger, I thought this was how ghosts see our world.
GHOST IN THE COFFEE MACHINE
By Charity Tahmaseb
When it comes to ghosts, my grandmother has one solution: brew a pot
of coffee. Like today, in Sadie Lancaster’s kitchen.
Sadie clutches her hands beneath her chin and stares at our
percolator, her eyes huge. The thing gurgles and hisses as if it
resents being pressed into service. My own reflection in its side is
distorted. When I was younger, I thought this was how ghosts see our
In places with bad infestations, they swirl around the percolator. I
can reach out, touch hot moist air with one hand and the icy patch of
dry with the other. One time, a ghost slipped inside. It rattled
around until the percolator sprang from the table and hit the floor,
splashing scalding water everywhere.
I still wear the scars of that across my shins.
But Sadie’s ghosts are barely ghosts at all. I’d call them sprites.
They might annoy you on the way to the bathroom at three a.m., but
little more. They also, as my grandmother points out, help pay the
bills. So I remain silent while she pours the coffee: three cups
black, three cups with sugar, three cups with cream, and three cups
extra light and extra sweet. Twelve cups. Always. If anyone complains,
my grandmother snorts and says, “As if no one has a preference once
Don’t get her started on instant coffee, either. Since I was five, my
job involves carrying the cups throughout the house, up and down
stairs, into bedrooms, dining alcoves, walk-in closets. We never skip
the bathroom, no matter what.
“The last place you’d want a ghost,” my grandmother says to Sadie.
“Lecherous little beasts.”
I walk past the two women, my steps slow and steady. I still burn
myself, make no mistake. My hands wear the scars of multiple
scaldings. We keep a burn kit in the truck. But as I place the last
cup on the edge of the sink, I smile. At least I won’t need that
today. I rush back to the kitchen for the Tupperware.
Some ghost catchers use glass jars, but ghosts confined to small
spaces can manifest images–grotesque or obscene or both. Ghosts,
generally speaking, are pissed off and rude, which is why you don’t
want one in your toilet. We buy the containers with the opaque sides,
since what you can’t see won’t offend you. I use several at Sadie’s
that afternoon, although truthfully, I only snag three little sprites
in the den.
“She’s imagining things,” I whisper to my grandmother.
“Yes.” Her hand steadies my shoulder. “But how many repeat customers do we get?”
She has a point. We’re good. When we’re really in the zone–the right
type of coffee beans, perfect brewing temperature, clean catches–a
house might stay ghost-free for decades. If we’re not careful, there
won’t be any ghosts left to catch.
With the sprites in the back of our pickup, we rumble down the county
road that leads out of town and into endless fields of corn and
soybean. Ten miles out, there’s a windbreak with a little creak. This
is where we’ll set the sprites free. They’ll be, if not happy, content
at least, and in no hurry to find other humans to haunt. I’m setting
the sprites free–legs braced, container at arm’s length–when my
“When I’m gone, Katy-girl, I’ll come back and show you how to rid them
once and for all.”
I sigh. I’ve heard this before. “But then I’d be getting rid of you.”
“You wouldn’t like me as a ghost. Besides, they don’t belong on this
plane. This has been my life’s work.” She touches three fingers to her
heart. “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be my afterlife’s work as well.”
She always says this. I always tell her she’ll live a good long time.
Then we drive home, empty containers rattling against the flatbed,
percolator perched between us, belted in, our third–and quite
possibly most important–passenger.
* * *
That was three months ago. If my grandmother raged against the dying
of the light, it didn’t show in her expression the following morning
when I found her. She left me her house, the family business, and of
course, the dented, silver percolator. I have yet to see a hint of my
grandmother’s ghost. I’m not sure I want to.
The house is quiet without her in it. Even the ghosts have stayed
away. I shake the canister of roasted beans, give it a sniff, certain
I’ll need to dump it and buy fresh within a matter of days.
Sadie Lancaster calls as the first cascade of beans hits the garbage
sack. Ten minutes later, I pull up in my truck, but don’t find Sadie
cowering on the porch (her usual position pre-eradication). Percolator
under one arm, I ring the bell.
“Oh, Katy,” she says, urging me inside. She beams like she has a
secret. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
This is it. My grandmother has chosen Sadie’s house as the spot for
her grand reappearance and that’s why Sadie isn’t scared. My steps
quicken, heart fluttering something crazy. Do I want to see my
grandmother like this? I’ve never been afraid of ghosts, but this is
The aroma hits me first–rich, aromatic, turmeric, saffron, and a hint
of rose petal. Sun glints off the sides of a samovar squatting in the
center of the kitchen table, in the very place I always set the
percolator. I clutch the thing to my chest as if that can protect us
from its flashy usurper on the table. The samovar is gold-plated
brass–I squint at it–in the Persian style instead of Russian.
