"Is anybody here?" Silence. "We'd love to talk with you." Silence. "We mean you no harm." Silence. "Can you make a sound for us?" Diane's voice creeps upward through the blackness with a tinge of desperation. In the daytime, she's a nurse. Tonight, she's a ghost hunter.

"How do you feel?" Her wind-chime words are meant for the many men who died in this bedroom almost 150 years ago, in pain.

Dion, deeper-pitched, speaks with authority. "If you want to talk to us, go to that light." The pinprick-sized glow, red like fresh blood, comes from a plastic box on the 19th-century oak floor. It's a combination motion sensor and electromagnetic field (EMF) detector.

We sit in a circle around the machine and wait for it to screech, which would indicate motion, possibly of the paranormal sort. Or perhaps a surge in the surrounding electromagnetic field will make the needle thwap across the screen like a smack in the face. This may represent a ghost (or, I remind myself, a microwave oven). Right now, the needle rests.

Loren, the instructor for Ghost Hunting 101, lies propped on his elbows. He appears impervious to cold, exhaustion, or the jagged shadows thrown onto the walls by the headlights of passing cars. An unlit cigar hangs from his shadowed silhouette, always. He chomps it between his teeth, as if slowly eating it. He points his remote infrared thermometer at the motion detector, to check for a sudden drop in the already chilly temperature. A pocket of coldness might be a long-dead soldier (or a leaky window). Ben Lomond plantation manor was an impromptu hospital in Manassas, Virginia, which was the site of two of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. It thrived on slave labor. Even in peacetime, the place must have reeked of suffering. Now it just smells dusty.

The ambiguity and controversy of hauntings intrigue me. If I can sort out the spirit world, maybe I can also solve the mysteries of my daytime life. I want two things tonight: I want to experience a ghost, and I want my body to stay strong until morning.

I've spent two weeks saving up energy for tonight, and now the cold sucks away my adrenaline like a vacuum. Loren says frigid weather results in the best data, so I try not to sulk. My neck feels tight like rawhide. A burning spreads across my palms. A squeezing ache swells in my forearms and spine. Then it loosens and I breathe easier. This is not a ghost. It's just nerve inflammation from my chronic Lyme disease. I live my life between surges of symptoms such as these. Stay focused, I tell myself. Your life consists mostly of naps. This is a chance for you to have an experience. To live. I'm a little jealous of the supposed ghosts. They float around unencumbered by treacherous bodies, while corporeal humans — like me with my sore arms and runny guts — shiver in the January wind and beg the dead to show themselves. I don't always believe in ghosts, but I believe in data. I want to discover that the body is not everything, even though our physicality sometimes feels like the most powerful force in the world, especially when sickness corrupts your whole personality and spirit.

I want to be a good ghost hunter, but I'm not. I have the requisite curiosity and analytical mind-set, but not the stamina. Most investigations take place at night — all night. We walk around setting up equipment, making recordings, taking pictures. The hard-core paranormal researchers in the group drive for hours every other weekend to stay up all night in creepy, creaky buildings. They paw with numb fingers at camera buttons and EMF readers. Forty hours of recordings might yield one snapshot of a blurry face in a window, where no living person should have been. If you can handle it physically, the persistence pays off. Loren once told us that after an investigation at Gettysburg, he sat in his car and said the requisite post-investigation mantra, which we were assured in class would keep us safe: If anything unseen is here, do not follow me home. Then — he claims — the passenger door clicked open.

All investigators hope for that kind of blatant ghostly moment. I need one here at the plantation, to offset the drudgery of my daily cubicle- and couch-bound existence.

"Did you fight in the War Between the States?" Dion asks. In the daytime, he's an engineer. Tonight, he hopes to record a spectral voice answering one of his questions. We wear digital sound recorders in our headlamp bands. Perhaps later, as we scroll through several hours of MP3 files, we will hear static-like snatches of a sound that, if trimmed and amplified through audio software, may sound like yesss.

Diane's digital camera click-whirs at the blackness above the motion detector. "Flash!" she says. This is so that when we listen to our audio recordings later, we'll know that the click-whir is Diane's camera, and not an electronic voice phenomenon, or EVP.

The silhouette of Diane's head shakes back and forth. She's captured nothing more than my face across the room, probably two pale orbs of white cheeks beneath shadowed eyes.

"Are you cold?" I ask. I'm speaking to the spirits presumably hovering in the wood-tinged air. Because I so often feel half dead myself, I imagine the ghosts' existence is not unlike my own. Do they have trouble warming up, too? But if doctors can't understand why I'm always cold, why do I think I can learn anything tonight about spectral metabolisms?

I ask again anyway.

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