“Katy,” Sadie says, throwing her arms wide, “I want you to meet my new
neighbor, Malcolm Armand. He catches ghosts with tea the way you do
with coffee.” Her fingers twitch as if she’s urging us closer
together. I stand my ground. “You two have so much in common,” she
Malcolm runs a hand over smooth, dark hair. His white dress shirt
gleams in the sunlight streaming through the kitchen windows. I’m in
torn jeans and a T-shirt. Why anyone would attempt ghost catching in
something so fancy is beyond me. Even so? I can’t help but feel grubby
“It’s nice to meet you,” he says, extending that same hand, one
without a single blemish or scar.
I fight the urge to whip my own hands behind my back, out of sight. I
gulp a breath and shake his hand, breaking contact the second it’s
polite (okay, maybe a couple of seconds before it’s polite). I try not
to stare too hard at Malcolm, so I let my gaze travel the kitchen, the
dining alcove. No ghosts here. I’d be surprised to find even the
weakest sprite. And certainly my grandmother isn’t in residence.
That leaves me alone with Malcolm, and the tea-scented suspicion about
where all my business is going.
* * *
When I walk into Springside Long-term Care, the first thing I see is
Malcolm standing in the center of the common area, enchanting all the
residents, the gold-plated samovar glowing on a side table next to
him. I freeze, so every time the automatic doors try to close, they
bounce back open again. This draws attention. I sigh, give up my plan
to sneak out, and step forward to meet the facility manager.
“Oh, Katy,” she says, a flush rising up her neck, “I meant to call, so
you wouldn’t make the trip out here.” She waves a hand at Malcolm. “He
offered a “try before you buy” and well … the residents just love
Or at least most of the female ones do. They gather around Malcolm and
his shiny, shiny samovar, their oohs and ahhs mixing with the scented
I don’t point out that Springside is–and always has been–a gratis
account. Older people, my grandmother always said, are haunted by many
things. It’s only right that we chase some of their ghosts away.
I’m backing toward the door, willing myself not to inhale a hint of
rose petal and saffron, when a bony hand grips my wrist. The
percolator crashes to the floor, adding one more dent to its history.
“Katy-girl, are you going to let him get away with that?” Mr. Carlotta
nearly growls the words. He may hold the world’s record for longest
unrequited crush, in his case, on my grandmother. Even now, sorrow
lines his eyes. His fingers tremble against my wrist.
“What can I do?” I wave my free hand toward Malcolm. “He’s so flashy.”
“More like a flash in the pan. Mark my words.”
A part of me grabs onto what Mr. Carlotta says. Be patient. Business
will pick up the second it’s clear you can’t catch ghosts with tea.
Because honestly, who ever heard of that? My practical side–the side
that pays the property taxes and utility bills–wonders if the local
coffee shop is hiring.
* * *
I trace the scars on the backs of my hands while waiting for the
Coffee Depot’s assistant manager. My qualifications are thin. I know
ghost hunting and how to brew a damn good cup of coffee. But customer
service? Well, when you ghost hunt, people don’t mind if you shove
them out of the way, not if you trap the otherworldly thing shaking
their house to the foundation.
At the Coffee Depot? They probably frown on customer shoving. Still,
the converted train station is quaint and life as a barista can’t be
that bad, can it?
The assistant manager plops down across from me. He wipes fake sweat
from his brow and gives me a grin.
“So,” he says. “Tell me a bit about yourself.”
“I make the best damn coffee you’ve ever tasted.” I declare this
because I’ve read online that you should be confident in your
He chuckles, but doesn’t sound amused. “I’m sure you do. But tell me,”
and now, the amusement is back, “what about frothing milk?”
I like cappuccino, even if frothing milk is something I’ve never done.
Likewise, I’m sure there are many fine answers to his question. I do
not choose any of them.
Instead, I say, “Why would you want to do that?” It’s like I’m
possessed by the spirit of my grandmother, since in that moment, I
sound just like her.
“Right,” he says. He clears his throat, then gives me a long look.
“I’ll take that challenge. Go make me the best damn cup of coffee I’ve
So I do. I stand, and with his nod, round the counter so I’m on the
other side. My fingers barely brush the silver, industrial sized
coffee machine when it starts to tremble. The thing wheezes. The tile
beneath my feet shudders, sending a shockwave that resonates from toes
to jaw. Next to me, the barista’s teeth clack together, and she
pitches toward the cash register, clinging to it. Then, the machine
erupts, spewing water and coffee grounds with so much force, they coat
the ceiling, the walls, and all of the tables.
* * *
I offer to clean up. I offer to rid their machine of its ghost–for
free. Everyone is damp, but since the water was only lukewarm, no one
was scalded. This is why the assistant manager pushes me out of the
store instead of calling the police.
As the door closes, his voice echoes behind me. “Yes, do you have the
number for Malcolm Armand …?”
Something won’t let me leave the sidewalk in front of the shop. My
feet remain rooted there, next to the planters with the sugar maples.
I stand there so long it’s a wonder I don’t sprout leaves. But since I
do stand there so long, I’m treated to the view of Malcolm Armand
double parking and springing from his two-seater. In the passenger
seat, belted in like a trophy girlfriend, sits the samovar.
“That’s not very practical,” I say.
He halts in his trek up the walk, samovar held away from me. “What?”
“Where do you put the ghosts? I mean, once you capture them.” I point
at the convertible. “There’s no room.”
He eyes me, my coffee-soaked shirt, stained slacks, and all. He
sniffs, nose wrinkling, and tromps into the shop without another look
in my direction. I turn, uproot my feet, and inch toward the front
Inside is the mess I made, but I ignore that. What I want to see is
how Malcolm works, what he does, how he entices the ghosts. I stare so
long, the sun dries the back of my shirt. I study the inside of the
shop, the placement of the samovar, and track Malcolm’s every move
until the assistant manager jerks a cord and Venetian blinds block my
Whatever grips me about the shop–the ghost or Malcolm–loosens its
hold. Dismissed, I trudge home, leaving a set of coffee-colored
footprints in my wake.
* * *
“K-k-aty? Are you there?”
The call comes at nine in the morning, on a day so sunny and bright,
only the most dedicated pessimist could remain that way. Since I have
all my overdue bills spread out on the dining room table, I’m well on
my way to joining their ranks.
“Sadie?” It sounds like her, but I’ve never heard her voice so shaky.
“What’s going on? Where are you?”
“My porch. They won’t let me inside.”
“Why don’t you call Malcolm?” The question comes out sharp, laced with
acid and jealousy.
“He’s t-trapped inside.”
“Dead?” Sadie’s voice hitches.
“Ghosts don’t …” Kill. No, normally ghosts don’t. But they can.
“I’ll be right over.”
The second I pull the half and half from the fridge and give it a good
whiff, I realize right over isn’t happening. I toss the reeking carton
into the garbage and head to the canister with the beans. A few lone
ones rattle in the bottom. I haven’t been back to the Coffee Depot
since my disastrous interview, but it looks like I’ll be stopping
With the percolator strapped in its seat, a four-pound bag of sugar
snug against it, and several containers of half and half on the
truck’s floor, I run two red lights on my way to the Coffee Depot. By
the time the little bell above the door stops jingling, the assistant
manager is rounding the counter. He stalks forward, arms loaded down
with bags of coffee beans. He skids to a halt and shoves the beans at
“But–” I begin.
He holds up a cell phone. On the screen, a message reads:
Malcolm: Give her anything she wants.
Still uncertain, I blink at the words. In my arms, I hold everything I
want, or at least need. For now. I head for the door.
“Call or text if you need a resupply,” the assistant manager calls
after me. “I’ll have someone run it over.”
The door whooshes closed before I can say thanks.
* * *
I test out the front door, the garage, even the window to the
bathroom. Every surface I touch ices my fingertips. Sadie Lancaster’s
house is in full-on ghost invasion. Usually something like this takes
years to build up. True, I haven’t cleared the sprites in a month or
so, but that can’t be the cause of this.
My gaze travels the structure, from chimney to foundation. All the
windows are black, the cheery blue paint molting into a dead gray. I
need to get inside. I need to do that now. So I do the most logical
thing. I march up the porch steps, press my palm against the doorbell,
and let it ring for an entire minute. Then I cross my arms over my
chest and tap my foot.
“Nobody’s getting any coffee if someone doesn’t open up this door.” I
sound bossy, just like my grandmother. I kind of like it.
A moment later, the door creaks on its hinges. I scoop up the
percolator and my bag of supplies and race for the kitchen.
“Malcolm?” I call out. “Are you okay?”
Is he even here? Maybe he went out the back once the ghosts released
their hold on the doors. I plug in the percolator and take a few deep
breaths so I don’t rush the preparations. Ghosts this strong will need
the best coffee I can brew.
I survey the beans the assistant manager shoved at me. One hundred
percent Kona? Really? Shame to waste that on ghosts. But the air
prickles the skin on my arms. It must be fifty degrees in here and
getting colder. One hundred percent Kona might not do the trick if I
“Katy?” A voice rasps. For a second, I mistake it for a ghost. “Katy?”
Too deep, too human for that.
“In the dining room.”
I set the percolator to brew and run. On the threshold, I trip over
something bulky and sail through the air. I land hard, but manage to
tuck and roll. When I stop, the blown out end of a gold-plated samovar
fills my view, the brass twisted into vicious curlicues.
A groan comes from the threshold. Malcolm props himself up on one
elbow, his cell phone clutched in one hand, his shirt, torn and
“What happened?” I say.
“It just … blew. I was adding in a sprite when–”
“Wait. You’ve been storing all the ghosts.” I heft the samovar,
careful of the edges. “In here?”
“You don’t release them?”
He shakes his head, eyes downcast. “I don’t know how.”
This sad, honest confession tugs at me. We don’t have time, however,
to go over the finer points of ghost hunting.
“Can you stand?” I ask. “Walk?”
“I think so.”
“Then you can help.”
In the kitchen, I pour the twelve cups. Malcolm adds the half and half
and sugar. From there, we divide and conquer, carrying the cups to
various spots in the house.
“Be sure to put one in the master bath,” I call from the living room.
“There’s bound to be one in there.”
“It won’t let me in,” he says a moment later.
Oh, really? Nasty little bugger. Ghosts and their toilet humor.
At the door to the bathroom, I ease the cup of coffee from Malcolm’s
hands then kick on the door. It flies open with all the strength of
the supernatural behind it.
Malcolm places a hand on my arm. “I don’t think–”
“It’ll be okay.” I hear it for the lie it is, and so must Malcolm, but
he lets me go.
I close the door and place the coffee on the vanity. That icy patch of
air flutters past, swirls into the steam, and revels in it. Oh, it is
having the best time–at everyone’s expense, too. Before I can trap it
beneath some Tupperware, that same feeling from the coffee shop washes
over me. This is the ghost in the coffee machine. This is … my
The realization makes me drop the container. Malcolm pounds on the
door, but I ignore him.
Now, the ghost swoops around me, a frigid caress against my cheek.
“What are you doing? I thought–”
Something that sounds like hush fills the air. Whatever her mission,
it’s not for me to question.
“I love you,” I say. “And I miss you.”
I pick up the container and my grandmother flows inside, compliantly.
I secure the lid and hug the Tupperware to my chest. During her life,
my grandmother was right about most everything. But here’s where she
I do like her as a ghost.
* * *
We drive out to the nature preserve, a good thirty miles from town. In
a deserted campsite, I demonstrate how to open containers and set
ghosts free. I even let Malcolm release a few. (Only the sprites, but
you have to start somewhere.)
“Will they come back?” he asks.
“The strong ones can, but most choose to stay here, or find an old
barn to haunt. Something’s got to scare all those Scouts on camping
Malcolm studies the backs of his hands. The beautiful olive skin is
pink from scalding.
“You should put something on that,” I say. “Before it scars.”
“A little scarring never hurt anyone. I’m sorry for a lot of things.”
He raises his hands. “But not for this.”
I nod and he gives me a piercing look that I swear could scar–if I let it.
“You know something,” he says, “I think this will work.”
“You and me. I’m all sizzle, and you’re the steak.”
“I’m a vegetarian.”
He throws his head back and laughs. And while I have no clue what he
means, I can’t help but like the sound of his laughter.
* * *
I let my fingers trace the gold lettering on the window–for the tenth
time in as many minutes. I can’t help it, can hardly believe the words
K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists
In the store window, the gold-plated brass samovar sits, backside
hidden in midnight velvet. Somehow, Malcolm talked the bank manager
into a small business loan. Somehow, we’re on retainer with the only
law office and investment firm in town. Somehow, my worry about bills
and property taxes has evaporated.
Malcolm still wears the scars from what we call the day of the ghosts.
He boasts a few fresh ones as well. So do I. We take a new, electric
samovar with us when we go out on a call. Because even I must admit:
some ghosts prefer tea. Sometimes I feel that particular presence and
an icy caress along my cheek. Sometimes I say things that make Malcolm
throw his head back and laugh.
What I don’t tell Malcolm: I do it on purpose.
What I don’t tell my grandmother: I know what her afterlife’s mission really is.
And I love her for it.
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